April 21, 2020 TVG Staff

Playing in the Precarious World of “If”

To say we are living in crazy, unprecedented, and uncertain times is an understatement. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed routines, pushed the limits of technology, and forced many families to say goodbye to loved ones from afar. There is nothing easy about a crisis. Nothing. There’s never enough time, never enough resources and never enough information. That last part is a real challenge for many communicators, leaders and others who are thrust into the media spotlight.

When we facilitate our media and crisis communications training sessions, be it in-person or digitally, we tell our participants not to speculate and to only deal in facts. Why not speculate? Because you are wrong more than you may think. How often have we heard speculation during the COVID-19 pandemic? How many people will die? How fast will the virus spread? When will things get back to normal? Any answers to those types of questions are pure speculation unless you have a crystal ball or Doc Brown’s time machine from Back to the Future. There is no way to answer those questions correctly with 100% certainty. At this point, it is simply a guess.

What should leaders and subject matter experts say or do? We recommend that you only deal in facts, and stay away from projections, numbers, and dates. Resist the urge to play in the precarious world of “if.” As we say in our training classes, when you stick to the facts, you only need to remember what happened. When you speculate, you must remember what you said! Facts are indisputable, rock solid, and actually occurred. Speculation may happen, or it could turn out that way, but it’s merely a presumption.

There are many ways to avoid speculation, and there are actual case histories from leaders who showed empathy and did this the right way. During the 9/11 tragedy, then New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was asked the question: How many lives will be lost? Rather than giving a number that may be too high or too low, the Mayor responded by saying, “The number of casualties will be more than any of us can bear, ultimately.” That quote is both brief and memorable, and it has stood the test of time. It’s compassionate, no matter your political views or party.

Leaders and experts can learn lessons from the past. So, only speak in certainty and say what is 100% true. If there is even a percentage that is untrue, trust and credibility for your leader and the organization may be called into question. Before speaking internally or externally, to any audience, check your information, make sure it is true and ask yourself: are you speculating or are you certain?

TVG has been helping our clients handle crisis communications for decades. We use clips from experts in our crisis classes. We also have clips from those who speculate and get called out on it. These are real-life examples that help you learn, whether you are in the office, at home, or on the road. TVG can help you and your experts during COVID-19 and beyond.


By Andy Likes, Senior Vice President at The Vandiver Group in St. Louis, Missouri


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