Crisis Lessons from Black Rock (Part 1)

How CBS Got into This Mess

9/14/18 – – There’s a lot to learn from the recent off-screen drama at CBS. Ugly revelations regarding the company’s culture have toppled Chairman Leslie Moonves, news host Charlie Rose and 60 Minutes Executive Producer Jeff Fager. How could the “Tiffany Network” get into such a reputational mess?

It’s been my experience that the majority of corporate crises arise from one or more of nine sources: people, products, priorities, policies, performance, politics, procrastination, privacy and past. It appears that issues in several of these areas contributed to the storm clouds over Black Rock.

PEOPLE — Your employees are probably your company’s greatest asset. But that doesn’t excuse looking the other way when senior managers perceived to be super stars do really bad things. It’s becoming clear that the unacceptable behavior of Moonves, Rose and Fager — unquestionably talented people — was widely known and tolerated at CBS.

The network is discovering the collateral damage done to an organization when high-performing predators are allowed to run free. As I cite in Chapter 3 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient – Measuring Your Readiness to Weather a Reputational Storm (“Where Crises Come From”), a 2016 report by the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission found that, “Workplace harassment affects all workers, and its true cost includes decreased productivity, increased turnover, and reputational harm.” Who knows how many smart, creative people — especially women — left CBS because of the toxic environment created by these three powerful men and others? How much more successful would the network have been during the tenure of these fallen executives had the culture been safer and more supportive? 

Warning signs should go up in your company if you hear rationalizations that go something like these: “Yes, he’s a horse’s ass, but he’s our best salesperson by far.” “Okay, she bends the rules, but her department’s results speak for themselves.” “He steps all over people, but that’s because he wants to get things done.”

PROCRASTINATION — The allegations against Moonves, Rose and Fager go back many years. For how long had the HR department and directors of the company known of or suspected destructive behavior? Did anybody try to tackle these issues? How were whistleblowers and/or victims treated when they did come forward?

The vast majority of crises simmer before they boil. Allowing a known problem to fester, a small issue to grow larger, or an important need to go unaddressed is often the prelude to crisis. In good times, it’s human nature to avoid conflict and put off change. Unfortunately, inaction turns a firecracker into an H-bomb.

PRIVACY – – It’s hard to find a contemporary crisis that doesn’t involve the indiscriminate use of social media or other forms of digital communication. Jeff Fager, while the subject of an internal investigation, sent an intimidating text message to Jericka Duncan, the CBS News correspondent assigned to cover the charges against him, warning, “Be Careful. There are people who lost their jobs trying to harm me and if you pass on these damaging claims without your reporting to back them up that will become a serious problem.” Ms. Duncan went public with Fager’s threat, sharing the content of his text message on the evening news. He was fired the same day.

It was a lot easier to stay out of trouble (and hide your arrogance) before smart phones, email and social media. I like to share the wisdom of the late columnist Charles Krauthammer, who described tweets as, “A direct conduit from the unfiltered id. They erase whatever membrane normally exists between one’s internal disturbances and their external manifestations.”

So, to prevent crisis, maintain an ethical work environment in which all employees — including super stars — treat people at all levels of the company with respect; have the courage to address personnel issues immediately; and remind employees on a regular basis to respect the power and pitfalls of digital communication.

In my next blog I we will examine the lessons we can learn from the statement CBS issued on September 9, 2018, announcing the departure of its Chairman Les Moonves.

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