Exploiting the gray areas in a narrative

‘And so it is written.’

It’s a fairly common sentiment, especially when we talk about the Internet Age. If it’s written down now, it can be found.

But what about if it hasn’t been written yet? What about, as so often happens, we have an intermediate ending and a vague notion of the beginning?  There’s that moment where the middle of the story hasn’t yet been written, and that may be the best place to influence the story’s path.

Think of the first 24 hours of reporting of the Deepwater Horizon disaster on April 20, 2010. We have a vague beginning (explosion) and an intermediate end (11 missing workers) which gives us a well-defined narrative arc.

But the middle part of the story was unwritten. There was nothing substantive about inspections, nothing about potential BP failings. There was not even any official acknowledgement  that there was an oil spill until April 24 and the first aerial photos of a significant slick aren’t taken until April 25.

Without lasting damages like an oil spill, this is a time where a company can use a gray area to bolster its own image.

What could BP have done?

— Told anyone who would listen that they would make good on any damages.
— Told anyone who would listen that the families of those 11 lost in the explosion and the 15 who were injured would never have to work again and that college for all their children was paid for.
— Loudly proclaimed that they were putting the best oil-rig firefighters in the world on retainer.

Some of this flies in the face of a traditional crisis communication approach in which you never take responsibility for an act until it’s either proven or painfully obvious that you’re responsible. But this is precisely the moment that you can take sincere actions that take advantage of the lack of information in the middle of the arc. That’s what lets you control the newscycle just a little bit longer and begin developing mitigating factors with the public.