8 November 2020

A higher purpose: does your CMT have one?

By Dallas Gurney

The Comey Rule  has just landed on Neon and is a must watch for political junkies.

Starring Jeff Daniels as FBI Director James Comey and Brendan Gleeson as Donald Trump, the drama chronicles the FBI’s investigation into Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and allegations around the storage of sensitive emails on private servers during her time as Secretary of State.

The drama throws up some important discussion points for crisis management professionals.

The main friction in the series comes when Comey decides to re-open the investigation into the Clinton emails just days before the 2016 election.  Well-after an initial FBI investigation finds Clinton has not broken the law, the laptop of disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner comes into the Bureau’s possession and a new dump of emails is uncovered.

The Weiner emails require further inspection and, to do that, Comey needs to re-open the Clinton emails case.  Days out from the election, his decision plays into Trump’s “crooked Hilary” narrative, sowing the seeds of doubt about her credibility and potentially paving the way for a Donald Trump presidency.

The choice to re-open the investigation or complete the work in private until after the election, is described by Comey’s character as a choice between two options – “one is really bad, the other is catastrophic”.

If the case is re-opened, it looks bad for Clinton.  Very bad.  Potentially election-ending.  If they wait and the emails throw up illegal activity, it seems like the FBI took a partisan approach, like  Clinton received favorable treatment by the nation’s most trusted law enforcement agency.

Going down that path would call into question the independence and integrity of the FBI.  That, Comey considers, would be catastrophic.

In crisis we are often presented with similar choices.  The options are “very bad” versus “catastrophic”; “good” is rarely on the table, if it were, it would not be a crisis.

Crisis demands decisive decision-making – that is great decisions, informed by facts, likely made at pace while under pressure.  Given these time restraints, it is no use comparing a tough choice with one you would prefer was on the table.  It is only worthwhile comparing it to the options you have.

One of the crisis principles we teach at Serious is “History will judge you, so do the right thing.”  This principle should be the guiding light of any Crisis Management Team; the short term does not matter, what must you do to come out on the right side of history?

When looking through the lens of what’s right, versus what’s expedient, cheapest or what you might be able to get away with, those tough decisions are actually a lot easier to make.