I listened in to a great Webinar on crisis communications today during lunch, thanks to www.ragan.com. What a great reminder of how every crisis contains an opportunity.
Today’s call took me back to one of the most painful crises I’ve been involved in to date. Back in 2004, in a debate over health care policy, an 81-year-old Senator I worked for used a racial slur in an old time metaphor to describe a white member of the House with whom he disagreed. I’d never heard the metaphor but I sure knew he was in trouble with the racial slur!
The Senate Majority Leader called me right around 5 p.m. “Senator XX just called Rep. XX a “n@#$r in a woodpile. And Rep. XX has already alerted the media.”
First I thought I was going to throw up, then I googled the metaphor to try to figure out what the heck the metaphor referred to– apparent our generation might have called our antagonist a “snake in the grass.”
I headed up from the basement to the second floor of our building where the leadership offices were housed–Crisis Communications 101 running through my brain. Apologize, apologize to the African American Community, tell them what you’re going to do to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
When I arrived upstairs, the Senator was steaming mad. He didn’t use a racial slur. The Representative wasn’t even African American. And the Senator wasn’t sorry for pointing out the guy was a pain in the neck.
The Senator wasn’t a bad guy. He was truly interested in expanding affordable health care in Washington –and he was a demonstrated moderate who worked across the aisle to do great things for our state. In all fairness, his antagonist WAS a “snake in the grass” on the issue in his mind–and he really couldn’t understand how he’d managed to offend an entire race.
We spent the next couple days answering media questions, meeting with the NAACP and other African American leaders and fending off calls for his resignation. Ultimately, the Senator agreed to issue a public apology from the floor of the Senate–And the state’s only African American Senator, who’d worked closely with the Senator on a variety of health care measures for the poor in Washington, graciously accepted his apology with a hug.
After the crisis subsided, I stayed in contact with the new people I’d met and cultivated friendships that last to this day– underscoring the fact that a crisis handled with grace and humility can turn into an opportunity.