Courtney Malengo headshot
Courtney Malengo

Once upon a time, people would agree to just disagree. For all the preaching and finger-wagging about intolerance and acceptance, we seem to do very little tolerating of anything. Although the word tolerance can have many applications, in this context, Merriam-Webster’s second definition is most relevant: “A sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own; the act of allowing something.”

We’ve conflated tolerance as acceptance. Tolerance does not imply acceptance, nor should there be forced acceptance. Instead, we must relearn how to engage in healthy conversations and agree to disagree while still respecting the individual and that person’s right to believe or practice something different than us (this is the very foundation of our democratic nation).

Tolerance does not mean you have to like what someone else does, or even believe it to be correct, moral, right, fair, truthful and so forth. It simply means that you respect an individual’s right to have a different belief, practice or opinion, even when you don’t agree with it.

If we take an honest look in the mirror, those communication challenges always have lurked in the background; they’ve just been exacerbated by politicians, pundits, media outlets, disinformation campaigns and your friends on Facebook and Twitter. The more polarizing narratives you hear amplified over and over (that frankly both political parties are guilty of), the more you believe those statements to be true. Likewise, it lures you into believing that this is indicative of how everyone thinks; it affects your perception of the world, the circumstance and your communication.

The pandemic didn’t do us any favors, and although all of us had to exponentially increase our communication, that did not necessarily correlate to improved communication or even strategic communication. This backdrop is important, because COVID alone usurped our time, our resources and, candidly, in senior living, the ability to do anything other than fight fires.

Senior living was woefully unprepared for the shifting sentiments among consumers and employees, along with the rise of social justice movements. While you were fighting fires, others were mobilizing movements and fanning the flames of discontent.

What do you do when a movement is mobilized against you, or a disinformation campaign is lobbed at your executive or community? Here are five steps to consider as you approach any communication challenge.

1. Develop a communications strategy.

A failure to plan is a plan to fail. Off-the-cuff or knee-jerk responses rapidly expedite the downfall of executives and major corporations (hello, Silicon Valley Bank’s infamous “stay calm” statement).

Develop a communications strategy that addresses the problem(s), creates strategic talking points for executives and team members to use, while also offering guidance on when and how to use that information. This plan should be created with your varied audiences in mind, alongside specific communications and talking points tailored for each audience.

Understanding the hypothetical questions people will ask can help you develop the appropriate responses. The plan also should outline the goal(s) and behavioral changes associated with it, as well as how to track and measure progress toward those goals.

2. Monitor internally and externally.

To execute your plan effectively, you need to have a pulse on what’s happening internally and externally.

Monitor what’s being said on social media, blogs, media channels, websites and more, in addition to knowing the sentiment bubbling up throughout the ranks. Conduct one-on-ones, surveys and informal focus groups to gather accurate information internally.

When themes begin to emerge, you know something is there. Make sure your team knows that they can be honest and truthful with executives, even if it means telling you something you may not want to hear. 

3. Align your words and actions, explain the “why.

You may have the most wonderful narrative scripted, but if it isn’t truthful and sincere, or does not align with the team’s behaviors, then it is meaningless spin.

Talk is cheap unless it is followed by action. Explaining why does wonders, as it answers that much-needed context to any situation. When employees understand why their role matters and how it contributes to the overall mission, they perform better.

Even in circumstances when you cannot do something, follow up and explain why that option is not possible. This simple act helps foster trust and understanding.

4. Correct misinformation, but don’t feed the trolls.

When misinformation starts to spread, whether verbally or through other channels such as social media or traditional media, don’t wait to correct it. You can state the facts and correct the misinformation without creating a battle royale that feeds the petulant internet trolls.

If you stay silent, then others will be quick to fill in your narrative. Silence also can be construed as agreement or guilt.

Just reference tort law’s definition for implied consent. Consent becomes implied when a plaintiff fails to object or is silent in a situation in which a reasonable person would object to a defendant’s actions (Cornell Law, Legal Information Institute).

5. Leverage community goodwill.

When the storm comes, you will need to rely on community goodwill (including employees, family members, vendors, etc.). If you have been sowing seeds of trust and compassion into the greater communities in which you operate, then others quickly will rise to your defense without being asked. That support makes an even greater difference in combatting nefarious chatter online and offline.

Even the best communication strategies cannot guarantee outcomes, but the likelihood of a positive outcome is far greater when you are willing to practice and prepare.   

Courtney Malengo is the founder of Spark + Buzz Communications, a strategic communications consultancy that helps brands tell their story to inspire audiences and galvanize growth. She has 20 years of experience leading branding, marketing, public relations and communications initiatives, 10 of which were spent in senior living. Courtney is an accredited public relations professional with a master’s degree in communication and organizational leadership from Gonzaga University in Spokane, WA. She is passionate about providing creative and strategic solutions to create raving fans, repeat customers and engaged employees.

The opinions expressed in each McKnight’s Senior Living guest column are those of the author and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Senior Living.

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