Friend, colleague and fellow professional communicator Chris Evanson sent me a note the other day with the suggestion for this piece – the importance of sometimes fighting the urge to use a staff-written statement to communicate with highly concerned people during times of crisis or emergency. Whether it’s delivered in writing, via media interview or (even riskier!) in person, someone else’s words coming out of your mouth or via email, social media channel, etc., have the potential to make things worse in the trust, credibility and empathy departments.
Part of what Chris was getting at is authenticity in crisis communication (although, in his message to me, his main frustration, in broader terms, seems to be about “form letter” apologies for misdeeds, instead of sincere statements of regret). This topic came up last month when I talked with a room full of U.S. Army and Department of Defense public affairs folks at Ft. Lee here in the Commonwealth of Virginia. We were talking about the use of social media to communicate with stakeholders during high concern/low trust situations and how establishing credibility was important when one person offered, “First, I make sure that I’m authentic while using social media for work.” (I’m paraphrasing). As in, “This is me being me, not me putting on an act.”
“There’s nothing I hate more than Twitter pages of elected officials that are clearly authored by staffers or third parties. As you well know, it’s critical to manage up as it is in managing down. Principals must understand that they have to take ownership of their statements and comms professionals can’t be sycophants by accepting delegation of drafting a quick response in a vacuum,” Chris wrote to me. (Note: Quick search of the blog, and this our first post featuring the word “sycophant.” We’ve also never used “flunky,” “stooge” or “lackey.” Until now.)
Prepared speeches or heavy use of notes can be fine for high trust/low concern situations or events at which that is expected, like an award or retirement ceremony. When people are upset and you’re the one that has to deliver to them the bad news and/or what your organization is doing to fix it, they want to hear your voice and your words. Some things to keep in mind:
- I’ve repeated it many times before and I’ll continue to do so forever: “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” This can help break through mental noise so people can hear your voice and your words.
- If you’re preparing someone to speak to stakeholders, it is perfectly fine to use notes, talking points and supporting facts during that session. You must work with the speaker, though, to ensure she internalizes the talking points and re-arranges the wording as something she’ll deliver in her voice, not yours.
- If you’re the speaker in one of these prep sessions and you spot words or phrases that you’d never use (or – more of a red flag – don’t understand or can’t pronounce) strike them immediately! (E.g, highly technical information from a field of which you’re not a subject matter expert, colloquialisms you don’t get, etc.)
- Paul has written here on the blog about some aspects of the phenomenon Chris was getting at, lamenting that “somehow genuine expressions of empathy during crisis and critical incidents are rare.”
- If you’re the big boss of an organization that has to release a written apology for a mistake that has resulted in a critical incident, fight the urge to direct the comms staffers to “whip something up for me” and, instead, write it yourself, dang it! I sometimes refer to this as “a condition of employment” when counseling the brass. Because it is.
- Speaking of counseling, Big Boss – do use your expert counsel from different fields within the organization to advise you, NOT to filter you (*cough* legal department *cough*) in the creation of this statement. Putting yourself in the shoes of someone who feels victimized by you or your organization is a good start to figuring out what you should write or say, btw. Your advisors’ jobs are to make sure your statement doesn’t land you in jail*, isn’t factually incorrect, doesn’t debate objective reality, doesn’t whitewash the issue or doesn’t do any myriad things to make matters worse for the affected stakeholders and/or public opinion of the issue or crisis. (*if you or your organization did do something that earns you jail time, that’s a different story.)
If you want to see an example of what authentic communication sounds like (an address delivered in person, not a written statement released), just take a look at how Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria, Superintendent of the U.S. Air Force Academy, handled a crisis at the institution. I have no doubt that is Silveria’s voice and his words coming through loud and clear.
Thanks for the blog post idea, Chris!
Image from the British Library collection of rights-free images on Flickr. Image taken from, “Sing-Song. A nursery rhyme book. … With … illustrations by A. Hughes, etc.” Original: https://goo.gl/ngWdTV