Thursday 26 April 2018

A communications strategy is forever, not just for when you've got news

In the social media age, organisations must listen to and engage with their stakeholders in a deeper, more meaningful and direct manner, writes Jacqueline Hall

PR agencies are helping drive the relentless tempo and tone of the US presidential election. Photo: AP
PR agencies are helping drive the relentless tempo and tone of the US presidential election. Photo: AP

Jacqueline Hall

Outrage at the fees paid by public bodies to so-called spin doctors regularly makes the headlines. In most cases though, rather than exposing mismanagement or waste, these stories only highlight widespread ignorance of the invaluable role communications advice provides.

In the broadest sense, Public Relations or PR, is a comprehensive and complex set of activities. Dealing with the media is an important part of the profession. Yet we're just as likely to be advising a client on a reputation management strategy, implementing a crisis communications plan, monitoring social media or reviewing an internal communications or community relations programme.

The importance of these communications activities becomes clearer every day. No organisation can thrive in the long term without an awareness of the priorities and perceptions of its key stakeholders. That awareness does not come through osmosis but rather through considered, professional engagement.

Whether it's Volkswagen's emissions, Russian sports doping or Irish banking, the public's trust in business, government and even NGOs is at rock bottom. As a result, when issues arise, the affected company or organisation itself is usually the individuals' last port of call for information.

Stakeholders, opinion leaders and the wider public form their opinions by reading their chosen commentators' thoughts, discussing on social media and increasingly interacting with "influencers". Very often they construct a picture of an organisation in the absence of any direct input from the affected organisation.

Crucially, this perception then has a significant impact on the public body's or business's ability to operate and achieve its goals.

At a political level, the tempo and tone of the US presidential election is being driven on a minute-by-minute basis by the Twitter feed of the respective candidates.

Closer to home, Brexit is a landmark. Through social media, voters consumed "facts" which, unchallenged and then expressed through the electoral mandate, created an unexpected and unprecedented reality.

We are now in a post-truth era where facts are not trusted and no longer seem to matter. On hearing of the result, former Labour spin master Alistair Campbell said "All these leaders [have been] saying to followers, 'This is what you have to do,' and they've just replied, 'No, no, no, we're not having that'."

We can see the tangible results of this in politics, but there are broader implications. All organisations must listen and engage with their stakeholders in a deeper, more meaningful and direct manner. They must do this with integrity. They must be nimble and unblinkered in listening and responding to unfolding narratives. They cannot assume, but rather they must earn their "social license to operate".

To operate effectively, every organisation must implement systems and practices to ensure that there is an awareness of the concerns and position of every stakeholder and influencer group. These key influencers and stakeholders include consumers, advocacy groups, shareholders, employees, media, pensioners and neighbours. Nothing should be left to chance, no hostages given to fortune.

The conduct and demeanour of an organisation's senior managers and directors are open to scrutiny at all times, through all channels. Increasingly how they conduct their private as well as their business lives matters. What they say and do and how they do it, is all part of the narrative that shapes perceptions about an organisation - sometimes to devastating effect.

The traditional model of communications in Irish organisations was simple. Senior management would make decisions, heavily advised by lawyers and accountants. Then a public relations professional would be employed to make the decision palatable. It is not hard to think of numerous example of this in Irish public life. That approach no longer cuts the mustard.

Communications should not just be turned on when there is news to impart or when there is a crisis to resolve. All organisations must listen and engage with their stakeholders in a deeper, more meaningful and direct way.

Communications professionals, who engage with an organisation's internal and external stakeholders need to be centrally involved in the decision-making process for organisations. Otherwise, organisations are navigating blind.

The communications industry undoubtedly has work to do itself in this regard. Yet with clearer communication on our part, I hope that Ireland's thought leaders and public alike will appreciate that spend on communications is just as productive as money paid to legal advisors, accountants and engineers.

Jacqueline Hall is president of the Public Relations Institute of Ireland

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