The communications hand grenade, and how to avoid throwing one
Charlotte Phillips gives us the dos and don’ts when preparing for and making tricky announcements
Hi, I’m Charlotte. I work at Crest Advisory, and I advise people on communications. So I and my whiteboard are here today to talk to you about ‘the communications hand grenade’ and, especially, how to avoid throwing one. So the subject matter is this, and what I’d like to talk to you about is not letting controversy follow you around. Or, you can think about it in terms of neutralising controversy.
What I mean is, I’m talking about making particularly difficult or tricky or controversial announcements and how you pave the way to doing that, in order to make sure the controversy doesn’t follow you around. If there was one piece of advice I could give you, it would be: the best way to do this is to take the public with you.
It doesn’t matter who your audience is, it doesn’t matter what your subject matter is – the key to making sure you don’t throw that hand grenade is to take the public with you.
Your audience might be members of the public, your audience might be councillors, local MPs, national MPs, it might be members of staff or a particular workforce or perhaps service users. Honestly, it really doesn’t matter, the points that I’m about to go through with you still stand. You have to take those people with you on your journey.
The subject matter does not matter either. It could be you’re talking about station closures, building closures, mergers of workforce, or you could be talking about a national policy change. The point still stands. In order to avoid the hand grenade, you have to take the public with you.
So, I’m going to start off with the kind of easy bit which is: what not to do. So, do not drop a massive bombshell on your audience. It won’t go down well. Do not be silent about the controversy – that doesn’t work either. And do not try and distract people by talking about something else.
Just to paint the picture for you and to demonstrate that it doesn’t have to be a big national issue or a national announcement that affects the whole of the country, I’m going to give you an example. Imagine a school – perhaps lots of you have got kids at school – and that school suddenly decides to change its admissions policy. The school down the road was going to accept your kids and now it doesn’t. But instead of talking to people about that, the school suddenly decides to do it without informing anyone of anything. Well, you can possibly imagine that that doesn’t go down well and people are in uproar. The point is, if they’d taken the public with them, then perhaps they would have a chance of changing that policy without the uproar that entailed.
So, we’ve talked a bit about what I’m going to tell you about, and we’ve talked about what not to do. Now I’m going to try and describe to you what you should do and how you can take the public with you.
So, moving on, how do you do it? You consult and you engage in order to take the public with you.
What does ‘consult and engage’ actually mean? Well, at its most basic, it is talking to people, it is listening to people, and not just listening but really showing them that you’re listening, and by doing that, you’re engaging with them. I like to think about the first date rule. I have to say, it’s a long time since I’ve been on a first date but I’m fairly sure the rules haven’t changed. You ask questions, you listen, and you really listen, and together you talk. The same goes here. You have to listen to people, you have to understand their perspective and you have to understand where they’re coming from.
So, you’re consulting and you’re engaging. What do you do next? You make a plan. And you share the plan. Now, at Crest Advisory we work with a lot of clients who have very sensitive or tricky issues to announce. And, understandably, they would be seriously concerned about talking to people and engaging with people and sharing those sensitive or tricky issues. That’s fine, it just means you have to set the parameters on a much smaller scale. But you know your parameters – set them wisely. It might mean that you just share that plan and talk to a very small group of people. But it still means that you have to do it.
I’m going to give you some Do Nots. Do not hide. No hiding. If you hide away from the issue, it doesn’t go away, it simply becomes worse. Don’t put your head in the sand, don’t pretend it’s not happening – again the controversy and the issue are not going to go away. And don’t distract. Don’t ask people to look at the shiny thing in the corner. The amount of times when a new story is unfolding and you go onto the organisation’s website, or a particular individual’s website, and they’re talking about something completely different as though that’s what the world wants to know about. Don’t do that.
Onto the Dos. Focus on the issue. Face it head on and deal with it. And if you’re worried, you can always call Crest Advisory.
So, to sum up. How not to throw the communications hand grenade. How to neutralise controversy. You consult, you engage, you listen, (remember the first date), you make a plan, you share the plan, and make sure you share the plan with everyone. What you don’t want is your chief executive sending something out on Twitter that is completely at odds with what your press office are briefing to the national media. Make sure that everybody is on board and that everybody knows what the plan and the messages are. Consistency is key.
At Crest Advisory, we’ve done this before and we’re here to help clients and advise on the best way forward. So why don’t you have a look at our website and see a bit more about the work that we do.
Associate Director of Communications and Engagement
Charlotte Phillips is Associate Director of Communications and Engagement for Crest. She has led communications teams across a spectrum of high profile organisations, advising ministers, CEOs and senior officials on corporate affairs and issues in politically sensitive environments.