What companies can learn from Abu Ghraib

Share This Post

What companies can learn from Abu Ghraib

Rumors and complaints had been floating around for at least half a year before the pictures from Abu Grahib were made public, causing great embarrassment and turmoil. We think that there are three lessons that companies can learn from this incident. These lessons are based on the mantra of high-threat protective services, which is applicable over a wide variety of activities. This mantra is:

• • •

See something. Tell someone. Do something.

Lesson one: See something

Exercise due diligence

Seeing something is prefaced by foreseeing something, which we generally identify with the exercise of due diligence.

We define due diligence as any action that, if you fail to take it, will open you to a charge negligence because you either knew of the risk or should have known of the risk. While some tend to think only of financial due diligence, we believe due diligence extends to every area. Thus, if you have a young child and a swimming pool, you ought to be able to envision the danger of your child falling in and drowning if you do not have a fence. If you have a parking lot, and the area is dangerous, you ought to be able to envision robberies taking place at night if there is no supervision. If you are a financial institution, you should be able to envision that someone will want to launder money through you. If you have a prison – and in particular a prison in a war zone – you ought to be able to envision abuse.

Once you are aware of the potential for a problem, the exercise of due diligence demands that you take preventive measures to try to ensure that the potential problem won’t become an actual problem. As an example, we have a client in an industry that has historically demonstrated the potential to take advantage of desperate customers. This company has written rules against this. In addition, they discuss the issue regularly in meetings. Finally, they hire us as secret shoppers, to go to their offices and see if we can get their staff to make claims they cannot fulfill, which would, were we actual clients, be to our disadvantage. While it is certainly possible that some employee could still do something against company policy, it is clear that this would be an aberration within a given office, not a systemic problem encouraged by senior management or the corporate culture.

The bottom line is that everyone on staff should always be thinking about potential problems, and how to head them off. And that someone in senior management should be making sure that the company’s commitment to good behavior is an actual part of the corporate culture, not something said with a knowing wink. We ourselves have a rule – one of our core values – that we will not work for bad people, and will not do bad things (both of which are possibilities that are, by definition, part of our business). Because of this, when we are approached to do a job we need to know who our final client will be, and why they want us to do what we are being hired to do. We have turned down jobs where the client seemed unsavory, or because we believed the potential client had no right to the information they sought.

Watch for problems that occur in spite of your good-faith efforts

While the exercise of due diligence will go a long way to eliminate problems, they can still happen. Because of this, people and institutions need to be ever vigilant. This vigilance can be, and in many cases should be, institutionalized. As an example, police departments have internal affairs people looking for police misconduct. Intelligence agencies have counter- intelligence people looking for traitors. Construction sites will sometimes have a non-construction civilian wandering around to make sure that what is being done looks sensible: Should there really be urinals in the ladies’ bathroom? Shouldn’t there be rebar in the hole before you pour cement? Auditors will look for anomalies like employees who have no benefits. The International Red Cross provides scrutiny of prisons.

The object is to have someone who can spot anomalies that are not being hidden. And to spot bad things that are being hidden.

Lesson two: Tell someone

In virtually all cases where there is a serious problem, someone saw something that could have prevented the problem, had they but told the right people. As an example, on 30 November 1989 heavily-guarded Deutsche Bank director Alfred Herrhausen (but not his driver) was killed by a bomb while being driven to work. Killing someone in moving car with a bomb, without killing anyone else, is tricky because the car is moving, so you can’t simply judge it by eye and press a remote control button. In this case, a trench was dug across the street, a cable was buried, and a sensor was installed. Now the remote control merely needed to activate the device after the lead car passed. A lot of people saw the installation performed, but the right people weren’t told.

Lesson three: Do something

Whenever a problem is discovered, there are several questions that must be asked in deciding what action is to be taken.

Is it serious?

Obviously, there are lots of things that can cause problems. Some are serious, and some are not, and it is not always that easy to tell the difference. If you see some water on a carpet it could either indicate someone spilled a glass of water, or that a pipe has burst. If a kid gets into a fistfight it could be adolescence or an indication of a problem with bullies or gangs. If you smell gas, has the pilot light gone out, or is there a broken gas main in the street seeping in through the sewer pipes? If a prisoner is abused is it a single guard that needs to be removed, or is it something more?

Is it systemic or unique?

While solving a problem will have many common elements independent of whether it is a unique problem, or an indication of a systemic problem, there is a lot more to be done if the problem is systemic. That is to say, you have to get to the heart of the cultural issue, and change that before you can have some confidence that the problem will occur less frequently. We ourselves are a suspicious lot by training and temperament, and tend to subscribe to the “once a coincidence, twice a conspiracy” approach.

What are the PR implication

In certain cases merely solving the problem is not sufficient, because there is a social, emotional, or public relations piece of the problem that must be recognized and dealt with. When this is the case, you need to own the problem, rather than merely reacting to it. Issuing a quiet press release without emphasizing its importance because you don’t recognize its importance can turn you from being a hero who found and fixed a problem into a fool who didn’t recognize it. Or, even worse, you can be taken for a knave who deliberately chose to overlook it. Frankly, you really want people to think of you as a hero, and don’t want people trying to decide whether you are, as the only two choices, a fool or a knave.

Abu Ghraib is an excellent example of this kind of issue. As we understand the chronology, the International Red Cross reported problems in October of 1993. The issue reached the attention of senior staff in January 2004. The Army ordered an investigation (you can read the report of Major General Antonio M. Taguba at http://www.agonist.org/annex/taguba.htm), mention of which was included in two public press briefings. This led to the current set of ongoing investigative and disciplinary actions. The process worked, and the military was cleaning its own house.

The process, however, did not take into account the emotional, social, or public relations implications of the problem, apparently because it was simply not recognized. Thus, when asked in Senate hearings if he had briefed the President on the issue, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said he briefed the President on many things, and didn’t remember. We have no reason to disbelieve him, but it shows that he hadn’t recognized that this was an important issue. Certainly not important enough to be remembered.

Can we, in the commercial world, do a better job or taking ownership of a potential scandal than did the government? Sure! Just look at the way Johnson & Johnson handled the discovery of tainted Tylenol. They took ownership of the problem, and emerged with full customer confidence, and an unsullied reputation. Then compare that with the Firestone Tire scandal.

As Americans, we of course wish that no abuses ever happened under the color of our flag, but recognize that abuses can always happen, even when we are vigilant. And we are proud that the military addressed the problem, and of its own volition.

But we also wish that someone – anyone! – senior within the administration had recognized the serious nature of abuse in the most infamous Iraqi prison, and made a timely and independent (i.e., not mixed with other announcements), public, and condemnatory announcement regarding Abu Ghraib. Something like, “We have discovered this. It is not the American way. We are stopping it, and seeing that it never happens again.” Had the administration taken ownership of the problem, we believe they would have been thought heroes.

Practice, practice, practice…

Hopefully, you will be alert and sensitive enough to recognize and deal with problems of social import, allowing you to emerge a hero. But the likelihood of your reacting appropriately without having pre-thought similar problems is sadly low. As in most things, in a time of crisis you will react the way you trained. If you have never practiced to deal with significant issues, you will do nothing contributory.

How do you practice? Well, your crisis management team should regularly run dynamic simulations. Some of these should include strange crises, with the participants including management, corporate communications, and the outside PR firm. Keep in mind that these simulations must be run by someone outside the system. Anything you can think of should go into the crisis list. Abusing spouses holding an employee captive. Senior managers, committing fraud. Senior managers being arrested for bizarre and embarrassing crimes. Seepage of industrial waste into the water table. In one case we staged what eventually turned out to be the homicide of the president of the company by his head of corporate communications. Go out of your way to think of issues that go beyond the mere problem itself.

By including this kind of training, you will find yourself better positioned to identify and deal with critical problems that have a life of their own. You will have a chance to be a hero, and not a fool or a knave.

More To Explore