public relations

The true extent of information overload

For anyone in the communications game the biggest issue right now is message cut-through, due to the sheer volume of information being flung at the average human being every day.

We talk about information overload, but occasionally you come across evidence of the trend that just stops you in your tracks and provides insight into just how big a challenge it has become.

A book worth reading, especially if you love business trends, is Big Data by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier.  It is all a bit mind blowing to be honest.

Consider, for example, the fact that Facebook gets 10 million new photos uploaded every hour.  (Yep, that’s hour not day or week).  Or that users of You Tube upload over an hour of video every second.

The figures that leapt out of the page for me quote the work of Martin Hilbert from the University of Southern California's Annenburg School for Communication and Journalism. Hilbert has been trying to put an actual figure on the amount of information that now exists in the world.  Obviously the figure is galloping ahead constantly but going back in digital history to 2007 he has worked out there were 300 exabytes of stored data.  An exabyte is equal to one billion gigabytes or the rough equivalent of a billion full length feature films. In 2012 the total amount of stored information worldwide was four times bigger at 1200 exabytes.

Reading figures like this makes me almost want to go and crawl into a corner.  Surely, one little communicator like me can't compete?  But that's when I remind myself that communications is just the means to an end and as always the focus needs to stay on what really matters. What PR practitioners and marketers should be doing everyday is focusing on making genuine connections and building relationships.  The rest is just noise.

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.

The danger of distance

Wars are fought at a distance; battles between families are often fought at a distance.  In fact, in my experience distance is always a factor when relationships breakdown between individuals and organisations.

Of course, there is a time for respecting someone’s space and nothing can be gained by aggressive confrontation.  However, while our nature is to separate ourselves, for companies and corporate entities that often just makes things worse.

Distance isn’t just about physical separation.  It can be the perception of mental distance, a sense that you simply are not prepared to come into my mental space and see or feel things from my perspective.

The mining company executive who sits down in the dirt with a group of tribal elders is far more likely to succeed than one who stays in his city office tower and sends out letters via his legal team.

Bridging distance, reaching out, shows respect.  You may never agree, you may never be able to reconcile your views of an issue or the world in general.  But reaching out shows respect and is likely to significantly lower the risk of your separation turning into a damaging conflict

How often have you based your opinions on someone from hearsay?  You build up this image of a cold, disinterested, hard-hearted individual.  Then you meet. The warmth of the handshake, the look in the eye, the nervous first meeting, realising you both have hopes and fears.  There aren’t always fairy-tale endings, but stepping towards rather than away means far less chance of a nightmare conclusion.

Don’t get trapped in the media bubble

When it comes to investing most of us believe the sage advice of good financial planners: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

And yet, when it comes to communications, I am still seeing many organisations doing exactly that. In particular, I am amazed by the fixation with media relations as the “be all and end of all” of their communication strategy.

Let me be clear: I am NOT saying media relations is unimportant – it is very important.  And, I am NOT, saying journalists and news outlets are no longer hugely influential – or that media relations is a waste of time. 

What I am saying is that the influence of journalists in shaping public opinion can be over-stated and the role and dominance of traditional media is being eroded. 

This means companies have to think very carefully about planning their communications – in particular thinking about building relationships, as opposed to running into the street and blurting information into the crowd.

I am also not advocating throwing all your eggs into the online media basket.  The digital world is crowded with a lot of dodgy claims and fleeting trends – this week’s new app (that you absolutely have to be part of) will quickly be overtaken by something else (probably being developed in some 14 year old’s bedroom right now!).

By all means look at Facebook and Twitter – but as part of a broader suite of communication channels that are relevant to the audience with whom you want to connect.

For me, the focus should be on thinking about how people want to be treated and acting with respect and integrity.   As a customer, stakeholder or voter, I want you to tell me the truth.  I want you to provide information that is balanced and helps me understand.  I want you to give me options.  I don’t want you to shout at me, or call me up when I am in the middle of dinner.  When you are wrong, admit it, tell me what you are doing to fix the problem and move on. 

There is a risk of communications people living in a media bubble – where they get fixated on a world inhabited by journalists, politicians and the veritable industry of stakeholder groups and wannabe advocates.  

Most of the people you need to influence are just getting on with their lives.  Forget the headlines, they’re far more worried about what they forgot to put in their kid’s lunchbox today than about criticism of your company or the latest scandal.   Way back in my news producing days, I remember getting home from work one night after a particularly big day on the newsfront.  I think the Berlin Wall had come down overnight.  I got home to my wife and one year old son.  Forget about the Berlin wall, my wife’s focus that night was (rightly) on two things– bed and bath for the child.  Perspective is a marvellous thing. At times communications professionals need a heavy dose. 

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?