Guest contributor: Jo Detavernier, SCMP, APR – Owner of Detavernier Strategic Communication

When crisis communications teams work perfectly together, they will achieve great results. When such alignment takes on the form of “groupthink” however, the results will often be far less than optimal, and possibly even disastrous.

Groupthink happens when in a group of people the desire to come to a consensus stymies all critical thinking.  The decisions that led up to the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 was one case of groupthink that was closely examined by Irving Janis, a researcher from Yale University who was a pioneer in this field. A much studied more recent example pertains to the disastrous launch of the Challenger space shuttle in 1986.

The phenomenon of groupthink does not only play when big policy decisions are made, but also when executives decide on how communication is  to be conducted. Should you deny responsibility for the crisis? Blame somebody else maybe? Should you at the very other end of the spectrum maybe apologize? These are important decisions where you are not well served by a group of professionals who censor themselves when they are asked to speak up…

How are crisis communicators now to avoid groupthink? What follows are a few recommendations.

  • Have the leaders first make their round before they voice their own opinion. There is a huge difference in group dynamics between the leader of the crisis communications team (or crisis management team) throwing on the table what they consider the best course of action first and only then asking people to speak out and leaders who first let others do the talking.
  • Encourage critical thinking. It needs to be said upfront that staff are invited, nay, even asked to assess proposals critically. 
  • Have an external expert (enter the crisis communications consultant) help facilitate the discussion. This expert would be well placed to score the ideas on a predefined set of criteria (short-term impact, long-term impact, alignment with values, etc. – see also below). 

While some might argue that it makes sense to appoint a Devil’s Advocate, I see little room for this in a crisis if under Devil’s Advocate is understood somebody who will take a contrarian viewpoint just to stir debate. There are few senior people available in a crisis to participate and share insights in important decisions, sacrificing one to play this role does not actually is wasteful (and even if it is used just in the sense of asking somebody to be “very critical” that does not really make sense because everybody should be).

Related: Activating the Crisis Communications Team: Four Considerations

Not every decision of the crisis communication or crisis management team will be group decisions. Actually, most will not. You do not need a group of people to decide together on what time the press conference should take place or where it should happen. Important strategic decisions on messaging strategies however are one example of where checks and balances that prevent groupthink are of critical importance.

Finally, decisions of crisis communications and crisis management teams should not be taken into a void. Ideally, some frame of reference exists (a crisis communications plan or policy, or maybe even just a corporate communications policy) that can guide and inform the decision-making process, if only by providing principles and values that every course of action should adhere to.