There are any number of quotations about how pressure reveals the true character of a person such as “True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature” by Robert McKee. We could argue that a crisis creates pressure that reveals the true character of an organization. Crisis managers will tell you there are often battles/conflict over how an organization should respond to the crisis which in turn will reflect the character of the organization. Often that battle is reduce to legal arguing to disclose as little as possible and public relations wanting full disclosure. The reality is probably somewhere between those two extremes. And it is not always legal arguing for what we would consider a suboptimal crisis response. Sometimes it is simply poor choices by the CEO. Moreover, some crisis experts have argued the organizational culture shapes the response and people responding to the crisis—is reflective of character. But let’s take this opportunity to be more dramatic and view the crisis response as a battle for the organization soul as seen through the lens of Star Wars.
If you have ignored popular culture for the past 40 years, here is a quick primer on the battle between good and evil that is at the core of the Star Wars cannon. The Jedi represent all that is good in the universe and seek to protect people. The Jedi draw their power from the light side of the Force. The Jedi look to help people. The Sith represent all that is bad in the universe and seek to exploit people. They draw their power from the dark side of the Force. The Sith look to help themselves. For dramatic effect, a crisis can be a battle between Sith and Jedi. The Sith are those focused on organizational interests such as the financial costs of the crisis. The Sith talk about how the crisis is bad for the organization and their response seeks to limit any potential damage. What is often called a legal response in the crisis communication literature is a Sith move. I know there are good lawyers (I know at least two) but in the crisis context they can be Sith. It might be more accurate to refer to this as a financial response because it shows concerns for shareholders and investors (a narrow set of financial stakeholders). The Jedi are concerned about the victims and potential victims of the crisis. The Jedi make protecting and helping stakeholders placed in harm’s way by a crisis their top priority. In Situational Crisis Communication Theory (SCCT) we argue that the initial response any time there can be crisis victims should be a combination on instructing information (tell people how to protect themselves physically from a crisis) and adjusting information (help people to cope psychologically from a crisis) or what we call the ethical base response. The ethical base response is a Jedi move. It is important to note that by helping the stakeholders the Jedi are helping the organization too. After all, Jedi helped the citizens of the Republic while simultaneously helping the Republic itself. We can call this a social response because it focuses a broader array of stakeholders that can include customers, the community, and employees.
The question becomes, “Can a Sith organization become a Jedi during a crisis?” If organizational culture is a significant influence on the crisis response, the answer would be no. But just maybe a leader emerges, and like Darth Vader at the end, and champions victims like a Jedi. As the crisis leadership literature argues, the leader can shape the crisis response for either good or bad. Sometimes a Jedi can have a little Sith mixed in. Those who wield purple light sabers draw upon both the light and dark sides of the Force. Consider how most food companies fail to use their social media accounts during product recalls even though the recalls frequently pose a public health risk to their customers. That is being a little “Sithy” given the reason for this omission seems to be to protect financial assets. Research shows that greater awareness of a recall can increase the negative effects on a company’s stock. Even a Jedi can be tempted by the dark side.
It is a bit simplistic to reduce crises to a choice between Sith (financial) and Jedi (social) because most responses will be a little of both. Still, most crises will be dominated by one of the two. Crises do provide glimpses into the soul of the organization and perhaps the soles of the organizational leadership. I am a fan of Star Wars, I saw the original in a theater when I was in high school so it is fun to examine crisis responses through the lens of this iconic movie. While it is dramatic to claim a crisis is a battle for the soul of the organization, it is more accurate to say the crisis response reflects what is truly valued in the organization. I believe in the Jedi way to respond to a crisis but there are plenty of Sith around to provide case examples for class and materials for researchers. May the Force be with you, always. And yes, Han did shoot first.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER
1. How strong of a force is organizational culture in shaping the crisis response? What does Contingency Theory add to our understanding of this factor?
2. Can a crisis response be used to mask the true nature of an organization?
3. How fair is it to treat financial and social as competing factors during a crisis?
4. Which was the best Star Wars movie?