The Role of Research in Issues Management
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report

The Role of Research in Issues Management

How should business, government and others affected understand what is going on so they can act for the best? The need is to grasp in detail the influences on the public and on policy-makers.

Paul Holmes

by Sandra MacLeod
A picture of the stars in a TV series sets the tone. It is called “Cold Feet,” a play on the saying “Cold feet, warm heart,” and features twenty- and thirty-something couples. Their values are focused ever more on what they call “emotional well-being.” It is part of their kickback against longer working hours and work-related stress, part of a drive to “de-pathologize” the workplace.
People like these are trying to find a golden mean between financial and emotional wealth. To adapt Bill Clinton’s words about what really counts: “It’s the emotional economy, stupid.”
But emotional confidence sits uncomfortably with other forces. New discoveries breed still more discoveries, raisong more health, safety and environmental issues. People worry whether they can handle their “technological destiny,” as Thomas Barlow has written in the Financial Times “Appliance of Science” series.
The choices people have to make between risks are complex. So many of these prima facie risks are aired daily in the media and in conversations with friends, colleagues, and family. People find it hard to distinguish facts from fantasy. They feel, perhaps, like Omar Khayyam, the 12th century Persian philosopher, who wrote “Myself when young did eagerly frequent / Doctor and saint and heard great argument /About it and about, but evermore /Came out through the / same door as in I went”
An Echo media scan recently found the following areas of controversy involving NGOs, policy-makers, interest groups, think-tanks, business, and experts: Smoking, stopping smoking (you may get broken blood vessels), not using sunblock, Chinese food, aspirin, text messages, vitamin C, exercise, sex, the full moon, living in Glasgow in Scotland, and having short legs.
One journalist concluded in despair, “It seems the best thing must be to live like the French—eat bird fat, drink red wine, have long lunches, and be happy, because happiness is a cure for everything.”
But it is not at all amusing if you, your friends, your loved ones are at the center of scare. People very much want to pick out the “squeak of truth” against the “background roar” of rumor and report they get from the media and other influences.
So who do they actually trust to help them pick their way through the maze? A debate on a BBC online bulletin board recently showed attitudes to information about the safety of MMR (the vaccination against mumps, measles and rubella). Most knew only what they did not trust—command and control and “mother knows best” patronage. A few accepted professionals if the tone was right (no remote ”technospeak”). Some were suspicious of profit motives undermining the case made by business.
So how should business, government and others affected understand what is going on so they can act for the best? The need is to grasp in detail the influences on the public and on policy-makers. Every science-based industry—and which industry is not—is damaged by the problem of public confusion and needs to come to grips with the driving impulses and counter-impulses.
The first requirement in achieving this is to set up intelligence systems. The earlier you pick up intelligence signals of potential difficulty, the easier it is to deal with them. Catching the moment when the litmus paper turns color, boosts the manageability of the situation. Businesses with their ear to the ground in this way can set about measuring the expectations of stakeholders and weighing them against their own agendas.
At the same time, communications targets can be set and specific performance logged. Here again the classic rules hold true: “Measure twice, cut once,” “If you can’t measure it, don’t do it,” and, in the public sector not least, “Delivery, delivery, delivery.”
For example, the communications target of an environmental responsibility message could be, “To increase the frequency of the message that the company’s products are eco-friendly by 50 percent,” or “To move ahead of our main competitor on frequency of the brand descriptor ‘environmentally innovative.’”
Message uptake can be measured also, both one’s own and that of competitors. A European organization was able to get a handle on perceptual challenges over its environmental clean-up work this way, and to see acceptance of their basic mission: to see acceptance of their basic mission.
It is, further, possible to track allies and critics through the frequency and favorability of their interventions in debate—as we did in a debate centering on the hepatitis B vaccine, with a European government and the World Health Organization taking different views of the risks.
More detailed syntheses are possible of public statements by an organization’s allies and critics, as here. This shows a classic breakpoint in the environmental behavior of business: the Brent Spar oil platform disposal issue of the mid-1990s. Government and industry argued that the law was the defining factor, while NGOs and, significantly, the media saw the law could barely contain the strength of public feeling. It was an alert from which governments and industry learnt a great deal.
This brings us to journalists, described once as “spin doctors for society.” Research—interviews, content analysis—can track their reporting and highlight their enthusiasms, doubts and inclinations in micro-profiles, based on information in the public domain. Communications tools can be evaluated to show how well they are working, and to steer a client to use other more suitable tools from the toolbox.
Looking ahead is essential to issues management. “Delphic” stakeholder research can illuminate roads ahead; the media are rich in forward signals delivered by journalists looking round the next corner to see the lie of the land and, sometimes, to keep a story on its legs.
If a crisis does take hold, it helps to steer a steady course through it and manage the aftermath by setting external perceptions of crisis communication measures against best practice criteria. Echo, for example, uses a checklist with quality ratings to assess 15 indicators, from “Consistent response” and “CEO as crisis leader” to “Involved others in solution finding” and “Praised emergency services.”
Across the board it remains true that staying in touch with perception has become a bigger task because of “disintermediation”—the way communication no longer passes invariably through gatekeepers such as the media or financial analysts. The Internet is an example—consumers and protest groups can sidestep the editorial filter and publish direct to their audiences. The importance of knowing what is said on the Internet is redoubled by the generally greater frequency of negative comment there compared with standard media.
In sum, what are the counterbalances to the lopsidedness of perceptions about scientific and environmental risk? It is not possible to outlaw emotion from the emotional economy mentioned at the start of this piece. Helping people to see that emotion can make views more lopsided than they need be is one positive step. Another is to help them create in their minds a reasonable counterbalance so that they can make sustainable judgments.
To use a final metaphor, in 2001 the Leaning Tower of Pisa was shored up against further lean—a tremendous and skilful engineering feat. In the same way, business needs to work on the counterbalances—to exert itself against the paralysis of reasoned judgment.
This is the role of research—strong support in this push. Pascal said: “Man is a reed—but he is a thinking reed” Despite a tendency to blow in the wind, we have the capacity—in our best moments—to work against it. For this, a key role is served by the synthesis and codification of perceptions, in a way that is easy to understand and points towards action.
Sandra MacLeod is president of Echo Research
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