For anyone with an interest in crisis management and crisis communication, these last few months have presented a number of well-publicized and widely criticized crisis situations from which we can learn.
Pepsi pulled a controversial advertisement that many perceived to trivialize the Black Lives Matter movement (Victor, 2017); White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, accused Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, of acts worse than Adolf Hitler (Fandos & Handler, 2017); and United Airlines faced widespread backlash after a video of a passenger forcibly removed from an overbooked flight went viral (Creswell & Maheshwari, 2017).
All three examples, despite their different offenses and challenges, remind us of the importance of knowing one's core values and using these core values to guide responses to these crisis situations. As I recently analyzed in my dissertation research (Gigliotti, 2017), protecting one's reputation may be one motivation for how to lead in and through crisis— but it must not be the sole motivation.
6 Critical Components to Effective Crisis Leadership
Crisis leadership involves more than simply saying the right message(s) to the right audience(s) to uphold the reputation of an institution in the face of crisis (Gigliotti & Fortunato, 2017). By knowing one’s indispensable values and responding to challenging situations in a way that is driven by these values, the response to the crisis extends beyond public relations. Rather, when handled appropriately, values-driven crisis leadership can help a group, organization, town, or government agency learn from the situation, remind internal and external stakeholders of one's core values, and move forward better equipped to lead through the inevitable challenges of tomorrow.
The three examples noted at the beginning of this post all eventually resulted in a similar outcome—a public apology and acknowledgement of wrong doing. As crisis situations occur with greater frequency, particularly due to the cycle of news and the nature of social media, an understanding of values-driven crisis leadership is critical for anyone with an interest in pursuing leadership in the public sector.
Creswell, J. & Maheshwari, S. (2017, April 11). United grapples with PR crisis over videos of man being dragged off plane. The New York Times. Retrieved on April 24, 2017 from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/11/business/united-airline-passenger-overbooked-flights.html
Fandos, N. & Landler, M. (2017, April 11). Sean Spicer raises outcry with talk of Hitler, Assad and poison gas. The New York Times. Retrieved on April 24, 2017 from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/11/us/politics/sean-spicer-hitler-gas-holocaust-center.html
Gigliotti, R. A. (2017). The social construction of crisis in higher education: Implications for crisis leadership theory and practice. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ.
Gigliotti, R.A. & Fortunato, J.A. (2017). Crisis leadership: Upholding institutional values. In B.D. Ruben, R. De Lisi, & R.A. Gigliotti, A guide for leaders in higher education: Core concepts, competencies, and tools (pp. 299-323). Sterling, VA: Stylus.
Victor, D. (2017, April 5). Pepsi pulls ad accused of trivializing Black Lives Matter. The New York Times. Retrieved on April 24, 2017 from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/05/business/kendall-jenner-pepsi-ad.html
About the Author
Ralph A. Gigliotti (Ph.D., Rutgers University) is assistant director for Leadership Programs of the Center for Organizational Development & Leadership at Rutgers University. He serves as the co-director of the Rutgers Leadership Academy, co-director of the Distinction in Leadership in Academic Healthcare Program, and part-time lecturer in the Department of Communication. Gigliotti is also an adjunct instructor in the Department of Public Administration at Villanova University. His research interests explore the intersection of organizational communication, leadership, and crisis communication, particularly in the context of higher education. His research appears in numerous books and journals, including the Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies,Journal of Applied Research in Higher Education, Journal of Leadership Education, and Atlantic Journal of Communication. He is also the co-author of A Guide for Leaders in Higher Education: Core Concepts, Competencies, and Tools (Stylus Publishing, 2017).