What’s Going Wrong in the Culture? Or is it Business-as-Usual and We Are Just Paying Closer Attention in the Era of 24/7 News?

by Hank Boerner

This is a busy week for journalists and commentators as personal crisis piles on crisis and new juicy details are revealed. As a long-time issue and crisis manager, for me the stories jump off the page (print and digital) and screen.  I think about the cultural underpinnings of the crisis du jour.   Lots more lessons to be learned here.

As a crisis manager, I observed over time that the culture that was established — the foundational, operating environment with its generally accepted practices — was a key determinant in what happened (what went wrong), what could go right in the response and restoration phase, and in the behavior of those involved, from leadership to rank and file. The dominant culture was the guide, especially for better-managed organizations, for the start of recovery and restoration (and in contrast, for ruination and agony in the worst cases).

In this global operating environment, there are also cultural norms and important differences that are determinants in the outcome of these affairs as well. Consider the case of the expelled diplomat from India, who was arrested and strip searched in New York City, and then invited to go back home.  Where she was welcomed and treated to better treatment than in the USA.

The norms in the USA  we can generally agree are the expectations of reasonable (“fair”) pay, limited work hours, fair treatment for those in our employ.  The government may be watching, or the media may pounce.  Reputations can be shredded quickly.

New York City-based Indian consul Devyani Khobragade brought a maid into the USA and (it is alleged and reported by media) forced her to work 100 hours weekly, limited her breaks, and prevented the unhappy worker from leaving the USA to return home (by withholding her passport). The New York Times account on January ii pointed out that in India, as she returned to her homeland, there was little outrage about the abuse of the maid.  People interviewed in India were more upset about the treatment of the diplomat (who was briefly jailed).  And about the way the USA – more puritanical in many ways from other countries – mattered more. Different norms, different cultures. Different outcomes.  Over time the two cultures involved (USA, India) may resolve differences r this may become a point of great contention.

And in France – the president, Francoise Hollande, is reported by Closer magazine to be having an affair with an actress 18 years his younger. (Political power itself is an aphrodisiac.) These revelations do not shock the citizens of France or its media.  “Public moralizing,” noted the USA’s Times, does not occur in France as in the USA. (Just ask Gary Hart or John Edwards, both of whom had presidential hopes dashed on such revelations. Remember the photo ops on the back of the yacht, Monkey Business? Or think about the public and private maneuvering of President Bill Clinton, who struggled to be the Comeback Kid after allegations and admissions of such behavior).

Personal privacy matters much more to the French than the personal high jinks adventures of its elected leaders. Yes, privacy matters in the USA, too, but not in terms of certain personal behaviors of those in public office or other high places (such as corporate CEOs like Mark Hurd of HP.)  In cases like these, for American media, privacy is out the window (the “public figure” line of defense) and targets are fair game. And a shot in the arm for readership, listenership or viewership at the peak. (Sure, attention wanes quickly in this era of 5 minutes of public fame and then it is on to the next big crisis story.)

Much of the coverage can be unfair or even untrue. Yes, we expect good behavior by our leaders and look to them for inspiration and guidance.  But our leaders are human, and so by definition not perfect. And the cultural setting is important (USA vs France, for example). And while the American leader is being taken down or taken apart, bad things can happen. (We are told by some authors that while President Clinton was dealing with the aftermath of dalliances, he took his eye off the ball and let Osama bin Laden get away from his African hideout before the September 11, 2001 attacks.)

So – in our culture, shaped by Puritan thinking 300 years ago and ever since, and our obsession with personal behaviors of leaders, do we place too much emphasis on the dalliances of our leaders?  Are all their private moments our public business?

While the general agreement is that they should be accountable for their behavior (it goes with the office), I also think about what the famed social philosopher and American editor, H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) had to say about this: “There is only one honest impulse at the bottom of Puritanism, and that is the impulse to punish the man with a superior capacity for happiness.  To bring him down to the miserable level of ‘good men,’ that is, stupid, cowardly, and chronically unhappy men.”  Wow – that sounds like some of the talking heads on cable weighing in our our latest personal crises.

Stay Tuned – the next personal reputation crisis is cooking out there, even for the most successful of our leaders.  Just ask Governor Eliot Spitzer.  Or Congressman Anthony Weiner. Yes, they brought in on themselves. But they know first hand about the dreaded media call – Gotcha!  Bad things follow. And we will all tune in, won’t we!

What do you think?