Telling the truth. It’s what most comms people want and encourage. A new piece of research decided to look a little deeper into the subject. Here are the results…
by Jon Reeves
After recently completing a CIPR diploma research project on Issue Management, I drew many conclusions. Most notably that Comms professionals are, on the whole, the good guys (and gals).
I wasn’t shocked, it was a result I’d expected but it was still heartening to see.
I picked this subject after being inspired by a press release issued by Mars Foods earlier this year, which highlighted the fact that some of their products – notably Dolmio and Uncle Ben’s sauces – were so unhealthy they should only be consumed occasionally. So I set out to discover whether a more transparent approach to communicating issues would be welcomed by those practising PR.
My survey was answered by 60 Comms professionals, including those working in the public and private sector and featured job roles ranging from apprentice to director. If you were one of them, thank you!
The key findings were that 73% of people were aware of issue management, 71% saw it as either ‘important’ or ‘crucial’ and 78% practised it in their role. An encouraging start.
For the benefit of anybody that would’ve been in the 27% unaware of issue management, it basically covers the identification of potentially harmful issues and uses strategic public relations planning to manage them.
During the survey, it emerged that while most Comms professionals wanted to be more transparent in the way they communicated issues, significant barriers prevented them from doing so.
Only 57% of people had taken a transparent approach in practice and only 52% of those deemed their actions to have been ‘entirely transparent’. An impressive 76% stated that their approach was successful but only 56% said that it lead to a more transparent approach from their organisation.
People’s views on the Mars press release were quite interesting. Half of those surveyed viewed it as ‘brave, commendable and likely to enhance their reputation in the future’, with 10% perceiving it as ‘risky and likely to damage their brand.’
A quarter of respondents thought that Mars should’ve been even ‘more transparent’ and provided more information to customers and offered healthier products. The remaining 15% had differing views but mostly saw Mars’ actions as positive, regardless of what their motivations might’ve been.
My favourite response here was…
“It depends on whether the information was likely to leak or not. I would suggest they had some kind of intelligence to suggest this was likely to be a media issue at some point in the future so this was managing the risk. If this was the case then it's an approach I would take and I think it is commendable, if not then I'm not so sure.”
Analysing the qualitative data, the emerging theme was that the biggest barrier to a more transparent approach to PR was senior management. Many suggested that those at the top of their organisation would never support such an approach and perceive it to be too risky.
This was fairly predictable but it emphasises just how important it is for comms people to influence decision-making and inspire leaders to be brave, even when faced with challenging situations.
In conclusion, after all that analysis and number crunching, my gut feeling that comms professionals fundamentally want to be open and honest, was upheld.
My findings suggest a widely held belief that addressing issues head on, being transparent and offering solutions is better than working hard to absolve blame or conceal mistakes. So long to the spin doctors. The good guys have taken over.
Pearls of wisdom
Finally, here are some of the most interesting responses I received which helped my study but also seem like cracking bits of advice…
“PR isn't just about singing the praises of an organisation, there's a need for greater transparency to build trust especially where wishing to engage with citizens and particularly hard to reach groups. Honesty is required to help build links with cynical and detached community groups.”
“Manage the issue, manage the fallout. You still have to be proactive to manage reactive comms. Get the senior buy in early and demand that people give you the information and responses you need to protect their reputation.”
“Genuinely honest messaging has an element of authenticity about it which can easily win people over and create understanding and empathy. It is difficult to get senior management to understand how simple this is, but once they get it they will run with it. It helps to outline a clear approach at the outset and stick to it.”
Jon Reeves is communications advisor at Futures Housing
image via the U.S. National Archives