Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Art of the "Thank You"

For as much as I try to focus in this space on communications topics where I have enough good experience to provide some value, I have to admit that there is one area where I could stand some improvement. That area for me is the art of the “thank you.”

I have a friend and colleague who is the absolute model of the proper way to thank people, whether the context is business or personal. I’ve come to expect that after nearly every interaction with her, she will surely follow up with the appropriate level of acknowledgement. If we meet for coffee, she’ll likely send an email shortly thereafter just saying how good it was to catch up. If we’ve worked on a project together, she usually sends a handwritten ‘thank you’ note that is written in such a way that you know she put some thought into it.

When she was a client, she was well known for how she would thank everyone who supported her efforts in any number of ways, but always accompanied by a nice ‘thank you’ note. I’d mention her name here, but I’m sure it would be against her wishes to call attention to her quiet practice of treating others with respect and appreciation.

What I’ve learned is there is a right way to thank people, and when you do it, it really can strike a positive chord with others. The key is first to be consistent about it. Don’t just thank people after particularly big projects or challenging times. Thank them all of the time.

When thanking people, consider the various ways to do it, from a simple email, to a handwritten note, accompanied by a token of appreciation in the form of a gift card, a specialty item, or even balloons or flowers. Handwritten notes are not only very personal, but because they can physically be saved (unlike a phone call or email) in a box or a drawer, they are quite often kept by their recipients for days when they need a pick-me-up. Handwritten notes can have a very long shelf-life.

And whenever thanking people, make sure to put some thought into the words you choose. Don’t just use stock language that suggests you have not given the message proper attention. Rather, in your note, tell them specifically what they did for you and why it was so important to you. Then thank them from the bottom of your heart.

I wish I could feature all of these tips in the context of a skill I’ve mastered, but in this area I am still a work in progress. But as I’ve been on the receiving end of proper ‘thank you’ notes, and as I have tried to work at it, I have gained an appreciation for the difference it can make.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Five Things They Don't Teach You in PR School

Since I graduated from college PR School has emerged as the primary feeder for the public relations profession. Unlike today’s PR graduates and like many from my generation, I entered the PR field after spending the earliest part of my career working in the media and after studying journalism in college. In the many years since, colleges have produced countless numbers of very bright and talented PR professionals who learned about everything from communications ethics and new media technologies, to how to create winning communications strategies and how to integrate research into public relations campaigns.

This is not to say college PR instruction hasn’t had some major failings. The dead horse I refuse to beat in this space (beyond this paragraph) is the ever-increasing number of incompetent writers graduating with PR degrees. This is probably the most common complaint in the profession when it comes to PR curricula, and it seems to be largely ignored by the university community. Most PR hiring managers would rather see resumes that showcase extensive and rigorous writing instruction rather than courses like “Media and Sports Relations,” or “Sex, Myth & Media.”

There are, however, some lesser known areas where PR majors enter the profession with little to no clue as to what they may need to do to be effective professionals. Let’s call these the “Five Things They Don’t Teach You in PR School.”

1. “Nothing Happens Until You Make the Sale” – I wish I could take credit for this, but I’m quoting the founder of a company I once worked for, though I doubt he was the first to say it. Bottom line is, well, the bottom line. Public relations is a business whether you work for an agency or a nonprofit. You can’t be effective in public relations if you can’t convince people to buy into a strategy, a creative approach, and garner the necessary funding and resources to pursue that approach. Sales skills and a willingness to sell are major assets.

2. Menial Details Matter – Proofing, media lists, checking spellings and titles, hand-delivering important documents that could have been e-mailed or snail-mailed. Sometimes the most important things we can do for our clients and companies are the most menial. While there may be a place in PR for fantastic cocktail parties and nationwide media events, we can never be above the seemingly unimportant tasks. Remember the old saying, “The devil is in the details?” It’s true.

3. Some Organizations Deserve Their Reputations – It’s almost assumed in PR school that through PR, we can save organizations from themselves simply through communications. There are times communications cannot solve systemic problems. If an organization consistently neglects its important stakeholders, an employee barbecue, a news release and a new Web site can’t fix that. If the organization has been consistently insular PR can’t save the day when the organization finally decides to communicate when it is under fire from the media. Goodwill must be earned over time.

4. Journalists Build Reputations on the Change They Effect – There are many reasons for the changing behaviors of today’s journalists, from the economics of shrinking newsrooms and shrinking market share, to the rise of the “new media’s” influence. Regardless, if you are a journalist wanting to make a name for yourself today you know this is best achieved, not simply by being a good reporter, but by effecting change – forcing management changes, shaming elected officials into resigning, or even driving changes to legislative or corporate policy.

5. Keep it Human – Members of the current generation graduating from college are considered “digital natives,” a term meant to describe people who’ve grown up online through any number of electronic devices. They are not the only ones however, who may have fallen into the trap of distancing themselves from real, in-the-flesh, human interaction. Thanks to email, smart phones, texting and social media, the need to physically meet or even talk personally on a live telephone call seem to be unnecessary. A business editor recently told me one of the best ways to reach her now is simply by picking up the phone and calling her. She said she only gets around five or six real telephone calls a day. Good advice for any PR pro.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Getting Organized for Communication

It was one of those meetings that galvanized for me what chief executives often look for in a communications person. The executive in question was someone I had known for many years and who needed help with some new corporate communications initiatives. He worked in an industry with which I had no experience. When he asked me if I could help, the first thing I pointed out was that I had no experience in his industry and didn’t consider myself a “techie.”

He said, “I don’t need a techie, I need someone who can organize us.”

Based on our previous discussions, I knew I could do that, and in the end not only was I able to do so but I also learned that I could be a techie if the situation warranted. In fact, I learned that if you can master the full range of communications disciplines, it does not matter which industry you represent and where you operate.

Since then, I found that this CEO wasn’t the only one who wanted help in organizing his company’s approach to communications. So what are the key issues that lead to this?

Growth – When companies grow, they find that they need new and different capabilities that their early stage communications function did not possess. Perhaps they need to add staff, but just as importantly, they need to rethink the role of communications in their growth and management structure.

Downsizings – When companies shrink, they find that they may not need certain capabilities they’ve maintained for years, but that they do indeed new ones to reposition themselves in their markets.

Repositioning – As nimble companies adjust to changing market and operating conditions, they sometimes need to make adjustments in the way they communicate. Often, they need to communicate with more intensity than they have before to ensure that their stakeholders understand what they are doing, why they are doing it, and where they are going.

These are just three reasons companies need to reorganize their communications efforts, but enough to gain a sense of what you may really need in a professional communicator – an organizer.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Celebrating Freedom of Speech

We often hear references to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights, but every now and then it’s worth a revisit to see exactly what it says. I thought I’d use the occasion of this Independence Day weekend to do just that. So here it is, the First Amendment:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Forty-five words that have been argued over, litigated over, debated and which have provided protection for everything from prayer services to flag-burnings. When the First Amendment makes news, emotions are charged on both sides of the issue.

It is because of this amendment that while people in the PR profession can earn any number of degrees and professional credentials we cannot be licensed. This is because it is illegal to censure or ban one from the practice of free and open communication in American society.

Many years ago, I heard someone say the best way to address speech you don’t like is to make your own voice heard. Since that time many technological advances have enabled us to not only make our voices heard, but to make them heard around the world in real time.

On this holiday weekend, I’d like to wish you a safe and happy time to celebrate with friends and family, and to take at least a moment to think about what a privilege it is to live in a place where freedom of speech is the cornerstone of our national constitution. And a big “thank you” to all of those who put their lives on the line to allow the rest of us to exercise these “inalienable rights.”