PR Parables: A case for speaking honestly to the client

How often have you been caught up in the rut of the daily grind? When quarterly and annual  reviews end up being routine affairs? You think you know it all, you’ve done good work, you’re putting it on pretty slides, and everything just seems just fine. One more edition of the same old review...

And it was one of those annual PR reviews. Same old. But for this little thing that happened, which stuck on in my mind.

And in the spirit of a new year, of new learnings, this #PR parable is about recognizing those that give and those that receive feedback in the true spirit. Both take courage.

For professional communicators, a mid-year PR review with the CEO and the leadership team is a special, often sacrosanct moment for the in- house PR team as it is for its key account members from its PR agency.

From a flow and format standpoint, nothing extraordinary about it, follows a cookie–cutter approach, literally. You would typically start with what went right and was tracked in your plans, what didn’t and went off track and why, and then move on to the next half-of the year, this section is more about the proposed plans and campaigns. 

And in the run up to one regular planned PR review meeting, for an H1 review, the team had started working on the review slides, transforming plain data to cool infographics, sharp coverage scans, and lots of pie and bar graphs, all coming together to bring out the impact of communication on the brand, corporate reputation and product awareness.

All was done, the presentation was all stitched up and jazzed up and we were all set.

Out here, review meetings were taken quite seriously by the leadership team, and the proof of that was in the fact that most PR reviews were attended by the CEO and his entire leadership team. This particular session was no exception. We had a full quorum, and they were all ears. We had started on a good note.

We started with, what’s done bit, walking the team through the good-looking slides, ably supported by a well-developed narrative.

We had reached midway in the first section of the presentation, when the CEO cut us short and requested the presenter, a young lady from the PR agency, to skip the “what we did” achievement slides and move onto the next: the lowlights, stuff we had wanted to do, but couldn’t.

Our presenter switched gears and moved to the “lowlight” slides. Each slide showed where media meetings were done, but the final output—the media coverage--eluded us. We hadn’t even put it as “in the pipeline”, the usual euphemism and safe subterfuge. Here, all endings were definite and clear, there was no hope of any “translation to ink”. None.

And it was somewhere in this section that the CEO asked the presenter to stop. He turned around to talk to the Comms team, his eyes reflecting a look of worry and curiosity. “And why do you think these conversations did so poorly? Why couldn’t we make the most of these media interactions, where did we fail?”, he asked. Silence fell on the room, stark silence accompanied by shifty eyes. Clearly this question was “out of syllabus”.

And then the silence was broken by the lady who was presenting the slides: she took charge and boldly said: “We lose out because you and your team lack powerful and charismatic spokespeople and storytellers.”  She went on to add that collective feedback from the journalists conveyed that they weren’t impressed by our spokespeople and none of them had made any impression to steer and drive home a compelling narrative.

There was stunned silence. The look on the faces of the CEO and his team…well, their faces had paled. They had just heard something they were not prepared for. Yet, given their maturity and strength of character, they silently accepted and acknowledged their collective shortcoming on this front.

As you’d hope for, the CEO took charge. First, he thanked this young lady from the agency for her brutally honest comment, and then he asked his leadership team to applaud the courage displayed by her. He thanked her for “showing the mirror to us”: he called out the fact that here was one person who dared to be stark honest, shorn of any diplomacy, being true to her work by throwing all caution to the winds.

He then opened up the discussion and asked the rest of the team as to what could be done to improve, and come up to meet the expectations of the media stakeholders. He was open to signing up for any specialized coaching that could make them better storytellers.

Two big learnings from this, one taught by the brave, bold and bright young PR pro, who took charge, didn’t play it safe, took a big risk, and displayed an incredible amount of maturity to tell the top team of her largest and biggest account where they were lacking, and how that was impacting the final output. It is the passionate, completely-on-board folks who rush in to take charge, and this young woman did that. She earned instant respect from all.
And of course the second learning came from the CEO: always have the humility to accept criticism, and learn, for you never know who ends up being your teacher and which lesson you can learn. So always keep your mind open.

This CEO did that, and because of him the others followed too.

Happy 2017 to all .

Moushumi Dutt is a senior corporate communications professional . PR Parables is her monthly column for PRmoment India on learnings from her PR life.

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