Moving Communications from Tactical to Strategic Implementation

Inspiration for this post came from sports radio of all places.  Washington Nationals superstar, Bryce Harper, is in a contract year which creates a general sense of “outcome anxiety” that can become a major distraction for the player and organization.

I couldn’t believe my ears when the host suggested that the front office needs to have their PR team close at hand to prepare them for what the team, the manager and Harper himself are likely to face in terms of media scrutiny on the contract issue at every stop as the season unfolds.

10888776353_9c71574e19_z-620x248It struck me that this was both an excellent idea so that they can proactively prepare messaging adequately, and it is also a unique concept to elevate a PR team to a more strategic function within a baseball team.

Communications teams in organizations of all sizes are often brought in after a leadership decision (often semi-informed or outright flawed) to either promote a campaign, to clean up a bungled initiative or forced into an uncomfortable position to reactively handle a crisis response.

So many of these botched efforts (think the recent Dodge Super Bowl ad that used a sermon from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to the various customer service fiascos perpetrated by airlines to very questionable celebrity endorsements) could have been triaged more appropriately, or avoided all together, if only communications professionals were at the table from the outset.

When everyday people are bemoaning how badly even a global brand handled a highly publicized issue, it’s high time to flip the script and work to showcase the bottom-line value of having communicators be an integral part of an organization’s strategic planning.

Here’s how:

  • Package your successes for leadership and don’t just share high-profile media coverage or a well-executed campaign – give the backstory on the strategic approach and any obstacles overcome that led to positive results. This will build your own credibility and value proposition to big-picture organizational thinking.
  • Ingratiate yourself into various business units to get a better sense of good story telling opportunities. This can help you stay in front of major organizational decisions that you can offer communications advice on.
  • Ask pointed questions that make leadership or decision makers think beyond their own narrow focus. This way you can advise on both how to best promote an idea, but (more importantly) you can share some worst-case scenarios that might ruin an initiative unless a few items are fine-tuned.
  • Create a brief PPT of well-known examples of “worst practices” of tone-deaf marketing campaigns or clumsy and debilitating crisis responses. Save to present to leadership soon after a well-publicized blunder happens – and these days, you won’t have to wait long to showcase instances of “we don’t want to be this.”
  • Read the room in meetings and see who might be most inclined to your point-of-view through body language. Be active in these meetings, but also be judicious as to when you speak up. It’s wise to wait until many perspectives have been put forth and you, through the communications lens, can give your perspective to help sway the strategic direction of whatever is being discussed.

The more you can position yourself as an asset to your organization’s everyday function, not merely the one who writes a press release to announce fill-in-the-blank, the more your counsel will be listened to and ultimately sought out.

It’s all about positioning yourself or your team to get crucial buy-in from leadership that communications needs to be an integral part of the overall planning process.

We will see if this happens with the Nationals this season or if they endure a constant drumbeat like the Redskins forced themselves into with the Kirk Cousins contract situation that has been a communications albatross around their neck for two years!

Internally, you want to function like one of the more famous advertising campaigns of the 1980’s, when EF Hutton talks…people listen.

 

By: Scott Frank, president of ARGO Communications and former Senior Director, Media Relations for the American Institute of Architects.

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Finding a PR Firm Isn’t the Piece of Cake it Used to Be . . . and It Shouldn’t Be

Time was, searching for a PR firm meant jotting down a few requirements and shooting it to a few former colleagues or friends of friends at two or three familiar agencies.

Sorry. Like everything else in life, finding the firm that will best serve your needs is no longer that easy. And it shouldn’t be. In today’s bottom line-focused ROI environment can you really invest six digits into an agency that may or may not be able to move the needle for your organization? You need to be assured you’re getting smart thinking and measureable results — and agencies should be accountable for their commitments to their clients.
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The agency landscape is wide, and wide open. Sometimes it feels like there are too many qualified agencies out there. But that shouldn’t guide you toward short cuts, or rushing the process. As we’ve pointed out many times to clients and prospects, if the money you have allocated to a PR agency budget were instead going toward the hiring of two or three full-time, professional staff, how much time and effort would you and your HR department spend investigating their backgrounds, capabilities, and knowledge?

The recently released USC Annenberg biennial GAP Study assessing PR industry trends and practices expects more money to be spent in 2014 and beyond for communications. The study of 347 senior communicators says that PR-related recommendations are being taken more into consideration by senior management, who expect the function to be a contributor to organizations’ financial success. Your organization should be selecting firms with proven experience in supporting your internal managerial needs as well as your overall communications goals.

Today’s agency field includes seasoned veteran agencies, mid-sized niche players, and a crop of very competent rookies that have left some venerable firms to blaze their own paths. Whether they are local, large, full service, or specialty, there are probably dozens of agencies out there most suitable for you. But the right agency can only be discerned through the lens of a detailed and thorough search that is tailored to your organization’s needs.

When interviewing prospective agencies it is critical to include process and procedure as key topics. Too often, we find confusion when the client-agency relationship begins if staffing, structure, reporting, billing, and event contracts are not discussed in the early phases. And, we’ve even advised clients that repairing agency relationships that have gone sour may be a better use of time and resources than parting ways with that agency and starting over with a new search.

Even agreeing on your mutual definition of success is no small feat, and so often is overlooked or not addressed during the selection process. With projects the issue might be easier (one would hope) but with longer-term, multi-year contracts it is very important to establish measureable benchmarks even before searching for your agency, and then making it clear that is what the selected agency will be judged on. Believe it or not, it will more appreciated than you’d expect. Because any good PR firm will tell you that a good client knows what it wants and has, or develops with the agency, the metrics of success.
– Robert Udowitz

Robert Udowitz is a principal of RFP Associates, a PR agency search firm serving trade associations and corporations. This was originally published on the RFP Associates “Cart Before the Horse” blog, which can be found at rfpassociates.net.