Tucson: successful crisis management

When you read an editorial in The Washington Post penned by Senator John McCain and titled “Mr. Obama’s admirable speech,” it’s clear that the speech had to be truly memorable. Senator McCain was the Republican Party’s presidential nominee during the recent presidential elections.  Barack Obama’s opponent on the ballot. In his editorial, McCain writes about President Obama’s speech during the services in honor of the victims at the shootout in Tucson, Arizona, and among other comments, states that Barack Obama is “a patriot.”

The President’s objective was for his speech to unite the country after the tragedy in Tucson. It is a president’s duty to do so in times like these.  And the general consensus was that he accomplished it.

Mr. Obama criticized the atmosphere of political verbal hostility in Washington. He did this because immediately after the shooting, the tense political climate was blamed for the attack on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson.

Many leaders, including the President, reiterated the need to return to a political discourse where active and passionate dissent can coexist within a framework of civility.

I think that this climate of political attacks and counterattacks is by no means a monopoly of US politics.  This happens in each and every one of the countries I have covered as a reporter or lived in.  Aggressive dissent is inherent to politics.  And actually, the danger would be to not have this type of lively debate, because it would mean the absence of democracy.

Fortunately, even though we all remember painful exceptions, in the United States these differences are solved at the ballot box. Tucson was an exception. It isn’t even clear whether it was an attempt at a political assassination against a congresswoman because of ideological reasons or simply the work of a disturbed individual who fixated on her as he could have done on any other person for whatever reason.  All the experts agree that the alleged shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, has severe mental problems.  In fact, research by the US Secret Service state that the great majority of the so-called “political assassinations” in this country have nothing to do with politics. After many interviews with people who have attempted, with and without success, against the lives of political leaders, the studies conclude that the majority of the assailants are mentally ill and that this is the true reason behind the attacks. Not political dissent.

Speaking from a strictly communications point of view, it is clear to me that this crisis was managed masterfully by everyone.

The country was glued to television screens for days to find out every detail about the situation. The tragedy had a real impact on the nation.  Each and every one of the victims was an irreplaceable loss, but that of young Christina-Taylor Green especially touched the hearts of Americans. A nine year old girl born, paradoxically, on September 11, 2001.  The day of the attacks against the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon. A young girl interested in politics who wanted to see and listen to her congresswoman in person.

The President’s task to unite the nation with his speech was not an easy one due to the divisive political climate to which I referred earlier. However, not only did he do this well, he also managed the crisis masterfully.

The President reacted immediately to the news with a press release.  Later, he spoke on television to offer his condolences to the victims’ families and to wish a speedy recovery to the wounded. He also asked the FBI director to travel to Arizona to lead the investigation and offered all the federal government resources needed to handle the matter. His next step was to personally travel with the First Lady to Tucson to attend the commemoration for the victims. At every step we witnessed a President in touch and who reflected the country’s pain.

The Republican political opposition also reacted in a non-partisan way, focusing on what was important, the victims, and setting aside party-line disagreements. An example of this is Senator McCain’s editorial, which was interpreted as a first-rate example of elegance, class, responsibility and political leadership by the Republican senator.

Someone whose reaction to the tragedy did cause disagreement was former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.  The former governor of Alaska, in a video message posted on her Facebook page, used a term with historic anti-Semitic meaning which, undoubtedly, distracted her audience away from her intended message. Others also criticized her for talking too much about politics instead of the victims.  

In the past she has been accused of creating a political atmosphere that breeds confrontation in places such as Arizona. National political leaders, Democrats and Republicans alike, reiterated that the only person responsible for a tragedy of such magnitude was the person who pulled the trigger.

Many of Palin’s defenders say that she didn’t understand the context of the expression she used.  However, few people understand how none of her advisors expressed concern about it.  This has added fuel to the fire for people who accuse her of not having the necessary education to be president.

Nevertheless, the crisis was, in general, very well managed by everyone.

The President’s behavior was praised by even his most ferocious Republican critics. The Republican opposition was praised by the Democrats.  Politicians displayed a unity seldom seen in Washington.  They did not focus on themselves but on the tragedy and encouraged a somewhat more respectful political discourse.

Pro-gun activists, despite the tragedy, didn’t lose any ground. In fact, only a few days after the shooting, a gun show in Arizona was attended by thousands of people.  They insist that the weapons are not the problem and that any citizen is constitutionally entitled to have them. According to them, the problem is managing criminals and the mentally unstable so that they don’t have access to the weapons. Even though the subject was addressed during media coverage of the tragedy, the shooting didn’t really bring about a deep national debate about the use of weapons in the United States.  Without doubt, the pro-gun groups knew how to successfully deal with this situation. They stated their position, but respecting the victims’ suffering. They were able to prevent a popular upswell against them which could lead to federal legislation to significantly affect their interests.

Another group that successfully managed the situation was that of the doctors dealing with the tragedy. They were constantly available, gave frequent updates about the wounded, communicated effectively and in a clear manner about the medical procedures and demonstrated obvious empathy for the suffering of the families. They handled themselves with the utmost professionalism in a situation that was physically and mentally exhausting.  And in front of hundreds of journalists from all over the world.

This highlights that one of the most important things to do to successfully manage any crisis is to be prepared for it before it happens. The doctors and the hospital, without a doubt, did it.  Something like this can, unfortunately, happen at any time and the ability to communicate effectively cannot be improvised.

This is an example of how well a crisis has been managed, but there is a long list of crises that were extremely poorly managed on every level and which have very negatively impacted the reputation of not only those who were directly involved in it but also, for example, political leaders at the highest levels. If they study closely the reactions in and about Tucson, they will surely be better prepared for future crises, which, will undoubtedly have to face in the future.

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One Response to “Tucson: successful crisis management”

  1. Pavlo Says:

    No, of cousre it doesn’t–if one listens to and believes far right extremists. I, for one, do not. There may be no direct connection between the shootings in Tucson and the rhetoric of Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Sharon Angle, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, et. al., but I don’t see how any thinking person can deny that the kind of language they use sets a tone. That tone is combative, divisive and, worse, permissive to some who might otherwise choose to exercise restraint. Toss into the mix a mentally unbalanced young man who obviously listened (see Facebook rantings) and what do you get? The type of anti-government violence that occurred in Tucson. It may not be a DIRECT connection, but it’s almost certainly a connection.I am so pleased to see that Sarah Palin’s standing in the polls has dropped like a rock since she opened her mouth on the Tucson issue. Hmmm, maybe we should hope that she keeps on talking after all.

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