Categories: Crisis management

2 March 2010


Buffetted by crisis? Don’t be quick, be right

Warren Buffett said recently on CNBC that the rules of crisis management are get it right, get it fast, get it out, and get it over. For the first time ever, I’m going to push back on Mr. Buffett’s advice.

The problem is that “get it right” often conflicts with “get it fast”. Three Mile Island got it fast and wrong; there had been a core meltdown and they said they’d be back online soon. The British police embarrassingly got it fast and wrong when they said emphatically they’d shot a terrorist at Stockwell tube; he turned out to be an innocent Brazilian on his way to work. They got it wrong again when Ian Tomlinson died at the G20 summit. The police said he never came into contact with them; this innocent bystander was shown later on video being hit by police.

So the urge to “get it out” and “get it over” can make the crisis live on embarrassingly forever as a stain on the reputation, as it did in all these cases.

“Get it right” should always be what matters most. So I’d add to Mr. Buffett’s advice that if getting it right means a crisis-hit body pauses for thought while the heat’s on, so be it.

The media may be hacked off at first if the people at the centre of the storm beg for forbearance whilst they work out exactly what’s happened. But that phase will pass and then what’s remembered is that no-one got fobbed off with lies. What’s more, if a culture of quick response gets too rooted, organisations develop a line – a self-serving line – which can’t then be shifted in favour of the truth.

5 responses to “Buffetted by crisis? Don’t be quick, be right”

  1. Peter Walker says:

    Warren Buffet doesn’t need any apologists, he is a big boy, and can speak pretty well for himself.
    That said, has he been misquoted or did he ‘mis-speak’. “Get it fast”…. did he mean get out there fast – demonstrate that you recognise that there is an issue to be addressed and we recognise the seriousness or as Paul seems to suggest ” say something quick and ensure that you don’t expose us to any liability if we get it over quickly everyone will forget”. Either of these would be logical coming from the man who owns te biggest re-insurer in the world. I think I know which he meant but Paul’s point is well taken.

    Give some thought to the role of hubris and arrogance in corporate thinking wen called on for crisis communication. Here is Jacques Roggue president of the International Olympics Committee yesterday..”the Vancouver Games have left a positive legacy, despite being hit by a tragedy, bad weather, and organisational problems”.

    So nothing to be learned then, and Moscow if you are listening if you want to bump your medals total up by any means you think will work and don’t involve drugs go to it, as for spectators and ticketing remember the money comes from TV so just do what you tink important to maximise the televisable wow factor and drive ratings for advertisers. Now there’s a man whose thougts on crisis management must be worth hearing.

    Peter L. Walker FCIPR.

  2. Heather Yaxley says:

    The problem with a 24:7 global online world of media communications is that you can never be fast enough. It is fascinating to look back to times when companies were praised for a fast response that involved several days. Now you are expected to comment immediately – with very little chance of having any kind of meaningful information.

    I’m not convinced that “holding statements” are viewed as enough by a public and media hungry for the juicy details and an abject apology. Indeed, as we’re seeing currently with Tiger and Toyota, apologies are not only forced from the “guilty” parties, but then criticised. It seems like in Roman times that only blood in the arena of public/media opinion will do.

  3. Paul Seaman says:

    Heather, I agree to a degree. The problem is that the rules as set mean that crisis-hit bodies rarely win regardless of the circumstances. The time has come, then, to break the rules. That might call for strong nerves needed for delay, but that might be better than living with a broken reputation.

  4. Richard Miles says:

    The order in which Buffet listed those actions, which I heard and I quoted on was:
    “Get it right;
    “Get it fast;
    “Get it out; and
    “Get it over.”
    Note that he said “Get it right” was before “Get fast” and he was absolutely correct.
    Unfortunately, sometimes the C-Suite dwells on “right” to a near perfection, which impedes their ability to “Get it Fast.”
    True excellence in executive management and communications occurs when the right and the fast meld to form a truly powerful communications force.
    Now, of course, we have another situation at Toyota, a company which appears to have failed to get it either “right” or “fast.”

  5. Paul Seaman says:

    Richard, thanks for the clarification (I read it the other way around and I have now corrected it). During the course of this discussion I’ve concluded the pressure to be right or fast or vice versa is not always realistic. The real mistake is to give in to pressure in the face of uncertainty and then to pretend you know what’s what. At Three Mile Island it took 20 years before they could look inside the reactor vessel to discover that the core wasn’t there anymore (that was a shock). It took almost as long for us to prove that Chernobyl killed around 50 people rather than the hundreds of thousands that was claimed. Toyota might have thrown up similar complex long-term challenges when it comes to determining what’s at fault with its cars (I don’t know). But I do know that the real world is complex, and getting it fast and right are often on a collision course. It is my view that we need to redefine the rules rather than try to live within them. That means that the real work lies in educating the public about the true nature of risk.