Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Crisis communications on 9/11

September 11 2001 would bring two politicians into focus, each would react to the crisis in very different ways, neither would follow what would normally constitute ‘best practice’ in a crisis situation but both would eventually communicate effectively to their voters and the wider world.

There are many ideas of what the rules should be when handling a crisis situation. I like to keep it as simple as possible based on three fundamentals:

1. Take and demonstrate action
2. Communicate as soon as possible – immediately if possible – and keep communicating
3. Show empathy

So how did President George W. Bush and New York mayor Rudy Giuliani perform on that terrible day?

President Bush begins badly, when told of the attacks on America he is sat in Florida listening to a class of primary school children reading and seems to freeze.  For seven minutes, he continued reading My Pet Goat to the children and justified this in a recent interview by saying “I had been in enough crises to know that the first thing a leader has to do is to project calm.”

He is right that to take control of a situation a leader should remain calm but the images of the Twin Towers burning were being broadcast on TV - with Bush appearing on the other side of a split screen. America needed leadership but also their President to demonstrate it, focusing on remaining calm was the wrong thing to do.

By contrast Giuliani had the advantage of being right at the heart of the crisis. Still, he could have hidden away but instead he put on a dust mask and got out onto the streets to coordinate the response with the emergency services. Images of Giuliani surrounded by officials running down New York streets showed someone in authority was on the scene, even if the reality was his impact on saving lives was very small.

Bush’s remoteness – this time as a result of advice from his security team - also hindered him in communicating effectively throughout the day. He made an initial statement from the school in Florida then was rushed to Air Force One - which flew to two separate air bases – so cutting him off from making decisions, communicating with his key advisers and also to the American people. He recorded a further statement at lunchtime about what action had so far been taken but this was hours since the attacks had started. It would be many more hours before he made a longer statement from the Oval Office of the White House. During this time a sense that the President wasn’t in charge was able to develop with a dangerous media vacuum needing to be filled.

Giuliani again benefited by being on the ground in New York and made himself available to TV and radio reporters throughout the day. Unlike Bush he didn’t remain at all calm but the fact that he was on the scene – covered in dust - allowed him to communicate through what he said but also what he was doing.   

Finally empathy. Giuliani a passionate New Yorker didn’t remain clam but was heralded for his performance that day. His actions as much as his words that day demonstrated he truly cared. Bush, initially dazed it seemed by the magnitude of what was unfolding would eventually find his voice. 24 hours after the attacks he visited New York and stood atop a crushed fire truck. Surrounded by rescue workers, dust and smoke with an arm around a fire-fighter’s shoulder he picked up a megaphone to address those scrabbling to find survivors.  Amid the chaos his words kept being lost on the breeze whipping around Ground Zero. In response he raised his voice to shouting pitch and said with grim determination, “I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people who knocked down these buildings will hear all of us soon.”

President Bush captured the moment and perfectly communicated how wounded, angry but determined America was on the morning of September 12.

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