Honesty best policy in Y2K discussion

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For your reading and informational pleasure. Any taker from the corporate world?

Paul Lowenberg Fixing Y2K computer problems is tough. But, for PR practitioners and other communicators, figuring out what to say about it may be equally challenging.

Has your organization identified a Y2K problem? Has it tried to fix it? Has it succeeded? How do you know? What should you tell your customers or clients? Your suppliers? Your stockholders? Your competition?

Those public relations or public information people whose job it is to communicate about the status of Y2K readiness may find themselves in a troublesome position as they try to figure out what to say and when to say it.

"First, tell the truth," says Lee Wilkins, professor of journalism at the University of Missouri. Wilkins has studied crisis communications issues around highly publicized disasters such as Bhopal, Three Mile Island, the Tylenol poisoning scare and, most recently, El Nino.

"The very worst thing you can do is to give the most optimistic or the most pessimistic reading of the issue," she cautions. "The very best thing to say is `I don't know," if, indeed, that is the truth."

People are afraid of feeling out of control. Communicators should reassure the public that they are aware of the Y2K problem and are doing everything they can to fix it. At the same time, they should try to respond honestly to concerns.

The correct response is not, "Of course, don't worry about it. We've taken care of it." A better response is: "We are addressing the problems, but they are very complex. Some things may occur that we haven't thought of. We feel reasonably confident we can fix any problems we encounter in a day or so. But be aware that some situations may occur that we have not anticipated and are beyond our control."

In a potential crisis situation, Wilkins says, most people will understand that some things can go wrong and most will not interpret this message to mean that everything will go wrong.

"Most people will understand the message for what it is, an attempt at honest reassurance and not a call for panic," she says.

Mark Haselkorn, professor of technical communication at the University of Washington and coordinator of the National Research Council's Y2K Project, has his own worries about how Y2K is being discussed.

He is particularly concerned that the term "compliant" may convey an unrealistic expectation that an organization is immune to Y2K problems.

"Compliance merely means adherence to some set of requirements," Haselkorn says. "In this case (Y2K), there hasn't been a universally accepted set of requirements for Y2K compliance. Instead, compliance is defined locally and adhered to locally. Locally means within an organization or even within a section of an organization. Compliance means nothing by itself."

According to Haselkorn, when someone says the system is Y2K compliant, the correct question to ask is: "Compliant to what standard?"

Wilkins agrees with Haselkorn.

"Journalists should explain what compliant means, or stop using it," she says. "It's the kind of word we teach journalism students to avoid using. They should ask follow-up questions and find specific examples of what compliant means."

And, according to Haselkorn, people may also be suspicious of an organization's claims about Y2K progress if:

Top management has handed off problem-solving responsibility to middle- or lower-level employees. Decisions about how Y2K is handled can seriously affect the long term future of the organization and must involve managers at the very highest levels.

Your organization has modified its systems but failed to coordinate these changes with outside organizations with which it is interconnected. Most organizations constantly send and receive data, so it doesn't matter whether you're `Y2K OK' if your solution is incompatible with your computer colleagues.

You say that the final test is what happens on Dec. 31, 1999. Many of the consequences of Y2K will be felt for months or possibly years after that date.

"Perhaps the biggest thing to focus on now," Haselkorn says, "is that we're going to be sorting this out for a long time after the event. One way to think of it is that we have taken a system, made isolated adjustments to pieces of the system, and now we are going to plug them all back in and see if they work.

"There are no absolutes. There's too much uncertainty in this situation. As soon as you take your product and put it in the real world and have people work with it, it's out of your control."

Your company has looked only at the technical problems and not at the functional problems. In other words, it's not just about fixing hardware to get rid of the Y2K bug. It's about understanding how your employees, customers, suppliers and others use their computers. How do they formulate their data and use it?

Communicators must now cope with the additional problem of media overkill.

"A year ago people in general were overreacting," Haselkorn says. "Now they seem to think everything's pretty much OK. Oh, maybe there'll be a few minor things, but no big problem."

The real challenge for a communicator is to somehow resist treating Y2K communications as either of the two extremes.

"To me, that would be the real hallmark of the good communicator," says Haselkorn. "Anyone can talk about the extreme cases and the easy cases. Most of this falls in the middle. Maybe it's not the kind of thing you can handle in a paragraph. If you are limited to a paragraph, it's a real challenge."

And then, there are the lawyers...

-- y2k dave (xsdaa111@hotmail.com), July 19, 1999


Y2k complient means it is fixed,and you have had your system independently certified. No if's about it. Y2k ready means that you are not complient, but somewhat functional with less capabilities using workarounds if no major surprises pop-up to crash your system. I think that telling the full truth about y2k is very important,that it is very complexed to fix and if it brings down your company's system saying it will be down for a day or so won't be truthful it may be down for an undetermined duration of time. Tell your customers that you have a Continuty of business contingency plan and that it will go into effect immediately if y2k strikes until it is fixed.

-- y2k aware mike (y2k aware mike @ conservation . com), July 20, 1999.

Y2k aware Mike, I agree with you, however that would be the morally correct and ethical thing to do. We don't have much of that going around these days. Those are outdated concepts, because *the bottom line* is far more important, with very few exceptions. It is also the reason why we are in this y2k mess to begin with. Greed, selfishness, unethical behavior. It factored in at the beginning and it continues to factor in as we progress to *the date* of reckoning.

The very sick and sad part of this is that being honest, ethical and showing integrity *could* work to counteract the damage and the impact in wonderful ways, it just isn't going to happen in a big enough way.

Then, if you are honest with yourself, you have to ask why...

-- OR (orwelliator@biosys.net), July 20, 1999.

While a great deal of effort has clearly been made to do honest reporting, a distinction must be drawn between honest material and honest *interpretation* of that material.

Step 1) We find a news article about organization N that says: N has finished with A,B, and C. We are still working on X, Y and Z. Overall, we think we're about (say) 80% finished. We expect to have all testing completed by (say) October. It is not possible to guarantee that our testing missed nothing of importance, nor is it possible to guarantee that we may suffer from problems beyond our control. We are on schedule, we are doing our best, and we have no specific reason to expect big problems.

Step 2) The above material is ground through the TB2K mill, and what comes out the other end is: N isn't finished, and won't finish. Their optimistic statements are lies, and it's all self-reporting so we can't trust any of it. This is happy-face PR, no more and no less. The fact that they *admit* incompletion and possible problems is nonetheless proof that they are toast. They have no hope. The quotes extracted from step (1) are "still working", "not possible to guarantee", "problems beyond our control." The parts about what's complete, or the acceptable time of total completion, or the lack of anticipated problems, are all omitted.

Step 3) The assessment of organization N from step (2) is grouped with hundreds of other, similarly motivated assessments. This group of assessments simmers in the back of our mind for a while, the original details are lost, the natural exaggeration such a biased group represents in the first place gets fanned by fear, and the result is the hilariously absurd predictions of severity on that poll thread.

Meanwhile, over in the debunker camp, the *same* process is being applied from an opposing perspective. Organization N will be finished, there will be no problems, the important stuff is already tested. The article *say* so, doesn't it? And this see-no-evil assessment is in turn grouped with hundreds of others derived the same way, and anyone who still sees any coming problems is obviously demented.

Honest reporting has been turned into pure propaganda, mostly supported by personal insults. We would much rather be sure than right.

-- Flint (flintc@mindspring.com), July 20, 1999.

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