Monday, May 10, 2004


One insidious enemy in a crisis is exhaustion. With 24-hour news cycles, it doesn't take long for individuals to grind down in 12-hour days, seven days a week.

There is constant news monitoring, the drip of new or repeated allegations in the media, an intense scramble for facts in unclear situations, hours of press release writing, more fact checking, word negotiation with lawyers and senior executives, publishing, followup, interviews and start all over again in the morning. The pace is relentless. Ride the horse or get off and watch the media, the public, competitors, government regulators, the world condemn you and your company for something you are not even sure you did.

For proud CEOs who built their companies the hard way and were enjoying success till the moment of the crisis, the shock of sudden allegations is almost more than one can bear. It is understandable a CEO will take a hardened view of fighting every step of the way in every way and never giving up. But, there is nothing one can do to stop news. It is an ocean smashing against the organization and drowning morale, deluging customers, smothering normal workflow. One almost forgets there is a business to run, but there IS a business to run. There are employees to buck up and customers to call. There are contracts to fulfill and new business to sell. All that work must be done in the hours left over from fighting the crisis. That too adds to exhaustion.

I have watched in a space of a week and a half normal people taking on a glassy-eyed appearance, staring into space, yawning uncontrollably and marching forward with less enthusiasm by the hour. They know they have to get the job done, and they will, but the stress will stay with them for a long time to come.

The hard fact of the situation is that they also know -- and the world too -- that they might not win the war of perception. The world will tar them with an ugly label for years to come. All of the company's good work will be framed by one ugly incident over which they had no control whatsoever.

In this instance, it is easy even for the CEO to say, "what will be will be" and to give up. For those who don't give up, leadership is steadiness of purpose and confidence that communicates itself to the weary troops. For some leaders this comes naturally: For others, there is acting, a performance that must be convincing in every detail lest even the tiniest gesture betray the corrosive effects of the situation to everyone about you.

I have been watching this go one with a client for days now. It is amazing, and I cannot recall any crisis manual for public relations that has discussed the effects of exhaustion on reputation management. The manuals need to be rewritten.


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