Issue-of-Trust

How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Engagement

2  The Issue Of Trust

A few years ago I came close to losing faith in the discipline of communications. Problems arose that our hitherto powerful comms methods seemed unable to address. How come? We had the messages, we had the reach and the frequency.

Unfortunately we had lost the trust.

Working in government comms for over 20 years it’s easy to forget about trust. Generally, people trust government departments and agencies (politicians still have a problem, of course).

Even in these cynical times, the vast majority of Australians don’t believe the conspiracy theories about fluoridating water or monitoring people’s data. Even the biggest conspiracy theory of all regarding climate change seems in the process of abandonment by all but the most committed deniers.

Nonetheless, government can lose the trust of the community when it’s seen to be implementing a controversial policy, or looks confused, disorganized or lazy. In my own Road to Damascus experience, government was seen to be wrong-headed, high handed and invasive. After 12 months of this there was very little trust left.

What I learned from this situation is that sometimes you have to acknowledge that your comms isn’t going to be enough, stop trying to persuade people and start engaging with them.

Since then I’ve been trained in engagement techniques, which I’ve used in a variety of situations. I now see comms and engagement related, and complementary in many ways, but as coming from very different places.

Communications – at least as I was taught it 20 years or so ago – works from the premise that the communicator acts on a target audience. The basis of engagement, on the other hand, is about working with the stakeholders.

Once I started thinking along these lines, it really struck me that communications was somewhat warlike – think of the language – ‘target audiences’, ‘campaigns’, ‘strategy’, ‘penetration’, ‘hits’. We’re not such a violent lot really, but I think communications is in the business of seeking power over people – their knowledge, their attitudes, their choices – by firing off our messages at them. Certainly those of us in government are doing this for the greater good.

On the other hand, with engagement we start from the position that we don’t have a monopoly of truth or moral authority. We have stuff to bring, you have stuff to bring; let’s both bring our stuff and see what we can achieve.

History – even fairly recent – suggests that government could once get its way because it was ‘the expert’, it had the power, and it was perceived by the community to have a mandate – and the community by and large felt it had to accept what it did.

That era is over, and governments now have to accept that they too need social license to operate.

Communications is still powerful and hopefully, for government, a powerful force for good, but it only works when the trust is there. When trust is lost, comms loses its mojo and becomes just words. And that’s where engagement comes in.

 

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Matching Vision with Action

The key task of leaders is to explain what the future should look like and to build consensus around this shared vision.

This means setting setting objectives to achieve the goal; in other words, developing a great plan to deliver the goal.

Nelson Mandela summed it up as: “Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision is merely passing time. Vision with action can change the world.”

To deliver the Mandela principle requires the actual delivery to be entrusted to experts who have delivered such projects before. Great leaders do this and delegate successfully. Poor leaders want to do everything themselves – micro manage. Great leaders also ensure that everyone knows that they care about the work and expect success.

This approach has led to the re-emergence of I CARE values (Integrity, Courage, Accountability, Respect, Excellence) in programs across the PR industry focused on stakeholder engagement.

Although these values are not new to RMKA – it has been adhering to them in programs developed and delivered for almost two decades in the public and private sectors. The effective use of new technology tools in communication now allows such values to be systematically applied across multiple programs.

The outcome is the efficient delivery of important information in a timely manner and to defined audiences and consistent with the initial expressed central vision and objectives.

It also enables efficient, values driven, responses, both internally and externally, to unprecedented events; being proactive with responses; being prepared for all possible outcomes; and readiness to address questions about the legitimacy of the events.

The current Victorian Government appears to be going down this path in an effort to deliver better outcomes for the community.

Unfortunately, all governments can get drawn into the agenda of sectional interests resulting in a piecemeal approach to policy development and communication resulting in damage to the central objective of effectively communicating a vison. This is where ministers and officials must work together and resist the temptation to address minor, but loud, and negative stakeholder voices in isolation.

RMKA’s stakeholder management technology (Stakeholder Matrixtm) helps avoid this trap because it enables the user to effectively manage total program communications whilst ensuring adherence to messages that clearly outline how the desired vision can be achieved.

Stakeholder Matrixtm enables the segmentation and understanding of stakeholders and the determination of the best methodologies for engagement. The aim being that all stakeholders, particularly objectors, understand the broader picture and the objective of better outcomes for the community.

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Sorry – the Contrite Contrition

The mistakes that drive cynicism and undermine redemption

Saying ‘sorry’ for an incident, or issue does not ‘cut-it’ any more with affected stakeholders, or the media. Insincere apologies can make the situation even worse.

Unfortunately, CEOs have fallen into contrite contrition in just using the words, but not fully recognising the importance of the sincerity element of them. They may seek to display remorse, but they have forgotten the power ‘sorry’ possesses for people directly affected by the issue to ‘move on’ and how it can earn forgiveness.

Although saying ‘sorry’ was once the bane of all CEOs in a crisis because the legal departments would not allow it to be said for fear of admitting guilt, it now rolls off the tongue of executives whenever they feel it important to put pride aside and acknowledge a mistake.

They do it with such ease and repetition that they have forgotten two important tenants of communication –

  1. messages must address the affected stakeholders, not the broad community, and
  2. any lack of sincerity will result in the affected stakeholders feeling even more insulted, or harmed than before the artificial apology.

CEOs of the Commonwealth Bank, VW, Mitsubishi, 7/11 stores, health care organisations have all apologised for being ‘caught out’ by issues in recent times for which their organisation was responsible. They fumble with words such as ‘values’, ‘ethics’, ‘principles’ – all used to take the high moral ground and deflect blame to others down the ranks.

In most cases, they are following the ‘tried and true’ formula of crisis management – demonstrate ‘action’ after the ‘apology’ and follow it up with ‘taking responsibility’.

They use it to (a) get the media off their backs (because it gives the media the grab: “I’m sorry”) and (b) to get the staff of the organisation to ‘ensure that the issue does not happen again’.

It is called the ‘clear-up’ principle!

The formula is:

  • Statement of regret – “I’m sorry that this issue has occurred.
  • Statement of action – “We shall do everything to ensure that it does not happen again.”
  • Statement of responsibility – “We shall take responsibility for rectifying with the issue.”

When using this formula if you don’t understand your stakeholders and their influence, you are wasting your time with general apologetic words. They become meaningless, especially in today’s age of ‘self’.

The affected stakeholders are caught in cognitive dissonance – the disconnect between what is actually true and what they believe to be true.

This causes frustration which can, in turn, manifest in not only disappointment, but also anger by those who feel cheated of the expected apology.

This is best illustrated by the article entitled Apologies and Settlement in Court Review (Volume 45, Robbennolt) which found that statements of fault acceptance had more impact than apologies that simply stated sympathy without responsibility.

Therefore, to address this disconnect the secrets for saying “sorry” today are:

  • Be genuinely empathetic about your stakeholders’ situation
  • ‘Tune in’ to your affected stakeholders; know exactly who and how they are being adversely affected and ensure your apology is directed at that situation
  • Demonstrate that you care about them by empathising with their plight; it is good for your relationship
  • Convey empathy with a genuine tone and pause after delivering your apology so it does not feel like a ‘brush off’
  • Take more responsibility than necessary, especially in an ambiguous situation
  • Avoid the superfluous ‘sorry’

RMKA has many years of experience in crisis and issues management around the world and the need to show the effectiveness of a sincere apology. It can provide you with the ability and supporting communication plans to not only say: “I can see you were harmed by our actions and that matters to me”, but also to understand the impact of this statement on your stakeholders and its acceptance by them.

Now practice saying: “I’m sorry….”

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Would you like decency with that?

Helping your organisation develop a values based culture, how Bushido shows the way

Open a paper, turn on a TV, or click something that’s not bait and you will not have to turn far, wait long, or search hard to find a story about bad corporate behaviour. This is no better illustrated than by the recent Mossack Fonseca (Panama Papers) and Unaoil revelations (ably supported by a cast of local stories such as 7/Eleven, CommInsure, Wilson Security et al).

So, is the surfacing of these revelations a deterioration in corporate culture and associated decline in ethical standards, or has this always been the way in which the spinning of the globe has been oiled and there has just been a rise in investigative reporting that has brought these issues out into the open?

The answer is likely a mix of the two, however the naïve optimist in me would like to think that a fall in the standard of behaviour accounts for the majority of the stories that have been broken; as opposed to the alternative of low-standards having always existed out of view.

Progressing on that basis, the question arises how do organisations ensure that their much vaunted corporate values are adhered to in the pursuit of shareholder value and returns? As we know, dollars (or perhaps what they represent) are very powerful things.

Societal values are evolutionary in nature; by way of example I cite our acceptance of violence. It wasn’t so long ago that a punch up at the pub, though not encouraged, was accepted as a form of dispute resolution. Rightly, this is no longer the case.

I therefore contend that organisations (be they government, corporate, or not-for-profit) need to have an adaptive system in place that educates their operational headcount about what is, and is not behaviourally acceptable. A one-off, tick box exercise to satisfy a checklist would not be sufficient given that the subject matter is undergoing continual metamorphoses.

An enlightening parallel can be found in Bushido: The Soul of Japan, an explanation, if you will, written by Inazo Nitobe[1] of the moral principles that Samurai were required or instructed to observe.

The nature of the system was such that it was not a written code; rather it was a set of principles that were handed down organically (not unlike an oral history) either via word of mouth, or more impressively through deed.

Interestingly, the paid fighter was naturally recruited from some fairly rough and ready personnel, it was through the generational application of the ‘unwritten moral code’ that Samurai came to be highly respected and seen as both the exemplars and guardians of the highest behavioural standards.

It was a sorting of the wheat and chaff that conveyed enormous privilege and responsibility upon those within its ranks.

It is possible to make the argument that our leaders are those now charged with passing down through word and deed the standards that are expected of their charges. These standards must be the living representation of ‘Value Statements’ and take into account the evolving expectations of society at large.

As outlined by my colleagues Rob Masters (Contrite Contrition) and John Kananghinis (The Values Deficit) in this edition of Words and Insights society at large has had enough of hearing mealy mouthed platitudes laid at the foot of the most recent scandal. They want to see leaders who own the situation and the moment; leaders who embody their values statements through their actions; thereby laying the foundations and paving the way for the next generation of Samurai to follow them, and protect society’s behavioural standards.

For a brief history of Japan, click here

 

[1] Inazo Nitobe (1862-1933) was born in Morioka, Iwate prefecture. After graduating from Sapporo Agricultural School, he went to the United States and Germany, where he studied agriculture and economics. On his return to Japan, he held various positions in education. From 1920 to 1926 he stayed in Geneva as Under-Secretary General of the League of Nations. After retiring from that post, he dedicated his life to peace. In 1933 he died in Banff, Canada.