Leadership and the Three Phases of Crisis Narrative

Retro MicrophoneMy friend and marketing guru Carolyn Monaco always tells her author clients, including me, that every book you write is actually three books: the one you thought you are going to write, the one you actually write, and the one that you talk about after you’ve written it. These are often three distinct narratives that serve separate purposes.

That basic structure holds true in many other settings. As a leader, you must be aware of the narrative in which you are a player and of which you are co-author. In a recent post for the Cambridge Meta-Leadership Institute, I explain the three phases of narrative in high stakes situations:

– The anticipatory narrative: the event you expect to face and the response you intend to mount. It is largely out of the public view;

– The reactive narrative: this is the story of what actually happens, often shaped largely by the media or others not well-versed in your anticipatory narrative;

– The legacy narrative: how the event and response are judged and remembered in the official record and popular memory. This phase is also shaped by many people with divergent agendas.

In the post, I looked at the Boston Marathon bombings. Another interesting example has been playing itself out a world away in Bangladesh in the aftermath of the collapse of Rana Plaza in late April 2013. Rana Plaza was home to a number of garment factories, many manufacturing low cost items to be sold to Western consumers under well-known brand names.

We don’t fully know the anticipatory narrative of the garment companies: Were they working actively but quietly to improve worker safety? Or were they crossing their fingers and hoping for the best? Anna Gedda, an executive at fashion retailer H&M told the New York Times that they had been hard at work on this issue “for a long time.” H&M was apparently a not customer of the companies at Rana Plaza though were a major customer another factory in Bangladesh where a fire killed 21 workers in 2010. Executives perceived the risk: it could well have been them.

The reactive narrative showed horrific scenes of destruction. The Rana Plaza collapse was “one of the worst industrial disasters in history.” More than 1,500 died. The story played out over days as both survivors and victims were pulled from the rubble. The property owner was arrested as he attempted to flee the country. Union executives said that this was exactly what they had feared. Online petitions and other protests demanded action by the multinational customers of the factories.

Legacy narratives often take time to unfold. They are arise from oversight hearings, regulatory reviews, and lawsuits. In this case,  according to the New York Times,  H&M was involved in efforts to galvanize an industry -wide reform effort along with the unions and their major competitors. After all, in a highly price-sensitive market for one or two firms to give away cost advantage would be a move with significant strategic ramifications. Agreement, however, could not be reached.

Then, a week ago today, H&M decided to take the initiative. While saying they were not bowing to pressure from unions, regulators, or activists, H&M decided to go it alone and sign an agreement that would bind them not only to requiring higher standards of their contractors and sub-contractors but also to help pay for improvements. A number of other major retailers, mostly European, followed suit although Wal-Mart, Gap, J.C. Penney, Target, and others have not.

Was H&M dragged to the agreement? Were they shamed into action? Perhaps. Conflicting accounts will unfold in the months ahead. Do Wal-Mart and others have legitimate concerns keeping them from signing on to the binding agreement? They may. However, H&M is now a leader, not a follower in shaping the legacy narrative. The first move may well pay dividends among socially conscious consumers as well as with global regulatory bodies in the months and years ahead.

As a leader, you want to be aware of the unfolding narrative of events around you. Then you must work to be as intentional and proactive as you can in making your voice heard.

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