We like things simple. Black and white. But few issues that matter are so cut and dry.
Successful issue management often calls for the difficult task of communicating "in the gray."
In a corporate environment, we too often clam up in the midst of uncertain times. Lawyers caution against comment and risk-adverse leaders are all-too happy to take the advice to the extreme. A skillful leader will win trust and boost the confidence -- of employees, investors and other stakeholders -- by providing some measure of the challenges being faced and the relative prospects for success in the future. Avoiding hollow promises or insincere platitudes, the leader gives stakeholders a sense of just how serious the issue is and his/her relative confidence in a positive resolution, emphasizing what needs to be done immediately to move the ball forward. Constituents understand and forgive the lack of specifics if the leader has built up good will in the past with candid and accurate communication.
That's what it means to communicate "in the gray."
Media relations in such an environment can be even trickier. The mass media gravitate to simple "archetypes" or story lines. When a villain is readily apparent, media will naturally assume the competing person (or idea) is virtuous.
Life is often more complex than that. World events in the news show the difficulty of choosing between the ready-made alternatives:
- The recent election in Iran was almost certainly rigged. Peaceful protesters there call for international support against a repressive regime. But the Obama Administration has rightly been cautious in its response, even in its somewhat more vocal condemnations more than a week after the election, not wanting to provide credence to accusations of U.S. interference in Iranian affairs. Nuance is seldom cheered, and Obama continues to draw criticism for not taking a harder stance. Further complicating the issue is the unhappy choice between the two top candidates. Incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is clearly an enemy of peace and freedom, but the leading opposition candidate Mir Hussein Moussavi is no true reformer -- despite the inclination for many in the Western media to brand him a "moderate." Obama has wisely steered away from showing any support for Moussavi.
- Strangely, the Obama Administration has shown no such reluctance to choose sides in another messy conflict, decrying the ouster of President Manuel Zelaya from power in Honduras. But Zelaya's actions that led up to his ouster -- moving to alter the country's constitution to increase his power and to strangle any opposition -- disqualify him for membership in the archetype of duly-elected Democratic leaders overthrown by a revolutionary coup d'etat. In fact, the Honduras Supreme Court had ordered the military to remove Zelaya for his unlawful actions.
Corporate life can be messy, too. Constituents who find one course of action particularly unappealing will seek a quick and simple alternative. When there is no easy solution, no clear-cut winning move, don't fall into the trap of endorsing the lesser of two evils. Treat your constituents as adults. Talk about the unpleasant situation without promising an easy fix. Often that means the company itself must act as a game-changer to rise above the flawed choices that appear to be the only alternatives.
- Jon Harmon