Issues Management: It Won’t Stop Unless You Beat It Back

Crisis communications and issues management are often conflated because there is a certain degree of crossover. Take the NFL’s problem with National Anthem protests. It’s become an acute crisis because the president’s outspokenness on the issue led to a near revolt by players in three days, which led to an actual revolt by fans instantly.

It was s simmering issue but then it became a crisis. Inevitably, the crisis phase will fade at some point, though it’s highly unlikely that the issues at play will go away easily. Some crisis pros like to call these issues “long-burning” or “smoldering” crises that seemingly never end and could flare up again with the slightest gust of wind.

The NFL has made a series of bad decisions since 2016 which created the tinderbox that erupted last week, so reputationally speaking its wounds are largely self-inflicted.  But that’s a blog post for another day.

If your organization is mired in an issues management situation, it can feel like you will never get rid of the issue unless you make your critics happy. But by virtue of their label – “critics” – there is a good chance they will never be happy, at least in a way that benefits you. On the other hand, the things that may make them happy could very well make you unhappy.

This is the crossroads where many managers find themselves in issues management.

  1. Do I try to please my critics?
  2. Do I appease them so they will go away?
  3. Do I try to strike just the right balance?
  4. How can I just get this behind me and avoid further turmoil?

This line of thinking usually ignores the real dynamics at play and all too often makes the PR mess worse, because the fundamental problems and issues that are at play were never really confronted and were never resolved.

Who are your critics?

First, let’s take a look at your critics. Are they your customers? If so, you’ve got a real problem and you’d better listen (In the NFL fans = customers). Are they investors? Ditto. Your employees? This is where it starts to get complicated. Chances are when your employees have a problem, you have a problem, like it or not. But there are times when certain employee groups may not have the organization’s best interest in mind. Communication could be a problem. That’s where you have to lead the way.

In the current environment, it’s more likely that your more vocal critics won’t be customers, investors or employees. They’re most likely to be outsiders, who as critics are doing what they do best, and that is attack organizations on issues, real or contrived.

The usual suspects are politicians, activists, social media instigators, all individuals and groups that may be dedicated to making noise to get attention and support for their own agendas.

Should you appease them?

No.

If I’m one of your critics, the primary driver behind my attacks on you and your organization is to pressure you to try to appease me. Once you do that, I will change my demands and make them impossible for you to meet. I will keep doing this until you quit. I don’t just want you to pay, I want you to pay dearly and quite visibly. I want you to be distracted from your day-to-day business. I may want you to stop doing one thing, or start doing another. I want you to fire people. I may want you yourself to resign or be fired. I want heads, because that’s how I keep score.

So, my first goal as a critic is to get you to think that appeasing me based on my initial demands will make me go away. Of course, what you don’t know is the fun is just getting started.

Your strategy of giving into my initial demands is the first big mistake you can make, and once you realize that, you will already be far enough down the path of poor decision-making that each additional decision going forward will be even more complex and challenging until you’ve put yourself into a corner and there is no easy way out. As your critic, that’s how I win and you lose.

How can I find the right balance?

At this point, you may sense a running theme, but I will reiterate. Your critics are dug in. They don’t want balance. They’ve already structured the issues management battlefield so that the outcome is winner-take-all, and since they typically lay the situational ground rules, the field is usually tilted in their favor.

Out in the world people are watching, people who aren’t critics. Perhaps when you think about trying to find the right balance you are thinking of them, not your critics. You are trying to find a way to appeal to the masses.

You may believe they want balance, but consider this. Have you ever gone to a sporting event hoping for a tie? A tie would be perfect balance, wouldn’t it?  Not really.

The point is everyone wants a decision. Your critics want it to be in their favor. You may want it to be in yours. Observers, however, they just want it to be the right decision, and they are looking to you to define that for them. But in the end, when that decision is made they want it to be a decisive victory in their favor.

How can I just put this to rest and avoid further turmoil?

This may be the most important question because it’s at the root of all the others. As much as no one wants to find themselves at the center of controversy, once you’re in the middle of one, attitudes that revolve around dread, frustration, and even defeatism can be the kinds of distractions that will create entirely new problems. With this attitude, you can be your own worst enemy.

Once you are confronted with a smear campaign, a campaign based on criticism, baseless allegations and unrealistic demands or expectations, you have a choice – the instinctual decision between fight or flight. If you are not prepared to beat the issue back, you are in for a long and miserable journey and an unsatisfying outcome.

If you really want to put the issue to rest, do your homework, know what stakeholders are most important, what they want to know, what they need to know, and what you can say. Know what’s true and what isn’t. As soon as possible, get a handle on the real end-game of your critics.

Once you’ve done all of this, be prepared to beat the issue back. Make your case confidently, positively and completely. Be honest, be transparent, but most importantly, be unapologetic and fearless in the face of confrontation. If you are being pressured on an issue and you truly believe you are in the right, then conduct your communications campaign in precisely that spirit. Your tone does not to have the same brute force as your critics, but it should send the message that you are confident and committed to your position.

If you want to talk issues management, let me know. I’d be happy to talk.

This is How Your Critics Try to Define You

There’s an old saying you may have heard as a child:

“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

Moms and dads would say this to remind their children not to get too rattled when other kids are mean to them. But as we see every day in the media and in social media, names and words and language can be used quite effectively to hurt individuals and organizations.

Your critics know this, and they know how to marshal strategic messaging and all of the media channels at their disposal to hurt you until you submit and do what they want, or you just plain lose.

Of course, that old saying was right to a certain extent. Names in and of themselves can’t hurt you. And a lot of pressure that critics try to apply to you oftentimes can’t hurt you unless you let it. The main thing to know is critics can only really hurt you in a PR sense if you let them define you. Here’s how they do that.

They Frame You

When the word is used as a verb, we often think of being “framed” as when someone is set up for a crime he or she did not commit – a false charge against a person. That’s not precisely what we mean when we talk about your critics try to frame you, but it is in the right neighborhood.

When your critics frame you, they are simply framing their message so that how they want to define you becomes the most common perception of you, whether it’s true or not. Effective framing means to give the public a simple and clear picture of who you are through simple words, images and symbols, all that work to define you. The frame is the intellectual structure within which you are defined.

How They Frame You

Values – Your critics may have many techniques, but one of the most effective ones centers on the use of common values that everyone shares, but spun so that you are defined as not caring about or having complete disregard for those values. In the process, your critics define themselves as caring, and you as the one who does not. Do you care about the environment, safety, the community, your employees? Maybe you do, but if you have critics, these are the kinds of values they may say you don’t care about.

Metaphors – Metaphors are powerful tools for taking complex ideas and simplifying them in such a way that people get it quickly. If your critics are waging a campaign against you, saying you don’t care about your employees, they may choose the metaphor of the giant, saying you don’t care about “the little guy.” That’s an image and in idea most everyone can readily understand and remember, which makes it an effective metaphor.

Statistics – Statistics are often used to substantiate any argument, and they are effective because they convey a sense of indisputable fact. Of course, stats can be manipulated to support every side of an issue. By rearranging some stats, excluding others, and interpreting them any way your critics see fit, they can use stats against you.

Solutions – This is the call to action, but it’s often offered as a reasonable solution. The minimum wage issue is a classic example of how the solution is used to garner public support. Who doesn’t want to make more money, right?

The current number of $15 per hour is the more common “solution” offered, but the proponents of that wage never discuss the bigger problems it potentially creates. The City of Seattle learned the hard way on this.

When employers have to raise the minimum wage, that money has to come from somewhere in a small business. That means while everyone may make at least $15 per hour, each employee may have to give up more hours. Full-time workers with benefits may be cut to part-time and lose their benefits. More people working fewer hours with less benefits, all so that the hourly wage can be raised.

The hidden problem in the debate is that raising the wage does not raise revenues to cover the increased wage. In fact, if the store owner has to raise prices to pay for the wage increase, that could hurt retail sales, reducing the amount of cash available to pay employees. In short, the wage increase forces employers to give away money it doesn’t have. That could hurt jobs and the workers lose.

The point for this discussion is be prepared to address those simple “solutions” offered by your critics.

Stories – People like stories. We have since we were kids and that’s never changed. It’s why we like books, TV shows and movies. The power of story is in its ability to aid our memory. Think of your own life, your own memories. You may not remember what grade you got on every assignment, but you probably have many stories of teachers and classmates over the years, stories you will never forget. The same is probably true of your college years, your family, your partner or kids. Stories.

How it All Adds Up

In the end, your critics will use all of these tools and many more to define you. They will come up with values they can turn against you. They will create or collect data that can be used to define you. They will offer solutions that put you in a no-win position, and they will come armed with all sorts of stories that while they may not even be true, will place you negatively into the narrative. For your critics, that’s mission accomplished.

They will tell the public or other third parties why this should matter by reminding them of shared values – values they say you don’t care about. They will detail their case against you through the use of metaphors, statistics, stories.

They will take care to show what you are doing wrong, or that you are wrong for not doing.

And they will offer a solution that is likely to persuade people to see you the way your critics want you to be seen.

What can you do about it?

The first thing is refuse to be defined. Have a clear idea of who you are and what you and your organization stands for, and have your own set of values that everyone understands when they think of your brand. Have your own set of metaphors, statistics and stories that further define your reputation should it ever come under attack. And have your own set of solutions that persuade people to understand that what you are doing is right, for the right reasons.

That’s just a start. If you want to talk about what to do when your critics try to define you, let me know.  I’ll be glad to chat.

With PR Advisors Like These Who Needs Enemies?

If your organization is faced with the real possibility that it could be involved in a crisis centered on a controversial issue or development, the one thing you should be able to do is trust that your PR advisors are on your side.

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for some organizations to seek and receive counsel from PR advisors who may not quite have the best interests of the organization in mind. To be clear, we’re not talking about spies or subversive activities. We’re not talking about PR professionals who would intentionally do you harm. We’re not advocating a surrender of professional objectivity and detachment in favor of accepting only the client’s side of the story. And we’re not focused on PR professionals who are pushing the boundaries of PR ethics.

What we are talking about are those whose hearts simply may not be where yours may be – PR advisors who may be happy to get paid to provide PR service to you all within the bounds of ethics, but their sentiments may align a little more closely with your critics. When this happens, you’re likely to get and take advice from someone who has already accepted the premise of your critics’ attacks. Their inherent bias clouds their ability to provide the counsel you need. So much so that your critics’ reality is your PR advisor’s reality. That’s dangerous.

Here are a few hypothetical examples.

Apologize First, Ask Questions Later

A large consulting organization serving a large NGO is under fire by an extreme environmental activist group for having once worked for energy companies. The consulting firm made no secret of this. It listed energy companies as clients on its web site and had complied with all disclosure requirements. However, the critics treated the consulting firm as though by virtue of having worked for energy companies in the past it had done something wrong.

The consulting firm’s PR advisor counseled the firm to first issue an apology for having worked for those firms and to announce that it would be conducting an internal review of its client list to assure it would be more diligent about taking on “controversial” clients in the future.

Takeaways: There’s nothing wrong with consulting firms serving energy firms, so there is no need to apologize. There is no need for an internal review of client lists unless a specific business arrangement or contract warrants it. More importantly, it will undermine your own business if you start to publicly classify clients as “controversial.” This is a reflection that the PR advisor is working under a reality framed by critics. The lesson is, if your organization has done nothing wrong, there is no need to apologize. If your organization has to conduct an internal review to determine if it did something wrong, say so, but wait until the investigation is complete before even considering an apology and corrective action.

Give Your Critics a Forum

A real estate developer has announced it plans to build a new mixed-use development on the outskirts of a mid-sized city. As part of this process, it is compelled to meet with elected officials and local authorities, and appear at public meetings where the development is on the agenda. A group has formed to oppose the development and is waging a campaign based on fabricated claims in the media, on social media, and in public demonstrations.

The opposition organization has built its campaign around allegations that the developer is trying to hide its plans and is not being transparent. The developer’s PR advisor recommends to the company that it host a town meeting to foster dialogue with the community to be more transparent.

Takeaways: First, the PR advisor is coming from a place where it is presumed the developer has not been transparent. While there are appropriate times for town meeting forums, there are many times when a PR advisor recommends hosting a town meeting when all it will achieve is to give your critics a forum for their own agenda-driven campaigns. When you host a town meeting in a contentious situation you are giving your critics a forum to create a made-for-TV event that may give the misleading impression that what you are proposing does not have public support, or ironically, that you are trying to hide something – all because an organized and vocal opposition knows how to hijack such forums for their own purposes. A better approach in this situation, may be to communicate broadly and aggressively through your own channels: Web sites, newsletters, mailers, op-eds and ads, and when it comes to public meetings, consider them, but there are ways to structure them so that your critics cannot commandeer them to shut down real dialogue.

Appease Your Way to Failure

A bank is forced to reduce its philanthropic activity due to a downturn in its business. This means that certain local arts-related organizations will see significant reductions in funding. The bank is now under fire from certain community activists who say the “greedy” bank is putting profit before culture and is working to “destroy the local arts community.” With picketers outside of the bank’s offices, the bank’s PR advisor tells management to engage with the group by having an impromptu face-to-face meeting with the group’s leaders, hoping that they will understand the bank is not putting profits before the arts.

Takeaways: There is a place for engagement, but there are times when what looks like engagement is not. This is one of those times. In this situation, the messaging coming from the bank’s critics is highly strategic, designed play to stereotypes of big business. This signals that the creators of that messaging have no desire for real dialogue which can lead to real understanding. Rather, any event or activity in which they do engage is designed to further amplify that messaging. So, if the bank would take the PR advisor’s recommendations, it would be doing two things. First, it would be giving the community activists an event it can play to further reinforce its theme that that the bank is not “listening to us” or “trying to manipulate us.” Second, if the bank has made a firm decision on its philanthropic support of the arts, such a gesture as an impromptu meeting with this group (handled the wrong way) could give false hope. A strategy of appeasement only lasts so long, then critics are likely to feel misled, and their vocal attacks on the organization will then be proportionately stronger and longer.

You Have a Right to Expect Your PR Advisor to be with You in Heart & Mind

The main problem with these kinds of PR advisors is they’re not really sure who they work for. Some live to please the media before their own organizations or clients, and their advice reflects this.

Others see the issues your organization faces through the prism of your critics and not yours. They identify more with your critics than they do with you.

Of course we must do research on all sides of the issue. We can’t accept information on face value from clients any more than we should if the information or claims come from critics. That said, when PR advisors start by accepting the premise of the critics, they’re more likely to accept false assumptions and baseless allegations, and on this they will base their recommendations. This is quicksand for any communications program.

The Most Embarrassingly Common Problem We Find When We Do Employee Research

Workplace Communications, PittsburghOver the years when we’ve handled workplace communications issues, we have done research. Sometimes it’s been qualitative.   Think employee focus groups.  Other times it’s been quantitative. Think employee surveys.

When we do employee research, the purpose for each project may change but one thing almost never does. There is usually a credibility and trust gap between hourly or line employees and their immediate supervisors or front-line managers.

The workplace could be a manufacturing plant or it could be an office. Regardless, when front-line managers speak to their people, they are all too often not believed or trusted.

Why?

While every workplace has its own communications issues and characteristics, generally speaking, front-line managers can get caught in the middle. They don’t have the power or authority to make policy decisions, but still they are charged with enforcing them.  This means they can’t make spot changes based on the direct feedback they may get from subordinates.

This can be frustrating for line employees.

Further compounding the issue is how front-line managers are assigned and judged. Many front-line managers are promoted from within. This means some may still feel and act like line employees, neglecting their management responsibilities.  While others may allow a taste of power to change the way they interact with their subordinates.  This can lead to or exacerbate an “us” versus “them” mentality within the workforce.

Whether they are really effective as front-line managers or not, most know that some of their managers don’t want problems bubbling up in the organization. So, the course of action for many front-line managers is to keep things quiet.

Front-line managers tend to have a choice. They can manage so as not to get on the wrong side of their superiors, or they can manage to make themselves look good to their bosses. Either way, this often means that grievances, complaints or even suggestions and good ideas can come to a halt when originating at the very front lines of the organization.

Usually, once we detect a pattern like this, we set about creating an internal communications program that helps to bridge the divide between senior management and the entire organization. One important thing is to do is find ways to bolster the credibility of those front-line managers.  After all, they are the voice and face of the company to your line employees.

Some ways to do this are:

  • Empower front-line managers to make more policy decisions within their work groups.
  • Encourage and incentivize them to share complaints, suggestions and ideas that they receive from their people upward in the organization, and recognize those contributions.
  • Respect the valuable role front-line managers play as both managers of their people and as advocates for their people.

In the end, you will be helping to forge a stronger bond between front-line managers and the people they manage.

Let us know if you would like to talk about workplace communications.

CEOs: Get Political at Your Own Risk

Note Taking at EventA recent article in the Los Angeles Times featured the results of a Weber Shandwick study on the impact CEOs may have on their companies’ performance when they take public positions on political or controversial issues. The headline didn’t say it all, but it was pretty accurate: “CEOs are getting more political, but consumers aren’t buying it.”

Before getting into detail on the article and the study, it’s worth noting that no matter what a CEO does in terms of communication, there has to be a good business reason for doing it. Otherwise, the entire proposition is based on ego and not the principles of good business. It is also important to know that “doing the right thing” is never mutually exclusive from doing business the right way.

When an organization meshes social responsibility with other business initiatives, we call it corporate social responsibility. When marketing is driven by the same motivations, we sometimes call it cause-marketing.  But when a CEO builds a communications program around his or her own positions on issues, it can get personal and now emerges as “CEO activism.”

The Weber Shandwick Takeaways

Here’s what Weber Shandwick found:

  • 36% of consumers polled said they felt media attention was the primary reason some CEOs take public positions on political or social issues. According to the LA Times piece, the three most recognized CEOs who do this were Starbucks’s Howard Schultz, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and Salesforce.com’s Marc Benioff.
  • 21% of those surveyed felt CEOs took public stands to build their own reputations.
  • 14% of the people questioned thought CEOs actually took public positions did so to “do what is right for society.”
  • 40% of survey participants said they were more inclined to buy something from a company if they agreed with the CEO’s views.
  • 45% of those questioned responded that they are less likely to make purchases from CEOs if they disagree with the sentiments.

The Weber Shandwick study polled 1,027 adults.

Lessons for Other CEOs and Companies

The questions a CEO of any company needs to ask when considering taking a public position on a political or controversial issue are:

  • What is the risk to sales?
  • What is the risk to existing and potential customer relationships?
  • Will not weighing in on the issue cost my business?
  • Is my position on the issue in sync with those of my customers, clients and other important stakeholders?
  • Do I and my organization have credibility on the issue? Or, put more bluntly, is this any of my business?
  • What do I have to gain?
  • What do I have to lose?
  • And perhaps, most importantly, is my position really the only way to go, or is it just one side of an issue … just my opinion?

The last question gets to the core of it. Controversies and political issues by nature can be polarizing. When a CEO takes a strong position on an issue, it can be assumed to alienate up to half or more of a company’s employees, customers, vendors and other stakeholders.

How Should a CEO Use the “Bully Pulpit?”

Then there is the issue of the “bully pulpit.” This goes beyond simply trying to appeal to employees or risk alienating them.  President Theodore Roosevelt used the term to describe how he used his position of power as president to push his agenda.

Power comes in three parts: compensatory, conditioning, and condign. A CEO has all three at his disposal.  He can incentivize and reward those who agree with him through compensation.  He can condition those who work for him through a range of persuasive techniques. And he can punish those who disagree with him.  Employees at every level know this.

So the ultimate question becomes: Is advocating a particular position on an issue a wise use of a CEO’s leadership capital?

The question is inherently situation-specific, but there is no doubt that once a CEO does decide to venture into CEO activist waters, there is risk, and all too often there is no turning back.

If you have a specific question on this or would like to discuss, please feel free to get in touch.