Bolt From the Blue – navigating the new world of corporate crises by Mike Pullen and John Brodie Donald
I heard John Donald give a talk about the themes of his book Bolt From the Blue on Friday and I was impressed by his thoughtful presentation and the book does not disappoint.
It suggests that there are five principles for handling a corporate crisis:
- Do not deny anything before you are in full possession of the facts
- Your response time must be faster than the speed of the story
- When a crisis happens, bring in external consultants
- To prevent recurrence, change the culture as well as the policies
- You can’t clear your own name; only other people can do this for you
I particularly like number three….
The early part of the book explains these themes in a practical handbook sort of way and I was particularly struck by the points made about Donald Rumsfeld’s famous “unknown unknowns” speech which is often and wrongly derided.
It’s not that Rumsfeld was talking gibberish (although as John observes, basing a strategy on “unknown unknowns” is a justification for doing anything) the authors argue that it wasn’t “known knowns” or “known unknowns” or even “unknown unknowns” that brought Rumsfeld down, it was the fourth category that he didn’t mention “unknown knowns”.
These are the events that arguably you should have foreseen – they were knowable but you failed to spot them. For Rumsfeld it was the behaviour of US troops at Abu Ghraib “on his watch” that were fatal to his reputation.
This thought informs much of the book, how to balance control of and responsiveness to events.
In corporate life the idea that executives are omniscient and omnipotent, whilst obvious nonsense, is persistent and there is an interesting debate to be had about whether the attitude to risk required of a CEO also makes it inevitable that CEOs must believe they can defy events. The seeds of their destruction etc..
The book, having laid out the five principles begins an exploration of case studies which illustrate how organisations have faced crises and what kind of crises can emerge.
Here the book is perhaps less sure in tone and the section on health and safety culture is more a bit of a Telegraph reader’s grumble than a discussion of how changing attitudes to corporate responsibility in global supply chains for example can and do affect susceptibility to crisis, as say Primark have discovered.
Likewise the section on social media is rather short and to my mind doesn’t really examine whether it is as much as benefit as a threat if organisations are prepared to act quickly and be transparent. The emergence at the back end of 2013 of reputation as the top strategic risk (largely related to the growth of social media) was perhaps unfortunate timing for the authors as it might have been the platform for deeper discussion of something that is clearly more than just worrying to a great many CEOs.
Special praise is required for the range of examples which include some which were new to me and for the others, the authors’ intelligent and witty style with its thread of references from the Classics gives new perspectives on some of the ‘classic’ crisis case studies. Special bonus points for not going over the well trodden ground of Tylenol…..
The five principles are as useful and as sound a set as any I have read and the depth and intelligence of the examination of corporate crises over the years is a distinct cut above the norm.