We’ve all heard the famous Jack Nicholson line from a Few Good Men, “You can’t handle the truth”. [If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and watch it]. Let’s start with a little background…Nicholas’ character is being questioned by a young lawyer about the death of a fellow soldier. It is an intense exchange as Tom Cruise’s character, passionately pleads with Nicholas’ character to tell the truth. The very real and human response from Nicholson’s character was that Cruise’s character couldn’t possibly handle the truth.
This scene unfolded in a courtroom; however, it is also unfolding behind closed doors at many organizations. While these conversations aren’t about life and death as depicted in the movie, they are often about a challenging issue or a crisis situation that resulted in a cause and effect decision that impacts others. The old school mentality – that is unfortunately still prevalent today in many organizations – is to hope stakeholders go away by remaining silent and appearing to ignore the issue or only share a perfectly crafted, vague response. This is no way to lead and no way to treat your people. Not only can they handle truthful and useful information, they deserve it.
In my years of experience as a marketing and communications professional and an observer of human behavior, I believe managers or executives fail to recognize the following points when determining their communications strategy.
Your Stakeholders Are Smarter Than You Think
Often times organizations don’t share the information with their stakeholders because they think the consumers or employees won’t understand. Today’s consumers are savvy and have so many resources at their disposal, and they are actively searching for answers. Give your stakeholders the benefit of the doubt and if the message doesn’t resonate, try again.
It’s on you to communicate the complexities of the issue and share it in a way that will allow stakeholders to understand fully
As marketing/communications leaders it is our job to help people understand by thinking like a skeptic about the situation from several viewpoints and then addressing potential concerns. When you are working through your message, keep asking why and peeling back the layers. And be sure to remove any industry jargon and acronyms and keep your message as concise as possible. As you go through this process, you will be able to develop a comprehensive message that is clear and concise.
Be Proactive, Not Everything Has to be Perfect in Order to Communicate
Too many times organizations wait to share information until everything is perfect. This approach erodes trust. Instead, organizations should quickly acknowledge the problem, let the stakeholders know what steps are being taken, and then provide status updates along the way. Your people want to know that you know the issue and that you are actually doing something about it. Don’t just say, we know and we are working on it, instead, provide specifics. People will be open to your errors if you treat them with respect by being open and honest with them along the way.
Be Open to Feedback
During challenging times, it is easy to become defensive as the stress of the situation can cause you to be on edge. However, if your stakeholders are providing you with feedback, welcome it by actively listening to them and be open-minded by trying to understand their pain points and perspectives. Doing so can help you fine-tune your message to perfection.
Most Often, the Truth Comes Out
When I was young, my grandpa would say to me, “if you don’t want anyone to know, then you better not do it.” It was true then, and in the age of social media, it is even truer today. Your stakeholders will find out the truth in time. As a leader, you can either positively contribute to the narrative and lead the conversation, or you can allow conspiracy theories to run wild and give control to others to share the message if you choose to remain silent or dubious with the information you share.
The Fear of Losing Power
As the old saying goes, “knowledge is power”. Sometimes, people keep things secret to keep their power. Yet, they are actually losing power when they choose not to communicate because they lose the confidence of those they represent or serve. In today’s environment, those that throttle information will eventually lose the ability to control the very thing they are trying to control.
By not recognizing the importance of communicating, especially when dealing with an issue or a crisis, those in power are doing a disservice to their organization and to their people. Their desire for control and power is a blind spot that will end up hindering their ability to connect with stakeholders and lead effectively.
As marketing/communications leaders, we must advocate to our executives the importance of communicating with stakeholders, even when it comes to sharing potentially upsetting information. This includes pursuing an honest and transparent message, empowering those around us with information and having confidence in our people’s ability to understand, showing humility for the mistake, taking ownership, and putting forth thoughtful resolutions. Tackling the issue builds trust and empathy with your stakeholders. They might not like what happened, but they will come to appreciate you more if you empower them with knowledge, because your stakeholders can handle the truth if they have trust in you.
For additional tips on how to handle challenging issues through communication, click here to read the 13 Golden Rules Of PR Crisis Management. Share your tips on how to communicate challenging or crisis situations to stakeholders in the comments.