COMMENT: PLATFORM; The secret of communication is in the timing

Conveying sensitive information is risky but withholding briefings until the last moment can be equally dangerous, says Gordon Knight

Conveying sensitive information is risky but withholding briefings until

the last moment can be equally dangerous, says Gordon Knight

Some years ago I advised the board of a major public company involved in

an exchange of businesses with one of its leading competitors.

After three months of liaising closely with the competitor’s

communications team to ensure co-ordination of style, content and timing

of the external and internal announcements, everything was ready.

D-day minus five saw our side’s top management briefed; minus two:

middle management; minus one: major customers, customer liaison staff

and selected opinion formers and, on D-day itself, remaining staff,

customers and suppliers and the media.

All went smoothly with the client, the changes were effected with

minimal disruption and fall-out from staff and customers was

insignificant. Within the competitor, however, in spite of the

similarities of the communication, rumbles of discontent began almost

immediately and have lasted to this day with serious commercial impact.

So how could one company’s meat apparently turn into another’s poison?

Part of the reason lay in the cultural and stylistic differences between

the two companies: one had invested heavily in communications, the other

had made little advance on the company newspaper and annual report.

But subsequent analysis, proved that company A had got the balance of

trust and timing right; company B, with a history of leaks and critical

media reports, had not.

While company A was confideny in briefing key senior and middle

management early, on the implications of the changes and allow them time

to prepare for their own roles in the communication, company B

considered the risks too great.

Once the story broke, company B managers were put on the defensive,

found it hard to deal with staff and customer questions and fell back on

the written materials intended to reinforce rather than deliver the


Since research shows that people prefer to receive important

communications directly from their immediate manager or business

contact, it was perhaps inevitable that many of the managers, whose

support was vital to the success of the change, felt sidelined and

inhibited in defending the company’s position.

No doubt company B’s communications team would argue that the issues

were too important, the risk of leaks too great and Stock Exchange

regulations too restrictive to manage the communication any other way.

No quoted company would ignore the importance of its sector analysts

when making any major announcement. Perhaps rather more, however, might

not always give the same priority to opinion formers, whose views will

immediately be sought by the media, and to managers and staff - or

indeed customers.

It’s not easy to persuade a board of directors that taking some of these

audiences into their confidence at an earlier stage than the planned

public announcement to the media is worth the risks. But it is often the

most resistant boards that can be the most ‘leaky’ themselves.

It takes a fine judgement to determine the ideal timing and extent of

important pre-briefings of both internal and external intermediaries.

The difference it can make to the success of the whole communication is

frequently enormous.

And the risks? Well, planning for and minimising those is what we’re

paid for, isn’t it?

Gordon Knight is managing director of Lodestone Communications

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