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In the Driver’s Seat: Take the Wheel and Drive the Discussion

Originally published on

Arnot’s theory of crisis communication:

An environment of change creates an information vacuum.
The rate and impact of the change determine the force of the vacuum.
The vacuum will be filled.

When we find ourselves in the midst of rapid change – whether crisis or opportunity – our natural inclination is to limit communication until we have all the information in hand.

Our working assumptions about how the world should work have just been upended and we’re not sure how to re-orient our thinking, much less what we should share with others. It’s natural to want to sit back to process what’s happening and thoroughly think through the impact of the situation and next steps.

The desire to say less until we know more is perfectly understandable, and absolutely the wrong strategy.

Beware the Information Vacuum

As leaders we need to recognize that nature abhors a vacuum, and it will be filled.

When change occurs quickly, we immediately begin searching for information to understand what’s happening, the potential impact and what it means. The information vacuum created by the new situation creates both opportunity and risk. The opportunity is to quickly, and effectively provide information to fill the vacuum with information that is helpful and reassuring.  The risk is that if we don’t, people will find the information (or misinformation) necessary to fill the vacuum and proceed to engage in rumor, speculation and inuendo. It’s easier than ever now with Smart phones to crowd-source “knowledge” that can be factual and supportive or inaccurate and damaging.

People are more likely to share news of crisis on social media than they are to tell their friends or family members face-to-face, according to a the 2019 Crisis Impact Report by Crisp. And the report says fake and negative information travel much faster.

No matter what kind of news they come across, the public simply wants information so they can decide how to respond to this new situation: “What should I think, feel and believe? Should I fear the change or embrace it?”

You can help them make those decisions by providing information early and often that will bring balance to the conversation.

Step Into the Vacuum

Step into the vacuum and fill it – even if you don’t have all the facts, because the conversation will happen whether you’re engaged in it or not. Share what you do know and share as often as you can to be a part of the dialogue from the beginning. You don’t have to know everything to have something meaningful to contribute.

According to the Crisp report, 90 percent of consumers say they are likely to shop with a brand that responds well to a crisis. If you handle crisis or change well, most people can be forgiving.

However, if you choose to delay a response or simply not participate, they may not forget, or worse yet, assume you have something to hide. If you choose to forgo opportunities to take the wheel and drive the discussion, don’t be surprised if the conversation ends in the ditch.