An insight I share during crisis management training sessions, which I also apply in consultancy, is that the organization should align itself with stakeholders’ perceptions of it and the crisis situation, rather than the other way around.

For example, imagine if an untrue piece of news spreads, perhaps generated as a joke by an online user. It could be the false assumption of a plant closure, leading to fears of corporate reorganization, or a distant photograph of smoke attributed without malicious intent to a nearby chemical plant.

In such situations, the organization and the people involved may struggle to give weight to a representation of reality they know for certain to be false, incorrect, or incomplete. However, what is perceived as real is experienced exactly as such by those who believe it, sometimes producing tangible consequences. Thus, the distinction between reality and perception becomes blurred.

In 2019, I interviewed several people employed in the Press Office of the Municipality of Genoa. Following the collapse of the Morandi Bridge, they noticed that, particularly abroad, the perception of Genoa as an island connected to the mainland by a bridge that no longer existed was crystallizing. This perception caused obvious damage to the entire economy and businesses in the area.

In the initial stages, an organization’s crisis management system must act as if perceptions were reality, with communication playing a fundamental role. If crisis management governs reality, crisis communication must govern perceptions. Perceptions will be varied, especially in digital environments, and not all will be important enough to warrant a response. There are parameters, such as the virality of online content, and skills honed through experience and knowledge of the contexts, that allow us to understand and estimate the severity of circulating perceptions. But, in general, the mechanism must activate to protect the organization’s license to operate (in its market, context, and with its audiences), treating the situation with the same seriousness it would if the perceptions were founded. From a communication perspective, it must respond to the emotions and expectations actually generated.

The actual truth of a situation will be relevant in the response phase. Therefore, after identifying the stakeholders and audiences with whom to communicate and establishing a relational connection with them, the organization can proceed to introduce the so-called facts and figures, i.e., evidence.

In a previous article, I talked about the role of silence in crisis communication starting from sound design and proposed an exercise. Today I would like to share a personal anecdote that made me reflect on the relationship between reality and perception long before I dealt with crisis management. It’s not a sad story; it’s a memory I fondly recall.

My paternal grandfather suffered from senile dementia. After an initial phase where he alternated moments of clarity with others of confusion, in his advanced age, he totally transitioned to another temporal dimension. I think he lived his days convinced he was around 50 years old, a period of his life when he was actively working and had no grandchildren. Our houses were not far apart, and every afternoon he had the habit of stopping by for a greeting. He had worked his whole life in the film industry. He mentioned some movies he had seen in preview, actually released more than 30 years ago, recommending which ones to watch “this week,” and, at the time, seeing me as a young woman he didn’t recognize as his granddaughter, he asked if I was looking for work as a cashier in a cinema.

During those conversations, I could have tried to impose my truth: it was the second decade of the 2000s; I was his granddaughter, and “Dead Poets Society” by Peter Weir was now considered a classic. But I learned early not to do so. What would I have achieved, anyway? And what was important for me to protect? The latter is one of the fundamental questions to ask oneself when managing a crisis.

If I had done so, insisting he align with my reality, I would have caused suffering (I challenge anyone to believe we’re not in 2024 today), perhaps the rupture of a bond, and the risk of ending that ritual. What I was protecting was the continuity of the relationship and the value of those brief afternoon conversations.

Only once did we create a situation where I trusted to reveal to him that I was his granddaughter. It was surreal. I did it without explaining the context, the year, and the reasons why he didn’t remember. He was moved and told me, “I’m really glad to finally meet you.”

So sometimes, by aligning with others’ perceptions, we can effectively communicate and protect what is important to us, even in somewhat chaotic and difficult situations, such as crises.

Have you ever had to communicate with people who had very distant or contradictory perceptions from your reality? How did you handle it, and what did you learn?

If you’d like, let me know!

I’m Irene, and I help organizations prepare for and manage critical events. You can find me on LinkedIn and IG (@crisis_with_irene).

Author: Irene Proto

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