Did Australia really need the BER? In debating the Australian Government’s response to the global economic downturn, few will deny Labor made some serious mistakes. However, were they as bad as some media outlets argued? Time will probably show far less failures than suggested. If this does happen, however, it won’t mean the fault lies only with the media; at least some blame must go to the politicians themselves on both side of Parliament who failed to sell the plan. The underlying problem may well turn out to be poor communication.
In discussing communication, it is a truism to claim it can make or break any organisation – including a school. Handled effectively, communication can invigorate a school; handled badly, it can be totally destructive. This particularly applies during a crisis. When managing a crisis, I’d rather have a skilled communicator on my side than a skilled problem-solver.
Don’t get me wrong – I’d want someone to help me solve the emerging problems but even more I would want someone who could convince the stakeholders that the crisis was in fact manageable.
What exactly would I be looking for in this crisis-defusing communicator? I think there are three essential qualities and a few others that would certainly be useful. The ‘big three’ would be integrity, clarity and availability. The others will have to wait for now because I don’t want them to become a distraction. Let’s look at each of the three and assess their value.
The value of integrity
It is fair to say that mishandled communication underpins many disasters in our world. Whether we are discussing the invasion of Iraq, the Vatican’s reaction to the paedophilia scandal, or the oil industry’s response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, there were major weaknesses in the way they were handled. In each case, the immediate response seemed to be “How can we disguise the seriousness of this issue until the air clears?”
It might seem brutal to say so, but I believe that the instances cited were based on a determined decision to lie. Someone in a senior position decided that to avoid their own demise, they had to present half-truths as real facts, and no matter how we view this strategy it involved manipulating the truth; predictably, the resultant after-shocks were aggravated by this laxity. Few of us will ever deal personally with a major oil spill, a search for weapons of mass destruction, or an Enron financial scandal – but even at our level, if we are loose with the truth, this weakness will return to haunt us.
This haunting might well occur at a time when we most need public support – and the support will be absent because we lack credibility. As we reflect on ways to deal with a crisis at school, we need to take this thought on board: the truth will set us free but lies will snare us badly.
If people know that they can trust you, they are more likely to stick with you in a crisis; if they lack confidence in your veracity, they are less likely to take your word for anything. Sadly, once we shatter a person’s belief by lying to them, it is very hard to regain their trust. To avoid this, we must act with integrity all the time so that when we are faced with serious issues, our effectiveness is not reduced by a litany of minor faults from the past. A pattern of untruths quickly erodes both personal and communal confidence so that when a real crisis occurs, there is no chance that someone who lies will gain the trust of their stakeholders. Trust is a rare commodity today, and we have to be very careful that whatever we say is credible.
The value of clarity
People have the right to be told the truth, but they also have the right to be told things simply. Have you ever listened to a politician being interviewed by an astute questioner, someone like Kerry O’Brien? So many of the politicians, seemingly afraid to admit that they cannot answer a question, try to disguise this fact in convoluted phrases and obscure references. They avoid the question, bring in their own slant, and then expect the interviewer (or the audience) to be satisfied with their responses. You can hear the same scripts in boardrooms at annual general meetings, in dressing rooms after a lost match, and in lounge rooms when parents interrogate their teenagers. What you are hearing is spin; what you want to hear is clarity.
In a previous article in this series, I wrote about the importance of openness in handling a crisis; my current call for clarity is a development of that same theme. However, clarity is more than just openness. Openness implies sharing with people the information that is available; clarity goes further, requiring the disclosure to be made in such a way that everyone actually understands what is being said. Since teachers are professional communicators, it is not too much to expect that in a school-centred crisis, there should be someone who can explain the situation simply and honestly.
If a retaining wall in the playground has collapsed, and two children have suffered serious injuries, parents want to know this. They don’t want to hear that “following extensive deterioration to certain infrastructure, pre-existing support mechanisms have been found to be unstable, and their malfunction has resulted in unexpected physical alterations in the post-natal structure of certain educational aspirants”. Tell it like it is, and people will know where they stand. In turn, they will be more likely to support you as you try to deal with the tragedy.
As far as possible, it makes sense to have someone who can respond to genuine inquiries, especially from those most directly involved. If a child has been hurt in a school bus accident, every parent with someone on that bus would want to know how their child is. It is very frustrating when concerned parents seek clarity from the school, only to be told that “the principal is in a meeting just now”. Since principals cannot be in several places at once – contrary to some parental expectations – it makes sense to ensure that an authorised spokesperson is delegated and available whenever a crisis emerges.