'What should I tell them?' Why every organization should have an official policy for communicating.

Author:Mathews, Wilma
 
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A well-formed communication policy is to your organization what the IABC Code of Ethics is to you: a set of guiding principles and behaviors to help ensure consistent, fair and ethical communication with all of your constituents. Few organizations have written communication policies and even fewer share those policies broadly within or beyond the organization.

But that doesn't negate the need for such an important document. "All firms with more than one employee should have a clearly written media policy that spells out who in the organization may respond to media inquiries, what kinds of information can or should be released to reporters and what information must be kept confidential," write David M. Freedman and Janice E. Purtell in an article published by Media Relations Central, an online resource for media relations professionals.

Beyond the media, companies and organizations also need to consider their other audiences who expect to hear official positions and responses, or at various business junctures or when news breaks.

So whether they're called media relations, disclosure, public relations or public information policies, there are common elements of communication policies that can help guide you and your leadership to the development of a formal, written and agreed-upon procedure for communicating both internally and externally.

POLICY BY BEHAVIOR

Your organization may already have a communication policy, albeit unstated, as seen in your overall behavior and attitude toward your constituencies.

Customers, employees, reporters, investors and community leaders make judgment calls about your organization's stance on communication based on what they see, hear and read.

For example, if your organization is a solid "no comment" in the media, a reader may decide that your company is close-minded, engaging in illegal or unethical activities or just not friendly.

Conversely, if your corporate logo is on T-shirts worn by company volunteers cleaning a park, passersby may judge your company to be community-spirited and your employees happy to work for you.

If your process for responding to inquiries from the media is complex, or delays or denies access to executives, reporters may assume that you and your company are hiding something.

You'll also find an undeclared policy in the language and style used in the written pieces disseminated by your organization, including employee communication, advertising, product return policies, workplace guidelines, benefits materials and speeches. Your communication policy might be evident in the company's level of involvement in the community, its rules for workplace advancement and training, its media guidelines and activity or the conduct of your annual meeting.

It's vital that you determine what your perceived communication policy is before you begin developing a formal, written one.

WHAT POLICIES CAN DO

Written policies can define your communication philosophy (e.g., proactive) as well as your practices (the role of the primary spokesperson) and procedures (how to respond to media inquiries).

When helping her clients in South Africa develop a full communication strategy, management consultant Amanda Hamilton-Attwell, Ph.D., says that developing a clear communication policy is part of the bigger process that includes the "integration and alignment of communication processes, projects, activities and image." Her definition of a communication policy is straightforward: "The rules that will determine the behaviour of the communication specialists and the management of the flow of information."

Policies can be developed for general communication and/or for specific areas such as financial communication or legal communication.

Formal policies can take the guesswork out of trying to manage an active media relations program--you shouldn't be writing the policy while the reporter is on the telephone.

"A clearly written media policy can help to minimize your firm's media liabilities and promote a positive public perception of your firm--it's all in what you say and how you say it," according to Freedman and Purtell.

Finally, communication policies can both reflect and guide your organization's code of conduct, code of ethics, business principles or even the mission statement.

COMMUNICATION PHILOSOPHY STATEMENTS

Some organizations have simple policy rules and procedures led by a definitive statement of their guiding philosophy on communication.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development makes such a statement: "The Bank continues to be guided by the underlying presumption that, whenever possible, information concerning the Bank's operational activities will be made available to the public in the absence of a compelling reason for confidentiality."

Duke Energy, a U.S. power company, takes a similar stance with a more concise statement: "Duke Energy will foster open dialogue and informed decision making through meaningful and regular communication of [Environmental, Health & Safety Policy] information with management, employees and the public."

The policy of the European Investment Bank recognizes the public trust responsibility: "Acknowledging that the public has an interest in the activities of the EIB, the Bank's public information policy aims to support one of the EIB's key...

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