Like most Canadians, I’ve been following the saga of the Tory Senators spending scandal, the resignation of the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff and the media frenzy coming out of Ottawa these days.
As I look back over my years in politics and philanthropy, it seems to me that our Prime Minister has failed to follow what I consider to be the three cardinal rules of crisis management.
Think of a crisis as a grease fire in a frying pan on your stove. Your objective is to cut off the oxygen that feeds the fire and put the fire out as soon as possible. Otherwise, your house might burn down.
Here’s how leaders successfully put out crisis fires:
1. Come totally clean on your part in the story as soon as it comes out. Any kind of stalling looks like you’re hiding something – and that eats away at trust. Intuitively, most of us want to say as little as possible in the hope that the true nature of our misdeeds won’t be discovered. This rarely works. Full disclosure right off the bat takes the wind out of the accuser’s sails and gets your audience’s hearts on your side.
Imagine that your seven year old comes home from school in tears. He admits to you that he did something really bad in class and got into a lot of trouble. He feels awful about his behaviour and you can tell that his conscience is just eating him up inside. When your kid does that, you tend to love him even more.
2. Impose a price on yourself that is more than enough to satisfy your critics that you’re punishment fits the crime – and that you’ve learned your lesson. Often, people have to lose jobs (like giving up a Senate seat and not just leaving the caucus) – we called it ‘falling on your sword’ in my political days.
3. The organization leader (and not some second or third tier manager) must own the issue – take responsibility for it – make the appropriate amends – and promise that it will NEVER happen again. This promise must extend to promising that IF it happens again, that leader will fall on his or her sword too.
Charities get into trouble like this sometimes – and as media scrutiny continues to intensify, the trend will grow. Your CEO and Board Chair have a wonderful opportunity to watch this government crisis closely, imagine something similar happening to them, and role play appropriate responses.
This may sound off the wall, but, if you manage crises really well, you can actually build loyalty and trust rather than wreck it. It takes courage – but it almost always works.
Oh, and by the way? That grease fire in Stephen Harper’s kitchen just caught the curtains. Heads up.