A Clever and Unexpected Approach to Crisis Management

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on September 6, 2013 – 5:38 AM

“My father taught me many things here. He taught me in this room. He taught me ‘keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.’”

                                                                             – Michael Coreleone (Al Pacino), The Godfather Part Two

I heard a story many years ago about a disgruntled ex-employee who became a thorn in the side of his former company’s board of directors. So many years have passed since I heard the story that I no longer know the source, or even whether the story was true or apocryphal. Nonetheless, the story’s moral is something we can all learn from.  

After every board meeting, the story goes, the ex-employee would write about the board’s proceedings. The board members were confused about how he got the information—the meeting was closed—and surmised that someone must have been leaking to him. Trouble was, no one could determine who the leaker was, and meeting after meeting, the ex-employee kept posting sensitive details to the Internet.

His postings were somewhat accurate, though not entirely, and he would add his own negative commentary to each of the board’s actions. The company’s current employees eagerly awaited each of his updates, and word of his latest articles spread through the company’s ranks by the next morning’s coffee break.

The Godfather Part Two

The standard crisis communications playbook might have sought to discredit the ex-employee, or to post a response that detailed his inaccuracies, or to file some legal action against him, or to take additional security precautions for board meetings.

But this board chose to do something counterintuitive. They decided to invite the ex-employee to their board meetings. They calculated that if the man got to know them, he would realize that their motives weren’t as nefarious as he suspected. And they surmised that even if the man continued to print confidential information, at least he would get his facts straight if he heard them first hand.

As the board suspected, the tone of the ex-employee’s posts softened after they accorded him with respect and brought him into the fold. The board wasn’t always happy with his posts, but the articles were less unfavorable than they had been in the past. The board considered its decision a success.

Am I suggesting that you should allow your harshest critics to attend your most sensitive meetings? No. But like so many of the tactics I describe on this blog, I hope you’ll consider this tactic as another tool available to you, another arrow in your PR quiver. I suspect most of you will never need, nor want, to deploy it. But this story has stuck with me for years, probably because its underlying truth teaches all of us a lesson that may one day come in handy.

What do you think? Please leave your reaction and thoughts in the comments section below.

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Comments (4)

  1. By Kim M:

    We’ve done that, but with little success. We have a detractor who has been a thorn in our side for a long time, but inviting him to a seat at the table has just fed his narcissism, egomania and hunger for attention and power. I think this approach is valid in the right circumstances and with the right personality type, but there are those people where this approach makes them even more dangerous. And it can be tough to discern which it will be. I do think it’s valid, however, to stop and think honestly about someone’s motives for doing something, and not always jump to the conclusion that their motives are malicious.

  2. By CAPT Robert Durand:

    Here’s a real-world example about engaging your harshest critics – Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Navy’s Chief of Information (CHINFO), engaged with the harshest critics of the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship – LCS – a small, fast ship that is both a paradigm shift (small, light, fast vs. big and heavily armed) and has been beset with many typical aquisition problems (cost, schedule). Few people “got” what this ship was about, and it was ripe for criticism.

    The Navy hadn’t done itself any favors by being silent in the face of external critics and telling dissenters in the Navy – people who actually care about what ships we buy and the ability to fight and survive – to get in line, shut up and color. This made a fertile breeding ground for bloggers, and likely, leakers.

    Rear Admiral Kirby chose to engage – and did. And at least got a voice in the discussion – so much so that one of the harshest LCS critics wrote a blog post about it.

    From his post:

    From that moment on, instead of butting heads like angry rams, Navy officials and I started to meet and chat about the good, bad and ugly on LCS development.

    They were remarkably transparent and open. Surprisingly so.

    To be sure, the transparency short-circuited some of the harsh headlines we were ready to run. During the months of denial and radio silence we had gone through regarding LCS programs, we enjoyed free rein of sorts with the material we published — as long as it was accurate.

    We had still had plenty of goods to write, too.

    But with the Navy’s cooperation, we were able to provide a much fuller and more accurate picture of what was really going on in the LCS program. Some of my supporters of our earlier reporting have accused me of “drinking the Kool-Aid.”

    But I’d rather have better stories than screaming headlines anytime.

    Full post here:


  3. By Brad Phillips:

    Captain Durand and Kim —

    Thank you very much for sharing your real world experiences with the readers of this blog. I’m sure they’ll benefit from your experience, and maybe your comments will even encourage a few people to try engaging their critics instead of avoiding them.

    It’s always useful to hear how these strategies are being used. Thank you for taking the time to visit the blog.

    Best wishes,

  4. By Mike McGill:

    As usual, a useful post… I agree with Kim re: judging personality types; I’ve used the tactic on several occasions with varying results. Sometimes the gadfly’s ego is stroked enough where they begin to feel invested in your success instead of your failure. On other occasions, it’s a disaster resulting in wasted time and effort, as well as damage to the credibility of those who advocated to bring them behind the curtain.

    I’d say it’s exactly like dealing with the reporters who continue to come at you with fastballs to the head. Go to their offices, bring them into yours, show them respect (while never forgetting who you work for). More often than not, it works. However, you will get those members of the media who see you as the punching bag that is a means to their end… usually in another, bigger market.

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