Blog, Media + Politics, Philosophy + Systems, Sociology

Enough Is Enough: It’s Time to Get Tough on Organizations That Involve Children in Any Form or Manner

Originally published on The Huffington Post, November, 28, 2012

For over 30 years, I have consulted with regard to and studied virtually every type of crisis imaginable (manmade and so-called natural disasters, criminal, environmental, ethical, financial, PR, terrorism, etc.). I have particularly studied the general lessons that all crises have to teach. I want to apply a few of these lessons to one of the most egregious of all crises: child abuse.

Whether we are experiencing an “actual, real epidemic” of child abuse or because of the overwhelming presence of the media we are just more aware of it is beside the point. What is not beside the point is that some of the most important and highly esteemed organizations have not only engaged in serious cases of child abuse, but engaged in concerted and repeated actions to protect and/or shelter those guilty of committing abuse. These include: 1. The Catholic Church; 2. The Boy Scouts of America; 3. Penn State; and 4. BBC. To add to the list, recently, the voice of Elmo supposedly had a sexual relationship with a then-underage boy. As a result, he abruptly resigned from The Sesame Street Workshop in order to protect the organization from further unpleasant publicity.

In short, some of the most highly esteemed organizations and institutions have engaged in nothing less than the worst kind of betrayal of the public trust.

Since the cases are well-known and have been covered extensively in the media, I shall not bother to review the livid details. Instead, I want to cover what my years of studying crises lead me to suggest.

The first and primary lesson that it is never ever the case that no one in an organization knows or knew what was going on or occurred. Instead, out of obedience, misplaced loyalty, or fear, they are pressured to keep it to themselves. Or, if they do report it to a higher-up, they are assured that the situation will be dealt with firmly and promptly. When they see that nothing is done and/or that those who report it are dealt with harshly, they soon learn to turn a deaf ear and blind eye.

The second primary lesson, which is strongly related to the first, is that, no matter what the particular kind of crisis, the vast overwhelming majority of organizations cannot be trusted to monitor themselves. (This is one of the other lessons that crises teach.) For this reason, I insist in no uncertain terms that at their own expense organizations and institutions that involve or serve children in any way be monitored for any hints and possibilities of child abuse at least once a year by outside organizations specifically equipped and trained to do so.

I am extremely well aware of what I am calling for. It will not be cheap or easy. But then, it will cost substantially less that the cost of a full-blown crisis. (This is another of the other lessons that crises teach. Crises always cost more than preparation and/or mitigation efforts.)

To be perfectly clear, I am calling for trained interviewers to conduct broad open-ended interviews with a broad cross-section of the members of organizations to probe for potential cases and indicators of child abuse. Under no circumstance are the interviews to be designed to seek out and punish gays and/or consenting adults for whatever they wish to engage in the comfort, privacy, or security of their homes. It goes without saying that whatever the practices, they are not to be engaged in at work.

I am well aware of the response of civil libertarians to such ideas and proposals. For this reason, the individuals and organizations that conduct such interviews have to do everything in their power to respect and comply with the privacy of individuals. Indeed, to avoid their own crises, they must do everything they can to seek out and work closely with civil libertarians to design interviews that will meet their standards. Whether they can meet those standards or not, I still recommend that such interviews be performed.

As a social scientist, I am of course well aware that nothing is perfect in assessing the behavior of individuals and/or organizations. But then crisis management also teaches us that perfection is not the standard. Despite our best intentions, we can’t prevent all crises. But this doesn’t relieve us from doing everything in our power to lower the chances of crises.

In balancing the rights of adults versus those of children, I am obviously squarely on the side of children. Those who choose to work in organizations and institutions that involve or serve children have no alternative in my mind but to subject themselves to greater scrutiny.

Finally, it is to their benefit that organizations allow themselves to be monitored. How else can they not merely protect but ensure their reputation? If not, then they had better be prepared for severe losses in financial support and membership.

Originally published on The Huffington Post, November, 28, 2012

Blog, Crisis Management, Media + Politics

Too Close for Comfort: Agonizing Similarities Between Penn State and the Catholic Church

Originally published on The Huffington Post, November 17, 2011

Let me state my main conclusions at the outset. In times of a major crisis, every organization is not only judged in terms of how well it manages its crises, but it is also judged in terms of how well or poorly pervious organizations have theirs. In a word, the sins of the fathers are directly visited on the sons. Thus, as different as they are, Penn State is not only judged in terms of all the things it did wrong in handling its repeated episodes of child abuse, but it is the direct inheritor of everything the Church did wrong. In short, Penn State has been made worse because of prior cases of abuse.

I have been researching and consulting with regard to major crises of all kinds (criminal, natural disasters, financial, reputational, etc.) for nearly 30 years. During this time, I have seen all types of organizations become trapped in the same disastrous pattern from which they rarely escape.

First of all, the fact that they have failed to prepare adequately beforehand for a series of crises keeps them from responding appropriately and timely once a crisis has occurred. In today’s world, it’s no longer a question of if a major crisis will strike each and every organization, but only what the particular crisis will be, how it will happen, where, when, why it will occur, who is responsible, and what resulting crises the initial crisis will set off as part of a chain reaction. For if an organization is not prepared for an initial crisis, then it is woefully unprepared for subsequent ones that surely follow.

Second, they fail to learn from the crises of others both within and outside of their industry, type of institution, etc. After all, a crisis couldn’t possibly happen to them because they are obviously different from anyone else.

Third, they fail to pick up and deal with the inevitable early warning signs that precede virtually all crises, and in particular, those that are about to strike them. Long before a crisis actually occurs, it sends out a repeated trail of signals that something is about to pop or has already occurred somewhere in the organization. If one can pick up and attend to these signals, then in many cases one can prevent a crisis from occurring in the first place, the best possible kind of crisis management.

Fourth, they fail to take action against the dominant attitudes in their culture that lead them to believe that they are exempt from crises. In other words, they fail to address and overcome denial. Make no mistake about it; denial is the single worst enemy and fault of all. For instance, if one is not a Church, then how could one possibly learn from the numerous and repeated cases of child abuse that happened within the Catholic Church? Indeed, even if one is, “What happened to them couldn’t possibly apply to us. Therefore, what do they have to teach us?”

Fifth, they are burdened with overly rigid, bureaucratic, and authoritarian structures that prize secrecy and control above all else and thus make it virtually impossible for anyone beneath the very top to take appropriate and timely action. But then, such structures also make it virtually impossible for those at the top to take timely action as well, for the structures exist to protect those at the top from knowing what is really going on at the bottom. In short, in many cases, the top really doesn’t want to know. It’s not just that ignorance is bliss. Rather, ignorance wards off the enormous anxieties that are a fundamental part of having to deal with complex and messy situations that by definition do not have easy and simple solutions.

In this sense, as different as they are, Penn State and the Catholic Church have much in common. Indeed, far too many organizations do.

I could push the analogy. For instance, football is figuratively, if not literally, “religion” in Middle America; coach Paterno was a “minor saint,” etc.

But, I want to make a deeper point that is virtually overlooked unless one is aware of the big picture that only comes with studying crises over a long period of time. The particular crisis an organization, institution, etc. is currently experiencing is almost always related to the same or a very similar set of crises that happened to another organization, and furthermore, that the preceding organization dealt with poorly. That is, all of the failures of the previous organization come home to haunt the current one. The current organization is not only judged against the poor record of the previous organization(s), but through “guilt by identification” it is blamed for all the abuses of the past.

I am obviously not talking about direct causality because one organization does not necessarily cause the crises of others although as The Great Financial Crisis shows this is indeed possible. No, I am talking about an “enduring circle and cycle of blame.”

I am also not talking about “fairness,” for all questions of fairness go out the window once one is “‘convicted’ in the press and elsewhere of ‘unspeakable crimes’ against the most vulnerable members of society.”

As a result, I have a “law of crises.” The time that it takes for a crisis to envelop and potentially destroy an organization and/or individual is inversely proportional to the time that a previous organization has gotten away with a similar set of crises. Thus, if an organization got away with criminal activity of one kind or another for say 10 years, then a current organization will only get away with the same crime for one-tenth of the time if not substantially less. One is not merely punished for one’s crimes, but for all those that came before.

The philosopher Santayana said it best of all: “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”

The key question is what all organizations will learn from this unforgiveable human tragedy, and what they will do about it to lessen it s chances from occurring in the future. Unfortunately, if the past is any predictor, not much.

If I were what’s left of the top leadership of Penn State, I’d be worried about what other crises are festering in the system!

Originally published on The Huffington Post, November 17, 2011