Virtuous Crisis Communications

Finding the sweet spot is all about moderating between too little and too much.

Finding the sweet spot is all about moderating between too little and too much.

Aristotle’s model of virtue ethics provides clear guidance on how professionals can best communicate with stakeholders during an emergency or disaster. Aristotle believed that the key to life was happiness, and that it was achieved by living virtuously – “all things in moderation,” basically, because in his treatise on the subject every virtue has TWO vices, not just one.

Aristotle’s definition of the virtue of courage, for example, is influenced by one’s capacities for boldness and fear. Too much of the former, and one is rash; too much of the latter, and one is cowardly. Somewhere in between is that sweet spot – but just like all the virtues, the sweet spot is different for each individual and/or each situation.  Think of it in battlefield terms – too little courage, and you’ll be defeated; too much courage, and you’ll be killed (and, defeated).

Defining the main virtue in the crisis communications realm is easy  – you want to inform (or persuade, influence or prompt) appropriately. What are the corresponding vices of too little or too much, for the virtue of informing appropriately? Too little could be uninformative, secretive or endangerment through omission. Too much could be vague, unclear or burdensome. We could probably think of better terms, but you get the drift (and just pretend there’s a “-ness” at the end of all those words).

What capacities must you moderate to get to that sweet spot between too little and too much? Many years ago a colleague found a great corollary in the nursing field’s “five rights,” and adapted it as “get the right information, from the right source, (who have) the right clearance, to the right audience, at the right time.” I’m going to change the wording a little – and interchange a right – to illustrate virtuous vs. vicious crisis communications. If that sounds a little too high falutin’ for you, just think “effective vs. ineffective.”

  1. Get the right facts: The use of the word “information” during crisis comms has rubbed me the wrong way for a few years. Affected stakeholders usually don’t need mere information, they need facts. Some pros get so hung up on messaging, that they add the facts if they fit – both are important, but one is the skeleton, the other the meat, and you need both for your beast to do its job. You’re not just informing people in a crisis – you’re persuading, influencing and/or prompting action. If you’re an emergency manager broadcasting a tornado warning, you don’t want people in its path to think, “Huh. Tornado coming this way. Good to know” — you want them to take decisive action to protect themselves. That’s why emergency managers don’t just broadcast, “there are tornado warnings in southeastern Virginia,” but give a county-by-county breakdown of the threat and tell people what to do.
  2. From the right source: Once you have a few crises under your belt, you know that the flow of facts can mimic the kid’s game telephone – the further you get from a primary source of information, the less factual that information may be. Primary sources can be tough to get to in crises – your secondary sources should be trusted and methodical in how they verify facts.
  3. To the right audience: You may have specific publics you need to reach with specific facts during complex crises. If you’ve never had a crisis before, you’ll need to plan ahead to determine exactly who your stakeholders will be for each contingency.
  4. At the right time: People focus on speed, speed, speed when talking about crisis communication. Speed is important, but timing is, too, and they’re not the same thing. If you have long-term crisis or issue, you need to deliver messages appropriately. Say you’re inviting the public to an open house so you can communicate risks – you wouldn’t start publicizing it the day of the event (although, I’ve seen people do this!) if you wanted to maximize your efforts. Some people still adhere to the “if you have bad news to deliver, release it on Friday afternoon so it flies under the radar” practice. Soooo last millennium.
  5. In the right way: How do your stakeholders consume important information? Print or broadcast media? Web-based news sites? Social media? Gossip at the town barber shop? Fliers hung up on the walls of university buildings? I once deployed with a team more than 8,000 miles from my home because the most effective way to inform appropriately was to travel from village meetinghouse to village meetinghouse in that far off land to communicate risk to affected stakeholders.

Too little information and facts disseminated to your stakeholders, in violation of the five rights, can be just as bad as too much, i.e. burying what’s important in a mountain of unimportant. If virtuous crisis communications is your goal during the next incident or issue, learn to moderate now.

I thought my friend Thomas was crazy when he told me, “It’ll be no time at all until you start making the connections between philosophy and crisis comms,” after I started seriously studying the former. Ok, you were right, Thomas.

Rights free image by Drew Patrick Miller. Original image at Unsplash used under Creative Commons license. The image has not been altered.

4 thoughts on “Virtuous Crisis Communications

  1. A thought-provoking piece, but I would like to add that I have found “how” you address your target audience/market is equally important as the tactics, strategies and technology you employ. In other words, being sensitive to culture, level of literacy and other social factors should also drive your risk communication decision-making. I suspect you already do that — but you didn’t mention it.

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    • Important components that I failed to include! Thanks for bringing that up, Carolyn — you’re absolutely correct. The cultural nuances you mention have come into play for quite a few crises I’ve helped to mitigate. Thanks for the comments, thanks for reading and thanks for keeping me honest with what I forgot to include. Appreciated!

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