When uncertainty descends, public relations offers counsel, support and insights. PR can help illuminate the grey, if uncertainty is considered to cast a pall, or leverage the light-suffused, if the condition is one an organisation is getting all excited about.
Uncertainty, of course, is a matter of degrees. 100 years ago private enterprise and government would have frequently fired only a cursory glance, if that, towards any topic it was not entirely sure about. Bluster and an application of the “he who hesitates is lost” uber-alpha mantra prevailed. Look at the wars which were, partially, the result of such primping, small-dick antics.
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These days, uncertainty means risk. And risk management rigour rules. Heaven forbid any commercial or public institution which moves forward without risk analysis and an application of a risk-atomising solution. Public relations looms large in this galaxy, with issues management, the comms face of vapourising risk, being perhaps the most strategic and useful application of PR as a whole.
Over time organisations, at the behest of an increasingly educated and morally attuned society, have opened up their minds more to uncertainty. To admit uncertainty is to become more humanised. It speaks of humility, an attitude which admits it may not have all the answers and could well learn from others who can edify it.
Understanding stakeholder uncertainty
A precursor to uncertainty is understanding the views of others – organisational stakeholders, in this instance.
One of the fundamental activities of strategic public relations is understanding the views of stakeholders and represent them, and their underlying rationales for being so, to the organisation. Attendant to this, the better (and, yes, sometimes the braver, because it can lead to getting your head bitten off or, at the very least, some impatient and ill-intended scrutiny being apportioned to you!) PR professional will provide options and recommendations to help mitigate negative behaviour from the stakeholders occurring:
- Actions the organisation can take to change its operations (‘accommodation’ in the classic two-way symmetrical communication paradigm)
- Approaches to communication (e.g. revealing more information than the organisation intended or at an earlier juncture, or more frequently, than it intended)
- Examine the uncertainty and present options for improvement and opportunity to help the organisation achieve its objectives and maybe, just maybe, evolve as an organisational entity
Public relations, when applied at its most strategic, understands why stakeholder views have transpired. To undertake the ‘boundary spanning’ actions described here is, fundamentally, the beginning of a journey to accept a plurality of perspectives and, indeed, a plurality of realities.
This means opposing the old school corporate control approach to business and stakeholder engagement, including the now non-existent validity of it’s ‘our way or the highway’ notion. This sort of arrogance is pure short-termism. It will not prevail over the longer term if an organisation wishes to earn and maintain a ‘tolerance to operate’.
Leveraging uncertainly for improvement
Similarly, this embracing of uncertainty and the right for an ‘other’ to exist (e.g. not the organisation) is oppositional to an ‘absolute’ existing and the notions of win-win not being a viable (indeed, a preferred) option and/or there being a single best way to skin a cat.
As a boundary spanner, we and the organisations we represent have the precious opportunity to see through others’ eyes, to empathise with their motivations and issues.
In doing so, we humanise ourselves and open ourselves to new ways of thinking, understanding and feeling, as well as encountering new information which may tilt worlds and cause scales to fall from eyes. We then help anthropomorphise our organisation, a leviathan step in achieving positive stakeholder relationships.
At its most primal, using uncertainty as a resource (or, more productively yet, an inspiration!) means we are learning from a non-self-centred (and therefore less conceited) worldview. We are being driven to centre ourselves in others, and in so doing decentralise our morals and judgement.
Standing in the shoes of others, really, is a significant step in making us better people and more effective communicators.
Where do you feel uncertainty has aided you in enriching the communication advice you have provided to an organisation or, more fundamentally, the approach you have taken to communication? Do you agree uncertainty is, essentially, an opportunity for enrichment or do you feel, perhaps, it stymies progression and outcomes being achieved (‘caught in the headlights’)?
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