Monday, September 14, 2009

9/11 and 15/11: Lives versus lucre

This post was written in the back seat of a yellow cab on arrival into New York on 9/11 2009, and just a few days short of the one year anniversary of Lehmann Brothers declaring bankruptcy.

Both events caused great fear. How our trusted institutions (governments, corporates in particular) emerged from those events has been defining, with trust intact or in tatters.

Reputation research tells us that in times of crisis, it is vision and leadership that define our reputations.

My experience on 9/11 2001 was one of being torn between the job (then head of external communications for a listed insurer) and concern for colleagues and friends in New York.

The immediate concern for listed insurers and airlines in Australia before the ASX opened was to know what to say to the market and whether or not to allow their stock to trade. Many senior people I knew were shocked, bewildered and simply unsure what to do next.

Fortunately I had the support of a great consultant. He'd seen the news the night before and spent much of his night trying to track down family in New York. He'd also seen what happened to airline and insurance stocks in US trading before the market closed. He gave my colleagues and I good advice, and he was there for us when we needed him.

As a company we were able to assess our position quickly and make sensible representations to the ASX. Those initial assessments proved correct and the market rewarded us for it.

Another listed insurer didn't get their market communication right. It very nearly cost them everthing as their share price dropped and market rumour took hold. Their reputation took a huge hit.

On 15 September 2008 and I arrived in New York to attend an investment communication conference. The news was all about Lehmann. The next day it was all about which bank was next to collapse. It seemed no one was safe. New Yorkers, according to the popular news, were already converting cash to gold bullion in mid-town as fear took hold of markets and the world banking system fought for its life.

This time I was the consultant. It was an extraordinary year of helping clients fight for their reputations or, in some cases, their very survival.

For better or worse Australia seemed to lag the US and Europe in feeling the impact of Lehmann. That meant I could advise clients having seen and heard first-hand how the issues were dealt with globally.

Again, vision and leadership have determined reputation post-crisis.

Speed, coherency and appropriateness of response to unexpected events can make or break reputation.

Plenty of businesses didn't make it through the last year. For those that did there are plenty of lessons.

First and foremost, trust is everything.

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