Recently, when one of our clients faced an unexpected problem, my business partner, Scott Westcott, offered a rather unexpected anecdote to help them navigate the solution.
The story came from a years-ago charter fishing trip on Lake Erie with a crew that couldn’t seem to avoid trouble.
Before it even got off the dock, their boat had a minor mechanical problem that delayed departure. Once on the water, the sonar fish finder acted up and a passing boat kicked up a stomach-churning wake. Finally, when the crew got into smooth waters, the fishing lines promptly got tangled.
A well-intentioned crew member kept trying to explain all of the difficulties to the guests on board —and how this was most certainly a rare exception to how things went on the water.
But the captain cut him short.
“You’re always going to have problems,” he said, in a calm voice. “It’s how you deal with those problems that makes all the difference.”
The mood on the boat immediately lifted as captain and crew went about the business of systematically untangling their problems.
Scott used the captain’s words to show the power of positioning leaders as problem solvers in the face of adversity or criticism.
This isn’t the approach most nonprofits take when they’re confronted with a problem or controversy.
Typically, when the proverbial boat starts taking on water, organizations either take the no-comment route or take the perceived high road and issue a carefully crafted statement with hopes the problem fades away.
Unfortunately, both of these approaches often backfire.
“No comment” screams cover-up or cluelessness — neither of which are an impression you want to leave with the public. Silence rarely solves your problem. Often it exacerbates it.
A carefully-crafted statement can have its place, particularly when it comes to challenging issues that have legal implications or are still unfolding. However, this approach is overused, and often becomes a crutch, creating a false sense that the issue has been adequately addressed.
We like to take the third path: the problem-solver approach. With this approach, you position your leaders as problem solvers. Through that lens, you can craft your messaging and lay out your plan for dealing with the issue at hand.
Here are six reasons why you should consider this approach:
1. It unfreezes thinking.
Leaders who are feeling cornered are much more likely to fall back on their instinct to hunker down in no-comment mode. By framing the challenge in the problem-solver approach, you have a better chance to shift the conversation to brainstorming and assessing viable alternatives to tackling the problem—and how those options could be positioned in messaging. The added benefit is that beyond lip service, you can actually help develop a legitimate action plan to deal with the issues.
2. It helps you acknowledge and address the problem head-on.
You can’t highlight how you are going to solve a problem if you haven’t clearly defined it. Turning the focus toward how the problem can be addressed prods your leadership toward all-important transparency. Maybe all of the details can’t be revealed, but there is more wiggle room to acknowledge the challenge when you know it will be framed within an action-oriented solution.
3. It helps you quickly pivot to solutions.
Which headline would you prefer: “Acme hammered by donor complaints” or “Acme rolls out three-point plan to tackle donor complaints”? Thought so. The problem-solver approach naturally spins the story forward, and puts the focus on the solution. If you act fast enough, sometimes you can even head off that initial bad headline and avoid being put in damage-control mode.
4. It buys you goodwill.
People by and large are pretty forgiving, particularly when they believe an individual or organization is trying to be forthright, transparent, and focused on fixing problems. If nothing else, you’re likely to get at least some props for taking the high road and not hiding behind “no comment.” As a former reporter, we can tell you any attempt at transparency also endears you to the press and helps strengthen those key relationships.
5. It positions your leaders as can-do problem solvers.
The most valuable and lasting benefit of this approach is that it positions your leaders as clear-eyed people of action. They become the captain of the boat, instead of the fretting first mate. It’s likely that long after the buzz of the latest PR issue has died down, what will be remembered is the sense that yours is an organization that deals with issues in a transparent and action-oriented way. What more could you ask for?
6. It boosts your credibility as a strategic advisor.
This approach can carry some level of risk and may not fit every situation. Yet for instances where it makes sense, there’s a pretty good chance your leadership will start seeing you in a whole new light. You become more than the PR flack that puts together a prepared statement, and more of a trusted advisor who is a steady hand to help navigate rough waters.
Here’s the thing to remember: you’re always going to have problems. It’s how you deal with those problems that makes all the difference.