“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.
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.
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!
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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
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Bios of Panelists:
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.
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 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 ™”.