Honest Interactions Key to Setting Executive Expectations for PR

It's the classic PR horror story: the eccentric CEO informs you he wants to be on the cover of TIME before year's end ... or else. And it's not just a media relations myth, either. Stacey Gaswirth, VP of PR with Shelton PR in Dallas, laughingly recounts the tale of a start-up technology executive who delivered just that ultimatum in one of his first meetings with her. "At first I thought he was joking," she says. When she realized he was serious, however, she delivered a dose of reality: "I told him he should just spare us both the heartache and fire me on the spot" if that was his expectation. "I asked him what made him think his story was one of 52 cover stories for TIME for the year." Gaswirth's blunt reaction convinced the impractical CEO that he should set his goals for PR a little lower. And experienced PR pros, whether they work with tiny start-ups or established international corporations, say her open, honest approach to dealing with management's goals is the only way to go. Today's unique business environment has many PR professionals in an uncomfortable fix: Budgets and staff have been slashed, editorial space is increasingly limited, journalists and other stakeholders are intensely skeptical of corporate America. Yet management's expectations of PR are higher than ever. Unfortunately, there's no silver bullet. But building open communications with the C-suite and helping company leaders to understand the capabilities - and limitations - of PR will stand you in good stead in the long-run. Getting to Know You Constant communication with senior management is the foundation for that long-term education process. It begins with offering management a solid PR plan, tied to business goals, each year so that they have an idea of what projects you'll be tackling throughout the year. This is also a time to incorporate some of the company leadership's hopes for PR into your own plans. "I set out a clear communications plan at the beginning of the year," says Don Marshall, director of communications for Washingtonpost.Newsweek. "I work with the C-level folks and talk to them about what we're going to do." Those planning meetings shouldn't be so much about you delivering a plan or management laying down PR targets as about "joining forces and getting really comfortable with what's going on in communications," says Mark Nardone, VP and principal with PAN Communications. They also provide an opportunity for you to articulate what you will need from management in order to fulfill everyone's goals. If the company can't deliver, Nardone says, "expectations are going to be sacrificed." For example, if you'll need the sales team to deliver customers for testimonials, be clear about how many you'll need and when so that if those testimonials don't come through, it will be obvious to all parties involved that you need to reassess your objectives. Walter Jennings, VP of global communications for Ford Motor Credit Co., says he has struggled over the years to give his C-team a clear perception of their own roles in making PR efforts a success. "It's just as hard to get reticent managers to speak up as to rein in over-exuberant people." When thieves recently stole consumer credit reports, Ford Motor Credit became headline news. Jennings used Ford's corporate values to put communications into context for executives: Ford had an obligation to its customers to get information out quickly and accurately, and having executives speak out on the issue was key to the PR team's ability to succeed in that goal. Tying your needs for communications to overall company business drivers helps big-picture managers get a better sense of how PR works and how they fit in. Consistent Communications Don't just communicate at the inception or completion of a campaign. Make sure management knows what PR is accomplishing - and what it isn't accomplishing - on an ongoing basis. "The key thing is making sure you communicate successes as much as failures," Nardone says. Marshall says his own CEO has a clear understanding of PR, and because of that has consistently high expectations. "That's a good thing, but you have to be careful when you do something that's really successful, because then there's an expectation you'll always be successful. I never want to be making excuses, but sometimes you have to say, 'I'm not sure I can get this done.' You have to explain the reality of a situation. The worst thing to do is to lead your senior manager to believe you're going to do something you can't do." Gaswirth witnessed that firsthand when her marketing communications contact at a client organization built herself up as the "can-do" player at her company. The client contact made sweeping promises to senior management, even touting the Shelton team's successes as her own. Members of management were so impressed they decided the marcom pro could get along without her agency counterparts, and they ended the relationship with Shelton. Within 12 months, Gaswirth says, they had also let go of their marcom exec when she couldn't live up to her exalted goals. Balance your reporting of PR successes with an accurate and complete picture of what hasn't worked, why, and what you can do to reassess and make changes in the future. Walking executives through the individual things you're doing to accomplish larger goals is critical, Marshall says. "It helps them understand that PR is inexact. There are times you'll get great coverage when you don't expect it and times when you'll expect great coverage and not get it. You have to be totally honest and straightforward." (Contacts: Gaswirth, 972/239-5119; Marshall, don.marshall@wpni.com; Nardone, mnardone@pancomm.com; Jennings,wjennin3@ford.com) PR Practice for Fledgling Execs The Sears PR team is so committed to giving executives a better understanding of PR that it has developed a training program for up-and-coming company leaders. The program not only preps these promising individuals for interaction with the media and other aspects of PR, but also gives them the key understanding they'll need in the future to set valid goals for the company's communications function. The Sears HR department identifies promising potential leaders, says Bob Carr, director of corporate communications. "We've assigned five or six PR executives to give them a grounding in what they can expect." Each of the PR executives takes on several of the 25 or so potential senior execs and meets regularly with these individuals to work with them on media training and other PR functions. Some have a better initial understanding of PR than others, Carr says, but by the time these fledgling leaders reach the most senior levels of the company, they all have a sophisticated concept of what PR can and can't accomplish. (Carr, 847/286-8632)

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