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Poor Comms Makes Bad Decisions Worse

The Provision Advisors team has been talking about the “Three Cs” for the entirety of 2020. And if there were ever a year when communicators and leaders needed to be mindful of their Communication Points, Cosmetics and Control, it was 2020.

We coach our clients to use the Three Cs in everything they do, but adherence to these tenets during a crisis is particularly important. Some crises hit fast and fade fast. Some crises – like Covid 19 – last an extended period of time and test the very best leaders ability to maintain communications discipline throughout the lifespan of said crises.

As Steuart Pittman – the Anne Arundel County Executive here in Maryland - found out last week, losing the three Cs can hurt your credibility with the audience, damage the substance of your message and make it much more difficult to communicate effectively going forward.

As Covid cases in Anne Arundel County (home of the State Capitol of Annapolis and the U.S. Naval Academy) began soaring again in October and November, Mr. Pittman had a choice to make. Was he going to reinforce April-May-June-era restrictions on indoor and outdoor dining in order to slow the rising numbers? Or was he going to allow reduced capacity dining stay in place through the month of December and allow the economy to benefit from the infusion of dollars by tourists and shoppers?

Pittman made the decision early in the month to close dining indoor and outdoor and shift everyone to take-out only effective December 17th. It was not a popular decision, and he knew it. As the county executive, he made a decision and used his communication points to explain. Unfortunately, he then lost control of the narrative by committing a mistake often made during crises – he “reversed course.”

Instead of a complete ban, outdoor dining was allowed to continue as long as no more than 50% of tent sides are down. The new restrictions were set to last a minimum of 4 weeks. The problem with the decision – and the communication that followed– was that it was announced on the very day the “dining lockdown” was supposed to happen. So…restaurant owners had already let go of staff go and workers had already moved on.

Making things worse, the communication that followed lacked context or sufficient explanation for the decision, It simply looked like a leader had caved to pressure and changed his mind without any thought of the impacts to his audience. Pittman lost the three Cs. There were no communication points. There was no control. And the cosmetics of the decision looked bad.

As we tell our clients, once you lose the three Cs, you have to be ready for the second- and third-order effects. For Pittman, the death knell then came via an injunction from an Anne Arundel County judge on ALL aspects of his order. And with that, a key leader during a crisis had lost all credibility. He lost the audience. He lost the initiative.

Instead of being in control, Mr. Pittman was then thrust into a position where he had to defend himself and his decisions…instead of proactively messaging and leading the people of Anne Arundel County.

In follow-on comms, Pittman called the injunction a metaphor for how the pandemic has been mismanaged from the beginning. “The pattern has been to push important decisions down to the lowest level of government and then make it as hard as possible for the leaders of those governments to protect the lives and health of citizens. Little wonder so many people have died.”

Over the last nine months leaders like Mr Pittman have been placed in incredibly difficult situations—forced to make seemingly impossible decisions. Our rile is not to Monday morning quarterback or simply criticize, but to lean and help future leaders succeed where their predecessors may have stumbled.

The lesson here in Anne Arundel County is this – in a crisis, make a plan. Stick with the plan, and communicate in a way that reinforces your position. Leaders that have succeeded in building consensus and public support over the last nine months have done so through transparent, empathetic and consistent communication. If your position has to change, then remember the three Cs and pivot to the new direction thoughtfully.

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