Priorities – Five Questions to ask Yourself and Your Team

I’m often asked about prioritizing. The conversation comes down to a basic reality – public affairs teams routinely face more issues than they have resources to address. Because the public affairs team generally serves the entire organization (or industry), it must synthesize and prioritize the business units’ (or members’) often competing priorities.* Invariably, individual business unit leaders (or member organizations) across the industry/company/agency all want the public affairs team to make that business unit’s (or organization’s) problem the top public affairs priority.  That leaves you to prioritize their needs. Unfortunately, many in our business “solve” this dilemma by trying to serve all masters, and that leads to poor execution across the board.

So, how should public affairs executives develop sound strategies in the midst of competing priorities?

While every situation is unique, I recommend having a discussion with the company or business unit’s manager about the impact of their issue on the company, industry, or business unit’s success. The purpose here is to take a subjective request and turn it into a quantifiable, objective assessment of opportunity or threat. This will never yield a clear, objective decision-making process, but it will move your decision-making closer to an objective, defensible process. I also believe it is critically important that everyone know, understand, and agree to the public affairs team’s prioritization process on the front end (more on that in a future blog post).

For those in a single organization’s public affairs role, these prioritizations will be made by the senior executive or some other senior level committee or board. If that’s your situation, this post can help you prepare to provide that individual or group with your professional assessment.

While not an exhaustive list, here are five questions to lead, clarify, and hone your discussions —

1) What measurable impact will “it”** have on the business unit/organization/industry?

You’re looking to gauge how important this is in objective terms. For some business managers, their “urgent priority” may turn out to be nothing more than a passing mention he or she received from the CEO right before you ran into him or her at the water cooler. There may be no significant impact, other than helping the manager look good to his or her superior (of course, this can seem really important in some situations!). Better to establish the objective impact early in the discussion.

For other situations, the issue may be critical to the organization’s survival, essential for the timely or successful launch of a new initiative, etc.

Because business cultures often train leaders to advocate directly and persuasively for what they want, it may not be possible to determine the significance of an issue when you are receiving an initial request for public affairs assistance – they may all appear critical at first glance. It is up to the public affairs professional to probe for objective information in order to successfully prioritize your (public affairs) efforts, and to educate and inform the business leader on the prospects for success in terms of scope, risks, and timing.

Another way to get at this is to ask a variant of the “pain level” question many of us have been asked by a doctor or nurse. Essentially, it boils down to this: “on a scale from 1-10, how much does it hurt – 1 being no pain and 10 being the worst pain imaginable.” Try it this way when talking to organization or business unit leaders: “on a scale of 1-10, how critical is this request to the success of your organization or business unit, and to meeting your objectives for this year?”

This question will help begin the process of objectively assessing the need.

2) If we are unsuccessful, or only partially successful, what will that mean for the organization?

Next, turn question one above around and ask it a different way. Asking about the potential for a lack of success often provides essential bits of information and clarity.

Let’s face it, business is often (OK, mostly) about winning. While we should always have plans for alternate outcomes, few business leaders spend enough time developing contingency plans. Help them do that by asking this question. Especially if your organization has a “take no prisoners” or “never surrender” culture where it may be unacceptable to even develop such plans – unless requested by someone from the “outside”.

For public affairs professionals, the answer to this question is a critical piece of the prioritization puzzle.

3) What is your timing?

Have a frank discussion about the nature of public affairs and how realistic it is to expect that your team can fulfill the manager’s request in the given timeframe. As noted above, setting expectations is critical. Not only does it help the business leader plan, it helps you prioritize your work and your strategies.

4) How will “it” impact our organization and our members/customers relative to our peers?

With this question, you are looking for insight into how much of an opportunity or threat the issue is from a competitive position. Be certain to probe beyond traditional competitors to assess potential future competition from outside your historical paradigm. The answer here isn’t likely to impact whether the issue is or isn’t a priority. However, the answer could have a significant impact on how you, as the public affairs professional, develop your strategy and tactics for managing the initiative.

For the reader who is not intimately familiar with public affairs, I should mention that public affairs professionals have a unique perspective on the industry and an organization’s peers when compared with how the rest of the organization views competitors. Most people within an organization view competitors as just that; they wake up every morning working on how to “win” against those competitors. Conversely, public affairs professionals typically work cooperatively with peers, especially at the business, coalition, or industry association level.*** In many situations, what’s good for one organization is good for all. In those instances, a strong industry association, coalition, or issue council can be encouraged to actively take the lead on issues that have similar impacts on all member organizations and stakeholders.

However, the outcome of some initiatives will create an opportunity or threat to particular competing organizations (based on the organization’s position within an issue-area by virtue of cost structures, mission, strategic alliances, geographic orientation, product mix, etc.). You need to know which this is because issues that divide will not be good issues for an industry association, coalition, or issue council.  Their natural goal is to keep everyone happy and issues that create winners and losers are divisive, so these representative organizations will try to stay neutral.

By understanding this relationship, public affairs professionals can build a successful strategy and determine what resources, levels, and intensity to apply to the issue.

5) How does this issue/position affect our organization’s reputation and brand position? This is the “how would it look ‘above the fold’ in tomorrow’s paper?” question.

While much is still to come out about the long term environmental and public health impacts from the recent (January 2014) chemical spill in West Virginia, I feel certain that different management decisions would have been made had the suspect chemical company’s executives understood the real public affairs impact of what appears to have been serious environmental safety negligence.

Often, one of a public affairs professional’s most important roles is to put a proposed initiative (or a decision to delay a project) in context. In doing so, we help operations managers make good decisions and we gain valuable insight into how important and advisable a particular initiative or position will be for the organization.

The most important point with this question is to get out front of a decision (or lack of a decision) because the proverbial genie cannot be put back in the bottle.

In my last blog post I discussed the importance of seeking feedback from outside your peer group. This last question is along the same lines; for an organization’s manager, those in close proximity inside the organization are often his or her primary source of feedback. However, once an issue goes external, it is the media, government officials, your neighbors, community, and customers who will critique the merits of your organization’s position. As a result, the public affairs team should help the organization vet potentially difficult decisions through that lens; if the “public” was aware of the organization’s position/decision, would it be defensible? Would the organization’s primary audiences and customers approve of your organization’s decisions? If not, maybe it’s time to rethink how important that position is to the organization and to the manager asking you to make it a priority.

In conclusion: As public affairs professionals, it is our job to help operations managers see their decisions from the outside in, advise them on the likelihood of success, and prioritize your efforts across the whole organization.  Probing questions like these will help you deliver value within the resource limitations we all face.

Remember, for success in public affairs, it is essential to see tomorrow, so you can act today.

* I should note that I’m focusing on large companies/agencies and associations with diverse membership.  For small business, you may see this as you work with your industry/trade association, chamber of commerce, etc..

** I’m using “it” here to represent whatever the manager is asking your Public Affairs team to advocate.  Plug in whatever best fits your situation – the bill, regulation, etc.

*** Within the bounds of important rules against collusion and other anti-competitive behaviors.