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As some of you may know, our family’s personal tragedy returned to the media recently. It was a stressful time for me as the family spokesperson. For reasons that I’ll get into below, it was vastly more difficult than it has been before. As I was coming out the other side of the storm, it occurred to me that yet another thing many law library directors won’t experience is having to communicate in a crisis. I thought I’d share some of my experience, in case it’s useful for anyone else.
The reality is that many of us may go through our entire careers without having to deal with a public crisis. It’s a bit like hiring and firing. Unless you are going through a lot of transitions, even that may not be a common experience. I have been thinking a lot recently about our public library colleagues who are dealing with book banners. Law libraries, if only because of our collections and focus, may be less likely to get into those situations. The only examples I could think of off the top of my head were brought on by the law library itself: embezzlement or racial profiling, for example.
I still remember an early “crisis” in my career when we started to charge students for printing. At the annual student review (revue?), the concept was sent up as the law library charging for toilet paper. It was an unpopular policy that, in very little time, was adopted and became normal. It was irritating but nothing more.
I was not prepared. And I say that as someone who has been working with the media intensively over the last 4 years, during my brother’s ongoing wrongful detention by Russia. This time was different. In the past, my media interactions have revolved around an event that was just part of the tick-tock of the ongoing saga. There was mostly interest from an observation standpoint, of the thing that had happened and that future things might also happen.
This time, the public response was explosive. It was not really a surprise but not being surprised is different from being prepared to navigate the outcome. As my brother remained a Russian hostage, his case became used as a battering ram for political purposes. Which leads me to my first point.
Are You Adding Fuel to the Fire?
I had made it about two days through the news cycle, which was already longer than I would normally have had to engage with the media, before I tweeted out what became additional tinder for the whirlwind. I share it here for context. You may or may not agree with it. It is a factual statement followed by an opinion.
In hindsight, I wouldn’t change a thing. But I was about to experience something I hadn’t before, which was being surrounded by the outrage machine of social media. It was a worthwhile experience.
Some of you may follow me on Twitter. It is the only social media platform I engage with on any regular basis, and even that is diminishing as I look in on Mastodon more. Most of my engagement is statements, or things that I share. I view Twitter primarily as a broadcast tool, both in how I consume information and how I use it to share information. It is a one-way tool for me.
This is why this tweet, above, and most of my tweets, are set to only be replied to by people I follow. I’m a devotee of Dunbar’s number, as regular readers of this blog know. I follow only a couple dozen people even though I may consume information from a much wider group.
The result was that this tweet not only angered certain people due to its content but they were doubly frustrated that they didn’t have the right to respond to my post. I am glad, in hindsight, that I had turned off replies – because I wasn’t soliciting any – but it was a useful experience.
If you are ever involved in a crisis, there will come a time when you have to decide whether to engage with people. Ideally, a conversation of ideas could be had. But my assumption, based on years of news about social media, is that there are many people acting in bad faith. For the most part, I have avoided doing so because (a) most of them are not important to the issue at hand and (b) most online interactions are the equivalent of drive by shootings.
This is the takeaway for me. Most people have become accustomed to being able to yell into the void without consequences. Whether you speak out or not on social media, you may receive abuse from some corners if your issue is controversial enough. People will hunt out your online profiles to try to interact with you. More importantly, if your issue is tangential to other people, especially politicians, people will surface to attack that person through you.
As I mention below, I did occasionally engage. At least twice, the person responded with an apology or something like, and then blocked me. I talked it over with my family and we all agreed that it was likely they had never been made accountable for anything they said on social media.
Whatever you do, if you engage, do it in a way that you can live with. Anything you do becomes part of the conversation. If people seem to want to have a real conversation, you might want to give them the opportunity.
That doesn’t mean you should shy from taking a stand if you think it’s important, to clarify misinformation or false statements. You can do it by focusing narrowly on facts and not trying to score points or dunking on the other person. And it’s always going to be another person and that tempered some of my bad instincts. You have to do better than other people in this sort of situation or you damage your own communications.
I found that using Twitter’s mute function, as opposed to blocking, worked the best for me. It removed the noise from the conversation. I was never going to be able to stop the bad faith communication. It eliminated the “look, he blocked me” takes, which feeds and is one purpose for the outrage machine.
At the same time, you need to realize that you can’t fight every fire, you can’t change every mind, you can’t correct every false statement. Pick your battles carefully. I’ve talked at length about resource management. Your moments to engage are a dedication of resources, so do it wisely.
You Can’t Control the Conversation
It is important to realize what you can control and what you can’t. Even if you don’t say anything that you feel is incendiary, you may be or feel attacked. For example, I merely stated on an interview what I thought was an obvious point: a US president should bring home an American citizen rather than not bring home an American citizen. Not everyone agreed with that position.
This is obviously something I didn’t bother to respond to. The point of that tweet is not to have a conversation, it’s to amplify a particular viewpoint and, in my opinion, to generate superficial engagement. This is like a paper flyer lying in a culvert. It’s information and an opinion that exists, but it’s not something that matters. I could clamber down into the muck of the culvert to consider its content but what’s the point?
However, you may feel as though you need to engage in the public discourse if, as in my case, other principals in the issue are also engaging. As I explained online, I wouldn’t have said anything about President Trump’s inaction had President Trump not used my brother to attack another detainee’s freedom. That’s a difficult call and you should be aware that each engagement has consequences.
The challenge is really to minimize the target vector of each engagement. The one thing you don’t want to do is derail your message. As you can see in some of the tweets above, there were other points of view that were unrelated to the thing I’d actually said. You should think very hard about what you are trying to say and focus on it. Fortunately for me, I write our media statements and manage our messaging. So I had our media statement as a guide. And if people weren’t engaged with what I had said there, it wasn’t something I felt I needed to respond to.
A bit of sunlight: the media statement I released on Thursday morning was not what I drafted Wednesday night. I rewrote it a number of times. Then I went to sleep. Then I woke and revised it further. Take all the time you have to get this right. I had about 10 hours. It made all the difference to be able to sleep on it, even if it was only a couple of hours. The fact that I got a good result this time is at least partly due to sheer dumb luck.
The reality is that the conversation will migrate whether you want it to or not. I don’t think it’s a choice to not respond. I do not believe in saying no comment because I don’t think that helps your cause. You should be thinking of answers and be prepared to use them at the appropriate times.
One tactic I have found extremely useful is to say what you need to and then be silent. On social media, it is easy to ignore the bad takes. You can turn off replies to ensure that your comments aren’t sullied by a lot of garbage. In live media, you can stop when you are finished saying what you want to say and let the host fill the time. There have been times when someone asked me a question designed to generate confrontation or conflict, and my answer was a simple word or phrase – “No” or “That is completely plausible”. And then I just sat and waited and, because it’s live, they will move the conversation along. You don’t have to be drawn in to engagements that you do not feel are appropriate or aligned with your message.
You already know that trick if you went to law school. Courtroom examination and interrogation is replete with using silence to get a witness to talk. Silence is uncomfortable. No reason you can’t use it to your advantage in other situations.
You just have to be careful about how and when to respond or engage. I tried not to engage directly with a particular complaint. For example, when people were being partisan in their comments, I suggested that they could use Congress.gov to find out which politicians had supported my brother’s release, and they were from both parties. This was not directed back at the commenters I saw, but was a new replies-off tweet that stood alone. People who cared about the point could interact with. You can’t make people care about what you say or, particularly, listen to you.
These can be opportunities to not only continue to be part of the conversation but also to show gratitude for supporters or shared beliefs with people who may be perceived as, or who others may try to maneuver into, being in opposition.
You May Be the Target
I cannot stress how fascinated I was by this part of social media. I had no idea what I was missing until I started to be called names or sworn at on social media, or in phone calls, or in emails. It had been a long time since I’d gotten hate email and I’d never been attacked publicly while working on my brother’s case.
I use a VOIP browser-based phone number for people who are not immediate family and in my innermost circle of friends. So these calls are easy for me to ignore. I don’t hear them ring, I would never accidentally answer this call. If you can create an environment where you are not forced to have these sorts of interactions – turn off notifications, use voicemail and transcription like Google Voice, email rules that filter out swear words – you can provide yourself some space to avoid unwanted communications. Bonus: I can discard this phone number in the future if I continue to get harassed on it, without changing my actual phone number.
This is the sort of thing you need to plan in advance. How are you going to interact with people? Is your office phone number or email published? If it is, how are you going to manage those interactions when they happen? Can you download voice mail as recorded files or transcriptions, or filter email into folders to deal with all at once?
This is really nothing though compared to what other people have to put up with. I can’t even comprehend the perpetual, overt hate. A presenter on a television program called “The View” sent out a compassionate tweet about my brother’s case, amplifying our request that people write to him. I was tagged on the tweet. And so I saw the horrible responses about the person’s physical attributes, their clothing, harm that people wanted to befall them. I’m aware this abuse happens, but I don’t follow anyone who does it and I rarely read other people’s replies. It is very different to see it happen in real time. I don’t understand why everyone doesn’t turn off replies on Twitter.
I have been called a terrible American (I’m not an American). A Democrat voter (that would be illegal). A California liberal (no and maybe). A beta (for pity’s sake, Bro). More personally, a terrible brother.
It was incredibly kind of other participants to step in on my behalf. I admit, for a few hours on day three, I engaged in some to and fro with the combatants. There is a catharsis in the interaction, even if I was still hyper careful. You will find this too: just because you aren’t visibly angry or emotional, doesn’t mean you don’t have those emotions. And while I was grateful to have people come to my aid and brawl on my behalf, it was really all so unnecessary. I tended to feel worse after interacting with people. But even if I didn’t interact, I felt the emotional drain of being prepared to.
Afterwards, I was reminded of First Lady Michelle Obama’s phrase, “when they go low, we go high.“
Despite how some people perceived it, I didn’t take any of this personally. Again, Dunbar’s number. There are about 10 people in the entire world whose use of these epithets would mean anything to me and they’re unlikely to ever use them; that’s why they’re my closest connections. And everyone has their right to their opinion. In the end, a couple of hours was enough to gather the screenshots I needed for this post and to, virtually, relieve some of the overwhelming emotion I was struggling to contain.
Know who you are. Remind yourself. Try to be true to what you know about yourself and whatever situation you are in. Choose how you engage but realize that not every voice raised for or against you needs to be amplified or interacted with. Sometimes your silence is the best approach. But it won’t stop you from personal attacks.
Try Not to Take It Personally
Most of us have no training in crisis communications. You may not have access to resources who can perform this either. We may feel as though, surrounded as we are by lawyers, that surely someone will have this experience. But I do not think you can assume lawyers have any idea how to communicate effectively, strategically, in a crisis. If you don’t think you can do it yourself, your law library may need to hire someone to help. It will depend on how large the risk is. I would not rely on your governance board either. Get someone who does marketing and communication as a profession.
Even if you bring in someone else to help, though, you will be part of the message delivery. If nothing else, it is important that you deliver the messages that you are going to have to stand behind. Your part in all of this can build or retain trust with people who are worried about the crisis. How you act will become part of the assessment about how the crisis should be resolved.
One thing that has helped me is that I have thought a lot about my public persona. The person who writes this blog is only a representation of who I am. I try to be authentic but I have a lot of my life locked off from public view, even to the extent I share my thoughts here. You can imagine that my public media persona – the person who just did about 40 interviews in 5 days – is also only a partial representation of who I am.
This can be a useful thing to consider when you have a moment: what is the persona you would present in a crisis? If you have thought in advance about what you are willing to share and how you want to respond, it means you are not having to make that decision during the moment of crisis. I don’t take any of this personally because I know that none of these comments are an accurate take on who I am. And I have the distance, and perhaps experience, to know that I’m just the current target. It’s not personal, even though it feels like it.
Try to Keep Perspective
I was back to work the Monday after all of this occurred. I felt, physically, terrible. I had been in fight or flight mode for over four days. It had been amplified by the incredible outpouring of anger and hatred, and my tweet, and it was exhausting. You need to consider the physical toll a crisis will take on you. If you’ve been a litigator, you probably have already mastered this. It took me a full day for the adrenaline to finally subside and then I was very tired.
I tend to give more weight to criticism than compliments. But it’s important to remember that, unless you’ve discussing obviously wrong actions, like embezzlement or racial profiling, you are probably getting both support and opposition. We can focus only on the opposition to the detriment of remembering the people who are on our side.
The unchangeable truth was that my brother did not get his freedom. And no amount of communication or media engagement was going to change that. The bigger picture is this: we were able to raise a substantial amount of money for my brother’s prison account. It has meant we have literally added a couple of years worth of additional support that we can provide him in Russia. Thousands of people who didn’t know about Paul’s case know about it. Hundreds of people seem to have indicated they are going to write him a card or letter, which will boost his morale as well as cause outright mayhem for the prison that is holding him. All of these are worthy outcomes.
Our crisis isn’t over. But this part of it is. And when the next event comes around, I’ll respond to and adapt to it in its own way. There is no way to plan for the specifics. But if you can
- plan your message as carefully as you can, and update it as the conversation shifts, but do not shift off your message,
- only engage in the changing conversation in ways that align with your strategy,
- think about the persona you want to present to the world and hold on to that person, regardless of the personal attacks that may go to your credibility or ethics or other personal traits,
I think you can navigate your first crisis when it comes along. The key is to start thinking about it just like you would any other strategic thinking you do for your law library. You, and your organization, will benefit from this forethought.