As I get older and branch into different areas in my career, I notice a trend in how people handle internal and external communications; it became particularly obvious to me when I became the public information officer for a local non-profit organization.  Most people approach information from one of two inherent mentalities:  That information must be controlled, in order to limit damage and maintain status quo; or that information should be put out there in as many creative ways as we can find, to move the organization forward. 

In the PIO world, it’s pretty easy to figure out who comes from which perspective.  When something potentially negative happens, the reactive PIO’s ask themselves, how do we limit access to journalists?  How do we shut them out and make sure they don’t find out what we don’t want them to know?  How do we keep this one piece of information to ourselves?  Meanwhile, the proactive PIO’s are calling their media contacts and inviting them over.

Next time something needs to be communicated in your organization, especially something with potentially negative consequences like a layoff or reorganization, ask yourself this question: do I immediately look for ways to do “damage control”?  Do I decide that certain groups or individuals should get less information than others?  Do I look for ways to conceal some of the information? 

Or do you treat it like a PR opportunity?  People who treat everything like a PR opportunity ask different questions.  They ask, how can we get the most out of this?  How can we grow from it, profit from it, or educate ourselves and others from it?  How can we make it bigger and better?  How can we use it to move forward?

History and current events are full of examples of people who tried to limit or hide information and ending up shooting themselves in the foot: politicians who tried to hide affairs or ethics violations, CEO’s who tried to hide mistakes, and on a smaller but closer-to-home planet, HR executives who tried to pick and choose which parts of the organizational structure to communicate and which to hide from employees. 

Perhaps an even better example can be found in the rise of social media.  Some companies have embraced it; others have worried that they must find ways to control it, write and enforce policies, and limit employees’ use.  The companies who control it almost always end up with a PR nightmare on their hands.  The companies who embrace it are using it to strengthen their brand and their relationship with their customers and communities. 

Perhaps that brings out a larger point: information can’t be fully controlled in this information age.  We must accept that while you can have some influence on the flow of information, ultimately, it has a life of its own.  It’s like kids trying to dam a river; the water finds another way to flow around the dam, and it might not be the way you want it to go.

So the next time you have something to communicate, ask yourself this question: am I looking for opportunities?  Or am I trying to do damage control?

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