The communication conundrum

As a communicator, if there is one conundrum that I often face, it is that of proactively being reactive! Yes, you read that right. Sounds like an oxymoron. How can one be proactive when clearly the mandate is to be reactive? You will find this situation arising often at times of crisis and when issues blow up on our face.

If you happen to be working in a multinational organisation (MNC) you will know that the general rule of the thumb is to be reactive. There could be multiple reasons for it but a common thread that I have noticed in my years of experience spanning some large MNCs is that of the so called anti-MNC attitude of the government. The presence of strong local competition and the protectionist attitude by the government adds to the reactive stance adopted by MNCs. Hence, when a crisis strikes, the natural reaction is to be reactive and respond only when someone from the media reaches out. Of course, there is a lot of planning done in this phase – that are the core messages, who will respond, what are the various scenarios that will play out…with the underlying theme being ‘be reactive.’

When issues play out for a long period of time (example – litigation cases over product failures or patent infringements), it is time for communications to relook at the strategy and devise ways of being one step ahead of developments. This is where you may need to be proactive in mapping out situations, scenarios and working in tandem with other players, especially legal. Trust me, you will find yourself juggling multiple views! The communication narrative has to often follow the legal narrative/outcomes and let us admit it, this can become frustrating at times. 

Therefore, it helps being proactive. Now, proactive does not mean being fast and it is certainly NOT about urgency! Being proactive is all about cultivating a mindset that keeps you grounded. How do we do that? To be a long-term proactive player in issues management, here are some tips that can help you navigate the situation and get out of the negative/pessimist mind-set (long-term crisis does have a tendency to pull us down!):

  • Strengthen your relationships

What really works in these situations is your stakeholder relationships. Develop strong media partnerships. If you already know your stakeholders, lead to the next phase of sustaining those relationships. Stay connected with the media. Move up one level in your relationship. Meet the editors. The whole newsroom board if required. If you have mastered this, then you can take your key media stakeholders in confidence and keep them updated on the latest. Trust is a two-way street. If you trust the media, it will respect your need for discretion and not report what is not meant to be reported.

  • Stick to your values

This is extremely important. Stay true to your organisation’s ethics and values. Play by the rules and ensure governance principles are practiced all the time. You cannot afford to be lax here.

  • Cozy up to legal

Most issues go through long, laborious litigation years before a solution is arrived out. Be close to your legal department and ensure you are updated on every hearing that takes place. Be curious. Pick up some legal language. Do whatever it takes to be in the thick of the game.

  • Scenario planning

Cultivate the ability to foresee the future. Understand the issue. Understand the ramifications of adverse outcomes on the overall business. Work and rework all your messages in accordance. Remember, this is a work in progress document.

  • Stick to your terms

Disappointment and commitment can go hand-in-hand. If you are disappointed with a verdict that is not in your favor, it is okay to express that feeling. Here is where legal may object to with the thought it may have long-term impact on how government views the organisation. Stick to your terms of messaging. Build along with it the message of commitment. That as a company you stay committed to the country and its growth. Drive the key message. No short cuts here.

The true strength of a communicator lies in navigating this conundrum.

The views and opinions published here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the publisher.

Sarita Bahl
Sarita Bahl is an alumnus of Tata Institute of Social Sciences and the Swedish Institute of Management Program. An experienced and versatile leader, she comes with nearly four decades of professional experience. She has over the years successfully overseen the communications and public affairs function and led the corporate social responsibility strategy for Bayer South Asia, Pfizer, and Monsanto, among others. Sarita has held multiple roles across diverse industries, the public sector, trade associations, MNCs, and the not-for-profit sector. Her areas of interest include advocacy, stakeholder engagement, sustainability, and communications.

As an Associate Certified Coach (ACC) from the International Coaching Federation (ICF) and Senior Practitioner (Mentoring) from the European Council of Mentoring and Coaching (EMCC), Sarita specializes in career transition, inner engineering and life issues. Sarita enjoys writing and is passionate about animals, books, and movies.

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