Don’t Fall Into The ‘Outrage Washing’ Trap

Posted by: on Aug 21, 2023 | No Comments

Too many organisations believe that issuing a strongly worded statement protects a reputation. They believe that when challenged, they need to show leadership and that means issuing a strongly worded statement. We need to move away from such short-term thinking and appreciate that action needs to accompany a statement.

All organisations can feel outrage. It could be caused by an external event or a matter related directly to that organisations’ operations. Some expressed outrage may be genuine, others may feel pressurised into demonstrating it. The pressure could come from politicians, the media, activists, colleagues or even the statements of competitors.

It may be that part of the calculation is to relieve any immediate pressure felt. The outrage is often expressed in a statement by suggesting that ‘nothing like this should ever happen again’.

The reality is that such statements may secure some breathing space but solving the problem at hand will always take time, effort and commitment. There is never a short-term fix.

Leadership teams can, however, fall into the trap of thinking that the statement is the short-term fix. Priorities move on. New leaders come into position. A proposed solution might look difficult or expensive to make. The initial pressure recedes so the change needed may never really comes.

But the reality is that the change still needs to happen. The action needs to be taken and there is nothing worse than the problem that ‘should never happen again’, happening again. That is unforgivable and will certainly batter a reputation.

There are a range of stakeholders that will look to maintain accountability in an organisation, both internally and externally. But chief amongst their methods will be using those initial statements, the sentiment expressed, the clarity of vision and the promise of change to ask ‘what has really happened?’ If they can show that no real action was taken, then it enables the initial sentiment to be questioned. In other words, they were just warm words designed to protect a reputation, not the promise of change.

That is when an organisation and its leadership can really suffer.

Consider some of these actions to ensure that your organisation does not fall into the trap:

  1. Always push back on misunderstandings, deliberate or otherwise, on the role of communications. No-one can simply make problems ‘go away’.
  2. Be clear on who is responsible for the delivery of any proposed change.
  3. Help maintain the internal focus and remind leaders of the implications of non-delivery.
  4. Remember that stakeholders always remember so keep up briefings.
  5. Map the change when it comes and keep good records, you may have to prove your case with some stakeholders. This could include devising a series of measurable goals that can be tracked transparently over time.
  6. Silence may not be golden; change may need to be announced when it comes.
  7. Consider how you can maintain focus over time and secure the type of cultural shifts that may be required.

Whatever an organisation says initially, needs a long tail of action. Being outraged and taking responsibility is one thing, delivering the change required is much harder.