Are you a “Ross Perot” or a “Problem Solving Sherpa” within Your Organization?

In 1992, Texas business tycoon Ross Perot conducted one of the most successful independent third party campaigns for the White House in modern American history, gaining nearly 19% of the vote.

There was a lot of enthusiasm for Perot’s campaign. He was a master at pointing out his opponent’s flaws and the serious problems the country was facing. However, his own weakness was his inability to develop and propose real and compelling solutions to the problems he so effectively described to the public.  It took a while, but Perot’s flaw was eventually exposed and his candidacy doomed.

When it comes to identifying issues and problems facing an organization or industry sector, it seems like everyone has an opinion on what to do and how to do it.  Lawyers, lobbyists, scientists, trade associations, communicators, corporate investor relations and global trends experts, CEOs and C-suite executives all want in on the act.

Frequently, the very strengths of these individuals and organizations can often cloud the discussion rather than clarify it.  For comparison sake, a press release written by a cast of thousands, while competent, is rarely truly inspired. It can appear too technical, choppy, too long, lack clarity and impact or miss the point altogether.

I am not suggesting organizations restrict the number and type of expertise needed to diagnose and address a crisis or important challenge or opportunity.   Rather, every project – especially strategic communications campaigns – needs a Sherpa who can guide the group through its exploratory discussions and harness their unique skills and energy to arrive at the right outcome.

Issue management experts who ask the following questions and help their teams arrive at intelligent and thoughtful consensus provide their company or trade association with the best chance to succeed:

Don’t Start with a Goal/Objective

This is difficult for most professionals. Most of us have all been trained to identify a goal or objective and then determine the strategies and tactics that help us meet that goal.

When it comes to issues management, inductive – rather than deductive – reasoning provides the best chance for your organization to arrive at a pure, consensus-driven solution on the toughest issues. Issues management is not a science, it is an art form supported by data, and an inductive approach allows for the instinctive and experiential lessons of participants to come to bear on planning and execution.

What is the Problem?

Seems simple right? Not always.  Some problems are easy to diagnose. It’s the toughest and most important ones that are not.  A good Sherpa helps its team define the problem correctly and accurately. For instance, is this a short or long term crisis?  Is this a consumer perception problem?  Are we losing sales or consumer confidence?  Do we want a certain legislative or public policy outcome?

Research and data can clarify opinion. Have each expert bring data to support their opinion so that people aren’t just guessing.  Conduct a landscape analysis to evaluate the public policy and marketplace threats and to help arrive at a consensus.

In addition, it is often a good idea to conduct qualitative or quantitative public opinion or consumer research can help your team define the problem.

Who is the Audience?

This is the biggest mistake people and organizations make.  It can also be the most contentious because of the inherent conflicts it exposes in organizational authority and budgeting.  So take your time and get it right.

Are we trying to influence policymakers? If so, which ones? State? Federal? Regulators? Legislators?  Are we trying to influence opinion leaders and stakeholders? Which ones?  Are we trying to change consumer perceptions?  Are we trying to impact shopping decisions?

You can’t please all the people all of the time and in an era of limited resources, you can’t target everyone.  Through the use of a landscape analysis, help your team prioritize audiences according to the definition of the problem and your expected outcome.  If you succeed with the primary target group, you can move on to other audiences for maximum success.

How are you going to Reach Your Audience?

Start by outlining the following tactics:

  • Paid advertising

  • Earned media

  • Social Media

  • Grassroots Mobilization

  • Stakeholder/Allied Third Party Activation

  • Advocacy/Lobbying

Different tactics cost different amounts and are used more effectively with certain audiences.  For instance, paid advertising may not be necessary to affect a policy outcome, but it is a “must” if you are trying to change consumer perceptions or behavior.

When you start, don’t let available resources constrain creative thinking. Build the perfect campaign and then adjust it to account for realistic financial and human resources.

What is the Measure of Success?

Don’t be like Ross Perot in his 1992 presidential campaign.  Don’t just define the problem – make sure you have the solution as well.

If you and your team have done things correctly to this point, the inductive process will lead you to measurement.  Once you determine measurement, you’ve got a goal/objective.

If we get the policy outcome we want, is that success? If we increase sales or consumer confidence (and by how much over what time frame?) is that success? If we change consumer perceptions or behavior (and by how much), have we succeeded?

Hard metrics like sales figures, polling and surveys are critical. But don’t forget about soft metrics like positive media impressions, Web site visits, social media and content analysis. These are all critical indicators that will help companies and trade associations and the executives who populate them judge the overall success of your campaign.

Ultimately, organizations and individuals that deploy this decision-making process have the best chance to meet their strategic communications goals.  And you don’t have to be a communications expert to be an effective “Problem Solving Sherpa” within your organization.  You just have to be a smart and effective team leader.

Sean McBride, Founder and Principal of DSM Strategic Communications & Consulting, is former Executive Vice President, Communications & Membership Services of the Grocery Manufacturers Association and former Director of Communications at the American Beverage Association