Saturday, June 26, 2010

Mr. Feinberg Goes to Louisiana -- And Shows Us How Crisis Communication Should Be Done

Kenneth Feinberg got a new job last week.  He is administering the $20 billion fund that BP is setting up to compensate people affected by the oil gusher, now entering its third month of spewing millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.  You may remember Feinberg as the person in charge of a compensation fund for families of those killed in the 9-11 attacks as well.  Yesterday, he made his first trip to Louisiana for a series of town hall meetings to hear and answer questions from residents.

NPR ran a story yesterday with sound bites from one of these meetings, and it immediately became clear why Feinberg is an excellent choice for this job.  Not only has he done this kind of work before, but he seems to understand that the job is not just deciding who gets money and cuts checks.  It is also to acknowledge and try to assist with the level of stress that the people asking for compensation are under, because if he doesn't do that then the financial side of things will be infinitely more difficult.

The story had some masterful examples of Feinberg speaking to locals who were very upset.  One fisherman asked how Feinberg could presume to put a price on his life's work, which is now impossible due to the spill.  Your average bureaucratic answer would be something like, "We will be compensating you for any lost income."  But Feinberg actually acknowledged the question as it was asked:

I can't give you that decades of work and sweat that you put into your business. All I can do is sit with you and try and give you the one thing I can give you: compensation.
In other words, Feinberg was willing to utter the unimaginable.  He was asked whether he could do something, and he acknowledged that he can't.

People in charge, during a crisis, have to sound authoritative.  The last thing anyone wants to do is get up in front of a bunch of scared and angry people and sound like you haven't a clue what you're doing.  This only makes matters worse.  The two big mistakes that a lot of leaders make in this situation, however, are trying to be authoritative about something they actually don't know anything about, or only talking about the thing that they are knowledgeable about when people want to talk about something else.  There is an art, however, to acknowledging what you don't know while still sounding very competent about what you do know.  Feinberg seems to have this down.

Why is this important?  Because if you try to sound knowledgeable when you're not, you will eventually get caught and then no one will listen to you again, and if you try to ignore what people are saying so you can get to what you want to talk about, they won't be listening in the first place.  Even when you're not there to deal with emotions in a crisis, you have to be ready to work with them.  That makes the other so much easier.  But to give you an idea how simple this would be to mess up, consider what one woman told Feinberg about what she'd heard from authorities so far:

Please quit telling us that you're going to make us whole. There is nothing that can make these communities whole again.
In other words, please get it.  Please get us.  Do what you can do for us, and acknowledge what you can't.  I think Feinberg is up to the task.


Jim said...

I agree completely. This guy is something special. He makes incredibly hard judgments and tries to show compassion and respect when he does it. He gets an incredible amount of abuse from people who are angry, and it does not seem to faze him. Thanks for shining a light on him.

Ashleigh Burroughs said...

A "fixer" who understands the limits of his abilities.... he's almost inhuman!

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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