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Inquiry Management

Inquiry management can make or break a communication effort. Earlier I quoted a frustrated communicator who spent two days responding to reporters. However, the company was criticized in news accounts for being unresponsive simply because the stretched communication team couldn't get back to everyone in a timely manner. You also read the disturbing story of neighbors near a plant that had experienced an explosion and fire emailing the company to find out if they should evacuate, only to have their emails answered two weeks later. The best of communication efforts will fail in the minds of those people who have asked a question and not received a response.

Technology has a very important role to play here, as do training and communication policies and plans. Technology can provide the means to collect, organize, track, and report on inquiries. Technology can facilitate getting the appropriate responses to the right people and also help a communication manager or company executive monitor the effectiveness of the response in real time or in detailed reporting after the crisis has passed.

With the communication management technology now available, inquiries are captured from the public site and by members of the communication team recording telephone calls or email inquiries and adding them to the inquiry list maintained inside the private team intranet site. By having all inquiries recorded and available on this site, all team members can work in concert to manage inquiries, even if it is 2 a.m. and they are scattered around the globe on vacations or business trips. An effective inquiry management system will show which inquiries have been completed and which ones have not. It will also allow a communication manager to act as a sort of air traffic controller, directing specific inquiries to the most appropriate member of the team. It will enable each member of the team to see who is working on each inquiry, whether they have responded, and how they have responded. It will also allow a communication manager to view all inquiry activity to determine the nature of the questions, to see if rumors are arising, and to evaluate both the speed and effectiveness of the responses. The system will also enable communicators to write the responses, forward the drafts to others for review, and send materials directly from the system via email to reporters or inquirers without having to exit the system.

In a large organization, such as a global manufacturing company, the communication team might be responsible for handling inquiries on a wide variety of issues from around the globe. Reporters are known to develop direct contacts with several members of the team and go from team member to team member asking the same question. The problems for the communication team are the risk of inconsistent answers and having multiple team members spend time on the same question. The only way to improve efficiency, quality, and consistency of response is to have communication management technology that allows every team member to share the information in real time. Today, that reality essentially forces the technology onto the Internet because of its accessibility; it also requires that the communication system be highly secure.

Another advantage of this available technology is record keeping. Where drills are required by law (e.g., in the oil industry), the documentation of drills can be very significant. In drills where this technology was used, the complete record of all communication activities, including all inquiries and their responses, was prepared simply by requesting a report from the system. The resulting printout recorded the full communication activity during the drill, including details on each inquiry and their responses. Even more so than in a drill, such automated record keeping can be invaluable as part of a debriefing after a crisis and can supply highly useful training material for the communication team to better prepare for the next event.

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