Crisis Communication and the Golden Mean

Pop quiz, Hot Shot: What's worse – doing too little or too much in any given situation?

Pop quiz, Hot Shot: What’s worse – doing too little or too much in any given situation? BZZZZT! Contemplate the middle way, Grasshopper.

Here’s a good thought experiment you can conduct from the comfort of your well-appointed office (that may or may not smell of rich mahogany), your 12 square feet of space in a cube farm, your couch or from wherever it is you are reading this post: make a list of all the times you’ve told your boss, “We’re hoping for/trying to do too much.”

I bet it’s easier to make a list of all the times you’ve said to your boss (or, really, that she’s said to you), “We’re not doing enough! We need to go beyond x and try to achieve y! TO YOUR BATTLE STATIONS!”

Maybe your boss* is really smart, and that’s never happened. If so, good for you! (*a supervisor, an incident commander, client, members of the public affected by a crisis, etc.)

Moderating between good and bad or too much and too little is something we do all day, every day. Most of the time it’s unconscious decision making, driven by common sense or habit. We know from practice, for instance, that there are consequences for driving much too slow on the highway, or much too fast (e.g., other drivers telling us we’re #1 in creative ways, police officers telling us we’re the best at violating the speed limit by giving us tickets). We don’t have to dwell on how fast we should drive on the highway, we just know, speed limit signage notwithstanding (have you been on the Jersey Turnpike or I-95 between DC and Richmond?! Mad Max lands.)

Sometimes, though, the act of moderation is something that must be contemplated. I’m a runner (ok – an off again/on again runner). I know that when I’m training for a race that I need to be prepared for the competition or achieving personal goals. If I do too little training leading up to race day I might not come close to my target finish time or average pace. If I do too much to prepare I might get injured and not be able to compete on race day.

Part of being human, of course, is making mistakes (and learning from them). When training for my last race I pushed too hard, sustained an injury a week before race day, put my ego in charge instead of my reason, “ran” the race anyway and exacerbated the injury. My finish time was miserable and I couldn’t walk for days after the event. Deviating from the “golden mean” of just enough training – not too much, not too little – meant I accomplished none of my goals, with the added “benefit” of spending a week concentrating on RICE instead of the better things in life.

This piece isn’t about running, but the concepts cross over to crisis communication (I promise. Pinkie promise.). The “golden mean” of my training regimen at any given time is relative to many things: for what kind of race am I in training? what kind of running shape am I in at the onset? how’s my general health? what are my goals?, etc.

Aristotle illustrated the golden mean in his virtue ethics – those (relative) sweet spots between competing vices of too much and too little. Siddhartha Gautama discovered that the “middle way” was the best path to enlightenment, one between a self-absorbed gluttony toward all that life has to offer and the self-denying asceticism he practiced for years (Note: Not trying to distill Buddhism down to one sentence!). Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Moderation in all things, especially moderation.” (more on that one later)

This idea of a golden mean can – and should – apply to our crisis communication work. This doesn’t always happen, though. Why not? If we unconsciously practice moderation every day for the mundane, why can it be so difficult when it applies to our work? There can be many answers to that question. In the case of my running injury, I set an unrealistic goal and ignored the red flags along the path to trying to achieve it – then I placed more importance on that goal than on my own health and well-being. I paid the price: failure (and a lot of pain!). Sound like anything any professional communicators have done in the past – I don’t know – week?

In a communication setting, I’ve seen people deny that they’ll ever be in a crisis situation, not do their homework when it comes to planning and preparation or fail to see how their routine work fits-in to what they’ll be doing when crisis strikes.

Let me throw a few dreamed-up examples of too little, too much and (a) golden mean (remember, it’s always relative to goals/situations) your way:

  1. Part of your crisis communication strategy is to employ social media to inform as many people as possible during an incident.
    • Too little: Establish accounts ahead of time but never use them or wait until a crisis strikes to establish them.
    • Too much: Establishing accounts and over-sharing to the point that people equate seeing your avatar to white noise or have dis-engaged from your account altogether.
    • Golden mean: Enough meaningful engagement with the right people and organizations that when crisis strikes your accounts will be viewed as reliable sources of information.
  2. You (astutely!) note in your crisis plan that, during certain incidents, the best way for you to accomplish your goals is through partnering with other organizations or individuals.
    • Too little: You don’t pre-identify these lists of contacts, or you do, but don’t establish a relationship until the canary keels over.
    • Too much: I don’t know – you establish relationships and “call in too many favors” from your counterparts during non-crisis incidents to the point that they don’t want to work with you? You over-think who you’ll actually work with during crisis and make an unmanageable list?
    • Golden mean: Talk to potential partners, get buy-in on how you may work together during crisis (and what that’ll look like) and maintain the relationship.
  3. You recognize that conducting media interviews is an integral part to managing crisis.
    • Too little: Well, too little. You assume that “yes” and “no” answers are adequate, or have the mindset that, “I’ll do interviews, but the less I say to the media, the better.”
    • Too much: You haven’t practiced question/response, so your answers are too long, rambling, off-topic or clumsy when you’re conducting actual interviews.
    • Golden mean: You know how to answer in soundbites, you know how to moderate these for different kinds of media and you know how to effortlessly get interviews back to what’s important through flagging, bridging, etc., without sounding like a corporate shill or a carnival barker.
  4. You realize that, “… yeah, transparency of information DOES breed self-correcting behavior!” in your tactical plans.
    • Too little: Well, you’re just not transparent at all with your information.
    • Too much: You’re too transparent, to the point that you’re violating organizational security rules or speculating about all the “what ifs” of a given situation.
    • Golden mean: C’mon. You know this one! If not, here ya go!

You can apply this moderation concept to many of the tasks and deliverables in your strategic and tactical plans. All you have to do is look at each one and ask, “What would be too little for x and what would be too much? Where’s the relative golden mean for each situation or task?”

Back to that Emerson quote: it’s all about not confusing compromise, or risk vs. reward, with moderation – or situations in which moderation is irrelevant. Goldilocks found this out too late – she thought she was finding the best bowl of porridge to eat and the best bed to sleep in, but this was after breaking and entering; she was (essentially) a thief and a squatter. She almost got eaten by a bear! Stealing just a little, instead of a lot, isn’t moderation – it’s stealing!

We don’t do crisis communication to benefit ourselves, we do it to benefit whoever is affected by the crisis, and success is measured on how messages and information are effectively received, not transmitted; how behavior is successfully influenced to keep people safe; how doing the right things, the right ways, helps you build or maintain trust and credibility. Not every aspect of crisis communication should be subjected to the golden mean test, but much of it can be, more than just the examples above.

Image courtesy Ryan McGuire of Gratisography, Used under Creative Commons license. Original image:, License: The image has not been altered.

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