Random PR Thoughts

A Failure of Imagination

If the handling – or mishandling – of the pandemic by the Administration shows us one thing, it would surely be a lack of imagination.

The question, “What if?” seems to have been banned from the White House in favor of the petulant “What for?”

That seems to be the reason the Administration disbanded the National Security Council’s directorate for global health and security and bio-defense and for slashing funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In their haste to reduce what they perceived as bloat and waste in the Executive branch, Administration leaders failed to imagine that a global pandemic could ever really happen. (The fact that the NSC directorate was a product of the Obama administration made it doubly ripe for elimination.)

That said, this failure of imagination is not exclusive to the government. Many of the most horrific accidents in the nation’s history occurred because corporate leaders never stopped to consider the unintended consequences of their actions.

In 1994, management expert Steven Covey introduced the Covey Time-Management Grid (or Matrix). It looked like this:

Covey’s grid was actually derived from Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Time-Management tool. But both divided the average worker’s daily activity into four categories: Urgent, Not Urgent, Important and Not Important. When Covey analyzed which quadrants most workers (and managers) devoted the most attention to, it was largely a mix of Quadrants One, Three and Four.

And that’s a shame because Quadrant Two is the home of planning, preparation and prevention — the three activities that might provide insight into anticipating, responding effectively to, or even preventing a crisis from happening in the first place.

Everyone knows and pays lip service to the importance of Quadrant Two but in the normal course of events inside a big company, most people spend a significant amount of time each day on activity that could be looked back upon as time-wasting.

And let’s face it, a request to secure two tickets to tonight’s ballet for the Chairman’s wife may not be important per se, but at the time it is most definitely urgent. Definitely Quadrant Three. Often, the leaders of the C-Suite thrust themselves into Quadrant One because they perceive something to be urgent and important when actually it is masquerading as one or the other, or both. (A colleague of mine once reported witnessing the executive committee of a major US airline spending hours debating the appropriate color for the carpets in the airline’s Red Carpet Room lounges.) In any case, somehow there never seems to be enough time in the day to devote to quadrant two.

As members of the first-response team, PR leaders need to wrestle management into the second quadrant in any way they can. Sadly, it often takes a full-blown crisis to make the point but sometimes companies can learn from the woes of others.

Consider the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010. BP certainly had demonstrated great technological skill at drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico. However, on April 20 when the Deepwater Horizon oil platform exploded and oil began leaking prodigiously into the Gulf, it became abundantly clear that BP’s technological prowess stopped a little short of knowing what to do next. It was obvious that nobody at BP had seriously considered the possibility of what ultimately happened and the company did not have an operational plan in place to respond, let alone a communications plan. The result?  One of the worst environmental disasters in our history and a corporate reputation in tatters. One would hope that other offshore drillers went back to their war rooms and began spitballing.  

Anyway, time spent in Quadrant Two is almost always time well spent. Because it’s too late to go there when a real emergency bodyslams you into Quadrant One.

Categories: Random PR Thoughts

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