Q&A with Judy Phair: Words of Wisdom to Help You Prepare a Session Proposal

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It’s that time! The call for sessions for the 2014 PRSA International Conference is now open. We spoke with Judy Phair, APR, Fellow PRSA, who provides valuable advice and suggestions from her perspective and experience as a session reviewer, organizer and panelist. Read this before you submit that session entry!

Q: What are your top three suggestions for organizing a session?

A: First, you must connect your topic to the overall theme of the conference and decide the appropriate track that most closely matches your session; your proposed session must be relevant to the audience and fit within one or more of the tracks. Second, the focus of your proposed session must be current and relevant and apply to a broad audience (unless it’s targeted to a specific section, such as travel and tourism). The session proposal must be timely and valuable with a clear statement on the expected outcome from an attendee perspective. Lastly, choose the right panelists that are most appropriate for the subject matter—people who have relevant stories and experience to share.

Q: Can you share suggestions on how to put together a winning proposal?

A: Get to the point quickly, and keep it simple. You need to address why the topic is important and how it relates to the field today, and elaborate on the expected outcome or takeaway for attendees. Illustrate why professionals should care about this topic right up front.  Remember that the devil is in the details, so don’t forget to proofread before submitting. Also, make sure that you choose the right track that is most appropriate for your proposed session topic to make sure the proposal reaches the right reviewers.

Q: What do you believe is the true value of organizing and participating in a session at the International Conference?

A: There are many benefits to organizing and participating in a session, but most importantly, you are helping public relations professionals expand their skills and expertise, and advancing the profession. In addition, you are building on what you know and enhancing your own skills and expertise, and therefore, adding value to your clients and/or employer. I believe it is important to stay focused on growing your career by constantly building on your level of knowledge and expertise within the field and presenting at the PRSA International Conference is a great opportunity for all PR professionals. Best of luck to you!

 

Judy Phair is president of PhairAdvantage Communications, LLC, an independent consulting firm founded in 2002.  She is a seasoned public relations executive with extensive experience in strategic planning, branding, global public relations and marketing, media relations, fund raising, and legislative relations. Judy was 2005 President and CEO of PRSA and a recipient of PRSA’s highest individual award, the 2010 Gold Anvil Award.  It is considered PRSA’s Lifetime Achievement Award and is presented to an individual “whose work significantly advanced the profession and set high standards for those engaged in the practice of public relations.”  In late 2013, PRSA-NCC inducted Judy into its Hall of Fame.  Earlier, the Maryland Chapter of PRSA honored Judy with its Lifetime Achievement Award, and her work has been recognized with numerous other awards in public relations, publications, marketing, and crisis communications. Judy is a frequent speaker on public relations and marketing issues, with appearances in China, Italy, the United Kingdom, and Croatia as well as the United States. She also writes extensively in the field.

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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.

How to Measure the Effectiveness of Your Employee Communications

In this 6-minute video, PRSA-NCC member Susan Rink (of Rink Strategic Communications) describes how communicators can measure their employee communications efforts and report the results to the company’s leadership.

Learn how to construct and use visual tools, such as a communications vehicles matrix.

For more information, please visit http://www.RinkComms.com, or contact RinkComms@Verizon.net.

Think About the “Whys”

whyYesterday’s retrospectives on the life and legacy of Sen. Edward Kennedy reinforced his reputation as a passionate, eloquent speaker. 

Throughout the day, news stories showed clips of interviews with and platform speeches delivered by an articulate, charismatic champion of civil rights and equality.

Yet one clip from his failed Presidential campaign in 1980 stood apart from the others.

In this clip, a reporter asked the late Senator why he wanted to be President.  A fairly straightforward question for any candidate seeking that office, right?

The Senator’s response?  “Ummm……ahhhh….”

No wonder Kennedy failed to gather support for his campaign.  It’s hard to rally around a candidate who cannot tell you why you should vote for him.

Managing people is a lot like managing a political campaign – managers try to build support for their ideas and rally groups of people to accomplish a common goal.  And like politicians, managers often find themselves having to support or defend a decision or action made by someone else.

Their employees expect them to know the answers, to be able to provide context for the action or decision.  Unfortunately, in most cases managers are briefed on the “what”, but they don’t have the information they need to answer the “whys”.

So often when developing change communications plans, communications professionals overlook the role of the manager in reinforcing our messaging.  We fail to equip our managers with anything beyond the most superficial talking points.  As a result, we set our managers up for failure.

As any parent knows, “Because I said so” isn’t an effective answer.  Likewise, “Because the CEO says we should” won’t motivate employees to embrace change.

Managers must be able to articulate, in plain terms, why the decision or change is a good one, what the consequences of inaction are, and what benefits the employees will see as a result.  If they are unable to do so, your elaborate change management communications campaign has little chance of succeeding.

My advice to communicators:  Don’t let your managers twist in the wind.  Give them the information they need to address those tricky “whys” and win the support of their employees.  In the end, everyone wins.

Hidden Messages in Your Employee Publication

Hidden MessagesA few years ago, while waiting for a professional colleague in the lobby of her company’s headquarters, I leafed through a copy of the employee publication on display in the waiting area.

The company was at the center of an industry controversy, and I knew that much of colleague’s time – and her staff’s – over the past two months had been devoted to rebuilding the company’s reputation and employee morale.

So I was, admittedly, shocked when I saw that the “A” story on the front page was, “Laughing at Work.” 

Diving deeper into the publication, I noted that more than half the content was devoted to employee transaction issues (a new password policy, extended hours for the Benefits line, etc.) and the remaining content was what I classify as “happy people” stories. 

Not one sentence about the recent challenges, how management was addressing the issues, or the employee and teams who were working to rectify the problems. 

Just “Laughing at Work.”  And a “Guess Whose Baby Photo?” contest.

So what message does that send to employees?  That management was trying to cover up the problems?  That the employees shouldn’t worry their pretty little heads about the issue?

In fairness, I had no access to any of the prior publications or any other mass employee communications that the company might have issued during their crisis of confidence.  But I suspect that the disconnect I saw in that publication was not a stand-alone issue.

The content of your employee publication, whether it is a printed monthly magazine (and I’m sure those have been slashed in the current economic environment), a bi-weekly email compendium, or a daily intranet homepage, reflects the role you expect your employees to play in the company’s success.

By limiting the content of your publication to “happy people” anecdotes and announcements of new employee discount programs, you miss the opportunity to speak openly to your staff about the challenges the company faces every day…and the important role your employees play in overcoming those challenges and driving success.

Susan C. Rink is principal of Rink Strategic Communications, which helps clients take their employee communications to the next level.  Email her at rinkcomms@verizon.net.

Home Depot Remodels Internal Communications

home-depotThere’s something going on at Home Depot.

During a visit to my local Home Depot this week – my first in several months — I immediately spotted some changes, the first being the four orange apron-clad employees who greeted me as I walked in the door and offered to help me locate the items on my list.

I admit it – my first thought was that I was singled out because of my gender, sort of a reverse profiling.  But I quickly realized that every customer who entered was greeted in the same way.

I saw lots of other changes too, such as increased staff in the paint department (a source of much past frustration) and lots of stock on the shelves.  As I engaged in some casual conversation with the cashier, he mentioned that Home Depot is making a number of changes, all designed to win back customers and build loyalty.  That’s right, the cashier told me.

From an employee communications standpoint, that type of interaction is enough to send us into a happy trance.  We face a daily struggle to ensure that, amidst all the other “white noise” generated by our organization, employees at every level of the organization are familiar with the company’s goals and know how their work supports those goals.  Clearly, the folks at Home Depot are on the right track.

I did a little digging when I got home and found a BusinessWeek article from mid-May, “Putting Home Depot’s House in Order.”  I was interested to read that, in addition to a number of operational changes implemented by the retailer’s newest executive vice president of U.S. stores, the communications team has implemented a new policy designed to tame the email beast.  Instead of the 200 or so company emails and reports that a manager would typically receive on Mondays, the flood has been reduced to a single message.  The remaining info is posted to the company’s intranet.

Having been on the frontlines of that battle at a former company, I have great respect for Home Depot’s communications team and their ability to change behaviors, both at the corporate level where “Information push” is the general rule of thumb and at the unit level, where lack of time is often cited as an obstacle to intranet adoption.

Apparently, the Home Depot employee communications team found an opportunity to integrate their change into the division’s overall business strategy, successfully linking streamlined communications with more time for the store manager to focus on customer service and satisfaction.

Like the best home remodel, that internal communications change should yield a significant return on their customer win-back efforts.

Susan C. Rink is principal of Rink Strategic Communications, which helps clients take their employee communications to the next level.  Email her at rinkcomms@verizon.net.

Communicating to Your Employees during a Crisis

emergency lightThe Metro rail collision in Washington, D.C. on Monday serves as a sober reminder that a crisis can occur anytime, anywhere.  In a matter of seconds, a business can be plunged into crisis mode, with little time to strategize about how notify their employees and update them on recovery plans.

Communicators owe it to themselves — and to their employees — to prepare for a crisis before being confronted with one.

Say you don’t have a crisis communications plan and you need to pull one together.  Where do you start?  At minimum, a good communication plan, regardless of type or size of the business, includes four basic elements:

  • a checklist that accounts for all audiences and vehicles
  • well-defined roles and responsibilities
  • a resource/phone list, and
  • a collection of samples

The checklist documents the top-line steps that need to be addressed when communicating to employees.  Examples:  When do you notify executives and employees?  How will you announce the crisis to your employees (voicemail, PA announcement, email, intranet, text message, Twitter, etc.)?  Will the switchboard/receptionist need to be notified and coached on how to handle calls?  How frequently will you provide status updates to your employees?

Roles and responsibilities must be defined ahead of time, and redundancy built in just in case the person responsible for the task is unavailable.  Examples:  Who will serve as the key internal spokesperson?  Who approves the content of the announcements?  Who can send a text/email/voicemail to all employees?  Who can post to the intranet?  Who is responsible for updating the executive team?

Having an up-to-date list of available resources and phone numbers will save critical minutes during a crisis.  The list should include: home and cell numbers for all executives and management team members; emergency contact info for all employees; home and cell numbers for key members of the IT support team; phone and fax numbers for all locations; Red Cross and other relief agencies, etc.  In addition, I recommend that medium to large companies establish an inbound phone number for employees to call for status updates and building closure information.

Finally, it’s always a good idea to have a collection of samples and templates on hand.  Examples:  scripts for the operator/receptionist; internal holding statements and updates; voice mail and text messages; talking points for managers, etc.  Depending on the emergency, you may find that you need to rely on communications novices to help work through your checklist.  In that case, the templates will come in quite handy.

Don’t put off crisis communications planning because it seems like an insurmountable task. There are a variety of good crisis communications resources available online:

In addition, many trade associations have created crisis planning resources to help their members.  Call their member services number or check out the Web site.  Or, you can check with your local Chamber of Commerce; many of them offer this type of resource to their members.

Plan ahead.  You’ll be glad you did.

Susan C. Rink is principal of Rink Strategic Communications, which helps clients take their employee communications to the next level.  Email her at rinkcomms@verizon.net.