Public outrage has demonstrated tremendous power to topple the mighty who have done wrong. There are limits to this power.
What is the power of public awareness? First, and often most importantly, it can provide cover and safety for victims to come forward and bring their allegations. These allegations can spur disciplinary action from bosses. They can lead to public actions like boycotts. It could even lead to legal action as in the cases of Weinstein and Cosby.
Public awareness and outrage, on its own, however does nothing. It only has an effect when it can leverage a vulnerability of the accused. This is why liberal politicians such as Al Franken face so much more severe consequences than conservative politicians like Donald Trump when allegations are leveled against them.
In Al Franken’s case, most of his previous supporters were inclined to support the #MeToo movement and believe accusers. Franken himself chose not to defend himself as vigorously as he could have because of his own support for the movement.
In Trump’s case, on the other hand, his supporters were already suspicious of such allegations. Those who are upset about his alleged misdeeds would be opposed to him even without them, so the effect on his political position and power is quite limited.
It may feel that the whole world is on fire when one is facing allegations. In fact, it is usually a fairly small group of people who are truly incensed. Most people are simply too busy to care about what may have happened outside of their inner circle.
If this small group of people who are angered happen to include one’s bosses, clients, influential voters, family, friends, etc, then the consequences of an allegation are profound. If not, the consequences are far more academic.
And here we have one of the key frustrations for the #MeToomovement. The most unapologetic, the most degenerate, the most misogynistic men who do the most harm are almost untouchable by the power of public outrage. On the other hand, men who commit misdeeds on a more modest level as well as men who generally support their cause but transgress, such as Al Franken did, are very effectively removed from authority and influence.
Far from building a movement, this particular dynamic causes the movement to slowly erode its own base of power while leaving largely untouched the power base that opposes the movement.
There are a few important conclusions to draw from this dynamic.
The first is that public outrage will affect different people very differently. In some cases, it may have no impact at all as long as the recipient of the outrage doesn’t give it credibility.
The second is that this phenomenon may cause people to more actively seek more like minded people to associate. If one is concerned about being a target of this kind of outrage, they may inoculate themselves by filtering their associate and even clients and business partners. The social consequences of this can be profound, but we are seeing this form of self exile more and more often.
Are you dealing with public outrage based on misinformation? Contact us. We can help.
Their plan for protecting students was to arm school staff, and the language used to justify the program provided some illumination as to why this an active part of their agenda.
They suggested that students were in danger. Students and parents are living in fear.
A few days later, President Trump was talking about the need for the Wall. He used words like “invasion,” “protect our borders,” and other terms that strike fear into the hearts of Americans. This is not a matter of policy. It’s a matter of life and death. At least that’s what he’d have you believe.
The larger fear agenda
Why so much fear? Fear in schools. Fear on the border. Fear in trade policy. Fear everywhere. Why is everyone telling us to be fearful? Does someone benefit from this?
As it turns out, someone does benefit. The Republican party. A recent article in Psychology Today explained a series of recent studies that explain that Conservatives tend to be more fearful and Liberals more optimistic. It has also been shown that a person can be made to make more Conservative choices if they are in a higher state of fear than they would otherwise.
In other words, people can be scared into voting Republican. They can also be inspired into voting Democrat.
This is why Barack “Yes We Can” Obama was so successful in his campaigns. It also explains why Donald “Build the Wall” Trump was so successful in his.
Much as we see in the use of outragetactics, the more afraid the administration can make the public, the more support they will have. You only need someone to keep you safe if you feel you are in danger, so the strategy of emphasizing danger, demonstrating the ability to protect you, and decrying your opponent’s weakness is an effective strategy.
Messaging for effect
In many situations, there are concurrent emotions that will drive individuals to support a cause or campaign. As people have become angrier about egregious misdeeds revealed by the #metoo movement, they have become more likely to believe other allegations. On the other hand, if they are made to think about false allegations, they become less inclined to believe.
We see it in marketing as well. People who feel more positive are more inclined to make large purchases, so many advertisers want people be in a positive, hopeful mood. They want to emphasize a happy positive future in which you can enjoy your new car, house, clothes, TV, etc.
This occurs in many domains, and we can see it well demonstrated in modern politics today. Historically, when Republicans have used the fear strategy, Democrats have often made the mistake of trying to play their game, but not as well. If Republicans are tough on crime, and Democrats try to catch up, they build the level of fear in the electorate. That only helps Republicans who have already positioned themselves as the “strong” party that will “keep you safe.”
On the other hand, when Obama used a message of hope, it shifted the mood of people, making them more receptive to his message. You don’t care who is better at keeping you safe if you do not feel you are in danger.
What we can learn
In any campaign you run, whether it is crisis communications, political campaign, or regular marketing, you must consider what mindset will make people most receptive to your message and try to encourage that mindset. If you chase your opponent’s message, you will simply push the mindset that supports them while being runner up in their messaging.
Always develop your own space, and then seek to dominate that space.
Do you need help discovering what mindset you need to create in your audience and how to message to them? We can help. Contact us.
If you are in a communications crisis situation, especially an adversarial reputation crisis, one of the first things you must understand is what are your vulnerabilities.
A vulnerability is a place where your detractors can hit you that will cause real damage. It doesn’t matter if 50,000 strangers on the Internet think you’re a jerk if it doesn’t affect you in any material way. However, if that message reaches certain key people, then it can be profoundly impactful.
Bosses. Clients. Business partners. Business associates. Family and friends. These are just a few examples people whom it would be very bad if they were to be affected by the misinformation being spread about you.
Taking action to defend vulnerabilities
If you are dealing with a misinformation situation, and the truth is really on your side (if the truth is not on your side, you need to get yourself in the right first) then there are few things you must do.
First, identify where your vulnerabilities exist. Do you have a boss who could fire you? Do you have key clients who might believe the stories?
Next, determine the best way to make sure that the story will not impact these areas of your life. Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of knowing that you have sufficient trust with this person that they’ll stand by you. In other cases, you may want to tell them about the situation before they hear about it somewhere else.
There will also be cases where it’s not clear how big the firestorm will get, and you want to be careful not to spread the rumors where they would not go on their own. In those cases, you may just want to monitor the situation and be ready to respond if someone close to you does hear the story but not share it yourself.
The better people know you, the less likely they are to believe lies about you. This is why building a personal network is extremely important.
Awareness is key
Regardless of what action seems most prudent, awareness is most important. You must know where you vulnerabilities exist and give some thought to how you can defend those vulnerabilities.
You can’t protect what you don’t understand.
Are you facing a situation where a rumor or misinformation is threatening to cause real damage in your life? We can help. Contact us.
The Internet doesn’t forget and doesn’t think you’re funny
The Tweet above by Taylor Harriman has been deleted, as has the profile that created it, but the Internet never forgets, and they don’t find her humor particularly funny.
From the structure of the Tweet, I would conclude that this is one of those things where she thought it was funny at the moment and wanted to share. Whether she is actually a selfish person or simply thought that this was funny is impossible to tell from just this Tweet.
The San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit Authority, better known as BART, however, thought that it would be an excellent illustration of what not to do.
BART certainly has a challenge in trying to convince people not to use seats to carry their bags. One of BART’s objectives is to have enough capacity to carry all the people who want to get from here to there, especially at peak times. When one person takes up two seats, multiplied by all the people who might do this, you get diminished capacity.
Public Shaming as messaging
The people in charge of messaging at BART must have thought they had an early Christmas gift when Ms. Harriman tagged them in her poorly thought out Tweet.
Abstract concepts such as “don’t hog seats” are difficult to explain to people. On the other hand, “don’t be like that person” is a much easier message to send.
It is quite common for businesses and organizations to jump on the bandwagon once a controversy is up and running. However, it is less common for such an institution to actually start one.
From a messaging standpoint, BART has been very effective. I expect that over the next few days, San Francisco will see a lot less bags in seats, given the momentum that this has achieved.
Standard shaming playbook
There are certainly things that have become de rigueur when an individual transgresses the rules of Twitter propriety.
The individual’s background is plumbed for additional material to justify their monstrosity.
Now that the crowd has determined that she is a selfish seat hogger and also a Trump supporter, they can now brand her as a bad person, or even a non person. Trying to get a person fired for a dumb comment about a public transit seat would be way too much.
Getting a non person fired? Well, that seems reasonable.
Fortunately, for Ms. Harriman, this particular outrage appears to be local in scope. Her detractors are not targeting her vulnerabilities, and the controversy is achieving little traction. She could well ride it out until people get bored and move on.
It is, however, a chilling reminder that if you are on social media, any poorly thought out Tweet or post can get you into the crosshairs of the crowd, and the consequences can be catastrophic.
Under the current circumstances, Ms. Harriman’s reaction of laying low is probably the best course of action. This situation does not appear to be affecting her vulnerabilities, so anything more assertive runs the risk of reigniting the controversy.
Deleting the Tweet may have been a poor choice, because that tends to anger certain denizens of the Internet. There are people who are offended by the deletion of a post for whatever reason. Since everything is archived one way or another, it is difficult to truly delete a post, especially a Tweet. Because it was deleted, it was reposted by others at least half a dozen times.
If the blowback fire back up on its own, there are a few things that she might do. Of course, much of what would determine the best response would have to do with the precise details of the situation: who was fanning the flames, what are they saying, etc. This makes it difficult to give a detailed response plan to a hypothetical situation.
The first question would be whether this tweet is really reflective of her real attitudes or if it was just something that seemed funny at the moment but didn’t really reflect how she felt.
In the latter case, she would need to reframe the tweet as an awkward misstep rather than as a reflection of her true character. This might start with an apology explaining how she was sorry for her statement and emphasizing her belief that one should not be a seek hogging jerk.
On the other hand, if she had sincerely meant the tweet when she posted it, but has learned her lesson since, then that is what she should say. Honesty is always the best strategy. People want to know that she’s learned something. Americans like a story of redemption.
Her change would have to be sincere. If she was just saying what she thought people wanted to hear, it would eventually blow up in her face. No amount of fancy words can cover a corrupt heart. However, if the revelation was sincere, then it’s just a matter of sharing that sincere story. She would have to let people know what she’s learned and how she will change in the future.
After all, the whole point of the attack campaigns and trying to get her fired is to teach her a lesson. If she actually learns a lesson, then it seems excessive to keep punishing her.
On the other hand, if she just remained unrepentantly selfish, then she’d probably deserve whatever she got. Hopefully she’d learn from it.
Have you made a mistake that the Internet won’t let you forget? The Internet never forgets, but we can help you make your story your own again. Contact us.
You may have heardabout a survey that was done saying that 27% of people think that Santa should be “genderless,” and about a backlash to such an idea. Who knew that people were talking about Santa’s gender? As it turns out, no one knew. No one was actually talking about it.
This situation gives us an excellent example of outrage tactics and how certain triggering headlines can be used to manipulate audiences for various purposes.
Starting with Graphic Springs
When we track this Santa gender story back to its start, we find a company called Graphic Springs. They put out a survey to 1,000 people asking about how respondents would rebrand Santa if given the opportunity. It is not clear from their article if they suggested these changes and people voted yes or no or if they solicited suggestions.
While it is possible that the people of Graphic Springs were simply curious about how Santa could be rebranded, it is more likely that they had the more cynical motive of driving traffic to their web site where they sell low cost design and logo creation services.
This all starts with a company trying to get some attention by leveraging a surprising idea about a popular character: Santa Claus. Commercializing Santa is not a cynical as it may sound, since our perception of Santa is based almost entirely on Coca-Cola’s depiction of the jolly old fellow in the first place.
In each iteration, the language in the reporting becomes a bit more suggestive of controversy.
Channel 6 says, “Survey: Some say Santa should be rebranded female, gender neutral.”
The Mirror then says, “People say Santa should now be female or gender neutral – sparking debate.”
While the first makes it clear that people were speaking in response to a survey, the Mirror makes it sound like people are saying this out of the blue. One could even interpret it to mean that there is some kind of movement or event organization behind such an effort.
A web site called Town Hall did not mess around at all with their title.
26% becomes “almost 30%,” and the outrage beings.
No more mention of a survey in the headline, and the opinionated article as much as says, “you can have my fat, bearded Santa when you pry him from my cold, dead, candy-cane-striped fingers.”
Santa Gender Outrage Objective
Of course, this makes great click bait which brings big bucks into those who are receiving the clicks. Might there be other motivations for such inflammatory language?
There is a powerful political motivation as well. There is an existing belief among some conservatives that there is some movement on the Left to disassemble the basic fabric of our society: disrupting the family, reconstituting gender, and changing all the rules as we know them. To those who hold this belief, this is terrifying. They feel that those who are behind it must be stopped.
Some politicians and political movements benefit greatly from the support of such terrified individuals. They can rally their support with examples of new offensives by the “disruptive forces” whom they fear so much.
This is one such example. “First, it was that bathrooms. Now it is Santa Claus himself!” They convince people that there are forces that want to give Santa gender reassignment surgery or even neuter him! Reasonable human rights issues of transgender rights become conflated with absurd issues of regendering Santa Clause.
A pretty viscerally terrifying concept to some.
What’s the goal? What is this trying to achieve?
When the union man who’s union interests have been protected by Democrats votes for a Republican advocating Right-to-Work laws because he thinks the Republican will protect Santa Claus, you see what the goal is. You also see how well it works.
Both Sides Do It
Both the Left and the Right engage in such outrage tactics. Also, both Left and Right decry it when then other side does it, while claiming that they never do it.
Both sides definitely do it. It may be called different things. It may take different forms, but if you look for it, you’ll see it everywhere.
No, no one is going to rebrand Santa Claus. He won’t lose his beard or be neutered any time soon. This is just another occasion to rile people up, make money through clicks, and bring attention to a previously unknown logo design company.
You got played, and a lot of people made money from it.
Next time you see something so outrageous that you can’t believe it, take a minute to consider if you really should believe it.
Are you or your organization facing outrage tactics or other threats to your reputation? We can help. Contact us.
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What are outrage tactics? Outrage tactics comprise a communications strategy employed to general an emotional response to an issue by conflating it with a second issue about which people are inclined to become outraged.
Politicians and pundits often use outrage tactics in to energize and motivate the base to action. “The War On Christmas,” “Rape Culture,” “Culture Wars,” “Patriarchy.” These are all terms which are used by people looking to stir up outrage which creates engagement. Once engaged, a person becomes more inclined to write letters, comment, share posts, show up to rallies, and share the idea with friends (and everyone else).
Voters can be polarized by these tactics. They can be driven to vote for candidates who might not support their interests because they are convinced that the opponent is the enemy of Christmas or women or morality or immigrants or any other group or idea that the voter cares about.
Social media platforms like Twitter can be particularly effective in fanning the flames of outrage. People reflexively share items which trigger an emotional response, allowing a meaningless or even false story to spread with alarming velocity.
Recently, we saw the example of the gender neutral Santa controversy. It was almost entirely invented to generate marketing attention, web site clicks, and political traction, and the public ate it up.
An Adversarial Reputation Crisis (ARC) may be driven with outrage tactics, in which the target is tied to a concept that the audience is inclined to become outraged about. The detractor can link the target to an outrageous idea, which psychologically transfers the outrage from the idea to the target. This is unfortunately quite effective when a detractor is trying to take down a target for a relatively minor offense.
When you see an issue that is so outrageous it can’t possibly be true, consider the possibility that it might not be true. Who stands to gain by your outrage? Is your inclination to say “well, that’s just too much!” being manipulated?
Want to learn more about outrage tactics or want to connect with us? We’d love to talk to you. Contact us.
There may be someone out there who wants to make you look bad. We call them a “detractor.” Much as we are surrounded by viruses throughout our lives, there are people around us who wish us ill. Like a virus, such a detractor has a minimal impact on our lives unless they can get some traction.
The best thing to do with such a person is to try to connect with them, understand why they wish you ill, and try to find some common ground in which to bury the hatchet. However, there are some people who simply cannot be reasoned with and just won’t let it go.
Should they achieve traction, it becomes a situation we refer to as an Adversarial Reputation Crisis. However, one of the best ways for a detractor to achieve traction is to manipulate you into giving them a platform.
Your Audience and Your Detractor’s Audience
Likely, you have a much larger audience than your detractor, and they want to reach that audience. At the very least you have greater access to the audience of people important to you than they do. You have certain platforms which can reach most of your customers or friends or constituents. This includes your web site, your social media platforms, and even your business.
They may attempt to co-opt these resources to carry their negative message. They could post a negative review, comment on social media, or even come to your business and badmouth you. Fortunately, most of these efforts can be countered. You can delete comments. You can kick them out of your business. Often, you can even respond to their reviews as well.
What if they can get you to put their message onto your platforms? That would be quite a coup, wouldn’t it.
Carrying Your Detractor’s Message
Why would you share the message of someone trying to ruin your reputation on your own platform? Because you are trying to refute this message.
Let’s say that someone is going around telling people that John eats cats. A couple of people have asked him about it, and he’s even seen a couple of social media posts that suggest that he eats cats. He wants to get in front of this, so he goes on social media.
Before this post, John’s detractor had been spreading the rumor, and it had caught on with two of the detractor’s dimmer friends who posted about it. These people have very few friends in common with John, and no one who doesn’t know John finds this rumor interesting, so no traction there.
John has 975 friends. The idea that John might eat cats has now gone from an audience of 3 to an audience of 975, all of whom know John. Every person seeing this post might start to wonder who started the rumor, why they would say such a thing, and, worst, is there anything to it? After all, that’s an odd rumor to make up out of whole cloth.
John has multiplied the audience of the detractor by a large multiplier. In attempting to address the problem, he has greatly exacerbated the problem.
Tacos and Politics
This kind of thing happens all the time. It is very easy to overestimate how much traction a detractor is getting. Of course, if they are getting traction, it is crucial to respond from your platform of authority. That’s just good strategy. A strong counter strategy is to trick you into doing so prematurely, or, even better, getting you to compromise your own platform to respond.
Amigos Taqueria y Tequila, a Mexican restaurant in Westerly, Rhode Island, recently had a such a situation. On election day, their staff wore t-shirts which said “86 45,” reference to impeaching President Donald Trump. State Senator Elaine Morgan claimed that the shirts were advocating not impeachment, but murder, and called for a boycott.
Senator Morgan’s call spread across the Internet, and Amigos was soon getting threatening phone calls, online harassment, and all the rest. Most of this was coming from people outside the local community.
Amigos responded by taking down their Facebook page, disconnecting their phone, and replacing the front page of their web site with a message discussing the situation. As a response to the onslaught, they effectively shut down their standard digital marketing program.
Senator Morgan, by motivating a relatively small number of individuals with extreme right wing passion, was able to create the impression that this issue had taken over the entire dialog. Under the onslaught of angry phone calls from other states and social media attacks, it seemed that extreme action was needed.
This particular extreme action took a conflict which was mostly happening out in the cloud and brought it home. A local customer looking for a good taco, might come to this web site and discover that their enchilada would come with a side of politics and choose to go elsewhere.
In an effort to share their side of the story, Amigos had to share Senator Morgan’s version as well in order to provide context. Further, the issue for most people is not if Amigos was right or wrong in this. The issue is that there is conflict at all. While some might be intrigued by this or supportive, the vast majority of potential customers prefer their burritos without drama.
Any bully’s main goal is to get a rise out of the quarry. They want to see them react, and I can imagine that Senator Morgan got great satisfaction when Amigos altered a crucial part of their digital marketing identity in response to her ridiculous accusation.
Naturally, Amigos did need to engage with this crisis in some manner, but compromising their own marketing platforms to do so did not serve their interests.
I at one point had a run-in with a peculiar individual in a local community. His relationship with reality was tenuous, and he had a tendency to do something wrong, then project it onto others. For example, he might tell people not to attend a charity event he didn’t like, then proceed to accuse you of telling people not to attend charity events.
This troubled individual began to go around town and spread ridiculous falsehoods about me. My first thought was that I might want to get in front of this. I could share to my channels who this individual was and what he was doing.
To do so, however, I would have given him and his absurd suggestions a larger stage and greater credibility than he could ever possibly achieve on his own.
I did occasionally hear from contacts that they had spoken to him, and he had shared his foolish suggestions with them. This report was immediately followed by an opinion that what he said didn’t make much sense and they put very little stock in it.
Had I dignified his statements with a public response, it would have elevated his ramblings to the level of credible concerns. By simply allowing him to go about his business, the issue all but vanished on its own.
Moderation In All Things
Regardless of the nature of the situation, a response must be appropriately measured. Often times, the reaction to the situation causes more damage to the target than the detractor could ever have done on their own.
If you are dealing with a situation, and you are not sure how aggressively to respond, contact us. We’d love to talk it through with you and see how we can be of service.
Most communications crises that arise are a one player game. Some event has occurred and the client is working to manage the situation. There are certainly many people involved: stakeholders, customers, employees, the media, regulators, etc, but generally, none of them are actively working to make the situation worse.
But what if they are? The most dynamic and dangerous situations are those at which there are multiple players at the table, what we call an Adversarial Reputation Crisis. It is vital not only to consider the likely results of any statement or action, but the countermoves of the party seeking to do you harm must also be considered.
As I worked on the team fighting to protect Wicked Faire and its thousands of stakeholders, we had a Adversarial Reputation Crisis.
The basic situation was relatively simple. The owner of the company had been accused of inappropriate behavior and had stepped down from the company with an apology. Ordinarily, that would have been the end of the existential threat to the organization, but there were actors with a more comprehensive agenda. They did not merely want their concerns heard, they wanted to take down what he had built.
Our moves faced countermoves. Complex and organized misinformation campaigns were working to counter our communications. Individual members of our team were facing character assassination and threats.
It was only by being more organized and thinking more moves ahead that we were able to prevail and run a highly successful event.
Your Opponent’s Objectives
Before any kind of planning or response can be effective, you must understand your opponent’s objectives. Why are they doing this? Adversarial Reputation Management situations are quite rare outside of politics because it takes a great deal of time and energy to attack a reputation.
Most often they occur because an individual or group of people feel that a person or organization has done something wrong, and they feel that they have the duty to create “justice.”
This can happen because of actual wrongdoing. It can happen because of a misunderstanding. It can also happen because of a PR response so catastrophically flawed that it inspires people to take action against you. This last reason is why it is so important to have good plans in place and to work with crisis communications experts when a situation arises.
The objective may be limited, such as getting restitution for a person who was wronged. It maybe punitive, in the sense of punishing a person or company for what they did. Usually, even the parties involved are not completely sure what they want, but they know they really want it.
The objectives can also change, especially if you mismanage the situation. A situation, that could have been solved by a sincere apology early on, may reach a point where it can only be addressed at great expense and loss later in the process. This is often exacerbated by lies early on, which is why we advise that you should never lie under any circumstances.
Always look for those easy solutions early.
If a party is trying to hurt you, they are seeking to hit you where it hurts. If you are up against a big, muscle-bound bruiser, a poke in the eye, punch in the nose, or even stepping on his toe, will take him down just as fast as any other opponent.
There are many places where you are invulnerable to assault, but there are others where you are highly vulnerable. You must quickly assess where those weaknesses are and be prepared to defend them.
In the case of a convention, for example, the vulnerability is hotel room bookings. The event could run if it lost some speakers or some vendors, but it cannot run without a venue. In a convention at a hotel, if the number of booked rooms falls below a certain point, the organizer must cover the difference.
Thus, a campaign to shut down an event could focus on the hotel, convincing reservation holders to cancel their reservations.
It is vital to know your assets in an Adversarial Reputation Crisis. What resources do you have in cash, public relations platforms, contacts, allies, supporters in the public.
You must also know the situation. What is the terrain? Where is people’s attention focused? What do they want to hear? What outcome do they desire?
It is here that many companies stumble. By failing to understand what the public is upset about, what they want, they lose goodwill while wasting time and resources pursuing the wrong course.
If you can understand the desires and objectives of various stakeholders, as well as perceptions and misconceptions, you may find that the solution is quite apparent. This goes back to understanding the objectives of those who are aggrieved.
Situations may also arise in which you have actually done what the public has demanded, but you have failed to inform them. You may think that you have informed them, but they have not received and embraced that information.
This is another element of situational awareness: know what people know, and know how to get information to them. Much of this comes down to knowing where their attention is focused and then placing your message there.
Some audiences will not read closely, meaning that they may read your statement or letter, but they may not take from it the message that you intend. Many people read the first paragraph or two and then skim. Likewise with video announcements. They may only watch the first minute or two.
Often, others will then interpret your message for them. In some cases, it is an unbiased third party such as the media. In other cases, especially in an Adversarial Reputation Management, individuals with an agenda may interpret your message for you, co-opting your communication and rendering it ineffective.
You must find communication channels which will reach your audience, and due to the constantly shifting media and digital landscape, the solution to that question may be different by the time you read this article than it was when I started writing it.
This is another reason why it can be very important to work with a crisis communications expert who is versed in identifying the best channels and platforms to carry your message.
The great majority of reputation management crisis situations do not involve other parties actively seeking to harm your reputation. Should you find yourself in an Adversarial Reputation Crisis, we can help. Contact us.
Whether in general PR and communications or in crisis communications, everything that you do is built on a foundation of trust and credibility. It does not matter what you say if you audience does not believe it. Even a single lie will destroy that credibility.
This is one of those lessons that you hopefully learned in kindergarten and can serve you very well in your professional life. When you lie, whether it is a big lie or a small lie, it permanently and irreparably damages your credibility.
This is why the first part of the Rotary Four Way Test is “Is it the truth?” When creating a set of guiding principles for business people of integrity to follow, truth was paramount to the leaders of Rotary International and should be so to you as well.
The Truth Always Comes to Light
Most people do not need an analytical explanation for why lying is a bad idea. However, there are those in business and politics who will suggest that there are times when the truth is not an option because of the consequences it would bring. Here is why that idea shortsighted and misguided.
Sooner or later, the truth always comes to light. It is impossibly naive to believe that a secret can be kept forever, especially in a corporate or political context. Each person who knows the truth has their own interests and agendas, and it is only a matter of time before one of them decides that disclosure is in their best interest.
In any scandal, a prisoner’s dilemma situation will develop in which each holder of the secret will realize that it is best if no one discloses the secret, but that if someone is going to do it, there would be a great advantage to being the first one to do so.
Once the truth comes out, the consequences for the initial misdeed come due with interest. The repercussions are almost always more severe when the public has to find out the hard way, in addition to the compounded costs of loss of credibility.
We have become so accustomed to corporations and public figures lying to us that we simply assume it to be the way of things. Everything that they say is taken with suspicion.
In a crisis communications situation, developments may be occurring quickly enough that your information is not fully accurate when you present it.
It is okay to make a mistake, as long as you promptly own and correct it as soon as the mistake is realized. To ensure that your errors are not multiplied by deceit, consider these steps: declare uncertainty, promptly admit to errors, address all honesty concerns.
If you are not 100% sure of a fact that you are sharing, let people know that. Don’t say “I guarantee” or “I am confident” or “I am sure” if there is a chance you may need to take it back.
If you say “I am confident that no one in our office was aware of this situation,” and it comes out that someone was aware, then you have lied. The statement has two parts: “I am confident” and “no one was aware.” On the second part, you made an error and can correct it, but when you said you were confident, you were, in fact, lying. You were aware that there was a doubt and lied about your confidence.
You must never lie about anything in crisis communications. (And really, you should never lie at all.)
Instead, say “To the best of my knowledge, no one in our office was aware of this situation. We continue to investigate so we can be absolutely sure.”
Promptly Admit to Errors
In a crisis, information will be developing faster that it can be effectively managed, and you will make errors. To keep errors from being perceived as deception, you must be prompt and transparent in owning, admitting to, and correcting those errors.
In the example above, if you later find out that someone in your office did know about the situation, you must come out at the first opportunity and declare the error and the correction. “In a previous statement, I said that, to the best of my knowledge, no one in my office was aware of the situation. I have since learned that I was mistaken. We now believe that Mr. Smith may have been aware of it, and we are actively looking into this. I will share with you what we have discovered as soon as we have confirmed it.”
By maintaining your credibility, you are able to adapt to new information as you receive it, and because you are being prompt and honest about developments, the public should give you reasonable space to find the truth, which they believe you will share with them.
Address All Honesty Concerns
Your most vital resource is credibility, and that is built on the public’s belief in your honesty. Any allegations that you are lying or withholding information will undermine that credibility.
An allegation of dishonesty left unanswered can quickly metastasize into a rumor and then a belief and finally a “fact.” In the social media environment, you will have access to detractor viewpoints, so it is easy to recognize these concerns.
Once you are aware of a concern about your honesty, you should address it from your communications platforms in order to address it before it gains traction.
You should not engage in the comments or forums. Instead, you should keep all of your communications on your own platforms, maintaining your authority and integrity in your communications. You, or a supporter, may post a brief comment with a link to your official response explaining that their concerns are addressed in the linked article.
There is no situation in crisis communications where a lie is every the correct move. It is not the right choice morally or tactically. There may be different ways to present and share the truth, but any one of them is superior to deceit.
Are you trying to get the truth out, but finding it overwhelmed by misinformation? We can help. Contact Us.