What we must learn about communication from the Sydney Siege

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The dramatic events in Sydney’s Martin Place this week are being analysed on many levels as we try to make sense of such a tragedy. I have no intention of adding yet another voice to the tumultuous sea of opinion about the incident itself.

On a broader level though, we can learn a lot from the way communication about the siege unfolded – an extraordinary, frightening event intersecting with the full force of social media.

It was a volatile mixture: social media run rampant, feeding on fear and phobia; and journalists grasping for limited information in between long, frustrating waits. Columnist John Birmingham described some of the coverage as shameful, “caused by the need to fill up dead air space or to beat the competition in the race for clicks and eyeballs.”

Amid the dearth of facts as the siege wore on, both forms of media - “traditional” and “new” - fed on each other. Media reports merged with individual opinion to fuel social media posts, and those posts in turn were a plentiful source for media reports.

People were hungry for information and leapt on any updated morsel that hit the airwaves or appeared on media websites, but were also scathing when reports proved false, such as the supposed closure of Sydney’s airport during the siege.

Police tried to contain the information flow in the interest of bringing about a peaceful end to the situation. Some media outlets cooperated in withholding certain sensitive facts but it was a moot point, with information being communicated directly from within the siege site to social media.

Attempting to stem the tide in such circumstances becomes like trying to hold liquid in your hands; some will inevitably seep through the gaps and while you might be able to contain the bulk of it for a while, ultimately you have to let it go.

Here are three lessons we can take from the communication aspects of this terrible incident.

1. There's no re-corking the information bottle.

Clearly, we can’t go back to the way things were when it comes to communication. As Monash University Professor Greg Barton said on media this week; “You really can't hermetically seal information flows off any more.”

Even consumers of media commented that while they understood that at times some of the media were trying not to distribute information the police felt may endanger the hostages, “friends in other countries were posting what had been withheld here on social media. A strange situation.” (comment on media website, 18 December 2014).

The lesson here is that we must always assume information is out in the public domain, and act accordingly.

We used to think we could control the flow of information because we controlled the channels. It was a "decide and tell" culture. If something went amiss in our organisation, we assessed it in light of how the information would look on, say, the front page of the local paper, before deciding whether to make any open comment or release any information.

No organisation or business can now behave in that manner. This tragic incident has highlighted (in case we needed reminding), that all situations are now acted out in real time on a global stage. Organisational leaders would do well to examine their own behaviour in light of that, remembering that nothing is hidden any more, and that transparency and authenticity are paramount.

2. Be a source of truth.

The events of this week demonstrate the dizzying power of rumour, half-truth and virally-shared comment. In any situation impacting our business or in which we have a major stake, it’s important to remain a source of truth and fact, without simply perpetuating rumours.

I remember my first visit to India, and seeing for the first time the colourful chaos of Mumbai’s streets. The vibrant shades of saris blended with pungent spices, amid a whirlpool of honking taxis, motorbikes, bicycles, cows, beggars, peddlers and windowless buses. I stared at the scene, trying to make sense of it. Eventually I realised there was a perfect order, almost a dance, as everyone weaved in and out in opposite directions, narrowly and calmly avoiding collision. Everybody there understood that order; to them it was perfectly normal. But as an outsider, without anyone to make sense of it for me, I had no way of understanding how the dance was played out.

When an issue affects your business - whether it’s a change, a staffing matter, a public issue of some kind - knowing that rumours will be flying it's important to be that credible voice of truth. We need to be the voice that reaches through the noise and helps others make sense of what’s going on. We can no longer hope to be the main source of information, but we can be the credible source of information, so people understand that amid the confusion they can look to us and know they’ll be able to rely on what they hear. To earn the right to be that trusted source, we must be authentic, transparent and have impeccable values that we demonstrate at all times.

3. What others say to others is all-powerful.

It used to be that we could control information about our organisation through what we said to others, and how others directly experienced us. In the social media age, the most powerful form of communication is what others say to others – usually with no direct involvement from us. It’s that collective, subjective view that now makes up the “truth” about us – and we underestimate that force at our peril.

It should be acknowledged that the collective view isn’t necessarily always negative. From the public debate over this week’s events, we’ve seen the bubbling up of the “I’ll ride with you” movement.

Regardless, in considering any communication about our business or organisation, we must now always factor in what’s going on in the broader conversation, even if we don’t have any direct involvement in it. We must find a way in and be an active, credible and authentic participant.

This tragic incident has amplified the new truth about communication. As Alfred Hermida, Associate Professor, Graduate School of Journalism at University of British Columbia wrote this week in the Conversation:

Social media is the new public square where people get together to talk about the news. In the square there are some in the know. Others are sharing hopes or fears. Others have come there for emotional support. Some just want to be part of something bigger.

This is our communication environment, and we must adapt to this game-changing era.

There are many lessons on a broad scale from this terrible week for Sydney. May we each take these learnings and use them to be greater leaders and citizens.