Sunday, January 28, 2007

Book Review: Keeping Cool on the Hot Seat

Since it is apparently illegal, or at least immoral and/or fattening, to review a book without awarding it a certain number of stars, I give this one:

five out of five

You may have noticed the link to "Judy Hoffman: Crisis Communications" in the left sidebar. I was first introduced to Judy through a guest column she did for Jonathan Bernstein's Crisis Manager newsletter (which is also linked over there). Judy is a media training consultant, and spent 16 years in the chemical industry as a media relations specialist. She also has a newsletter, Keeping Cool, which should be mandatory reading for everyone.

Judy's book, Keeping Cool on the Hot Seat, should also be required. It covers how, when, and what to communicate to the media during a crisis. In a superbly-written volume, Judy describes how Lee Iacocca and Rudy Giuliani handled crises that might well have had calamitous consequences, had both men not been such gifted communicators. Of course, there are dozens of other examples too, but these are the ones where you'll recognize the players.

As is the case with almost every volume I've ever seen on crisis management, Judy points out that the Chinese character for "crisis" -- wei ji -- is a combination of the characters for "danger" and "opportunity." While some may argue the point, there is no denying that a "crisis" does, indeed, have elements of both danger and opportunity.

Looking at the dictionary definition of "crisis" -- "a stage in a sequence of events at which the trend of all future events, esp. for better or for worse, is determined; turning point" -- we see that the situation can get better or worse. In the business world, one of the critical factors in deciding which way the crisis will go is how it is communicated to the affected stakeholders.

For examples of how effective communications can reduce the impact of a crisis, Judy cites the 1987 case in which Chrysler was implicated in selling pre-driven vehicles as new cars: Lee Iacocca accepted responsibility, made amends and rectified the situation to the satisfaction of the consumers affected. She also discusses how Rudy Giuliani (1), faced with the incredible carnage of 9-11, used effective communication skills (among other skills, of course) to reassure a shattered city and a shell-shocked nation.

Ineffective communications can vastly increase the impact of a crisis: Judy cites the Firestone/Bridgestone/Ford tire fiasco as a prime example of piss-poor communicating. The poor skills showed by the owners and operators of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant did absolutely nothing to reassure those potentially affected by the TMI disaster. One could also argue that, had the administration been more open in its communications regarding the "war on terror," "signing statements," and the like, the bush administration might not have such abysmal approval ratings.

Judy continually drives home the concept that there must be a crisis communications plan in place before you need it, and it must be practiced.

Judy also presents a concept she calls "The Ten "C's" of Good Crisis Communications." This list, all by itself, is worth the complete purchase price of the book.

"But Mr 618, I don't expect to ever have to communicate with the media in a crisis," I hear you say. Okay, maybe you're not the CEO of your company. Maybe you're not the senior elected official in your community.

But when Little Johnny smacks a line drive through the Widow Jones' plate glass window, do you think that would be a crisis? Especially if the Widow Jones isn't the nicest, coziest, neighborhood granny you wish she were? And while the Widow Jones may not be the New York Times, the points Judy makes in her book can save your bacon there too.

If you think you may ever have to deal with a crisis -- whether at work or at home -- stop by her website, read what she has posted there, and sign up for her free newsletter. I can guarantee you won't regret it.

The book is available through her website, and also through Amazon.

(1) If you haven't done so, you should also read Giuliani's book Leadership.

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