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.

Whether Student or PR Pro, Fall = Change

By: Jennifer Schleman, APR

Crispness has filled the air and soon leaves will begin to fall. Whether you are a student or not, fall signals change – shorter days, cooler evenings and a quicker pace than those dog days of August.

PRSA-NCC has a variety of ways for both students and professionals to get involved. For students, the best way to connect with other public relations students and professionals is by joining your local Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) chapter. In the Washington, DC region, five universities have PRSSA chapters.

  1. American University, Facebook page and website, describes its AU PRSSA chapter as “dedicated to bringing advertising, public relations, marketing and communication students together professionally and socially.” Members help plan chapter events, hold conference fundraisers and “start building their career while still in school.”
  2. George Mason University, Facebook page and website, has a mission to “serve our members by enhancing their knowledge of public relations and providing access to professional development opportunities.” Students not only participate in professional development programs but also can volunteer for chapter committees and other events.
  3. Hood College, Facebook page, located in Frederick, Md., is the “youngest” of the PRSSA chapters in the Washington area and is housed in the College’s Integrated Marketing and Communications Programs. The chapter offers students “practical and professional contacts and experiences … (and) opportunities for leadership within this organization.”
  4. Howard University, Facebook page, is home to the D. Parke Gibson Chapter of PRSSA. Founded in 1985, the chapter describes itself as a “pre-professional student run organization with more than 200 members across the nation.” Named after D. Parke Gibson, a pioneer in multicultural public relations as well as the founder of the first black-owned PR firm, D. Parke Gibson International, in New York, the chapter is located within the John H. Johnson School of Communications (JHJSOC) at Howard and was the first Historically Black College or University chapter within PRSSA.
  5. University of Maryland, College Park, Facebook page and website, gives students the opportunity to network with each other and with professionals in the DC region. According to their website, the chapter “develops several events throughout the year to connect students with exciting opportunities in the field of public relations.” This includes annual tours of some of the largest public relations firms in Washington.

And if you are a professional looking for a way to give back to future public relations professionals, join us on the PRSA-NCC University Relations Committee! The Committee is looking for volunteers to act as liaisons to the local university PRSSA chapters listed above to help mentor students and provide counsel on their chapters’ programming and other activities. If you are interested in joining the committee, please contact me. And don’t forget to like the University Relations Committee Facebook page!

Jennifer Schleman, APR, is co-chair of the PRSA-NCC University Relations Committee and a PRSA-NCC Board Member. She is the senior associate director of media relations for the American Hospital Association.

What Your Email Says About Your Brand

A Case Study: Your Emails

Digital branding starts in your inbox.

It’s something you take for granted, something seemingly trivial, even mundane. When executed thoughtfully, however, it makes a splash. It says, “This guy is sharp—I want to work with him!”

What is this opportunity, obvious but overlooked? It’s the bookends of your emails: your address and signature block—often, the first and last thing your recipients will see. For better or worse, your email bookends are powerful purveyors of your brand. What are yours conveying about you?

Continue reading

Message Development: Thinking Inside the Box

To start thinking about message development, consider the following questions:
• Your friend wants to try a new Italian restaurant for dinner. You’re craving sushi. How do you convince her to pick up the chopsticks?

• A CEO doesn’t see the value of starting a company’s twitter feed. What’s the best way for the marketing department to show him that tweeting can bolster the bottom line?

• A government agency wants to reduce the number of teenagers texting while driving. How do they convince “invincible” teens that this behavior is dangerous?
What do these questions have in common? The answer is the need for message development. Whether your goal to enjoy a sushi dinner or promote teen driver safety, the secret to success is developing messages that resonate with the audiences’ values and opinions.
How can you do that? Try using a message box. This tool offers communicators a framework for producing carefully-crafted messages that both respond to a particular audience’s needs and preferences while reinforcing how “the ask,” or desired action, relates to their values.

The messages produced can be used separately or together to achieve a desired outcome. Sometimes, several message boxes need to be created for a particular audience based on themes or ideas that resonate with them. For example, one message box for the CEO could be focused on the business case for twitter while another could focus on how participating in twitter would reinforce company’s commitment to customer service.

The Message Box in Action

Let’s go back to the question about the government agency and their education campaign about texting while driving. The following chart defines each element of the message box and shows messages that could be used for convincing teens that texting while driving as a dangerous activity.

Type of Message Definition Example
The Ask The desired action for the target audience to take. Stop texting while driving.  
The Barrier Message This message counters an audience’s key misconceptions about the particular topic. There should be a message to refute each barrier the target audience(s) may present. Statistics, analogies and quotes are powerful tools for overcoming barriers. Barrier:
I only look at my phone for a few seconds when I text. I can still see what is going on.  Message to Overcome It:
Sending or receiving a text message takes a driver’s eyes from the road for an average of 4.6 seconds. That is the equivalent of driving the entire length of a football field at 55 miles an hour while blind. Is that a risk you’re willing to take?
The Value Message This message is used to connect with a value the audience has about a topic. Not texting while driving doesn’t just mean you will stay safe. It means you will keep your license and others on the road will be safer.
The Vision Message This message reinforces the value message point. It highlights the benefits audience members reap if they take the action in “the ask.”  If  you stop texting while driving, you can  enjoy the privilege of driving and staying safe at the same time.

Do you think that the message box could help you create compelling more messages for you and your clients? Let me know what you think.

Sarah Vogel is a Senior Account Executive at TMNcorp, a full-service communications company in Silver Spring, MD.  Follow her on Twitter @TMNcorp or connect with her on LinkedIn.

7 Skills That You Really Need to Make It in PR

I’ve met a lot of incredibly capable PR people who are not going to get very far in the PR world. That’s because in order to become a valued professional in today’s marketplace, PR pros need much more than the talent to communicate.

Feb 13 program

Today’s successful PR pro needs the “hard” business skills to become a valued business partner and not a mere tactician. PRSA-NCC’s annual “From PR Manager to PR Leader” half-day seminar on Feb. 13 will share some of these skills that PR people need to take their career to that next level. Here are just a few.

1) Become self-aware first 
A good manager looks in the mirror first. Do you really know your management strengths and weaknesses and are you willing to do the hard work to minimize your deficiencies? Do you know your personality type and management style and are you willing to accept constructive criticism? If you are willing to work hard to improve your management skills, then those you lead will do the same.

2) Manage “up”
Do you know how to work with the C-suite folks so they value and recognize your skills and the value you bring? Do you know their priorities and how to show them that you help address them? If you are not focused on managing this all-important relationship, you won’t even get a chance to take your career to the next level.

 3) Become budget savvy
Can you develop and manage a budget for your programs, campaigns, or accounts? You don’t do the PR profession any favors if you say, “I’m a PR person, I don’t need to know math” (yes, I’ve heard it.) To be taken seriously by the C-suite (see above) you need to show that you appreciate and understand the bottom line and can provide a return on investment for your PR activities.

4) Listen up
I’m not going to win a lot of friends by saying this but a lot of us PR people forget that communication is a two-way street. We are so focused on our elevator pitch and talking points that we sometimes forget that the best way to win people over is by listening (really) to their needs first and then demonstrating how we can meet those needs. Human interaction is never about you. It’s always about them.

5) Handle conflict with style
Can you manage irate clients, contractors, colleagues and other emotionally charged people? Every manager will encounter conflict at some point. Knowing how to calmly ratchet down emotions is the difference between a star manager and one who is not.

6) Put people first
Do you know how to motivate people and enhance team dynamics? We are only as good as the people around us. If we can get our teams to cohesively work together and smooth over the inevitable rough patches, we can keep moving forward.

7) Avoid burnout
The PR business can be a 24/7 grind so you need to manage the elusive work/life balance and learn tactics for getting organized, pacing yourself and delegating to others. Otherwise, you won’t be around long enough to make it far in the PR profession.

The above is only a starting point (feel free to add your own in the comments below) but if you learn these skills you will have a decided advantage as you advance in your career. Most of us learn these skills when we’re thrown in the management pool for the first time and told to “sink or swim.” But if we prepare ourselves with these managements skills ahead of time, we will be prepared to take that plunge with confidence.

About Jeff Ghannam
A former president of PRSA-NCC, Jeff Ghannam brings more than 20 years of experience in corporate and non-profit communications and journalism. He is president of Crystal Communications & Marketing, LLC, a consultancy serving the association and nonprofit community with integrated communications and marketing services and leadership training targeted at communications staff. The “From PR Manager to PR Leader” seminar on Feb. 13 will be the third such annual seminar he has delivered for PRSA-NCC.

Jeff was previously vice president of communications and marketing for the Biotechnology Institute in Arlington, Va. Jeff’s career experience includes news reporting, editing, and PR management, all of which led him to hone his management and leadership skills. Jeff has conducted leadership training workshops for organizations that want to maximize their human resources potential so they can better achieve their strategic objectives. He cites real-life PR management-based examples and scenarios and uses an engaging and interactive format that allows participants to address their specific management and leadership challenges.

Stop Networking. Build Relationships Instead.

By Jeff Ghannam

PR people are born networkers. They rarely shy away from any social dynamic and are quick to introduce themselves with a smile and handshake. But the momentum that comes with overcoming that formidable barrier and making a new contact often goes wasted because most people are content to simply build networks instead of meaningful relationships.

The end goal of networking is not about gathering business cards for prospect lists or connections on LinkedIn, it’s about developing mutually beneficial working relationships that can realistically advance both parties’ business objectives. (So ask yourself why you are networking in the first place). And you really can’t develop those kinds of relationships simply by attending drive-by gatherings (“speed networking,” anyone) where the focus is often on quantity vs. quality.

So how do you develop those meaningful working relationships? Here are a few tips:

Maybe you’re hanging out in the wrong places
Networking gatherings are a great way to meet new contacts (insert plug here for PRSA-NCC’s vast offerings of such meetings), but the best relationships develop in low stress situations because nothing is expected and everyone acts in a very relaxed and open manner. Do you want to get to know (not just meet) other PR people? Then volunteer to help with NCC activities where you can work alongside those people and get to know their work styles and backgrounds. If you can’t commit to volunteer time, attend certain networking meetings regularly where you will see the same people more than once so you can follow up on previous conversations. For example, one of the reasons we’ve developed “20+ LeaderPack” is to go beyond networking and instead nurture relationships. The group holds quarterly luncheons (next one is July 25) for PR pros with more than 20 years of experience so they can get to really know each other.

Stop talking about yourself
I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met at networking events who don’t even bother to ask about my interests or background. They spend all of their time talking about themselves or their business and interests. So please stop pitching yourself and show some interest in your new contact. Not only is it polite, but it also shows self-confidence and that you’re interested in them and their needs and interests. If you show that you care about them, they will more likely care about you.

Give before taking
I’ve met people who within the first 30 seconds asked if I can help them in their job search. While I appreciate the urgency we all feel when we’re looking for work, I suggest (whatever your situation or goal) that you offer to give something first and chances are you will get something in return. Find out what your new contact needs and how can you help them. Don’t know how to ask? See the above point: Simply stop talking about yourself. Let them speak and they will show their hand. Give a little before you can get a little, right?

Take your time
Just like dating, people get turned off by someone who comes on too strong. First, if you meet someone at a networking event, take the time to really know them. Don’t get their business card and start looking over their shoulder for your next conquest. And, remember, quality relationships take months, if not years, to develop. I recently met someone at a networking event who seconds after giving me her elevator pitch asked, “So how can we work together?” Of course, I had no idea even if I wanted to work with her because I didn’t really know her just from her pitch and she certainly didn’t know me. I suggest a slower approach if there’s not an obvious need. After you make an initial contact, loop back with your new connection immediately and then every few weeks or months. Follow up with something specific and personalized to their interest when it crosses your desk. And, no, don’t automatically add them to your mass email lists without asking first. You are trying to develop relationships, not data points.

Take your connection offline
Once you meet someone, don’t limit your relationship to emails, texts, Twitter DMs and Facebook likes. The best way to build a distinct relationship these days is in person because many others are content simply with building their Twitter list of followers and Facebook likes. When possible, arrange to meet with new connections on their terms so it’s convenient for them. Come by their office for coffee or go for a coffee after the next networking meeting. And show up prepared; do your homework by reviewing your contact’s LinkedIn profile or their company’s website and they will know that you are interested in them. And if you can’t meet, pick up the telephone. (You know, it’s that thing where you hear a person’s voice on the other end.) People don’t use it that much anymore and it will make you stand out from the crowd.

Maintain your relationships
Once you’ve developed these mutually beneficial relationships, make sure to maintain them. Most people don’t’think about their relationship until a crisis like a job loss or a confounding professional challenge arises. Then they scramble to contact people who they have not spoken to in years. Such attempts are doomed to failure because they scream “the only reason I care about you now is because you can help me.” You should already have effective relationships in place that can help you in just about any situation.

Building professional relationships—just like with personal ones—is more about giving than getting. If you put the other person’s needs ahead of your own, I firmly believe that somehow your needs will be met. So be thinking of how your relationship can work for both of you and you will be fulfilled.

So what relationship building tips do you have to share? Comments are welcomed below.

Jeff Ghannam is president of Crystal Communications & Marketing, LLC, and is a past president of PRSA-NCC.