Liliths rising: three PR pros provide strategic career advice

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“Earning a voice at the C-level table: How to position yourself and communications as strategic in your organization”

This was the eye-catching title of a September 2007 CPRS Toronto session. The end result didn’t disappoint, with its panel of three highly intelligent, conversant and seasoned practitioners. The speakers offered up a cornucopia of impressive hands-on experience and advice, on areas such as knowledge management, intellectual capital, developing a leadership and management competency skill set that can be leveraged towards the role of senior counsel and adviser, a discussion on what it means to be strategic, plus practical advice for reaching the nirvana of public relations and strategic communication management.

Effective knowledge management is key

The first guest speaker, Susan Reisler, indicated that effective knowledge management requires reading and analyzing as much information as possible, including a daily intake of multiple Canadian newspapers (including ones from Quebec), three or four major American papers, UK and European papers, Asian sources and so. In particular, focus on the industry news and trends in your organization or clients’ sectors. Eternally the trained, investigative journalist, Reisler’s current PR role has shifted her focus from public news reporter to that of “management reporter.” Viewing her raison d’être through the lens of a journalist, she works to determine “why” (not just how) something happened, particularly as it relates to her clients, as well as the perceptions and interests of their various publics.

Next up was Marion Mackenzie, who began by asking the audience of practitioners and students, “Are we ‘relevant’—the R word.” She concurred with Reisler that being taken seriously necessitated not only reading but understanding the news. Additionally, she is a big believer in ongoing dialogue with individuals from a variety of industries and areas. She shared that one of her most interesting and useful information sources for taking the pulse of Canadians and the city is found in taxi drivers. She described that day’s cab trip with Amir from CO-OP Cabs, who told her that the taxi drivers were planning a protest the next day at Queen’s Park; Conway warned us to avoid driving in the area. (Note: listening to the news the next morning in my car, I heard about the big protest of taxi drivers wanting the same rights as limo drivers to take fares on their return trip from the airport to the city.)

Calling herself an “education junkie,” Mackenzie credits her intellectual curiosity in part to a burning need to remain well-versed and informative, indicating she fears “being irrelevant as much as any 22 year old does.”

The speakers all highlighted professional and trade associations, conference and networking events, plus speaker forums (both as presenter and attendee) as potentially powerful places to gain knowledge and form professional and personal contacts.

Making the most of intellectual (a.k.a. working) capital

A fair amount of time was devoted to providing solid advice on translating knowledge into working capital.

Reisler recommended we play reporter, asking questions of the people around us. With gathered knowledge (from media and relevant parties), use your role to “connect the dots” for the benefit of your organization. One example used was research on lagging productivity as it relates to your client’s employment sector. Other things to bring to the table include selling and presenting ideas based on research. Of similar value was your networks of people, who challenge and question events and individuals—they add to your working capital. One interesting comment by Reisler was “let’s never be too sure.” Her recommendation was to get as close as possible to the source(s) of the information, asserting that “knowledge and ideas are powerful currency,” and that public relations practitioners are well-positioned to contribute to conversations. It can be a role of incredible pressure, often open to public scrutiny. That being said, you “earn respect through content knowledge, by being in the trenches and by finding out the good and bad.”

Stating that our primary contribution is to the intellectual capital business, Mackenzie opined, “All we have is what you see.” (She compared this to when she first entered the field in 1984; at that time her participation was in the “customized execution side.”) Working capital includes providing informed insights into what past, current and future events mean. Particularly in the client side to agency, this translates into the increasing need for relevancy. One area bearing scrutiny is the “mammoth gallop of technology,” which brings access to a great deal of information to everyone, although not necessarily of equal worth. The world is getting more complex (as evidenced by the challenges faced by GCI’s client, Mattel), where issues of governance, transparency and globalization take on increasing weight. She advised us to “step up…or others will take our place,” implying that current laws and regulations do not have a requirement for public relations and communication management practitioners to be in designated roles. Do your part to set the standard higher for the profession.

Heather Conway, in her designated panel role as leadership and management subject expert, offered practical advice for working capital. She urged us to be truth tellers and blunt talkers, stating that “the best CEOs do value the truth.” Her experience (across a number of sectors) was that the CEO respects the individual who is not only willing, but also able, to tell the truth. This duty must be undertaken seriously and with integrity.

Her premise was that a key role for the senior practitioner was to manage the reputation of the CEO, in addition to the company. He or she is the face of the company in this day and time; the organization’s reputation is of a longer duration. The CEO, by the nature of the position, is intimately associated with the company; however, his or her profile and reputation isn’t entirely subsumed by it. Figure out the way to best showcase your individual CEO, in addition to the organization.

Actively developing the role of senior counsel and advisor

Whereas Reisler focused on bringing issues to the attention of her clients’ senior management teams, Conway elaborated on the concept of building higher profiles and more effective communications programs, including participating in trade shows, industry profiles in the media and town hall tours. She emphasized that effective crisis communication planning is of the utmost importance. Assessing the crisis potential includes:

• drafting a plan for all eventualities
• practising questions and answers
• devising call trees, escalation plans and designated spokespeople
• ensuring you cover off all affected parties, including: the organization, its publics (and all resulting perceptions), the families of victims, traumatized customers, industry fears, etc.

One positive trade-off for detailed crisis plans is less emphasis on a single employee to deal with a situation. Conway shared the story of when a TD Bank employee was killed on the job by a robber (the first time in Canada)…it happened at a time when she was out of the country. (“It’s almost inevitable that a crises will happen in the middle of the night or when you are on vacation.”) After receiving the phone call Conway assessed the situation from afar. She felt confident in the strength of the TD Bank Financial Group’s crisis plans (devised for all eventualities, including this tragic one). She told her very capable number two to proceed directly, according to their detailed plan. During and after the fact, the bank was praised in all quarters for its effective crisis communications.

As counsel and adviser, Conway operates under the basis that she “won’t let bad things happen to the CEO.” If you instill this kind of confidence, the CEO wants you at the table. Conway also believes that the public relations function is a very good investment for organizations, as its financial needs are relatively small, at least compared to other departments (e.g., a proposal to build a new branch plant or office).

My favourite Conway bon mot (because she had quite a few) was her suggestion to, “Think of the PR function as being like Switzerland.” That is, a neutral and objective voice to steer and counsel senior management, one that had the best interests of the organization (and the CEO’s reputation) at heart. This includes being an advocate for all of “the people.” She included employees in this mix, saying that the human resource function represents management’s best interests (first and foremost), whereas employees are one of the “publics” whose viewpoint needs to be considered by the senior (and objective) public relations adviser.

Defining “strategic”

When questions were invited from the audience, I requested that the panelists define for us what is meant by being “strategic.” Reisler indicated that how you introduce and solve a problem is key (i.e., “this is what I’m thinking….”). “You will quickly become comfortable using the language of knowledge management and persuasion.” She continued, “Think of ‘strategy’ as the superstructure. The superstructure includes ‘why are we doing this?’ The tactics are the how.” Reisler believes that staff and consultants who think they have all of the answers are dangerous. Instead, be continuously thinking about the questions you need to ask, who should you consult, and how can you arrive at a solution.

Mackenzie offered that continuous environmental scanning (i.e., asking questions and keeping up with current events) is necessary, to ensure that you understand pertinent information affecting your organization. Being strategic means educating one’s self on things such as the impact of the Canadian dollar reaching parity or China and the duty of care (note: both Mattel and a pet food company are GCI clients). Where are the questions coming from that need answers and actions? She offered that you aren’t really a strategist if you don’t know the questions to ask and the areas to research.

Provocatively, Conway indicated that she wasn’t positive our role is primarily strategic. She emphasized that we needed to challenge ourselves as practitioners in this industry, because if we didn’t become strategic, others will take our place. A strategic thinker needs to define the issues, including the negative aspects. “Are they really barriers or just frustrations that could go away?” If you are the person mandated to be in charge of reputation and credibility, what is the story you are telling to the various publics? How are these stakeholders affected? What did we do today and how will it affect the future? To manage relationships, be mindful of what and how we say things. Always be listening and be sure to look at things holistically; that is, look at all of the pieces that might affect the organization.

Conway also challenged us as to whether we had good instincts in choosing the best adviser or advisers in the room, in any given scenario. That is also the role of the strategist, figuring out who holds the most pieces to the puzzle.

Reisler agreed that you shouldn’t figure things out in a silo. Besides ongoing working relationships, chat about your emerging thoughts, use all of your networks and “cook things on the burner.”

Other practical tips

Reisler indicated we needed to understand the worlds and parametres of other disciplines. Understanding their issues earn you the right to the question, “what do you think?” Then, she says, the process of implementation can begin.

Mackenzie urged the younger practitioners to work hard! “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” Out of the three panelists, Mackenzie spoke the most to the changing demographics of the office environment, including the introduction of Gen Y into the workforce. Many of her staff comes from this demographic, and she finds them both stimulating and challenging. The stimulating part comes from their instinctive grasp and intuitive use of new technologies, including their ability to form relationships and opportunities through social networking. The challenges are the mindset of younger staff thinking they are unique and special. One story she related was a “serious” request by a 23-year-old staff member to meet and discuss her need for more work-life balance. (The individual is single, lives at home and makes a very good income.) Mackenzie offered that what is needed is clarity: what are your expectations? “That way I can try to deliver in creating a great work environment.” The reminder was that a reputation for intelligence, research and hard work provides street credibility for the longer term.

Conway indicated you need to do your homework. Always be there, always contribute. One interesting suggestion was to look to the finance function, as:

1. Many CFOs are poor communicators, yet have huge accountability and transparency challenges.
2. Many CFOs are “wannabe CEOs.” (And some do become the CEO eventually.)

She recommended we become a valued asset to the CFO, by showing appreciation for his or her challenges. Work to suggest tools and channels, help to build relationships with other departments and convince the CFO (or other dissenters) about the worthiness of an initiative.

All of the panelists indicated the need to empower and educate others on your senior management team, by showing them how effective communication works, and the tangible and intangible value of building good and strong relationship with a broad array of people. Conway indicated it could be as simple as providing good advice on how to communicate a systems crash. The key is to be helpful and supportive. An organization’s lawyers, for example, always proceed from a position of strength, with the mindset that they add value. They are trained to be aggressive and state their point of view. Those involved in strategic communication management would benefit from a similar, rigorous training in advocacy.

Make sure you love what you do

Not only have the three Liliths achieved tremendous success in their careers, they all thoroughly enjoy the challenges and opportunities their daily work brings to them. Mackenzie is even exploring the world of social media with her CEO blog (although she claims she is a “bad blogger,” as it’s hard to find the time to write quality posts on interesting topics). Reisler indicated that for her it isn’t a job, “It’s a way of life.” Based on her own employment history, Conway encouraged young people to take advantage of their training, curiosity, initiative and energy, and treat the next few working years like “It’s an all-you-can-eat buffet” of opportunities. In fact, she encouraged them to choose to work long and hard hours, in a variety of positions and sectors.

Addendum:

Welcome to the steady stream of students/readers visiting this post ever since Karen Russell, associate professor at Grady College, University of Georgia, linked to it from her teaching pr blog post, A dozen things I wish PR pros would blog about. Professor Russell appears to be a fabulous instructor and role model in the Lilith mold, too!

* * *

Thanks are extended to Shilpa Kotecha and Christine Edwardson, vice presidents of professional development and events for CPRS Toronto, for conceptualizing and planning this session (and inviting such laudable and dynamic speakers), as well as for advocating to the chapter’s board of directors my approval as accredited blogger. JG

* * *

Bios of Panelists:

Susan Reisler

Susan Reisler joined Media Profile in 2000 as a vice president and partner, after a full and rewarding 25-year career as a correspondent, journalist, host and producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).

At Media Profile, Susan provides strategic advice and planning to a wide range of professional clients including the law firm McMillan Binch Mendelsohn LLP, Investment Funds Institute of Canada, Dundee Wealth Management, TSX Group Inc., Canadian Securities Institute, Sportsbook.com, Civic Strategies and KPMG. During her day-to-day work she is often involved in the drafting and editing of news releases, writing speeches for senior executives and op-eds for media. She is a key member of the Media Profile media training team. In addition, Susan is often called upon by her clients to provide counsel and strategic advice during crisis situations.

Susan was a featured interview subject on CBC’s Spin Cycles series with Ira Basen.

Marion MacKenzie

Prior to her current role as president of GCI Canada, Marion was vice president of corporate communications for Nortel Networks, one of the world’s largest telecommunications providers, managing the company’s communications. Previously, Marion was executive vice president, GCI Group, where she was responsible for leading the Canadian corporate and consumer practices. During this time she received two national awards for issues management programs on behalf of Mattel, for a car seat safety public education campaign and Six Continents Hotels.

MacKenzie holds an MBA from the Joseph L. Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto and a bachelor of public relations (“with distinction”) from Mount Saint Vincent University, Halifax. She has received additional executive education through the Harvard University Executive Development Program, “Managing a Professional Services Firm”, and is a graduate of the Directors Education Program offered by the Institute of Corporate Directors (ICD), in partnership with Rotman.

Marion is a member of the “Canadian Women’s Foundation 100” and sits on the advisory board of the public relations faculty at Mount St. Vincent. She is the author of Blog Line.

Heather Conway

Heather Conway joined Alliance Atlantis in 2001, as its EVP of marketing, creative services and public affairs. Her responsibilities included all marketing programs, affiliate relations, as well as media, government relations and public affairs, sponsorships and donations, and internal communications.

Prior to joining Alliance Atlantis, Heather held the position of EVP of corporate and public affairs at TD Bank Financial Group. She was the first woman in the bank’s history to hold the title of EVP. As a member of the chairman and CEO’s executive management committee at the bank, she was responsible for the development and implementation of strategic corporate communications to key external and internal audiences, including: media, industry analysts, politicians and regulators, interest groups, shareholders, customers and employees; and of course all this during the merger with Canada Trust.

Prior to joining TD Bank Financial Group, Heather worked for a variety of consulting firms including Hill & Knowlton, The Neville Group and Public Affairs International, where she worked with clients to develop and execute public relations, communications and government relations strategies. In addition, she also spent a year with the Federal Minister of Finance (Michael Wilson) as his special assistant of fiscal and tax policy and communications.

In 2002, Heather was further distinguished in being named one of Canada’s “Top 40 Under 40 ™”.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Judy

    What a great post and summary of what seems to have been an exceptional event. The amount of knowledge and experience that must have been in that room is exceptional!

    There are a few key things that hit me as a communications practitioner. Marion’s belief in encouraging ongoing dialogue with individuals from various backgrounds is very smart. Too often, people rely on information provided solely within their circles, and that can have damaging effects on a company. I like the idea of “taking the pulse of Canadians” by listening to cab drivers. All of a sudden, that Air Farce episode springs to mind…

    Heather’s comment that “the best CEO’s do value the truth” is quite encouraging in a time where greed and corruption frequently reign. It all comes down to treating people the way you would like to treated. Timeless advice for any business – and for life in general.

    On the subject of “strategy”…I agree that it’s important to ask the right questions (and to the right people). Frequently, employees are afraid to speak up for fear of rocking the boat. Unfortunately, if a strategy is offline and front line people don’t speak up (or aren’t listened to), a company will begin to look and feel like a sinking ship.

    Lastly, it’s so true that you have to love what you do. With passion, focus and the right information, practitioners are well on their way to achieving their career (and personal) goals.

  2. Judy,

    Thank you so much for such an in-depth and insightful review of our recent event. It pleases me to hear that we are on the right track with our Professional Development programming.

    We are honoured to be able to attract such influential and engaging panelists and speakers at our events. Thank you for helping raise our profile.

    Sincerely,
    Lawrence J. Stevenson, APR
    President, CPRS (Toronto)

  3. Karen, thanks for stopping by and commenting. I’m so glad you picked up on those three points, because they were things that really resonated with me as well. Regarding Marion and her cabbie conversations, she actually called me the next morning after the session (to say hello and ask if I needed clarification on anything), so I took the opportunity to ask her about this relationship. It seems that as a frequent taxi user, GCI Canada has an account with CO-OP Cabs. What amused me, though, was to hear that the cabbies fight over who gets to take Marion places; ergo, I think *they* really appreciate being asked to share information/opinions with her, and very much enjoy her company as well. Heather’s relationships with her C-suite colleagues sounded really hands-on, so when she spoke about developing a relationship where you are counsel and adviser it really rang with conviction and sincerity. Not surprisingly, I found the idea of seeking out the CFO with offers of help and office companionship to be quite brilliant. (All three women said they benefited from close–but platonic!–relationships with the financial people. If you want to talk about iconic Canadian settings, Marion shared the story of working long hours and then going for many, many late-night dinners at Swiss Chalet with the financial folks at Nortel, particularly in the not-so-great days.) Regarding the strategy question, I adored Susan’s response to “think of it like the superstructure,” all framed in the question of “why are we doing this?” (It provides such a great visual.) I agree front-line employees should be encouraged and enabled to ask the “why” question of leaders at the conceptualization stage, because they are the ones who will have to deal with the “how” tactics and stakeholder relationships.

    (And on a totally separate note, Karen, I think you walked past me during Nuit Blanche last Saturday, around 8 p.m. We were in the looong line-up to see the Ghost Subway aural exhibit when this woman walked by and I thought, “I know her,” but couldn’t put a name to the face. When I read your comment this week–then visited your blog–it struck me that I think it was you, because you wrote about your own Nuit Blanche experience in Yorkville.)

    Lawrence, thank you for taking the time to check out the post and comment. I welcomed the opportunity to attend the event and report on it for PR Conversations, so I very much appreciated getting the board’s approval as “accredited blogger.” I don’t know if you were aware that I was continuing to fight a bad (post-TIFF) cold and didn’t know up until a few hours before whether I would have the energy to attend. I pushed myself to come out and was really glad I did…those three Liliths were not only knowledgeable and inspiring, but also very energizing. Plus very approachable and personable, which I know because I had an opportunity to speak with each of them in advance of the panel session.

    Shilpa and Christine are indeed running a great PD program; I’ve been to more CPRS Toronto events in the last 1.5 years than I’ve been to in the entire time I’ve been a member.

    I wish you continued success during your year in office. I understand next week’s Open House is booked to capacity, otherwise I’d try to make it out to meet you in person.

  4. What a comprehensive, helpful post!

    The event organizers are grads of my PR program at Centennial College, so, I think they learned their lessons well.

    A number of years ago, when Heather Conway was named one of the “Top 40 Under 40” (the only PR person to do so), I invited her into one of my Career Management classes as a guest speaker. She really impressed the students with her truth telling and candor. I’m sure she was a most able moderator.

  5. Hi Christine, thanks for both the visit and the props.

    I concur that Shilpa and Christine are both very good at what they do (work and volunteer), and I’m sure that it is at least partly because of their excellent program/training at Centennial College; you know I’m a big champion/supporter of your corp comm/PR program.

    In fact, I wish I was able to attend Centennial College’s upcoming Talk Is Cheap “social media unconference for PR and corporate communications practitioners” on November 15th, but (alas) I’m out of the country, attending my LERN symposium/conference. Other folks in the GTA might want to check out the program on the wiki and then register. The event is free.

    I wasn’t aware you had Heather Conway in to speak. By happy coincidence, our national association (Certified General Accountants Association of Canada) is actually a corporate sponsor of Canada’s Top 40 Under 40™ program, which means I’ve been able to attend the Ontario-region breakfast or reception and/or overall awards luncheon for the past two years. Having met and chatted with many of the “Top 40s” (current winners and alumni), I have been extremely impressed by the calibre of the people who get nominated for and win the awards: so much brain power and sense of social responsibility, plus general business- and people-skills savviness in one room is quite energizing and inspiring–just like Heather was at the CPRS (Toronto) event. I don’t think there were any PR-oriented winners this year, but there was definitely a female award winner from the field in 2006; I noted what she did for a living and made a point of congratulating her.

    Note that Heather wasn’t the moderator that evening, though. All three women were given equal speaking time, then the audience was invited to ask questions. Which we certainly did! And we weren’t disappointed by the answers.

    And I see you’ve followed Gary Schlee’s lead and started a blog. Congratulations on that endeavour.

  6. Since I wrote this post almost two years ago, there’s been regular searches for “Heather Conway” on PRC’s back end. But on July 9th I knew something must be up due to the volume of searches under her name. Although this Liliths Rising post was almost always first (yea!), I researched the second hit and quickly found the Edelman news release, Edelman Appoint Heather Conway as Canadian CEO. (Note that this is the second-in-a-row female CEO appointed for Edelman Canada.)

    Some more information can be found in this PRWeek (USA, as the Canadian version was unceremoniously deep-sixed a couple of months ago), Edelman names new CEO in Canada.

    Perhaps the most interesting is the July 10th Globe and Mail item, A little too much information, where Conway is quoted:

    Digital media will be a primary focus for Edelman, she said. “Every company has to become a media company. I think the PR function is going to change more in the next five years than in the last 50.”

    Based on what I learned about Heather Conway at that CPRS Toronto session two years ago, I think she is well-positioned to lead Edelman Canada into its future.

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