Tag Archive: Strategic Communications

The recession of a lifetime followed by the gradual, mostly jobless recovery has been particularly brutal on follicly challenged senior PR professionals, some who even remember JFK’s assassination being announced on school loud speakers and the Beatles on the “Ed Sullivan” show.

Please don’t ask, “Ed, who?”

The crippling downturn that prompted corporate and agency chieftains to cut back on SG&A expenses in the face of declining top lines and deteriorating bottom lines, prompted many displaced high-priced communicators to put out their own shingle.

And yes, there is a certain glamour associated with being your own boss, setting your own hours and commuting from the master suite to your home office or the local upscale coffee parlor with a laptop under your arm. And with it has come a directly related cottage industry of IT professionals charging three-figures per hour to keep home laptops, monitors and docking stations humming along.

There is also the nagging reality associated with incorporating the business, indemnifying the business, finding the business, servicing the business, invoicing the business and nagging the business to pay you…followed by quarterly payments to the IRS.

LinkedIn.com http://www.linkedin.com is loaded with oodles of individual practitioners with impressive corporate sounding names and LLPs, but how many will actually survive? How will they compete against each other, internal communications departments, boutique PR agencies, let alone the big multi-nationals such as Weber Shandwick, Fleishman Hillard, Edelman, Burson-Marsteller and Hill & Knowlton?

The answer is that some will ultimately thrive in an improving economy, but most will struggle to simply pay ze mortgage. This brings up another question: Is there another way of turning adversity into opportunity?

Two weeks ago, I took the GRE…the dreaded Graduate Records Examination http://www.ets.org/gre/. Why would I put myself through weeks of masochistic prep work to endure 3.5 hours of essays, critical readings and verbal/math multiple-guess questions? The answer is there is another way of setting your own course than starting your own business.

Personally, I am contemplating mentoring the next generations of strategic communicators. At least four of my colleagues are now teaching at USC, Santa Clara, Arizona State and Michigan State respectively. Why can’t I do the same?

One of them chose academics in part because as the political editor of a major metropolitan daily he grew weary of “having to layoff my friends.”

My PR career has spanned 28 years, including service in the public sector, two trade associations, one publicly traded technology company and an international public relations agency. The purpose of this recital is not to boast but to ask a vital question: What am I accomplishing if I extend this track record to 30 years? Or 32 years? Or even 40 years?

I have been accepted to both the University of Oregon Graduate School and the Graduate School of the UO School of Journalism and Communication http://www.jcomm.uoregon.edu/. A huge decision faces me around May 1 and that involves picking up stakes and moving my lounge act from Northern California to Eugene, Oregon in time for the first classes on September 27. The goal is to receive a master’s degree in “Communication and Society” and eventually to serve as an associate professor/instructor in strategic communications.

Certainly, I have been repeatedly warned about the corresponding loss of income and academic politics; how they eat their own (e.g. you can’t teach at the school in which you received your master’s degree). After years of state government and corporate backroom wheeling and dealing, a little academic politics sounds like more of the same just in a different locale.

We have all heard the homage that “Those who can’t, teach.” To those who want to attach that moniker to me, I simply say, “Bring it on.” More importantly, can senior communicators apply our energies, knowledge and experience to helping the next generations of strategic communicators in this rapidly changing digital age? And how many more would like to join me in this (hopefully) noble quest?

We may look back years from now and realize that the economic downturn (being charitable here) was just the kick in the-you-know-where that many of us needed. It may prompt us to do what we want to do rather than what someone else wants us to do.

“Giving Back” Thru Mentoring?

Undoubtedly, one of the most hyped phrases in our language is the concept of “giving back.” This notion has been used so many times in so many places that it has become almost cliché.

Even after acknowledging this point we still need to ask: Does the present generation of senior communicators owe it to our profession and society to pass along our knowledge and insights to the next generation of communicators?

Writing checks is nice, but is it even more valuable to impart as mentors hands-on knowledge based upon our years of experience in strategic communications?

As I contemplate this question of “giving back,” I reflect back to one of the responsibilities that did not fit into the position description of a gubernatorial press secretary: Meeting and answering questions from visiting university, community college, high school, middle school and even elementary school students.

During my three years as the Press Secretary to California Governor George Deukmejian in Sacramento http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Deukmejian, I was repeatedly asked to serve as the face of the administration to delegations of visiting students. I would encourage these students to pursue public service or at least to harbor a profound interest in government and politics. Sometimes the questions were tough, many were unfair or completely off-base, but the students nonetheless demonstrated their desire to learn and even to challenge authority.

As I moved from the public sector into roles with two major industry trade associations, a publicly traded high technology company and to a senior position in an international public relations firm, I was periodically asked to lecture classes on effective communications. Some of these schools included: UC Berkeley, Oregon State, San Francisco State and just recently Santa Clara University.

At Santa Clara, I lectured both MBA and undergraduate students about how to communicate to Wall Street and investors. I realized in making these presentations and seeing the enthusiasm that they generated that these students were clearly appreciating that the world of financial communications was changing at a breakneck pace.

This rate of change is not just limited to the financial sphere as digital technology, the ubiquitous ones and zeroes, are making instantaneous communication and lightning-fast responses a never-changing fact of life. We now have the ability to self publish and to share with the world our deepest thoughts.

Social media or conversational marketing via digital key strokes is something that Johannes Guttenberg http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johannes_Gutenberg could not even fathom when he invented the printing press in Mainz, Germany. But one thing has been constant since then; technology has made communication faster, more efficient and global.

Many cannot stop talking about and tweeting on Twitter, amassing their connections on LinkedIn.com, watching videos on YouTube or counting friends on Facebook. They are commenting on breaking global events via their blogs or reading, listening and viewing what others are saying via cyberspace, bypassing the “traditional media,” particularly the dying pencil “press.”

The hot social media tools of today most likely will not be the hot social media tools of tomorrow. New techniques are being written today (e.g. Google’s “Buzz” http://www.google.com/buzz) not on parchment paper, but rather in the form of software code.

Will students and society as a whole be prepared for these new techniques and their implications? What are the responsibilities of self publishing in the wake of fewer and fewer conventional media outlets? Will bloggers become the reporters of the 21st century, thus setting new standards for journalism?

Most importantly, what can we do to help these students in facing these brand new challenges? We all have our unique stories and experiences. Is it our duty to serve as mentors and to pass this knowledge on to those who can use it for their respective careers?

Looking back, I have been extremely fortunate to have many different experiences in my career. But I still keeping going back in mind replaying the scene in the Governor’s bill signing room filled with students and their teachers with a particular gleam in their eyes and engaging questions flowing off their tongues.

They wanted to learn.

They wanted to explore.

They wanted to challenge convention.

I was more than happy to help them in their quests.

When it comes to senior communications practitioners this question is a no-brainer.

The 401K destroying recession of 2008/2009 gave employers/hiring managers the definitive upper hand when it comes to hiring and firing senior communicators. It’s a classic seller’s market that’s for sure.

And what about those who are skilled in corporate positioning, product marketing, executive counsel, thought leadership, employee communications, public affairs, crisis communications and social media? Are they now a dime a dozen?

Regardless of the answer to this question, there is no hard evidence that this equation will be turned completely on its head anytime soon. What does this mean for three groups? 1.) Executives and their hiring managers/recruiters; 2.) The fortunate professional communicators that have jobs and 3.) The huddled masses on the sidelines representing an incredible amount of underutilized talent.

Many executives looking to cut and/or contain costs are simply not investing in strategic communications and that means they are not hiring or keeping hiring to a minimum. That leaves company PR pros essentially trapped for at least the time being. Regardless of whether corner suites are investing or not investing, hiring or not hiring, executives need to realize that the ground is shifting beneath their feet.

Even though the NYSE once again pierced the 10,000 mark (albeit the wrong way), the economy is no longer in actual recession. The next six-to-nine months will be critical for the retention of the best and the brightest and for laying the ground work for capitalizing on an improved business climate.

Are the pre-recession branding messages going to work in an expanding economy?

Will a competitor usurp thought leadership in a company’s area of expertise?

 Are competitors gearing up for a customer, media, analyst, social media push in 2010?

Executives should be sure of two things in particular: The regulators, including the SEC, (and the plaintiff’s bar) are watching. And social media is not going away.

The cases of Bank of America, Intel, Toyota and others point to the need for talented PR counsel, both internally and externally sourced. Harnessing the social media tools to effectively communicate to restless internal populations and to external revenue sources will require PR pros that not only talk about social media but actually embrace it in their daily lives.

For PR professionals with existing jobs, whether in an agency, corporate, association, NGO or public sector setting, this is not the time to get comfortable. The threat of layoffs has not gone away. Most are doing the work of at least two people, maybe more. The pressures on your bosses to reap benefits from an expanding economy, enhance thought leadership and to harness social media tools are definitely being thrust upon you. Your career is hanging in the balance.

For job seekers, this is precisely the time to remain encouraged. This is the time to adopt and project a positive attitude. If you have an opportunity to compete for a position, fully expect that you will have to become proficient in the phone interview. In a seller’s market, employers have the luxury of inexpensively screening candidates through 19th century technology, the humble phone. Securing that much sought after in-person interview is simply getting harder and harder.

And if you do not succeed, don’t be surprised if you are told simply by means of a terse e-mail. Is it fair considering the time and effort you put in preparing and participating in six or more interviews? Nope, but e-mail is the easiest and most painless way to convey bad news.

Just like real estate, the neighborhood never remains the same. Ask the folks who thought that California, Arizona, Nevada or Florida real estate would never go down. In far too many cases that cash-cow house is now worth less than the unpaid balance on the mortgage. Yep, the buyer’s market did not go on forever. And you can be sure that at some point  the employer seller’s market will come to an end as well.

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