Posted by: Kristen Ridley | June 8, 2012

You did WHAT?!?!

A recent local kerfuffle here in Toronto, Ontario, where I live has once again provided me with communication lesson reminders. Because I love being a communicator so much, and spend most of my waking hours thinking about how to be a better communicator, almost everything that happens in my life tends to get applied as a communication lesson.

The issue was over plastic bag use in the city. As you may or may not know, some time back a five-cent fee was imposed on every plastic bag a customer opted to take from any store that provides them here. The intent, of course, was to encourage customers to use less – or even no – plastic bags. This happened a while back and quickly became no big deal.

Then earlier this week the current mayor of Toronto – full disclosure: I did not vote for him, and am not a fan of him or most of his policies – requested city council to do away with the fee on plastic bags. Instead, council voted to ban plastic bags completely.

Now, when I first heard about this, I thought: “Good for city council! What a progressive, pro-active decision on a fairly obvious issue.” And then I didn’t think any more about it because it was just a no-brainer, right? Um, WRONG!!

By the next day people were talking about suing the city over that decision, and questioning whether the city council actually had the right to do that, and voila! Full-blown kerfuffle!!

I was literally astonished by the talk of lawsuits over the issue, and had some animated discussions with some of my friends who don’t agree with the council’s decision. As I listened to and read all the varied reactions to the issue, it suddenly dawned on me that this was an excellent spontaneous tutorial/case study on communicating.

Here are the lessons this situation reminded me about when it comes to communicating to a diverse audience . . . such as most businesses’ employee populations are:

1) Know your audience . . . stay connected

The situation with the plastic bags seemed like an obvious, no-brainer and completely clear issue to me, but based on the reaction, obviously there are plenty of people to whom this isn’t so cut-and-dried. As a communicator in a corporate or business setting, there are so many things we need to regularly communicate to our many audiences, whether they be employees, customers, shareholders or suppliers that we need to constantly stay connected with those audiences.

In order to successfully communicate with our audiences, we need to know what’s going on with them – what challenges are they facing that might impact their acceptance of our information? What changes are happening in the marketplace that could make whatever we tell them either more or less positive when seen in the larger context? What is their current feeling about “us” and how might that affect their reaction to our news?

In order to have solid relationships with all our stakeholder groups, we must stay regularly in touch with all of them, so that we don’t inadvertently shoot ourselves in the foot by delivering a message that is framed in the wrong way, or delivered at the worst possible time. If you always know what your audiences are up to and dealing with, you have a much better hope of delivering necessary news in ways that will help it to be accepted by your partners.

2) Share as much information as possible

The plastic bag story came out in the news presented as a done deal – council did this, end of story, have a nice day. Now, I wasn’t at the council meeting, so I don’t know what sort of reasoning or debate took place before council voted on this decision. Possibly, they discussed in detail all the reasons for why the councillors believed the decision was a sound one, but we didn’t get that impression from the news coverage of it and that could be at least part of the reason for the vehement reactions to it.

It could be that some people were irked by the decision simply because it was done without any public consultation or input. For me, this was such an obviously sensible decision, with absolutely no down-side that I wouldn’t have felt public consultation necessary, but I’m just one person. Others want to be involved in anything they feel affects them. Communicating within a corporate environment is similarly challenging because the audience is made up of very diverse members who will look at decisions made by the organization with a similarly diverse number of reactions.

When you are communicating something, whether it is good news or bad – but ESPECIALLY if it will likely be perceived as bad – it is extremely important to provide as much information about how the decision was made as possible. What other alternatives did we consider? What would have been the impacts of all the options reviewed? Would any of the other options have involved impacts to employees/customers? If so what were those impacts? Most importantly, tell your audience WHY you ultimately made the decision you did. Give the benefits this decision provides over the others considered, and highlight the reasons you believe this decision is the best for the organization as a whole. Your audience wants to know that you looked at all the viable options, and that you made your decision thoughtfully with all the impacted peoples interests in mind.

Very often, I have found that employees or other audiences are far more willing to accept a decision or policy they don’t love if you explain thoroughly WHY this was the right thing to do. People don’t like to be dictated to, and if they feel like what you are doing is simply based on a rationale of “Because I said so!” you’re likely to have to deal with a lot of objections, lost customers, continuing push-back, negative publicity, and other unpleasant reactions. Most corporate decisions are based on reasoning that makes sense for the organization’s health and well-being. Sometimes though, we don’t remember to TELL people about that reasoning and that will usually come back to bite us in the tushy!

3) Be willing to discuss the decision

Chances are everybody in your organization has an opinion about what leadership is doing. And while “Because I said so” is certainly a management style used by some organizations in terms of how to run the business, with the recent rise of social media and citizen journalism, not to mention the 24-hour news cycle, it hasn’t proven to be a terribly successful approach over the long-term. A quick scan through the headlines on any news site will confirm the results of doing whatever you want without any consideration for your audiences/stakeholders, and it usually involves a prohibitively large amount of after-the-face damage-control. This can be costly and get in the way of doing the day-to-day things leadership should be focusing on if they are busy putting out fires caused by decisions made without anticipation of the reactions.

Instead, talk to your audiences about what you’ve done and why. If the audience is employees perhaps a town-hall or a video of your leaders talking about the decision and the process that led to it is appropriate. You can also do a team-specific communication by managers with that team’s senior leader present to answer questions and address objections. If your decision impacts customers, a written formal message with appropriate information explaining the decision/policy/change is probably the way to go. But make sure your customer service department has everything they need to respond to customers further questions and concerns once they’ve seen your message and react, because they WILL react. The last thing you want to do is impose a decision and leave those affected with no way to ask questions or voice their opinions about it.

Sometimes, all it takes for the audience to accept, if not applaud your decision is the opportunity to vent their spleen to you about why they don’t love it. While it may not be the most enjoyable part of your day, as leaders this is an important way to gain the ultimate acceptance of your decision and begin to re-build the relationship with the audience so that we can move forward and all get back to what we need to be doing to move the business forward successfully.

4) Remember the 80-10-10 rule

Basically the 80-10-10 rule says that ten percent of the audience will happily accept whatever you give them without complaining about it, another ten percent will always hate whatever you give them no matter what, and the other eighty percent is the chunk you need to address your explanations and reasoning to because they’re willing to be convinced if you give them reason to be and obviously, they’re also the biggest chunk of your audience. I’ve always found this to be pretty accurate when managing communications in business environments. And, as Bill Cosby once said: “I don’t know what the secret to success is, but the secret to failure is trying to please everybody.”

Of course it’s important to consider your audiences when you make business decisions, and as a communicator charged with explaining and delivering those decisions, I work really hard to build explanations that make sense, that tell the truth and that provide sufficient information that the audience can understand the decisions and the reasoning behind them. That doesn’t mean that everyone is going to be happy with every decision the organization makes, and that’s okay. You will never please everybody, but as long as your decisions are made with careful reflection about how they move the business forward, a genuine understanding of, and sensitivity to the impacts it will have on your stakeholders, and a willingness to talk about the decision honestly and openly with those stakeholders, then you’ve done the best anyone can.

Doing communications in a corporate setting is almost always about understanding and building bridges between different groups of people: leadership and employees, company and customers, company and shareholders, company and suppliers, company and the public, etc. As a communications person I have always felt like I’m the actual bridge. In order to do my job, I usually have information about, and interaction with both groups, so I can truly understand both sides of most situations. One of the things I love best about my job, is that it’s my responsibility to find respectful, honest and effective ways to bring those groups together so we all feel like our concerns have been heard, and a dialogue has been created. Everyone won’t always go away happy, but if they go away saying: “I feel my concerns were heard and listened to, and that my opinion was respectfully acknowledged,” then I can feel like it was a good day in the communications world.

I’m sure there are other lessons out there about how to communicate to diverse audiences, whether they relate to the “Great Toronto Plastic Bag Affair” or not 😉  If you have other lessons, please comment and share them. Thanks!

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