Posted: July 27, 2006
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Article SummaryThis column dissects an issue – one of the few – on which I disagree with most risk communication and crisis communication professionals: what to do when there are differences of opinion within your organization. The conventional advice is to “ speak with one voice” – that is, to paper over the disagreements. I urge my clients to let the disagreements show. The column distinguishes the ways of showing opinion diversity that really do undermine public confidence from the ways that (in my judgment) do not, and identifies many reasons why it is beneficial to let the public know that you’ re not all on the same page about every issue. Perhaps most importantly, it details what tends to go wrong when organizations muzzle their staff in order to speak with one voice.

“Speak with One Voice” – Why I Disagree

Just about every list of guidelines I can find on risk communication or crisis communication includes an admonition to “speak with one voice” – except mine. My usual advice to clients is diametrically opposed. I urge them to “let opinion diversity show.”

Consider for example the 276-page Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication handbook produced by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It eloquently summarizes the conventional wisdom:

Get the facts right, repeat them consistently, avoid sketchy details early on, and ensure that all credible sources share the same facts. Speak with one voice. Again, preparation counts. Consistent messages are vital. Inconsistent messages will increase anxiety and will quickly torpedo credibility of experts.

I helped write this influential guidebook, but I couldn’t talk the editors out of that paragraph. Nor did my dissenting opinion make it into the book, which speaks with one voice on the topic of speaking with one voice. (On the other hand, my article on “Dilemmas in Emergency Communication Policy” was included in the accompanying Emergency Risk Communication CDCynergy CD-ROM. It has a section on “Decentralization versus Centralization” that briefly argues my case.)

In October 2001, similarly, Vincent Covello gave a keynote presentation at an “Emergency, Safety, and Security Summit” of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He offered the group a list of “21 Guidelines for Effective Communication by Leaders Addressing High Anxiety, High Stress, or Threatening Situations.” Number 16 was: “Coordinate all inter-organizational and intra-organizational communications; speak with one voice.” The website of Covello’s Center for Risk Communication includes a discussion of his “message mapping” methodology for organizing risk communication messages. It notes: “Message maps are crucial to ensuring that an organization has a central repository of consistent messages. Once adopted, they allow an organization to speak with one voice.”[*]

Since I seem to be the sole dissenter (along with my wife and colleague Jody Lanard), it’s time I explained in more detail why I disagree.

What exactly does “speak with one voice” mean? Essentially, it means that risk communicators and crisis communicators – and in fact all communicators – should do whatever it takes to ensure message consistency. The most extreme version demands total centralization of the public communication role; everyone is told to refer all inquiries to a single source. More moderate versions involve generating a set of key messages that everyone is supposed to stick to. Among the variations:

  • Sometimes the required messages are chosen collectively. Usually they’re chosen by one central authority.
  • Sometimes individual sources are allowed to decide which messages to stress or even to add messages of their own, so long as they don’t actually disagree with the core messages. Usually everyone is told to stick to the prescribed list and the prescribed emphasis.
  • Sometimes the “speak with one voice” mandate is confined to official spokespeople within a single organization. Usually it is extended as far as it will go – to all employees or even to all involved organizations. The concept of a Joint Information Center (JIC), for example, was initially developed by the military but has become the gold standard for crisis communication logistics. One of the key benefits of a JIC, proponents say, is its ability to help multiple organizations speak with one voice.

The obvious problem with the “speak with one voice” advice is the frequent presence within the organization (or coalition) of more than one opinion. In such cases, speaking with one voice necessarily means suppressing discrepant voices. Often, in fact, proponents of a particular perspective in an ongoing debate advocate speaking with one voice as a way of urging everyone else to pipe down. A few weeks ago, the news was full of admonitions from Bush administration officials that the world must speak with one voice on the recent North Korean missile tests – meaning essentially that the rest of the world should parrot U.S. policy.

But risk communication and crisis communication experts give the same advice when they’re talking in the abstract – that is, when they’re not addressing a particular issue or advocating a particular message. And they give it knowing that it means suppressing dissent. The consensus view (no pun intended) is that this is not too high a price to pay for message consistency. Business continuity planner John Glenn makes the point with admirable clarity in his short article on “Crisis Communications: Get It Right – the First Time.” He writes: “An organization must ‘speak with one voice’ even if there actually are several ‘voices.’”

That’s the key question: whether it is wise or unwise for risk communicators to try to hide the diversity of opinion within their organizations. This can be partitioned into three questions – whether suppressing dissenting voices usually works; how much harm it does when it fails; and how much good it does when it succeeds.

Thinking with One Brain?

Before addressing these questions, I want to sketch in the three situations where there is no diversity of opinion to hide or not hide – where speaking with one voice isn’t a problem because the organization is, in effect, thinking with one brain.

When there is only one legitimate opinion.

All people with reasonable intelligence, sound information, and goodwill inevitably reach the same conclusion. There may be people out there who have reached different conclusions, but they are foolish or misinformed or wicked. So speaking with one voice is obviously the right thing to do. You still need to address the contrary opinion – you particularly need to explain to those who are misinformed why it’s mistaken – but you don’t need to acknowledge its legitimacy because it doesn’t have any.

Example: Risk communicators at a government health agency should have no trouble speaking with one voice on the negative health effects of smoking.

When there are several legitimate opinions, but your organization represents one side.

In contrast to the first situation, this time there is a valid debate underway. But your organization is one of the debaters – an advocate, not a judge or a neutral observer. It is part of your mission to represent your side. Nobody on the other side works for you, and properly so. Here too you should have no compunctions about speaking with one voice.

It is sometimes a tough call whether or not to acknowledge that the second situation isn’t the same as the first – that in this case the other side does have a claim to legitimacy. Risk communication teaches that you are usually better off doing so. Among other benefits, it helps you win over interested people who are ambivalent about which side to support. This is especially the case if you represent the outrage-reducing side of the controversy. When trying to alarm your audience, it is often useful to concede that the reassuring side has a point. When trying to calm your audience, conceding the legitimacy of the alarmist perspective and the validity of its strongest arguments is essential.

Still, a “pro-choice” group and a “pro-life” group should each speak with one voice on the subject of abortion rights, even if they decide to concede that the other side is not necessarily foolish, misinformed, or wicked. Similarly, Greenpeace and Monsanto should each speak with one voice on the safety of genetically modified seeds.

Many of my clients are in this situation much of the time. They are on one side of a risk controversy. They may or may not choose to acknowledge the legitimacy of the other side, as I usually urge them to do. But they have absolutely no reason to “voice” the other side! Their voice is rightly on their side.

When there are several legitimate opinions and your organization ought to be considering all opinions as it reaches its conclusions – but everybody in your organization turns out to have the same opinion.

Maybe you’re not recruiting a diverse enough staff. Maybe your organizational culture is cowing those with minority opinions into silence. Like an advocacy organization, you’re thinking with one brain. But unlike an advocacy organization, you shouldn’t be.

The tendency in this situation is to feel and act as if it were the first situation. You know that there are other opinions out there; you even know (or should know) that they have a claim to legitimacy; you know you’re not the sort of advocacy organization that is entitled (as in the second situation) to take seriously only part of the range of legitimate opinion. But there’s no one inside your organization willing to argue the other side’s case, even hypothetically. So you end up forgetting that it’s legitimate and asserting the homogeneous view of your organization as if it were the only view that is empirically, logically, or ethically possible.

Here you are speaking with one voice not because you should but because you can’t help it – because, unwisely, you have failed to include the other voices in your internal dialogue. Inevitably you will find it very difficult to do what needs doing: to acknowledge these other views respectfully and to bring them into your organization somehow (consultation, negotiation, new hires, more open culture, whatever) as quickly as you can.

These three situations are the only three I can think of where an organization has only one voice with which to speak. In these three situations you will of course speak unequivocally … that is, univocally … that is, with one voice.

Should You Hide Opinion Diversity?

But suppose your organization has more than one opinion on the issue at hand. You’ve got several voices. The question is whether to suppress all but one.

This is a constant problem in crisis communication. Inevitably in a crisis – and especially in the run-up to a crisis – there’s a great deal you don’t know about what’s likely to happen next. Debate over how best to prepare and/or respond goes with the territory. Given the current state of the bushfire or the factory explosion or the hurricane, who should evacuate and who should shelter in place? Given the current state of the H5N1 virus, who should stockpile essential supplies and who doesn’t really need to? Given the current state of our intelligence about the threat of terrorism, who should be at Code Yellow and who should be elevated to Orange? These are the sorts of questions crisis managers debate. Should they tell us they’re debating them, or keep the debate secret? After a decision is made, should they admit the decision wasn’t confident and wasn’t unanimous, or should they pretend it was both?

Whether or not to speak with one voice is often a problem in other kinds of risk communication as well. Greenpeace and Monsanto are on opposite sides of the biotechnology debate. But regulatory agencies are in the middle. Do they need to speak with one voice too, or can they let it show that they have some staffers who see wisdom in Greenpeace’s reservations, and some who share Monsanto’s enthusiasm?

And that’s the overall biotechnology debate. There are hundreds of subsidiary debates even within Greenpeace and within Monsanto. Is it important for Greenpeace to speak with one voice on whether bioengineered medicines are just as bad as bioengineered foods? Is it important for Monsanto to speak with one voice on whether labeling foods with genetically modified ingredients would help or hurt long-term consumer acceptance?

Some miscellaneous “speak with one voice” versus “let opinion diversity show” dilemmas my corporate clients have faced:

  • Company X had developed an oilfield in a dictatorial, war-torn African country, providing that country’s government with its principal source of hard currency and western legitimacy. Under pressure from human rights advocacy groups, it sold its stake (to a nonwestern oil company invulnerable to pressure) and left the country. Internal opinion was divided on whether to say it left for business reasons or for ethical reasons, on whether to say it did so under pressure or of its own volition, on whether its presence in the country had been part of the problem or part of the solution (or both) – and on how candid to be about these and other disagreements within the company.
  • Company Y, a timber grower and paper manufacturer, was convinced that the time had come to reduce dioxin emissions at its mills. But the national trade association was still taking a contrary position, arguing that expensive reengineering was bad public policy in the absence of a scientific consensus that dioxin damages human health. The company’s choices: stick to the industry association’s party line, or chart its own course but say as little as possible about the discrepancy, or condemn the industry association position, or highlight the difference respectfully.
  • Company Z was minority owner of a hugely profitable gold and copper mine under widespread attack for alleged environmental infractions. It was clear that the majority owner was less sensitive than Z to reputational risks; it was also clear that Z was making slow progress pushing the majority owner in the direction of better environmental practices. Some inside the company wanted to sell the minority interest. Some wanted to criticize its majority partner more publicly. Some wanted to continue the strategy of quiet persuasion. Just about no one wanted to let the public in on the internal debate.

Letting opinion diversity show is hard for just about every organization, but it is generally harder for my non-corporate clients than for corporations. Perhaps this is because governments and activist groups tend to be less comfortable with hierarchical decision-making (or at least less comfortable looking hierarchical). An organization with a clearly defined leadership structure may be able to say, “There was a lot of debate and here’s what the boss decided.” An organization that wants to look egalitarian has a tougher time. If it’s really egalitarian it can say “we took a vote.” I suspect the organizations least likely to let opinion diversity show are those with unacknowledged hierarchies. That’s when the people in charge feel most strongly about pretending that everyone agreed.

Perhaps this helps explain why the Government of Singapore, with its good discipline and clearly delineated hierarchy, is able to acknowledge internal dissent rather more easily than most other democratic governments (and even most corporations). In the early days of the SARS crisis, for example, there was tremendous pressure on Singapore’s government to close the schools. Officials, many of whom had school-aged children, felt this pressure personally. But the Ministry of Health said there was no medical reason to do so. Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong publicly described a cabinet meeting at which the various Ministers argued about whether or not the schools should be closed. The final decision, he said, was to close them, even though some thought it was over-reacting. The Ministries of Education and Health issued a joint statement describing the school closings as a “precautionary step.” Despite the lack of medical grounds, they said, “principals and general practitioners have reported that parents continue to be concerned about the risk to their children in schools.” PM Goh added, “I think it’s useful to do so just to assure the parents that by taking all actions in order to tackle the problem [we] try to break the cycle.”

Much more typical are the efforts of the World Health Organization to speak with one voice about the risk of an influenza pandemic. WHO has made the H5N1 flu virus a top priority. The fear is that H5N1 might mutate or reassort into a virus that transmits easily from human to human, launching a pandemic that could kill millions.

How many millions? Ah, there’s the rub! Nobody knows, of course – but almost everybody feels obliged to come up with some sort of quantitative estimate. Most WHO sources usually rely on a computer model based on the mild 1957 and 1968 pandemics. When you input the current world population into this model, you get 2–7.4 million deaths – the mortality estimate WHO usually uses. It’s a pretty sensible planning number, especially for the developing world, which can’t afford to dedicate scarce public health resources to preparing for an unlikely worst case scenario.

But some WHO sources prefer a more alarming number. So they extrapolate from the 1918 flu pandemic – the worst on record – instead of from 1957 and 1968. Even that’s not the worst case scenario. But if your job is persuading health ministers in developing countries to take pandemic preparedness seriously, a 1918-like scenario yields a mortality estimate too high to be useful; it motivates a feeling of futility rather than action. If your job is raising awareness and raising money in developed countries, on the other hand, a mortality estimate based on 1918 is probably the right number to use.

For several years now, WHO has coped with these discrepant numbers. There have been some intense internal squabbles as the “mild pandemic” mainstream tried to discipline the “worst case pandemic” outliers. Sometimes the disciplinary efforts have succeeded; sometimes they’ve failed. If you’re following the issue casually, you see one WHO number, high or low, and have no idea there are other WHO numbers out there. If you’re following the issue closely, you see several conflicting numbers, each advanced as if it were “the” number, and wonder why WHO’s flu experts don’t agree and don’t seem to realize they don’t agree. If you’re following the issue very, very closely, you can see some external signs of the internal squabbles.

What you are extremely unlikely to see is a WHO spokesperson matter-of-factly saying something like this: “Yes, those of us who are trying to fight apathy in the developed world tend to use a ‘severe pandemic’ number, whereas those of us who are trying to fight futility in the developing world prefer a ‘mild pandemic’ number. We have lots of arguments about which number makes more sense. They’re both basically guesses. Nobody knows how bad the next pandemic will actually be.”

For several years now I have been urging WHO spokespeople to give this simple explanation. Why won’t they? They believe it is important for the World Health Organization to speak with one voice. (I wrote a column with a more detailed rundown on the WHO pandemic “numbers game” up through late 2004. The game hasn’t changed much since then.)

When I come to the “speak with one voice” issue in a risk communication or crisis communication seminar, I sometimes start by asking participants whether they would rather work for an organization that nurtured robust debate or one that discouraged it. Not surprisingly, robust debate wins hands-down. When I ask why, the answer seems obvious to everyone: Robust debate leads to better decisions. I have no trouble getting a consensus in the room that robust debate is a good thing, and that everyone knows it’s a good thing.

Okay, I say, now ponder this.

  • What will happen if the public finds out that your organization has robust debate?
  • What will happen if the public finds out that you had robust debate about a particular decision?
  • What will happen if the public finds out that some of the people who advocated the losing side in that robust debate you had still think they were right?

If everyone knows that robust debate is a good thing because it leads to better decisions, then why is everyone so sure that people will have less confidence in a decision, and less confidence in the organization that made it, if they find out that there was a robust debate first?

Internal Disagreements that Really Do Undermine Public Confidence

Let me quickly concede that some kinds of internal disagreements really do undermine public confidence.

Probably the most harmful kind of disagreement is when conflicting opinions are expressed with no apparent awareness that they are conflicting. One company spokesperson says the company has decided to do X, while another spokesperson says it has decided to do Y. Or the City Health Department says the joint city-county policy is X, while the County Health Department says it’s Y.

The public can handle conflicting opinions about what should be done, I believe. But it has trouble handling conflicting claims about what was decided. The sense that you’re not coordinating – apparently not talking to each other, obviously not listening to each other – is genuinely damaging.

As in the WHO example, the impression that two organizations or two spokespeople for the same organization are unaware that they disagree typically results from their unwillingness to acknowledge the disagreement. They may actually know perfectly well that they have chosen different approaches to the situation. They may know that there are coherent reasons why this is so. But having absorbed the “speak with one voice” mantra, they are extremely reluctant to talk about their differences. It’s bad enough that they’re disagreeing in public; the least they can do, they figure, is refrain from highlighting the disagreement. So they simply don’t mention each other. People (including reporters) who compare the two messages are left to decide for themselves whether the two sources are ignorant of each other or just being cagey.

In the early days of the 2001 anthrax attacks, for example, public health authorities in Florida and Washington D.C. took hundreds of nasal swabs from potentially exposed people. Swabbing is a useful epidemiological strategy to see where the anthrax spores have got to. But it’s not a clinical test for individual illness; people who were exposed may no longer have any spores in their noses, while people with just a few spores in their noses may nonetheless be uninfected and not in need of treatment. So when anthrax was found in a New Jersey post office, state officials did limited nasal swabbing for epidemiological purposes, but decided not to do swabs where they were epidemiologically unnecessary and could be clinically misleading.

But they didn’t explain their rationale, leaving many New Jersey postal workers confused and angry about why they were being denied the “test for anthrax.” A communication case study of the anthrax crisis in New Jersey, by Chess, Calia, and O’Neill, reports: “One state health official acknowledged that it would have been useful to speak more explicitly about the limitations of swabbing.” What really would have been useful is to explain what nasal swabs are good for and what they’re not good for. New Jersey residents who had seen television footage of people in Florida and Washington lining up for nasal swabbing needed someone to tell them, explicitly, why they weren’t being lined up too. Not wanting to sound critical of what had happened in Florida and Washington kept state officials from explaining why it wasn’t happening in New Jersey.

Almost as damaging as two spokespeople who sound like they don’t realize they’re not saying the same thing is two spokespeople whose disagreement sounds excessively vehement, even contemptuous. That was a problem in New Jersey’s anthrax response too. Chess et al. write:

Tensions among organizations greatly affected risk communication efforts and complicated communication triage. Our interviews suggested that in geographic areas where there were ongoing, positive relationships among local organizations, there were fewer problems, but already tense relationships may have been exacerbated. For example, on one occasion, two different hazardous material teams responded to the same call and had a public row about how to handle a potentially contaminated envelope. In addition, protocols were unclear about which organization had the authority to speak about what, due in part to jurisdictional issues, according to several people we interviewed.

Local hospitals in the Monmouth area were competitors who had communicated little prior to or during the anthrax event. Conflicting messages resulted when one hospital reported positive swabs, while another hospital system spent considerable effort resisting pressure to offer “tests.”

Compare these two hypothetical statements:

A.   “Yes, we are aware that the County Health Department has decided to do Y. They are free to do whatever they think best. But frankly we’re surprised by their decision. Here at the City Health Department we believe it is very clear that X is the wisest course of action.”
B.   “We have been in constant touch with the County Health Department. Both agencies found the choice between X and Y a close call. For a variety of reasons, they ultimately decided to do Y, while we decided to do X. There’s no way to predict right now which decision will turn out better. We’ll certainly stay in touch so we can both learn from the other’s experience.”

This is even more important within a single organization, where A and B may look something like this:

A.   “The Executive Vice President decided to do Y. Personally, I think it’s an idiotic decision. X was pretty obviously the right call. But what can I do about it? She’s the EVP and I’m not! Nobody’s going to be able to blame me when it all goes wrong!”
B.   “The company had a very tough time choosing between X and Y. There were strong arguments for both choices, and both choices had plenty of supporters. It went all the way to the Executive Vice President. She heard out both sides and ultimately decided the company will do Y. As it happens, I was one of those who advocated X. But I certainly understand and respect her decision, and I will be helping to implement that decision to the best of my ability. Here’s her rationale for choosing Y….”

Risk communication professionals who urge their clients to speak with one voice are probably imagining the alternative is something like A. I try to get my clients to aim for B.

Of course there’s a different procedure for people who think the organization has made a badly wrong decision on a crucially important issue. They aren’t supposed to be willing to support and help implement the decision, even if permitted to voice their dissent respectfully. And the organization isn’t supposed to be willing to let them voice the DISrespectful dissent they must voice when they think the organization is acting unethically or dangerously. They are supposed to quit or get fired, and then they become critics instead of spokespeople.

If you go through an entire career without that happening to you even once, you may have lost your soul. If it happens to you often, you’ve undoubtedly lost your judgment. Most of the time, you ought to be able to lose a robust debate gracefully and proceed to explain and help implement the decision you opposed. The question is whether you should also be required to pretend you supported it all along.

None of this is meant to suggest that it’s not worth some effort to reconcile differences, if possible, so you can speak with one voice without perpetrating a fraud. Sometimes there isn’t really a significant disagreement. Suppose the drinking water supply is contaminated and you’ve decided to institute a boil-water order. The City Health Department is telling residents to boil their water for five minutes. The County Health Department is telling residents to boil their water for seven minutes. A telephone call is probably all that’s needed to agree on “5 –7 minutes,” thus saving residents the anxiety they might feel because they’re getting “conflicting advice” on how long to boil the water.

Why Let Opinion Diversity Show?

Assume that you had the sort of robust debate you ought to have; you tried to reach consensus and failed; management listened to both sides and made a decision; it wasn’t a moral crisis requiring anyone to quit or get fired. Now you’re down to a choice among three ways of describing what happened:

Shall we pretend we all had the same opinion – that is, pretend not to have had a robust debate at all?

Or shall we pretend to have reached consensus – that is, acknowledge the debate but lie about its outcome?

Or shall we tell people that we had a good debate, management listened hard and made a tough call, and now we’re all going to try to make management’s decision work, though some of us preferred a different choice and some still do?

Convention favors the first two options. So does management’s ego. What are the arguments for the third option? Why do I think it makes sense to let opinion diversity show?

It’s the truth.

I am amazed how often advice to speak with one voice is on the same list of “best practices” as advice to be honest and transparent. When an organization is in fact divided on the best course of action, obviously, speaking with one voice and being honest and transparent are incompatible.

That doesn’t keep practitioners from imagining (or pretending) otherwise. In October 2005, Canada hosted an international conference on pandemic preparedness. When Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin addressed the conference, he asserted (mistakenly, in my judgment) that “public fear, and bad information, could all too easily snowball into panic.” Then he added: “Our best antidote will be clear, honest and consistent assessment of the risks we face, the ability to swiftly gather information, and to speak with one voice in frank and constructive terms – early and continuously.”

But how can sources “speak with one voice in frank and constructive terms” if frankness would require acknowledging dissent and reporting information that is more disheartening than constructive? And how can sources provide “clear, honest, and consistent” information if the early data are uncertain and confusing, leading to considerable expert disagreement?

In a pandemic, as in so many crisis communication and risk communication challenges, honesty and consistency often diverge. And clarity comes to mean something very different when what most needs to be clarified is how much we don’t know, and how little we agree about the meaning of what we do know.

Given that risk communication experts advise both consistency and honesty, which one do they put their faith in when the two diverge? Here’s a possible clue. The CDC Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication handbook cited at the start of this column uses the words “consistent,” “consistency,” “inconsistent,” and “inconsistency” a total of 33 times. It uses “honest,” “honesty,” “dishonest,” and “dishonesty” 13 times.

Why the imbalance? Look again at this “speak with one voice” paragraph from the handbook:

Get the facts right, repeat them consistently, avoid sketchy details early on, and ensure that all credible sources share the same facts. Speak with one voice. Again, preparation counts. Consistent messages are vital. Inconsistent messages will increase anxiety and will quickly torpedo credibility of experts.

The words “credible” and “credibility” appear 77 times in the handbook, “anxiety” an additional 13 times.

It is true that inconsistent messages make people anxious. We’d rather you all agreed. But when you don’t all agree, presumably the anxiety is merited. And it is surely lower than the anxiety that results when people learn that you have been papering over your disagreements.

As for credibility, it all depends on whether you think credibility is about being trusted or about being trustworthy. (In the CDC handbook, “trust,” “trusted,” “mistrust,” “mistrusted,” “distrust,” and “distrusted” appear 50 times; “trustworthy,” “untrustworthy,” “trustworthiness,” and “untrustworthiness” appear four times.) If there is disagreement within your organization, letting it show undermines false credibility; it undermines people’s mistaken faith that the answers are obvious and the experts all agree. It builds instead a more honest, more painful sort of credibility, grounded in the reality of opinion diversity and the assurance that you won’t try to hide it.

It prepares the public to cope with uncertainty and debate.

Much of my 35 years of experience in risk communication can be summarized in a single paragraph as follows.

A company or government agency explains a situation to the public in a way that makes it seem less complicated, less uncertain, less debatable, and therefore less upsetting than it really is. The public swallows its doubts and accepts this interpretation. Then the complexities, uncertainties, and debates start to emerge. In large part because it feels blindsided and misled, the public now gets more upset than the situation justifies. And the company or agency fails to notice that its own earlier decision not to brief the public properly is what precipitated the overreaction. It concludes instead that people obviously can’t take the unvarnished truth, so the wisest course of action is to keep pretending that things are less complicated, less uncertain, less debatable, and therefore less upsetting than they really are.

“Speak with one voice” is a key component of this endlessly repeated mistake.

By contrast, letting opinion diversity show is how you teach the public that there are no easy answers – so the difficult, uncertain, debatable, imperfect answers we’re all stuck with feel less like betrayal and more like problem-solving.

It nurtures sustainable public confidence.

But doesn’t this undermine public confidence? Yes. That’s the point. Excessive public confidence is typically a prelude to catastrophic loss of confidence when the public belatedly learns what you knew all along: that there are no easy answers.

Sustainable public confidence is admittedly less confident. It frontloads the public’s awareness of uncertainty and debatability, its awareness that the best solution isn’t obvious and all solutions are imperfect.

Aiming for sustainable confidence rather than overconfidence requires you to trust the public. In particular, it requires you to trust that people won’t fall apart if you stop sugarcoating the truth. They may not like it at first – there’s a market for sugarcoating – but after an initial adjustment reaction they’ll usually buck up. Thereafter, knowing what they’re up against, they will cope much better with the situation. And you won’t have to live in fear that the sugarcoating might eventually wear away.

Not that the sugarcoating works all that well in the first place. Fairly often, I think, people smell the cowardice and uncertainty lurking behind a united false front. Even before that front collapses, they sense that your decision can’t have been as easy, obvious, and unanimous as you’re making it sound. And at some level of consciousness they draw these conclusions:

  • That you don’t trust them with the whole truth;
  • That they can’t trust you to tell them the whole truth;
  • That you must be terribly unsure of yourself, so unsure you need to hide behind false confidence; and
  • That the real situation, the whole truth, must be unbearable.

Sometimes speaking with one voice leads to public overconfidence, which is vulnerable to disillusionment and feelings of betrayal when the rest of the truth emerges. And sometimes speaking with one voice leads to half-conscious feelings of mistrust and anxiety – the undermining of confidence even before the rest of the truth emerges. Letting people in on your organization’s debate builds sustainable confidence from the outset.

It improves the resulting public debate and preserves organizational flexibility.

When your organization is uncertain and divided about the best way to proceed, almost invariably the rest of the society is too. Letting people in on your internal debate changes the external debate for the better. For one thing, it makes that debate much milder. When an organization pretends that a difficult decision is a no-brainer, it encourages its critics to be equally simplistic in their rebuttals. So you end up with a polarized battle between those who claim that X is obviously the right course of action and those who claim that, no, Y is obviously the way to go.

But when you tell people that it was a tough call, that your organization had a rousing debate before management finally made the call, that there’s a lot to be said for the other side, you pretty much force your critics to be similarly nuanced (lest you look judicious while they look naïve or dishonest). You turn a head-to-head collision into a shades-of-gray deliberation.

And if you turn out wrong, the cost of your error is much lower: You always said you might be wrong.

So reversing course is much easier. This is a crucial advantage of letting opinion diversity show. An organization that sounds unanimous and confident about a decision can’t afford to learn later that it was a bad decision. It becomes a self-justifying organization instead of a learning organization. Such an organization is likely to stick stubbornly to its guns even in the face of increasing evidence that a different course of action would be better. By contrast, an organization that has been open about its own uncertainties and disagreements is far likelier to stay flexible.

It follows from a policy of sharing the decision-making dilemma.

In an earlier column on dilemma-sharing, I argued that these same benefits (moderating the debate, making it easier to change course) result when an organization shares the decision-making dilemma.

In fact, I see letting opinion diversity show as a corollary of dilemma-sharing. Dilemma-sharing is acknowledging that there is no obviously best decision. Letting opinion diversity show is acknowledging that your organization has proponents of various decisions. Well, if there is no obviously best decision, and if your organization is doing its job right, of course you’d have proponents of various decisions! What would it mean to suggest that even though the decision was a tough one, everybody in your organization happened to be on one side?

There is no way to admit that a difficult decision was difficult without also admitting that different people in your organization had different ideas about the best course of action. There is no way to pretend that your organization was of one mind without also pretending that the decision was easy and obvious. That’s your choice: You were united on a no-brainer or divided on a tough call. United on a tough call simply makes no sense. Yes, of course your organization unites after a tough call, determined to do everything possible to make it work. But if it was a tough call, how could you have been united in the decision itself?

It teaches the public that your organization is diverse, respects diversity, and uses its diversity to enrich its decision-making.

Letting opinion diversity show helps the public understand how good organizations make difficult decisions.

Good organizations make difficult decisions by making sure that they have a wide range of viewpoints represented among their managers; by making sure that managers feel encouraged to speak out; and by making sure that there is a process for integrating discrepant opinions if possible, for compromising among options that cannot be integrated, and for choosing among options that cannot be compromised.

That’s the kind of organization you want to have. And if you have it, it’s the kind of organization you want people to know you have.

At least it’s the kind of organization you ought to want people to know you have. Many of my clients have the right kind of organization – they debate issues hard; they come up with the best decision they can, knowing it might turn out to be wrong; and then they unite on its implementation, while staying alert for evidence that they should change course. But they have come to believe that it is essential to pretend that they’re another sort of organization entirely – an organization that has no doubts, no doubters, no debates, no second thoughts, and no willingness ever to reconsider. This is a source of endless perplexity to me.

The same issue comes up in parenting. The dominant view there too is that parents need to speak with one voice – that children should not be allowed to learn that their parents sometimes have differing views about how best to resolve parenting dilemmas; indeed, that children should not be allowed to learn that there are any parenting dilemmas. A just-posted advice column by Chana Handler, for example, is entitled “Two Parents One Voice.” According to Handler: “Presenting a united front and speaking to our children with one voice is essential for effective parenting.” Handler isn’t just saying that parents should reach a joint decision, so the child can’t shuttle from mommy to daddy to see who offers a better deal. She argues explicitly that parents who disagree should compromise secretly, and should hide from the children that there was ever any disagreement.

Maybe that makes sense for a five-year-old. Anyone over five, I believe, needs to know that mommy and daddy often disagree, that people can disagree and still love each other, and that people who disagree can still make joint decisions and stand by those decisions. I’ll go further. Anyone over five already knows that mommy and daddy often disagree. The effort to pretend otherwise makes it much harder to teach the rest of the lesson.

It keeps your organization diverse.

One of my biggest worries about speaking with one voice as a communication strategy is that it tends to be self-fulfilling. It’s hard to keep nurturing robust internal debate when you require the robust debaters to join in a fraudulent consensus once the decision has been made. So an organization that suppresses discrepant viewpoints externally is all too likely to start suppressing them internally as well. Managers who want to stay learn to toe the party line; managers who don’t want to toe the party line look to leave … or are encouraged to leave.

An organization that lets opinion diversity show is a lot likelier to have some.

From time to time I get a chance to work with a company or government agency I haven’t worked with for a number of years. As I look back through my Rolodex® (okay, my Microsoft Outlook® contacts list), I make bets with myself about who’s likely to have left and who’s probably still around. My algorithm is depressingly simple, and depressingly accurate. People who usually saw things the way their peers and supervisors saw them are probably still there. People who often had differing perspectives, who were good at seeing other viewpoints and effective at explaining them, are likelier to have moved on. The tendency in every organization is to cherish the people who exemplify your organizational culture more than the oddballs and dissenters. Keeping the oddballs and dissenters is all the harder when they are required to join in the consensus masquerade.

This is especially devastating when the oddballs and dissenters are communications people. The job of a company communicator isn’t just explaining the company to the public; it’s also explaining the public to the company. Good communicators spend their lives at the intersection of competing viewpoints, helping each side understand the other. In organizations devoted to speaking with one voice, good communicators can have a short shelf life.

The same thing happens to multi-organizational efforts – from trade associations to activist coalitions to crisis management JICs. Speaking with one voice is a lot easier if you eject the dissident voices, or if you never invite them into the tent in the first place.

This has many costs, but I’ll mention only the three biggest. First, your team loses the benefit of those dissident voices; enforced homogeneity leads to worse decision-making. Second, the excluded voices have a field day in the media; their voices sound all the more credible in contrast to the homogenized pap coming from the establishment sources. And third, you lose most of your ability to understand and predict the reactions of other players and the general public; your internal dissenters, who were likeliest to be able to tell you how you sound from the outside, are gone.

Perhaps the most stunningly catastrophic recent example of the “speak with one voice” strategy in action was U.S. government communications about the possibility that Iraq under Saddam Hussein might possess weapons of mass destruction. This was a topic of intense debate within the U.S. intelligence agencies. Some analysts thought it was likely that Iraq had or would soon have WMDs, while others – interpreting the same murky evidence – thought it was unlikely. Seeking to cement popular support for a U.S. invasion, the Bush administration suppressed the views of the doubters, cherry-picked and distorted the evidence, and spoke with one voice. Among the costs of doing so:

  • In real time, even before we knew which side would turn out right, the government’s selective version of the truth smelled fishy to many in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world.
  • When the administration view turned out wrong, it looked to many like it had known all along and intentionally lied.
  • The one-sided communications alienated many who might otherwise have been respectful and appropriately tentative opponents. It helped convert a policy debate into a bitter cultural divide.
  • The process ended in self-deception. Administration spokespeople forgot the doubts they had hidden. Determined to defend their embattled position, they resisted noticing new evidence that they might be wrong or part-wrong, and that a course correction in Iraq might be needed.

Can the Public Take It?

Given these arguments for letting opinion diversity show, why is “speak with one voice” the nearly universal consensus?

Part of the answer is management ego. I remember years ago working for a boss who asked how I thought we should handle a particular situation. I gave him my opinion. He thought about it for a minute, and then said, “No, we’re going to do it this way instead.” “Okay,” I replied. There was a pause. “You think I’m right, don’t you?” he asked.

Obviously I didn’t think he was right. I had just told him what I thought. I was perfectly willing to do it his way, but that wasn’t enough for him. He wanted me to change my mind too (or pretend to). That’s ego.

And obviously if the boss’s ego requires employees to fake agreement inside the office, it’s also going to require faking agreement outside the office. “Speak with one voice” becomes a nice way to say “Echo ME!”

But there’s more than ego behind the one-voice consensus. Much of that consensus is grounded in two beliefs: the belief that people can’t handle indecisive leaders, and the belief that people can’t handle uncertain situations.

The decisiveness issue is quickly disposed of. Letting opinion diversity show doesn’t have to mean looking indecisive. In fact, a good working definition of decisiveness is the ability to assess uncertain situations, consider diverse viewpoints, reach decisions promptly, and implement those decisions effectively while still staying alert for new evidence. Good leaders help the public bear uncertainty by showing the public they are bearing it themselves – not by pretending there is no uncertainty that needs to be borne. Good leaders aren’t paralyzed by disagreement, nor are they desperate to suppress disagreement so they won’t be paralyzed by it; good leaders value disagreement as an aid to good decisions.

It is worth noting that one of the most respected institutions in the United States today is the Supreme Court. Its process is transparent argumentation, and its decisions are no less binding when they are divided. Even those who disapprove of particular Supreme Court decisions do not claim that the Court should discourage dissenting opinions so that the nine Justices can speak with one voice. The U.S. Congress has far lower approval ratings. Although Congress is sometimes criticized for excessive partisanship, the main criticism isn’t that Republicans and Democrats disagree too much or too openly; it is that their disagreements have become a reason or an excuse for inaction.

As for the American Presidency, for several decades now it has often come with the adjective “imperial” attached. Its current occupant is widely criticized for suppressing or ignoring internal debate. In his early years as President, George W. Bush was unusually open to internal debate, on topics ranging from smallpox vaccination to stem cell research to the wisdom of invading Iraq. Now he is much more committed to making sure his administration speaks with one voice. Has this shift served his poll numbers well? Has it served his governance decisions well?

What about the deeply felt but not very thoroughly examined conviction that the public can’t handle uncertainty and disagreement?

It is certainly true that the public doesn’t like uncertainty and disagreement. We prefer it when all the experts and authorities agree (and agree with us, if we have an opinion of our own). But the question isn’t whether genuine consensus is better than uncertainty and disagreement. The question is whether faked consensus is better than uncertainty and disagreement.

One of the areas of disagreement that complicated the U.S. anthrax response in 2001 was how long to keep people on antibiotics. A lot of people were started on a course of antibiotics because they might have been exposed to anthrax. A few days later, progress in the investigation showed that they probably weren’t exposed, and if they were it probably wasn’t to very many anthrax spores.

But nobody was quite sure how many spores it takes to cause an anthrax infection. The federal recommendation was to take people off antibiotics if they had only a “trace” exposure. Georges Benjamin, then head of the Maryland Department of Health (and now Executive Director of the American Public Health Association), was reluctant to follow this recommendation. So he didn’t. And he was pretty candid with the public about why. He described the outcome in a 2003 panel on “How to Lead during Times of Trouble”:

Ultimately, we came to near agreement. We still had varying recommendations out there, but they were much more narrow when we were all done….

I think that the take-home message was that it is okay to disagree, because what we ultimately decided was that we would disagree on the narrow clinical question, but that we would explain it so that we all understood the rationale for doing it differently. That was a very, very tricky communications message.

Notwithstanding this “take-home message,” in more formal settings Dr. Benjamin has continued to advocate speaking with one voice. When he testified before a 2003 SARS hearing of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, he said:

Anthrax also taught us that it was important to aggressively coordinate our external communications efforts, not just our response efforts, very early in order to ensure that we had control of the message and that we spoke with a single, consistent voice. This approach is imperative to avoid confusion, misinformation and panic.

(An aside: For over fifty years, the disaster research community has spoken with nearly one voice that actual panic is rare. This extremely consistent message has been all-but-ignored by those who advocate message consistency to prevent panic.)

During the 2003 SARS outbreaks, there was a period when the World Health Organization had issued a travel advisory for Toronto, urging travelers to stay away if possible. The U.S. CDC, meanwhile, urged caution but stopped short of a full-fledged travel advisory. It’s hard to say which one was “right.” The two agencies had slightly different criteria for deciding when to issue travel advisories, and slightly different impressions of just what was going on in Toronto. (The Canadian government thought both warnings were unnecessary – though Toronto later learned that it was incubating a second wave of SARS cases at the time.)

Notice the two warnings were only slightly different. WHO and the CDC weren’t at war. They were both warning travelers about SARS in Toronto. One warning was a little stronger than the other, that’s all.

That was apparently enough to generate demands for greater consistency. In January 2004 the U.S. urged WHO to change its procedures and standards to “harmonize” them with those of the U.S. (I will leave it to others to explore why the U.S. didn’t simply change its own rules in the interests of harmonization.) U.S. delegate William Steiger told WHO: “We saw with the example of Toronto that we came to different conclusions, which caused some confusion.” Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said: “We think it [harmonization] would be much better, instead of the United States having a travel advisory and the WHO having a travel advisory – people wouldn’t know which one to follow.”

Granted, when officials reach different conclusions or make different recommendations, the public ends up not being “clear” on what course to take. Of course we prefer consensus. But here’s the question: If the situation is uncertain and the experts and authorities are unsure or in disagreement, what does it mean for the public to be “clear”? When the public learns that expert opinions and official recommendations vary, it is getting closer to the truth, not further from it. It is getting “clear” that the situation itself is not so clear.

Suppose you find out that World Health Organization has issued a stronger travel advisory about a SARS-infected city than the U.S. has issued. Suppose you discover that a medication that is legal and considered safe where you live is banned as unacceptably dangerous in many other countries. Suppose you learn that some experts believe a particular technology is harmless but others think it might be risky; that some governments leave it unregulated but others regulate it strictly or even outlaw it altogether; that some scientific panels have come down on one side and some on the other, most of them by divided votes. Is this information you have use for? Is it information you want to have? Is it information you ought to have?

People do tend to be cautious about a risk when they know that the experts and authorities don’t all agree with each other. Sometimes, especially when the issue is new, people become temporarily more cautious than either “side” considers appropriate. So it’s true that letting opinion diversity show can sometimes lead to a short-term overreaction.

But reacting with caution to expert disagreement is a basically sound algorithm: If the experts can’t agree on what’s going on and what to do about it, maybe I should watch out for a while. Telling people that the experts and authorities disagree, when they do, is an effective, honorable way to encourage appropriate caution in the face of uncertainty. Not telling them – speaking with one voice instead – withholds information they ought to have.

And it is information they can take. I have lots of stories of publics becoming more anxious and therefore more cautious because of expert disagreement – sometimes wisely cautious; sometimes, for a while, excessively cautious. I do not have any stories of publics “panicking” because of expert disagreement. People don’t often panic. However panicky we might feel, we usually keep our wits together and figure out how best to cope with risky, uncertain situations. If anything, we are likelier to panic when we sense that the authorities are hiding their uncertainties and disagreements than when they’re being candid about them. I’m not claiming that speaking with one voice routinely leads to panic; nothing you can do will routinely lead to panic. I am claiming that people can bear expert disagreement that’s on the table more calmly than we can bear expert disagreement that is half-hidden behind false unanimity and false reassurance.

Note that the false unanimity and false reassurance are yoked at the hip. That is, when companies and government agencies disagree internally about how serious a risk is, it is almost always the people on the reassuring side of the internal debate who urge their more worried colleagues to keep quiet so the organization can speak with one voice. This makes sense. Since disagreement is intrinsically alarming, those who wish to suppress the disagreement are usually on the reassuring side; the alarmists are pretty comfortable saying not everybody is as worried as they are. (Activist groups are frequent exceptions to this rule; they prefer to frame the disagreement as them versus the bad guys.)

It follows that organizations with a strong predilection for speaking with one voice tend to end up organizations that routinely over-reassure.

In the next section I will argue that speaking with one voice is rarely successful anyway. The media usually manage to find the other voices. The other voices, angry and depressed at their suppression, usually manage to find the media (and often find ways to undermine the decision they were forbidden to question). That ought to be enough reason to reconsider the strategy. But it’s not my main reason.

It’s also worth remembering that speaking with one voice may lack credibility from the outset. Even before the media find the other voices or the other voices find the media, people often smell a rat. So speaking with one voice can easily boomerang, yielding a public that is less trustful of the authorities and more fearful of the situation. That too ought to be enough reason to reconsider the strategy. But it’s not my main reason.

Here is my main reason for opposing the “speak with one voice” strategy. The voices you’re suppressing are usually the alarmist voices, and they may turn out right. If they’d had their say, the public could have been better prepared, and would have been better able to cope – emotionally as well as logistically. Anxiety now is the price of preparedness later. Advocates of “speak with one voice” are refusing to let their publics pay that price. Instead, they leave their publics unprepared.

The Effort to Speak with One Voice Usually Fails

Based on the arguments discussed above, I believe that “speak with one voice” is a far less desirable goal than my clients (and most of my peer consultants) think it is.

But let that go. Assume it’s the ideal goal. There remains a major barrier: It almost never works.

Even if you don’t buy my recommendation that letting opinion diversity show is a better path forward than speaking with one voice, surely letting opinion diversity show is preferable to trying and failing to speak with one voice. More often than not, this is your actual choice: You can acknowledge internal disagreement respectfully, and appear (accurately) like a mature organization with many smart people who do not all march in lockstep. Or you can try and fail to hide internal disagreement, and appear (accurately) like an immature organization that cannot handle differences of opinion.

At the very least, then, you need a fallback plan for when can’t pull off a “speak with one voice” strategy.

There are two reasons why speaking with one voice rarely works: media and morale.


Journalists are taught to seek out conflicting voices. Whether that’s to get at the truth official sources are trying to hide or to make the story interesting and “sell papers” is a matter of opinion. But count on it. What your company or government agency considers presenting a united front, a good reporter considers stonewalling – and a good reporter will inevitably go searching for chinks in the wall.

There’s a partial exception for serious crisis situations, when even journalists get anxious and the media become more compliant than investigative. Even then, a united front often provokes a search for discrepant voices. During the 1979 Three Mile Island accident, for example, Metropolitan Edison (the utility responsible for the accident) made the usual efforts to speak with one voice. Literally: Everyone was told to refer all questions to the public affairs office. Most MetEd executives obeyed. So Philadelphia Inquirer reporters went through the MetEd parking lot, taking down the license plate numbers of lower-level employees who were working to control the accident; they got the employees’ addresses from their license numbers, then got their phone numbers and called them at home after shift. Inevitably, many talked about what they knew. And inevitably, much of what they knew was patchy or wrong. Since employees weren’t supposed to talk anyway, the utility had seen little reason to brief its workforce.

More than 25 years later, a multinational bank asked me to sit in on a tabletop emergency management drill. The scenario involved cyberterrorists disrupting the bank’s computer operations on two continents. Here’s an excerpt from my report:

A major factor determining [company’s] public communication response was a firm policy that nothing is to be said publicly that has not gone through a clearance process in [home office]. Many organizations, corporate as well as governmental, have found the need to develop radically streamlined approvals processes for public communications in crisis situations. The major goal of communication approvals processes is to ensure that the organization “speaks with one voice.” This goal continues to be widely advocated, but the evidence is that it is virtually never achieved. As happened in the exercise, information invariably leaks – in this case both from external sources and from unauthorized [company] sources. The effort to speak with one voice thus usually ends up only slowing the official communication response; the feared cacophony of inconsistent messages happens anyway, without the corrective of an official voice that is up-to-date, candid, and complete.

All this is typical. Most government agencies and corporations respond to controversies and crises by constricting the flow of information, internally as well as externally. Terrified that the wrong people may say the wrong things, they identify one or two spokespeople and decree that nobody else is to do any communicating. A Byzantine approvals process assures that official information will be behind the story – strengthening reporters’ determination to find alternative sources. And the absence of any effort to keep the rest of the organization informed assures that whoever reporters ultimately get to open up will be dispensing information that is largely mistaken.

When the organization does its post-hoc “lessons learned” assessment of the experience, it is all too likely to conclude that it must try harder next time to speak with one voice. The consistent failure of the “speak with one voice” strategy leads most organizations to redouble their efforts to make the strategy work.

Some expert proponents of “speak with one voice” wisely advise their clients to brief everyone they can, even though the people being briefed aren’t supposed to talk. The underlying assumption is that some people will inevitably talk anyway, and it will be better if they know what they’re talking about. Other experts advise against even trying to centralize information flow. They urge their clients to authorize lots of people to talk (since they will anyway) – but to be sure to tell them first, in detail, what to say.

I think briefing everyone you can tends to backfire less disastrously than trying to shut everyone up. But when the content of the briefing diverges from what the people being briefed know or believe, you’re back in the same “speak with one voice” pickle. What are the odds that all the people you brief will stick to the briefing notes at the expense of their own opinions?

In today’s world of 24/7 news coverage, SMS messaging, and the Internet, the information genie is out of the bottle. If official sources withhold information, we get it from unofficial sources; if official sources speak with one voice, we seek out other voices all the harder … and we find them. But information wasn’t controllable before the new communication technologies either. Even in the pre-Gutenberg era, everyone in medieval villages knew when troubles were brewing. The information genie never was in the bottle.

The rumor mill works. It carries both accurate information and misinformation; the proportion depends largely on whether you are working to inform the rumor mill or struggling to suppress it. Keeping people informed and letting them talk has always been a wiser strategy than keeping them ignorant and hoping they won’t.

Or think of it this way. On all but the most routine stories, journalists are expected to find multiple sources with varying things to say, so the public can figure out for itself where the truth lies. If your organization is at the center of a particular story, you might be expected to provide, say, three out of five of a typical reporter’s sources. But not if you manage to shut up everyone in your organization except for a single official spokesperson. Now you’re down to one out of five. The reporter will still find the requisite multiple sources – but now most of them will be outsiders and extremists instead of staffers with mildly differing views. And instead of looking like an organization that considers many options before making difficult decisions, you’ll look like an embattled advocate of one entrenched position.

Within an organization, the “speak with one voice” strategy usually takes the form of centralizing information flow. But when there are a number of organizations involved, or a number of independent experts, then “speak with one voice” usually means negotiating disagreements in an effort to come up with a consensus everyone can live with. That, too, is very likely to fail.

A few years ago, the U.S. government was worried about the high-magnitude low-probability risk that bioterrorists might use smallpox to launch a bioterrorist attack on the U.S. population. The decision was to conduct a voluntary smallpox vaccination program for healthcare workers and emergency responders. The CDC was charged with administering the program.

Since doubt about the safety of the vaccine was a major disincentive to volunteer, the CDC thought it would be wise to gather together all the smallpox vaccination experts and try to get them to agree on how many serious side effects they would expect per million people vaccinated. A single unanimous estimate, CDC officials reasoned, would generate less controversy and less anxiety than lots of conflicting estimates.

I argued against this strategy, and (in this particular case) my advice was taken. Here’s what I told the CDC:

I understand the appeal of speaking with one voice. And I am all in favor of exploring differences of opinion and reconciling them when they are reconcilable. But it is dangerous to take this reconciliation effort too far.

Consider two scenarios with respect to estimating the frequency of adverse events. [“Adverse events” is medical jargon for side-effects.] If there are half a dozen different estimates in circulation, and if everybody respectfully acknowledges everybody else’s estimates, then the media and the public will quickly deduce that all specific estimates are only uncertain approximations and the best estimate is a range, even a fairly wide range. As long as the “truth” ends up somewhere in that range, nobody was lying; nobody was even mistaken.

By contrast, if the relevant experts and authorities all agree on a single estimate, journalists will soon dig up their prior estimates and begin asking why these discrepant numbers have been “suppressed” and what kind of pressure was applied to achieve an apparent consensus. And when the “truth” eventually emerges, your shared estimate will almost certainly have been wrong; if the final answer turns out worse than your negotiated consensus, charges of dishonesty will flourish.

On balance, I think you’d do better with all those discrepant estimates still in circulation, and with the emerging “consensus estimate” a confession of uncertainty and a range that embraces them all.


Aside from the media, the other main reason why the “speak with one voice” strategy usually fails is what it does to morale.

It’s hard enough that managers must reconcile themselves to having lost the internal policy debate. It’s hard enough that they’re obliged to put their reservations aside and try to make the decision work. It’s hard enough that they are expected to be able to explain the rationale behind the decision even if they still prefer another option. Those are hard, but they’re right. A manager who feels the organization made a tough call after robust debate should be able to accept, implement, and even defend the outcome.

But it’s something else entirely to be required to pretend that the debate you lost never happened, that your organization is and always was unanimous in its support for the decision – the decision you actually opposed and still doubt. When managers are asked to forgo their integrity, to lie about their own beliefs, they are likely to become angry or depressed. These feelings are themselves organizationally unacceptable, so they too are suppressed.

And then they leak. This is true in two senses, both of them bad for the organization. Suppressed emotions tend to leak in the form of passive-aggressive behavior. And angry or depressed managers tend to leak by finding people they can complain to – family members, friends, coworkers, neighbors, and journalists.

The U.S. smallpox vaccination program provides an excellent example of this morale problem. The decision to run a voluntary program for healthcare workers and emergency responders was a compromise. The intelligence establishment had wanted to vaccinate most of the U.S. population; the public health establishment had wanted to vaccinate practically nobody. The decision went all the way to President Bush, who decided to vaccinate a lot fewer than the CIA had recommended, but a lot more than the CDC had recommended.

But the CIA didn’t have to implement the program. The CDC did, and so did hundreds of state and local health departments around the country. Most public health professionals didn’t like the decision. They didn’t like the fact that their advice on what they considered a public health issue hadn’t been followed. They didn’t like the obligation to spend precious public health resources on what they considered an unwise, unscientific, politically motivated boondoggle. They didn’t like the implication that the eradication of smallpox – perhaps the most stunning public health achievement of the twentieth century – might have been only a prelude to disaster.

Above all, they didn’t like having to hide all the things they didn’t like. Before the President’s decision, the Bush administration had been admirably open about the federal government’s internal dissent. Advocates on both sides were free to write competing op-eds. But once the decision was made, the word went out that everyone had to cleave to the party line. (Comparisons to Iraq are inevitable. There too an early policy to let opinion diversity show gave way to a later policy to speak with one voice.) That obligation stuck in the collective craw of public health professionals charged with administering a program they had advised against.

In January 2003 I posted a column on my website warning that the public health establishment was experiencing a lot of outrage over the smallpox vaccination decision. I recommended an outrage management effort to address the problem. I was less explicit than I might have been – and less explicit than I was in private conversations with public health clients – about my main concern: that outraged public health professionals might unconsciously undermine the smallpox vaccination program. The column makes this point only indirectly. “Increasing their awareness of their own anti-vaccination outrage,” I wrote, “may help thoughtful public health practitioners clarify their thinking and compensate for the distortion that outrage produces.”

The smallpox vaccination program ended up vaccinating far fewer people than planned; it is almost universally considered a failure. Of course from the perspective of a public health professional who opposed the program, this “failure” might constitute a success of sorts. But I doubt most public health people intentionally undermined the program. I think they unconsciously undermined it. And I think one of the main reasons they did so was the obligation to speak with one voice.

I don’t have any proof that the suppression of CDC dissent about smallpox vaccination damaged morale and undermined the program. But a more general Washington Post article on morale at CDC is on-point. Written by Susan Okie and published on July 1, 2002, the article was entitled: “Tensions Between CDC, White House; Health Officials Say Low Morale Could Threaten Agency’s Ability to Handle Crises.” Here are the relevant paragraphs:

A number of CDC employees said that, in recent months, they have frequently been exhorted by HHS officials to make sure that the department speaks with “one voice,” an approach that some fear may stifle scientific debate, especially on controversial topics.

Contact with the media is strictly monitored by the HHS press office. Many people interviewed for this article declined to be identified, saying they did not want to get themselves or colleagues into trouble.

“The whole issue of speaking with one voice has become a major problem, because it means that one voice will be a political voice,” said a former CDC official. “Technical agencies remain credible if they are free to act on the basis of the best scientific information available, and not on the basis of what is the most politically favorable option.” …

[David W.] Fleming, the CDC’s acting director, said that rather than stifling scientific discussion, the department’s emphasis on “one voice” has promoted greater interchange between the CDC and other federal health agencies. “Once policy decisions are made, it’s all of our jobs to support them,” he said.

When I do seminars for health departments, I sometimes ask my audience how they felt about smallpox vaccination. Almost invariably they tell me they hated the program and were glad to see it fail. They don’t usually think they’re the ones who made it fail; they attribute this to other causes, especially the inability to guarantee that participants would be financially covered if the vaccine made them sick. But they concede that their involvement was grudging and unenthusiastic. Some even cop to passive-aggressive. When I ask whether they might have done a better job of implementing the program if they’d been allowed to express their own views, most say they don’t know. They can’t imagine being allowed to express their own views, they tell me.

Here’s what they can’t imagine saying:

The smallpox vaccine does cause serious side-effects in a small number of cases. But of course it’s much, much safer than going through a smallpox attack without having been vaccinated. That’s the main issue. Those who think a smallpox attack is possible think we should vaccinate as many people as we can. Those who think it’s impossible or vanishingly unlikely think we shouldn’t vaccinate anybody. The President’s decision to have a voluntary program for healthcare workers and emergency responders is a compromise. Personally, I’m pretty confident there will never be a smallpox attack. So why take even a small risk of side-effects? I’m not getting the shot. But if I were worried about terrorists having access to smallpox, I’d roll up my sleeve in a New York minute!

There. Was that so hard?

link back to text[*] Covello and I are among the world’s leading consultants in the (tiny) field of risk communication. We agree about many things. We disagree about others. One of the things we disagree about is the wisdom of trying to speak with one voice when there is considerable dissent within the group. He and I do not speak with one voice on the wisdom of speaking with one voice. (I haven’t asked him if he thinks we should.)

Copyright © 2006 by Peter M. Sandman

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