Proactive or reactive–is this the toughest question?

July 5, 2006

I’m involved in helping manage a crisis right now, that like many others, highlights the question of being proactive or reactive. In this case it involved making a business decision that would be received very negatively by the community where the business is located. Knowing that there would those who felt strongly about the issue and would perhaps even take actions to harm the company, I recommended and the client agreed to conduct a proactive communication effort. When the word went out to the community through the press about the decision the company made, the reaction was much greater than anticipated. We provided a feedback mechanism on the company website which allowed people to express their opinion or vent. And vent some of them did! There were a number of positive and supportive comments but a larger number of negative and some of the negative ones were threatening, ugly, and disturbing.

I’ve now talked to some in the community who say letting the whole community know about this through the newspaper was a bad idea. Many would not have known and we brought it to their attention.

A crisis communications counselor never wants to elevate a situation or create a controversy where none exists. It is one of the hardest decisions to make is to bring something to someones attention when you know they are not going to like it. Maybe, you think, you can just quietly go about your business and only a few will notice and not make a stink about it.

I continue to believe the client did the right thing. It is based on the principle first of all that if you have some bad news, it is best coming from you than from someone else. If you think your issue will be discussed in a negative light by many people who may not understand all the circumstances, it is best to bring it forward. If you think it will erupt into a serious issue and that you will likely have to explain yourself when it does, then talk about it first because when you respond after it erupts opinions have been formed, misinformation may be rampant, and you will almost always look defensive.

In this case we had genuine reason to feel that the passions of some of those who took an extreme position could prove damaging to the company. If anything, we underestimated some of those passions and the length to which people will go when they think they are right. It was right to be proactive. But it also right to keep asking the question.


One Response to “Proactive or reactive–is this the toughest question?”

  1. spencer_hill Says:

    not sure about that…

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