The fundamental PR question that keeps us up at night (and if it doesn’t – IT SHOULD!) is: can a leopard change its spots? In other words, what steps can an organisation can take to build its reputation in anticipation of a crisis occurring. Inherently, this means taking an issues management approach to strategic communication.

PR needs more leopards

Issues management involves:

  • anticipating business decisions
  • understanding decisions’ potential impact on reputation and relationships
  • providing strategic public relations advice and planning
  • putting in place proactive reputation building actions
  • planning and setting up processes specifically for crisis management.

For issues management to occur, the following steps are necessary as a default though, admittedly, there will be exceptions to these ‘rules’:

Relying on theory to deliver issues management in practice

There are two fundamental elements at the heart of PR:

  • Building reputation and relationships
  • Protecting reputation and relationships.

A necessary bedrock of achieving these outcomes is nudging organisations and target audiences along so they change their behaviour.

Why? To help an organisation achieve its objectives.

Yes, this involves short-term pain to achieve long-term gain. We know communication is involved, but PR is more than that – it involves change (and sometimes lots of it).

There is no action that will protect (and maybe even build) reputations in a crisis more…than having strong target audience and stakeholder relationships

Which brings us to two-way symmetrical communication, the theory which underpins and guides modern PR…which isn’t satisfied with an information transaction – and that’s it! – occurring between and organisation and its stakeholders.

Of all two-way symmetrical communication’s characteristics, it is arguably symmetry (which ultimately means both organisations and their stakeholders evolving their behaviours; accommodating the needs and wants of each other) that is the most important of all.

This means compromise sometimes, but in tandem with this is potentially identifying options for organisational improvement and business (e.g. profit) opportunities as well as, of course, gaining a more powerful and comprehensive licence to operate from stakeholders

There has been a huge amount of debate regarding the practicality of the theory and the manner in which it has evolved, but key elements, and in particular I very much mean theory in practice, have evolved to make it entail, according to different perspectives:

  • “Enlightened self-interest”
  • “Collaborative advocacy”
  • Win-win through advocacy and accommodation
  • “Moving equilibrium” (i.e. an ongoing struggle for symmetry)
  • PR professionals as loyal to both their employers and organisational stakeholders
  • The “strategic management of competition and conflict”.

Why organisational change is necessary for organisational success

The notion that organisations will change based on stakeholder feedback and concerns is seen by some, for different reasons, as idealistic and unrealistic.

Additionally, our job as PR folk is simply to toe the organisational line, they say, and get information out there, persuade, get target audiences to buy stuff or support us.

Who pays the PR bills, after all??

This is a solid gold antediluvian attitude. Some reasons for this are that:

  • society is demanding more from organisations than compliance
  • target audiences will look for other options to organisations that don’t operate in a manner consistent with their belief systems
  • criticism can snowball and get in the way of organisations achieving their vision and fulfilling their remit (with social media and all that it has wrought through viral WOM being a prime reason why this dimension is more salient than ever before).

Organisational change is not always good PR

This is not my way or the highway approach, however. Each organisation and each issue is different. Sometimes, organisational change is not appropriate. To quote Australian academic Jim Macnamara from his new PR textbook*:

  • “A government agency promoting road safety is unlikely to want to engage in a two-way symmetrical model of public relations in which it is required to accept the views of speeding motorists and unsafe drivers. Although most road safety campaigns utilise research to ‘listen’ to publics, they predominantly take a persuasive two-way asymmetrical approach.”
  • “A promoter wanting to sell-out a concert is not likely to need two-way symmetrical communication and could appropriately use a two-way asymmetrical (i.e. persuasive) or even a public information approach.”

This doesn’t mean it can’t listen to the views of those who feel they have a stake in the process, however.

Interestingly, it has been proven that organisations that exist within a turbulent, complex environment are often more adept at applying two-way symmetrical communication. This is because they are under constant pressure to meet stakeholder needs and wants and can realise the benefits of the symmetrical approach relatively quickly.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but in reality it leads to business-relevant outcomes.

In summary, then, the best possible relationships occur when different parties evolve to meet each other’s needs. Change = pain. But make it, then there is substantial gain.

No one gets physically fit without undergoing some pain. Are you big enough to take it? Can you – and your organisation – change your spots? I bet you can if you really want to…

How much does your organisation adapt the way it operates in line with stakeholder needs and wants? Does your organisation have an issues management mindset and how does this manifest itself? Can you provide us with insights? Where have you deliberately not applied a symmetrical approach to communication and/or stakeholder management to achieve a viable, ethical business outcome?

*I am beholden Jim Macnamara, Professor of Public Communication and Deputy Dean of the UTS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences for elements of this post. Check his important new book, Public Relations Theories, Practices, Critiques. Sydney: Pearson Australia.

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