Out-There Execs: PR Strategies To Optimize Speaking Opportunities


Despite living in an age when an endless amount of content is streamed out into cyberspace and back to the small screens of our digital devices, the spoken word—in a live venue—is not dead. In fact, it’s very much alive and becoming a more integral part of a PR executive’s arsenal. A recent Weber Shandwick report illustrates this: In a study of the top 50 most admired companies, CEO participation at prominent global forums has increased 96% from 2007-2009, while other C-level executive appearances at other top events rose by 40%. So despite the tough economy, executive scrutiny and limited budgets, executives are clamoring to speak at events, which goes against the conventional wisdom of many in PR. “What’s interesting about these findings is a lot of our clients were saying the speaker service is dead,” says Jennifer Risi, EVP of Weber Shandwick’s Global Strategic Media Group. “Not only is it alive and well, it’s thriving.” In talking to PR executives who oversee speaking initiatives, it’s clear that speaking engagements are becoming an increasingly critical PR platform, helping an organization build thought leadership, express their strategic vision and stand apart from the competition. FACE TIME To Carreen Winters, EVP of agency MWW and leader of client speaking efforts, the increased interest in speaking is easily explained: “These days, people trust people more than companies. And trust is something organizations are interested in building.” But not all organizations. Winters says that since the recession, speaking breaks into two camps among clients: those organizations that recognize that publicly showing leadership is important for trust; and those with a bunker mentality, fearful of becoming targets of criticism through public discourse. For Jim Whaley, VP of corporate communications at Siemens, the bunker approach is not an option. Putting faces to a company that serves in multiple industries and employs 60,000 people in the U.S. is a key part of Siemens’ overall PR strategy. That’s a big reason why Siemens’ speaker outreach filters down into targeted areas. Its City Ambassador program, currently in six locations, takes key executives and makes them Siemens’ voice in the business community. “We get them on the right boards, in front of the right people and they can tell our stories to some very influential groups in the community,” says Whaley. SPEAKER PROGRAM BEST PRACTICES It’s knowing what stories to tell your targeted audience that is most critical. And that strategy has been modified in the past few years. “Organizations aren’t talking about their specific offerings,” says Risi. For the CEO, messaging is about helping to solve the big issues of the day, which explains the heavy interest in securing spots at top-tier economic and business forums, she says. But Risi sees a shift on the horizon. While 2009 featured the CEO out front, 2010 will be the year of the executive team, as more execs will be deployed to disseminate specific (and offerings-based) messages to highly targeted audiences. Key strategies to enable speaker program success include: â–¶ Be precise with your messaging: Siemens’ program is a good example of that. With major presences in the healthcare, energy and industrial sectors, tailoring messages to each audience is key and also complex. “It’s important to grasp the key issues in each sector, precisely fit our stories within those issues and then reach the key decision makers in those areas,” says Whaley. â–¶ Address your organization’s problems: “Think about how you can use speaking opportunities to solve your own problems,” says Winters. The concept may seem obvious, but Winters says organizations don’t do it enough. For example, a professional services firm may have a talent recruitment challenge. “Instead of the CEO going to an economic conference, you might change your messaging and target industry groups and commencement speeches,” she says. â–¶ Map your organization’s attributes with leaders’ strengths: MWW has developed a process called “CEO Equity Builder,” which, says Winters, has morphed into a program for an organization’s entire executive team. Equity Builder blends an organization’s attributes (such as ethical decision making and quality products) with executives’ strengths and then develops reputational programs around those attributes. “This enables us to build a speaking program based on outcomes,” says Winters. LISTENING EXERCISE And what about the outcomes for the speakers themselves? Nancy Mahon, executive director of the MAC AIDS Fund, says the benefits to the executive are great. As the leader and public face of the organization, Mahon often speaks to graduate students, where the actual speech is secondary. “With students, it’s gloves off,” she says. “They’re not afraid to get to the heart of a matter. And in that case, it’s the listening and subsequent dialogue that’s most beneficial to me.” PRN CONTACT: Jennifer Risi, jrisi@webershandwick.com; Carreen Winters, cwinters@mww.com.

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