Jack Webb, the no-nonsense cop on TV’s long-running show Dragnet, created the character Joe Friday and memorable lines such as “Just the facts ma’am.” Joe Friday wasn’t interested in opinion or conjecture; he needed the facts to solve the crime. When and how a communicator uses information – data, research, statistics, etc. – is not simple.
One important rule for communicating during a crisis is to understand the difference between the facts as you see them, and how your audience sees the risk. What you see as a simple delivery of the facts, your audience – if fearful and mistrustful – may view as an imminent threat. And the more you insist they understand your view of the issue, the more mistrustful they become.
For example, the number of deaths per passenger-mile on commercial airlines in the United States between 2000 and 2010 was about 0.2 deaths per 10 billion passenger-miles. For driving, the rate was 150 per 10 billion vehicle-miles for 2000: 750 times higher per mile than for flying. And yet, many people would rather drive somewhere than fly. And trying to convince someone afraid down to their core that flying is not dangerous, by force feeding these statistics, will worry them even more.
What if your company has a dangerous accidental release of a toxic chemical? You may have technical folks calculating the actual risks to your employees and the public. As a professional in the field, that means a lot to you and informs you and your colleagues in making decisions. But how can you get the public to trust the same information? One way is to have other authorities such as universities, local or federal government agencies and independent organizations that you can reference to instill you with additional credibility. These other authorities or credible organizations need be lined up before the crisis takes place. This means you must work to establish relationships with allies that are independent of your company or organization.
Of course, when presenting information to your colleagues or a technical audience, your talk should be based on facts, not rhetoric. As often as possible, support each statement with technical data necessary to illustrate your point.
People are increasingly leery of statistics, but this is nothing new. One hundred years ago Andrew Lang, a Scottish poet, novelist, and literary critic said: “Most people use statistics like a drunk man uses a lamppost; more for support than illumination.” So, make sure your statistics are credible to the audience you are talking to, well researched and relevant. This takes training and practice, so don’t skimp on either.