Low cost tactics for communication crisis management

Patricia DELPONTI MACCHIONE

José Manuel PESTANO RODRÍGUEZ

University of La Laguna

FACULTAD DE CIENCIAS DE LA INFORMACIÓN

 

Abstract

Global economical crisis affects all productive sectors, including media. It also affects the organizations that believe in communication as a productive asset. In this context there is a significant change in the strategic paradigm for addressing tactics, developing actions and setting objectives in working plans. This change in paradigm is also influenced by a number of factors which are not related to the economical crisis, but linked to the proliferation of new communication technology tools, which are very active and determine the current scenario according to new speedy rules. In this context, social networking and the new digital forms of communication play a starring role and become essential in the change of the communicational paradigm.Introduction: the importance of communication in social life in the context of crisis.

 

Nowadays, in our so-called “Information Society”, no-one can doubt that internal and external communication within an organization is crucial for its existence.  Indeed the continuous development of communications departments in those organizations considered essential to the transfer, participation and progress of knowledge, has made them an implement essential to organization management, and as such, the prime source of action, the lever for change and balance. However, in spite of the growing recognition of the work developed by the communications departments, this remains a relatively new sector with many avenues to explore, particularly tactics to be developed and those to be adapted to the context of crisis, while the needs of the market are increasingly more vast, varied and complex to meet.

In the case of Spain, with barely decades of existence, the field of the communications departments, not to say the press offices, is an area whose limits from both a conceptual and a practical perspective have still not been completely defined.  For this reason, and in spite of the fact that these departments proliferate throughout the organizations and institutions of our country, their functions have grown, they have changed and they are gradually being driven towards the field of Public Relations.  In this sense and shortly before the end of the last century, when even the gurus of communication could not foresee the communicational panorama we are living in at this moment, and the authentic power that new technological communication tools would provide, Lucas already emphasized the three faces of the new social model that would be consolidated in his day and that today continues effectively providing clues as to the system’s operation and how to act in situations of crisis:  “the growing value of communication within social life, the expansion of organizations as a consequence of the complexity of the social life we live and the necessity – not only the desire – to promote the participation of organizations” (Lucas 1997: 32). This is how communication grows in importance therefore becoming a key element in modern life.

 

Global economic crisis affects all productive sectors, including the media. It also affects organizations that believe in communication as a productive asset managed through specific communications departments. In this context there is a significant change in the strategic paradigm for addressing tactics, developing processes and outlining objectives in plans of action. This change in paradigm is also influenced by a number of factors which are not related to the economic crisis, but linked to the proliferation of new communication technology tools, which are very active and determine the current scenario according to new, quickly changing rules (Holtz, 2011).   Meanwhile, massive advertising in the media and fierce competition to catch public attention – no matter the cost – are also elements that cause severe damage to the good reputation and credibility of the media and organizations in question. 

In this context, social networking and the new digital forms of communication play a starring role becoming essential machinery in the change of the communicational paradigm. These new tools are gaining strength against the declining effectiveness of marketing strategies and traditional advertising tactics in favour of the old public relations (PR) and lobbying rules, earlier explained by Black and Barneys, both experts considered as the fathers of PR science. Today these rules are more valid than ever, acting as authentic medium and long term operating solutions.  Without doubt, little by little these circumstances, together with other aspects, are changing the communications department forming a different far more advanced area, with other plans and perspectives for management, including public relations, the fundamental foundations for strategy.

 

On the other hand, Henoch Aguiar reflects on what is understood by “digital” or digitalization, and defines it as “the greatest process of accumulation, appropriation and personalization of the contents” (Aguiar, 2010: 55). In this perspective, pluralism, cultural diversity and democratization of information are 3 advanced concepts that, thanks to technological merging, can serve the masses and guarantee wider access to cultural information and, in doing so, promote other mediums and formats that create greater public participation and loyalty.

 

The place of the communications department and public relations

 

In order to deal with and understand the evolution and the present day position of the communications department, it is interesting to study the different plans of action of the professionals involved in public relations through the years and, in doing so, we can understand more precisely the different technical aspects of operation.  With regard to this we refer to the 4 plans proposed by James Gruning y Todd Hunt, in their book Management of Public Relations, in the edition adapted by Jordi Xifra and later revisions (Grunig, 2009; Grunig and Grunig, 2011; Kim and Ni, 2010).  

The four plans laid out by Gruning and Hunt allow us to understand the different standards of behavior of public relations and communications that have developed and are applied today.  These are governed by two specific elements: direction and purpose. When an example allows the creation of a monologue it is said to be unidirectional, and if a dialogue is permitted it is said to be bidirectional.  Meanwhile, the purpose (the second element governing the examples) explains if the type of communication proposed by the example is symmetrical or asymmetrical.  It is this element that dictates who (organization or public) holds the dominant position.

The first example, under the name of Press Officer was developed between 1850 and 1900.  Intended to carry out persuasive communications using a propagandistic style, even to the point of fooling the public, its only aim is to gain adhesion to an ideological proposal.  In this sense the communicative nature of the model is unidirectional as its only aim is to influence the public.  The techniques applied show an evident lack of scientific foundation being based, as it is, on using intuition as the manipulative instrument.

The second example proposed by Gruning y Hunt is that of Public Information, put into effect from 1900 onwards and therefore not too distant from the Press Officer example as the organizations who are guided by this still believe in the importance of changing public opinion of the aforementioned. However what differentiates this example from the first one is the belief that the public must be informed, and so its propagandist nature is discarded and information becomes its foundation.  Nevertheless, it continues to retain its unidirectional nature and asymmetrical purpose because it is still based on the idea of the monologue and not the dialogue as strategy.

Around 1920, Gruning and Hunt contemplated the appearance of an example of asymmetric double flow, to which they attributed the scientific persuasive approach.  That is to say, the study and investigation of the masses in a scientific way so as to learn of their interests and the creation of persuasive messages, guaranteeing more changes in the public. This third example proposed a bidirectional communicative nature allowing investigation of the public’s attitude towards the organization, introducing the conception of evaluation by assessing the public’s response. 

Lastly, Gruning y Hunt put forward a fourth example that, even though it was later criticized, is still used and is that which this paper has recovered to be applied in today’s

Global crisis panorama. In this respect the symmetric double flow example, developed in the 60s and improved over the last 50 years, proposed a mutual understanding between the public and the organization. Its double flow or bidirectional communicative nature and its symmetric purpose differentiate it from the third asymmetric double flow, and in this last example the public’s response is considered essential to reach a balance between the organization and the public (evaluation). This fourth example demands the investigation of the needs and interests of the public, as well as the identification of those messages which have greater powers of persuasion over and motivation of the general public.  For this reason the investigation is educational and contributes towards the establishment of common or symmetric goals between the organization and the public. (Gruning y Hunt, 2003 78-104)

 

Nowadays, according to many communication theoreticians, the culture of social marketing, together with the social demand for information about organizations and the deterioration of certain sectors’ image, are some of the reasons that have brought communications departments into being.  However, there are many different opinions as well as definitions referring to this.  But whatever ideas are voiced in the debate about their conception, what remains transcendental is the study in depth of the social marketing phenomena and the necessity of creating and maintaining a good reputation and image of an organization, and for this reason consultants are normally called in. 

The spread of communication departments in Europe is a long story, but they did not appear in Spain until about three decades ago when Gruning and Hunt’s fourth bidirectional symmetrical example began to take shape.  However, offensive images remained on the agenda and increasingly evident lobbying could be seen in the political circles surrounding the European Parliament, where diverse essential questions concerning the countries’ economic interest were debated.

Years ago official bodies did not need a specific infrastructure to deal with the informative demands of the journalists, sending an official short news item as their final word (Press officer example).  There was no need for a communications department.  But time went by and democratic access to information changed informative behavior.  New legitimate public sources appeared such as unions, social movements, companies etc. that quickly warned of how important communication is in society and a start was made to learn how to manage it (public information and asymmetric double flow example).

In the framework of this undefined area and in spite of the various theories concerning the constitution of communications departments and their functions, Txema Ramírez defines them simply as:

 

Active organized and usually stable sources of information that meet both the internal and external communicative needs of those organizations and/or persons who wish to transmit a positive image of themselves to society and in this way influence public opinion. (Ramírez 1995: 27)

 

This idea explains how the roots of the present panorama have changed in the last decade, allowing the continuing development of this line of transition between the communications departments and the more advanced space aimed at Public Relations and the world of information, comparing them to two universes more closely united day by day.

 

In days gone by, amongst the various obligations that those responsible for communications had to abide by was the need to perfectly understand the nearest informative system and the mainstream media, to maintain close ties with the different economic, financial and political sectors, to understand and predict informative tendencies imposed by the media and to know who manipulated the media etc.  Nowadays, these maxims are no longer sufficient and the basic principles that govern the laws of communication and the media’s routine have altered (Sriramesh and Vercic, 2009: 74).

Traditional media is doomed to carry out a high speed modification of its performance if it wishes to survive.  The digital environment has favoured the development of more flexible communication and a different style of journalism incorporating more participative formulas.  Because of this those who do not “jump on the band-wagon” will not be able to survive the crisis that the broadcasting and credibility sectors are submerged in.

 

When the Department of Communication spills over into other fields: P.R.

 

It is evident that information is the top priority of a communications department, as is the creation and diffusion of information both internally and externally.  However, other types of duties are now being valued such as: internal communication – in greater depth than is carried out in the departments of human resources, corporative image management, crisis communication and lobbying, as an influential action in defense of the organization’s interest. 

These new duties or roles are those that have promoted the evolution and growth of the communications department, where their objective is regarded globally in a similar way as in public relations.  In this sense, one should bear in mind the ideas set down by Edward Bernays, who defined and made sense of public relations in business activities when he affirmed that the science of public relations was linked to high level management activity and directed to maintain, potentiate, create or recuperate the credibility and confidence of every member of the organization.  To achieve this objective, Bernays proposed various personal management actions, with the idea of broadcasting or spreading information in a strategic manner and at the opportune time and place, depending on the interests of the organization involved.  Being based on persuasion it cannot be considered an exact science and Bernays defined public relations in the following way:

 

[…] public relations are exactly what their name implies: they are the relationship of an organization, a person, an idea or whatever, with the public on whom their existence depends. A public relations consultant is one who is dedicated to his vocation, a professional equipped with education, training and experience to assess the relationship with the public on who his client or sponsor depends.

 

On the other hand, J. D. Barquero Cabrero, a follower of Bernays, reflects on an element that complements Bernays’ conception of Public Relations.  In this sense and with the present global crisis panorama demanding development of low cost investment communication strategies it is important to note that;

 

Sometimes Public Relations specialists can also take on a “lobbistic” role.  That is to say that they are in possession of knowledge, obtained completely legally, of an economic, political or financial nature, as, due to the characteristics of their profession, they can access information difficult or impossible to obtain in any other profession, and so effectively influence the decisions of public institutions.

Based on all the supporting material available to them, they are able to judge and anticipate possible economic changes and their consequent repercussions, beneficial to the different entities with which they collaborate, maintaining utmost secrecy with regard to the information, in agreement with the strict legal code of ethics. (Barquero Cabrero 2001: 65)

 

Following these affirmations that consider lobbying to be a necessary tactic nowadays, the words of Sam Black in his official declaration on public relations in November 1982 before the American Society of Public Relations should be remembered. In these he confirmed that; 

 

[…] public relations help our complex and pluralistic society to reach decisions and to operate in a more efficient manner contributing to mutual understanding between groups and institutions. Their purpose is to harmonize public and private regulations.  Public relations are used by a wide range of institutions in society, including companies, unions, government ministries, voluntary associations, foundations, hospitals and religious and educational institutions.  To reach their objectives, these institutions must develop effective relationships with many different groups or public sectors such as employees, partners, clients, local communities, shareholders and other institutions as well as with the general public. (Black 1994: 30-31)

 

Later, Black emphasized that public relations should project a corporative image, with the establishment of bilateral communication between organizations and their public, the prevention of conflicts and avoidance of misunderstandings, through the creation of a harmonious environment surrounding the entity’s members, suppliers, employees and, of course, consumers.

In this way, by reflecting on Black’s maxims referring to public relations and by comparing them with the actions many of today’s communications departments carry out, we can clearly see the expansion of the department towards the hybrid space of communications and public relations, in which various techniques aimed at medium- term results merge.  We can contemplate communication as an assessable “whole” and as a device dealing with typical actions relating to publicity, propaganda, public relations, journalism and marketing.

 

Low cost tactics, critical factors and their underlying philosophy.

 

Many organizations with a specific communications department are using different types of conduct to confront the global crisis and, far from contributing to the strengthening of a long term solid image; they choose to reduce communication budgets.  This is happening both in those businesses that conscientiously manage their intangibles, as well as in those basing their strategy on other parameters (price, quality, service etc.)  Another very frequent conduct concerning the change of paradigm is the centralization of short term communication strategies or, in other words, the favouring of momentary promotions with the objective of obtaining immediate results and with the sole aim of increasing sales and forgetting the importance of improving public opinion, carefully elaborated by Bernays and Black.

Despite this panorama, we consider that it is possible to boost quality growth of communicative and public relation projects thanks to the development of applied communication technology. This allows alternative creative exploration in the outlining of connections with the public and thus a different scenario is produced. In this sense there is a proposal to rethink the way in which the public is approached and for this reason the professionals in communication are required to develop certain skills and dexterity that must be recuperated from former times, and that go beyond the traditional training for journalists towards other fields such as sociology, psychology and of course, public relations.

To become well known, maintain public appreciation and loyalty, and transmit and strengthen the intended image in the context of today’s profound economic crisis in a world totally dominated by the media and its competitors, require the development of integral communication strategies, aimed at offering a special, different content, and above all that which respects the experience the public have as information consumers.

In this publication we suggest contemplating the diverse participative formulas that the new digital age allows to develop, together with hints on how to tackle them, both from the perspective of a means of communication and from that of an organization needing to rearrange its communications system.

 

The role of virtual space

 

The process of universal digitalization opens up the way for technically developed countries while revolutionizing the methods of preparation, interpretation and reading of information.  However the subject or main character in this digitalization is not the technique used. Rather it is the person who receives, accumulates, processes, appropriates and personalizes that information and as the cultural content duplicates more rapidly, this digital convergence modifies the symbolic value and contents in both quantity and quality. 

Digitalization permits the enrichment of the content of informative products produced by organizations or companies.  The public can then enjoy greater information which materializes in invisible sub frames, in extra content, information on production conditions, wider thought processes etc.

 

Digitalization enabled the off line support capacity to be surpassed and offer complementary content.  It permits fragmentation and disassembly of speech and its reformation into something new.  It facilitates circulation and exchange, thus making the content more flexible and allowing forms of participation never seen before.  However, digitalization cannot create a knowledgeable society but, that very knowledge is what creates a digital society.  Accordingly, the excessive amount of possibilities makes it impossible to grasp everything and so, specialization continues inside this huge area – one in which so many factors converge – that which gains ground and consolidates a symbolic capital (McNamara, 2010).

If we consider information to be power, pleasing the public with extra information is to give them more power.  In this respect and to this end the following low cost formulas are put forward:

 

  1. The blog and social network pages: These are normally designed parallel or as appendixes to the organization’s or business’ formal official web page.  This is the ideal space to interpret reality, offer opinions or thoughts and to allow the creation of branches of thought – not visible on the official page – but of great symbolic value to the desired public.

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  1. Allowing public comments: The acceptance of public opinion in respect to the information offered by an organization, even when it is critical (as long as it is not degrading) and allowing it to be seen, contribute towards strengthening the entity’s credibility and, as such, its good reputation.
  2. Appreciation of the participation of readers when writing a news item, requesting, for example, the contribution of experiences that can enrich the information given by the organization, or sending documented proof when dealing with witnesses of an important occasion of interest to the community with points in common with the entity.
  3. Creativity in the making of a communication experience: creativity is the ability to create. To create is to present something for the first time and in doing so this something is born or becomes alive.  It is to find new solutions to old problems.

Creativity humanizes everything and in this way the development of communication experience with the recipient offers a connection to public feeling, imparting a sense of the authenticity to the information they (the public) receive. The more creativity included in an organization’s communication, the more impressive and and authentic it will be.  For this reason, new spaces, intentions and options are being investigated  – inviting a departure from habitual communication.

Creativity should go hand in hand with communicative strategy, or in other words, it should not jeopardize the aim or the values of the product, brand or organization.  Creativity should be born of understanding strategy.  That is to say, not only the creative idea that emphasizes the point but also that which has been able to solve a business’ or organization’s communicative needs.

Eduardo Kastika, author of Desorganización creativa-organización innovadora, (creative organization- innovative organization) tells us that “creativity is a potential and it is within our grasp”, adding later “there is a point where great innovations, speculative and ambitious projects for organizational change, or the surprising ideas that revolutionize the market are reduced to one minimal component: creative potential of each and every one of us” (Kastika, 2001: 82). In this sense Kastika proposes different forms or dimensions of creativity that contribute to the creation of “communication experience” and that can be summarized in the following way:

1) Fluidity: generate the greatest number of possible answers without limits or criticism.

2) Flexibility: The ideas generated are divided into categories.  The greater the amount of categories the greater the flexibility for generating alternatives.

3) Originality: To give a novel answer to a known situation however simple it may seem.

4) Redefinition: this is the redefinition of the problem yet again, thereby helping to promote creative thinking concerning solutions.

5) Imagination: this is essential for the finding of innovative solutions.  The limit is the understanding of the recipient.

6) Elaboration: in order to form an answer, first it must be created and then processed. 

7) Impact: this is the reaction of the recipient sparked by the issued communication.

8) Orientation towards the objective, creativity without an objective is a waste of communication. (Kastika, 2001: 201-205).

 

Conclusions

 

All the above helps us to understand how, in the context of today’s global crisis, utilizing low cost tactics in the framework of the fourth example proposed by Gruning and Hunt (symmetrical double flow) is vital for good communication management, as long as these said tactics are based on dialogue and mutual feedback as the essence of symmetrical understanding between the public and the organizations.

 

Mass media is no longer only the object of the communications departments as it cannot guarantee that the information or the message will really reach, and be absorbed, by the public.  There is an overload and excess of information which causes public attention to diminish considerably and for people to become immune to corporative messages.  In order to overcome this lack of communication, organizations find themselves facing an important challenge: they must take into account that their aims should be shared and redefined based on expectations of the public to whom they should offer more accessible, structured and systematic messages, thereby facilitating the circulation of their information.  In order to do so as stated by Gruning y Hunt, first the demand must be defined, but above all the way in which this informative expectation is shown. The way the competition satisfies the same demand must also be assessed.

Analysis of public demand must be considered together with public experience of the public digital era and how these virtual necessities fluctuate at a rate of 3.0.  This means it is not enough to see what is demanded but, the way it is demanded and by whom, at what time and what arguments are used to sustain this demand or opinion must be considered.  This requires serious attention on the part of the organizations. 

 

Fortunately, the various digital platforms allow different forms of measurement providing a more or less simple and correct way of knowing the public’s informative appetites with a level of precision never dreamt of by the communication gurus.  These circumstances make the creation of made to measure contents possible, considerably widening the probabilities of success.  Once the demand is known the strategy can be prepared, the concept elaborated, the objectives defined and, lastly, the specific procedures put into action – choosing the appropriate means to launch the strategy.  Referring to the necessity of making the general public participants in the communication experience mentioned before, an essential point of the strategy’s design is the planning of rewards the public will receive for their contribution and the use that will be made of our appreciation.  Having reached this point it is important to emphasize that many public entities and, even more frequently, private companies, either mistakenly or through lack of knowledge in this aspect, confuse the system of rewarding the public with public promotion by offering a gift of the product.  This is a habitual mistake which, from the point of view of communication planning, we have to anticipate for the strategy employed to be effective.  In this sense, entities normally choose to promote the product/service directly through specific public relations actions, organizing presentations of the product or service, but when we refer to “use and reward” we refer to the reward for the communication experience – which is the key to win a loyal opinion and appreciation of the product/institution/business.  Information is power and, so, reward should also be considered as such.  Today we face a new paradigm of action uniting public relations and communication and erasing the boundaries between them. We must look deeply into the nature of multidirectional communication whose aim must be symmetrical in order to maintain the market and, therefore, should be based on investigation and study but, above all, on the valuation and respect of the public’s experience in this informative scenario 3.0.

 

 

 

 

 

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