Communicating to Reassure – Lessons from the Real World

Stories of personal heroism and the extraordinary effort are slowly appearing from the survivors of the terrorist attack on Mumbai.  Besides the obvious lessons on preparedness (or lack thereof ), there is an important lesson for all of us on the criticality of timely communication. Much of the anger and angst felt by people towards politicians and the media , during and after the attacks, stems from the vacuum created by the absence of a single official source of information. Even if it were to tell people, “We don’t have the facts yet, but we are staying on top of it and will let you know the moment we know something,” people would have rallied around the speaker and the message.

Contrast this with the role Rudy Giuliani played even as the World Trade Center towers burned during the 9/11 attacks on New York. As the New York Times reported ,

Three hours [after the attack began] … he stepped into a press conference with Gov. George E. Pataki. 

“Today is obviously one of the most difficult days in the history of the city,” he said softly. “The tragedy that we are undergoing right now is something that we’ve had nightmares about. My heart goes out to all the innocent victims of this horrible and vicious act of terrorism. And our focus now has to be to save as many lives as possible.”

Through that day, Giuliani held two more press conferences and at 11PM, was seen walking around Ground Zero talking to rescue workers. While I was no admirer of Rudy Giuliani prior to 9/11 or his recent run for the 2008 Republican nomination, he demonstrated through his actions and presence, the signs of a leader – one who understood the need to communicate, to reassure, even when he did not have all the facts.

While the Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister of Maharashtra did appear on television several times, their unsubstantiated assertions on the number of terrorists, their origins and the state of the seige which changed with each interview undermined any confidence the public may have had. The Prime Minister too when he addressed the nation a day after the attack began, seemed to mumble incoherently and was insipid in the kind words of one editorial commentator .

It is a shame that the Indian political leadership at the city, state or national level failed to step up to the bar, to provide the focal point that people sought. Mr. Chidambaram, this might be your opportunity to provide such a leadership to reassure the citizens through direct, periodic and factual communication.

Leadership requires communication, be it good news, bad news or worse yet no real news. Communication done clearly and consistently is more likely to reassure listeners than silence, even if the crisis isn’t over.

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