Managing the big blunder

Experts agree: Apologize immediately and move on

February 24, 2005|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

It began as an observation that inflamed academicians worldwide. It's morphed into a test case for experts in corporate damage control.

Whether or not Harvard University president Lawrence Summers actually believes men are innately superior to women in math and the sciences, when he broached that politically incorrect possibility in a closed-door meeting last month, he sparked a controversy that triggered a near revolt on his faculty and left his job at risk.

We all get "foot-in-mouth disease," says Larry Smith, president of the Institute for Crisis Management in Louisville, Ky., but few of us are, like Summers, "in positions where everything we say is important to somebody somewhere."

Since then, Summers has apologized prolifically and in multiple configurations. He now says he hopes Harvard can "move forward in the most collegial ways possible."

Yesterday, four experts discussed whether, at this stage, that is likely to happen. (For reasons to which we ascribe no significance, no female consultants returned our calls.)

Lanny Davis, partner, Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, LLP, and former media consultant to President Bill Clinton

Mr. Summers has broken every rule of crisis management. ... The basics are: Tell it all; tell it early; tell it yourself. If he had completely, 100 percent, published the transcript of exactly what he tried to articulate, invited every media person he could think of to sit in his office for as long as it took to answer every conceivable question ... he would've had one or two days of not-so-good stories. Instead, he fell into the trap of allowing the story to leak out, drip by drip.

Also, if you know a bad fact, it's best to help a reporter get that bad fact. Someone is going to get it anyway. And give them absolutely everything else you have. It becomes a good-fact/bad-fact sandwich. The whole thing gets swallowed at once.

Will he survive? Hard to tell, but he needs to be completely accessible to the press ... and absolutely clear about what he feels was wrong in what he said.

Steve Dunlop, president, Dunlop Media, Piermont, N.Y.

What strikes me is that [Summers] thought the remarks at this conference were off the record. He should not have made that assumption. When I got into journalism in the latter days of Watergate, people understood and accepted what "off-the-record" meant, and respected it. The definition is a lot more slippery now. Today, nothing in an open forum is off the record.

The rest is tough. ... In my experience, it's impossible to put the toothpaste back in the tube.

Jonathan Bernstein, president, Bernstein Crisis Management, Monrovia, Calif.

The Harvard Business Review has a fine book on crisis management. The leadership there obviously hasn't read it!

I always say the best crisis management occurs before a crisis happens, when leaders develop a fund of goodwill with stakeholders. Clearly, Mr. Summers had a problem before he ever made his statement. There's been a multiyear history of issues at Harvard; he hasn't been able to bring most of the faculty to his side. They were looking for something to take him down with, and he gave it to them.

As to the statement itself, he sounded like Michael Jackson: He was trying to defend an indefensible position. It's not right to say such a thing publicly. When he speaks, Harvard speaks. He's got to know that. Afterward, he should've been brief, contrite, and said what he's going to do better. Five apologies are not better than one. From here on out, it's a battle for hearts and minds.

Larry Smith, Institute for Crisis Management, Louisville, Ky.

In the corporate and academic world, people can be smart but very naive. ... They tend to overreact, explaining or apologizing over and over. Mike McCurry, Bill Clinton's press secretary, had it right; answer the questions people have, issue your apology - once. Then, when reporters want to drag the story out day after day, say "I answered that question yesterday."

In this society, we have a short attention span; we can only deal with one issue at a time. As soon as another public figure says something stupid, it's liable to be forgotten. In today's politically correct society, that was just a silly thing to say, either privately or publicly.

But he's not the first to screw up, and he won't be the last.

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