Accidents have a deservedly bad reputation. However, some accidents turn into brilliant discoveries. That’s as true in public affairs as in business.
The list of accidental discoveries is impressive – and telling. The microwave oven, super glue, Teflon, Velcro, pacemakers, X-rays and glasses for the color blind. They are the byproducts of experimentation, curiosity, observation, failure and chance.
The inventor of the microwave oven made his serendipitous discovery in 1946 when walking through a radar test room and noticed a chocolate bar melting in his pants. Curious, he aimed a magnetron at kernels of corn that popped and an egg that cooked almost instantly. Public affairs professionals should pay attention when an event, message or spokesperson causes a chocolate bar to melt in their pants.
Competent public affairs plans rely on credible research that provides a clear window into how a target audience views a topic or project. However, even the most well-conceived plans can have gaps or encounter unanticipated circumstances. Accidents happen. When they do, spend less time freaking out and more time assessing whether the accident revealed useful information or guidance.
A big problem with public involvement efforts is the overweening desire to exercise control. As a result, they have more to do with delivering a scripted performance than discovering fresh, unnoticed perspectives. Tightly controlling public engagement may avoid accidents. It also may miss out on accidental knowledge.
Take for example a public engagement effort to explain the purpose, dimensions and timeline of a major construction project that will disrupt local businesses, create neighborhood noise and affect school bus routes. A large group meeting, no matter how well orchestrated with explanatory posters, is almost certain to draw criticism – and negative media attention.
Seeking out neighborhood leaders in advance to ask them for their ideas on how to mitigate the project’s impact could produce “accidental” ideas, such as creating a new community park as “compensation” for the disruption or maintaining safe zones for school buses and schoolchildren. Yes, ideas like that would up the cost of the project, but they also could cool down the neighborhood outcry.
The type of research used to design a public affairs plan can anticipate “accidental” findings. Telephone surveys will produce quantitatively reliable findings. Interactive online engagement, on the other hand, will produce a wider range of comments – some not-so-helpful, a few incredibly insightful and one or two with specific, actionable suggestions.
One of the most useful train wrecks in public affairs is to meet face-to-face with critics. Not only is it disarming, such personal contact with what your opposition thinks can bend your own thinking. They may have viewpoints you never considered or give as much weight as they deserved. Such “accidental” discovery early in a public affairs process gives you a distinct advantage in coming up with convincing counter-arguments or modifying your proposal to accommodate opposition concerns.
The point: Be open to accidents. They aren’t always failures. They can be eye-popping moments that lead to improved projects, happier neighbors and satisfying consensus.
Don’t let that melting chocolate bar in your pants go to waste.
Gary Conkling is principal 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.