Absorbing best practices and making new connections

COMMONNESS - Bong R. Osorio (The Philippine Star) - July 8, 2013 - 12:00am

The moment your plane lands at JFK international airport, as you pass through the long line in immigration, collect your baggage, and ride the yellow cab to your hotel, it only takes a few seconds for New York’s energy to penetrate your bones that have gone creaky from the 17-hour flight from Manila. Times Square, Broadway, Fifth Avenue, signature stores, the ubiquitous hotdog stands and halal carts, restaurants flowing with international conversations … everywhere there’s a confidence and community of spirit that catch you and welcome you in. New York’s heart continues to beat with a diversity of flavor that feeds your spirit and sharpens your mind.

New York City once again played the perfect host to the 2013 International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) world conference with over 1,500 delegates — including myself and 10 other Filipinos — around the globe, whose passion for what’s new, the best ideas and latest trends are overwhelming. The conference did not disappoint. There were more than 70 educational sessions in seven tracks and a host of interactive panel discussions featuring the senior business leaders you want to know and hear. Let me share two outstanding sessions I attended: one talked about  â€œdigital assassination” and the other tackled the top 10 questions in strategic communications.

How do you respond to a “digital assassination”? A panel of experts at the IABC conference addressed the growing problem of how to deal with an online crisis that crashes stock value and draws unwanted media attention. Using the “what if” scenario of a 90-year-old beauty supply company known for its “Fountain of Youth” facial cream, the panel discussed how to respond if one morning a blogger reports that the product causes cancer, posting a gruesome picture of a supposedly affected face. Richard Torrenzano, head of a reputation management firm, led the discussion panel, which included a former CEO, a communications executive, lawyer, and journalists, and they role-played how they would deal with the wildfire while scrambling to find out if there was any truth to the report. Here are salient points that Torrenzano shared.

1. Acknowledge the risks. It’s a scary world out there, and Torrenzano laid out some frightening trends. Hacking has been democratized. Crime and ideology have integrated. Diehard activists and unscrupulous business rivals are engaging in “digital combat marketing.” Torrenzano reported, “One group of activists sent out official-looking notifications to neighbors of corporate executives, accusing the leaders of being pedophiles. They also advertised female executives and wives of corporate leaders as prostitutes, listing their home phone numbers.”

Still, not every cyber nuisance requires a response. You also have to choose your battles. “Some digital attacks will be vicious, others irritating,” Torrenzano said. Barbra Streisand only fanned the flames when she tried to sue to have a photo of her house removed from the Internet.

2. Prepare, prepare, prepare. You need to be ready to act quickly. When you’re attacked, you have as little as three hours to pull together a crisis team including organizational leadership, HR, PR, general counsel, outside experts and others to respond. “Most organizations I know, and most corporate leaders, cannot deal with that warp speed,” Torrenzano observed.

3. Provide media with substantive information. One might like to think that the coverage of major print media wouldn’t be driven by blog posts. But when a report spreads, the wire picks it up and stock value begins falling, financial reporters have to write something. As Diana B. Henriques, a New York Times financial journalist, declared, “We don’t have a first-day story and a second-day story in my world anymore,” Instead, she said, “There’s the eight-hour digital story, and the next-day story that adds context and authority.”

4. Earn credibility, build trust. Thomas S. Johnson, former chairman and chief executive of GreenPoint Financial Corp. and GreenPoint Bank, emphasized the value of establishing trust and credibility in advance among executives and communicators who will respond to a crisis. This means face-to-face conversation, not phone calls or e-mail. If trust and credibility aren’t established beforehand, they will hinder the response to a crisis.

5. Help the media find reliable sources. Find someone that reporters can quote by name when they file their report. The person can be a scientist from the academe who is not on the company payroll but who will speak credibly about his knowledge about the ingredients in this beleaguered product. It’s okay to release a background statement on the product, but it may not be sufficient. ”I’ve got to explain to our readers what’s going on, and I can’t just say you’re marshaling your facts,” Henriques emphasized.  

6. Keep stakeholders informed. The panelists likewise mentioned the importance of informing investors. Barbara Doran, a private wealth manager at Morgan Stanley, said that as the crisis breaks, “I don’t know what’s happening. I know the stock’s going down.” Even if it turns out the blog post is wrong, the stock may be down for a long time, she underscored. Information can help calm skittish investors. The same goes for board members or employees who might speak out of turn.

Torrenzano turned up the heat on his panelists by creating more and more dimensions to the crisis. What if the company’s union announced that some of its female employees would no longer use “Fountain of Youth?” What if an activist group created a fake website and posted a phony apology from the chief executive? In these situations, “The importance of knowing what’s happening online must be underlined. Everything that was once on the Internet remains on the Internet, even if it’s changed,” Torrenzano averred.

Top 10 questions in strategic communications. You can be on top of your game in the field of communications if you pass the test of the following questions poised by Caroline Kealy, a self-described communications strategy junkie and CEO of Ingenium Communication: What does success look like? Why this, why now? What are the project or corporate objectives? What are the communications objectives? How can effective communications help advance the project objective? What are the main risks/ opportunities? Thinking back, what worked and what didn’t, and why? Who are the key audiences, and why are they important? What are the project management parameters (time, budget, staff)? And if you could change just one thing, what should it be? Asking these questions can immediately add some star power to your consultations with internal clients. To really rock your communications world, Kealy recommended what she called the “Five Sanity Saving Strategies” for effective management of client relationships:

1. Frame what you’re offering in the language of your internal audiences. Use that framing to position your internal communication activities. Paying attention to the cues around you will save you a lot of aggravation, and will help contribute to alignment.

2. Do your due diligence. Be prepared, research the situation and look for existing examples of success that demonstrate to your client that they’ve partnered with the right person or the right group.

3. Manage expectations. When your clients expect magical solutions and you’re working with very real limitations of time, money and staff, it sets up a situation where everyone’s unhappy. Your client doesn’t get what he wants, and you’re set up for failure. Arm yourself with strong account management and explore the possibility of service-level agreements as your best defenses in the battle over expectation management.

4. Add value. Ultimately, your clients want to look good and to avoid risk exposure. Demonstrate in your day-to-day contributions that you’re there to help them do just that.

5. Ask helpful questions. Along with the Top 10 questions up your sleeve, a “help me to understand” stance can instantly disarm your client and make them want to tell you what you need to know.

Kealy likewise shared the core competencies that are most important in building a career in communications. At a high level, she would put strategic thinking and a results-based mindset at the very top of the list. But Kealy pushed for what she listed as three nuts-and-bolts kinds of skills that are vital for you to master and exercise in your professional work: one is project management, the discipline of managing the variables of time, budget and quality — it can make or break a career and is well worth investing in as part of your professional development; two, get interested and get engaged in the craft of writing. Even in this digital age (or perhaps especially in this noisy media environment, it is the essence of communications. Three, social media: Your audiences are connecting, creating and communicating online, and unless you understand the implications of those relationships and know how to use them to your organization’s advantage, your communications value will be limited and ever-dwindling.

IABC has truly captured diversity in this year’s World Conference with conference sessions on various topics that are universal in appeal. The delegates absorbed wisdom and best practices from a plethora of noted speakers and experts and took advantage of a terrific opportunity to mingle, meet old friends and make new connections. After all, that’s what communications is all about.

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E-mail bongosorio@yahoo.com or bong_osorio@abs-cbn.com for comments, questions or suggestions. Thank you for communicating.

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