Blog, Crisis Management

The Cincinnati Zoo: Part II, Repeating the Same Pattern of Crises Over and Over Again!

Originally published June 9th, 2016 on The Huffington Post

I wish fervently that what happened recently at the Cincinnati Zoo was the rare exception. Unfortunately, in my over 30 years of experience as a crisis consultant and university researcher, it’s not.

As we know, a three-year old child somehow slipped behind a barrier and fell into a gorilla enclosure. In order to save the child from harm, the gorilla was shot. Howls of protest over whether the animal had to be killed and calls for the parents to be charged with child endangerment were immediate.

What rankled me most of all was that in defending their actions, the spokesman for the zoo said that they’ve never had such an incident in over 38 years. Somehow, we were supposed to be comforted by this statistic. This completely overlooks the fact that a crisis is the worst time to spout statistics. Despite one’s good intentions and preparations, nothing prevented the unthinkable from occurring. Indeed, it just happened so it wasn’t impossible!

Sadly, what happened fits an all-too-general pattern that pertains to virtually all crises. First of all, somehow someone—in this case a young child—slips behind, breaks through, etc. a protective barrier. The longer that the barrier’s worked, the greater the belief that it will work indefinitely and therefore that it doesn’t need to be reviewed periodically and redesigned. This is especially the case since the barrier met “accepted standards.”

Second, little if any thought and preplanning is given to the “blame game.” In virtually all major crises, stakeholders of all kinds—the author included—come out the woodwork to assess and blame all of the parties involved. Thus, the Zoo blamed the parents and the parents blamed the Zoo. Animal rights groups blamed everyone, etc.

Third, it’s painfully obvious that the spokespersons for the Zoo received little if any training in Crisis Communications. If they had, then they never would have said that “It’s never happened before in 38 years,” or “The current barriers were adequate.” They would have said something like, “Please give us the time to examine the situation more carefully before we get back to you.”

Fourth, on a regular basis, the Zoo should have been examining worst-case scenarios of all kinds. A fundamental part of worst-case scenarios is the total collapse of all of the assumptions that one has been making as to why there won’t be a crisis: “The barriers are sufficient.” “We don’t need training in Crisis Communications.” “The blame game won’t happen, etc.” Thinking the unthinkable should have been a normal part of the everyday culture.

Does this mean that the Zoo should have anticipated and therefore planned for everything perfectly? Of course not! Perfection is not the standard in Crisis Management. It should have been doing what the best crisis-prepared organizations do. It should have been constantly expanding its thinking and thus preparations for all kinds of crises.

For instance, in the few hospitals where I’ve worked as a crisis consultant, realistic-looking dolls have been placed in maternity wards. The test is to see how far someone can get out of the ward holding the fake child in his or her hands. In some cases, they’ve gotten completely out of the hospital with no one questioning and thereby stopping them. Needless to say, the test is repeated again and again until procedures are tightened up such that one can’t make it by the first nurse’s station.

All zoos ought to be doing something similar. Why weren’t dolls or dummies used to test how easily young children could slip through the barriers to animal enclosures? Why weren’t tests conducted frequently and such that they were increasingly more difficult to pass?

Constantly thinking and testing for the unthinkable is the only protection we have against calamities. What happened should not only be a wakeup call for all zoos, but for all organizations.

Blog, Crisis Management, Politics

Donald Trump: A Long-term Crisis of the GOP’s Own Making

Originally published 04/01/2016 on the Huffington Post

By any measure, Donald Trump is a major crisis of, for, and by the Republican Party. It’s certainly a crisis of its own making. In doing so, the Republican Party has violated every single one of the key tenets of Crisis Management.

Since 1982 when seven people died after taking Tylenol capsules that were laced with cyanide, I helped start the modern field of Crisis Management. Since then, Crisis Management — the systematic process by which organizations and institutions prepare for major events that threaten to harm them, their key stakeholders, and the general public — has developed enormously.

We pretty well know why crises happen and what organizations, institutions, and even whole societies can and need to do to lessen their susceptibility to crises of all kinds. The basic problem is not the lack of fundamental knowledge about Crisis Management, but the lack of will that is critical for its effective implementation.

Early in my research, and that of others, it became clear that there were a number of key activities that organizations and institutions needed to undertake if they were to be prepared before major crises struck. If they didn’t do these beforehand, then often it was too late for them to recover. In a number of prominent cases, organizations and the careers of individuals were destroyed.

To mention only two, they needed to set up specific mechanisms that would pick up the inevitable Early Warning Signals that accompany and precede virtually all crises. Along with this, they needed to actively probe their systems for potential crises and thereby hopefully prevent them long before they actually occurred, the best possible form of Crisis Management.

For another, they needed to design, put in-place, and continually test and update Damage Containment Systems before major crises occurred. If they didn’t, then a crisis would continue to cause unmitigated harm. BP’s oil spill in the Gulf is the classic worst-case example. Before the well was capped, over 200 million gallons of oil were spilled. In other words, merely reacting inevitably makes the effects of crises far worse.

Against this background, the Republican Party couldn’t have done more to cause a crisis for itself, the nation, and the world than if it had intentionally set out to design and promote a candidate for President in the likes of Donald Trump. (Ted Cruz is not far behind.) Indeed, many have in fact accused the Republican Party for doing precisely this.

Since the 1950’s, its unrelenting messages, both coded and uncoded, of division and hate have not only splintered the Party but the country. In short, the Republican Part has created a culture that has directly spawned the likes of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, etc. In this regard, Trump and Cruz are not aberrations. They are the end result of forces that have been brewing unabated in the system for over 60 years.

One of the worst things that faulty cultures do is that they render Early Warning Signals moot and irrelevant. For months, it was apparent that Trump posed a major threat to the Party and to the country. By the time that Mitt Romney and others stepped in and sounded the alarm, and thereby tried to contain the damage, massive harm was already done. A BP-like oil spill of monumental proportions has swamped the Party, and even worse, threatens the country and the entire world.

In retrospect how many how many different groups does a candidate have to insult—clear Early Warning Signals—before it’s readily apparent that major efforts in Damage Containment are needed? But then, the Party repeatedly deluded itself with faulty rationalizations such as “Trump is just a flash in the pan; he’ll burn himself out; he’ll never be taken seriously; etc.”

(The Donald’s latest gaffe about women who have abortions needing to be punished is only the latest lame attempt in Damage Control, too late and too little after the fact.)

Make no mistake about it. If someone like Trump is elected, the damage will be enormous. The worst fear is that it will not just be long lasting, but irreversible, certainly to the Republican Party, and worst of all, to the entire nation and the world.

Since it did an awful job in preparing for a major crisis, the Party is banking on its last hope of Damage Containment, an open convention. But even if another candidate is eventually selected, the all-too-real fear is that it will only provoke waves of violence from those who hanker for authoritarian leaders such as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

One of the key lessons of Crisis Management is that no crisis is ever a single, well contained, and isolated crisis. Instead, if an organization or institution is not prepared for a wide variety of crises, then no matter what the initial crisis, it invariably sets off an uncontrolled chain reaction of other just as bad, and in many cases, even worse crises. In the case of the Republican Party, trying reactively to contain the damage to one crisis threatens to set off even worse ones.

The moral is that the costs of not preparing for major crises are always higher and worse than those of proper prior preparation.

Blog, Crisis Management

We Have as Much to Fear From Ourselves as We Do From Terrorists

Originally posted on The Huffington Post – January 24, 2014

“We have built a system, based on technology, that no human seems to understand…Convene the smartest minds in the world, off the record, and you don’t see a lot of confidence that anybody is on top of this.” — Donald Langevoort

As is well known by now, on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014, a chemical used in processing coal leaked from a plant run by Freedom Industries into the nearby Elk River, thereby contaminating drinking water for some 6,000 to 10,000 people in Charlestown, W.V. In addition, the water of hundreds of thousands of people in towns located downstream was tainted as well. The contamination happened because the water filtration plant for the town was located directly downstream from the chemical plant.

Since the tanks in which the chemicals were stored didn’t fall under state or federal inspection programs and weren’t considered hazardous, environmental permits to operate the plant were not required. Needless to say, these decisions are now up for review, especially since it was found that the tanks had serious cracks that had not been repaired.

As of this writing, Freedom Industries has filed for bankruptcy in order to limit its liability for the spill.

If a terrorist had deliberately set out to disrupt a town and raise heightened fears about the safety of drinking water and other essentials for life, then he or she couldn’t have picked a better place and way to do it. As much as acts of terrorism naturally raise our fears, we have as much, if not more, to fear from the technologies that permeate our lives and on which we depend.

The sad fact of the matter is that not a day goes by without the occurrence, or near-occurrence, of a major crisis, disaster, tragedy, etc. If this weren’t bad enough, more than one crisis a day is no longer uncommon. Indeed, it has become the norm.

We have created the kind of society that increasingly is prone to all kinds of crises: corporate malfeasance, crime, “death of the middle class,” dysfunctional politics, economic/financial, housing bubbles, environmental, chronic unemployment and underemployment, mass shootings, natural disasters, poor educational system, severe income inequality leading to a new “Gilded Age,” terrorism, etc. And, this is only a partial list!

Worst of all, crises are no longer separate or distinct. Instead, they are highly interconnected. Individual crises interact in strange and unpredictable ways such that they not only reinforce, but actually contribute to one another. Any crisis is capable of setting off an uncontrolled chain reaction of other crises. This is why it is not enough to be prepared for one and only one type of crisis. One must be prepared for a system of crises that can and will strike simultaneously.

It is as though as a civilization we are no longer content to leave crises to chance, but have deliberately gone out of our way to ensure that they occur 24/7/365. There is no doubt whatsoever that they are bigger, costlier, and deadlier. And, the time between them has shrunk precipitously.

The good news is that even if it is humanely impossible to prevent all crises, there is much that has been learned from the field of crisis management that can help lower the chances and the ill effects of the next crises.

The social, emotional, and financial costs of crises are enormous. Their impacts not only reach beyond traditional geographic borders (e.g., Chernobyl, Fukushima), but also extend far into the future. For example, the disposal or storing of toxic nuclear waste affects generations to come. In short, crises don’t respect the rules of ordinary space and time. In fact, they don’t respect any of the “normal rules” of civilization. In a word, crises now have the potential to affect everyone everywhere.

If we are to stand any hope of being better prepared for the worst that now happens almost on a daily basis, then more than crisis experts alone need to have a modicum of understanding of crisis management. The general public needs to push public officials and corporate executives for better preparation before the next calamities occur. We cannot leave thinking about and preparations for crises to experts, corporate executives, and government officials alone. An informed citizenry is an absolute necessity.