Leaders Know the First Report Is Usually Wrong!
As a leader, the requirement to communicate accurate information is extremely important. In a crisis situation, where the stakes are high, the leader not only needs accurate information, he also needs to communicate this critical information to his constituents in a timely manner.
Unfortunately, the information the leader receives as a first report is usually wrong, inaccurate, or sketchy. This occurs because of the fog of war – multiple observers/sources, conflicting reports, different vantage points, and different perspectives, to include – personal experiences, varying backgrounds, ingrained biases, thoughts, opinions, personalities, and various assumptions that come into play.
During a crisis situation, information is reported so fast that it will not have time to coalesce into a full picture of the event, so, the leader will see numerous parts of the story being reported in a piecemeal fashion. Particularly, in today’s social media based environment – an event is uploaded to YouTube in real-time and flashed around the world in a matter of seconds.
People tend to overreact to first reports – in politics; candidates use information as weapons against their opponents; in business, bad information can cause billions of dollars to be lost from a company’s market value; in media, respected television anchors have been fired for reporting bad information.
Since most leaders are information conduits and information is the key to being an effective leader; a leader without good information, is a leader who is operating at a severe disadvantage. In a crisis situation, information flow is even more important; the quicker the leader receives information, the better the leader is able to respond. The tricky part of leading an organization through a crisis situation is knowing when the leader should communicate or respond. In other words, how soon should the leader broadcast what she knows about the situation and, more importantly, how the organization will respond to the crisis?
During a crisis situation, the leader should wait as long as he can – but no longer, to make a statement about what happened, why, and what he plans to do about it. If the leader waits too long, other people, organizations, and, particularly, his opponents will fill the information void – most likely with inaccurate information, so the leaders’ immediate future will be spent responding to and attempting to correct bad information.
The leader has to practice strategic patience and use time to allow the story to mature and for the event to play out before he will truly understand the full breadth and depth of the event. It takes time for the actual observers of an event to get a sense of how the pieces fit together and to form a full picture.
The deadly crisis in Benghazi, Libya is a good example, where a U.S. Ambassador and three other U.S. personnel were killed. Was it a terrorist attack on a U.S. consulate or a protest in response to a video degrading Islam? What if it were both? What if both events occurred and were connected? What if both events occurred and were unconnected? At this point, we don’t know if the events were connected, but we do know that the first report issued by the U.S. Department of State was inaccurate at best.
We have to be very careful about the information we report because, oftentimes, lives may hang in the balance based upon the accuracy of the report. The leader is counting on accurate information to make decisions; however, accuracy may be at odds with how much time is available to develop the situation and to report it.
A leader has to be very careful about what he says; otherwise, his words or statements may make the situation worse than it already is or be misconstrued and used against him by opponents. We all must understand that the truth will probably change after time has passed. Generally, the leader should provide an early report based upon the facts, followed by a detailed report after the situation has been developed.
Additional tips to overcome the impact of bad first reports:
- Stick to the facts;
- Identify what’s known for certain and what’s remains unknown;
- Communicate an effective response strategy;
- Follow-up with your constituents as more information becomes available.