I enjoy working in the communication and public relations domain — I’ve been at it since the early ‘80s and continue to ply the trade, mostly in issues management. Fortunately for me, there seems to be no end of opportunity.
With our role evolving from the mostly tactical in the ‘80s to the strategic in the ‘90s, it’s satisfying to realize that we have long been an essential part of senior leadership teams and that communication strategy is recognized as part of sound decision-making.
That evolution hasn’t come without its challenges. Allow me to make some observations.
The World Wide Web whet the worldwide appetite for information. If we want to know something, we can find out with a click of a button. We have grown accustomed to receiving information about anything and everything. In meetings, at parties and even at the gym, people are on cell phones looking up answers to questions that once waited until the curious got home, back to the office or to the library.
That presumption of accessible information has resulted in our audience’s sense of entitlement. If we hoped to mete out information in a purposeful way, our hopes are now thwarted. If full disclosure isn’t forthcoming, our audience will seek other sources, potentially to our detriment.
The assumption of access comes with a presumption of speed. Our audience has little patience to wait. So little, in fact, that they’re known to fill the vacuum with whatever can be found, sometimes at the expense of veracity and our attempts to manage information and the flow. It’s challenging to get ahead of our audience because they’re accustomed to a 24/7 approach to life, while we might still be putting the facts together!
And that audience of ours is unlikely to rely on traditional media. We can no longer depend on print, radio and television as conduits to them; if we’re not actively engaged in social media channels, we’ve lost.
Consider recent elections at every level. Candidates release vital information about their intentions by tweet, and supporters convey their opinions by far-reaching posts. The upside is that information is circulated at the “speed of light,” which can be particularly useful. The downside is that incorrect information goes just as fast, and it’s nearly impossible to stifle. A lot of effort is needed to replace the skewed with the truth.
Understanding this newer dimension is especially important in a crisis. People sometimes cling to the first bit of information they find. Coupled with the stress factors inherent in crises, this quick adoption of information as fact creates fertile ground for belief in conspiracy theories.
Sounds like an insurmountable problem? Not necessarily.
I’ve talked about some changes in our sphere of influence over the past 30 years. What hasn’t changed — indeed has only grown more important — is the need for transparency. If you have a strong reputation for honest, open and authentic communication — with both your internal and external audiences — you’re more than halfway there. There are countless examples of organizations who have weathered the storms of crises in their workplaces, and unfortunately many examples of those who have stalled, tried to cover up the truth and kept information from going public in an attempt to make it go away. Many of those organizations went away, too.
Our profession and those related to us have been under scrutiny recently, and we ought to take note of the skepticism and mistrust aimed our way. Unfortunately, it hasn’t happened by chance, but by poor quality work — obfuscation, inadequate timing and even a willingness to propagate misperception. Nothing to be proud of.
The Dalai Lama said, “A lack of transparency results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity.” No surprise, then, that the employee, the client and the constituent shifted loyalties.
What to do?
Maintain your reputation for credibility, integrity, astute judgment.
The first step is building your “credibility bank.” This is one you build and talk about so that when the inevitable happens, your reputation for professional, honest communication will stand you in good stead. If you don’t make “deposits,” your reputation can be shredded in minutes, especially now when information — fact or lie — is circulated so fast. With a reputation for credibility, you gain a bit of time to state your case.
Next, develop your skill in communicating clearly, for the media your audience prefers. The need for clarity isn’t new, just more important now. Although our audiences are finding information faster than ever before, they’re also consuming it faster and reading it in social media shorthand. The opportunity to misunderstand is rife, and writers have little latitude with the length of consumable messages, which is a pitfall of that media channel. We don’t often have the luxury of writing for the leisure reader, although some still enjoy the in-depth treatment print tools can provide.
The third step is to continually assess your audience for its communication preferences and go-to information sources. Populate your team with social media platform and tool wizards. The various channels have their own identities, attributes and fans.
The insatiable appetite for information, the ever-changing media at our fingertips and the desire to trust someone are elements of our communication world. Members of IABC and CPRS will have no problem meeting those needs and practicing with credibility.
Barbara L. Pollock, APR, Fellow CPRS, LM
Barb Pollock’s 36-year career began with POLMAC Communications, a public relations firm she founded in 1984. She moved to the University of Regina for 13 years as vice-president (external relations), where she was responsible for reputation management and relationship management with the university’s stakeholders, including alumni, donors, government and the public. She has returned to the consulting world, specializing in issues management and crisis communications.
She holds an Accredited Public Relations designation, was national president of the Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS) in 1997 and was inducted in to the CPRS College of Fellows in 2006. In 2018, she was made a Life Member of the organization.
Barb holds bilingual degrees from the University of Regina in arts and education and certificates from the Institute for Educational Management, Graduate School of Education at Harvard University and the Institute for Crisis Management in Kentucky. In 2009, she was recognized by the Association of Fundraising Professionals in Regina as Outstanding Fundraising Executive for 2008; and in 2008 and 2010, she was recognized as one of Saskatchewan’s Most Influential Women.