Hired a Consultant? Read These 5 Tips First

Perhaps you recently won a large contract and you need more hands to handle it. Or, perhaps a team member needs 12 weeks of FMLA. Or, you simply realized you need expertise from an outsider. Whatever your need, finding a consultant qualified to lighten your load is the easy part. Managing them for mutual success is the challenge.

Many organizations that decide to hire a consultant will prepare for the financial impact, but they often overlook, or at least underestimate, the planning it requires to effectively use one.

This goes beyond having shared understanding of the scope of work, reporting structure, deadlines and payment terms. It’s in the HOW you will work together. Here are five ways you can set your organization up for success with a consultant:

  1. Onboard them like a new employee. Don’t just share policies and procedures, share the unwritten rules, like office culture, shortcuts, and expectations. For example, do you have a short-hand language you use internally? Expect email responses after 6 pm? Are there shortcut documents or branding standards you expect everyone to use? Be sure to share and review these with the consultant in detail before they start.
  2. Consider a Weekly (or monthly) One-on-One. Whether your consultant works remotely or is on site with you, it’s important to connect regularly to provide feedback on their performance and get feedback on yours. You can use this time to answer questions, assure their work needs are being met and to evaluate together whether the work you have assigned is the right match for their skills.
  3. Be Open to Outside Perspectives. No one knows your business better than you – and your consultant will strive to deliver work products that meet YOUR standard. But the consultant may also have a better way and not always feel comfortable sharing it. So, proactively invite that feedback. Make sure the consultant knows, all ideas welcomed.
  4. Keep Talking. Everyone knows project scopes can evolve, or even just your thinking about how to tackle a project evolves, so you may find yourself not actually using the consultant in the way you originally thought you would. That’s okay. Just remember to keep your consultant informed of your new thinking, so they have a chance to adapt – or even contribute to – the evolution.
  5. Partner in Problem Solving. Remember that your consultant likely has other clients. Consider that they might not be able to perform your task (or get back to you) at a certain time on a certain day, or they may have standing meetings that conflict with yours. It can be tempting, and frankly easier, to just reassign the work to someone else on staff, but that may overwork your staff and just defeats your reason for having the consultant. So, speak with your consultant if this becomes an issue, and let them have a role in resolving it with you.

 

What Most Companies Get Wrong About Crisis, and PR for That Matter

This past spring I had the opportunity to help a pretty well-known national membership organization out of a crisis. Had any part of their situation involving a member gone public, the organization likely would not be around today. That’s not hyperbole. The issue that brought them to me, could have, in a matter of days, ended their existence.

Had they not called me (or someone in PR), I am not sure they would’ve done the right thing. How do I know? By the first question they asked me. Not coincidentally, this was the same first question the family of Joe Paterno asked the PR guy THEY called the week the story broke about Sandusky. If you don’t know that story – check out the HBO movie about it featuring Al Pacino as Paterno. In the scene when the PR guy arrives at the house, the family asks him, “What do we say?”

And he told them exactly what I had told my client. That the right thing, in this very first moment, is not what you SAY, it’s what you DO. Paterno needed to resign he told them. My client needed to let a member go, and several other things.

What the Paternos and my client didn’t know, as most companies do not seem to know, is that no one will hear a word you say during a crisis, let alone, believe it, until you right the wrong.

When this organization called me, they were looking for talking points. But what I gave them, at least initially, was a plan of action. Step one is always stop the bleeding. Fix the problem. Then, and only then, will the words have actual meaning and truth.

I’d like to be able to say this client took action first, as I advised, but they did not. They chose to make a statement first, while the wound continued to fester. And, not surprisingly, they got slammed for it.

However tough the lesson, my client realized they were going to need to do the work first and fast in order to win back confidence and trust, before they could say anything anyone would believe. By the way, Paterno also hesitated to act. He did not resign, and in that void, his employer, facing the same crisis, took THEIR necessary action and let him go.

Just like many company leaders think they can talk their way out of a crisis, many also think public relations is just words you use to make you look better. It’s not. Public relations is behavior. So whether in a crisis, or on any given Sunday, it’s your actions, not words, that count most.

Photo Credit: The Penn State Collegian

Introducing the SaVi 7 Steps for Optimizing Your Communications Campaign or Strategy

People are always asking me what’s my sweet spot, what do I do for clients, or how do I distinguish myself from my competitors? When I sat down and actually captured on paper the key elements of the unique value and the counsel I bring to clients, it became apparent to me that I have a proven methodology – an approach to strategic communications – that has worked time and time again to help them more efficiently and effectively raise awareness, change minds or attitudes, and/or effect behavioral change.

I have recently adopted a name for my approach. I am calling it my SaVi 7 Steps. These seven steps are the typical pacings I take clients through when we’re initiating an engagement. They help me to assess, in an organized fashion, all of the elements that comprise a successful strategic communications plan or campaign.

The 7 Steps are: (1) Assess the Situation (2) Identify the Audience (3) Critique the Current Approach (4) Evaluate the Message(s) (5) Consider the Design (6) Define Success Measures (7) Inventory Assets and Resources.

If a client has already completed these steps but they are still not achieving the results they want, then I’ll conduct a review of each one and offer recommendations for improvement. Oftentimes I discover, however, that clients have completed only some of these steps, and sometimes only partially, so we determine where the weaknesses and gaps are and work together to complete or optimize them.

In the coming weeks I will devote a post to each of the steps and share examples of how the approach actually works in practice. In the meantime, reach out if you’d like to know more before then, or simply let me know what you are struggling with and I’ll help you work through it.

5 Times To Stay Out of the Media

October 20, 2017

It seems like all clients ever want is their name in the news. Many PR flaks will do their darnedest to make it happen. But, sometimes, the very best strategy for your client is to stay OUT of the news. Here are 5 times that’s true.

  1. You have nothing substantive to say. Though the launch of your SuperJumboDeluxe version 4.0 is incredibly exciting within your organization, unless it dramatically and positively changes the way users experience it, then sit down, it’s not your turn. Your company’s industry award for being the best at widget control is also not newsworthy except to maybe your risk assessor or accountant.
  2. Something BIG has happened in the world. If there’s a town struck by a 500-year flood, or a city reeling from a mass shooting, or a major political upheaval that’s got everyone talking, hold that thought about your product, service or idea. At best you will be ignored by most media and at worst you will seem out of touch and without heart. If you must enter the conversation, leave your brand out of it. Be helpful. Express compassion or hope. Offer assistance.
  3. Your stakeholders are mad at you. If you’ve done something that has customers calling for an investigation of your company, or if they’re praying for your demise because you said or did something that was thoughtless or stupid, now’s not the time to be pressing the point to anyone or defending yourself, as you may incite more anger. The only caveat to this is if you’re willing to eat crow. Then by all means, engorge, and do so fully and genuinely, without qualification. Then, when the passion of the moment has died down, join in the conversation, with grace, humility and a plan for positive action forward.
  4. You’re not willing to go all. the. way. Many times I have had clients tell me they want to tell a story to change hearts or minds about something, but they want to leave key details out. The problem is that people want the whole enchilada. The media know that too, so they will ask All The Questions. Trying to influence people with only half the story is deceitful and wrong. So tell your story, but tell the whole story or re-strategize. Do the work to determine how to handle the scary questions. You may be surprised to find that people appreciate the honesty even if it’s not all good.
  5. You were just in there. No one likes a media hound. Overexposure can backfire in so many ways. For one, it puts your every move under a microscope. Second, people get tired of it. We like variety – we want to read about many brands, not just yours. And third, the media want variety too, so going back too often can lead them to ignore or block you. Be strategic and discriminant with what you put out there.

Avoiding The Avocado Syndrome

October 2, 2017

Throughout my career I have thought of myself (in terms of an employee) as a fine wine, getting better and better with age. But, with close to 25 years of experience, I sometimes worry that I am more of an avocado – you know, forever ripening and ripening until suddenly, as if overnight, I am no longer good. Not valuable to anyone, past my prime.

The struggle for senior professionals is real. You work your whole career, looking toward that 20-year milestone, forever thinking – assuming – that when you reach it you will have reached the pinnacle of value to employers. They will be beating down your door to have your wisdom, maturity, knowledge and experience at their disposal.

Much to my surprise upon arrival here, I have experienced a different reality. Though I am valued for the counsel I provide and I am able to continually get work, it’s much tougher than I thought it would be. I find myself surprisingly envious of my contemporaries – the digital natives, as they are sometimes called.

Obviously, the key to avoiding The Avocado Syndrome (as I have just coined myself), is professional development. It’s critical that senior professionals continue our education, particularly in the digital world, to understand the trends, the latest tools and technologies, and to effectively incorporate them, when appropriate, into a fully integrated approach. As a bit of a laggard, this has been tough for me. I do not have even the tiniest inkling of FOMO. So, I work hard to make sure I understand the new opportunities through technology, and how to translate them into effective strategies for clients. Continuing education is a critical way I avoid The Avocado Syndrome.

What do YOU do to avoid it?

3 Ways My Workout Mimics My Work

September 25, 2017

Every day I try to walk four miles. I usually aim for first thing in the morning, so I am at my desk by 9 am. But sometimes, due to deadlines, I take my walk at lunch or around dinner. Though I was a runner all through my twenties, an injury forced me to switch to walking and I have come to enjoy my walks. I don’t get the same rush of endorphins as I did with running, but walking has its own benefits. It’s good for the heart, keeps the legs, butt and hips toned and in good working order, and it keeps my brain in shape. I get some of my best thinking done on a walk. In fact today, it occurred to me just how similar my walks were to my approach to work and life. Let me explain.

  1. Pain – Sometimes, when I am walking, my foot or knee or a toe will start to hurt for no particular reason. No injury, just a sudden pain. By your late forties you come to expect some unexplained, generalized aches and pains in places where before there were none. And you carry on. So, I typically ignore these tinges and keep walking. Sure enough after a few minutes, the pain goes away as suddenly as it appeared and I am fine again. This happens in my work, too. It’s not all butterflies and sunshine. There’s some pain to it occasionally. I find that when I don’t dwell on the pain, but rather move through it purposefully, it does not slow me down or keep me from my goal.
  2. Trips – Another thing that happens on my walk more often than I’d like to admit is that I trip. Sometimes it’s the curb or something in the sidewalk, and sometimes it’s just me tripping on my own foot. Once the flush of embarrassment passes, I laugh and keep going. Tripping, or making a mistake, is inevitable. We can’t avoid all the twigs in our path and we won’t always see them in time to avoid them. It’s not whether you can prevent the trip, but rather, how you handle it as it happens and the time immediately following. I try to take a moment to note why it happened, so I don’t do it again. Dwelling on a little trip is useless and can ruin a good walk, or a project if you let it.
  3. Greetings – The last thing I do is make eye contact and greet everyone I pass. We’re in a community together, so it seems right to say hello or good morning. I am always surprised when people, usually runners, don’t acknowledge me. I don’t know why they don’t, but I try not to think about it and I still say hi to them. I feel the same way about networking. The whole point is connecting. Like the people in my neighborhood community who become friends and keep me safe, having a work network does the same. It inoculates me against dry spells, keeps my spirits up and teaches me things. I feel as though, that’s why we’re here – for no other reason than to connect with each other.

What parallels can you draw between your workouts and work?

Clients to Run From

September 15, 2017

After more than five years on my own consulting, I have had enough experiences with clients to know pretty quickly, who will be a keeper and who won’t. There are some tells from early on in the engagement that will portend whether they’ll be long-term clients or not. The following are red flags. If you experience these, my experience will tell you, run the other way. Fast.

  1. The Cheapskate – They tell you they don’t have a lot of money and would like to try “creative financing”. This usually means they want to pay you based on outcomes of your work. While this favors the client, it’s untenable for a consultant, and is ethically questionable at best. Your work and effort is valuable, regardless of results. Don’t fall for it.
  2. The Ghost – They don’t answer your email after three or four days, or, ever. If, while you are negotiating terms, or discussing on-boarding, and the email conversation drops off abruptly and you don’t hear from them for several days or a week, don’t assume that’s an anomaly. Assume that’s typical. If you’re okay with this, then by all means, go forth. But I find a client who is not responsive on email, even after two or three days, greatly hamstrings your ability to deliver.
  3. The Medusa – When you answer to more than one company leader. This can be okay, until they tell you different things about their needs and your scope. It’s always a pink flag when you find yourself speaking with more than one leader during the on boarding process, but your sign to run is when they contradict each other. This means they either don’t communicate, or there is a major rift within. Either way, this is likely a toxic, no-win environment.
  4. The Flip-Flop – This client frequently changes the parameters of the work, the deliverable, or both. It’s fairly normal to amend the scope of work as you go, as you both learn things about the project. But when the client continually moves the goal or changes his mind, it’s an indication that he really don’t know what he wants or he’s too disorganized to articulate it well. It’s tempting to stay in there and try to figure it out, but it can be very deflating not just to your energy, but your self-esteem because you work is never right.
  5. The Chatty Cathy – The client talks endlessly without giving you a chance to weigh in. This one’s particularly dangerous. It means they’re not a good listener or have made up their mind already. This could put you in the simple role of the doer. Of course, if you are okay with that, then go for it. But I find this type of client does not like feedback, bad news, or counsel that’s counter to their ideas. This could put you in a situation where they make bad choices that reflect on you.

Communications Can’t Cure the Current Chaos

August 4, 2017

I don’t know about you but as a communicator, my optimism is at an all-time low, and my cynicism is at an all-time high. Though fake news (or lies or propaganda or whatever phrase you prefer) is nothing new, it’s now being created and disseminated at rates and volumes beyond what we’ve ever experienced before. And thanks to today’s sharing technology, it proliferates at warp speed. Couple this with the apparent loss of respect for facts and science – scientific method and critical thinking – and what is a professional communicator to do? It seems we can’t win for trying.

The science, data, and peer-reviewed study behind such important issues as climate change, vaccinations, and gun violence, for example, is indisputable, and yet, here we are, every day, forced to engage in insidious conversations about whether sea levels have risen or fallen (they’ve risen); whether vaccinations cause autism (they don’t) and whether having more guns and easier access to them makes us safer (they don’t). Each one of those facts, whether someone likes them or not, can be definitively defended, because there is ample data, peer-reviewed studies and science to back them. I know them like I know hot food will burn my tongue and the sun will rise tomorrow morning. Despite that, people are disputing them, with points that are irrelevant, not fact-based or just wrong. And they dig in and stay put.

The scariest part is this behavior is not confined to a small group of naysayers or even only the uneducated. This behavior can be seen in Ivy League graduates, serving in some of our country’s highest leadership positions, who are using it as a tool to push political agendas. It’s used by leaders in business and government to relax regulations that were grounded in science and put in place to protect public health, just so they can pad profit. This adherence to misinformation and disinformation, whether involuntary due to ignorance or purposeful for politics, comes with tremendous consequences. It has me feeling a bit paralyzed, frankly, as if the only firm ground I’ve ever known has suddenly crumbled away.

So I was glad to have the chance, recently, to attend a panel discussion about fake news and its impact on journalism and the public relations profession. A lot of agreement on the state of things, and very sound advice for dealing with our new normal was offered, such as:

  • Use non-confrontational language, even when challenging those who present ideas based on false premises
  • Be advocates for teaching the next generation critical thinking skills, how to interpret, analyze and evaluate information
  • Invest in market research to understand your audience’s wants
  • Speak plainly and in an authentic voice
  • Don’t jump in without first understanding context and having a strategy
  • Keep messages short
  • Build partnerships and alliances rather than challenge misinformation, disinformation, lies and false “facts” alone
  • Be vigilant in advocating for truth in communications

This is all, undeniably great advice. But here’s the thing: all those bullets apply to any communications professional at any time in history. All of this represents some of the very basics of savvy communications. Granted, not all of us can practice all of this all of the time. Budgets get in the way of conducting meaningful research. Deadlines prevent us from building the critical partnerships. And sometimes, the arrogance of a decision-maker stops us from being able to say the exact right thing in the exact right way we should. I get it, we can’t always be on our game. But, if most of us are doing most of this, most of the time, how is this chaos still happening?

Someone on the panel said truth is now a differentiator. Truth, as a differentiator. Let that sink in for a second. On the one hand, I can’t contain my sheer despondence if that’s the case. And two, at a time when facts don’t matter and he who lies best wins, how does truth set you a part, let alone set you free? Whose truth? Which truth?

Fellow communicators, we’re facing the challenge of our careers right now. I don’t have any easy answers for you. Of course we must follow the panelists’ advice, as I hope you always have been. We shall endeavor to seek first to understand before being understood. We shall strategize first and write truthful pithy copy in snack sized bites, and we shall seek common ground and partnership with different minded but similarly missioned (or is it similarly minded but different missioned?) groups. We shall continue to do as I think we have all been endeavoring to do, with added vigor and purpose.

But please forgive me if I tell you that I don’t believe these approaches will cure what ails us.  So while I am grateful for the sage reminders, I don’t think these issues – this lack of critical thinking, self-control, or basic understanding of science, can be fixed by upping our communications game. We need to stay focused and bring our best every day, but I think we just need to let this stink bomb dissipate.

As one colleague put it so well, “The flames of emotion are being fanned at such an alarming rate that I have no sense of how to encourage critical thinking in so many people who form opinions about policy and events from tweets.”

Another I spoke to about this said she “fear[s] for what happens when too many among our citizens fail to reason rationally and logically, and fail to think independently,” and I couldn’t agree more.

So, we must do all these things the panel said. Do your best work. And bide your time, because we can’t change crazy but we can outlast it. I predict that in a few years, after another election cycle or two, we will look back at this and shake our heads. We may even get a chuckle. We will have volumes of remember whens and memes and footnotes and stories. And we will snap back to reality, where facts are facts, truth is truth, lies are lies, and love is love. At least I hope that’s what will happen. See you on the other side.

Dogging Responsibility

June, 2017

I don’t hate dogs. But ours is one of the 56% of American households without one. You’d never know we were in the majority, we non-dog-owners, as we are surrounded by dog homes in my neighborhood. I have nothing against dogs per se, it’s just that my husband is very allergic to them, I am a little allergic to them, and I am also not interested in cohabitating with a furry animal that sheds hair onto the butter.

My ten-year-old son has been bitten three times (that I know of) by our next door neighbor’s dog. The bites happened when he was about 4 or 5, then again at 6 or 7, and most recently, last year. Because of these interactions, he is afraid of dogs. When they come barking and jumping at him, he does the one instinctual thing he knows, which is ironically the one thing you are NOT supposed to do, he runs. And so dogs chase him. It sounds funny I am sure, but he is absolutely terrified.

It happened again this week. A couple of tiny dogs got loose at a neighbor’s house and my son bolted. They chased him all the way around the block to our house until he jumped up onto the bed of his Dad’s pickup truck. As humorous as this scene sounds, imagine the humility a ten year old must feel, to be running, terrified, of two objects no bigger than footballs, at his feet. But the fear is real. The bite memory is raw. And the humility, I am guessing, is overwhelming.

He’s so ashamed of his fear he can’t even talk to me about it when he comes inside. He runs into the playroom and punches a mat until he breaks the skin and bruises a knuckle. That’s embarrassment, for being afraid. I take responsibility for teaching him to freely feel his feelings without judgment. And, I take responsibility for teaching him how to deal with dogs, and his Dad and I do both. But pardon me if I don’t feel this job is solely ours.

I share responsibility with the owner of the dog that’s bitten my child. This situation is tough. We like this family a lot and the children are my son’s favorite friends. You’d think being neighbors on real good terms would make this conversation easier. It’s not. I had avoided having it, and that’s on me. Now, I realize I have to have it.

So for now, my son’s knuckles are healing, though I am sure his ego is still a little bruised. I told him it’s not his fault and he shouldn’t feel ashamed. We reminded him not to run next time. We’ll see whether that works.

A Day Without Women: We’re Doing Something Right.

March 8, 2017

In celebration of a Day Without Women, I want to share with you a photo of my son from a few days ago. While it may seem antithetical to the day to celebrate a picture of a boy, let me explain: I think we’re doing something right.

After his evening shower, my nine-year-old son asked me, in the same voice he might use to ask for more juice, “Will you put some makeup on me?”

Hoping he didn’t notice the quick beat I took to process the request, I said, “Sure.”

And we ventured into my bathroom, where we opened my makeup drawer and examined the treasure of colors, creams and brushes.

“What would you like to do?” I asked him.

First, he took my red lip pencil and asked me how to apply it. I showed him how to trace from the inside of the top lip, starting at the center and going to the corners. Then the bottom, same way, then color a bit in before pursing his lips to spread the color evenly around, and then gently blotting with a tissue. He smiled.

“Wow” he said, “What’s next?”

“How about some blush?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said, “but you do it.”

So, I sat him on the edge of the tub and I applied pink powder to the apples of his cheeks, sweeping back along the cheekbone toward the ear. First one cheek, then the other.

“How about some eye shadow?” I asked, pulling out my large palette of Urban Decay colors he and his brother had given me for Christmas last year.

“Which one do YOU wear?” he asked.

“The dark grey,” I said, “for a smoky look.”

“Dark grey, then,” he said.

So, I told him to shut his eyes, and I swept the dark powder onto his lids until both were lightly covered. Then I finished with a light touch of clear mascara, since his lashes are already dark and long, unlike mine.

Next, he asked to look in the mirror, first with glasses on, then with them off.

“Wow,” he said. “I look so bright! I feel so alive!”

I laughed. “Why do you think Momma does it?” I asked him. “It makes me feel alive, too, most days.”

“Take my picture!” he demanded, “and send it to Daddy and Nana and the whole family.”

And, marveling at his complete lack of self-consciousness, his complete lack of anything remotely resembling shame or insecurity, I resisted the urge to dissuade him, and I texted the photo to the Whole Family.

My husband, born of culture that is stereotyped machismo, but raised by all women, said “He looks good!”

Other family members chimed in with “Cool!” “Way to go!” and “Handsome Dude!”

I realize wearing makeup is the least feminist thing I could share or relay to my boys. In fact, I get that it’s completely at odds with it. However, at the same time, I am floored at this whole exchange. This could not likely have happened 10 years ago, in quite the same way.

My son lives in a world where he doesn’t know to think that emulating a woman could be a cause for shame. He does not think that “wanting to feel like a girl is degrading,” as Madonna pointed out in her 2006 song “What it Feels Like For A Girl.”

So, I use this experience to celebrate A Day Without Women. Because although we have much distance still to go, it’s more true today than ever, that we’ve come a long way, baby.