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This chapter is from the book

Interactivity and Response

The two-way nature of communication is often given lip service but not seriously addressed. Admittedly, most of the focus in this book has been on quickly getting messages out to specific people and audiences. However, the ability to listen is also greatly improving with technology and there is much evidence that, similar to the demand for information, the individual's demand to be heard also corresponds to his or her realization that the technology exists to facilitate listening. The surprising popularity of radio talk shows is one example of how in this media-saturated environment, people are longing to be heard.

At the most basic level, a communication system today must allow interested people to register their interest, and the easier and more inviting the method, the better. A Web site that has no contact button or no email address to send questions or comments to or does not encourage response is a Web site that subtly communicates "We don't care much about you." If a system is used that places the contact databases on a Web platform, it is very easy to have dynamic and automatic database development from the public Web site. This is done more and more, and it helps eliminate double entry of names. More important, it helps communicate that you are eager to communicate with your audience. When this technology is used, visitors to a public site are encouraged to register themselves and those names are automatically added to the database managed within the Internet-based communication management system.

A second level of interactivity is facilitating questions, comments, and inquiries. A government agency found itself in the middle of a sizable public controversy. It offered an toll-free number for citizens to register complaints or comments. I asked how incoming calls were managed. I was told, somewhat sheepishly, that they were gathered on an answering machine that could handle 60 calls. I asked how many calls they had received. The answer was 1,400. When the machine was filled, they erased the calls and reset it to receive the next 60. If the public calling in had an inkling that this was how their efforts to communicate to their government were being handled, their anger would have increased.

Because we live in a mixed-media world, inquiries and comments can and do come from a variety of different media: telephone, fax, email, and even mail once in a while. Email is now one of the most important means of interaction, but it also represents significant management issues. In 2001, it was reported that Congress received more than 80 million email messages and that the burden of those emails was simply beyond managing. Personal experience in attempting to contact federal elected officials confirms that although they might have the automated response down, they do not yet have the ability to manage the email messages they receive. This same problem will plague any company or organization finding itself in the news.

Although some email management technologies currently exist and no doubt will emerge to help address this significant problem, one of the best ways to manage inquiries today is to incorporate them into the communication management system. This is done by providing an inquiry function on the public Web site so those inquiries are managed on the team intranet site. Aside from the technology, which is becoming increasingly common, reporters and members of the public or other key audiences must be directed and encouraged to use the inquiry management system available on the public site. A public site inquiry form should ask the person inquiring to indicate if he or she is a member of the media or a member of another identified audience group (e.g., elected officials). It should also provide a convenient form for indicating the topic; the specific question; the time the response is needed; what company, media, or organization the individual is with; and other pertinent information that will help build a valuable inquiry history.

An inquiry that lands on an intranet or private communication team site without some notification is trouble. What if no one checks the inquiry list? Current technology alerts the communication team or designated members that an inquiry has been registered. As a user of such technology, I receive an alert on my text pager whenever inquiries land on client communication sites that I am managing.

A third level of interactivity is more directive listening. Questions can be directed to public site viewers or can be sent directly to specific individuals via email. Current technology facilitates this by providing simple survey-building tools and a viewer survey or poll on the public site, with the results monitored and analyzed on the private intranet site. Communication managers can select whether to share results with the public on a real-time basis or keep all results private. This technology also enables surveys to be published to lists managed within the system. Examples of this include use by government agencies or elected officials to get snapshot views of public reaction to new proposals or controversies and by companies to gauge public reaction to new initiatives, proposed actions, or even just to get a sense of how they are doing in communicating to key audiences.

Interactivity also includes tracking what reporters write or present. There are many technologies currently available for media tracking from a variety of vendors, both as packaged software and as hosted Internet applications (sometimes called Application Service Providers, or ASPs). Integrating these functions into a comprehensive communication management system means that a single system can complete the communication management circle.

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