Does your organization have a "zero tolerance" policy? Whether it's for drugs or harassment or violence is a bit irrelevant. Organizations create such policies to demonstrate that they take the particular problem seriously and will take whatever measures are necessary to prevent or curtail it. However, there's a problem with zero tolerance policies. Blind enforcement sooner or later produces the potential significant reputation damage.
A zero tolerance policy is supposed to take the guesswork out of decision-making when confronted with the inappropriate behavior. Instead it can seriously limit managerial discretion by making facts irrelevant and disallowing common sense.
Case in point is the recent suspension of a 5-year old student at school in Pennsylvania for making "terrorist threats". While the article I read on ABC News website did not specify the nature of the threat, it apparently involved a shootout with a Hello Kitty bubble gun blower. Fortunately, the young lady did not have the bubble gun with her at school or I suspect she would have been arrested for having a weapon on school property. Instead she was suspended for 10 days and forced to undergo a psychological evaluation (which showed that she was perfectly normal and posed no threat to her classmates). She now has a permanent entry on her school records which affects her ability to transfer schools and that may result in a lawsuit.
What's wrong with this picture? Zero tolerance for weapons and threats of violence sounds good but surely an adult should be able to distinguish between school yard play and a real threat. Even if there seemed to be a problem, a word to the parents might have been sufficient. Instead, I suspect that inflexible policies mandated the school officials' actions and created a reputational crisis out of what should have been a minor incident.
By limiting decision-making and forbidding the application of common sense zero tolerance policies can do more harm than good. They are an attempt to take the easy way out by making all situations equal. The simple fact is that all situations are not equal and administrators must be able to base their actions on the circumstances of each. As is so often the case in crisis management, one size does not fit all.
One issue is already surfacing and it is the same issue we face after any major disaster: do we rebuild or cut our losses? In an excellent article (Fiercer storms are coming - is it wise to build in their path?) in last Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle, Carolyn Lochhead considers how government has contributed to community vulnerability by subsidizing risky behavior and encouraging building in disaster-prone areas. The rush to restore infrastructure immediately after disaster ensures that debates over whether or not to rebuild are largely put on hold until it is too late. In many cases, construction and continued rebuilding in at-risk areas not only creates a drain on taxpayer dollars but actually strips away the natural defenses that would reduce potential damage to other parts of the communities.
But the other side of the coin is the impact on communities if we do not rebuild after a disaster. Objectively, one can argue that homes on barrier islands should not be rebuilt but who pays for the cost of relocation? How do you tell a homeowner who has built according to local building codes and bought insurance subsidized by the government that they are now responsible for paying for damages? What is lost when a community such as the Ninth Ward in New Orleans is scattered across the country and not allowed to rebuild? These are the questions that makes mitigation such a complex issue.
I believe it high time we had this debate about personal responsibility for risky behavior. It will not be popular but in the light of the increasing risk to coastal and riverine communities, we need to rethink how we build and how we rebuild after disaster.
Last Sunday was the one year anniversary of the capsizing of the Costa Concordia off the western coast of Italy. As you may recall, the cruise ship was sailing too close to shore, struck a rock, and rolled on it's side, killing 32 people. The ceremony, a tribute to those who died, was by all accounts a solemn and meaningful occasion. Unfortunately, it was marred by the absence of the survivors.
Prior to the ceremony, the ship owner Costa Crociere SpA sent a letter to the 4200 survivors saying that they would not be welcome. Costa justified its action by stating that the focus of the ceremony was on the dead not the living and that the small island could not accomodate that many visitors. Survivors suggest that it was more out of concern that disgruntled former passengers, many of whom are involved in lawsuits against Costa, would use the occasion to make their case to the media.
I sometimes think we should create an award for truly dumb crisis management moves. This would certainly rank way up there. Costa is being accused of condoning or possibly even ordering the actions that led to the wreck. Keeping survivors away from a commemorative ceremony certainly does nothing to dispel the idea that you have something to hide.
Add to this the complete lack of sympathy in such an action. Survivors need closure. Talking with others who have shared your experience, shedding tears for the dead - these are therapeutic actions. Many survivors are still suffering survivor's guilt or are experiencing nightmares or other symptoms of traumatic stress disorder and could possibly have been helped by attending the ceremony.
Did Costa have options? Certainly: set up temporary housing, pay locals to provide lodging in private homes, charter flights and house people at other locations, provide a ship for lodging (well, maybe THAT wouldn't have been such a good idea!). Chances are that not all 4200 and their families would be there. But even if they were, so what?
I've pointed out many times that showing sympathy for the victims of your actions is critical to succesful crisis management. Unfortunately, Costa obviously hasn't got the message.
What was interesting was the rapid reaction from all the agencies responsible for dealing with this type of event. Federal, state and local resources were dispatched immediately to the scene to make sure that any potential spill was contained. This is in stark contrast to the Cosco Busan incident in 2007 that spilled 53,000 gallons of bunker fuel into the Bay. All agencies were roundly critized for a slow and uncoordinated response.
There's nothing like a real event to test your plans and show up weaknesses. I can generally tell the level of experience of an emergency manager by his or her willingness to activate their response organization. People new to the profession wonder if they'll get into trouble for activating without a good enough reason. Experienced professionals know that if you even think you need to activate, you do it. It is easier to stand down an organization than to try to activate it after a crisis has gotten away from you.
We've also learned to take advantage of these false starts. You get to test notification systems and hazard assessment processes at a minimum. If it looks like you'll be standing down, run a short tabletop exercise based on "what if this had been worse" scenarios. One of my favorites was to take a worse case scenario and ask my team to identify what would have been our top three operational priorities, a twenty minute or so exercise that paid tremendous dividends in real events.
So the next time you're unsure about activating your team, do it!
The Aurora Theater that was the scene of last year's tragic shootings is scheduled to reopen on January 18th. As part of the reopening ceremonies, Cinemark is hosting a "special evening of remembrance" the night prior and has invited the families of the shooting victims to attend. The reopening is supported by the majority of the community and will be attended by the mayor and the governor of Colorado. Grief counselors will be on hand. So why is this a failure of crisis management?
It's a question of perception, as are most crisis management problems.
Victims' families claim that this is the first they have heard directly from Cinemark. The company did offer to pay for funeral expenses not covered by the Crime Victim's Compensation Fund but did this through contact with the funeral homes, not the victims' families. Cinemark has made no apology nor offered any condolences to the victims' families.
Contrast this with the actions of Warner Brothers and others associated with the movie that was playing during the shooting. Warner issued a statement of condolence and cancelled several gala events associated with the movie, revised it's marketing campaign, and promised a substantial donation to Colorado's Community First Foundation. The director, cast and crew sent condolences and the star, Christian Bale, privately visited the survivors in hospital.
By failing to issue a formal statement immediately empathizing with the victims and their families, probably on the advice of attorneys fearing a lawsuit, Cinemark committed a classic crisis management blunder. They then made things worse by creating the appearance of using the victim's families to gain publicity of for the reopening. The timing of the invitation to the families, two days after Christmas, was thoughtless and the method, email, insulting.
Cinemark's failure is reminder that you're never wrong in expressing sympathy. Do it immediately and do it publicly. You don't have to make statements that can come back to haunt you in court but staying silent could cost you dearly in the court of public opinion. Potential jurors read papers and listen to the news.