The danger of black and white communication

We crave absolutes - yes or no, stop or go, you're with us or against us. Most of life is not so cut and dry.

We crave absolutes – yes or no, stop or go, you're with us or against us. Most of life, however, is not so cut and dry. We live with nuance and uncertainty, and there are usually too many unknowns to be 100% sure of the outcome. Communication professionals must counsel their clients accordingly.

This issue is being played out in the aftermath of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's nearly two-hour press conference on January 9. His declaration that he “had no knowledge,” and was “lied to” and “betrayed” may well be true. After all, he's the governor, a former prosecutor, and early front-runner for the Republican nomination in the 2016 presidential race. Those are big responsibilities and big stakes to risk.

But many see those responsibilities and risks as reasons for their suspicion. They believe someone so involved and so concerned with appearances likely had a close eye on his own political operation. “Bridge-gate,” or what might evolve into “Retribution-gate,” was not put to bed with the governor's long apology and assertion that he's “not a bully.” Christie watchers will be listening for potential shoes to drop during the ongoing investigation. Any link to prior knowledge of Fort Lee, NJ, lane closures will have dramatic, potentially career-ending consequences.

Still, we expect leaders to deal in absolutes, and they accommodate us for fear of seeming weak or uncertain. Short and sweet statements usually win over the long and complicated. But there are too many examples of failed absolutes to ignore the danger of black and white or the outright denial. Nixon's “I am not a crook” and Clinton's “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” rocked two presidencies and the nation. The trajectory of events was largely within their control.

Even when events are not within our control, the siren song of absolutism dashes leaders onto the sharp rocks of crisis. After weather forced JetBlue to cancel flights and strand some passengers on grounded airplanes for over 10 hours in 2007, founder David Neeleman said, “This will never happen again.” His apology at that time was called “perfect.” But in 2011, weather created havoc and, you guessed it, it happened again. Passengers were sealed in and were parked on the tarmac for over seven hours with toilets that wouldn't flush. A strategic look ahead could have avoided this failure of absolute statements.

Scenario development and greater oversight also could have saved pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb from an embarrassing episode involving one of its spokespeople. Andy Behrman, who chronicled his life with bipolar disorder in Electroboy: A Memoir of Mania, reportedly accepted $400,000 in 2004 and 2005 to talk about the benefits of the drug Abilify. He said the therapy was life-changing and all of his drug side effects "went away." A warning bell should have been going off with that definitive statement. While Abilify may have a better safety profile than some other antipsychotic medications, it carries a long list of side effects and warnings on its label. Indeed, after his non-disclosure agreement lapsed, Behrman said he experienced side effects that were worse than any treatment he had tried and stopped taking the drug within the first year.

What's clear is there are few absolutes. It takes a marriage of analysis and creativity to develop statements that are appropriately qualified but not evasive. It's a tall order to communicate complexity in a succinct and compelling manner, but that's our job. And it's imperative we educate our students, staff, and clients that the risk to reputation by seeking and telling the truth is less than telling or living a lie, or making promises - absolutes - we can't keep.

Paul Oestreicher is a veteran of both agency and corporate public relations and public affairs groups. He now runs Oestreicher Communications and is an adjunct professor at New York University's master's program in public relations and corporate communication. Follow him on Twitter @pauloestreicher.

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