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Example 1: A tragic event

The event begins with me on the phone with a reporter, hearing - for the first time, since it had just happened - that someone I had worked with and liked had just shot his girlfriend and then turned the gun on himself. He was dead, she was in the ICU, and her kids were basket cases. I was noncommittal on the phone, not letting myself be pushed by the reporter into revealing any information at least until I knew more.

Fortunately, my instincts led me to take most of the actions in the above crisis management plan. I notified everyone I could think of in the organization who had any connection with the staff member in question or who needed to know (including program participants he'd worked with), so they'd hear about it before they read it in the papers. I made myself press spokesman, and made sure that everyone knew it. The organization issued statements deploring the act, expressing unfeigned deep sympathy for the victim and her children (the staff immediately sent her a jointly -written and signed note and a large bouquet of flowers, and two who knew her visited her in the hospital), and for the clearly-troubled attacker as well. We set up internal time for people to get together and talk through the event - several staff members who had been victims of abuse were particularly disturbed by it, apart from their feelings about their former colleague.

The public furor over the crime, with its sensational overtones of a love affair gone wrong, went on for a week. I remained available to reporters from several media sources, but gave no information that wasn't already public. The organization continued to express its genuine sympathy for and solidarity with the wounded woman, its confusion and sadness over the act and its perpetrator, and zero tolerance for all forms of domestic and other violence. In the end, we suffered no ill consequences, and the victim thanked us for helping her through a difficult recuperation.

When this incident occurred, I had been Director of the organization for eight years. If I had been new at the job, I have no idea whether I would have known what to do without a crisis management plan.

Example 2: A lethal mistake

In Boston a few years ago, a team of police burst into an apartment at three in the morning on a drug bust. They pulled the elderly couple they found there out of bed, threw them around, handcuffed them, and scared them so badly that the man had a heart attack and died. The man was a retired minister, the apartment where the actual suspects lived was one floor up, and the police had made a fatal error.

Within a short time, the African-American community where the incident took place was up in arms. For once, the church leaders, the working people, and the street hustlers spoke with one voice: police racism and insensitivity had needlessly taken a life yet again, in a community that was all too used to such abuse. The situation looked dangerous, as tempers flared and the police seemed to say they had done nothing wrong.

Almost immediately, the new mayor stepped in. Going to the scene of the incident, he spoke directly to the community. He made neither excuses, nor any effort to downplay the situation. He apologized to the community and to the family of the man who died, said that a terrible mistake had been made, and promised that the police involved would be disciplined, and that new procedures would be developed to assure that this kind of thing never happened again. Then he made good on his promises.

The mayor's apology immediately defused the situation. Never before in the experience of that community had anyone in power actually admitted a mistake, taken responsibility for it, and said they were sorry. Community leaders pledged to work with the mayor to help design new procedures. When the police were actually disciplined, and new policies were actually put in place, the community became one of the mayor's major sources of support. By having and communicating respect for the community, by taking responsibility for a terrible situation, by apologizing to all those affected, and by acting to make sure the situation wouldn't be repeated, the mayor had turned a crisis into a positive exercise in community building.