Is your organization facing a crisis with global implications? In the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, communications played a central role with the public and major players — on a totally different time scale. A PBS documentary with interviews and mushroom cloud video provides key insights into the role of communications during the time the US came closest to global thermonuclear war.
When the US first discovered the missiles in Cuba, President Kennedy said nothing for several days. When JFK publically announced a talk to the nation at 7 PM, Khrushchev said to his aides: “they must have found the missiles.”
Clearly the Kennedy administration had a luxury of time not available to today’s leaders of nations and international companies.
Below are key communication points as the crisis unfolded:
1) Announcing the discovery of the illegal missile sites on TV was the fastest way to communicate with Khrushchev. In 1962, Western Union telegrams would be delivered via bicycle and then be translated, requiring 12 hours.
2) The Air Force flew low over Cuba, taking photos. Then Ambassador Adlai Stevenson made a dramatic presentation to the United Nations, showing the missles that Russia and Cuba had denied installing. One aide said: “we needed to show the missiles so that whatever happened, the world would know that we had just cause.”
3) Castro realized the USSR and the US were communicating without including him. He sent a letter to Khrushchev saying they were willing to be sacrificed, thinking this would strengthen his resolve to keep the missiles in Cuba. The letter had the opposite effect. Khrushchev–who saw horrors in World War II — told his aides: “Castro is insane.” The gambit backfired.
4) The crisis resolved over a secret agreement. The missiles were put in Cuba because the US had installed missiles in Turkey on Russia’s front porch. JFK told Khrushchev if he withdrew the missiles from Cuba, the US would remove the obsolete missiles from Turkey. But there would be no public announcement. The two actions could not be linked. Both presidents kept their word.
So the resolution of the greatest threat of nuclear holocaust was accomplished by a mutual agreement not to make any public statement.
Our 24/7 media culture makes crisis response ever more complicated and immediate. The attack on the US embassy in Behghazi continues to reverberate from public statements made on TV talk shows several days after the event.
All organizations who interact with the media should have a crisis communications plan. When the crisis hits, there is no time to develop key messages or agreement with your leadership on the steps to be taken. The organization needs to develop “what-if” scenarios and rehearse them with top management if the company, government or organization is to avoid lasting damage.