The Ecphorizer

When Coping Fails: Advice To Politicians
Philip Hughes

Issue #19 (March 1983)

How to take charge when you don't know what to do

Troubles begin when circumstances develop which threaten established norms, leading to mounting apprehension and mass disorientation. Research in the field has revealed that so long as a situation is kept crisply defined, no matter how grim, people will not panic. "Better calamity confirmed

Give firm, definitive responses -- even if ad lib and totally heuristic.

than looming but unprecipitated," seems the logic. When anxious citizens clog [quoteright]communication channels, your concern should be with disambiguating the perplective.

Rumor is a free-form collective effort to find an answer (Lang and Lang, 1947). A leader produces that answer (Hemphill, 1961). In a time when so much seems to be falling apart, the danger is public perception that those in charge lack means, or even conviction, while only the alarmists and deviants are full of passionate intensity (Yeats, 1920). Give firm, definite responses - even if ad lib and totally heuristic.

Initial dismay and befuddlement will be followed by efforts to interpret circumstances coherently on the basis of previous experience. Given current trends: fat chance. But don't tell them that. A leader reduces uncertainty (Bavelas, 1960).

Throw the burden of doubt back on the viewers-with-alarm; e.g., "Radical change has become the norm, Madame. Or hadn't you noticed?" In most cases, a person will simmer down rather than court notoriety as "the boy who called wolf," even if the fleece has already hit the fan.

Convulsive responses are set off by either of two perceptions: 1) a sense of being alone and isolated; 2) emotional contagion. Each can be handled by proper method.

1) Urban man is used to tolerating a high level of stress and strain. Constantly insulted, frustrated and left in a dither, he tends to lead a life of quiet desperation (Thoreau, 1845-46).

In one controlled experiment (Latane and Darly, 1968), it was found that where an individual will act at once in a potential crisis - smoke seeping into a room -- the more the situation is shared, the greater the passivity. No visible alarm, no triggering of convulsive response. Smoked rats in a cage wheeze, pass out and limply expire, without taking any initiative (Latane and Glass, 1968).

Application? When people phone in, advise them to switch on TV and watch for the latest reports. Hold a telethon, if necessary, with special guest appearances. Give the community a feeling of mass involvement. The well-conditioned TV-response may save the day. Tune the populace to your words of reassurance, and discrete acts of information processing will readily be substituted for data-overload and spasm reactions.

2) Crisis can inspire vigorous maladaptive behavior such as running about, crying out and driving vehicles pell-mell. A rational approach is seldom to be met with. In a self-fulfilling vision people find the world suddenly to be filled with confused alarms, struggle, and flight (Matthew Arnold, 1867).

In lab experiments it has been found that an animal confronted with a bad situation and no way out tends to retreat to a place of security, such as its cedar chips (read: "TV room"). A sheep which has been made neurotic through repeated shocks and quivering anticipation will adopt avoidance behavior and privatization (Liddell, 1954). One subject, faced with marauding dogs, ran to its pen and huddled in a corner, "tuning out" so completely that later it was found with three of its legs hunched under it while the fourth - the conditioned limb - lay extended like an offering, gnawed to the bone without audible protest.

The most commonly relied-on extensions of modern man are, as noted, the media (McLuhan). Indicated procedure, accordingly, is to condition your huddled masses to anticipate news breaks about your dogged persistence in chasing down crises. While the faithful are aquiver at prospects of fresh shock and outrage, preoccupied with whatever may materialize next on the tube, not much additional is likely to be offered your way for worrying over.

When the situation seems under control to some degree, next release your Bearers of Glad Tidings. No blatant "mission" should be evident. But whenever one of your men comes upon a citizen of failed spirits and vincible surmise, have him casually strike up conversation and let drop a few cautionary remarks that will dispel madcap visions of doom, replacing them with the official scenario.

The sounds of tumbrels in the streets will be masked by the drone of your assurances multiplied by a thousand tongues. People will drift back to work, leaving your task force free to cope with the real problem ticking away on your doorstep.

As a situation model, think of 1930's Berlin, where the most ad hoc public relations ploys in the face of mounting terror were eagerly accepted, and life went on more or less as usual. Remember: "The delusion of explanation easily replaces the appropriate act" (Merloo, 1959).

When these procedures have been instituted, we can assume that your reputation has been saved, temporarily, from the dismal universal hiss anticipated. In the onrushing tide of events, the first wave of protest will have been swept back.

To your public charge! 

Philip Hughes lives and writes in Massachusetts.  He is married to an English professor and has a daughter who is into karate.  Among his vocations he lists "garbage-taker-outer."

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