donaldtrump2016

Trumpocracy – the 101 Lesson for Communicators

Who was it that said: there are none so blind as those who will not see?

Maybe it was the Huffington Post, which reported of Hillary a day before the US election: “She’s got it!”. Or the New York Times, whose election-eve odds were 84% favouring a Clinton White House?

Ok, let’s not be too cute on the morning after, when all has been revealed and it’s easy to say, I saw that.

For the record, I didn’t see that.

But far more significantly, those self-assured and self-described indefatigable seekers of Truth – the entire American 4th Estate – didn’t see that.

Never have so many witnessed so much, so closely, for so long and seen so little.

But the outcome is not just a critique of media or journalists; rather there is a truly vital lesson for professional communicators everywhere.

This is a lesson in top down communications and engagement, versus bottom up.

The American media turned its full skill, experience and attention to reporting, analysing and interpreting; essentially commenting and telling the American people what was going on.

You get the model? We (the media) know what’s happening; we give you (the people) the benefit of our stunning insight, opinion and wit.

Yeah, right!

We talk these days about the importance of engaging, understanding and enfranchising. That applies to the public, whether it be stakeholders, communities, customers, clients … or voters.

But in hindsight what the American media didn’t do is clear – and also, for that matter, what the UK media didn’t do in the Brexit debate. It didn’t stop, ask, observe and listen, instead of tell, tell, tell.

This is the essence of good modern communication. It is about understanding first, then talking.

Governments in Australia and around the world, and to some extent Corporations, are learning this – sometimes the hard way.

But if there’s any real lesson from the US election for communicators, it’s that engagement, consultation and enfranchisement are not just the latest buzz words for the same old same old.

Things must truly be done differently in 2016.

We are a long way from the idea of developing a position, turning it into simple key messages, pumping it through news media and, if they don’t listen, buying space to time to say our piece.

The message no longer comes first. What comes first is … the open ear.

Engagement means listening and hearing, looking and seeing, and mostly shutting up yourself.

Things change slowly, of course. Organisations still expect a thing called a “communications strategy” that has positions, statements, and all the key messages tied up in a neat, pretty bow.

After Trumpocracy, and Brexit, the opportunity is for communicators to educate their paymasters about why they need a strategy that first gives the microphone to their audience – and starts with a key messages page that is blank.

instantkarma

Instant feedback is going to get you – a cautionary lesson

One of the most damaging and cringe-worthy moments in the Ardent Leisure response to the deaths at Dreamworld was the sight of Ardent CEO, Deborah Thomas, live on-air asserting that that a family had been contacted when she was seemingly not in possession of the full facts.

She was asked if the company had reached out to the mother of the two adult siblings who died on the Thunder Rapids ride. She said they had.

When told that one of mothers, Mrs. Dorset, was watching and had told the journalist who had asked the question that no one from the company had actually contacted her, Ms Thomas then change her statement to say that the company did not know how to contact Mrs. Dorset. The reporter then gave Ms. Thomas Mrs. Dorset’s mobile number.

Crisis management lesson: When fronting the media and you are not absolutely certain of your position don’t try to muddle through. If you have not done something yourself don’t assume it has been done and state it as a fact. If you don’t know or are not sure, say you don’t know or are not sure. That may not be the best outcome, but it’s better than getting it wrong because today’s instant media feedback loop will catch you out and make you look a fool, or worse.

dreamworldspecial

Nightmare in Dreamworld

The deep Dreamworld tragedy is now the nightmare that may not be forgotten or forgiven.
Equally, the reputation wreckage left in the roiling wake of that Thunder River Rapids ride was avoidable. What was needed amidst chaos were clear, and above all, human and humane thinking. Not easy, no. But necessary and totally expected from highly paid executives.

Of course, we don’t know the full deliberations of Dreamworld or the advice it took or rejected.
We only see the public result. From that it’s hard to know why the plainly obvious can remain so apparently unseeable to decision-makers in crisis, as they react – perhaps inadvertently – to deepen pain and destroy their reputation.

This crisis was bad and tragic. The disastrous effect of the bad response was totally foreseeable.
Dreamworld’s CEO started sensitively, with a quick statement after the event declaring that all efforts were bent to helping authorities, and all thought and hearts were with family and friends.

I’ve seen enough executives gripped by crises to know these feelings are sincere.

After that, things plummeted. In the Dreamworld bunker, the world must have been spinning so fast they probably felt they had no time to reflect fully on the humanity of their decisions. It truth, the executives may not have appreciated well enough how to manage the time they had.
Crises are awful, for sure. But their public unravelling, and searing media scrutiny, follow a pattern.

The first part, typically the first 24 hours, is about acknowledging tragedy, immediate condolences, unconditional co-operation with investigators, and the facts: what happened; what are the casualties; how big; what is happening now. Dreamworld did this quickly. The second part, the next day or so, is about the human face and grief: the victims and families, the scene pictures and videos, the stunned witnesses, the scene aftermath. The last part, which can take weeks, months and years, is about speculation, fault, blame, legal cases and recovery. Being clear-headed about these phases is not to diminish the tragedy, but rather to create space to respond sincerely to it.

What does this mean for Dreamworld, and why did they crash their own crisis response?

While within hours of the disaster the CEO was rightly expressing his shock and pain for victims, families, patrons and staff, internally Dreamworld needed to focus completely on day two.

Had they fully understood that every flinch of their corporate face would be interpreted mercilessly against the rawness of human grief, they could have demonstrated their sincere organisational grief accordingly. Measured against the tragedy, even the whiff of re-opening the park could only be interpreted as unconscionable. While the intent was to offer a memorial event, the effect signalled an untimely rush to reopen for business.

Keeping the victims and families as their priority, Dreamworld apparently overlooked that the only conceivable reopening or memorial event could occur only if families of victims explicitly requested it, and then only as they wanted it – and with police and safety inspectors’ endorsement. Further, that the CEO of parent company, Ardent, could be financially rewarded (a bonus) during this crisis, even if for retrospective good work, is mind boggling. Would a carmaker choose a horror fatal crash as the moment to laud the safety advances of its chief engineer?

It might be said that this is hindsight. But here’s some foresight.

Dreamworld’s nightmare is not over yet. Mercifully, Ardent finally conceded that they did not get their response right. They still have the aftermath to manage, the on-going blame, the leaks, the speculation, the recovery, the legal case all to come. Will they shut down? Or will they open?
Here is the really tough bit. Now is the opportunity for Dreamworld to redeem itself, somewhat, by being as transparent and open as possible. Yes, they need legal advice. But another error in crises is to rely too heavily on legal advice that is focussed predominantly on limiting liability. I don’t offer legal advice, but reputational advice suggests that Dreamworld must consider quickly how it may more publicly and practically demonstrate its regret and apology to families, staff and patrons and show continuing sincere empathy.

Is vowing to run one of the safest parks enough? What were they aiming for before?

To repair some trust, they must show patrons and community that they are trustworthy. That means even  if  they find a weakness in practices; and how they could commit to making their own internal investigations fully public.

It is about demonstrating honesty and openness when it hurts the most, even if it costs money in the short term, because you can almost guarantee it’s going to cost that and more in the long term.