Not every company has the luxury of a permanent in-house PR team. On the other hand, some organizations may not see the need for a full-time PR staff. Sometimes these companies hire consultants or agencies as needed. Others add temporary PR duties to the already-full plates of existing employees. Some companies, especially start-ups, may wait for growth before building a PR team.
A popular fallback for smaller companies is having the CEO handle communication. That can work, assuming the CEO knows all aspects of the organization, understands media, communicates well and has plenty of spare time. Obviously, it's not an ideal situation.
Below we consider how companies without a full-time PR pro or communication team can cope. The tips we've gathered also apply when a company has only a single full-time PR pro or several employees juggling communication on top of full-time jobs.
A balanced approach has business-unit leaders supplementing a CEO as the company's internal and external communicator. These department leaders should meet periodically for communication strategy sessions, says Megan Rokosh, global chief marketing officer and editor-in-chief at Havas Health & You.
For example, they should decide about responsibilities and methods of internal and external communication. “If a crisis happens...who talks to employees? What about a big success? Is there a regular newsletter from the leaders' team? Creating a basic framework for who responds, and when, is important and helpful.”
Indeed, Rokosh believes it's important that business-unit leaders, in addition to the CEO, are involved in communication.
“If a new benefit is rolling out, the HR lead should be the communicator,” she says. “If there’s a change in payroll, the finance leader should be the key speaker." For a merger or acquisition, the CEO and CFO should speak.
Who's the Spokesperson?
Similarly, even at companies with a PR department, team leaders should have a role in communication, Rokosh adds.
As such, Sarah Evans, CEO, Sevans PR, suggests:
- Have the CEO handle large-scale, high-profile issues that require stakeholder face-time
- Deploy subject-matter experts familiar with the company’s key messages for other issues
Evans says establishing adjacent spokespeople, besides a CEO, creates an “opportunity to escalate, or move, a conversation...should it be needed.”
These additional communicators should know at least:
- the company's origin story
- how to communicate within the company
- the key messages (by vertical, product, etc.)
Ferguson Enterprises, a large distributor of building supplies, employs communicators among its 10,000 staffers. Still, it prefers business leaders speak on its behalf instead of professional communicators.
“Our goal is to position our associates as authentic thought-leaders and experts in their respective areas. We rarely quote a PR person,” says Christine Dwyer, Ferguson's senior director of communications and PR.
Dwyer says the PR department's relationship with leadership and associates across the company helps it target potential spokespeople and track relevant topics.
“Keep an informal running list of spokespeople and topic areas, and proactively media train if possible,” she says. “Do as much as possible to prepare them before the media interview to ensure they feel comfortable representing the company; for example preparing key messages, Q&A and hosting a prep.”
Dwyer recommends outsourcing executive media training when the company lacks an in-house PR team.
Consider the spokesperson’s leadership level when deciding on who will handle a specific situation. "The larger the media outlet or the more sensitive the topic area, the more senior the spokesperson should be,” Dwyer says.
In addition, geography is a consideration when handling local and regional outlets. Local media often prefers time with local spokespeople, she says.
And while external communication is vital, avoid ignoring employee relations when considering spokespeople. Rokosh suggests thinking about internal communication with a personal question.
“Put yourself in an employee’s shoes and ask yourself, 'Who would I like to hear from in this instance?'” she says. “Think of the individual’s scope of work in the business as well as general expertise and how the message will be received from that person.”
Rokosh suggests employee relations communicators represent a combination of business units as well as the CEO.
Business leaders should head day-to-day communications, Rokosh says. She adds, "HR should manage changes in policy or benefits and weigh in on any employee issues. CEOs should be the voice of authority for major business changes and...company goals and objectives.”