The triple Ds no longer work

By John Kananghinis

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, corporate communications practitioners were taught that in a major crisis event there were three standby tools to use when the facts were unclear and/or unpalatable. They were the three Ds – Deny, Deflect and Delay.

That is not to mislead or to lie, but to skilfully use the three Ds to move attention away from the heat of the moment, thus allowing more time to polish the final messaging and place less immediate pressure on the, sometimes hapless, spokesperson – be they PR hack or CEO.

But times have changed. Media is now an immediate feedback loop. Commentary and opinion have replaced reporting, social media allows the previously voiceless to shout and the community has become more cynical.

The old tools don’t work all that well, if at all.

The growing discontent with Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews is likely driven in equal measure by three elements, the ineffectual use of the three Ds, concern around a personal style that can appear lacking in emotional connection and just plain overexposure.

Whoever is advising Premier Andrews needs to realise this is the 21st Century. The old ways don’t cut it. They had their boss deny numerous matters (such as this is not a second wave) that he later had to recant; they had him deflect, blame shifting to certain communities, youth, workers with no sick leave, Federal Government aged care agencies, non-mask wearers etc.; they continue to have him delay by claiming not to know about fundamental matters related to the handling of the first wave, that sparked the second, and by hiding behind a non-judicial enquiry.

It makes no difference how much of this is his doing and how much is bad advice. The media and the public have in, large measure, stopped buying it and the pile-on has begun.

Further communication bungles have not helped. Inconsistent messaging about isolation while awaiting test results, advice on the wearing of face masks and use of inappropriate and ineffective channels to explain restrictions to non-English speaking communities, have exacerbated the feeling of loss of control and of constantly playing catch-up.

Eventually the Australian BS filter kicks in and people start targeting the messenger, in this case the Premier.

Just 10 years ago BP provided an object lesson in how not to deal with a crisis. While their failed well was lubricating the Gulf of Mexico, their CEO, Tony Hayward – who was pictured sailing his racing yacht around the Isle of White – first tried denial “the amount of oil is relatively tiny in comparison to the very big ocean”, he declared. He tried deflection with many and various explanations for the drilling rig’s failure; he even tried delay, by claiming he did not have all the facts, yet. Ultimately, he blew himself out of the water (could not resist that) by saying “You, know, I would like my life back too.” That sour note sank his public standing and his career.

The three Ds did not work and a lack of appropriate contrition, empathy and a suitable tone left BP as one of least trusted corporations on the planet.

The Victorian Premier would do well to learn from such mistakes. Perhaps it is already too late.

RMK+A is highly experienced in crisis communication and has assisted businesses and organisations in managing public and stakeholder relations around major events for over 30 years.

The sum of all our fears

by John Kananghinis

 

Fear is the ultimate weapon of the autocrat.

Be it fear of manufactured external foes, fear of others due to ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any number of other differentiators, fear of the state security apparatus or fear of an unseen enemy – from a supernatural force to a plague.

Throughout history all have been used to control a cowering populace. In fact most have been used in the last 100 years. In each case the results have been horrific. Hitler’s Holocaust, Stalin’s purges, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Pol Pot’s killing fields, the Rwandan genocide, the Balkan wars, Argentina’s disappeared; all used fear, in some form, to motivate and justify atrocities.

One would think that such examples would have taught us to be wary and sceptical of fear wielded as a rationale for state action, particularly action that is externally aggressive or internally regressive of freedoms, or both.

Yet fear itself remains the most pernicious enemy.

Famously, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, in his 1933 inaugural address “…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself— nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”  He was talking about the great depression. The thought is clearly applicable to our current predicament.

In today’s world we have combined three otherwise relatively minor fears into an all pervasive mega social fear. They are the fear of giving offence, the fear of disapproval and the fear of ostracism by the mob. Social media now crushes critical thinking, open and frank (yet respectful) debate, inconvenient truths and acknowledgment of failure. For lives lived online there is no greater fear than being ‘cancelled’. Being shunned and excommunicated by the online mob, who, as with all mobs, move further from rationality as they increase in size.

Such fear is combined with a culture of increasing selfishness and entitlement, bordering and regularly straying over the line into narcissism. A culture that prioritises feelings over facts. The result is that feelings of fear can lead to irrational decisions, or, worse still, be easily manipulated.

In such an ego-centric climate, and with the demise of religious belief, the greatest fear of all is driving our reactions to perceived existential threat. The fear of death.

It is tritely said that death is part of life. Yet, with our increasing belief that we have mastered nature, western developed societies have become so averse to and afraid of death that each departure is treated as a tragedy, irrespective of age and circumstance. That is not to be unfeeling but simply to acknowledge that, try as we might, we cannot outrun death.

If we struggle to accept that fact we will regularly find ourselves making decisions based on denial of fact and mortal fear. Ironically, decisions we may live to regret. In the words of philosopher and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, “ It is not death that man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”

Of course, responses to challenges such as the current pandemic need to be timely, founded on expert advice and proportionate. Some governments have failed on some or all fronts, with devastating human cost, others have scrambled and barely kept up, a few have achieved relative success, while some may have overreacted – only time will tell. Naturally, it is better to err on the side of caution, but there is a vast difference between caution and fear driven panic.

More concerning is that, in a climate of fear of social censure, critical analysis and legitimate debate have been silenced. Either by weight of the mob or by cowardice. After all, in our society, politicians are allegedly servants, not masters, of the people and they must be subject to scrutiny.

In a democracy we should not fear censure for asking pertinent and searching questions or for seeking rational and reasoned explanation of government action, especially if we are to surrender our freedoms for the greater good. Of course there will be occasion when exactly such surrender is required, and all should play their part. That is part of the bargain of living in a civilised and caring society. However, any restriction of freedom must be as little and as short as possible. If not, more harm than good is the likely outcome.

If we are to preserve our freedoms (and it is easy to forget how hard won they are) it must be reason that guides our actions, not fear of political disadvantage, fear of disapproval, fear of hurt feelings or even fear of death. To give in to such fears can lead us down a path to the one thing we should truly fear, the death of our democracy.

Words matter

by John Kananghinis

Words carry meaning. They are too often bandied about without thought and little care for consequence.

 

A quick contrast.

 

“…When the looting starts the shooting starts.” – President Donald J. Trump.

“ …we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”  – Winston Churchill

 

The above is possibly not a fair comparison and one also needs to be aware of the context, but it’s probably fair to say that Churchill faced greater existential threats, to his country and himself, during his leadership than Mr. Trump. At least up to now.

However, I think the point is made.

One seeks to inspire and motivate the other seeks to play to an audience seeking retribution, in other words, rabble-rousing.

Loose words can cause great damage. They can exacerbate a situation, derail conciliation, misinform and divide.

The current occupant of The Whitehouse has a fondness for using social media to sow division and polemicise almost every issue. He does not operate in a vacuum. His opponents have shown an equal propensity for a sharp, undiplomatic and downright insulting turn of phrase. Where does all this childishness lead?

Any business person worth their salt would tell you that picking fights with all and sundry is a shortcut to oblivion. Yet we now witness national governments engaging in the churlish flinging of petty insults and largely empty threats, simply because others don’t agree with them. Hardly likely to win an argument, let alone friends.

To once more quote Winston Churchill; “Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions.”

On a more trivial front, even carelessly using the wrong noun can send completely the wrong message.

Recently the Queensland Tourism Minister, Kate Jones, during a morning television interview on why the Queensland border remains shut, said; “Queensland is the greatest country in the world, and we want to keep it that way.”

It is not clear if Ms Jones doesn’t understand the nature of the Australian Federation in which we live or if it was just a Freudian slip. Either way, not covering herself in glory and potentially sending the message that she and her government see themselves as separate from the rest of the country.

In business, politics, geo-strategic affairs and in just plain ordinary life, words carry meaning. They are too often bandied about without thought and little care for consequence.

Today’s world offers far too many opportunities to mouth-off. Churchill, again; “Life is fraught with opportunities to keep your mouth shut.” Adding to the cacophony benefits no one, least of all those making the noise.,

For business, in a hypersensitised media and social media environment, very often silence is the best policy. When you do choose to speak, carefully consider what you say and how you say it.

Be it an internal communication, customer information, industry position or even social commentary, remember speed is the enemy of both accuracy and thoughtfulness. Take time, get advice, consider the motive and possible outcome and, if you are to be heard, make sure it’s a message worth hearing. One that adds to the discourse, provides valuable information, clarifies issues, reassures and unifies.

We are subjected to far too much divisive drivel to thoughtlessly throw more into the mix.

 

RMK+A has decades of experience creating communications, speeches and public statements for businesses, politicians, industry associations, special interest groups and charitable organisations. 

 

Expert leadership or leadership by experts?

by John Kananghinis

What differentiates a leader from a mere politician or subject matter expert?

Politician. According to the Oxford Dictionary of English; a person whose job is concerned with politics, especially as an elected member of a legislature.

Leader. A person who leads a group of people, especially the head of a country, an organisation, etc.

Expert. ​A person with special knowledge, skill or training in something.

In our world it is not really possible to be a leader without being a politician, of some stripe. However it is entirely possible to be an expert, in any number of disciplines, and be neither a politician nor a leader.

Practising politicians and leaders can benefit from a specific set of skills in which the politician and/or leader may be expert, but to be an expert politician is a discipline all of its own.

What differentiates a mere politician from a leader is the ability to inspire group action and loyalty. Leaders are want to share expansive visions and to harness resources in the pursuit of an end, hopefully a good one, but history tells us not necessarily so. Leaders galvanise the masses to great feats and sometimes great folly. They take the difficult decisions that will drive the delivery of their vision.

Experts, particularly of the bureaucratic and academic kind, are necessarily narrow focused. Concerned with the detailed understanding of their topic and like as not to be exceedingly conservative and cautious, being that they are so well versed in the myriad permutations that influence outcomes in most fields of scientific and social endeavour.

Wise leaders value the counsel of experts. They assess the information provided and weigh it against all influencing factors. They strive to arrive at decisions that are both founded on fact and on their assessment of the likely impact and outcome.

Not an easy task and often thankless and, even more often, subject to inexpert and prejudiced criticism. Criticism that in a social media obsessed world is all the more instant and shrill, yet even less informed.

A mere politician may react by reflecting the baying of the mob to seek cheap affirmation. A mere politician may also abrogate responsibility for taking difficult decisions on the basis of acting solely on the advice of experts. An expert leader will apply knowledge, experience, judgement and insight to arrive at decisions best for both current and future benefit and will possess the skills to carry the masses.

Being a leader is a risky business. Being an expert is much safer. The questions are: what would we have achieved without risk and what will we lose without leadership?

BTW. Captain James T. Kirk of the Federation Starship Enterprise was the undisputed leader of his crew. In the image at the head of this piece he is surrounded by experts. From left; Frist Officer and Science Officer Spock, Navigator Chekov, Communications Officer Uhura, Helmsman Sulu and Chief Engineer Scott.