Crisis PR is about probabilities – there is no certainty.

So I think it was reckless for the CEO of United Airlines to commit to a certainty that the Dr Dao incident (dragged off the plane) would never happen again – there are too many human factors at play: “Today, we are taking concrete, meaningful action to make things right and ensure nothing like this ever happens again.”

That word, ‘ensure’… He could have just as effectively wound it back a notch: “Today, we are doing everything humanly possible to prevent this ever happening again.” It’s more believable.

Politicians with their false election promises have made us tone deaf to commitments that can’t be kept, and Trump has taken this to a whole new level. We all lose, but more so those people who make these promises because trust is gone. The rest of us just become cynics.

There’s a thoughtful column by Bret Stephens at the NYT about the dangers of certitude. Had Hilary Clinton been less certain of the data and more open to the variables, he writes, she might have won. If the climate change extremists didn’t over-hype the already convincing science, sceptics might be less inclined to the other extreme.

That’s why I was inspired when Malcolm Turnbull talked about climate change in terms of probabilities in 2011, “The question of whether or to what extent human activities are causing global warming is not a matter of ideology, let alone of belief,” he said. “The issue is simply one of risk management.”

We manage risk in Crisis PR. It’s about probabilities, not certainties, “It is probable this will happen tomorrow based on what happened yesterday.”

I currently advise two good CEOs who I believe should be profiling their good work in social media and the media. If they don’t, my counsel, based on many years of doing this, is that their reputation, tainted by past isolated incidents, may significantly worsen with a reoccurrence. Both of them counter, in effect, “I have flown under the radar until now, and I think I’ll survive this hiccup.”

Who’s right?

There is no certainty in crisis PR. And the more certain a person is, the more it inspires an opposing point of view.

I’m constantly reminded of what one of my best employers said to me about the wisdom of a promotion, as I asked for a new role: “I get it right about 40% of the time.” Strangely, that uncertainty gave me confidence in his decision.

Hence I just love this quote in Bret Stephen’s article:

When someone is honestly 55 percent right, that’s very good and there’s no use wrangling. And if someone is 60 percent right, it’s wonderful, it’s great luck, and let him thank God.

But what’s to be said about 75 percent right? Wise people say this is suspicious. Well, and what about 100 percent right? Whoever says he’s 100 percent right is a fanatic, a thug, and the worst kind of rascal.

— An old Jew of Galicia (Czeslaw Milosz: The Captive Mind)

Peter Wilkinson

Author Peter Wilkinson

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