A conversation with William Toti, President of Cubic Global Defense
STRATEGIC SUMMIT: As a former U.S. Navy officer and now a C-Suite executive and industry leader, how did you acquire your strategic communication skills and capabilities?
BILL TOTI: About 10 years ago, I was leader of the U.S. Navy’s response team for dealing with the impact of anti-submarine warfare training on marine mammals. Although my role was largely operational—to determine the degree to which training was required and how to mitigate the impact on marine mammals — every time a whale or dolphin washed ashore I was the “go-to guy” for meeting with local communities, voicing a reasoned opinion as to the probability of our involvement with the event, and taking questions from the local community and the press. Needless to say, these gatherings were always uncomfortable, and my outreach always needed to be in “crisis mode.”
Years later, as an industry leader, I found myself as the key decision-maker for my company on the periphery of a tragic event covered in real time by all the global news outlets. I noticed very early in this crisis that information I was providing, essentially in the background, was being repeated in real time by CNN, then followed up with repeated retweets and near-real-time posts.
I have operated in a crisis communications mode both in the “old world” — where you had plenty of time to correct the message prior to it being reported via “News at 11” — and with the new reality of “instantaneous world broadcast” and social media where anything you uttered would be released almost as soon as the words left your lips.
STRATEGIC SUMMIT: How do you think that the communication roles of leaders — CEO, COO, Chief Communications Officer – have changed over the past several years?
BILL TOTI: In 1982, Johnson & Johnson learned that a series of deaths were tied to their Tylenol product. The response by CEO James Burke has been upheld as an exemplar for business leaders ever since. Case studies have been written about how J&J reacted to the intentional poisoning. Leaders are trained on the response, but few people think about how the company came to the widely hailed decision they eventually produced, which eventually cost the company over $100 million.
In 1982 there was no internet, email, 24-hour news, social media or methods of citizen broadcast of any kind. Although they had to work quickly for the sake of public safety, J&J had the luxury of being able to analyze courses of action essentially on their own timetable, trying to determine if these events were deliberate and criminal or a result of quality problems within their manufacturing process. In parallel, they were able to model the costs of various courses of action, conducting deliberate cost-benefit analysis. In the end, Burke made the right decision for the right reason — public safety.
But would a leader today have the luxury of this kind of reasoned analysis? The obvious answer is “no.”
Today, it’s likely social media forces would drive the CEO toward a decision very early in the life cycle of analysis, perhaps even before such analysis could be initiated. And although tools for making collaborative decisions are now commonplace, this sometimes causes the process of collaboration itself to grow out of control, to the extent that the zeal to be collaborative frequently eclipses common sense.
STRATEGIC SUMMIT: Your point about collaboration is interesting, especially because many people are suggesting that collaboration is reshaping the leadership landscape. Can you expand on that?
BILL TOTI: A decade ago, or even five years ago, before collaborative tools became so ubiquitous, business leaders under time pressures would simply commit to a course of action individually after having reviewed any existing data. Today, collaboration tools make it likely data will be shared and analyzed by a group of people, perhaps several groups, before a decision is made. While this approach is welcome and appropriate during the deliberate decision-making process, human nature is such that during a crisis, people will use the collaborative process to try to prove their value by raising what may be secondary or tertiary issues, and that dynamic can sometimes be unhelpful.
A well-known Harvard Business Review article contrasted the Tylenol case with one that’s a bit more recent: the reaction of British Petroleum during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. In the latter case, despite the speed of information and collaboration provided by modern tools, BP’s response time was actually no better, and probably much worse, given the change in public expectations that has evolved since 1982. And despite the substantial delay in response, the public’s reaction to BP’s message was significantly worse than the J&J case. So one can conclude that the additional tools BP had at their disposal to support their decisions did not make the outcome better, and may have contributed to it being worse.
STRATEGIC SUMMIT: In this environment, do you think it’s becoming increasingly difficult to protect a company’s reputation?
BILL TOTI: I don’t believe it’s harder to protect a company’s reputation. I do believe, however, the “grace period” for getting the message out has been reduced, and the penalty for messing the message up has gotten much worse. Just like modern tools can work against you, they can work for you too.
Back to the 1982 Tylenol case, J&J only had a few means available to get their word out. They could hold a press conference and hope the networks aired it without an “editorial spin.” They could issue a press release and similarly hope the newspapers published something resembling their message. Or, they could pay for a large advertisement in a few regional papers, and leave much of the rest of the country uncovered.
Today you can get the word out via a variety of unfiltered channels where you control both the content and the timing of the release. This actually gives today’s companies more means of honing their reputation. Of course, nothing can protect you from yourself if you get the actual message wrong.
STRATEGIC SUMMIT: How do you think that the advances in globalization and digital technology — and the resulting greater level of transparency — will impact corporate strategy in the future?
BILL TOTI: Technology effectively serves as an “amplifier.” This means that although technology allows faster response time, the penalty for getting it wrong is much higher, hence it’s more important to make sure you get it right before you release.
We’re seeing this effect in spades in current political campaigns. If the message is good, technology amplifies that good message. But if the message is bad, or not well received, technology can serve to make the message really, really bad. Technology also makes the timeline less forgiving. In the old days, if a message was released and the company began to see the emergence of an unanticipated reaction — a “we didn’t think of that” event — the company might have an opportunity to pull back, hone and rerelease before the damage got too bad.
Today that’s often not possible. Going back to the BP case, the company’s initial reaction was “it’s not our fault—we don’t operate the oil rig, somebody else does.” That response might have been factually correct, and might even have been earnestly believed by BP leaders, but the sad fact was 11 people had died, and BP had a long and recent history of safety violations, so they were operating from a standpoint of zero consumer sympathy. By the time they recognized the fact that their strategy was backfiring, with ever-increasing consumer ire, and begun to run their “we’ll make it right” ads, it was too late. The public reaction was cemented in cyberspace, and there was little BP could do to erase all those negative reactions from the blogosphere.
STRATEGIC SUMMIT: What does effective corporate communications strategy in this context look like?
BILL TOTI: Since this discussion has to do with crisis communications, I would say a successful crisis communications strategy produces a result of “de-escalation,” calming turbulent waters and neutralizing counter-arguments. Key elements are a clear vision of the desired outcome from the strategy; a laser-beam focus on achieving that outcome; and a successful “red-teaming” effort prior to release, to model and “war-game” potential public reactions. The approach must also include real-time analysis of the public’s reaction subsequent to release, so corrective actions can be taken for any off-cue or off-course elements of the strategy.
Business leaders must drive this process, but I also think business leaders have to be willing to listen to experienced crisis communications experts while doing so. I’m not suggesting those experts should always be obeyed; not at all. I’ve seen some profoundly bad advice given by so-called crisis management experts. However, it is helpful to gain a variety of opinions prior to making a decision on what to say. This does not have to take long.
STRATEGIC SUMMIT: What kind of background and experience do military and business leaders need in order to succeed in today’s increasingly transparent environment?
BILL TOTI: Military training can help, but only to the extent that senior operational military officers are sometimes put in positions of having to make decisions without perfect knowledge. Not all military officers are ever put into that position — it mostly happens in the operational force. But beyond that ability to make decisions with imperfect knowledge, which only exists within a fraction of the force, I think people put too much credence in military experience helping with crisis communications.
The most critical skill required of a senior business leader is the experience needed to understand enough detail to analyze courses of action themselves, without having to merely rely on the opinions of others and without becoming mired in that detail. The leader cannot suffer “paralysis of analysis.” Leaders must have the ability to lift themselves up above the noise, to understand true issues cogently. Leaders must then have an ability to communicate in ways that make complex issues simple, so the vast majority of people the message is intended for, most of whom will not understand the nuances of the issues, are still left with a sense of comfort that they do understand the most important factors at play.