Got Maxims?


Some reading assignments for a few classes got me to thinking about the power I’ve attributed to maxims throughout the years. Sure, they’re more of a “good to have” than a “must have” item, but so is everything else that doesn’t directly contribute to meeting your Maslows. But, as Socrates says in Plato’s Crito, “the most important thing isn’t living, but living well.”

I just justified my love of maxims with a maxim.

A maxim, in any profession, can serve as an over-arching guide for how one conduct’s one’s business. If you’re in crisis communications, in which you often find yourself at the crossroads of ethical dilemmas or, more likely, just in the business of regularly making tough decisions quickly, maxims can be your touchstones for automatically knowing the correct course of action. You can adopt those of others, or create your own. I once recommended that an in-draft journalism manual just be a two-word maxim: write good. Nobody got the joke.

You can use maxims to guide an organization, or to back up decisions on a case-by-case basis. In Case Studies in Public Health Ethics, Coughlin writes about casuistry and analogical reasoning, noting that in some cases a decision maker “identifies maxims – wise, pithy, rulelike (sic) sayings, such as ‘tell the truth,’ that have bearing on the case … then must decide which maxim is the most appropriate to ‘rule’ or govern the case.”

A maxim is a fundamental truth that is easy to understand and apply. In our years working together, Paul and I have accumulated several maxims that serve as our general guides for how we conduct the business of crisis communication:

  • “Maximum disclosure, minimum delay.” A U.S. Coast Guard public information release policy that was drilled into us from the day we started our training in that world of work.
  • “Transparency of information breeds self-correcting behavior.” When former Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen first uttered this (by my account), he wasn’t talking about crisis communications, per se, but it fits. “Transparency” is a loaded term nowadays, but this maxim holds up when prescribing behavior.
  • “Through Truth, Strength.” Motto of the Defense Information School.
  • “I don’t care what you know until I know that you care.” Dr. Vincent Covello attributed this to Will Rogers. I’ve never been able to confirm that, but it is a truth when communicating risk to people in high concern/low trust situations. Speaking of which ….
  • “Perception is reality.” This IS from Dr. Covello, in regards to risk communication. When communicating a risk to someone affected by it, this maxim is supposed to guide you to conduct a little empathetic brainstorming before opening your mouth.

They’re simple, but powerful. Apply one to a recent example of what-not-to-do in crisis communications to measure it’s potential value.

What maxims do you use for crisis communications? Put ‘em in the comments section below!

Talk to me, Goose.

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