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My fellow Northwestern Wildcat alumni David Grossman, an internal communication expert, recently shared research in his blog suggesting senior managers are the biggest roadblock to “fearless” internal communication by managers. Gaining leader understanding and support remains a big challenge for many managers who are willing and able to communicate with their teams. This research certainly confirms my own experience, where tremendous focus and energy is devoted to developing creative communication plans, introducing new or improved communication channels and/or helping managers to be better communicators…sometimes all for naught. Ultimately, politics trumps it all. If leaders aren’t on board and actively participating in the communication effort, it will likely fail.

Of course, many communication professionals are aware of this potential pitfall and take steps to avoid this executive resistance. Tactics include enlisting influential leaders as participants or ambassadors, framing programs with leader-friendly arguments like ROI and strategic benefits, or even using market (or competitor) data as motivation. But without a clear mandate, or directive, from the top leaders of the organization, some “walk the talk” evidence they are on-board, and tangible incentives and rewards for active communication, the manager cascade process will remain vulnerable to political meddling. Sometimes, managers are discouraged through subtle, symbolic actions (or lack of action) or apparently throw-away comments (“…you can check the intranet but do it on your own time”.) But I’ve also witnessed explicit warnings by leaders, telling managers that no matter what they hear from HQ, communication is a distraction and comes second to productivity.

Conversely, in one organization it took just one very clear directive from an executive to his senior team to get an ambitious manager communication program untracked and embedded in the daily work routine. And this was in a contact center environment, where time is indeed money and around-the-clock staff support is critical. Another effective approach is to use the broader workforce to drive change. Most managers can make a strong case that their employees are starved for information and rely on them as the most relevant and credible sources. They can even go to their leaders with examples of prevalent questions or rumors that require a clear, concise response. In other words, let us do what needs to be done.

The lesson here is clear: communication pros must proactively address any leadership resistance to manager communication through the planning and implementation cycle – even silent resistance – to ensure managers can participate to their full potential. Managers are probably your best communication asset, even in this age of social media.

I’ve long ago stopped telling people I work in the PR industry. One reason is it can be a tough thing to explain PR to people outside the communication field – particularly if the discussion starts with a sarcastic question about being a “publicist” – but my primary rationale is I don’t want to be associated with an industry that often requires its own image overhaul (irony duly noted.) The latest black eye comes from Burson Marsteller – who was caught in a so-called whisper campaign trying to pitch privacy fears about Google. According to news reports, senior Burson staff approached tech reporters and bloggers to seed unfounded allegations about privacy gaps in Google’s Social Service application. A blogger broke the story by posting the email exchanges.

After predictable (though belated) mea culpa, both Facebook and Burson came under heavy criticism – though the latter was a favorite target on social platforms for initially censoring its Facebook page. Strangely enough, both Facebook and Burson argued in their defence they were merely helping to publicize “publicly available” information – which raises the question why they would have to brief reporters in the first place. Burson eventually admitted it erred in taking on the project, and said the campaign went against its standard operating procedures. Apparently, the agency has decided not to fire the two consultants at the center of the storm, though they will go through training on ethics.

The bigger culprit here, in my mind, is Burson…and any other PR firm that takes on a project with a dubious purpose that contravenes basic rules of transparency and probity. Too often, agencies take on lucrative clients for projects that should send alarms to any self-respecting communication professional. If there is a litmus test, it’s not easily apparent. Every PR agency – and communication professional – needs to confirm the ethical guidelines and values that will determine what projects it takes on, and how the PR programs are implemented. There are companies I won’t take on as clients, and there are definitely some things I won’t do or say under the guise of public relations.

Whether this latest Burson smear campaign was done by rogues or hints at a larger systemic rot, I can’t say. But it only the latest in a long list of industry scandals that erodes the credibility of every communication professional. It may be a coincidence, but the IABC’s latest edition of Communication World focuses on the topic of ethics in the PR industry. Is anybody listening?

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