Thursday, June 7, 2012

When you just don't know: Five tips for communicators when dealing with ambiguity

Last week I described my experience moving from in-house communicator to client-facing agency professional, which can, to the unprepared, feel like moving from Chicago to the moon. In particular, juggling multiple companies and clients presents a whole new level of ambiguity, especially for an internal communicator used to spending every minute of every day with one organization. This week I wanted to share some specific ways agency professionals prepare themselves and sound smart with little context:  

1. Hunt down information like a predator. About three months after I joined the firm, I had to go and meet with the manager of a nuclear plant whose workforce was so frustrated and disengaged it was on the brink of joining a labor union. My first reaction was, what on earth could I, a 20-something consultant, possibly tell someone who ran a nuclear reactor? I had to remind myself that while my client knew atomic fission, I knew communications. So I scoured the Internet for every piece of public information I could find on the company, the labor union involved, the perceived competitiveness of the company’s employee benefits. I also got my hands on the results of some internal focus groups the company had conducted and summaries of recent exit interviews. This helped round out my thinking going in, and we were able to counsel the manager through the issues and avoid unionization.

When preparing for a new engagement, seek out as many data points as you can - analysts’ reports, media coverage, postings on job-rating sites, social media chatter, etc. If your firm is already working with the company, get background from someone on the account team. And if all else fails, filter your LinkedIn contacts by company or industry to see if you know anyone with previous exposure to the organization or topic at hand.

2. Ask the right questions. Yes, I know I just told you that it’s important to come to the table armed with as much info as you can find. But knowing the right questions to ask is every bit as critical as what you say yourself. I have a mental list I run through at virtually every kickoff meeting, such as, “what specific business objectives are driving your desire to develop a communications plan? What pain point or problem are you trying to solve? What happens if we do nothing? Who are the important internal stakeholders that most strongly support or oppose your efforts?” By asking insightful questions that go beyond “how soon would you like to get this done?” you move the conversation forward and look smart in the process.

3. Apply what you’ve learned in the past to completely new situations. When I was growing up, my family had a variety of pets (including two gerbils named Sandy and Dandy, who were delightful until that dark day when we discovered Sandy had died and Dandy was making a snack out of his leg.) I always thought veterinarians had one of the most difficult jobs imaginable. Unlike human doctors, they have to understand God knows how many types of animal systems. And their patients can’t exactly tell them what hurts. Now, my knowledge of medicine does not extend beyond "beer before liquor," but I'd argue that in some ways, being an agency practitioner is a little like being a veterinarian. Like various types of pets, every company you work with is different.* Yet, just as most household creatures have certain basic things in common – a nervous system, a brain, a heart – so do organizations. Thus certain strategies – engaging managers, building trust in leadership, giving employees a say in decisions– work for most; it just requires tweaking implementation to fit the company’s culture, structure and current state. 

When you’re working with a new client, ask yourself, where have I seen this situation before? What were the critical factors in that instance, and are enough the same that a similar solution could work here?

4. Don’t go it alone.
As I mentioned last week, many internal communicators are used to being a one-man show. But in all but the smallest agencies, you are probably encircled by people whose talents and expertise can complement yours. When you’re planning a new business or client meeting, figure out who should be in the room – are there people who have subject matter expertise with this type of engagement? Someone who has worked extensively in the industry? A senior counselor who’s the master of sealing the deal? Chances are you’ll never be all these things at once, so surround yourself by people that complete the package.

5.    Join brainstorms. Even if they’re for clients you’ll never work on, you’ll get a lot out of experiencing ideation in action. Whenever I do, my colleagues never fail to amaze with their white-hot creativity. Some days it really does feel like Mad Men, minus the scandals, smoking and wanton sexual harassment.  Similarly, throw your own party once in awhile too. I regularly pull together brainstorms with people who have zero connection to a project I’m working on, as I find a dose of fresh perspective can re-energize the team’s thinking. 

*For the record, I am in no way suggesting that clients are like animals.

1 comment:

  1. That could probably help you when you're trying to understand new company policies, like a Vehicle Salary Sacrifice for instance.

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