Blog, Crisis Management

Colleges and Universities Are Ill-Prepared for Crises

Originally published on The Huffington Post, November 21, 2011

When my colleagues and I first started doing surveys of the crisis preparedness of major colleges and universities, we were shocked but not totally surprised to find that as poorly prepared large business organizations generally are for major crises, colleges and universities were even worse off. It is not that they are completely unprepared. Rather, the difference is between the crises that they are relatively well prepared for versus those that they barely prepared for, if at all.

The contrast sheds important light on why the horrific cases of child abuse happened at Penn State. It also points to why all colleges and universities need to wake up, take a serious look at their crisis preparations, and make significant improvements, if not overhaul them completely.
Major colleges and universities are relatively well prepared for explosions, fires, lawsuits, and crimes. They are also relatively well prepared for environmental mishaps.

But here’s the rub. They are not as well prepared for athletic crises such as improper recruiting activities, e.g., out of control drinking and sex parties; ethical breaches by administrators, faculty, and students; damage to their reputation such as that which Penn State is undergoing; sabotage and terrorism.

Sadly, it took a number of widely publicized shootings before colleges took preparations for them seriously.

Part of the difference is explained by the frequency with which certain crises occur. Thus, explosions, fires, lawsuits, and crimes are rather common. But, this is not the major reason.
In the interviews we conducted with the senior staff of colleges and universities, not a single one even mentioned the possibility of child abuse, even though nearly all of them had a major childcare facility on their campus. The major concern was environmental, e.g., if a childcare facility was too close to a dangerous chemical lab.

Most disturbing of all was the fact that we were generally prohibited from interviewing anyone connected with the athletic department. Just as troubling was the fact that the head of the athletic department was least likely to be a member of a campus wide crisis management team, assuming that the college or university had one.

The message was loud and clear. Football and basketball in particular and sports in general are big business. It is not just the sheer amount of revenue that football and basketball attendance bring in, but all of the associated paraphernalia sold in campus stores.

In short, athletics was completely off-limits. It was not to be messed with in any way.
I share the general criticisms that have been levied at big time college athletics. I believe that sports programs are out of control. There is little doubt that they have a major corrupting influence on schools.

However, while the detractors of college sports have been justly critical of the out-of-control recruiting practices at the University of Colorado and USC, just to mention two, they have not thought about the tragedies due to child abuse such as those that have engulfed Penn State.
It’s not that there has been no planning at all for athletic crises, but that crisis planning has been done as if each crisis occurs in complete isolation from all of the others. This is in spite of the fact that no crisis is ever a single crisis. It is a whole series of interconnected ones.

Nonetheless, I am not calling for the complete abandonment of collegiate sports. But, make no mistake about it. Collegiate sports can no longer be conducted as business as usual. One of the most disturbing findings from our surveys was that crisis management had the lowest institutional support of all programs. For instance, while education at all levels was rightly ranked highest in importance, support for crisis management was significantly lower than facilities’ improvement.

The time is way overdue for major colleges and universities to give crisis management the high degree of attention and support it demands.

If I were part of what’s left of Penn State’s top management, I’d be worrying about all the other crises that are brewing and have not yet come to light. For once a major crisis of any kind has occurred, it is highly likely that it will set off a completely unrelated crisis.

All crises are parts of a chain reaction. The purpose of crisis management is to get out in front of the chain so that an institution is not destroyed by a firestorm of never-ending, out-of-control crises.

Originally published on The Huffington Post, November 21, 2011

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