Friday, February 27, 2009

Managing the Unknown Internet Part 2

In most PR work there are risks and opportunities. To manage them we need to identify them.

This can be done by an individual, a focus group or management team or can be established from research. It’s a great opportunity for a brain storm with someone making notes!

In preparing a strategy for a programme it is worth looking at where there may be influences that can affect it.

In online public relations it is possible to second guess many of the potential influences. The recession of 2008/10, is a classic case in point. For a number of companies strategy had to change to maintain presence but at a much lower cost. Promotion budgets are slashed and PR had to take the strain. With reduced advertising, many publications just do not have the space for stories they would have run only months before. Online there were fewer constraints and so budgets have shifted.

In PR there are some pretty well established influences that affect practice

The range of known influences that can affect online PR programmes are extensive.

It is also possible to evaluate risk and asses its influence in terms of probability and impact.
An example might be confidential product information could leak out of the organisation and into the public domain because an employee has a blog.

Having described risks and potential for effects, the practitioner (evaluation team) will asses each element in terms of likelihood of occurrence and impact. It helps put the risk or opportunity into perspective. This is a technique used by many voluntary and public sector organisations. It is the kind of matrix that might be used to assess risk for a school outing and is also used in project management.

Assessing the impact of events which can be estimated before any action is taken and again after mitigating policies are proposed to see if the potential for risk is lowered (acceptable) prior to implementation or exposure.

The next part of the process is to create a mitigation (or contingency) plan, process or protocol to reduce either of both risk of likelihood or impact. This might be the introduction of, say, a company wide blogging policy or the use of data on home computers.

Once a mitigation plan has been worked out, a new assessment is made of the likelihood or impact to see if the proposed actions for mitigation has had an effect that makes the risk acceptable within the campaign.

The process is quite simple and effective and is valuable when attempting to identify competitive advantage versus doubts.

These methodologies can be used in making all manner of decisions including the extent to which the internet should be made available during working hours (knowing that most people have access on their cell phones anyway). This structures approach helps inform such decisions.

Using such a process through each part of the planning process reduces risk to a manageable level and also helps to make precise projections of expected outcomes.

Risk management is a process and can be applied to strategy as well as tactics.

Of course, for each risk there is an opportunity. By applying the same technique but looking for opportunities and means to optimise such opportunities, the practitioner can enhance the effectiveness of any approach to a campaign.

It is all too easy to imagine events in stark black and white answers. This is seldom the only solution and practitioners can work on contingency planning

There are a lot of techniques that can be applied to ameliorate risk, optimise opportunity and, written into the programme strategy using techniques adopted from other disciplines, PR can ensure greater certainty in online activities.

Disaster seldom comes unannounced for most organisations. There tend to be number indicators that presage the public event.

The key is to be able to identify the stages as they present themselves. They are:


All plans have expected outcomes, financial budgets and timescales. These are often identified using aids for project planning (see above).

Monitoring such plans will identify where plans are going awry. Often such occurrences are small. These are 'variations' to the plan. Good monitoring will give teams notice that remedial action has to take place and contingency can be built into the plan. An example might be a contingency sum in a budget and some flexibility in delivery time built in.

Foreseen uncertainties

There are some variations that are identifiable and understood that the team cannot be sure will occur or when an event it will occur. To mitigate foreseen uncertainties, the plan will need to include the capability to identify the event and a capability to deploy a pre-planned contingency programme. An example might be unscheduled maintenance of a computer that is running the campaign blog One big issue is website uptime with issues such as a slowing of response times of the organisation's web site or, disaster of all disasters, the web site being so overwhelmed that it stops responding (in retail, this is the equivalent of one in ten shops being closed).
When a web site goes down, it is a PR problem. It is not an IT department problem. Risk analysis is critical in identifying and mitigating these events. Practicing for such events has to be included in any plan. Who does what, when and how and if they are not available or facilities are down who else should be part of such a plan.

Unforeseen Uncertainty

This kind of event cannot be identified during project planning. There is no Plan B.

The team will be unaware of the event’s possibility or consider it so unlikely that there is no in-built contingency plan. To be able to manage such events a comprehensive monitoring and alerting process is critical.

“Unknown unknowns,” or “unk-unks,” as they are sometimes called, make people nervous because existing decision tools are not available. Unforeseen uncertainty is not always caused by spectacular events or issues. They can arise from the unanticipated interaction of many events, each of which might, in principle, be foreseeable. The best management practice here is attention to detail and constant re-evaluation of the plan and its application.

The model described here includes risk analysis at just about every point in planning. Mature management of PR will have to begin to include these more complex management techniques in the future and it takes out a lot of the management concerns that surround the use of social media.

Here are the key elements for reducing the impact of the unforeseen:

• Teams must go beyond mere crisis management and continually scan for emerging influences — either threats or opportunities. Practitioners should be scanning the horizon more than three months out to identify potential problems while they can still do something about them.
• Risk analysis must be an ongoing activity with no potential hazard excluded because it seemed wacky at the time.
• With unforeseeable uncertainty, a lot of time and effort must go into managing relationships with key publics, often getting them to accept unplanned changes. Knowing who and how to contact key publics is important. Good old fashioned public relations to maintain good and effective relationships count when the unforeseen happens.
• Top-management support, negotiation techniques, team-building exercises and the practitioner's leadership can help resolve conflicting interests.
• Trust is a core element in managing the unforeseen which means value systems and value system analysis is critical (ibid)
• Managing variance and planning for managing foreseen uncertainty assist managing the unknown because contingency planning will be part of the organisation's culture.

The unforeseen can be managed.

The US Institute of crisis management offers some insights into where to look for unforeseen uncertainty, listing the most common on its web site (

In an era when the internet is bringing great change in communication (as well as the way organisations are organised and managed), being able to deploy these types of technique allows organisations to enter new areas of interactions with some confidence to gain optimum benefit at an acceptable level of exposure.