TEAM MATTERS

If you’re responsible for communications in any large organisation, the likelihood is you’re blessed with the management of a team of skilled and committed communications professionals. These are you’re trusted lieutenants, the A team you depend upon to get the job done.

They pull together and help each other out despite being specialists – a press officer, an internal communications manager or an online whizz.  You were a specialist too, once upon a time, before your obvious talent and leadership capabilities got you elevated to the dizzy heights of department boss.

They’re sharp, smart and self sufficient.  They come equipped with the skills they need.  They don’t carry domestic traumas or sickness issues into the office.  They’re available to help at short notice when called on at weekends and public holidays. None of them is open to getting poached, headhunted, emigrating or having a mental breakdown.  If this sounds like your team, the company you’re working for is Carlsberg.

In the real world, managing teams is challenging, and no less so in the comms dept.  Some individuals are genuinely great, while others need a bit more help and encouragement.  It helps to choose wisely at the outset.  The best communications people I’ve worked with over the years shared a number of common personality traits.  In no particular order …

  • A healthy appetite. The best communications people are information sponges, reading, digesting and retaining information.  Their well of natural curiosity never runs dry.
  • Socially flexible. Despite military planning, someone will forget to schedule next week’s crisis in the diary, the CEO will change his mind about the annual report text just as the printing presses are heating up, and journalists call to enquire about unwelcome stories just as you’re about to leave the office.
  • A good memory. The best communications people run on gut instinct and instant memory retrieval. If they need to answer every  question with a “I’ll check and get back to you”, or convert every action into a ‘to do’ list, they might serve the business better in the admin pool … or maybe HR.
  • Calm energy. With muck and bullets airborne, you don’t need someone who brings the place into meltdown or starts to think in crooked lines.  Sometimes, we need to be warriors and in the heat of battle that can outlast the opponent, even if energy levels need sustaining by very strong coffee.
  • Comfortable in their own ignorance:  Grown pros admit it if they’re just not getting it while taking a brief.  You may need to reconsider this if they’re still not getting it after the product manager’s tenth attempt at explaining it.  Either that, or the product manager has development needs.
  • A strong engine.  We’re no strangers to late nights followed by early mornings, sometimes over an extended timeframe.  Avoid those who insist the company’s flexible working policy means they’re entitled to a lie in after every late finish. They’re not really up for the battle.
  • Insane and irrational optimism.  Some people are capable of digging deeper to find the positive when the roof has just fallen in. Others are not.
  • A strong constitution.  We need heavyweight champions because we continually drink in the coolest bars with a steady procession of the ‘A’ list celebrities, media personalities and cabinet ministers that need hosting.  Social lightweights dilute the team’s performance.
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WHY ARE WE HERE?

Don’t panic – it’s a serious question but, no, I haven’t strayed into the metaphysical philosophy aisle.

‘Why are we here’ or ‘why does the comms dept exist’ is a challenge that every team needs to address from time to time, ideally before someone else, usually from finance, asks the question.  The world evolves; perceptions and priorities change and the answer that worked the last time we had the debate may not work as well today.

When I last participated in such a discussion, there were three of us and breakfast was being served.

He opened up with the suggestion that we were there ‘to protect the reputation of the business’.  He then corrected himself – ‘to protect and enhance the reputation …’.  She proposed that we were there ‘to tell stories’.

In part because I believe it to be true, and partly because the chill winds of economic uncertainty were swirling around our heads at gale force, I suggested that maybe we should be there to support, and to be seen to support, the business’ bottom line.

Surely we needed to support the sales team more?  This means doing fewer corporate positioning pieces, fewer executive profiles and more and better product PR. We should focus on creating better customer communications to aid customer retention. Ultimately, we should be conscious about boosting the bottom line.

By the time we were done and the breakfast plates were cleared away, I didn’t think I’d won the debate. My way was just too hard to do, too difficult to prove and, to be honest, a little sordid for my high-minded colleagues.  “That’s marketing’s remit,” was the considered view.

The comms dept is clearly better on the softer stuff like corporate positioning, raising awareness and other intangibles that can inflate an executive’s ego and are found on the P&L line called ‘goodwill’.  We would stand by the column inches, regardless of the commercial impact those column inches generated.

Since then, that particular comms dept has shrunk to less than half the size it was, both in headcount and budget.  In the end, the department made its tangible contribution to the bottom line.

In today’s difficult economic times, that’s the price to be paid by the comms dept that’s reluctant to be commercially accountable for what it takes.

 

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FIGHTING LOSING BATTLES

Sir Menzies Campbell, CBE, former leader of the Liberal Democrats and now a humble backbencher, was asked to comment on the quarrel raging in the media over the £963,000 share bonus for the CEO of the Royal Bank of Scotland.  ‘Ming the Merciless’ is not a supporter of the bonus being offered to the bank’s boss.

The first thing he would do, he told Stephen Nolan on BBC Radio 5 Live, would be to invite the head of public relations at RBS to explain why on earth he or she advised Stephen Hester, the man occupying the corner office at the ailing bank, that such a performance bonus would be acceptable in the court of public opinion. 

I don’t know whether the head of PR’s view was sought in the matter or not. Nor do I know that if they were, whether they were acted upon. I suspect Mr Campbell doesn’t know either, but then politicians have seldom been accused of allowing the truth to get in the way of a good story.

Every so soften, the comms department is sent in to fight a battle when the odds of winning are short.  In the RBS bonus case, the comms team is sandwiched between a Government hoisted on its own petard after Cameron and Clegg, vote-seeking testosterone coursing through their views, insisted they were the boys to put a stop to excessive executive pay; a disenchanted public demanding action after, as taxpayers, we kindly bailed out RBS when they needed a helping hand; and a chief executive who expects to get paid what he believes is due.

Many public figures, including Emily Thornhill, the shadow attorney general, have stated that as a public servant, Mr Hester should not get a bonus at all when other public servants, such as policemen, nurses and fire fighters don’t, and have pay freezes and weightwatcher pensions to endure.  Inconvenient as the facts may be, Mr Hester is not a civil servant. He’s the chief executive of a British bank, a public company tasked with making a profit in which the British government happens, on our behalf, to be the majority shareholder.

We don’t know whether Mr Hester deserves a bonus or not because we don’t know what he has achieved against the targets he set out to achieve before the year started. We do know that RBS’ shares haven’t performed terribly well.  We’re also aware that the bank failed in its obligation to lend specifically to small and medium-sized enterprises as a condition of the bailout.  But surely Hester was tasked with targets other than these during the period?  This lack of public knowledge is the main reason I’m prepared to accept that the comms team at RBS aren’t responsible for the current feeding frenzy.  If they were, I’m pretty sure that we’d know a little more about exactly why Mr Hester’s bonus payment is justified.

Furthermore, it would have been easier for them to wait until the publication of the bank’s annual report and the annual general meeting to debate the merit or otherwise of such a bonus.  Shareholders unhappy with the report could have been invited to vote against that particular resolution at the meeting.

We know that Hester’s bonus was supposed to be closer to £2 million and that concessions were reached in recent weeks.  But the fact is that public companies don’t and can’t release such information prematurely. Only a regulatory news service announcement would have enabled such information to enter the public domain. That hasn’t happened.

My reading is that the current furore has political finger smudges all over it, a stunt designed to demonstrate Cameron’s muscle in taming the overfed beasts in the corporate boardrooms.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of Hester’s bonus claim, Mr Campbell would be better served to not come out taking pop shots at the PR department unless he knows they advised it was OK, and that the Board followed their advice.  On the other hand, if Ming is right and I’m wrong, it’s time Mr Hester put in a call to a good headhunting firm.

 

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