Communicating Leadership in Times of Crises: A Conversation with Ann Compton
By Chloe Slocum
The best leaders prove themselves during times of crisis. No one knows this better than Ann Compton, former White House Correspondent for ABC News. A prominent television journalist with a career spanning over four decades, Compton has covered seven presidential campaigns and observed firsthand how world leaders respond to crises. Joining the Voices in Leadership Series at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health on October 3rd for an in-depth conversation, Compton reflected on her professional experiences reporting on presidents, interacting with politicians and their staff, and shared what she has learned about effective leadership.
Compton received her White House assignment in 1974, becoming the first woman and one of the youngest reporters to cover the White House full time by a network television news organization. In addition to this achievement and her many other distinctions, Compton is perhaps most famous for being the only broadcast reporter permitted to accompany President George W. Bush aboard Air Force One on September 11, 2001. Upon receiving news about the terrorist attack and having been advised not to return to Washington D.C., President Bush flew from Florida to various parts of the country accompanied by Compton. She vividly described the hours that followed and the multifaceted leadership she witnessed from President George W. Bush and his staff in the wake of the terrorist attacks. As Compton recounted that fateful day and reflected on her career as as White House Correspondent for ABC News from 1974 to 2014, she shared several key lessons and distinguishing leadership traits with the audience.
Compton underscored the crucial importance of focused leadership during a crisis. In the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, she stated,
“There’s a sense of vulnerability that everybody felt. But as a reporter, just as you are a surgeon or a president, you bring your focus back to where you can do the most good. You don’t have time to get emotional.”
Maintaining focus on the larger goal — communicating the security of the President and government operations after the attacks — proved to be critical to Compton and the reporting team aboard Air Force One, who eventually reached Washington safely with the President. Compton and her colleagues at ABC News were later awarded the prestigious Silver Baton Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University Award for the network’s outstanding coverage of events that day.
Detailing her coverage of numerous presidential administrations, Compton noted that crisis “brings out the best and the worst in how we communicate.” She described the importance of communicating resolve and framing messages during times of crisis, citing President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama and their methods for navigating troubled waters. In addition to using the right terms, Compton recalled, “it’s important when you communicate leadership at a time of crisis to remind people who is in charge.”
Compton argued that one of the most important factors necessary for effective leadership during a crisis is preparation.
“In a crisis you are only as good as all your preparation has been for years and years before that,” she said. “You have to know your own systems so well.”
She went on to emphasize that “leaders have to have the smarts to think ahead and know at least the parameters of what could be at risk.” In addition to deliberate attention to workforce preparation, Compton stressed the importance of practice for leaders so that they “know exactly where to go at the moment the crisis hits.”
Compton had valuable insights into the changing media landscape. While she suggested that interest in specialized information “in the mainstream news media seems to be evaporating,” she praised newer trends in internet journalism. She noted their ability to connect reporters with “expert voices,” such as those at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, thereby conveying important health information to the public.
Compton also reflected on the considerable progress made by women in journalism and, more generally, in the workplace. Alluding to her experiences in balancing her personal life with an active and fulfilling professional life, she observed that “the playing field is more level than it has ever been before,” though there is still a long way to go. Compton concluded her discussion with faculty and students by imparting advice on how to negotiate and navigate situations of implicit bias.
“Know your facts. Do your job really, really well so that you don’t give anyone an opportunity to say that category, that race, that gender can’t do it. And be absolutely up front with people. Treat them with the same respect you would ask of them.”
Story by Dr. Chloe Slocum, who is passionate about health quality and equity and is pursuing a Master of Public Health in Health Policy at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Story edited by Sohini Mukherjee, a first year student in the Master of Science program in Global Health and Population at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.