Of decisions and communication

Planning is important because that is where communication exits are clearly mapped out. Still, the basics matter: designate a spokesman, speak in one voice, stick to a message frame, drill the information on all channels, do KISS (keep it simple and short), ensure call to action and maintain open lines to make certain that the public knows what government is doing in crisis mode. One single task should be made clear: government is on top of the situation.

This column originally appeared in The Manila Times on February 4, 2020    

Presidential decision making is not an easy task. There are many imponderables that go into the process and sometimes decisions made are not appreciated by the public because of the manner by which it is communicated. It has often been said that it is better to err on the side of prudence, of caution, than to not act at all. But there is also such a thing as timeliness and making the call based on actionable information. That is if the system of contingency planning is built into the process.

One has to realize that what information is made public is not necessarily the kind of information the President has at his disposal. He has the vast power to check and double-check information. He or his team has access to a situation room where all information is vetted and a crisis manual is updated or assembled roll with a crisis team convened.

VUCA — for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, a combination of qualities that characterize the nature of some difficult conditions and situations — is not new. Governments these days deal with it on a daily basis.

“Decision making is simply the thought process of selecting a logical choice from the available options. A president has to strike the right balance between pleasing the nation, the general public and their own political party. When seeking to please the nation, a president must consider his or her national constituency. This is the group of voters the president represents. Of course, the president represents and leads the entire country. So, though his constituents are technically those who supported or voted for him, the president must seek to more broadly please the general public. This means that successful presidential decisions will be based on the national interest. The national interest refers to what is in the best interests of the nation and most wanted by the public at such precise time.”

The decision-making process, though a logical one, is a difficult task. All decisions can be categorized into the following three basic models: “rational/classical; administrative or bounded rationality and retrospective decision making.”

In the classical model, problems and objectives are clear. People agree on criteria and weights. All alternatives are known. All consequences can be anticipated. Decision makes are rational, which means they are not biased in recognizing problems, are capable of processing all relevant information, anticipate present and future consequences of decisions and search for all alternatives that maximizes the desired results.

Bounded rationality is “decision-making involving the achievement of a goal.” Rationality demands that the decision-maker should properly understand the alternative courses of action for reaching the goals. He should also “have full information and the ability to analyze properly various alternative courses of action in the light of goals sought. There should also be a desire to select the best solutions by selecting the alternative, which will satisfy the goal achievement. One does not assume individual rationality in the decision process. Instead, it assumes that people, while they may seek the best solution, normally settle for much less, because the decisions they confront typically demand greater information, time, processing capabilities than they possess.” They settle for “bounded rationality or limited rationality in decisions. This model is based on certain basic concepts.”

The retrospective decision-making model focuses on “how decision makers attempt to rationalize their choices after they have been made and try to justify their decisions.” The total process is designed to “justify, through the guise of scientific rigor, a decision that has already been made intuitively. By this means, the individual becomes convinced that he or she is acting rationally and taking a logical, reasoned decision on an important topic.”

Once decisions are made, the other part of presidential action is communicating the same and this is where leaders differ from each other and most of the time, failure becomes real. Planning is important because that is where communication exits are clearly mapped out. Still, the basics matter: designate a spokesman, speak in one voice, stick to a message frame, drill the information on all channels, do KISS (keep it simple and short), ensure call to action and maintain open lines to make certain that the public knows what government is doing in crisis mode. One single task should be made clear: government is on top of the situation.

Ideally, government should always be prepared for crisis because it is the nature of the beast. Contingency planning is a must and protocols are in place because government is the ship of state. Unfortunately, when a leader despises communication protocols and the same are not laid out clearly, bottlenecks happen and the impression that government is in disarray does not help in crisis. Some leaders despise strategic communications thinking it is public relations. It is not. A leader that falls into the trap makes things worse by such a belief. It does not help if the state communication apparatus is not in full sync and the so-called gatekeepers are more often than not sleeping on the job.

The public needs to feel the presence of government in a crisis. The more it is felt, the better in quelling the crisis. Part of handling crisis is the ability to communicate effectively. Under crisis mode, people are not listening intently. Some are listening intuitively hence they hear what they want to hear and the basic sender-message-receiver is distorted by biases and the cacophony of noises. Basic. One wouldn’t want to communicate in a crisis mode because it is hard to do so.

Imagine shouting above the din, and these days, how can one communicate effectively in social media? A platform that can reach people in real time, but converted into an ouster trending war on both sides of the aisle. Mind you, we are in a crisis and both sides are on each other’s necks to prove they can trend more.

In the end, the community loses. Civic action is sacrificed and the ability to clearly see though the noise is compromised. It does not help when the leader can’t be seen or heard. It does not help when pressers are called and they add to the distortions by the kind of releases government agencies come up with. In another crisis, it was having a spokesman who knew the topic well, an expert in fact but took a while to convince the audience that she was indeed an expert. How do you calm a storm? How do you project government is in control? How do you handle hecklers everywhere? Kinda hard. Still, it has been said, “Presidential power is the power to persuade.”

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About the Author
Malou Tiqiua is the Founder/General Manager of PUBLiCUS Asia Inc. A noted political management expert in the Philippines and Asia, she brings over 20 years of professional experience in public, private and the academe combined. Author of the comprehensive book on electoral campaigns in the Philippines, "Campaign Politics", Malou is a graduate of the University of the Philippines with a Political Science degree and a Master of Public Administration. She completed her second master's degree (MA in Political Management) from the Graduate School of Political Management, George Washington University.
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