speaking truth to power

Truth to power: A Communicator’s Obligation

November 2, 2018

Critical Takeaways

  • CEOs need an honest view of the situation in order to be able to manage a crisis. This requires those who support them to ‘speak truth to power’.
  • Crisis communicators are in a unique position to bring the external perspectives into the discussion.
  • Communicators must learn to share their views with clarity, courage and conviction, even in the face of uncertainty and change. Five suggestions are included to help achieve this.


I recently had an opportunity to give a speech to the Public Relations Society of America International Conference and I chose the title “Think Like a CEO. Act Like a Communicator”.  I wanted to share my experience working with a number of CEOs during critical moments: how we can think the way they do and understand what they want so we can deliver information in the most clear and useful manner.

If you want details on the speech itself, see what we shared here.

The speech covered a lot but I want to focus on a specific point here: the concept of speaking truth to power and the relationship between an organization’s CEO and his or her communications team or those who manage their external relationships.

There are a number of key traits that advisors to CEOs need to keep in mind to better serve their CEOs but before I do that, I want to acknowledge that sharing insights and recommendations during a crisis can be difficult. There are two reasons for this.

Firstly, there is a great deal of uncertainty in a crisis. Secondly, you may have to share information that is going to be uncomfortable for the CEO and your leadership to hear.

Remember, a reputation crisis is different than a manufacturing anomaly or a situation where a legal precedent or predictable regulatory response provides some structure. The uncertainty associated with misplaced public expectations is significant so first and foremost, we need to be able to speak with conviction in a very uncertain world.

The best way to do this is to develop superior pattern recognition. This allows you to refer back to similar situations to identify patterns that will help you make sense of what is going on.  However, with an ever-changing world, it is difficult to be crystal-clear on exactly what’s going to happen next so even pattern recognition will only take you so far.

This means that the most important attribute is to have the presence of mind and self awareness to simply speak your truth as you see it. Tell your leadership what you know, what you believe this means based on your experience and understanding of the world around you, and your best advice on what to do.

This kind of conviction is difficult for everyone in a crisis because of the uncertainty but communicators are also saddled with the additional burden of being responsible for sharing the often unpleasant perspectives of those outside the organization. However, I have found some specific ways that communicators and senior advisors can ensure that the CEOs have an honest understanding of the situation.

Firstly, add value by telling the leader things that they don’t already know. ‘It’s blowing up on Twitter’ or ‘stakeholders are upset’ are not useful bits of information.  But the reaction of influential employees, a summary of shareholder sentiments or a warning about a confidential scoop that a high-profile journalist seems to have are critical pieces of data.

However, these are not the first things a CEO thinks about.

So highlighting these critical facts and their implications is what you as a communicator should be focusing on, not rehashing a play-by-play of things people already know.

Because things are moving so quickly it can be difficult to get your arms around the actual facts. Therefore, be clear as to what you know, what has changed and where you have had to make assumptions. This will ensure that your leadership is getting information they won’t get anywhere else but that they also understand the gaps or uncertainties.

Secondly, have the courage of your convictions to tell the CEO and leadership what to do next.  You are the subject matter expert and have the best view of the external environments. This, coupled with your experience and understanding of previous, similar situations, means that you are best placed to advise your CEO on what to do from a communications perspective. Be confident in your abilities and in your advice.

Thirdly, eliminate the PowerPoint. Details and fact are important in a crisis but leaders expect honest conversations about what’s happening, why it’s happening, and your best advice on what to do. This is best achieved through candid, thoughtful discussions and smart perspective, not slides. PowerPoint often comes across as overly-simplistic – for many it’s seen as a junior-level tool –  instead of providing the depth, nuance and sharp-thinking in the moment that a face-to-face discussion will produce.

Fourth, less is more. Be crystal clear with your perspectives and focus on what is directly relevant. When you’re in the war room, focus on the specific crisis, give crisp insights and limit yourself to what is relevant at that time.  When someone asks you what time it is, you don’t need to explain how to build the watch; simply tell them what time it is. And remember, you don’t have to speak on every topic.

Fifth and lastly, your aim is to be right in the moment, not 100% right. As I said in point two, your need to use your experience, insights, and perspective to provide the best interpretation you have of a given situation and advise on what to do next. So differentiate between what you know and where you are making informed assumptions. Give your best and most honest opinions with confidence but accept that much of this will change. You, along with everyone else involved,  will have to adapt and update your advice as the situation unfolds.

Anyone who understands crises understands that situations change so I don’t believe people are keeping score where they say, ‘Well, on Wednesday they said this, and on Tuesdays they said this. Those two things disagree.’

A friend of mine likes to say ‘often wrong; never in doubt’. I don’t think he always means this as a compliment, but I believe that forceful conviction will move a crisis situation forward more quickly than always trying to be 100% right.

The fact of the matter is we need to balance between two extremes: say things with conviction, courage and confidence, without doubt. But by the same token, we also need to adapt and update what we say based on how the situation and facts develop.

Perhaps ‘often wrong; never in doubt in the momentis a better sentiment here.

So, experiment to see how you can improve the directness of your conversation – while still being respectful – in your day-to-day interactions. Research other crises to build your library of previous events to help you spot patterns. Schedule training for your teams and participate in crisis simulations to put these skills to the test in realistic settings.

Do this and, over time, your rapport with your senior leaders, your confidence and your ability to be right in the moment will develop. Be open to dialogue, but when your hand is called, it’s time to make a decision, say where you stand and explain why you stand there.

Just remember, to speak truth to power, you don’t need a PowerPoint deck.

Filed under: Blog


Bill is a reputation management, crisis communications and professional development expert, keynote speaker, Wall Street Journal Risk & Compliance panelist, and best-selling author of Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management. He has more than 25 years of global experience managing high-stakes crises, issues management, and media relations challenges for both Fortune 500 companies and winning global political campaigns.