Not everything is a nail

I work in communications.  I’m fortunate to work for what I consider the finest communications firm in the world. I left this company to run my own firm and often said that if I ever went back to a big firm it would only be this one.

When you work for a firm like this, companies, organizations and people sometimes expect you to solve their problems using communication.  There’s an old adage that if you have a hammer, every problem is a nail.  In our business, that isn’t true.

This was driven home in comments included by our CEO Richard Edelman in a recent address to the IPR 50th Annual Distinguished Lecture and Awards Dinner where he said:

When President Barack Obama was interviewed by Ron Suskind for his new book Confidence Men, he said:

―The area in my presidency where I think we made the most mistakes was less on the policy front and more on the communications front…The irony is the reason I am in this office is because I told a story to the American people… We lost that narrative thread in the day-to-day problem solving…

Going forward as president, the symbols and gestures … what the people are seeing coming out of this office … are at least as important as the policies we put forward.‖

With all due respect, Mr. President, I think you missed the point. You assume that you simply have a communications problem, but policy and communications cannot be separated. And both are tied to operating reality.

The complete text of Mr. Edelman’s address is located on the Edelman web site.

I was part of a discussion today where several people were talking about how a local university official should respond to an incident that has raised ire and outrage around the country.   Many recommendations were offered such as “should have responded to criticism immediately,” and “take control of the narrative,” or “talk directly to the community.”

All are standard “crisis response” tactics that yes should have been followed.  However, the most important is that this isn’t a communication problem. It was a policy problem.  Remember, just because you have a hammer, not everything is a nail.

One other note is something that I have learned through experience, that should be common sense, but doesn’t seem to always make it into people’s minds.  BUILD A NETWORK BEFORE YOU NEED IT.  This means, talk with reporters before you ask them to listen to a pitch, interact with bloggers before you send them an idea, and build strong community relationships before you have a crisis.

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6 thoughts on “Not everything is a nail

  1. Exactly. And it’s not like we don’t have 10,000 case studies of how NOT to handle these situations. Protests aim for and expect confrontation with hopes of exactly what went down. If organizations simply played their response strategy to the opposite of the expectation then it festers peacefully and melts away, or the protestors have to escalate their behavior to stoke a confrontation to the point they look silly and lose empathy in their quest for confrontation.

    The better headline would have been:
    “UCD responds to protestors by shutting down the quad and organizing a world record attempt at the longest consecutive Jazzercise class and food drive for the holidays.”

    😎

  2. You have given three great examples of pro-active management style and pointed out that it helps a lot to identify the problem before trying to solve it.

  3. So right. The amazing thing is that the Chancellor at UC Davis largely agrees with the protestors. So imagine if the Chancellor had walked out to the quad with a bullhorn and communicated a different policy…something like this:

    “We need to respect each other and the purpose of our institution, and we also need to learn from what you’re here to protest about.

    “So let’s do two things today.

    “First, let’s move off the walkways and make it possible for other students and faculty to get to their classes. As they walk on the walkways, they can read your signs, stop and talk to you, and learn about the cause of inequality you are concerned about.

    “Second, let’s actually do something about it. I’m going to walk through the quad right now and collect your donations. We’ll count up the money, and then I will personally give or raise enough money to match that donation. And then we’ll use it to help address the problem.

    “Talk is cheap. We are UC Davis. Let’s show the world how to take action, while respecting the right of all of our students to experience our campus.”

  4. It is shocking to me that there is ever a crisis that comes out of the Oval office. I know it is unrealistic to think that there will never ever be another crisis but the first PR step in preventing a crisis is to plan ahead. You have to anticipate and identify possible issues. Plus Obama’s excuse of letting the day to day things get in the way of communication isn’t a good excuse. He basically communicated one way to get the nation to like him and elect him president and then when he won he let certain things fall through the cracks. I’m sure here in the new year we will see the old communication tactics coming back since re-election is coming up. Maybe they will learn a thing or two from the first go around.

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