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Now’s the time for visibility

By Peter Gilheany

20 May 2020
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I’ve done a fair amount of training and consultancy around communicating in a crisis over the years, complacently believing that for many of the participants, it would remain a store of unneeded knowledge and approaches.

Well, as far as crises go, it’s Christmas and for many organisations, pretty much everything they are putting out currently, is crisis communications.

There are some fundamentals for doing that which formed the basis of a recent webinar I ran for ACEVO members, such as doing the planning so you’re on the front foot if a crisis strikes, and prioritising the people that matter when you are communicating about it such as your own staff, trustees and supporters.

However, the element that seems to strike home the most for those taking part, was the recommendation to focus on being visible over being transparent, and that principle has never been more relevant and important than now.

Simply put, while many organisations laud their transparency, it is of little value if it isn’t allied to visibility. Transparency on its own tends to be passive and reactive – show people your workings – and can create more problems than it solves. Visibility on the other hand is active. You don’t just open the door and encourage people to wander around until they are satisfied, you guide them through, explain the context and rationale for the things you are doing, you talk through the challenges involved and the impact both positive and negative, list the uncertainties and risks involved, empathise with the emotions people will have around it, and explain why some of the drawers and cupboards remain locked.

If you want a live example of the difference between transparency and visibility, look no further than the government’s ongoing communication around COVID-19 testing. Under pressure, they announced a public target – 100,000 tests by the end of April – but gave no real context for why that suspiciously round number was chosen, the difference it would make and the challenges that would need to be overcome to achieve it.

Now publicly committed to that target but without the right context and rationale built around it, they put themselves in a bind and have created a perverse incentive – needing to hit that number regardless of whether it would make a tangible difference or not in the fight against COVID-19. Lo and behold, they just about hit the target, trumpeted their transparency around doing so and were, quite rightly, hit with a wave of cynicism and apathy. They had committed one of the cardinal sins of crisis communications and one which governments are often particularly guilty of – the desire to communicate perfection. It often comes from wanting to reassure but patronises the public. We know life’s complicated and messy and things don’t always work the way they are expected to, we don’t expect governments or leaders to have all the answers. Acknowledging that reality is much more reassuring and builds more trust. That’s being visible.

And being visible demands qualification – had they set out at the beginning what meeting that target would mean as part of the rationale for why they chose it, and stated they would do their best to get close to it given the challenges, then it might not have become the point of contention it is now.

It’s a lesson charity leaders should heed as organisations respond to this unprecedented crisis for the sector. You are having to make and communicate difficult decisions rapidly which have real world consequences for the issues and people you support, your employees, donors and partners. You need to be visible while doing so – acknowledging the challenge and the human impact, providing context and qualification, being candid about the risks involved and the potential consequences, being clear about accountability and responsibility, explaining why in some aspects of what you are doing need to remain behind closed doors.

Do that, and your communications could increase your chances of achieving your objectives rather than potentially playing a role in derailing them.