Stop treating communications as an afterthought

Your comms team needs to play an active role in your strategy - not just clean up the mess in your wake.

by Stuart Thomson
Last Updated: 10 Jul 2017

Companies too often make decisions without thinking about what their real impact will be. Public announcements become lessons in damaging their own brand rather than protecting and building it. The damage is done because communications are not fully considered.

Just take the recent example of the ‘Singhbury’s’ vs ‘Morrisinghs’.

A decision made by Sainsbury’s to protect its name and brand by threatening legal action against the owner of the local shop featured in media across the world. It is not that the decision was ‘wrong’ but it was communicated in a way that made the company look distant and heavy-handed. Morrisons, on the other hand, grabbed the media opportunity with both hands and welcomed the shopkeepers ‘good taste’.

The situation for Sainsbury’s was only protected from further damage as the shopkeeper said he understood their position. If he had been more damning then the reputational impact would have been even worse.

But time and again decisions made by one part of an organisation, many apparently sensible, have an adverse impact. Instead of thinking about communications from the outset, the relevant teams are only used when it comes to sorting out the mess. The ‘communications team’ then has to become the ‘crisis communications team’ trying to get the company out of a hole of its own digging.

Properly engaged, the communications team can help identify the risks of an approach. They should know and understand who your key stakeholders and audiences are, what these groups expect of you and how they may react to the proposed action. They will also have an understanding of the media as well – traditional and social. They can help plan programmes, considering milestones, stages of delivery etc. all of which can help other parts of the business.

Armed with this type of insight, the course of action can be chosen and then, critically, communicated as well. The language will need to be considered as will how the information is released, the channels used, and what follow-up may be needed.

There are numerous examples of where companies do not seem to talk to themselves, recognise potential dangers and take pre-emptive actions or decide to proceed and get the communications right. Whether it is Kendall and Kylie Jenner having to cancel a line of T-shirts or an advert being attacked by politicians and regulators, some good communications advice from the outset would have helped (assuming that some of these campaigns are not created purely to attract controversy and attention, of course…)

Poor performances at committee hearings in Parliament come about because the right advice on approach, response and simply what to expect has not been sought. Companies frequently change their approach to how data is shared, or alter their terms and conditions of use, without fully appreciating the impact and reaction. And who can forget the recent classic example of an election manifesto written in splendid isolation without consideration of how it would be ‘sold’ or what the reaction would be amongst a core audience?

The reasons why communications are not always fully considered varies between organisations and individuals as well but can include:

Channels not being open – the internal lines of communications simply do not exist or are not appreciated. There could be a turf warfare or rivalries between individuals.

People not networked – they simply do not know each other or what they do.

Value not seen – the power of communications can be simply unappreciated sometimes amongst more established professions.

Silo thinking – each part of a company deals with its own area of responsibility with no wider thinking going on. The teams dealing with law, marketing, design, finance etc. may have little appreciation that they have a direct impact brand and reputation.

If communications teams do provide views and advice then they have to be listened to and considered. There may be other factors at play and difficult decisions may need to be explained. Communications do not always get it right but the insight will help companies to prepare.

So all organisations and companies need to make efforts to ensure that communications are not siloed. Instead, they need to be brought into decisions, big and small, to ensure that reputations and brands are best protected.

Stuart Thomson is head of public affairs, government and infrastructure at Bircham Dyson Bell LLP 

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