Scorched Earth

Scorched-earth is a military doctrine that explored the destruction of any and all assets that may be useful to the enemy, when the unit is withdrawing or retreating from a given position. This meant that the ground gained by the advancing force is rather useless there is no advantage to be gained by the occupation of that territory and in no uncertain terms useful to anyone else. 

Often, this is the exact scenario that is reached in the aftermath of a crisis, when restoration is hindered due to cover ups and destruction of transparency. This is the post-crisis crisis that is an anathema for all the stake holders. Onus thus lies on the function of communications to avoid and dissuade from the creation of such very instances. Communication and risk management should be created with the objective of recognising and minimising risk with the intention of avoiding crises. 

Every strategy built around this premise revolves around the objective of preventing a scorched earth scenario and largely address one particular constraint: coping with uncertainty. 

The adage in its many forms like “change is the only constant” or some such equivalent delves to one assertion that the factor of uncertainty is “the central variable” in all risk situations. Within the rules of the assumptions of communication strategies, if there is a certainty of the outcomes, be it , unpleasant or fortuitous, there is no risk involved. If, on the other hand, there is an uncertainty of how a situation will transpire, there exists a level of risk. At the most fundamental level, risks are probabilistic occurrences that can have positive or negative outcomes of various magnitudes. The reliability of an organisation from the view point of stakeholders cannot be held to ransom, and organisations must strive to be of high reliability, more so, from the point of view of communications. 

The closest model to do this, drawn from parallel in disaster management is one that incorporates, almost constantly –

  • track small failures; 
  • resist oversimplification; 
  • remain sensitive to operations; 
  • maintain capabilities for resilience; 
  • take advantage of shifting locations of expertise. 

In a scenario of near-constant monitoring, the biggest advantage is the recognition of blind spots which may otherwise take the form of belated recognition of unexpected, threatening events. 

These blinds spots represent missed opportunities to address risk and avoid crisis. There are two concurrent modes of operations – first is to anticipate and the second is to contain. 

Anticipation is essential to risk management and communication is the differentiator when focusing on failure, simplification, and operations. In a seemingly divergent perspective one attribute is to be pre-occupied with failure, this will draw attention to symptoms of malfunction, especially when these symptoms can be traced to strategic mistakes, and will help in crafting strategies that avert those mistakes. 

The subset of this stage of anticipation is to steer away from any temptation to oversimplify. 

There is a certain comfort in simplification, but then the danger lies in the fact that simplification steers managers away from the very evidence that foreshadows unexpected problems. This follows the tendency to categorise observations under labels can lead to generalisations that do not take into account the subtle nuances that are actually warning signs. Taking cognizance of such nuances is being sensitive to operations and allows focus on communicating what is actually being done regardless of what was supposed based on intentions, designs, and plans. It is vital to understand that communications works best when the strategies focus on actual work rather than intentions, and actual work is defined by its relationships rather than its parts, and finally treating routine work as anything but automatic. 

While anticipation serves to prevent an unexpected event or a crisis, but when it does, containment focuses on responding, swiftly and taking full cognisance of all the details. Being reactive to the unexpected allows the ability to make sense out of an emerging pattern. This is just as important as anticipation and planning. 

These scenarios play out to provide for a sense of resilience and in this context being resilient means to be mindful of events that have already occurred and to correct them before they worsen. 

This prepares organisations to avoid becoming scorched earth by being better able to continue to function, mend quickly and continuously learn even when facing serious adversity. This also requires conveying essential information rapidly and accurately, by decentralising the source of expertise. 

Many times the expertise in relationship to a developing or developed crisis, lies not at the top management but at a more hands-on level. Taking this into account in the communications strategy helps build back better. Intrinsically all communication around risk occurs under a veil of uncertainty. Avoiding the total destruction of transparency is magnified by embracing this uncertainty, and making strategies which are, in a way, empowered by uncertainty. 

Amit Paul
With over two decades of diverse experience, Amit has worked closely with corporates, industry houses, academies and institutions helping them bridge the learning divide and implementing management solutions, focussing on the geographies of the Middle East and the ASEAN region.
Currently he is the Principal Consultant at NAC Singapore, and works on the confluence of technology and safe living focussing on building safe and smart cities.

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