The Superman of southern Alberta

When the floods hit southern Alberta, the man who looks more like Clark Kent, Calgary’s Mayor Nenshi, stepped forward to take on a communications role that has clearly created his legacy.

As everyone knows, this June the Bow and Elbow rivers that run through Calgary surged over their banks and swamped the downtown and low-lying suburbs, damaging the homes and livelihoods of thousands of people.

The City’s Crisis Response Plan kicked into gear with Nenshi as the communications lead. He was on TV, on the radio, in the newspaper, on Twitter, on Facebook…  He worked for 43 straight hours updating, imploring, directing, cheering on and cheering up residents who saw homes ruined and possessions literally float away. He provided updates several times a day (one in the middle of the night).

 “Help your neighbours,” he exhorted, “be it with a shovel or a ride. Hug your emergency providers…”

Well-wishers eventually started a social media campaign to get him to go home and have a nap.

Photos of Nenshi’s head were superimposed on ads for the new movie “Man of Steel.” Other posters suggested “Keep Calm and Nenshi on.” His smiling face, with goggles and snorkel, appeared on T-shirts.

Nenshi is a first-term Mayor, just 41, who gained national attention by relying heavily on social media to beat the perceived front runners in the 2010 municipal election.  He is Harvard-educated and that seemed show in this crisis. Harvard has a well-respected program on Crisis Leadership. The program outlines the ten most common mistakes in times of Crisis. Note that three of the ten (3, 4 and 5) are entirely and completely relevant to communications. In all ten, communications plays a role:

  1. Failure to plan
  2. Failure to determine and follow a hierarchy
  3. Failure to be visible, present and attentive
  4. Failure to listen and comprehend
  5. Failure to effectively communicate
  6. Failure to try new things
  7. Failure to give up control
  8. Failure to act
  9. Failure to lead
  10. Failure to debrief

Nenshi clearly succeeded in being visible and present – to the point where people were telling him to go home and sleep. He was attentive, listening and comprehending; not just for what people were experiencing but in understanding and conveying the needs of emergency providers.

Nenshi scored high marks in understanding that, in a crisis, a leader is often judged, not by how well he or she responds, but by how well they are seen to respond. In the end, regardless of the initiatives a leader has introduced to lower taxes or boost earnings, innovate new products or re-energizing the brand, most often a leader will be remembered far more for their ability to navigate and communicate through a substantial crisis.

Doug Downs, Managing Partner