What good is history if we refuse to learn from it? Taking a few minutes to look back on crisis communications in 2013, I first wondered if there were any really big things that happened. I mean we didn’t have a Gulf Spill, we didn’t have a tsunami-radiation disaster, we didn’t even have a superstorm–unless you were in the Philippines. Then I saw the Bloomberg list of the top 10 reputation crises of 2013 and had to agree it was indeed a scandalous year.
And there’s my first observation: when high-flying careers (like Paula Deen), impeccable business leaders (like Jamie Dimon) and the world’s most powerful government legislative body (US Congress) have reputation crises at the level we have seen this year, and it doesn’t even seem like any major disasters happened, well, you kind of have to wonder what is going on.
I do wonder what is going on, and what it means for 2014 and beyond. Two things seem certain, but they strike me as a bit contradictory:
1. The screaming will continue.
2. The wise will become innocuous.
Is there any doubt the level of attention-saturation we all experience? We have gained such unimaginable access to information, knowledge, entertainment and experiences through the converging technologies of networks and smart devices. But we have not gained one moment of time. There are still, as far as I know, still 24 hours in a day, 60 minutes in an hour. But what we pack into those days and hours in terms of experience, entertainment, knowledge and information has exploded. Don’t you want to shout some time: Stop! Just stop! But we can’t, we don’t, we won’t. The flooding of our senses and mental capacity will continue. More and more studies are making clear that emotion is the key to breaking through the clutter–not reason, not logic, not prosaic facts. The smart ones, meaning those who depend on learning these things for their futures, have figured this out some time ago. Hence the emotion-packed stories that grab us on the news, info sites and YouTube.
We will not see a decrease in the cacophony in 2014. Which means that the emotion-laden screaming will continue and even increase. I include in this screaming the outsized reaction to violations of the most prized cultural values–as seen recently in the Justine Sacco and Phil Robertson stories. Paula Deen herself might be considered part of that screaming. Look back on the crises of 2013. See how many are related to a horrendous howl that some offended soul or group set off, and how the howling mob so quickly formed.
Crisis avoidance for 2014 is about recognizing this screaming mob and the hair-trigger reactions of far too many of us.
And that leads to the championing of the innocuous.
Note this item from Jamie Dimon. The directives are to be very aware of what you write in your emails, and any other form of communication. Now the NSA is monitoring–to what degree who can say. Given the aggressive regulatory actions in some industries, or just the hair-trigger screaming mob, everyone has to be very much aware of problems that can be caused by not thinking through what is said.
It used to be we could say what was on our minds. It used to be politically incorrect comments did minor damage because they were not spread to millions in moments. It used to be people could make crass, coarse, even bigoted jokes without losing everything. It used to be people could be people–the good, the bad, the ugly. Now, there is too much risk, too much exposure. They are still people–they still say stupid, hurtful, offensive things. But now, because of instant amplification, those stupid, hurtful, offensive statements can destroy their lives and billions of other people’s dollars.
So, here comes the innocuous.
Will we look back and see in this the beginning of blandness, of carefully considered conversation where everyone thinks first before saying what they really think? Sure, I’m advising it because it make sense, it’s wise to avoid the career ending tweet or casual comment that can be misquoted or taken out of context or twisted (see what happened to Steve Martin).
While it’s necessary advice, I mourn what has happened to our world. The comments of Sacco were ill-advised to say the least. She was joking. The horrible comments and criticism she received does not seem to be considered ill-advised and they were not joking. The reaction was far more mean-spirited, ugly and hateful than the offense, but where is the backlash against the backlash?
A couple of thousand years ago an angry crowd, reminiscent of today’s digital mob took a woman who had violated the cultural norms and even the law and presented her to a man that many had come to consider a great teacher. The punishment for the woman’s offense was severe–death. Death by stoning. They asked the man what should be done with her. He said: Let those who have never made such mistakes, done foolish things, said things they regret, been hurtful to others–let those throw the first stones at her.
I say to those who crucified Justine and Phil: throw your stones only if you too are without sin.