By Nora Jacobs, Hennes Communications
As is now clear to the entire country, Senator Ted Cruz apparently skipped class the day they taught Crisis Management 101. As his constituents and fellow Texans faced a winter storm that may be the costliest in the state’s history, boiling snow for drinking water and burning furniture to heat their homes, Senator Cruz decided that his family needed a break from the FREEZING temperatures and agreed with his wife to take a brief vacation to Cancun, Mexico.
If he had attended that class in crisis management, he might have heard the story of BP chief executive Tony Hayward, who served as the lead representative when the company’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and burned in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and creating the largest marine oil spill in history. Hayward famously told the media in the midst of leading the company’s response to the disaster that “I’d like my life back.”
Consider too, George W. Bush’s response to another Gulf Coast disaster, Hurricane Katrina, which displaced hundreds of thousands of residents from Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, killed more than 1,000 and caused an estimated $100 billion in damage. At the time Katrina hit, President Bush was vacationing at his ranch in Texas. Several days after the storm subsided, Bush concurred with his team to return to Washington to address the damage. It was an unfortunate decision made by someone on board Air Force One to fly over the devastation on the way to Washington and allow media flying with the president to photograph him peering down on the ruins below. Widespread distribution of the photo conveyed an image of detachment in the time of disaster. It was a mistake Bush himself reportedly long regretted.
Both of these examples well illustrate two of the key mistakes the unschooled make in responding to crisis events: failure to display empathy and appreciate the importance of appearances, and failure to lead by example – mistakes Senator Cruz also appears to have made. And, although many in Texas have pointed out that Senator Cruz is not the state’s chief executive, it perhaps would have been wise to veto the family vacation and instead volunteer immediately for front-line bottled water distribution, which he did days later after returning from Mexico.
What other failings can we glean from this incident? Failure to accept responsibility would be one. As the story of the Cruz vacation unfolded, the Senator first blamed his two daughters for the debacle, claiming they were off from school that week and needed an escort to their vacation site. He was just trying “to be a good dad,” he said. Failure to tell the truth is a huge lesson here as well. The Senator’s initial explanation that he had only planned to escort his daughters and immediately return to Texas on Thursday quickly fell apart when a return ticket dated for Saturday came to light. The Senator thus had to account for both bad judgement and dishonesty – two character flaws that hamstring good crisis management.
In addition, Senator Cruz either failed to surround himself with good advisors or failed to take their advice. Someone on his team should have known once the firestorm erupted on social media that it was time to come clean. Certainly, they should have known the concocted timeline would never hold up to the light of day. The question is, did they provide that good advice, or was it ignored?
Finally, in this case study we see one more crisis management error: failure to make your case and then be quiet. After enduring an avalanche of negative media coverage and social media outrage, Senator Cruz finally admitted that the decision to go to Mexico in the midst of disaster had been a mistake. That would have been a good place to stop talking and move on to repairing his reputation. Instead, the Senator could not resist blaming the media and leaked social media posts for his troubles, thus spurring another round of headlines, more time in the social media spotlight, and even a pinata in his likeness.
Senator Cruz may well survive this epic example of crisis-mismanagement. Time will tell. But whatever the outcome, this saga will provide a stellar example for crisis management instructors to point to when they are conducting those Crisis 101 classes the Senator failed to attend.