So, we’ve had our crisis and it’s been flagged we need to transform our communications team. We can use history to inform us but not guide us because there’s been so much disruption in communications, what once worked will no longer.

Building transforming communication teams

Some old rules do still apply: for instance, be clear in your expectations but empathetic in your conversations; we comms folk are sensitive souls. That hasn’t changed.

But your heightened expectations have changed.

1. Create a sense of urgency

Change comes hard to most people, so you need to make an announcement with a strong message for change. This sense of urgency is real, to be sure, the disruption is caused this year by:

  • The new demands individual consumers are exercising, from being disloyal and complaining, and extending to mischief makers, right out to the problem of fake-news. Social media for some has become a Badlands.
  • Our ability to measure and analyse almost everything, including focusing on very narrow demographics – extending to re-targeting
  • The myriad of devices and apps
  • Cross channel marketing
  • Traditional media is dying. Television is holding its audiences but more papers will close. Social media is now dominant in many markets. So our media relations focus has changed.

2. Be prepared to be repetitive

Once you have created a sense of urgency you have to follow-through with repeated messaging, because you are changing a culture. To instil a new set of behaviours you will have repeat yourself a lot: repetition = penetration = impact.

3. It starts with knowing where you are now, and where you want to be.

I’m big on a purpose or vision for a communications team. As a leader you need to be clear on your Purpose. The purpose of your external communications is probably pretty close to, “Providing our stakeholders with the information and entertainment they want, when they want it.” Don’t be confused with the term ‘entertainment’; it doesn’t mean we’re jumping out of birthday cakes; rather, it means often that information is presented in an entertaining way.

There’s a conflict here, because what you achieve has to be consistent with your organisation’s strategic business plan. You will have business objectives, probably to do with growth, retention and reputation. It is your job as leader to ensure your team executes this too.

You can do both: provide stakeholders what they want when they want it, and achieve your business objectives. One is a strategy, the others are objectives.

When considering KPIs, don’t get confused by ends and means (from the term, ‘means to an end.’). So if an objective is to have better social media than your competitor, Acme Explosives, by the end of the year, that is an ‘end’; ensuring many Facebook ‘likes’ is a ‘means.’

This doesn’t mean you ignore the ‘means’; they are useful, but when you report upstairs you want to focus on the big picture, not the minutiae.

I like the mantra, ‘measure metrics that matter’.

4. Get the right people on board.

Communications is not a 9-5 job anymore. For people on the frontline it’s, “Game-on while you are awake.” That takes a special kind of passion and not everyone wants to do it, but for those who do, it’s a wonderful and exciting task.

Once people on the team understand the front-line media and social media staff are working to this new mantra, the culture and the behaviours of the team changes.

Three changes that make a difference:

a. Nimbleness

Set a front-line KPI that publishing stories come first, not the rest of what happens in an office.

And stories have to be published fast. Clean up the approval process so you can turn-around a story in a few minutes.

It’s easy to be nimble if you get your team into the right headspace. Simple changes can make a big difference. First, think reactively, like hungry and competitive journalists on the lookout for fresh story angles. Reacting to a running story can mean turning around a post in 15 minutes. A current story, being debated in other media, the hotter the better, can attract lots of feedback.

Proactive is good, but slower. Developing a story from scratch can take many hours.

b. Change the structure of the day

Flip the way most offices work.

Don’t meet in the mornings because that’s when we need to publish. Meet late afternoons, so we can review the morning and think about next steps overnight and be ready to go first thing tomorrow.

c. Constant learning

This is a tough one. I maintain that people in comms need to be learning all the time, and this occurs in and out of work hours. People who are passionate about their work will do this.

The dilemma is that change is happening so fast in comms that there’s something new to learn every day.

So you need to create a learning environment, including using those afternoon meetings as learning sessions. One trick here is to encourage people to discuss process issues like content calendars, timetables and story ideas via email, so that when you meet face-to-face, you can discuss strategy, including on-going learning.

Your average poorly run meeting is a waste of time.

The above three changes alone will have a powerful impact on culture.

5. Now put together a plan

Best to ask the team to be involved to encourage their engagement. Keep the plan short & simple, and flexible. Tailor it to your resources by limiting your objectives. It’s much better to achieve three objectives excellently, than half-succeed with five.

Set clear milestones on progress towards your ‘End’ as we can measure almost everything.

6. Execution: Leadership style

Have a couple of mantras that you repeat ad nauseam.

In our office, one mantra is “Ideas; Excellence; Relationships,” as those are three behaviours that are most important to us. Another is “Headline; Picture; First par,” as those are the three critical elements in a story (note the use of 3’s).

Three more tips:

a. Be firm

Start by demanding excellence and back off later. I find the reverse doesn’t work. The temptation is to engage with new members, even make friends, but if it means lowering your demands it will backfire because it’s very hard to demand a higher standard of behaviour later on. It’s better to start tough, and be ‘a nice person’ later.

b. Delegate

You want people to make mistakes and learn from them. You’ve employed people with a passion for their job (if not, you are going to move dispassionate people off the team), so you don’t have to gee them up every day.

What I do is ask to be cc’d on important emails, so I can watch, mainly in silence.

c. Correcting poor behaviour

When you spot a mistake or poor behaviour, use the rule: correct short; praise long. Criticise a mistake immediately and once only, to a person’s face or by phone and always in private; never in an email, and never, never in anger. Praise a person often, including in emails, with detail; it will be read and re-read.

7. Measurement

Measure everything you can. Our ability to measure everything and be more targeted is going to get better, and at an increasing rate. At a certain point there will be serious pushback on privacy issues, but we’re not quite there yet.

8. Review, reassess, realign

As the technology we are working with will be different in 6 months, we need to keep changing.

9. Hire slow, fire fast

This is a tough one, but important. If you discover a person has the wrong attitude, move them on. You can easily teach skills, but it’s hard to change a poor attitude.

In a small team, one person can make a huge impact on morale and output.

10. Language

It’s corny but, speak and write as you would like to be spoken and written to.

We’ and ‘You’: It’s hard to engage an audience if all you do is talk about yourself, so we talk with people not at them. It’s not about ‘We’, it’s about ‘You.’ There are many other language tricks:

  • Ask questions
  • Be spontaneous not rehearsed
  • Write with personality, in the vernacular with friendly phraseology

11. Read widely

There are lots of gurus on leadership and many, many good ideas. In time, you will develop a style, tailored to suit you and your new and enthusiastic team.

Peter Wilkinson

Author Peter Wilkinson

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