It’s a remarkably small percentage of the population which has top-of-mind awareness when considering specialized issues – and by far, these are individuals who are either directly tied to the issue at hand, or have family involved in it. Conversely, there is a massive percentage of people who just want to live their lives and not think about how their homes are heated, why they purchase one product over another, or just generally how the creature comforts in their lives are produced.
That leaves the opponents. Some opponents can be dealt with peacefully by addressing legitimate issues they may have. Yet, there are those whose mission it is to derail projects, stemming from a belief that they are always right and that their way is the best and only way. It is fair to say this last group is an extreme minority, and that not everyone who raises a question about an industry has a malevolent agenda. That said, when these organizations and individuals do emerge, they must be dealt with swiftly.
It is important to employ the right “consigliere;” one who has experience in extinguishing fires and is prepared to handle the unthinkable. For those who are not familiar with this term, a simple definition of a consigliere is a “trusted and experienced advisor.” This term was made famous in The Godfather, and is best displayed when longtime family lawyer, Tom Hagen, is passed over because he is not a “wartime consigliere.”
Tom’s confusion with the news of his replacement is understandable. He had been loyal to the Corleone family, but his strengths and capabilities ended there. He did not have what it took to be Michael Corleone’s wartime advisor, mostly because of his background. He was not Sicilian, so this put him at a disadvantage when trying to outmaneuver the “five families” — he was unable to understand their culture and their ways.
All major companies should recruit their wartime consigliere, a communications firm, before an emergency situation arises. The right communication consigliere is a public relations firm with extensive experience in developing messaging strategies for critical situations. At some point, every company will need this service.
The old adage, “know thine enemy” is essential to practice. When faced with opposition, it is never wise to assume that it is a haphazard organization of volunteers with “oak tag” signs. Opposition research into an organization’s leaders, staff, funders, and networks is essential. The right strategic communications firm will be able to provide in-depth information on just who the client is up against and shape strategy and messaging accordingly. Perhaps the individual asking questions at a local township meeting was simply an inquisitive citizen, or maybe they were a plant sent to begin a much larger line of disruption– like the proverbial first ant at a picnic.
Many opposition groups are extremely well funded. And their money often comes from sources funneled through various other groups in order to hide their patronage. These funds then become difficult to track even through IRS Form 990 research, because instead of identifying direct donations, they typically “share” employees, legal expertise, office space, and other resources. Further, spin-off groups are created on a micro-local level to create the appearance of genuine grassroots efforts, only to find later that they are front groups for much larger organizations. Good opposition research can uncover this, and much more.
It is also important to not automatically assume that the opposition will be either left- or right-leaning. A group may appear to have a specific focus, when in actuality, they could easily have been set up by a competing company or industry. Organizations often masquerade as citizen groups and victims in order to lend legitimacy to their cause and gain support against a company. Having the ability to research these organizations is essential to know who the opposition is and how to respond.
Disqualifying and Disarming
With opposition research in hand, motive becomes more apparent. That information can subsequently be provided to local elected officials, stakeholders, and the media to unveil the wizard(s) behind the curtain– dispelling the mythic appearance and showing the real agendas and organizations behind the scenes. When motive, association, and funding are realized, they become part of the narrative, thereby undercutting the very arguments attempting to be made.
There are many ways to disqualify and disarm the opposition. Well-placed news stories, social media campaigns, and occasionally full-page newspaper ads are all a part of the arsenal. But there are other times when it is advantageous to not have the client’s fingerprints on the efforts. This course of action takes experience in bringing all of the information to light for third-party accusations without creating backlash.
When the time comes, decisions must be made quickly. A thorough response plan must be created with an established budget that entails realistic end goals and objectives. To reach those objectives, tactics must be determined based upon the following criteria: audience, geography, pressure points, message, and vehicles.
What needs to be said and to whom does it need said? These two questions will dictate the answers to all of the above criteria. Once the answers to those questions are established, the communications firm will look at a variety of options, from forming third-party grassroots coalitions to a frontal assault of social media, newspaper ads, direct mail, television campaigns, and other forms of paid media.
Not every wound is created by the opposition. Some are unintentionally self-inflicted. This is why every company needs a crisis communication plan and experienced communication staff to help navigate the response. Just like hiring an emergency response company to train employees for on-the-job emergencies, companies should have communication experts at-the-ready to handle the response to issues that may become critical public relations situations.
The way a company responds to an emergency or conflict can outlast or greatly surpass the severity of the situation itself. And because of that, even the smallest moves can define a company and establish an unwanted reputation that outweighs years of operational success.
Choosing a Consigliere
The right communications firm will have the experience and expertise needed to adhere to a company’s public relations needs in times of emergency, and will know how to avoid mistakes that can be detrimental to a company’s long-term reputation. The firm should be knowledgeable of the industry at hand, and it should also understand the culture of the local communities, the nature of the opposition groups, and the pinch-points that can affect operations.
It is important to understand that not every situation is a battle. Knowing the difference is what makes a “wartime consigliere” an important asset. The right firm will pay close attention to the big picture while not overlooking the small details that affect a client’s reputation – and by doing so, help keep a client’s central needs in focus toward success.