The Dangers of Waffling

Changing gears a bit, reading this story today about the response to the ongoing E. coli situation in Germany highlights the dangers waffling poses to organizations charged with managing crises.

One of the most important intangibles that an organization has in a crisis is authority. That is, their ability to speak to a situation and have people:

  • Listen
  • Believe what they’re being told
  • Take whatever actions they’re being asked to take

Authority is crucial in a crisis, particularly in true life-or-death situations. If your organization is charged with issuing evacuation orders, for instance, the last thing you want (or have time for) is trying to convince people that they need to listen to you. You want them to pack up and go right away with no arguments.

The article outlines how German jealth officials are now starting to face a crisis of confidence. In the face of multiple instances of backtracking from previous statements of possible sources of the outbreak people are starting to doubt officials’ very competence:

“All this wishy-washy back-and-forth, it’s just incompetence,” said Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

While the article is primarily focused on the science and methodology being pursued, I would argue that the critical elements here are actually centered around a key principle of crisis communications. You have to view your authoritative capital as a finite resource and one that you spend cautiously. In highly complex, technical situations like this, there is a lot of messy work that happens to understand the problem. While experts and those familiar with that world may understand and accept that reality (and indeed may view too much simplicity and clarity with suspicion), lay people don’t. What they look for and expect is a simple, clear and accurate statement of the cause.

Until the technical experts can say that they are positive that they’ve accurately identified the issue, it’s critical to preserving authority that organizations stick to a line that says “we have a process, we’re working the process and as soon as we know for certain what it is, we will say so”. This isn’t just for situations around food-borne illness: this applies to any highly complex, technical situation that requires research and investigation.

In the midst of a crisis this approach can be frustrating to people who want more information. And yes, it can sometimes open a door for third parties to come in and speculate. But those third parties lack authority and can afford to be wrong with little to no consequence. But for organizations that have and need to retain authority in a crisis, the key lesson we’ve seen over the years is that frustration will generally dissipate once the crisis has past. Lost authority because of conflicting, inaccurate answers however stays for good and is hard to get back.

Unfortunately, I suspect that any future incidents that German health officials have to manage will be hampered now by their need to re-establish and retain their increasingly lost authority.