Communicators: Are You Prepared for Your Next Public Fight?

Written by Darin Broton, senior consultant

Thomas Jefferson was right — with great risk comes great reward. Nothing is more risky than starting a public fight, even with a government agency, high-profile personality or brand. Whether your organization picks the public fight or finds itself needing to react to a provocation, it is important to maintain focus on the end game — and there are a few important communications considerations to keep in mind.

Regardless if you have a proactive or reactive communications strategy, knowing your facts, having the right messenger and thinking through the consequences should be common sense approaches to communicating your organization’s position. Recent examples over the past two weeks from a federal agency, members of Congress and a regional organization showcase the need to check the box on each of these important tasks and serve as examples of what not to do.

Know your facts.

The Duluth AFL-CIO Central Labor Body decided to make an example out of outgoing Duluth Mayor Don Ness.

Mayor Ness recently visited the Radisson Hotel in downtown Duluth, which was using non-union workers to complete its renovation. The large union federation voted to ban the union-friendly Ness from its labor temple for life because he crossed the picket line. Ness took to Facebook and explained that the restaurant in the hotel was a union hotel, with union employees and offered union employees a 15% discount.

More than 5,000 liked Mayor Ness’ post with more than 300 positive comments and shared more than 250 times. Worse, individual labor unions broke from the federation and supported Ness.

Have the right tone and messenger.

Fireworks were guaranteed when the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform asked the Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards to testify regarding the organization receiving more than $500 million in annual federal funding. Congressional hearings are almost always more theater than legitimate legislating. But in theater, optics are everything. There are 25 House Republicans on the committee, and only one is a woman. Twenty-four men continuously interrupted the female CEO, questioned her salary and even compared her to a criminal.

Imagine if House Republicans had more women participating in the hearing. The tone and line of questions would likely have been much different. Instead public opinion polling for Planned Parenthood receiving federal funding has remained steady, and in some polls support grew.

Understand unintended consequences.

The Secret Service is under a lot of scrutiny after a series of scandals and security lapses over the past three years. The agency has been the subject of several contentious congressional hearings. Instead of making its case, the agency took a huge risk and failed.

It has been discovered that 40 agents dug into the confidential personal files of Congressman Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The initial request was launched 18 minutes after a hearing chaired by Chaffetz. Agents planned to leak personal data from the congressman’s file in hopes to embarrass him.

No one would fault the agency for defending itself, but rummaging through personal files with the intent of smearing a member of Congress is plain stupid. Now the U.S. Senate is holding up three ambassadorships until there are consequences — and a criminal investigation — for the agents who accessed the congressman’s private records.

Lessons learned?

Someone within each organization should have made sure these basic lessons were followed. The end result damaged each organization’s reputation and credibility. If your organization has not thought through these lessons, it is time to rethink your strategy.

Does your organization face issues where you want to make sure you get the reputation you deserve?

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