Saying ‘I don’t know’ in a crisis often surpasses saying zip

Most managers will never deal with the terrifying consequences of an earthquake, tsunami, hurricane, blizzard or forest fire. But a select few may want to prepare.

The Washington Post published a story Tuesday about what the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission knew, didn’t know, and therefore could or couldn’t do, about the earthquake-compromised Fukushima nuclear complex in Japan last March.

Frustrated experts fumbling in the dark don’t present a pretty picture, nor do they inspire confidence.

Over the last 10 years, our crisis training team instructed more than 40 groups of nuclear plant operators and local, county and state first responders in “what if” situations like Fukushima. One of the tenets of that media and crisis training is that saying nothing is often detrimental. Saying “I don’t know, but we’re trying to find out,” can be reassuring. It links the spokesperson to the public. It conveys, ‘we’re in this with you; we want to get you answers.’

Designated media spokespeople have several options, we teach, short of  silence, ‘no comment’ or ‘I can’t tell you.’ All must be factual, but options include:

“I don’t know, but…”
“I can’t answer, and here’s why…”
“I can’t answer because the question is based on a false fact/assumption. In fact…”
Saying nothing creates a vacuum of information that the public is free to fill with fear, misunderstanding and false conclusions. This is especially true when dealing with technical unknowns or new nuclear frontiers that theoretically couldn’t occur. As the Post story notes, solutions for Fukashima’s problems ranged from the lunatic to the ineffective. And those came from the “experts.”
On Nov. 2, 2011, interestingly enough, the NRC issued new guidelines for use or non-use of social media that at first seems progressive, but demurs into regulatory flagellation. If something ever happens of an emergency nature at a domestic nuclear power plant word of it won’t come at a formal news conference. Twitter’s tweets will fly; Facebook posts will multiply; and minutes later YouTube video will be posted of bubbling water. Count on it.
Experts must prepare to deliver facts, admit when they don’t have them yet, and work to keep information flowing. When there’s a dusty gray plume of smoke over a nuclear power plant, you’d better have answers, know what you know and what you don’t, and explain both clearly.

About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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