Dealing with pointed criticism in a manner that does not exacerbate conflict is the art of crisis communications, and indeed, is part and parcel of what one should expect when dealing with a process as fraught with tension as a peacebuilding and peace negotiations.
Accordingly, the 9 point list that IMPACS put together on crisis communications is instructive in this regard, and is precisely that which the Norwegian Foreign Ministry could have found useful in dealing with the NAT report on LTTE financing.
As this news report published after the NAT report was made public alleges:
The detailed payment list was accidentally released on the internet by the MFA webmaster. After NAT exposed the payments the detailed list was removed and replaced with a new list with only a summary of the paments with details. The old and the new list have the same web address.
While the news report now includes a table of payments of Norwegian funding to various organisations, it is also the case that the allegation of the deletion of the original webpage on the Norwegian Foreign Ministry site can be verified by visiting Google Cache.
This page clearly indicates that up until the 16th of January, the information that the NAT report refers to was on the Norwegian Foreign Ministry site. That it was taken down, we can only imagine on account of the NAT report, was a supremely ill considered decision, especially when in this Google / information age, nothing of what is uploaded once can ever be taken off easily.
Several lessons for organisations result:
Never respond to criticism by taking down material that is quoted in an article or report which critiques initiatives or actions of one’s organisation. If the criticism is accurate, posting updated information stating clearly that it is new content that replaces errors in previous content is advisable. If inaccurate, keeping the information online helps rebut effectively any false allegations. If the allegations expose what Gore may call an inconvenient truth, it’s still far better to keep the information online and proceed to best explain why things were done in the manner in which they were.
As the IMPACS document notes, do the right thing. Deleting information is daft, and gives fuel to detractors. Answering allegations made against initiatives in support of peace and conflict transformation is, like it or not, an inextricable part of being part of a conflict resolution process. Once information is deleted, an organisation is immediately in defensive mode – and that’s bad PR from the start.
Learn more about Google and the web! Today, it’s not always easy to erase digital footprints on the web, and technologies like Google Cache and the Wayback Machine make it virtually impossible to hide content that was once online but taken off in a hurry.
Finally, be honest & transparent. When under fire, an organisation needs to ensure that its responses are engaging, non-inflammatory and firm.
There’s no simple formulaic approach to crisis communications in our information age, but episodes such as this remind us that even high profile government agencies run the risk of grossly underestimating the power of the web to archive content, and that in peacemaking, all of us need to be adept at handling allegations in a manner that secures the perception of our actions as those which were conducted with the best intentions for the good of all.