Talking Around Management Can Prevent Awkward Public Gaffes
A corporate lobbyist can advocate for a position that causes consumer blowback. Corporate communications staff can pump out a press release that says the opposite of what their lobbyists have been telling lawmakers. The inevitable crossed wires justify putting public affairs and corporate communications teams under one management roof.
“For so long, public affairs and corporate communications were siloed,” according to Elizabeth Northrup, chief client officer for ROKK Solutions. “That has changed. You can’t just think about what’s happening with regulation and legislation. You’ve got to think about it from a consumer-corporate standpoint.”
There have been embarrassing situations where a corporate leader says one thing and the company lobbyist is pushing for the opposite. For brands, it’s common to have a legislative agenda at odds with its consumer interests. However, social media has made it harder for companies to say one thing in public and whisper something else to congressional and legislative candidates.
Northrup urges an organizational structure that oversees both public affairs and corporate communications functions to ensure the organization isn’t speaking out of both sides of its mouth. For larger companies, there are other roles, such as community relations, investor relations and corporate philanthropy, to tuck under the same regime. It also makes sense to have marketing looped in, especially since marketers should have the best available understanding of the organization’s consumers or clients.
Public affairs and corporate communications specialists are often jealous of their turf. Lobbyists have close relations with lawmakers that give them insight into what bills are likely to move and what openings might exist for amendments. Corporate communicators have similar close relationships with Wall Street media to get advance notice of major articles in the works that present opportunities for quotable comments. These professionals are paid to be at the front of the class. Any management system shouldn’t stifle their ability to do the job.
The preferred management system is one that makes sure team members talk to each other, share ideas and agree on mutual objectives. This can be empowering, not gelding, by providing broader perspective and more diverse insight. Group meetings can also include junior staff members, to give them a chance to see the bigger picture and make occasional contributions.
No management system is good enough to prevent every public conflict. This reality argues for including on the team staff members or outside consultants with responsibility for crisis planning and crisis response.
Management by Talking Around
Tom Peters promoted the idea of management-by-walking-around. What Northrup recommends is knock-off of the idea for internal management. Instead of walking around, she recommends talking around. Exchanging views can turn good ideas into even better strategies.
I had the benefit of working under a version of Northrup’s management concept. My boss, who was a corporate vice president, oversaw public affairs, community affairs, corporate philanthropy and human resources. Investor relations, public relations and marketing functions were under separate management. There wasn’t a designated crisis team.
The inclusion of human resources was especially valuable because it provided early warnings of federal or state legislation that would impact the company’s employee programs. Because of that, we were successful in preserving cafeteria benefit plans in major federal tax legislation.
We weren’t as equipped at identifying and addressing major technology changes that led to major corporate losses, which in turn required crisis response for layoffs.
There is great value in ongoing coordination of all outward-facing parts of a corporation.
Value of Inter-Team Coordination
A broader team, or at least inter-team coordination, would have helped. We could have seen the bigger picture and its consequences. We could have been prepared for the worst.
More independent work and the advent of online tools to stay in touch may downplay the need for a solid management structure. It shouldn’t. The need for a solid management structure may be even greater. As Northrup points out, consumers have grown less tolerant of corporate duplicity, which is more easily exposed via online sources, reputable and not-so-reputable.
As Coke recently discovered, it doesn’t take much in this era of culture wars to stir a consumer backlash. The same is true for consumer advocacy campaigns. There are a lot more corners to see around. The more eyes that are looking and exchanging insights is the best insurance of staying ahead and not committing unforced errors.
When unforced errors occur, having a crisis team at the ready for rapid response is essential. That requires planning and coordination, too. That coordination would be greatly aided by Northrup’s suggestion for ongoing coordination of all outward-facing parts of a corporation.