Talk Back to the Lion

Aesop’s Fables offer us a story about a mouse who talked his way out of certain death. Then backed up his talk with action.

To recap, a lion was going to kill the mouse for waking him. The mouse convinces him that eating him wouldn’t bring the lion any honor. He further promises to repay the lion’s courtesy. The lion scoffs but lets him go. Fast forward: hunters trap the lion in a net. The lion’s roar is heard by the mouse, which frees him by gnawing through the net.

The quick application for those who deal with crisis situations: recognize you have a problem, create (or apply) a plan, then act on the plan.

If we had a prequel to this story, we might have learned how the mouse prepared for his moment. Give the rodent credit for quick thinking, but I’ll bet he’d dealt with scary situations before. Past experiences can prepare us for present crises.

Get prepared

People who don’t prepare for crises or media interviews get what they deserve. These are missed opportunities to deliver messages that matter to them and their constituents. Being “ambushed” by a reporter who appears at the office without notice or cornered by a citizen at a public meeting isn’t an excuse. Senior leaders who are likely to be in these situations should always be prepared to bridge to their core messages. The same is true for organizations that don’t bring a crisis strategy or mentality to releasing bad news (lower than expected revenue or ridership, missed project schedules, etc.) or managing a bad event (fatality accidents, executive wrongdoing).

Most organizations or individuals don’t naturally come by this way of thinking. It’s a mindset that must be trained, exercised (rehearsed) and used. Communicators must teach it and model it to their organizations and leaders. This is a daily discipline. That’s part of the rent paid to stay at the executive table.

Preparing for “that” reporter

It’s safe to say most people bring a lot of anxiety with them to interviews, especially those with reporters of a certain reputation or attacking habit. The interview subjects enter feeling out of control or powerless. They wonder what’s going to happen and, even worse, they worry what their friends and family will say when they see them on the evening news. Here’s how to change the dynamic. The person being interviewed should also ask the first question.

“So, what would you like to discuss?”

This only works if the people being interviewed have prepared their story. Asking the question begins to level the playing field. It creates the opportunity for interviewees to set some parameters. It gives them power they may not have known they had. It helps set a tone for an interview and not an inquisition.

Starting with a question to open a friendly dialogue isn’t pixie dust. It may not get you out of the lion’s paw. But it creates working space to ease the tension of the moment and give the interview subject time to listen in-depth for the questioner’s agenda, while creating openings to deliver the prepared message.

The mouse didn’t know his gambit would work. If it didn’t, he was going to be eaten. If he didn’t do anything, he was going to be eaten. He gives himself a possible way out.

Preparing for “that” moment

A similar preparation mindset works for organizations. I’ll admit I’ve been in some really odd desktop and field training scenarios where invading Martians were the only missing element. Still, it’s possible to be confronted with truly novel crises. The U.S. has dealt with domestic terrorism for decades, but 9/11 was different. There’s not much I had not experienced in 20 years as the lead media relations person at Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART). Then came the July 7, 2016, police shootings. There’s no real training for that. But previous experience had prepared us to attack the crisis and talk back to the lion.

DART Police had been assaulted in the line of duty before. DART bus and rail operators had died on the job before. What did we do then? How did we communicate internally and externally? Dallas Police essentially closed downtown Dallas for several hours following the July shooting. All DART rail and a lot of bus service go through downtown. Winter weather had shut down downtown operations for hours, or days, before. What did we tell customers and employees about our operations in that situation?

It is easy to be frozen into inaction by the uniqueness of the crisis. Being overwhelmed in the moment is understandable. But taking a moment to identify previous experience and prior success strategies creates a path forward. Find the familiar in the unfamiliar and put it to work.

Prepare to succeed (or at least survive)

A quick online search will turn up a couple of zillion motivational quotes about preparation. One common thread is people offering that advice don’t guarantee success. Remember, the mouse had no guarantees.

Being a strategic advisor means preparing yourself and those you counsel to respond to the known and the unexpected. It means being prepared to talk back to the lion.

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