#MonthlyMyth: Tight communication reins = risk minimisation

Free monthly myth - communication around engagement projects and risk

Many organisations try to minimise risk by 'holding the reins tight' when it comes to communicating with their communities and stakeholders around engagement processes and major projects/decisions. 

This so-called 'risk averse' approach tends to include carefully constructing tightly worded (yet often very uninformative) key messages and strictly withholding any information deemed potentially inflammatory or uncomfortable - even when inextricably relevant to the issue at hand.

There's also approval processes applied to the release of any information, which can slow down communication activities - sometimes to a considerable extent - depending on how rigid or intricate these processes are. 

While organisations tend to feel comfortable with this well-worn approach, the promise of 'safety' through control is generally just an illusion.  

MYTH:

'Holding the reins tight' when it comes to communicating with your stakeholders/community around engagement processes, projects and decisions always minimises risk.   

IN REALITY

Unfortunately, as tempting as it might be to hold onto those reins, short term comfort when communicating can result in major issues down the track. 

There are certainly times when information isn't ready to release, there's nothing to announce yet or when there's legal or other important reasons that something simply can't be said. However, generally, an overly controlled approach tends to create risk not prevent it, potentially impacting on perceptions and reputation.

Some examples of potential risks and consequences include:

  • Perceptions that your organisation lacks transparency and is hiding information or having discussions behind closed doors, hurting trust and relationships.
  • Even though you eventually release the information anyway, you're so slow to get it out there that your organisation is perceived to be unresponsive and uninformative.
  • Audiences go elsewhere for information (sometimes to unreliable sources) or fill information gaps with rumour, uninformed guesses and misinterpretations,
  • Your communication efforts are reactive because you're so slow to get anything out, issues are moving faster than your processes and you can't get in front of anything.
  • You lose the opportunity to test ideas early and be on the front foot when it comes to measuring and responding to community needs, responses and feedback.
  • Audiences uncover information that has been withheld - which looks considerably worse than you offering it freely in the first place,
  • Uninformed stakeholders/community members that participate in your engagement processes (not surprisingly) put forward uninformed, low quality input, ideas and feedback.

10 examples of how you can address this issue:

  1. Undertake some change management internally and work with decision makers and leaders to ensure communication protocols and approval processes are as effective, adaptable and workable as possible before you even begin to engage externally.
  2. Before every project or process commences, identify and connect with your communications team.  They need to be ready to distribute proactive, regular, tailored communications and on hand to respond and adapt as issues and opportunities arise,
  3. Resource your projects properly when it comes to communications - not only do you need staff available to prepare and distribute content, those staff need to be fed information constantly.
  4. Be just a little braver and change the tone of communications when it comes to engagement processes.  Think a a little less about promotion/marketing and a little more about genuine partnership building and mutual understanding - relationships with your stakeholders/communities will be damaged by communication that makes them feel they are being sold something. 
  5. Pre-project commencement, invest in preparing, sourcing (and getting approval for the release of) relevant information that will help your stakeholders/communities to understand and have input into the decision at hand. Then turn that information into digestible, accessible content - upfront work can make a world of difference down the track.
  6. Be prepared to be flexible and responsive throughout your engagement process - don't assume the information you decided to put forward at the beginning is enough on its own.  You need to ensure you are tuning into what your stakeholders/communities are saying and what information they require throughout the life of the project. 
  7. Don't be scared to say 'there is nothing more to add' or to repeat prior messages if needed - stakeholders often need to know there's nothing to know, and you can't assume everyone has seen your one twitter post! 
  8. Develop an agreed, internal schedule of communication activities which encourages regular communication at every key phase (and all the bits in-between) rather than sporadic activities which leave the public wondering what's going on. 
  9. Question how important it really is that a piece of information is kept under wraps - have challenging internal discussions about the true (not perceived) risk of releasing AND not releasing certain information, and constantly test whether there's more that needs to be put on the table.
  10. Think long term gain not short term comfort!