Friday, November 5, 2021

So What Is the Coconut Telegraph?


So what is the coconut telegraph? A coworker recently asked me this when the phrase carelessly dropped from my lips during a conversation about a missed PR opportunity.

It's an expression I came up with after working in an organization that had a large and gossipy staff, who would take a rumor and run with it if management did not take pains to carefully share relevant information with the team.

The image came from Gilligan's Island. Picture Gilligan and the Skipper making their own ragtag telephone line with two coconuts and you'll get the picture.

So often, whether it's in a crisis communications, public relations or corporate communications situation, leaders fail to understand the value of owning a message and getting out ahead of whatever stakeholder group may get ahold of it first.

That could be employees who catch a rumor about a change in ownership, a reporter who catches a CEO flat-footed, or when management tries to hide a messy situation from either the public or employees.

What do all of these scenarios have in common? Not owning the message. When things go wrong, when bad deeds go down, when the winds of change blow, the one thing an organization can do is to own it. Any attempt to hide it, tamp it down or be anything less than completely transparent inevitably creates blowback.

As a PR, corporate communications and crisis communications specialist, I recommend the following:

- Anticipate when a situation might blow up or generate negative perceptions. This can be a simple touch base with your communications pro. A lawsuit. An acquisition. An accident. An arrest. Have a quick call to figure out what the potential damage may be. Does it warrant a holding statement or other messaging?

- Create a holding statement. Own the message or the message will own you. Put together a statement of facts and circulate it to senior leadership, legal, corporate - whoever may need to be in the loop. It's easier to do this before the genie gets out of the bottle.

- Get ahead of it. Don't wait for the coconut telegraph to get going among your employees or your community. Get your message crafted and in front of the right people before it takes off without you.

- Hire a professional. Now is not a time for amateur hour. Difficult messages require a finesse your in-house team may not possess. 

My term for the coconut telegraph came about after many years of cleaning up the aftermath of messages that got away at the speed of light. Next time you have a storm brewing at your organization, tell Gilligan to go home and get your communications in order!