Joining me on this week’s episode is Jeff Hahn, the owner and principal of Hahn Public. Jeff focuses on brand crafting, message development, and crisis communication for the firm’s clients. He recently published a book, Breaking Bad News: The Definitive Crisis Communication Guide for Brands.
He discusses several important ethics issues, including:
- Why truth is just a negotiated reality
- How to successfully nudge people into their proper swim lanes
- Demystifying crisis communication
Why don’t you tell us a little bit more about yourself and your career?
I’m now 30 plus years in my career, mostly as a PR guy, and my specialty has focused over the last several years on crisis communication. Crisis is often ethics under pressure. When we talk about crisis communication, we’re making decisions in a fog typically associated with some pretty significant dissonance and disbelief and a challenge to make choices that, in fact, align with values in those kinds of episodes
Thinking about all the crisis communications, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?
Well, in my experience, the most interesting challenge isn’t a specific episode. Instead, it’s the realization that the truth is a negotiated reality.
Why don’t you explain a little bit more about that?
It’s a bit abstract, but what I’ve come to appreciate over all these years of doing crisis work especially, is the extent to which two sides of a story can both be true. It just depends on perspective. And the perspective of the stakeholders from those sides has to be accounted for in order for there to be an authentic and ethical message that appears in the dialogue between the stakeholders, between the messenger and the recipient of that message.
It’s been one of the more intriguing and, I guess, psychologically challenging aspects of the craft that I participate in is that as time moves forward, the truth in a particular moment isn’t the truth as you move forward and as things evolve. And so, it is a negotiated reality, and I would say one that is not stuck in time. It continues to be negotiated and replayed and reconstituted. We do that to ourselves a lot. We reframe history all the time, and we replay it and try it on for size in new storytelling methods and mechanisms, all of which require some tension with ethics.
When I’m talking to a lot of young professionals, I bring up the example of the gold and white or blue and black dress, or what color are tennis balls? You can get passionate arguments, and both people are saying the truth based on their perception. It drives it home when we were talking about how it shifts over time. I was discussing with a few friends on Facebook last night about Jarts, which were my favorite game as a kid growing up, and now those things are just giant death needles that we’d thrown at each other. What’s your advice for communicators as they’re dealing with this negotiated reality? How do you effectively engage the CEO and the C-suite when you’re giving your advice?
By the way, I love Jarts. I loved it as a kid.
Part of the magic of engaging people in that ethics conversation in our craft is doing it without saying that you’re doing it. It’s allowing them to come to grips with some questions that are easier to answer, especially under pressure. Does this feel authentic? Does this convey a sense of reality as we see reality? Those are easier questions to answer and respond to, especially when your spaghetti is in the fan. And if you can simplify the ethical dimensions of a conversation in those kinds of terms, decision-makers can come to grips with whether or not they are aligned to the values that they purport to uphold and the situation that they’re dealing with at hand.
One of the challenges I see a lot is the challenge of time being an increasing pressure. When you and I first started, it was the 24-hour news cycle. Now it’s the 24-second news cycle. How do you help people work through that negotiated reality?
Don’t try to get it perfect. Voltaire’s advice holds true here, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Time is your friend if you’ll allow it to hold that idea in stasis, which is, let’s say something good, even if it isn’t right.
Let’s just imagine there is an incident. A company has a significant emissions incident. They don’t know how much has gone up into the atmosphere or into the river. They don’t know how many chemicals have been spilled or what type of chemical. You don’t know all those answers, but that’s not what people care about at first. What they care about is, how concerned are you? How are you responding? And if you’ll just allow that goodness to be communicated quickly, the rest of the details can come later.
The third thing to add is, what’s next? What are you doing? You can say, “We’re doing further investigations to address the points there.”
Thinking beyond your personal experience, what are you seeing as some of these key ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?
Certainly, the most impressive challenge you already alluded to, Mark, and that is the 24-second cycle. Leaders and decision-makers are spooked by the rapid capability of social media to take over and shape a narrative. That’s why it’s so important to move with the intent of goodness and not perfectness. Brands especially have to protect themselves by moving and shaping that narrative before social media grabs it and takes it over.
That’s really the most powerful, almost extorting and distorting factor in ethical decision-making that I’m seeing with clients these days. They are scared and worried about, what’s social media going to say? Then how’s the media going to pick it up, et cetera? What I try to help them see is that it will pick up and amplify what it is that you say first. You just have to be present in that conversation quickly.
I think that’s a really good point. Silence is deafening and if you give somebody else a vacuum to fill, they’re going to look to fill it. And people are forgiving. Ethisphere says “Being an ethical company doesn’t mean you’re perfect, because we’re all human and we all screw up. It means when you make a mistake, you fix it ethically and quickly.”
Yes. And sometimes incidents or events that affect a brand are external. Let’s take Colonial Pipeline. They were hacked and ransomware was placed on them. This is an event that occurred to them, not because of them. And so in this case, it’s okay to be more transparent and to talk about the challenge to be solved. It’s all right for a brand like Colonial, in that case, to admit, “Hey, we’re not perfect, and here’s how we’re working to solve this and get things corrected quickly.” I think the stakeholders and audiences are quite forgiving if they know you’re authentically responding to try to correct a situation you didn’t cause.
That’s a great example. I was talking to Elizabeth Pecsi earlier in June, and she gave the example contrasting Colonial with a local hospital in San Diego that was also hit for ransomware, but they weren’t disclosing anything. And people were really freaked out over, what personal information was there? Colonial was upfront, made the points. People don’t like it, but they understood what was going on.
It was good the way that the CEO also talked openly about the hardest decision he ever had to make in his career, whether or not to pay for that decryption code. I mean, that kind of struggle and being open and transparent about it allows us as stakeholders to say, “Man, that was some crap.” And I’m glad that they’ve resolved it. I’m sorry that they had to go through that. So, look at me, I’m already saying what goes through people’s minds, and there’s forgiveness and there’s, “Yeah. Gee-whiz,” all of these variables that otherwise some brands feel like they’ve got to be perfect and bulletproof. No, not today. Today the ethically authentic brand is a little transparent and a little vulnerable.
One of the common challenges and benefits PR people face is working with a legal team, that what’s legal might not be ethical. What’s your advice to help guide that conversation to a more ethical decision?
A challenge, to be sure, but I always frame it with the best of intentions, and the intentions really are oriented around two arenas. Public relations teams have to work the court of public opinion while attorneys need to think hard about the courts of law. Court of law and court of public opinion really are two very distinct and very rational arenas to have to work in. I think the first thing that I have discovered in working with a lot of attorneys over the years is that if you can acknowledge those two swim lanes and ask questions that keep one another in those swim lanes, you have a lot better opportunity to solve the puzzle together.
The challenge I hear most from PR practitioners is when general councils or outside attorneys jump the lanes and they begin to try and make decisions for which they are not uniquely qualified. That’s the difficulty. Gently reminding and steering people back into lanes through good questions, like, “Are you saying that as a court of law position or point of view, or from some other point of view?” once you ask that question, you can nudge them carefully back into the swim lane. And typically, they’re quite respectful once you recognize their legitimacy and the swim lane that they own, and they can understand the questions that you’re asking are helping them see your legitimacy.
You have a new book about crisis communication. Why don’t you tell me more about that?
Breaking Bad News is the title. It’s the 12 essential tools for crisis communication. It took me seven years to write it because it was a puzzle that I was trying to solve as well. I’ve always thought of crisis communication in a different view rather than those practitioners that I grew up with. Those practitioners who I learned the craft from were gurus or almost like masters of the dark arts. They have this intuitive sense about, “Here’s the way things are going to go, and here’s what we can do.” And I always thought, “You know what? So much of that is just BS.” After I debrief with them, I find out, “Well, yeah, I just made that up on the spot.” And I was like, “Wait a minute. That doesn’t feel right to me.”
I’ve taken an alternative look at the whole field of crisis through Breaking Bad News and saying, “You know what? Crisis communication isn’t a dark art. It’s a system.” And the system has five major steps to it, these tools can be used at each of the steps to make critical decisions in high-pressure, foggy situations. So, that’s really the orientation. It’s almost like a do-it-yourself guide to crisis communication once you learn the system. And it’s not complicated. You just have to put the tools in the right place along the major milestones of the system.
What really intrigues me about what you just said is also acknowledging it’s data. It’s not just gut. It’s having that proven process in place that you can follow because then you can replicate it and you’re going to know and learn from what’s going on.
You said something really important. You can know it and you can learn it, which means you can get better at it. What you just laid out there is so crucial because in a dark arts kind of mindset, only a few people can understand the ways of the world. In a system, everyone can understand it, and it just takes practice to get really good at it.
It’s a shortcut through a lot of those dead ends that you and I have explored and said, “Well, that doesn’t work, and that idea doesn’t, and that process is no good.” We’ve had a lot of clutch popping that we learned from. What I try to do is imagine how I’m going teach and convey to employees what they need to know as they begin to learn and practice the craft?” And this was one of the compelling reasons I wanted to put it into a book.
That’s a great piece of advice. Speaking of advice, what’s the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?
The smartest people ask the best questions. That has really stuck with me, and it served as an ethical North Star, because if you’re not asking questions, you’re jumping to conclusions.
I’ve really studied question asking. There’s an author named Warren Berger, whose books I’ve bought and read. I’ve really studied that art of question asking and tried to become a student of it so that I avoid jumping too fast, too far to a judgment or a conclusion that may not actually be inclusive of the context necessary. Asking great questions and being a good question asker has been the best guidance I have received. It has helped me maintain an ethical orientation even through some of the crazier stuff that I’ve been involved in.
Kami Huyse recently mentioned how you need to just ask, “How can I help?” We have to make sure we’re not coming in with a solution before we really understand what the problem is. Too many people do that.
You said it perfectly. Just like any good physician, diagnose before prescribing.
Thinking about social media, there are definitely biases in algorithms, which are influencing what people see. So how do you recommend people help get their truth out there when the playing field may not necessarily be level for them, or they may not have the funds to amplify it like other organizations do?
My single analogy on that is judo. Judo, as a sport, uses the weight of its opponent against itself. You can use the weight of social media to move a conversation to another narrative simply by questioning the fundamental tenants of statements being made. One question is really a powerful tool. “Would you like to see another viewpoint? Would you be surprised if there was another way to look at this?” Those kinds of questions can build a bridge from what seems to be an established narrative for reasonable people to a different narrative.
The other part of that, of course, is that there are unreasonable people, and it’s okay that you don’t win every friend and fan. You just have to allow that to be okay, move those that are on the bell curve in the middle of the conversation towards a more educated, perhaps more informed opinion or perspective. I never get discouraged about the idea that social media is blowing up. That’s okay. That means people are interested. It doesn’t mean they all agree.
Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you wanted to highlight?
There are still core values at the heart of any brand. Knowing and understanding those is super important. Behaving to those values is authenticity. And to me, that is the ethical character in motion.
Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here.
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