I spent a lot time covering wars, but I’ve only panicked under fire once.
It was in March 2004. I was reporting for ABC News on a violent revolution in Haiti. We had an exclusive interview with the country’s besieged President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Early on a Sunday morning, my team and I drove through the scruffy streets of the capital, Port-au-Prince, to Aristide’s office, our driver navigating a labyrinth of concrete barriers that circled the outrageously grand, French colonial Presidential Palace.
We approached the palace’s massive wrought-iron gates, and nervous guards approached us with their guns drawn.”The president is not here. Get out of here!” they commanded. We didn’t realize yet that there’d been a coup d’état the previous night, but we knew we needed to get back to our hotel–fast.
That’s when the gunfire started. We couldn’t see it and didn’t appear to be the target, but it was coming from the direction of the only exit we knew. Our driver didn’t know where to turn. I yelled, “We’ve gotta get out of here!”
Our security guy barked back, “Shut the fuck up, you’re not helping!”
I realized immediately that he was right: If we were going to find our way out, we needed to stay calm and think rationally. You can’t do that when you are panicking. Years later, as a tech entrepreneur (thankfully, a much less dangerous profession), I’d remember this crucial lesson—among a few others I picked up in war zones.
The Worse Things Get, The Calmer You’ve Got To Stay
After 30 years as a TV reporter and foreign correspondent, I decided to take on a completely new challenge. With no business experience I set out to launch Trint, a startup focused on building software to automate the tedious workflow of transcription.
One day, Amazon Web Service knocked our platform offline with a worldwide outage. It was a Friday night, and I was at a trade show in Amsterdam–away from Trint’s staff. It would have been extremely easy to panic, but I remembered what my security guard said to me in Haiti. I needed to stay calm. I quickly got on the phone with our engineering and marketing teams to make sure we were closely monitoring what was happening and messaging our users. It was the best thing we could’ve done in that situation. Had I panicked, I might have been slow to act and watched a lot of angry customers abandon us for good.
Don’t Hesitate To Ask Dumb Questions
During the Iraq War I was embedded with the Army, the Marines, the Navy, and the Air Force. Each branch of the military has its own culture, which can be daunting to penetrate. There’s an insider language and shorthand for armaments and procedure that spills off soldiers’ and sailors’ tongues naturally. It’s tempting to play along, but the wise reporter knows that’s a fool’s game: one slip and your credibility will vaporize. Better just to ask when you don’t know.
When I first began to raise investment for Trint I didn’t know the difference between a KPI and ROI. I quickly learned to keep my mouth shut until I found time to do some cramming. Of course, sometimes there’s no substitute for getting the answers from an expert–after all, if you don’t understand how a concept works in practice, you can get still it wrong if you’re relying solely on self-instruction. Luckily, I was surrounded by extremely patient board members and trusted advisers. Asking them basic questions probably saved me from some serious mishaps.
When In Doubt, Over-Communicate
I spent much of 2011 reporting on the Arab Spring in Libya. For months the revolution to overthrow dictator Muammar Gadhafi had stalled. ABC News and others grew tired of the huge cost of covering a war in which nothing was changing. In August 2011, when Gadhafi’s regime looked like it was finally about to crumble, our team began to scramble to get back to Tripoli. We had to trek 36 hours from neighboring Tunisia to make it across the remote desert border into Libya, just as the sun was setting.
It was Ramadan, so a group of Libyans fleeing the chaos of Tripoli insisted we join them in their tent to break their fast. The invitation was so generous that, despite our looming deadline for ABC World News, we couldn’t say no. After a quick feast of savory meats, succulent melons, and sweet cakes, we excused ourselves and rushed into our vehicles, heading for the first town inside Libya where we hoped to spend the night.
Half an hour later, I picked up the two-way radio to check in with my producer in the lead vehicle: “Jeff for Bruno,” I announced. The response came back in heavily accented English from our local driver: “Bruno not with me, he with you.” We realized that we had left Bruno at the Ramadan tent, and we hadn’t checked in with each other to make sure we had everyone. When we got back, Bruno was calmly munching on a slice of watermelon.
When you’re reporting in a war zone, though, small failures of communication can have terrible consequences. Now that I oversee a team of 25, I make sure to over-communicate as a result. So much tension and misunderstanding is simply due to bad communication.
During my time as a war correspondent, I was taught a painstaking technique to probe for and navigate around potential landmines. These days, I’m grateful that the landmines I encounter every day are strictly metaphorical.
Correction: An earlier version of the article incorrectly stated that Jeff Kofman spent three decades as a war correspondent.