Crisis Communications: Context and Clarity

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I recently saw, on social media, a political cartoon from 1941 with a question from the person who posted the cartoon juxtaposing the situation in the cartoon with a situation today. Unable to help myself, I commented, and I received a reply that said, “It was only a question and any implication you draw is yours only.”

That got me to thinking – was that true? Was I reading into the post something that wasn’t there? After much more consideration than I intended, I decided that, while it is remotely possible that I have been wrong in the past, I was not wrong about this. The post was not just a question. By referring to an extremely specific situation, the question was put into a specific context and projected onto a situation today. That’s important because the tacit (but only) purpose of any post was to communicate, and communication must be both clear and complete.

Before going on, I’ll provide my definition of communication. Communication is the clear, accurate, and unambiguous exchange of meaning between or among parties. If I think you meant red when you think you meant pink, we were not communicating. Communication cannot be a case of, “I’m not sure that what you think you heard is what I intended to say.”

In today’s world, social media has assumed a place of prominence in exchanging words. Note that I did not say “communicating.” I didn’t use that word very intentionally and with malice aforethought. Far too many tweets (limited as they are to 280 characters) fail to provide a precise context, fail to be clear and fail to be unambiguous. That sounds, to me, like a recipe for misunderstanding followed by apologies: “what I meant to say’s,” retractions, and explanations of “what I intended to say.”

As leaders, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take advantage of social media, only that it needs to be used very carefully. Social media (Twitter, specifically) was used very effectively by Chevron a few years ago when they were responding to a fire at one of their refineries. My sense (unsupported by any evidence or data whatsoever) is that about 70 percent of the tweets from politicians, celebrities, athletes and assorted other denizens of the Twitterverse do little other than stir up emotions and make the tweeter look like an idiot. My favorite tweets are those that include a link to some article of interest that provides clarity, context and accuracy (I do realize that such tweets are actually cheating with respect to the concept of micro-blogs/tweets).

Related: Join us for our February webinar series – Predictive Insights: Looking for Clues in Advance of a Crisis

Leaders need a plan to respond to emergent situations that require a very timely response (a social media fire can only be put out with social media water). That plan should outline when to use the plan (the situations), what kind of messages to send, and how to ensure that the messages include the right context. Writing short, clear, accurate messages is very hard. As Abraham Lincoln is reputed to have said, “I’m sorry to write such a long letter, but I did not have the time to write a short one.” Communication planning should also include exercises (in fact, they could be mini-exercises, taking only one or two minutes) to provide practice. In the movies, you see the protagonist shoot several bad guys with exceptional accuracy in only a couple of seconds. Such performance is extremely rare and possible only with a great deal of dedicated practice. The same observation applies to highly responsive communication (i.e. social media posts).

Bottom line:

  • Plan your communication.
  • Communicate with accuracy and clarity.
  • Provide the appropriate context for your messages.
  • If you use social media, practice it – don’t hip shoot.


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