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Golf and Crisis Communications – Neither Are Easy

Last weekend was awesome. My better half and I spent it with all of our kids at the Desert Canyon Resort in eastern Washington. The golf course is really nice, with epic views and an ungodly long 650 yard par 5 hole that always eats my lunch.

Spending a few days with family, and away from work got me thinking. For some perverse reason I see analogies between golf, crisis response and communications. Some of you may recall a piece I wrote about golf and ICS a couple of years ago. While the post still rings true, after a couple of years of reflection and ugly golf I’m updating my “swing thoughts” as they relate to effective crisis communications today:

Swing easy – The best golfers make their shots look effortless. They take the club back slowly, and start their downswing with a loose confidence that explodes through the ball with solid contact resulting in a screaming ball flight trajectory.

In crisis communications it is important to “swing easy”; not coming across as desperate, annoyed, frazzled, or out of control. In other words, Stay Calm, and Carry On. Expressing concern adds credibility through empathy. Creating needless drama and hype about the response effort can backfire. Accurately describing the efforts and challenges of responders is important. Unnecessarily adding drama cheapens their work, and is contrary to the culture of selfless public service.

It’s all about the setup- Any golfer worth his/her salt will tell you that most poor golf shots begin with a poor set up when they approach the ball. Lining up in the wrong direction, poor grip, and wrong club selection all contribute to errant shots. Setting up properly and choosing the right club can knock off several strokes off our round.

In crisis, you have to stripe it down the fairway each and every time. Or, at least try to. This means having a comfortable and confident setup; in other words, a preexisting positive relationship with your community. Credibility is not automatically bestowed on emergency services today. It has to be earned through caring, accurate and consistent engagement. Also, make sure you use the right club.  Today, the written media release is about as useful as me trying to hit a shot with a 1 iron.  It’s pretty much a worthless tool in today’s age, or at the very least it’s usefulness is limited to very specific situations where time is a luxury.

Know when to lay up- In golf there is often an overwhelming urge to “go for it”, trying to make an impossible shot to the green in hopes of saving par. Whether it is hitting out of a deep bunker, rough, or trying to hit the ball between the 16 trees between your ball and the green, the little voice in the back yur heads says “You got this”. Only after whacking your way out of trouble with three shots do you say to yourself; “You idiot. You should have just whacked out of trouble sideways”. Inevitably you end up holing out with a triple bogey.

Playing it safe is not always an option in emergency response. Emergency crews are trained to place themselves in harm’s way to make a difference. But, playing it safe is an absolute mandate when communicating with the public. You can’t play fast and loose with the facts. You need to be very careful in how you communicate critical information to the public, especially information related to injuries, fatalities, evacuation orders, re-occupation permits and responder injuries/fatalities. You may only get one chance to get it right. If you don’t know, don’t say it. Don’t even guess it aloud. Just keep your mouth shut.

Easier said than done right? You bet. Today the pressure to immediately engage is intense. But, succumbing to this pressure by providing inaccurate information can be devastating for the command agency and response effort. With that said, the fog of war and incident fluidity inevitably results in giving out bad information. A case in point; Snohomish County Emergency Management Director John Pennington’s inaccurate proclamation during a media briefing shortly after the Oso, Washington landslide this spring; “This was a completely unforeseen slide. This came out of nowhere.” That same day the Seattle Times printed an article outlining the well-known history of large landslides in the same area, the last occurring in 2006. The March slide may have been unforeseen by Director Pennington, but to the many geologists and scientists who had been studying the area for years, this was no surprise, and they were quick to remind him of this fact.
Releasing inaccurate facts is way different than telling the wrong story. Quickly correcting inaccurate or changing facts is understandable and generally accepted. Willingly distributing and perpetuating an inaccurate story, and/or clamming up is a credibility/career killer. Unfortunately, outside influencers with divergent interests can try and skew how the story is told. Any IC worth is/her salt anticipates this, and aggressively engages them to keep the public safe and maintain agency credibility, even if it means placing their command authority on the line.

Drive for show, putt for dough – An endearing term to golfers everywhere, it sums up the fact that low golf scores depend on accurate chipping and putting. It’s all about the short game. But, this is also the unglamorous part of the game. It drives me nuts. I can stripe a 270 yard drive down the middle of the fairway, and still end up with a double bogie by duffing my next 5 shots to the hole.  A good short game takes an accurate size up of the terrain, an improvised swing, creativity, patience and a clear understanding to never leave a birdie putt short.

In today’s social media news environment, every Facebook post is a short chip. Every tweet is a putt. During crisis, patience and pragmatic response is not only desired, it’s critical. With that said, you need to have the confidence to commit quickly to the shot and pull the trigger, and as my instructor says; “It takes practice.” The last thing you want to do is leave your crisis communications efforts short.


About chiefb2

Retired fire chief ,Type 3 AHIMT IC, PIO, Fire service consultant. Social media emergency management disciple (no, I'm not a "guru"). Crisis communications consultant. Father and Grandpa with an open wallet.