We need to trust in order to make any decision.

The Risk Monger

Trust has been the most critical casualty in the Western world’s culture wars. We sense its loss in things big and small in our daily lives. We see the suspicious and disapproving looks of the masked at the unmasked in our supermarkets. We hear the shouting parents at school board meetings who no longer trust their schools to educate their children. We can almost taste the mutual disdain and dehumanization of the Right and Left, driven by a lack of trust. And we recognize that this same lack of trust is preventing too many of our communities from taking the decisive actions needed to improve their quality of life.

When confronted with a problem or an opportunity, without trust different parts of the community may see things very differently. Action won’t be taken in a timely manner. Bounded rationality will abound.

But while we viscerally feel the loss of trust that the pundits (Oracles of the Obvious!) loudly proclaim, we wish that they would show us – or at least give us some hint – how to rebuild that foundation of community action. In this post, I look at the nature of trust and uncover clues to building it.* I’m going to put this in terms of what we should – and shouldn’t – do. After all, if we want to be trusted, we have to be trustworthy.

One of the key facets of trust is consistency. As someone put it (I can’t find the source):

I do not trust words. I even question actions. But I never doubt patterns.


Thus, to be trustworthy, I need to be consistent, even predictable. One of the best compliments (at least I took it as one!) I ever received was from a consultant I had just let go. “John, you know how to make a deal – and keep it.”

Another important facet of trust is familiarity. If you don’t know me, you have no reason to trust me. You may not distrust me (= trusting me to do something you won’t like), but you are unlikely to even listen to a voice never heard before. Thus, to be trusted by someone, I have to establish a connection with that person.

If a connection is going to engender trust, it has to be based on respect. I have to respect your opinions, even if I don’t agree with them. Not only do I have to listen to you, but I have to try to understand where you’re coming from. April Lawson’s Braver Angels Debate approach (There’s a link at the end of this post.) has value precisely because she tries to have participants really listen to each other. One of the reasons the CDC is so distrusted is that they disrespected the legitimate concerns of so many: they haven’t listened. “Big Brother Says So” may work for some, but in the face of uncertain science it’s not the way to build trust.

Bernd Numberger (see link at the end of the post) provides some interesting thoughts about how to build (or destroy) trust. With apologies to him, I’ll paraphrase some of them, and add to them:

Trust builders
• Collaboration. Actions speak louder than words. Working together is an excellent way to build trust, especially in the community context. Find small problems where there is broad agreement, and get warring factions to work together toward solutions. Enough of these, and trust can follow.
• Shared success and celebrations. Or, as I like to say – never underestimate the power of a party! Celebrating small successes along the way builds trust, and can lead to much greater success.
• Openness. We have to be willing to let others know who we are in a personal sense, what we value and what we believe. This can be hard to do in the face of “woke” cancel culture (especially on college campuses) but it is a form of public duty.
• Sharing. We have to share in conversations – that means we have to listen – really pay attention to what others are saying – as well as speak. We have to show that we respect the opinions of others. We have to show that we value their opinions as well – perhaps not so much for their content, but certainly for others’ willingness to be open with us. This echoes several of the thoughts above.
• “Trusted” opinions. Recommendations from trusted third parties, meaningful awards, or certifications can help build others’ trust in us. But don’t cherry-pick your sources – where there are honest differences in data sources or interpretations, admit them.

Trust breakers
• Playing the blame game. Can you ever really trust someone who always blames others when things aren’t going right? Or is always making excuses (Certain politicians come to mind?), and never takes responsibility?
• Shooting from the lip. It’s hard to trust someone who seems to always be jumping to conclusions without checking their facts.
• Sending mixed signals. It’s also hard to trust that a reed that bends to whichever way the wind is blowing will stand firm for you (Certain other politicians come to mind?).
• Not caring about others’ concerns. Would you trust someone to do something that you value if he/she is only concerned about what’s good for him/her?

All of this implies that building trust is a contact sport, and it takes time and effort. Above all, it requires that each of us is trustworthy. Trust is the glue that binds communities together; lack of trust cements barriers in place that can block community action. Trust is essential for community resilience, and for Future-Fit communities.

*I’m basing this on three sources as well as my own experience.

Bernd Numberger:

A recent post by the Risk Monger:

An article by April Lawson (tip of the hat to Bill Hooke who highlighted this article on New Year’s Day):


1 AC: Crisis Communications

When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective.

Steven Covey

We have just completed Year 1 AC – After Covid. Clearly, we don’t know all we need to know. Conversely, we are awash in data and probably know more – collectively – than we think we do. In this series of posts (way too much material for just one!), I’m going to lay out my observations, preliminary conclusions they’ve led me to, and what might be a better approach to future pandemics. Of necessity, this will be focused on the US experience; sadly, these observations seem to apply to the rest of the Western world as well.

In this post, I want to examine how communications to the public have been handled. Quite rightly, President Trump has been criticized for poor communications in 1 AC. Unfortunately (at least to me), most of the criticisms seem to be of the general “Orange Man Bad” variety, i.e., anything he did is wrong a priori. While perhaps satisfying to some, it doesn’t provide any guidance about what we should do the next time – Trump won’t be around then.

At its heart, effective crisis communication is very simple: the leadership develops a message and delivers it to the public who receive it and act on it. As with most things in real life, the devil is in the details.

• First and foremost, leadership must identify the target audience(s). This will always include those most affected by the crisis, as well as all they’re connected to. The goal of crisis communications is not delivery of a message but action. Leadership should identify what the target audience knows, and what actions it can take. If there is more than one target audience, their ability to assimilate information about the crisis may vary, as will their ability to take action. Messaging should take this into consideration.

• Once the audience is identified, leadership must formulate messages that clearly point to the actions that need to be taken. As more is learned about the crisis, messages should change to reflect any additional or different actions. In the early response phases of a crisis, leaders inform the public how they should respond, i.e., do this, don’t do that – “wash your hands,” “maintain your distance from each other.” It is crucial early in a crisis that the public is also told what is known and what’s being done by the leadership to respond to the crisis. In later stages, when more is known, the focus shifts to recovery – “get the vaccine.” At every stage, the message to the public needs to be clear, timely, concise and – most importantly – accurate. Early in a crisis, there will be much that is not known and that fact must be honestly conveyed, but in a way that shows that the leadership is actively looking for the answers. The basis for the actions the public should take ought to be laid out clearly; as additional/different actions are called for, the public should be told what’s changed.

It is inevitable that mistakes will be made, especially in the early stages of a crisis. It is way too easy to play the Blame Game, but leadership needs to avoid this. Acknowledge the source of the error – incomplete data from the states, for example, and then describe the actions that have been taken to rectify the mistake.

• Next, the messenger(s) must be identified. People won’t act if they don’t trust the messenger. Thus, in a crisis, the face the public sees and the voice it hears must be ones they trust. Further, if more than one voice is to be heard, it is absolutely essential that all are conveying the same message. Different messages lead to public distrust and a belief that no one really knows what’s going on. This encourages rumors to spring up like weeds, further confusing the public and diffusing the message. And we all know how hard it is to get rid of weeds!

• The modes of delivery of messages must be determined. For major crises, the mass media will act as intermediaries for many people. Live press briefings are important, especially if recorded and made available for later playback, but special care must be taken to get the media to understand and accurately convey the intended message. Social media can also be useful, but it must be remembered that many people aren’t on social media. The poor – the homeless! – may not have access to digital devices; the elderly and the ill may not be physically able to use these devices. If all parts of the public need to act, then messages need to go where the people are. That means churches, homeless shelters and grocery stores in addition to press briefings.

• Once the message is formulated, and the messenger and mode of delivery determined, the message must be delivered. Ideally, the messenger conveys the messages with seriousness, empathy and confidence. Questions should be encouraged, and honestly answered. If the desired information isn’t known, a promise should be made to address the ignorance, and then kept by following up, ideally at the next briefing. Mayor Joe Riley of Charleston, SC, essentially wrote the book on this. After the SC Low Country was devastated by Hurricane Hugo, he delivered daily briefings in a brilliantly effective manner. Even in the early days when the situation was especially dire, he made it a point to have at least one accomplishment to report in each briefing. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi was an absolute master at admitting when he didn’t have the answer to a question, but then providing rapid followup. This points to the fact that followup is an important part of delivering the message.

• Finally, it is important that public action is monitored. Too often, communications effectiveness is evaluated in terms of the frequency of delivery. If the goal is action, then action should be monitored, and messaging altered as necessary.

With this as background, let me lay out a few considerations for what we should do the next time. I’ll point to what was done and – in many cases – suggest something different. These are not intended as criticisms of those who were thrust into the breach ill-prepared, but rather to illustrate how different choices might have been more effective.

Audiences. Pandemic communications of necessity are more challenging than those for a hurricane. In a pandemic, the entire country is potentially impacted; in a hurricane, the target audience is those who are in its path. At the early stages of the pandemic, everyone was potentially at risk; everyone needed to take appropriate actions. However, America’s diversity poses huge challenges in getting that message out. We have people jammed together in big cities, and people spread out in wide open spaces. We have regional differences, often coupled with cultural differences. America as melting pot means there are linguistic challenges. And there are huge educational differences.

On top of all of that, our country is politically polarized. Many on the Left had (and still have) a visceral dislike – even hatred – and distrust of President Trump. Conversely, many on the Right almost worshipped the President. And the Great Middle was politically halved as well. This polarization doesn’t seem to have been considered enough at either the federal or state level.

Further, the bureaucrats should have recognized (as I believe that the President did) that Americans generally don’t react well to dictates. We’re congenitally independent; many of us won’t take action unless you “show me” (OK, I was born in Missouri) in terms I’ll understand and believe. In the middle of winter I want a hearty soup, not a pale broth – telling me that I should do something on the basis of a model’s projections from incomplete data is not very nourishing: or convincing, if I have no conception of what mathematical models are.

Messages. Actions should be formulated that are appropriate to each group. Instead, the initial messaging during the pandemic was boiled down to the lowest common denominator – cover your mouth and wash your hands. We knew more and should have communicated that better. We were informed that the immuno-compromised and the elderly were at highest risk (scaring the tar out of us in those categories), but they weren’t told what they could co to protect themselves. Forceful statements early on stressing the importance of sunlight, exercise and social distancing of those at risk might have prevented tens of thousands of deaths. One of the great missed opportunities was when Dr. Fauci was asked what he personally did, and he mentioned taking Vitamin C and D supplements – intended to strengthen the immune system. Strengthen your immune system – this message should have been hammered home again and again; this is the health care equivalent of fortifying your home agains a hurricane.

Messengers. Ideally, there should be a trusted voice for each target audience. During the pandemic, we didn’t really have that: we had the CDC contingent (Fauci and Birx) and President Trump. And, too often, oil and water. In January-February, 2020, the President took forceful action closing the borders; Fauci downplayed its importance. At the same time, the President was portraying the coming surge as a bump in the road (then why close the borders?), not the washout it became. Throughout the first surge, the President would seem to zig while the CDC spokespersons zagged. Little or no message discipline on his part; while the CDC damaged its credibility by first saying “no” to masks, then “yes” to masks and then admitting that its initial “no” was sort of a white lie intended to avoid a public rush on PPE needed by the health care community. And only another scientist would really be interested in the nuances of mathematical models telling us how bad it could be – we needed more actionable information than to just wash our hands. As the pandemic ramped up, the public was confused by two message streams that seemed to randomly approach and diverge from each other.

One of the early actions taken by the President was to name the VP as head of the government task force dealing with the crisis – this was a good move – there were lots of other things going on that the President needed to pay attention to. It would have been even better if the head of the task force was also the primary spokesperson. It is almost a certainty that Mr Pence would have had more message discipline than the President. As head of the task force, he was also much better placed to develop a unified and consistent message with all of the players. And he would not have triggered the visceral rejection by the Left of any message delivered by Mr Trump.

We also would have benefited if messages were better targeted. A “big city” message and an “out in the country” message each tailored to that group could have increased credibility and ultimately compliance as we started to recover. Messages seemed to be aimed at an educated middle class – what about those living in inadequate housing (4.5X more likely to be infected than their middle class peers), with poor water or unemployed (twice as likely), or the homeless? Poor messaging and choice of messengers early on is likely one of the root causes of the “vaccine hesitancy” we’re seeing now.

Delivery. The public’s primary sources of information were press briefings, social media – and rumors. One of the biggest problems with the press briefings was that there didn’t seem to be any medical or scientific reporters. The political activists reporters seemed to be more interested in playing “gotcha games” than asking the tough technical questions that needed to be addressed. For example, they might have questioned the validity of the models that seemed to be guiding policy during much of the early surge, or they might have asked what had changed between the end of January (Dr. Fauci: “There’s no chance in the world that we could do that [lockdowns] to Chicago or to New York or to San Francisco”) to 265 M Americans in lockdown by the end of March. They might have questioned whether state orders placing the infected among the most vulnerable (those in nursing homes) made sense.

The less said about the messaging on social media the better. The former Tweeter-in-Chief is a prolific user, but he’s never met a situation he couldn’t confuse. The messages on social media from the press primarily focused on how wrong the Administration’s response to the crisis was (the impression left was that it bordered on criminal stupidity) rather than on informing the public about what the approach really was.

As a result of the Administration’s poor messaging and the press’s mangling of what message there was, rumors abounded. The public’s initial response – as might be expected – was confusion. Should we wear masks? Should we not go on Spring Break? Eventually those questions were answered affirmatively. And then the protests and riots began.

Now, all of a sudden, everything the public had been told was necessary was found to be – no longer necessary. The CDC – seemingly politicized – mainly was silent on what they had been calling potential “super-spreader” events. Even the President seemed to ignore the potential health impacts and responded instead to the protesters’ and rioters’ politics. This cost him precious credibility with those on the Right.

Monitoring. Finally, there is no apparent evidence that anyone was trying to monitor the effectiveness of the communications. If communications had been monitored, one would hope that messaging would have improved over time, along with message discipline.

Ultimately, the lesson I think we should take away from all of this is that effective crisis communications requires planning. Such a plan should identify target audiences, the desired actions for each audience, and the messages – and messengers – to each. The plan should include delivery of the messages by several means and monitoring of the messages’ effectiveness. Most importantly, the “trust account” should be considered at each step.

In 2010, I gave a talk in New Orleans memorializing Katrina’s fifth anniversary. One of the points I made was that the next crisis won’t be the same as the one before. But if we don’t better plan our communications with the public, the outcome of that next crisis may turn out much the same – lives lost, businesses ruined, and a badly frayed social fabric. And if that planning does not have “trust” front and center then the public won’t act. Who are the target audiences? What actions do we want them to take? Who has earned their trust and can deliver the message? How can we get the message to them in a way they will heed it? Trust is interwoven into all of these, and thus should be a cornerstone of our planning. Certainly building trust and planning both take time. But over half a million dead offer mute testimony to the cost of not doing so. A grim lesson of 1 AC.

For any of you who might be interested, our paper on stress testing communities is now available online at:


Resilience in the Age of Stupid

The Age of Stupid: A world where dialogue is dead; a world where we have stopped engaging with those with whom we don’t agree; a world where we no longer have to listen or expose ourselves to other ideas that may challenge our confirmation bias. Social media has made the promotion of ignorance much easier. With a simple block, unfriend or ban click, we can ensure that the only information we are exposed to comes from our trusted tribe of like-minded thinkers.

The Risk-Monger

Like most of you, I’m sure, I care deeply about the issues of the day. But I know that our media echo chambers (whether MSNBC or OANN) give me – at best – only a part of any story. Over the last couple of years I’ve turned to blogs, trying to see ascertain the actual situation to draw intelligent conclusions. So I read the Recovery Diva and Pointman; Living on the Real World and Climate, Etc; and most recently, the Risk-Monger.

In the passage above the Risk-Monger has provided an all-too-accurate description of the times we live in. The Left and Right are united only in their disdain for everyone else. Their shouted invectives and imprecations of their opponents drown out the more civil voices of those in the Great Middle. Their hysteria is almost cult-like – they sound like modern-day miniature Grand Inquisitors enforcing impossible doctrines.

According to the Pew Trust, a majority of Republican voters are afraid to voice their political beliefs (approximately one-third of Americans). In the wake of the election, we have seen people whose only sin was to work for the White House demonized and denied jobs. Is this the unity and mutual regard our new President promised?

Ultimately, a community’s resilience – its ability to recover from disruption – comes down to the ability of its leaders to work together to achieve common goals. That requires trust, and an ability to communicate with each other. Too often, however, we seem to be living the following parable:

In a land far, far away…

There lived two kinds of people. One was red and could see only red, the other was blue and could see only blue. They spoke different languages. The Reds were great at tasks involving red objects, OK at tasks involving orange objects, but couldn’t even see green or blue objects.

Conversely, the Blues were great if only Blue objects were involved, OK with most green tasks, but were hopeless if orange or red objects were involved.

What one would build – even if good – the other could not see, and would unwittingly blunder into and destroy. Since they couldn’t see each other or understand each other, they never could agree on anything. So no problems were ever solved.

Trust is an essential ingredient for working together, but trust fades where fear treads. This lack of trust in each other – borne of the political cacophany and covid’s woes – seriously compromises our ability to pull together in time of crisis. Thus those of us who care about our communities must ask how resilient they can be in this Age of Stupid.

As for most things in this real world, the answer is – it depends. If disasters have a direction, recovery has a context. The type and magnitude of a disruption; the community’s topology; the resources available for recovery; and the community’s leadership itself will combine to form the context for recovery. Taken together, they will determine how far and how fast a community can come back after disruption. And while I’ve couched this in terms of disaster, it is just as true for communities trying to seize opportunities or to forge new ones.

Disruption. The type of disruption is important because it determines what forms of community capital are lost or damaged and thus what needs to be replenished or repaired. Thus, covid has severely strained our social capital accounts; our responses to it have reduced our financial capital. The magnitude of the disruption sets a minimum level of resources needed for recovery.

Community topology. A community’s topology – how the various people and community organizations are arranged and interrelated – is one of the least studied but most important aspects of a community’s context. The connections – or lack of connections due to conflicts – obviously play important roles in communications and resource flows.* If a disaster sets a minimum level of resources needed for recovery, then conflicts (or the lack of connections between resources and where they’re needed) can raise the resource bar significantly. The rebuilding of the World Trade Center provides a telling example. Deep disagreements among the various regional “partners” increased both the cost (perhaps by as much as $10 billion!) and the duration (by over a decade) of the recovery.

Resources. The resources needed for recovery go beyond the financial costs. Each of the capital accounts impacted by the disruption have to be replenished. After Katrina, the physical damage had to be repaired. This required financial capital as well as human capital – construction professionals – who were in short supply even before the disaster.

Leadership. One of the facets of the Age of Stupid that should be glaringly obvious is that leadership at the national and community levels is not unitary. While the federal government can claim some credit for mobilizing the resources to develop vaccines so rapidly, it was Big Pharma and its resources that actually did it. The mayors of our riot-torn cities – Portland, Seattle, Kenosha and others – can lead the cheers and can remove bureaucratic barriers, but ultimately businesses, non-profits, associations and “just folks” will have to work together if these cities are to recover. And connections from a community’s leadership to external sources of support (federal aid; expertise in recovery of specific types of businesses – think tourism, for example) will also be crucial.

Resilience is possible in the Age of Stupid, if the context for recovery is right. As the parable illustrates, however, we need people working together to provide lasting solutions to the multi-hued problems we face. Neither the Reds nor the Blues have a monopoly on the Truth – or on Mendacity. We should not trust either side working alone to solve our problems, but only both working together.

* I cannot stress enough the impact on my thinking of the work done by Erica Kuligowski and Christine Bevc, under Kathleen Tierney’s guidance, in this regard. Looking at regional emergency management organizations (UASIs), their work clearly showed that some topologies were more effective at mobilizing resources than others.