There was a lot of buzz recently about a study conducted by the Stanford Graduate School of Business titled, “Detecting Deceptive Discussions in Conference Calls.” The study’s authors analyzed transcripts of nearly 30,000 conference calls by American CEOs and CFOs between 2003 and 2007. The researchers studied the linguistic features of narratives, and found that CEOs at companies that subsequently announced a significant restatement of earnings used significantly fewer self-references, more third person plural and impersonal pronouns, more extreme positive emotions, fewer extreme negative emotions, and fewer certainty and hesitation words. Furthermore, the “deceptive” CEOs and CFOs used more references to general knowledge, fewer non-extreme positive emotion words, fewer references to shareholder value and value creation. In sum, there was a relationship between non-specific, non-factual language, and descriptive emotion words like “fantastic” and “great,” and a lack of credibility in the substance of the presentation.
That just bears out our constant refrain to clients and to ourselves in drafting any internal and external communications: No adjectives.
Why? The foundation of truly effective crisis communication is built on gathering and understanding facts. From there, crisis managers can build a narrative and messages that will help their company communicate important information with their constituents—customers, employees, shareholders, regulators, affiliates, and business partners—and the media. Far and away the most important thing in this process is to verify that everything that is said and written is 100% factually accurate. A crisis tests a company’s and/or individuals’ credibility—and the response to a crisis is an opportunity to reinforce, or sometimes restore, credibility. So, how exactly do you do this?
First, anyone managing a crisis must conduct independent fact-finding to understand the facts with certainty. Sometimes, this means hiring outside counsel to conduct an internal investigation. Other times, an internal or external review of documents, materials, and interviews will suffice. Of course, making sure you have the right teams in place is an important step to take even before crisis strikes. For more on that, see this post on crisis audits.
Next, when drafting the facts, a timeline, or any key points or messages for communication, these materials must be scrubbed completely of characterizations, adjectives, vague pronouns, and emotion words. This step is critical to ensure that the messages and statements issued to stakeholders are not opinions, speculations, guesses, or worse, lies. Rather, the messages and, critically, answers to expected questions from various constituents, must be completely factually accurate, precise, and credible.
Finally, a company or individual in a crisis must make effective use of the facts by having a well thought-out media plan in place, including a plan to conduct rapid response to media, and possibly a strategy for media outreach if that is appropriate. For more on media, see our June 10, 2010 post, Responding to Media Inquiries.