Acknowledge Uncertainty and Ambiguity

Crisis spokespersons often feel an urge to be overly certain and overly reassuring. This may be a result of a belief that the public cannot accept uncertain situations and needs certainty in the face of a crisis, even when information is not available yet. However, in an inherently uncertain and equivocal situation, overly reassuring statements may reduce a spokesperson’s credibility. 

In addition, over-reassuring statements that lack credibility may even create higher levels of alarm among the public, particularly when there is not a high level of trust between the organization and the victims affected. In the long run, admitting to the ambiguity of a situation does less damage to an organization’s credibility than pretending all is in hand.

For example, in a study of media portrayal of leadership during the Hurricane Katrina crisis in 2005, Littlefield and Quenette examined the news images of the military, the Department of Homeland Security, President Bush, the federal government, and the local government. The authors concluded, “It would be wise for authorities to acknowledge deficiencies in their crisis responses to avoid conflicting perspectives (mortification) that will emerge later."

A best practice of crisis communication is to acknowledge the uncertainty inherent in the situation with statements acknowledging that not all the facts are available, or the situation is still evolving. This form of strategic ambiguity allows the communicator to refine the message as more information becomes available and avoids statements that are likely to be shown as inaccurate as the situation becomes clearer.

Acknowledging uncertainty should not be used as a strategy, however, to avoid disclosing uncomfortable information or closing off further communication. Through the use of strategic ambiguity, organizations sometimes emphasize an interpretation where the organization is viewed favorably.

For example, Ulmer and Sellnow used the ethic of significant choice to evaluate the ethical implications of strategic ambiguity used by the tobacco industry. The industry leaders attempted to place responsibility on consumers, claiming that they simply manufacture the product and consumers make the choice to purchase.

Ulmer and Sellnow explained the argument’s flaws: “From a significant choice perspective, this claim is valid only when consumers have a complete and unbiased explanation of the potential risks and benefits associated with a product.”  The researchers concluded that because the ambiguity it produced was based on incomplete and biased information, the tobacco companies were not acting ethically.

Next Page: Ethics Of Withholding Information