Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Stakeholder management; serious relationships or a one night stand?

At election time you often hear the same complaint; “we only hear from politicians once every five years when they want something!”

Those MPs or Councillors who have been visible throughout their terms in office - turning up on wet Wednesdays for coffee morning with local community groups, attending long and dull school governor or local Council meetings, relentlessly appearing in the local newspaper to join the latest campaign for a new zebra crossing or against a proposed Tesco (it’s always Tesco or Starbucks!) - they get credit and votes when the ballot boxes are opened.

Those who appear every half decade once the election starting gun is fired, clad in rosette, cheesy grin from ear to ear, kissing as many babies as they can find before disappearing quickly again often get fired. And they deserve it.

What is the lesson here for communication professionals who help their organisations and clients with their stakeholder management? Having great relationships with your key stakeholders is a long term effort. It requires hard work, stamina and patience.

In my experience, organisations often make the same mistake as those pesky politicians- the only get in touch when they want something; help with a consultation, a supportive quote for a press release, someone to sit on a panel at an event or on an advisory board, the use of a logo or support for the latest CEO or Board pet initiative.

It can be even more brazen when dealing with politicians themselves - seeking their support to change the law or lobby government on their behalf or to give them a sympathetic hearing at a Select Committee. These leaders do not invest the time to build a relationship with the key individuals and organisations they may need and want to work with or do anything to help them with their agendas. As a result when they go asking for help they often find help cometh not. As Publullius Syrus said (over 2000 years ago); “The person who receives the most favours is the one who knows how to return them."

If you want to have strong stakeholder relationships you need to do some simple things. You need to keep in touch and keep them updated on things they care about. Meet up, have a coffee, say hello by email, even when you have nothing you want or huge amounts to say. Send them a note about something you know they will be interested in but that might not directly help you. Retweet something they've said or like an update their shared on LinkedIn that they clearly feel strongly about and you liked when you saw it. It’s about give and take. Not just the latter.

You need to understand your stakeholder’s agendas and the challenges they face - which mean they sometimes take views and positions that are unhelpful to you. They may be in a tricky position - caught between competing agendas or loyalties. Good communications are two-way. They are based on understanding your audiences and crafting messages and approaches that fit best with them. The best way to do this is not to sit in a dark room and produce material alone but to talk with your key audiences (talking with means listening too!) and build your understanding of them.

You need to treat them properly - with respect and with courtesy. This sounds so obvious - almost patronising to mention it. You’d be surprised how many times I’ve seen CEOs, Chairs, Directors, NEDs or others talk to or about some of their key stakeholders as if they were employees in a big house, below stairs, 100 years ago. Just as bad - they talk at their stakeholders - Gladstone to Queen Victoria - in meetings or just about their agenda. I would love a pound for every time I heard a senior person say “I’ve brought my list” when they start a meeting with a key stakeholder. It’s not just about you!

These thoughts about how to cultivate and manage important relationships at work are just as relevant in the rest of our lives. Like all communications, they are about people and how we build trust and mutual respect. I wonder how many people asking for our votes over the next nine days bemoan the lack of trust in politics and politicians but are not prepared to put the work in. I wonder how they will get on when those ballot boxes are opened in the small hours, a week on Friday.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

"They don’t understand us"

One of the most common complaints I’ve heard down the years from consultants or in house communications people is that their client or colleagues don’t understand comms. You hear it time and again.

They think comms is all about making PowerPoint slides, designing posters or screen savers, printing a colourful leaflet, arranging a meeting or acting as their PA when dealing with key stakeholders! I have lost count of the times I heard this in my project work or when working in house. The Chief Executive doesn’t understand how hard it is to deliver a comms campaign or secure good media coverage, he just wants to get on the telly. The Board don’t appreciate how much time it take to maintain our social media profiles. The Chairman thinks good comms is him writing a letter to The Times and getting it printed. And so the list goes on.

These complaints sometimes have truth within them but making them misses the point. I am reminded of this quotation - although I never thought I would positively quote Enoch Powell (!); “A politician that complains about the media is like a ship’s captain that complains about the sea”.

I take the view that when someone doesn’t understand what you do that is your responsibility. As a communications professional is it your job to demonstrate what you do (in simple terms), why it is important and how it adds value. If you cannot persuade and convince your colleagues or clients what chance do you have or persuading your key internal and external audiences.

Comms people - and I say this as a comms person - can be too precious about what they don’t do - I am not a PowerPoint monkey/glorified PA/it’s not my job to draft thank you letters to staff from the CEO etc etc - or try to make it seem like a complex science of stakeholder mapping, matrix drawing, plans and impact assessments - instead of being prepared to roll their sleeves up and get stuff done and use that as a platform for doing more and for extending their influence.

My experience tells me that you often get the chance to do the cool, fun stuff - the stuff you know can really help your organisation- and play to your strengths and make the most of your experience - only when you have put in some hard yards and made some stuff happen that people think is important. Starting by telling senior folk their ideas are wrong when you have not convinced them yours are right is the road to hell, a life of marginalisation in the office or a P45. Comms teams who spend their time complaining that the organisation is doing it wrong and doesn’t understand comms are themselves part of the problem.

The most successful communications teams I have worked with or seen in action do two things; they deliver and they shape. They deliver what is needed - even if that is an event the CEO really wants to do but they don’t think it will work; a roadshow with staff that has no purpose except to give senior people a stage to stand on; or a newsletter that no-one will read - and they shape the strategic thinking or the organisation and the direction it takes.

Alistair Campbell is one of the most successfully communication professionals in British public life. Why? He was able to deliver - his teams did the day to day stuff really, really well - they secured the media coverage or ran the events or produced the briefings or letters that folk wanted and needed - whilst also being in the room for the key discussions about policy, strategy and the way forward. They were in the room because they - he - proved that communications can add value to achievement of the big goals and aspirations or their bosses and their organisation.

They proved that communications input can help deliver the key relationships-building with people and organisations that can make or break their plans (MPs, regulators, the media, influential opinion formers such as think tanks and the like), proactively manage reputation by getting the organisation on the front foot and ahead of their rivals and competitors, manage risks that stuff will go wrong and help focus on the priorities that will have the maximum impact with key audiences (e.g. customers).

Great comms people bring more than a bag or toolkit of templates and creative ideas - they bring an understanding of the environment in which the organisation is operating in and some insights on why some messages, ideas or approaches will have more or less impact. They bring the outside world or internal views of staff to the boardroom and in a way that is constructive and focused on how to achieve the goal of the organisation. They are strategists as well as tacticians.

Adding value and showing that you can add value is the secret to being understood as a communication professional and the path to getting to do the work you really want to do. Rather than complaining about the weather, communications people should make it.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015


Tomorrow is the 26th anniversary of Hillsborough.

Like so many people I’ve thought about it every day since. I’ve written about it. I’ve talked about it. I've cried about it.

Each time I try to write something about Hillsborough I want to find something fitting to say. Something that captures the feelings of devastation. Something that adequately captures the respect and admiration I have for those incredible families. Something that would make them proud. But every time the pen approaches the paper I know I will never quite be able to do it.

This year there is so much I would like to write as the new inquests have developed and things have been said in the witness box - but that is not a good idea. It is right to wait until the legal process has concluded before commenting. That time will come.

So for the moment, I fall back on my memories. Memories of that sunny day 26 years ago. Memories of being a 10 year old boy, playing football in the back garden in my Liverpool kit with the radio for company, listening to the match. Memories of my Mum and Dad coming home early from their wedding anniversary weekend away - we gave our tickets away for the game (Upper Tier, Leppings Lane) - and seeing them cry, and cry and cry.

Watching the simple commemorations on TV last night at Anfield brought those memories flooding back. Hearing George’s voice before the minute’s silence was wonderfully warming but desperately sad. Tomorrow I will think about myself and my Dad and once again feel lucky that we were not there. But like every other day I will think mostly about our 96 brothers and sisters, their loved ones and their memories.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Election campaigns are about the people not the politicans

Hillary Clinton showed us how it’s done. The response from GOP heavyweights to her announcement; not so much. The UK election campaign so far; nowhere near.

Secretary Clinton started her 19 month job interview (with apologies to 'The Apprentice’) by placing the most important person at the heart of her campaign; the American people. Despite the horrid logo (looks like a cross between a re-run of Dad’s Army and something you’d buy at the chemist) and questionable music, her announcement video was perfect. It reminds us that elections and election campaigns are about the people, not the politicians. Or at least, they should be.

It’s as old as time. Elections are about two messages. Things are going really well, don’t let the other lot in to spoil it; or, it’s going really badly, it’s time for a change. The way these messages are delivered and packaged is what decides the outcome. It need to be something positive. That inspires and motivates not divides. That gets people to the polls on a day when there are always 10 more important or pressing things to do.

Yes, fear has played a role in elections down the years. But elections are very, very rarely won in fear. There are lots and lots of examples of were fear has failed. Tony Blair’s three elections were won by optimism and hope in the face of fear: ‘new Labour, new danger’; demon eyes; save the pound; are you thinking what I’m thinking, etc etc. Please don’t make me go on!

The electorate need to know what’s in it for them; why voting should matter to them and their family; why the vision they are presented with will improve their country, community and lives. They need to know that the person asking for their vote gets it. Gets them. Is in touch with them.

Governors Romney and Bush immediately sent their own message to the electorate yesterday. Their “stop Hillary” message missed the point - the electorate do not want to hear this (apart from a small group whose minds have already been made up and will never be changed). Of course, this is part of a fundraising effort to compete with the oft-quoted $2.5bn Clinton archest (that phrase will be used a lot over the coming months) and there is time for them (the GOP) to get positive and sell a vision for America. But what a depressing way to start a conversation with the electorate.

The current UK election campaign is faring no better. It has so far been a series of statistical exchanges on whose figures are more believable, more robust etc……ZZZZZZZZZ. Sooner or later - please, please - someone needs to offer a positive reason for voting for them. A vision. A message beyond don’t vote for them, they’re rubbish. We need to hear about how our country will be better for ourselves, our families and those who will follow us. There is still time for this but the danger is that by the time we get there (if we ever do) the electorate is so fed up of hearing about the politicians, they won’t listen when the story turns to them.

It is always a balance between leading and listening on the campaign trail and it’s a long, long game, especially in the US. But Secretary Clinton has made a great start. She has shown others the way. It’s is only the top of the first innings - but at least she has started on the right foot.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Internal and external communications…….lost labels.

We love labels. We love giving things a name. We love defining stuff. It makes us feel comfortable. It makes us feel that we know where we stand.

That’s right wing. That’s left wing.
That’s posh. That’s rough.
That’s typical of them. Etc. Etc.

We love labelling people even more. When we meet people for the first time we like to find out which school they went to, the jobs they have, where they live, what they drive, and so on to work out what social class people are from so we can label them. It often makes us feel more comfortable we are at the right party - or in worse cases (be honest) it can make us feel superior.

These labels may help us feel comfortable but do they actually help our understanding of the world? Are they relevant? Do they still stand true?

Two labels that are becoming increasingly irrelevant and unhelpful are those which group communications within your organisation or outside it. Internal and external communications. I would argue that - like wearing a tie in the workplace - these labels are dying and have passed away in most places. Why do I say that?

To answer that question we have to first ask why the labels existed in the first place. The wonderful San Fransico-born but New England-adopted poet, Robert Frost, once said; "Don't ever take a fence down until you know why it was put up.”

The labels were used when organisations wanted to be clear what stuff could be said, written, shared etc within their organisation; was confidential; for their eyes only; private. And what stuff was for wider consumption; was open; public. Maintaining this simple demarkation was, well, simple. People were told stuff and even if they wanted to it wasn't easy to share. The way private stuff became public then was down the pub, in the street, or at home when chatting to friends or relatives. The means to share this information with the company across the street was hard enough, let alone the wider world. That has all changed.

Technology - and by that I mean email, the internet and social media - has not only provided us all with the means of sharing information but given us two other incredible things; the knowledge that others do want to to know about stuff we know and the feeling of empowerment to know how it feels to make the decision ourselves to share it. The power over information has shifted from organisations to individuals. Not all company Boards see this as a good thing but it has happened. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle.

How has that manifested itself? What has happened?

People share stuff now they shouldn’t or wouldn’t have done before. They send emails to colleagues and friends, they tweet about work (pay, conditions, the latest restriction on use of the internet, blocked websites, removal of free tea and coffee in the staff canteen etc), they comment on stuff on Facebook; use comparison sites and forums to talk about their job (not always positively!); share insights about their organisation on LinkdIn; or comment on articles on news websites and others. They now have extraordinary reach. In the past, their reach/their impact, was limited to the people they actually knew. Now they can reach the whole world with one click of a mouse or one press of their iPhone screen.

We share more now because we can. We have seen staff snap photos of backlogs of applications at the Passport Office and post them on social media creating a major news story; emails sent to a small group of people exposing some sexist or otherwise inappropriate comment or behaviour shared with the world and gone viral. There are many, many high profile cases where information - internal communications - is shared with a small group of people and within seconds it has hit the news. This sharing brings with it risks but I would argue the sort of openness which makes communicators lives easier and everyone else's lives clearer. Say what you mean, how you mean it to everyone. You don’t need to create two versions of every message.

In discussion with any colleagues or clients, I always say, whatever you write, whatever your put in an email, letter or anything involving pen and paper (a increasing metaphor for typing stuff), expect people outside the organisation to see it or expect it on the front page of the Daily Mail. Nothing should be shared within your organisation now without expecting it to be shared outside.

The fence has come down. We now live in an era of openness - whether we all like it or not. We live in a world where people feel they can share whatever is shared with them. We used to hear lots of talk of us building a knowledge economy - we now truly live in a sharing economy where people share stuff thought out of bounds years ago- from personal details of their love life, selfies from their holidays, their views on everything from the Middle East to The Voice, or stuff they have seen at work.

I would suggest we think less about internal and external communications and think instead about communications and be prepared as an old colleague of mine used to say to show the world whatever we are writing. Even if we are not prepared, it will probably happen any way.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Broadcast or receive

The Greek philophser, Epictetus, said ‘We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.’

Perhaps it is being of Irish/Scouse origin but I hardly ever meet and spend time with people who live by this ratio rule. That number gets even smaller when it comes to considering leaders in organisations.

Often their approach to communication is one-way. Broadcast. It smacks of a world we hoped to have long since left behind, when the big boss spoke with his (it was mostly his!) staff and told them what they needed to know. The idea of a dialogue, something two-way, never crossed their minds.

We like to think we live in more enlightened times. I fear we do not. My 15 years of working in organisations across the UK and beyond, across industries and of different shapes and sizes, tell me that leaders still spend most of their time talking at their organisations.

In the last year, I heard of a CEO who wanted to connect with their employees. They started a blog. They started to share their personal reflections of the week gone and their views on what was ahead. It was a big success. Lots of people read it and they started to respond, posting comments and questions. This was not in the CEO’s plan. He was perplexed. He thought he had found a new and interesting way of telling people stuff. He didn’t have time (or frankly the interest) to read what they thought and least of all to respond. He was too busy for that. The blog soon died and the employees who had hope they had been given a new and interesting way to be part of a conversation were left disappointed.

I once encountered a CEO whose idea of engaging with their organisation when developing its’ organisational values was to write them himself one Sunday morning and then to want to email them to everyone telling that these are your values. Not necessarily the best way to secure buy-in!

There is undoubtedly pressure on CEOs and other leaders to provide answers, to inspire, to inform. There is also the pressure of time and other priorities. But there should be pressure on them to engage - to create meaningful interaction. To listen. To build a relationship.

The best broadcasting makes the receiver feel it was written or spoken just for them, to them. It feels personal. It is tailored. Success in communicating (derived from the Latin to share) and in engaging is about hearing from others as well as them hearing from you.

Five years ago I was running for Parliament. I was taking part in hustings in the constituency at schools, local church halls and businesses. The best advice I got was from an MP who told me that the audience were attending to ask their questions as much as to hear my answers. Ask them what they think he said. Don’t talk too much. Allow time for listening. Not something that politicians are renowned for!

So to broadcast or receive that is the question? As with all things in life a healthy balance is needed. The leader who doesn’t listen, doesn’t learn. That leader doesn’t hear the great idea that could save their business money or help them get ahead of the competition. That leader doesn’t get buy-in for their strategy as they have not involved their colleagues enough. That leader doesn't inspire. They don't truly value their colleagues.

Next time you are standing in front of a group of colleagues or about to write an all staff email perhaps take time to ask for their views or ask them to reply with their feedback or ideas. You may be pleasantly surprised and so may they.