What Pearl Harbor Can Teach Us About Executive Communications

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Most people who know me well, know I’m a 1940s enthusiast, and could probably qualify for a 12-step program for over-informed History Channel addicts.  But every now and then, a special like “Pearl Harbor 24 Hours After” comes along, and it makes me not only see history in a totally different way–but the present, too.  In the case of this FDR retrospective, it also made me realize he may well have paved the way for modern crisis communications.

The show recounted the 24 hours after the fateful attack that, essentially, wiped the entire US Navy out in one stroke.  It showed how slow news travelled; how little they really knew; and how much confusion and dissention  existed among his advisors.  But as I watched in rapt attention as the story unfolded hour by hour, I couldn’t help but notice the communications lessons modern executives could learn from President Roosevelt today–in good times, and especially, in bad ones.  Here are my takeaways:

Screen Shot 2013-01-11 at 6.56.53 PM1)  Personal bravery counts.  A lot.

It took several hours for the full extent of the damage to finally get to Roosevelt’s desk. But when it did, his son and others who were there reported that the worse the news got, the calmer FDR became.  There were no recriminations.  No congressional committees.  No kicking the can down the road.  He knew the time to act was now. He made the decision to declare war, even though America had barely any real military left.  He convened the Congress and scheduled it for a live radio broadcast.  Newsreels rolling, this wheelchair-bound man made the decision to walk with leg braces, stiffly and in excruciating pain, from the back of the congressional chamber to the podium at the front of the chamber. He could have easily fallen flat, and shown the world a terrible message of weakness. But this symbolic act of personal strength brought Congress to its feet in deafening applause–and set the tone for one of the most memorable speeches in American history.

2)  When the news is bad, start with short, inspiring and emotionally powerful messaging.

A speech so memorable, it is part of the national World War II monument.

A speech so memorable, it is part of the national World War II monument.

FDR drafted the one page speech in just a few minutes.  His entire staff of advisors hated it.  Up to the last minute, he was being vigorously lobbied to read a very long speech that had been drafted by his speechwriters–one that laid out in painstaking detail every transgression committed by the Japanese over the last few months of negotiations.  He ignored them; and he was right.  The American people were angry and scared.  The last thing they wanted to hear now was a dissertation on the finer points of diplomacy.  They wanted to know three things: what happened;  what does this mean; what are we going to do about it? He viscerally showed the outrage the American people were feeling. Even today, little schoolchildren still know December 7th, 1941 is the “day that will live in infamy.” FDR was a transformative leader, because he was able to show us a vision of what we could be. He told the people we were going to defeat the Japanese, and he was just the man to show us how.  He knew our hearts, and he knew what we were capable of when asked.  And everyone lined up to follow him.

3)  Share the pain and sacrifice.

Screen Shot 2013-01-11 at 6.38.30 PMThough Roosevelt was a very wealthy man, he was seen as “a man of the people” because he was truly with the people.  He spent time with them, and he fought for the welfare of the common man. One of FDR’s greatest assets was his first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt.  Did you know that it was actually Eleanor who gave the first radio address about the upcoming war--an emotional radio commentary that called the nation to work and sacrifice to beat this terrible threat? Later, while FDR was dealing with the war effort, Eleanor was canvassing the nation, visiting with the common folk, celebrating their successes and showcasing people who were doing great things for the war effort. Her weekly radio addresses painted a picture of a homefront at war.  She didn’t try to shellack the truth.  She admitted that things were hard, and likely to get even worse. She talked quite personally about the heartbreak of sending a son off to war because her son was gone too.  But she talked, too, of the day when it would all be worth it.

Eleanor Roosevelt congratulating the WACs, the first women to serve in the military.

Eleanor Roosevelt congratulating the WACs, the first women to serve in the military.

4)  Help people focus their energy for the common good.

Leaders often forget that in times of trouble, people want to unite. During the second world war, the government gave them lots of opportunities to do so.  Those who couldn’t fight went to work in factories building guns, ships and planes.  Those who couldn’t work in factories volunteered for the USO, bought war bonds, planted victory gardens, lived on rations without complaint and recycled rubber and metals for the war effort.  Every person, no matter how small, had a part to play. You might think this kind of altruism is a product of by-gone days.  But just look at the outpouring of volunteerism after  the 9-11 attacks, or Hurricane Katrina.  The can-do spirit is alive and well in America, and in your employees, too.  They just need the right leader to show the way.

Today, of course, leaders are under a lot more pressure.  FDR didn’t have to deal with whistleblowers, The Drudge Report, the 24-hour news cycle or online commenters on the White House Website.  But on the other hand, FDR didn’t have social media, Intranets, global vodcasts, viral video, text messaging, mobile donation campaigns and many of the modern tools we have for getting out executive messaging, either. Today, you can get your call to action out–and offer nearly limitless amounts of background information to support your case.

Some things never change.  Leadership will always be a careful combination of what you do AND what you say. Make sure you’re worthy of the podium.


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