There are a great many challenges to overcome to prepare a sizable organization for crises, emergencies or reputation disasters. But one seems nearly intractable: the ignorance of those in high places. The very ones who will make the big decisions when push comes to shove. The lawyers, the CEOs, the regional execs, the Incident Commanders, the chiefs, the directors, the presidents.
If the ones who call the shots during a response do not understand the water they are swimming in, the effort is doomed–despite all the preparation that communication and public relations leaders may put in place.
A week or so ago I had the privilege of presenting to the Washington State Sheriffs and Police Chief’s association training meeting. Chief Bill Boyd and I were to give a four hour presentation to these law enforcement leaders. Bill did the bulk of the work on the presentation, but had a medical emergency and couldn’t present with me. One item he had gathered for this really hit me–and those present. The Boston Police radio message from the Incident Commander on the scene just after the bombing occurred included the calm but clearly adrenalin-filled IC’s details on what actions the police on the scene were taking. Then he said, “And I need someone to get on social media and tell everyone what we are doing.” That’s correct. One of the top priorities of this Commander was to inform the public of police actions and the way to do that he knew was through the agencies social media channels.
The fact that this is a police agency who gets it at the highest level was made clear by the incredibly effective use of Twitter Boston Police made during the subsequent manhunt. The video I prepared called NanoNews presents their success and the surprising reason behind it.
Despite an understandable reluctance to dive headfirst into digital communications, I was very pleased to see the effective use of these tools by many law enforcement agencies in Washington State. And was thrilled that about five or six chiefs signed up for Twitter during the training and several came up and said, proudly, “I just did my first tweet!”
The last couple of days I’ve had the opportunity to present virtually to a number of communication leaders around the globe. I was struck again by the savvy of these communication leaders about the challenges they face, a savviness these seems far too often missing from those above them. Global communicators face many or most of the same problem as those in North America, but the good old USA seems to have an extra burden: lawyers. I was pleased to learn that lawyers in at least some other countries seem to have a far better understanding of the need for communicators to get information out fast and consequently willingness to allow some freedom and trust. In the US, this seems to be far less likely.
The issue of gaining senior leadership’s understanding of the need for speed, for freedom to use the channels that today’s media and audiences are demanding, was brought to light in one discussion. A major event that happened in one country demonstrated to the lawyers, Incident Commanders and senior leaders what happens when communication is not allowed to flow. Social media became filled with a narrative negative to the responders. That story was never challenged by those responding. The senior leaders asked: why are they allowing this happen?
Bingo. Lights went on.
There are many who will disagree with me on this one, but I deeply believe the great tragedy in this country called Ferguson is above all the tragic consequence of a failure to communicate. And that is no doubt because of the ignorance of the senior police leaders in Ferguson. An ignorance of the news environment they live in, an ignorance of their own community and the sensitivities and need for information. The narrative of the shooting of the young African-American man was seized by those who witnessed it and saw what they saw. Others, who testified in the grand jury, saw things quite differently. But it was only one story that was told, one story that was believed, one story that drove the community to take action.
I don’t presume to know the truth, the full story. But I do know that when untruths are repeated often enough, retweeted enough, network-effected enough, they become the truth. Failure to counter at least to indicate that things are not always what they seem, can be disastrous.
Would the world we live in today be a little different if the Ferguson police leaders understood the world we live in today? I think so.