Germanwings, Ebola Crisis Communications Learnings

When Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr told a Germanwings 9525 news conference that he did not “see any need to change our procedures” allowing a pilot to be alone in a cockpit during flight, I immediately thought of Dr. Thomas Frieden.

On an October Sunday morning last year, hours after a Dallas nurse had received a preliminary Ebola diagnosis, the highly respected CDC director opened a press briefing, announcing:

“We don’t know what occurred in the care of the index patient, the original patient in Dallas, but at some point there was a breach in protocol and that breach in protocol resulted in this infection.”

Reversing course

The next day, Frieden apologized to the nurse for suggesting she was to blame.  Soon thereafter, CDC announced broad revisions and then more detail changes to its personal protection guidelines.  Within eight days, the CDC had reversed course; it was now advising the full-body protection used by Doctors without Borders in Africa.

Spohr’s reversal came within a day, when Lufthansa announced that it would require two crew in the cockpit.   In doing so, it adopted a practice U.S. airlines had followed since 9/11.  Even earlier, Southwest Airlines adopted the policy in 1999, following a similar incident involving an Egypt Air flight.

Understanding First Words

Why did these respected leaders of highly regarded organizations use their first words – Spohr in answering a question and Frieden in opening a press briefing — to defend current procedure and protocol?  A look at their backgrounds suggest they likely were speaking instinctively.  They were “fast thinking,” to borrow a phrase from Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman.

As leaders in rules-based industries, Spohr and Frieden guard procedure and protocol.  Neither safe flight nor quality healthcare are otherwise possible.   Individuals, even CEO’s, cannot make impulsive changes.  For Spohr, an engineer and pilot, and Frieden, a physician and epidemiologist, changing the rules during a press briefing would have been unthinkable.

Look again at their backgrounds and you can just as easily see how Spohr and Frieden can also deeply believe in thoughtful, deliberative analysis, “slow thinking,” to borrow again from Prof. Kahneman.  In fact, both switched gears not long after their instinctive first words.

Spohr also told the reporter, “We will get together with the experts…to see if our procedures need to be refined….we will make an analysis first.”  Frieden commented the next day, “We improve every aspect of those procedures every time we see something that could be improved.”

Exploding Social and News Media

However, their initial, stout defenses of the status quo clouded their more measured explanations.  Instantly, social media exploded in derision, intensifying questions from a closely monitoring media.  The time for thoughtful nuance had passed, replaced by a cross between the wisdom and madness of crowds.

People saw for themselves.  There were pictures of health care workers in African Ebola wards wearing gear more protective than required by the original U.S. protocol.  Those who fly contrasted the U.S. two-crew-members-in-the-cockpit rule with Lufthansa’s one pilot procedure.  Common sense, they believed, compelled adoption of these practices.

On the other hand, we are fortunate New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie only apprehended one nurse returning from caring for African Ebola victims.  Luckily, there is also little serious discussion of turning passenger airliners into pilotless drones remotely flown from the ground.

Today, Frieden is still highly respected, although he may be smarting from articles recounting things he likely wishes he had not said.  Ebola is dwindling, although our vigilance must not as CDC works 24/7.  It is too soon to say how Spohr and Lufthansa will fare, but its strong reputation and excellent safety record will likely carry it through.

Preserving Time for the Right Thing

What of the next time a leader’s instinctive first words collapse the thinking time available for his or her organization to do the right thing when the public wants something done now?  Fortunately, for Frieden and Spohr, validated “right things” were available for quick adoption after they had lost time to think.

In the future, crisis-beset organizations may initially only have bad options and will desperately need time to think.  How can their leaders put time on the clock, instead of taking it off?  The traditional approach has been to anticipate as many questions as possible, “slow think” the answers in advance, and then hope you have anticipated all the questions.

The risk is in failing to anticipate a question, with the leader then “fast thinking” an instinctive response often shaped by his or her background.  That is how time-robbing first words come out, such as not “seeing any need to change our procedures” or “a breach in protocol resulted in this infection.”

Defining Real-Life Characters

The answer lies in supplementing the traditional preparation by explicitly defining the character a leader will play in front of the cameras, and staying in character.  Remember, this is real-life, not fiction, and the character must be authentic.

Take Spohr and Frieden.  Reflected successively in their remarks, each of the characters were fully authentic, first as guardians of rules and then thoughtful analysts.  The former reflected their jobs and the latter their professions.   However, let us look at their organizations and industries for another character, better able to preserve time to do the right thing and just as authentic.

Both healthcare and aviation are deeply introspective, learning industries.  Well known is the intense thoroughness of post-crash investigations by the National Transportation Safety Board.  Medicine has always been a learning profession, and the Institute of Medicine aims to create a learning healthcare system.

Spohr and Frieden are the chief learners of learning organizations in learning industries. In fact, any CEO can and should be a chief learner, and every organization must become a learning organization, according to the Harvard Business Review.  The more rapid the learning, the better the performance.

Speaking as Chief Learners

During the press briefings, instinctively thinking of themselves above all as chief learners Spohr and Frieden could have devoted their first words to saying something like this, after expressing concern for the passengers, nurse and families:

“We are moving rapidly to learn as much as we can.  We are open to all information and ideas to ensure this does not happen again.  If we need to change protocols or procedures, we will do so as quickly as possible.  Whether to adopt the (two-crew rule) or (full body protection) is at the top of our list.”

First words like these would have put Spohr and Frieden in conversation with the public, preserving time to do the right thing.  In the words of learning organization pioneer Peter Senge, they would have demonstrated “the ability to carry on ‘learningful’ conversations that balance inquiry and advocacy, where people expose their own thinking effectively and make that thinking open to the influence of others.”

While leaders and their advisors can script first words and, then, anticipate and answer questions, they should also create a “character description” for the chief learner – or, to borrow again from Senge, a mental model.

Practice with this character description or mental model, responding to questions, unscripted, as the organization’s chief learner would.   The value of this exercise will extend beyond simply preparing for a press briefing to opening new approaches for substantively resolving the crisis problem.

Becoming a Learning Organization

Ideally, your organization will already be a learning organization when its crisis hits, instinctively responding in character.  If you are only partially a learning organization, respond from there.  If you have not yet started down the learning organization path, use the crisis as an opportunity to begin.

Increasingly, in this age of social and news media feeding off each other, problem solving will occur in full view of and with the direct involvement of many stakeholders.  Learning organizations more effectively manage crises because they remain “in character” whether they are resolving the crisis problem or engaging stakeholders.

When your crisis hits, will your organization be a learning organization?

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