Silence: public relations’ secret weapon

With the torrent of information that courses through the multiplicity of channels which exist to get in our faces, get inside our minds and change our behaviours, is silence the most underrated approach to communication a public relations professional possesses? Silence would certainly seem to offer the greatest point of difference – and, therefore, power? – a communicator possesses.

Nobel Prize winning author, Herta Muller, being interviewed in The Paris Review, said, “Silence is also a form of speaking. They’re exactly alike. It’s a basic component of language. For me, silence had always been another form of communication.”

If you find this post of value, please share it through LinkedIn, Twitter and/or Google+ et al!

It’s tempting to think the noise of communication must be subscribed to, in western societies at least. Get on public transport, have a look around: the person not scrolling through texts or webpages on their smart phone, or talking on it, is the exception. How often do people who are in conversations with others put that face-to-face interaction on hold while they address the intrusive phone call? A lot, in my experience.

It seems humans are evolving so they thrive on being interrupted, on being intruded upon, on being habitually reliant on the ‘torrent of information’ noted earlier. Studies have identified the compromised business-relevant productivity this is delivering and whilst I haven’t seen studies which relate to the socio-emotional equivalent, my guess is the information deluge and conversation interruptus smart phones are delivering is having a profound effect on how we relate to each other as humans.

Competitiveness of noise in communication

It is a temptation – and a grave error – to think, and then apply, the notion that we need to communicate vociferously and frequently as a matter of course. It is natural to feel the fear of:

  • not being seen to communicate (i.e. perceptions of being professional, doing the job etc)
  • watching the competition create noise and attention while you are buttoning the (public) lip
  • the information vacuum: is this giving rise to target audience uncertainty? Is – the vacuum or the uncertainty – a bad thing?

Or perhaps the ‘vacuum’ is leading to a sense of expectation, the thirst for which can be slaked at a strategically appropriate juncture? A negative outcome of the vacuum often discussed is that disinformation thrives in a vacuum, which is one influencing factor on dissatisfaction and negative behaviours, activities not normally in the best interests of an organisation.

As Herta Muller has pointed out, however, “silence is a form of speaking”. Silence can help an organisation or person position themselves as being above the fray (i.e. the ‘statesman’ effect). In other words, let the mud be flung but I won’t be part of it’. It’s amazing how much respect silence can generate, but so few organisations or professional communicators possess the self-control that allows them resist entering this ‘fray’.

The milieu of internal communication provides an excellent example of where information can be overkill. Organisations can fall victim to the perceived necessity that all employees need to know all information relevant to different parts of the business, when in fact what is occurring in distant parts of the business is of no interest to them, nor does it motivate them and doesn’t help them undertake the tasks which they have been employed to do.

“There is no speech nor language; their voice is not heard.” Psalm 19 *As quoted by Marilynne Robinson in Lila.

Yes, as in all communication, there is the beneficial sense of being part of a community. But so is there the factor of ‘is this information distracting me from doing what I am meant to be doing?’ The same thinking can be applied to selling a product. Is all this information/marketing/PR helping to sell the product, or is it ultimately dazzling me with science and confusing the decision making/sale process?

Silence and power

The race to making communication noise, whether it is organisational marketing or business meetings or personal conversations, is undertaken at the risk of:

  • being disseminated before the recipient is ready to process the ‘noise’/information
  • being used before the information is sophisticated enough to make the optimum impact
  • making the communicator seem imprudent or, worse, obtuse or, worse still – in a business/profit generating/reputation enhancement dimension – negatively impacting on sales reputation et al.

There is power in the gap, the lack, the…pause. It carries weight. It speaks of restraint and thoughtfulness. It builds an expectation that when communication does occur, it is an activity worth paying heed to.

Yes, no matter how few or how many words or images are used, it may still be too many or too little or it may be effective or ineffective. But it’s tempting to deduce that the sage organisation/person speaks when it will create a desired effect, not simply because there is a vacuum to be filled or because the incipient modern day malaise of fearing silence is bearing, tsunami-like, down on the tortured mind.

Where have you found silence to be the communicator’s friend? Do you agree the amount of communication noise in society and in marketing more specifically is making it difficult for any organisation to have its voice heard? What is your advice on how to approach the noise-silence dialectic?

If you found this post of value, please share it through LinkedIn, Twitter and/or Google+ et al!

The arts are imperative to public relations

A public relations professional will fail to achieve their potential unless they actively engage with the arts. Society itself will be fundamentally – in a socialised or social sense – anorexic as well without the arts playing a central role in the lives of its people. But for PR professionals specifically, a lack of immersion in the arts is an absolute horror show.

The same can be said about human resources for much the same reasons as I am about to expound.

The arts and PR

Humanism for public relations

‘Publics’ are people. Public relations is preoccupied with ensuring the best possible relationships between organisations and their publics. Call them stakeholders if you like, but don’t mention this to some academics as you’ll get them upset at the lack of demarcation. And these stakeholders will obviously include other organisations – corporate ‘edifices’ et al – but they, too, are populated with people, the (people) ‘product’ we deal with.

If you find this post of value, please share it through LinkedIn, Twitter and/or Google+ et al!

So it therefore essential we have the ability to understand and engage with people.

  • This includes empathising with them.
  • This includes not just tolerating diversity in perspectives, it means welcoming them.

Other than actually interacting with a diversity of people (i.e. being social) the arts, I believe, provides us with the best possible means of humanising ourselves.

In fact, perhaps it is the single best means of humanising ourselves. As it is in our nature and it is our habit to interact most closely (i.e. friends and work colleagues) with those who are from similar socio-economic, ethnic/cultural and political backgrounds as ourselves, it is the arts that provides a window to the world and those people who are different to us.

For me, it is the arts of literature and music which have the most allure and provide the most interest and fascination. For others, it will be theatre, film, visual arts or ballet/dance/movement.

My interest in music has given me an understanding of cultures different to the one I was brought up in, including Afro-American, Jewish, Kentucky hills, indigenous Australians, the south of the USA and various sub-cultures of Africa. I believe it has given me an increased empathy towards these cultures as a result of my exposure to them. It certainly given a a great deal of admiration towards them!

But a knock-on effect of this interest in the cultural (or artistic) ‘artefacts’, is that the music which has inspired this impact has also prompted me to learn more about the cultures via other means, such as film, literature, journalism etc. It has, in essence, opened my eyes to the world, to a broader church of human experience and the opinions of many than would otherwise have occurred.

It is literature, however, which has really made the big difference. One reason for this is out of all the arts, it is literature where the greatest amount possible of information can be crystallised or articulated. I know it is pictures that speak the thousand words but, for me at least, they can never reveal as much psychological depth or complexity as the written word.

Literature allows the tensions between different pieces of information and people to be played out on the largest possible canvas. It can comfortably contain a swarm of subtleties other art forms cannot. It is in literature where my prejudices and preconceptions have been most effectively challenged and where the greatest amount of scales have fallen from my eyes (and skeins have been pulled from my heart and my head).

Through literature, I have gained understanding of the rationales why some people think differently to me; the value in this thinking and why they have developed this ‘difference’, whether it be manifested in a political position or a way of dressing.

People impact from the arts and on public relations

By involving yourself in the situations literature explicates, you gain an increased understanding into how people can react to stimuli. This helps you predict reactions from publics and recommend solutions which are better informed and, hence, are more strategic and likely to have greater success.

As such, reading literature is a professional development activity!

The arts as tactical resource for PR

For public relations professionals, there are two further reasons why the arts are imperative to our discipline’s practice.

The first is that the arts inspires creativity; it resources creativity. And creativity is central to PR. We need it to create communication which will interest people. This is not an easy task, especially in a content-crowded world where every waking moment seems to be stuffed with information.

Further to that point, engagement with the arts (if we let it!) can provide a respite from information overload, too. Reading a novel, watching a film etc can provide a sense of peace and ‘separation’ which we need to refuel ourselves, emotionally and mentally. We are living in another world for a short period of time, one where, in fact, we can actually be another person, transported to another time and place.

Like sleep enriches the body and helps prepare us for the new day, so can the arts do precisely the same thing for our mind and soul.

In regard to literature specifically, reading fine fiction enriches our vocabulary and teaches us different, and hopefully excellent, ways of writing. And writing is a PR professional’s number one skill.

Humanising literature and music hit list

This is the really fun bit. The following is a very brief selection of literature everyone, not just PR professionals, should (yeah yeah, i know in my view) read. Not just for their humanising impact, but for the sheer joy and entertainment they provide:

  • David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
  • War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
  • Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace
  • Underworld – Don DeLillo
  • American Pastoral – Philip Roth
  • Gilead – Marilynne Robinson
  • The Sound and The Fury –William Faulkner
  • Wise Blood – Flannery O’Connor
  • Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe

But I leave the final words to one of my favourite authors, W.G. Sebald:

Writers, he said, “sometimes succeed in opening up vistas of such beauty and intensity as life itself is scarcely able to provide.”

How has your engagement with the arts enriched your professional practice of PR and/or your life itself? Is there enough engagement, do you think, between you and your colleagues with the arts? What artistic discipline provides the most sustenance to you in your profession – why?

If you found this post of value, please share it through LinkedIn, Twitter and/or Google+ et al!

Crisis management and the need for CEO leadership

Commentators around the world commonly promote the CEO as Chief Communication Officer, or as Chief Environmental Officer, or occasionally even as Chief Reputation Officer.  But what best practice requires now is the CEO as Chief Crisis Management Officer, and that is much harder to “sell” along the mahogany-lined walls of the executive suite.

Issue and crisis management

Of course the role of CEO as spokesperson in a crisis is well known and well understood (including the fact that there are good reasons why the CEO is sometimes NOT the best spokesperson).   However that activity is purely responsive – it’s about what gets said when the crisis has already struck.

This is a guest post from Tony Jaques*, an internationally recognised consultant and authority on issue and crisis management.

Yet the true role of CEO leadership in crisis management should be much more, and public relations practitioners have a real opportunity to identify and help develop that broader responsibility.

Crisis management as executive responsibility

The concept of crisis management as an integrated executive responsibility is a key theme of my new book, Issue and Crisis Management (Oxford 2014).

It shows that comprehensive crisis management extends from long before the crisis with identifying issues and potential crises; through introducing and activating effective crisis prevention and response; and continues long after operational resumption to include post-crisis risk issues such as inquiries, inquests and adverse legal action.

It’s not surprising that a crisis situation turns the spotlight on leaders as the human face of any organisation.  As US reputation expert Leslie Gaines-Ross says:  “Just as CEOs receive most of the credit when things go right, they are also expected to accept the majority of the blame when things go wrong, particularly in times of crisis.”

Leslie Gaines-Ross research found. “when crisis strikes, nearly 60 per cent of the responsibility for the crisis is attributed to the CEO.”

CEO: more than a spokesperson in crisis management

One result of this attention on the CEO is that a lot of the available material concentrates on the role of the leader as spokesperson in a crisis. But I believe that if CEOs understood better how much blame they will get for the financial and reputational  damage when things go wrong, they just might be more willing to take a more active role in helping prevent the crisis happening at all.

If they need any further convincing, you need look no further than the seminal study by Les Coleman at Melbourne University, which examined Australian crises over a ten year period. It found that more than a quarter of those crises cost the organisations concerned in excess of $100 million, and about one in four of the organisations failed to survive.

In my own research interviewing Australian CEOs about crisis preparedness, it became obvious very quickly that top executives simply don’t see crisis management as their immediate priority.

As one CEO told me:  “People prioritise based on day-to-day issues and pressures. And, hopefully, on more than 99% of days, crisis management is not an issue or priority. Consequently, I think there is a tendency for people to put it off.

“When it’s time to do the crisis management stuff, there is always something else which is more important in the short term. It’s a matter of planning and priority setting and leadership.”

Accountability and opportunity in crisis management

Crisis (and issue) leadership is about much more than just speaking on behalf of the organisation—albeit a crucial responsibility.  Public relations practitioners are in fact ideally placed to help promote what I propose are basic criteria for true crisis leadership:

  • Leaders need to be able to help identify issue and crisis threats early and have the forethought to assign sufficient resources to make a difference.
  • They need to break down functional barriers to drive the integration of issue and crisis management systems.
  • They need to be able to recognise that issues and crisis may represent an opportunity as well as a threat.
  • Most critically, they need to provide an example to managers throughout the organisation to take personal responsibility for developing and implementing effective issue management plans to help prevent crises happening in the first place.

It might seem like a tall order, but it might also be the difference between organisational survival and extinction.

What role do you think CEOs should play in crisis management and why? What experience do you have of effectively undertaken proactive involvement in issues and crisis management from CEOs and executive leadership?

*Tony Jaques is an internationally recognised consultant and authority on issue and crisis management.  He writes Australia’s only specialist issue and crisis e-newsletter, Managing Outcomes, and is author of Issue and Crisis Management: Exploring issues, crises, risk and reputation (Oxford 2014)

If you found this post of value, please share it through Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or LinkedIn – or make a comment. Thanks in advance!