Communicating Decisions – A Case Study

            Let’s face it, not every decision we make as leaders will be popular.  How do we handle those situations?  I was witness this weekend to an example of how NOT to do it.  First, you have to understand the circumstances of the decision and this is the story.  On Saturday, September 1, 2012, Notre Dame played Navy in Dublin, Ireland in what was titled the Emerald Isle Classic.  This was just the second time this game had ever been played outside of the United States and it is a fairly significant rivalry.  Due to the time difference, the game was slated to start at 9am EST/8am CST.  Being big Navy fans, my family and I (okay, me..) were excited to spend our morning cheering our team.  Also, in my particular area of the United States, USNA does not get much attention by the local schools, this was an opportunity for the area to get to see more of the Naval Academy (in propaganda form). I checked the local guide the night before to make sure I knew the right time and channel for the next day.  After waking up with the kids and making homemade cinnamon rolls, we were ready to go however instead of the advertised Notre Dame vs. Navy football game; we were subjected to Doodlebops and all of the other morning cartoons.  I voiced my displeasure via email to my local television station and via Facebook.  What happened next was amazing, shortly after I got done pouting (not really) there was an announcement posted on the local television station’s Facebook page from the president and general manager explaining his decision making in pre-empting the football game.  He explained that the FCC has rules regarding how much air time must be devoted to children’s shows and to other programming.  He specifically stated that “we can’t please everyone” therefore he chose to keep the regular Saturday morning family viewers happy and not air the game. 

                The power of the internet is underestimated.  From what I could gather from the president’s message, there were A LOT of upset Notre Dame fans which stands to reason since there are only about 6 Navy fans in this region.  There was an immediate and immense response on both sides of the issue.  There were emotions running high on this particular topic which was amazing to watch.  There were comments related to the failure of the television station to broadcast something that was unavailable on any other channel while children’s shows were readily accessible all over the stations. Opposing those comments were the people who believed children’s Saturday morning programming was critical to family happiness and to let the kids watch their shows. There were direct questions to the president asking why all of the other regional affiliates neighboring our region were able to handle the FCC guidelines and air the game.  The response was so powerful, the president of the station turned off the children’s shows an hour early to turn on the game (time delayed) however that decision upset the people who were waiting to watch the US Open Tennis match, then he turned off the game and went back to tennis.

                The president of the station was right, we can’t please everyone all the time.  In fact, sometimes we have to make choices that we know will make at least a section of our customers unhappy.  The mistake the president made was not to communicate this change.  Number one issue – the programming guide stated the game would be aired.  That set up the expectation by the customers (including me) that the game would be on at the scheduled time.  When it was not shown, with no explanation as to why, I was disappointed and confused which led to a more emotional response.  It was only after there was a large backlash by the people that there was any notification or communication regarding the programming change.  This made the president look foolish and the television station was railed against on the internet. 

                In this case, the president had every right to make the choice he did but the failure was the lack of communication to the customers.  Maybe he underestimated the popularity of the game or the response by the people but the consequence of his actions means his television station took a big hit in confidence and support in this area.  What should have happened was a correction in the scheduling guide or at least earlier notice through social media to alert people.  This particular example shows when there is an expectation that is not delivered upon, the response is always negative.  Not that people would have agreed with his decision had he communicated it earlier, but the credibility of the station would not have been damaged as much as it was. 

-Lori Buresh

CEO, The Professional Development Team


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  1. #1 by Ikonographi on September 4, 2012 - 3:19 pm

    Interesting topic…not an easy one to frame a contrarian view to either 🙂

    Now, let me begin by saying that I am one, Irish and two (as you know Lori), a Navy fan 🙂 That being said, the thrill of seeing my collegiate team do “battle” with anyone on the gridiron has lost some of its glamour over the years.

    But that’s a different topic for a different (perhaps my) blog.

    So, back on target: The thesis is making difficult calls as a leader, and maintaining conisitency in the expectation…correct? I recall an episode from my first tour on USS SHREVEPORT where the very popular and competent “Old Salt” that led our division had transferred. His replacement was an aviator who had little experience at sea and seemed more engrossed with the “manuals” than getting a feel for the men such as our previous Commander had. We were pulling long hours on the deck, operating in temperatures well over 100 degrees and through dangerous nights on the flight deck on full NVGs. To say the least, I was very concerned for my guys and their safety. The Captain notified the Dept. Heads that he wanted the ship painted prior to Homecoming…which was some time away, and well within the planned period Chief and I had previously determined, knowing it was going to come up sometime.

    Our Dept. Head ordered me to have the men do shifts needlegunning and painting between flight quarters, which really didn’t give them time to hydrate, or even shift out of their PPE. To be frank, it would have been almost as bad as putting out the smoking lamp underway (that came later BTW).

    I had no authority to contravene the Commander…and even if I had, he would’ve just gone through me, so I did the only thing I could. In the privacy of ‘Pri-Fly’, I expressed my concerns for safety and handed him a needlegun and goggles, explaining that if he and I would take a turn, the men might take it as an example. Needless to say, we did the work once we left the OP-area for the long, boring transit home.

    My point? I had already established an expectation with my Division that while we would tackle any task, safety and mission critical readiness were paramount to any other consideration…including making the DIVO and Dept. Head “look good” for the CO. I could’ve just went along with the “Senior Officer’s orders”, or I could have been creative in the way I challenged his decision.

    As I said before; I’m not so certain television programming is a significant enough litmus test…there are of course locales where sports oriented stations carry more weight than regular networks where a broader spectrum of consumer must be met. (I can see where some folks might be upset if cartoons were cancelled that they expected to see).

    However, I see the point as a very, very good one…consistency is a leader’s greatest tool. If you say what you mean, and stick to it…those who follow you will learn to trust you-even when the orders coming down aren’t the best.

  2. #2 by Thomas Guettler on September 17, 2012 - 12:52 pm

    Great post. This is a good example of something that should have been simple nut was heavy handed and clumsy, and in the end satisfied nobody. I think had the station provided simple explanations in the days leading up to the game, people would have not had a negative surprise the morning of the football game. Perhaps they could have found alternate channels in which to broadcast the game given the mandate to provide certain amounts of time for children programming.

    This is a good lesson for leaders and managers to spend some time planning and communicate decisions not only internally, but to consumers. Most of the time people will understand decisions that are made if they are properly communicated. The manager in this instance made a mistake of making late changes to the schedule in a futile attempt to please everyone, and ended up pleasing very few.

    Given how many means of communication are used today (i.e., TV, radio, social media, etc…), it is embarrassing that this station did none of the above it would appear. I know the game was unique as it being played in morning hours here in the United States, and I hope they can learn from a lesson of when communication broke down between the organization and their consumers.

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