By Jed Bush

‘Crisis’ in Chinese: A Dangerous Opportunity for Jelly Doughnuts

When John F. Kennedy famously declared, “In the Chinese language, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters, one representing danger and the other, opportunity,” a crisis communication credo was born. Kennedy, whose love of foreign expressions would later earn him an undeserved reputation of having an insatiable appetite for pastries and a more deserved one for habitually practicing translational malpractice, wasn’t the first to invoke the connection, but he did introduce the tidily packaged aphorism to the masses.

There’s just one problem: it’s not true.

The Chinese phrase for “crisis” is “Wēijī:” 危机. Wēi, 危, does in fact mean danger. However, Victor Mair, Professor of Chinese Language and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, writes that, in this context, Ji (机), represents an “’incipient moment; [a] crucial point (when something begins or changes).’ Thus, a Wēijī is indeed a genuine crisis, a dangerous moment, a time when things start to go awry.”

Ben Zimmer, language columnist for the Wall Street Journal, wrote that President Obama cannily dropped the Chinese character framing when linking crisis to opportunity in a weekly address; in doing so, he eschewed the august, bipartisan tradition continued by luminaries like Richard Nixon, Condoleezza Rice and Al Gore (who notoriously dropped the line in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize). Maybe he discarded it because his speechwriters felt the rhetorical device had drifted into cliché. Perhaps his fact-checkers stumbled upon a copy of a Chinese dictionary the night before. We may never know.

Still, the expression’s durability echoes our own philosophies at Firmani + Associates, beliefs drawn from a deep well of experience helping clients navigate crises. Stepping into a crisis with a clear plan will equip you with tools to steady your hand and, when appropriate, strike prudently and decisively as you steer through the storm. You might pick up a scar or two along the way, but, properly managed, a crisis will also bring the opportunity to reassure, to renew trust, to reinvent.

That said, resolving a crisis probably shouldn’t require butchering foreign languages along the way. Why not follow the lead of Homer Simpson instead?

“Lisa: Look on the bright side, Dad. Did you know that the Chinese use the same word for “crisis” as they do for “opportunity”?

“Homer: Yes! Crisitunity!”

By Keena Bean

Lessons from the Trenches: Communicating to the Concerned

There’s nothing quite like a health care crisis to catch the attention of the media, and the general public. Health care organizations receive much more scrutiny in a crisis than your average company, and rightly so. Unlike a labor dispute at McDonalds or improperly used funds within a nonprofit, health care crises can literally be matters of life and death for patients and the public.

In responding to these crises, health care organizations need to first recognize that their constituents aren’t just angry, they’re concerned.

One of our specialties at Firmani + Associates is crisis communications, and with multiple regional health care providers as clients, we know very well the fear that can quickly crop up within a community.

So what do we do to ease people’s fears and guide our client through the negative attention?

Anticipate the news hook and get ahead of it. Take charge of the story and tell it in your own words. Even if you’ve got nothing but bad news, it will still sound better coming from you than the nightly news anchor. Be transparent with what you know at every step of the way – it will take the sting out of unexpected negative coverage and show the public that you’re not hiding from hard facts. It may feel like you’re adding unnecessary fuel to the fire, but it’s better to contain it yourself than let it get out of control by someone else’s hands.

Know your audiences and speak directly to them. You are going to have multiple audiences in any given health care crisis scenario. Staff need to know what to say to concerned patients, vendors and stakeholders need to know that this won’t hurt their business, and most importantly, patients and families need to know that they’re safe.

Address each audience individually, and do it in their language. Communicating directly to patients and families doesn’t serve its purpose if they can’t read through the industry jargon. These communications need to exude endless compassion, empathy and honesty. And include an offline contact where they can reach out to you directly for more information. In addition to building more trust between you and the patients and families, it lessens the chance that they will take their concerns directly to the media or message boards.

Get your priorities straight. A patient or family member should never learn about a problem with their health care provider through the news. As health care communicators, we need to remember who our most important audience is and temper our urgency in responding to media with patience and respect for those we serve.

Health care providers are held to a much higher standard than those in other industries because we put our trust in them when we are at our most vulnerable. Showing a little transparency, honesty and vulnerability as the provider can go a long way in return.

By Mark Firmani

Red Cross creates its own self-inflicted disaster

For an organization that responds to disasters, the American Red Cross has created their own communication crisis in how they responded to yesterday’s story on National Public Radio: In Search Of The Red Cross’ $500 Million In Haiti Relief.

The 20-minute piece dives into the re-building results claimed by the Red Cross, who raised record-breaking relief dollars in 2010. NPR says, “The American Red Cross vowed to help Haitians rebuild. Yet, after five years, the Red Cross’ legacy in Haiti isn’t new roads, schools and hundreds of new homes. And it’s difficult to know where all the money went.”

The story gets worse – according to the NPR piece, done in association with ProPublica, the only tangible output by the Red Cross and the half-billion dollars in donations was the construction of six homes.

The Red Cross couldn’t have responded in a more damaging way. In fact, it would be hard to engineer a response that was more destructive to the venerated organization than what they did.

First, instead of making a reasoned response to NPR’s claims, giving them examples of good works within the country – and maybe even offering up Haitians helped by the efforts, the organization instead refused to talk specifics. They talked about five-year plans and their Herculean efforts to help ease incredible human suffering caused by the earthquake with grand generalities, yet they steadfastly refused to offer up even a whit of evidence.

They said, more or less “We won’t tell you where or how we helped with the $500 million, but just trust us.”

Perhaps the most ham-handed decision by the organization was to have the organization’s attorney act as their spokesperson. Nothing says compassion and transparency like an attorney.

And if this wasn’t bad enough, after NPR went to Haiti to talk with those the Red Cross promised to help, the Red Cross chastised NPR in an email saying they were “creating ill will in the community which may give rise to a security incident. We will hold you and your news organizations fully responsible.”

Whoever is giving this exposed organization their communication counsel should be shown the door. No one trusts those who are unwilling to accept blame for well-intentioned errors, especially when it involves money and a real crisis like what happened to the people of Haiti.

The lack of a thoughtful, transparent communication plan will certainly cost the Red Cross in terms of its brand credibility. That, in turn, will cost millions in lost donations which should go to saving lives. That’s the tragedy.

By F+A Staff

Lessons from the Trenches: Correcting a costly procedural error

MidMountain Construction is a Pacific Northwest construction company with an exemplary record of completing highly technical projects on time and on budget. The company has a great reputation for maintaining ethical practices and providing living-wage jobs to members of our community.

MidMountain Construction submitted a bid to build an important commuter rail project for Sound Transit. The firm was happy to learn that they were the apparent lowest bidder; the second lowest bid was $800,000 higher than MidMountain’s on a total contract value of $40 million.

Shortly after the bid opening, MidMountain received disappointing news. In the rush to submit the bid paperwork, MidMountain erred and failed to file a seemingly innocuous form. When the employee handling the paperwork realized his error, he ran back to deliver the one-page form, just 20 minutes late.

As a result of the error, Sound Transit declared MidMountain’s bid “non-responsive,” disqualifying the company.  The $40 million project was awarded to the second-lowest bidder, costing taxpayers at least $800,000. The winning bidder, obviously enjoying the fruits of the procedural error, began pushing to consummate the agreement as soon as possible.

MidMountain, through their attorneys, asked for our help.

We worked alongside MidMountain’s attorneys and crafted an outreach strategy that complemented their legal approach; while the lawyers fought in court, we took the battle to the elected officials who held oversight of Sound Transit. We presented each Sound Transit board member with a packet of information describing the impact of denying the bid to MidMountain, including what $800,000 could purchase for their tax-paying voters. To put this decision into perspective, the packet described in detail how many new teaching positions the forfeited money would pay for, how many firefighters’ salaries it would support, and other ways the people of Washington were going to be negatively affected by this decision.

In tandem with our written material, we also worked with the construction company principals to make one-on-one calls to some of the same board members so that they could better understand the political fallout of squandering $800,000 of taxpayer money over a minor procedural error.

We were able to engage a majority of the Sound Transit board members, either through our issue packet, or through one-on-one conversations over the course of a few weeks. Through this exchange of information, we were able to convince the Sound Transit board to rule that the tardy form was simply a “minor irregularity.” The decision to disqualify MidMountain was overruled, and MidMountain completed the project months later, on time and on budget.

By F+A Staff

The importance of finding a credible spokesperson

According to a study published in Public Relations Journal, a spokesperson’s title is less important than perceived credibility when responding to a crisis.

The media and the public respond favorably to compelling, energetic and trustworthy spokespeople.

Throughout our many years of media training experience, we’ve found most participants fit into two groups – confident and tentative. The good news, for both groups, is that these traits are common to the best media spokespeople, and even the most tentative can learn.

If your organization is working to identify or groom a spokesperson, keep these qualities in mind:

  • Authentic: The media, and audience, can tell that the spokesperson is genuine and believes in his or her message.
  • Natural: The public perceives the spokesperson as being the same on-camera as off, exhibiting the same passion, demeanor and values in private and public conversations.
  • Flexible: Being adaptable to change – whether it’s breaking news, technical issues or the availability of new information – and taking everything in stride.
  • Self-editing: The ability to simplify a message down to its most essential parts without saying everything, since doing so can complicate the message and confuse the audience.
  • Compelling: Use of stories, statistics and sound bites to make a message stand out.
1 2
‘Crisis’ in Chinese: A Dangerous Opportunity for Jelly Doughnuts
Lessons from the Trenches: Communicating to the Concerned
Red Cross creates its own self-inflicted disaster
Lessons from the Trenches: Correcting a costly procedural error
The importance of finding a credible spokesperson