The Weekly Reflektion Week 27 / 2020

The ‘elephant in the room’ is often used to describe an issue that everyone knows is the most important issue for the people in an organization, however it is not the issue that is being discussed. Peter Sandman, an advocate of effective risk communication, uses the example of how Exxon communicated their environmental policy following the Exxon Valdez grounding and oil spill in March 1989.

What is (are) your elephant(s) in the room? Do you dare to put the elephant(s) on the table and discuss with the people in your organization? Are you aware of the consequences of not doing this?

The Exxon Valdez tanker grounded on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound in Alaska on the 24th March 1989. The resulting oil spill was the largest in the US until the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

The total cost of the Exxon Valdez oil spill has been estimated to USD 7 billion. The accident had a significant impact on Exxon’s reputation and credibility for environmental protection. Exxon made many attempts to improve its reputation including presentations to politicians, the public and the media. Exxon’s representatives were reluctant to talk about the Exxon Valdez disaster and wanted to rather focus on the future. They were keen to promote their environmental credentials and their new environmental policy. The elephant in the room was the ‘Exxon Valdez’ disaster and as long as the elephant was in the room and Exxon were not talking about it, then no-one was listening to what they had to say.

Exxon changed their approach and decided to get the elephant in the room on the table and in focus. They started their presentations with a recognition and reminder of the Exxon Valdez disaster, the consequences for the environment in Prince William Sound and the cost to Exxon of the clean up measures, compensation, and fines and damages. They stated that ‘Exxon has learned from Exxon Valdez’. The audience typically smiled and said to themselves ‘Bloody right you should have learned from Exxon Valdez’. The elephant was taken out of the room and people were then prepared to listen to what Exxon wanted to say.   

Communication is important, of course it is, and who would dispute that? However, do we really understand what is needed to communicate effectively? If your audience is not listening, then you are not communicating. If your audience is concerned about certain issues, even if these issues are, in your view not the most important, then they are unlikely to be attentive to what you have to say. Failure to address these issues may make your attempts at communication a waste of time. More importantly the disregard for what the people you are communicating to are concerned about shows a lack of respect and is unlikely to build the trust that you need to be successful in what you are doing.

Exxon Valdez was an example of external communication. The elephant in the room is also relevant for internal communication. What are the people in your organisation concerned about and what are the issues they will expect that you address in any communication? If you disregard these concerns, then your messaging is likely to fall on deaf ears.

In previous Reflektions we have talked about the importance of signals. The recognition of the signals the organisation is sending and the processing of these signals to get a coherent picture of what is happening in your organisation and what concerns people have. It is these signals that will help you to identify the elephant(s) in the room. Once identified you can start doing something about them. You will also create a situation where the organisation will start listening to you and your concerns and expectations. Are you looking for elephants?

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