Burning Rivers and Burning Phones

Social media is ablaze with reports and remarks about public mistakes.  Here in Cleveland, moscow-burning-riverwhere the Indians just swept the Boston Red Sox in a 3-game series, the finale was marred by the jibes of TBS reporters posing with a picture of a burning river in the background, implied to be that of the Cuyahoga River. However, TBS actually used 2015 footage of a burning river in Moscow which injured three people. Twitter lit up with condemning comments for TBS while other local media outlets  shared their displeasure over the incident.

I was six years old and living near Cleveland when the Cuyahoga River caught on fire. While I don’t recall the actual incident, I do remember hearing about it often. Did you know that 1969 was not the first time the river ignited?  It is believed to have caught fire thirteen times, with the most potent blaze occurring in 1952 and the most fatal blaze occurring in 1912, resulting in five deaths. The river fire of 1969 became most famous because of an article published in TIME magazine which actually included a picture of the much larger fire of 1952 as its cover photo, falsely representing the minor 1969 fire. In current news, TBS has stated regret for their misrepresentation, a mistake in judgment.

News reports also reveal that the Samsung Note 7, which has been catching fire for several weeks, is no longer in production. Serious mistakes in the product finally caught the attention of Samsung’s CEO and the appropriate decision has been made. But the fallout from this mistake will be felt for months to come. Peter Sadbolt, business reporter for BBC News, states in his October 13th article, “How Can a Company Repair a Damaged Reputation”, the following observation:  “It doesn’t just end with a plummeting share price, a quarterly profits warning and a product recall.  Instead, the shockwaves…are likely to be felt for years, and cause incalculable damage…At risk for Samsung is its brand integrity – intangibles such as customer loyalty, prestige and positive brand recognition.”   Mr. Sadbolt’s observations are right on target and lead us to some valuable lessons we can learn from both of these stories:

Lesson #1: One mistake can define us for life. This doesn’t seem fair.  We are human. We all make mistakes. Whatever happened to “forgive and forget”? Human nature seems be good at recalling failure and  bad at remembering success. In his article, Sadbolt lists several large corporations whose mistakes continue to define them. We do well to heed this lesson and make our choices wisely.

Lesson #2:  The response to the mistake will last as long as the memory of the mistake itself.  You made a mistake?  Then determine to do the right thing as soon as possible afterwards. Tim Ward, quoted in the same article, states, “If you have integrity running through your business, then that’s the place from which you should act.”  Responding out of integrity will go a long way in reducing the negative effects of the mistake itself.

Lesson #3: Know what the problem is. Define it. Understand it. If a wrong decision has been made, don’t be vague about it. In the case of Samsung’s product, their initial temporary solution only accentuated the perspective that they did not know what they were dealing with. Now the fallout will be much worse. If you make a mistake, own it and move forward to correct it.

Lesson #4:  Lead with confidence through the crisis.  In the article, Neil McLeod observes, “I have seen statements from Samsung, but I have not seen the face of Samsung in all of this.”  A business psychologist remarked that “those that have tried to hide these things in the past have paid a much higher price in terms of loss of consumer trust.”   When faced with a mistake, don’t hide. Be confident. Be available. Be responsible.

For most of us, our mistakes will not be made in the same public manner as a burning river or a burning phone. But the lessons to be learned are for all of us. Integrity matters.  Leadership matters. And it all starts with owning up to the mistakes we have made.


About Deb Ashley

At home, Deb is the wife of Mark and mom of three adult children. She enjoys cooking, taking care of a small but somewhat productive garden, feeding the local community of birds and other assorted critters, and taking naps with her dog Mandy. Her passions include teaching, writing and music. In the community, Deb enjoys working alongside her husband in his role as a pastor. She is involved in teaching and encouraging women from all walks of life through book studies, counseling, and speaking opportunities.
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