The TSA is suffering a backlash in the court of public opinion. The agency recently changed its airport security procedures without warning. This surprised travelers, forcing them with a choice between submitting to a full body scan or an individual “pat down.” Privacy advocates and the media are up in arms.
Though I wrote a book on privacy in 2001, I don’t have anything new to offer to the debate. I’ll leave that to the pundits who are weighing in on talk radio, cable TV, and the blogosphere. There is certainly no lack of opinion.
However, I think there is a broader lessen here for all leaders. In my opinion, this entire mess was largely avoidable. How? Through a better executed communications strategy.
As a leader, any time you introduce major change into your organization, the more you must communicate. In fact, the relationship between change and communication is proportional: the greater the change, the greater the need for communication.
To avoid a public backlash when introducing a major organizational change, you must do six things well:
- Determine what you need to communicate. This is the single most important step. Get crystal clear on your message. Distill the message down to a press release headline. This is all most people will ever take away. Then flesh it out in more detail.
In addition, you must answer the why question. This is what the TSA forgot to do. They didn’t explain to the American public why they were moving to the new system. It just suddenly happened, surprising everyone.
As a leader, you can’t afford this mistake. In my experience, people are very cooperative once they understand why you are taking a particular action—even if it will mean inconvenience or hardship for them.
You also need to address how you will implement the change, when you will implement it, and how it will affect your audience. Like it or not, this will be everyone’s primary concern—how does this affect me? Don’t leave them wondering.
- Commit the message to writing. I always start by writing a press release. This forces me to get crystal clear on my own thinking. Remember, “thoughts disentangle themselves passing over the lips and pencil tips.”
Next, I suggest that you create written talking points. You don’t just want to issue a press release and then hunker down in your office. If you want to be effective—and trusted—you must deliver the news in-person to key constituents.
You might also want to create a voice mail script or email template. You won’t be able to reach everyone you want to meet with or call. As a result, you might have to settle for leaving a voice mail or sending an email. Don’t leave this to chance.
Finally, create an FAQ document. I try to anticipate every possible question, starting with the ones I think people will be most interested in. Write down every question you can think of. Then go back answer them honestly but succinctly. Avoid spin. If you don’t know the answer, say so—or find out. You don’t necessarily have to publish this document. It’s primarily for your internal use.
- Secure alignment with your leadership team. You can get into deep trouble fast if you miss this step. You have to give your key leaders time to process the change, provide input, and work toward alignment. This might take days, weeks, or, in some cases, months, depending on the size and significance of the decision.
You may not always be able to get agreement, but you can always get alignment. Individuals may disagree with the direction you are taking. But if they feel they have been heard and considered, they will generally align with the decision and support it.
I also don’t assume alignment; I call for it. When we have hashed through the issue long enough, I simply ask, “Are we aligned on this?” I don’t move forward until I have everyone’s commitment. Sometimes someone will say, “Look, I don’t agree with this move. However, I appreciate you hearing me out, and I will support it.”
Before we take the next step, I want my team aligned. I want to know everyone will support the decision. This means that no one second-guesses the decision or the process as we roll it out. If a new concern develops, they bring it back to me or the group to consider. In the midst of the battle, we know we have one another’s backs.
- Contact influential stakeholders—personally. I think this is also crucial. You don’t want your key constituents surprised. On major decisions, we usually develop a list of influential stakeholders, determine who will contact whom, and then begin quietly making our visits or calls. We do this before the public announcement.
If you have a broader group of leaders in your organization (those beyond your direct reports), you should start with them. This includes divisional or department leaders—anyone with supervisory responsibility. We cascade this communication and work our way down the organization.
We then roll it out selectively to VIPs outside the organization. This might include investors (unless you are a public company), key customers, vendors, authors, agents, collaborators, etc. Once you have done that, you need to communicate the news to your entire organization.
The main thing you want to convey is that you respect your VIPs and your people enough to communicate the news to them first—before you go public.
- Announce the change through all available media channels. Now, it’s time to announce it to the world. Theoretically, this will not be news to those you care about the most. They will have already heard from you or your colleagues personally.
We typically send out a press release. You might blog about it as well. You do this, so you can retain control of the narrative. In the absence of one, people—particularly those hostile to your organization—will create their own. And often it is to serve their own agenda.
- Make yourself available to answer questions. If the news is big, I make myself available for interviews. I don’t hide from the media. My office responds to every media inquiry. We do our best to answer every question, even if we have to admit that we don’t have the answer—or can’t comment. (This is where the FAQs come in.)
In my experience, the media are almost always respectful—or at least fair—if they feel respected. That means being responsive and being honest.
Beyond merely responding to questions, we actively monitor the media and social media channels. We want to know what people are saying. And we are not afraid to jump into the middle of a conversation and offer our view point. It’s amazing how many time this shifts the entire conversation.
The bottom line is that as leaders, we must communicate strategically. When it comes to a big change, we can’t leave it to chance. We need to think it through carefully and execute deliberately.