Intrepidness: The Foundation of Effective Strategic Communications

When it comes to strategic/crisis communications, I am often remided of a famous quote from theologian William Shedd, who said, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are made for.”

Most professionals realize that external communication is not without risk.  In fact, you’ve probably heard these or similar axioms a thousand times while sitting in a seemingly endless litany of meetings over years:

  • “Don’t raise the profile of an issue.”

  • “Let’s be careful what we say, we don’t want to get into trouble here.”

  • “You can’t say that, even if it’s true.”

  • “Don’t do an interview, send them a written statement.”

  • “Send them to someone else for comment.”

  • “You can’t say its safe – that will get us into legal trouble.”

  • “Don’t question the study, that sounds negative.”

  • “Silence is an option.”

You get the picture.  Strategic communications, media relations and crisis communications is a high stakes business.  Individual and organizational reputations are at stake.  Consumer trust is in jeopardy.  Legislative and regulatory goals are at risk.

Professionals tasked with navigating the rocky shoals of strategic and crisis communications are very adept at pointing out the downside of external communications, whether in a crisis or in the pursuit of marketplace or policy goals.

Very few, however, are willing to explore the cost/risk associated with an isolationist communications stance due to the real or perceived personal and organizational risk associated with external communications.

If there ever was a time when “silence is an option” was a viable strategy, those days are long gone.  We live in an interconnected world, where the people and organizations that care most about what you and your organization do and say are on 24 hour alert and instantly connected in an attempt to applaud or attack what you say and what you do.

This is the new paradigm.  Consumers, policymakers, the media and non-governmental organizations within your sphere of influence expect you to tell them what is on your mind – what you think and where you are headed.  And they can smell pabulum a mile a way – meaning their “BS” tolerance is very low.

That is why effective strategic or crisis communications requires a certain amount of intrepidness.  By intrepid, I don’t mean reckless. I mean a desire to confidently tell your story and the willingness to engage the media and external audiences with clear positions that give comfort to those aligned with you and that have the best chance to persuade the undecided to agree with you.

The transition to an enlightened or intrepid communications posture is not an easy one for many organizations.  Those that make it have done the following:

  • Identify and retain talented communicators who know how to avoid mistakes and who win the confidence of their colleagues.

  • Engage the media at every turn.  Conduct phone and on-camera interviews rather than decline or send written responses.

  • Conduct small media roundtable briefings with the beat reporters that cover your industry/organization on a routine basis to build rapport.

  • Seek institutional support from the board or CEO for an aggressive media posture, otherwise your organization will be stymied by a cacophony of risk-averse colleagues.

  • Know and accept that your message will not always prevail – that is why they call it “earned” media.

In the end, the most important of your audiences – consumers, voters, policymakers, etc. – will give your organization enormous credit for open and honest communication.  That in turn will help your organization meet its marketplace and public policy goals.

Sean McBride, Founder of DSM Strategic Communications, LLC, is former Executive Vice President of Communications and Members Services at the Grocery Manufacturers Association, and former Director of Communications of the American Beverage Association