It is a mantra among just about everyone that we must speak with one voice during times of crisis and uncertainty. It is also a mantra among just about everyone that we should speak with one voice during times of certainty and non-crises. One voice is always justified in the name of consistency, to reduce anticipated public confusion, and if we are being honest, it’s done because the larger organization does not trust some folks to get it right when difficult topics come up. Thus, top-down talking points and no deviation from the core message. The problem, as Peter Sandman points out, is that when you speak with one voice, there is a predictable and increased interest in what those other voices might have to say.
This is not necessarily a big deal where it is expected. Think of an agency initiative where the leadership has picked a path, all members march in the same direction, and everyone outside the organization knows that is what's happening. It may be controversial, but it is a matter-of-course that the organization will support their own plan. Or the President's budget or the hiring freeze or whatever is being directed. That's the way that game is played and the rules are widely known. However, in a crisis situation, when the public, media, stakeholders, and the responders themselves all know there is dynamic uncertainty and more than bureaucratic initiatives are at stake, you lose credibility if your statements are seen as scripted in an attempt to artificially create certainty or, perhaps worse, to discourage questions.
A company or government agency explains a situation to the public in a way that makes it seem less complicated, less uncertain, less debatable, and therefore less upsetting than it really is. The public swallows its doubts and accepts this interpretation. Then the complexities, uncertainties, and debates start to emerge. In large part because it feels blindsided and misled, the public now gets more upset than the situation justifies. And the company or agency fails to notice that its own earlier decision not to brief the public properly is what precipitated the overreaction. It concludes instead that people obviously can’t take the unvarnished truth, so the wisest course of action is to keep pretending that things are less complicated, less uncertain, less debatable, and therefore less upsetting than they really are.
Sandman argues there are two kinds of public confidence and we often fall into the trap of seeking excessive public confidence when we should be aiming for sustainable public confidence. Sustainable public confidence, he says, "frontloads the public’s awareness of uncertainty and debatability, its awareness that the best solution isn’t obvious and all solutions are imperfect." The quest for excessive public certainty almost always spawns a counter and often it will manifest as rumors that are detrimental to the incident, the IMT, and host agencies.
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. In addition, the more stress you are under, the more difficult it is to clearly consider and discuss uncertainty. We want the simple--the predictable--because it is reassuring and it makes us feel better in the moment. But the simple and predictable is not where incident responders choose to be.
When lives and property are at stake, we have to acknowledge the complexity and the uncertainty while trusting the media and the public to travel the same path. There are many ways to do this and it does not have to be anything like a full briefing on the merits or Plan A vs Plan B. It can be a simple phrase or sentence. I'll often include some version or combo of the following into interviews and briefings:
"This is not a cookie-cutter incident..."
"We're having to really think our way through this one..."
There are some challenging aspects to this incident that don't allow for quick answers...
"It will take some time for us to figure out all the pieces..."
"We spent a lot of time looking at the options and we eventually agreed on the one we think gives us the best opportunity with the highest level of safety. However, there are no certainties and that's why we will also develop contingencies..."
"We can't just react on this incident. It is too dynamic and too complex. We must be thoughtful and deliberate in our plans and actions..."
Some of those may not be what you would say, but you get the idea. All of those sound better during a crisis than a definitive statement about how well the incident is going to go. They acknowledge there may be more than one approach and that we are considering all options. It also gives you leeway in case the worst-case scenario develops. That's not being wishy-washy. Instead, it's being honest about the difficulties you face. By bringing those to the front, people see the complexity and are more willing to give you the benefit of the doubt and even take action if you ask.
Of course, confusion cannot reign. You must be clear in the uncertainty and your communications have to be grounded in the reality of the incident. You can't can't be completely inclusive with all the fringe options and neither can you address every crackpot idea that pops up on social media.
A corollary to the one voice directive is that we should never address hypotheticals. Again, you can understand the rationale for this with certain types of communication ( this probably originated on the political side), as hypothetical questions can be used to ferret out disagreements, inconsistencies, and other voices. No manager or politician wants that. However, it doesn't play in a crisis. Hypotheticals form a huge percentage of questions from the media and public during an incident. "What if?" Contingency plans, PACE models, and management action points are, in essence, hypotheticals and part of every complex incident. The public has a right to know what would happen and what the plan will be should the fire come over the ridge, the dam fail, the building collapse, the volcano erupt, and so on. To stand up in front of a public meeting or a camera and say you can't address a question because it is a hypothetical would be cringe-inducing. It would also tell the public you are ignoring the uncertainty. Crisis communicators cannot only be in the moment, it is imperative they also consider numerous future paths.
"That's a hypothetical and we are not thinking about that right now."
"Yes, in that scenario, we would ask the Sheriff to evacuate the town, which is why it is so important that you prepare now and continue to monitor the incident."
Intuitively, we know the second statement is better but the formal training favors the first. (I might add this is one reason why it so important that PIOs get multiple and varied experiences. Use the task book as a guide, not a goal and soak up knowledge from experienced PIOs instead of just checking off on the tasks. The more stresses you are put under--the more exposure to tough situations--the more you will grow as a PIO and start to figure this stuff out.)
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. Also, it is up to the communicator to earn that trust through actions. On the Wallow Fire, after doing a number of briefings, I received an email from a Cabinet Secretary. The email included six talking points and asked me to use those verbatim in the next briefing. The top five were dull boilerplate sentences offering false certainties about things like available resources and public safety. You could tell they were originally written not by the Secretary, but by some person behind a desk in DC who didn't know the difference between a PIO and a PAO, much less what was happening on the ground or the concerns of those immediately affected. In fact, I had already built briefing themes around a few of the five points and had mentioned them all in just about every briefing. However, I did it in my own language and if I had then delivered what was written in the email, it would not sound authentic. The audience would know those were not my words and whatever credibility I had would immediately be lost.
(The sixth sentence was something like: There have been no deaths on this fire. Of course I didn't bring that up because the next ten questions would have been about what were we doing that might lead to deaths or why were we expecting deaths. Anyway, I ended up referencing the other points in the way I had already planned and never heard anything more from DC on that assignment.)
I think we can be consistent and clear with incident communications while acknowledging the uncertainty and differences of opinion that might arise during a tough crisis. This approach will seem counter-intuitive to some, but I believe it benefits and enhances both the organizations and the IMT. Ultimately, it is honest, realistic, more natural, and thus a more credible message for the speaker to convey. It's also the best way I can imagine to increase the chance of breaking through the filters we all put up when receiving information.
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, 2018.