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Leaders are failing their PR teams – agencies and corporates alike

Victoria Tomlinson posted this on

Over the years, I have trained communications teams and professionals in everything from internal and crisis comms to social media and presentation skills.

Leaders are failing their PR teams

I must have trained hundreds in the last few years – and gosh, what insights.

My big conclusion?  Business leaders don’t talk business to their teams. And this means the quality of thinking and activities done within their agencies or organisations is poor and above all, not delivering what it should in the way of results. So what can be done?

First, let me give an example of the problem and then come up with a number of things I think leaders should be doing.

The issue really hit home to me when I was training in Dubai last month.  I was running a session on creativity in B2B PR.  The group I had were all bright as buttons, enthusiastic and actually a lot of experience – I would have employed any of them for the right job.

I went round the room to ask what people wanted from the session – almost everyone had some kind of mind block about how to be creative when working with accountants, lawyers, bankers, management consultants, headhunters and the rest.  I showed them the critical ingredient to creativity – which is to really understand your clients’ business and their customers’ problems. The better the insights, the easier it is to be creative.

But what emerged was that very few really understood what the businesses were trying to achieve, what the issues were or what the issues of their industry are. They were trying to brainstorm creativity in their office in a vacuum.   As one person said, “I thought creativity was about butterflies and polka dots” – meaning fun ideas, rather than coming up with ways to engage with your business audience.

And thinking back to other courses, I remember a number of people on an internal communications course who were all focused on newsletters and research into which articles were most read by employees.  When I said, “What business goals are you trying to achieve with the newsletter?” there was silence.  They hadn’t started with why they were doing newsletters – or other comms activities – but were focused on what employees wanted.  Of course, there is a half-way ground in all this – sure, you have to get the comms right for employees but you also have to know what you wanted to achieve from it all to support the business.

So how can you change all this? How do you ensure your teams are focused on key goals and that they are interested in, steeped in and love your clients and their problems?

Five key steps for leaders

Leaders are failing their PR teams

1. Bring your clients into your business

What was clear on the creativity course was that the comms teams were meeting and working with other comms teams – not business leaders, either of their agencies or company, or of their clients.

Who gets to meet the clients at dinners or when they come in for meetings?  Are people from comms teams included?

This won’t always be possible – so can directors do monthly briefings about the core issues?

2. Get comms people networking where your clients are

Where are your comms teams networking? Are they going to industry conferences (not PR ones, but ones about law, accounting, industry sectors)?   Is there budget allocated for this?  Could senior people take comms people with them sometimes?

3. Are your business goals clear?

What surprises me most is how often comms people have no idea what the key goal is for their organisation.  I always start a course by going round the room to agree what people want from the day – but also ask them to say in headline terms what their organisation is trying to achieve.  In the case of agencies, this will be asking what a client wants to achieve.

As you would expect, comms people in private-equity backed businesses are always extremely clear, those in retail also – but after this it is rare to find real clarity.

When you are walking around your business, ask people, ‘what is the key thing we have to achieve this year?’ Can they reply easily and quickly – and are the replies consistent?

Look at all your internal communications – are your goals clear and regularly discussed and updated? What is being communicated?

4. Talk to them!

How often do directors walk into your comms team and just chat?  How connected are they to your leadership team?

5. Share industry information

What information do people share internally? Could you share articles about your customers, reports on industry trends or good ideas that could be useful for clients?  It’s getting comms people thinking, talking, sharing what is worrying your clients.

As I write, I can think of lots of clients where the comms teams are right at the heart of their clients’ businesses and issues – typically the professions.  But hearing the inside stories from comms people themselves, it is really easy to get wrapped up in ‘activities’ and lose sight of what everyone is trying to achieve – and senior management can help them to stay on track.

Leaders are failing their PR teams

I have just looked at the actions from a few of my most recent courses, and the delegates have said that they are now going to ‘think bottom line’, ‘spend time with higher-ups and ceo’, ‘find out our clients’ problems’ and ‘share more with the leadership team’.  I loved also that someone said they are going to start reading the things their clients read such as the FT and Economist.

The willingness is there from your comms teams, they just need help with focus and networking.

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