Friendship and the PR Agency Professional

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In a relationship-based service business like public relations, it’s inevitable that agency-client relationships often become friendships. As PR agency professionals, being successful requires us to not only really understand our clients’ businesses, but our client contacts’ motivations, aspirations, challenges, etc. The best PR strategies take all of this into consideration.

Though everyone’s busy lives makes it tougher to schedule, a good agency-client relationship often involves cocktails, dinner and entertainment.  It’s these occasions, as well as the day-to-day work and late nights managing crises, when the bonds of friendship are born.

One of my oldest friendships started as an agency-client relationship back in the mid-1990s. We did some outstanding, award-winning work together and really got to know each other.  Over the past 18 years, we’ve watched each other’s careers and families grow.  Though we haven’t done any work together in more than six years, we both know the possibility of doing so again may be just around the corner.  It will happen when it’s time — and even if it doesn’t, that’s okay too.

Friends help each other – in many different ways.  One thing that many clients often forget — we PR agency types often hear about job possibilities (and organizational restructurings) before they become public knowledge.

One of the most important qualities in friendship is loyalty.  A good agency person is loyal to his client (and vice versa!).

Like any friendship, agency-client relationships will have their ups and downs.  And there might be legitimate reasons for the commercial side of the relationship to come to a close.  But, underlying it all, if there’s friendship, even the bumps in the road will be manageable.  Because we like each other and respect each other.

And, if we really have affection for one another, great things can happen.

Reflections on 10 Years As A PR Firm Founder and Owner

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Every so often I get asked about what it’s like to found and own a PR firm and how it differs from my years working for large multinational corporations and PR firms.  Well, on the occasion of our firm’s 10th anniversary, here are a few observations:

  • Faster decision making.  At the big PR firms, we had to respond to nearly every RFP that came through the door.  We couldn’t argue that we didn’t have a specific capability or didn’t have a legitimate “shot.”  After all, RFPs were (and are) the source of most of big agency new business.  As a boutique firm, we don’t receive a large volume of RFPs.  When we do, we quickly dismiss the ones we don’t feel we have at least a 75-80% chance of winning.  Otherwise, too much time is wasted responding to them.  We’d rather spend it serving our clients or creating our own new business opportunities. We’re also able to make decisions a lot more quickly about clients we’ll agree to serve and people we’ll decide to hire.  No “checking with New York.”  If we want to do something, after considering it thoughtfully, we just do it.
  • Nick Kalm, Jane Devron and Megan Hakes started Reputation Partners in 2002.

    Talent that’s equal or better.  In my 29 years in this business on the client and agency side, I’ve been privileged to work with and learn from a lot of talented people.  I’m struck by the fact that the kinds of people we’re able to attract to our firm are as good as and often even better than the caliber of talent I worked with previously.  And there’s a little something “extra” in finding an employee who’s more attracted by the quality of the opportunity rather than the “prestige” of a big company/PR firm name.

  • No “dead weight.”  One of the unfortunate realities of many large employers is the fact that not everyone pulls their weight.  Given the economic downturn, this happens less than it used to, but it still occurs.  “Why are they there?” or “What are they doing?” are two refrains we never hear at Reputation Partners.  Here, we make sure everyone is productive; everybody’s working.
  • Great, big clients.  When we left the world of big agencies, some speculated that we might be too small to serve some of the biggest companies in the world.  Given that our first three clients were FedEx, GE and IBM, that notion was quickly put to rest.  In the ten years since, we’ve worked with numerous blue chip companies.  But, we’ve also worked with many smaller and mid-sized organizations – and have done some of our most interesting work for them.
  • Financial controls equal better results.  Running a PR firm well from a financial standpoint really isn’t hard.  Budget engagements appropriately.  Don’t overservice.  Get written agreements from clients before starting work and at every step.  Follow-up and collect on past due receivables.  Don’t allow one client to become too big a percentage of your business.  Having seen what to do and not do at the big shops, it was relatively easy to set Reputation Partners on a better path.

So, do I have any regrets?  Well, as the old song goes, I’ve had a few.  But, ten years in, I’m as ready for the next ten as I was for the first.  Being an entrepreneur, having a great team, and the opportunities I see ahead are what get me up at 5:00 a.m. every day.

What motivates you?

Sustainability Reports Are Not The End-All Be-All: Five Sustainability Communications Strategies

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According to a recent Deloitte study, nearly one half of CFOs now see sustainability as a key contributor to financial performance and two-thirds of CFOs are now closely involved in their company’s sustainability strategies. It seems that businesses are increasingly appreciating that sustainability can be a growth driver and a cost saver. Given sustainability’s growing impact on the bottom line, companies need to give greater consideration not only to their sustainability strategies but also to how they credibly and effectively communicate these sustainability strategies.

All communications should include “green” messages

Sustainability reporting, whether as stand-alone reports or annual/sustainability report hybrids, is expected today — at least among publicly-traded companies. While they can serve as good summaries, sustainability reports should not be the end-all be-all when it comes to sustainability communications.  Too many companies spend significant time and money on reports and essentially do nothing with them. Posting a lengthy report on a web site doesn’t ultimately do much to educate customers, employees, business partners, activist groups and others. So, what should companies do to effectively and authentically communicate their sustainability commitments?

1.) Do a report, but make sure it’s credible. It’s no secret that the quality and transparency of sustainability reporting varies dramatically. Too many companies are still churning out sustainability reports that resemble polished marketing collateral instead of the honest, forthcoming accounts that they should be. Good reports, and good sustainability communications overall, avoid hype and spin in favor of facts and data. They include clearly defined goals (near-term and long-term) and report honestly on where they were met – and where more work needs to be done. They include candid input from people and groups outside the company.

95 percent of Fortune 250 companies release sustainability reports

2.) Engage employees. Employee posters and e-newsletter articles about sustainability programs are good to do, but pushing sustainability information at employees won’t do much to engage them. Involve employees in identifying sustainability opportunities – and publicly recognize these contributions in ongoing communications. Employees who feel they can make an impact on social and environmental issues while on the job are twice as satisfied with work as those who don’t, according to a Net Impact/Rutgers Study. Consider sustainability “training” not only for leaders, but also employees-at-large to help them understand what sustainability truly is, how it can be leveraged as a business advantage and their role in furthering the company’s commitments. Hold leaders and employees accountable for sustainability by including sustainability-related goals in job descriptions and job performance crtieria.

3.) Proactively communicate with potential critics. Smart sustainability strategies can’t be developed in a vacuum.  The best approaches include collaboration with the outside world – including communicating with potential critics (such as watchdog groups and NGOs) – who can help identify opportunities for improvement and formulate solutions.  While many companies fear this type of exposure, they should embrace it. Businesses are less vulnerable to attack if they talk openly with potential critics than if they avoid them and simply hope for the best. Importantly, watchdogs and NGOs can provide much needed support in helping companies communicate sustainability credibly and authentically to the public at large.

4.) Speak simply. Remember that not all stakeholders (employees, investors, etc.) live and breathe sustainability day in and day out. While data and facts are a must, avoid buzzwords and technical jargon as much as possible. Simplify complex concepts and make sure the average person can understand what’s being communicated. All stakeholders – even sustainability “experts” –  will appreciate simplicity and clarity.

5.) Integrate sustainability into all company communications. Companies with effective sustainability strategies have integrated sustainability throughout their business. They should also integrate sustainability throughout their communications – in new hire orientations, town hall meetings, sales presentations, investor presentations, Facebook pages, etc.  Sustainability communications should not be considered a standalone campaign but instead should be part of the company’s vernacular – woven throughout communications to/conversations with all stakeholders. If sustainability is a journey, communications should be happening continuously throughout  the trip.

What’s Missing From the Board of Directors?

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On a Chicago stage, where the current production is “Enron,” the company’s Board of Directors are portrayed as three blind mice.  Certainly, the Enron Board’s epic failure is well documented, but more recent failures by various organization’s Boards of Directors (from Olympus to HP to Penn State to the Susan G. Komen Foundation) reveal an ongoing Achilles’ Heel that goes way beyond effective corporate governance.

Over my career, I’ve worked with countless CEOs — many of whom have correctly involved their Boards of Directors on matters of strategic importance.  And, to be sure, when large organizations face serious reputational issues, they often involve in-house corporate communications people and bring in external PR counsel.

But, I think a strong argument can be made that many serious issues could have been avoided or mitigated at the Board level before they rose to a crisis.  Corporate communications people have their fingers on the public’s pulse, so we can and do anticipate issues well and provide valuable insights into taking advantage of market opportunities.  The problem is: very few company Boards of Directors include executives with corporate communications backgrounds or expertise. This is a surprising and noteworthy omission.

Certainly, Boards benefit from the presence of executives with diverse corporate, financial and academic backgrounds.  And, many executives have solid instincts and experience dealing with communications/perception issues.  But, few of them are experienced in and attuned to identifying and addressing public perception issues at the early stages — when they are invariably easier and less costly to fix.

It’s difficult to find any public companies with communications executives currently on their boards of trustees (Yum Brands is a notable exception, but one wonders how active its board was in its Taco Bell subsidiary’s 2011 bruising battle with the plaintiffs’ bar).   Notably, among CEOs, only two — Brian Tierney (of Philadelphia Media Holdings) and David D’Alessandro (of John Hancock Financial Services) — immediately come to mind as having a PR background (vs. overseeing PR).

Would a PR person on HP’s Board have encouraged a more disciplined and thoughtful approach to  selecting CEO Mark Hurd’s successor?  Likewise, if a communications professional were on the Board at Olympus, what would they have recommended when’ CEO Michael Woodford asked the Board to investigate a series of acquisitions led by the company’s chairman?  Finally, though they eventually brought in outside PR counsel, how different would the recent fiascoes with Penn State and others have turned out if they’d had PR at the decision-making table?  I guess we’ll never know, but there are thousands of companies out there who would be advised to think more broadly when filling their next open Board seat.

Social Media for Commercial Real Estate

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Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to present at the BOMA 2011 International Conference & The Every Building Show at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in Washington, D.C. The topic? Devising and Executing a Social Media Program: A BOMA/Chicago Case Study.

Over the course of two sessions, Edward M. Bury, APR, BOMA/Chicago’s director of marketing and communications, and I shared strategic and tactical advice to commercial real estate executives mulling over the now seemingly “age old” question: can social media work for me and my building/organization/company?

While social media isn’t necessarily appropriate for all industries and companies, it’s at least worth investigating. The following is a step-by-step to getting started. Reputation Partners deployed a similar social media strategy as we helped BOMA/Chicago launch their social networking presence (including the organization’s new blog, The Elevator Speech).

Step 1. Listen
If someone in the marketplace was talking about your company or brand, wouldn’t you want to listen to their conversation? Actively monitoring social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube gives you an opportunity to gauge how your industry, competitors and key stakeholders are utilizing these channels. It’s also key to determining how your company can differentiate its voice amid all the social media chatter.

Step 2. Assess Vehicles
There’s a common misconception that you need to be on every social networking channel to be successful. This is far from accurate. For example, if your target audiences aren’t actively using Twitter, it’s probably not the right vehicle for your company. Consider your overarching communications objectives and how these different vehicles can help you meet these goals. Also consider the staff allocation and support needed to manage these vehicles on a daily basis.

Step 3. Launch and Market
Before you formally launch your social network presence, it’s important to populate the vehicles with content (pictures, video, status updates, etc.) before you officially “go-live.”  This will give new followers an immediate opportunity to view and react to content. Once you’ve launched, it’s equally important to market your social networking presence. Emails, newsletters, website and email signatures, as example, are all effective ways you can spread the word.

Step 4. Engage, Monitor & Track Value
This is the final – and most important – step in the process. There’s one catch: this step never ends.

Engage with your followers and create a dialogue about important developments in your industry. Ask questions. Share opinions.  Interact with people/companies that are both familiar and unfamiliar to you. Build goodwill by congratulating/commending others. Hint: if you’re constantly talking about yourself and your company, you’re probably not engaging enough.

Monitor these sites consistently. They are like small children; never leave them alone unattended for an extended period of time.  Effective monitoring will also aid in both reactive and proactive engagement with others.

As you manage and grow your company’s social networking presence, continually track the value it’s bringing. While quantitative measurement is important, we also make sure to evaluate key items such as: are we engaging with the right influencers? Has this increased awareness about the brand? Is this supporting our overarching communications strategy and goals?

While social media isn’t the solution to all of your corporate communications and marketing needs, it’s an effective tool when used thoughtfully. Based on the turnout at BOMA 2011, we’re encouraged to see that the commercial real estate industry is beginning to embrace the power of social media.

 

 

A Guide to IPO Communications

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Last month marked two high profile corporate events:  the Arcos Dorados IPO and the Zip Car IPO. Understandably, these complex transaction are managed by a team of bankers, lawyers and company executives steeped in SEC filings and seemingly endless road show meetings in the weeks leading up to the big bell ringing on listing day.

For corporate communicators, an IPO is far more than just the thirty-second rush of the bell ringing. IPO communications presents a key corporate positioning opportunity that has lasting impact on a company’s reputation.

Reputation Partners recently led communications and event planning efforts for Arcos Dorados’ IPO on the New York Stock Exchange. As McDonald’s largest and only franchisee in Latin America, the IPO presented a key opportunity to launch the company onto the global stage and introduce it to a wealth of new stakeholders, including investors, analysts, business/financial media and others.

When executing corporate communications and event planning efforts surrounding a high-profile transaction such as an IPO, corporate communicators should consider the following:

  • Collaborate with Legal: We’ve talked in the past about the need for PR and legal teams to work together to ensure that a corporation’s strategic communications and legal needs are met. In the case of an IPO, this is crucial. Get in front of internal and external counsel as soon as possible to talk through the communications strategy and get their buy-in.
  • Think BIG When it Comes to Corporate Branding: During the GM IPO, the company made a splash with its simple, yet dynamic display of automobiles outside of the NYSE on listing day. Arcos Dorados enticed NYSE traders with breakfast pastries found only in McDonald’s in Latin America and displayed a dramatic banner on the historic building’s facade. Going public is a once in a lifetime corporate branding and reputation building opportunity. Think big. Make it memorable. Make it your own.
  • Media Training is Essential: Even for the most seasoned and media-savvy CEO, media training prior to listing day is key. Ensuring the spokesperson is on message, comfortable in front of the camera and refreshed on media interview techniques will make listing day media relations efforts run smooth – and make certain that a media interview doesn’t go awry.
  • Don’t Forget About Employee Communications: While it’s easy to get wrapped up in reaching external stakeholders, communicating with employees about this significant and exciting moment is just as important. Make certain the CEO gets face time with employees on listing day – be it through a live webcast or a prerecorded message. Consider assembling employees together to watch the bell ringing and celebrate together. When listing day comes to a close, employees should feel positive and encouraged about the company’s future.

A corporate communications professional will wear a variety of different hats in the days and weeks leading up to the IPO. Following some of these key guidelines will make certain the event is both successful and memorable.

 
 
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