Business Conversations That Make Me Lose Sleep

Which workplace exchanges do you find to be most difficult? For most people, they’re centered on two things: Personnel and performance. Both of these things straddle the worlds of internal communications and HR, and both are also general managerial challenges.

I recently read an interesting column in Business Insider about the toughest conversations you can have at work. They were:

1. The Emotional Dismissal Conversation
2. The Awkward Personality Conversation
3. The Underperformance Conversation

All these are tough, but they are typically part of the same progression, and the progression usually starts with number three above, and ends with number one. Here are the toughest workplace conversations, from my perspective, and how I proceed.

Personnel
These kinds of issues run the gamut—from people who are squabbling, to turf wars, to folks who simply don’t work well together. Sometimes goals don’t sync up. Other times, actual performance doesn’t fit the needs of the job, and that’s typically when the three-conversation pattern that Business Insider described kicks in. To my mind, all of these things are a huge challenge and all of them divert from the common business goal.

I’ve learned over the years that a sustained, tight focus on performance is the way to go. There should be no politics, no gossiping, just set a tone for the group that all you care about is results. Results require collaboration. Keeping everyone focused on that creates a sense of confidence that relaxes a group and empowers them to experiment and achieve.

Business Relationships
This is another difficult area, but for communicators, it’s critical. Everyone from entry-level account managers to CEOs deals with either external clients, or with the public. Think of how frequent it is that a lower-level employee embarrasses a brand on social media, either when representing the company, or through some personal post that goes viral.

Of course, we’re talking about conversations—whether with a subordinate or a colleague, or with an external customer. I’ve learned you can’t wing it when it comes to customer conversations. Too much is at stake. Policies that everyone knows about and understands are critical, and these have to come from the top. I’ve had many conversations with customers in my career, and when business is on the line, they can be really tense. For me, the way to ensure that you preserve the business—if that’s the goal, sometimes it isn’t—the relationship has to come first. (This is a bit counter-intuitive, because I just stressed the importance of policies.) If your customers trust that you have their interests at heart, and you have thought through their challenges and understand their objectives—you’ll keep the business. If they feel like you’re officious, and policy-bound, you won’t. Never use the word “unfortunately.” That conveys a focus on your internal policy, not on customer-service. It is also condescending. Never use the phrase, “We’re not set up to do that” for the same reasons. Always be ready with a solution or two.

Business Performance
For a lot of professionals, in PR and elsewhere, this is always a stress-inducing conversation, especially if you’ve fallen short of your goals. But it doesn’t have to be. Putting aside the possibility of the fundamental lack of skills to do a job, most business-performance shortfalls relate to external factors in the market, not to your execution. So it really is an opportunity to shape a conversation about missing goals into the cool ways you’re going to pivot to adjust to changes in the market.

What are the business conversations you struggle with the most, and what advice can you offer?

—Tony Silber
@tonysilber

Target CMO Sends a Powerful Message to PR Field

Rumors continue to swirl that Target CMO Jeff Jones may be named as the company’s new CEO.

Target is looking to fill the top slot after it announced earlier this month that CEO Greg Steinhafel had stepped down.

Steinhafel’s departure was precipitated by a massive security breach late last year in which hackers may have gained access to millions of customer credit and debit card records.

If Jones does get the nod as CEO, we’d like to think his response to an anonymous employee’s complaint (via Gawker) had something to do with the decision.

Indeed, the response may help Jones ascend to the top spot of the second largest discount retailer in the U.S.—and serve as a watershed for communicators and PR pros grappling with how to communicate with critics in an increasingly digital age.

The episode stems from an anonymous email Gawker received from a “mid-level employee” at Target’s headquarters in Minnesota.

The email does not paint a very flattering portrait of Target, saying the company prizes conformity above all else.

“You’re penalized and viewed as unfriendly and not a team player if you spend too much time in your cube working and not enough time socializing,” the email said.

The email also stressed that senior management at Target is essentially clueless about how to pivot the retailer, which dates back to 1902.

“Former [CEO] Greg Steinhafel getting fired was a good step, along with the CIO being fired a few months ago, but it’s not enough. The entire executive team with the exception of the CMO Jeff Jones needs to go. Why? Because everyone was homegrown and ‘Targetized’ and has no concept of how to run a 21st century business,” the email added.

Jones saw his opening and ran with it.

Rather than put out a news release about how the company is turning things around, Jones responded via a LinkedIn “influencer” post with the title, “The Truth Hurts.”

The post is remarkable for its candor. “And while it was difficult for me to read this account for many reasons, the reality is that our team members speaking with honesty is a gift. Because much of what they are saying is true.”

He added: “The culture of Target is an enormous strength and might be our current Achilles heel. In the coming days and weeks we will embrace the critiques of Target—whether it’s from outsiders or our own team—like an athletics team puts the negative press on the wall in the locker room.”

You know what they say about not letting a crisis go to waste.

But, perhaps more important, Jones’ response could serve as a model for PR pros and brand managers who realize that the current marketplace demands more of a warts-and-all approach to communications (as opposed to airbrushing the corporate blemishes).

Jones may or may not land the CEO gig at Target, but our guess is that he’ll be an integral part of the new regime at Target.

However things shake out, he’s provided some invaluable tips for PR execs who realize that traditional ways of communicating with irate customers (and employees) no longer cut it.

Here are some takeaways:

> When your brand is called on the carpet by critics (anonymous or not, in-house or external), use the criticism as a springboard for some soul-searching about your brand.

> When your brand is criticized don’t get into a defensive crouch. Look at the criticism as an opportunity to tell your story more effectively and meet the critics head-on.

> Corporate managers who grew up in the analog age were conditioned not to admit their mistakes. They also were made to feel like failure was somehow a fate worse than death. But, in a digital age, it’s just the opposite. Consumers embrace brands that own their mistakes and seem to put more faith in companies and organizations that aren’t cowed by failure, but, instead, use it as a communications tool.

What would you add to the list?

Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1

The One Thing Every PR Person Needs to Do

“PR is losing its leadership position in Social.”  That’s what the founder of a new company that provides social media measurement/monitoring tools to brands told me the other day when I asked about his target audience. He continued to note that “PR got too comfortable” and now Marketing, Advertising and automated services are taking over Social.

Let’s say we had a friendly disagreement over his claim, as I defended PR’s role in Social and shared stories gleaned from the PR News front lines of communicators’ role in driving social media. But perception can be reality, as we know.

If there’s a sector of the marketplace that is devaluing PR’s role in any medium, then every PR professional needs to do a better job of tying Social and other activities to the metrics that matter to their organization. Just as importantly, we need to make sure we’re communicating our success stories – effectively and regularly. That is one thing every PR person needs to do to help advance the communications profession.

Take a lesson from the trope about the cobbler’s children having no shoes. As communicators, you’re busy doing PR. Your days are filled speaking with stakeholders, writing, listening, measuring and implementing. Do you sometimes forget to tend to your PR success stories? It’s the last mile of your efforts: to communicate your successes not only to your superiors but to your superiors’ superiors, to the media, to your counterparts in Marketing, Finance, HR, IR, IT and Sales. I’d like to think the cobbler eventually noticed that he forgot to provide shoes for his own kids. PR needs to take care of its own, as well.

– Diane Schwartz

@dianeschwartz

 

Path to the Corner Office for Women Is a Shared One

corner-officeWalk into any gathering of communications professionals and the first thing you’ll notice is the large percentage of women—many of them brilliant, accomplished and primed for leadership in corporate America.

Then consider sobering reality: Women hold 4.8% of Fortune 500 CEO positions and 4.8% of Fortune 1000 CEO positions. Within PR itself, at the agency and in-house level, men tend to occupy the corner office.

If there was one dominant theme shared by the honorees at last month’s Matrix Awards luncheon presented by New York Women in Communications, it is that meaningful social change moves at a glacier’s pace, and only happens through deliberate actions taken by people who see beyond their own immediate self-interest and create a community with shared goals.

Merely deserving or earning corporate leadership and pay equity won’t get women there in large numbers. It has to be taken through shared actions. Successful women in communications can further their own cause by connecting with other women like themselves to share ideas and inspiration.

Liz Kaplow, president of New York Women in Communications, and president and CEO of PR agency Kaplow, has focused much of her energy this past year on the advancement of women at all stages of their careers in communications. “We need to break out of our day to day and connect with others to help us navigate what that next step in our career is going to be,” Kaplow says. “Especially with women in mid-career who are facing obstacles. They need confidence—they need to be mentored. Women in top leadership roles are willing to be mentors, but we need to get women in mid-career to tell their stories, too.”

Mentoring takes time, but it doesn’t have to spring from an established mentoring program in a company or from one developed by a professional organization. Rather, it should be a  state of mind, and the heart of it, according to Kaplow, is storytelling and conversation.

“In terms of changing the cultural Zeitgeist we have to start mentoring each other,” she says. “We really have to keep talking about it. We’re communicators. Whether it’s Joanna Coles’ Cosmo luncheon of the 100 most powerful women or the Matrix Awards, in order to make change there has to be a conversation. And we have to get corporate America behind it so they see it’s a win-win and that they see that they don’t want to lose that incredible talent.”

And if you question your own ability to be a mentor, all you need to do is follow these two simple mentoring guidelines, laid out by Kaplow:

1. Share information easily.

2. Take time to listen and ask questions.

That’s all there is to it. Now get out there and be a mentor.

Follow Steve Goldstein: @SGoldsteinAI

 

 

Is There a Game of Thrones Character on Your Team?

I am writing this blog post because I know you either watch Game of Thrones or have to listen to people who watch it. Not that I’m trying to game the system, but let’s face it: you need a break from your cerebral workday to think or water-cooler-talk about your favorite TV show, be it Mad Men, Dora the Explorer, The Voice or Game of Thrones.

Just as you can’t imagine yourself as an explorer with a talking map or a talented singer whose voice would cause people to turn their chairs, you can’t imagine working with someone whose manners and actions smell and feel like a Game of Thrones character. Or can you?

To wit, herewith I present four characters from the May 4 episode “First of His Name” — let me know if any of these folks are akin to people you work with, for or against? Or perhaps one of these characters is a reflection of yourself.

Cersei: she senses that she is not only getting older, but that being a woman may prevent her from running the kingdom. Would her father Tywin even consider his daughter to be his heir? She’s a strong woman (deeply flawed and sleeping with her brother – I must add) but are the male leaders even noticing her?

Petyr: he’s been pulling all the strings. A savvy, cunning politician whose investment in brothels has resulted in both unparalleled financial acumen and insider knowledge that keeps on giving, Petyr is also known as Littlefinger. Here’s the ultimate manipulator who has a nickname that is the antithesis of his true power.

Sansa: always the victim. She goes from one bad situation to another. Now stuck in the house of her aunt Lysa Arryn, she feels helpless and foolish. We’re rooting for her to figure out a way to break out and be an independent woman. It is best that she finds her way back home, to Winterfell, and stay put.

Podrick: the loyal one. Formerly the squire to Tyrion Lannister, Pod is asked to testify against Tyrion and refuses. For his safety, he is sent away to be the squire of the very capable Brienne, who discovers that Pod is not a good horseman or cook. But he is loyal and interested in learning new skills. And that is worth something.

For those of you who are diehard Game of Thrones fans, there’s no doubt I am insulting you with my perfunctory description of beloved or hated characters. But if we can better understand those around us and improve our communication with characters of all natures, then it will have been worth it.

– Diane Schwartz

@dianeschwartz

Winning in the Court of Public Opinion

It’s a PR nightmare. Imagine your brand is under siege because one of your own uttered some repugnant remarks that found their way into the media and went viral.

All hell is breaking loose and the “talent” that has made your brand very rich and very popular is putting the squeeze on you to make amends or face serious consequences.

It was through this vortex that NBA Commissioner faced the media earlier this week to address the furor sparked by racist comments made by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling during a private telephone conversation with Sterling’s girlfriend.

The NBA’s PR team must have breathed a sigh of relief following Silver’s presser, in which he banned Sterling from the NBA for life and fined him $2.5 million.

Silver also said he would urge the NBA’s board of governors (the other 29 owners) to force Sterling to sell the club.

The legal fallout will likely follow, with multiple reports now saying that Sterling, a divorce attorney by trade, lives for litigation.

But by taking swift action, Silver was able stop a radioactive leak that threatened to blow up the NBA brand.

Silver’s presentation conferences was a clinic in how communicators can cauterize a deep wound and get their brand back on track following a major derailment.

He provided takeaways for communicators who are grappling with controversy and need to provide counsel for managers at the top who have to deal with issues head-on to right the ship.

> A need for speed. A fast-moving controversy can only be met with a quick response. While there was some outcry that Silver should have acted sooner, the press conference was not five days after Sterling’s comments were revealed. People may pine for you to respond to a controversy virtually immediately, but you need to afford yourself some time to make sure the message is consistent and leaves no room for ambiguity (that the media will surely pounce on).

> Listen closely. As the Sterling controversy became the top story in the country last weekend, Silver met with NBA owners (who are his collective boss) to gauge their reaction. But by bringing down the hammer on Sterling, Silver also showed that he was also listening carefully to the court of public opinion and the general consensus that a slap on the wrist (or lawerly language) would not fly and probably make a terrible situation worse.

> Bring a touch of class. Silver helped to mitigate some of the raw emotion caused by Sterling’s remarks by apologizing to multiple audiences, including fans, active players, former players, coaches and partners. “To them, and pioneers of the game like Earl Lloyd, Chuck Cooper, Sweetwater Clifton, the great Bill Russell, and particularly Magic Johnson, I apologize,” Silver said. Well played.

> Don’t dance around any questions. In light of the white-hot glare of the media, dancing around the media’s questions is a no-win situation. Counsel that it’s okay to say “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure”—as Silver did a couple of times during the press questions— to questions in which there is no definitive answer (and assure the reporter that the company will follow-up once it does have a definitive answer). This is a perfect example of the “authenticity” (that PR folks are constantly talking about).

> Do your homework. Try to anticipate any and all questions. For instance, during the presser Silver was asked if members of Mr. Sterling’s family, including his wife, Rochelle, will be allowed to remain in an ownership or managerial position in the league. Silver emphatically said there have been no decisions and that the  “no,” and that the ruling applies specifically to Donald Sterling and Donald Sterling’s conduct only.

The rub is to convince managers to adopt some of these lessons. If nothing else, keep the video of Silver press conference handy. You never know when you might need it.

As a PR pro, what would you add to the list above?

Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1

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