Surviving a Crisis of Credibility
Once upon a time, in a shepherding village by the quiet hills of Slumberland, was a boy who cried wolf. Thinking he was only joking, the townspeople ignored his cries. The poor boy was badly hurt and, for all his grief and suffering, he sued the town for negligence.
Unfortunately for this little shepherd boy, there had been many young boys who played pranks on the townspeople by pretending to be attacked by wolves. And, worse still, there hadn’t been a wolf sighting in the hills of Slumberland for over 30 years.
Could this boy’s wounds be self-inflicted and this case simply a ploy for self-enrichment? He was, after all, suing the town for a whopping sum of 20 fat-rumped, fat-tailed sheep. Facing a crisis of credibility, this little boy (with the help of his mom, his dad, and a greasy-haired publicist from New York who just happened to be in town on a packaged tour) assembled a three-pronged credentialing approach we can all learn from.
Credentialing Approach 1:
If no one believes you, you won’t convince anyone by simply saying, “I’m telling the truth!” You won’t convince anyone by repeating yourself either. Instead, you must provide proof.
“See these wounds,” said the boy as he raised his torn shirt to reveal marks that look like scratches from a wolf’s paw. “This is proof there was a wolf and proof that the wolf attacked me!”
Two of the six town elders were convinced, but the others still wondered if the wounds could have been self-inflicted.
“The problem with self-proclaimed proof is that it is self-proclaimed,” explained the publicist to the boy and his parents. “Back in New York, there are many people who try to sell you products like potions for the skin that reverse aging and magic bubble-producing bars that you rub on your body to fight off 98% of invisible, evil spirits, which we call germs. But how do you know they are telling the truth if the only proof available comes from the sellers themselves?”
Credentialing Approach 2:
The court took a few days in recess during which time the boy, his parents, and the publicist searched the town for witnesses to the attack. And they found one!
Unfortunately, they found one and only one: the town crone who happened to be having a picnic with her imaginary canary friend near the shepherding grounds at the time of the attack. She claims, of course, that there were two witnesses. But testimony from imaginary friends is inadmissible in court.
“I saw it happen,” said the crone. “It was gruesome! Poor boy, crying for help, as he tried to fend off the wolf and save the sheep. If only I was younger or if my dear old friend Frieda had the strength, we would have gone to help him.” The crowd murmurs, wondering who Frieda was.
One town elder changed his vote in support of the shepherd boy that day. But that still left the court undecided. They needed more proof by noon the next day, else they would be forced to dismiss the case as was required under the law of the day.
“I’m sorry,” said the publicist to the boy and his parents. “Back in New York, many of those product sellers hire consumers to provide independent testimony to back up their claims about how magical their products are. But still not everyone will believe them. There is always a chance, after all, that these testimonials were paid for. Or, sometimes, as in the situation we are in today, the witnesses are loonies who not many will believe anyway. We’ve got to find another way. All we need is one more elder to switch sides. Then, we win!”
Credentialing Approach 3:
Earlier on his packaged tour, the publicist visited a town plagued by wolf problems. In the town was a guild of wolf experts who studied wolf biology, psychology, and culture. That night, the publicist traveled back to that town to find a wolf expert willing to come with him to Slumberland, investigate the scene of the wolf attack, and report his findings to the court.
“Support from an expert,” explained the publicist to the boy and his parents while the wolf expert examined the attack site, “is often very convincing. Back in New York, product sellers spend a lot of time and money (our equivalent of trading in sheep) trying to get experts—usually a council of smart-looking, old people—to support their claims. While not always effective, if combined with support from independent testimony and self-proclaimed proof, there’s a good chance it will work. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.”
Then, the wolf expert, looking very serious, stood up. “It was a wolf indeed. A big bad wolf.”
Later that day, the shepherd boy won the case. His parents felt happy, and the publicist continued on his packaged tour. But before leaving, he and the shepherd boy started a program to teach all the other shepherd children not to lie, especially about wolves, lest they be caught in a situation in which no one believes them no matter what they say. A crisis of credibility. Now that’s something we’d all do well to avoid.
Print ed: 07/10