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The role of technology in managing public affairs.

In the 1990's, technology is fundamentally changing how we manage public affairs activities.

Communicators in the U.S. are moving into an era in which cost constraints and external pressures force us to develop more effective tools to leverage everything we do in public affairs. Environmental pressures in our respective industries will continue to grow, consumer activism is on the upswing. Government's mood is to stem deregulation in some sectors and re-regulate in others.

To effect change, organizations must develop strategies and target audiences more effectively than ever before.

Technology is by no means an end in itself, but it can help organizations execute an integrated strategy across all public affairs disciplines to influence public opinion, media coverage and legislative/regulatory outcomes.

I have observed two organizational models for how people use technology in public affairs. Other variations may exist, but these best illustrate my points.

In the prevalent model today, each distinct area of public affairs -- government relations, media relations, philanthropic activities -- has its own database, which for the most part is an administrative database, which serves to help manage that particular program and that program alone.

These systems do indeed improve the effectiveness of each department, but in almost all instances there are limits on the ability to compare data across departments.

Departments provide data "reactively" based on specific requests from senior management or other departments. Often public affairs professionals see themselves within these different functions as clients to one another -- instead of team members in a strategic effort to serve the company.

Even when the team spirit is present, the design of the technology may limit your ability to respond. One department comes to the other and asks, "Can you give me this information?" They respond: "I can give you this list of names, but I can't give it to you the way you need it because of the system ... and that request may take us till next week."

The integrated model brings it all together

The other model, the one I think we're headed toward, is what I call the integrated model. You have a string of departments which perceive themselves as integrated in terms of how they operate, integrated in terms of where data is kept, and integrated in their understanding of how to use data to "leverage the whole" of your public/external affairs effort.

In this scenario, a system is meant to support all of the areas, and provide access to information across those functional areas in a way that you need -- helping us move to that strategic level.

Designing this type of database model requires that public affairs professionals see interconnections and leveraging opportunities. For example:

* Tracking reporters who have written positive articles about a particular issue or seem predisposed to your organization, and identifying them by congressional district where votes may be needed in Washington.

* Tracking philanthropic grants and philanthropic group members by congressional or state legislative districts and communicating information to them on issues affecting the organization.

* Comparing the biographical backgrounds of elected officials with the backgrounds of employees who are involved in local political contact programs. Are these areas of common interest that might help your company establish stronger ties?

* Can we provide our PR people direct, online access to information about our philanthropic program to share with press contacts ... or feed information to employees meeting elected officials on money donated in a particular legislative district? Can we leverage these meetings to communicate other company concerns/messages on key issues?

* Another example: Your senior management turns to you and says, "I need a detailed breakdown of all public affairs involvements and a list of our supporters, media contacts and stakeholders in a key congressional district in the state of Texas. And I need that report in 15 minutes."

Developing mailing lists that can be drawn from contacts among different areas of public affairs; identifying speaking engagements; targeting pitches to reporters or editors whom you have pre-identified as being open and interested in a particular issue; the ability to look at political contributions and contributors by legislative district and compare that with supporters in the business community ... all of these approaches show how technology can help companies track and leverage their activities.

A company's ability to respond quickly to challenges -- that "window of opportunity" -- is much smaller today.

Whether the issue is the environment, taxes or privacy, we're going to see a lot more consumer groups getting organized and going out to lobby local legislatures. These groups are better organized, much more sophisticated than ever before, and they have in their arsenal new technology to help them communicate with broader audiences.

They get marketing lists and do targeted mailings. They use 900 numbers to solicit funds as well as to identify supporters and mail literature.

Influencing outcomes will require organizations to develop strategies and target audiences more effectively than ever before. And that's where technology will be an invaluable asset.

Creating an institutional memory

In addition, technology will allow you to create an institutional memory for your organization.

In media relations, it may be difficult to reconstruct what was said, when it was said, to whom it was said, how it was said, what the circumstances were, and capture insights on the reporter writing the story. This context can be vitally important if the issue resurfaces -- and most controversial issues do.

We're in a period of high staff turnover. It is imperative that organizations have effective safeguards to reconstruct how media situations were handled. That continuity, constancy and consistency of communication strategy is going to be a key to the success of the organization.

Without a doubt, technological innovations are changing the world we live in. As public affairs professionals, we are challenged to embrace this change and find smarter, more effective methods of using technology to serve our companies.

A proactive model of public affairs says that we're going to anticipate what might happen. We're going to lay out all of the "if P then Q" scenarios and use technological tools to help plan and execute actions we will take under each scenario. And so whatever comes our way, we will be prepared to fill in the blanks, manage through the situation and positively enhance our organization's image.

Stuart Z. Goldstein is director, corporate communications, National Securities Clearing Corp., New York City.


Let me describe two examples of technological tools I've helped introduce at one company:

Tracking news events

How we get news and how we use information to affect media coverage is critical. Instead of having a Dow Jones machine, a Reuters machine and an AP machine, this company is now receiving half a dozen wire services through a network of PCs. And not only is it able to access these newswires at their desks. But it is also able to track newswire stories by subjects that are important for us to know about. It can track stories, print them out or fax the story to anyone in or outside the company. Now it can get the information fast and in a way that is useful to us. And that significantly changes the way it does business.

The more quickly we can see the information, the better our opportunity to call the news wires, to call the newspapers locally and try to clarify the facts in the story before it actually shows up in print. That's an innovation which dramatically affects who defines the messages and how the story gets written.

In the not too distant future, this same technology will actually deliver newspaper articles. Simply pre-identify subjects that you want, and those articles will show up on computer screens in the morning.

No one will have to sit and read the top 20 newspapers at his desk each morning, and clip stories for circulation. You're going to be able to deliver that to your entire public relations network -- and senior management -- worldwide by eight o'clock by the press of a button.

Tracking contacts with the media

A second major innovation has focused on creating a sophisticated media tracking system which can capture detailed information on contacts with reporters, issues they cover, news coverage by media organization, press events, etc. Eventually, software can be developed that bridges media tracking and the newswire/news article capture system. In this scenario, a complete institutional memory of media coverage could be available on-line.

The benefits from a media tracking system offer communicators a better understanding of what issues journalists who cover the company are writing about, when we get good articles, when we get bad articles, a way to diagnose or evaluate the kind of coverage that we're getting. In a decentralized environment, it will enable the company to prospect stories by more effectively probing press people who call us: "Well, I'm not interested in doing a story on credit cards ... but I am interested in hearing about your environmental activities."

That information goes into a data system. Then others in the PR network can access the system and use it for prospecting when the environmental story comes along. That is a very different approach to managing your messages ... and your company's image.

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COPYRIGHT 1992 International Association of Business Communicators
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Title Annotation:includes related article
Author:Goldstein, Stuart Z.
Publication:Communication World
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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