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Adjunct Professor, Public Relations and Communications Graduate Program,
Georgetown University, and
CEO, EnviroComm International
January 18, 2011
The New York Times ombudsman reveals how the Gray Old Lady, America's archetype of reliable journalism, was burned when she stepped across the digital divide on January 8 to deliver information on the Tucson shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords.
Hastening to respond to online followers — "a Web site that needed to be fed as fast and as frequently as possible" — the Times in great error reported that an assailant had shot and killed the congresswoman, rather than the true story, that she had been seriously wounded.
An hour later, the Times learns it is wrong and does a correction.
The ombudsman's commentary is an intriguing, not overly self-rationalizing analysis that concludes that time is the enemy of editorial accuracy. Is time — the pressure to deliver information — also an enemy of truth for business communications?
The slip by an international leader of trustworthy news speaks to a condition confronting every established source of information that needs trust to sustain its success. Chief communications officers responsible for news flow that impacts stakeholder perceptions deal with conditions greatly changed since Arthur W. Page worked out the first principle of sustaining stakeholder support — telling the truth, incontrovertibly, with ample proof.
The principle is as rock-solid now as it was in the 1930s and '40s when Page took it to his AT&T management. Application, on the other hand, is not what it used to be.
In April 1945, recognized by then as a communications guru by both companies and national policy leaders, Page counseled the Secretary of War and the Truman White House on the announcement on the use of the atom bomb to hasten the end of World War II.
It took time to put the President's statement and official news release together, but the enabling combination of war-level control of communication, a small and disciplined White House press corps and limited news media channels allowed a deliberate pace of delivery, a pace unimaginable today.
At a Page Society gathering in Washington last year, we were told by a former White House press secretary that a guiding communications principle in the past was to tell the truth — but do it slowly.
White House communicators have enjoyed the leisure of floating various ideas and positions that may be controversial to see what reactions they get, so they can take their time and adjust what they say and do to gain maximum support.
While this time-honored risk-management tactic is still attempted (the most recent balloon briefly lofted to test Bill Daley's acceptability as the President's chief of staff), it is now quickly blown away by bloggers, hundreds of reporters with White House credentials, and what Jim Roberts, creator of NYTimes.com, calls the "1440/7 news cycle — 1,440 minutes every day, seven days a week, each one of the minutes demanding news for delivery to a networked world."
How do chief communications officers manage the risk of negative stakeholder perceptions caused by rushed stories and forced earlier decisions? For government and business communicators there is essentially the Sophie's choice facing journalists: "take your time and be sure" or "go on online and be timely."
The Times ombudsman concludes: "...(T)he takeaway is that time is often the enemy. Sometimes the best weapon is to ignore it, and use a moment to consider the alternatives."
Communicators in the private sector must still make the time to gather the back-up, double check the facts, socialize tentative decisions, and gain a consensus on what can and can't be said, and arm themselves and their executives with proof points before feeding the ravenous do-it-now news cycle.
Some CCOs stock the company's Web site with information that buys time, driving online truth-seekers to this armory through search engine enablers.
If we did see the need to re-examine our leader Page's trust-building principle, it would be with the sort of respect my wife's Italian family pays to recipes in a revered, 50-year-old cookbook. We would hang on to the ingredients of verity with proof, adjusting for high-watt microwave preparation.
Bruce Harrison is an adjunct professor in the master's program at
Georgetown University, Washington, DC. He and Judith Muhlberger teach
courses in leadership communications and corporate crisis communications.
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