That post enlightement syndrome…

In a recent post about the Bled symposium on the communication of Europe, I referred to that typical syndrome of many of our clients/employers, who are so convinced to be right that if something goes wrong the fault is always to be found in the communication of a specific management policy or decision.

Basically they believe (or so they say..) that if customers, media, investors, suppliers, employees… had the facts right, they would ‘see the light’ and graciously grant the organization their ‘license to operate’ and support that specific decision.

Obviously this syndrome has a significant impact on us as public relations professionals.
If we are held responsible for the assumed miscommunication, we will be likely to either lose a job or at least go through an intense rethinking process. If, instead, we are called in to perform that change, then we are benefiting from that same syndrome.

But, honestly, how many times is this actually so?
How many times is it not communication which is the real problem, but the actual quality of the policy or the decision which the organization has undertaken?

In my professional experience I would say, most of the time… although it is fair to agree that sometimes communication is truly at fault and deserves a bashing or at least a thorough rethink.

This syndrome, which produces so much harm to organizations, would not exist if the organization truly undertook to listen, understand and interpret key stakeholder expectations every time it is ready to make a relevant decision or policy which produces consequences on those stakeholders.

This is what European public relations scholars call the reflective role (Luhmann) of the public relator.

Basically, the professional interprets stakeholder expectations on a specific issue to the organization’s dominant coalition before strategic and operational decisions are taken.
The dominant coalition grandly benefits from this by making a more informed and therefore better decision; and this even when it decides not to consider only some, or even none, of these expectations who are, as one well knows, often contradictory or in conflict with each another. This benefit derives from the fact that the organization can anticipate and prepare for certain reactions from those key stakeholder groups its has decided not to listen to. Also, if the organization decides to listen to at least some of the key stakeholder groups, then its decision will be supported by these and implementation times are likely to shorten, thus adding significant value to the organization.

On this count, may I recommend the reading of James Suriowieckj’s 2004 best seller The Wisdom of Crowds? (Random House).

One of the major counterarguments against this ‘inclusive’ decision making process has to do with what southern Europeans call ‘consociativism’ while many Americans simply refer to ‘paralysis by analysis’ , along the mode of In Search of Excellence (remember?).

In short, the risk is that when too many subjects get involved in a decision making process that decision will inevitably be diluted and produce little if any impact, or it will never be taken because of so many conflicting and contradictory expectations.

This is certainly a worthy argument, except that it escapes the mandatory application of that fundamental ‘principle of responsibility’ which states that, doesn’t matter if elected official or delegated manager, whomever has the ultimate responsibility also has the right (but also the duty..) to decide when, if, who and how to listen to key stakeholder groups on a specific issue and then to take decisions accordingly.
If this does not happen, then it he or she who should, instead of the poor public relator, be promptly removed from office before doing more harm….

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