What do Jamie Dimon, Lloyd Blankfein and former President Ronald Reagan have in common?
All three were surrounded by communications managers who were completely caught off guard by:
- J.P. Morgan Chase's $2bbn fiasco
- The very public resignation of a Goldman Sachs employee
- And, in Reagan's case, the simultaneous wounding of the President and press secretary.
The latter incident, which occurred only three months into Reagan's first term (March 30, 1981), is brilliantly re-captured in a riveting, page-turner of a book titled 'Rawhide Down'. And, it’s a must-read for any public relations or crisis communication counselor or student.
Rawhide was the nickname given to our 40th president by the Secret Service who, like their medical peers at George Washington University hospital, did a superb job of saving Reagan's life. But, Reagan wasn't the only person gunned down by the deranged John W. Hinckley, Jr. on that rainy day. So, too, were Secret Service Agent Timothy McCarthy, Washington, DC policeman Thomas Delahanty and White House Press Secretary James Brady. And, it was the latter's absence from the crisis response team that prompted a literal comedy of errors, gaffes and mistakes that would be hilarious if they hadn't occurred in the midst of such a catastrophic calamity.
With Brady severely wounded, and Vice President George H. W. Bush on Air Force Two in Texas (ironic, no?), various aides stepped forward to form a chain of command and provide updates to the media. But, nearly all failed:
- First, David Gergen called a press conference at the White House. He read a few lines out loud, but was “visibly shaken” and “looked wide-eyed and nervous” to National Security Adviser Richard Allen, who decided Gergen would hold no more briefings that day.
- Then, Secretary of State Alexander Haig argued with Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger over whether to place the national readiness at DEFCON TWO or FOUR (anticipating the U.S.S.R. might use the assassination attempt to launch a nuclear strike at a weakened U.S.). Weinberger, not knowing the proper protocol, suggested DEFCON TWO, which would have placed us in a near state of war and, no doubt, prompted the Soviet Union to follow suit.
- Next, Deputy Press Secretary Larry Speakes took it upon himself to hold a second White House press briefing. This, despite the fact that he had access to no new updates on Reagan's medical condition. Speakes was pummeled by the press as he repeatedly answered their questions by saying, “I can neither confirm nor deny that report.”
- Angry beyond words at Speakes, Haig stormed into the White House briefing room and uttered the words that would haunt him for the rest of his life, “I am in control here.” He informed the press that, with the President incapacitated and the Vice President in the air, he, the Secretary of State was, in effect the government. Haig had completely forgotten the U.S. Constitution which stated that power would, in fact, have been transferred to Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill, and not him. Needless to say, the press had a field day with Haig's ignorance of a basic constitutional precedent.
The lessons in ‘Rawhide Down’ are too many to capture in a blog. The most important one for PR people, though, is also the obvious one (and, sadly, the one most organizations are still making some 31 years after the Reagan debacle). DO NOT attempt to manage a crisis on the fly. Instead, set aside time to simulate it in advance.
We work for organizations, large and small, to identify their potential vulnerabilities. We then gather senior line managers AND PR/human resources in a conference room to present a real-world crisis scenario. We videotape, observe and grade management's responses as we escalate the crisis throughout the day. At the end, the senior management team understands each other's responsibilities in case of the unthinkable. It's a smart, cost effective way to avoid the unavoidable and prevent latter-day versions of Deaver, Speakes and Haig from embarrassing themselves and making a bad situation exponentially worse.