Sunday, April 4, 2010

Crisis management and moral authority

Yeah, I know it's Easter .... but with all the news and relentless coverage on the Vatican's and Catholic Church's (mis)handling of the sex abuse scandal, how not to pipe up on that topic?

As crisis communicators, consultants and advisors, we're often put in situations where we're handed tough cards to play. Executives have messed up, bad policies have been systematically implemented and followed, and you have to keep convincing the people you work for that what you're proposing is the best way forward.

Are there times when there is just no silver lining? When you should just walk away?

I'd say very, very few. But with the sex abuse scandal ... it's hard to see a way out in terms of crisis communications. Here are a few considerations:
  • Leadership and authority ... when your whole legitimacy (and this also applies to government) is based on moral authority, what do you do when this becomes threatened, challenged or even disappears? In the case of the Vatican, centuries of secrecy, mythical invincibility and almost blind obedience, have created an atmosphere of denial, us-against-the-world state of mind and aloofness. How do you change that to convey a real, sincere-sounding message of regret and apology?
  • Then there's the issue of confused messaging. Church leaders from around the world (particularly in North America) have apologized many times for the behaviour of some in the clergy ... even the Vatican. But recently, it seems, the message from the top has been to kind of blame the media and blame the victims. That's simply a wrong-headed approach to dealing with a reputation crisis. Nothing positive will come out of that ... only more scrutiny on decades of cover-ups and a policy of secrecy. Anywhere else, that would border on criminality: obstruction of justice and conspiracy.
  • At what point do you have to change the face of the organization you're defending? When does your spokesperson lose his/her credibility and only helps to make matters worse? Now, the Pope is not about to resign but has he lost all his moral authority? Has the Church itself? As would suggest some high-ranking clerics from other Christian faiths? As crisis communicators, how would we handle this? If the Chair of the Board or CEO just won't see the light? Do you bail? Or stick around to work with the tools and resources you've been handed to correct the message and the public's perception of your client?
  • Finally, how much of an impact have your own personal opinions and considerations on the work you're tasked with? Recognizing and dealing with that question is an essential part of your thinking process. It will help you gauge what mental evaluation your audiences will use to judge the work you're doing. That's critical in helping you shape your reputation-saving campaign, the tools and the channels you'll use.

In conclusion ... I'd personally walk away from this one. Not a matter of faith but a simple professional evaluation. There are, sometimes, lost causes ... in my opinion this is one of them.

I'm interested in your thoughts on this issue.

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