Changing the Conversation

Even before Mad Men ad guru Don Draper famously said, “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation,” corporate communicators have understood that in times of crisis, moving the conversation from the problems of the past to the potential of the future is an important first step.
And nothing signals promise and potential more effectively than new leadership.
For example, when United Airlines found itself embroiled in the after-effects of Bridgegate in New Jersey, CEO Jeff Smisek was quickly ushered out the door.  So too with Volkswagen’s Martin Winterkorn: as news was still breaking about the company’s manipulation of emissions tests, he was gone.
These weren’t just news stories that dominated headlines for a day.  These events aroused the ire of customers, regulators and investors. They were critical crises in leadership. And in each case, the companies involved knew that changing that leadership – which in turn changes the conversation – is the smartest way to inoculate yourself from the transgressions of the past.
Nowhere was this principle made clearer than earlier this week, when Washington Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo summarily fired the team’s manager Matt Williams – National League 2014 Manager of the Year – and his entire coaching staff.
Announced just hours after the MLB season ended, the move punctuated a tumultuous season that began in April with World Series hopes and collapsed in September with the team’s best player quite literally strangled by his own teammate. Especially after the latter debacle, Nats fans weren’t surprised by Williams’ dismissal. But many were slack-jawed at the bloodbath that accompanied it.
“Let’s not dwell on past performance,” the Nationals seemed to be saying. “We’re making a squeaky clean break with the past, and it’s all going to be better next year!”
In each of these stories of crisis, the dismissals signaled that a line had been drawn, and that leadership failures would no longer be tolerated.
Such drastic leadership changes are often met with cries of “Scapegoat!” with a general belief that the dearly departed were not the only ones to blame.  Indeed, some firings inspire a backlash of sympathy.  (To wit: Matt Williams is sure to hear friends and supporters remind him that he wasn’t the one who failed to catch the ball or steal that crucial base.)
A distraction from the elephant in the room?  Perhaps.  But the principle remains the same:  You emerge strongest when you make bold moves to assure your key audiences – fans, donors, stockholders, or others – that your organization is serious about seeking absolution, and committed to making a fresh start.
After all, shifting the focus to tomorrow’s leadership opportunities is firmer ground than keeping the conversation on the problems of the past.  And that’s a maxim that Don Draper would agree applies today more than ever.

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