Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Talking PR Strategy with Legal and IT Departments

There has been a lot of ranting over the years about the opposing views of a company’s PR counsel and its attorneys. PR staff in a crisis would find themselves having to stand by silently while CEOs listen to lawyers telling them to say nothing, admit nothing, help no one. They’d talk of the risk of lawsuits. While the risk of reputation loss was not even factored in to the equation.

I’ve never faced this myself. But – like you I’m sure – I’ve heard the arguments that typically call lawyers short-sighted and put the PR folk in the helpless role.

That’s why I found a recent live podcast recording by For Immediate Release so refreshing. They focused on the issue in a more balanced and constructive way. For Immediate Release is hosted by Shel Holtz and Neville Hobson. Their guests for this show were attorney Jim Golden and crisis expert Helio Fred Garcia. They talked about the relationship between attorneys and communicators and how it should change.

Part of the change they recommended was for the PR person in the room to come in talking about strategy rather than tactics. Don’t bring in a press release and ask about message points. Rather, instruct the CEO about reputation risks to the business for different stakeholders. Think like someone in the C-suite should be thinking.

The funny thing is that this is the same advice that some of my PR friends need to get through to their IT teams. I cannot believe how much leeway IT staff are given by CEOs to make what are really business decisions. Technology is a tool for business. And in our context, it is a tool for communications. We do communications to reach organizational strategic goals – not to be cool and never to put the organization at risk. It is IT’s job to make those tools available and to make them work for the organization.

I know I am ranting here – and it is not about my own situation (where there’s no reason to rant). I am ranting on behalf of some colleagues I know through PRSA. On at least three occasions in the last few months, I’ve had folks tell me of the trouble they are having getting their work done because of technology tools that are not available to them. In one case, the rationale was the out of pocket cost was too high. But clearly no one had not added the cost of wasted staff time caused by using the inappropriate tools. In another case, IT staff really don’t have an understanding of the particular tool in question, so their assumption is that it’s risky. In the third case, the IT staff are… well let’s just say sometimes you really do get what you pay for.

In all of these cases, the technologists are talking tactics, not strategy. But the paradox is that they get the ear of the CEO because when the network shuts down, the company shuts down.

Perhaps where I’m headed with this is that we each need to find a way to talk about strategy that is immediate and crystal clear. There’s no time to craft flow charts. With social media today and the 24-second news cycle, when a crisis hits, we don’t have days and days to argue with attorneys or with IT folk about the best response. We have minutes. And while we are focusing on strategy, we need our technology tools to help us handle the tactics.