The Ghost of Christmas Past’s Intervention is a Master Class in Crisis Prevention

Don’t Wait to be Haunted to Address Your Past and Shape Your Own Narrative   

12/28/22 – – In Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” Ebenezer Scrooge becomes agitated by the unalterable episodes in his life revealed by the Ghost of Christmas Past. “Show me no more! Why do you delight to torture me?” Responding to Scrooge’s frustration, the Ghost says, “I told you these were shadows of the things that have been. That they are what they are, do not blame me!”

The bad things in a company’s, institution’s or individual’s past “are what they are.” And as we’ve been learning throughout 2022, it’s hard to make them go away when they come back to haunt us.

As discussed in “The Crisis Preparedness Quotient,” the majority of reputational crises spring from one or more of nine common sources: People, Products, Priorities, Policies, Performance, Politics, Procrastination, Privacy and  . . . Past. When I review these with corporate audiences, “Past” is the most feared threat. “We can’t change the past, so why should we be blamed for it?” “We shouldn’t be responsible for something that happened years, maybe decades ago.” “People grow and change. It’s not fair to judge someone by one event or period in their lives.”

Fair or not, your past is fertile ground for reputational erosion. The best way to deal with this reality is with honesty and transparency. Organizations and individuals can control their own destinies as much as possible by encouraging an open examination of their histories, warts and all. Stage your own intervention. Better you lead the discussion than allow others to dig up the dirt and define you.

Earlier this year, Harvard made a concerted effort to address an ugly aspect of its history, releasing a report by the university’s Committee on Harvard & The Legacy of Slavery. The findings and recommendations, along with a commitment of $100 million, were the result of the first phase of an initiative “to uncover the truth of Harvard’s ties to slavery.” The faculty-led committee has broadened its scope to develop “the process of reckoning and repair.”

Harvard deserves credit for this sincere effort. But there are other nightmares keeping Harvard’s administration up at night. Alumni, students and media have expressed increasing outrage over a fellowship and professorship established in 1974 by a generous gift from the Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach Foundation. Here’s how The New York Times describes Alfried Krupp:

Alfried Krupp was an industrial baron and was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Nuremberg. His company had a slave-built factory in Auschwitz and put to work approximately 100,000 forced laborers, including prisoners of war, concentration camp inmates and children.

Far from embracing transparency, the university has ignored Krupp’s Nazi background in the information posted online about the Krupp Fellowship and Professorship. Harvard is not alone in dealing with this issue. There is a Krupp internship program at Stanford. And Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun (who played a central role after WWII in America’s space program) is honored with named programs and buildings on the Huntsville campus of the University of Alabama.

It will be instructive to see how these and other institutions respond to the mounting pressure to eliminate all recognition and honor for people with imperfect (to say the least) pasts. Having waited for others to force their hand, it’s going to be a lot harder to make these “shadows of the things that have been” be accepted in context.  

Trinity College Dublin has been forced to address an unfortunate institutional legacy that goes back more than 130 years. In 1890, 13 human skulls were stolen from a graveyard on the island of Inishbofin off Ireland’s west coast. They were given to Trinity’s anatomy department for research, where they’ve been ever since. The Guardian recently reported on efforts to right this wrong:

“They’re our ancestors, they should be allowed to rest in peace. They deserve respect,” said Marie Coyne, a local historian who has campaigned for the skulls’ return. “The skulls were stolen, and there is an accomplice that’s keeping them stolen,” said Coyne. “I don’t see Trinity coming out of this well if they don’t give them back.” She has collected signatures from almost all of the island’s 170 inhabitants demanding the skulls’ return.

Seems like an easy call, but Trinity Provost Linda Doyle has made it clear that the school is in no hurry, stating that the university has initiated a “learning process driven by evidence-based submissions,” the goal of which is to “shed light, not heat, on these complex legacy issues.”

It’s understandable that university officials, corporate leaders and individuals don’t relish an examination of their histories. But honestly embracing your past, even if it’s imperfect, can yield positive results.

An article in the August 16, 2017, New York Times headlined, “Rescuing a Whiskey Legacy,” revealed that back in the 1850s, a Tennessee slave named Nearest Green taught white teenager Jack Daniel how to make whiskey. After the Civil War, Nearest went into business with Jack as the first master distiller of Jack Daniel’s. Recognition of this fascinating history may have been long overdue, but credit Brown-Forman, marketers of Jack Daniel’s, with seeing Green’s pivotal contribution to what has become an iconic American brand as something to celebrate. As Times reporter Clay Risen observed:

At a rough time for race relations in America, the relationship between Daniel and Green allows Brown-Forman to tell a positive story, while also pioneering an overdue conversation about the unacknowledged role that black people, as salves and later as free men, played in the evolution of American whiskey.

You can’t change your past or make it go away. But you can and should take steps now to understand your history and shape your own narrative. The Ghost of Christmas Past tells Ebenezer Scrooge that he is visiting him out of concern for his “welfare and reclamation.” The spooky intervention did wonders for Mr. Scrooge. So, don’t wait to be haunted to do the right thing. A proactive strategy will protect your brand and lessen the chances that your past will draw you into a crisis in the new year.

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