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Five Things I've Always Wanted To Tell A Room Full Of Crisis Management Professionals

By James N. Sullivan, Vice Chairman of the Board
Chevron Corporation

API Crisis Seminar

San Francisco, California

I want to start by telling each of you how much I . . . personally . . . support the aims of this conference and the efforts of crisis management professionals throughout our industry and especially with my company, Chevron.

And when I say personally, I really mean personally.

Right now, somewhere in the Caribbean is a double-hulled tanker carrying more than a million barrels of crude oil. And on the bow and stern in big white letters is its name -- the "James N. Sullivan."

So, if -- God forbid -- we ever run aground and start coating the beaches with oil, the headlines will scream about the "Sullivan disaster." Or the "Sullivan slick." Or, the one I'm really dreading . . . "Sullivan ruptures."

As if that's not enough to get my attention, there's another tanker out there with my boss' name on it -- the "Kenneth T. Derr."

Actually, those of you from Chevron already know this, but most of our tankers carry the name of somebody we wish to honor -- and one of our newest ships is named after all our employees, the "Chevron Employee Pride." It's one of the things that makes all of us in the company very committed to safety and incident free operations.

Commitment is like the difference between bacon and eggs: the chicken may be involved . . . but the pig is definitely committed.

I understand that my task this morning is to tell you something about how crisis management is viewed by senior management.

Well, I am in senior management, but I started 37 years ago as an entry level refinery process engineer in the chemical industry and over the years I have lived crisis management.

Back then, we used to say that if you could keep your head while those about you were running around in panic -- well then, you obviously didn't understand the situation.

But I did learn the value of keeping your head. I learned, first hand -- maybe too many times -- what it means to face a 3,000 pound hydrogen-hydrocarbon leak from the business end of a fire hose with the thought . . . "if this thing goes wrong I won't even know about it."

And -- believe me -- I know a lot of things can go wrong. In the late 70s I was the operations manager of the Richmond Refinery when we had a flash fire that, thankfully, didn't seriously hurt anyone.

But it kept us busy all weekend, and when I had finally gotten home and opened a beer I got a call from our public affairs guy wanting me to come back to the refinery to explain to some TV reporters what happened. It must have been a slow news day. So I did, reluctantly.

Later, when I turned on the set for the 11 o'clock news, there I was explaining that the cloud of black smoke the citizens of Richmond had seen earlier that day really wasn't dangerous, at the same time the camera slowly zoomed in for a closeup of the safety sign behind me that read "Safety First -- No Accidents."

So I learned an important lesson that I'll bet all you have also learned one way or the other -- you've got to have a sense of humor.

Or, at the very least, you have to realize that crisis management is always the 'Art of the Possible.' As an executive -- or as anyone in any capacity speaking for the company -- you just have to do your best with the circumstances that you're handed.

There will always be news reporters who want to know when your company stopped beating the environment.

By the way, I still believe that the best media policy is to be responsive -- never, never say "no comment" to anybody who buys ink by the barrel.

I do have some things to say today, and -- I hope you won't mind -- but I also have some strong feelings about this subject and I might just get a little emotional. A good title for my comments might be "Five Things I've Always Wanted to Say to a Room Full of Crisis Management Professionals."

And the first thing I want to say is just this -- thanks for everything.

Thanks a million. In fact, thanks 10 billion -- dollars, that is.

Why that number? Because that's how much Chevron's reputation is worth, according to a new book by the Harvard Business Press that is simply called "Reputation."

The book makes a fundamentally important point: in a world of increasing competition, where similar companies are fighting for customers, a good image and a strong reputation is a competitive advantage.

Now, I'm not sure $10 billion is right -- might be more or less -- but I do know that every company, and especially every oil company, lives in a fish bowl . . . and it can cost us a lot when our brand name is associated with an oil spill, a refinery fire, accusations in a nasty law suit, or a host of other events.

So that's why the first thing I want to say is "thanks."

The second thing I want to say to this group is -- I hope your jobs are boring.

The longer we have to go between real crisis situations the happier I'll be. I want you folks to be like the Maytag repairman . . . under-used and lonely. And nobody calls you for a comment . . . not CNN or The New York Times or the Houston Chronicle.

And the best way to do that is with prevention and preparation.

I know on organization charts that may not be directly in your bailiwick -- it belongs more to line management, to operations people -- but I also know that many of the most important things we do don't follow org charts. Like attitudes and behaviors. People who worry about crisis management develop "prevention first" behaviors. I believe these attitudes and behaviors should be everybody's.

A little like the fellow walking down Market Street the other day with a tuba. Every few yards he'd stop and blow one loud note. A police officer stops him and asks, "What are you doing?"

"I'm scaring away the polar bears," he says.

"What are you talking about? There aren't any polar bears in San Francisco," says the officer -- and the tuba player answers, "You see! It works."

I don't think it was a tuba player, but I do know that safety at Chevron got a lot better starting over two years ago when we established a goal of having the best safety record among our competitors. In two years we've cut our rate of recordable incidents in half. We did that by making safety-first behaviors and attitudes everybody's business.

So, as I see it, part of your job is putting yourselves out of business -- of preventing the crisis in the first place. I want to call up George Jardim and ask him, "What are you doing?" and have him answer, "Nothing, I haven't done any work in months and months." That would be just fine for me.

The third thing I want to say is -- downsize your work.

In fact, plan on downsizing . . . hope for downsizing. When a crisis does comes along -- as it will inevitably -- I hope you're ready and have the tools and training to take a crisis and downsize it into merely an unfortunate event that Chevron or the industry handled correctly.

The media and industry critics and sometimes even elected officials will want to exaggerate the significance of a mistake. Your job is to get perception back in line with reality: downsize the so-called crisis to a simple description of facts and you've done your jobs.

Do we make mistakes? You bet. Are we villains? No! Only if we let other people depict us as bad guys.

That's why it is important, in crisis management, if we're going to err on one side or the other, let's make it on the side of being too ready or too well-practiced or too responsive.

The view from where I sit is that companies are more and more at risk from public embarrassment and financial loss if we make a mistake and then compound it by not managing the crisis in a responsive, professional and -- above all -- sensitive manner.

By sensitive I really mean respectful. We have to respect the public's right to know.

Can you imagine government officials or TV reporters or citizens groups complaining that they were given too much information? That's where I'd like to see us err -- err in too much respect for the public's right to know.

Most of us here today come out of the technical specialties -- I'm an engineer and I've spent a lot of time working in chemical plants and refineries. Most of us know how to attack a problem, how to get the resources lined up in the best possible way to fix something that's broken. That's fine. And we have to do that.

But what makes crisis management so different is that we have to do it on stage. Lots of times we are trying to stop a leak or clean up the spill or whatever -- while thousands of people are watching us.

These are people like you and me and we have to respect their legitimate concern about our operations. In effect, they become our immediate customers for crisis management because we've done something which has intruded into their lives.

The fourth thing I want to say is -- work like engineers but think like poets.

Never underestimate the emotional side of a crisis.

Again, because we are trained in the analytical side we sometimes misunderstand that there is a symbolic side.

Here's the difference. Suppose there's an oil spill -- not from the "James N. Sullivan," thankfully. Suppose there's some waterbirds that die as a result and the beach is fouled.

Now, I have to report this to the media. The analytical side of me wants to put this in perspective and I go on local TV and report proudly that only a few birds died and the beach really isn't as bad as it could have been.

But, I've been trained in the sensitivities of crisis management, and I think to myself -- wait a minute, what's the emotional side of this event and what symbolic value does it have.

So, let's do a second take on that interview. I go on local TV and report in serious and human terms that, unfortunately, some birds have died as a result of this incident for which we are using every resource to clean up the oil . . . we're glad the cleanup has not been worse, and we are doing everything we can to limit the damage and restore the area, and we appreciate the feelings of those in the area, and we respect that they're angry toward us.

You see the difference, of course.

Adopting this "symbolic" understanding isn't easy. I know that -- I've been there.

Each of us does our best in our jobs and then feel defensive when our best is criticized by the very people that we're trying to help. But that's part of our jobs as well.

I keep thinking of the Navy divers recovering wreckage and bodies from the recent TWA disaster. What they must have gone through, with the heroic and courageous work they were doing . . . while biting their tongues at the criticism and anger that government wasn't moving fast enough.

By the way, I know much of what I'm saying today to you is old hat. You are professionals and there's almost nothing I can say that will be new to you. However, the one thing I can tell you is how senior management -- or at least this senior manager -- sees your discipline.

And that brings me to the fifth thing I want to say -- irritate your boss.

Get them to understand the risks and rewards of being prepared for crisis management . . . train them . . . keep them updated and -- probably most important -- when something does happen make sure they know about it very, very quickly.

This is a little like the doctor who keeps bugging you about your cholesterol level or to exercise more -- he or she is doing it for your own good.

Well, you are the doctors upon whom senior management has to rely for information and judgment about crisis management. It's your responsibility to get your diagnosis and prescription in front of senior management. Bug them a little, maybe even to the point that they become a little irritated with you.

It isn't often that people get fired for trying too hard.

Somewhere I read a story that makes this point.

The King was interviewing drivers for his coach and asked, "How close would you come to the edge of the cliff?" The first driver, wanting to brag about his skill, said "12 inches, your majesty." The second driver, not wanting to be out-done in the skills department, said "6 inches, your majesty." The third driver said -- "I'd drive as far away from the cliff's edge as I could, your majesty."

Guess who got the job? The one farthest away.

Well, those are the five things I've always wanted to say to a room full of crisis management professionals.

But I'm not done yet. Now that I think about it, there is a sixth message I'd like to leave you with . . . crisis management is too important to be left to crisis managers.

You have to find ways to work with many, many different groups that almost never have the same agenda.

Your challenge is to bring out the best in these groups -- get them on the side of helping and away from blaming.

I know the media sometimes seems mean and nasty. I know that outside agencies and community groups and other organizations sometimes make our work harder rather than easier. And I know that there is even internal friction from operations groups, or middle management or -- yes -- even from senior management.

I said earlier that organization charts are becoming less important as corporations decentralize and empower employees to face rising marketplace competition.

It's funny to think about it like this, but one of the cutting edges of today's competition has to be the ability to cooperate -- within teams, within each company, with other companies, with outside groups, with government, with the media, and the list goes on.

Figure out ways to get everybody helping rather than blaming, and crisis management will improve. In fact, you may help design the corporation of the future, because cooperation is the key to sustainable improvement in a marketplace where every day is a small crisis.

Who knows . . . maybe tomorrow's Chief Executive Officers will be called Incident Commanders?

In closing . . . let me say once again thank you for your work over the years, and thanks for this conference, and thanks for inviting me. Have a good conference.

Updated: September 1996