Many crises are not foreseeable, but civil unrest after the election is and leaders and organization should prepare for this.
On Monday, October 19, Logos president Helio Fred Garcia presented a pre-conference briefing on how to foresee the foreseeable and be ready for it when it happens around the US election at the Professional Speechwriters Association’s World Conference.
During this session, Garcia helped attendees understand a mindset to help leaders think through what to do and say ahead of election day, how to organize their thinking (and schedule) for various Election-Day scenarios, and how to prepare for and respond to five possible scenarios for what might happen immediately after the election.
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“When you do the common things in life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world.”
~ George Washington Carver
So: You’re wearing a mask and keeping a socially responsible distance. You’re staying safe but taking long daily walks in the nearly empty streets of New York City to keep yourself healthy and sane. You peer into the dark, empty storefronts as you stroll along. You arrive at the place you always found familiar and comforting; it now looks abandoned and forbidding. There is no human to greet you, only a few words on a single page attached to the front door. Almost every door on every street has a similar sign.
As the days of shutdown have dragged on, I’ve become intrigued by these signs, snapping pictures of at least 100 of them. I’ve read the words again and again. They are breathtaking in their sameness, leading me to the question: How much difference can a few words on a simple sign possibly make?
Businesses reopening in the aftermath of the current crisis may soon find out.
Sometimes the message on the door is just one word – “Closed.” Not terribly helpful, is it? That feels more like the end of a relationship than a reassurance that you and your spot will be reunited in the future.
While heavily trafficked commercial chains may have a following who look for convenience alone, a cozy neighborhood haunt cannot exist without building an emotional bond – appreciation, affection, even love – with its customers. When that business closes indefinitely, or its hours are suddenly and severely curtailed, anxious customers need to see words of gratitude, emotion, and empathy: “We thank you.” “We appreciate you.” “We miss you.” “We understand what you are going through because we are going through it, too.”
Empathy should start right there at the front door.
Surprisingly, even in these difficult times, when those words of connectivity matter most, when customers expect to find love letters from deeply grateful owners, they find crisis boilerplate instead, often written in haste, dashed off as a formality and perhaps copied from a neighboring establishment. Even worse, sometimes, the desired words do not appear at all.
That strategically placed sheet of paper – occasionally drafted with the assistance of a lawyer or a communications professional – may be instructive but it’s not terribly personal. Or authentic. Or meaningful.
That kind of corporate jargon often makes me stop reading – I imagine you know the phrases: “our top priority,” “we are closely monitoring,” “we are committed to …” But owners use them because they know they need to communicate quickly with customers coming to the door, and they want the message to sound official. Professional communicators reading this will understand that the sign on the door is a kind of stand-by statement to let the entire world, including those critical customers, know what is going on in that moment and what they can expect while the crisis – and temporary closure – continues.
ACKNOWLEDGMENT – a statement of awareness that something has happened.
EMPATHY – an expression of empathy or sympathy to those who are hurting or inconvenienced – and in COVID-19 times, everyone is hurting and inconvenienced.
VALUES – a declaration of the business’ values – including how much that business values those customers.
APPROACH – a summary of the actions the business is taking in the wake of the crisis.
COMMITMENT – a statement that sets future expectations, i.e., “We will keep you up-to-date as we hear any important news and will let you know when we can reopen. We will be here for you online even while we are closed.”
In all fairness, I’m sure these independent owners also mean to communicate how much they love and miss their customers. But their words – crafted out of necessity and in great haste from a template – don’t quite resonate. They don’t quite say: We are closed, but we miss you and are still there for you.
Contrast those signs with recent updates that a certain coffee company has posted on Instagram – the digital front door for many contemporary consumers. Note the likes and comments.
So, for owners of shuttered businesses – small or large, mighty or nimble – here are two important questions you should ask yourself:
1. How can you communicate your message in conversational human language, rather than boilerplate jargon? You’re dealing with ordinary humans. Why not sound like one?
2. How can you include a message of gratitude at the very top of the page? Owners should express their sincere thanks to the customer who has arrived at the door in the first sentence or two. What would happen if the language of the sign started there? Only good things, I promise you.
Here are some signs that hit the mark beautifully. Which ones do you like best?
One last thought: many of the signs that I see on the doors have been left there unchanged for weeks.
Dear shop owners— It’s not too late to change that sign!
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The Chinese publisher is Posts & Telecom Press, a leading publisher of business and non-fiction titles in China. The Chinese translation had been scheduled for publication in February 2020, but the lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic delayed publication. Given the continuing recovery in China that began in the last few weeks, the publisher is now positioning the book as an essential tool for Chinese leaders in all sectors to be able to restore trust of critical stakeholders that was lost in the pandemic.
As with the English edition, the Chinese edition is available as a physical book, an e-book, and an audio book. The Chinese language title is 从危到机: 危机中的决策之痛与领导之术, which translates roughly into English as From Danger to Opportunity: The Agony of Decision-Making and Leadership in Crisis.
The Chinese edition was translated from English by Xinyin Lu, deputy director of the Institute of Corporate Communication at the Academy of Media and Public Affairs at the Communication University of China, and by Dr. Steven Guanpeng Dong, Chair Professor and Dean of the School of Government and Public Affairs at the Communication University of China, the leading Chinese university specializing in journalism, communication, documentary filmmaking, and related disciplines. Dr. Dong also wrote the foreword to the Chinese edition.
Dr. Steven Guanpeng Dong, translator and author of the foreword.
Translator Xinyin Lu
The Chinese edition of The Agony of Decision has been endorsed by:
Yang Yujun, dean of the Academy of Media and Public Affairs at the Communication University of China, former head of the Information Bureau of the Ministry of National Defense of China, and former spokesperson for the Ministry of National Defense of China. Both Yang and Dr. Dong are part of the Expert Committee for the COVID-19 pandemic in China.
Du Shaozhong, vice chair of All-China Environment Federation (ACEF), and former deputy director and spokesperson for the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau.
Wang Lianglan, former spokesperson for The National Medical Products Administration (the FDA of China)
Lv Dapeng, spokesperson for China Petroleum & Chemical Corp. (NYSE: SNP, $1,217B market cap)
Wu Huanling, managing director of China Public Relations Association (CPRA), former vice president of General electric medical system (China) Co., Ltd.,
Dr. Steven Guanpeng Dong
The Chinese edition was made possible by Dr. Steven Guanpeng Dong, Chair Professor and Dean of the School of Government and Public Affairs, and Provost for Faculty of Professional Studies, Executive Education and Continuing Education at the Communication University of China.
Dr. Dong is also Vice Chairman of the China Public Relations Association (CPRA) and Vice Chair of Communication and Education, All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce.
He is one of the official advisors for transparent governance, strategic communications and crisis management for the State Council Ministries.
Dr. Steven Guanpeng Dong conducting a television interview at Communication University of China, 2015
Prior to his current appointments, Dr. Dong was a presenter for the BBC World Service in London and a morning news anchor for the China Central Television (CCTV).
Dr. Dong was among the founders of Journalism School and the founding Chair and former director of the Institute of Public Relations and Strategic Communications at Tsinghua University. He is also a very popular professor of strategic communications for the prestigious EMBA, EDP and DBA programs at Tsinghua University.
He was appointed the Shorenstein Fellow on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University in 2009, and most recently as an Eisenhower Fellow by the Eisenhower Fellowships in Philadelphia, USA.
In 2019, Logos Institute for Crisis Management and Executive Leadership awarded Dr. Dong its Outstanding Leader Award in recognition of his consequential professional achievement that sets the standard to which other leaders may aspire; his use of strategic communication to change the world; and having inspired and empowered the next generation of leaders through teaching, mentoring, for their advocacy on behalf of others.
Logos president Helio Fred Garcia presenting the Logos Institute Outstanding Leader Award to Dr. Steven Guanpeng Dong, May, 2019
The Agony of Decision: Mental Readiness and Leadership in a Crisis is about how leaders and the organizations they lead can maintain reputation, trust, confidence, financial and operational strength, and competitive advantage in a crisis. First, by thinking clearly; second by making smart choices; and third by executing those choices effectively.
But making smart choices in a crisis can be agonizing.
The difference between leaders who handle crises well and those who handle crises poorly is mental readiness: the ability some leaders exhibit that allows them to make smart choices quickly in a crisis. And this ability creates real competitive advantage. One of the predictable patterns of crisis response is that the severity of the crisis event does not determine whether an organization and its leader get through a crisis effectively. Indeed, two organizations, similarly situated, can see dramatically different outcomes based on the quality and timeliness of their individual responses to the crisis events.
And the ability to respond effectively in a timely way is a consequence of mental readiness. This book is for leaders of organizations who need to be good stewards of reputation, trust, and confidence; and for those who advise those leaders, whether in public relations, or law, or other business disciplines.
Graphic of The Ten Most Common Mis-Steps in a Crisis, from the Chinese Edition of The Agony of Decsion
In 2018 The Agony of Decision was named one of the Best Crisis Management Books of All Time (#2 of 51) by the leading nonfiction book review site BookAuthority. It is currently listed #3 of 100 All-Time Best Crisis Management Books. BookAuthority uses a proprietary technology to identify and rate the best nonfiction books, using dozens of different signals, including public mentions, recommendations, ratings, sentiment, popularity and sales history.
The Agony of Decision has been adopted in a number of universities and professional schools in the United States and abroad.
Garcia was planning a teaching and speaking trip to China in conjunction with the publication of the Chinese edition. But the COVID-19 crisis in the United States makes such a visit impossible for the foreseeable future.
Logos Institute Thought Leadership in China
Logos Institute for Crisis Management and Executive Leadership has been a thought leader in China for nearly ten years.
In 2014 Power of Communication was published in Chinese by Pearson Education Asia Ltd in Hong Kong and Publishing House of Electronics Industry in Beijing under the title 沟通的力量.
In 1991, Logos president Helio Fred Garcia was invited to be an International Distinguished Scholar at Tsinghua University as part of an international exchange on crisis management among academics, business leaders, the government, and outside experts. Tsinghua is consistently named the top one or two university in China.
He also taught at a number of Chinese government ministries, including the Ministry of Finance and the Chinese Food and Drug Administration. And he did a workshop for the chief spokesperson of all the ministries. He also keynoted conferences for a number of non-governmental organizations and associations.
In 2015, in conjunction with the Chinese language publication of The Power of Communication, Garcia conducted an extensive teaching and speaking tour of China.
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“It is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.”
— Leon C. Megginson
The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a crash course on adaptability.
Our ability to adapt is a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit as millions sit inside their homes and wait for the storm to pass. Many have had to adapt to working from home and caring for or supervising children while managing logistics that were mandated almost overnight. Others have had no choice but to grapple with the harsh realities and risks of being an essential worker. Many are furloughed or unemployed, trying to figure out their next steps and future options in an uncertain world. And almost everyone was faced with steep and sudden learning curves, whether setting up a home office effectively or serving as teaching assistants for their children’s online learning.
Adaptability is essential for organizations. Companies and enterprises that have not adapted well, or adapted fast enough, have suffered serious consequences. Some have succumbed already, and others will not survive. Many companies that adapted quickly are still viable, but will need to re-invent and reconfigure to sustain that viability over the long term. However, organizations that have adapted in meaningful ways that demonstrate caring are doing more than just surviving.
In the midst of deep uncertainty, a number of companies have already responded to the COVID-19 challenge and distinguished themselves by shifting their services and product lines to meet the highest-priority needs of their consumers, employees, and communities. For example, alcohol distilleries and major beauty and health companies, Sporting apparel companies, such as Fanatics and Bauer Hockey, have been producing gowns, masks, and face shields. Walk-in food outlets like Panera Bread, and even specialty chains, such as Edible Arrangements, have shifted their operation models to grocery delivery services. And to meet the needs of home-bound exercisers, gym chains like Planet Fitness offer livestream workouts that anyone, member or nonmember, can access for free.
These are just a few examples of companies that recognized a need, both internally and externally, and used their ingenuity to adapt in unexpected and creative ways. As a result, these organizations are not only more likely to survive this immediate crisis, but will also bolster their reputations and increase their competitive advantage going forward.
Adaptability is a leadership discipline. The ability to be nimble and adapt effectively during a crisis is essential not only for survival, but for opportunity and growth. Failure to adapt when circumstances change will cost you and your organization greatly.
As the COVID-19 crisis continues to evolve, leaders and organizations need to be on adaptation alert as circumstances change. And when the pandemic finally ends, organizations must be prepared to adapt yet again in a post-COVID-19 world, whatever that will look like.
In studying companies that have adapted both well and poorly during the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve identified several questions that can serve as a Logos Best Practice rubric to help guide thinking about how to adapt effectively.
When confronted with changing circumstances, ask:
What is required for your organization to continue to operate? What level of revenue is required to cover costs? What tools or resources do you or your employees need to continue to function?
What is your mission? What is your organization’s goal? What are you designed to do? Does your mission need to evolve in the present moment?
What are your core values? What values are embedded in your mission, culture, and business model?
Whom do you serve? Who are the stakeholders that matter most to your organization? Are there new or different stakeholders you should be serving?
What are the urgent or important needs of your stakeholders? In this moment of crisis, what matters most to your stakeholders? What do your internal and external stakeholders need?
What do those who matter most expect from you? How do your stakeholders expect you to live your mission and values? How have their expectations changed amid the crisis?
What is your unique competitive advantage? What can your organization uniquely offer? How can you fulfill your mission in a way that provides an essential or important product or service during this crisis?
The answers to these questions will help you think about how to adapt in ways that not only support short-term survival, but also pave the way for long-term success.
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When you have to kill a man, it costs nothing to be polite.
– Winston Churchill
I salute the United States Navy.
The Navy – and the other branches of the U.S. military – serve the nation every day, protecting every American’s right to freedom, a privilege we often take for granted.
But right now, the Navy is undergoing a reputational nightmare, and it’s one that could have been avoided.
Capt. Brett Crozier, the commanding officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, was fired after an email he authored regarding COVID-19 expressing his concerns about the potential – and very likely – harm it posed to his ship and its sailors.
The Acting Secretary of the Navy, Thomas Modly, spoke to reporters about his decision to fire Crozier at the Pentagon in a press conference April 2, 2020. Modly stated the reason Capt. Crozier was fired was the Navy’s loss of confidence in Crozier’s ability to lead as well as the disclosure of an internal memo to the media. Modley suggested that the leak occurred because of Crozier’s carelessness in copying too many people on an email that should have been classified, demonstrating poor risk management and poor judgement.
Modly would not tell reporters who was copied on the correspondence, stating “I will not comment on that,” during his Pentagon press conference. That may have been one of his first mistakes. When communicating an issue, a “no comment” response will always be met with suspicion and conveys defensiveness, and the refusal may be interpreted as guilt.
To be clear, the reputational damage to the Navy was not necessarily because of the firing itself, which may or may not have been warranted. The outrage is due to the manner in which Modly communicated that decision.
Effective communicators know that the framework for guiding the choice, style, and timing of a message should always start with the following question: “What would reasonable people appropriately expect a responsible organization to do in this situation?”
By focusing on damaging hypotheticals such as “[the leak] unnecessarily raised alarms with the families of our Sailors and Marines with no plan to address those concerns” Modly accidentally communicated a lack of empathy toward the seriousness of the situation and what the families were likely already feeling (anxiety).
Modly questioned the professionalism of Crozier, who at that point was literally seen as a hero by service members for risking his career for their safety. “I could reach no other conclusion than that Captain Crozier had allowed the complexity of his challenge with COVID breakout on the ship to overwhelm his ability to act professionally,” Modly said.
Had Modly employed the best-practiced principle of crisis communication and asked himself “what would reasonable people expect a responsible organization to do in this situation” he likely would have realized how critical (for the sake of the Navy’s reputation) it was for him to publicly state that this was an unprecedented situation, and support Crozier because reasonable people expect the Navy to care. Showing you care does not mean you have to give up on good order and discipline. Reasonable people understand that if a policy or order was broken, there will be consequences.
In every crisis there is opportunity, and when this story broke, the Navy had an opportunity to back Capt. Crozier and explain the actions that had been taken and planned to be taken to ensure the service members would be safe and that the mission would not be abandoned. After all – those plans were already in motion according to Modly. Instead, they punished the person the public had already fallen in love with and thus appeared callous in doing so.
With all that said, below are some tips for success in a situation such as this.
Reasonable people expect an organization to care, first and foremost. The single biggest predictor of loss of trust in a crisis is the perception that you don’t care.
First mover advantage matters. Whoever is first to define the crisis, motives, and actions is the one who controls the interpretation of the event.
A well-structured stand-by statement, prepared ahead of time for adaptation, is key in ensuring you are communicating effectively during a crisis.
Logos Consulting Group provides the following template for the best possible outcome in tough, touchy, sensitive situations:
Acknowledgement. Open by stating awareness of the event or issue. Do not use euphemisms, which are confusing to audiences, especially those under stress.
Empathy. If there are victims or potential victims, express empathy.
Values. Describe the organization’s values that will give context to the response to the crisis.
Approach. Describe ways the organization is handling the response to the crisis, including what has been done or what is under way.
Commitment. Outline the substantive or procedural commitments you can make now.
On Sunday, April 5, several media outlets confirmed that Capt. Crozier tested positive for COVID-19; the Navy declined to comment.
On Monday, April 6, reports of a leaked speech of Modly speaking to Sailors in Guam was released via several media outlets.
“If he didn’t think, in my opinion, that this information wasn’t going to get out into the public, in this day and information age that we live in, then he was either a) too naive, or too stupid to be a commanding officer of a ship like this,” Modly said to the USS Theodore Roosevelt crew.
The speech continues in this manner with Sailors audibly yelling “what the F***” in the background.
Additionally on April 6, Modly wrote a response to a New York Times op-ed where Theodore Roosevelt’s great-grandson (Tweed Roosevelt) called Capt. Crozier a hero. In his response, Modly said he has the utmost respect for the Roosevelt family, but that Tweed is wrong — “he simply doe not have access to the relevant facts that led to the captains dismissal.” The letter was deleted shortly after it went live.
The Golden Hour of Crisis Response for communicators and medical professionals describes the urgency to “stop the bleeding.” Each day the Navy delays in effectively communicating and showing true empathy causes more and more reputational harm…and bleeding.
We truly hope Capt. Crozier and his crew recover. Fair winds and following seas.
Maida Kalic Zheng is a fellow at the Logos Institute for Crisis Management and Executive Leadership, where she helps corporate leaders maximize their presence, enhance communication, and become more sophisticated at managing their relationships and reputations.
Raleigh Mayer, the Gravitas Guru and principal of Raleigh Mayer of Consulting and Senior Fellow at the Logos Institute for Crisis Management and Executive Leadership, helps leaders elevate presence, enhance communication, and become more sophisticated at managing their relationships and reputations. She is an advisor, coach, educator, and speaker, serving large corporations, private firms, and individual executives.
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As the COVID-19 Pandemic continues to grow, Logos Institute for Crisis Management and Executive Leadership has been advising clients and carefully studying communication by leaders across a range of sectors and forms of organization.
We have reviewed thousands of communications by CEOs, university presidents, NGO executive directors and secretaries general, and public officials. And we have identified patterns that help leaders and their organizations make smart choices and avoid inadvertent self-inflicted harm.
Seven Crises in One
One of the foundational principles of effective crisis management is to name the problem accurately and to understand the true scope and likely risk of the crisis.
I believe that the COVID-19 crisis is actually seven crises in one. Think of these as seven different dimensions of the crisis. There’s a danger that a leader might be so focused on any one of the dimensions that he or she will miss the need to address the others. The seven dimensions of COVID-19 are these:
Public Health Crisis: At its core COVID-19 is a public health crisis. Half a million people worldwide have gotten sick; tens of thousands have died. More will get sick and die before things get better. But now in the United States the public health crisis includes a healthcare delivery system that is being strained to the breaking point. As hospitals in epicenters begin to fill up, there’s also a shortage of medical equipment and personal protective gear. Health workers are at risk, as are other patients.
Business Crisis: COVID-19 presents a business problem for all forms of organizations. There is a cost impact, for most organizations a negative one. There is a revenue impact, mostly negative; for some potentially catastrophic. There is disruption of operations. There is an HR impact.
Economic Crisis: At the same time there is a significant economic crisis underway. The risk of falling into a major recession, very low two months ago, now is quite high. The markets have exhibited unprecedented volatility. Economic uncertainty is wearing on people and institutions.
Information Crisis: From the beginning of the pandemic there has been significant incorrect information, incomplete information, and in some cases intentionally misleading information in the information ecosystem. This information crisis leads to significant misunderstanding about who is at risk of contracting the illness, who can transmit it, and what precautions are appropriate.
Competence of Government Crisis: Not just in the U.S., but initially in China, Iran, and other nations the initial responses were bungled and the virus spread. In the U.S. we have yet to see a whole of government response. Rather, we’ve seen a fragments of government response. Only in the third week of March, and the third month of COVID-19 in the U.S., are there sufficient tests and testing sites. But there is insufficient personal protective equipment for health workers, and a shortage of hand sanitizers, rubber gloves, and masks in retail stores.
Social Crisis: People’s lives have been upended; many people are losing or at risk of losing their jobs. Supermarket shelves are bare. Many companies have ordered employees to work from home; schools are closed or have gone to virtual learning. But there has also been a rise of incivility, insult, and violence against people who have been stigmatized. President Trump’s insistence on calling COVID-19 “China Virus” or “Chinese Virus” has led to a wave of hate crimes against people perceived to be Asian or Asian-American.
Mental Health Crisis: Human beings are social animals, and social distancing is having an effect. Compound this with the fear of the illness, the rising rate of infections and fatalities, and the other dimensions of the crisis, people are fraught. They are fragile. And they need extra care. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has asked for mental health professionals to volunteer to work with people not presently under their care to begin to meet this mental health need. I expect other governors will do the same.
Everything is Different
The unprecedented scope of the crisis makes it difficult to predict what will happen next. This crisis is unlike others. Among the differences:
This is unlike prior pandemics. This is the first global pandemic in a social media world. Recent pandemics were geographically contained. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome was mostly confined to the Republic of Korea. Ebola was contained in the United States, and our military and public health experts were able to contain it in West Africa. And this is the first truly global pandemic in the lifetimes of most people in leadership positions.
This is unlike natural disasters. Most organizations are ready or can adapt to natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and floods. But those are generally geographically confined and are sudden but short in duration. COVID-19 is widespread and will continue for a very long time.
This is not like ordinary corporate crises. Most corporate crises are limited to a particular company, sector, or geography. But this one affects every organization. And unlike most corporate crises, this one has the additional dimensions of public health, economic risk, information challenges, competence of government, and social dislocation.
The situation is constantly changing. The scope of contagion, the government and society’s response to it, and our understanding of risk to ourselves are in constant flux. In a matter of days we saw an escalation from no large crowds to no crowds at all to stay-at-home orders to full lock-down orders.
This is fundamentally reshaping our understanding of work. As millions of American workers learn how to work from home, and as companies experiment with different modes of delivering products and services, the likelihood of a return to pre-COVID-19 conditions is not clear.
Crisis Response Best Practices
Most ineffective crisis responses begin with leaders asking some version of What should we do? Or What should we say? The challenge with this kind of question is that it focuses on the we – on the entity or leader in crisis. This results in the consideration of options that may make the leader in midst of crisis feel less vulnerable. But it is unlikely to lead to what is necessary to maintain trust, confidence, and support of those people whose trust, confidence, and support are critical to the organization.
What is needed is a different kind of thinking that begins not with the I/me/we/us but rather with the they/them – with the stakeholders who matter to the organization. The leadership discipline of mental readiness – the readiness to shift frames of reference from the first person — I/me/we/us — to the third person — they/them — makes all the difference.
And that’s because of the way trust works.
A common goal for most organizations and leaders in crises is to maintain the trust and confidence of those who matter – shareholders, employees, customers, regulators, residents, citizens, voters, etc. Trust is what makes other elements of competitive advantage possible, from stock price to employee morale and productivity to support of regulators.
Trust, in turn, is the consequence of three related but slightly different things:
Promises fulfilled. These can be explicit promises, or implicit promises such as in a brand identity. If we are seen to break a promise, trust falls.
Expectations met. These can be expectations we set ourselves, such as by making promises. Or they can be expectations set by law or by government order. Or they can be expectations set by society. If we fail to meet expectations, trust falls.
Values lived. When those who matter to us experience us as living our stated values, the result is trust. If those who matter to us experience us as not living our stated values, trust falls.
And one of the patterns we notice is that it is much harder to restore trust once it has been lost than to maintain trust before it has been lost.
Asking What should we do? runs the serious risk of failing even to consider stakeholders’ expectations. Worse, it further risks the leader becoming stuck in his or her own perspective, in I/me/we/us. Hence, such crisis whoppers as BP CEO Tony Hayward’s “I’d like my life back,” or even President Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook.”
Most crisis response failures can be traced back to the ultimate decision-makers focusing on their own frame of reference rather than on their stakeholders.
The right question to ask when determining the appropriate course of action in a crisis is not What should we do.
Rather, it is this: What would reasonable people appropriately expect a responsible organization or leader to do when facing this kind of situation?
For any stakeholder group we can answer the question, What would reasonable members of this stakeholder group appropriately expect a responsible organization or leader to do? to a very granular level. To the level of all employees, or only those employees in this one facility, or only those employees who were present when something happened. We can inventory those granular expectations for each stakeholder group, and we can then work to fulfill those particular expectations.
But regardless the particular expectations of any given stakeholder group, there is a common expectation that applies to all stakeholder groups all the time: In a crisis, all stakeholders expect a responsible organization or leader to care. To care that something has happened; to care that people need help; to care that something needs to be done.
What it means to care may be different from crisis to crisis, or from industry to industry. What it means to care in the early phases of the crisis may be different from what it means to care in the later phases of the crisis. But that we need to care doesn’t change.
The single largest predictor that trust will fall is the perception of indifference. And silence, when there is an expectation of caring, is interpreted by stakeholders as indifference. And it gives our adversaries, critics, media and social media, and trolls the ability to define us as uncaring, or incompetent, or as lacking integrity.
Applying Best Practices to COVID-19 Communication
As the Logos Institute team has studied institutional response to COVIID-19, we have derived these lessons applying the principle of caring to the pandemic.
Begin all communication, whether written or verbal, with a statement of values, or belief, or intent, or motivation. Don’t dive directly into the facts. Audiences are far more likely to read or listen, understand, and remember when the leader creates an emotional connection first, and that begins with the statement of values.
Show you care. Calibrate communication with empathy.
Be direct: No euphemism. Euphemism is confusing to audiences, especially when under stress. If an employee has died because of COVID-19, say so.
Tell the truth: Avoid misleading half-truths. Remember that you’re in this for the long term. And eventually you’ll need employees to continue to want to work for you, and customers to want to do business with you. If you know that layoffs are likely, and you’re asked whether there will be layoffs, it may be tempting to say something literally true — “At this point there is no plan to lay people off.” This may be true, but the question was not about whether there is a plan but rather about whether there would be layoffs. A better response would be “We haven’t made a final decision, and we will do whatever we can to protect employees, but layoffs are a possibility.”
Address all relevant dimensions of the crisis: public health, business crisis, economic crisis, information crisis, competence of government crisis, social crisis, and mental health crisis. It may be tempting to stay in a single frame, say, business crisis. But your stakeholders are experiencing all seven dimensions of the crisis.
Remember that expectations are dynamic. Yesterday’s expectations may not be helpful today. Calibrate against current expectations.
Communicate at multiple levels. Employees and other stakeholders need to hear from more than the CEO. At this point it is better to over-communicate than to under-communicate.
Align on values; allow granular detail appropriate to each level. Whether the CEO or an EVP or VP or department head or project team leader, there should be alignment on the level of values, belief, intent, or motive. But at each level the granularity should be appropriate to the level of the leader doing the communication.
Convey a positive attitude that balances urgency against the provoking of panic. Effective leaders keep the focus on the future even while demonstrating urgency. But emotions themselves are contagious. Leaders need to stop short of provoking panic.
Express emotion, vulnerability, and humility. Arrogance makes empathy impossible, and it is empathy that gets leaders and organizations through a crisis. Leaders are often reluctant to express emotion or vulnerability. But the most effective ones do.
Get good at being on TV. Whether recording a video for public consumption or conducting a meeting via Zoom or Skype or GoToMeeting, leaders need to get good at communicating through a video camera.
Remember, people are feeling very fragile. People are scared; they’re worried about their jobs and their friends and their families. People’s work lives and personal lives have been upended. And some people are being stigmatized. Now is a time that calls for kindness. Effective leaders care.
https://i0.wp.com/www.logosconsulting.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/A-Teachable-Moment-in-Trumps-Testing-Positive-for-COVID-19-covid19-helio.jpeg?fit=1530%2C1402&ssl=114021530Helio Fred Garciahttps://www.logosconsulting.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/HQ-Lambda-Consulting-Lockup-1030x562.pngHelio Fred Garcia2020-03-25 22:21:362021-09-30 16:25:30Leadership, Communication, and COVID-19
Logos Consulting Group is pleased to announce that the next book by Logos President Helio Fred Garcia is now available for pre-order.
Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It is about the power of communication to do great harm, and how civic leaders and engaged citizens can hold leaders accountable to prevent such harm. Garcia focuses on the forms of communication that condition an audience to accept, condone, and commit violence against a targeted group, rival, or critic.
Sending Up a Flare
In the book’s preface Garcia writes,
“In my teaching and research, I study patterns: patterns that help leaders enhance competitive advantage, build trust and loyalty, and change the world for the better. I study the patterns of audience engagement and audience reaction. I study persuasion and influence, and the power of language to change people, mostly for the better.”
But he also provides a caution:
“I’ve also been acutely aware of the use of communication to hurt, to harm, and to humiliate, and of how dehumanizing and demonizing language can lead some people to commit acts of violence. I typically don’t teach those things in a classroom, but I often send up a flare, warning students, former students, and others of the predictable, if unintended, consequences of speech that, under the right conditions, can influence people to accept, condone and commit violence against members of a group.”
Garcia notes that he found himself sending up many flares in recent years, but that something changed in 2018. In the Fall of that year he posted on social media persistent warnings about stochastic terrorism, the technical term for language that provokes some people to commit violence. He says,
“My concern grew into alarm as the 2018 mid-term elections approached and as President Trump’s language crossed a line. I worried that someone would be killed by Trump followers who embraced his increasingly incendiary rhetoric about immigrants, Mexicans, Muslims, and critics.”
Garcia’s fears were soon realized.
“In a single week, about ten days before the mid-terms, two separate terror attacks took place: one killed eleven people at worship in a synagogue; one failed but had targeted a dozen Trump critics with mail bombs. In both cases the perpetrators justified their actions by quoting Trump language. One of them, the mail bomber, described his conversion from being apolitical to being ‘a soldier in the war between right and left’ that resulted from his several years in Trump’s orbit.”
The following day Garcia posted a blog on Daily Kos describing the relationship between language and violence. That post was republished by CommPro.biz. Words on Fire is the continuation of that original blog post.
In reflecting on the President’s language, Garcia noticed another pattern: the forms of his language were familiar. He realized that the president was using the very same rhetorical techniques that had preceded previous mass murders, including genocides. He worried that, left unchecked, the president would continue, with increasingly dire consequences.
Garcia explored the kinds of language that historically had preceded acts of mass violence. And he studied contemporary sources including the U.S. Holocaust Museum Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. The center defines “dangerous speech” as:
“speech that increases the risk for violence targeting certain people because of their membership in a group, such as an ethnic, religious, or racial group. It includes both speech that qualifies as incitement and speech that makes incitement possible by conditioning its audience to accept, condone, and commit violence against people who belong to a targeted group.”
One of the key elements of creating such conditions is to dehumanize others. The Center’s handbook Defusing Hate notes that:
“Dangerous speech often dehumanizes the group it targets (e.g., by calling its members rats, dogs, or lice), accuses the target group of planning to harm the audience, and presents the target group’s existence as a dire threat to the audience.”
Garcia also studied the work of Yale University philosopher Jason Stanley, who says that when leaders persistently dehumanize others they lessen the capacity of citizens to empathize.
Dangerous speech begins with dehumanization but doesn’t end there. Garcia has identified twelve communication techniques that individually and collectively create a social context that conditions an audience to accept, condone, and commit violence against people who belong to a targeted group. Each technique is a bit different from the other, although the individual techniques have elements in common. They serve as a kind of Playbook that malicious leaders have used to divide communities and to accumulate power. The twelve forms are:
Dehumanize: Calling groups of people animals or vermin who are infesting the nation.
Demonize/Delegitimize: Attributing to a group or rival a menacing, evil identity or calling into question the legitimacy or qualification of a group or rival.
Scapegoat: Blaming a group for all or many of the nation’s problems.
Public Health Threat: Claiming that members of a group are carrying or transmitting dangerous diseases.
Safety Threat: Claiming that a group, rival, or critic is a threat to public safety – likely to cause death or injury to the nation or to the dominant group – or is a threat to civic order.
Violent Motive: Claiming that a group has violent or hostile intentions toward a dominant group.
Severely Exaggerating Risk: Labelling a minor issue or routine event a major threat.
Sinister Identities: Attributing vague or sinister identities to a group or its members.
Conspiracy: Saying that something is part of a sinister conspiracy.
Discredit Information: Discrediting the source of objective information or of information critical of the leader.
Conflation: Conflating the leader and the state, so that any criticism of the leader is seen as an attack on the nation.
Menacing Image: Juxtaposing a menacing image (noose, swastika, flaming cross) with a person or person’s image, a location, or a facility associated with the target.
Words on Fire documents these forms of communication, and the consequences of that language, both before Trump and by Trump.
But it does more. It assesses how American political life came to this dangerous and demoralizing place.
And it offers hope, a path forward: a framework, a mindset, and a set of techniques to help civic leaders and informed citizens recognize the patterns of dangerous speech early, intervene early, hold those who use such language accountable for the consequences, and ideally prevent such violence in the first place.
Garcia and a team of researchers spent 14 months working on the book. In addition to studying historic mass killings that followed the persistent use of dangerous speech, Garcia and his researchers watched hundreds of rallies, interviews, and public appearances by Donald Trump as candidate and president, and read thousands of his tweets. Garcia also examined hate crime violence statistics and trends. And he examined national security and law enforcement scholarship on lone wolf violence up to and including lone wolf terrorism. Garcia synthesizes the fruits of this research and describes how lone wolves develop a terrorist mindset and how they are activated to commit violence.
From Stochastic Terrorism to Lone-Wolf Whistle Terrorism
Since 9/11 the use of communication in ways that trigger lone wolves to commit acts of violence, up to and including terrorism, has been known as stochastic terrorism. The name comes from a principle in statistics and describes something that may be statistically predictable but not individually predictable.
But Garcia has concluded that the phrase stochastic terrorism is difficult to grasp, and even to say, and tends to limit discussion. He proposes a different way to describe the phenomenon, based on who is motivated to act on the communication – lone wolves – and what triggers them to so act – a kind of dog whistle that he calls a lone-wolf whistle.
“Acts of violence triggered by such language I call lone-wolf whistle violence. When such language triggers mass violence with a political, ideological, or similar motive I call it lone-wolf whistle terrorism.”
A Call to Action
Words on Fire also profiles leaders who stepped over the line and were called on it. All, in their own ways and in varying time frames, stopped what they were doing. As responsible leaders do.
Garcia also explores humility as an essential leadership attribute that makes empathy possible. It is empathy that allows leaders to see the damage their rhetoric may cause, and humility and empathy that lead them to stop.
The book closes by providing a framework for civic leaders, engaged citizens, journalists, and public officials to recognize when a leader may have crossed the line, and a way to understand the likely consequences of dangerous speech. Garcia takes the Lone-Wolf Whistle Terrorism Playbook and recasts it as a toolkit or checklist in the form of questions to ask that can help determine whether a leader’s rhetoric is likely to inspire lone wolves to take matters into their own hands.
Early reaction to Words on Fire by those who have read the manuscript has been quite positive, and the book has several early endorsers.
David Lapan, Colonel, USMC (ret), former Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security spokesman, says:
“Language is power, and powerful. It can uplift, or harm. Helio Fred Garcia is an astute student of language and communication. This book offers historic examples, keen insights and valuable advice on recognizing patterns of language that can harm or lead to violence.”
Evan Wolfson, Founder, Freedom to Marry, says:
“Drawing on history and his deep expertise in communications, Helio Fred Garcia documents how Trump’s barrage of hate, divisiveness, falsehoods, and triggering are even uglier and more dangerous than we thought, right out of the autocrat’s playbook. During the Nixon administration, John Dean blew the whistle on the ‘cancer growing on the presidency.’ Words on Fire provides a clear and alarming CAT-scan of the cancer growing from this presidency, and a highly readable guide to how we can call out and combat Trump’s toxic language and malignant agenda, pushing back against the corrosive forces that enable Trumpism and put our country in such peril.”
James E. Lukaszewski, America’s Crisis Guru®, says:
“Many of us were taught a lie as youngsters that sticks and stones can break our bones, but words will never hurt us. Fred courageously, graphically and powerfully illustrates that it is words on fire that bloodlessly, without scars or visible traces cause deep internal permanent damage while often triggering accompanying physical damage. And that if we remain silent one victim incinerated by words on fire damages the rest of us.”
“Words On Fire should be mandatory reading and a guide book for every reporter and editor anywhere. Journalists have significant responsibility for spreading the flames of intentionally incendiary, punitive, abusive language. There should be ethical and cultural sanctions for mindlessly but intentionally originating or transmitting dangerous language. Every business school needs to develop courses for managers and leaders in detoxifying and extinguishing fiery, intentionally emotional and harmful language, whatever the source, followed by every religious leader and elected official. Important institutions in our society and culture have the affirmative responsibility to stand up and speak out against the users and use of words on fire.“
Public reaction has also been positive. In the week after Words on Fire became available for Amazon pre-order, it became the Amazon #1 New Release in Rhetoric and #2 in New Releases in Public Administration the #3 best seller in Public Administration.
Words on Fire is scheduled for publication in mid-June. It is available for pre-order in both paperback and kindle edition.
Prior Books by Logos President
Words on Fire is Garcia’s fifth book. His first, published in 1998, was the two-volume Crisis Communications, now out of print.
Garcia has been on the New York University faculty since 1988. He is an adjunct professor of management in NYU’s Stern School of Business Executive MBA program, where he teaches crisis management, and where he was named Executive MBA Great Professor. He is an adjunct associate professor of management and communication in NYU’s School of Professional Studies, MS in Public Relations and Corporate Communication program, where he twice received the Dean’s award for teaching excellence, in 1990 and in 2017. In that program he teaches courses in communication strategy; in communication ethics, law, and regulation; and in crisis communication.
Garcia is an adjunct associate professor of professional development and leadership at Columbia University, where he teaches ethics, crisis, and leadership in the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science. Garcia is also a Senior Fellow in the Institute of Corporate Communication at Communication University of China in Beijing.
https://i0.wp.com/www.logosconsulting.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Trumps-Liberate-Tweet-Puts-Lives-At-Risk-guest-helio.jpeg?fit=1801%2C1867&ssl=118671801Logos Consulting Grouphttps://www.logosconsulting.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/HQ-Lambda-Consulting-Lockup-1030x562.pngLogos Consulting Group2020-03-01 15:59:472021-09-03 20:27:53New Book by Logos President: Words on Fire
Helio Fred Garcia, president of Logos Consulting Group and executive director of the Logos Institute for Crisis Management and Executive Leadership.
Adam Tiouririne, senior advisor at Logos Consulting Group and senior fellow of the Logos Institute for Crisis Management and Executive Leadership.
Holly Helstrom, associate at Logos Consulting Group and a fellow of the Logos Institute for Crisis Management and Executive Leadership.
This team taught the inaugural PRSA Master Class in Crisis Communication in June, 2018 in Chicago.
Helio Fred Garcia in the PRSA Master Class in Crisis Communication, June, 2018, in Chicago
Ten days prior to the Master Class more than 45 people are registered to attend. They work in a range of sectors including higher education, consulting, airlines, healthcare, insurance, municipal and state government, civil rights advocacy, law enforcement, emergency response, and public relations firms.
Adam Tiouririne in the PRSA Master Class in Crisis Communication, June, 2018, in Chicago.
The PRSA Crisis Communication Master Class is a professional development offering that is designed as an in-depth, in-person, two-day immersion in advanced best practices in crisis communication. The in-class instruction, role-play and exercises are structured to help participants master crisis communication best practices through real-world work. This combination can help participants both become strong crisis communicators and also advise their clients and bosses during times of crisis.
The overall agenda includes:
Foundational Principles of Crisis Response
Storytelling in a Crisis
Getting Executive Buy-In
Social Media and the Diffusion of Power
Operational Readiness and Planning
Avoiding Crisis Missteps
Course Wrap-Up, A Path Forward, and Next Steps
Holly Helstrom in the PRSA Master Class in Crisis Communication, June, 2018, in Chicago.
After concluding the PRSA Crisis Communication Master Class, participants can optionally take an online examination to assess their mastery of content.
Participants who participate in the two-day Master Class and successfully complete the post examination will receive a Certificate of Completion. Participants with the APR credential earn 4.0 APR Maintenance Credits for a two-day course.
00Yinnan Shenhttps://www.logosconsulting.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/HQ-Lambda-Consulting-Lockup-1030x562.pngYinnan Shen2019-07-09 19:17:302021-08-23 18:06:14Logos to host PRSA Master Class in Crisis Communication
The French philosopher and writer Voltaire warned that those who can make us believe absurdities can make us commit atrocities.
We have seen this phenomenon play out in all parts of the world for the nearly 300 years since Voltaire first warned us. And sadly, we see it playing out in the United States now.
I have spent nearly four decades studying leadership, language, power, and the intersection of neuroscience, anthropology, and influence. Most of my work has been in the service of helping good leaders become better leaders. But sometimes my work calls on me to send up a flare; to warn others of what I see happening and about to happen. Events of the last few weeks compel me to send up such a flare.
Genuine leaders understand the consequences of their words and actions and take responsibility when they see that they are having a dangerous impact. Self-absorbed leaders do not.
There’s a phenomenon well known to those who study violent extremism and authoritarianism: the use of mass communication to inspire lone wolves to commit acts of violence. About six years ago it got the name Stochastic Terrorism, named for a principle in statistics about seemingly random things still being predictable.
Stochastic terrorism doesn’t make a direct call to violence. Rather, it leads people to take matters into their own hands. So stochastic terrorist violence is statistically predictable, even if it will not predict that a particular individual will commit a particular act against a particular person.
A Clear but Indirect Danger
The First Amendment protects free speech but not calls to violence that create a clear and present danger to people. But stochastic terrorism is insidious because it is a clear but indirect, yet still predictable, danger.
The Stochastic Terrorism Playbook
In the weeks just before the 2018 mid-term elections we saw President Trump use many elements of the stochastic terrorism playbook, that were amplified by conservative media and by Trump supporters who were running for office.
Dehumanizing populations. This includes referring to groups of people as vermin who are infesting the country. And carrying disease – in this case including diseases that have already been eradicated or are very rare, such as smallpox and leprosy. But still scary.
Claiming that an entire population is a threat. From his first day in the race, Trump defined Mexicans as rapists, gang members, and criminals. Candidate Trump also called for the total and complete ban of Muslims entering the country. And on his second day in office he passed an executive order, later overturned by the courts, banning people from seven primarily-Muslim countries. What the singling out of these groups, and others, have in common is that they create an Other — a group to rally against.
Labeling an ordinary thing a serious threat. President Trump labeled a rag-tag group of impoverished men, women, and children walking north seeking asylum a Caravan. Note that seeking asylum is legal. And the people were more than a thousand miles away at the time, and on foot. Despite this, he further said that the Caravan is invading the country. Hence the very word Caravan (always capitalized) became itself a menacing word, repeated across all forms of communication — in speeches, in social media, and on television news headlines. He called the Caravan a national emergency. He also called to mobilize the military to prevent its arrival. And this wasn’t even the first time he had used the Caravan scare. He did it in April as well. That group of migrants fizzled out before most of them reached the border. Those who arrived sought asylum. We should have recognized the pattern.
Attributing vague menacing identities to that group. For example, the claim that the Caravan has been infiltrated by a number of middle easterners.
Saying that something is part of an evil conspiracy. In this case that the Caravan is funded by George Soros, which is white supremacist code for an international Jewish conspiracy. Note that the first bomb received in late October was sent to George Soros. Followed by an attack on a synagogue by a person driven by an urgent need to prevent Jews from bringing in refugees in order to kill Americans.
Within a single week in late October we saw tangible evidence of such rhetoric inspiring violence.
A bomber attempted the largest assassination of political leaders in the history of the U.S., sending bombs through the mail to more than a dozen people who had each been the target of President Trump’s vitriol. Thankfully, none of the devices exploded, and all were retrieved. But authorities found the names of nearly 100 Trump critics on the bomber’s target list.
A gunman attacked a Pittsburgh synagogue during worship, killing eleven and wounding many more. He posted online about “Jewish infestation.” In the hours before the attack, making reference to a more than century-old refugee resettlement agency, he tweeted, “HIAS likes to bring invaders that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” During the attack he yelled “All Jews must die!”
A gunman tried to penetrate a Louisville black church but found the doors locked, and instead went into a neighboring Kroger’s store and murdered two black customers there.
There are likely to be further such acts.
Former First Lady Michelle Obama this week, in interviews about her forthcoming memoir, described her reaction to Donald Trump’s birther campaign, which put him on the political map for the 2016 presidential campaign. For years before and during his presidential campaign Trump persistently insisted that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, and therefore was not a legitimate president. Trump refused to acknowledge Obama’s Hawaii birth certificate, and frequently made other claims that challenged Obama’s legitimacy as president.
In her book Michelle Obama writes that this campaign was
“deliberately meant to stir up the wingnuts and kooks. What if someone with an unstable mind loaded a gun and drove to Washington? What if that person went looking for our girls? Donald Trump, with his loud and reckless innuendos, was putting my family’s safety at risk. And for this, I’d never forgive him.”
This is a vivid example of stochastic terrorism at work.
Plausible Deniability is an Essential Part of Stochastic Terrorism
The stochastic terrorist uses inflammatory rhetoric in the full expectation that it will trigger someone somewhere to act out in some way. But there is also plausible deniability built in. The stochastic terrorist can deny that he or she had anything to do with the violence that occurs. Indeed, President Trump falls back on this frequently, including in the aftermath of the bombs sent to people he had criticized. The Washington Post reported,
“Trump told reporters later that he did not think he bears blame for the alleged crimes ‘No, not at all,’ Trump said as he left the White House for a political rally in North Carolina. ‘There’s no blame, there’s no anything,’ Trump said.”
But Why Do People Believe Absurdities?
So why do people believe absurdities, which is a precursor to committing atrocities?
The Pittsburgh gunman believed deeply that Jews were importing refugees to kill “our people.” There was no evidence that Americans were being killed by refugees. But evidence didn’t matter. There was no evidence that the migrants walking north were infected with smallpox and leprosy, claims repeated frequently by conservative media. President Trump even called members of the Caravan “young, strong men” but also said that they were diseased. Why would people believe such easily refutable claims?
To answer that question we need to recognize that the rise of Donald Trump is not a cause but rather a consequence.
It is the predictable result of decades of degradation of political discourse. This degradation was facilitated by a media more interested in grabbing an audience’s attention than in covering issues. The worst part is that we should have seen it coming.
In fact, we could have seen it coming if we had known what to look for. We should have known.
Even now as the frightening reality is finally being recognized, we seem to be grappling only with the symptom of the problem — what Trump says — without recognizing that there’s a greater challenge that will continue regardless of how we address the immediate problem.
We can solve the Trump problem but still be as vulnerable to another authoritarian figure who energizes the disenfranchised, the angry, and the scared to similar effect.
Most educated Americans are familiar with Nineteen Eighty-Four. This popular novel is based in a dystopian future. The nation is in a continuous state of war. The intrusive and authoritarian government keeps people uninformed, and uses political language that is intentionally misleading. So the Ministry of Peace wages war. The Ministry of Truth controls all information, news, propaganda, and art. The Ministry of Plenty rations food. Our term “Orwellian” refers to the use of language to convey the opposite of reality.
But most educated Americans are not familiar with the essay that served as the novel’s basis. Sadly, Politics and the English Language helps us understand the current state of the American body politic, and it isn’t pretty.
“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.”
“Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties… – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
The problem arises when politicians use language in a disingenuous way, asserting things they don’t necessarily believe and making arguments that may sound compelling but that logically don’t make sense.
“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were instinctively, to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.”
However damaging individual instances of political language, of insincere speech, or of intentionally misleading statements may be, it’s the effect of these that causes harm.
The central idea in Politics and the English Language is this:
Political speech has the effect of reducing citizens’ critical reasoning skills….
…This creates a self-perpetuating cycle…
…where as people become less discerning they become more susceptible to political speech…
…which further diminishes their critical reasoning skills…
…and so on…
…and so on…
…until a fully uninformed public creates conditions for authoritarian government to thrive.
A Cause Can Become an Effect, And So On: It’s The Cycle That Matters
The key idea, though, is the relationship between cause and effect.
Orwell notes that an effect can become a cause, and a cause can become an effect. It’s the cycle that matters. In the end the result is a citizenry that remains intentionally ignorant of the issues that matter, unaware of what is happening to them, and easily manipulated by politicians.
“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better.”
“Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
The predictable result of this cycle is a citizenry that is easily manipulated. It becomes immune to persuasion by evidence and reasoning. And it doesn’t notice the multiple contradictions all around.
Candidate Donald Trump following the Nevada primary, February 24, 2016
Five years ago Orwell’s argument that political language causes a decline in critical thinking was supported by research by professors at Yale, Cornell, Ohio State, and the University of Oregon. Their study, Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government, showed that math problems that seem to be about benign topics are easily solved by people with strongly held political views. But when the same math problems are framed in terms of polarized political issues — in this case, gun rights — both progressive-and-conservative-leaning participants have a very hard time getting the math right.
The authors conclude that
“Subjects [use] their quantitative-reasoning capacity selectively to conform their interpretation of the data to the result most consistent with their political outlooks.”
A 2011 essay in Mother Jones by Chris Mooney on the neuroscience of political reasoning helps us understand why this is so. The piece begins with seminal research from the early fifties by famous Stanford psychologist Leon Festinger, who concluded:
“A man with conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.”
“Since Festinger’s day, an array of new discoveries in psychology and neuroscience has further demonstrated how our preexisting beliefs, far more than any new facts, can skew our thoughts and even color what we consider our most dispassionate and logical conclusions.”
“This tendency toward so-called “motivated reasoning” helps explain why we find groups so polarized over matters where the evidence is so unequivocal: climate change, vaccines, “death panels,” the birthplace and religion of the president, and much else. It would seem that expecting people to be convinced by the facts flies in the face of, you know, the facts.”
Emotion Trumps Logic
Humans are not thinking machines. We are feeling machines, who also think. We don’t think first; we feel first. What we feel determines what thinking will be possible. This is sometimes known as motivated reasoning.
“The theory of motivated reasoning builds on a key insight of modern neuroscience: Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion (or what researchers often call “affect”). Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds—fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before we’re aware of it.”
“That shouldn’t be surprising: Evolution required us to react very quickly to stimuli in our environment. It’s a “basic human survival skill,” explains political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan. We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.”
“We’re not driven only by emotions, of course—we also reason, deliberate. But reasoning comes later, works slower—and even then, it doesn’t take place in an emotional vacuum. Rather, our quick-fire emotions can set us on a course of thinking that’s highly biased, especially on topics we care a great deal about.”
“We have seen this trend for several decades, where for political expediency citizens have been conditioned to not trust any source of news that includes conclusions contrary to those consistent with a political point of view.”
This is likely to be intensified when the news media is seen to be both purveyors of fake news and enemies of the people, two themes President Trump continuously emphasizes. This results in his followers choosing not to believe anything written in such media.
We Apply Fight-or-Flight Reflexes Not Only to Predators, But to Data Itself
Such citizens, who reflexively flee from the facts, are unlikely to be aware of, or even care about, contradictions. Simultaneously holding two contrary positions, the very definition of absurdity, would ordinarily dismiss someone as not to be taken seriously. But in the political world such contradictions seem not to matter.
In such an environment citizens literally are unable to notice absurdities. But the same part of the brain, the Amygdala, that causes the flight response also causes the fight response. So any intruder is seen to be worthy of a fight. And violence tends to ensue.
Within a week of Trump calling for a ban of all Muslims entering the country we saw a rash of attacks on mosques and on people perceived to be Muslim or Arab. We have seen people removed from his rallies while being taunted by Trump from the podium, calling for his supporters to punch the person being removed in the face. In the aftermath of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in August, 2017, which President Trump refused to condemn, we saw dis-inhibition in the workplace. People who previously would have kept their racist or anti-immigrant or anti-Semitic opinions to themselves felt emboldened to act out, treating colleagues and customers with insult, rudeness, exclusion, and even violence.
“The hate in the United States came into full view last year as white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Va., with lines of men carrying torches and chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” Swastikas and other anti-Semitic graffiti have been cropping up on synagogues and Jewish homes around the country. Jews online are subjected to vicious slurs and threats. Many synagogues and Jewish day schools have been amping up security measures.
The Anti-Defamation League logged a 57 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2017, compared to the previous year — including bomb threats, assaults, vandalism, and anti-Semitic posters and literature found on college campuses.
Are the Calls to Violence Intentional or Merely Reckless?
Plausible deniability is built into the dehumanizing of groups, making it difficult to draw a clear line between a particular act of speech and a particular act of violence. Some, including the president’s allies, could conclude that President Trump is not making such statements with the intention of people committing violence. Rather, he’s speaking his mind and cannot be held accountable if some crazy person takes matters into his own hands.
Contrast today with 10 years ago. Late in his 2008 run for president Senator John McCain saw the crowd crying for blood, and was admonished by people he respected about the likely effect of his rhetoric. He took those admonitions seriously, and he dialed it down. As a responsible leader does.
“As the election barreled toward its conclusion, something dark and frightening was unleashed, freed in part by the words of the McCains and Palin. At rallies across the country, there were jagged outbursts of rage and accusations of sedition hurled at Obama. In Pennsylvania and New Mexico, McCain audience members were captured on video and audio calling the Democrat a “terrorist.” In Wisconsin, Obama was reviled as a “hooligan” and a “socialist.
With the brutish dynamic apparently on the verge of hurtling out of control, a chagrined McCain attempted to rein it in. In Minnesota, when a man in the crowd said he would be afraid to raise a child in America if Obama were elected, McCain responded, “He is a decent person and not a person you have to be scared of as president.” A few minutes later, he refuted a woman who called Obama “an Arab.”
Senator McCain heard from two of his heroes: civil rights legend Congressman John Lewis, and life-long Republican and former Joint Chiefs Chair and Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Game Change reports:
McCain’s efforts to tamp down the furies were valorous, though they did nothing to erase his role in triggering the reaction in the first place. The civil rights hero John Lewis, whom McCain admired enormously, compared the Republican nominee and his running mate to George Wallace and said they were “playing with fire.”
Civil Rights Legend, Representative John Lewis (D-GA)
Another prominent African American was watching with alarm. Colin Powell had been friends with McCain for twenty-five years. The senator had been actively seeking his endorsement (as had Obama) for nearly two years. Powell warned McCain that his greatest reservation was the intolerant tone that seemed to be overtaking the Republican Party. McCain’s selection of Palin bothered Powell because he saw her as polarizing. He was dismayed by Mc-Cain’s deployment of Ayers as an issue, perceived it as pandering to the right.
And then there were the hate-soaked rallies, which he considered anti-American. This isn’t what we’re supposed to be, he thought.
Powell had leaned toward staying neutral, but these outbursts were all too much—and McCain had moved only belatedly to stop them. Obama, by contrast, had displayed terrific judgment during the financial crisis, Powell thought. And his campaign had been run with military precision; the show of overwhelming force struck the general as a political realization of the Powell Doctrine. On October 19, he endorsed Obama on Meet the Press.
Colin Powell endorses Senator Barack Obama on Meet The Press
The general’s repudiation was a stinging blow for McCain. Beyond their longtime friendship, Powell represented the same brand of Republicanism as McCain’s. Tough on defense. Fiscally prudent. Pragmatic and nondoctrinaire. McCain had to wonder what had become of him if his current incarnation was repelling someone like Powell. He was startled by the crazies at his rallies. Who were they? Why were they there? And what did they see in him? In the final two weeks of the race, McCain began to try to salvage something of his reputation.
He put away the harshest of the personal invective against Obama and went back to talking about the economy, rash spending, and Iraq.”
Leaders Choose Responsibility
Senator McCain saw the unintended consequences of his fiery rhetoric and stopped. As a responsible leader does. Leaders choose responsibility, even if there is not a direct line between what they say and the violence or threatened violence that ensues.
There are two possible conclusions about President Trump’s incitement of violence. Either it is intentional or it is reckless. Either he wants the violence, or he doesn’t care about the violence. Neither absolves him of responsibility. Indeed, it may be even more frightening if the violence is not his intention, but that he is indifferent about it.
The poet TS Eliot gave us a way to understand this.
“Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm; but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.”
But whether intentional or merely the result of indifference, the victims of violence experience it as real. And an effective leader would stop.
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Please note: Helio Fred Garcia is executive director of Logos Institute for Crisis Management and Executive Leadership and is on the adjunct faculties of both New York University and Columbia University where he teaches, among other things, ethics. But the views expressed here are solely his own and not necessarily reflective of any other entity.
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The Agony of Decision was published in July, 2017. In June, 2018 it was named one of the “51 Best Crisis Management Books of All Time” by Book Authority, the leading resource for nonfiction book recommendations. The book was named #2 of 51 on the list.
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Logos Institute For Crisis Management and Executive Leadership Press
The Agony of Decision is the first book published under the Logos Institute for Crisis Management and Executive Leadership Press imprint as well as the first book in the Logos Institute Best Practices Series.
The series provides conceptual frameworks that help make sense of complicated issues by incorporating case studies, actionable tools, tips, and techniques that help leaders make smart choices and build competitive advantage when it matters most.
The Agony of Decision is about the specific ability leaders need in order to maintain reputation, trust, confidence, financial and operational strength, and competitive advantage in a crisis. This ability is mental readiness which comprises 1) emotional discipline, or the self-control needed to execute necessary but difficult choices, 2) deep knowledge, or an understanding of the patterns that show what works and what doesn’t work in a crisis, and 3) intellectual rigor, or the ability to make smart choices by asking the right questions at the right time.
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