Picture yourself in the following situation: You’re a CEO of a large successful company and have every expectation that “the system” (whatever the system might be) works. If you are the head of an airline, you go to sleep at night believing that people handling reservations are doing just that, pilots are flying your planes and mechanics are fixing them. Prudent and wise CEO’s never take anything for granted, making sure to check and recheck the systems to make sure that they are indeed performing according to plan.
But what happens when you discover that the system is not working as per expectations? What should your reaction be if there was indeed a breakdown of the very system that you had the utmost confidence in? It may indeed be a system that not only you had every reason to expect was working, but indeed the public as well.
That’s what happened to New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the aftermath of a blizzard that all but shut down the Big Apple in the midst of its busy holiday season, including the presence of hundreds of thousands of tourists. Bloomberg must have realized that something was amiss when citizens all over the city began to complain about unplowed streets, passengers stuck on trains, ambulances that could not respond and so forth. I have no doubt that his advisers were early on telling him that the cause was the ferocity of the storm and not a breakdown of “the system.”
Unlike neighboring locales and states, the Mayor did not declare a state of emergency and instead reassured New Yorkers that the city was going about its normal life and the “system” was working. Even when it became apparent to everyone that the response by the Sanitation Department was uncharacteristically dismal, the Mayor reluctantly stuck to the script of “don’t worry, everything is fine.”
Comparisons to the 1969 fiasco when Mayor John Lindsay was blamed for totally ignoring the borough of Queens are a stretch. There, Lindsay for whatever reason decided that Queens can wait; here, the Mayor trusted a “system” that had totally broken down. He did not decided to teach the city a lesson as it was later said about Lindsay and Queens.
There is a significant lesson in marketing here. Bloomberg could have been spared the criticism and ridicule if only he said: “My fellow New Yorkers. Like you, I am very disappointed in our city’s response to the storm. This is not the system that has been in place for years and indeed worked so well last year during two major storms. I have ordered the city’s attorneys to mount an investigation when the plowing has concluded. We will not tolerate such a breakdown in the greatest city in the world.”
Not only could Bloomberg have avoided the wrath of citizens and the media; he would have been lauded for his honest and no-nonsense approach (President Ronald Reagan fired air traffic controllers when the strikers ignored an order to return to work.) Indeed, rumors continue to circulate that sanitation workers purposely slowed down the system to make a point in connection with pending layoffs in their Department. The Mayor instead relied on the fact that the breakdown is probably temporary and that whatever the problem was would be “fixed” quickly and thus there was no need to cry foul.
The year 2010 seemed to have been full of such “snow jobs.” There was BP trying to sell the public that it knew what it was doing in plugging the catastrophic leak. Apple made believe that an antenna on its phones was not a problem. There was Toyota that seemed to be hiding when the brakes on some of its vehicles weren’t working. Johnson & Johnson kept recalling over-the-counter drugs without admitting that it had a problem.
In each case, the companies faced a PR nightmare simply because someone convinced them that the problem would somehow go away or in Bloomberg’s case melt. This is a dangerous approach for any institution that depends on the goodwill of the public. In the Mayor’s case, it isn’t about consumers buying a product, but a nasty footnote to an otherwise laudable career as Mayor.
Marketing and public relations experts always counsel taking the honesty approach. The public has demonstrated time and again that it will forgive someone who says “I made a mistake,” and will have no pity on officials or anyone else who tries to “pull wool over their eyes.” People understand that to err is human, but they do not forgive people who are trying to preserve their legacy or protect the bottom line to avoid telling the truth.
Many political and organizational leaders as well as business executives, irrespective of the size of the entity, face similar dilemmas occasionally and wrestle with what kind of spin to put on a problem. I have been retained on numerous occasions to help guide an individual or company with a specific PR problem and have heard the argument that “the public will not find out,” which I always find ridiculous in an era of unprecedented open communications. Looking back at some of these clients, I can say without reservations that those who took the honesty trail ultimately fared well, as opposed to those who preferred the “snow job.” “Right, Mr. Mayor?”