Crisis communication tips from Teddy Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Leadership in Turbulent Times, draws leadership lessons from her presidential subjects. Best known for the bestseller Team of Rivals focused on Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet and her Pulitzer-prize winning No Ordinary Time about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt during the war years, Kearns Goodwin has spent her life studying these and other leaders. Buried in her latest book is a chapter called “Crisis Management: Theodore Roosevelt and the Coal Strike” which provides an excellent playbook for communications during a crisis. Kearns Goodwin describes Roosevelt’s deft leadership during the months-long standoff in 1902 between coal operators and workers. Roosevelt’s involvement in what was one of the most significant labor strikes in American history was unprecedented. Throughout the crisis, Roosevelt remained cool, making sound decisions under extreme pressure despite a reputation for being brash, temperamental and outspoken.

We piggy back on Kearns Goodwin’s wonderful analysis which is rich with lessons for executives facing a major crisis and provide our own take on a few of these principles and what they mean for communicators in today’s world. Whether a company is facing a labor action, managing plant consolidations, dealing with activist investors, handling significant personnel departures, releasing news of a security breach or announcing a legal or regulatory settlement, we found important insights and helpful parallels.

First a little background on Roosevelt’s crisis: the United Mine Workers of Pennsylvania shut down bituminous coal mines as winter approached in 1902, threatening the fuel supply for many American cities. Most homes at the time were heated with coal. Miners were looking for higher wages and shorter work weeks. Coal operators, a powerful and concentrated oligopoly, refused to meet with the union. There was no precedent of presidential involvement in a strike, but rising concern by the public as winter loomed forced Roosevelt to intervene.

Secure a reliable understanding of the facts, causes, and conditions of the situations

Roosevelt directed his labor commissioner Carroll Wright, a statistician with a reputation for being even handed, to complete a special report on the coal strike. His thoughtful and fair-minded report helped inform Roosevelt’s actions and ultimately shape public opinion. Likewise, a first step in any crisis communication exercise is a thorough gathering and analysis of the known facts. While in the midst of a developing crisis you may not have complete information, it is important to gather and understand all the available information. Ensure media—and social media—monitoring systems are set up to track current and future news about the crisis to help inform your understanding of the situation as it unfolds.

Remain uncommitted in the early stages

Under the advice of his attorney general, Roosevelt waited to release the results of Wright’s report. In a the early stages of a crisis, leaders often lack access to full information while a crisis team determines how best to resolve the situation and legal counsel weighs their actions. At the same time, communications professionals will receive calls from internal and external constituencies and may even have media pounding at their door. Communicators must often respond before full information is available. What this may require is a carefully crafted written statement acknowledging the facts as they are currently known, sharing that the organization is working diligently to resolve the matter and offering reassurance that more information will be shared once available.

Use history to provide perspective

Roosevelt found great inspiration in an eight-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln as he considered how to handle a labor strike that promised to be the worst crisis since the civil war. Communicators should take time to consider past crises, how they were handled, how companies responded, and how the community reacted. You can learn from others as you evaluate various scenarios.

Assemble a crisis management team

Roosevelt carefully selected leaders both inside and outside his administration to help resolve the crisis. Creating the crisis communication team requires careful thought. Your team should include decision makers from the executive team as well as representation from the legal team. Depending on the matter at hand, it may also require selecting a representative with technical knowledge of the matter at hand. Keep the group small enough to be nimble and effective. Crisis communications often require long and stressful hours, so be sure to find a secure space and stock it with coffee, beverages and meals as needed.

Reevaluate options: be ready to adapt as a situation escalates

As the coal strike entered its fourth month, Roosevelt revisited his decision and released Wright’s report. When facing a prolonged crisis, communications professionals must always remain flexible. A communication strategy that worked in the beginning stages may need to evolve as more information becomes available. For example, a company facing a regulatory settlement may initially not issue a statement or comment on a matter if a regulatory matter does not generate immediate media attention. They may later choose to offer a written statement if media attention begins to escalate.

Frame the narrative

In a proactive attempt to resolve the strike, Roosevelt called both sides together to the White House and read a carefully-scripted statement to frame up the discussion. In this statement he clearly identified a third party – the general public – whose interests he represented. Similarly, a carefully-crafted statement can and will frame the narrative about the crisis, your company’s response and the potential fallout. We encourage companies to identify and repeat the most important two or three points and avoid lengthy comments. Remain disciplined in sharing those important points in writing to both internal and external audiences.

Be visible. Cultivate public support among those most directly affected by the crisis

In advance of fall midterm elections, Roosevelt took a barnstorming tour of the region making speeches and listening to the affected population. During and after a crisis, many companies feel shell shocked and prefer to avoid media interviews, fearing ongoing questions about the crisis. This can be a mistake. Instead, it is a good idea to find opportunities to get your message out either through paid media opportunities, social media or placed content you control. Donations or community sponsorships can also help your organization remain visible in the community. And being visible can offer reassurance that you are confidently moving through and beyond the crisis.

Clear the deck and focus with single-mindedness on the crisis

Roosevelt faced a severe trolley accident during the barnstorming tour that led to surgery and a two-week recuperation. At the same time, the crisis reached an acute stage. Homebound, Roosevelt cleared his calendar and focused solely on the strike. Crisis communicators also need to focus their time and mental energy on the task at hand. Being available to drop everything and pivot your undivided attention to the crisis is critical.

Keep temper in check

With tempers on both sides flaring and despite facing severe criticism directed at him personally, Roosevelt remarkably kept his cool. Kearns Goodwin describes how he even kept a firm grip on the arm of his chair and bit his lip to prevent himself from responding to the personal attacks. In any crisis, emotions can run high. Executives may take news reports and criticism personally. But those same executives who lash out at their accusers or seek to defend themselves publicly may later regret their emotional reactions.

Document proceedings each step of the way

Roosevelt, in an unusual move, invited a stenographer to record the White House meeting and later shared the detailed transcript which helped to garner public support for his efforts to resolve the crisis. Crisis communicators should be sure to keep record of any communications surrounding the crisis. Listen in on any interviews and keep careful notes. Correct inaccuracies. Ensure appropriate recordkeeping protocols are in place as well as secure file sharing systems so members of the crisis communications team can store and access relevant communications documents (digital and physical).

Control the message in the press

Roosevelt was able to effectively expose the challenging behavior of some of the coal barons through his release of the transcript of the White House meeting. Similarly, crisis communications professionals should seek to control the information they share with the public. In many cases, companies may want to respond to media questions in writing, creating a written record of their statements and avoiding any potential “misquotes” from a phone interview. Sharing an internal employee memo or a letter to clients with reporters can also be an effective way to control the message you are delivering to the public. If inaccurate or misleading information is published, take steps to correct it immediately as false information can spread quickly through digital and social media.

Be ready with multiple strategies; prepare contingent moves

Roosevelt faced several setbacks before resolving the crisis. Yet he was able to contemplate and implement revised plans to get to a resolution. While every crisis is different, some may present a variety of outcomes which may not be immediately obvious. For financial firms facing a product or regulatory crisis, it may not always be clear how clients or the community will react. Creating a tiered response can allow these firms to communicate in a way contingent on a variety of outcomes. For example, an issue may be of greater concern to some investors than others, requiring a more detailed response to this narrow audience while offering more limited comment to others.

Don’t hit unless you have to, but when you hit, hit hard

Roosevelt was known for the saying, “Speak softly and carry a big stick” about his foreign policy. It just as well applied to his leadership in the coal strike. He planned a military intervention that he fortunately did not need to implement. For companies facing a crisis, no one wants to close a plant or cancel an event. But if companies are forced to announce bad news, communications professionals should encourage leadership to do it all at once. Get all of your bad news out in one announcement. It is much better to announce one big bold move versus trickling out multiple small moves and prolonging the pain. Rip off the band aid or face the drip, drip, drip of bad news.

Find ways to relieve stress

Roosevelt was known for his boisterous physical pursuits as a way to relieve stress. Convalescing from his injury during the coal strike, he instead asked the Library of Congress to send him a book on a completely unrelated topic in order to give his mind a diversion. Any crisis, especially a prolonged crisis, can require long hours spread throughout multiple days or weeks. Finding time to exercise, meditate or take steps to maintain your health and focus can help relieve stress. Bring in a meal or get drinks with your crisis team in an effort to support your mutual work. In fact, many crisis teams find the mutual experience creates a lifelong bond.

Share credit for the successful resolution

Upon the successful resolution of the strike, Roosevelt gave credit to all the key players. Any successful crisis communication exercise requires input from many people. Take time to acknowledge the contributions of every member of the crisis team.

Leave a record behind for the future

Roosevelt dashed off a 3,000-word letter to set down the record and detail his actions. After every crisis, the communication team should gather to rehash their work, documenting what went well and what didn’t and record any lessons for the future. As professionals, it will help you continue to hone your craft. And you will find the information helpful when handling future crises.

While it may seem that a labor strike more than 100 years ago would offer few lessons for communicators, Roosevelt’s management of an evolving crisis with significant public fallout required careful and disciplined communications to reach a variety of constituencies. Crisis communicators too must manage incomplete information, high stakes outcomes and multiple constituencies when navigating a crisis. Thankfully, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s thoughtful analysis provides some timely lessons for communicators as well.