Can consultants to leaders, including chief communication officers engaging with CEOs, keep bosses from creating crises?

Sometimes, sure. Corporate communicators with earned respect for protecting the chief’s plans, programs and reputation can steer him or her away from decisions that won’t hold up under the backfire of stakeholders.

Talking truth to power and proving it with evidence is part of the CCO’s job.

Providing proof points—stakeholder perceptions, prevailing contexts including moods and emotions and especially timing—enables reception and influence.

You don’t hear much about crises averted, of course. Nor do you hear much about respected counselors whose insights are rebutted by other insiders, resulting in decisions and leadership communication that fail to drive followership and advocacy.

So it’s interesting to learn what happened behind the Oval Office curtain when trusted counselors talked truth and trotted out proof points for President Obama as he got ready for his public announcement on the health-care law mandate to provide contraceptives.

Bloomberg reported that Chief of Staff Bill Daley, with agreement from Vice President Biden, told the President that HHS’s mandate on contraceptives could be political trouble.

The protective counselors “warned that the mandate would be seen as a government intrusion on religious institutions” alienating even moderate Catholic voters in battleground states.

Bloomberg’s journalists said Obama ended “months of internal White House debate by siding with a group of mostly female advisers who urged him not to limit a health-care law mandate to provide contraceptives…”

You know the story.

After a blow-back of public, political and religious opinion, White House counselors (no longer including Daley, who had departed for other interests) understood that the decision communicated wasn’t sustainable. Crisis damage control was necessary. The President’s walk-back, his follow-up communication on an “accommodation” came soon.

Point for CCOs? Confirmation of what they know:

Communication pros who consistently plug into stakeholder perceptions, who are able to define contexts, content and tones that make or break communicated positions can and on occasion certainly need to persuasively “prebut” executive rebuttal in pre-critical time frames.

Story-telling is a good way to make a point. You may want to put in your file the story of POTUS and Daley.

E. Bruce Harrison
Adjunct Professor, Leadership Communication,
Georgetown University