best crisis counselors

Turning Complexity into Clarity

The right infographic can help make complex ideas clear.

The right infographic can help make complex ideas clear.

Turning complexity into clarity is a critical challenge for today's communicators. Visual tools can help. A lot.

Telling your audience a subject is complex is a big turn-off. Showing people the essence of a complex subject is something they will appreciate. It is a proven way to earn trust, even from doubters.

The secret to decoding "complexity" is to identify what makes it seem complex. A Tektronix subsidiary that made circuit boards found itself in political hot water after neighbors went to city hall to oppose what should have been a routine air permit renewal. A few visits to neighbors revealed the concern was rooted over what went on inside the company's austere, windowless building that generated so much air pollution.

Company officials explained how the plant's manufacturing process worked. When we were called in to help, we had a simpler idea – an open house. We wanted people to see there was nothing menacing inside the manufacturing facility. We also wanted people to see – as soon as they walked through the front door – how circuit boards power products they use everyday.

The "complexity" was eliminated with visitors, with a warm cookie in hand, strolling by the circuit board display and wandering around in the factory. The issue disappeared instantly and the subsidiary got a renewed air permit.

It is harder to clarify "complexity" when you are still in the design stage of a project. There is no place to hold an open house. That's where an infographic or a SlideShare presentation come in handy.

Saying a proposed project is safe may not be as effective as showing project safety features. An infographic is a great tool to show how a process works and the key safety features at each critical point. An illustration can be easy and logical to follow. It can use visual symbols that are familiar to the eye. An interactive illustration can include links to video clips showing safety features in operation at an existing facility.

A SlideShare presentation or flip chart can enable a viewer to walk through a "complex" process that has been sliced into 10-12 digestible, comprehensible and visually powerful slides. Creating such presentations sends the message that your views are capable of understanding a project's "complexity." Well-conceived slides that show key details and their significance contribute to understanding and earn respect for your overall message.

Increasing numbers of products and projects involve complex technologies, medical advances or emerging science. Many communicators, who graduated with liberal arts degrees and shunned the science building like the plague, may seem ill-prepared to talk about them. Not so.

Not knowing about technical subjects makes it easier – and necessary – to ask the basic questions, which are the questions most likely on the minds of the target audience of the communications.

Turning "complexity" into clarity isn't a test of how much you know, but rather how well you can synthesize what you know into something that people can read, view or experience and understand.

Newspapers May be Dying, But Newsrooms Aren't Morgues

Willamette Week and The Oregonian drew praise from a top journalism periodical for their aggressive coverage of an influence peddling scandal, which serves as a reminder than newspapers aren't dead and media relations is very much alive.

Willamette Week and The Oregonian drew praise from a top journalism periodical for their aggressive coverage of an influence peddling scandal, which serves as a reminder than newspapers aren't dead and media relations is very much alive.

Columbia Journalism Review usefully reminds us that spunky local news media are still capable of exposing wrongdoing in their own backyards, as Willamette Week and The Oregonian did in the unfolding scandal involving former Governor John Kitzhaber and Cylvia Hayes.

The narrative that print media is dying a slow death may still be valid, but that doesn't necessarily translate into newsrooms as morgues. Reporters may face different challenges and incentives to post stories quickly online, but the basic journalistic motivation of digging up the truth remains.

It is true that many local newspapers are reluctant to take on stories that can involve scandal and public embarrassment. But that was true before the advent of digital media. If anything, the digital era has upped the ante for reporters and their editors to find and follow stories that attract attention.

CJR, one of the most respected voices in American journalism, credited "aggressive accountability reporting by local media" for toppling Oregon's popular governor who had just won an unprecedented fourth term in office. The CJR article noted, Kitzhaber blamed the news media for a rush to judgment on allegations he and his fiancée engaged in improper influence peddling.

The article and the episode should be big hints that media relations remain a critical element in effective strategic communications, especially in a crisis. Hoping that bad news will escape the media's attention or blow over after a one-day negative story doesn't even qualify as wishful thinking. It is more like lighting a match near an open gas tank.

News media can fairly be judged on whether they make a robust effort to cover the news. But don't assume that sleeping dogs never wake up or that a friendly looking pooch may not have a little pit bull in him.

Build Trust, Don't Dig a Deeper Hole

Brian Williams and John Kitzhaber followed a crisis response path that dug their holes deeper instead of rebuilding trust through a full admission.

Brian Williams and John Kitzhaber followed a crisis response path that dug their holes deeper instead of rebuilding trust through a full admission.

As recent crises of integrity have revealed, an explanation or apology that falls short of a full admission usually is a spark rather than a fire extinguisher.

NBC News anchor Brian Williams' incomplete apology and Governor John Kitzhaber's incoherent explanation fueled a controversy, not quelled it. The apology and the explanation became part of the controversy, not part of the solution.

It is always easy to second-guess decisions or lack of decisions. But here are some tried-and-true crisis counsel maxims that would have been useful for Williams and Kitzhaber to consider:

1. Believe a crisis can happen to you.

No one is invincible. No one is immune from crisis. The loftier your position, the more likely you are to face a crisis.

2. Recognize when a crisis starts.

A crisis doesn't begin when the first reporter calls with a question. It starts when you realize something has gone wrong, or that you have done something wrong. The crisis Williams faces started in 2003 when he misreported the incident in Iraq. The crisis that felled Kitzhaber began when he failed to separate his work sufficiently from the work of his fiancé.

3. Own your misstep.

Blaming a faulty memory or shifting responsibility inevitably come across to the public as evasive or even big fat fibs. They don't demonstrate the person at the center of a crisis is owning the situation, taking steps to find out what went wrong and making it sure it doesn't happen again. Owning a situation isn't the equivalent of a Get Out Jail Free card, but it is the first step to maintaining or regaining shaken confidence. It signals you are taking the matter seriously and doing something about it.

4. Provide a clear resolution.

Trust comes from actions, not words. What you say can and will be analyzed. What you do can be seen and assessed. That's a huge difference. It undoubtedly would have been painful for Williams to admit he embellished his reporting and for Kitzhaber to admit he turned a blind eye to potential or actual conflicts of interest. But that pain of the moment would have been far less painful that the longer term damage each is facing because they didn't deal with the fundamental problem at the heart of their respective crises.

5. Balance your liability against the value of your reputation.

Many full admissions are thwarted out of fear of increasing liability in a courtroom. Too often these fears overwhelm the price paid in the court of public opinion when public figures fail to come clean. Their careers are at stake, which may exact a greater price than a fine or even a jail sentence. Legal maneuvering has its place, but sometimes it has the aura of guilt looking for a way out. If you know you have stepped over the line, you are going to be admitting it someday, somewhere — why not make it here and now? If you know the truth, tell it.

6. Anticipate what could go awry.

We chastise children for failing to consider the consequences of their actions. We shouldn't expect less of adults. Williams surely knew, especially since there were witnesses, that his puffed up account of the Iraq helicopter downing would eventually come to light. Kitzhaber is an astute political animal who certainly could foretell the results of a murky personal and professional relationship with the love of his life. In the end, both surrendered their trust because they looked away instead of into the mirror of their own actions.

Sermonizing about Williams and Kitzhaber is less useful than a Sunday School lesson about where crisis starts, how it ignites and how it can be halted. The stories of Williams and Kitzhaber are cautionary tales, much like biblical parables. They point out the way to oblivion, as well as the road to redemption. 

Pluses and Minuses of a Robust Crisis Defense

Pluses and Minuses of a Robust Crisis Defense.jpg

Prominent attorney Alan Dershowitz' aggressive denial of sexual charges is a case study of how to mount a robust crisis defense — and the pitfalls of such a defense.In a crisis, sometimes a great defense is the best offense. There is no better example of that approach than Alan Dershowitz' denial of accusations that he engaged in sex with a teenage girl.

Dershowitz, along with British Prince Andrew, has been implicated in a court filing as having sex with an under-age girl. Both have denied the allegations, but Dershowitz has gone far beyond a simple denial. He has volunteered to appear on TV shows to make declarative statements, offer evidence of his innocence and challenge his accuser to make her claims in a public forum, not just in a court filing.

The robust defense mounted by Dershowitz, who is a Harvard law professor, should be a case study for what an aggressive response to a crisis looks like. Here is what his approach teaches: 

Make your denial in person. Dershowitz didn't just write a statement denying his guilt, he sought a public forum to express his innocence. He was willing to give the charge greater exposure on a major TV talk show in order to give the same exposure to his denial.

Make your denial specific. Dershowitz didn't hem and haw. He categorically denied knowing or ever meeting the young woman making the charges. He offered specific references to where he was and who he was with the two times identified by the woman who alleged she and Dershowitz had sex. He admitted flying in an airplane owned by billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, but says he never saw improper behavior by Epstein.

Take on your accuser directly.  Dershowitz, who is a prominent attorney, challenged his accuser to appear publicly and repeat the allegations made in her court filing. He said she hasn't out of fear he will file defamation actions against her for telling lies about him.

The Dershowitz defense is also illustrative as to its potential pitfalls.  Being public, specific and in-your-face is like an open invitation for people to debunk your claims. And that is happening.

Ed Whelan, writing for the National Review, says Dershowitz' denials don't exactly match up with the accusations. They leave room, he suggests, for both the denial and the accusation to be true. 

Nick Bryant, posting on Gawker, is even more aggressive in describing how close Dershowitz was with Epstein, an admitted pedophile. Bryant says Epstein's private jet was essentially a flying sex parlor and Dershowitz was a frequent passenger.

Dershowitz has been ensnared in crisis before. He engaged in a running academic battle with Norman Finkelstein over claims made by Dershowitz in a book, which Finkelstein also alleged contained plagiarized sections. In this matter, Dershowitz also offered a robust defense, including a threat to sue for defamation.

The lesson from all this is that going on the offense to defend your reputation should be based on solid facts, irrefutable validation and an eyes-wide-open understanding that just because you say something doesn’t mean that everybody will believe it. Be prepared for antagonists or skeptics to rummage around in your past to find hints or evidence that you are guiltier than you admit.

Dershowitz' denials in this case have won him more than shadow of doubt. Many believe he is innocent because of the firm, specific and direct ways he has confronted his accuser. But if shadowy facts cloud his story, Dershowitz will have risked an even greater fall. There is more forgiveness for a misstep than for a deliberate misdirection. 

Apologies That Mean What They Say

Too many corporate apologies feel as if they have been plucked from the Hallmark card rack rather than genuine statements of remorse.The corporate apology is threadbare, but still necessary. What is dying on the vine is customer and stakeholder patience because too many corporate apologies are disingenuous and lack promised follow-through.

After a misdeed, words are important. But what makes the difference is action. Especially if you promise to do something to prevent a recurrence of your misdeed.

When a crisis hits, corporate executives want to make the bleeding stop. They often are willing to say almost anything to staunch the flow of bad news.

However, many executives fail to recognize that a crisis is an opportunity. Instead of a moment for panic, a crisis response is a chance to demonstrate your core values, to show what you really believe.

If you are a health care organization and say patients come first, a crisis is a chance to prove it. If you are a retailer and say customers are always right, a crisis is a chance to affirm it.

Too many corporate apologies are canned or theatrical performances. Executives go through the motions, saying the right words, but without conviction. Their lackluster or half-hearted follow-up is the tell.

Apologies are those unintended teachable moments that reveal to customers, stakeholders and employees whether you are trustworthy or just another hollow suit.

A blogger recently asked whether the corporate apology is dead. My answer: no, it just looks like the walking dead. Zombie apologies can do more harm than good. Apologize like you really mean it. Then take strong actions that show you meant what you said in your apology.