A client recently asked what is the most important factor in effectively managing a challenging issue. Without a doubt, the answer is time.
Time can be a friend or an enemy. Time can be on your side or an advantage for your opposition.
Because timing is so crucial, these actions take on greater significance:
Anticipating an issue can yield valuable time to develop a response, test messages, prepare materials and make initial contacts.
Anticipation cannot be a random act. Sensing an early wind of an emerging issue requires a disciplined approach of active listening. You need to read traditional media and tune in to alternative media where your detractors may congregate. Keep an eye on the New York Times bestseller list, which is a telling guide to what people are reading and consequently talking about. The same goes for issue-oriented movies that can create a pulse of interest in an issue sparked by a Hollywood star.
Making a surprise announcement can be a disarming tactic. It also can be a destabilizing one.
Generally speaking, catching people by surprise is not a good thing. Your supporters don’t like being surprised. Surprising skeptics can reinforce their skepticism. Opponents can turn surprise announcements into launchpads for counteroffensives.
Using time wisely means not resorting to surprise for effect. You can be more intentional, even methodical in your decision-making, message development and advance outreach. The people you want to impress will the first to know, not the last.
First impressions are the ones that usually stick and can influence how people view an issue as it evolves. Making a great first impression – and being the first to make an impression – is the greatest reward that time can give.
Major brands work hard on new product rollouts to make a great first impression, which can affect buy decisions. The same holds true on issues management. Making the first impression is a huge advantage in ultimately persuading people to your point of view.
When you tell your story first, and do so credibly, which can mean including third-party validation, you have your best shot at winning the day. When opponents tell their story first and you must respond defensively, your chances of prevailing diminish. It’s not a lost cause, but it often is an uphill battle.
Being first and being thoughtful and convincing is only possible if you have time and steward your time well.
Time is and always has been the greatest home field advantage. Never cede it to the visiting team.
Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.