There’s nothing like a good crisis to demonstrate how little control an organization has. There’s also nothing like a good crisis to uncover the poetry in our souls.
A product cancellation was looming, the cancellation to be imposed by a government agency. Thousands of jobs were at stake, not to mention income, corporate stock price, reputation, and significant disruptions for customers. The crisis had been coming for nearly a year, contained within official communications between the government and the company.
As time passed, internal anxiety grew. In the communications area, we were a relatively minor player, except for the moment at which the crisis would go public. Then we would occupy the most important position in the overall situation. Blow it there, and the product would be destroyed in the marketplace.
What ultimately led to a successful resolution was a recognition that the government’s concerns had to be addressed. That moved the company from a “scorched earth and fight them everywhere” approach to “what can we do and offer to resolve those concerns.” The company, and the people responsible for overall management of the issue, reached deep into their souls, and developed what turned out to be a significant innovation in product management.
One of the top business managers believed the whole thing was a crock – that the government would never cancel the product. And he really didn’t like the communications plan, and the resources that had to be put into place to pull off what would amount to an internal revolution. He didn’t actively try to stop anything, but he made his opinion known far and wide in the organization, including that “no one would care except trade press.” That made our work a lot more difficult.
The government accepted the company’s plan for the product. The news went public two days before Thanksgiving. It was a tidal wave of media interest. We had done well to prepare for an onslaught, and even then, it wasn’t enough. I lived on the phone with news media calls for the next two days – 12- and 14-hour days of saying the same things over and over. I was never more thankful for Thanksgiving, bit as soon as it was over, the phone calls resumed. Media interest finally calmed but continued for weeks. It was a very fine line that had to be walked – acknowledge the government’s concern as legitimate and simultaneously defend the product’s safety.
Some weeks later, I was attending a dinner that was part of a training session for salespeople in a small town in Iowa. Some 250 of our sales representatives were in the audience, and the business manager who had been the chief naysayer was the dinner speaker. I didn’t know what he was going to say, but I was a wee bit apprehensive that the naysaying would continue.
It didn’t. What he said was this: “From the beginning, I believed this was a tempest in a teapot, that we were exaggerating things all out of proportion. I was wrong. I can tell you tonight that all that stood between us and disaster was a tiny handful of PR people. And they pulled it off.” I was the only PR person from the team at the dinner, and every face in the room turned to me.
A crisis had forced the organization to pull the poetry from its soul. It was literally an act of saving grace.
From Poetry at Work: “Crises are the poetry of surprise, upset, and human frailty. They are often the poetry of organizational change, the poetry of the disruption of the status quo. They can speak powerfully to an organization’s managers and people, and they can also fall of deaf ears. Crises expose our humanity, both flawed and good; our limitations and potential reach; our courage, and our fears. And they do all of these things simultaneously.”