PRSA Conference Wrap-Up: Leading Your Organization Takes Strategy


The validity of communications as both a science and an art is not just a modern-day battle. The concept dates back thousands of years to a time when Aristotle - responding to Plato's defamation of the pursuit as a knack, not an art - championed rhetoric as "the faculty of observing in any given case all the available means of persuasion." The fact that rhetoric is all but gone from the educational curricula of the 21st century doesn't mean communications experts can't use the skill. Far from it: you would be hard pressed to cite a time when communicators aren't using persuasion in one form or another. The uses range from persuading a client to take one avenue over another to persuading their CEO of their inherent leadership and management qualities. The latter example of rhetoric's place in the practice of communications was explored in-depth at the Public Relations Society of America's 2006 International Conference, held November 11-14 in Salt Lake City, Utah. The conference's overall theme was "Benchmarking Your Public Relations Strategies With The Best," but an adept listener would notice the undercurrent of leadership and management-focused best practices for senior executives. Perhaps Jim Lukaszewski, chairman and president of The Lukaszewski Group, summed it up best: Rather than to keep searching for that elusive table, be the table. It's being the table that'll get you somewhere. "Being the table" means persuading your CEO/C-suite that communications is the crucial foundation for all high-impact actions that affect the organization. And, according to a number of presentations at the conference, it may be simpler than it sounds. It just takes a little strategy, which, as Lukaszewski defines it, is "a unique mixture of mental energy verbally injected into an organization through communication, which results in behavior that achieves organizational value." Here are two best-practices tactics communicators can use to form a strategy and impact the achievement of organizational value: Simplify The Decision-Making Process CEOs make decisions every day; it's a part of their job. As a result of this responsibility, communications executives in their turn face decisions every day, the crux of most being how to advise their CEO. Before the day-to-day advising can take place, however, the communicators must prove their value as trusted, useful advisors. One of Lukaszewski's sessions, entitled "Why Should the Boss Listen to You?" provided a powerful method for giving advice: a three-minute drill that whittles recommendations down to a concise, structured approach that really packs a punch and commands attention: Summarize the situation in 60 words: It's the "what we know now" and "why it's important" element of the equation. Provide an analysis in 60 words: describe the situation's implications, as well as its challenges and opportunities. State the goal in 60 words: As Lukaszewski says, "Goals should keep everyone focused forward. Useful goals are understandable, brief, achievable, positive and time/deadline- sensitive. Offer options in 150 words: Lukaszewski underscores the importance of options, as they can differentiate a communicator's added value from another advisor's. Options can be boiled down to three alternatives: Do nothing, do something, do something more. Offer recommendations in 60 words: Be prepared to state which option you would choose, as the CEO is likely to ask. Justify your recommendation in 60 words: If you can't say why you would follow your own suggestion, chances are good you'll be leaving the room with your tail between your legs. Following Lukaszewski's plan of attack will add up to a power-packed three minutes that will quickly affirm your place among the CEO's advisors. Speak The Language True, as a PR/communications executive, you may not be a specialist in numbers, but having enough of a grasp to explain basic theories to the CEO will do wonders for boosting your power of persuasion. As Tim Brown, corporate communications director of Delmarva Power, said in his PRSA conference presentation, "Understanding your organization's financial performance is a prerequisite to providing strategic counsel." His presentation, entitled "Taking It To the Street: How to Use Financial Rations to Spot Trends, Create Pitches and Engage Senior Executives," addressed this skill and offered a few pointers on mastering it: Understand ratios: Ratios describe the relationship between two numbers, and they are a linchpin of financial communications. Three good ones to know include: liquidity ratios, which measure a company's ability to meet short-term liabilities; activity ratios, which measure how efficiently a company uses its assets; and profitability ratios, which measure a company's ability to generate profits. Use ratios to spot trends: Looking for generic media mentions of ratios (in a business story, for example) can alert a communications executive to a trend that will impact the organization. But being able to bring the trend to the CEO's attention early on demonstrates your thought leadership. Use ratios to pitch management: Brown advises following the grade school math "word problem" template to translate numbers and ratios into words and create a pitch based on your company's own financial ratios relative to overall industry performance. Use ratios to counsel senior management: Understanding financial terms will give PR/communications executives a leg-up in meetings. Address critical business challenges with strategies. Brown offers the examples of how credit policy impacts profitability or how debt reduction improves the ability to borrow. Both understanding financial communications and knowing how to encapsulate a decision-making strategy into three minutes bring added value to the table. Each strategic skill uses various persuasive techniques to inform the powers that be and lead the organization in an array of areas, among them media relations, crisis communications and investor relations. And although PR/communications managers should look back to Aristotle's rhetoric guide to boost their persuasive powers among the C-suite, Lukaszewski offers one final bit of advice for keeping their organizations moving forward: "Yesterday doesn't matter," he says. "Strategy is always about tomorrow." Contact: Jim Lukaszewski, jel@e911.com; Tim Brown, 302.283.5803, tim.brown@pepcoholdings.com Leadership During A Crisis Demonstrating leadership skills during a crisis is the ultimate litmus test for communicators. Fail to apply the principles of crisis readiness and you've got yourself an even worse crisis on your hands, both for your organization and your job security. So it was no surprise that a leadership workshop at the PRSA annual conference was packed to the gills, as management guru Jim Lukaszewski offered up four hours' worth of leadership and crisis readiness tips for communications. Here are some: In crisis management, say less but make it matter. Make sure you have an up-to-date contact list with your team members' phone numbers, as 75% of crisis readiness, according to Lukaszewski, is your contact list. About the other 25%: 15% is readiness; 8% is scenario-based preparation; and 2% is "surprise." While we know telling the truth is paramount, what exactly is "the truth"? To the media, those listening to you and those in the hot seat, truth is 15% fact and 85% perception and emotion. Among the many eyes looking at how you respond online is arguably your most important constituent: your employees. The employee communications rule, says Lukaszewski, is to put 75 words of crisis-related information on your Web site, every hour if possible. It is these words, essentially a script, that your employees will use when explaining the crisis to their peers, customers, families. Not to mention, it helps them understand what their employer is facing and what it means to them. Your preparation for a crisis, and action during one, will define you as a leader. But keep in mind that all those other days when you're not in crisis mode are just as defining for you and your key executives. As Lukaszewski so aptly noted, "action must precede communication."

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