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Did We Learn Anything?

What Did We Really Learn About Communication In 2014?

By Thomas J Roach

If we learn from our mistakes, then 2014 was a great learning experience for communicators. We owe special thanks to Malaysia Airlines, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, the National Football League and Bill Cosby.

Malaysia Airlines provided several lessons. They weren’t prepared for a crisis. They failed to respond to the crisis immediately. They were not forthcoming with their information. And they lacked sensitivity.

You can’t anticipate all contingencies, but everyone has to have at least a generic crisis plan. You have to face the news media; if the company doesn’t serve as a source of information, then someone else will. Spokespersons need to be honest and share what they know and not speculate on what they don’t know.

Lastly, if you have to convey a significant personal message, do not use email or text messages. Malaysia Airlines sent this text message to the families of missing victims of flight MH370: “Malaysia Airlines deeply regrets that we have to assume beyond any reasonable doubt that MH370 has been lost and that none of those on board survived.”

These are the same lessons we learned when Sago Mine lost 12 miners after a blast trapped them 280 ft. below ground. If your organization puts employees or customers in harm’s way, you have to provide honest and timely information about their safety to the news media and the families of those involved.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella taught us what not to say about important social issues. Equal pay for women has been a crusade for women and anyone else who wants a fair workplace. CEOs should know that and care enough about fairness that they actively work to overcome the disparity in compensation. Nadella’s assessment of the situation? It’s all about “good karma.” Women should have faith “that the system will give you the right raise.”

While no one expects CEOs to be activists for equal rights, we do expect them to at least be aware of the problems inherent in their own businesses. If the karma reference doesn’t sound insensitive, imagine if he had told stockholders he was waiting for karma to increase the value of their stock.

The National Football League taught us that it doesn’t pay to obfuscate the truth. After Baltimore Ravens star Ray Rice punched his then-fiancée unconscious in an elevator, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said Rice’s fiancée had been drinking and had provoked Rice and suggested that she knocked herself out.

The NFL waffled on its response and then ran a series of ads taking a stand against domestic violence. They failed on both counts. The elevator attack was horrific, and the ad campaign was an obvious attempt to save face. The obvious lesson here is always assume the public is at least as smart as you are, and if you are employed by the NFL, assume they are a lot smarter.

Lastly we have the stranger than fiction story of Bill Cosby. When has anyone held in such high esteem ever been accused of a more loathsome crime? Victims seemed to be coming forward every week with stories of being drugged and raped. Cosby and his entourage first ignored the accusations, then denied the charges and then began attacking the accusers. Wrong, wrong and wrong.

When someone attacks your character, it is necessary to respond immediately. Greek and Roman rhetoricians understood that if your character is in question, nothing you say can be trusted. The character issue must be addressed first.

Denying an accusation and attacking the accuser is the best response if the character accusation is false. If, however, the accusation is true, then the denial and counter attacks perpetuate the debate and further damage perception of your character by adding lying and meanness to your list of unsavory behaviors.

So what did we really learn?

In short, the airline teaches us we need to be prepared with crisis communication plans, CEO Nedella demonstrates the importance of sensitivity to the needs of others, the NFL reminds us to respect the intelligence of the public, and Cosby painfully illustrates that some crimes are indefensible, and the best we can do is kill the story by admitting guilt.