Solve problems by involving those who have them

In 1973, I was fortunate enough to be selected for a position at what was then the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Land Between The Lakes. I had been a newspaper reporter and editor up until then, and I was excited about working in the field of “public relations.”I was chosen to be the Reports Editor, a title that really meant nothing. Reports Editor is one of those arcane titles that the federal government uses to “hide their real intent.” I was in this position from 1973-1979.Looking back, I would say that this job probably taught me more than any of the others.Local people in western Kentucky and Tennessee have feelings that run deep even to this day about TVA. Those people, especially the ones who were forced from their homes for TVA’s national demonstration area in outdoor recreation and environmental education, will never get over it.However, when I was 23, I saw this opportunity as a great challenge. I decided from day one to reach out and engage all members of the public who had an interest in the project, especially the former residents and the business community. I sought to develop working relationships among diverse groups.More than once, management questioned why I spent many extra hours attending meetings of the tourist associations, chambers, economic development committees and the various state agency public hearings.

I may not have been able to articulate it then, but now I realize what the answer to this question was. If you truly want to solve a problem, you must involve the people with the problem in the solution. You must develop meaningful and sustainable relationships with them based on trust.

I took my responsibility of being a “public servant” seriously. I believed then, just as I do today, that all government employees have an obligation to engage the taxpayers (the very people who pay taxes to provide government employees’ salaries) in meaningful discussions to find appropriate solutions to difficult problems.

Many of my colleagues thought and felt, as they expressed to me, that I was wasting my time trying to develop relationships with the very people who wanted TVA to take the proverbial hike.

They were wrong then, and government agencies that still play at public involvement and engagement without meaningful intent are even more wrong now.

Since the taxpayers’ money pays government employee salaries, the taxpaying public has the right to be engaged in helping agencies make the best possible decisions.

Allow me to give you an example.

Recently, I was asked to facilitate a series of public meetings for a federal agency. I quickly determined after the first meeting, a nightmare for all involved, that two things were readily apparent:

– The federal agency didn’t really want a facilitated meeting. Facilitated meetings in my world are set up to bring all the people to the table and keep them there, no matter how long, until an agreed upon path forward is determined.

– The agency really wanted a traffic cop or a moderator for these meetings. The second meeting we moderated, even though I thought it unwise to do. The meeting went well although I voiced my professional opinion, something I rarely do when I am conducting a meeting.

I told the public that we had advised the agency that its meeting model should be changed to a more educational and involvement model rather than just an informational model. An educational model would allow for significantly more public involvement and, at the least, shared assessment of the problem, if not some shared decision-making.

Needless to say, the agency and my former contractor have decided they “really don’t have the funds to have a facilitator.”

Frankly, I am glad they came to that decision. I was going to be forced to walk away from the project anyway, something I have done in the past when agencies tried to fake public engagement by applying only the necessary rules and regulations.

This leads me back to the need to solve the problems by involving the people directly affected.

There are six steps I recommend to truly involve the people directly affected, whether it is a small business or a government agency manager:

– Ask those involved to share the information they want to share, not just the information you want them to share. Be prepared to keep your mouth closed and your ears open.

Ask open-ended questions like, “What else do we need to know that is important for you to share?”

Questions like these not only enable the customer or the member of the public (stakeholder) to vent. It also allows them to be involved in the assessment of the problem.

– Ask them to prioritize information they have shared. Because they are venting, this is their therapy, and you will get a significant information dump. Have them help you figure out the really important information they have shared.

It annoys people with a problem or complaint when you assume you know what concerns them most.

– Ask them for their advice or opinions.

Oh, I know foresters, fishery experts, nuclear specialists and government managers all know what they are doing more so than the public does, However, they (read taxpayer here for government agencies and customer for small business) do have opinions and advice to share.

Being willing to ask for advice and opinions does not mean that you will necessarily take it. This should also be stated up front. However, when you understand their priorities, their values and their viewpoints, a solution can often be created which meets the needs of all parties involved.

– Offer them alternatives.

People are more committed to decisions that they help make. Not only are they committed, they have a stake in the decision and, as such, will help defend the decision, if need be.

In addition, if you are a small business person, you will demonstrate to the customer that you are taking that extra step to satisfy the complaint or meet the request.

When the request can’t be met, for whatever reason, be prepared to offer alternatives.

– Determine the minimum need.

Ask the customer or the stakeholder what he or she would like you to do immediately. This helps to diffuse their anger rather quickly. If this is not done correctly, especially in the government world, outrage can and often does result.

When members of the public become outraged, it often results in unwanted political or media involvement. Don’t believe this? Did you watch the public outrage over the shooting of the unarmed minority teenager in Florida? Or, perhaps you recall the “Occupiers” movement in the larger cities?

By taking some action, you gain some additional time to take care of the greater problem.

– Ask them to provide you some alternative solutions.

Be direct in your request. If you are a small business person say something like, “Ms. Jones, I’m stumped. I’ve offered you all the alternative solutions I can. What kind of solution would you propose?”

Often this makes people realize they are being unreasonable, or at the very least, it lessens the tension and re-engages all parties toward working to a mutually acceptable path forward.

You probably have figured this out by now. Underlying all these actions is your intention to build workable and meaningful relationships.

When you have built meaningful and sustainable relationships, and you have demonstrated that your behaviors match your words (you walk your talk), then your chances of building workable solutions greatly increases. Your willingness to involve the people impacted can make all the difference in solving a mutual problem.

Dr. L. Darryl Armstrong, Armstrong and Associates, is a consultant and counselor. He can be reached at or 1-888-340-2006 or

Strategic Planning Success – Executive Management and the Working Team Must All Engage

I continue to be rewarded for all the intense and hard work that my client the Kentucky Press Association put into their strategic planning process a few years ago. This week David Thompson, KPA’s Executive Director reported that in a conference he was in that he would be presenting the results of some of that work.

David says,  “… was thinking of you earlier today. Our first session yesterday, followed by two more hours this a.m., was on strategic planning. Obviously, we’re ahead of the game and in checking my notes from 2008 and 2009, so many of the “obstacles and issues” and the “solutions” that were mentioned yesterday by the group, on what lies ahead, are things we discussed/addressed four years ago. Thank you for that. Tomorrow, it’s my turn to talk about the News Content Service. All because of the Strategic Plan!!! It’s a service that has shared more than 24,000 stories and editorials with 74 participating newspapers, since it began October 1, 2009.”

When you have active engagement by all parties in the strategic planning process you can overcome barriers, secure agreement for a mutually agreeable path forward and discover and implement new ideas such as KPA has done.  

And needless to say you can stand up with pride and announce your success!

Congratulations David and team at KPA!!!

How to Create a Crisis: Why do you suppose the DHS needs 1 Billion Bullets?

Why do you suppose the DHS needs 1 Billion Bullets?

For an administration that was going to be the most “open and transparent” of any to come to Washington, the current White House and the Department of Homeland Security Secretary have chosen to create yet another crisis.

Never missing the opportunity to “pass up” a good crisis, as former Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel was known to say, the DHS Secretary refuses to answer to Congress why they are purchasing bullets, guns and armored vehicles.

While most of us try to avoid crisis or try to learn how to handle them better this administration seemingly strives to create as many as possible.

Universities and colleges should be giving thought to this issue and the ramifications on their campus from those activists who see this as an issue.

You can read more about the DHS refusal at:

Mind-mapping crisis messages – Learn to do it NOW!

Mind-mapping crisis messages – Learn to do it NOW!

This is a series of articles that will help you understand mind mapping crisis messages. This process when done appropriately and successfully will ensure you will succeed.

Article 1 in this series – Mind-mapping crisis messages – Learn to do it NOW!

Do you know what you will say when:

¡  You have an active shooter on campus

¡  How about 3-hours into the incident?

¡  A gas line leak causes you to evacuate a dorm

¡  A flood watch is issued and flooding appears imminent

¡  When power fails and an all out effort to restore power is delayed by a strike

¡  When a student is raped, kidnapped, or simply disappears into the night

¡  When workplace violence hits your organization

A crisis grows, changes, and often deepens over time. Like all things in life – a crisis has a starting point, a middle phase and an ending. What you choose to say, who you will talk with and how you will reach them in these days of social media will change at every stage of the crisis.

Some of the worst mistakes are made by crisis communicators because they try to create the messages in the heat of the moment. Ineffective and hurried communications create major blunders and failures.

Simply, when the stuff hits the fan, stress levels are running to the extreme, managers and executives, administrators and supervisors are all uptight and tense, everybody wants to approve and contribute to the messages and if you are the crisis communicator you know you have an incredible feat at hand.

Over the next few blogs we will look at the seven stages of a crisis and how you can use a technique known a mind mapping messages at every stage from the early stages of warning, to assessing the risk, to responding, resolving and recovering.

If you take the time to learn the technique in advance you can create clear, concise mind maps that will help you at every one of the seven stages.

Here are the seven stages we will discuss and help you understand:

¡  1. The advance warning and/or advance intel stage

¡  2. Situation assessment – the stage where you assess pros/cons, good/bad/ugly

¡  3. Communicating the response – how to communicate and to whom

¡  4. Operational management – handling the operations to survive

¡  5. Resolution and path forward prevention – resolving and moving forward to continuity

¡  6. Business continuity – recovery – ensuring a recovery and ensuring continuous movement forward

¡  7. Lessons learned  – recalibrations – learning from what went right, what went wrong, the deltas needed and how best to recalibrate and be resilient

We will explain each stage over the next few blogs.

3 Uses of social Media in Crisis and Emergency Management

Simply stated, social media is here to stay much to the chagrin sometimes of emergency management personnel used to the command and control systems under the National Incident Command System. Therefore, it is incumbent on all crisis and emergency management personnel (CM/EM) to learn how to best use social media to benefit communications before, during and after a crisis.

Despite all its challenges, and there are several, CM/EM personnel can depend on social media to:

  1. Provide direct communication quickly between informants and those who need information, which enables responders to react faster, minimizing the length of the emergency.
  2. Send the right messages to the right audiences.
  3. Ensure information that is being disseminated is correct, confirmed by reliable sources, and evidenced by facts or direct observation on the scene. Multiple informants ion the field can instantaneously confirm accuracy using social media.

Learn more about using social media through webinars such as the one we will present on Feb. 28. More information is available at

Golden Eagle Award – Redwood City Schools Presents New Safety Plan



 We are pleased to give a “Golden Eagle Award” of excellence to the Redwood City schools in California who have announced a new safety plan to prevent and react to campus violence in the wake of several recent shootings throughout the county, according to the city’s police and fire departments.

The Redwood City Police Department actually began devising the new safety strategy several weeks prior to the string of violence and its need solidified even more greatly after, according to the announcement. 

The plan is a multi-phased approach that includes collaborative training of schools staff and a large-scale preparedness exercise involving the departments, school staff and other involved agencies. No specific date for the exercise has been announced but officials expect to do so within the year.

The safety plan’s other components include:

• On-site safety lectures to school staff by experts on how to immediately respond to campus threats while awaiting police response;

• A drill by school staff of those lessons;

• Refining existing emergency response contingency plans and training levels to boost effective response;

• Develop synchronized response plans.

The Redwood City Police Department is also focusing on protection of middle and elementary school students — the youngest and most defenseless children, according to the announcement — by reviewing security plans and making recommendations at all school sites, having day shift patrol officers meet with the administrators of each school within their beats to establish good working relationships, conducting walk-throughs of each school to  familiarize themselves with the layout and surrounding areas and, when work permits, stop by each elementary school in their beats at least once during each school day. 

The plan is in keeping with the advice we share with our clients at L. Darryl ARMSTRONG and Associates Behavioral Public Relations LLC:

1. The importance of being inclusive and having all the stakeholders and impacted parties involved in the planning process on the front-end so they have the necessary buy-in on the back end.

2. The need to collaborate – co-labor – instead of just cooperating – “playing nice”. Collaboration requires all parties to stay involved until the best plan possible can be prepared and agreed upon.

3. Announcing the plan to the community, students, staff and all interested stakeholders was appropriately accomplished and helps the community understand the commitments the college has to its students, faculty and staff.

4. Finally, the announcement states a “drill” will be conducted and we would encourage the developers of the plan to hold regular table-top exercises (drills) using all the key principles outlined in the development and implementation of table-top exercises, which can be found in our manual Campus Tabletop Exercises 2013 – Tools, Tips and Techniques available at Developers and interested parties also can obtain free checklists at our website: 

Use ‘Action Teams’ …

  …to Make Quick Progress When First Starting a Strategic Planning Program

A few years ago, when I first worked at Lexington Community College in Lexington, Ky with Dr. Jim Kerley, (who is now the President of Gulf Coast Community College in Panama City, Fla.) on designing a new path forward for the college using strategic planning, we came to use a concept we called “Action Teams.”

Actually, I believe I referred to them as SWAT teams — a military and law enforcement term — that denotes the use of specially focused weapons and tactics to solve a problem quickly. Yet, I suspect already you get the idea.

Action Teams are action-oriented in design and by thought.

Actions Teams are set up by charter. That is they have a clearly defined mission, set to a definitive time line, and have a clear sense of what the possible ultimate outcome could be yet they are not confined to a singular outcome.

An example charter might be: “The Action Team will review the curriculum for the nursing program and make specific recommendations on courses that can be used for CEUs with professionals in the community. The team will prepare a set of 10-12 recommendations and deliver it in a presentation to the President ‘s Leadership Team on September 1, 2007.”

Action Team members are a carefully selected group of 9-10 people (occasionally more) within an organization usually chosen by the CEO, President, or leader or “champion” of the overall strategic planning initiative.

When choosing members for an Action Team the following positions should be a part of the team membership:

1.      The Champion. Choose a leader of the team that is also a “champion” of the strategic planning process. This is someone who understands and believes that great things can happen when plans are carefully designed, executed and vigorously evaluated. This is a person that is not afraid to question others, irrespective of their rank in the organization, and that thoroughly understands and agrees with the charter of the group. For example, if the charter of the team is to find alternative ways to reduce the carbon foot print of an organization you will want a “champion” that believes in the concept of the organization “going green”.

2.      The Expert or “Know-it-all.”Choose at least one person that will be the SME — that’s a “Subject Matter Expert” — this person knows all about the focus of the team’s charter be it a problem, an issue, or an opportunity — if it is a problem the person also will know the history of the problem or issue and how it came to be in the state it is in. This person knows most all of “it” and sometimes these personalities are not up to change.  However, they are a critical component of the team.

3.      The Skeptic. Choose at least one person for the team that is as skeptical as they come. However, this person must understand at the front-end of the mission that they can’t just lob grenades across the fence and then go hide. This person must be open and willing to challenge the group, ask tough and insightful questions, pose different scenarios than those being discussed and be a part of the process by questioning the team. If the person is simply a negative personality that wants to complain and criticize the process find you another skeptic.

4.      The Recorder. This person along with an independent facilitator has “no horse in the race.” This person has good note taking skills and doesn’t edit comments, suggestions, criticisms, or language. They simply record as much of the dialogue in real-time as they can capturing as much of the actual language used as possible on a laptop computer. This file will be used by the team later to assess what is being said and what is not being said during the process. Sometimes the recorder will choose to capture the comments on flipcharts and then transcribe them “word-for-word” on to a word document file. Although this person can and should participate it must be in a neutral and limited fashion.

5.     The Facilitator. Choose a completely independent facilitator. This is someone who is trained in the skills of facilitation yet has “no horse in the race” and “no pre-determined opinions” about the path forward. This person enforces the facilitator and group proposed “Operating Principles”; keeps the group on time and engaged; helps explore differences of opinions within the group; provides a safe environment to question, challenge and discuss differences of opinion; and keeps the group focused on the desired outcome.

These are the key members of any Action Team.

To this group you can and should add, members of the organization who don’t fear change, members who are constantly looking for ways to improve whatever task they undertake; and people who understand the political, social, media or economic environment that the organization exists in.

Other members that could be assigned include those who represent diversity of culture, gender, nationality, age, or interests. If you are working a curriculum issue perhaps you want a couple of students that have been in the program and can speak form their unique perspective. Or, perhaps, you want a younger student and an older student to show different perspectives. Or, perhaps a student that took the course on the Internet and one that sat in class.

You get the idea.

Always ensure the following when establishing Action Teams:

1.      These teams are short-lived. They come together and focus on seeking a desired outcome. They are not standing committees. They meet their deadlines.

2.      Ensure that every single team member can attend the meetings consistently. If there is any question about their ability to attend find another candidate to assign to the team. Attendance plus involvement will equal a desired outcome.

3.      Ensure that the team has all it needs to get the job done and a pre-determined deadline. This includes space to meet, flipcharts, fresh markers, computers, etc.

4.      A record of all meetings and the outcome of those meetings should be a part of the Action team record so that any future teams can reflect on what was done in the past and how it was done.

5.      Insist on a Lessons Learned being conducted at the end of the Action Team charter. Document the good, the bad, the ugly, the positive, the deltas, the specific issues discovered and not addressed by the team because it was outside the charter. Prioritize those issues and send them up the chain of command.

6. Remember Action Teams are not necessarily those people that will implement the recommendations. Therefore, it is critical that the implementaors and evaluators of the recommendations forthcoming from the Action Team be a part of the process. 

 Finally, have some fun at this!

The only constant we can depend on in today’s society is “change” — we all must work to get over our fear of change, we must learn to embrace it and see what contributions we can make to accomplish a positive path forward.

If we don’t, we most assuredly will be left behind.


Dr. Darryl

L. Darryl Armstrong

ARMSTRONG and Associates

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