With Media, Favor Offense Over Defense

March 1, 2009

Recently I was helping to prepare a very senior executive for a major media interview. As we gathered for the coaching session I was struck again by the defensive attitude that was expressed by the participant and internal advisors alike because a secondary issue was hot and was likely to be introduced into the media interaction by the reporter.

The problem I’ve seen too often is that almost all preparation gets focused on the attack point. And, while excellent rebuttal argument may be built and bridging practiced to get away from the secondary issue and back to the core message, there isn’t enough core message available to sustain that move. In those cases it is easy for the reporter to make the attack dominate the interaction.

My approach to this is to ensure that the participant – the executive in this case – has a clear and very strong objective to accomplish in the interaction. In my training/coaching sessions I suggest participants think of the objective as a destination – something they must get to. No detours or obstacles should deflect them from getting to where they set out to go.

What I’m really trying to accomplish with this is to get their mind-set focused on offense more than defense.

To deliver on offense I believe the participant needs both the intellectual arguments and – as critically – the emotional, passionate energy to not only match the emotion of the attack but to use it to fuel their determination to reach the destination. This isn’t manifested by wild emotional outbursts. On the surface it could in fact seem rather cool, especially in the face of a spirited attack. But there is a belief in the destination that has its own passion and that is what usually drives the credibility of the argument on offense.

Back to the example I started with to illustrate this point. We didn’t need to start the session focused on the negative – everyone in the room had already spent lots of resource on the issue. Instead, we started with defining the destination. It wasn’t difficult to do, but did require some discussion and refinement. That exercize is the first step in conditioning the participant to think offense.

The next step is to review the positive story. Note that it should be a story – not just messages or facts. Story allows us to deliver both emotion and facts in a structure that can include the best interests of the viewing, reading, listening audience. It all depends on how we structure the story.

A technique for finding an appropriate and powerful structure that might counterbalance an attack is the concept of ‘The Other Goliath’. In essence, it means we need to find another, far larger Goliath than we are in the media’s story equation of David versus Goliath (good versus evil).

In another case I worked on recently, the company had already found this Goliath: threat to consumer safety. This was an alternative to the media’s equation, which was: consumer versus profit-driven company. In the new equation the company plays a different role than in the media equation. They had a good story about protecting consumer safety and could support it.

It’s not unusual for companies to try to find another bad guy to take their place in the equation. Sometimes the attempt is misplaced. They choose a completely irrelevant or inappropriate substitute to focus attention on. It doesn’t fly. In other cases, there isn’t any factual support for the premise that someone or something else is the real Goliath.

Premise needs to be proved. The story (it carries and develops the premise for comprehension) needs to be supported.

In the last case I mentioned, while the company had the premise right, they lacked all the supporting information to allow the full story to play out. It was available, but had not been integrated into the explanation. If I had been a reporter I would have pressed the company to prove its alternate premise (new Goliath) and if it couldn’t do it convincingly, with examples and facts, I wouldn’t have accepted it and may have dismissed it or minimized it in the balancing of the story.

One reason there wasn’t more information in the story was the quite legitimate concern of a senior communications manager that he didn’t want his spokesperson going into deep detail. I believe this decision came from a defensive mindset. To me there are no right and wrong approaches. Only options with pros and cons. You analyze their benefits and risks and choose one. That becomes the “right” one if you need that label.

I explained to the communications manager that in this case the positive story was not substantial enough without further detail (proof). So we simply added a very strong example to the story to support the threat to safety premise and to make a far better story. In fact, the logical place for the example was at the beginning of the story because it captured the problem statement for the consumer. After that, the company’s position became solution to the problem – rather than the problem as the media wanted to portray it.

There is nothing magical about this. As shown, the companies can be almost there with their offense.  The difficulty with getting to the best place is that too often the people involved are too close to the issue. They become susceptible to the negative, defensive mindset and focus too much time and attention on that side of the equation.

The other difficulty is not going far enough on the offense story. Sure, there may be problems with it, but that shouldn’t cause it to be abandoned or cut short. I tend to keep asking questions until I get enough information that either makes it go or supports finding another story. But, in asking these questions I often get information that the people close to the situation have forgotten or somehow dismissed as irrelevant or unnecessary. Maybe to them, but not necessarily to someone on the outside.

If, at the end of the exercize the media still doesn’t buy the story, but does give it good play as balance because it is fully formed, supported and delivered with energy, then the reader, viewer, listener gets to decide. And that can be the victory we’re after when we’re dealing with serious issues with the media.

As some sage has often been quoted: The best defense is a good offense.

Sounds good. What about investigative journalism? Different story. The best offense with investigative journalism is to communicate your story to your key audiences directly, because the media aren’t going to. Yes, they’ll ask lots of questions in research, ask for an interview with your most senior person, and try to curry favor to get the interview. If you refuse, the tone will change and you are likely to experience threats. If you refuse the interview, you should also expect the “ambush” interview, where they try to get to your executive directly – on the phone, in the parking lot, at the elevator, etc.

I don’t generally like to accuse media of having written the story before they talk to us. With investigative journalists, j’accuse. I believe they take a purely deductive approach – they know you are guilty and they’re only interested in the information that supports that premise. I strongly suggest only doing these interviews if a key constituency must have you engaged in the interview to defend a position. This rarely produces anything more than the media taking select bits out of the interview and through editing, using it to support the thesis. Better to send a written statement of your position and save a spokesperson’s psyche from the bruising they take before, during and after these interviews. Yes, the broadcast media will scream the loudest, but participating isn’t going to make them go any easier on you than the statement.

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May 31, 2008

An educator I was media training said that a basic skill that should be taught in all schools is improvisational communications. He said we face the need to improvise responses to situations in all aspects of our lives – from work to home to the community. I agree.

An aspect of improvisation in the theatre that is also found in our daily lives is the concept of ‘blocking’ – the rejection of a suggestion that is ‘offered’ by another party.

For several years now my son, Thomas D’Arcy, has studied and performed improvisation as part of his performance training. “There is nothing more frustrating – well, except impossible suggestions from the audience – than being on stage and having one of the actors block your offer,” he says. “It can stop the story and then you have to work that much harder to get around it and keep the action going.”

We see blocking at work perhaps more than we realize. I was in a business meeting not long ago when one of the participants brought forward a creative suggestion to address a problem. It was not ‘out-of-the-box’ to me, but it was to some of the others at the table. One in particular immediately blocked the suggestion by attacking it. Some others joined in support of the attack. I was immediately reminded of the contemporary meeting rule that all ideas were to be respected. And that’s what I said. Clearly, while the specifics of the suggestion may not have been accepted the direction was worth exploring. Reined in, the attackers then let the suggestion stand and we were able to move on constructively.

The immediacy of the rejection – the “block” in this meeting – caught me and I went back to see what improvisation expert, teacher and author Keith Johnstone had to say about blocking.

“When I meet a new group of students they will usually be ‘naysayers’”, observes Johnstone.“The motto of scared improvisers is ‘when in doubt, say NO.’ We use this in life as a way of blocking action. Then we go to the theatre, and at all points where we would say ‘No’ in life, we want to see the actors yield, and say ‘Yes’. Then the action we would suppress if it happened in life begins to develop on stage.

“In life, most of us are highly skilled at suppressing action. All the improvisation teacher has to do is to reverse this skill and he creates very ‘gifted’ improvisers. Bad improvisers block action, often with a high degree of skill. Good improvisers develop action.”

Think about meetings you have been at like the one I described earlier. Creativity, new ideas, action were probably stifled. Think about what happens when a participant is blocked:

1.      New ideas are rejected;

2.      Enthusiasm is dulled; and

3.      Sometimes, we are forced to accept an inappropriate idea because the block of this idea is rejected by the offering party and, if that party has the power, it can impose their idea to get around the block.

I’ve held for a while now that there are no rights and wrongs, only options, each with their advantages and disadvantages. It allows me to stifle my ‘naysayer’ nature and consider all ideas. It is my structure for improvising a response to the ideas of others and it has worked in that it has kept the action moving.

Another way to overcome the ‘naysayer’ or blocking mentality is to release the ‘yeasayer’ in all of us. There are many techniques for this but let’s talk first about how it works, psychologically.

Johnstone quotes extensively from Arthur Couch and Kenneth Kenison on this: “Yeasayers seem to be ‘id-dominated’ personalities, with little concern about or positive evaluation of an integrated control of their impulses. They say they express themselves freely and quickly. Their ‘psychological inertia’ is very low, that is, very few secondary processes intervene as a screen between underlying wish and overt behavioural response. The yeasayers desire and actively search for emotional excitement in their environment. Novelty, movement, change, adventure – these provide the external stimuli for their emotionalism. They see the world as a stage where the main theme is ‘acting out’ libidinal desires. In the same way, they seek and respond quickly to internal stimuli: their inner impulses are allowed ready expression…the yeasayer’s general readiness to respond affirmatively or yield willingly to both outer and inner forces demanding expression.

“The ‘disagreeing’ naysayers have the opposite orientation.”

So, it sounds like the yeasayers have fewer inhibitions than the naysayers. Therefore, a sure way to loosen up the creativity juices is to serve a lot of alcohol to the participants. Where that is inappropriate, any exercises, games, etc. that let people get into a ‘yeasayer’ mood might be appropriate. At minimum, participants should be asked to agree to a yeasayer approach to the discussion. The more individual and public the agreement the more chance that each person will act consistently with their public commitment to act like a yeasayer for the discussion. (If they balk at making a public commitment, remind them that the alternative is to go through inhibition-loosening exercises.)

In improvisational training, turning students into yeasayers involves trying to get them to say the first thing that comes into their head without the idea police in their brains screening the thought or trying to replace it with a more brilliant one.

Johnstone says: “Suppose Mozart had tried to be original? It would have been like a man at the North Pole trying to walk north, and this is true of all of the rest of us. Striving after originality takes you far away from your true self, and makes your work mediocre.”

Improvisation has a lot to offer us in improving our daily communications. We see how blocking stops the action in the story in improvisational theatre just as it does in our business and other interactions.


1.      IMPRO Improvisation and the Theatre by Keith Johnstone, Published by Routledge/Theatre Arts Books, N.Y. Copyright 1979 Chapter on Spontaneity pp 75-108

2.      This term and its opposite, ‘yeasayers’, come from a paper by Arthur Couch and Kenneth Kenison. ‘Yeasayers and Naysayers’, Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, Vol. 160, No.2, 1960. Found in the footnotes to Johnstone’s chapter on Spontaneity in IMPRO.

3.      ‘Yeasayers and Naysayers’, Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, Vol. 160, No.2, 1960. Found in the footnotes to Johnstone’s chapter on Spontaneity in IMPRO.

Copyright 2005,2008

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Risk: What’s your primary objective?

October 10, 2007

I was talking with a friend recently about the risks that young people take. A quote came to mind from a retired race car driver when asked why older drivers lose their competitive edge. He said: In the brief moment that a gap opens between two cars ahead, the young guys go for it and the older guys consider the risk. Risk assessment isn’t always dependent on age. I believe it’s dependent on the primary objective.

For instance, the young gun wants to race or get to the front. The old hand wants to have a car left to race to the finish or to live to race another day. I don’t believe we can accuse the young racer of not thinking. I believe we have to understand their mindset at the moment of decision. What is their priority?

This is true of workers on the factory floor and executives in the boardroom as much as it is of kids in a car on a Saturday night or middle-aged mothers parasailing off a beach in Cancun. What’s their primary objective? It doesn’t excuse a bad outcome, just explains their thinking at the time.

The fellow I mentioned at the beginning is involved in a project to teach young people about risk assessment in the hope that they can be better equipped to make appropriate judgement before taking risky actions. I told him a story of an outing I took as a teenager with a group to a gravel pit in winter. Where I grew up, winter meant snow. Lots of it. So, the sides of the pit were covered in snow. I remember diving down the hillside doing huge somersaults, with the momentum flinging me farther out on each roll. The snow cushioned my contact with the hill. It was a blast. No one else chanced it, so I got to be the centre of attention with the group for my feat of daring (stupidity). I never once considered that I had never done this before, so I had no idea if the technique itself could injure me. I didn’t think about hidden rocks or buried equipment that I might land on.

What was I thinking? Probably wanted to show off. To have an adventure. Use my athletic abilities to have fun. I didn’t think of risk. I would now and I wouldn’t let my son do it if I could warn him off. But would having a knowledge of risk assessment applicable to fun, have had an effect on me? You just don’t know until the moment comes. There is likely to be a conflict. Like the mom who told me that before she got harnessed up to go parasailing the thought that she might be invalidating her travel insurance did run through her mind. But it lost out to the need for the freedom to do something completely different, thrilling and, yes, dangerous.

For young people, the primary objective seems to be living – experiencing, growing, testing, chancing. As we get older, the primary objective seems to be staying alive. So, it’s easier for older people to stop and think. (Obviously not always and certainly not for all older people.)

I’m back to my race car drivers. The young gun goes for the gap while the older driver makes a fast risk assessment. The young driver goes to the front or crashes and goes home early. The older guy sees the gap close but survives to run for the checkered flag or just survives another race. A lot depends on the primary objective.

I applaud my friend’s efforts to help young people live and live. Fewer deaths by misadventure is just a very good thing.

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Conflicted Thinking:CSI Grissom (Inductive) vs. CSI Eckley (Deductive)

August 19, 2007

What happens in the workplace when people think differently? Sometimes that conflict brings great results and sometimes failure – as in resistance. The more aware we are of how our colleagues, clients, and other contacts think, the better we are prepared to manage the conflict to the best outcome.

The two methods of thinking or reasoning are shown in this example from the CBS hit television show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Two characters – CSI Gil Grissom and CSI Conrad Eckley – are usually in conflict on a great many levels. In one episode, Grissom (the star character of the show) reviews a case originally investigated by Eckley. Grissom always suppresses his ‘gut feel’ or intuition in favour of the evidence. In other words he doesn’t jump to conclusions. His bottom up approach is more inductive than deductive. When Grissom starts reviewing the old case he sees that Eckley quickly decided who was guilty and only collected the evidence that proved that conclusion – a more deductive approach. While Eckley closed the file in short order he got the wrong guy. Grissom worked from observation up to the theory of guilt. If you want to see both ways of thinking used by one character while others characters do the same, resulting in a bizarre dynamic of conflict and ultimate resolution, watch the medical drama HOUSE from Fox Broadcasting.

William Trochim has a take on the difference that positions deductive as top down and inductive as bottom up. However, he characterises deductive as “more general to more specific” and inductive as “moving from specific observations to broader generalizations and theories.”

In my experience I would say that deductive types start with a specific conclusion and then build a case of proof to support that objective. Business and organizational types display deductive thinking a lot, even though they participate in many interactions that are inductive. It could well be argued that they have already used inductive thinking to reach that conclusions and then frame the case in a deductive structure. Fair enough. I think this just shows that there is little ‘pure’ deductive or inductive thinking.

Wearing my crisis consultant ‘hat’, I have been both praised and accused of being a ‘top-down thinker.’ (As long as the client gets a good result I don’t care what they call me.)

However, different preferred thinking models can bring conflict. An interesting discussion of this was posted by Antoine Henry de Frahan in a post titled Deductive-Inductive Strategy on his Legal Management blog and it reminded me of a few client/consultant interactions that I have had in the past.

As a communication coach, I saw this conflict manifest in the impression that one executive left with his peers and superiors. He was seen as detached, cool, even arrogant, although with his employees he was seen as supportive and a very good leader – because he interacted with them differently. Working this through together, we analyzed why this poor impression was left with one group and not with another. We determined that his propensity to immediately display a deductive thinking structure in his communications with his peers and superiors was based on an unconscious assumption on his part: “I get it and I assume you do too; so let’s move this discussion along.” The problem, we concluded, was that those with whom he interacted were not always at the same place in their thinking, or preferred an inductive style. He is now taking that into consideration when he interacts with his different audiences. It will slow things down a little or a lot, but the impression and co-operation should lead to the best result in the end.

Wearing another hat – that of media trainer – I see this conflict in our thinking versus that of the media. I want my business/organizational trainees to build a story to tell, with sufficient proof to sustain that story. I would characterize that as deductive – top down. The media want to find a story by exploration through questions – bottom up. This often leads them to ask questions that might be beyond the scope of the story we want to tell. We prepare for that and try to ensure that we provide enough interesting, fresh information in support of our story that we meet the needs of the reporter too, while maintaining our story’s focus.

I can certainly understand the reporter’s resistance to any restriction on the scope of discussion. After all, brain research is showing us that any attempt at influence (a restriction of choice/freedom) brings automatic and often unconscious resistance. But we also know that a well-made case with sufficient proof to withstand any objections (resistance) works. So, we shouldn’t be dissuaded because the reporter is using a different thought or reasoning structure. It does, however, require that we have a compelling, ‘sticky’ story that will meet their needs.

A word about ‘investigative’ media. I view them as the Conrad Eckleys of this world – deductive to a fault. They have the guilty party in their sights, they then set about to confirm it. Sometimes their targets deserve their fate, other times not. And yes, sometimes non-investigative reporters use this approach, just as some investigative reporters do build from the bottom up. But when an investigative reporter calls, our preparation is similar even though our expectations will change.

So, what do we do about the conflict in thinking? The most significant danger, in my view, is that it triggers resistance from others. If we know our style and the preferred style or likely position of the other party, we can accommodate their needs and perhaps reduce their resistance. Is there one method that is better than the other? No. Each has its upside and downside. The key is to be conscious of them both, how they work and where they can be best applied.

Copyright 2007 Patrick McGee

A Utility Executive responds by email:

Pat, good points. Actually, I think we save time and get better results by drawing others into a discussion, leading to a mutually agreed upon conclusion. The thing is, with peers, even if I think I’ve got the answer, if they don’t agree at that moment, we aren’t moving forward until they “get it”. More often than not, my conclusion is “half right” – and the mutually agreed upon solutions are almost always much richer than my own conclusions. Tough lesson – but learning how to listen to others is a skill that few have. That, and a quick deductive mind, is very powerful. Moves you ahead in a corp culture too, because people appreciate it when their opinions are valued.

From an Advertizing Creative Director by email:

Very good, Pat. It’s so prevalent. Now you’ve given me a vocabulary to
describe it. Thanks.

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Story is Sticky

July 25, 2007

Here’s a really interesting, useful book for anyone trying to make their communication more ‘sticky’.  It’s called Made to Stick – Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. It’s by Chip and Dan Heath and published by Random House. The six key qualities for stickiness (a concept the Heaths acknowledge they borrowed from Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point) are: Simplicity, Unexpectedness, Concreteness, Credibility, Emotional and Stories. In my media and presentation training work I am always pushing my clients to use stories to make their communication have impact. I know this works when I see the result in the media or get reports of audiences repeating the stories they have heard in presentations. I was so pleased to see the Heaths’ confirmation of this approach in their book. So, for the rest of this blog post I’m going to reprise another column from my past about the value of employing story to carry messages in preparing for media interviews or presentations at work. I hope you find it useful as well.

Messages can’t tell the story. But story can deliver messages

By Patrick McGee

Copyright 2006

I recently had a mild disagreement with a client. As we prepared to train her spokespeople, she asked me to emphasize the need for them to deliver three key messages. I get this a lot and too often see preparation materials that are long on messaging and very short or bereft of story. My advice to my clients and anyone else who will listen is that story wins the day in media interaction. Bullet point messages do not tell a story, but a good story can carry all the messages – including those branded, self-promoting messages that media hate.Every time I have been involved in training spokespeople to handle negative news – like pricing or fee changes on products and services – the sessions start out very gloomy. (No wonder – who wants to have to defend the attacks that come from media on behalf of  customers?) But they inevitably end on a positive note when we turn the messages into a story that makes sense and is defensible.  I have clients who now recognize the benefit of this and write a 30 second ‘story’ at the top of their preparation materials – ahead of the messages.

Why message over story persists

Every time I see messages without story I ask myself why this approach persists. My conclusions are:

  • People want to make everything shorter in a time/attention challenged world. Therefore, lists of messages meet this goal, regardless of the goal of effective communication.
  • People assume that the spokesperson can turn message into story.
  • People assume that the Holy Grail of message is the sound bite and that somehow the context (usually delivered by story) for the sound bite is understood or will take care of itself.
  • People (big generalization here) don’t ‘get’ story. Some don’t even try. Some give lousy story. Some have never been taught how to find/construct an effective story.
  • People seem to give up on the positive in the face of the negative and go to message (defensive) rather than story (offensive). (A gold-medal athlete recently told me his previous media training had consisted solely of what not to say and nothing about what to say and how to say it. Go figure!)

Let me return to the client I said I had a conflict with at the beginning of this column. My response to her was that I would make the point about messaging but that it had to be in the context of story. She responded that that was fine, but she and her colleague felt that the best way for spokespeople to prepare was to have a few key messages prepared in advance. In the end her point was delivered to the trainees wrapped up in my structure about how to create a story.  Perhaps the cause of our conflict was the brevity of her initial message. I read into it an intention that she didn’t have and we went from there. I didn’t get the context of her people not doing proper preparation until I pushed back. Then she brought context. But it was out of order and not as effective. So, instead of a message with critical bits missing, a story like the following might have avoided the conflict:

“Pat, some of our people have already done interviews and not done sufficient preparation. The interviews have stalled because our people didn’t have anything to say, didn’t like where the interview was going or didn’t deliver any of the messages the organization would like to get out. We suggest they prepare up to three messages in advance with sufficient proofs to deliver. Could you accommodate that in your training?”

This client’s a busy person and made some sub/un-conscious assumptions, as we all do when we communicate (Chip and Dan Heath in Made to Stick call this the Curse of Knowledge). She cut out some of the context (the problem statement at the beginning of the story) and delivered a message that didn’t work as intended.

Build a story

So, how do you turn messages into story? Well, you don’t. You build a story that will carry messages. Here are my keys to story building:

ü      Choose an audience. This is so critical. You want an audience that has an interest. You want to be able to connect their interest to your interest. So, pick the audience and think about who they are and their interest (e.g. need, opportunity, threat). Be able to talk about their interest like an expert, or at least extremely empathetically.

ü      Find the generic solution (anyone can provide it) to link their interest to your interest. It’s the transition from their problem to your solution. For instance, they need a widget.

ü      Create three messages — exceeding three diminishes impact, unless the excess is used to support repetitions of the generic solution.

ü      Turn your messages into specific, branded solutions that deliver the generic solution.  So, if they accept that a widget is needed and think/ask where to get it, you’re on.

ü      Have proofs for every element of the story. You have to be able to prove the audience’s interest and the generic solution and your messages. So, lots of proofs needed.

Recently I was asked to train an executive for a negative announcement. In our search for the right story we explored the audiences who would pay attention, and we immediately found the audience that would benefit most from the change. In fact, they had responded very well to a previous announcement. Those disaffected were not the primary audience, but their concerns would be acknowledged and their needs would be addressed (one of the messages). The executive’s mindset changed completely. He saw the announcement as an opportunity, and was able to focus on that positive aspect and put the negative impacts into that context. All the messages, including the dreaded advertising slogan, were worked into the story in a natural, acceptable way — all because of the story structure. Without it, he would have been playing defence not offence.

Go ahead, do the messages (don’t forget the supporting proofs). Then stop thinking about yourself and think about the audience. Define the segment that has the interest that you can match. Tell the story of their interest and how you can deliver something they want. Re-do the messages to suit. Put the story at the top of your preparation materials – before the messages.


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Failure to Walk the Talk

May 9, 2007

By Patrick A. McGee

Copyright 2007

BP’s Chief Executive Officer Lord Browne resigned at the beginning of May over revelations and deceit about his private life. He should have resigned because he failed to walk the talk that “the safety of our employees and contractors along with the integrity and security of our plant and equipment is of paramount importance to BP.”*

Two days after his resignation, an internal BP report on a 2005 explosion that killed 15 and injured 180, was publicly released by court order.  From BBC News**: “Four BP executives should be sacked for failing to prevent a fatal blast at the oil giant’s Texas City refinery in 2005, an internal report said.” It went on to say: “It (the report) added that managers routinely ignore standard procedures, failed to act in the best interests of the firm and management systems failed to perform at the highest level.”

On BP’s website, in a section on the company’s Code of conduct***, Lord Browne is quoted: “Our reputation, and therefore our future as a business, depends on each of us, everywhere, every day, taking personal responsibility for the conduct of BP’s business.”

We know Browne’s fate, but what of the others? Back to the May 3, 2007 BBC News story: “One executive has since left the company, while the other three executives have since moved to other parts of the group.”

While steps may have been taken since the fatal explosion to improve safety in its operations, we can’t ignore that the company claimed safety was important before this tragedy, but it was proved, not only by the explosion but subsequent investigation and reports, that it did not walk the talk.

The BBC had this report in November 2006****: “BP knew of ‘significant safety problems’ at its Texas City refinery well before a deadly explosion in March 2005, according to U.S. investigators. The Chemical Safety Board (CSB) found a catalogue of internal BP reports highlighting maintenance backlogs and poor infrastructure at the site. BP has agreed it was preventable and has allocated $1.6bn in compensation.“

And again on BBC News in December, 2006*****: BP Head of exploration Tony Hayward said leadership does not listen enough to what “the bottom” says and that safety needed more work. Mr Hayward also said in a bid to cut costs, the firm’s “mantra of ‘more for less’ …needs to be deployed with great judgment and wisdom”. “When it isn’t you run into trouble,” he added.

Crisis. Deaths. Injuries. Property destruction. Operations interruption. Reputation damage. These can be avoided and mitigated by walking the talk.

Writing nice sounding Codes of conduct are relatively easy. Walking the talk, consistently and constantly, are very difficult. But necessary if we want to prevent crisis.


How difficult?

There’s a Harvard prof named Chris Argyris who says we have mental models that can lead to behaviour that I characterize as not walking the talk.

Professor Argyris, in studying how organizations learn, says we have an espoused theory of action and a theory-in-use .He also categorizes organizations as Model I and Model II.

My take on this is that “espoused theory of action” is talking the talk. It’s what we think we should say. And at the time, we might actually believe it. But when the talk gets in the way of our goals, or threatens us, or is just hard to do, then we might resort to theory-in-use – what we actually do. The walk. Not always in synch with the talk. Argyris says most organizations are Model I, the ones that I claim do not walk the talk. The other, the Model II type, are walk the talk organizations and are a rarity.

So, how to encourage an organization to walk the talk?

Well, we know that not meeting organizational goals that are truly “paramount” is supposed to lead to sanctions – no bonus, demotion, termination. And when it comes to financials, that’s often the case (although we are seeing perverse situations where executives are let go while taking pots of gold with them). One way to ensure the talk is walked is to tie safety performance, in this case, to the same rewards as financial goals.

Complacency is a sure way to kick start a theory-in-use behaviour divergent from an espoused theory of action, especially when the espoused theory is more difficult, slower, etc. We forget the reason for it and take a short cut, sometimes with dire consequences.

Reminders and refreshers on the ‘Why’ of the espoused theory can help to prevent deadly complacency.

Linking one goal so closely to another so that one cannot be accomplished without the other helps. It keeps one from being more paramount than the other.

Decades ago I read an account in Fortune Magazine of how the CEO of Alcoa, I believe, linked lost time accidents to inefficiency in his organization. He surmised that lost time accidents were usually caused by people trying to circumvent an inefficient/difficult/unacceptable process. His direction to the company was to get better at designing processes that prevented accidents and improved efficiency.

In the crisis training world that I often inhabit, we try to defeat complacency and heighten the value of those organizational behaviours that will prevent crisis, such as through preparation, simulations, and response techniques. But crisis communicators really do well financially when organizations have a crisis. It takes a lot of resources to manage and recover from crisis.

Real crisis prevention won’t happen through training. It will happen when organizations walk the talk.

* http://www.bp.com/subsection.do?categoryId=9007559&contentId=7014489

** http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/6621725.stm

*** http://www.bp.com/sectiongenericarticle.do?categoryId=9007573&contentId=7014474

****  http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/6100938.stm

***** http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/6189919.stm

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