Listening is critical during public consultation

A recent public meeting on the construction of a light rail transit (LRT) line in northwest Toronto illustrates why public meetings cannot rely on “traditional” approaches toward communication.

dog listening
You cannot and should not ignore questions to bridge to your message. And if the crowd seem to even remotely be saying “you’re not listening,” put your presentation away and answer their questions first.

The Toronto meeting was hosted by Metrolinx, a provincial government agency. Toronto councillor Georgio Mammoliti used it (hijacked it?) to reinforce his perspective that the $1.2 billion Finch LRT should be scrapped and replaced with more expensive subway service.

According to a Toronto Star article, residents “appeared to be divided on the LRT-versus-subway issue.”

The Star article says meeting descended to shouting when Councillor Mammoliti refused to let a Metrolinx representative finish a presentation about the LRT project. (I wasn’t there, so I can’t say if this was what was presented at the meeting, but Metrolinx has a presentation on its website about the Finch LRT.)

There are three concepts to be considered here that anyone involved in public consultation should consider.

First, questions should be answered, not ignored. At 1:07 of the video, a resident is interviewed by the CTV reporter. “I asked the question ‘what are you going to do for safety for the children’,” this resident says. “He started talking about the budget. I don’t care about the budget. I care about my kids.”

If Councillor Mammoliti was asked and he bridged to the budget, my advice would be that he might want to be perceived as a better listener, especially during an election year and at a meeting attended by someone who ran against him during the last election and may very well run against him this fall. When child safety is the issue, people are never swayed by talk of dollars, cents and projections.

If a Metrolinx representative was asked the question, the opportunity was missed to respond with: “Everything we can.” If people want to know what that involves, based on their understanding of the project at that moment in time and their own children, they’ll ask more questions. I would, and so would many others.

Second, people with burning questions care less about a presentation than they do about the answers to their questions. At 1:30 of the embedded video, the reporter points out that the Metrolinx presentation was cut short to move on to questions.

I’ve often counselled that when the room is divided, it can be prudent answer first and present later—if it’s still necessary to present at all. I’ve seen many situations in which dozens of questions answered clearly and concisely provides the community with everything it needs to know. If they want to know more, they can read it or inquire about it later. Sometimes, the "Contact us" slide needs to be the only one shown.

Third, the kiss of death in issues management is the phrase “you’re not listening.” In any form of public consultation, listening triumphs all. And there is no better way to demonstrate listening skills than answering questions clearly and concisely. Logically, you can’t answer someone’s question if you’re not actually listening.

If remembered and applied, these three concepts can help manage real or perceived hostility. When they’re combined with the polarization model (which I presented to the North American conference of the International Association for Public Participation last September in Denver), they’re a powerful force for ensuring that those affected by a decision can understand and potentially have input into that decision in a meaningful way.

And makes it less likely that the "other" side, whichever side that is, can hijack the meeting and decrease its success.


Issues, crises and social media tornadoes

Presentation to the Canadian Public Relations Society by
Sarah K. Jones, APR, FCPRS, LM and Eric Bergman, APR, ABC, MC, FCPRS


Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of co-presenting with Sarah K. Jones to the Canadian Public Relations Society on the topic of “Issues, crises and social media tornadoes.” Using Tim Hortons as a case in point, Sarah and I provided insights into how public relations professionals could better prepare their organizations for the issues, crises and social media tornadoes that often lie just beyond the horizon.

tornadoe on a field
We covered three concepts. Sarah first addressed the notion that, if stormy weather is anticipated, less time is spent dealing with the aftermath. Next, I talked about separating stormy weather into its components, so it can be better managed and prevented. Finally, we both talked about helping management understand the need for change, and provided a series of tools for steering management into effective, sustainable decisions.

Anticipating Stormy Weather
Sarah began by encouraging participants to think of the weather as a metaphor for managing issues. During winter, for example, Canadians assume that the weather will be cold, so they dress appropriately. If they’re planning a road trip during winter, they check the forecast for snow.

“For any communications professional, assuming there’s stormy weather somewhere on the horizon ahead should be a primary job motivator,” Sarah explained. “Preparing for same should be part of every job description.”

She pointed out that it’s critical to constantly ask questions. Where do storms pop up for the organization? Does it happen regularly? Is there a pattern?

How do you monitor what your stakeholders are saying? What are traditional and social media saying about your industry, your competitors, or your company? How do you monitor social media?

As the Tim Hortons case proved, whether or not PR professionals work in a directly regulated environment, it’s critical to pay attention to provincial and federal government activities and events—things like election promises, ministry initiatives, proposed legislation, economic statements and budgets all provide insights. If you don’t monitor the landscape, be prepared to be busy.

“My personal motto throughout my career is that it’s always better to spend five minutes at the front end identifying what needs to happen,” she explained. “It’s always better than spending five weeks at the back end cleaning up the mess.”

Stormy Weather Components
During the middle section, I talked about separating stormy weather into its components, so it can be better prevented and managed. To do this, I briefly explained the differences between issues, emergencies and crises.

“The dictionary defines an issue as an unresolved problem that has the potential of escalating into a dispute,” I said. “But that’s a long definition for someone originally from Alberta. To me, an issue is a fight looking for a place to happen.”

When someone “takes issue” with the organization, they’re mapping out the lines of that dispute. The crisis occurs when issues escalate out of control. Media attention, whether traditional or social, leads to public scrutiny. The organization goes on trial in the court of public opinion.

An emergency is sudden, relatively unexpected event that demands serious attention and prompt action. But an emergency is not necessarily a crisis.

A crisis is a turning point. The crisis point is successfully passed if the resolution of one or more issues leads to positive change—a healthier organization after the resolution of an issue. If the positive turning point is not achieved, however, negative change is most often manifested as a hit on the company’s brand.

“It’s amazing how much crisis management and brand health have become intertwined over past 25 years,” I pointed out. “As Sarah so eloquently stated, if issues are clearly identified and subsequently managed, the odds of them escalating into crisis is drastically reduced.”

Mitigating Stormy Weather
For this section of the presentation, we provided three actions that public relations professionals that can use to help decision-makers do the right thing.

Eric Bergman and Sarah K. Jones present to the annual conference of the Canadian Public Relations Society
First, it’s important to speak the language of executives. Most executives do not want to get lost in detail. They are more interested in broad strokes and the forty-thousand-foot view. Why is this weather report important to them? What will they lose (or gain) by not listening or paying attention? Sarah shared insights into her experience working for the public sector, and I introduced the concept that shareholder value may be an important lever to get the attention of any company executive.

Once you speak their language, it’s important to get their attention. Humans will not change their behaviour without feeling some form of discomfort. The difficult part of this concept is that to get the attention of decision-makers, it’s important to make them feel uncomfortable with the status quo. If not enough discomfort is introduced with the weather report and potential fallout, they will ignore it. Likewise, if too much discomfort is introduced, the weather report will also be ignored. The sweet spot is somewhere in between.

Finally, once you have their attention, it’s important to change their behaviour. We introduced a number of ideas and tools participants could use to help change the behaviour of management groups they advise. It’s never a good idea to bring a problem without a solution, and we introduced a final tool that helps define potential solutions, identifies pluses and minuses of each solution, and the potential outcome of each proposed solution.

Conclusion
If participants learn to effectively manage stormy weather, they’ll spend less time dealing with the aftermath. If they learn to break stormy weather into its component parts—issues, emergencies and crises—they better manage and prevent stormy weather. If participants have a larger tool base, they will better mitigate and manage any storms that arrive.

“We hope we’ve provided a wider range of tools to better prepare your organizations for issues, crises and social media tornadoes,” Sarah concluded. “That way, you’ll better help your clients and yourself prepare for any problems that often lie just beyond the horizon.”

Toronto's LGBTQ Community Should Be Extremely Disappointed

I listened to an interview with Toronto Police Service deputy chief Barbara McLean on CBC's Metro Morning last week. If I were a member of Toronto's LGBTQ community, I would have been extremely disappointed by some of her answers to the questions posed by host Matt Galloway.

Pride flag (rainbow flag) flying
Galloway introduced the interview by posing a question that the community and the police service have been asking: "What needs to be done to repair the relationship between the police and Toronto's LGBTQ community?"

Currently, it's a very relevant question. Toronto Police Service recently applied to march in Toronto's annual Pride parade, only to be asked by organizers and other community groups to withdraw their application. The relationship between the Toronto Police Service and the community has been strained for decades; it's something I've observed since arriving to Toronto 31 years ago. This strained relationship recently came to a head with the arrest of alleged serial killer Bruce McArthur, and investigators are probing for links to potential disappearances of gay men in Toronto as far back as 40 years ago.

Before interviewing deputy chief Barbara McLean, Galloway played a short clip from an interview the previous day with Toronto city councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, who weighed in on the relationship between Toronto police and the LGBTQ community.

"There is something very wrong with the institution of the police—and policing—with the LGBTQ community," she said.

When he started the interview with the deputy chief, Galloway's first question built on Wong-Tam's quote. "Do you agree with Kristyn Wong-Tam that there is, in her words, something very wrong with the institution of police and policing with the LGBTQ community?"

Folks, this is a closed question. Closed questions generally require a "yes" or "no" as the answer although, as I teach in my media training program, it is possible to also to use "it depends," "potentially" or "under certain circumstances."

However, in this case, the answer is "yes." Everyone knows it. The police service was just asked to withdraw its request to march in the community's annual parade. They weren't asked to withdraw because the relationship is working well.

Does the deputy chief acknowledge this fact? Barely. In a typical, outdated, bridging approach, she then proceeds to talk about what's important to her.

"I'm actually focused on that issue, Matt," she begins, leaving us with some hope that she'll address it directly. But she doesn't. She has obviously been trained to then talk about her message.

"Looking at where I sit on the organizational chart in human resources command, focused on what we're needing to do for our modernization. And when we think about what a modern police service is, it's about relationships. And that's what I'm really focused on in the work that I'm doing."

Galloway cuts her off and asks—heaven forbid—another closed question. "Do you think there's something wrong with the way police are policing the community?"

"I actually always think there's opportunities to listen to the community and take that back and see if there are ways we can do things better …"

Blah. Blah. Blah.

Why would anyone believe the Toronto Police Service listens to the community—any community—when one of the service's top representatives isn't listening to what this interviewer is asking about concerns this specific community is openly asking?

As I've said to thousands of participants in my media training program over the past 25 years, the best way to demonstrate effective listening skills is to answer someone's questions clearly and concisely. The "constantly bridging" approach during media interviews is an outdated paradigm that fools nobody. Don't try to be clever by talking about what's important to you. Answer the question because, if you don't answer the question—especially a critically important question—everybody will assume the worst. You're not fooling anyone except, perhaps, yourself.

A little later, Galloway asks the critically important question for this interview: "Do you believe police treat members of the LGBTQ community differently than they treat other members of the public?"

"I believe our relationship with the LGBTQ community is important," deputy chief McLean waffles forward, "as it is with any community."

Galloway politely cuts her off. "This is a specific and important question," he says. "Do you think the police treat members of the community differently?"

"I think what we want to do is that relationship is very important," she waffles. "The relationship is very important and we're listening to the community …"

"But I'm not sure that answers the question," Galloway says, before attempting a third time. "Can you unequivocally say that people in the LGBTQ community are treated the same as they would be if they are from another community?"

This time, the deputy chief at least admits she can't answer that because she's not at the front lines (which is, in essence, a bit of a copout—pun fully intended). If I were a member of Toronto's LGBTQ community, I would be extremely disappointed by her response. And, if I were an officer on the front lines, I wouldn't be all that motivated to change my behaviour if I am treating someone differently.

As my media training clients know, I believe messages should be directed to specifically identifiable audiences important to the organization's success, with the goal of influencing the attitude, opinions and behaviour or those specific audiences. In this case, there was a clear opportunity to both answer the question and send a message internally and externally.

"I sincerely hope that members of the LGBTQ community are not treated differently," she could have said, particularly as an openly gay individual herself. "And if any issues of being treated differently come to my attention, I can assure members of the community that they will be dealt with immediately."

Judge for yourself. The interview is posted below.





Witless in Witless Bay

There is an issue washing ashore on Canada’s eastern edge that clearly serves two notices to municipal politicians and developers across the land: Integrity and transparency are growing issues everywhere; social media isn’t going anywhere.

This particular issue is unfolding in the village of Witless Bay, Newfoundland, a community of 1,000 souls on the Avalon Peninsula—located about a half-hour south of St. John’s and east of Butter Pot Provincial Park.

The council in Witless Bay, NL needs media training
The village council, all of whom were acclaimed in last fall’s municipal election, recently voted to “retain an independent criminal lawyer to review recent social media accusations against current town council or councillors to empower the finance committee to take disciplinary actions.”

In other words, they are using taxpayer money to investigate whether they can retaliate against those who speak up against them on social media.

Huh?

Perhaps someone should remind them that they were acclaimed as elected officials, not named supreme leaders because nobody ran against them.

There are a few other things worth noting. First, one of the councillors, developer Fraser Paul, was recently taken to court by local resident Lorna Yard. Mr. Paul was elected in a by-election in 2016. However, Ms. Yard made the case that he faked his residency in the town prior to the election and did not meet the six-month residency requirement required in municipal election rules, which require candidates to be residents in a local area 30 days before being nominated.

The Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador agreed. Mr. Paul was forced to step down before establishing a permanent residence in the community prior to the 2017 election, when he become one of the acclaimed members of council.

Second, there is a long-standing dispute over Ragged Beach, an area for whale- and puffin-watchers that someone (perhaps a developer who’s now on council?) would like to see developed. There’s a big hint here. Whenever someone develops a “Friends of …” presence, whether on or off social media—such as “Friends of Ragged Beach”—it’s a strong hint that it’s time to stop talking, sit down and listen. In my experience “Friends of …” movements do not go quietly into the dark night.

You have the same choice I've seen while advising clients on issues across the country. Either listen to what they say or enter into a dispute in which they try to ram their words down your throat—some more gently than others.

Third, one of the first acts of this new council was to revoke the town’s existing policy manual that provides direction on a number of issues, including transparency. To be fair, the manual was only enacted by the previous council. However, transparency is much easier to evoke than revoke because, when it’s revoked, everyone’s first thought becomes “what are they hiding?”

Free advice
I have some free advice for this council. First, although my understanding of libel and slander is rudimentary, I do know that I can say or write anything about someone as long as: a. It’s true and b. I can prove it’s true.

For example, it’s quite easy to say that Mr. Paul cheated in 2016. Ergo, it wouldn’t be a stretch to call him a cheater. Obviously, that’s not what the Supreme Court would have said, but the inference can be made when he was asked (forced?) to step down for stretching the rules. The people posting on social media for which this council decided to seek legal help to quash opinions have been nicer than I was in this paragraph.

Second, if you think that eliminating a policy for transparency or changing meeting times for council in an effort to make it difficult for others to attend is all you need to do to get your way, you are truly being witless. These people aren’t going away. Threatening them is nothing short of bullying and all you’re doing is bringing a global social media microscope to everything you do. If you thought it was tough to get your way before, welcome to the 21st century.

Third, if you can’t sit down, listen and negotiate, no amount of criminal lawyer assistance will help you. This issue has extended well beyond Witless Bay (I can’t wait to see how you plan to financially punish me from my office here in Toronto for criticizing your actions).

Gather your wits, swallow your pride, listen carefully and talk prudently, and represent your constituents effectively.

And be thankful you don’t live in a place called Transparency Bay.

The Crisis Brewing at Tim Hortons

Outside picture of Tim Hortons franchise.
There is a crisis brewing on Ontario’s coffee horizon that could soon spread its aroma to other parts of the country as minimum wages rise in other jurisdictions. While this brew-ha-ha will probably not decimate the Tim Hortons brand, it could leave a bitter aftertaste for the stakeholders involved if not handled properly.

When the minimum wage in the province of Ontario increased by approximately 21 per cent to $14.00 per hour on January 1, two franchisees in Cobourg, Ontario (about an hour east of Toronto), sent a letter to employees stating that benefits would be scaled back to offset the cost.

Other franchisees followed suit, cutting back on everything from medical insurance to paid breaks and a free drink at the end of a shift. While we could argue that some of these seem petty, there is an economic reality here of which we shouldn’t lose sight.

The increase in minimum wage will hurt franchisees, costing approximately a quarter million dollars per location. This is money that comes directly out of owners’ pockets. And it will hurt. Their profitability has been declining. About a year ago, they formed a franchisee association to bring this fact to the attention of the owner of the Tim Hortons brand, Restaurant Brands International (RBI)—months before anyone in Ontario even heard of a $14.00 minimum wage.

For managing their businesses to adjust to labour costs that could rise from 30 per cent to 43 per cent of franchise costs, franchisees have been labelled “bullies” for picking on workers by Ontario’s premier Kathleen Wynne and “rogue(s)” for messing with the Tim Hortons brand by RBI.

Quite the tempest. And nary a teapot to be found!

Advising the Franchisees
With an issue like this (which is not yet a crisis), if I were advising the franchisees, I would encourage them to not back down. I would strongly urge them to not stoop to the name-calling tactics of the premier and brand owner—to instead tell the honest story of how this impacts their stores, their families and their communities. I would also suggest that they consider focusing on the profitability of the Tim Hortons brand owner as a lever to get the corporation's attention.

The objective of any media relations activity would be to motivate the premier to acknowledge that franchisees are hard-working, tax-paying contributors to Ontario society and the communities in which they operate—ideally she should apologize for calling franchisees bullies—and to entice RBI to work with franchisees to find some middle ground while subtly reminding the brand owner that the minimum wage will soon rise elsewhere across the country.

This can only be done with a balanced, logical response—not by stooping to the name-calling tactics of the other players in this drama.

Advising the Brand Owner
If I were advising Restaurant Brands International, Inc., I would encourage them to sit at the table and listen—really listen—to what franchisees are saying. There are many hints that franchisees believe the brand owner is not listening— the formation of a franchisee association and an article in The Globe and Mail last September that highlights declining profitability.

As I’ve pointed out to clients for nearly 30 years, the phrase “you’re not listening” is either one or two things, and it’s their choice which. “You’re not listening” is always an early warning sign in issues management. If the warning isn’t heeded, “you’re not listening” can become the kiss of death in a crisis.

How likely is RBI to truly listen? Not likely, I’m afraid. A recent study showed that the very best organizations at listening devote less than one-third of their resources to listening—i.e. they talk twice as much as the listen.

For RBI’s sake, I hope they’re different. Right now, failing to listen may be the biggest threat to the Tim Hortons brand. (And make no mistake, other franchisees are watching.)

Advising the Government
If I were advising Kathleen Wynne, I would first urge her to quit being a bully by calling franchisees bullies. (If you’re interested in more about bullies, look me up on Facebook and read my post there.) And I would point out that she may have missed a glorious opportunity to come out of this smelling like a rose.

A quick search would have revealed that franchisees feel they’re being squeezed. Instead of calling them names to champion the downtrodden, she could have advocated on behalf of franchisees—perhaps not a bad thing to do during an election year.

She could have said that she knows they’re under pressure. But she could also could have used her spotlight to publicly encourage Restaurant Brands International to meet with franchisees and work out a solution beneficial to all. After all, as the company has publicly said: “Owner profitability is the backbone of our system.”

A media-savvy premier would encourage them to put their profits where their policy appears to be.





Ex-Senators Coach is a Polarization Pro

After a disappointing hockey season for the Ottawa Senators of the National Hockey League head coach Dave Cameron was fired. During his subsequent media exchange with the owner, Cameron proved to be a polarization pro.
Ottawa Senators logo

In announcing the firing, Eugene Melnyk, owner of the Senators, made pointed remarks about Cameron's coaching style.

“It was inconsistency and some stupidity,” said Melnyk, pointing to Cameron’s decision to start rookie goalie Matt O’Connor in home opener Oct. 8.

“I go back to the very first game. You put in the second goalie. What was that about? On opening night and the guy gets clobbered. It’s not fair to him, not fair to the fans. Just a lot of little tiny mistakes that all of a sudden escalate and get serious and get in people’s heads.”

A natural reaction to polarization is to meet the opposition head-on. Imagine John Tortorella, head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets and previous head coach of the Vancouver Canucks, reacting to the comment if it was made toward him. He likely would have used colourful language to tell Melnyk that until he learns to skate and shoot a puck his opinion on the matter is irrelevant.

Instead, Cameron took a more effective approach to handling polarization. He remained logical and professional, using Melnyk’s open hostility to pull people to a more reasoned perspective.

“He can evaluate me all he wants, my coaching, he can fire me, I understand all that," Cameron said in a news conference on April 14, 2016.

"There's no reason for being hurtful. We're human beings, at the end of the day.”

About 25 years ago, I developed a “Managing Polarization” model to help my clients navigate their way through issues effectively.

Polarization arises as a result of issues, and the dictionary defines an issue as "an unresolved problem with the potential of escalating into a dispute." When someone "takes issue" with an individual or organization, they are mapping out the boundaries of that dispute.

Theoretically, the opinions toward any issue can be mapped along a spectrum that goes from openly hostile at one end to openly supportive at the other. Those with no opinion can be found somewhere in the middle.

As you move toward the outer edges of this spectrum to openly hostile or openly supportive, you move from a logical perspective to an emotional perspective.

When dealing with a group or individual who is openly hostile in an emotional way, it is essential to remain in the supportive but logical side of the spectrum. Allow others to explore your logic by answering questions and keeping your answers short. The more questions you answer, the more transparent you will be. By being objective, you allow their hostility to push people toward your perspective.

Dave Cameron is a case in point. He faced negative opinions from the organization and fans. It is no secret that the Ottawa Senators did not have a particularly successful season and a lot of the blame ends up with the coach. Even if you agree with Melnyk’s opinion, as a human being it is difficult to take his side when he is on the openly hostile end of the spectrum and belittling another human being.

Cameron implemented the Polarization Model flawlessly. He is truly a polarization pro.

In a Crisis, Secrecy is Your Worst Defence

In a crisis, it is difficult to know whether or not information should be released. With privacy legislation lurking in the background, and lawyers often heavily involved, it can be easier to hide behind a shroud of secrecy than be transparent. But my advice to my clients when they are facing a crisis has always been: “When in doubt, let the information out."

A perfect case in point is a recent article in the Toronto Star that reported Toronto’s student transportation fleet has been in 1,157 collisions with 20 injuries during the past five years. To make matters worse, nearly 80 per cent of those accidents were deemed preventable — which simply means they did not need to occur at all.
yellow school bus

When confronted with these grim statistics, the school boards claimed they were unable to identify how many accidents in which each transportation company has been involved because of privacy legislation.

According to Kevin Hodgkinson, the general manager of the Toronto Student Transportation Group, “They’re not our vehicles, they’re not our drivers, so that’s not our information to provide."

But Ryder Gilliland, a lawyer with Blakes who represents The Star, said the legislation contains a “rarely invoked” clause that allows public bodies to disclose third-party information if it’s in public interest.

But even after being made aware of this clause, Toronto school boards refused to release the accident statistics of the transportation companies serving them. Is it not in the public’s best interest to know what companies are getting in more accidents than others? I’m sure any parent would feel it is, regardless of whether their children are attending an elementary school in Toronto now, have attended school in the past, or will attend in the future.

In this situation, child safety should be the Toronto Student Transportation Board’s top priority. Rather than hiding behind privacy legislation, they should be open and transparent, encourage each school board to evoke the disclosure clause, and release the number of accidents in which each transportation company has been involved.

If they hide behind privacy legislation and one more child is injured — which, statistically, is only a matter of time — the issue may grow beyond manageability.

Releasing the statistics will also have a positive effect on the behaviour of the transportation companies and their drivers. Once accident rates are revealed, these companies will face public scrutiny, ultimately forcing them to change driver behaviour and set higher safety standards.

This is the right thing to do in terms of public interest. Let’s be honest. Eighty per cent preventability is absolutely unacceptable when it comes to child safety.

When dealing with any crisis, transparency is always the best option. By being transparent, companies will prevent bigger problems in the future.

And, as I always say: “When in doubt, let the information out.”



Perhaps Dalhousie's Dentistry Students Should Step Up

If you’re like me, and you’ve been following the issue that erupted this week at Dalhousie University, you have to be shaking your head.

On Monday, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) broke the story that a dozen dental students at Dalhousie University, located in Halifax, Nova Scotia, were participating in a Facebook page under the name “Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen” and using that forum as an opportunity to post sexually explicit comments.
Mr. Media Looking right

And folks, these were not your everyday sexually explicit posts (to the extent, at least, that we can say there is such a thing). Chloroform was mentioned in a number of them. One provides two names and asks: “Which one would you rather hate f——k?”

Yes, Facebook took the page down last week. And yes, there were only 12 members of the page. But in today’s world, in which many of us were recently introduced to the term “hate f——k” by a former radio star with the same organization that broke the Dalhousie story, one knuckle-dragging neanderthal moron is too many.

Twelve is truly a dumbass dozen.

University president Richard Florizone has said the university “has a responsibility” to ensure it’s free of harassment. As the father of a young woman who graduated from a Canadian university two years ago, I couldn’t agree more. But does the president take that responsibility seriously?

Obviously, he hasn’t read the latest crisis communication handbook. Folks, he wants 48 hours to consider his response. And he almost promises to announce a plan of action by the end of the week.

Huh? Or should I say: duh?

Then we learn that Dr. Florizone first got wind of problems in the school of dentistry last summer. He was approached by the president of the students’ union with allegations about sexual harassment and he referred them to the campus Office of Human Rights, Equity and Harassment Prevention.

The complaint went no further when that office explained that anyone making a complaint must provide their name.

Referring the complaint may be a requirement of his office, but if the president didn’t conduct his own quiet investigation, especially when the Jian Ghomeshi incident broke, does he deserve to still be president? That’s a question the university’s board will need to address when the smoke clears and the dust settles—and the damage to the reputation of a 200-year-old institution is assessed.

As Caroline Sapriel so eloquently wrote in this week’s Communication World Insider, the first step to managing a crisis is anticipating one. The second step is mitigating it.

What has Dalhousie done? The president got wind of problems four months ago. Now that they’ve surfaced, fourth-year dentistry exams have been postponed until January.

Wonderful, rather than taking a relaxing breather during the holidays, those who weren’t involved now have the stress of unfinished exams waiting for them in the new year. Let’s punish everyone who wasn’t involved.

(But don’t be surprised if the university puts a positive spin on it by saying that students will have more time to study.)

While the writing was on the wall for this crisis, those of us who counsel executives know that we (both external and internal consultants) can only lead a leader to the wall. We can’t make him or her read what’s there.

More’s the pity, I say.

Dalhousie's Dumbass Dozen Creates Crisis

It’s not often that we have an event with two distinct crises at its core, but the issue of the “Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen”—the 13 male dentistry students at Dalhousie University—has provided us with just such a case.

On one side, we have Dalhousie University. When questionable Facebook posts by fourth-year dentistry students were made public, the president chose to instigate a process of restorative justice. It wasn’t until he faced a mini-revolt from faculty members in the new year that he banned the male dentistry students from clinical practice, and scheduled separate classes for them.

From the university’s perspective, this issue isn’t going away any time soon.

On the other side, we have 13 male dentistry students.

These young men are in serious crisis. Somebody needs to explain to them that things won’t get any better by crawling into a cone of silence. News reports are indicating that ALL male dentistry students of Dalhousie’s class of 2014 will need to prove they are of sound ethical judgement (i.e. they were not a member of the infamous Facebook group) to any provincial registry before they can practice their profession.

In other words, no proof, no license.

Silence is not an option for these young men. They need to go public, take responsibility for their actions, discuss the foolishness of their behaviour, apologize to everyone involved, and convince the world that this one lapse in judgement will never be repeated in the future.

I don’t only say that as a crisis consultant. I say it as a parent of two young people who are almost exactly the same age as these fourth-year dentistry students.

As I’ve always explained to my kids, people make mistakes. Young people sometimes make more than their share. Their old man has made more than most.

If there’s one lesson I’ve learned from all the fence-mending I’ve done in my life, it’s that while the mistake is important, what you do after the mistake is absolutely critical.

In the case of these 13 fourth-year male dentistry students, silence is not an option. If my son was involved, I’d like to think we’d already have our news conference behind us and be moving forward together.

With me standing beside him, supporting him, loving him, and helping him salvage as much dignity as possible from an extremely difficult situation.

Crisis Management is NOT Crafting Messages

As a “profession” of communicators and public relations practitioners, it’s time we came to grips with an important reality.

Crisis management (and, by extension, crisis communication) is not about crafting messages. It’s about influencing behaviour—specifically the behaviour of the individuals, executives and/or leaders whose actions or decisions led to the crisis in the first place.

For example, consider the Jian Ghomeshi scandal. When the former radio host was fired from his job at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), he immediately took the initiative with his now-infamous Facebook post.

Step one in the standard crisis communication handbook is to get in front of the issue. Check. Step two is to control the message. Check.

(I can’t believe people still attempt to control the message. When a trade journalist with a smartphone can generate a YouTube clip that generates nearly 400,000 views, it's time to recognize that controlling the message is now out of the question. At best, we can only influence the exchange.)

Ghomeshi’s post (now removed from Facebook) portrayed a downtrodden radio host whose sexual habits were at best misunderstood and, at worst, a fascinating form of cultural discrimination.

The post was well-written. It laid out his logic, and managed to tug at the heartstrings of fans. It received thousands of likes in a few short hours. In short, I have no doubt that some consultant somewhere (i.e. Mr. Ghomeshi’s agency at the time) was patting him- or herself on the back for crafting a well-designed message.

But it crossed the line between spin and sin. And any senior PR practitioner worth his or her salt would have pointed it out to him.

Mr. Ghomeshi is now facing multiple criminal charges of sexual assault. While it is up to the courts to ultimately decide whether the sexual acts were as consensual as Mr. Ghomeshi claimed in his post, there are a couple of lessons for those of us, as “professionals,” who help organizations steer their way through issues, emergencies and crises.

First, get to the truth

We are not lawyers. We have no obligation to represent individuals (or organizations) when they are lying. In fact, we probably shouldn’t represent them because, if we do, there’s a high probability any stink will stick to us.

(As an aside, I have long yearned for the day when the media know to dig deeper because the PR agency has fired the client early in the crisis. When that day arrives, I believe we’ll finally be able to call ourselves a profession.)

The first step in any crisis is to ask tough questions behind closed doors to determine what is true and what isn’t. We need to look executives in the eye and determine whether they are honestly attempting to deal with the issue, or if they are looking for some form of spin to save themselves from whatever got them into trouble in the first place.

If they are unwilling to answer our questions, and we’re an outside consultant, we should get up and walk out until they are. If we’re an internal consultant, we should polish our resume and start sending it out. It’s only a matter of time before it’s needed.

Second, help them understand the consequences of the truth

This element of crisis management has two sides: the consequences of not telling the truth to the outside world; and the consequences of telling the truth.

In my three decades of experience, by the time a crisis reaches this point, there is a short-term game and a long-term game.

In the short term, not fully disclosing the truth may mean the issue will fade after a time. After all, the world has a relatively short attention span. But it’s only a matter of time before all those problems hidden under the bed or in the closet are brought into the open again by social or traditional media—or both—and lead to irreparable damage to an individual or organizational reputation.

Think I’m kidding? The following statement was found in a recent article about Dalhousie University that had nothing to do with the recent debacle at the university’s school of dentistry:

“Dalhousie also recently began inquiries into the behaviour of 13 male dentistry students after they were linked to a Facebook page containing sexually violent content about women.” The journalist is bridging back to Dalhousie's problems, and because of the way it mishandled bringing out the truth, Dalhousie can expect reporters to “bridge” to that problem for years, if not decades.

Over the long-term, disclosing the truth is generally the only option that enables the organization to protect its reputation. We need to help our clients understand this concept before we can help them communicate.

Third, help the world understand the truth

This is the communication part of crisis management. The organization must come clean, apologize for its actions if necessary, make reparations where possible, and help the world understand what it’s doing to ensure a similar problem never emerges again.

There you have it; three guiding principles that can help solve any crisis.

Two-thirds of this solution has nothing to do with communication. In fact, if you attempt to communicate without identifying the truth and its consequences, you’re attempting to spin your way out of a problem. If that happens, don’t be surprised if the crisis lingers and the organization’s reputation takes a hit.

And, in this world, it's only a matter of time before the stink starts sticking to those who engineered the spin in the first place.

Defining the Line Between Spin & Sin

For spokespeople to be effective, it’s vital that they understand the nuances between lies, deception and spin.

In her book LYING: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, philosopher Sissela Bok defines deception as that which occurs when “we communicate messages meant to mislead … meant to make them believe what we ourselves do not believe.” To her, lying is “any intentionally deceptive message which is stated.”
lying cover

In other words, to lie, you must make some form of statement; you cannot lie by simply omitting facts. If you omit facts to create a false impression, you are practicing a form of deception.

During my 33-year career, I have seen very few media training consultants or public relations practitioners counsel clients to lie or intentionally deceive the world when they face stakeholder groups or reporters. However, I have witnessed many situations in which the client (as spokesperson) has spun an issue or not been forthcoming with the truth. (Ignoring the question and talking about “what’s really important” is a perfect case in point.)

Defining Spin

In a presentation to the American Political Association a few years ago, political scientist John J. Mearsheimer provided a definition of spin that I have used many times because it clearly delineates spin from both lying and deception. According to Mr. Mearsheimer, spin occurs when someone links together facts in a way that attempts to portray an individual or organization in the best possible light.

Chances are, if you’ve ever sent out a résumé, you have practiced a form of spin. Spin involves downplaying or ignoring certain facts that would create a negative perception, and emphasizing those that create a positive perception. The emphasis is on making the individual or organization look as good as possible by focusing attention on the positives.

The thin line between spin and sin lies somewhere between the creation of a true impression and a false impression, resulting from which decisions or facts are included, which facts are omitted, and how the facts are structured.

In other words, if the facts are true and the impression left by those facts is true, the overall approach is ethical.

However, if the facts are true but the impression left by the selection or organization of those facts is false or misleading, the precise location of the ethical line needs to be discussed or reviewed by all those involved. If we leave this impression, are we opening ourselves to criticism?

If the facts are untrue, and people in the organization know them to be untrue, the organization is lying.

Spin is not necessarily a form of deception, provided that the story created by the facts is not intended to mislead and the facts underlying the story are true. But the line between spin and sin is definitely crossed when there is no conscious effort to portray an accurate or truthful version of the story.

Asking Questions—the Only Protection

The only protection someone has against deception, lies or spin is asking questions. By definition, this makes the skill of answering questions extremely important if an organization’s spokespeople hope to maintain high moral ground during situations of real or perceived hostility.

By asking questions, stakeholders and journalists can determine which facts are highlighted and which are ignored, and whether the person answering questions is engaging in some form of deception, lie or spin. This is why interviews, not just résumés, are important to the hiring process.

From a formal perspective, this is what happens when prosecutors and defense attorneys (or plaintiffs and defendants) square off against each other in a court of law. This is also what happens in the court of public opinion when reporters ask spokespeople about the actions, activities, opinions and behaviours of the organizations they represent.

And, in an information-driven world, this makes the skill of answering questions clearly and concisely absolutely critical, and pause-answer-stop the foundation on which the line between spin and sin can be constructed and maintained.