It was a few weeks after a team of us had been stationed on Water Street, in New York’s financial district, for AIG for most of 2008 and 2009, during the financial meltdown. I had gone to Ho Chi Minh City for three days to attend a meeting of the World Economic Forum Partnership Against Corruption and returned to Manhattan for a day, thinking that I might get some sleep, when a call came in from a lawyer I did not know from the law firm Pillsbury Winthrop. It was the first night after the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster and the law firm wanted to know if I could be in Houston in the morning for a competitive pitch.
One of our trademarked tag lines is “Always on” and while it is an honor to fulfill this pledge, it can be tiring at times. Overnight, one of our teams prepared a 70-plus page briefing book analyzing the media over the first 24 hours of the Gulf oil spill. I arrived in Houston in time to print out multiple copies prior to the early morning meeting. The Japanese conglomerate involved by investment in the oil spill needed to make a decision quickly. Within the hour we were hired and went straight into war room footing.
Because this was known as the “BP oil spill,” other involved companies – Halliburton, Anadarko and the Japanese company we represented, among others, had extra hours, even a day or two, to prepare before the lights turned on us. By day two in the war room, Pillsbury’s lead lawyer on the matter, Tom Campbell, had identified all of the possible state and federal liabilities, which at the time, amounted to $2 billion.
He then laid out a legal strategy in which he said he thought could save the company $1 billion and asked if anyone in the virtual war room – investor relations (Tokyo had a shareholders meeting in ten days’ time), government relations, brand, HR, sales, inside legal, communications, etc. – had a better plan, a way to save the company more than a billion dollars in liability. Whoever had the best plan would control the strategy and the rest of the divisions and interests of the company would become secondary.
Knowing how fast crises move and how intimidating and challenging it is to make an argument betting the corporate farm on your perception of the future, Tom didn’t just ask for arguments better than his, he asked the team to “Tell me why I’m stupid?” For a lawyer, let alone an American lawyer, to say out loud to a Japanese company, where shame is so sensitive, to be shown why he could be wrong and to be inviting this criticism in real time, was among the most courageous things I have ever witnessed in high-profile global crises. He knew his view was probably right but was entirely open and inviting contrary views in as humble and vulnerable way as he could.
Often, when brand, communications, GR, IR, PR and legal are at cross purposes, as they almost always are at some point in bet-the-company crises, crisis leaders (often, though not always, lawyers) are fighting for control. But in crisis, the issue – legal, GR, IR, brand, HR – that has the greatest to lose or gain, must lead, with every other division of the company being willing to sacrifice. If legal liability is the most threatening to the company, then short-term stock price, a product, executive or brand value can be sacrificed. If brand is the most valuable asset in jeopardy, then the possibility of an adverse legal ruling can become part of the acceptable cost. You cannot just ask people for contrary views when doing this calculus. You have to invite them with the most sincere and most direct plea. Tom’s “Tell me why I’m stupid” are still my favorite five words ever uttered during crisis response. It cuts through the clutter and gets to the bottom line quickly.
That is why I recently had Tom on In House Warrior. He’s a visionary whose humility ensures that the client’s goals stay uppermost in mind. He puts on his binoculars and takes a look at crisis communications in this challenging age and discusses what’s next. It’s a great half hour and I hope you will enjoy the program as much as I did.