The news that the U.S. government is giving up control of the Internet – that is, the Department of Commerce announcing it will end its oversight of ICANN, the non-profit that administers Internet domains – brought me back to a time in my public affairs career when I learned first-hand about managing controversies, especially those that involve the government.
While ICANN was in its infancy – the late 1990s, early 2000s – I was helping represent a company that had developed the Internet domain name registration service and was also responsible for selling the domain names for .com, .net, .org and .edu. The company I directly worked for had purchased this domain name company for a modest sum in 1995, when nobody saw its value. When the Internet took off like a rocket, however, that entity soon became a target of criticism and controversy because of its so-called monopoly position in the domain name process.
It was a time of constant press activity, congressional hearings and stakeholder negotiations. Looking back through my current public affairs eyes, I can offer these three lessons:
1. Understand that Perception is Reality
It’s better to acknowledge the prevailing perception and deal with it rather than continuing to argue the technicalities – even if you’re right on the technicalities. You might not be a monopoly on technical grounds, but if everyone believes you are, you are. Of course you have to assert the actual reality: that you are not a monopoly because of a, b and c. But you can’t stop there. You have to take stock of the perceived reality and find ways to accommodate and respond to that also. If you don’t you are just fooling yourself, for once the perceived reality gets a life of its own, the fine points are no longer effective.
2. Educate the Media
More than anything else, members of the media want good, solid information. When you’re dealing with a technology that looks simple but that most people really don’t understand, open up and explain as much as you can. Invite reporters to tour your facilities, provide subject experts who can talk them through what they need and have plenty of background material ready to share. Educate first and try to convince later.
3. Head Off the Clash of the Titans
When members of the C-suite have to face either policymakers or reporters/editorial boards hostile to their company’s position, their knee-jerk reaction might be the “I’m bigger, stronger, more powerful than you are” approach. Unless you counsel them otherwise, this is the attitude many CEOs resort to when under pressure, and they’ve used it effectively in other settings. Needless to say, the perils of this approach in a public affairs setting are numerous, and they can be costly. When preparing CEOs for hostile situations, you need to address not only the messaging but also the attitude. Tone conveys a message just as much as carefully scripted verbiage does, and it will not go unnoticed by the sharp reporter, editorial board member or member of Congress.
The broad-based public affairs team I was part of did a good job in a very difficult situation, and I feel privileged to have witnessed early policy development for the Internet. The Internet governance issues facing ICANN now are far more complex and involve far more players than just the United States. The lessons I learned from that earlier time in Internet history, however – perception is reality, educate the media and ward off the clash of the titans – have proven to be pretty timeless.
Do you have any lessons learned from managing a controversy? Leave a comment below, or tweet us at @RHStrategic with the hashtag #RHetoricBlog. We’d love to hear from fellow PR professionals and journalists alike.
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