Column: Three tenets of strategic communication

These days, people and organizations live in a goldfish bowl. Anything you say or do is blogged, tweeted, posted, aired and published within seconds. Once captured electronically, your utterance or action can haunt you for decades.

Many companies and organizations fear this new reality of transparency and immediacy, naively hoping to fly below the radar of public exposure or critique. Public companies fear potential “Regulation FD” disclosure violations. Public officials fret over Freedom of Information requests and Sunshine laws. Many fear the “media” may call and ask questions they are not prepared to answer.

Critics in attack mode are having a field day with our insecurity.

Communicating through change is not to be feared. In fact, it may be a significant opportunity. Why? People can see your true character more clearly in times of crisis than they can in your normal daily operations. We want to do business with and be led by people we can trust in times of change.

I’ve had clients gain business after a recall, receive praise on camera for cleaning up an oil spill, or even experience stock price increases when self-reporting problems. To be sure, you’ll take a few cheap shots from the cheap seats. But you will prevail by deepening your bond with those who invest their trust in you to do what is right over the long-term.

That is, if you plan ahead.

I suggest a simple three-step preparedness plan:

Step 1: See it

About nine-in-ten matters that invite public scrutiny simmer for months beforehand. You can spot even more by completing a periodic vulnerabilities assessment. When the dark clouds of change or controversy begin forming, that’s your signal to build a communications plan supporting your actions and decision-making. If you see multiple options, build a communications plan for each scenario.

Step 2: Say it

Begin by preparing a standby statement as a first and immediate response if the story breaks unexpectedly. This initial response shows you are aware, engaged and giving through consideration to the development. Then, build a message platform, outlining the what, why and how of the dilemma or action. Bullet-proof it with Q&As, highlighting the ten hardest and ten easiest questions. Then outline a timing or sequence in partnership with those most closely involved in the project.

When this progress is triggered well in advance, it calms the nerves of everyone involved and gives everyone a chance to consider the finer points before you enter the white hot spotlight. As George Washington said, “There is nothing so likely to produce peace as to be well prepared to meet the enemy.”

Some organizations take preparedness a step further by completing table-top crisis drills. Overkill? My experience suggests those who go to this level of preparedness create a “crisis instinct” and can act quickly in the critical early minutes.

Step 3: Sell it

Be ready to roll out your communications plan and make refinements as the situation evolves. The first 24-48 hours usually tell your audiences everything they need to know about whether they can count on you to do the right thing.

When you are well prepared, you should be comfortable speaking with staff, media, investors, critics, customers, VIPs, friends and neighbors about the situation. Take their call. Initiate the conversation. Capture their thoughts and suggestions.

 

The sometimes-lengthy process of helping people understand will earn you the necessary trust and patience to see a situation to its logical conclusion.

Stick your toe in the water of communication preparedness. You’ll be swimming laps in that gold fish bowl in no time – even if everyone can see you.

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