Three essential skills for a trusted PR advisor

A lot of CEOs today are coming to terms with a fact that they no longer can only focus on media, civil society and shareholders as the constituencies that matter to run their business successfully. With the advent of digital publishing and social media colonies, several subsets of stakeholders have emerged and they, in turn, have made watchdogs, including but not limited to governments, closely monitor the functioning of companies. In the process, customers have gained tremendous empowerment and seeking a lot of their loved brands. 

In this changing environment, public relations firms can no longer be just an intermediary between a client and its stakeholders. Today, clients are expecting their communications partner to be a lot more than a firm that provides certain leverage. The clients are looking up to their partners to have excellent demonstrated experience across platforms and stakeholders and willingness to offer more value in limited resources. Rightfully so, consulting firms have had to look out of the usual lot to bring onboard differentiated talent. However, one thing that binds all the domains together is their ability, in some cases lack of it, to delight clients.

I have in my experience deduced three necessary skills that every communications consultant must master. The primary of the three is 'counsel'. The quality of counsel is the first impression that one makes with a client and it helps a big way in gaining a client's respect and confidence. As one grows and takes on a client leader role, one's ability to be a 'coach' is another big plus. In doing so, one needs to continually invest in learning and be observant to pick-up nuances and real-life cases. Lastly, in a people-to-people business, emotional compatibility or compassion goes a long way in cementing a long-standing relationship. Therefore, one must strive to be a client's confidant and a 'consoler' in crunch times. In a nutshell, a good consultant must know when to switch roles from a counsellor to a coach to a 'consoler'. 

In a couple of anecdotal experiences of my own and of those I have observed demonstrate all three roles impeccably. In the interest of keeping my job, I am taking the liberty to keep names of those involved anonymous.

In one such case involving a global company, we were up against a massive task of planning an untimely pullout by the brand from a mega-national sporting property. In a likely scenario, the brand could have got involved in a legal battle, intense media glare, resentment by loyal consumers and the sports lovers. The expanse of our planning involved a multitude of stakeholders, both direct and indirect, across platforms. We were blessed to have an evolved client CEO who ensured that a select few from his leadership team involved in this secret project rallied around him and us.

In rigorous planning of over weeks, we needed to be brutally honest and 100% confident of our counsel and often our counsel was put to test and debated before it was accepted. At the same time, we were tasked to coach everyone involved in a real-time basis to prepare them for their respective role plays in the entire exercise. As one would imagine, our stakeholders in the client side, the communications team, was driven up the wall by their bosses. The pressure was therefore percolated down to the stream and vulnerabilities were setting in as we were nearing the D-Day. Having provided counsel and simultaneously coaching the client staff, we had carried out a man-to-man marking to ensure we were lending a hand to hold onto, a shoulder to rest tired head on, and words of encouragement to keep everyone's morale up. 

The above example might suggest that it needs an exceptional situation to demonstrate these different skill set. It is actually not, and this is equally applicable in a business as usual scenario. In another such case, a client who primarily comes from marketing and doubling up for communications in one of the Fortune 10 companies was tasked to enhance the reputation of the company's subsidiary in India.

In a typical scenario of a global executive visit to India, the client had been given very limited time by their global counterpart to leverage the executive visit. All of this came with a single rider, any false step and an untoward outcome could have put a lid on their future communications efforts in India. To come to the point here, we as communications partner had become an equal owner in the client's problem and worked together to steer through a seemingly difficult situation.

We had to ensure that we prepared the client to manage their internal stakeholders well by having to carry out role-play among ourselves and working with the client in carrying out internal documentation, much beyond press collaterals, to safeguard the client from any adverse situation. At all times, the client was hit by the nervous energy and one was required to deal with the client with care and compassion. 

It may appear risky to stick your neck out, but those who do so and do it well are the ones valued by their clients and their company. It does require good judgement on the part of a consultant to know when to switch roles and perform them in the right measure. As much as it may seem like an acquired skill, it is also one's attitude and behaviour. All the communications pros out there have one thing in common - an attitude of giving. On this note, I wish everyone a wonderful 2019 - filled with new learning and sharing of knowledge.

Arpit Garg is a senior corporate and financial communication professional based in NCR.