In one of the more memorable songs in “Hamilton,” the award winning Broadway musical, Aaron Burr, the show’s complicated anti-hero and narrator, sings of his desire to be “in the room where it happens.” Hamilton, Jefferson and Madison have cast Burr aside as they negotiate everything from fiscal policy to where to place the new nation’s capital, and he laments his lack of influence. He is both literally and metaphorically outside the room.
In political campaigns, choosing who gets to be “in the room” when communication strategy and messages are created is almost as important as who the candidate is (or what the issue is). Decision makers benefit enormously when as many diverse perspectives as possible are included in the process. Political campaigns, especially, capitalize on this integrated model. They synthesize minute-to-minute information by looking at different current events, polling, policy proposals and data from social media to create targeted messages for the candidate.
This kind of “war room” approach, so common in political life, can also serve as the nerve center of operations in corporate and government crisis management. It can be equally useful, as well, in day-to-day communication planning. Why shouldn’t you process and analyze all of the best thinking, data and information in order to make informed strategic decisions and the communication that follows? It’s surely hard to argue otherwise, at least in principle, but business leaders often think they don’t have the time to consult with everyone. Instead, they choose to engage with only a couple of trusted colleagues. Expanding the points of view and the range of information to which leaders are exposed before making critical decisions can have extraordinary value – and communications leaders can play a vital role in broadening their C.E.O.’s exposure to the best ideas and information.
I remember working with a C.E.O. who was struggling over how different groups might react to a decision he needed to make. He asked me to talk to three of the company’s senior executives and come back with a recommendation. He called the exercise a “mini focus group.”
While the executives oversaw different businesses, this wasn’t quite the diversity I thought was sufficient to inform a recommendation. In addition to their views, we needed to consider what the regulators might have in store for the business or the industry (regulatory affairs). We had to anticipate how research analysts would respond if we were to make an announcement (IR). We also needed to understand whether elected officials would object (government affairs), and how the media might respond (PR).
Because managers can have a profound effect on how employees respond, understanding how to communicate with them would have to be a key consideration (internal communications/HR).
So, in addition to chatting with the three executives, I engaged the heads of the different departments to assess potential impacts. I was able to come back to the C.E.O. with the answer he requested, as well as various potential scenarios on how his decision might be accepted across many audiences. When he made the decision, our “war room” had left us prepared, able to anticipate potential reactions; this thinking went into our messaging.
Inclusive decision making can – and should — be used in day-to-day strategic communication and messaging. A war room breaks down the barriers between departments, enabling business leaders to access as many perspectives as possible — in real time. I have found that in times of crisis, departments and functions within a business are more than willing to come out of their silos to battle a perceived threat together. They more readily share information, and they ask questions of each other. But when executives do not perceive an immediate threat, comfortable isolation often becomes their default position.
The “war room” model, by emphasizing the need to gather the best and most diverse information and analysis, reduces the inflexibility of reporting structures and hierarchies. Employees who can add value to decision making are invited to the table. No matter how comfortable isolation may be, diversity remains an essential ingredient in strategic communication.
The communications department can play a leading role bringing together people who have their fingers on many different pulses. It’s essential to create a broadly diverse team that learns to work together in this way. You have a place to test run potential business decisions and talk through possible consequences.
An inclusive “war room” promotes more thoughtful, flexible and effective decision making. You will have provided your company with an enormously valuable tool – and you will discover that leaders throughout your organization will clamor to be included.
Who knows how history might have been different if Mr. Burr had been given his spot in the “room where it happens?”