plainspoken

Affirmations First, Then Explanations

Ohio officials, including the governor, faced a crisis over safe water in Toledo. Direct, plainspoken affirmations would have helped reassure a wary public.

Ohio officials, including the governor, faced a crisis over safe water in Toledo. Direct, plainspoken affirmations would have helped reassure a wary public.

Affirmations work better than explanations in crisis situations. Affected audiences want to hear that you have fixed the problem, not necessarily how.

For knowledgeable people, this can be a challenge. Their instinct is to explain the cause of the problem and explain the solution. Those details are important, but in a real-time environment they serve best as secondary messages, not primary ones. People want reassurance you are on top of the problem. That requires declarative language, not jargon.

For example: "We deeply regret the incident, but we are fixing it and will take steps to prevent it from ever happening again. We also will make things right with those who have been impacted."

Simple words, but a powerful message that conveys the key elements of an effective crisis response – remorse, resolve, reform and restitution. Just as important, it qualifies as a sound bite with a chance to be seen on TV, heard on radio or viewed in a newspaper or online.

Following a strong, assertive statement, you can fill in the details – in priority order. In some crises, the priority is to make things right with those affected, such as airline passengers stranded on a runway for hours. In other cases, the priority may be on describing the fix.

The same rule applies to details – use direct, plainspoken language. If you are describing safe drinking water from the Willamette River, paint a picture of what happens. "We know how to treat water to make it safe to drink. We test water from any source coming into the treatment plant so we know what we have to treat. Then we test the water before it leaves the treatment plant to make sure we made it safe to drink."

That may seem sparse to technical ears, but it is train of events that average people can grasp. And it mentions "safe to drink"  – a bottomline message – twice in just 50 words.

The point of an interview is to get your point across to viewers or readers. Like any interaction, you have to be mindful of what audience will tolerate and be willing to absorb. In a crisis, people want to hear some empathy and hear about some action. The English language contains a lot of words. For this purpose, simpler ones are most appropriate.

If you want to be understood, skip the explain and stick with the affirmation.

The Almost Apology

Former TV news anchor Brian Williams tripped over his own mea culpa, proving that good intentions and sincere regrets aren't the same as a truly effective apology.

Former TV news anchor Brian Williams tripped over his own mea culpa, proving that good intentions and sincere regrets aren't the same as a truly effective apology.

Brian Williams has done soul-searching, but still hasn't found the voice to spit out his apology and explanation.

Williams, the almost beloved former anchor of the NBC Nightly News, will return to the airwaves, but in a lesser role on a cable affiliate of NBC's. It's a demotion, but still a job. All the more reason, Williams should just be plainspoken about why he inflated stories that he covered.

His interview with an obviously sympathetic Matt Lauer on the Today show wasn't crisp, even after more than four months to prepare for it. Williams said his exaggeration of facts or circumstances "came from a bad place' it came from a sloppy choice of words."

Placing yourself in a helicopter involved in a frontline firefight when you weren't at the frontline is something other than a "sloppy choice of words." It is an invented reality.

With some nudging by Lauer, Williams wound up admitting his inflations were "clear ego-driven, a desire to better my role in a story I was already in." Telling tall tales is what fishermen do, not news anchors.

It would have been far better for Williams to say, "Look, there was no excuse for inflating my role in some stories. I let me ego get in front of my judgment. I was wrong then. I was wrong later when I repeated my untruths. I was definitely wrong for not owning what I did."

Now that is an apology that someone with Williams' style and eloquence could make. It is shame he didn't.

Williams did recognize he will be scrutinized carefully going forward, and he appeared to welcome that scurrility. “And going forward, there are gonna be different rules of the road. I know why people feel the way they do. I get this. I’m responsible for this. I am sorry for what happened here. And I am different as a result. I expect to be held to a different standard.”

Meaning no disrespect to Lester Holt who is expected to replace Williams as the nightly news anchor, Williams is really good as a news broadcaster. Listening to him is like listening to a good friend explain to you what happened during the day. 

Williams' good body of work and his talent entitle him to membership in "The Second Chance Club." But his failure to spit out a solid apology and explanation don't qualify him to be, as he suggested, the club's leading spokesman. Instead, Williams is a symbol of how hard it is to apologize convincingly, even when you have been caught red-handed and concede you are wrong.

Good intentions and sincere regrets aren't the same as an effective apology. People who need to apologize should keep that in mind.