… goes a long way.
“Change. Progress. More to do.”
My boss/mentor of 16 years — who taught me everything I know about strategic and crisis communications — drilled this three-part mantra into my head and heart.
Let me explain what “change, progress, more to do” means, and why the Trump administration — and I say in all humility — might wish to take note.
When bad things happen, which they always do in every successful company or organization, it’s natural for leaders to want to hit back at critics and bad press.
The communicator’s job is not to fuel the fighting impulse, tossing rhetorically incendiary logs on the fire and inflaming the crisis. Instead, it’s to help the leaders find and follow a path through and beyond the crisis so they can keep their primary focus on vision, mission, purpose, business and stakeholders. As the old quote goes, when going through hell, keep going.
The most effective way, confirmed by my experiences, is to accept reality with a healthy dose of humility. That is, make and announce tangible, meaningful changes. Pledge and update progress. Most of all, admit there is much more to do.
Humility doesn’t mean being craven or caving. It means accepting that to err is human and perfection impossible. Critics can’t always be 100 percent wrong on everything. Their charges often include at least a kernel of truth that needs resolving.
And forget the fantasy that you can win press battles. “Greener’s Law”–attributed to President Gerald Ford’s press aide William Greener (and my mentor’s father) — still holds. “Never argue with someone who buys ink by the barrel,” Greener said back in the old ink days.
The Greener Law may be even truer now in the Twitter Age when the latest jaw-dropping bombshell accusations always outpace and overwhelm the more complicated facts.
Take the Fannie Mae “scandals” — first, the $1 billion accounting error in 2004, and then, the 2008 mortgage meltdown that resulted in government takeover and control of the company. (Digression: the government control continues today, because while everyone’s in favor of reforming housing finance and has brilliant proposals, nobody agrees on what reform entails or wants to take responsibility for the damage from their policies that hurt housing. As a former Fannie exec once said, everyone wants to bash the piñata, but nobody wants to pick up the pieces.)
Through both Fannie crises, I was there on the front-line trenches, heading executive communications, helping the leadership and employees work through the hell and keep going. So you understand my bias that neither crisis was actually a scandal.
In the first crisis, executives were accused of “cooking the books and lining their pockets.” In reality they — in good faith and endorsed by their Big Five accounting firm/independent auditor — at worst might have misinterpreted and misapplied a new, three-inch thick, massively complex hedge accounting rule that didn’t really apply to the company’s financial model.
Nevertheless, the CEO was keelhauled and the company rocked by the reputation hit. Worse was the laborious, painstaking, multi-billion restatement of earnings with the former board rooms reconfigured into cube farms for countless accountants to review millions of mortgage transactions, page by page.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but the hedge accounting rule since has been revised after many other financial institutions worried about its complexity and inadvertently running afoul. Some now believe Fannie actually got the accounting right in the first place, tragically making the “scandal” a waste of time, money and lives.
In the second crisis, Fannie — as demanded by Congress and duty to serve the housing market — bought subprime loans from lenders. While taking on far fewer and much safer subprime loans than Wall Street firms gobbled up, as the market value of all mortgages plummeted, Fannie suffered losses too, although far less severe than Wall Street. The Bush administration seized Fannie and its competitor, Freddie Mac, to protect and fund the enterprises so they could keep the housing market running and prevent it from shutting down, which would have deepened the financial and foreclosure crisis. Once again, the CEO was defenestrated and the company rocked.
Today, Fannie has fully paid back taxpayers and is pumping billions back into government — while also keeping the housing market alive.
Those who’ve hated Fannie Mae since President Franklin Roosevelt established the enterprise in the 1930s to counteract the big national banks still blame the company and Freddie Mac for the housing crisis. Knowledgeable people know that’s incorrect. (Interestingly, while the government let headlines explode by bringing overwrought charges against executives, its case quietly collapsed and died.)
This is not to re-litigate the Fannie-Freddie issue, but to illustrate the point about humility:
During both crises, some Fannie execs wanted its communications and public affairs group to attack the media, politicians and regulators for wrongly smearing the company and losing shareholders — including union pensions — billions of dollars. The execs weren’t wrong. The hyped attack was unfair and damaging.
But attacking back probably would have heightened the crisis. Instead, we pursued the mantra, “change … progress … more to do.” It’s a variation on the old Irish prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change … the courage to change the things I can … and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Note the tone of humility: “God, grant me ….”
Then note the tone of President Trump’s Washington Post op-ed on his 100th day in office, a milestone he’s rejected as artificial, but nevertheless subsequently declared:
“One hundred days ago, I took the oath of office and made a pledge: We are not merely going to transfer political power from one party to another, but instead are going to transfer that power from Washington, D.C., and give it back to the people. In the past 100 days, I have kept that promise — and more.”
Reasonable people disagree.
This on May 3 from conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin:
“President Trump remains an angry, irrational figure, someone who still must stir up hatred — against the press, against immigrants, against Democrats — to enliven his base. Rhetorically, he is still the candidate of the resentful America First crowd, not the president of the entire country. His rambling, incoherent and factually deficient remarks in Harrisburg, Pa., remind us of the pathetic emptiness of the message — I’m with you because I hate the same people you do.”
Or this also on May 3 from conservative columnist Michael Gerson, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, and once named by Time magazine as among “the 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America,” on Trump’s 100th day speech:
“Trump used his bully pulpit quite literally, devoting about half his speech to the dehumanization of migrants and refugees as criminals, infiltrators and terrorists. Trump gained a kind of perverse energy from the rolling waves of hatred, culminating in the reading of racist song lyrics comparing his targets to vermin. It was a speech with all the logic, elevation and public purpose of a stink bomb.”
Perhaps the best response is from a Washington Post letter writer on May 3, who compared the Trump 100-day op-ed with Pope Francis’s TED talk in April:
“In the president’s op-ed, I noticed themes of shame, blame, failure, division and exclusion and a large amount of boasting and, perhaps, half-truths.
“The text of the Pope’s talk revealed themes of love, tenderness, equality, social inclusion, solidarity, hope, humility, unity, caring for others and timeless truth.
“I encourage everyone to find something written by a leader you admire and compare it with the text of the president’s 100-day op-ed. Ask yourself which vision of change is empowering and which is not. While Mr. Trump’s words may be empowering to some, my sense is they are not empowering to most.
“Pope Francis said, ‘Please, allow me to say it loud and clear: The more powerful you are, the more your actions will have an impact on people, the more responsible you are to act humbly. If you don’t, your power will ruin you, and you will ruin the other.’ Those are words all leaders, particularly our president, need to hear.”
It’s hard to maintain in our daily lives, however humble they are, especially when we feel unfairly challenged, confronted or accused. We get reactive, defensive, argumentative. We worry that humility shows weakness and capitulation, hands our challengers a club to beat us with and makes us losers.
This is in spite of what our faiths teach us, Facebook posts advise, and inspirational quotations remind us, like St. Augustine’s “Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay the first foundation of humility.”
Humility, we all know, is waning in today’s divisive political discourse. We express powerful opinions backed by selected facts but not so much knowledge. Then we rise up in high dudgeon, provoked by others with different powerful opinions also backed by selected facts and not so much knowledge.
Too few among us humbly admit: “You know what? Honestly, I have no freaking idea what I’m talking about. I’m no expert. I’ve never had to write a peer-reviewed paper or give a policy talk at a Heritage or Brookings conference in front of other experts who are just waiting to pounce and embarrass me if I get anything wrong. Frankly, I just pretty much parrot what I’ve heard on my favorite cable channel or saw on my Facebook feed. I don’t really know what I’m talking about.”
None of us wants to take the first step, call B.S. on ourselves, and admit we’re just gassing, bloviating, spit-balling. Even the most Jesus-inspired among us (now, that guy knew from humility!) find it hard to let go of our pride when politics come up.
But for the sake of the nation, and bringing us together, as President Trump asked in his inaugural speech and first address to the joint Congress, let me suggest that the Trump administration could — should — bring a helpful note of humility to the President’s communications.
It’s not hard. It’s just a tone tweak. And might go miles.
Example: When Trump says, “In the past 100 days, I have kept my promise — and more,” he could add, “But let me also say: We’re just getting started. We’re trying to make big changes. We’ve made some decent progress. But my friends, we have a lot more to do. And we need your help and support to keep going.”
While I didn’t vote for Trump, I deeply love our country and once served in uniform (full disclosure: I was just an enlisted Navy cook and supply clerk — a mash-up of the M*A*S*H* Radar O’Reilly and Catch 22’s Milo Minderbinder). I respect — even if respectfully disagreeing with — the nation’s choice for president, and wish the best for everyone.
So whether it’s part of Trump’s style or not, I’d suggest that he and his administration consider humility as a strategic approach to moving the nation forward together.
I offer this advice in all humility. But what the heck do I know?
Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer