Word choice matters – especially when communicating

Everyone who communicates for a living knows how important word choice is, but we often overlook how easy it is for words to be misunderstood. In crisis situations, seemingly straightforward words like “investigate” or “factual” or “secure” can convey different meanings to the public from what the speaker intends.

What words have you used that were misunderstood? Please share your stories in the survey form below or at this link: http://bit.ly/Muddled_Messages_Survey. I will include some of them in my forthcoming book, The Communications Golden Hour, and in future blog posts. Thank you.

Hawaii false alarm shows importance of focused emergency planning

This was a message from a Hawaiian mother to her daughter in California after the false alert.
A mother in Hawaii sent this to her daughter in California after the false alert.

The errant missile warning that alarmed people in Hawaii on January 13 showed the importance of emergency planning that includes anticipating possible errors. Apart from other issues with the response, there can be no defending that it took more than 10 minutes after the mistaken wide-area alert for corrective messages to start going out. In fact, the full-scale “nevermind” message was sent more than 30 minutes after the false alarm. That half-hour was filled with preventable emotion, tension, and fear. Parents sent heart-wrenching messages to children, people rushed to get home, and stores closed in a hurry.

The concept of Communications Golden Hour™ that I detail in my forthcoming book focuses on the importance of having the right steps identified in advance of an emergency and thinking through in a meticulous way all the things that could happen — including mistakes. This is a crucial element of emergency planning.

If a real life-threatening emergency occurs, police or others responsible for emergency management must get a message out rapidly – within 3-5 minutes in most instances. However, they also have many other immediate priorities besides communications. Thus, turning communications over to a professional communicator – or someone else who is charged specifically with communications – within the initial minutes is every bit as important as dispatching fire engines, ambulances, SWAT teams or any other emergency responders.

This false alarm went out in Hawaii on January 13, 2018. It was corrected 38 minutes later.
This false alarm went out in Hawaii on January 13, 2018. It was corrected 38 minutes later.

A professional communicator needs to immediately confirm that the message already distributed is accurate. The next step is to craft a follow-up message that can get out within 20 minutes of the onset of the emergency. The first message alerts the public. The second provides instructions on what to do. It also can advise that the situation is under control or escalating. That did not happen in Hawaii, which added to the confusion.

State officials in Hawaii will need to make their own decisions about the wisdom of an alert system that can be triggered by a single individual. In many systems, a duty officer can send an urgent warning to trigger responses from emergency officials, but a wide-area alert like this one would require another command-level supervisor’s authority.

Residents of Honolulu also criticized the emergency management agency for providing an alert that was not actionable: few people had any idea where to go for shelter, and there was no guidance about where to find this information. With Internet and phone traffic rapidly overloaded in those frantic few minutes Saturday morning, a follow-up message with information on what to do would have helped a lot. In a real emergency, people need to know what to do, and you cannot presume they will remember information that was previously provided when they are under stress of the moment.

Especially in an area where so many people are visitors, emergency messages need to factor in the idea that not everyone receiving the message has the same knowledge that residents may have.

“I noticed that everybody was just stopped in their tracks, getting on the phone and calling people,” said Seth Buckley, a Honolulu lawyer who was out doing photography when the alert went out. “There was a lot of, ‘I received this, now what the heck do I do?'”

Chicago resident Matthew Griffo was there on vacation when the alert shook him out of bed.

“We had just been at Pearl Harbor, so it was pretty fresh in our minds how they thought it was a false alarm. We thought we would rather be on the side of caution,” so he and his family rushed to their hotel lobby. Once there, they realized there was no shelter nearby, said Griffo.

What questions do you have about the key elements of your communications emergency plan? I’ll answer questions left in the comments.

Protecting your business from polarizing politics

Many of us hoped that politics would fade as a top driver of consumer sentiment as soon as Election Day came and went. Now, preventing being dragged into a political firestorm needs to be as much a part of business emergency planning as fire safety and IT recovery, because there is no sign that public polarization is going to ebb anytime soon.

In the past week, a shoe company, a spice company and a coffee company were among the many businesses that were subjects of social media campaigns related to the election results.  Now is the time for others to take steps to prevent joining the list.

The most common ways companies get into political hot water are:

  • Deliberately, such as when an executive makes a political endorsement;
  • Accidentally, when customers perceive a company official or employee making a political statement;
  • Innocently, such as when members of the public mistakenly attribute a political act to a business or when an individual or group chooses to conduct a political act on a business property.

While the business aspects of each of these may differ, the communications strategies are similar. The most important ground rule is that every company needs to have a written policy about political activity. 

Prohibiting political activity at work generally fits within an employer’s rights, provided that the rule has a legitimate business justification, is fair and consistently enforced, and does not infringe on an employee’s rights outside of their job. In other words, you can prohibit employees from wearing political buttons while working, provided that you prohibit all campaign buttons. But you are in murky waters if you publish this rule after political activities begin or in direct response to a specific incident, because the rule has to be neutral, not partisan. (Check with your own attorney in case your state has specific limits.)

Executives need to be educated about those ground rules and how to handle questions from customers, the public, or the media about political issues. Comment about issues, not people. That is always safer than commenting on specific politicians. If you choose to comment as a business, try to do so in a way that keeps your doors open to those with different opinions.

In retail stores or any business that has doors open to the public, all employees need to be trained on how to react if a person enters and engages in political activity. Mindful that video recordings may be made at any time, employees need to know how to avoid saying or doing anything that could be construed as hostile or partisan. When an agitated customer berated a Starbucks barista in Florida after the election, the barista’s ability to remain calm under pressure limited any potential harm and helped end the incident faster. The viral video clearly showed that only the customer was behaving inappropriately.

Sometimes seemingly innocuous comments take on new meaning in a politically charged atmosphere, which is why companies need to be extra careful when commenting on any public policy issue. New Balance stepped into hot water when the shoe company’s vice president of public affairs said that Donald Trump’s election likely meant trade policies that would help the Massachusetts-based company. Even if the comment accurately reflected the company’s position, he made two mistakes: He referred to Trump by name and criticized the outgoing administration, also mentioning President Obama by name. Neither name amplified or clarified his key message, and by naming the two opponents, he made his words more overtly political than they needed to be. Had he simply said, “We are hopeful that the new administration will have a trade policy that will help us more than in the past,” few people would have noticed.

Instead, Trump opponents burned their New Balance shoes and called for a boycott, while a prominent white supremacist declared the shoes the “official brand of the Trump Revolution.” And the company has had to do a lot of damage control, including multiple social media posts and paid ads promoting the company’s diversity policy and disavowing hate or bigotry. The publicity attracted critics from both sides, including some who wanted to know why it took the endorsement of a neo-Nazi for New Balance to speak out against hate.

In Milwaukee, spice seller Penzey’s found itself in a similar firestorm after its owner proactively criticized the president-elect and the incidents of hate that have occurred since the election. The company’s social media accounts and phone lines were slammed with people calling for a boycott, and a competitor across town (and whose owner has a family connection to Penzey’s,) touted that it keeps politics out of its business. The long-term impact on the business remains to be seen. Just as one side ramped up calls for boycotts, the other side encouraged people around the country to buy from Penzey’s. Even if the customer service staff was prepared, these past few days likely were very stressful.

Here are a few things that every business can do to help navigate these uncharted waters and avoid similar situations:

  • Know your customers. Few businesses are in a position to alienate customers just because they voted for a candidate that the business owner opposed. Many found diplomatic ways to empathize with people disappointed with or happy about the election without turning any others away. One store in San Francisco invited customers inside for “retail therapy,” but aptly did not mention either candidate’s name. There was no need for a name to be included in order to draw customers.
  • Talk to your employees. Help your team understand that you and your business respect people’s opinions and their rights to express them, but also emphasize that the workplace is not an appropriate place for political activity. Think through how your business may be impacted by the changes in Washington and keep your staff informed, but avoid drama. Uncertainty is a source of anxiety for everyone. Do not add to it.
  • Have a plan. Just as you help your employees plan for and practice procedures for any other emergency, encourage or require them to practice handling customer concerns about a political issue. Help them get comfortable with neutral acknowledgments like, “Thank you for sharing your opinion.” Period. Resist the urge to say more. Most importantly, help them know how to de-escalate when a customer is agitated, including how to call for help when needed.

These simple steps, when put into practice and adhered to, can help you steer clear of problems like others have experienced, and they may help us all cope with whatever happens in the months ahead.