By Dan Cohen
Even the best laid communications plans are subject to forces seen and unseen. To that end, here are FCP’s ideas for managing surprises, trolls, traps, and friends who’ve turned on you:
The Question You Pray Doesn’t Get Asked:
All too often, it’s the fear of facing the question we hope we don’t have to answer that prevents us from speaking out or moving forward at all. We have been called in to jump start marketing campaigns that were derailed because the clients could not or would not answer one key question.
Our counsel in that situation is to dig in. Identify the questions you dread. Find that answer to the most difficult question you face. One path forward is to convene five different colleagues who approach problems from unique perspectives and ask them to engage with the toughest questions an organization faces— eventually arriving at an answer all can live with. Share it across the organization, and create a fearless cadre of ambassadors. Don’t let a lack of preparedness or a fear of the worst case scenario keep you from raising your voice at all.
Stuck in the Middle:
Recent current events have put brands and organizations in the middle of two diametrically opposed political points of view. Consider Delta Airlines, which responded to the Parkland Massacre by toning down their ties to the NRA, only to face a political backlash from the political right, including the Georgia Legislature revoking tax incentives that favored the airline. On the contrary, consider Patagonia, which used the political environment as an opportunity to lead by example. In the wake of an Executive Order to strip national monuments of federal protections, the company led a lawsuit to challenge the move. They used all of their social media and communications channels to build an army of supporters.
One path forward is to prioritize political engagement on efforts that are already core to the organizational mission and vision. Another route forward may be to explore ways to buy time under pressure— to study the issue, convene experts, conduct market research on potential impacts, and generally use the moment to LISTEN rather than ACT. The bottom line is that the political winds may unexpectedly change the climate in which your organization communicates. The important part is continuing to push forward in a meaningful way, and not be inert.
Stabbed in the Back:
As the situation of Julius Caesar exemplified, sometimes those who have historically been our best allies can quickly turn and attack. An organization’s best advocates or mostly loyal supporters can flip based on a bad experience, minor political difference or even an interpersonal slight.
Airlines face vicious backlash on social media, often coming from their most loyal customers (see, for example, the vocal criticism via YouTube of United Breaks Guitars). Political parties or organizations, like the DCCC face protest and opposition from their most fervent activists. Even cereal companies face opposition from loyal customers when they change formulas. Three essential steps to avoiding this fate are:
- Set up active listening and information sharing efforts with your constituencies, as well as internal and external audiences. Colleagues must be empowered to seek client and/or customer feedback and then report it to decision makers.
- Customers and clients need to be encouraged to be vocal. This may seem counterintuitive, but we at FCP are “we’ll hear the bad news first” kind of folks. We want to see the knives coming and in order to engage proactively. Furthermore, customer or client feedback presents an opportunity to do better, to be better. It is not intrinsically antagonistic; don’t treat it as such.
- Isolate the forces of damage. Caesar was “surrounded” by his enemies, and history suggests as many as 60 colleagues were accomplices in his assassination— we seek the opposite. We suggest creating channels for immediate one-on-one feedback. This serves to diffuse the situation while also minimizing more widespread damage caused by a compelling or sympathetic story.
Julius Caesar claimed to be the “brightest star in the sky.” This arrogance is among the driving forces that lead to his assassination. He was warned of the Ides of March, and chose to ignore the warning. We encourage our clients to be humble, open to criticism, and approach all communications in a diligent, thoughtful, open-minded manner. In short, to avoid the arrogant posture of Caesar. We may not be able to prevent the Ides of March, but we can think through the worst case scenario and prepare accordingly.