Congress, which has had to deal with national crisis situations such as the pandemic, recessions, and immigration, is now confronting its own crisis that was literally on its steps—the takeover of the U.S. Capitol by a mob of supporters of President Donald Trump that has resulted in five deaths and dozens of arrests.
After several hours, law enforcement personnel finally wrested control of the Capitol away from the rioters. It is likely the worst crisis to confront Congress since 1814 when the British burned the Capitol.
This crisis will be particularly memorable for several reasons.
- It was an attack on the building that houses the legislative branch of the U.S. government.
- Trump had a role in causing the crisis.
- The Capitol police were slow to respond.
- The takeover put a temporary halt to the certification of the results of the 2020 presidential election.
Within hours of the end of the siege, there were calls for immediate reforms and the firing or resignations of top officials. There will, of course, be investigations into and hearings about various aspects of the takeover that was described by MSNBC as a “pro-Trump insurrection.”
Until then, based on news reports and how the takeover played out before a national television audience and reported by news organization around the world, there are several important crisis management lessons for business leaders when they have to confront crisis situations at their companies or organizations.
First Things First
In prioritizing what should be done before any crisis, planning should always be at the top of the list.
“The first thing to remember about crisis management is that preparation can, in fact, avert many crises,” according to David Ball, founder and CEO of Ball Consulting Group, which specializes in crisis communication and management.
“The protest—which became an insurrection—had been planned for weeks. A stronger line of defense could likely have prevented the breach. Key questions must now be asked about the security planning prior to [the takeover],” he said.
Planning And Preparation
Bob Bies is a professor of management at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and a crisis management expert. He said the first lesson to be learned from the takeover is to manage the crisis before it happens.
“This means ‘planning and preparation’ for an event that was likely to occur, as thousands of pro-Trump supporters were coming to Washington, DC. Anticipating the size of the crowd and their intentions is a critical part of crisis management—and this needs to be done before the crisis occurs,” he said.
Danielle Holly, CEO of Common Impact said “It’s not possible to anticipate every situation, but you can prepare for the general events associated with a broad range of disasters, such as not having access to your usual physical spaces or resources, needing to pivot funds and personnel, or being able to communicate quickly with key stakeholders.
“Addressing these issues proactively means that when a crisis strikes—whether an attack like we saw on the Capitol or the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic— you can have a plan in place, jump into action, and avoid chaos, confusion, and wasted time,” she advised.
Worse Case Scenarios
Take steps now to prepare for various crisis scenarios that may strike your business. Although demonstrations and protests are nothing new on Capitol Hill, the size, strength, and determination of the crowd that took control of the Capitol obviously caught law enforcement officials by surprise.
“What happened [at the Capitol] was a worse-case scenario, said Gregg Feistman, assistant chair for public relations at Temple University and who teaches crisis communication. “The longer this went on, the higher the likelihood that something extreme was going to happen. Law enforcement should have been overly prepared, as they demonstrated during BLM protests this summer,” he recalled.
“Always prepare for the worse case you can think of, because it can (and as the rioters showed) will happen. Nothing is too far-fetched, no matter how unlikely. In this instance, there were plenty of warning signs, from the president’s and other spokespeople’s continuing rhetoric to social media postings advocating violence,” Feistman said.
Communicating effectively, accurately, and frequently with key audiences and stakeholders throughout a crisis is an essential best practice for managing any crisis situation.
Bies said that “during the takeover, there needed to be ‘one voice’ communicating to the public—and communicating often throughout the day—about what was going on—and what was being done to end this takeover. Lack of communication only magnifies fear and anxiety during a crisis.”
Fred Feiner, president of Yankee Public Relations observed, that “One of the most important rules in crisis communications is to quickly provide thoughtful reliable information and to have that information come from one central voice.
“By having the information come quickly and from a respected central voice, we minimize the desire of the media to seek alternate sources for their audience. The government failed to quickly identify a spokesperson to manage this task and, as a result, the rumor mill was churning for hours with press reporting secondhand information from confidential sources and the public wondering who was in charge.
“The press was using anonymous White House staffers, who were being described as totally overwhelmed and clueless on how to respond to the crisis, and other people outside the federal government,” Feiner said.
Keep People Posted
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to all House members, telling them that “…in consultation with Leader [Steny] Hoyer and Whip [Jim] Clyburn and after calls to the Pentagon, the Justice Department and the Vice President, we have decided we should proceed tonight at the Capitol once it is cleared for use. Leader Hoyer will be sending out more guidance later today.
“We always knew this responsibility would take us into the night. The night may still be long but we are hopeful for a shorter agenda, but our purpose will be accomplished.
“We also knew that we would be a part of history in a positive way, today, despite ill-founded objections to the Electoral College vote. We now will be part of history, as such a shameful picture of our country was put out to the world, instigated at the highest level.”
“Misinformation, whether from the media, online or social media leads to fear and uncertainty,” observed Rachel Brockway, who is the director of public relations at Serendipit Consulting and heads their crisis communication and planning efforts for clients.
“We as communication professionals must be mindful of this when acting and/or communicating on behalf of ourselves or our organizations. From a business standpoint, nothing is more important than being aware of the situation and not appearing, to external or internal audiences, unaware of what is happening in the world,” she said.
Television and news coverage of the siege will yield plenty of documentation that will help officials compile a case study of the strategies, tactics, and techniques that were used to address the crisis.
Bies of Georgetown University said government and law enforcement officials are going to have to provide adequate explanations for ‘how’ and ‘why’ people were able to enter the U.S. Capitol so easily, without anybody stopping them.
“After any crisis, particularly one that caused destruction and the loss of life, there will be finger pointing to blame someone for what happened. Blame management, including providing explanations and taking responsibility for any mistakes, is critical to crisis management,” he said
After Action Review
Learning from the successes and failures of how a crisis was handled is an important steps to preparing for the next crisis.
Bies recommended that there be a follow-up report to assess what went wrong—and what went right—during the temporary takeover. “The purpose of this review is not to blame, but to learn about ]what] can and should be done better during the next crisis. As President John F. Kennedy once wrote: ‘Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other’”, he said
Feistman recommended learning what you can from a crisis event. “What went right, what went wrong and update your risk management and crisis plans. Crises may be unique events in themselves, but it’s inevitable another crisis will happen,” he said.