Lessons in how not to manage a crisis from the House of Saud

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Like the rest of the world, here at Provident we've found ourselves both horrified and transfixed by the murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Horrified for obvious reasons. Transfixed as we watch the ultimate crisis management situation careen spectacularly off the rails.

The New York Times reported last weekend that, as international outrage mounted over the murder, the elderly King Salman sent a senior member of the House of Saud, Prince Khalid al-Faisal, to Ankara to discuss the matter with Turkey's president.

He returned, the Times reported, with grim news for the king: "It is really difficult to get out of this one."

You think?

The matter at hand is grisly, to put it mildly: the alleged ambush and dismembering of a journalist. Nevertheless, there are lessons -- on a monstrous scale -- in the chaos playing out in the House of Saud in recent weeks.

First and foremost, if someone in your firm is accused of something heinous -- stopping short of murder, we truly hope -- it's essential from the outset that there's no attempt to conceal the obvious. Changing your story several times, as the Saudis did, and then finally coming out with a fanciful explanation that defies any logic is the absolute wrong path to take.

Genuinely acknowledging from the outset of a dreadful scandal that someone in your company has done something seriously offside, and truly dealing with it and apologizing for it, is critical.

Authenticity, honesty and transparency are key when you're under the media spotlight. Telling lies that can be easily disproven will devastate your company's reputation -- and ultimately its bottom line. It may be impossible, in fact, to ever recover from gargantuan lies told to the public in an attempt to get your firm out of hot water. 

In the Khashoggi case, the Saudi government’s attempts at explaining away what happened have become as much a story as the murder itself. Even U.S. President Donald Trump, who initially provided some cover for the Saudis, said this week that “the cover-up was the worst in the history of cover-ups.”

And to be sure, the cover story put forth by the Saudis is laughable. The latest iteration insists that Khashoggi entered the consulate in Istanbul, and, surrounded by 15 Saudi operatives, initiated a fistfight. He was then, apparently, put in a choke hold and accidentally killed, and then dismembered by a pathologist who just happened to be packing a bone saw. 

Sounds plausible! If, that is, you also believe that the moon walk was faked and the Earth is flat. 

The only correct path for King Salman is to take full responsibility for the death of Khashoggi, replace or at least temper the influence of the Crown Prince, and to provide a full accounting of exactly why and how Khashoggi was murdered, and where his remains can be found. Only then can Saudi Arabia, eager to be perceived as progressive by the West, clutch some semblance of victory out of these horrifying jaws of defeat.

And there are lessons here for all of us in the crisis management space, even if it's on a much smaller, less gruesome scale. The truth can, and will, set you free. If you find your firm in a grave crisis situation, that's a mantra that will rarely steer you wrong.