Unforced Errors


How organizations take on costly and unnecessary communications risks

Woman on a headset phoneA reporter calls Andrea at Complexity Professional Services (ComplexPS). Andrea says, “I’ll look into it and call you back before deadline.” Then she and several others scramble to put together a response.

She prepares a clear response in plain language that quickly gets bumped down into jargon and emptied of any real content during the internal approval process. Just before the reporter’s deadline, she sends an e-mail or calls the reporter to provide the empty statement and a link.

Man on the phoneIn the meantime, the reporter calls Jack at Oversimplify Inc., otherwise known as “the other side of the story”. Jack loves to talk to the media and he gives the reporter an earful and some clear background information. The reporter doesn’t wait for Andrea and gets to work refining the angle and producing the story.

The story is bad for Andrea and ComplexPS. Their phones ring. Their social media explodes. The public trust and support for them is damaged. The bottom line, whether financial or measured in other ways, suffers.


Being the most credible and effective voice

You may not be able to predict the specifics of what could create headaches for  your organization, but chances are good that you can anticipate what parts of your organization could be “in play”.

Recently we worked with a national organization to help them prepare for issues that could arise around one of their initiatives. We worked with their communications advisors to identify the top possible issues, and prepare their key ideas, one-pagers and documents. We provided media training for their three top leaders.

The client was surprised to find out that their draft public documents were at the PhD level of literacy. We helped them with a clear risk: explain your complexity using plain language and clear ideas, or have the reporter do it for you, quickly and with little knowledge.

Some of the potential issues became actual ones. While our client wasn’t the only voice represented in most of these stories, they were the most effective and credible.

There are times when inside communicators can use an outside perspective. Find out more.

Self-fulfilling Prophecy

Nevertheless, ComplexPS’s leaders know the reactive, unresponsive approach they insisted Andrea take was right. They have evidence! It has almost always been the case that previous stories showed that reporters have a hidden agenda and a preference for the other side, included misinformation in the story or took things out of context.

But here’s the thing: the reporter did in fact have pre-conceived ideas. They conceived them while putting together the story without Andrea and with the active participation of Jack!

Andrea’s late, weak content was not included or it was put in as an afterthought to the almost finished story. She was taken out of context because she didn’t provide the reporter with any. That’s not a conspiracy; it is the direct result of the organization’s actions. They took big and unnecessary risks. Then those risks quickly became reality with negative or “slanted” coverage.

Mitigating Risks

The risks of ComplexPS’s approach are that:

  • They routinely use up a lot of panicky or “on the fly” resources to little effect
  • Social media goes nuts, damaging their reputation
  • Trust and support for their organization is eroded
  • Media stories give a lot more space to their responsive and colourful critics
  • Non-expert reporters quickly convert their complex information into the high school level of literacy or lower and make mistakes doing it
  • They are taken out of context because they didn’t provide clear and understandable context
  • The organization’s bottom line, whatever that may be, is negatively affected

Seeing from the outside-in

At RMA we’re inside organizations all the time. We bring an outsider’s perspective to issues that these organizations know top to bottom and inside and out.

Critics, the media and the public approach organizations from two places: 30,000 feet, and from the ground. They don’t see any of the space in between – the complexity you know so well. They have none of the depth of understanding that plays such a key role in the decisions you make. But they do see how your decisions impact people. Real people, with compelling stories.

Rather than scrambling to develop responses after a reporter calls, we recommend identifying your top issues and developing backgrounders and key ideas in advance.

Woman wearing headset phone smilingThat way, when the call does come, you first response can be: “Let me get back to you with an interview time, but in the meantime, can I send you some background?” A reporter will always say yes. If it is clear and concise, you’ve just made their harried day a little less so. But what you’ve really done, by sending a one-pager on the issue or key aspects of it, is begin to put it in your context. You are helping to shape the story – and any fall-out from the start.

It takes all parts of the organization to mitigate these risks. We know that despite the best efforts of in-house communications professionals, internal barriers often mean organizations routinely take on big and unnecessary communications risks. Leaders, experts and communicators need the ability to see their organization and its operations from an outsider’s perspective.

Even though we all know a little bit of preparation can save a lot of grief and expense later on, it is difficult to see beyond the day-to-day demands and to get the organization on-side.

We see it – and help to resolve it – all the time.

Find out about our Risk Planning services.



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