corporate communications

A pragmatic approach to issue management

There is no question that one of the critical roles for anyone charged with overseeing a company's interaction with the outside world is issue management.

Whether you call it PR, corporate affairs or communications doesn't really matter.  The ability to scan the external environment and ensure your company isn't left flat-footed is critical.

Issue management has become a whole discipline in itself with passionate practitioners quite rightly arguing that it should not be a sole responsibility of the PR team – but instead needs to extend up, down and across the management chain.  I think that this is true, although in my experience many companies inevitably fall back on a thin veneer of issue management and a solid reliance on crisis management if an issue turns into a reputation damaging fiasco.

If you want to dig a bit deeper on this topic visit here for a post by the Issue Management Council setting out what, in their opinion, are the indicators of best practice issues management.  It is an excellent basis to understand the enormous potential of this function.

While I applaud the notion of best practice, I'd caution in-house PR practitioners to avoid the risk of shooting for the sky and falling flat on your face.  Best practice issue management requires significant understanding and commitment from the Executive table.  For corporate affairs operatives who want to begin the journey to a more professional approach, here are my tips:

  1. Make sure you genuinely understand your company's business.  You can only effectively anticipate issues likely to impact on your company if you understand the business.  So get out of the office and spend time at the front-line immersing yourself. Apart from anything else, you will win the respect of your management colleagues and be able to understand the conversations around the management table.
  2. If you haven’t already done so, put in place a basic issues scanning mechanism and once you are comfortable with its consistency and effectiveness, begin adding it to your monthly report.  This will illustrate proactivity, knowledge and means you will begin to introduce those above and around you to the notion of issues scanning.
  3. Consider adopting a simple issue management review tool as part of your regular review of brand and reputation performance or as part of your monthly PR report.  This might begin with you creating a list of the top issues impacting your company and asking your senior colleagues to rank them in terms of priority and impact. This list then becomes a handy tool to guide the work of you and your team in terms of understanding where you will devote your energy in engaging with the outside world.
  4. One great way to "sell" the notion of issue management to your senior colleagues is to express it in terms of risk management (which is to a large extent what issue management is.)
  5. Once the list is created, pick one issue and create an issue management plan to illustrate to your boss and the management team how a considered, thoughtful and planned approach can genuinely make a difference – as opposed to an approach relying solely on crisis management.
  6. Get feedback and assess the level of understanding and support, apply those lessons and persist.
  7. Be patient.  This can be the hardest part of the whole process and introducing a company to the notion of issue management can take time so don't expect too much too soon.  Persistence will pay off and as you have small wins, respect for you and the process you are advocating will increase and you will build momentum.

If you have questions or comments about anything here, please feel free to drop me a line.

Why timing is everything in communications

More powerful than armies, an idea whose time has come.  I think it was Victor Hugo who said that – although Margaret Thatcher famously used it in the last campaign speech before her rise to power in 1979. 

The thing is – it is so true – and it is a critical learning for anyone wanting to deliver effective communications.  Advertisers have known it for years – getting to the target audience at the right time in the right place. 

Talk to me about food when I’m hungry and I’m far more likely to eat what you have on the plate.

Unfortunately the same rules aren’t always applied to corporate communication within companies and organisations.  I understand the need for corporate plans and strategic timetables but just dumping a bunch of information doesn’t amount to a pile of beans if the receivers of that information aren’t ready to listen and, even more importantly, absorb.

It all comes down to that golden rule of communication: Putting yourself in the mindset of the people to whom you are trying to communicate. You might need to prepare the audience for what is coming – explaining the context of what you are doing and why before you hit them with your key message.

This is especially important where your communication is meant to drive a particular action or response from the audience and even more so in a world where we suffer message pollution on a grand scale. 

You think global warming is a problem, try global message overload!  In fact, I would wager that is one of the reasons why the whole story around climate change has failed to hit the mark.  In a world where people are worried about finding a job or paying off debt, it’s hard to think about what might happen in fifty or a hundred years time.

So next time you hear someone say: We have to communicate, consider the mental state of the audience and whether the time is right.  It’s a little like the farmer who plants his seed before it rains.  A little patience can yield a much more effective result.

the scourge of style over substance

If marketing communications is like playing the dating game, a communications program without a clearly understood objective is a bit like getting dressed up but having nowhere to go.

One of the reasons communications functions often lack credibility in companies is the lack of a discernible link between the outputs produced and the organisation’s desired outcomes.

Unfortunately I see so many PR and marketing people running around getting publicity almost for the sake of it.  Sure, you got noticed…but to what end?

Every company needs to be famous for something – that’s a critical element of brand strategy, where the goal is to be seen as unique, distinctive and valued. But just being famous for fame’s sake?  That’s what I see in a lot of PR and marketing activity that isn’t linked to the company or organisational strategy.

To extend my dating game analogy, it’s a bit like the good-looking guy or girl who wears nice clothes, and preens him or herself before heading to the nightclub or dance. After a while, just having a good time isn’t enough – they want to find that someone special and settle down – but it never seems to happen.  Perhaps that’s because there is no substance behind their styling and the world can see that: Sure, he/she is a looker…but I wouldn’t want to marry them!

Great communication is not an end in itself.  It is an output that should produce an outcome that assists a company, government department or organisation to achieve its corporate purpose.

That’s what communications strategy is all about: Are you planning to make a difference?