In today’s digital age, public policy and public perception have become intertwined creating an uncertain landscape for large corporations. Product recalls, citizen referendums, agency contracts and regulations, activist boycotts and proposed federal/state legislation can threaten a corporation’s reputation, credibility and license to operate.
At the crossroads of this fluid and volatile environment are corporate communications and government relations. Unilaterally, these departments effectively champion the goals of the company, but when crisis forces a bilateral endeavor, more often than not, the effort exposes an internal Achilles’ heel that weakens a company’s ability to mitigate external threats.
Corporate leaders can overcome these internal silos by enacting three essential elements underwriting better practices that I call M.I.C. - Mediate, Integrate and Communicate. M.I.C. establishes a management structure that successfully integrates the best of corporate communications and government relations.
BREAKING DOWN SILOS
According to a 2011 study by the Foundation for Public Affairs, only 41 percent of 115 large corporations surveyed had a “management structure with fully integrated communications and public affairs functions.” This means that nearly 60 percent of large corporations have internal “silos” exposing the company to public and political attacks that can impact its bottom line priorities.
As a public relations professional who has worked and counseled both departments during crisis, the divide is a “clear and present” threat. However, these silos can be broken down and quickly turned into an opportunity to elevate a corporation’s reputation, while expanding its stakeholder impact.
SPEAKING IN TONGUES
Corporate communications is mainly HQ-centric working closely with senior management on communications projects ranging from reputation management to branding to events to executive presentations. Corporate communications is responsible for interfacing with the media and managing the company’s social media with an eye toward how every message impacts both shareholder and stakeholder impressions.
Government relations is mostly Capitol-centric working closely with federal and state lobbyists, trade association leaders and political operatives. Government relations is responsible for not only passing or killing legislation, but also influencing government regulators, ballot box referendums, mitigating agency backlashes, and to some degree candidate elections. Government relations is focused on influencing and mitigating the perceptions of public officials who have the power of picking winners and losers.
In short, each department has a different culture, perspective and language when it comes to communicating with stakeholders. This creates distrust and strained collaboration between the departments.
PUBLIC AFFAIRS COUNCIL
In 2013, Doug Pinkham, president of PAC, testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight and Management Efficiency. In his testimony, Mr. Pinkham presented 10 common characteristics that companies exhibited in successfully integrating communications and public affairs, which he outlined:
1. Senior Management Engagement 2. Issues Management Process 3. Strong Collaboration Between External Teams 4. Integrated Crisis Communications Planning 5. Understanding of Risk Communications 6. Strategic Use of Communications Technologies 7. Innovate Approaches to Media Relations 8. Transparent and Ongoing Communications 9. Focus on Employee Communications 10. Robust Performance Measurement System
The practices prescribed by Mr. Pinkham can be placed into three categories of best practices that I call, Mediate, Integrate and Communicate or M.I.C.
The common denominator driving the mission of corporate communications and government relations is building and maintaining relationships. The retaining of a consultant, who has worked in both spaces, is the ideal move to help each department build trust and efficacy.
An internal survey conducted by the consultant, followed by confidential one-on-one interviews, ensures practices will facilitate cultural buy-in that leads to the breakdown of stereotypes and silos. The consultant would then be equipped to mediate and translate jargon, factor in the nuances of each department, as well as help establish a platform that communicates the company’s priorities to a coalition of stakeholders.
Each department leader appoints a manager as a liaison for cross-department training, internal reporting and accountability. This is followed by a select number of representatives from each department (maybe risk management rep as well) who are designated to participate on a monthly or quarterly conference call to report on activities and share insights on opportunities and potential threats. These representatives would be the same people who would be called upon to develop or amend a crisis plan, as well as mitigate a crisis in real time.
The result is higher degree of efficiency in information gathering, planning and decision making. This is an imperative integration. I have seen in a crisis situation, a press release take 7 days to be edited and approved. Once it was finally approved by several department heads, the political issue had changed course and the release had now become obsolete.
When tens of millions of dollars are on the line, time becomes a critical factor in determining success or failure. Back to the press release and messaging during crisis mode, this one particular multi-national company was not only trying to establish a command and control process on the fly, but it found itself trying keep up with itself, compounding the effects of the external political threats.
The result was a loss of key revenue and a damaged corporate reputation.
Once you have effective mediation and integration, then you're in the position to dispatch team members to distribute key message points through multiple communications channels. More importantly, the company has a continuity of practices that puts it in a situational posture. Instead of being reactive, defensive, it is now become responsive and pro-active in engaging stakeholders before, during and after a threat.
There are too many variables that factor into the success and failure of integrating government relations and corporate communications for this blog to account. The key is finding the driving barriers that discourage talented professionals from freely collaborating and improving processes that streamline decisions that impact targeted stakeholders.
Today, corporations are expected to be more transparent and do the right thing. Therefore, corporate leaders cannot afford to risk their license to operate without having in place a M.I.C. championing the combined priorities of corporate communications and government relations in times of uncertainty and volatility.
Patrick Slevin heads SL7 Communications, an integrated public relations consulting firm. Over the last two-decades, Patrick has counseled C-Suite clients representing Fortune 100 companies, trade associations, foreign governments, PR agencies and political campaigns. He has developed and executed strategies, corporate campaigns and grassroots operations advancing the bottom line interests of clients in markets across the United States.
Patrick can be reached for a confidential inquiry at 850.597.0423 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more info on Patrick's professional achievements visit his LinkedIn Profile HERE.