They’re a Symptom of Underlying Communications Problems and Harbingers of Crises
9/15/21 – – Yesterday’s unsuccessful effort to recall California Governor Gavin Newsom started with a petition.
Petitions, as the saying goes, “punch above their weight,” often having a disproportionate impact on the people or organizations they’re intended to influence. The California recall is a good example of that. While the state’s population is 39.5 million and it appears that when all the votes are counted more than 10 million people will have cast their ballots, only 1.5 million signatures were required on the petition that set the very expensive, contentious recall vote in motion (California law allows gubernatorial recall elections to take place if petitioners are able to collect valid signatures totaling 12% of the number of voters who participated in the last election for governor).
Petitions in the political and corporate worlds, regardless of their subject matter, are symptoms of underlying communications problems. And especially since the advent of the internet and social media, they’re reliable harbingers of crises.
When individuals within a company or organization launch a petition, they deliberately bypass the established channels of communication. In most cases this is because they’re frustrated, don’t believe they’re being heard and don’t trust formal reporting protocols to yield satisfactory results. When the petition is executed on a digital platform, internal problems become public, making them much harder to address constructively.
Petitions used to take a lot of time and effort to get off the ground. Collecting signatures the old-fashioned way – in person on paper – is still required with most political initiatives like the California recall. But thanks to free web platforms like Change.org and iPetitions.com, it’s much easier for a disgruntled (often misinformed) employee to make life miserable for embattled management teams trying to keep things close to the vest.
I’m afraid pop-up, pesky online petitions are a fact of life. So, how should an organization respond?
Ignoring the petition just makes things worse. After all, this alternative avenue of communication was chosen because of a perceived unwillingness on the part of management to listen.
Meet this communication challenge with more communication, not less. Don’t add your thoughts to the petition stream, but make the facts and your point of view known with clarity and force through your established internal channels of communication, including face-to-face management presentations at all levels of the company. It’s been my experience that most petitions are based on correctable misunderstandings or a vacuum of information.
Don’t wait for the number of signatures to reach an arbitrary threshold before you take some action. To use a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “the petition’s the thing.” Focus on the validity of the complaint and/or demand, not the momentum of the petition.
Use this unpleasant shock to the system to improve the flow and effectiveness of internal communication. Again, the petition is a symptom of communication issues needing immediate attention.
Don’t shoot the messenger. You’re not the government, but understand that the right to petition is a time-honored American tradition, enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, right up there with freedoms of religion, speech, the press and peaceable assembly. Making the organizers of the petition martyrs only reinforces the negative perception of management.
Take the lessons learned in California to heart. A petition signed by just 12% of the state’s population required hundreds of millions of dollars and months of effort to resolve. And still the state has very serious social, economic and political problems to address. Hopefully that’s where Gavin Newsom’s administration will now focus its attention.