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An end to ‘time zone chauvinism’

January 10th, 2013 / 2:50 am

If there’s one topic that seems to stimulate the passions of Asia-based executives working for Western multinationals, it is the ‘curse’ of late night conference calls inflicted upon them by usually a North American head office.

I’ve been wanting to blog about this for quite some time, but I am finally prompted to post after a conversation over drinks with a friend of mine last night who is head of corporate affairs in Asia for a major US multinational.

She pushed back recently when her company’s headquarters asked her to be on a regular call at 10 p.m. Singapore time (which is 9 a.m. Eastern time in North America). When I heard this, I felt she was quite right to have done so in the reasonable and polite way that she described. But I know from personal experience that it is never easy to resist even radically nocturnal calls when the headquarters insists, and nobody wants to seem like they are somehow being ‘difficult.’ A more equitable time for these calls – mutually but fairly inconvenient – would be 7 or 8 a.m. or p.m. at both ends.

Of course the corporate headquarters of a truly global firm should not casually impose these ‘command performance’ late night calls in the first place for routine purposes. That said, nobody gainsays doing these for matters that are actually urgent. I’ve been in the client service business for more than 20 years and will always do calls with customers day or night especially in case of emergency. Indeed, I’ve created 24×7 crisis communications telephone hotlines to help facilitate around-the-clock instant accessibility.

The calls that rub many executives on this side of the Pacific the wrong way are the regular ones scheduled at midmorning for headquarters and midevening or even towards midnight for Asia. In North America the people on the call are starting their day well rested. Their kids are probably off to school and they are usually at work during normal office hours. Meanwhile, over here in Asia, it is well beyond the end of what has already been a very long day during what should ideally be personal time. There could be kids to put down for the night and possibly a spouse annoyed that a family evening is lost.

Sometimes the scheduling of asymmetrical calls is ‘suggested’ but often they are just announced and set without prior consultation. This is sometimes done unwittingly out of ignorance, by people who just aren’t mindful of the time zones. However, sometimes it is not, and the subordinate Asia end is just supposed to go along with it.

Such an arbitrary approach of course does not make morale soar among the Asians. The unstated message being sent from North America is ‘we are headquarters and you will do things at our convenience’ and ‘your time – especially your personal time – is not as important as our time.’

In the end, I believe that a subsidiary in Asia should dutifully follow the preferences of headquarters. However, if companies want to say that they are ‘global’ in rhetoric then surely they should act that way in reality as they communicate with their own colleagues.

If Western companies want to be serious about ‘getting Asia right’ (even if this is a merely minor symbolic gesture internally), then they should treat their Asian colleagues with more respect and courtesy in the setting of these calls. ‘Eastern’ is an important time zone in North America but Eastern is also the direction of economic power in this world and so Asian time should command the same consideration. This seems especially valid when we’re seeing stories like this one in the media it seems just about every day reporting that “By 2030 Asia will overtake North America and Europe combined in global power.”

In the great scheme of things, irksome ‘midnight oil’ conference calls are not exactly a major corporate issue, but we North Americans better get used to the rise of Asia and this is just one small way to get with the new program in terms of how we go about things.

[I must provide the disclaimer that I’m not referring to any one company or client in the post above but just drawing on many experiences with this my eleventh year in Asia-Pacific. I should also add that I think the situation is improving, especially aided by executive mobility via trans-Pacific talent transfers].

Categories: management
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Do management consultants make good PR people?

May 1st, 2010 / 2:00 pm

During my travels around Asia these past few weeks, I keep hearing about how management consulting firms are trying to get into the public relations business.

I reckon that we PR people can take this two ways:

  1. As a promising sign that the rising PR trade is now so powerful and profitable that it is ‘worthy’ of cross-sectoral competition from other providers of professional services who now want to get into our act.
  2. As a sad commentary on how the PR industry has failed to keep its promises with clients, who insist on a quality of especially corporate communications counsel that existing providers aren’t providing in ample or consistent measure.

There is truth in each of these perspectives, and so the PR industry should prepare itself for increasing competition from the newcomers. They are not trying to do PR by purchasing established PR firms, and they are not tending to recruit high-profile senior PR talent. Instead, management consultants are in most cases simply adding PR consulting to their existing range of advisory services. Rather than attract real PR people, most are simply putting on a PR hat.

Is this because management consultants have such a low opinion of PR consultants that they see communications as an easy add-on for people of their own advanced acumen? Or is it because they are somehow arrogant, believing that someone successful in their famous firm can become easily expert in a field so ‘simple’ as PR? I’m not going to attempt to answer such questions here, but it is noteworthy how the new front being opened in the PR war is so devoid of actual PR professionals.

It shows, too, and that may limit the commercial success of these raiding missions into PR territory.

The other day a famous management consulting firm circulated a white paper on measuring word-of-mouth marketing. With the prestige of the firm’s powerful brand behind it, I was prepared for an impressive experience. But when I flipped through one sophomoric page after another, instead of the expected ‘thought leadership,’ I found obvious observations about very basic 101-level PR concepts which were written with an overblown style and an attempted profundity. Accompanying the written article was a simple diagram of FisherPrice-level communications thinking.

If it isn’t the hubris of condescending professional services brands that will limit the appeal of their new PR offer, then it is the leadership limitations of the PR industry that will increase it. Our own profession — sometimes egged-on by false industry prophets — has often believed its own hype about how PR people deserve a ‘seat at the table,’ even though as a trade we’ve repeatedly shown that we have no business being there much of the time.

Others have traditionally held the biggest marketing cards and owned the most advanced research information, so we PR folks have been found quantitatively and qualitatively wanting in comparison. But now the balance of power is shifting PR’s way. Our traditional strength in relationship management is being amplified by the easy reach and measurability of digital. Technology may be causing a disintermediation in the global recruitment business (why pay a 30% headhunting fee when we have LinkedIn?), but so far it is helping to further extend the existing capabilities of the global PR business.

PR’s knack for distilling a client’s complexity into simple and compelling content (drawing on our skills as media storytellers), then sharing it persuasively with people across platforms in the right sequence comes naturally only with years of practiced experience. It is difficult to replicate this kind of thinking suddenly from an outside industry where, on a good day, PR will always only be a notch up from afterthought status.

The main thing going on is that there is a growing market for ‘big brain’ PR and clients are financing a flight to quality. Regardless of its traditional designation, the firm that can provide c-level answers to vexing communications questions will command a premium in the marketplace.

Categories: PR industry
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Are PR people incorrigible gossips?

January 11th, 2010 / 11:00 am

My wife said the other day that “PR people are such gossips!” Is it possible that she could be right?

At first, I pooh-poohed the idea, perhaps reflecting the conceit of a profession where supposedly the ability to keep confidences well is one of our distinguishing characteristics. After all, PR people have historically been the staunch enforcer of the embargo and the trusted custodians of news secrets (the strategic ‘leaking’ of which this article in The Financial Times says may have gotten out of hand).

Now, there is a difference between being a small-time gossip and breaching confidentiality big-time, but I suppose not enough of one to challenge the basis of my spouse’s contention because the two are such interrelated phenomena.

The number of PR people I would 100% trust to absolutely, positively maintain discretion no matter what is fairly compact. On the other hand, I’ve often been amazed at how often I’ve sought and secured solemn pledges of confidentiality before sharing sensitive information, only to find out later on that the secret was spilled to others under similar (in)secure conditions.

Indeed, when it comes to confidentiality in PR, the extent of hypocrisy can be breathtakingly pervasive. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have heard senior PR executives criticize others for a lack of discretion while evidencing a conspicuous lack of it themselves.

Why might it be that PR people are prone to promiscuous information-sharing practices?

One theory is that because we are under so much pressure to always keep information under wraps (until the right time for it to become ‘public’), in private there’s a corresponding need to feel less repressed by acting more liberally. Or maybe it’s because we have grown so adept at sharing stories with others (trafficking information to the right people at the right time), it has become habit-forming and we’ve just become too turned-on when it comes to spreading salacious things around. Another explanation is that there’s a lack of ample formal sanction in PR against such behavior; unlike lawyers, PR people cannot be drummed out of the profession for breaching confidentiality because our industry doesn’t yet have a mandatory professional credential (like attorneys and accountants, for example). That said, if someone is addicted to shooting their mouth off, word spreads informally and the repeat offender gets frozen out of the loop.

Perhaps because PR people have become arguably the world’s most powerful information workers, the information we have — which is scarce and exclusive — might be what makes PR people feel more powerful. Often ignored by media and under the client thumb, I can understand how some PRs seek that sensation.

I think Dr. Robert Cialdini’s findings on the self-interested nature of information-sharing may be the most compelling explanation: “The persuasive power of exclusivity can be harnessed by any manager who comes into possession of information that’s not widely available and that supports an idea or initiative he or she would like the organization to adopt.”

Perhaps PR folks are no different than anyone else when it comes to these modern ‘transparent’ trends. This is, after all, the age of social networks and with rising acceptance of less privacy and more ‘Re-Tweeting,’ I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised by a shrinking domain of trusted private disclosure and an enlarged sphere of public information.

Still, what a wonderful feeling when you know — through repeated confidence-building experience — that you can trust certain individuals with your reputation. The good thing is that word of how they can keep secrets well also spreads like wildfire, with such people enjoying all kinds of reputation benefits (e.g. being widely known as an executive of high caliber and sound character).

Categories: blog, psychology
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18 lessons learned after 18 years in the PR world

January 9th, 2010 / 7:00 pm

Lately I wrote an article about 18 reflections after 18 months away from PR. Sticking with the ’18′ theme, I am posting a PowerPoint presentation delivered to the staff of Edelman Japan in June 2008 that outlines the 18 lessons I’ve learned each year working in the PR world starting in 1990. I began using SlideShare recently and thought this would be a good first deck to upload.

Categories: speaking platforms, thinking
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25 moonshots for management

January 8th, 2010 / 2:00 pm

While it is probably better now than it ever has been during my 20 year career, the quality of management in the public relations industry can still sometimes be depressingly mediocre. I hope that PR executives dedicated to continuous improvement in their leadership offer will read this superb article listing ten compelling ‘management 2.0′ concepts plus this follow-on piece outlining fifteen more.

Categories: bulletin
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18 reflections after 18 months away from PR

December 29th, 2009 / 5:00 pm

by Bob Pickard

Last year, when I elected to leave Edelman (where I served for six fiscal years, most recently as its North Asia President), it was time to come home to my native Canada and reconnect with friends and family after 13 years overseas.

I wasn’t sure whether I would ever return to the public relations business. Even with the exciting advent of social media and a plethora of stimulating industry sectors and consulting services from which to choose, PR can sometimes be a simple and repetitive occupation. I was feeling the need to hit the career ‘pause button’ and take stock of whether there’s enough meaning and fulfillment in the business where I’ve built a two decade career.

Early in 2010, I will be starting my next international PR adventure. I’ve been fortunate to build businesses living in four countries during the past two decades, but before we ship out for the fifth and hopefully foremost experience, I want to share some reflections after this, the third year-plus sabbatical of my career:

  1. First impressions matter (‘how to start’) but so do the last impressions (‘how to leave’). There is a troubling tendency in the PR business for the quality of people to be judged by how much damage their departure inflicts on an organization, but I think the better measure of true executive timber is how well the organization succeeds afterwards owing to sound fundamentals built over time plus effective succession planning.
  2. It is really important to take time for mid-career breaks to do some serious reflection, because like most modern information workers, PR people don’t have enough time to think — reflexive ‘doing’ often eclipses reflective thinking, and so critical skills either atrophy or remain underdeveloped.
  3. At the same time, clients are underwriting advanced PR thinking with larger budgets than ever for ‘big brain’ consulting…whereas the economic basis for the basic commoditized PR of tactical order-taking is shrinking.
  4. It’s more fun to have the money chase you than to spend a career chasing the money, so there’s a strong incentive for all professional communicators to increase the value of their time by growing the size of their PR brain through a relentless commitment to continuous improvement and lifelong education. That means reading books, fostering relationships with opinion-leaders, and learning new ideas from other disciplines.
  5. With the flight to premium quality consulting gathering momentum, there has never been more commercial potential for insight-driven communications; recommendations rooted in research, assertions backed by evidence, strategy informed by analysis. Especially compelling is the PR firm that understands the psychology of persuasion, the power of digital storytelling, and client expectations for intelligent issues management.
  6. PR really is becoming more of a measurable science than an intangible art…digital technology makes all forms of PR more accountable, and clients will rightly demand that agencies take responsibility for results.
  7. At the same time, there have never been more ‘PR maven’ poseurs and ‘communications guru’ wannabees; too many ciphers who ape the rhetoric of the business, devaluing the PR industry currency but also increasing the stubborn determination of clients to tune out the ‘noise’ and find the ‘signal.’
  8. A lot of the self-styled social media ‘PR 2.0′ punditocracy who occupy a center stage that owes much to their just having been online using the new technology first — to be much admired from a pioneering perspective — weren’t in a lot of cases really on the PR industry stage before then. They weren’t ‘PR 1.0′ people or even practitioners during earlier analogue days in the early/mid-90s. There are some exceptions, but much of this crowd is so into the technology, they can’t map the latest cool new app to the real consulting world.
  9. Then, on the other hand, a lot of the more experienced true-blue PR pros just don’t have the innate grasp of the technology, which changes in a more nimble way than the manner to which they have become accustomed. Most of these folks know that social networks are important, and may even be skilled at making exciting speeches about the brave new social media world, but they aren’t personally comfortable with the pace or the processes demanded by digital communications.
  10. Because many of the people within these two solitudes often don’t talk to each other or understand what the others are really saying at the ‘unconscious’ level, there is an urgent need to bridge the generational divide in the agency business.
  11. The most important thing in PR life is to work with bright, interesting and fun people who share a passion for being the best they can be, accomplishing new things that have never been done before, aiming at setting the highest PR standard. I know that sounds like management rhetoric, but I agree with the philosophy that the journey is just as important as the destination.
  12. It’s essential to believe in what you are doing and to sincerely articulate your company’s point of view, but equally imperative to maintain a balanced perspective and not get too caught up in the synthetic artifice of hyped organizational myths.
  13. The global PR industry is a small town (the biggest firms are only approaching half a billion dollars in revenue), so while we need to be unafraid of advocating our unique mission in marketing, individual egos and sales claims should be scaled accordingly.
  14. Especially in light of the disintermediation effect caused by the rise of social networks online, it is vital for PR people to know how to ‘meet and greet the public’ offline, in-person, face-to-face. PR remains a highly tactile social undertaking, a people business. Particularly valued is the idea of contacting people when you do not need them for something, because when you do, they will remember your interest in the broader mutual relationship, not just in a narrow selfish transaction.
  15. Because they are so rare and retro, old style analogue communications techniques like hand-written thank you notes, phone calls instead of e-mails and personal visits have tremendous impact.
  16. Arguably more than in other fields, there are too many ‘politicians’ in PR, folks who will say they are your friend to get what they need for their careers, or be two-faced and say different things to different people in a vain attempt to be liked by everyone, but in the end this approach always fails to earn respect because it’s true that ‘what goes around comes around.’
  17. Principles matter, and so is practicing what you preach. PR people are getting more powerful (because we now program media content in addition to brokering journalist relationships), and so the ethical dimension of our work demands honest reflection, not merely glib lip service.
  18. Money is the vital energy of the PR industry; numbers keep score, but aiming at the quality first drives the revenue, whereas aiming at the revenue excessively can result in mediocrity.

Categories: article
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18 reflections after 18 months away from PR

December 29th, 2009 / 5:00 pm

Last year, when I elected to leave Edelman (where I served for six fiscal years, most recently as its North Asia President), it was time to come home to my native Canada and reconnect with friends and family after 13 years overseas.

I wasn’t sure whether I would ever return to the public relations business. Even with the exciting advent of social media and a plethora of stimulating industry sectors and consulting services from which to choose, PR can sometimes be a simple and repetitive occupation. I was feeling the need to hit the career ‘pause button’ and take stock of whether there’s enough meaning and fulfillment in the business where I’ve built a two decade career.

Early in 2010, I will be starting my next international PR adventure. I’ve been fortunate to build businesses living in four countries during the past two decades, but before we ship out for the fifth and hopefully foremost experience, I want to share some reflections after this, the third year-plus sabbatical of my career: 18 reflections after 18 months away from PR

Categories: blog, thinking
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Choosing the right PR firm

December 17th, 2009 / 1:55 pm

I just wrote a new opinion article with personal reflections about how to know the future trajectory of a PR firm’s fortunes.

Categories: blog, careers
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Choosing the right PR firm

December 15th, 2009 / 1:00 pm

by Bob Pickard

During the past few years, and especially lately, I have been repeatedly asked by young people how they should determine what kind of PR firm to try and join (especially, in the case of students, after they graduate). Let me be transparent in admitting that I’ve been doing some of this thinking for myself recently, and soon I will be embarking on my next PR adventure.

My usual counsel starts with this critical question: is the PR firm going up, treading water, or going down? In every case, I obviously suggest trying to join the agency whose best days lie ahead, because its economic advance will help create the rising revenue tide of client work that propels young careers forward through richer learning, higher earning and more express routes to promotion.

It’s easy enough to advise that much, but the query that follows is more challenging: “How do we know if a PR firm is poised to grow in the future?”

There is no easy answer, and every agency goes through the peaks and troughs of a business cycle. But let me offer a few observations rooted in repeated personal experience gained in several countries and a few firms over the years. In my opinion, these are some key factors that help shape which way an agency is about to go:

What is the track record of the firm’s leader and is s/he still strongly motivated? Even at their largest global size (approximately half a billion U.S. dollars in revenue), compared to other industries, PR firms are pretty compact organizations and so the leader looms relatively large (and I mean global, national or local leader, depending on the recruitment context). Past results are strongly suggestive of future success, so knowing the size and shape of the firm today compared to when that person first assumed office is a fundamental issue. Still, past performance is no guarantee of future success and so some educated speculation should sensibly be considered. Looking at where the leader is on the career timescale can also be an indicator of results around the corner. Does this person still have fire in the belly because there are important wars yet to be won, or is there a satisfied complacency evident because what the leader set out to accomplish initially has already been met or even exceeded?

Who are the senior people and what is their motivation? Looking at the top executive guns in an agency’s arsenal and assessing their caliber is hard for a newcomer. How long they’ve been there is one telling measure; generally, assuming there is at least some new blood in the senior ranks, if most people have been with an agency for a long time, it means good things. It signals that they probably like working together and have co-created success through mutual trust and collaboration. There are exceptions to this ‘loyalty’ tendency, however. Sometimes senior people have suffered for a long time making compromises in an unhappy situation, because in the end they expect that there will be a considerable financial reward for their career sacrifice. So, while there may be shared interests around commercial objectives, disillusionment can also be a common bond. It’s not easy to find out if a company is a happy place or not, but I do know that in professional services, the happier firms with higher morale are the places to be. My own view is that the PR journey should be as enjoyable as any financial destination, and I do believe in this respect that it’s possible to have your cake and eat it too.

What is the ownership structure of the firm and can people earn equity as they rise through the ranks? I’ve worked for a publicly traded group and privately held independent agencies, and I can say there are pros and cons to each. The public firm can offer a fantastic breadth and depth of integrated group resources that deliver the full might of marketing where PR can be amplified by the powerful resources of a whole constellation of partner firms, but there can be impatient stock market pressures, corporate bureaucracy and sometimes PR can seem the junior partner. The privately held agency can provide a laser-like focus on PR, enjoy greater marketing freedom and act more agile with an entrepreneurial zeal, but private owners — and I’ve been a minority shareholder with two agencies — can act capriciously in what can be ‘messy’ unstructured environments where more systemic accountability, better corporate governance, and less random management would be ideal. Public or private, the key thing is that star players have a pathway to owning shares and increasing their equity position in return for consistently well motivated strong performance.

Who are the employees of the firm? Generally I would suggest that the most diverse consultancy has the edge. The more multicultural, the better, but I am not just thinking about ethnicity. PR is becoming an overwhelmingly female profession, and while I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, having run several offices across cultures, I can say that around the world, work life seems more fun and business can be more dynamic in mixed environments. The same goes for age and marital status. Having a blend of grey haired experience and youthful vigour makes a more complete operation, and offices where some are married and others single can be more exciting shops than ones where everyone is the same. Again, it’s hard to know these things from the outside looking in, but there are cues available online and if you ask around.

What is the staff turnover at the company? In general, there’s high staff churn in agency PR, but in some firms (and in some offices), there can be a constantly revolving door. Statistics are hard to come by, so trying to connect with former employees can yield valuable insights. Especially useful is knowing how successful the person to whom you would be reporting has been at recruiting, training, developing, and retaining talent. Does this person attract or repel strong people? During the job interview, if the person asking you questions seems to have thought about you and your career path rather than only what the company needs at the moment, then that is an encouraging indicator of it understanding the no-brainer truth that managing people well today is the key to generating profits tomorrow.

What is the character of the firm? Does it live its values, or just talk about an idealized image? Most PR firms list similar values, so knowing where these are practiced and not just preached can spell the difference between a delightful and disappointing PR firm experience. For example, if an agency seems to excessively emphasize integrity in its communication, does that mean it is sincerely the most ethical firm, or is honesty a sensitive area for some reason? Let’s look through another lens; everyone and their uncle say these days that their firm is a ‘thought leader.’ My advice is to look at a firm’s intellectual capital and consider its purpose. Is it being applied to help create positive business outcomes for clients, or does it look as though it is there primarily for agency marketing, to create the image of being the thought leader? Is the company synthesizing things that have been said by others, or is it actually articulating something new? Is it paraphrasing the same themes year after year, or is there a progression of fresh content that’s breaking new ground? The answers to these questions say a lot about a firm’s personality.

How does the company communicate itself? I am a big believer that ‘PR needs more PR,’ and so I think looking at how firms communicate their own story is strongly suggestive of their consulting quality. I would be skeptical about firms that don’t communicate much about themselves, but equally concerned about consultancies that communicate too much. Is a humble story being told, or is a boastful myth being sold? Self-congratulatory claims of superiority often reflect an arrogant hubris, so I suggest assessing such hyperbole carefully. Each firm should show the marketplace that it can handle its own PR in a way that inspires confidence worthy of being entrusted with conducting clients’ communications campaigns. I’d also look for content consistency as a plus and contradiction as a worry. Does the firm offer advice in the media about how clients should do their own crisis communications, but then bungle their own crisis handling? In general, PR firms are notoriously bad at managing their own internal communications (like doctors making lousy patients I guess…), so finding out how key people milestone announcements are made — and how succession is handled — can often be quite illuminating in seeing an agency’s executive competence in its true light. The PR firms that do their own internal communications well are often the best managed and highest quality consultancies overall.

Who are the clients and how long have these relationships been going? The continuity of client relationships anchors any agency and I think looking at who the customers are — whether they are leaders in their sectors — and how long they have been working with an agency says a lot about whether or not it is a client-centric environment. Client centrism and a focus on results rather than the appearance of activity is a critical augury of a firm’s fortunes.

These are just a few factors that I think play a role in deciding an agency’s future trajectory, a key issue in deciding which firm to join. What usually happens is this: the agencies that rally the most potent combinations of talent to build clients’ businesses — sustaining team cohesion and continuously improving quality — are the best places to grow one’s career. If you can find such a career sweet spot, embrace it and treasure it because such planetary alignments are altogether too rare and too temporary.

Categories: article
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Authority versus persuasion

September 30th, 2009 / 1:03 pm

Managers often face a choice between authority and persuasion, says this HBS working paper.

Categories: bulletin
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