Corporate lessons from Kim Jong Il’s death

Kim Jong Il

With the passing of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, the world has lost another evil human being in a year that was full of the deaths of evil individuals. (Osama bin Laden and Moammar Gadhafi being two of them). Not to make light of Kim Jong Il’s death or the potential for challenges that his passing may mean for the Korean Peninsula, but there are lessons to be learned from how the North Koreans handled the situation. What would your company do if it had to make a sudden (and perhaps unpleasant) announcement? It happens. The Steve Jobs of the world die. Products malfunction and have to be recalled. CEOs are suddenly embroiled in scandal. But more commonly, routine changes occur every day that necessitate communication with the public. Here are some tips we can learn from the North Koreans:

1. Control the timing of the announcement. Don’t let outsiders force you to make an announcement before you’re ready with the facts. Mr. Kim supposedly died on a train on Saturday, which was really Friday for America due to the International Date Line. But the reports of his death didn’t hit the US media until Monday—a good two to three days later. Even in a closed, secretive country like North Korea, bottling up news like that is an accomplishment. They even managed to launch a short-range missile around the same time the news was released. Which brings us to…

2. Let everyone know you’re open for business. The North Koreans wasted no time in launching missiles, showing the world that their internal military command structure was intact, and not to use their leader’s death an opportunity to invade (however unlikely a scenario that may be). If your company is making a big announcement, make sure the public, your employees and your investors know that the company won’t grind to a halt just because you’re making a change… and you’re not open to a hostile takeover from a private equity company.

3. Have a succession plan. There’s a saying that goes “Your only job is to groom your replacement,” and there’s some truth to that. The North Koreans have done a good job of parading around Kim Jong Il’s son, Kim Jung Un, as the heir apparent to the leadership role in the communist state. Having a succession plan helps to reassure your stakeholders that there will be continuity when top leadership changes, and that the company will continue to be profitable and show growth.

Yes, it’s odd to draw lessons for capitalism and free-market economies from the world’s most closed, state-controlled society. But the lessons are there. After all, spinning the news was practiced long before western Europeans created free markets in the middle ages and Greek philosophers conjured up representative government thousands of years ago in Athens.

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