What everyone can do to help with mental health

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Suicide victim Madison Holleran. Image credit: ESPN.

Sometimes the best thing you can read or watch is something that jars you to your core.

Not the thing that makes you comfortable or happy, but a tale that leaves you speechless.

Those are the stories that make you think. That motivate you to action. And change your perspective.

I read one recently: “Split Image,” a recounting about the death by suicide of a University of Pennsylvania track athlete. A key focus of the deeply-reported story was the stark dichotomy between the Madison Holleran’s social media and her inner turmoil. That’s important, but something else hit me hard in the telling: the seeming lack of a place or person where Madison could bare her soul.

This was a young woman struggling with a hidden problem: a profound dichotomy between the life trajectory she had carved out for herself as a successful student and athlete in high school versus the severe absence of happiness she found in living the fruits of that trajectory in college. Add in any level of proclivity for mental illness and that’s a dangerous cocktail.

Yet, you would never know it by looking at her, as is so often the case with mental illness.

There is a deeper issue here than the long struggle to raise awareness of mental health issues and eliminate the societal stigma associated with talking it, let alone confessing one’s own challenges in that area.

Here’s why:

Madison was beautiful, talented, successful — very nearly the epitome of what every young girl is supposed to hope she becomes. But she was also a perfectionist who struggled when she performed poorly. She was a deep thinker, someone who was aware of the image she presented to the world, and someone who often struggled with what that image conveyed about her, with how people superficially read who she was, what her life was like.

She started seeing a therapist during Thanksgiving break [before she committed suicide the following January] and would continue seeing the woman through winter break. The closest Madison came to a diagnosis was “battling anxiety.”

Everyone now agrees that Madison was depressed, though she had never previously exhibited symptoms. (Depression exists on [her father] Jim’s side of the family.) Something had changed with her brain chemistry. She was not seeing the world in the same way she had before. She had lost weight too, had become so thin as to appear sick.

The day before Madison returned to Penn for spring semester, she had a session with her therapist that Jim also attended. She admitted to having suicidal thoughts. “If you have suicidal thoughts, don’t act them out,” her doctor said. “Either call me or call someone in your family.”

Madison nodded.

As a family, they had never talked about suicide. Jim never considered it a real possibility — just the dramatic ending to someone else’s story. As Carli explains: “Other people battle depression for years. With Madison, it feels like one day she was happy, the next she was sad and the day after she was gone.”

Jim feared that speaking about suicide would make its likelihood greater. He didn’t raise the subject as he and Madison drove back to Philadelphia.

Mental illness is scary. It can be down right terrifying. It isn’t easy to understand. And that’s before you factor in the complex, multi-layer filter of having a loved-one battle such demons.

I’ve had family members battle mental illness. There are few things that will leave you feeling more helpless than attempting wrapping you arms around what they’re feeling.

Speaking about such struggles out loud is scary and intimidating as hell.

It’s no wonder a teen in a situation like Madison felt she didn’t have someone to turn to when her thoughts spiraled to a terrible place.

Does she turn to her parents, who were no doubt reveling in her “success” as a student-athlete?

Does she turn to fellow students, where the fear of rejection from peers could be overwhelming?

Does she turn to some other important figure in her life such as a current or former coach, teacher, or extended family member?

Who knows. Each case is different for the sufferer of mental illness even feeling like there’s a viable choice in any of those options.

That’s what jars me. Thinking about giving people opportunities to bare their soul. To have an option besides leaping off a nine-story parking garage to their death.

As uncomfortable as it is, a clear takeaway of Madison’s story is she didn’t feel comfortable baring her darkest thoughts to her family. Does that mean her family failed her? Probably not, but they likely could have made  different choices…which virtually every family suffering through such an event could find in their own honest hindsight.

Indeed, family can be important. But, even more important are those spaces outside the family  where someone feels willing to take the risk of sharing some of their demons.

Even the greatest achievers in our society struggle with this. Sometimes mightily.

Michael Phelps, perhaps the greatest Olympian in history, landed his ass in rehab in 2014 for a host of issues, including wishing his life was over, prior to his swan song, 2016 Olympic games:

 “My brother was like a scared little boy on that trip [to rehab],” says [Michael’s sister] Hilary. Once there, the then 29-year-old hero of three Olympic Games was left alone, stripped of the personality that had publicly defined him. “Hug-hug, kiss-kiss, turn in my phone and go to my room,” says Phelps, “It’s probably the most afraid I’ve ever felt in my life.”

About five days into his stay, Phelps says, he began to loosen his resistance…“I wound up uncovering a lot of things about myself that I probably knew, but I didn’t want to approach,” he says. “One of them was that for a long time, I saw myself as the athlete that I was, but not as a human being. I would be in sessions with complete strangers who know exactly who I am, but they don’t respect me for things I’ve done, but instead for who I am as a human being. I found myself feeling happier and happier. And in my group, we formed a family. We all wanted to see each other succeed. It was a new experience for me. It was tough. But it was great.”

Michael Phelps. Olympic legend.

Michael Phelps. Fucked up dude.

That’s why talking about mental health is important. Even the great and resource-rich among us don’t know where to turn with these issues. It took Phelps landing in rehab for 45 days to start sorting his shit out.

Now, he’s appearing in “Angst,” a film on the often unpleasant, let’s-kick-this-under-the-carpet-while-not-making-eye-contact issue of anxiety and depression. In doing so, Phelps is explicitly setting permission for others to talk about it.

Permission is essential. Permission to be vulnerable. Permission to be able to say out loud to another human being, “I’m not ok.”

Author and athlete Rich Roll set a standard for vulnerability in Finding Ultra, and continues it to this day on his podcast, which recently featured the tear-inducing tale of the otherwise Tony Robbins-like Lewis Howes, describing coming to terms as an adult with being raped in a bathroom at five years old. It’s a must-listen episode, all related to Lewis’ new book about the many emotions men often avoid dealing with and discussing, The Mask of Masculinity.

But.

Books and podcasts are one thing. Intentionally setting permission for others in your life is essential.

There were times in my life where I was able to create those kind of spaces, especially as an assistant swim coach in college and as a manager of people in a large company. At various points I ended up having some unexpected and very serious conversations with people that had less to do with college athletics or work. They had to do with life.

A swimmer ready to quit the sport, on the spot, during a Christmas-break training trip in Florida. Another swimmer ready to throw in the towel because they weren’t enjoying the sport anymore. A co-worker breaking town in tears in my cubicle. A professional acquaintance getting raw about a public controversy that made future employment a challenge.

In almost every case, I don’t know exactly where that person is today. I don’t know what impact those conversations had over time. What I do know is they were totally outside the guardrails of what might be typically expected in each of those environments.

Here’s why I think they happened: something about each case included an environment where the person knew, or could take the risk that, there would be no judgement in saying something uncomfortable.

Recently I had a friend get real about depression and suicide-related thoughts. That’s heavy. I’m glad somewhere, probably without meaning to, something in how we talked set that permission.

None of us can solve the problems of all the Madison Holleran’s of the world. Nor should we be the solution, that’s for each person to work through, preferably with the support of mental health professionals. Yet, we can create environments where our humanity is so visible and evident that those in pain become willing say something out loud that might not otherwise dare to utter. Because from that moment of confession comes hope for change and improvement.

I say that because I’ve had to stare down that confession. To set up an appointment with my primary care doctor to say, “I think I’m showing signs of depression.” To end up seeing a psychiatrist and later a counselor as my treatment progressed, because yes, I was clinically depressed.

As much as professional treatment helped address a number of things and got me on a trajectory to be given a clean bill of health, it would have been a lot better to have been able to talk more openly about those issues before I was diagnosed.

To be fair, I had a few, friends with whom I shared some of the key issues impacting my depression, but I hesitated to share the story in full. I would do that differently now.

That’s because I know deep down inside after emerging from the other side of my mental health taking a downward turn that talking to others is important. Those that are still on the far side of that challenge need more spaces where they can feel safe to say utter words like:

  • “Help.”
  • “This isn’t right.”
  • “I’m not ok.”
  • “Here’s what really eating at me.”

Do it.

Set permission.

Set the example by being vulnerable yourself.

Listen.

Make clear you give a damn.

Maybe just look someone in the eye and genuinely ask how they’re doing.

I’d rather do any of those things than learn someone in my life reached the point where leaping nine stories to their death was a better option.

Why I Tough Mudder

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My great friend, Ryan Hodgson, and I after finishing our 2nd Tough Mudder together.

 

You are free to think thoughts of worry or joy, and whatever you use will attract the same kind back to you. Worry attract worry. Joy attracts joy.  – Rhonda Byrne

 

This weekend I’m going to do one of my favorite things: run a Tough Mudder. This one, outside of Charlotte, NC, will be my sixth, including three this year. Despite the challenges of the last several months,  I’ve made it a priority to do things that fill me with joy, including running Tough Mudders and seeing old friends.

There’s something incredibly valuable in chasing joy. When you find it, that joy ricocheting through your heart multiples to other areas of your life. It puts you in a better energetic state and attracts better things to you. For all the hurdles I’ve confronted in recent months, experiencing old friends and being in the Tough Mudder community has been one of the best things for me. And that joy is slowly multiplying.

Perhaps you’re saying: wait, Eric, Tough Mudder is a 10-12 mile mud run filled with 20 or so special-forces inspired obstacles. What does that have to do with community?

Everything.

The thrill of doing a Tough Mudder isn’t merely the physical challenge, though that is splendid and rewarding. The true joy of doing it is being part of a community of great people.

Don’t believe me? Watch this from Tough Mudder Philly in May of this year (where me and my buddy Tim make an appearance in our red shirts during an emotional video):

One of my favorite moments of every Tough Mudder race is the pre-start pep talk, as each starting wave receives a delightfully rousing encouragement – along with some basic event instruction – before being unleashed on the course. Here’s an example:

Tough Mudder isn’t a race, it’s an ethos.

Don’t just challenge yourself, sometimes you need to do things that scare you. Because that’s how you grow. And while you’re growing, lend someone else a hand so you grow together.

Don’t just race the Tough Mudder course, be a teammate. To everyone. Except the first wave of competitive racers looking for their qualification for World’s Toughest Mudder, no one’s time is recorded. The event is about challenging yourself, finishing, and helping fellow Mudders, because at some point, everyone will need help with an obstacle.

Witness:

At every Tough Mudder,  I and my various teammates spend time helping fellow Mudders at many obstacles. Some of the regulars requiring a hand are Mount Everest 2.0, Pyramid Scheme, and Mud Mile 2.0  This is what Tough Mudder means. Not how fast you are, not how strong you are, but how you help your fellow Mudders challenge themselves and finish that beast.

And beast it is.

Forget your 5k or half marathon pace…or however you run. Tough Mudder typically means run for a half mile, or a mile, maybe even 2. Encounter an obstacle. Maybe wait in line at said obstacle. Pound through it. Repeat. Over, and over, and over.

Depending on the course, how crowded it is, and the pace you hold, you’ll likely be out there 3-4 hours once you factor in stations to rehydrate, refuel, and use a muddy as hell porta-potty.

Here’s the deal: as much fun is the course is, Tough Mudder is about challenging yourself to do something that’s scary. There is an obstacle that scares almost everyone. Pick your poison: Funky Monkey the Revolution, King of the Swingers, or Kong.

Can you take down that which you fear? I conquered Funky Monkey the Revolution and Stage 5 Clinger for the first time each outside of Philly this May. The feeling was glorious. And that’s what Mudders stare down in their own way each time they start the course.

To conquer a Tough Mudder for your first time? It’s phenomenal. My own in 2013 was one of the best days of my life.

2013 Tough Mudder team

Me with the rest of the “Pain Killer” team sponsored by LifeWise Health Plan of Washington in 2013. A jubilant day. We slaughtered that course.

One of the best days of your life? God damn straight it was.

Mine was the culmination of taking on a random invitation from a friend (Ryan, pictured at the top of the post) to challenge myself. That started a journey which included me getting back in shape, losing forty pounds (!), and eventually going vegan. My life was some tough shit when I started Tough Mudder training. By the time that Tough Mudder was done, my life was dramatically better.

Granted, life has not been without significant troubles since (see recent challenges), but I owe more to Tough Mudder playing a role in changing the long-term trajectory of my life than I can put in words.

Perhaps now you can see why Tough Mudder matters to me.

This Tough Mudder will be with the smallest team with which I’ve tackled a race. Just me and my good friend Tim.

2017 Tough Mudder Philly

My crew from Tough Mudder Philly, with my red-headed friend, Tim, in the middle with me.

What’s going to happen? Hell if I know. But, we’ll challenge ourselves. Help others. And savor every moment as we give that course in Charlotte our all.

I’m looking forward to the joy at the end of that course. Because no matter the physical challenge and pain involved, joy it will be.

I would take a knee

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I would have taken a knee if I was in the NFL on Sunday.

I have been a Republican almost my entire life. And I would have taken a knee.

I volunteered for Republican campaigns. I worked for a Republican U.S. Senator. I worked for Republican candidates. I proudly served in George W. Bush’s Administration. And I would have taken a knee.

Until Donald Trump became the Republican nominee, as well as the laughably bad GOP attempts at repeal at replace, I considered myself a member of that party. And I would have taken a knee.

There are three reasons why:

It’s about the team.

Set aside the whole issue of race, the flag, and all of that politically-loaded shouting for a minute. If you’re an NFL player, an unpopular President spoke out against your teammates and peers; against them exercising their right of free speech, calling them a “son of a bitch” in the process.

The President is the last person who should be putting boundaries around free speech and calling for a private citizen to be fired for exercising that speech (the whole we wanted to avoid a totalitarian monarchy when establishing the Constitution being more than a little important). That an unpopular President with a known history of inflammatory racial rhetoric threw down the gauntlet guaranteed a more unified response from NFL teams and players, regardless of their other beliefs.

Imagine you’re a Seattle Seahawk. This is a team founded on doing things differently,  producing a vibrant culture that celebrates each other, most vividly on display via Peter King’s post-Super Bowl 48 observations…including the “we all we got…we all we need!” chant that says a lot of how teams unite in such environments.

Couple that culture with existing Seahawks’ dynamics, with Michael Bennett’s response to Charlottesville, and later very public incident with Las Vegas police, as well as both Richard Sherman and Doug Baldwin speaking out passionately on issues related to race.  Whose back are you going to have? Your teammate with whom you train with daily as well as compete with and for in a physically and mentally violent sport…or Cheetoh Jesus, typing away with his tiny hands on Twitter?

You’re going to stand, or kneel, with your team.

Justin Britt already made a significant statement earlier this year, when he, a white player, began putting his hand on Michael Bennett’s shoulder while Britt himself stood for the national anthem. That was before the short fingered, vulgarian with atrocious hair and a record of not condemning white supremacists went on a tirade against NFL players. No wonder so many players, coaches, and owners, took action at games across the country.

I think about my own experience competing and coaching a college swim team. I would still run through brick walls for some of those with whom I trained and competed. If while I served as an assistant coach, a grandstanding, asshat of a Governor of Virginia had, say, said one of my athletes couldn’t appropriately express their political beliefs while at a team function, I wouldn’t care what the issue was or on which side I stood. I’d walk into a team meeting and ask those targeted how the team could best support them, then figure it out from there with the rest of the team.

That’s where this has evolved into something more than protests against injustice or inequality, as the Colin Kaepernicks and Michael Bennetts of the world started. It’s about the right to protest, especially against an appalling son of a bitch that presumes the moral and legal authority to say otherwise. And most definitely, it’s about having your teammates back. That’s why so many teams were fully united in their action and/or supportive of those that chose to protest, with very often the team’s owners at their sides.

It’s not about the flag or the anthem, it’s about living up to what those things stand for.

A few years ago I bet I would have found myself  on the other side of this issue. Yet, the proliferation of cell phone videos capturing the police mistreatment of people of color was my tipping point in thinking about the issue differently, even as I know and respect many people in law enforcement for their good hearts and service.

The unholy outcome of the Philando Castile case, for example, should gnaw incessantly at the heart of everyone committed to the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution. And yet, the more you spend time listening to people of color talk about these issues, the more each of them invariably has their own story of overt discrimination or oppression.

Perhaps listening to the experiences of Michael Bennet, Richard Sherman, et. al gave me some additional perspective. I think moving from Seattle to New Orleans changed things too.

Life in the suburbs of a predominantly white metro area, where the largest minority are prosperous communities of Asian-Americans, leaves racism being a rather abstract, intellectual topic. Going to college in Virginia changed that perspective a bit. So too did working at the U.S. Department of Education on behalf of improving education for traditionally disadvantaged students add some depth as well, especially as I far-too-often encountered the institutional, discriminating belief that poor children couldn’t learn like their wealthier, white peers.

Fast forward to New Orleans, where whatever the legal construct in which we live, the lasting impact of decade upon decade upon decade of direct and indirect racism will give you a jolting slap across the face if you dare to lift your head and cast an open-minded gaze upon it.

Want to see true poverty, driven primarily by race? Come to New Orleans.

Want to see entire neighborhoods left behind by the benign neglect of decades of pervasive white racism? Come to New Orleans.

Want to see the impact of decade after decade of a shitty education system that gave its students precious little hope to succeed, let alone improve their lives? Come to New Orleans.

Want to see society still struggling to deal with the vestiges of racist behavior (such as a black men choosing not to look white women in the eye for fear of the consequences)? Come to New Orleans.

But, wait, you say. Those NFL athletes are spoiled and rich. How dare they kneel!

Spoiled?

Richard Sherman is from Compton.

Compton!

Former Seahawk Mack Strong tells the tale of his flight from Georgia to Seattle when he joined the Seahawks out of college. He couldn’t afford proper luggage. Some of his belongings were in a trash bag. When people started laughing at it at baggage claim he sat and waited for everyone to leave before he picked it up and went on his way.

Watch the NFL draft and you’ll hear many a similar tale of hard circumstances. Pay close attention to the media coverage of any team as rookies from college join the team and you’ll hear more.

Yes, NFL players are well-paid (for their usually short careers). Yet, many of them hail from the very opposite of spoiled backgrounds. And many of those of color have additional tales of what they experienced as a black male.

One of the other tipping points on this issue for me was reading about former King County Executive Ron Sims’ experience with the issue of driving while black. Think you’re pristine, progressive Seattle? Hardly.

And if Seattle is still fucking this issue up, can you imagine what it’s like in older parts of the country where racism’s roots are more ingrained and insidious by historical patterns of societal behavior?

Wait.

You can’t.

Neither can I.

The truth is based on the demographics of my Facebook friends (the primary traffic driver to my blog), most people reading this post won’t have the faintest idea of what being black in America is like.

I don’t.

Yeah, we talk about ideas we believe in. I’m a history and political science major who spent a lot of time studying what our country stands for, especially as we have traveled the very imperfect journey from our founding to today. For God’s sake, I wrote an entire post extolling the virtues of Alexander Hamilton, long before the Hamilton music leaped into popularity.

The military historian in me also thinks very highly of our troops and our veterans. The men and women of our Armed Services have been a source of freedom, liberation, and protection to countless peoples across this globe. Despite their inevitable human imperfections and our imperfections as a country, I love them and why they serve, and in some cases, died in that service.

I love this country and what it stands for. Deeply.

And I believe we have more work to do.

It’s about listening

One of the most searing (and correct) critiques in modern society today is declaring those who can not abide dissenting or contrarian views on college campuses to be “snowflakes.” Places of higher learning should not be places where one needs a “safe space” from the reality of our world in which views and beliefs differ, sometimes mightily. Indeed, places of higher learning should shine a spotlight on those differences, allowing people to broaden their perspectives and learn more.

Here’s where I get to some bad news for some of my friends on the right who I have seen react vociferously to events related to the NFL in recent days. In leaping to condemn someone for taking an opposing view or an action different than that you would choose, in declaring you’re done with your previously chosen team and the NFL, you’re acting like…the very snowflake on a college campus you otherwise rightly condemn.

You’re better than that. We’re better than that.

Maybe we should all listen a little more. This bit about Seahawks coach Pete Carroll responding to and working with Trump supporters on the team through all this struck me:

“Directly, what I did is I hugged them,” he said.  “I talked to them, and expressed that I appreciate where they’re coming from, and what they feel with no other thought but to accept them.”

That response explains why lots of players enjoy playing for Carroll. It’s called empathy — a respectful sensitivity to another’s feelings, as well as the ability to listen without judgment. It’s a rare capacity in any leadership post, and much more elusive in an industry where manhood is often defined by the sort of faux-macho bluster often exhibited by the president.

The approach was probably important in persuading Trump supporters — or the merely fearful — to set aside their reluctance to create at least a public unanimity. Or, in old-school parlance, take one for the team.

Maybe instead of losing our ever-loving minds about a short, peaceful protest before a sporting event we could spend more time doing that: listening to people with a different point of view. Listening to the their thoughts, their experiences, and why they believe what they believe.

I have a friend who is an anarchist. Straight up, burn it all down: capitalism, government, society…you name it. Yet, we’re friends and can have serious conversations, respecting where the other person is coming from. The fact we met while both working at a health insurance company tells you the world has more grays areas than the jarring black and white world of “you agree with me or you’re evil!” social media and politics into which our society sometimes descends.

What’s the key with my anarchist friend? We listen to each other.

Did any of us out there hope for a President picking this fight with the NFL and its players now, especially with all the other domestic and foreign policy issues at hand?

Safe to say, no.

But, he did.

So, we can continue to yell and spit at each other and think ill of those with whom we disagree. Or maybe…just maybe…we could take advantage of this opportunity to listen to those who are saying we still haven’t yet reached the full maturity of the lofty, important idea that all men are created free and have equal protection under the law.

We’re human. Painfully so. This great experiment in democracy called America has been so very imperfect. We fought a horribly bloody civil war just to settle the fact we shouldn’t be enslaving other human beings. It took us another hundred years to better address the legal rights of those previously enslaved. And roughly fifty years later, we still have a lot of work to do.

That’s why we should listen. And that’s why I’d have happily taken a knee with my teammates, especially given the despicable display from our President on this important issue.

Tearing away the protective cover of my soul

quotes-fear

What you are you afraid of in life?

Pain? Being alone? Losing possessions? Failure? Relationships going bad? Job loss?

There are many answers to the question. We all have one. And if we claim we’re not afraid of something in our lives then we’re probably lying to ourselves…and others.

I’ve been afraid of a lot of shit in my life, including every option listed above.

Fear of pain? Yep.

Fear of being alone? Yep.

Fear of losing possessions? Yep.

Fear of failure? Yep.

Fear of relationships going bad? Yep.

Fear of job loss? Yep.

Guess what? Not anymore.

God damn I’ve been in some pain. Most of us have; it’s part of the human experience. I’ve had particular doses of pain in the last year. And I’m not only still standing…I’m smiling.

I’ve feared being alone. And now I have been. Has it been easy? Not always. But, it was been liberating and I’m better off for it.

I feared losing possessions and material wealth. Months of being unexpectedly unemployed in combination with other twists and turns in life have left me tapping into retirement savings. Not ideal. But, the world hasn’t ended, and I believe in my ability to earn way more in the future.

I’ve feared failure. Over the last several years that has begun to fade, which is no surprise to some people that have been around me over that time. Fear of failure can be a good thing. It can motivate us to achieve something greater and better. But, it becomes no good if that fear overtakes the drive as a dominant voice. Either way, I’ve made some big bets in the last couple years. They didn’t play out like I hoped or wanted. By some definitions I failed.

That’s nice. I’ll come back even stronger.

I’ve feared relationships going bad, and I have the failed relationships to prove it. There’s zero pride in that, and in dark moments, a lot of shame in that hard reality. There are lessons to learn, regrets to process, and learning to absorb as I take another step forward each day.

I’ve feared job loss, propelled by years of being the family bread-winner combined with unproductive thinking. Then, in the middle of a lot of shit going haywire – at least according to the norms of society – I got laid off. Good times.

Yet, being laid off forced me to explore the lost art of truly defining oneself by who you are, not by what you do. Having the space to do that has helped. But, it has also been a necessary and deeply meaningful exercise. Spending time with myself. Digging deeper on personal development. Writing. Working out like a beast. Traveling. Exploring a wonderful new city in New Orleans. And best of all, spending a lot of time with old friends and new.

Despite the challenges of unemployment and financial curveballs, I’m more at peace than I’ve been…maybe ever.

Here’s what else I’ve learned through all of that:

  • It’s going to be ok. The world will not end when big things in life don’t turn out as expected. It doesn’t even end when your world gets turned upside down. It might be unpleasant, perhaps very. But, you will survive, learn, and move forward.
  • Truly letting go of the past is glorious. Really. Let it fucking go. I used to dwell a lot on the past. It got me…nothing. Acknowledge the past. It happened. Figure out what you can learn from it and what choices you might make differently in the future. Then move forward.
  • Sometimes you have to just slow down and breathe. Sure, I have a bias there because I practice yoga regularly and have been through teacher training. I have a strong appreciation for what stilling the mind via breath can do. And it has helped me tremendously in more anxious moments than I care to count the last several months. When negative thoughts have begun to take over my mind, I’ll focus on my breath – perhaps with a mantra or prayer thrown in – and tune everything else out. What that’s done, I’m invariably in a better place than when the process started.

All of that, the fear, the tumult, and the learning are heavy stuff. It’s not easy to write about. It requires a lot of vulnerability.

I had someone tell me recently I “live out loud…raw, real, and vulnerable.” There’s some truth to that, though there is always more to be told about and by a person than what they talk about online, including social media. What I accept about that friend’s kind observation is I do put myself out there more than many other people.

Holding back is not uncommon in our society, or humanity in general. We hesitate to share our true selves. There are many reasons for that, some of them the type of fears that I mentioned at the start of this post. Some people are just more private. And getting truly honest about what you really think and believe means other people might disagree or think less of you.

Maybe.

And maybe those people who respond negatively should matter less to us if that’s their take.

I recently read “Finding Ultra,” a memoir-like gem of a look into the journey of Rich Roll; alcoholic, overweight lawyer turned vegan distance athlete, whose stunning transformation has helped propel him to some vividly awe-inspiring athletic feats…after the age of 40 and beyond.

The man is a beast and someone I admire a great deal. For all that, what I appreciate about Finding Ultra and what Rich did in that book is he tore away the protective cover of his soul; that last barrier inside us that stops us from revealing who we are to the rest of the world.

I’m a regularly listener of Rich’s podcast, which is splendid in its ability to have interesting conversations with guests that get raw and real. Yet, Finding Ultra throws gasoline on the fire of revealing the personal and emotional aspects of Rich’s painful and difficult journey. It’s a great and inspiring read.

Rich is currently working on a 2nd edition of Finding Ultra, expanding on and updating some aspects of its tale. But, no matter the new text (which I look forward to immensely!), the essential part where Rich tore away the protective cover of his soul to share not just his story, but his true self, with readers is what gives the book magnificent power.

If there is any reason why I’m willing to write this kind of way about my own journey, as some of my friends on Facebook and Instagram have gotten a dose of in months gone by, it’s so what I share might have an impact on others. Maybe to give them the courage to make a leap in life. Maybe to soften with shared solace the dark edges of their own personal experience. Maybe for reasons that I’ll never know.

Someone out there is reading this and just had a shift, because I’ve begun tearing away the protective cover of my soul. That’s why this is worth it. To empower – or even nudge – someone into living the life they’re meant to live.

Start tearing. It’s not easy. Sometimes it’s downright painful. But, it’s worth it.

How visualization helped me through my biggest professional challenge

Premera cyber

The power of visualization. Reality or bullshit? I say reality.

Usually when people talk about it, they think about athletes visualizing the performance they want, especially elite athletes, such as Olympic medalists or top tier professionals who spend significant time on their craft beyond just the traditional training of the body to achieve greater things.

I say we should be applying it in all our lives. It’s powerful. It also takes time, something most of us don’t feel like we have. How to bridge that gap?

Here’s one tale of where I applied visualization, and intention, in my professional life at one of the busiest, most stressful times in my career. Many of my friends or professional colleagues in health care may remember it.

On March 17, 2015, my employer at the time, Premera Blue Cross, announced it had been the victim of a “sophisticated cyberattack,”  affecting roughly 10 million current and former customers and employees. I was the Vice President of Corporate Communications at the time, on point for leading the communications of the announcement and serving as executive spokesperson.

It would have been a big story by itself, but was coming just weeks after the 800 pound gorilla of Blue Cross Blue Shield insurers, Anthem, announced they had been hit with a cyberattack affecting over 80 million people. We knew that timely proximity would amplify national attention our announcement as part of a possible trend.

The weeks between the discovery of the attack and the announcement were condensed, fast-paced, and stressful as the small team of executives and others who would implement the announcement pounded through what needed to be done with the assistance of our outside Legal team and crisis communications counsel, all in a highly confidential environment. Those weeks are among the most intense I’ve experienced as a professional.

One of my challenges was balancing all that with the three things I needed to accomplish in my role:

  • Lead the communications efforts, including providing leadership to my team and others involved in the work
  • Provide communications counsel to the executive team grappling with this most consequential of business issues
  • Be the best possible corporate spokesperson I could be once we launched

Leading the communications work was one thing. There was a lot of hands-on work because of the small knowledge group aware of the issue, including invaluable guidance from our superlative legal counsel on the issue (thanks Ted Kobus!). Our biggest challenge collectively was the bone-crushing amount of work to be done in a short time to be ready to launch. To this day, I owe a debt to Nicola King on my team for her performance in the weeks leading up to announcement day.

Providing counsel to the executive team was also a manageable challenge requiring only an incremental increase in my typical job. Working with executive-level professionals has been part of my entire career, something I’ve grown into and enjoy. The stakes were high on this one, but comfortable.

That last need of serving as executive spokesperson had some exceptionally high stakes. Our company’s reputation was on the line, both broadly as well as specifically with our largest customers – including names like Microsoft, Amazon, and Starbucks. How the announcement went, from right out of the gate, would have a big impact on how the company’s reputation — and business — fared moving forward. And the potential legal ramifications of the whole affair, including how we handled the announcement, were massive.

The corporate spokesman element is where I knew my energy needed to go. Not because I wasn’t up for it. I’m good on camera and with the media. It’s a skill honed throughout my career, and shaped by several rounds of great media training (thank you Scott Stanzel!). The stakes of this were bigger than anything else I had done professionally, including federal privacy laws that required our announcement be a press release in every media market in the country because of the scope of those impacted.

As the announcement day approached, my attention increased on those spokesperson duties, in part as the expansion of the knowledge group in the closing days before launch allowed others to handle tactical preparation and execution of key elements of the multi-audience effort, including some great work by my internal communications team led by Dana Robertson Halter. That’s when my intention and visualization process ramped up.

My role was both complicated and simple. Simple in that I was the executive spokesperson for the company for any and all news media, including print, radio, and TV. Complicated in that the daunting reputational impact of the issue paired with the significant legal ramifications required some serious finesse to say what the company could to inform those affected while also protecting our reputation, avoiding harming our legal position, and all while staying within the bounds of what federal law enforcement would also allow us to say because of their active involvement given of the particulars of the attack.

Because of the pace and volume of work, I had to be exceptionally purposeful about the time I spent visualizing and setting intention of what the executive spokesperson role would look like. I also had to do the work itself: honing messaging, sitting through briefings and joining executive discussions to understand the issue, then practicing — including on camera — so that when the time came, what I needed to know and say was locked and loaded in my brain. With all those professional responsibilities, my family, working out (important stress relief!), and being in yoga teacher training (an ill-timed coincidence that thankfully concluded days before the announcement), my time was had to be severely rationed.

Thus, it was more periodically putting a stake in the ground than spending hours like an elite athlete visualizing. Example: the announcement was on a Tuesday. During my early Monday morning gym workout that week I checked-in on Facebook, declaring “I will destroy this week.” Almost no one seeing that would know what it meant, but I was intentionally putting it out into the universe.

Another example: the announcement was scheduled for noon on that Tuesday, selected in part to allow for smooth tactical execution of a simultaneous announcement to millions of people in different audiences we’d be reaching that day. I arrived at work at about 7 am that day, Eminem’s “Monster” blaring on my headphones as I swaggered into the Executive Boardroom that had been converted into our war room for the announcement effort. Those actions were all on purpose. I was pumping myself up for the day.

I was the first to arrive in the boardroom that morning. The headphones stayed in to keep the music pumping, even as I went through some deep breathing exercises. I sat at the conference table for a bit, not working. Looking out the windows. Mentally visualizing. Preparing myself with more focus than any athletic competition in which I’ve participated, even collegiate swimming.

I had a number of tasks to accomplish that morning, including leadership functions to prepare and support others to do their jobs. Radiating calm to mitigate the stress of others and show belief in their ability to execute, even as many of them found out first thing that morning what had happened, what we as a company would announce that day, and what they needed to do to support that effort. Intermittently through all that I was visualizing. Visualizing with admittedly the cheesiest of examples.

If you’ve seen the movie “Speed” you might recall the scene when the hijacked bus driven by Sandra Bullock has to approach a gap in the freeway over which it will have to leap to the other side. If you remember the scene, you may recall as the bus approaches the gap, the law enforcement vehicles accompanying the bus during the hijacking episode peel off one-by-one, away from the bus, whose passengers must approach the unknown alone.

That was me. No one else would be in front of the inevitable deluge of TV cameras and radio and print reporters on the phone. I had to perform. When my company needed me most.

I would visualize that scene in “Speed,” then visualize myself walking out the glass doors into the lobby of our corporate headquarters as I went out to face the media that would come after the announcement. Just like the bus leaping over the gap on the freeway alone, I would step out those doors alone.

When that time came to walk down the stairs and through those doors, I actually had a smirk on my face and my heart and mind were calm. It was time. I was ready, and I knew it. That’s what visualization can do.

What happened next?

I killed those interviews.

All four TV stations in Seattle. A non-stop stream of interviews via phone with radio and print outlets, both national and local. From noon until our management call at 5 pm to sum up the day for the company’s leadership – many of whom learned the news themselves that morning given how tight our security protocols were – I was on. In the fastest, most intense flurry of media relations I’ve ever experienced.

I had to be. When the Wall Street Journal is peppering you with questions on the phone, when NPR is taping you for news to go across the country, when TV cameras are lined up to interview you, one after the other…there is no choice: you bring your best.

The unexpected result? A flurry of messages from friends and professional colleagues elsewhere with a thumbs up. Not just “hang in there,” but praise. Lots of it. Including from fellow PR pros, whose complimentary words I appreciated more than they know. A fellow executive had a former communications colleague reach out to him to say in part, “I don’t know who your guy is, but he’s doing great out there.”

I think that’s because I visualized myself performing well, on top of doing the work to be ready for it.

The point, however, isn’t the praise – though I remain deeply grateful for it. The point is that’s what visualization and intention-setting can do. That’s the lesson. It can bring out the best in you and what you’ve built to create, even when you don’t have hours to spend time on the visualization itself.

There are lots of resources to explore the topic at a more basic level, as well as taking a deeper-dive of the connection between quantum physics and human thought. Whether for sports, your professional life, or even personal, I recommend it. Highly.

Today, I’m staring down some big changes in my life that are significant and in some ways life-altering. What am I doing? Visualizing what I want, in the middle of grinding through the work to get through those changes.

Good luck on your own visualization path. May it help you succeed, mightily.

 

 

 

American Airlines got right what United got wrong

American Airlines got right what United got wrong

American Airlines recently had it’s own viral video problem. Nothing on the scale of United dragging a bleeding man off a plane, but still atrocious. For American, we can all stipulate that when a flight attendant is hollering at a customer, saying “come on, hit me!” after said flight attendant allegedly pulled a stroller violently from a mother holding a baby then things have probably gone to a place that makes crisis communications professionals — and most of humanity — cringe. Yet, there is something to learn from how American handled a tough situation well.

Understanding what United did wrong in its now famous PR fumble for the ages is key to understanding what went right for American:

  1. United justified itself with rules rather than responding with empathy
  2. United focused on itself, not the customer, in the CEO’s first statement
  3. United blamed the victim in an email to employees rather than be accountable

What United should have done was:

  1. Show empathy
  2. Focus on the customer
  3. Take responsibility

Perhaps no surprise then that American did in their response exactly what United should have done. Here’s the American statement, worth quoting in full:

We have seen the video and have already started an investigation to obtain the facts. What we see on this video does not reflect our values or how we care for our customers. We are deeply sorry for the pain we have caused this passenger and her family and to any other customers affected by the incident. We are making sure all of her family’s needs are being met while she is in our care. After electing to take another flight, we are taking special care of her and her family and upgrading them to first class for the remainder of their international trip.

The actions of our team member captured here do not appear to reflect patience or empathy, two values necessary for customer care. In short, we are disappointed by these actions. The American team member has been removed from duty while we immediately investigate this incident.

American showed empathy

They acknowledged up front they had “seen the video” and “started an investigation,” but importantly didn’t wait to go further. The next sentence of the statement established empathy further — and focus on the customer — by declaring what they saw didn’t reflect their values or the way they expect customers to be treated. In short, the statement immediately aligned with the lay public’s reaction: this is wrong and something needs to be done about it.

Note, American threaded the needle by giving themselves some wiggle room in referring to what they saw in the video that was in the news, while still investigating the facts. That placates the lawyers who rightly will want to know if there are additional facts (and video) that mitigate or change the situation. Not likely in this incident, but an important consideration in managing legal risk in crisis communications, while also showing empathy and regret that the customer obviously had a bad experience.

American focused on the customer

Building on the empathy already established at the start of the statement, American responded directly to the customer saying they were “deeply sorry,” while notably declaring they had given her a first class upgrade for the remainder of the trip and were “taking special care of her and her family.” That statement assures the troubled viewer of the video that American is making things right.

Significantly, the sentence preceding the description of what American was doing to remedy things for their customer said “[w]e are making sure all of her family’s needs are being met while she is in our care.” [emphasis added]. That’s a subtle yet powerful statement of empathy and focus on the customer. A passenger is getting in a metal tube to be transported by a trained crew roughly 30,000 feet in the air to another part of the world. Yes, any customer is likely to feel that they’re “in your care,” not just part of a transaction. Acknowledging that fact was wise and effective.

American took accountability

From the start to the end of the statement American owned what was visible to any video viewer: a customer experience had gone south, with an employee of the company making a shockingly bad representation of the organization. As such, that employee rightly went under the bus: “removed from duty while we immediately investigate this incident.” All the more laudable on American’s part because they’ll inevitably have to fight the employee’s union, which already blamed the airline and passengers.

American’s timely public statement coincided with the airline visibly taking accountability on Twitter (where United notably flubbed), taking ownership in 140 characters, including linking to their statement:

Make that taking complete accountability:

The news media coverage of this incident with American, with its still troubling video, was nothing of what United endured. American protected its image in part by getting out quickly with an acceptable response before the media storm grew. That’s a stark contrast to United’s need for repeated statements over several days.

That speed to response allowed the company’s statement to be unattributed on its website and attributed to spokesperson Leslie Scott in direct media inquires. That’s a subtle yet huge communications win in protecting American’s reputation. You only want to use a senior executive’s voice, especially the CEO, when absolutely necessary in crisis, because the reputational risks escalate exponentially if those statements and/or interviews don’t accomplish the desired mission.

Example: I was VP of Corporate Communications at Premera Blue Cross when it announced a significant cyberattack in 2015. We knew the announcement would receive intense media attention nationally and locally, especially coming on the heels of another such announcement by Anthem Blue Cross just weeks prior. We, with input from some great outside advisers, deliberately chose to put me out front for the flurry of expected initial media inquires, even though the (still) CEO is a great communicator.

Thus, we still used an executive spokesperson for a non-stop stretch of media interviews over a couple days, but held the CEO in reserve. He taped a public video statement, was quoted in our press release, and announced the news internally, but did no live media interviews on the topic. We also owned the issue up front, apologized, and provided an immediate solution for customers. The result: the worst of the media storm was largely over in a couple news cycles, with no CEO interviews needed.

That’s exactly what American accomplished, sparring senior leadership from having to take on the risk of tough media interviews in a crisis, which is a credit to the American Airlines team. Don’t think that’s important? Ask Oscar Munoz at United.

In sum, an exceptional performance by the American Airlines team to respond quickly and effectively, mitigating the initial PR problem and protecting the company and the brand from imminent additional damage. While it’s easy to pick on United’s mistakes, it’s more instructive to have a positive case study from an industry peer so readily at hand for contrast.

Originally published at my LinkedIn page.

The 3 things United’s PR screwed up …and what it says about their culture

The 3 things United’s PR screwed up …and what it says about their culture

United’s now famous April 10th PR meltdown over Flight 3441 will be a case study in how not to respond to a crisis. You can bet United’s competitors are watching and dissecting what worked and what didn’t to incorporate into their own thinking.

No matter how the Flight 3441 incident turns out for United over time, they made three serious mistakes in the first 24 hours of their PR response that all organizations and communications professionals can learn from and consider for the future.

1)     United justified itself with rules rather than responding with empathy

This error was immediately egregious on Twitter, where the constraints of 140 characters combined with a lack of empathy to make for an inadequate first line response to protecting the brand.

While expressing a hint of regret, apologizing for the “overbook situation” is vague and the tweet as a whole demonstrates a horrific lack of empathy for a passenger that was dragged off the plane bleeding. A basic sense of humanity via an expression of regret for a bad customer experience, no matter who is at fault, is a wise starting point for a very public-facing customer brand.

Notably, this approach to immediate social media responses isn’t uncommon for United. They responded just as poorly to the recent – though less horrific – controversy where several passengers were denied boarding while wearing leggings.

This was one of a number of United tweets on this issue that referred to the rule, not any empathy that a passenger was inconvenienced (and other customers flummoxed). Yes, 140 characters isn’t a lot to work with, but thread a couple tweets or find a way to otherwise express regret and sympathy. A corporate Twitter account is a brand platform, not just a customer service vehicle.

2)     United focused on itself, not the customer, in the CEO’s first statement

The statement leads with how United feels, when interested members of the flying public – and equally aghast journalists covering the story – expected a basic sense of humanity and regret that things ended the way it did. Focusing on themselves is a subtle hint United is still an inward-facing corporate culture, rather than the customer-facing corporate cultures that are thriving today (think Amazon). That’s an understandable reality given a messy corporate merger that required a lot of internal attention (and evoked negative customer responses like this), but it’s a serious problem.

Then there is “re-accommodate;” now a thriving point of mockery on Twitter and destined to live in the annals of ignominious crisis communications responses. That word choice indicated lawyers and/or executives better at business than PR were winning internal crisis messaging battles. No communications professional worth half of what United can pay would use that word by choice.

“Re-accommodate” rendered the feint apology in same sentence moot, while the rest of the text showed little real empathy or serious introspection that United understood something horrible had happened that would make their current and future customers very angry with them unless they addressed it transparently and sincerely.

3)     United blamed the victim in an email to employees rather than be accountable

The leading message in the CEO’s email is standing up for his employees. Supporting the team is an important step for a leader, especially in an environment where organizational culture has challenges. But, there was a better way.

Assuming the employees did “follow established procedures,” there comes a point where as a leader you have to say: “we followed all the rules…and it still resulted in a bad outcome for our customer. We’re going to take a hard look at how we do business to make sure our customers get the experience we hope to provide every day.”

I worked in health insurance for years. We found a lot of procedures designed to provide an efficient internal solution but didn’t produce the desired customer experience. It’s not rocket science to identify, but acting on it requires leadership.

The second message in the email was to blame the victim, declaring him “belligerent and disruptive.” That might have worked in the era before social media and smart phone videos. It doesn’t now. A 69-year-old, bespectacled doctor was dragged bleeding from one of your company’s airplanes, United. The lay viewer isn’t going to believe he’s at fault, especially after he properly took his assigned seat during the boarding process and was only then told to get off because one of your employees needed the seat instead.

After all that, the CEO’s vague talk of “lessons we can learn” and treating customers “with respect and dignity” at the end of the note were near worthless because the rest of the email was so bad.

What it all means

It’s fair to speculate some of United own employees reacted adversely after seeing the news coverage of their employer and contrasted that with their CEO’s email. Or a rough Tuesday on Wall Street for United woke up the executive team. Or the communications professionals started winning the internal messaging war. Whatever the sequence or combination, someone at United wrote an infinitely better response for the CEO today, declaring the incident “truly horrific,” expressing “deepest apologies,” and saying “no one should ever be mistreated this way.”

More importantly for any attempt to heal the company’s reputation, the CEO pledged to “make it right” and review all the applicable policies and procedures involved in the sequence of events.

Outstanding.

Except it was more than a day and several news cycles too late, after large swaths of the flying public saw the news, saw United’s initial responses, and have already soured on the United brand. Instead of doing the right thing on day one, United will have to win back the customers it lost with its first 24 hours of bumbling. That’s going to cost them.

What happens to United is anyone’s guess. But, learning from their experience provides a good place to start for leaders and communications professionals finding themselves in a similarly unenviable crisis in the future:

  • Show empathy
  • Focus on the customer
  • Take responsibility

Simple rules to avoid a lot of trouble in this era of fast-moving modern media.

United’s now famous April 10th PR meltdown over Flight 3441 will be a case study in how not to respond to a crisis. You can bet United’s competitors are watching and dissecting what worked and what didn’t to incorporate into their own thinking.

No matter how the Flight 3441 incident turns out for United over time, they made three serious mistakes in the first 24 hours of their PR response that all organizations and communications professionals can learn from and consider for the future.

1)     United justified itself with rules rather than responding with empathy

This error was immediately egregious on Twitter, where the constraints of 140 characters combined with a lack of empathy to make for an inadequate first line response to protecting the brand.

While expressing a hint of regret, apologizing for the “overbook situation” is vague and the tweet as a whole demonstrates a horrific lack of empathy for a passenger that was dragged off the plane bleeding. A basic sense of humanity via an expression of regret for a bad customer experience, no matter who is at fault, is a wise starting point for a very public-facing customer brand.

Notably, this approach to immediate social media responses isn’t uncommon for United. They responded just as poorly to the recent – though less horrific – controversy where several passengers were denied boarding while wearing leggings.

This was one of a number of United tweets on this issue that referred to the rule, not any empathy that a passenger was inconvenienced (and other customers flummoxed). Yes, 140 characters isn’t a lot to work with, but thread a couple tweets or find a way to otherwise express regret and sympathy. A corporate Twitter account is a brand platform, not just a customer service vehicle.

2)     United focused on itself, not the customer, in the CEO’s first statement

The statement leads with how United feels, when interested members of the flying public – and equally aghast journalists covering the story – expected a basic sense of humanity and regret that things ended the way it did. Focusing on themselves is a subtle hint United is still an inward-facing corporate culture, rather than the customer-facing corporate cultures that are thriving today (think Amazon). That’s an understandable reality given a messy corporate merger that required a lot of internal attention (and evoked negative customer responses like this), but it’s a serious problem.

Then there is “re-accommodate;” now a thriving point of mockery on Twitter and destined to live in the annals of ignominious crisis communications responses. That word choice indicated lawyers and/or executes better at business than PR were winning internal crisis messaging battles. No communications professional worth half of what United can pay would use that word by choice.

“Re-accommodate” rendered the feint apology in same sentence moot, while the rest of the text showed little real empathy or serious introspection that United understood something horrible had happened that would make their current and future customers very angry with them unless they addressed it transparently and sincerely.

3)     United blamed the victim in an email to employees rather than be accountable

The leading message in the CEO’s email is standing up for his employees. Supporting the team is an important step for a leader, especially in an environment where organizational culture has challenges. But, there was a better way.

Assuming the employees did “follow established procedures,” there comes a point where as a leader you have to say: “we followed all the rules…and it still resulted in a bad outcome for our customer. We’re going to take a hard look at how we do business to make sure our customers get the experience we hope to provide every day.”

I worked in health insurance for years. We found a lot of procedures designed to provide an efficient internal solution but didn’t produce the desired customer experience. It’s not rocket science to identify, but acting on it requires leadership.

The second message in the email was to blame the victim, declaring him “belligerent and disruptive.” That might have worked in the era before social media and smart phone videos. It doesn’t now. A 69-year-old, bespectacled doctor was dragged bleeding from one of your company’s airplanes, United. The lay viewer isn’t going to believe he’s at fault, especially after he properly took his assigned seat during the boarding process and was only then told to get off because one of your employees needed the seat instead.

After all that, the CEO’s vague talk of “lessons we can learn” and treating customers “with respect and dignity” at the end of the note were near worthless because the rest of the email was so bad.

What it all means

It’s fair to speculate some of United own employees reacted adversely after seeing the news coverage of their employer and contrasted that with their CEO’s email. Or a rough Tuesday on Wall Street for United woke up the executive team. Or the communications professionals started winning the internal messaging war. Whatever the sequence or combination, someone at United wrote an infinitely better response for the CEO today, declaring the incident “truly horrific,” expressing “deepest apologies,” and saying “no one should ever be mistreated this way.”

More importantly for any attempt to heal the company’s reputation, the CEO pledged to “make it right” and review all the applicable policies and procedures involved in the sequence of events.

Outstanding.

Except it was more than a day and several news cycles too late, after large swaths of the flying public saw the news, saw United’s initial responses, and have already soured on the United brand. Instead of doing the right thing on day one, United will have to win back the customers it lost with its first 24 hours of bumbling. That’s going to cost them.

What happens to United is anyone’s guess. But, learning from their experience provides a good place to start for leaders and communications professionals finding themselves in a similarly unenviable crisis in the future:

  • Show empathy
  • Focus on the customer
  • Take responsibility

Simple rules to avoid a lot of trouble in this era of fast-moving modern media.

Originally published on my LinkedIn page.