Leaders, Leading Change

When we presented a communication seminar recently to a group of area school district administrators, we learned that the ripple effects of significant changes in public education are making transparent communication challenging. How do you communicate when trust is in the balance?

The tips we shared apply to many communication challenges, particularly when organizations are managing change. Building or rebuilding trust takes time, intentionality and consistency. It takes monitoring, a willingness to be honest and a desire to improve. It isn’t easy, but it is essential if your organization is going to not just weather the change, but also embrace new beginnings.

Navigate through change by allowing these guidelines to frame your communications:

  1. Work toward a listening culture. People need to be heard – employees, customers, key stakeholders. Listen by creating open channels for feedback, setting a tone of openness and repeatedly asking, “Help me understand. Tell me more.”
  2. Begin internally. Always deliver news, information updates, changes to policy and more to internal audiences first. They shouldn’t hear, read or see anything in the media or other public channels that you didn’t first share with them.
  3. Communicate early and often. Repeat your message, and use multiple channels. Most of us need to hear a message at least seven times before we “get it.”
  4. Whenever you can, communicate face-to-face. Internally, take advantage of meetings and other opportunities to share and build confidence. For internal and external audiences, respond to long emails with a phone call or in-person conversation.
  5. Access support and align messages and timelines throughout the organization. Are others talking about the same thing? Find out and coordinate what they’re saying, and when they plan to say it.
  6. Be brief and to the point. Everyone is on information overload, so don’t ramble on – in speech or writing. When sharing changes to policy or process, provide additional resources for people to learn more, and especially, ask questions. Then, make sure they get a timely response.
  7. Always tell the truth. Also expressed as: never tell a lie. Even one lie kills your credibility. If you tell a lie, admit and move forward. Don’t pull a Ryan Braun. Stick to the facts, don’t speculate and keep calm. Look for the positive.
  8. Have and follow an actionable communication plan. Develop a simple plan that highlights your primary audiences, the two or three key channels you will use to reach them, and the key messages you want to deliver. Establish the frequency of your communication. Engage others who can manage the channels. Only include what you know you can do. Then, do it.

Whatever changes your organization is facing, and whether or not they are the result of internal or external decisions, move through the change by using communication to your advantage. Trust hangs in the balance.  

Hidden Treasure

The PRSA 2013 Midwest District Conference in Omaha was a great learning opportunity.

I learned all about the “hidden treasure” that is Omaha: a vibrant place grounded in Midwestern values. The Joslyn Art Museum features European collections and impressive sculptures. The Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium boasts the world’s largest indoor desert and America’s largest indoor rainforest. You can dine at outstanding restaurants and “shop till you drop” in the Old Market, or you can catch the spectacular Heartland of America Park & Fountain, with its 300 foot water jet and light show along the great Missouri River. Not so surprising, I guess, when you consider Omaha is home to Con Agra, Union Pacific Railroad, Mutual of Omaha and the Strategic Air Command— all big thinkers in my mind.

The conference setting obviously expanded my thinking about Omaha. It also put me in a good frame of mind to explore the expanding role of public relations, the theme for the two days of professional development and networking. PRSA National Chairman Mickey Nall delivered an energetic and entertaining kick-off address on storytelling, media relations and its impact on brand and reputation.

Two common themes among the 20 or so breakout sessions: the importance of an online presence and the continuing debate about who is best suited to create content that can be used across several channels, including traditional outlets and the evolving social media landscape. Whether you want to increase blog traffic, create a Facebook presence or figure out how to use Twitter, it’s all just noise unless it supports the mission and enhances your ability to execute the business strategy. Experience to date shows that authenticity in the social media sphere is mission critical. It seems public relations, more so than advertising or even sales and marketing, is best suited to create content and manage these channels with their high degrees of transparency and reliance on third-party credibility— two hallmarks of public relations.

I once had a boss who asked me why I worked so late and why my desk was always piled so high. “I’m working hard on coming up with a big idea, boss,” I replied.

“Whoa, Jeffrey,” he advised. “There really are no new ideas. Plato and Aristotle took care of most of that. What we have now are variations on a theme, and what you get credit for around here is how well you and your team execute that variation.”  Perhaps the same holds true for social media.