Tag Archives: crisis

A Gorilla of a Crisis: Three Lessons for Managers After Harambe’s Death


(Photo: Jeff McCurry/ Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden)

In February 2009, President Obama’s then-Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” The idea behind his comment apparently originated with the economist Paul Romer, who in November 2004 said, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”

My corollary is that “A crisis can be happen at any time.” And leaders must be prepared for crises, whenever they occur.

I wrote last week about when time is on your side, and when it is not. I didn’t think I’d have a clear, well-publicized example of when time is not on your side so soon after that post.

When a toddler fell into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo over Memorial Day weekend, the zoo leaders immediately had a crisis on their hands. It was a crisis in which time was not their friend—a human life was at stake. I don’t know who authorized the shot that killed the gorilla, but it was the right thing for the zoo personnel to do.

Of course it was sad—Harambe, a beautiful silverback gorilla in his prime, was acting like gorillas act. He was unintentionally providing the type of demonstration of gorillas’ strength that zoo visitors wanted to see (although none of them expected to see a child harmed). He didn’t deserve to die.

But the zoo personnel had no choice. There was no time to soothe the gorilla, who was banging the little boy about in a concrete-lined pool. There was no time to argue about how the boy got into the gorilla enclosure, or whether the fences were adequate. A human life was at risk, and the most certain way of eliminating the risk was to shoot the gorilla with a kill shot. Good crisis managers can make that call in an instant.

This incident offers three lessons for leaders of any institution, in my opinion:

1. Articulate and discuss in advance your principles for decision-making.

I’ve done some work with an institution that works with animals and the public, similar to the Cincinnati Zoo. That institution made it clear in their policy manual, given to all employees, that human life came first. The animals’ care and comfort were of primary importance, more so than offering the public the show they wanted, but human life and health were paramount to all other concerns.

Under the structure that this institution set out for its employees, the Cincinnati Zoo made the only call possible.

2. Don’t be dissuaded by public opinion; hold firm to your principles.

The Cincinnati Zoo has incurred a lot of wrath for killing Harambe. The negative publicity may have started with PETA, but many others have also spoken against killing the gorilla, which, as noted above, did nothing wrong. The Cincinnati Zoo has appropriately defended itself, explaining why it took the action it did in unapologetic terms.

When you and your employees did what you were supposed to do, explain yourself directly and undefensively. This is one reason to have your policies and principles articulated in advance. If you’re prepared, you shouldn’t feel uncomfortable with your explanation. The time to hash through your principles is before a crisis, not during.

3. Take the time to learn from each crisis.

After every crisis or near-crisis in which your principles are tested, it’s important to consider again whether any of your policies or procedures (or even principles) should change. No one is infallible, and we should refine and adapt as time passes and we face more complicated and nuanced situations. I am sure the Cincinnati Zoo has (or will soon) conduct some type of after-action review.

Other institutions can and should also learn from the incident involving poor Harambe. Where do your values conflict, and how will you prioritize them?

I’ve written this post from the point of view of institutional leaders. But it applies to us as individuals as well. Each of us has our own personal beliefs and values. How do you articulate them? How do you rank them? What do you do when they conflict? You should have some idea in advance, so that you do not dither when time is not on your side.

What would you add regarding the importance of being prepared for a crisis?


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Crisis Management: Lessons from Ebola for All Employers

ebolaUntil a few days ago, I didn’t think the Ebola crisis was likely to have much impact on the American workforce. I still don’t think that most U.S. employers will have to deal with Ebola exposure on their premises. But as I listen to the news, I have come to believe that there are lessons that all employers can learn from what has happened since the first Ebola patient was identified in Dallas.

First, let me emphasize that employers in the healthcare field do need to prepare immediately for the possibility of their employees being exposed to Ebola. They need a plan to implement at a moment’s notice. I am not experienced in dealing with infectious diseases, so I won’t presume to tell healthcare managers how to address the risks to their employees.

Second, many workplaces have had to deal with health scares in the recent past, from the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) to the 2009 swine flu (H1-N1) pandemic. Even if Ebola does not spread, other health issues will impact employers in the future. We all need to be prepared.

pulsenet-team-300pxFor the general employer population, here are some questions we should be asking:

On Health Scares:

1. What should we do if employees report exposure to Ebola or another infectious disease? Do we quarantine them? Will we pay them while they cannot work? What monetary and non-monetary support will we provide them and their families or help them obtain from other community resources?

2. Will we change our travel requirements for employees in response to health concerns? If so, how will we get necessary work and communications done with less travel?

3. How will we address our employees’ fears?

4. What has worked and not worked in the responses from the Centers for Disease Control, from the Dallas hospital where Ebola was first found in the U.S., and from the White House? How will we prepare to do better if we are faced with impact from a pandemic in our workplace?

5. Do we know who the local authorities are dealing with health disasters in our area? How do we build channels of communication now?

On Non-Health Crises:

6. If our next disaster is not Ebola (and it probably won’t be Ebola), what is the most likely risk to my company’s employees? How are we working to reduce that risk?

7. If something deadly happens in our workplace, how will we communicate? What audiences will we need to talk to, and what messages does each audience need to hear? Who will be our spokesperson?

It is the responsibility of leaders in every organization to reduce the number of “unknown unknowns.” Only by asking questions such as these, can you be prepared. You may not know what will cause a crisis in your organization, but something will. “How might we handle that?” is a far better thing for leaders to say than “That will never happen here.”

For other posts on crisis management, click here and here.

What is your organization doing to reduce its risks? What are you doing?

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Crisis Management – Before, During, and After the Crisis

I participated in an American Bar Association webinar on responding to disasters on April 15, 2013. The webinar ended at 2:30pm Eastern time – just 20 minutes before the bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

I’ve written about crisis management before (see here on workplace violence and here on crisis communications). The events in Boston on the afternoon of April 15 and in the days that followed reinforced the need for crisis management – before, during and after the crisis.

TornadoAs the speakers at the ABA webinar emphasized, improbable events are becoming the norm. Smithsonian Magazine reports that nearly every American has had to deal with a weather-related disaster in the last few years. The same is true for businesses.

Whether it is a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy or tornadoes in the Midwest, or a criminal or terrorist rampage like Sandy Hook Elementary School or bombs at the Boston Marathon, every business and every government entity needs to be prepared to respond to a disaster.

1.      Before the Crisis

The time to fix the roof is when the sun is shining. – John Kennedy

Before the crisis, businesses should anticipate as many potential losses as possible. Some occurrences are semi-predictable, such as floods and hurricanes, fires and electrical outages. Beyond those, all a business may be able to do is to have a comprehensive business continuity and disaster recovery plan.

Since 9/11, much has been written about how to recover when a business location has been completely disrupted. Do you have all critical systems and data backed up? Do your employees know how to find out if your business is operating, or what they should do if you are unable to open for business? Do you have adequate insurance to protect against sudden losses? Do you know what your insurance policies cover and what they do not?

Now is the time to address answer these questions, not after disaster strikes.

2.      During the Crisis

Public calamity is a mighty leveler. – Edmund Burke

Since the specifics of any crisis are not predictable, you should discuss with all employees a clear set of priorities for decision-making during a disaster. For example, in a customer service business, the priorities might be (1) to protect the lives and health of customers, (2) to protect the lives and health of employees, (3) to protect property only after people are safe.

Cooperation with government authorities should also be part of your priorities for employees. And every employee should know both how to evacuate the premises and how to shelter in place (or where to go, if your premises are not safe for sheltering in place).

Perhaps all you say is, “safety first,” which everyone should be able to remember, even in a crisis. When people are safe, then do what you can to minimize business loss.

Do not hold employees accountable for following detailed procedures or rigid standards. It will be difficult during a crisis to remember more than a few basic principles, and even then, different people will react differently, depending on whether the fight or flight instinct kicks in. Be forgiving.

But after the event, recognize those heroes who perform as expected – or who rise above expectations, as so many did in Boston.

3.      After the Crisis

When any calamity has been suffered, the first thing to be remembered is how much has been escaped. – Samuel Johnson

Young Man with His Hand on His ForeheadThe bulk of crisis management work necessarily happens after the crisis. At that point, businesses need to approach the situation as they would any operational problem: Assess where you are and where you need to be to recover, determine your options in obtaining the resources you need, decide on a course of action, and continually re-evaluate your plan.

And throughout it all, communicate, communicate, communicate with all your stakeholders –employees, customers, shareholders, insurers, the media, government authorities, and anyone else with an interest in your recovery.

How will you minimize operational disruption? How can you best return to your pre-crisis status? Can you even improve on where you were before the crisis? What resources are available to help you recoup the losses incurred during the disaster, whether from insurance proceeds or the government or other third-parties?

Often, recovery from a crisis will take months or even years. Rarely will it go smoothly. Anticipate as many problems and you can, and stay flexible.

What has your business done to prepare for potential disasters?

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Three Tips for Crisis Communications

Every day we read in the newspaper about some crisis – a criminal indictment, a business failure, a natural disaster, or foreign unrest.  We react to these events in large part based on how the leaders of the organizations involved communicate with us.
I was part of a crisis communications team at one institution where I worked. We had many procedures and lists in place – how and where we would meet when disaster hit, whom we needed to bring into the loop within our company, and the external parties with whom we would need to communicate about the crisis. 
But we couldn’t develop the communications pieces until the problem occurred.  At that point, we typically muddled along, debating several drafts of talking points and press releases as quickly as we could. It would have helped to have a simple framework for what to include in our communications.
An article from the July 2012 issue of the American Bar Association newsletter, Your ABA, provides that framework.  The article describes three points that all emergency communications should contain. Although it was written for lawyers, this framework is generally applicable to anyone communicating in an emergency.
Here are the three points, along with some commentary on each (the points are from the YourABA article;  the commentary is based on my own experience):
  • Show concern.  Almost by definition, in an emergency, someone has been injured or otherwise harmed.  Show concern for their suffering. Remember Bill Clinton’s reputation for “feeling their pain.” Worry less about making an admission against your own interest and more about showing empathy. In the early stages of your response, you don’t have to talk about past events that caused the emergency, but you must sympathize with how people are reacting and feeling at the present.
  • Show commitment.  People want to know you will stay with them through the crisis. Talk about your future involvement and commitment to see the situation through to resolution. Even if all you know is that you need to investigate further, make the commitment to investigate fully. State clearly that you will work with any governmental authorities that are involved. Go as far as you can, but no further. You don’t want to make promises you can’t keep.
  • Show you will take action. In addition to wanting to know you are with them, people want to know you will make it better. Make it clear that you will take action as a result of what occurred and what is discovered during future investigations. Even if you don’t know whether or what corrective action is necessary, talk about fully reviewing the results of any investigation. Don’t agree to specific actions too readily, but agree to what you can. Then, keep communicating as you later do act, to show you followed through on what you said you would do.

And always remember that you must be truthful, and you must communicate in ways that your audience will understand. Also, be as transparent as you can be.
Every crisis is an opportunity to improve your relationship with your stakeholders or detract from it. Often, in an emergency, you find yourself at a low point in the relationship. How you respond will make all the difference for the future.
What would you add to this framework for crisis communications?

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