After Pakistan went from 117/1 to 129/5 in their World Cup 2019 league match, it was a foregone conclusion that India will win the match comfortably. That’s when my attention started drifting away from the TV to social media. But it was not after the last ball was bowled, that I noticed a news item about Boeing Chief Executive Dennis Muilenburg admitting to ‘communication errors’ over 737 Max flaws.
My two decades in the marketing and communications field have turned me into a cynic and I cannot help but hazard a guess as to what would have transpired. I started to write about it, but good sense prevailed and I gave up the idea. However, the one term that got stuck in my head was ‘False Optimism’, which in the context of a crisis means that people who are dealing with it, instead of acting decisively think that if they wish away the crisis, it will sort itself out.
In my experience, False Optimism affects people dealing with crises in three ways:
- Denial: Unless the issue explodes into a crisis immediately, in the initial stages, people fool themselves into believing that the problem does not require any action. Mind you, they give the issue the attention that it deserves and also discuss it with others in detail. But, they convince themselves that it is temporary or too insignificant and hence does not require any immediate action. They keep observing it till it is too late to contain or control. I can recall the case of Kurkure, a snack brand that I adore. Someone had started a hoax that Kurkure contained plastic and hence was injurious to health. It all started as a fraud email or text message with a video link showing Kurkure catching fire when lighted and turning black. Due to similarity between how Kurkure burns and how plastic burns, the hoax video concluded that the snack contained plastic! As a company, we did not take stern and immediate action thinking that as the false propaganda was initiated by an unknown source (read ‘not credible’) it was unlikely to be taken seriously by consumers. Additionally, as it was spreading via email and messaging, there was no credible method to judge the extent of its spread and consequently decide on a threshold to take strong action. Mind you this was much before the explosion in the social media. However, by the time we grasped that it was an issue that required action, the hoax had spread far and wide. It took massive effort and resources to counter the hoax and convince consumers that it was safe to consume Kurkure.
- Overconfidence: People tend to underestimate the seriousness of the crisis and overestimate their ability to manage it. This overconfidence leads to lack of preparation and poor execution during crises thereby causing irreparable reputational damage. Take the case of claim of lead in Maggi noodles. The company kept quiet for weeks apparently thinking that if it didn’t do anything the issue will vanish on its own – a case of denial.
Additionally, the way the crisis was handled suggested overconfidence and under-preparation. Canned, impersonal responses on social media and longish technical PDFs that were used to respond to consumer queries indicated that there was a complete lack of understanding of how the consumers would react to the development. A company which had built several loved brands in India, completely failed to read the enormity of the issue till it became too late to salvage the situation. Reams and reams of case studies have been written about this fiasco and the lessons will be taught in management classes for next several decades.
- Positive Conformity Bias: This refers to our tendency to take cues for proper behaviour from the actions of others rather than exercise our own independent judgment. During crisis, such behaviour is more pronounced both during the initial phase (denial) and after the big crisis wave has hit, and the company is busy taking all possible actions to resolve it. In order to please the top management, the team leading crisis management starts to provide an over-optimistic picture of how their actions are helping alleviate the crisis. More and more team members start falling prey to the conformity bias and start looking at the ‘bright side’. As the scales tilt, even those executives who have genuine concerns do not voice their opinions because they don’t want to be seen as having a negative mindset. This creates a very dangerous situation as it blinds the management to imminent risks and leads to an incorrect assessment of the effectiveness of the crisis mitigation plan. Unless the management is aware of what is not working, they cannot weigh the risks correctly and make appropriate course corrections.
At each stage of the crisis management cycle, there is a need for impartial professionals to be part of the crisis management team. Those, who not only have the skills and the maturity to not fall prey to ‘False Optimism’ but also have the courage to voice their concerns, even if those are not popular.