Professional Communication

Peter Strempel

How people think about your organisation affects your success in many ways that might not be immediately obvious. This applies to your own staff as much as to external publics.

Not to think about public affairs management is to fail at it. That’s not quite the same as making an informed decision not to devote significant resources to it. But to make an informed decision you need to understand how it fits into your strategic mix.

Public affairs management shown in the context of a wider strategic management domain
FIGURE 1: Public affairs management shown in the context of a wider strategic management domain.

Figure 1 shows public affairs management to be a direct sub-domain of strategic management, crossing over into the day-to-day activities of normal operations through every occasion on which your organisation leaves an impression on your staff, customers, vendors, competitors, regulators, and wider publics you might not even have thought were watching.

‘Unknown’ publics have been an increasingly important aspect of how organisations are perceived publicly since the rise of social media, and can be critically important at unexpected moments through tweeting and posting of negative or positive opinions about products, services, or events. A case in point was a storm of tweets and social media posts about IBM and the Australian Bureau of Statistics before, during, and after the online census failure of 9 August 2016 (see my case study on the census debacle). The effects of this adverse public reaction were unanticipated, unmanaged by the targets, and created considerable fricition for the government, the ABS, and IBM.

Managing public affairs is also affected by an organisation’s knowledge management architecture. If that sounds strange, another way to look at it is to consider the example of what an organisation remembers about its customers, staff, and vendors, and how this is reflected back to them by, for example, catering to workplace, product and service, or account management preferences, or by responding to feedback, offering incentives, and creating personal relationships.

Why do I call all of this ‘public affairs’ rather than public relations, or communication, or even marketing? Mainly because each of these alternative words is associated with an existing stream of professional specialisation often blind to the scope and nuances of the others. Public affairs embraces them all, but at a more strategic level to align them to common purposes.

The best way to start thinking about public affairs management, or to think differently, is to visualise your potential publics. Figure 2 offers a visual reporesentation of what a generic environmental scan might look like.

In Figure 2, the first and most immediate public is your staff. How you communicate with them, and about what, will leave an impression on them they may never reveal to you, but which will inevitably filter through to how they deal with customers. Bad or thoughtless communication leave impressions leading to dissatisfaction, disloyalty, and less commitment to individual performance than you might hope for.

Generic potential publics for organisations of all sizes
FIGURE 2: Generic potential publics for organisations of all sizes.

A little time spent thinking about what to communicate, and how to do it, can save a lot of negative down-stream consequences.

Figure 3 below compares two internal communication models to highlight that simple feedback loops, and a more personal approach to sharing important news is likely to be respected more than an impersonal style, conveyed through a hastily written email, or top-down communication by proxy, where a line manager conveys instructions from the CEO. The impersonal style always carries the risk of stating quite plainly you don’t care about your people.

A more consultative style, on the other hand, creates commitment and allows you to tap the front-line experiences of your staff, and their ingenuity in addressing their everyday engagements with your customers, partners, and a wider community of interest.

Beyond your staff, the way you present your company to partners, like suppliers or distributors, can also have important effects on your vendor relationships. A little care about ensuring professionalism in all contacts creates a lot of goodwill. Ensuring the right people among your suppliers and distributors understand your objectives can help them to help you by investing their own ingenuity to provide a better service tailored to your specific needs. This isn’t a given, but it certainly won’t happen if you don’t work at it.

Perhaps most important to your bottom line is how your customers see you. Marketing your products or services with lies or symbolism that might confuse or even offend existing and potential customers can have disastrous effects. Including effects you might not even be aware of.

Customers aren’t simpletons who think only of your products or services when they give you their patronage: they will recognise dishonesty for what it is, and they will remember being disappointed a lot longer than being satisfied or even delighted.

Internal communication models
FIGURE 3: Internal communication models.

One of the most overlooked aspects of public affairs management is customer service and product presentation. If your experience as a customer is of being disposed of by a surly clerk, that will be your perception of the whole organisation. Or if your experience is of not being able to find the product or service you need onthe spot, you might never come back even for outsatnding products or services you will need some other time.

How that can play out is demonstrated dramatically by recent trends in the Australian grocery industry, with the big supermarket chains losing market share to Aldi and specialty stores.[1] Why? Both Coles and Woolworths became too focused on competing only with each other, cutting range to highlight fewer products already selling at high volumes. The message sent to customers looking at shelves is that you can no longer get everything you want from even the largest of these stores. Worse, customer service ethic in both chains disappeared in preference to an accounting focus on low-cost staff whose customer service orientation is left to chance.

Aldi focused instead on a more limited range to begin with, but at lower prices achieved through less fancy floor display. And its staff are thoroughly trained on presenting a cheerful, helpful attitude to all customers, for which they receive better than average pay. The message is about price and care factor. Precisely targeted and flowing all the way down the line from strategy to public presentation.

Meanwhile specialty stores catering to customers demanding specialty foods are doing well just by filling a niche voluntarily vacated by the major chains, and need to do little more than exude the appearance of a continental delicatessen to get that message across. However, it’s not unusual to see such delicatessen businesses also hire staff affecting a ‘hipster’ look to attract a clientèle among whom this appearance has social credibility as denoting fine food expertise. It is again a deliberate strategy, targeting a specific market segment, and following through with presentation.

In addressing customers, choosing the right channels also plays an increasingly important rôle. Should you use social media? It’s not enough to do so because everyone else does. You should know why you picked a particular channel, which audience you are addressing with that channel, and how to tailor a message to suit both the channel and the intended audience. Would you tweet your annual report or financial results? Would you post your staff social club photos on Facebook? If so, why, and if not, why? I’m not proposing there is a right or wrong answer here, just that it requires thought to connect an overall organisational strategy with a decision about questions like this.

For example, if your intention was to target a market segment of young, urban professionals, and some of your staff fit into that category, and some of your social club photos reflected something positive about that demographic, you might discuss it with your staff and post those photos they agreed they were comfortable with. This might address your organisation’s understanding and focus on the wants and needs of this demographic in a convincingly authentic manner.

However you marketing approach, and the messages flowing from it, should always be subject to thoughtful integration into an overall organisational strategy.

That’s also true for addressing your regulatory publics – the governments with oversight of laws to which your business is subject. That might include, for example, advertising standards, council regulations on signage, and State and Federal laws on privacy. How you present yourself in complying with these laws could be thought of as a boring legal compliance exercise, or you could look at leveraging that compliance to your advantage. Perhaps by presenting your business as community-minded, or as progressive and proactive on privacy, which is an increasingly important public concern for many people. The opportunity to turn compliance or community engagement into a competitive advantage is limited only by creativity, imagination, and skill in recognising the compliance as a public affairs function.

In an online world  it can be hard to know who's watching what you do and say, and how they will react
In an online world it can be hard to know who’s watching what you do and say, and how they will react.

As your conception of publics extends outwards to more speculative demographics, like competitors and unknown observers, it becomes less easy to direct targeted messages, but it shouldn’t prevent you from at least avoiding sending the wrong messages by taking a little time not to offer competitors a means of casting you in a bad light, or making you the target of an unsuspected interest group taking to Twitter with a backlash against an unintended inference someone drew from your public activities or statements.

The objective in that context is simple and limited: once you have covered all the ground related to intended audiences, channels, and your own goals, table the communication for an environmental assessment. This could be three or four people spending 15 minutes brainstorming all the possible ways your message could be misinterpreted, and by whom. Or it could be a more formal approach by specialist staff. As I said in a broader context above, not to do this is to fail at it, even if there might never be any negative consequences by chance.

Some lateral thinking will be required. A software firm offering a collectables catalogue product, for example, might not immediately think that it might be watched by Russian and Chinese hackers as much as by potential customers. A bicycle retailer might be watched as much by parts wholesalers as by customers for bicycles and accessories. What does this mean for how they should communicate and what information should not be revealed publicly? I don’t have an answer. I’m just raising the prospect that unlikely audiences are becoming more common.

As with all other management domains, public affairs is not a precise science, and offers no models guaranteed to work reliably in every circumstance. Effective public affairs management relies on careful deliberation of the specific context of an organisation and its aims. Every time, not just once.

Good communication is conveying clarity of thought and purpose in words and images. Great communication comes from understanding that the same words and images mean different things to different people.

These principles apply just as much to a single business email as to an entire public affairs management strategy. And everything in between, including advertising, marketing, the corporate stationery, and every public statement an organisation makes, both intentionally and unintentionally.

Good communication is often invisible for meeting its goals so naturally that no one suspects there was thought and effort behind it. To communicate at that level requires expertise and experience.

The kind of expertise I acquired in more than ten years working as a journalist, policy analyst, and public affairs consultant, with hands-on experience in drafting corporate documents, magazine and newsletter publication, online information design, and public affairs consultancy.

If you think you could benefit from an improved public affairs performance, contact me to discuss your needs.

RELATED: Read my case study on the 2016 online census project for an object lesson in how ignoring public affairs management can turn a delicate situation into a disaster.

[1] See, for example, Roy Morgan, 15 April 2016, ‘Supermarket sweep: ALDI’s share of the Aussie market still rising’, and Sue Mitchell, 13 August 2015, ‘Coles, Woolworths, IGA to lose market share to Aldi, David Jones, says Moody’s’, Sydney Morning Herald.