Stacy Bettison

Stacy L. Bettison is a communications strategist and owner of Bettison Consulting LLC. Stacy focuses on crisis communications, reputation management and media relations. She is also a licensed attorney and has practiced law in both Chicago and Minneapolis.

Posts about Society

The Unfortunate Irony of Fear-Based Decisions

Posted by: Stacy Bettison Updated: October 14, 2012 - 7:51 AM

I was a bit surprised to hear Tokyo Electric Power Co. recently announced the nuclear disaster resulting from the March 2011 tsunami could have been avoided.  What surprised me was not that the disaster could have been avoided (crises so often can), nor that this contradicted earlier statements by the company that the facility was prepared for such a disaster (differing, later statements are not unusual). 

What struck me was the unfortunate irony of this announcement:  the company knew the facility needed improvements, but fear of the political, economic and legal repercussions of making improvements prevented them from getting it done. 
Instead of dealing with the costs of safety improvements before the disaster, the utility is now faced with even greater political, economic and legal problems that will last for years—the very problems it was seeking to avoid by not updating the facility.  What’s worse, the cleanup of the nuclear disaster will take decades, and the full effects on humans and the environment have yet to fully seen and understood.
This announcement reminded me of the rationale Penn State used for not reporting concerns about Jerry Sandusky—bad publicity.  The sad irony here: the thing Penn State feared most was the very result of its decisions — bad publicity, in spades.  More concerning and tragic, Penn State’s decisions perpetuated a cycle of abuse leaving at least 10 victims in Jerry Sandusky’s wake. 
Organizations have a choice: deal with the problems and challenges of your organization now, or deal with them later.
Dealing now admittedly involves costs, strategy and planning.  It requires bold leadership that is willing to do what is ethical and in the long-term best interest of its stakeholders, even in face of head-in-the-sand types who ask, “Is this really necessary now?”  It requires strength in leaders to advocate for smart, safe choices today, and make the case for why now costs so much less than later
The most important costs organizations must consider for later, however, are not those paid by the organization, but those to be paid by victims. The effect of radiation exposure to humans, ocean and atmosphere is still being fully assessed, but the impact is expected to last decades. The boys victimized by Jerry Sandusky, and their parents, and even their yet-to-be families, are all impacted by Penn State’s concern over bad publicity—and they will be for the rest of their lives. 

The First Amendment: The Blood in Our Veins

Posted by: Stacy Bettison Updated: September 27, 2012 - 8:59 AM

Like many, I’ve been thinking a lot about our First Amendment lately. As protest and violence in the Muslim world has occurred in response to the vulgar Internet video satirizing the Prophet Muhammad, and as we’ve seen President Obama simultaneously defending our free speech rights and denouncing the video, I’ve pondered this:

What makes the First Amendment so challenging for some to understand?  How can we better explain why the First Amendment is so important to Americans?
History usually provides some good insight into why things are the way they are today. 
I chose to consult than A History of the American Constitution, by legal scholars Daniel A. Farber and Suzanna Sherry. I read this book as a student of both professors when they taught at the University of Minnesota Law School. The chapter on the Bill of Rights spoke to my lingering question:
  • Free speech and free exercise of religion were among several rights that the colonial Americans cherished most from British heritage.
  • These rights were viewed as inalienable; fundamental; self-evident; natural; inherent; “true, ancient and indubitable rights and liberties.” In essence, if you were human, you possessed these rights.
  • Because they were inherent, they didn’t need to be written to be protected.  If they were written, the writings were viewed as “declarations” - not “enactments.”
  •  As such, government lacked the power to limit certain of these rights.
  • There was significant debate at the Constitutional Convention as to whether a bill of rights was even necessary. For instance, there was objection to including a declaration as to the freedom of the press, because the power of Congress did not extend to the press.  
  • James Madison, then elected to the House of Representatives, met considerable resistance from fellow Congressmen to even discuss the issue of amendments to the Constitution. Ultimately, however, he presented the amendments, with this preface: 
It will be a desirable thing to extinguish from the bosom of every member of the community, any apprehensions that there are those among his countrymen who wish to deprive them of the liberty for which they valiantly fought and honorably bled. . . .
  • Weeks of debate over necessity, substance, and working ensued.  The final result was the version that is now our First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The establishment, free exercise and free speech clauses form a trifecta of freedom. 
We get to decide whether we worship at all (per the establishment clause), and if so, who we worship, where we worship, when we worship and how we worship (free exercise). We get to choose how we express our religion and honor our faith (free speech). Walk down any street in America, and you’ll see expressions of religion worn on our bodies, whether it be a cross pendant or a burqa. Walk into any home, and you may see a crucifix, the Star of David or nothing at all.
A fundamental American right is the ability to express our thoughts about religion. We get to disagree, criticize and even ridicule. Offensive? Yes. Blasphemous? Yes. Hurtful? You bet. It’s this part that is so difficult for other nations, and often even our own, to understand—why allow people to defile and blaspheme something that others hold dear?
We tolerate that which offends because we know, as did our Founding Fathers, that unleashing the natural liberty of free speech and religion is far more powerful and influential than even the most bigoted and irreverent video. Allowing humanity the full expression of thought and conscience ultimately enables humans to flourish, even when some of that expression is so utterly contrary to what we believe is right and good.
The First Amendment is one of the foundations of our American heritage and society. Without it, our other rights—and even our American culture—would suffer and stagnate. Those suffering under more repressive governments have difficulty appreciating that which we have long known to be fundamental: that the right of fools to speak freely actually gives our country and our people strength. Free speech is worth fighting for and worth defending, even when it’s been used to inflict harm.
Rather than violently oppressing the rights of others to speak offensively, Americans have bled and died in the defense of this right. We believe, as our Founding Fathers believed, that these rights of expression are as natural to our humanity as the blood in our veins. 
Follow Stacy on Twitter -- @StacyBettison


Dusting off school crisis plans – good for kids, families & schools

Posted by: Stacy Bettison Updated: September 12, 2012 - 4:20 PM

Back to school is upon us. Summertime schedules have officially yielded to school days. Fall is also the season when school/district crisis management teams meet to review their programs and policies.

Unfortunately for most schools, crisis is not a question of if, but when. It may not be this year, or even next. But given what’s at risk – the safety and well-being of our children -- schools must be vigilant.

Last month I presented “Crisis Communications & Issues Management for Schools and Parishes” at the Minnesota Catholic Education Association’s Annual Convention. Much has been written about school crisis preparedness, and there are countless resources on the internet to assist schools. My talk included some fundamental strategies for managing critical issues and crisis communications, and throughout I focused on this overarching theme:

Crisis typically results in chaos. And any type of crisis, controversy or conflict – no matter the size – creates distress for those impacted.  In the worst case, lives are at stake.

Crisis, however, can be an opportunity to strengthen an organization and its relationships. In planning for crisis, we must consider the opportunities a school has to become stronger so it can better fulfill its mission, better safeguard the well-being of the children in its care, and better develop the relationships that are vital to the school’s success.

It’s all about relationships. Crisis planning can result in stronger relationships with children and families, which ultimately benefits the school.

1.    Children. In planning, schools can find opportunities to strengthen the most crucial elements for a learning environment.  In reviewing plans, ask the following:

·         How does this plan create a safe, supportive, and predictable learning environment?

·         What other aspects of our plan would make our school more safe, more supportive, and more predictable?

A school can strengthen its relationships with the children by sharing age-appropriate information about its plans and expectations. Drills are an obvious (and required) way to plan, but other communications that help children know what to expect helps them feel safer and more trusting.  (See and for some options.)  Sharing plans can elicit questions from children, and this gives an even greater opportunity for teachers and administrators to hear and address new concerns.

For older students, seeking involvement and input for some crises may be appropriate and beneficial. Under what circumstances student involvement would be good for both the students and school are considerations that a crisis management team could give thought to as it plans.

In recovery communications, thinking through ways to validate the stress or fear of the past is critical. The balance here is to acknowledge the pain of the past, but not dwell on it. Positive, forward looking communications help the healing process. The communications are not trite, but they are substantive, meaningful and supportive of the student and their families.

2.    Families. Schools can strengthen their relationships with parents and families by asking this one question:  What would our families want us to do?

The particular demographics of a school may influence families’ concerns, but generally speaking, families want to know: 

·         If their children are safe

·         How and why the crisis happened

·         How the school/district will fix any problems

·         How the school/district plans to prevent the problem from happening again

·         Who is accountable for school safety and crisis management

·         How they (parents) can help

To top it off, families want answers to these questions immediately, if not sooner. Once word of a crisis spreads (text messages, Facebook and Twitter promise it will spread fast), the school’s phones will ring and the e-mail inboxes will fill with questions from panicked parents.

A prompt response is among the most important strategies for managing a crisis effectively and maintaining a strong, trusting relationship with families. Schools should review the communications portion of their crisis management plans now. They should focus on providing fast, accurate and detailed communications (through communications technologies, social media, special web sites).  Schools should do this even if all the answers to the above questions are not yet known.

The role of teachers and non-teaching staff. A school’s teachers and non-teaching staff are the lifeblood of any successful school. A school can strengthen its ability to respond to a crisis by giving all staff an opportunity to not just review and receive training of plans (which is required), but to provide input to the crisis management team as well. Because teachers and even some non-teaching staff are often the most connected with the students, they are in a good position to provide feedback about student needs. This enables school leadership and a crisis management team to develop a more comprehensive, effective plan.

In recovery communications, teachers and non-teaching staff are critical to assessing how best to support children, identify special situations that require attention, and effectively talk with children and parents to foster a trusting, safe and supportive relationship.

The school is a haven. Other than the home or place of worship, school is the most important place a child spends time. Schools are places of learning, friendship and development. They are places of success and struggle, triumph and tears. Above all, schools need to be safe havens because learning requires safety and security.

Climate change skeptic’s about-face: conviction and ego left behind

Posted by: Stacy Bettison Updated: August 7, 2012 - 8:23 AM
Richard Muller, professor of physics at University of California Berkeley, recently declared himself a “converted skeptic” on the matter of climate change. This news caused me to reflect on what it takes to undertake a public about-face as Professor Muller recently did.  
Muller had been a vocal critic of the scientific research suggesting the Earth is warming and that it is human-caused. His announcement last week that his own research shows global warming is the result of carbon emissions required courage to leave conviction and ego behind.
Conviction must give way to flexibility. The ability to blaze intellectual trails requires ample mental space. To understand the world better, we must set aside ideological convictions to consider new information, especially evidence that directly contradicts those beliefs.
“The Earth is flat” is one of many ideas in history that proved wrong—a development made possible when leading minds allowed conviction to give way to scientific research and observation.
Muller was not a zealot on the matter of climate change. Rather, his previous stance on global warming arose from his misgivings about the previous research supporting the occurrence of human-caused global warming.
Yet, he didn’t let his convictions that the science was flawed limit his thinking on the issue. In fact, he did the opposite: he conducted his own research focused on the flaws he spotted in existing climate change models, sought additional information, and tested his own models. 
His skepticism caused him to inquire further and dig deeper: “I embarked on this analysis to answer questions that, to my mind, had not been answered” writes Muller. 
Flexibility allows principled, set-in-stone thinking to be aside so innovative thinking can then flourish. It is the essence of intellectual curiosity and a requirement for advancing our understanding of the world.
To “see the light” requires humility. Whether through physics, congressional hearings or focus groups, the study of new information must also be done with a degree of humility. Long-held beliefs may be proven wrong if we are open-minded enough to let them.
The well-known story of Saul on the road to Damascus, used frequently to describe this phenomenon in secular contexts, underscores the point. “Armed with full powers and a commission from the chief priests” with the intention to bring back Christians from Damascus to Jerusalem for punishment, Saul came to “see the light.” Saul was humbled, and thereafter became one of the most significant early Christian leaders as Paul the Apostle. 
Whether in the New York Times or in the board room, a changed position will nearly always attract a vocal cast of critics making charges of flip-flopping, indecisiveness and even deception. The rotten tomatoes come with the job, but can be deflected with clear, concise communications as to the basis for the change. 
New information evolves our thinking, and evolved thinking means we change our minds.    
Follow Stacy on Twitter -- @StacyBettison

Cussing from the stump: lob a bomb or keep it clean?

Posted by: Stacy Bettison Updated: July 12, 2012 - 7:56 AM
The recent Associated Press story covering a rash of obscenities uttered by East Coast politicians caught my attention because the swearing was deliberate and spoken in public, G-rated settings.
Our culture is certainly familiar with (and usually forgiving of) the slip-of-the-tongue, heat-of-the-moment swearing. Indeed, many (if not most) people swear. Some more than others, some more often they’d like to admit, and some only in the most extreme circumstances. Linguists note the human tendency to swear has been around as long as any we’ve had voice boxes -- vulgarities are depicted in writings going back 5,000 years and oral traditions likely included similar indecencies.  With media reporting in Twitter time, however, we are likely to see more reports of these accidental and spontaneous utterances by politicians.
Politicos cussing with malice aforethought, however, presents a very different issue: will our culture tolerate the intentional use of vulgar language by politicians in civic discourse? What adequately justifies, if anything does, profane speech in a civic context—an overall coarsening of popular culture from reality-TV and social media? A desire to appear as and connect with the “average Joe?”
More reasons than not to keep it clean. While profanities may elicit a positive, rah-rah response from some, far more reasons exist against lobbing obscenities at G-rated crowds.
1.  We expect more and better from public figures. While few can deny having uttered an occasional expletive, the electorate holds public officials and politicians to higher standards. They are expected to behave, speak well, be proper, act morally and ethically, do good, and above all, represent the best for the people. Swearing in public fulfills none of these expectations.
2.  There are other words and ways to achieve the communications objective. If the communications objective is to express an idea with particular flair, emphasis or emotion, the English language contains approximately 750,000 words to choose from. Here presents an opportunity to be selective with the vast choices and engage the audience with smart, thoughtful words.
If the objective is to appear authentic and to develop a strong connection with the audience, plain, simple English works just fine -- especially when backed with authenticity in motive and spirit. There is no better way to appear authentic than by being authentic.
3.  Foul language is not a reputation enhancer. Cussing on the stump is unlikely to engender a more favorable opinion of politicians by the American people. Generally speaking, politicians need to rehabilitate their damaged reputations – not conduct themselves in a manner that causes further degradation. Indeed, polls show that a vast majority of Americans think politicians focus on the wrong thing (swear words, perhaps?) and a majority have little or no confidence in the men and women who seek or hold elected office. Politicians would do well to consider the linguistic tactics that serve to build and strengthen their standing in the communities in which they serve.
4.  Non-profane word choices will promote civility towards others. No doubt, politics have never been nastier. As such, there’s never been a better time to start promoting civility towards each other by careful and thoughtful word choices. The civility that is reflected to us by our politicians might just have a positive impact on the civility that the citizenry extends to one another.  
Consider civic discourse if the U.K. Parliament House of Commons courtesies and conventions:
. . . Members should not be addressed as 'you' but should be referred to as 'the honourable Member for [constituency]', 'my honourable friend' or 'the honourable Member opposite'. Privy Councillors are 'Right Honourable'…..
While the British Parliament is not without its own challenges, the labels assigned to colleagues and rivals matter. For example, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie may be a gifted public speaker, but his public label of a lawmaker as “one arrogant S.O.B.” leaves room for improvement.
I’m not naively suggesting that if politicians followed the U.K. Parliament conventions and courtesies, American politics suddenly would become civil and pleasant. After all, the British Parliament in practice is not a model of civility and decorum, with speakers regularly and openly heckled by their opponents. But the ability to convey acrid criticisms while avoiding unparliamentary language is a point of pride for the Brits—as Winston Churchill famously used the phrase “terminological exactitude” to mean “lie.”
The House of Commons convention that encourages responsible free speech exemplifies what is lacking at times in American political discourse:
Members should bear in mind Erskine May's dictum that "good temper and moderation are the characteristics of Parliamentary language". It is important that exercise of the privilege of freedom of speech is tempered with responsibility. 
Lincoln, Kennedy, and Regan are remembered as great communicators because their words inspired and uplifted the civic discourse and their speech echoes in the American consciousness long after they have gone.
Perhaps the Honorable Governor from New Jersey and his cussing brethren may consider how their oratory will be remembered, if at all, and find value in bringing back some good temper and moderation to future public discourse.  

Follow Stacy on Twitter -- @StacyBettison 


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