Crisis Management 101: Taking Responsibility for Your Mistakes

When BP CEO Tony Hayward asked his fellow executives after the Gulf Coast oil spill "What the hell did [they] do to deserve this?" he immediately began to show that mea culpa was not part of the company's plan for moving forward. In May of 2010, however, things started to look up when he said, "The first thing to say is I'm sorry." Yet, he continued: "...There's no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back."

Hayward needed a crisis manager.

Noted crisis manager Lanny J. Davis always says: "Tell it all, tell it early, tell it yourself" (in fact he wrote a book with this phrase in the title). Few have mastered the art of crisis management as well as Davis and this is because he has practiced it with the highest stake players for years, one being the President of the United States.

What does Davis mean with this mantra? He explained the phrase in a 2010 Huffington Post blog post in relation to his years in spent as special counsel to President Clinton in the White House in the late 1990s:

"First, by 'telling it all,' we meant disclosing all facts -- especially the bad ones, i.e., the ones most likely to lead to embarrassing and even politically harmful media coverage.

Second, by 'telling it early,' we meant getting the stories written well before the Republicans could break the bad news with maximum negative impact at nationally televised hearings scheduled for the summer of 1997. Third, 'telling it ourselves,' meant as attorneys we had to learn to speak directly to reporters."

Now, with two years left in his own administration, and faced with a party change in the Senate, did President Obama take a page from the crisis management handbook as well?

It seemed that he did this past Sunday when the President, who has been reluctant to admit mistakes in his administration, said on CBS' Face the Nation that in terms of Democratic political failures, the "buck stops with him." He said, "So whenever, as the head of the party, it doesn't do well, I've got to take responsibility for it."

In taking responsibility for the failure of the party, the President is hoping to quiet media chatter about who is to blame. If he takes the fall, the conversation can then pivot on to looking for solutions instead of scapegoats. And President Obama has much less to lose than others -- while his legacy is still being formed, elections are now in his past.

Sandra Fathi, President of Affect Strategies, wrote an article in PR News on executive apologies. "Apologize," "even if it's not your fault," "take immediate action," "be sincere," "commit to an investigation" and "remedy the situation by taking further action" are all part of her list of key ingredients to successful apologies, she said.

President Obama took responsibility, even if it wasn't his fault. Immediate action, investigation and further action all amount to finding future leadership for the party and working on creating bipartisan solutions.

Taking responsibility is the most difficult part of managing a crisis. If a leader does not do it, he or she will likely fail. Hiding from responsibility is becoming increasingly more difficult in our world of social media. But once responsibility is accounted for -- a leader has bought him or herself ample time to lead again. And with this time comes renewed duty -- duty that a leader actually deserves.