As a communicator, it's easy to get wrapped around the axle trying to remember what we can and cannot talk about. For instance, in the wildfire world, I saw a lot of skittishness last year when it came to air tankers--and for good reason. Contracts and such are complicated things beyond most PIO's (and ICs, FMOs, and agency administrators) understanding. When it comes to flying things that weigh a bunch and get politicized easily, it becomes even tougher to not only get it factually correct, but to also navigate through all the potential political potholes.
Yet just because a topic includes complex and controversial issues does not mean we should surrender the whole conversation to others.
I hate to quote myself, but here we go. This is from the Uncertainty post:
The temptation for organizational leadership and crisis communicators of all stripes is to simplify because during a crisis, the thought of adequately dealing with the uncertainty and trusting the media and public to understand the nuance seems an impossibility.
A little later in the same post:
Ultimately, the parent organizations and the IMTs must trust the crisis communicator to know the audience and engage in a positive conversation that acknowledges uncertainty and provides authenticity to the speaker and by extension, the larger organizations.
With air tankers, we see organizational leadership not just simplifying information, but protecting it. Again, there is a good rationale for this given the details and the fact that lawyers are probably involved. However, when an organization communicates direction to not address certain things, the tendency is to overstate the case and bring in too much under the umbrella. By the time the PIO on a ripping fire is fielding questions, it's a negative calculus: What am I not allowed to talk about? rather than, What do I know that is responsive? That creates stress and can throw someone off their game. It's like a person is juggling four oranges and then a bowling ball is thrown into the mix. You have to pay so much attention to the bowling ball that you drop all the oranges. It need not be that way. There are many things we can discuss (and be trusted to discuss) about air tankers without walking into a hall of contract mirrors.
Tankers are easily the most visible of all our firefighting tools. Low flying, large aircraft releases bright red retardant just in time to save everyone. What's not to like? The visuals are unbeatable. So much so that many outside the wildfire world, including politicians and media, think that a fire is not being fought unless they constantly see tankers in action. The best approach we can take is to communicate the role of tankers in a way that is realistic and does not add to the myths.
But. Because of the uncertainty surrounding contracts and politics, we gravitate to phrases we have heard, assuming that if someone else said it, it must be a good answer. And also because of that uncertainty, the common phrases are simplified. Such is the case with "Aircraft don't put fires out. Only the firefighters on the ground can do that." Sounds good, but it is not always the case and even many of the public can see it. Now, in heavy fuels, that statement would indeed be true, but retardant drops can put out fires in light fuels. And after all, if the statement was etched in stone, why would we even have tankers? If you are going to use that construct, it cannot stand alone and you cannot assume your audience knows enough to fill in all the assumptions. You have to explain why it is true in this particular case. What do the crews do? What is the role of retardant drops? How do aircraft and crews strategically and tactically interact? Why a retardant line instead of a helicopter water drop? Additional questions that might come up include: Why might the tanker be called away from your large fire to go do initial attack somewhere? If that happens, how does that affect the management of the fire? How come the news media can fly on a windy day--or a calm night--but firefighting aircraft cannot? PIOs should not only be able to answer these questions, but anticipate them and provide both details and context.
Talking points and sound bites are old-timey. These days, we can talk about the role of tankers and other subjects while helping both the reporters and the public understand the nuance of the topic. We can also provide really good information on tankers without talking about a particular tanker or contract.
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2018, All rights reserved. Academic use approved with notification and attribution.
Occasional thoughts on incident response, crisis communications, wildland fire, and other topics.
Docendo disco, scribendo cogito.
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2019.