How to Avoid a Public Backlash When Introducing a Major Organizational Change

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.

A Crowd Protesting Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/photosmash, Image #2134754

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/photosmash

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.

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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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

Question: What good and bad experiences have you had with major organizational announcements? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • Melody DuBois

    Michael, this post somehow sneaked onto my Google Reader (which I JUST set up a week ago, at your urging!) before it made it onto your site. I was so worried this great post might somehow not show up that I copied the whole thing off Google Reader right then to send to a couple fellow leaders in our organization. You’ve really hit dead-on with this! A lot of take-aways here, but a key one for me is not to surprise your key stakeholders. (In fact, try to eliminate as many surprises as possible for everyone involved!) Thanks so much for sharing this wisdom.

    • http://www.michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      I apologize for that Melody. I wrote the article offline (on the plane actually) and had scheduled it to post today. However, the post date option got lost in trying to upload the file. I quickly tried to correct it, but it, evidently, slipped out via RSS. Thanks for your patience.

  • Kingsly

    “Communicate strategically” i agree with it completely. Because if we don’t handle change properly, it can lead to many frustrations. And the best way to handle it is by Communicate strategically. Thanks for sharing.

  • http://www.danieldecker.net Daniel Decker

    I think the WHY as you mentioned is so crucial not to just big announcements but in almost everything else we are trying to communicate. People often miss that. When we focus on the WHY then we are focusing on what it means for those who are potentially impacted by our message, whatever that may be. It’s a simple shift but with a powerful result.

    • http://www.michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      If I had to boil this post down to one concept it would be what you stated: tell people why. I have been amazed at what people are willing to do when they know the rationale. Thanks.

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  • Benjamin S. Lichtenwalner

    I think your point on calling for alignment is critical. Without ensuring your team speaks the words, “I am aligned” you may still find yourself standing alone at critical moments. From my experience, having individuals commit in front of you and others also drives greater results because now they own the result as well.

    An excellent post Michael. I am forwarding this to members of our team as well. Thank you for sharing.

  • http://www.pastorbrett.com Brett

    These guidelines need to be a part of seminary training. I failed to execute these early in my ministry and I paid for it! Great stuff. Thanks!

    • http://www.michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Don’t feel alone I learned it the hard way, too. ;-)

  • http://www.validleadership.com James Castellano

    I am in the process of a major restructuring of the team as we speak. This will require buy-in from the ownership as well as the employees. The strategy you show is perfect. I have learned communication both open and behind the scenes is critical. I hope you don’t mind that I keep a copy of the post for future reference and training.

  • http://davidgroenenboom.com Dave Groenenboom

    Hi Michael,

    It’s not always easy to strike the balance between initiating and consulting – but how critical it is! We’re hoping to embark on a significant 10+yr vision tomorrow at Redlands CRC (Brisbane, Australia): we starting publishing information papers in February. Even so, for some many questions remain. The FAQ is a great idea, and continued receptivity and response to questions is critical. Arbitrary and imposed change is always destructive.

    Thanks for your ongoing stimulation.

  • http://www.lawrencewilson.com Lawrence Wilson

    Great advice. I would also add this warning, “Beware of mixed messaging.” I’ve suffered in the past for trying to explain two reasons for a change. I think it’s best to choose the dominant reason and explain it clearly.

    • http://www.michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      That’s a very good point.

  • http://successbeginstoday.org/wordpress John Richardson

    This is so needed by so many organizations, Michael. The “Curse of Knowledge,” affects a large number of leaders that I have worked with over the years. They forget that the rest of us don’t have their experience or know what they are thinking. If you find yourself on a team like this, you feel like you need to be a mind reader to figure out what is going on. I truly respect leaders that put communication first, and that start with their chain of command. And communication doesn’t mean sending one e-mail out and expecting everyone to read it. Your number 4, contact stakeholders personally, is huge. Once people know what is going on, that their input is valued, and know the direction the company will take, they will come on board. Effective communication is key.

  • http://www.colleencoble.com Colleen Coble

    We saw this firsthand when we flew back from Hawaii last Saturday. I didn’t really want to go through the full scan myself. Luckily they shut down the scanner two people in front of us. I agree with the WHY I was upset. I hadn’t had a chance to investigate the safety of the thing. How much radiation would I be getting? Any other health risks? No chance to figure out the answer to those questions. If there’d been something in the media ahead of time–or even an email from the airlines–I wouldn’t have been rocked by it. Great post!

    • http://www.michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      As I was contemplating this post, Colleen, I thought how it might have worked. Imagine this:

      President Obama does a brief television broadcast. He explains that there is going to be a change in security procedures. He explains that he understands this will be an inconvenience and some people might even be offended. He then explains exactly why this is necessary and how committed he is to our safety. He explains how it will be implemented and when. He then asks for our personal cooperation. He then directs us to a Web site with more information, including an FAQ page.

      Of course, using my model, he would have first worked to get alignment in his cabinet, then perhaps with key members of Congress and other opinion-leaders.

      I think this could have made all the difference.

  • http://thatguykc.wordpress.com ThatGuyKC

    After reading this I wonder if you’ve ever considered starting a PR consulting firm? :)

    This is excellent advice and while I can’t pick a favorite, #6 was definitely spot on (as were the rest). I particularly liked where you called out that “the media are almost always respectful—or at least fair—if they feel respected.”

    I can’t help, but feel like Amazon could have used some of this guidance last week.

    • http://www.michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Ha!

      With regard to Amazon, I think there is a difference between change management (strategic and proactive) and crisis management (tactical and reactive). I think that Amazon was in the latter. I think that is a slightly different animal.

      Regardless, you have given me a great idea for another blog post. Thanks!

  • Jim Thomason

    Great post to which I would add one element. There are in any population those individuals who are, sometimes rightfully, suspicious of power be it corporate or governmental. When that suspicion coincides with a failure to communicate this population interprets that as the arrogance of power. It not only hurts the organization “this time” but damages their reputation and increases suspicion going forward. The type of communication you advocate is an essential part of positive employee and customer relations as well as overall brand managemetn.

  • http://www.LaurindaOnLeadership.com Laurinda

    I work for an airline and I’m not a fan of the TSA. But the TSA did do all that you suggested. They’ve been talking about the full body scans and pat downs since 9/11. The “Diaper” bomber helped expedite it. Full Body Scans started showing in test airports over a year ago. I’m in the industry so I read all media announcements that appear in my industry. I don’t think the traveling public cares about this until they are in the airport.

    Good points for an organization. I think changes that affect the public will always cause backlash no matter how much you communicate it. And FYI – I really hate the new security. People should stand up and protest.

    • http://www.LaurindaOnLeadership.com Laurinda

      I really hate the new enhanced pat downs. Scanners don’t bother me as much.

    • http://www.michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Laurinda, they may have done this internally, but I don’t think they—and specifically the Administration—did it externally. Scroll up and see my response to Colleen. This is how I think it should have gone down.

      Thanks for your insight!

  • Dalton Paul Saunders

    Thanks for making my job easier in a single post. I am thankful people with your experience are willing to share about issues they have thought about deeply.

  • http://curtismarshall.tumblr.com Curtis Marshall

    As a youth pastor, I don’t have don’t have a large organization to make announcements to, but I still find this information valuable. We are in the process of changing the name of our group, and we’ve taken some time to get buy-in from the students. Unlike their last transition, they seem very excited about what is to come because they were involved in the process.

    One thing I would add to your list is to solidify your message in pictures. Putting the details of the change in writing gets people on the right path, but pictures, logos, and videos help solidify the intent of your message.

  • http://weeklylifeclip.blogspot.com Angela Bryant

    Entering security at the Boston airport almost two weeks ago, I was singled out for a full body scan. Not paying attention. I assumed everyone had the same procedure, until discussion afterwards with another passenger that had the pat down. My comment, “Anything for a secure flight.” All that I talked with agreed in retrospect. They wouldn’t have started this procedure without the need and I believe not following the procedures you outlined was important in this case so those who might want to harm others might not have another advantage.

  • http://www.squidoo.com/NoTwitter New York Faster

    I have found a LACK of organizational communication to be equally unnerving. Many years agao I worked for a family-run firm that brought in a new President. “Mister Cope” said hello to everyone and then went into his office…and when he emerged he just started laying down the (new) law. No effort to explain the processes with any empathy, no acknowleding the loyal, hard working staff that had been there for 10 years…just a new Sherrif in town kicking @ss and taking names.

    Had this knucklehead done a better job of clearly communicating the ‘whys’ of his strategies and worked to get mutual buy-in instead of ramming it down our throats in the first week he was there…we probably would have worked hard to help him succeed.

    Instead, after 3 rounds of lay-offs, he was let go do to his ineffectiveness.

    Communcation is King.
    Clear communication is King-er

    • http://www.michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      That is a tragic story. Unfortunately, I have personally witnessed similar ones.

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  • http://timmilburn.com Tim Milburn

    Yes…get alignment even if you can’t get complete agreement! Great leadership wisdom when it comes to communicating. The reason is because you’ll be dealing with people’s (another ‘a’ word coming…) “attachments.” People have certain expectations and are comfortable with the way things are. Upset the status quo or make a radical change and people are going to rise up and rally against you.

    I think another timely post would now be: “What to do when your communication strategy fails.” I’d start (another ‘a’ word :) with an apology.

  • http://www.congregationalresources.org Martin Davis

    Thanks for an excellent post. This information is critical to congregational leaders, especially those implementing significant changes in the communities they lead. I’ve circulated amongst followers of the Congregational Resource Guide, and look forward to more of the excellent materials you post.

  • http://www.thehahnhuntinglodge.com Nikole Hahn

    The new airport security stuff is very degrading to women. If anyone did that to us on the street with the very revealing xrays or the inappropriate pat down, they would be thrown in jail. I don’t think better communication would have helped in this case. I’m sure the employees of TSA don’t enjoy it either. We have so much technology at our hands that I think a better way could have been devised.

    As far as business goes, your blog is great!

  • http://www.christopherscottblog.typepad.com/ Christopher Scott

    Michael,
    I have been fortunate so far that all of my big changes have been well received. However, the big changes that I have implemented have been with a volunteer setting. So, that might have made the difference.

    John Maxwell has been a key teacher to me for how to make big changes. I learned from him that if I need to make a big change, it takes a long time. It times time to communicate, listen, communicate, listen, and more.

    Either way, it’s good to start small with a select group of people with the changes, and slowly start communicating with more and more people.

    Thanks for the great post.

    • http://www.michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      John is a great model. He has been a mentor to me, too.

  • http://www.RonEdmondson.com Ron Edmondson

    I’m discussing this issue at my blog today also:

    http://www.ronedmondson.com/2010/11/friday-discussion-are-the-new-tsa-travel-requirements-fair.html

    There’s a good discussion already

    • http://www.michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Excellent, Ron. This is certainly a lightening rod issue.

      Incidentally, in the last 24 hours, I went through security in both Nashville and New York. Nothing has changed. I received the same screening I have been getting for the last few years—simple metal detector and then waved through.

  • Dave

    I think you missed a very, very major point: Sometimes a backlash is caused by a bad decision, not by a poor communication of that decision.

    • http://www.michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Actually, I agree with you. Personally, I don’t know if this is a bad decision or not. I am not privy to intelligence the TSA or Homeland Security has.

      Regardless, your point is well taken. But assuming you think you are making the right decision, it won’t matter if you don’t have the right communications strategy.

      Thanks.

  • http://www.gospelofkingdom.com Gregory Scott

    Too bad our government didn’t follow this this model before subjecting its citizens to its new gawk or grope security strategy. Thanks for sharing your insight and experience on this important issue. Perhaps someone at the TSA will read it and pass it along.

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  • http://blog.cyberquill.com Cyberquill

    I concur with your communications strategy. Regarding the TSA fiasco, however, I think everyone who hasn’t been living under a rock knows why they’re doing it.

  • http://www.bigb94.webs.com Brandon

    Great post! All of the points mentioned are essential!…

  • http://uma-maheswaran.blogspot.com/ Uma Maheswaran S

    When it comes to major organizational announcements, there are always divergent behaviors. Things get worse when any major announcements come all of a sudden at an unexpected hour. Negative thoughts spring in the minds of every recipient when they come as a surprise. Immediately, resistance or backlash begins. The genuine intention behind the announcement is seriously doubted when the announcement is made at elevanth hour. Distrust and suspicion on the real motive or purpose of the announcement sprouts up and hence, the desired outcome of the announcement may not be realized at all.

  • http://Iambradhenson.com Dr Brad Henson

    Hey Micheal,

    I think you have published some great stuff here. I led a church merger 2 years ago. We D’s moat of these things, but I can now see some things that would have been very helpful.

    Although this was ultimately a big success. There was more negative fallout than there could have been.

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  • Anonymous

    Glad you re-posted this. I watched a church I loved go down in flames for failure of its senior leaders to take these dynamics seriously.

    The tragedy is they had multiple opportunities to learn and embrace during transitions when the stakes weren’t nearly so high, and they just wouldn’t.

  • http://twitter.com/deandeguara Dean Deguara

    I’ve been taking the beat down for the change we are pursuing. A poorly kept database and silo mentality has a lot to do with it, but things are looking up! It’s forcing us to do the work that’s been neglected for so long. This article was timely!

  • http://twitter.com/NewEnglandHiker Roy Wallen

    In the past (as recently as earlier this month), I have found that many of these communication tools are also needed for any announcement that is relatively public. Although they don’t all apply, concise communications and proactive planning can obviate the challenges you’ll face in cases such as new product announcements or conference participation. Those types of events may not have the far reach of TSA announcements but they will affect your constituents. One item missing was “practice” — it is important to rehearse the communication, how it will be announced, how you will respond, and who will be available for follow-up. Thanks for another great, thought-provoking post.

  • http://profiles.google.com/ms.carmen.alvarez Carmen Alvarez

    I stumbled upon your blog because I saw a positive comment you posted on the TSA blog, regarding the invasive screening procedures. I was intrigued by finding a rare positive comment, and even more intrigued to find out that this was from a CEO of a Christian publishing company. I wonder if you still support the TSA’s screenings after the recent video released of the 6 year old getting a pat-down?

    As for this post, “In my opinion, this entire mess was largely avoidable. How? Through a better executed communications strategy.”

    In my opinion, the entire mess is not a communications issue, but a bad decision in the first place. Virtual strip searches and touchy-feely pat-downs as a routine requirement to moving from point A to point B could never be justifiable no matter how well the communication of these procedures was implemented.

    A bad decision will remain a bad decision, no matter how well it is communicated.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      I can only speak from my own experience. I have never had a problem with the TSA. My experience is that they are really good people trying to serve their country in a very dangerous world. I always try to thank them and be cooperative. They have always treated me with respect.

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  • http://www.junesjournal.com/ June

    Michael, good stuff! (As always.) This can easily apply to churches, too. A little communication from pastors to leaders & congregation members–in that order–when implementing major changes, goes a long way.

  • http://TheMrBlueprint.com/ Richard Krawczyk “Mr Blueprint

    Great post Michael. Communication is critical