Using uncertainty to position and protect reputation via public relations

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, public relations

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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By |March 5th, 2015|Strategic communication|0 Comments

Communication fail in change management

One of the most powerful attributes of professional communication is redundant in change management communication. As such, the strategic power of this (internal) form of public relations is profoundly underutilised when it comes to the challenging change management process.

Change management communication

Two-way symmetrical communication is the professional communication (aka public relations) attribute to which I refer. It is an approach which identifies and/or anticipates, then provides, feedback from the target audience to the service, product or issue (in this case, the product/issue is change) decision makers.

This feedback prompts the decision makers (in this case the organisation’s executive and their advisors) to modify the product so it is more likely to be bought (or bought into) by the target audience.

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This process, clearly, is likely to entail compromise from those wanting the sell the product, but it will also enable a higher degree of buy-in and, hence, success in embedding the change so it becomes business as usual.

By the time the change product has been given to the professional communicator, there is generally little chance of it being adjusted based on target audience feedback. So the role of the professional communicator becomes one of a spruiker and issues management consultant:

  • On one hand the positive attributes of the change, the WIIFM* factor and the benefits to the organisation are sold
  • On the other, potential barriers to change and weaknesses in the change product (as determined by those the change will impact on) are identified and communication approaches are put into place to mitigate their negative impact on the change and, more broadly, on organisational culture itself.

Strategic thinking in change management

In saying the professional power of professional communication is being radically under-utilised in change, however, there are two factors to bear in mind:

  • Before the change product is handed to the communicator to work his or her magic on, it has been thoroughly scoped out by the business
  • The issues management dimension of the change, the nature of the communication itself and the way in which it is integrated into the entire change process (e.g. awareness, desire, knowledge, ability, reinforcement – or ADKAR) makes the contribution of communication – if it chooses to exercise the opportunity, of course – immensely strategic.

No organisation is simply going to implement change without investing a great deal of thought into the process. It is being implemented for the long-term benefit of the organisation.

One of the key factors business analysts/management consultants/organisational leadership will consider is how will the change become embedded into the business? And part of that is addressing the questions of how will those the change is impacting upon receive the change and how will the business evolve due to this change?

One can only hope this is the case, anyway.

So there is an argument that professional communicators shouldn’t get too uppity about being simply handed the change product; the two-way symmetrical communication dimension may have already been embedded into the change product development process.

Challenging orthodoxies to improve outcomes

One of the most useful characteristics of the strategic professional communicator, however, is their ability to challenge presumed thinking (groupthink) and, metaphorically speaking, call out the emperor’s new clothes. This is not done out of ego and wilful negativity, it is undertaken to add rigour to the business and communication process.

No discipline has the capability to understand target audiences and predict their reaction to the promulgation of a product or service, especially if it is an issues-laden one, better then a public relations professional. An organisation which chooses to ignore and/or underutilise this capability is doing itself no favours at all and, in fact, is not taking the soundest possible approach to risk management.

Do you think the professional power of public relations is effectively utilised in the change management process? Where and how can public relations be best utilised in change? Is two-way symmetrical communication irrelevant to change management? Do you have faith the best possible change ‘product’ will always be handed to the change team (including communication) before it is asked to embed the change into business as usual?

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* WIIFM – what’s in it for me

Leadership imperative to change management

Effective communication is one of the foundational building blocks of change management. Without it, change cannot begin to occur, nor will it stick; it will remain ‘change’ – and as such a thorny and alien beast – and not become embedded as ‘business as usual’.

Change management is analogous to much of business activity in the sense that it is tempting to view communication as relatively peripheral, something that is nice to do but hardly essential to achievement. Communication, for instance, doesn’t devise new products or buy and sell companies and/or integrate them into the business. It does, however, help:

  • understand the needs and wants of potential product purchasers, enabling companies to customise the product so it more effectively meets that need and want
  • make potential customers aware of the new product and, to a degree, want the product
  • ensure companies meet their obligations in the buying and selling of companies, whether they be stock exchange/fiduciary obligations, or communicating with important stakeholders such as shareholders.

And the list goes on.

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Where communication fits into change management

When it comes to change management, if you subscribe to Prosci’s ADKAR model of change management (and as it’s one of the most respected constructs for change management in the world, there are plenty of companies that do!), then change cannot successfully take place within an organisation without communication’s vigorous, active involvement in at least two of change’s five components:

  • Awareness
  • Reinforcement.

In full, the five change management components/steps as Prosci sees it are as follows:

  • Awareness – making those who going to experience the change aware of what will be occurring, why, and how it is relevant to them (WIIFM*)
  • Desire – galvanising change targets to welcome, want and embrace the change
  • Knowledge – giving those experiencing change the information which enables them to enact the change (primarily a learning and development process)
  • Ability – similar to knowledge, this gives those enacting the change the capability to put it into practice (again, primarily a learning and development process)
  • Reinforcement – reiterating the rationale for change, celebrating successes, addressing weaknesses before they become a disease which cripples the embedding of change.

The change management product: harbinger of successful change

The desire component of ADKAR is one of its more interesting elements. It’s one thing to make people aware of change; it’s another thing entirely to expect them to welcome and embrace it. This is particularly so when you consider a common characteristic of change is people losing their jobs as an organisation seek to achieve efficiencies, including lower costs.

Changing is inherently difficult for many (most?) people. It takes effort, effort that is perceived as being extraordinary. For each situation and person, then, a different degree of desire is necessitated and can be expected.

Whilst communication has a role to play in the desire component of change management, ultimately it is about the change ‘product’ that is being promulgated which will ensure buy-in or rejection. Going back to our analogy of devising and selling a product, if the product is one which the potential customer has no need for, then why would they purchase it?

Of course, in the case of change, there is the argument that the decision has been made to enact change by the organisation’s executive, so you can either get on the bus and trundle off towards the ‘desired’ destination, or you can literally leave the organisation and take another path more to your liking.

The reality of the situation may be somewhere in the middle, as if key people within the organisation decide to go their own way as a result of the change (and/or the change process), then it may undermine the organisation’s ability to achieve both the business AND the change results it is seeking. And you also have the factor that some key leaders may not like the way change is occurring and do not buy into the process, making the change objectives almost impossible to achieve.

So which professional discipline is chiefly responsible for enacting/driving the desire component of change, as prescribed by the ADKAR model?

The division of roles in change management

Professional communicators are chiefly responsible for the awareness component of change and have a key role to play in the reinforcement component. Learning and development (as a sub-set of human resources) are chiefly responsible for the knowledge and ability components.

Underpinning all of the activity in change are professionally trained change leaders. Working with the support of project managers, they coordinate all contributions to the change process and are, ultimately, responsible for effective change management (along with those who devised the change product, of course!).

When it comes to desire, we revert to one of the most fundamental  truisms of all, business or otherwise: accountability. Specifically, leaders’ accountability.

It is those in charge of the relevant areas who need to subscribe to and lead change. These are, formally speaking, leaders. Whether they are leaders in the sense of enacting leadership in its classic sense – most simply encapsulated in the walking the talk­phrase – is the critical point in this context.

Leadership key to desire in change management

The formal leaders have a contractual and moral obligation to advocate the change. But give them (and the whole collaborative change team) a dodgy (change) product to sell, and the organisation is making it very difficult for this to occur.

So for desire to effectively take place, arguably there are two key components:

  • Make sure the change product is one that can be effectively sold
  • Make sure that formal leadership buys into the process and advocates it.

Without doubt, the content for communication is chiefly the responsibility of the professional communicator. This includes messaging that is focused upon and making the business aware of likely sensitivities and how to navigate them (i.e. issues management).

The communication content and strategic approach is largely determined by the change product and the organisation’s culture. The former is simply handed to the communicator, whilst culture is a long-term game in which communication is but one player, not the sole or pivotal factor.

As change often, as previously noted, involves people leaving the business, it will generally have some negatively perceived characteristics. Whilst it is harsh, it is also commercially pragmatic to state that, to some degree, those leaving the organisation do not need to subscribe to the change. It is those staying who are the most important resources to the organisation.

So the rationale for the change – the positive outcomes it will achieve – is key to it taking place. Employees are not stupid. They will understand the rationale and feel the outcome. Communication is clearly key to this, but, most importantly, leadership is critical.

Generating desire, therefore, is the responsibility of executive leadership (those who decide on the change and are accountable for organisational culture) and the leadership which directly impacts upon those (the directors of traffic, so to speak) doing the lion’s share of the change.

Leaders need to be advocates. They need to be communicators. They must exemplify the carrot and the stick. Most importantly, they need to be role models, they need to….walk the talk.

What are the most important aspects of change management for professional communicators to undertake? Can we provide strategic advice on change that goes beyond the communication dimension, or is that where we should stay? Can communication professionals impact on the nature of the change ‘product’ at all? What is your perception of the role leadership should play in change? And what discipline is responsible for motivating those being impacted on to actually ‘desire’ the change?

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