Update (16 May 2014): I posted this piece in a few groups on LinkedIn and communications/PR pros weighed-in on the topic – such good debate (and great, related tips) that I figured it would be good to include here – screen grabs of the conversation at the bottom of this post; rest of this piece is untouched from the original post (because, you know – I stand by my original thoughts!).
The title of this post is a phrase that was integrated into the cover art of The Clash’s 1982 single “Know Your Rights,” and was used decades later as the title for a documentary about the life of the band’s lead singer, Joe Strummer.
The feeling I get from the Clash’s use of the phrase is something like, “the future is unwritten, and so you should do what you can to make it good.” While communicating during a crisis, I’ve used the phrase as a simple warning to keep from speculating. If you wanted one of the best tactics for de-railing your organization during a crisis, speculating is a good one.
Unfortunately, of the 5 Ws and H that we must routinely answer during crisis, the “how” and “why” are two of the hardest. Often, they can be impossible to answer until long after your operations have returned to normal. However, these are two of the key questions the media and affected public will want answers to as a crisis progresses. People will continue to ask them, no matter what answers you give. News coverage of the missing Malaysian Airlines flight 370 was dominated for weeks by speculative theories of “why” and “how” it disappeared.
Getting worn down by repetitive “why” and “how” questions can easily lead someone to finally speculate – it’s human nature, and it’s how we live our lives; predicting probabilities based on our experience for everything.
That’s fine if you predict, for example, the need to fill your car’s gas tank before a long trip. If you don’t, you may end up stranded on the side of the road, based on your prior experience (or the experience of others that you’ve heard about). We predict every tomorrow based on today, yesterday and all the other days in our past that have told us how the world has always worked.
The rules change in crisis communication, and they’re supposed to – you’re already up against so many other obstacles to get your points across clearly, why muddy the water with guesswork? Moreover, since every crisis is different, you’re usually experiencing something new when you work through each one.
Philosophically speaking, we base our knowledge of how the world will probably work in the future based on the principle of uniformity. Generally, this principle states that events that we haven’t experienced will be relatively similar to those like events that we have experienced. It’s practical, but not logically definite, because it breaks the law of non-contradiction: namely, the principle of uniformity would seem to state that experienced = unexperienced, and that’s not possible.
Speculating about the “how” and “why” during a crisis can bring you immediate gains – people stop asking the same questions over and over and, if by chance, you’re right, then you’re right. However, when you’re wrong, it can be quite damaging to your and your organization’s credibility.
Crisis communication can be a “squishy” science, with very few constants. Here’s one constant I recommend: NEVER speculate during a crisis.
What should you do instead of speculating?
- Say, “I don’t know,” and then immediately follow-up with what you’re doing to ascertain the facts.
- Give fact-based estimates instead of guesses. This means that sometimes you have to give people bad news, or you may have to work from an assumption that a worst-case scenario is possible.
- If you’re dealing with initial reports, be clear with whoever you are communicating that initial reports are usually inaccurate during emergencies or crises. Make sure people understand that information will change.
- NEVER consider someone else’s speculative theories and incorporate it into an answer, unless it’s to refuse to speculate. You’re in the business of communicating facts, not mere information for information’s sake.
- Be wary of the “numbers game” in crisis – whether you’re talking about how many gallons of oil have spilled into a waterway or how many people have been affected by a natural disaster: the numbers always seem to change. See #2 above.
- Giving a guarantee about anything during a crisis is a risky proposition. Again, see #2 above.
Of course, I’m basing all this advice on the very principle I’m arguing against – I’m assuming that the world will still operate by the same rules tomorrow or next week as it did yesterday or last week. And there’s where we see the practical vs. “fortune-telling” differences when trying to somehow get experienced = unexperienced. We all have practical knowledge from experience that we use to live our lives – cars do run out of gas and you will get stranded by the side of the road if you don’t fill the tank. Speculating about facts during a crisis does lead to trouble during a crisis; stick to the facts.
Photo courtesy of NASA on the Commons photo stream. No known copyright restrictions. Original image at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nasacommons/9465040235/ The image has not been altered.