Never Lie – Rule #1 In Communications

Never lie in Crisis Communications. It will destroy your credibility.

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.

Remember, Bill Clinton was not impeached for having an affair. He was impeached for lying about it.

Errors, Lies, and Sincerity

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.

Declare Uncertainty

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.

Never Lie

Benjamin Franklin tells us, “Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.

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.

Twitter: the Dry Kindling of Internet Firestorms

Many years ago, long before Twitter, we all became aware of the limits of email as a medium of communication. Lacking the depth of non-verbal communication, voice inflection, and body language, it was easy to misunderstand the writer’s intention. Misunderstandings and conflicts could develop that would never have occurred in a face to face conversation or even a phone call.

If you think email has problems…

I learned early in my career that if things seem to be getting heated or confrontational on email, it’s time to pick up the phone and clear things up.

In the days of email discussion lists, Usenet newsgroups, and Live Journal, the term Flame War came into use, generally referring to an online argument which arose as an artifact of this format in which tone could be easily misinterpreted.

Facebook made this phenomenon a bit worse. It encouraged posts of a few sentences instead of a few paragraphs, and comments on those posts were generally even shorter. With less information, misunderstandings increased.

Twitter distilled communication to a form which minimized content and nuance, creating an optimum environment for misunderstanding and conflict.

Twitter and the loss of nuance

I have never been a great fan of Twitter. How could you express any kind of nuanced, meaningful idea in 140 characters? Of course, that is the appeal of Twitter. Most people are not interested in nuance and meaning. They want to make a quick quip and be on to the next thing.

Twitter legitimizes intellectual laziness. When everyone is speaking in 140 characters, then your short, meaningless post is just as deep and meaningful as everyone else’s.

Yes, I know that Twitter has doubled their maximum to 280 characters. The basic principle remains. By comparison, according to Sprout Social, Facebook allows 63,206 characters, Instagram 2,200. Even YouTube allows 5,000 characters.

In a previous article, I emphasized the importance of not debating in comments for anyone who needs to speak from a position of authority. Twitter is like one big comment section. It’s very format almost encourages misunderstanding and strips nuance. Worse, it trains its users to think in short, staccato bursts.

So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson in which he discusses the power of Twitter to ruin lives.
Jon Ronson’s incredibly insightful book.

When I set up this web site, I was suggested by a number of friends to read Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. In it, he discusses a number of examples of individuals for whom a single Tweet or post had gone viral causing them to become pariahs. Often, they  lost jobs, friendships, and prestige due to a simple misunderstanding.

Justine Sacco’s Twitter nightmare

Justine Sacco made a single Tweet that went viral while she was on an international flight. It was one of a series of silly, off color, poorly thought out tweets that she made during her long travels to amuse herself. She was followed by 170 people at the time, and rarely have much if any engagement in her postings.

Justine Sacco Twitter tweet: "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!"
Not quite as funny out loud as it was in her head.

But this one was picked up, and in the tinderbox of Twitter, all that anyone needed to know was what the 64 characters of her tweet said. Having been trained that every tweet is a fully self contained thought and that every tweet can represent a whole person, the Internet was fully prepared to judge and punish her based on this single entry.

She would subsequently lose her job, many of her friends, and her standing in the community, moving to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for a time. Ultimately, four years later, she was able to fully return to society, getting a new job with IAC, from which she had been fired after her tweet.

Coming back in out of the cold

There are likely two factors in her return, both of which are instructive. The Internet forgets, and nuance finally developed. In his book, Ronson laments the fact that he has been part of many public shamings, and cannot remember the identity of most of his victims. Many of those involved in Sacco’s shaming probably forgot about her as quickly as they hit the send button.

She was also featured in Ronson’s 2015 article, which provided an opportunity for people to understand a larger picture. People were able to see her as the bored, exhausted traveler amusing herself with thoughtless tweets that she was, and not as the ignorant, spoiled, racist, rich brat that they wanted her to be.

Nothing spoils a joke like nuance.

Crisis communications in a Twitter World

One of the key axioms that I recommend to my clients is to communicate from the high ground. Get out of the comment sections. A social media status is better than a comment. An article or blog post is better than a social media status. A book is better than an article. And so on.

Most of those who suffered most gravely at the merciless hands of the Internet did so because they allowed the crowd to control their message, and thus, to define their identity. In such situations, while it is impossible to control the narrative, it is vital to influence it, and the first step of doing so is making the full truth available to the public. Only then is the next step to encourage them to partake of it.

A most common mistake is failing to put your story out there because you believe that nobody wants to hear it. They may not want to hear it, but when they do, and when they discover that their victim is a multidimensional person with a family, friends, hopes, dreams, and foibles, the joy of slaying a monster evaporates.

Is someone else defining your identity to the public? Contact us, and let us help you to make your story your own.

Speaking from Elected Authority

One of the biggest mistakes which elected leaders, especially municipal leaders, make in their communications strategy is failing to maintain an air of authority.

In my article on Crisis and Campaigns in the Age of Social Media, I explain the danger of getting down into the comments and arguing with your detractors. Social media is a very democratizing space. Everyone sounds equally credible in a discussion in the comments. This is good if you are an average person trying to break into the conversation, but it is very bad if you are a person of actual authority seeking to share the truth of the situation with your audience.

In my article, I discuss the concept of The Mayor, a fictional character found in many movies. The dapper, well dressed city leader who rules his city with high minded speeches from behind a large wooden desk.

The image of a mayor behind the desk.
This is the image of a mayor, in this case Jim Kenney as featured in The Business Journals. Arguing in the comments in inconsistent with this image. As a municipal leader, you should create this image in the minds of your constituents.

The Mayor sits behinds the desk. The Mayor gives eloquent speeches. The Mayor writes a column.

The Mayor DOES NOT scrap in the comments

Perhaps you are not able to draw large crowds to your speeches like the Mayor of Gotham City, but there are other ways to speak from authority. The easiest is a blog. You can either have a blog on the official municipal site, or, if there are regulations that make that complicated, you can create a blog on Blogger or WordPress.

Articles on an official blog have an authority that comments or even social media posts do not. They can be referred to as reference material. You are an authority, and you must communicate like one.

As an elected official, an article you write would even count as a valid source for Wikipedia!

In the event of a crisis communications situation, it is absolutely vital to have a proper platform from which to share your message. Having such a platform can prevent a crisis as well. Nature abhors a vacuum, and that is doubly true for information.

As an issue develops, people will find information somewhere. More often than not, when the public accepts erroneous information in a local issue it is not because they don’t trust authority. It is because the authority has not made the correct information easy to find.

People want the truth. They just don’t want to work very hard to find it. Make it easy for them, and make it easy for you. Share the facts from an official, central platform where you can control your message and share accurate information.

Do you need help connecting with constituents or crafting a message to ensure that truth wins out over misinformation? We can help. Contact us!