In a note of stark divergence, this week I start with a Shakespearean quote from “Antony and Cleopatra”. Queen Cleopatra, has just received a messenger and is on the brink of receiving horrible news about her two lovers Marc Antony and Julius Caesar; she warns her messenger:
“Though it be honest, it is never good to bring bad news;
Give to a gracious message an host of tongues, but let ill tidings tell themselves when
they be felt.”
This reflects one of the most difficult roles a communications manager plays, delivering
bad news. An age-old problem. Unfortunately, ill tidings, cannot be left to “tell themselves
when they be felt.”
This is the conundrum a risk messenger faces, largely based on
- What to share?
- How to share?
- Who to share with?
It is essential for communication managers to plan out a strategy of the information that needs to be conveyed. and how it should be done. Often a researched risk messaging can be useful to plan out strategies to help in mitigation or in countering misperceptions. This was not the case in Cleopatra’s time, in today’s world the communications manager bears the burden driving action towards a resolution or mitigation of the effects of either a risk or a disaster. It is this time that the jargon goes out of the window and the language becomes human, compelling, and concrete. This is where the conundrum lies – if all that the communication manager does is to decide what to say and how to say, then the role becomes nothing more than a top-down exercise, a messenger. Bereft of the will to drive informed choice this is destined to fail the changing role. It does little even if the message is well-crafted, artful; the message will be received with scepticism and sometimes hate. In a connected world, where the tools are often misused, risk or threat communication no longer enjoys the broad confidence it once held. The opinion is often divided to – a “great deal of confidence” and “quite a bit of confidence.”
In between these statements is a huge and a precipitous drop; the challenge lies in bridging the two. The key to bridge this is a clear understanding of the risk or the effects of an impending disaster; and the parlance in disaster management is an approach that centres on listening and understanding rather than advocating and persuading. This view point in a corporate setting tends to emphasise common elements or ground rules of corporate communications.
A check list adapted from disaster management is as follows –
- Rely on early warnings and convey the information succinctly. Initiating open lines of constructive is a process that involves listening and listening enables you to identify the details. This relies on a regular regular give and take.
- Listen to comprehend, not to influence. A large part of this rests in the very essence of a dialogue as opposed to a debate. The goal is to understand where the other person is coming from and to find common ground. Listening for comprehending can give communication managers insights that will help them craft better communication solutions and communicate those solutions effectively. Corporate managements do have a desire to see that corporate communication managers are, in fact, listening to what they have to say.
- Be inclusive. Any mitigation efforts requires change and informed choices. Change always comes with risks, costs, and trade-offs. communication managers must craft strategies that weigh alternative options for addressing problems; while empowering corporate governance think through options to reach a decision.
- Address the concern and not the governance mechanism. This is one of the best ways to understand the impact of the message, especially when the communication audit is done. There is more scrutiny, more transparency, and more information available than before. Addressing the concern relies on sharing sufficient information to arouse interest, but not so much it overwhelms.
Risk communication is an art, a balancing act and communication managers must choose between doing what is popular and doing what is needed – to create a more equitable and yet an effective strategy. Still communication decisions and strategies are required—be they fashionable or unusual. Communication managers can always benefit from understanding risks and from talking frankly, clearly, and respectfully about how things could be better.