Select the right words. Say them well.

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One of the undisputed but often overlooked rules in public life is this: If you choose not to speak, someone will speak for you … and you probably won’t like what they say! Instead of realizing the truth in that statement, another rule takes over for most people: We don’t know everything, so we won’t say anything!

Here’s a hint. You’ll never know everything so you might as well say what you do know. Recently the famed Bellagio resort in Las Vegas was without power for several days and Hotel management chose not to say anything for more than 24 hours. Here’s what happened during that time.

• People on the strip and in the media began to speculate that this was an “Ocean’s Eleven” set-up with thieves walking out of the hotel with millions during the power outage, just like in the movie.

• There were interviews with people giving their best guess as to what was happening from the sidewalk outside the hotel.

• A giant guessing game took over the town. When will the Bellagio reopen? Days? Weeks? Months? Never?

It was the perfect example of what happens when you allow an information vacuum to exist…something fills that vacuum and none of it was good. When the hotel spokesperson finally called a news conference a whole series of additional issues had to be dealt with because of the wild speculation running through the town.

If you think this won’t happen to you, remember the Bellagio is considered one of the premier hotel properties in the country, and yet the brain trust there still broke this basic rule. Here’s what you can do to make sure you can tell your story, no matter what.

• Have a plan and use it. Any organization of any size should have a Crisis Communication Plan that top managers understand and sign-off on. That plan can help guide the process when the unthinkable happens and remember, it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.

• Address first and foremost the human concerns. “We are keeping the safety of our guests and employees as our number one concern and we’re doing everything we can solve this outage.” Never start your communication with policies, procedures or rules. Remember: People/People/People.

• Be honest. People will give you credit for saying you don’t have all the answers as long as they feel you are doing what you can to solve the problem.

(This week I talked with Senator John McCain about this very topic. More on his observations and why he has remained a high profile force in Washington in the next Monthly Memo.)

One final point about communicating in difficult times. If you do it well, your reputation will only be enhanced. Those who run organizations which can demonstrate preparation and professionalism during tough times receive the extra credit they deserve in the minds of everyone who sees them in action.