by Sarah Ninivaggi
photos by Daley Wilhelm
There’s a reason shows like Scandal and The West Wing are so popular. The high intensity and high-profile nature of a public crisis makes for a perfect drama. But for communications professionals, social media, a 24-hour news cycle, and constant public scandals mean that crisis communication has become a key skill.
Of course, one of the first things we learn in Melissa Schwartz’s popular Crisis Communication course here at Comm Lead is that TV shows aren’t an accurate depiction of what the real-life work is like. The polished sound bites we see take hours, if not weeks, of careful practice and preparation. It takes tremendous coordination, planning, and strategy to execute any crisis response, even in the midst of high-stress and emotional environments.
It’s rare to get a real glimpse into what a crisis situation feels like, and to learn what happens when the cameras aren’t rolling. But this week, Comm Lead had the opportunity to hear from former FBI Director Andrew McCabe, a client of Schwartz’s. Speaking to an intimate group of students, alumni and faculty, he shared stories from his career, and what his life has been like following his politically-charged termination from the FBI last year.
Throughout the night, McCabe shared personal, and often funny, details of how he got his start in the FBI. He described his time as an agent in New York working on Russian mob crimes, to eventually leading counter-terrorism work in DC as a top official at the Bureau. It was the actual crisis work that drew him to the FBI. He recounted an innate desire to be involved in the action of it all. And throughout his career, crisis was a constant—overseeing major investigations, managing breaking news, and reporting to stakeholders like the White House and members of Congress.
However, after a 21-year career in public service, his future permanently changed when he was fired just days before he was set to retire. McCabe went from being a private, behind-the-scenes figure to someone thrust into the national spotlight, on the receiving end of very public scrutiny. And he had to shift his communication strategy from representing an agency to representing himself and defending his personal reputation.
It’s easy to become desensitized by seeing figures like McCabe on TV or social media. They feel more like characters in a TV show than real people. As a result, we don’t think about how they have feelings outside of their important roles and responsibilities. Hearing McCabe’s personal account instilled a simple, but important takeaway: that public figures are people, too. They are people who go home to their worried families, who feel intense pressure from these situations, and who are personally impacted far beyond what we see on our screens.
It’s not every day we get to sit in a room with someone who has led a major U.S. institution, and who took time from a network media blitz to stop by our classroom. For the political and news junkies among us, this was a couldn’t-miss event. But cool factor aside, these types of opportunities serve as moments to enhance our understanding of the role we play as communicators, and to develop our perspectives for how we consume and shape the news.
It turns out FBI agents have quite a few lessons that are applicable to communication leaders. While the world of crisis is intense, it’s actually the softer skills that dominate. Here are just a few learnings from our conversation that intersect with our crisis coursework:
Empathy and compassion: As communicators, we have an obligation to think about the effect our work has on those around us. Though crisis communications requires focus and quick reactions, we also need to remember the human impact of our work, and treat people with respect and care, even during stressful times.
Building trust: From managing FBI interviews to working with his support team following his termination, McCabe talked about the role trust plays in building relationships and achieving a successful outcome. We have a responsibility to build that trust by listening, learning and understanding our stakeholders’ perspectives and needs.
Transparency: Communicating transparently is a challenge for many organizations, but particularly in law enforcement, when it’s often not possible to share details that could compromise an investigation, or someone’s safety. But especially in today’s environment, there is always demand for information. Providing what you can, and owning up to situations early, can help quell a public firestorm.
Sarah Ninivaggi is a member of Comm Lead cohort 18. She currently works in public relations and communications strategy.