Holmes Report Blog

The Holmes Report blog focuses on news and issues of interest to public relations professionals. Our main site can be found at www.holmesreport.com.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Let Every Voice be Raised: One of the things I admire about Peter Sandman is that he’s not afraid to challenge the conventional wisdom. His latest column is likely to provoke some strong disagreement from crisis public relations experts, as it takes on a near universal law of crisis communications: the notion that an organization under siege should speak with “one voice.”

According to Sandman, the “speak with one voice” dictum means “that risk communicators and crisis communicators—and in fact all communicators—should do whatever it takes to ensure message consistency. The most extreme version demands total centralization of the public communication role; everyone is told to refer all inquiries to a single source. More moderate versions involve generating a set of key messages that everyone is supposed to stick to.”

The problem with that, he says is “the frequent presence within the organization… of more than one opinion. In such cases, speaking with one voice necessarily means suppressing discrepant voices. Often, in fact, proponents of a particular perspective in an ongoing debate advocate speaking with one voice as a way of urging everyone else to pipe down.”

But organizations facing a crisis or an issue should engage in robust internal debate. Management should listen to a diversity of viewpoints before making a decision. That means organizations have three choices when it comes to communicating: They can pretend everyone had the same opinion, in effect denying that any internal debate took place; they can pretend that the those on the “losing” side of the debate all came around to the “winning” side’s way of thinking; or they can acknowledge the debate, the difficulty of the decision, and the fact that not everyone agreed.

“Convention favors the first two options,” says Sandman. “So does management’s ego.” But he makes several arguments for the third option, the first of which is that it is almost always the truth. But he also believes it has value because it prepares the public for uncertainty, and let’s them know upfront that there are no easy answers.

“A company or government agency explains a situation to the public in a way that makes it seem less complicated, less uncertain, less debatable, and therefore less upsetting than it really is,” he says. “The public swallows its doubts and accepts this interpretation. Then the complexities, uncertainties, and debates start to emerge. In large part because it feels blindsided and misled, the public now gets more upset than the situation justifies. And the company or agency fails to notice that its own earlier decision not to brief the public properly is what precipitated the overreaction. It concludes instead that people obviously can’t take the unvarnished truth, so the wisest course of action is to keep pretending that things are less complicated, less uncertain, less debatable, and therefore less upsetting than they really are.”

Other benefits of allowing diverse voices to speak: it improves the quality of public debate, encourages organizational flexibility, it teaches the public that the organization respects diversity. And Sandman makes another important point, which is that attempts to speak with one voice when the reality is one of diverse opinion usually fail.

“Journalists are taught to seek out conflicting voices,” Sandman says. “What your company or government agency considers presenting a united front, a good reporter considers stonewalling—and a good reporter will inevitably go searching for chinks in the wall.” Moreover, internal morale may be improved by acknowledging the dissenting voices.

Not all crisis communicators are going to find Sandman’s arguments persuasive. The “one voice” imperative of deeply embedded in the traditional approach to crisis management, and many will consider that its advantages outweigh any of the problems Sandman raises.

But at a time when companies are increasingly being encouraged to speak to stakeholders with a human voice, to avoid corporate-speak, to be more transparent, it may be time for a rethink. Are those ideas only valid when times are good? Should they really be abandoned when the going gets tough? If so, are companies really only paying lip service to the value of conversation and the benefits of transparency?


  • At 10:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Great advice and I am learning all the time.



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