Crisis Management Tips for the Pope (and Other CEOs)
Congratulations to Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, who has been chosen as the new pope. And welcome, Pope Francis I, to the world of crisis management.
From the start, Pope Francis will confront a host of what we lawyers call substantive issues, on everything from celibacy, the ordination of women, contraception, and reproduction, to the ongoing sex-abuse scandals and a general decline of Catholic identity in the many parts of the world. But beyond issues of faith and morals, doctrine and dogma, the new pope will also face administrative and organizational issues at the Vatican that are not unlike those faced every day by business executives, in-house counsel, and their internal and outside advisors. Pope Francis has become, in effect, the new CEO of a gigantic global enterpriseand a troubled one at that.
The pope does have a few tools other CEOs dont possess, of course, not the least of which is a perception among the Catholic faithful of infallibility. There is no other CEO in recent memory who comes with such a built-in advantage (except maybe Steve Jobs, the former CEO of Apple . . . but presumably he is not coming back anytime soon).
Advantages aside, it is clear that the new pontiff is just like any CEO taking over an organization in turmoil. In addition to intellect and the ability to lead the faithful, Pope Francis is going to need some crisis management and crisis communications skills if he is going to succeed.
So here, in my own small way, is some advice to the new pope from a veteran crisis manager and communicator (and, may I add, one whose middle name is Francis). Advice, in fact, thats valuable for any CEO confronting crisis within their organizationand for the lawyers and other counselors who advise them.
CIR: Control, Information, Response
In my crisis planning and response work, I use a simple system called Control, Information, Response (CIR). It is a helpful framework for managing a host of legal, crisis, and other sensitive situations. The elements are as follows:
Control: A critical first step in any crisis is to get control over the situation you are facing. Within the realm of the possible, of course, youve got to take steps to ensure that you are controlling the crisis, rather than the crisis controlling you. And then youve got to communicate this fact publicly, so that your audience understands it . . . and believes it.
In the popes case, this is going to be particularly challenging. During the first days of his papacy, hell likely still be learning where the bathrooms are in his Vatican residence and how to properly wear the miter, never mind coming to grips with the dysfunction and intrigue of the Curia or Vatican Bank. But to be effective, hell need to immediately put systems in place, to ensure that everyone understandsfrom the Cardinals on downwho is in control, that corruption and immorality will be rooted out, and that violations of policy not tolerated. For any CEO, creating such a culture can ensure success; for the incoming pope, it is essential.
Information: Next, he will need information. Another axiom of crisis management is that the first information you receive about a particular crisis is very often wrong. Making the wrong moves based on inaccurate or incomplete information can quickly make things worse. Information gathering becomes essentialfrom a variety of sources, and in as unfiltered a form as is practical. Particularly when a CEO and his or her advisors are entering an organization where corruption has become thoroughly ingrained, it is important to remember that many of your sources of information and data may be themselves compromised. Messengers will have their own agenda, and may only offer the facts and data that serve their personal needs. In the midst of a poisonous or corrupt organization, ensuring access to accurate information becomes essential.
From everything you hear in media reports, this is exactly the sort of situation the new pope and his advisors will face at the Vatican. Not to get all Dan Brown on you, but Pope Francis may be greeted by layer upon layer of misinformation, half-truths, and mistaken or distorted perception on some of the most pressing issues of his papacy. He needs to begin setting up his own means of information collection so that he may properly act on what is really happening, not on what the cloistered few are telling him is happening.
Response: Once you have asserted the best level of control over a situation that you can get, you need to respondquickly and authoritatively. You may still be working with incomplete information (as mentioned above, you must be careful not to make the wrong moves), but that doesnt mean you should be frozen. Any response that shows you are in control and making positive changes, no matter how cosmetic at the outset, sends a message that, like a stone on a placid lake, can send ripples in all directions.
And the converse is true as well: in the absence of response, rumors and innuendo blossom. The notion that a problem cant be fixed is reinforced, which impacts not only the reputation of the organization itself, but the ability to effectively implement any change down the line.
In the case of the Vatican, one hates to use the phrase new sheriff in town, but it fits. I am reminded of the first days of William Brattons tenure as head of the NYPD, when New York Citys murder rate was at its highest and the department embroiled in its own series of crisis and scandal. Commissioner Bratton took several high-profile actions that, in a very real way, sent a right message of change up and down the ranksincluding showing up unannounced at the precinct of 12 police officers accused of corruption and personally confiscating their badges. This is the kind of response that sends a message.
And lets not forget one final, inviolate, rule of crisis management that comes by way of Richard Nixon: Its not the crime, its the cover-up. A cliché, but one that proves time-and-time again to be the rock upon which any successful crisis response is built. Over and over we have seen that the public will excuse mistakes, errors of judgment, accidents and even certain crimes within a large organizationso long as there is no cover-up. Problems must be quickly investigated and plainly acknowledged, proper amends made, and steps clearly taken to help ensure it will never happen again, that there is zero tolerance for behavior that undermines an organizations mission and damages its brand. Do that right and nearly every crisis under Heaven can be put behind you.
James F. Haggerty, an attorney and communications consultant, is CEO of PRCG/Haggerty LLC and the author of In The Court of Public Opinion: Winning Strategies For Litigation Communications (American Bar Association Publishing, 2009).