Archive for December 31st, 2008

The crisis of 2009–some “happy” new year thoughts

December 31, 2008

Today we say goodbye to 2008, and for many that comes with little regret. Unfortunately, it also comes without the usual anticipation for a clean start and solid hopes for a new year. The world is very much in a funk, with fears, uncertainty and maybe even despair.

Let’s look at this from a crisis perspective. In this case, we can put ourselves in the position of victims of a crisis like a major storm or natural disaster, or a devastating implosion of a company we have counted on for our future and livelihoods, or a fisherman who sees his future destroyed by a massive oil spill. Frankly, I haven’t looked at crisis management from a victim’s perspective very much and so this crisis may help many of us in crisis management to get more of a sense what it feels like and what victim’s expect and need.

Here are a few thoughts–but with a tip of the hat to Dr. Vince Covello, who is widely recognized as a leader in risk communications and speaking to people’s needs when they are caught in circumstances that overwhelm them.

Here are three things I want to focus on that I think all victims of a crisis desperately need: Strong leadership, simple messages, reason to hope.


We need strong leadership we can count on. Much research has demonstrated that leadership in a crisis determines the outcome. Not just in making the right decisions, but in demonstrating credibility and character. In our current global crisis, it is clear that the problem is bigger than President-elect Obama, the entire world needs leadership and we are not in this alone. We have seen how the crisis and his response to it has dramatically changed Prime Minister Gordon Browne’s fortunes. I suspect that either one individual, perhaps President Obama, or  small group of world leaders working together will emerge and we will pin our hopes on them and their character and actions. Visibility, strength, confidence, decisiveness, sensitivity, trustworthiness–all these are critical in our leaders now and if the ones we count on disappoint us, the crisis will deepen. President Bush and FEMA leadership demonstrated the downside of this in Katrina. Mayor Giuliani demonstrated the upside of this in 9/11.

Simple Messages

Dr. Covello has made it clear through much research that in a crisis, victims cannot absorb the typical amount of information they normally receive. Their brains are too filled. Adrenalin may be the culprit but in times of high stress we need very simple messages. It seems clear that this one of the keys to Obama’s success in his campaign. Change we can believe in was simple but powerful given the circumstances. And circumstances or the context of the message mean as much as the message itself. Sure, there is much to talk about in this crisis like all others. But the message from the response (the leaders) needs to be simple, consistent and to the point. In my mind it has to be related to restoring confidence. It is almost back to the simple message of Roosevelt–the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Demand–people buying things–is the engine on which our economy runs. Unfortunately, even buying things not needed and that is something that seems to be fundamentally changing right now. But if someone doesn’t buy a whole lot of things real soon, the engine will not only sputter but stop. Somehow the leaders need to convey the message that they are doing what is needed to restore confidence so that it is safe to invest, consume, and buy stuff.

Reason to hope.

Sure, the endless news hole of the media needs to be filled with all kinds of meaningless analysis about what has gone wrong and why, plus endless stories of more doom and gloom. And it is the media’s job (and delight sometimes it seems) to fill us up with all the evidence of how things are going from bad to worse. But we desperately need reason to hope. Not phony pollyanna hope, but a reasonable, rational idea of what it is going to take to make us believe in the future again. Victims of natural disasters need to see that through their pain, grief and dislocation that somehow, some way, life will return. There will be laughter and joy again. There will a time of looking forward to the future. Yes, life will likely never be the same and in some ways that may be a good thing. Resetting values, realization of our dependence on each other, re-examing the consumerism that lies at the heart of our system, focusing on the things that are truly important vs those things we only thought were important. That’s all good–so the reason for hope can’t be simple return to things as we have known them. We need to see that the new world we are entering is going to be a better one–more real, maybe more simple, maybe more authentic, more about family and relationships and caring for each other. I’m hoping our major cultural purveyors–tv, news, movie makers, video game makers, software developers, etc., can catch a vision for a post-crisis world that is changed but is significantly better. More soul, less shallowness. Ah yes, hope springs eternal.

May you have a blessed new year.