How to limit political risk in these uncertain times
We asked Mark Irion and Russell Patten from Grayling Global Public Affairs for their views on how businesses can manage PR during political upheavals.
Irion quotes investment analyst Doug Kass who recently pinpointed the “Black Swan events over the past decade;” a list that includes terrorist attacks, natural disasters, industrial accidents, financial meltdowns and political upheaval. Irion says that Kass focuses on investment strategies to mitigate the risk such events pose to portfolio investments, but in Irion’s view, an equally instructive question is “how should corporations plan for these and other lesser upheavals from a PR perspective?”.
Irion shares the advice Grayling offers clients large and small, to prepare for and then react to extraordinary events: “We are currently living in one of the most tumultuous periods in modern history. In times of uncertainty, people naturally seek out stability and calm. Internal corporate communications officers should keep this at the forefront. By providing relevant information in a timely fashion to employees, companies can instil a sense of security that will drive productivity and limit risk exposure.
Engaging in an ongoing dialogue with internal stakeholders is essential as transparency will not be as effective if it is only offered during times of duress. A company’s commitment to corporate social responsibility also becomes doubly important in times of stress. Employees want to be empowered and want to see their company helping to meet community needs. A clear chain of communications command should be established and then adhered to when the time arises. “Companies must seek to assess specific risk scenarios for all their assets, including human capital on an ongoing basis so that they are not caught scrambling to assess risk when an extraordinary event occurs.”
To help you know when to act, and how, Patten suggests two levels of checklists. First he suggests the three different types of political risk right now and then he suggests three ways to tackle them.
1. “Establishment activism” – following the financial crisis, governments around the western world are ever more vigilant and are applying new and more stringent policies and legislation. At the same time, these laws are being strongly enforced to ensure that the corporate world abide by them and hence we see an increase in judicial activity which is re-enforcing the application of the law.
2. “The collapse of the ruling elite” – the corporate world has spent many years dealing with one ruling elite in both pre-transitional democracies and transitional democracies, in places like the Middle East. Today, they are seeing them disappear literally overnight. This – naturally – should be THE wake-up call for the corporate world operating in Africa, Central Asia and even Russia, to assess the risk and ask themselves what the situation is in the country in which they are, and how far they can count on this elite to stay in power.
3. “Search-light exposure” – whether it’s wikileaks or Twitter-based campaigns shining light on companies’ darker secrets, corporations now live in a forensic public glare and the old models of isolation, and information restrict-and-control simply no longer operate in the same fashion.
1. Identify and engage with your key stakeholders - it may be surprising but on any given issue there are not thousands but tens/hundreds of engaged stakeholders with some being less or more active. It is therefore critical to undertake a detailed mapping exercise, identifying them by organisation, by region, by whatever categorisation you feel will provide most value in identifying the drivers of risks.
2. Proactively get your opinion out there with solid proof points and don’t be afraid to use social media - Divide your audiences into friends, foes and those sitting on the fence – the three “Fs”. Work with all three, bring your friends into becoming allies and advocates, accept that foes will not be convinced but you need to possibly work with them – so respect them and ensure you know their positions and work to convert those sitting on the fence – they are invariably in the majority and so you need to work hard to move them to your camp.
3. Be realistic/set expectations - there will be a break-point and when you reach this point you have to decide on an alternative course of action and/or a contingency plan. Flexibility of engagement is paramount and your strategies and actions need to adapt and unfold with the moment.