Thursday, July 16, 2009

We could take a lesson...

On handling rumors, innuendos, and gossip from Michael Hyatt of Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Seems this past week at the International Christian Retail Show, rumors started flying that Thomas Nelson Publishers was being sold, or had been sold. The scuttlebutt was that because they were in financial straits, instead of closing down, they were being sold off.

Here's the situation: Michael Hyatt is the CEO of Nelson. If anybody knew they were being sold, he would know. He'd be busily negotiating a nice golden parachute package, and hitting the road. Instead, he publishes this blog post: "No, Thomas Nelson is Not Being Sold" on his personal blog. He details the rumor, the reasons given in the rumor, and some facts to fight against it. You're welcome to read it. The main supporting fact: Nelson has increased their market share by 1.5% in the last year, which is a good thing. The rest show how it's a good thing, and how well they are doing.

Now, I'm not advocating that you spend all of your time responding to rumors, but contrast how Hyatt handled this compared to the way many people and businesses (and churches!) handle rumors. First there's denial, then subterfuge, eventually followed by a crisis of trust, simply because nobody told the truth in the first place. Organizational leaders need to act as Hyatt has acted: his public credibility is now on the hook. If Nelson announces a sale anytime in the next year, he's toast. He'll be called out as a liar, shown to be untrustworthy. And while we'll tolerate that in sports coaches, like all of the ones that say "No interest in pros!" the week before they go to the pro level, only to fail utterly and come back and command huge salaries from colleges because, hey, they were professional coaches, many people in the publishing industry won't go for that. He'll become a guy no one will want to work for or write for, since he'll be the "we're going to sell out the company" CEO.

In other words, if you're the organizational leader, your word needs to be staked with the direction of the organization. Now, events may force your hand to reveal something earlier, but at some point the "no comment" string has to end. Even if you have justifiable reasons for your behavior, people will begin to doubt your leadership skills. Eventually they will question your right to the leadership role.

There are 3 basic responses to rumors about your organization: ignore it, hoping it will go away; lie about it, hoping nobody will notice; hit it with the truth, knowing that will kill a rumor. What do you do?

1.)You cannot keep ignoring it. That makes it grow, and it gnaws on people's minds. They start to wonder, their imagination fills in the gaps. It's the reason that modern 'horror' films are gross, but not terrifying (usually), compared to some of the classics in the genre. It's what you don't show, what your mind fills in, that keeps you awake at night. I wasn't scared by Scream, but the original Psycho was disturbing. I still insist on staying in brightly lit national chain hotels. And even Arsenic and Old Lace has me worried that someday I'll be old and invited to tea by some old ladies...

Back on track, ignoring a rumor allows people to fill it in themselves. While you're saying "no comment" people are guessing what's going on. "Is he no commenting on the sale of Nelson while they negotiate a better price?" "Is he no commenting because he's quitting?" "Is the Captain saying 'no comment' about that iceberg because he's concerned?" People will begin to assume whatever they want to assume. All of the negativity they've heard, they'll add to you. It's destructive.

2.) You could lie about it--say that you are being sold when you aren't, that you aren't when you are. How long will that last? And then, when the truth comes out, where will you be? Honesty is truly the best policy.

3.) You can tell the truth. Some people won't believe you. They'll think you're being evasive. They'll think "there's got to be more." Let them think that. Let them investigate. If you are really hiking the Appalachian Trail, show them the campsites. Show them your sign-ins and sign-outs on the trail stops. Give them a receipt from the Holiday Inn you stayed in when you couldn't take the woods anymore. They can investigate until doomsday, and all they will find is the truth. No harm there.

You may think that sometimes you can't reveal the truth. A business deal needs secrecy or confidence. Sometimes it does, but it will be resolved, and if it's that close, you should have a date. Instead of 'no comment' try 'no comment until ______.'

Two quick exceptions: 1.) Information about someone else. If I know you're not hiking the Appalachian Trail, it's not my job to out that. So, "I do not discuss things about other people that are not public knowledge." Then, drop it. Don't hint. Don't give an off-the-record. Don't create an analogy. That's it. Point people to the subject and tell them to consult that person. Likewise if it is information not in your official domain. If you are the mail-clerk, point people to the CEO about company sales rumors.

2.) And this might be a subset, but classified information that could hurt people. For example, I've got a high school buddy in Iraq. I assume somewhere around Baghdad. It's no secret, it's on his Facebook page. However, if I knew from being in school with him that he had become a black-ops trained helicopter riding sniper, and that he was, in fact, in Iran, I shouldn't spread that info. Not even his training skills. If he wants you to know that's what he does and where he is, that's his issue. But you don't have the right to confirm the rumor that a highly-skilled marksman is in a certain place. Really. Also, counseling information. Including who you saw in the waiting room at the counseling office. Don't do that. I saw a disturbing report on the news the other morning, where a financial expert was talking about things not to put on your credit card, because these purchases will hurt your credit rating. One was "Counseling Services." What? How do credit card companies get the right to raise your rates over seeking help? But if that's credit-reportable, then when you go the bank, your loan officer knows it. As does the loan secretary, and everyone else. If you are the teller, you shouldn't go around spreading that someone is even in counseling. Those of you who do counseling, you know the consequences of breaking confidence. Enough said.

So, all-in-all, when confronted with a rumor, especially one that is taking on a life of its own, hit it in the head. With the truth. Trust me, it will come out better in the end.


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