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Ensmarten Saturday: What to do with unpopular or negative social situations

How to respond when something bad happens

Many organizations have faced adversity because of gradual changes – reduced profits, shrinking customers, or an employee that drives the team crazy. Sometimes challenges occur that are so bad that they put the organization in major danger of failure or dramatic reduction in success or influence. This is an article describing what to do in those instances.

What to do with unpopular or negative situations?

When confronted by negative or tragic events many of us lack the capacity to deal with the circumstances. We hope it will just go away, we apply standard practices and procedures, or we improvise from scratch. This standard is no longer acceptable in today’s media market. News, good or bad, has the ability to reach a global market in a matter of seconds. The speed of information requires an organized effort and a clear communication plan. For example, with one tweet, a star athlete, employee, or customer can put your company on its head trying to figure out what happened.

How to plan for the unknown?

Contingency planning begins with asking questions about what could go wrong, looking at things that have gone wrong in the past, and then doing the research necessary to avoid or mitigate the effects of tragedy. Beyond simply asking questions, one key component of contingency planning is understanding how the organization will respond – not necessarily what will be said. But what is the process for responding in such cases? Is the first step a board meeting? An executive meeting? Who is the designated spokesperson? Who is the backup spokesperson? Do we have a strategy of waiting for more information or getting “ahead of the story”?

In general, having a plan provides certainty on how affected organizations will respond, making what is said fit into some buckets. Many organizations fail because their immediate response is to lash out or play defense rather than to simply buy time by issuing a statement that the entity is aware of the story and why people are interested. Providing this type of statement is a useful way to acknowledge the situation and demonstrate genuine concern while preserving time for a thoughtfully crafted response that appropriately addresses the situation in greater depth.

Can you give me any examples?

We do not have to look far to find examples of tragedy or problems that were not handled correctly.  The University of Maryland poorly handled the death of a football player in March 2018. This was not the first time a football player has died in an offseason workout. There have been 33 since 2000[1]. This equates to two per year. It may have been the first time it has happened at Maryland, but there should have been a plan for when it did happen.  The administration did not pose the question in the University of Maryland case, so we will.

“What happens when a student-athlete dies on our watch?”

The first step: develop a thesis statement. A thesis statement is the main problem the organization is looking to develop a contingency plan around. The thesis gets broken into smaller questions that aim to answer the main thesis and includes fact-finding questions such as, “How many student athletes die per year in football?” and “Has this ever happened before at Maryland?”  I found the answer to the first question in about five minutes online (I am a slow reader). About two football players die per year due to exercise-related activity. The second question took longer to answer. From what I can tell no other deaths have occurred at Maryland. If any readers out there know differently, then please comment below. From these two facts, we have logic that suggests the likelihood of it happening in a specific place is rare. How rare? If I want to put a specific number around it, then I need to ask additional questions.

“What is the likelihood of a student-athlete dying here due to an exercise-related activity?”

The second step is to find out if this question has been asked before because chances are this problem is not new. In fact, The National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research dates back to 1965. They have published reports examining the rates of fatalities in all sports at the high school and collegiate level. According to their 35th Annual report[2], there were five deaths at the collegiate level in 2017 for all athletes, and two occurred in football. There were 671 football teams in the NCAA in 2017. That means the odds of a student-athlete death from a football-related activity in a given year is around 1 in 335.5 at an institution.

These odds are extremely unlikely and trending down in recent years due to increased awareness and preventative measures. The NCCSIR makes 12 recommendations that focus on severe injury prevention and also call for contingencies in case of emergencies. Emergency action plans are in place at all universities. These are all positive things, but none of the recommendations or plans address managing the cognitive dissonance of other players, fans, employees, or the general public that results from these events.

A contingency plan for mitigating cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is a type of psychological stress that results from incompatible ideas. In this case, a strong healthy athlete dies. These two ideas – health and death – are in conflict. These ideas unbalance us and require a strategy to reduce our mental stress. Cognitive dissonance isn’t psychological mumbo-jumbo. The concept has been around since the 1950s. It has been studied in a multitude of scientific experiments. It can be observed and measured through neural imaging scans. And it happened to every member of the Maryland fan base, or your company, or your investors, or the entire country. So, you better have a plan to cope with it.

The first step in any plan is to respond quickly. If you have a plan in place, then your response will be that much quicker. Designate someone as the bearer of bad news. Prior to the event, the designated spokesperson can train themselves to deal with situations of cognitive dissonance. For example, politicians engage in debate preparation. This is not about the material. This is about the sense of reassurance and body language used to present the populace with a message of strength and security.

An example of how to train for being the spokesperson in a time of cognitive dissonance is to have a period where such designated person practices handling their team yelling and screaming at them for a prolonged period of time. The goal is to put the person into discomfort through others’ emotions. In response, the spokesperson needs to absorb the emotion coming their way, offer reassurance, and communicate the timeline of events in the coming days.

This is slightly different in a social media world. The key is to have very clear rules regarding who is part of the response team and when the response should be deployed. A bad customer review is very different than a product that has caused serious bodily injury to a user. The front team (those seeing tweets or Instagram) should know when to push the problem up-chain to the appropriate responder. This is not unlike a technical team dealing with customer support.

The second step is to deploy the response. Your response is the what you are going to say – not how to say it. As stated earlier, you should have built a response team and plan regarding how and who will respond prior to the event. If you don’t have one, the best response is a rapid “give us more time to gather information” statement through an assured spokesperson. Then, build your information pipe and determine your most stable, least emotional person to deliver the response on behalf of the organization.

This person also must have a leadership title and be in a position that conveys the appropriate emotion. So, for example, if you are dealing with sexual harassment from your male CEO and co-founder, then it may be advisable to find a person that is different – not a co-founder, someone who has worked in the company for a while, and probably a female. The key is to provide a person that is trustworthy, not just on paper but who is actually trustworthy.

The organization’s response should be timely – taking days – not weeks – because the longer the dissonance persists, the unrulier people will become. Also, the bearer of bad news loses all credibility with the media the longer the dissonance remains unresolved. In circumstances where speed isn’t possible (i.e. in states that require certain wait times by law) over-communicate why the issue hasn’t been resolved and remain available to respond to ongoing questions.

The third step is to take appropriate action. Your plan needs to include appropriate actions that do not add to the level of dissonance. Take Maryland, for example. After the death of the player, nothing happened. The team practiced all summer. The coach wasn’t placed on administrative leave until two months after Jordan McNair died. Then, after a two-month investigation, he was reinstated. Then he was fired after two days of unrelenting media scrutiny and outrage. This could be expected with four months of growing cognitive dissonance. Establishing trust, transparency, and a reassuring spokesperson are steps to positioning an entity to provide an adequate response. But, there still needs to be an appropriate response.

An appropriate reaction to the death of a student-athlete after a workout is to stop all program activities immediately and place the coaches on leave – or fire the coaches altogether. There are just some things from which an organization cannot recover. If it’s the organization’s brand and the situation merits a recall, for example, don’t wait. If it is your co-founder and he is harassing your employees, then he doesn’t get to come to work anymore. These decisions are messy and one size doesn’t fit all. That’s why coming up with your own plan is important to mitigating cognitive dissonance.

In summary, if your firm or entity is faced with a tragic situation where something awful has happened, the response should entail the following:

Pre-plan regarding who and how to respond.

  1. Respond and reassure quickly that you are aware and working on the challenge.
  2. Build a “what to say” plan as facts will dictate.
  3. Continue using a trustworthy (hopefully pre-trained) person to deliver responses.
  4. Build an action plan to deal with the potential issue.
  5. Deploy the action plan.
  6. Continue to reassure, be transparent about action, and change the plan appropriately based on the issue.
  7. Ensure the changes are at the appropriate level – err on the side of too extreme rather than too small.
  8. Rebuild your company and culture – changing the internal story from one of failure to one of responsive improvement.

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5343527/

[2] https://nccsir.unc.edu/files/2018/09/NCCSIR-35th-Annual-All-Sport-Report-1982_2017_FINAL.pdf

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