4 lessons from a mismanaged crisis response

The former CCO for General Electric recounts how he got it wrong when faced with a media relations disaster in 2011. Here’s how you can avoid a similar fate.

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This column is called “How We Did It,” but because we learn more from mistakes than successes, I wanted to share my failure handling a crisis when I was the chief communications officer at GE.

Okay, deep breath. It’s tough for me to relive this story, but it will be worth it for you because the lessons are clear.

Big companies not paying a lot of taxes to the U.S. government isn’t very newsworthy today, particularly with lower corporate rates as a result of the 2017 federal tax legislation—but in 2011, GE’s low tax bill created a public firestorm.

It began when reporters from several major news organizations contacted me in early 2011 about GE’s historic tax rates, tax lobbying and interpretations of arcane tax regulations. Someone was shopping the GE tax story to journalists. The questions from reporters were similar, including identical anecdotes about GE’s tax team.

The New York Times moved the quickest on its story. Because the subject was complex, I provided written answers to the reporter’s questions. I worked with our tax lawyers, accountants and others for several weeks to get the answers correct. This was byzantine stuff given GE’s massive global businesses and legal structures.

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