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Helio Fred Garcia: An Insiders Look At Crisis


By: David Gyampo


Helio Fred Garcia is a global crisis expert who advises some of the largest organizations throughout the world. An award-winning faculty member at New York University and Columbia University, he has authored a wide range of books and articles on the topics of crisis, reputation, communications, among other topics. Here in this interview with NYU graduate student David Gyampo he shares his thoughts.



What are the trends you are seeing in leadership of organizations and the field of crisis response in general as a result of what we’ve been living through?


· Convergence of crises have caused leaders to be more acutely aware of the need for risk mitigation and the need to be capable of responding effectively and early in a crisis.

· Greater understanding that failure to act quickly intensifies risk and increases the likelihood of bad outcomes.

· However, in the moment of crisis, leaders WILL forget this. The neocortex (front part of the brain), which is normally activated in critical thinking, is hijacked by the amygdala (back of the brain), which is the fight, flight, freeze trigger.

· Fred’s company takes leadership teams through crisis simulations/inducing all sorts of stress because during COVID, many mishandled crises and realized that most mistakes made were self-inflicted.

· Summary: The increased self-awareness among leadership teams that they handled a crisis wrong and want to ensure that it does not go wrong again.

· We can see different companies, nations, geographies within a nation respond differently to a multi-pronged crisis like COVID and immediately see the different outcomes.

· Case Study: Fred’s next book is on failed COVID response by the U.S. and is comparing it to South Korea’s effective response.

i. South Korea only responded effectively because five years earlier they mishandled a public health emergency that almost brought down the government.

ii. They were traumatized by M.E.R.S so about 3 months after the crisis, the government and their industry and trade ministry, health sector, business community came together and held a multi-day conference on best practices in crisis management – invited four global experts to teach their government, business and health sectors to deal with crises.

iii. Included Fred Garcia (teaching CDC’s protocols, their handling of Ebola, the failed response to Katrina, and the U.S’ plans for handling the next crisis), a mass casualty and fatality expert, a civil society mobilization expert, and a social media crisis communication expert.

iv. Their leadership taking these lessons seriously helped them do everything right immediately. Kept the death rate almost at zero for the entirety of the rest of COVID’s first year. COVID deaths per capita in South Korea in that timeframe was 1/40,000. In the U.S. it was 1/800.

v. These two cases show the difference between organizations that take risk and crisis seriously vs. organizations that fail to take risk and crisis seriously.

· Plato’s Republic: If you want to study something difficult, look at the biggest example of it you can find because you can see the pattern more easily. Once you learn the pattern, “it remains in heaven for all to find when they need it.”

· There is a pattern to managing risk and crises well. There is a pattern in risk mitigation. There is a pattern that says the longer it takes to take risk seriously, the more harm you will suffer.

· The U.S. could have prevented ¾ of a million people dying by May of this year if they had worn masks early, had competent people in charge of COVID protocol, and leadership demonstrated better examples of preventative measures.

· Initially, we didn’t model public health practices and the following year, the political decision was made to delegitimize vaccinations. The result is we have the lowest vaccination rate of any industrialized country and the highest fatality rate of any country. All of this could have been prevented.

· Leaders see these patterns. Whatever the leader’s political orientation, they begin to notice the pattern. You don’t take risks seriously, they explode. You take risks seriously, however painful it may be in the short term, you survive.

· Name the crisis, it never gets better with time. It only gets worse with time.

· Part 3: When people ask me what I do for a living and I tell them, they say it must be very difficult. I say no it’s not because every single thing that I and my team do is common sense. But then I say, thank goodness common sense is in such short supply. It’s what allowed me to put two kids through college and live in a nice house.”

· “When I explain these concepts to my clients, they say, “but it’s so simple.” I say it is indeed simple, but your following the instructions that are simple is very difficult because you don’t want to follow the instructions.”

· Marshall Goldsmith: “The challenge is not to understand the practice of crisis management, rather the challenge is to practice our understanding of crisis management.”



2. In addition to the pandemic we’ve had large scale racial political, economic and societal issues. How are organizations and leaders addressing en masse crises especially in light of this confluence?


· Case Study: Fred’s company is working with three separate clients who are dealing with the legacy of slavery in the U.S. One of them acquired a brand that was named for a prominent white supremacist leader who owned a number of slaves and was notorious for the way he treated them. They are working on a risk assessment of changing the name of that product.

· The people who have been with that brand for a while kept saying no because it is a really popular product. Then Fred made the case that as this divisive, political environment continues to grow, this brand will increasingly be under attack and they don’t need that to be a distraction – so they should just change the name.

· Fred had to demonstrate this by putting together a 7-to-8-page history of the U.S., a history of the named slaveowner, a history of white supremacy in the U.S. and how it has been resurgent in the last seven years and its validation by political leaders. He also talked about the countermovement and its acceleration after George Floyd’s murder and is now appropriately calling out companies and organizations that have emblems of racism (e.g. Washington Football Team, Confederate battle flag on Mississippi state flag, products like Uncle Ben).

· Fred’s company is actively involved in helping leaders figure out how to navigate when they want to do the right thing in an environment where what they choose to do will alienate a meaningful portion of their population.

· Many clients came to the firm because they had mishandled the BLM momentum. For example:

i. Non-profit company sent a letter to their network of a quarter million people.

ii. Got huge backlash from ALL stakeholders. White supremacists felt they were being thrown under the bus and BLM supporters felt they were not being supported enough.

iii. CEO believed she had alienated all her stakeholders, but Fred stated that she was going to have to choose which group she wanted to get back.

· One year after George Floyd, we are seeing intensified white supremacy, intensified countermovement, and companies having to deal with the legacies of slavery that are unacknowledged.

· It is a bad sign about the health of our nation when certain states are banning certain teachings and banning books which address topics of marginalization and educate on the experience of minorities.

· Case study: Fred’s book on Trump and incendiary language – describing how Trump and certain leaders dehumanized groups and put them at risk

i. How Trump targeted Muslims, Latin Americans, and during COVID, calling it the China virus. These are all from a playbook.

ii. His prediction of the events that happen as a result of this behavior were similar to what happened on January 6. Dozens of readers called to say that he predicted the attack.

iii. As with the world of crisis, these patterns are easily observed. Patterns have two kinds of power. They have explanatory power (they can help us understand what happened before) and they have predictive power (they can help us anticipate what is going to happen next). If we can recognize the pattern early, we can intervene.

iv. For public discourse, which is the form of intervention highlighted in this book, it is to call out the language and behavior of the leader that is likely to provoke acts of violence and declare that we are not going to allow the leader to get away with it. That we are going to hold the leader accountable.

v. Three and a half years ago, publishers claimed that he was exaggerating. However, it happened in Germany in the 1930s, Rwanda in the 1990s, and the U.S. right now. Although he did not state it word for word, he outlined the predictable pattern: there would be a Trump-motivated and inspired act of terrorism against a symbolic target and people will be killed and it will be televised, and we will see it playing out.



3. You have spent almost all your life as a crisis expert. Is it draining always dealing with negative events? How have you been able to maintain an attitude that allowed you to be so involved in meaningful philanthropic activities?


· “You could ask the same question of an emergency room doctor or a combat medic in the military or a hospice chaplain. My response: there is a big difference between being the person in crisis and being the one attending to the person in crisis.”

· “We who attend to the people in crisis are not subject to the same amygdala hijack that the people in crisis are. But when I am in crisis, I am really bad at it and I need to call on other people who are good at it to keep me from making human mistakes because any human in crisis is going to be suboptimal.”

· “We can condition ourselves to be better than other people might be at it (crisis management), but we are still suffering. And we need someone who isn’t suffering to guide us to get out of suffering.”

· A priest who has a parishioner going through a life trauma – the job of the priest is not to be in that trauma, but to empathize with the person in trauma and to help the person resolve his/her/their trauma that will lead them to a better, healthy outcome.

· Clients describe crisis management experts as having ice water in their veins – nothing rattles them. Fred’s response: until the crisis is us, then our veins turn really hot.

· Second point: Because he has been doing this for a long time. Fred has worked with thousands of clients and tens of thousands of leaders over 40 years. Plus, teaching, writing and travelling the world speaking about it. He has a different sense than people in crisis on how to get out of it.

· In an emergency room, a bloodied patient gets pounded on the chest with tubes placed all through them, you ask, “how is that person going to survive?” They often do survive because those attending to them know what they are doing and know that if they do the right things at the right time, the likelihood of success is high.

· When working with an organization, the crisis expert knows that the likelihood that their client will get out of the crisis well is higher than they think at that moment. They give them confidence that there is a way forward and if they follow the rigor it takes to get out of it, they will do fine.

· Philanthropy: This is how he recharges. Deploying his gifts in the service of something he really cares about. In Fred’s case, this is multi-religious cooperation, protecting marginalized communities from dominant communities that want to hurt them, and supporting the causes that the people he cares about, care about.

i. Example: Fred’s firm’s chief of staff is a dancer and is committed to at risk children. She is the board chair of an organization in NY that brings art, song and dance into schools in at-risk neighborhoods.

ii. She is sitting with the executive director developing a plan to help staff to recover from their trauma of having to be with children in trauma throughout the pandemic and how they can become healthy again.

iii. Even though Fred is not passionate about this cause, him caring about the chief of staff means that if she needs half the day to work on that project, she can have it, because that is how she recharges - Fred would need her to be fully on her game when a crisis comes and that’s one way to do it.



4. In your 40+ years in the industry, what is the one experience you went through which taught you a significant lesson about life? What was that lesson?


· “I have been very fortunate, because I had bosses that took great risks to help me advance and I have, through their guidance (including Jim Lukaszewski, Fred’s mentor), been able to operate as a high functioning advisor and teacher.”

· “Because of this I believed I was invulnerable. You begin to believe your own PR.”

· 27 years ago, Fred and his wife had their second child and with two children, they were exhausted all the time.

· At the time, Fred was doing M&A PR as group head of a company that did high stakes crisis PR but in finance. They did defense against hostile takeovers, bankruptcies, controversial offerings of bonds into the bond market, etc.

· “While exhausted on paternity leave, I get a call from my boss and he says, ‘very important deal we are in. I need you to fly to Pittsburgh right now and coach a CEO because they are going to announce the CEO is buying a very well known company. You need to fly with that executive from Pittsburgh to New York, we will be at the Waldorf Astoria hotel, it will be the biggest deal of the year and everyone will cover it.’”

· This executive’s company was about to buy CBS – the company was Westinghouse. While Fred was training this executive, Disney bought ABC. These deals all happened in the same week.

· The two deal teams continued negotiating through the night and the next day they thought they had a deal. Big hall at Waldorf Astoria was booked and they thought the press conference would happen at noon. At 3 am, deal talks broke down, so it was postponed for 24 hours. Fred went five days with only 2 hours of sleep, yet he believed he was invulnerable.

· When the deal was closed, Westinghouse suggested that their CEO begin the press conference since they were buying CBS. CBS however said no – they were the marquee name, the asset, so their Chairman should run the conference.

· The PR firm advising CBS is the PR firm Fred worked with before – Burson-Marsteller – and the guy running the deal team at Burson was Fred’s old boss. He suggested Fred moderate the press conference and Fred told him he was in no condition to moderate the press conference. But his former boss told him he would be fine, and Fred believed it.

· “Hubris comes before the fall and I exhibited that hubris.”

· Fred walked out on stage with about 500 people there, 30 television cameras, broadcasting live on CNN and BBC – everywhere. Fred introduced himself and said, “Here is how it’s going to work. First, the CEO of Westinghouse, Mr. Jordan, will make some remarks. And then Tisch will make some remarks.” He forgot to say Mister.

· This “Tisch” in question, was Laurence Tisch, Chairman of CBS and Chair of Board of Trustees of NYU. Fred was an NYU professor who had just insulted the Chair of NYU’s Board of Trustees.

· The next day, there was a giant story in NYT about how Westinghouse had disrespected CBS because their mouthpiece refused to even have the courtesy of addressing him as “Mister.”

· Fred was nearly fired. He couldn’t go anywhere near the CBS people, CBS was angry at Burson-Marstellar that they recommended him, the Burson boss was furious at him that he embarrassed him and Mr. Tisch.

· Had to send an apology note to Mr. Tisch and let him know that he was a faculty member at NYU and that he would never do anything to insult him. That he had gone days without sleep and wasn’t his full self.

· “That taught me, it doesn’t matter how good you are. You are just as susceptible to the frailties of humanity, and you shouldn’t take that for granted. When I am suboptimal, it doesn’t matter how well I know I could do, it doesn’t mean that’s how well I would do.”

· Humility helps. Listen to the signs that you are about to get over your head. “What I should have done was take a nap.”

· Advises clients that if you are going to do something high stakes, take a nap.



5. Could you give us a hint of what you will be sharing at the GBC about how we can best adapt to our world that’s in a continuous crisis at a global scale?


· Sharing the panel with Dr. Dong, his boss in China when he taught there 11 years ago. Fred is a faculty at Dr. Dong’s university.

· He translated Fred’s book, The Agony of Decision, into Chinese. No.1 PR person in the China Public Relations Association and is the advisor to the state council of ministries and is chief communicator for the ongoing Olympics.

· Fred will talk about the lessons from the pandemic that apply beyond the pandemic. He will briefly talk about the things that the pandemic teaches us – that taking risks seriously matters and that patterns are both explanatory and predictive.

· What we have in COVID is a laboratory experiment with control groups where we can see when they follow the instructions of the public health officials, this is the outcome. When they follow the instructions and relax, this is the outcome. When they refuse to follow instructions, this is the outcome.

· It is rare that we have a crisis that is simultaneous, affecting every jurisdiction. But we have an opportunity to learn how different jurisdictions took risks more or less seriously and we can map the outcomes, and then use that as instructive for non-public health crises.

· “My guess is Dong would cover the China experience, while I can talk about what is essentially my next book. Looking at China, Korea, Germany; let’s look at Florida vs New York vs California and see how different approaches led to different outcomes.”