Early lessons in crisis comms

I've only run for elected office twice in my lifetime. The first was in 8th grade when I beat Marty Borenstien to become student council treasurer at the Epstein Hebrew Academy.

I've only run for elected office twice in my lifetime. The first was in 8th grade when I beat Marty Borenstien to become student council treasurer at the Epstein Hebrew Academy.

It wasn't all that great a victory - I think Marty lost because he had the unfortunate nickname of "Barney," which didn't convey fiscal acumen. Plus, I conveniently broke my wrist playing basketball three days before the election. This dramatically increased the mercy-vote factor.

My second political experience was when my best friend Bob and I ran together for "co-presidents" of our high school senior class. The central focus of our campaign was securing a soda machine for the lunch room - a perennial vote-getter if there ever was one. But we also ran on a larger and more relevant platform of racial unity: he was black, I was white, and our school was in its first decade of real integration.

Honestly, I didn't learn much as treasurer, though I did figure out how to balance a checkbook. But the senior class presidency taught some true life lessons.

In my brief stint, I learned about the potency of ideas and the power of the written word. I also received an unflinching tutorial in the intricacies of crisis communications.

As class presidents, Bob and I were asked to author a monthly column in the school paper, the Tom Tom. We never took it very seriously because, as far as we knew, no one read anything in the Tom Tom except for sports scores and the weekly lunch menu. Our first few columns covered the homecoming dance, the prom, and the pending arrival of the soda machine. Then we decided to tackle a subject we both felt passionately about. We wrote a column questioning why the predominance of students in the Academic honors classes were white, while the overall student population was close to 60% black.

It was a legitimate issue to raise. What we didn't understand, however, was that it was a deeply complicated and sensitive issue, one that would touch the hearts and minds of many. And we didn't just pose the question, we also theorized as to why these classes were under-represented by black students. We posited that adverse peer pressure (it wasn't cool to be smart) and perhaps apathy on the part of too many parents were factors. In hindsight, of course, this casual pontificating was regrettable, naive, and ultimately inflammatory.

A day after the column ran, an angry phalanx of parents and students came marching down the school hallways demanding a meeting with me and Bob, as well as with the editor of the Tom Tom and the principal. We then had to sit at the front of a tense, crowded room where students and parents raged at us for racial stereotyping and ignorance. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch even wrote an article about the controversy, so the publicity reached beyond our school walls.

The episode was eye-opening and life-changing. I was dumbfounded and frightened. My friends, both black and white, had discussed this very issue without upsetting anyone. But once it was in the newspaper, out of context and out of our control, the words and ideas took on whole new meanings.

Bob and I apologized. We explained our intentions and we owned up to the fallacy and hurtfulness of our polemic. In front of that angry crowd, we were transparent and sincere. We also changed our behavior as a result of the controversy.

Are there any different tenets for crisis management today?

Don Spetner is EVP, corporate affairs at executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International.

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