The Heart of the Issue - 6

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A crisis created by poor communication

It was not a crisis, badly handled. It was a crisis created by poor communications.

We can argue until we are blue in the face about the premiers right to make his own health care decisions, and his right to privacy. But heres the bottom line: this story would have caused much less fuss if the premiers office had followed the most basic rules of communication.

Thats right, if the brain trust on the eighth floor had used a shred of common sense, and the advice of a junior communicator, this story would have had very different outcomes.

I have worked in crisis communications since 1997, and can say, without hesitation, that what happened here violated the most basic fundamentals of effective communication and the fallout was entirely predictable.

There are two kinds of crises that can afflict an organization. One is sudden and unexpected, such as a fire, explosion, jet crash, act of terrorism, or other incident. Quick, clear communications are essential in such events.

The other is a creeping crisis, a significant event or situation that unfolds slowly with the potential to boil over and go public at some point. The breast cancer testing scandal is an example of a creeping crisis and one that was handled poorly, at that.

With a creeping crisis, it is essential to develop a communications plan and, ideally, get the information out there, quickly, clearly and honestly. When you release the information, you develop your own messages and thus you have some ownership of the story. You cant control what media will do, but they are generally merciful, even in difficult situations, because youve been forthcoming with the information.

However, if you decide to not communicate, and keep your issue concealed, you run the risk of media breaking the story first. The fact that you withheld the information becomes a key detail. And now its media who own the story, so the questions are piercing and the volume gets cranked up to 10.

This is not rocket science. Most pubic relations practitioners will agree with my assessment.

Within that context, lets take a look at what happened with this story. Deputy Premier Dunderdale said she was aware of Premier Williamss health issues two weeks before the story broke. There was plenty of time to assess the situation, measure its potential ramifications, and take steps to prevent a crisis.

First, let's assess the situation. The premier is enormously popular, and residents of this province will be concerned about his health. The premier is also responsible for the provinces health care system, which some feel is in crisis. If he goes elsewhere for surgery, this will raise questions. Any fool knows that.

Then there are national considerations. If the premier flies to the U.S. for surgery without good reason, what does that say about Canadas public health care system? This could raise eyebrows and make headlines across the country.

And there are international considerations. If the story makes national headlines in Canada, it wouldnt take Republicans in the U.S. long to pounce, and exploit the situation to jam President Obamas health care reform.

The potential for fall-out was substantial, and the stakes were high. A communications strategy was essential to break this news to the public, in a way that answered basic questions and quashed speculation. If the premier preferred to avoid the spotlight, which is understandable, the information could have been issued via a news release, as he did in 2003. Heres a hypothetical example of what might have been said:

I will be undergoing heart surgery in the very near future. Im having a valve replaced, using a special kind of non-invasive surgery, not available in Newfoundland. Weve reviewed our options, and have elected to go to the United States because (insert reason here).

If the core information had been explained this is the procedure and why were going elsewhere there would have been no more questions. The local media would have wished the premier well and wandered on to the next story, while awaiting further updates.

There would be no opening for speculation to creep in. The irony of the situation would be nullified by fact. National media would have examined local coverage, weighed the facts and, most likely, played it straight in their reporting, waiting for the next big development the results of the premiers surgery. The volume on the story would, without question, have been turned down.

That is what should have happened. But we all know the reality of it and the mess that resulted. Heres an example of the kind of extreme commentary generated on the mainland, this from Allan Parker of the Toronto Sun:

Amid great secrecy. Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams has slipped off to an undisclosed location in the U.S. to have heart surgery of an undisclosed nature performed. This is the premier of one of the 10 provinces of Canada telling the world that the health care system in his province is not worth a tinkers toss when it comes to saving lives, Parker wrote.

And by extension because Williams headed for the U.S. for the operation and because his brief statement does not even address the feasibility of having the heart work done elsewhere in Canada the premier of Newfoundland and Labrador has maligned the entire public health care system of the nation he supposedly has sworn to defend and honour.

Notice the reference to the undisclosed nature of the premiers heart surgery. The simple fact is, commentators like Parker would have had nothing to run with if this information had been disclosed off the top. Most would have left it alone, their cynicism curbed by a couple of key facts.

The premiers office made two critical mistakes here.

The first was the failure to announce the heart surgery before leaving the province. This looked sneaky, invited questions and played right into the hands of critics. The premiers office knew the risks of not communicating. They gambled that the story wouldnt leak and they lost big time.

The next mistake was failing to come clean, after the story broke. Dunderdale offered vague explanations but no hard facts, thus opening the door to rampant speculation. Although into damage control, there was still time to salvage the situation by offering clear, factual information. But they dropped the ball. They blew it.

Soon after, the talk radio programs were flooded with calls from people who attacked media for even covering the story. The calls kept coming for several days, to the point that pretty much the only people talking about the story were those who said we should shut up about it. If this was some kind of rearguard damage control, it backfired badly.

Heres the core truth: this story was caused by bad communications. A challenging story that could have been properly managed was instead fumbled badly, resulting in national and international headlines.

This analysis is not a judgment of the premiers right to seek health care elsewhere; rather, it is an analysis of how that information was managed.

A challenging situation escalated to a crisis, due entirely to poor communication.

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Recent comments

  • Rob
    July 27, 2010 - 14:54

    Apparently they didn't learn from Tiger Woods' mistakes. Wouldn't think Danny and Tiger would have something in common but there you are.

    Woods/Williams made the mistake of being very vague and not giving out many details at first. Which opened up speculation, gossip and questions. Especially in the internet age.

    Person who did the best job lately dealing with something personal lately was David Letterman. Go figure. Make a public statement quickly, don't beat around the bush and it goes away. When's the last time you read about Letterman's extortion? I haven't in weeks.