A 9/11 researcher interviewed me the other day to ask questions about my personal and professional experience in Manhattan on that day. At one point, we talked a bit about the phenomenon of people coming up with alternate theories about the terrorist attacks.
OK. I’ll just say it: He wanted to know what I think about 9/11 conspiracy theories.
I side-stepped his question (for a little while) because I thought there was something more important to talk about – as a crisis communicator, I’m more concerned with how and why people come up with (and believe!) alternate truths (for any crisis situation) and what I can do to break through their mental noise when I’m trying to convince them that the truth is the truth.
Here’s what I told the researcher, in a nutshell, based on my (almost!) 25 years experience in emergency management and disaster response/recovery, the risk communication training I’ve received and the practical applications of that training I’ve used during many crises:
- During times of crisis, people get upset.
- Upset people tend to think negatively.
- People affected by a crisis event want it fixed as quickly as possible and they want to know how and why the crisis event happened.
- The “how” and “why” questions about a crisis are not always easy to answer quickly (especially for large or complex incidents), and in the absence of these answers, affected people – who are already thinking negatively – form ideas about what happened, or agree with the ideas of others. Sometimes these ideas have nothing to do with the truth, and sometimes they support an agenda.
- If people don’t receive information that is better than or more plausible than the ideas they’ve formed, those ideas can start to become beliefs – and beliefs are much harder to counter than ideas. This process can happen in days.
- I’ve had to do “rumor control” at many crisis events and it’s very frustrating to tell people the truth about a situation and then listen to them deny that truth because it conflicts with their pre-conceived ideas, beliefs or agenda. Unfortunately, fighting rumors for any given situation can be a very tough battle, and the people with the truth don’t always win.
Dr. Vincent Covello, of the Center for Risk Communication, has been teaching people about these concepts for decades, with his Trust Determination, Mental Noise and Negative Dominance theories, amongst his other groundbreaking risk communication work. Here’s a bit of what I learned from Covello, and what I learned from actually conducting risk communication during real-world crises – because knowing why negativity and rumors start is good, but knowing how to address both phenomena is better:
- Know going into every crisis that people are going to be upset and they are going to have negative thoughts. It’s just human nature. They might be afraid, angry or just feeling inconvenienced by what’s happening.
- The effects of some incidents take longer to fix than others – explain to your stakeholders what you’re doing to mitigate the problem.
- People need to hear positivity when they’re feeling threatened, insecure or angry about something – anything, in any situation. If you’re working to mitigate the problems that have them feeling the way they do, tell them! And keep it positive! Covello says each negative requires three positives to counter it in risk communication scenarios.
- There are quick deadlines for you (as the responder to a crisis) delivering information to affected people, which will counter rumors they’re considering as “truth.” Fight rumors by any means necessary and don’t dawdle – maximum disclosure with minimum delay! There’s no such thing as an information vacuum anymore. If you don’t tell your story, someone else will (and, uh, that might not always be factual – exacerbating the problem of rumors and/or convincing people that some rumors might actually be “true”).
- The truth isn’t always good news. Tell it anyways.
- Work in crisis communication long enough and you’ll realize a sad fact – you can’t win ’em all. Bummer, I know. Trust me, I know. If you finish a crisis event knowing that you communicated the right facts to the right people in the right way – and they STILL didn’t “hear” you – you can take heart in knowing that that’s just the way it goes, sometimes. Complete your after action work, compile your lessons learned and figure out how to do it better the next time!
- All this negativity and positivity talk (and the previous bullet) forces me to leave you with this – you will get through to people with alternate ideas, beliefs and agendas, at times. Those are – sincerely – special times.
That 9/11 researcher told me I was being, “Too nice,” in my answer to his question. Haven’t been accused of that in a while! He said he was used to other interview subjects getting very upset when asked that question. Paul and I work the empathy concept into a lot of what we do professionally (and write about here), and that’s not exactly the same as being “nice.” I wouldn’t have devoted my entire adult life to helping other people if I didn’t care about them – why would I stop caring about them, here and there, just because they couldn’t hear the truth I was trying to tell them?
Image from the British Library collection of rights-free images on Flickr. Image taken from, “Swiss Pictures drawn with Pen and Pencil. New edition, revised and partly re-written. With several additional illustrations by Edward Whymper and a map.” Original: https://goo.gl/giVHIy