Emissions, Policy & Regulations

Safe(r) Communications in the Age of Transparency

Issue 8 and Volume 120.

By Jessica Merrigan and Eric Weslander, Lathrop & Gage LLP

For better or worse, we live in an era of instantaneous communication. As soon as a power outage, spill, or merger happens, the whole worlds seems to know about it. Where good information is not available, poor information will flood into that void, and fill it quickly. This is true in the case of crisis or bad press, and it is true in the sharing of good news, in promotion and in brand management.

In this rapid-communications climate, it is increasingly important that companies have a communications plan capable of responding capably, quickly, and consistently, both when the seas are tranquil and when storms are raging. Here are five key steps every company should consider in developing an effective communications strategy:

1. Plan ahead.

Information is instantaneous. It is not possible to both plan and respond. Companies must think ahead to assess potentially relevant issues, controversies and communications challenges, at each step considering the likely interested audience and the most effective potential team to engage. When the time comes, communication must be both purposeful and consistent in order to be effective. That is impossible without planning.

2. Build an effective team.

Communication needs will direct the demands for the team. Identify your roles and resources, considering your message and audience. High-profile matters with significant news-media involvement may require both media monitoring and a spokesperson. Statements related to litigation will demand legal review.

Don’t overlook website management and social media. Electronic communications allow for faster response and broad outreach, but can be challenging to oversee and are quickly out of date. These tools demand a designated team member for oversight and updates.

Develop and adjust your team to respond to changing demands.

3. Understand the audience.

Know who cares and why. It goes without saying that a crisis-communications plan places different demands on a team compared with a new product roll-out. But the audiences for even these divergent issues will likely overlap.

Think of your team members as your de facto first audience. Employees are a great source of monitoring and audience assessment, and they likely will serve as a key point of your outreach and response team.

Looking to the external audience, ask if you are communicating with the public at large, or with a more narrow target audience. Differing audiences demand different approaches and means of sharing information. Once you have identified your interested audience(s), you can better assess how to build relationships with interested parties.

4. Understand the issues

Know the issues you face, the facts you need to share, and their implications. There is no substitute for detailed knowledge of the subject about which you are communicating. Every newsroom editor knows that when a reporter’s writing is vague, murky and unintelligible, there is a good chance that the reporter does not know enough about the subject to explain it clearly– and therefore needs to do more factual investigation before attempting to “write around” the problem.

Knowing your subject will allow you to communicate confidently, authoritatively, and in detailed terms rather than in platitudes or generalities. Aim to be the go-to source of useful, reliable, and accurate information for your intended audience.

5. Enforce team’s roles, responsibilities and LIMITS.

Communicate expectations and then enforce them. Consistency is key to effective communication and every team member must be responsible for their role. Public affairs are unpredictable enough without unwelcome “surprise” communications coming from one’s own team-especially if those statements are potentially damaging or inaccurate.

Know and communicate limitations. For litigation and compliance issues, the team must understand the role of legal review and expectations for communications – before the communication occurs.

In summary, a strong communications team is the result of careful planning. When the team is functioning properly, there are no “surprises” and all team members understand their roles. Although your team may never be able to tame the constant news cycle or the churning sea of social media, you will have a solid structure capable of navigating the waters of public opinion and delivering your message safely to shore.