When St HappensMistakes, accidents, and breaches of reputational integrity happen. And when they do, there is an urgent duty for an organization to respond. Lawyers and crisis communications advisors huddle to hash out what the Communicator in Chief  – usually the CEO – can and should say. While these occasions almost always call for #transparency and #graciousness, in the end, what comes out of the top executive’s mouth is up to him or her.

Recently, s^*t happened to Volkswagen and, while the CEO lost his job over the company’s widespread deception, the #transparency and #graciousness of his initial response might help save VW in the court of public opinion. The biggest obstacle facing VW now is regaining public trust, which will only happen if the company continues to communicate with the open and gracious language that the former CEO Dr. Winterkorn used as soon as the crisis began. [Read it here.]

Two other major public crises offer a study in contrasts for when s^*t happens (excerpted below from Jock Talk: 5 Communication Principles as Exemplified by Legends of the Sports World):

Johnson & Johnson CEO James E. Burke was widely praised for handling one of the worst corporate crises in one of the best and most proactive ways during the Tylenol poisoning episode in 1982. Seven people, including one child, died from cyanide-laced Tylenol pills in the Chicago area. From a crisis management point of view, Burke’s actions and words were exemplary. In response to the 1982 events, he ordered one of the first massive product recalls, pulling 31 million bottles (with a retail value of $100 million) of the nation’s best-selling pain reliever from shelves across the country and replacing them as soon as possible with what was at the time a brilliant innovation: tamper-resistant packaging, a quick-turnaround company initiative that Burke personally oversaw. The entire effort saved the Tylenol brand and reinforced J&J’s reputation and i ts long-term shareholder confidence.

From a communication standpoint, Burke was lauded for making himself available and accessible to the media during the crisis and for offering comments that were marked by compassion, genuine concern for the public’s safety, and open acknowledgment of the importance of the public’s trust. “People forget how we built up such a big and important franchise,” said Burke. “It was based on trust.”

In subsequent decades, Burke was showered with accolades for saving and rebuilding a brand and the corporation behind it and for his candor in the face of a crisis that threatened to take down both. In 2000 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton, and three years later Burke was recognized by Fortune magazine as one of history’s ten greatest CEOs. Yet despite all of the attention and acclaim accorded him, in 2003 Burke reflected on the crisis: “When crises occurred that we never could have foreseen, our customers stuck by us in ways we never could have imagined. A company credo that put customers first and shareholders last ultimately benefited both groups.” Burke’s comments contained subtle deflections of praise along with a sincere sharing of recognition with others. Graciousness and leadership. Period.

In stark contrast, let’s look at the public remarks of former BP CEO Tony Hayward following the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010. When the explosion and sinking of an oil rig caused dangerous and unprecedented amounts of oil to spill into the Gulf of Mexico, the company took many of the right communications measures, including apologizing and reassuring the public through ads and public statements. But then came the CEO’s career-defining gaffe: In the face of loss of lives and livelihoods, Hayward said, on camera, “There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do, I’d like my life back.” His lack of self-awareness and sensitivity concerning his audience met such broad criticism that Hayward resigned and was replaced a few short months after the incident.

In the face of difficulty, there is always room for a leader to step in and frame public discourse or sentiment. This is similar to what clergy do when they deliver a eulogy, offering the comfort and perspective their audience needs in that moment of loss. You, as a leader in an organization, will no doubt face moments when your audience is counting on you to tell them what they should do with their mixed, confusing, or sad feelings. And if the moment is big enough, what you say should be something that will help them move forward and that will endure.

Beth Levine