I recently had the opportunity to participate in a realistic risk exercise involving scores of local state and federal officials. The purpose of the day- long event was to allow participants to implement emergency response plans, coordinate activities and practice responding to a potential incident that could threaten public safety in order to protect the public should a real life emergency occur.
As an evaluator of communication tactics and strategies, what impressed me most was the constant attention of every participant across multiple agencies to protect those who were affected by the threatening situation that was unfolding. To their credit, no one asked how they could protect their organizations’ reputation but instead at every turn of events, the focus was on protecting the public from harm. No one tried to hide information. No one even talked about damage control. In role playing scenarios, they told the public what they knew as often and as quickly as possible in order to keep people informed and manage the message.
I couldn’t help but wonder what Penn State officials or even the Catholic Church might have learned from this group of admirable people whose sense of responsibility prompted them to do the right thing. Full disclosure: I’m a Penn State alumnus. Despite this horrific scandal, Penn State is a great place whose reputation is being marred by a few self-serving men who cared more about themselves than the children they were entrusted to protect. I believe there are valuable leadership lessons to be learned from the misplaced priorities of a powerful few.
Louis Freeh’s scathing report pointed out “the facts are the facts.” While society sometimes reserves different rules for celebrities and high-powered people, this sad story should remind us that no one should be immune from doing the right thing regardless of income, status, power or relationships. As a leader, it is your job to set the bar and no personal relationship regardless of circumstances should compromise the integrity of your business or those around you. Period.
There should be a steadfast sameness when it comes to responsible behavior and communication. Applying these four rules will help you do the right thing when the wrong thing is taking place.
Tell it All and Tell it Fast — The Penn State sex abuse scandal simmered for 14 years before it finally boiled over. That means those in charge had more than a decade to pull their heads out of the sand, take responsibility and prevent more children from becoming victims. By not swiftly and decisively addressing their problems, the ugly behavior continued and university leaders made the situation far worse. In today’s 24/7 news cycle, it’s more important than ever to report your own bad news and tell people what you are doing to make sure it never happens again.
Make it Personal — Approach every situation as if it was happening in your own family. What would you do if your own child or loved one was a victim? How would you right the wrong? Speak with the same unbridled compassion and outrage you would unleash if something unspeakable happened to someone you love.
Sins of Spin — Look no further than the BP oil spill or other high-profile blunders. Spinning should be reserved for bicycle classes at the gym which is why you should take the word spin out of your vocabulary. Strive to create an environment of straight talk which speaks the truth as you know it to foster trust and respect.
Tough Transparency — Strong leaders welcome tough questions and answer them openly and honestly even when they don’t have all of the answers. They often choose unpopular paths that are fraught with resistance. Cowards take the path of least resistance. Penn State is not the villain. Like the Catholic Church, millions of people have benefited from its teachings. But when leaders place their own interests before what’s best for those they serve, they take everyone down with them.