The Why and How of PR for chief executives and busy professionals

By Boni Sones

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Page 3. Where does PR fit in the organisation?

  • The departmental structure?

As chief executive you will have to draw up a management structure to decide your lines of command and control. It is commonplace for CEs to fit the communication function alongside marketing and events and/or the policy directorate.

While this approach is pragmatic it often ignores the specialist qualities that a good communication professional will need.

Someone well versed in policy may not appreciate or be prepared to negotiate on how those policies will present externally. While those in the organisation and some opinion formers might approve of your policies you also need to ask how they will present externally and how this will influence how others view your work.

Similarly good marketing professionals may not come with first hand experience of dealing with the media on a day to day or week to week basis. They may need to learn media skills as they go.

Wherever you situate the communications function you need to impress on staff the importance of this work and the need for it to be prioritised. Discuss with them you strategy for your key messages and how you are going to communicate these internally and externally.

Action: Give your PR department a target. Tell them you expect to see so many print articles a month, or that you expect to do so many radio interviews too. Impress on them the importance of attempting local TV coverage such as the “and finally” on regional TV news bulletins.

  • Access to the chief executive

Wherever you situate the PR department remember that you need to be personally involved in this work. Quotes for press releases and media publicity material must come from the most senior person in the organisation and that is you. Talk to your department regularly, plan communication seminars and forums with staff on a monthly basis.

Take the trouble to get the ideas of others so that you utilise their media awareness too. You will be surprised what people read or listen to when they are at home or as they drive to work. Tap into this knowledge and ask them for ideas.

It is important to give digestible quotes and sound bites for media interviews so be prepared to listen to and take the advice of your communication professionals. Don’t let a quote compromise what you believe but do ensure that it will be reported by making it topical and newsworthy. Ask others to be honest and say whether what you have said will be reported. Journalists will look to your quote for a headline for their story so take advice and change it if necessary.

Action: Ensure you plan regular meetings with your PR staff and talk to them on a weekly basis. Pencil in a monthly communication seminar with your staff.

  • You may be “the department”

PR may be one of the departments that initially you have to run yourself. It’s important that however pressing your other priorities you do find the time to tell others what you have done.

Begin by writing a press release. Show someone else what you have written and said and see what they think of it. Send it out to your local papers and wait for them to phone you. When the journalist rings take their calls, phone them back and adopt a friendly persona.

Educate them as to what you are doing but be on your guard. You might want to seek the advice of some of your funders who may employ PR professionals or you can ask journalists that you know. County council’s and district councils have PR departments, they may be willing to help you or share their mailing lists with you.

You may also benefit by trying to get a business to help you that is promoting its corporate social responsibility but ask others for advice on this as some groups have got their fingers burnt.

Action: Use your local strategic partnerships to get some good advice on PR. Find out what you should say to who and which local journalists are good to deal with.

  • Internal communication

As your organisation grows it will need to consider more carefully how it communicates with its staff. You may well have small offices situated in different parts of the country and a number of volunteers and staff who work for you on a revolving basis. As chief executive it is important that you are visible to all.

You can begin by writing a modest newsletter telling people what you have been doing, what has been achieved and what your vision of the future is. Your volunteers can send in their pictures and stories too, and you can feature profiles of your staff, who they are and what they do. Include a picture of yourself.

It is important that people know how to contact you and who is in charge of what in which office. Some “did you knows” go down well when you are communicating internally. Don’t assume knowledge that others don’t have, make your internal communications clear not clever.

Action: Start making a diary of your week, list what you do, and plan how you are going to tell others of the real achievements and difficulties that are being encountered. Display relevant information on notice boards.

  • External communication

As chief executive you need to impress on others the importance of external communication. Let the most senior and the most junior staff know that you want to help journalists and to whom they should be referring calls.

To some extent the journalist is your envoy to others. The first impression they have of you and your organisation will influence what they write and say about you. Even if you are unfortunate enough to take a hostile call, being helpful and polite counts.

Ensure that staff and volunteers say they will get someone to phone the journalist back as a matter of priority. Get them to pass notes into meetings to ensure that you know a journalist wants to talk to you and by when. External communications must be prioritised within your organisation and it is up to you to lead others with this value.

Action: Circulate an A4 sheet to all staff and volunteers in all offices telling them press calls should be referred to you or the PR team and give some helpful hints of how they should deal with journalists. Ask them for their ideas for good stories and keep a list of these for all to see.

  • Knowledge is power

As organisations evolve they can develop a secretive culture towards who knows what. In some peoples hands information becomes power and people may not want to share what they know with others.

If your organisation is going to be truly accountable it needs to break down these barriers and encourage people to share what they know with others. To communicate effectively externally you need to have facts and figures at your fingertips.

Journalists will ask you: “what’s going on?”, “why?”, “what’s going to happen next?” To answer these questions you will need to be fully informed. They will want to draw on the facts you have: “how many people use your services?”, “what is the demand?”, “how much more money do you need to continue your work?”, ”who supports you?”

It is not easy to answer these questions without the co-operation of your staff. Make sure that this kind of information is produced regularly.

Action: Devise a strategy for the retrieval of information in your organisation. Make someone responsible for giving it to you on a regular basis.

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