monday morning manager

Why it's better to reveal than conceal during a crisis

Special to The Globe and Mail

Lieutenant-General David Morrison, chief of the Australian Army, took to YouTube to deliver a blunt message to his troops.

It’s a short demonstration of leadership communication – only three minutes and seven seconds in all. But in a world where leaders caught in a crisis tend to obfuscate, the talk by Lieutenant-General David Morrison, chief of the Australian Army, is a remarkable antidote, a stirring message to his troops that has gone viral courtesy of YouTube.

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Dressed in military fatigues, standing close to the camera and speaking deliberately, he addresses alleged unacceptable behaviour by some of his soldiers – distributing demeaning material about women on the Internet – with what seems barely controlled anger. There is no doubt of his intention to stamp out such activities.

Often, leaders hold back in such situations because the behaviour is subject to legal or other proceedings, with guilt not firmly established. Lt.-Gen. Morrison simply uses that as a springboard to hammer home his point, saying that if the conduct is proven, it has brought the armed forces into disrepute. He doesn’t get hung up on specific sections of the military code of behaviour, instead declaring what happened “a direct contravention to every value the Australian armed forces stands for” and adding there is “no place in this army” for those kinds of people.

He says he’ll be “ruthless” in stamping out such behaviour, but says it is not up to him alone. “Every one of us is responsible for the culture and reputation of our army and the environment we work in,” he says, and if someone violates those values, it’s up to military members to take a stand. “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.”

Often, when leaders speak in a crisis, they seem as if they don’t have anything they really want to say. Alan Bonner, a Toronto-based consultant who has written several books about crisis communications, believes the critical question leaders must ask is: “Am I going out there to reveal or conceal? The vast majority of times I see people who don’t want to say anything. If you go on television and raise a topic, my point is you should want to say something.”

Too often, with court proceedings looming, lawyers counsel caution. Mr. Bonner counters: “But there’s still tomorrow’s newspaper.” He quotes a favourite libel lawyer: “A legal victory can be a PR disaster.” So pay attention to the public concerns your company faces today, and clear them up immediately to avoid a public relations fiasco.

Jamie Graham is chief constable of the Victoria Police Department and has faced sensitive situations. He says “the best thing you can do is address the troops and tell the truth. If you can’t [at that time], say when.” He said his wife has advised him, in tough situations, to throw away his notes and speak from the heart.

He figures the Morrison statement was essentially written by Lt.-Gen. Morrison himself: “That’s not the kind of thing your staff would write. It was too blunt.”

The discipline process in the military and policing is slow, and in many government agencies rules and regulations can hinder a leader. But if the facts are overwhelming, a leader must act, since moral fibre is at the core of your organization. Chief Constable Graham reminds his lawyers that they serve him, and it is up to him to decide what to do. “Stand up and say what’s right. All the employees who live by the code of ethics will applaud you,” he advises.

Australian culture is generally forthright, with people calling a spade a spade, but Australian marketing consultant Siimon Reynolds said that corporate leaders there often communicate in a wishy-washy fashion. The Morrison statement stands out for the clarity of its content and forcefulness of delivery, both vital in communications.

“We see a lot of CEOs and military leaders making dull statements, ticking the boxes of officialdom. Here we saw a passionate delivery of a message by a human. This was a man talking cogently and personally about an issue that riled,” Mr. Reynolds said.

He noted that, as a military leader, Lt.-Gen. Morrison knows the value of force. “He has decided to use maximum force in this human situation.”

The Chief of Army was also willing to perform. Although Mr. Bonner is uncertain whether a teleprompter was used, he said it’s clear the statement was well-rehearsed. The sentences, although long, are carefully broken into short bits, a trick that former U.S. president John Kennedy excelled at. The army chieftain knew his lines, and delivered them well. “He had to show the emotional commitment he had to the topic,” Mr. Bonner said. “He had to act out – I say that in the nicest way – his outrage.”

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter