leadership

The one question you can’t forget to ask when searching for a PR agency

Sometimes you read something and all you can think is “couldn’t have said it better myself.” That’s how I felt reading  Roy Osing’s fantastic column  yesterday in the Globe and Mail on the need for leaders to get way deeper into the trenches with their teams, and to never delegate truly strategic work.

Osing writes: “Strategic actions require the fingerprints of a leader who is a master at do-it-yourself.”

It wasn’t about the PR industry, but it easily could’ve been.

Sound familiar?

One question clients always ask their prospective PR agencies (and behind closed doors, agencies ask of themselves) is who the “lead” will be on the team. It can be difficult to answer.

Do they mean the “day to day” lead? That’s the person best defined as the throat to choke. They put in the hours, they are on speed dial, and on the “to” line of every email.

Or, do they mean the other kind of lead? Call them what you will, be it strategic oversight, senior counsel, senior lead. It’s the person who a) is the most experienced and who b) will typically be seen most often during the initial sale and onboarding, or at major milestones. Otherwise, they’re the name on the "cc" line.

It works... in theory

On the surface, it may seem like clients and agencies like this arrangement, mostly due to budget. Clients worry that too much senior leader time will run up billables (although let me be clear: if your agency sends you surprise bills, you should switch your agency). For agencies, spreading senior talent across as many clients as possible is ideal.

The result is that senior leaders can’t dive into execution, and the barriers to changing that are put in place early by both sides. Over time, the risk is that everyone comes to believe the leader shouldn’t execute, and that more junior people will carry the load. And that’s where breakdowns can begin.

There are lot of good reasons to senior leaders to stay above the fray. Juniors learn from mistakes. No one wants to work for a micro-manager. And how do you build capacity when a handful of people are doing all the problem solving? But there can be too much of good thing.

That’s why small agencies see their own size not as a disadvantage, but as a winning edge. Senior people see things through from start to finish. And when they can’t handle it all, they seek out fellow experts to get it done. It’s fast, it’s efficient. And it’s what I’ve come to embrace.

The takeaway

So, as part of your agency search ask yourself this question: how important are senior counsel and real industry knowledge to the successful execution of your mandate? If it the answer is “very,” then be prepared to ask some tough but necessary follow-up questions.

 

 

Top 4 PR mistakes for leaders to avoid

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When it comes to effective public relations, there is a lot for a leader to take in. He or she has to be knowledgeable, clear, concise and confident. In addition, different rules of engagement apply depending on whether you're announcing good news, sharing your expertise or defending your brand for a crisis.

At Provident, we have used our expertise to coach companies, CEOs and other C-level leaders on how to connect with the media effectively. It isn't something mastered in a single sitting, and takes constant practice. With that in mind, we wanted to share some of the most common errors we see, and how to sidestep them.

Inaccessibility: It's easy for leaders who don't have a ton of experience in this area to think that their organization's media relations department should handle most interactions with journalists. We've seen leaders eager for profile in the media, but not willing to be the face of their company in a story. If you're interested in protecting and enhancing the brand and reputation of your company, that walled-off approach can actually hurt instead of helping.

For instance, when a reporter approaches you with interest in your recently launched product, the biggest mistake you can make is to respond with a simple statement or some press release links. The reporter will likely think you to be opaque, and you will miss an excellent opportunity to shape the public narrative about your company. And in crisis, especially when a company's core values and consumer promises are under attack, leaders have to be visible. Resorting solely to using spokespeople and statements can erode credibility and be perceived as minimizing the issue. In short, it can exacerbate damage to your brand.

Like it or not, if you lead an organization, you have to have to speak with the media, and it's important that you be good at it.

Lack of preparation: Congratulations, you've made the decision to engage with reporters! With that out of the way, it’s key that you begin preparing and practising, so that you’re ready for when the opportunity (or crisis!) arrives.

In good-news stories, a lack of preparation can be as wasteful as deciding not to talk to the media at all. For example, we've seen instances when a leader is convinced that they know their business backwards and forwards, and that media prep isn't a productive use of time. The leader does the media interview, only to be surprised when they receive minimal coverage in the resulting article. Often, jargon and technical language are to blame. Framing your story in plain language is a key objective of preparation, and should never be ignored. Your brand will thank you for it! For more on how untrained spokespeople can ruin even the best laid PR plans, check out this post.

In a crisis, a lack of prep can be lethal for your reputation. Aside from having a crisis management process which lets you round up key facts and decision makers inside your company quickly, you have to prepare for the questions you will likely face from the media and other stakeholders. Your answers have to be straightforward, factual and rooted firmly in fact. Avoid "freestyling" and speculative answers, unless you're looking to extend the negative news cycle and pour gasoline on the reputation fire. And if you've never faced a crisis before, here's what to do when your media line starts ringing.

Key messages only: You've practiced. You've got your key messages down pat. Now all that stands in the way of success is making sure that journalists report them. Surely, the best way to do that is by repeating them during the interview, over and over again, and regardless of what you're being asked. Right? Well, not exactly.

Because religiously sticking to key messages is sometimes seen as a security blanket for less-than-confident spokespeople, the "key messages only" or "block and bridge" approach is still alive and well today. At Provident, we counsel our clients that if you're looking for a quick way to damage your media relationships and hurt your credibility, this is the single best way to go. Check out this post for more on this subject.

If, on the other hand, you want to elevate your brand and establish yourself and your company as industry thought leaders, you need to think in storylines and narratives, rather than rigid key messages. And in a crisis, empathy and factual clarity almost always works much better than stonewalling the media with your "lines."

Not understanding the media: Last but not least, executive PR failures can often be traced back to a basic misunderstanding of the media and their audiences. If you want to see PR success, you need to think like a reporter, not an advertiser. That means you shouldn't give the reporter your blog copy, ads and fact sheet and expect a glowing front-page story about how amazing you are.

Instead, provide the reporter with something truly new, differentiated and innovative, and which gives their audience value. Invest a little time in researching the reporters with whom you plan to speak, and ensure they have at least a passing interest in your company or your industry. With a little bit of good timing, you will get interest, coverage and the licence to start establishing you and your company as experts in your field.

Engaging with the media is a crucial role for the leadership of any organization. To work well, it requires strategic planning, narrative preparation and strong execution. If you're interested in an unbiased expert opinion about your story, just drop us a line at wojtek@providentcomms.com!

We should talk!

Photo courtesy of Ostap Melnik

Happy New Year!

I’m proud of how quickly Provident Communications Inc. has grown since launch. To continue building on this early success, I plan to expand the firm in 2017. If you are a communications professional who wants a rewarding, fast-paced challenge, Provident is the place. If you want to do great work for great clients in exchange for excitement, flexibility, financial upside and the opportunity to shape a start-up corporate communications firm, I would love to speak with you.

Here is, in very broad strokes, how I would define someone ideally suited to work at Provident:

You are never happy with the status quo and always strive for improvement, disrupting your own way of doing things and constantly learning new platforms and ways of communicating. You’re passionate, creative and excellent at connecting with people. You have a focus on action and results, driven by clearly set expectations. You’re resilient, calm under pressure, and thrive despite uncertainty. You welcome feedback, and give it freely, in pursuit of the best possible client outcome.

You have lots of experience developing new business and attracting new clients. While this is a senior role, you’re just as capable and excited to be actually doing the work as you are selling it. You have great media relationships. You never have coffee alone, and are always connecting with new reporters, bloggers, potential clients or future colleagues. You’re comfortable giving difficult advice to senior executives, and you’ve managed crisis and issues for clients in the past.

You know that the one thing you have over everyone else is the ability to outwork them, and that hard work is what turns your great talents into success. This is a start-up firm, and that means lots of hustle. You make mistakes, get over them quickly and don’t repeat the same ones twice. You believe failing fast is good, but not as good as failing less. Your vision of the future contemplates only success, because you know negativity is poison.

In return for the value you add, you want significant financial reward, a chance to shape a communications firm from the ground up and the ability to work with some of the best clients in Corporate Canada and, soon, Corporate America.

If that sounds like you, drop me a note at wojtek@providentcomms.com

(Photo courtesy of Ostap Melnik)

How to stop taking orders and start adding real value

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Early in my communications career, I was speaking with a colleague who was telling me about her overwhelming workload. “I currently have 35 pieces of work in flight or in the pipeline, and my clients just keep adding more. I don’t think there’s anyone else here who’s working as hard as I am right now!”

She was right, and it wasn't a good thing! My colleague was incredibly well-intentioned, capable at her job, and in charge of helping a dynamic business communicate with its employees. However, she always said "yes" and rarely pushed back with her clients. To them, she had become an execution-focused order taker instead of the strategic advisor she wanted to be. As a result, she was never consulted in advance of key decisions being made.

She wasn’t the only one hurt by this: while she was struggling under the workload, the business she was supporting was pumping out tactical, transactional and scattershot communications not bound together by any common strategic theme. The people ordering up these pieces weren't communications experts, and it showed. It was a mess for her, and it was a mess for them. That’s not to mention the end user – the company's employees themselves! Needless to say, there wasn’t a lot of happiness to go around in this situation.

Communicators are constantly striving for the strategic partner label, believing they deserve an early seat at the decision-making table. It’s a worthy pursuit to be sure – the status of a trusted advisor lets you add value before, during and after a project launches, and often gives you visibility with top leaders.

But how do you earn that coveted status without falling into the trap my colleague fell into? Here are a two things to consider:

Learn how to say “no.”

You hear this so often, but it really does bear repeating: as long as you don’t challenge and push back when you should, you will be seen as an order-taker. Your seniority inside the organization doesn’t matter. Whether you’re a senior vice president or a junior associate, you have to be able to productively and respectfully challenge and push back when something your business is proposing just doesn’t feel right.

This isn’t about blocking the way. It’s about showing a better one. "No" immediately refocuses the conversation on a very important question: "Why not?" This then creates an opportunity to show that you have expertise regarding the issue at hand and to recommend a different course of action.

Saying "no" also shows you're carefully weighing the positive and negative outcomes of what's on the table, rather than just mindlessly executing what is asked. Most importantly, you have to show the additional value your approach would yield over and above what has already been proposed.

Do this well, and your clients will see the value you bring, and mindsets will shift. In fact, “no” is so powerful that it can change perceptions with just one interaction. What’s more, your clients will start inviting you into the discussion before an approach is decided. After all, you’re the expert. Once that becomes clear to them, they will know there's no one better than you to advise on the correct way forward?

Be curious and understand the business you support

It’s often easy for clients to be dismissive of communicators who don’t sit in the business, and therefore “just don’t get it.” Few things show your client you care about their world more than genuine curiosity, and an ability to intelligently and accurately discuss the strategy and the priorities of their business.

This means you’re keen to get your hands on the strategy documents as soon as they become available, and you jump on the chance to sit in on and contribute to the team meetings your clients hold. It means asking lots of questions, and often getting to know your clients on a personal level.

It's difficult to paint someone who does these things well as an order taker focused only on execution. Again, by investing time and showing care and curiosity, you'll create more opportunities for your expertise to show.

If you want to add even more value, become more knowledgeable about the external environment. What sort of impact is the current economic climate or competitive picture having on the business you work with? Are you able to connect emerging external trends with what’s going on inside the company, and offer new communications strategies as a result?

The bottom line is that if you want to be a strategic partner, you have to earn it. Learning to say “no” and really getting to know the business you work with can completely reframe how you’re perceived. Your clients will thank you, you’ll get to do much more (truly) strategic work, and you’ll move the needle in terms of employee engagement and buy-in.

I hope you enjoyed the post, and if so, that you’ll take the time to like, share or leave a comment below!

Three ways strong leaders build trust

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Trust transforms everything inside an organization. When people trust each other, they’re willing to fight for each other, more readily work towards mutual goals, and aren't afraid to take calculated risks to drive positive change. Externally, the story is no different: trusted brands can command a premium for their products and services, attract top talent and enjoy strong customer loyalty.

Like a reputation, trust is difficult to develop and easy to lose. It also takes constant work to maintain, particularly in large enterprises which constantly have to fight to preserve their culture while adding new employees.

Senior leaders are the ones most often charged with fostering trust inside an organization, but it's absolutely critical that they ensure it cascades through middle management and is felt on the front-line, ideally reaching all the way to customers and clients.

I've had the luck and pleasure of working with many skilled, honest and impactful leaders, and there are definitely some consistent habits shared by those who are most trusted. I've seen them use these behaviours to maintain existing trust, nurture it in new employees, and strengthen company culture.

So, how do they do it?

1. They communicate early, often and openly. Good communication is critical to a leader’s overall success, and it's an essential skill in building trust as well. Open communication helps teams understand the “why” behind a project or initiative, rather than just the actions required to achieve the outcome.

And when things go wrong, transparency helps ensure that rather than blaming, the focus is on learning, planning and moving forward. (Two-way dialogue can help a lot here, as opposed to one-way announcements or speeches. More on that in a moment.)

Whenever possible, the most effective leaders also communicate about a project or initiative well before the final decision is made. Few actions foster trust more effectively than this. By communicating early in a project's life, a leader is effectively telling everyone in the organization, “we want to hear what you think before we decide what to do.”

There’s a fine line between open communication and turning every project into an all-employee vote. Some projects are also highly confidential, so discussing them ahead of the actual announcement may not be an option. However, employees provide a vital voice, so when it's possible, leaders seeking to build trust tend to lean toward more communication and sooner.

Why? Simply put, if you don’t trust your employees to involve them in a major decision until after the fact, it’s unrealistic to expect them to reciprocate - and unfortunately, research shows that many don't! In addition, if decisions (particularly contentious ones) are always announced after they’re made, speculation as to motive and ultimate outcome can take on a life of its own, which can be a difficult narrative to manage.

"Leaders have to be prepared to act on what they hear from employees, even if it challenges their plans."

A steady stream of communication from top leadership also ensures that new employees entering the organization hear from senior leaders often, and not only around the business-as-usual touchpoints (quarterly results, an annual meeting or annual employee engagement survey results).

2. They listen as much as they speak. Trust builds when everyone involved has a voice. That’s why using modern, two-way communications channels is so important. However, just giving your employees an opportunity to chime in simply isn’t enough.

Employees expect and deserve to be truly heard, and to have their voices reflected in the final decisions when they're ultimately made. That means listening is just the start. Indeed, leaders have to be prepared to act on what they hear from employees, even if it challenges their plans.

Empathy also plays a part here because the leader has to have ample emotional intelligence to truly listen, as well as a handle on his or her ego. This lets them understand other perspectives and put themselves in the shoes of employees or customers.

I remember one instance in which an internal announcement of a pending business decision was criticized by employees who worried about the impact the news would have on customers. Using an internal comment engine, employees urged the leader who made the announcement to reconsider.

The leader heard the feedback and reversed course within days. It could not have been easy, as the proposed decision would have made a contribution to the bottom line. However, as a result of the reversal, employees felt heard, empowered and respected – all key ingredients for trust inside an organization. 

"Authentic leaders are able to come across much as a brand would: the look, feel and experience of interacting with them is consistent." 

3. They try to be themselves, always and in all ways. Authenticity is a key condition for building trust. If your teams don’t feel you’re being yourself whenever they see or hear you, they won't respond as well because they will feel like you're acting.

This is true across written and in-person communications alike. If you use stilted prose or unnecessarily formal language in written communications, but then at a town hall you appear very casual, you risk creating cognitive dissonance rather than trust in your audiences. While it's true that leaders need to fit their style and approach to the occasion at hand, your "core you" shouldn't swing too wildly.

Indeed, authentic leaders are able to come across much as a brand would: the look, feel and experience of interacting with them is consistent. Just as a customer would be unlikely to trust a food brand whose hamburgers taste differently every time, employees require authentic consistency from effective leaders.

As an aside, I fully appreciate the irony of saying someone may need to consciously work at being authentic and manage how they're perceived - but it's the reality! Like anyone else, leaders often have self-expectations and biases about how they should act, which gets in the way of authenticity despite their best intentions. 

In addition to the three points above, it’s important to remember that organizational trust is a dynamic dimension of a business, rather than a static characteristic, or a box to be ticked. You can't "solve for" trust. It needs to be maintained, proven out in action, and unshakeable in its consistency thanks to the integrity with which its leaders and employees act on a daily basis.

I hope you enjoyed the post and if so, that you’ll take the time to like, share and comment!

Are your employee communications feeling a bit dated? Do these two things.

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Professional communicators are always being asked for new and exciting ways to help leaders connect with employees. It's our job to develop innovative, high-impact approaches that deepen engagement while taking into account our clients' goals and objectives and making the most use of the available channels.

However, despite the high demand for fresh thinking, and plenty of research showing attention spans are shrinking to alarmingly short levels, many leaders still end up relying on dry, text-heavy materials.

For some, it's a matter of comfort, and the belief that because they control every word, their message will land and be heard. But that belief comes at a price: there is a real risk of employees tuning out, which drags on engagement and limits buy-in into whatever initiative or strategy is being communicated.

Below are two simple ways to modernize your employee communications and make a real difference in how leaders tell stories inside your company. Under each of the two, I have also shared a number of practical tactics for both communicators and leaders to consider.

1. Go all-in on video already!

As recently as 10 years ago, video was expensive and (relative to today) difficult to produce. If you wanted quality, you needed pricey equipment and editing software. On top of that, video sharing was just starting to gain momentum. YouTube, after all, only launched in 2005.

Today, all you need is a phone and an editing app, which both cost little. Sharing video across multiple channels means just a couple of clicks. At the same time, popularity of video in general is skyrocketing and shows no signs of slowing.

 

The reality is employees don't magically abandon their love of video when they walk into work every day. If you want to connect with them in a meaningful way, you have to do it on their terms.

Try this:

Communicators: Instead of a text-based note or post to announce a shift in strategy, or the latest quarterly results, suggest that your leader do an on-camera fireside chat about the subject. Keep it to three minutes at most, and make sure that a feedback mechanism like a comment engine is available. Encourage sharing.

Leaders: Did you just have a great meeting with a client? Did an employee just floor you with a terrific story about customer service? Grab your phone, shoot a one-minute selfie video about it, and turn it over to your communications team for posting. Don't worry about quality. Can they see and hear you clearly? That's the test. Much more importantly, you need to be authentic and unscripted. Focus on that.

2. Talk WITH employees, not AT them!

Just as people love expressing themselves through social media with text, photos and video, so do employees increasingly expect to be able to engage with leaders, whether in face-to-face conversation, or in reaction to company news.

Making a lengthy announcement (even via video!) and accompanying it with a Q&A toolkit is one thing. But what about letting employees comment and ask questions in real time? There are many organizations doing a great job of facilitating dialogue like this, particularly as business social media platforms like Facebook at Work and Yammergain traction. However, I still come across many stories of corporate intranets entirely closed to employee feedback and commentary.

Sometimes, this happens because leaders worry about the potential for negative tone, and think that limiting all comments will keep this sort of chatter in the background. Make no mistake: those negative conversations will still happen. By limiting opportunities for dialogue, you're only hurting your ability to tap into employee concerns and discontent, and, ultimately, productive ways to address them.

Try this:

Communicators: Get out of the way! Figure out the best way to let your leaders and the company's employees have an authentic dialogue, at scale, and without intermediaries. Do you have a corporate social media network? Empower and help your leaders to use it. Does your CEO love town halls? Do one entirely in a Q&A format, and videotape it to share with everyone who can't be there in person. Do a lottery draw for interested employees to talk to the CEO, one-on-one, and again tape it and share it across the company.

Leaders: Get comfortable with letting go of a little control. Free-flowing exchanges of ideas and opinions are amazing exactly because they are free-flowing. That means putting down the script and speaking bullets, and leading authentically. Find a new way to have a conversation with employees. Walk the floor. Use social media. If you're worried about being surprised by a question, don't be - admit you don't know something, and commit to finding out the answer. Employees understand the complexity of your business, and accept that even you don't know everything off the top of your head.

Above all else, remember that regardless of whether they are employees, reporters, regulators, shareholders, community groups or customers, your audience is always made up of people. People love being visually entertained while they're being informed, and they like having conversations much more than listening to monologues.

I hope you enjoyed the post, and if you have a great approach to employee communications, I hope you share in the comments below!