News and Insights
Is Knowledge Power — Not Necessarily?
April 21, 2020
Should We Admit When We Don’t Know In the 24/7 News Cycle?
We have high expectations. The world we’ve created for ourselves fuels those expectations even as it appears to fulfill them.
Google gives you the answer to any question, immediately. Amazon Prime conditions us to look outside our door for a package, mere hours after we order it. An astonishing amount of content is available at the click of a button through Netflix or Hulu.
During this crisis, we may expect the economic, policy and scientific wizards that guide our global community to deliver answers just as quickly – but we are coming face to face with the fact that many of them don’t have answers yet. They don’t know when we’ll go back to work, what treatments protect from COVID-19, or when a vaccine will be available. And when the gurus of virology, biology, infectious disease and other medical disciplines don’t provide satisfying answers, the media meets demand with perfectly polished and ready-to-go TV pundits waiting in the wings. Celebrities such as Dr. Mehmet Oz, Dr. Drew Pinsky, and Dr. Phil McGraw are familiar crowd-pleasers. They offer suppositions that appeal to urgent curiosities and adoring tribes.
LESSONS FOR CRISIS COMMUNICATORS
This reflex conditioning around the Power of Now, the desire for resolution in the present, works against the need for facts. When now is all that matters, we may disregard the wisdom of scientists on a longer journey to develop a vaccine, identify treatments or improve medical technologies that might help.
In crisis communications, we see this, more and more: a pundit with a cause – medical, economic or political, armed with talking points and with the self-sponsored, digital-news platform that a strong Twitter following enables. Facts may take a backseat to soundbites that zing and, like sirens on the rocks, lure communicators to respond.
As consumers, we hang on every thought-leader’s tweet, op-ed, white paper, CNN interview and political tussle. Each day, we discuss with family and colleagues the newest theory – from when social distancing will lift to societal reentry to the future strength of the economy. Few stop and ask, “What do we really know?”
CAN WE TOLERATE KNOWING VERY LITTLE – FOR NOW?
Issues management and crisis communicators should take note of this new behavior pattern: audiences’ patience with pundits is wearing thin.
The authoritative voices in this conversation start with what is known. They recognize that science, medicine, and economics are driven by data – not guesses. Their standing with audiences should underscore the importance to reporters and newscasters of tapping voices who trade in known facts and whose approaches will stand the test of time.
The future of science and our economy will not be determined by media sweethearts who have forsaken therapy offices, operating rooms, and lab benches to become on-air personalities. Societal health and well-being aren’t ranked like broadcasts during media sweeps week.
Doctors such as the CDC’s Dr. Tony Fauci, WebMD’s Dr John Whyte and AEI’s Dr. Scott Gottlieb and other experts such as NHS consultant Dr. Junaid Bawja and CNS Summit’s Dr. Amir Kalali have sufficient grit to engage and respond from three brave words: “I don’t know!”
TIME TO WELCOME: “I DON’T KNOW”
It is human nature to be uncomfortable with ambiguity. It is not a societal norm to turn to people who “don’t know.”
But “I don’t know” is not an answer borne from ignorance. It’s where people begin to inventory facts and build trust. In customer service powerhouse organizations, or among financial analysts, the next line is usually, “I will find out.”
The most authoritative voices in the news cycle admit what they don’t know, share what they DO know and reassure audiences that we continue to acquire knowledge toward a path to resolution. Commentators and news producers must take their cue from these expert communicators and help society understand the perspective that “I don’t know,” is the starting point from which knowledge is acquired.
THE 11 HABITS OF GENUINELY BRAVE PEOPLE
Four years ago, INC. magazine contributing columnist Jeff Hayden wrote a compelling piece titled: 11 Habits of Genuinely Brave People.
“I know, I know. Hear the word “courage” and you probably think of physical bravery, but there are many other forms of bravery — after all, bravery is not the absence of fear but a triumph over fear. And that’s why bravery is an element of success in business and entrepreneurship. Taking a chance when others will not, following your vision no matter where it takes you, standing up for what you believe in especially when your beliefs are unpopular, or simply doing the right thing even though easier options exist — those are all forms of bravery.”
Hayden captures top courageous habits of highly successful leaders ranking behavioral responses to events that range from taking unpopular and necessary stands, to asking for help to being brave enough to say, “I’m sorry.”
IT’S TIME TO RALLY OUR COMMUNITIES FORWARD BY SECURING THEIR TRUST
While the elusive “I don’t know” does not make Hayden’s top 11 courage list – it should. It takes courage to admit a lack of knowledge. On the positive side, admitting to uncertainty builds trust. Audiences understand not having every answer, and being told about uncertainty allows them to better plan and put their own contingencies into place. “I don’t know” makes for a more informed and responsible public, something that we need very much right now.
In times of crisis, we look to our corporate and political leaders for answers. They do not want to disappoint; their first impulse is to provide aspirational answers. But painting a rosy scenario doesn’t serve the public well if it can’t be supported by facts.
As the best communicators have shown, replying “I don’t know” to a question, whether asked in the boardroom or on-camera, serves the public good. Unfortunately, admitting to uncertainty remains off the table for too many right now. Perhaps saying “I don’t know” needs to become enshrined as the 12th Habit of Genuinely Brave People!
[Special thanks to John Bianchi and Michael Heinley of Finn Partners for their contributions toward this post.]