Selective engagement is a communication strategy that basically involves engaging on your own terms – you choose when and with whom you communicate. It applies mostly to media, either directly or indirectly, and particularly in crises.
Selective engagement as advocated by US consultant Jim Lukaszewski means you don’t necessarily respond every time your organization’s name is raised in the media or in other forums or when a journalist contacts you. Many media officers try to excel at their job by obligingly responding as fast as possible to media contact or by hastening to respond to comments in the media by others about their organization.
However, it is more valuable to think strategically about whether to respond, and if so, when the best time may be to respond. Selective engagement can be far more effective than knee-jerk responses:
- Always focus on your communication goals.
Write them down and get the organizational spokespersons to use them as guidelines.
- Keep messages focused and consistent.
The more focused your organization’s messages, the more focused the debate will be. Don’t allow your messages to be hijacked into non-productive areas. Solid information simply presented is a key ingredient for success. Most news items during high-profile incidents are repetitive and trivial only if they are allowed to be.
- Concentrate preparation only on the toughest questions.
In any situation, there will be only a limited number of core questions. The process of developing answers to those responses will help your spokesperson to handle virtually all other questions. Trying to learn all responses under pressure will be too difficult and will divert from the main issues.
Critics, victims, media and others tend to focus on the inconsistencies. The result is unnecessary questions and a perception of untrustworthiness. So, stick to the script – a plain language explanation supported by two or three relevant stories and examples. Avoid negative words and phrases (eg. “No.”, “That’s not right.”, “We didn’t do that.”, “I didn’t say that.”). Such words and phrases tend to legitimize the question and become the headline and the focus of the story: “The company today denied …” and “Today the Minister refused to rule out…” Positive language is the most powerful relationship-managing tool
- Communicate directly to stakeholders, not through the media.
Talk to people directly rather than indirectly through the media, if given a choice. News media are appropriate only when it is difficult to reach stakeholders directly. This was the policy of one of the most admired business leaders in the world, Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, who believed it was more valuable to spend time with employees than with reporters and financial analysts
- Always let opponents and critics speak for themselves.
Critics need aggressive responses to generate the energy necessary to keep their ideas in the news. There is no obligation to respond to what they say. Letting them speak for themselves usually becomes repetitious and boring to the media and the public. And they will often show themselves up as being unworthy to be listened to.
- Doing nothing can be a powerful force.
A delay in response can occur for various unintentional reasons, but can often be the best response to help diffuse the initial media and critic interest. You should mention the strategic option of delay or doing nothing and should explore the benefits of doing so. If you don’t, someone else invariably will.
- Respond to media contact only when the needs of those directly affected have been attended to.
Fundamentally, other stakeholders are usually more important than media. It is not a crime to attend to the stakeholders first. If the needs of stakeholders are attended to, especially in an emergency, there is less for the media to seize upon.