Among the many causes that made the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor that occurred 75 years ago today so devastating was a series of communication failures. Here are 5 internal communication lessons to be learned from the attack.
No. 1 Listen to Employee Feedback
The first shots of the Battle of Pearl Harbor were actually fired by the Americans. The USS Ward, a destroyer patrolling the waters outside of Pearl Harbor, spotted, engaged and sank a Japanese midget submarine about two hours before Japanese warplanes swooped down on Pearl Harbor. The Ward reported the incident to headquarters but no one really listened or believed them. Lesson Learned: If something is amiss in your organization, chances are your employees already know about it. Make sure there are processes in place to gather and analyze employee feedback.
No. 2 Understand Your Technology
An American radar station on Oahu detected the first wave of Japanese aircraft about an hour out, but no one believed them. Some thought they were seeing a group of American B17s flying in from the Mainland and others thought they were seeing a flock of birds. Lesson Learned: It’s not enough to have the latest technology; you have to know how to optimize and leverage it. If your organization has deployed intranets, enterprise-wide social media, internal webinars or podcasting, make sure you know how to fully use and leverage the channels.
No. 3 Prioritize Messages
A message warning of imminent war with Japan was sent from Navy officials in Washington to Honolulu hours before the attack, but the message was not marked “urgent.” The message went into the regular mail and wasn’t delivered until the attack was nearly over. Lesson Learned: It’s up to us as professional communicators to prioritize and put messages into proper context. Employees are drowning in information. Without a filter, messages are lost in a sea of information. Conversely, if we try to make everything from management urgent, then nothing really is.
No. 4 Have a Crisis Communication Plan for Employees
Once the Japanese attack ended, confusion and chaos reigned. Communications were uncoordinated and inaccurate. Rumors were rampant. As a result, terrible mistakes were made. For instance, six American search aircraft looking for the Japanese fleet returned to Oahu the night of Dec. 7. Anti-aircraft gunners had not been notified that the planes were inbound. Tragically, they believed the aircraft were Japanese and they shot five of the six planes down and killed three pilots. Lesson Learned: Don’t compound a primary crisis by adding a communication crisis on top of it. Make sure your crisis communication plan includes a robust employee communication component. Some organizations focus so much on external audiences that they forget about their own employees. A strong crisis plan for internal audiences can determine now quickly and how fully your organization recovers.
No. 5 Imagination the Possibilities
Perhaps the biggest failure that led to the Battle of Pearl Harbor was a failure of imagination. Experts should have foreseen such an attack. A year before Pearl Harbor, the British Navy launched a successful aircraft carrier attack against an Italian harbor. In addition, two large-scale war games held in Hawaii before the Japanese attack revealed vulnerability to an air raid. Lesson Learned: Keep up with current trends and imagine all the possibilities. As professional communicators, it’s our duty to stay abreast of emerging ideas and to be aware of pitfalls to avoid. Benchmark with other organizations. See how others are using new technologies. Use your creativity to see how trends might affect your organization.
As in most tragic historical events, communication breakdowns played a big role in the attack on Pearl Harbor. As professional communicators, we have an obligation to examine communication processes in our own organizations to make sure we don’t have any days “which will live in infamy.”
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