When a company has a problem, a breakdown, a crisis -- something goes wrong and the whole world is talking about it -- it's often said that they have a PR problem. But what if that whole situation could have been avoided? And what if including your communications pros earlier in the conversation could have prevented all of that?
Read Abbie Fink's blog post for this episode: "Why You Want Your Public Relations Team at the Table"
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When a company has a problem, a breakdown, a crisis, something goes wrong and the whole world is talking about it, it's often said that they have a PR problem. But what if that whole situation could have been avoided? And what if including your marketing and communication folks earlier on in the conversation could have prevented all of that? It's an interesting thought, and Abbie Fink with HMA Public Relations is here to explore it with me. Abbie, how are you?Abbie Fink:
I'm good, yourself?Adrian McIntyre:
I'm very, very well. Thank you. We often think of communication strategy as something that comes after a product or a service has been designed and it now needs to be rolled out, the world needs to hear about it. And so, many marketers, many communication professionals, whether they're in-house or agency folks are brought in at the point when something is ready to launch or when the plan is being made to launch something. You're saying that's not soon enough, and that there should be a seat at the table for the comms folks earlier. What's this all about?Abbie Fink:
For as long as I have been in public relations, I can remember learning about this in school. We've always had this mantra, "Give us a seat at the table." And what we meant by that was bring in your communications team at the earliest possible stage when you are... And you, meaning the founder, the entrepreneur, the business leader, when you have these incredibly powerful good ideas, and you want to bring them to bear and get them out into the marketplace, that's your focus, right? You are 100% committed to making that happen. And around the table, in your conversations, you likely have your finance people and your packaging people, and your distribution channel people. Where's the communications folks? We can come in and should be brought in as early as possible because we can talk objectively about what we're doing as a company, what we're doing on behalf of that company, and how that might play out in the larger context. Right now, not every issue or every product or every company requires a communications team, but if you're going big and you have big global ideas, bring us in at that early stages, because there's so much information and so much advice and recommendations that we can offer that helps guide what the future of that potential project might be. And if we're doing our jobs right, we're anticipating, we're asking a lot of hard questions. We want to challenge you, is this the right way to do it? Would it be better if we did it this way? Would timing be different if we decided to wait five months from now? Would it be better if we did it into next year? Why are we doing this packaging this way? All those kinds of questions that as communications professionals, we want the best for that business, but we can come to it very objectively and look at some things in a different way than maybe the owner or the founders is thinking.Adrian McIntyre:
I do agree with this and I think it's important. I also think it could be misunderstood as a plea for relevance from the marketing and the communications, the PR folks. So, let's actually unpack this a little bit more because I think if business leaders, nonprofit leaders, tribal government leaders, anybody who wants to get their message out to the world might have put their comms professionals into a certain box. And let's use this conversation as a way to maybe help shift some of that thinking, and then it'll be judged on its merits, whether our argument...Abbie Fink:
Whether we did it or not.Adrian McIntyre:
... right, whether we succeeded. So, let's dig a little bit further into this. Why is it a problem to only rely on your PR or communications people for damage control, for example? Isn't that what they're best at, don't people hire you as a crisis communications like as a hedge against those things?Abbie Fink:
Well, we're very good at that work, we are and are honored to be a part of a discussion if we need to be a part of a discussion when something goes wrong, if honored is the right word... Be able to be a part of the conversation, but let's think about communications and the role that this important department can play as more of an investment, right? An entrepreneur, small business owner, founder of an organization, you've poured your heart and soul into this, you want to get it out there. And you've made investments. You've personally invested your time, your own money. You've brought together, maybe others that are investing in this business with real hard dollars to do so. Think about communications, public relations, and marketing as another investment. How can your business be known and how can these individuals help do that? Rather than as an expense line item, or rather than thinking, "We'll bring it in if we need it." Let's have it be part of the conversation from the very beginning. And let's think about it in a different way. Not everything that a public relations professional does is about getting things into the media. Oftentimes, our responsibilities are managing the messaging, thinking about different ways for the communications to happen, it might be a more direct opportunity. And so, yes, oftentimes, we are brought in because something has gone awry, but by thinking about public relations and thinking about communications as part of your overall business strategy, which we've talked about before and looking at it from an advisory role as a counseling role, "We've got this product. We want to bring it to market. We think it would be great to come to market in October." Great. Let the team guide a conversation and say, "Is October the right time? What else is happening in the marketplace? Is our competition doing something? Will something else get in the way of our success, would it be better if we went a month earlier? What if we waited? What would be the problem by waiting three more months?" And so, that's kind of where a communications person can come in or a marketing person can come in. We can bring this outsider's view if you will, a more objective view of what's happening. And then if something goes awry, we are in those discussions from the very beginning, ideally anticipating potentially something that might happen and catching it before it does, but when you open up the newspaper or you hear a radio interview and or somebody saying, "My goodness, that company has a PR problem." Chances are, it was an operational issue that resulted in something becoming a PR problem. And so, looking at it from an operational perspective and there are things in every industry, in every business that's been operationalized, which means it can break. And so, have we anticipated the break? And if we have a break, what do we do to fix it? Are we empowering our staff to make decisions on the spot? Are we providing financial resources to be able to fix whatever that is? Do we have an opportunity to deploy additional people to a location if we find that we don't have enough people on the ground? Operationally, those things can be fixed. Once it becomes into the public, therefore they have a PR problem. We have to look back at the operation side, and almost always, that's where it lies.Adrian McIntyre:
It strikes me that the best kind of damage control is preventing the damage from happening in the first place that it's the cynical kind of crisis communicator who lives for crisis and says, "All right." Now, I'm reminded actually of a documentary film from a number of years ago, mid-2000s called Our Brand Is Crisis. And it was about American political consulting firm that was working in Bolivia, the presidential election. It's actually kind of a disturbing film. And it just strikes me as really quite weird that anybody would think our brand is crisis is a good thing. Like we're not ambulance chasers out here. We want to actually prevent the problem. We want the product to work better. We want the service to be delivered smoother. We want the customers to be thrilled. And sometimes there are problems. It really strikes me that the communicators are the ones who are thinking most profoundly about how we talk about things, and also what other people care about, what other people think about. An executive would have no problem turning to you to try to understand market sentiment and how best to dial in a message that would reach people. Well, wouldn't it be great if they were also leaning on that wisdom in conversations around the design and delivery of the product or service itself at the earliest stages? Like bringing you into the design conversations, not just, "All right, we've got this. Now, help us figure out how to communicate it to the world. Help us sell it. Help us sell the product. Or help sell the change for a public health scenario."Abbie Fink:
Right. And again, this is an investment, right? And again, whether you have these individuals in-house in your organization, or you choose to contract out with an agency to do this work, the role needs to be valued in the same way as other executive levels that you have in your organization. And the smart business owner, the smart CEO, the smart founder recognizes that all of these individuals play into the success of their business, they come to it from very different perspectives. The finance team is really... Do we have enough for our roll-out? Do we have enough to cover payroll? Do we have enough to cover the cost of packaging and the distribution? That's their responsibility. They're going to do everything they can to ensure that can happen, and they're going to poke holes in that budget. And they're going to look for places to save money. That's their job. That is what you've paid them to do. And along the way, your production team is going to test every product if it's a physical thing, and they're going to try to break it, and they're going to try to meld it and move it and make it, do some things, that's what they're there to do. So, the communications team... And you can put a lot of things under that umbrella, but the communications team is, "Okay, great. But how are we going to talk about it? And what happens if it breaks? What happens if we sell out? Well, let's assume we're super successful." And I can think back to... This'll date me a bit, but when Cabbage Patch dolls were hitting this and you couldn't keep them in. Right? The minute they would land on the shelves, they were off. Well, who was responsible for communicating? Was it the store that didn't have them anymore? Or was it the manufacturer? And maybe both, and maybe after the first time that that happened, did they rethink how we were going to bring new product into the market because we no longer can meet the demand, right? And so, what are we saying? How are we managing that? The conversations, again... The communicator comes into it with a set of questions and a perspective that says, "I'm going to challenge everything you're doing to make sure that we are 100% on top of it when we go to market, or when we get ready to launch, or when we're going to introduce something." Or even for a long-standing business, and we're going to be doing something a little bit different, we're going to change our hours of operation. We're going to no longer answer our phones, and we're going to have it be an automated system. What are we saying about that? Because people want information, and so that's where we can come in and we can talk about these things. And this is not to say that we perfect everything and that by having us there, nothing ever will go wrong, but if it does, we're there, but more importantly, we're there to look out for the success and we want to challenge that. I can remember, there's been lots of times when we'll have these conversations with particularly, new businesses or small businesses that are ready to expand and very excited, got everything in place, ready to go. We're having these conversations and let's assume our success. Do you have the infrastructure to handle that success? Do you have somebody that's an order taker that can respond? Do you have the warehouse full of products be able to ship? Have you accommodated the cost of shipping? Will the consumers pay for that? And you can start to see the thought process, the little conversation bubble coming up over their head, "Oh, I don't know if I did. It's going to cost me $27 to ship a $10 item. Is anybody going to pay for that? Maybe we need to thank our shipping." So, again, these are just different viewpoints, a different person at the table that is asking those questions. Once your product is out, once your business is open, once you've launched, we're right there with you, right? Managing that success, managing those expectations, and helping keep the conversation wherever it needs to be in that positive forward-thinking way. And so when we say, "We want a seat at the table," it's so that we can be an active participant in your success and be there to challenge and ensure that everything that's being done is being done to do what's right in that space.Adrian McIntyre:
Now, talk for a minute about what it takes to make this work? Because around the table are folks with very different responsibilities, this proverbial table we're invoking here. Some of them are responsible for the financial health of the organization. Some of them are responsible for the operations. Some of them are responsible for leading the whole thing and there's other specialized folks sometimes involved. What's required from the executives to make room at the table for the PR and communication experts? And then we're going to flip it and ask what's required of them. But tell me about the business leaders themselves, what kind of mindset do they need to have to make this collaboration that you're holding up, something that can actually work, because I imagine there's a number of things that could block or prevent it from happening, so what needs to be there?Abbie Fink:
So, that's a really good question about making room at the table. And I've really never thought about it that way before. And I think where it is, is in the entrepreneurial spirit that a business owner has, right? They are all in and they are eager and they're enthusiastic, and they really, really want to make this work. And so, if they can make some space and that enthusiasm for bringing in the others that also feel that way, and so if we go back to what I said a little bit ago, about it being an investment, right? Having your communications team or communications professionals as part of this beginning stages as an investment in your business, I think you start to see the value in having them there at the table with you. And again, not every conversation requires everyone on your team, but let that team work for you and let them all interact with each other. And there may be times when that executive or founder isn't sitting down at the proverbial table either, it might be communications and finance, it might be finance and distribution, it might be communications and distribution who are all challenging each other to make the best opportunity for this business, this new product, this new endeavor to be as successful as possible.Adrian McIntyre:
One critical piece of the mindset is understanding that you're always looking for efficiencies. You're always looking for ways to increase profitability, and one of the ways to do that is by preventing some of the things that could be hidden costs... In a disaster or crisis, some of that requires a fundamental disruption to your operations is something that has a huge impact. So, let some of the folks in there who are professional thinkers and communicators, the devil's advocate role, if you will help you see around some of the corners, "Well, if this, and what about that? And if that, then what about that?" And this is one of the things that we do, we're writing scenarios and in media planning and things, it's not just how to communicate when things go well, it's also how to respond to breakdowns.Abbie Fink:
I think back to the time I worked for one of the largest humanitarian relief agencies in the world, and it wasn't just, how do we tell the good news about delivering aid to people in desperate situations, it was also what would we do if one of our staff were injured or God forbid killed? What would we do if the government of the country we were in kicked us out? Which actually happened. What would we do if we were forced to compromise our values and had to make a difficult choice? How would we communicate all of those things? And thinking that through, with the program managers, with the operational people, with the folks on the front lines of delivering aid in difficult situations and conflict areas was the only way to answer those questions because you can't cook up that media and communications plan at a desk. You have to be there in dialogue with them.Abbie Fink:
Right. And we can look at lots of examples in the last year as it relates to the discussions around racial inequality, diversity and inclusion, and equity and just the social and political conversations that we've had, and looking at the way businesses responded and how they had their conversations, what stands were they going to take? Where are they going to be an active participant in either side of any of those discussions? And what actions were they going to take? And we are a year past a complete mind shift in those conversations, and taking a look back at what businesses did a year ago and what they said and what they said they stood for, and are they still today standing for those things? Much of that was a result of a communications effort. Now, I can't speak to whether every one of them said, "Let's bring the PR person in before we decide to post this on Twitter." But the hope would be that the business principles... Let's use Ben & Jerry's as an example, they've always been a socially conscious business. They have always said and done things that are a bit edgy, a bit in your face, but they've lived their brand. They've never wavered from that. And good or bad, this is what we stand for, and this is what we're going to do. And they're very deliberate about what they say, and they're still saying it. One year from now, they're still saying that. And so, I think what becomes the important in this is, again, this is not about a negative situation, it's really about managing the expectations, anticipating what it's going to be like if we do X, Y, and Z, what happens? And if this does happen, here's how we're going to respond to it. And if it's good, fantastic, here's what we do. If it's not, fantastic, here's what we do. And that's where this team of individuals that are around you in your business that you rely on is so critical, again, whether it's a brand new business getting ready to launch, or it is a well-respected company like a Ben & Jerry's, you've got these people that have your back and they want you to be successful. And so, letting us be a part of those conversations and so that when we need to respond and when we need to be public, we are living your brand as well. And we are right there with you and stand... We always say, "we want to stand side by side in the good and the not so good." And we do that because we are part of that conversation. We're part of that team. And we recognize it and understand it and believe in it. It's wholeheartedly as the founders do, the rest of your team needs to do that as well.Adrian McIntyre:
Reminds me a bit of the conversation we had in episode three of this podcast about do good programming and where community relations includes thinking about how you build relationships, which is communication, just like in all relationships. Okay. Now, let's talk about the other side of the role, what's required from the media, the communications, the PR folks to be a contributor at that table, in those conversations? We talked a little bit about what the executives need to bring to the table, a willingness and openness, an embrace of the contribution. What's required from the comms side?Abbie Fink:
Sure. And I think where this comes from is... And I'll speak to it really from the outside public relations agency, the counselor role that comes in, it is on us to make those conversations be an active part of how we bring new business together with how we engage a new client. And we have to have a conversation with your executives. They need to have a buy-in that this is the right thing for your business to be investing in. And that doesn't mean sitting in on every meeting necessarily, but we need to have access to leadership. We need to understand where leadership is coming. We need an opportunity to engage with them, especially when new or different things are going to be happening. And we have to take responsibility for reminding and for sharing and demonstrating the value that we bring to these conversations. You don't want your communications team to be a yes, ma'am or yes, sir-type situation. You want your communications team to challenge and to present a different perspective. And we owe it to ourselves to make sure we are playing that role. And sometimes it's uncomfortable. Sometimes what we have to say isn't necessarily what they want to hear, and sometimes what they want is what they want. And we make decisions and we accommodate, and we talk about it. And more often than not, we come to a place where both of us, both sides, executive level, and the counselor can come together and say, "You're right. We can move forward in this regard." So, the communication side needs to show their value and what that objective viewpoint brings to the table. And the executive needs to say, "I am open and willing and want to have these kinds of challenges and these kinds of conversations." And when that happens, we are prepared for whatever the next steps are going to be. And I find that smart business owners, again... And not just business leaders, let's not even talk necessarily about ownership, but business leaders who have a good understanding of what public relations is and in its very simplest terms that it's helping us get our word out, that they also understand all the things that that could possibly be. And when you can get to that level set and, "All right, I understand why you're here and why you're asking those questions and why you want me to think about these things," you have a successful communication strategy. You have an executive that buys into this, is available, wants to be an active participant in it, and you have an internal team that is committed and works alongside and all together pushes forward the vision and the mission of whatever your business might be, non-profit, government, whatever it might be.Adrian McIntyre:
The last thing I would add on this, having seen it work well, and having it seen at work terribly is what's required from everybody is a bit of emotional intelligence, a bit of maturity, and a healthy relationship with one's own ego. Because at the end of the day, it's important to remember that we all have opinions. We all have ideas. And some of us are in a role where our job is to share those opinions, share those ideas, provide some expert guidance and advice. And at the end of the day, it's not our decision to make, it is the leadership team's decision to make. And leaders need to understand that they may have personal preferences. They may have strongly held points of view, but they don't know what they don't know. And the other folks in the room have experiences in domains that they don't have. And well, their decision is the decision that counts because at the end of the day, they're the ones whose proverbial tail is on the line as it were. They need to be open and willing to be challenged, to have folks ask, "Well, what if that doesn't work? What if your brilliant idea fails miserably?" That's a valid question to have, and boy, isn't it great to be having that discussion in advance of the failure rather than after it's already all over the news and all over social media?Abbie Fink:
Or again, on the positive, we've got this incredible product. We have every confidence in its success. We can get it. We've got our destinations, we have our shipping, we have our... Whatever it is. That success still requires a good conversation around communication, right? And again, it's not all about having to fix, it can be about celebrating. It should be about celebrating. It should be about, "We have hit every target we've set for ourselves. How are we going to... What are we going to do for next year? What are we going to do now that we hit that million-dollar fundraising goal? What are we going to do next time? Can we top that? Can we get to two million? What are we going to do?" Right? "Well, this work, but maybe this didn't, and maybe we should think differently about it." And so, it's all about that trust in the process and letting those individuals that are part of your team and are absolutely committed to your success participate in achieving that success, and whatever role you play from finance to public relations is their trust in them and trust in the expertise and the knowledge that they're bringing to the table, that they have your best interests at heart, that what they're doing and saying, and challenging you is all about getting to the success. And we will be right beside you when we're celebrating that success. And if it is something less than a celebration, we are right there with you as well, because we were part of the discussions and had all opportunities to look at these things together and be a part of it. And when that happens, we all comfortably sit around that table and honor what we've done, and then set the stage for what's our next strategic initiative that we're going to carry on with?Adrian McIntyre:
Abbie Fink is vice president and general manager of HMA Public Relations, the oldest continuously operating public relations firm here in Arizona.
If you enjoyed today’s show, please find and follow Copper State of Mind in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or any other podcast app. You can also find the show online at HMAPR.com. For all of us here at PHX.fm, I’m Adrian McIntyre. Thanks for listening, and please join us for the next Copper State of Mind.