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5 Things Your Boss Needs to Know About Communications: Takeaways from IPR’s Strategic Communications Summit

*This is a cross post of my entry on the Government Transformation Blog hosted by Phase One Consulting*

The Institute of Public Relation’s 2nd Annual Strategic Communications Summit’s theme, “Communicating in an Era of Radical Transparency” seemed irresistible in light of recent events from the Arab Spring to Weinergate but I was a little skeptical about attending a conference with such little history. A couple of hours into it, I knew IPR had put together a winner.

The formula was simple: assemble a group of first-class speakers and panelists and allow attendees ample time to ask tough questions in a not-for-attribution environment. We heard frank and open talks from Admiral Roughead, the Chief of Naval Operations, the Director of the National Geospatial Agency, and senior communicators across a variety of industries (Cargill, Shell, Marriott, etc.). You can see the full lineup here. http://www.strategicsummit.com/agenda.htm .
The atmosphere allowed for a genuine exchange of ideas about what works in the private and public sectors. We were a relatively small group and it was easy to talk to every attendee over the 2-day event which gave ample time to understand how an organization solved a specific problem but also to collaborate on how those lessons might be applied under other circumstances. Consider this post a round of applause to my fellow attendees who shared their insights enthusiastically.

Here are five major takeaways from the event that we found public sector communications leaders need to make sure their bosses to understand. These ideas bear repeating until they are no longer the most common pitfalls. Next week I’ll lay out a five things your government communications director should already be doing.
1. Leadership is still paramount. There is a tendency to focus on what somebody else says is a best practice but active Leadership in your own organization is the most important factor in effective strategic communications. It is no accident that companies/organizations with clear vision statements and that have fostered an environment of empowerment within their workforce, are also trendsetters in communications, customer service and reputation management.

2. In today’s environment being a thought leader takes courage to fight antibodies (those who say “you can’t do this”) and the willingness to make few mistakes along the way. But think of it this way. The control over the message you think you have by limiting your engagements to the time, topic and medium of your choice is an illusion. You do not own your narrative, the only choice is to what extent you will contribute to it.

3. Every good communications strategy begins with the facts. Facts are indisputable, and once identified, compelling campaigns can be built around their interpretation. Know the difference between the facts and what is aspirational. In this age of radical transparency, people everywhere expect to always learn the truth… eventually.

4. The people on your communications team matters. They should be adaptive, innovative and effective across traditional media as well as areas of “online influence” (We discussed audio, video, images, blogs, microblogs, data, forums, wikis search and social networks.) Most importantly they should have access to leaders in a way that enables proactive engagement and doesn’t waste time by over emphasizing gatekeepers or filters.

5. You cannot wait until a crisis to build trust and transparency. What you can do is build a culture of transparency into your daily operations by regularly communicating aspects of your routine. It is okay if you don’t make news. You weren’t making news before, but what you are doing is establishing processes and training your team so transparency is already a proven part of your organizations core values when disaster strikes. There is no substitute for doing this work up front.
This list isn’t meant to be exhaustive but if one or your top 5 didn’t make my list, I want to hear about it. What else did you find interesting about this conference? What are your other communications “rules of the road” in this age of transparency? Leave a comment here or continue the conversation on twitter @RabbleBJ90.
BJ Bailey is an associate at Phase One Consulting Group and Army veteran currently supporting the U.S. Army Chief Information Officer/G-6 in strategic communications and social media engagement.

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11 Comments

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Profile Photo David Dejewski

This is an excellent post. Thank you, BJ!
The question is, assuming these are a suitable top five: what can you do to help when the boss does not understand these? Better yet, what can you do to help the organization and your customers when the boss is actively working against open communication?

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Profile Photo Chris Ammon

David, BJ’s third point could be the start of how you convince the boss. Are there facts you can use like, “your organization is mentioned X number of times a day (in a negative or positive light).”? or “All of these other organizations, similar to yours, are making good, specific things happen with their communications.” It could be that the boss just wants to see that others are doing things differently with good results. So what agencies are communicating transparently, working to build trust, conveying factual information? I work with an agency within VA so I follow VA social media a bit. I think they’re trying hard to engage their audience to correct misinformation, or to directly address complaints to show they’re listening. I don’t know any specific results, but it seems like they are taking action in ways aligned with BJ’s 5 points. TSA broke ground with their blog years ago, but I haven’t seem too many other examples of such transparent and personal communications. Anyone have other examples?

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Profile Photo tracie sanchez

love this…wish the boss got it. “It is no accident that companies/organizations with clear vision statements and that have fostered an environment of empowerment within their workforce, are also trendsetters in communications, customer service and reputation management.”

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Profile Photo Ben

Boy–that’s powerful: ”You do not own your narrative; the only choice is to what extent you will contribute to it.” Thanks for this!

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Profile Photo Scott Span

Helpful info. I often find that when doing communications work with my government clients that all to often the structures that exist are non conducive to breaking down the barriers to facilitate clear and concise communication.This makes it even harder for folks to deliver consistent messaging throughout the organization (and to stakeholder organizations) to those that need to hear it, when they need to hear it, how they need to hear it delivered.

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Profile Photo Ari Herzog

…and if a public sector organization doesn’t have a communications team per se, but assorted individuals who take on communication along with everything else, what then? Do the same rules apply say you?

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Profile Photo Brodrick J. Bailey

Ari,

You have to communicate with the team you have – so you can drop the “per se”. It helps if you can recruit a senior member of the organization as a sponsor and then lay down a few business rules that govern how your ad hoc group operates (not too many). To get the ball rolling, I would organize around plannig for some future “good news” event. Do you think this might work? Would love to hear your feedback.

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Profile Photo Brodrick J. Bailey

@ David Dejewsky – Right back at you. I was planning to write on something else next week, but am now focused on posting some ideas to try if your boss doesn’t support open comms. Could be an opp to collaborate…let me know if you have bandwidth.

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