As a communications professional working in the local environment, I have had the opportunity to see some of our major businesses, in both the energy and non-energy sectors, respond to issues that adversely impact their business agenda or reputation. Usually, this call is a reactive one, following a crisis, but increasingly there are requests to help build or refresh the communications skills of the company's leadership for engaging with specific audiences (such as the media). This has provided me with the humbling privilege to see some of our major businesses — across the economy — in action with regards to the issue of corporate communications. There is a lot of great practice and many companies are working hard lately to get this aspect of their business right. However, as is to be expected, I have also seen some of the common communications pitfalls that plague our businesses. This is the subject of the discussion below.
As a disclaimer, these are general observations and relate to my experience in the industry over the last 20 years in various roles that revolve around implementing, advising and training on communications and relationship building in the local business environment. I should say that to the extent that any of the points below resonate with the reader, it is because of their widespread nature and not because they are based on any specific individual, incident or company. For brevity, I can only just touch on each, but each point can be the subject of its own separate review.
The three areas of common mistakes are clarity, hubris and connectivity. I shall address each of these individually. Clarity is used here to refer to two separate but interrelated challenges.
The first is clarity of the role of communications within the frame of the business strategy and for the responsibility of the role of communications within the business. It has surprised me as to how little attention can be paid to thinking ahead of implementation about what role communications needs to play in delivering on decisions and plans, both internal and external to the company. Questions like: Who needs to know about this?, Who do we need to enroll in this decision? or Who do we need to speak within the areas of government/ community/regulators? are routinely missed or ignored. Missing these questions is significant because any decision must be delivered to staff who need to have context for action or to believe in change. In this way, communications as a core element of strategic delivery, is not well understood as an activity that needs senior leadership attention, and is a significant business challenge.
The other area where clarity is missing is on the clarity of message. I have seen clients struggle to come up with a clear answer to the simple question of, what is the real problem here? In a room with eight people, if asked to identify the problem they are trying to solve for, invariably there will be a period of discussion, which if facilitated appropriately, can bring a shared, co-created understanding of ‘the communications problem’. In the same way, when we are brought in to help with a crisis, in particular, the messaging takes a while to become clear. This is the act of agreeing on what should be said on a specific business issue that is supportive of the company's reputation or image, and aligned with its values and its strategic intent. This is one area that is very easy to get right because no one knows their business better than the leadership. The missing elements are usually practice and purpose at the leadership table of testing the impact of the decision against the needs or interest of key stakeholders, and then crafting messages that help explain, placate or defend as necessary.
Hubris relates to excessive pride or self-confidence. With regards to many communications, I think that this is relevant at two levels: the hubris of the executive leadership and of the organisation or ‘institutional hubris’. The former characteristic — at the level of the individual — is the more discussed of the two and the most apparent in many of our organisations and society as a whole.
Hubris in a leader can lead to a tendency ‘to tell rather than enroll’, ‘to direct rather than co-opt views’ and to lack the ability to distil and consider the merits of all arguments/sides. These factors make effective communications extremely difficult with such a leader since good communicators must first listen. As a consultant, I am struck at how some business leaders fall easily into this ‘mode’ especially when faced with a challenge or being asked to push themselves to do something uncomfortable or different. If an organisation is to improve its ability to communicate, a willing, open and flexible mindset must be present in its chief communications officer who should understand that ‘explaining’ or being transparent is an act of good leadership and not a sign of weakness.
The less discussed aspect of hubris that I have observed occurs at the institutional level. I mean here where an institutional agenda is considered to be so technical or superior in nature that the way that organisation communicates with the public or stakeholders is in the form of ‘taking down’ or in language that is so obtuse or jargon-filled that no clear messages are delivered. While it is important for any organisation to consider its mandate to be important, this becomes a problem when that leads to a sense of ‘seclusion’ or distance from the public, customers or main stakeholders. Good communications requires relevance to and respect for the audiences. This does not happen when there is an institutional bias that encourages an organisation to feel as if it can (or does) exist separate and apart from the broader society.
Connectivity is the third area and follows from the point above. One issue I see regularly is based on the understanding and management of stakeholder and external issues. Many companies do not track, monitor, collate or discuss in a structured way the reputation issues that face the business or the emerging or current concerns of stakeholders. There is a great deal of ‘opinion’ and very little concrete data that can be used to inform a crisis response. Companies tend not to have a central repository of this type of information making it difficult to understand what messages work for which audiences when they are trying to communicate. The audiences' information needs, views and perspectives are critical to proper communications, and this area needs improvement in many of our organisations.
Of course, these are just some issues I have observed but they are some of the significant challenges our organisations face as they try to become more capable of communicating internally and externally. None of these are intractable, but all require a dedication to making the role of communications sit at the core of decision making and company management.