All posts by Stacey Smith

How To Say “No” Effectively to Leadership

Such a joy to be back IN PERSON for a presentation at the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA) annual seminar last week.  It reinforces how important face-to-face communication is in building relationships and cementing our learning.

My colleague John Lyday, APR, Fellow PRSA and I presented on the challenges and strategies needed to say “no” when leadership is heading in the wrong direction.  Some “takeaways” (both from us and our participants) included:

  1. Remember leaders are human too (and that includes our School Board members).  They have egos, and they do not want to appear wrong or be depicted as bullies; they want to please others, etc.  They also have past experiences that influence their decisionmaking.  The key is to really get to know your leadership what makes them tick and motivates them.
  2. Five strategies for saying “no
    • Education – being the expert before the issue arises, teaching leadership about effective communication practices and behavioral/communication theories, strategies
    • Having data – doing research on stakeholders to know them well; also having ability to do dipstick research overnight to help inform any decisionmaking
    • Offering options rather than solutions (caveat: never offer an option that is not good – it is the one they will pick)
    • Create scenarios on what is likely to happen with or without action, with options (including their suggestions).  Be sure to include pros and cons.
    • Know who influences leadership, where they stand on most subjects; and how to most effectively use their influence to help guide leadership when needed
  3. Critical strategies/theories to utilize, educate leadership about:
    • PR Behavioral Model (Jackson/Grunig) 
    • Behavioral Messaging (Grunig)
    • (email either one of us for copies!)
  4. Regularly conduct issue anticipation brainstorming to identify issues that might break and build strategies.  Group into “latent”, “emerging”, “hot” and “fallout” issues to manage discussions.  Here are some issues that were identified by session participants:
    • COVID-19 and its continuing impact on school communications
    • Critical race theory conspiracies that appear to be happening independently but are reportedly being fueled by organized conservative groups
    • Violence being directed at Asian-American families and students
    • Organized opposition to school district efforts to make LGBTQ students feel welcome and safe in school
    • Cyber-security in light of recent malware and ransomware attacks on other sectors
    • … and, of course, those that were old which may become new again, e.g. gun safety, sex education, etc.

For more on these subjects and more, don’t hesitate to pick up the phone or email us. We would love to hear from you!

Stacey Smith, APR, Fellow PRSA, Senior Counsel & Partner, JJ&W, ssmith@jjwpr.com/603.205.6302

John Lyday, APR, Fellow PRSA, jlydaycommunications.com/309.201.3669 www.lydaycommunications.com

Using the Triggering Event of COVID to Impact Culture Change

Triggering events, whether created for us or by us, can create a fissure in the current behaviors and beliefs of stakeholders. These fissures, if smartly managed, can help transform an organization’s culture.

Even before the trauma of the last year, healthcare was reeling from a bevy of changes and pressures. Nursing shortages, changing business models, cut-throat competition, systemic racism, the disappearance of small, rural hospitals, and more had an already shaky system on the edge.
Staff were dissatisfied and demoralized. This was no longer a profession respected and supported or so it felt.

The upheaval of an event like COVID19, for all its negative outcomes, can be a catalyst if harnessed, to re-imagine and re-create an internal culture that can thrive going forward.

Five COORR steps to take:

1. Catharsis
2. Opportunity
3. Ownership
4. Repair
5. Repeat

Catharsis: Allows employees to express their feelings, pain, ideas. This is the time for leadership to listen, empathize, comfort and express humanness. It is accessed through meaningful and thoughtful listening by way of qualitative and quantitative research.
Opportunity: Opportunities and problems are identified in Catharsis and with an environmental scan to see what in the future may become pressing. These are verified with employees, prioritized.
Ownership: Responsibility for seeing that change happens is assigned at all levels, not just leadership. By spreading responsibility throughout the organization and levels, silos can be torn down and healing can begin.
Repair: Measurable goals and objectives are established, strategies determined, and action is taken. Ongoing measurement tracks successes and need for tweaking actions.
Repeat: Change is not a “one and done” process. Different groups are ready to move at different times. Some need others to take the lead, to make sure change is not dangerous. Sometimes alternative strategies need to be adopted to move those who linger.

As vaccines ramp up (a triggering event of its own), and COVID winds down (hopefully), the window for change is ending from this triggering event. Make use of professionals with communication and organization behavior expertise to be most effective in this effort. Act now and make a difference for your organization.

So What Now? Anticipating Fallout Issues In The Aftermath of COVID-19

As with any crisis situation that an organization faces, things may quiet down and even get resolved (as in a strike), but there will likely be additional issues to consider in the aftermath.  This is particularly true for this pandemic – even as it continues, other issues will rear up, case in point: Amazon’s strikes over work conditions and leadership resignations.  (See  https://www.bbc.com/news/business-52534567#)

For those familiar with issue anticipation, one of many responsibilities of leadership (especially PR/Communications) issues typically fall into 5 categories:

  • Latent:  The issue is largely on the “back burner. Nothing is really happening at this time, but the potential is there for the issue to emerge.  Example:  In the PR field, the issue of “licensing” was once hotly debated but moved to “latent” when accreditation in the field became an option that replaced the need for licensing.
  • Emerging:  A small percentage of the population has identified the issue and it is gaining traction, but it is not yet “hot”. Example: The connection between opioid overdose and brain injury.
  • Hot:  A current issue that is the subject of extensive public debate. Example:  COVID19.
  • Fallout:  An issue born as the consequence of a hot issue.  For example, one fallout issue from COVID19 might be the expansion of remote offices as companies look for ways to cut costs and gain more confidence in the ability of employees to work from home.
  • Association: An issue that hasn’t impacted your organization directly, but it has happened to a similar organization, and therefore your stakeholders are wondering “could that happen to us?” Example:  An active shooter on a private boarding school campus.

While some organizations may have been prepared for a “widespread illness” crisis scenario, virtually no organization – with the exception of some very forward-thinking healthcare organizations — were prepared for something of the magnitude that is the COVID19 global pandemic.   In fact, we have had clients ask us, in retrospect, to amend their crisis communication plans to include a global pandemic scenario. 

Now that the “new normal” is in place, it is time to think about what fallout issues we may have to contend with going forward.  Consider the potential impacts of the current COVID19 environment as we look 6 months to a year out and/or before a vaccination is approved:

  • Consumer fear as a barrier to travel, dining out, using public transportation, attending large gatherings, going away to college, etc.,
  • A potential increase in drug and alcohol misuse (as a coping mechanism),
  • Potential increase in anxiety, depression and mental health issues,
  • Remote workforce preference (by employees and corporations),
  • Labor issues in the spotlight as they fight to protect front-line worker rights,
  • Increase in requirements to safely produce consumer products adds to business overhead, which is then passed on to the consumer and creates more expensive products and services,
  • Increase in taxes to cover the unanticipated expenses resulting from COVID19,
  • Labor trends:  will those headed for retirement take an early retirement package or feel the need to work longer after experiencing stock market losses?
  • Investors change behaviors:  will they take advantage of buying opportunities in a down market or pursue investment opportunities with less risk?
  • Nonprofits consolidate as they compete for a smaller pool of available philanthropic dollars,
  • Decrease in face-to-face professional development (conferences, etc.) and an increase in professional development offered online,
  • Emphasis on environmental controls after seeing the short-term positive effects of the stay-at-home order on our air and water supplies,
  • Healthcare costs increase as health issues related to COVID 19 spike and vaccines for highly-contagious illnesses become mandatory,
  • Consolidation of small businesses as many experience bankruptcy after extended period of closure forced by restrictions,
  • Trend of “gap years” and community college attendance in lieu of paying high college costs for what could end up being a remote learning experience, at least in the immediate future,
  • Increase in “depression-era savings mentality” now that the new generation has lived through uncertain financial times.

It is the role of every public relations/communications leader to think about and prepare for what is next for your organization and to think strategically about how you will communicate about it.  Building trust and communicating with transparency will be critical. 

How effectively your organization communicated during this crisis and responded to stakeholder needs will either have improved your reputation as a trustworthy company or damaged it.  Either way, communicating in the “new normal” era will require your organization’s highest and best skills going forward , so those in the PR/communications field – and those they report to — should consider them “essential”!

Stacey Smith, APR, Fellow PRSA is Senior Counsel and Partner at Jackson Jackson & Wagner, a behavioral public relations and management consulting firm based in the Seacoast of NH.  For more information, visit JJ&W’s website at www.jjwpr.com or email Stacey at ssmith@jjwpr.com.

Summary of JJ&W’s WEbinar for PRSA: External Communication with Stakeholders During Covid-19

What is known about how humans process risk and crisis remind us that not every member of a stakeholder group is at the same point in their understanding, acceptance, processing or action steps.  In fact, most are likely ricocheting daily, if not hourly, between these waypoints as they deal with the mental and emotional toll that the all-consuming change that is COVID19 has taken on their lives.  Today they may feel positive and productive.  Tomorrow they may not.

How we deliver the messages that need to be communicated, the words we use, and the environment in which messages are received must be carefully calibrated to resonate with our stakeholders. They must take into consideration their values and their current emotional state.  They must be clear enough to motivate specific behaviors.

Thus, we move to the lowest common denominators when preparing communication:

  1. Use simpler, more direct language
  2. Elevate empathy
  3. Include doable action steps

Simpler, more direct language   Write at a 7th or 8th grade level (see Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level tests). Even the most educated have problems processing ideas when things are stressful or there is upheaval. Say what needs to be said in the simplest way possible – short words, short sentences, short paragraphs. 

Elevate empathy   Express shared emotions without telling them how they feel.  “We are all anxious” is different then “We know you are anxious”.

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Doable action steps:  Suggest something they can do as a result of your communication.  “Make a donation”, “call a friend”, “read on our website” are all actionable ideas.  With no call to action, your messaging is just a big “so what”. For example,  COVID19 communication now has plenty of “calls to action”, including:  “maintain a 6-feet-apart social distance when out in public”; “wash your hands for 20 seconds” and “stay at home unless you are an essential worker or you have to get gas, groceries or pharmacy items.”

In addition, don’t make stakeholders work to find your messaging or create additional “new” vehicles to communicate.  That is just another stress on them.  Use the channels they are comfortable with, used to using, and trust.

Finally, monitor the environment for ongoing changes that might make your communication insensitive if not offensive.  This requires being flexible on how you choose to communicate and constantly monitoring the environment for potential message conflicts.

For instance, the cruise lines for too long continued to run ads and send mailing that promoting trips.  The hotel industry was slow on the uptake as well. Some smaller organizations, perhaps being nimbler or more empathetic, switch gears faster e.g. Planet Fitness suspended monthly fees right away and ramped up their online platform to encourage continued activity.  Compare that with Boston Health Club (see good reading on that one see Robin Schell’s last blog)! 

Stay well!

Stacey Smith, APR, Fellow PRSA
Senior Counsel & Partner, Jackson Jackson & Wagner

Isobel Parke 1926-2020

ISabel Park

Isobel Parke was born in 1926 in Dorset, UK, the 3rd of 5 daughters of Charles and Jean Hamilton Gordon Parke.  She graduated from the Winsor School, Boston, MA, and Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, UK, with a degree in History in 1947.  Isobel worked for a short time at the UK Ministry of Education. After teaching in Germany and Kenya, she served as the adult education manager at Moor Park College (Farnham, UK) for 12 years.

In 1965, Isobel joined the behavioral public relations and management consulting firm of Jackson Jackson and Wagner in NH, where she provided invaluable counsel to clients in a wide variety of industries for over 5 decades.  She was a trailblazer, advocating for public relations practitioners to have a place at the decisionmaking table and influencing the PR field with their innovative strategies and behavior-change theories.  She was married to Patrick Jackson, a past PRSA president and PR leader in the public relations field.

An accredited member of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), Isobel served as National Secretary.  She was inducted into the College of Fellows in 1991.  She served as PRSA’s representative on the Council for Journalism and Mass Communications as well as on two PRSA education commissions. Isobel was best known for her work with independent schools and environmental concerns. Her work with the coalition SPACE (Statewide Program of Action to Conserve our Environment) led to a NH constitutional amendment change in 1968 and passage of the current use law to preserve open space in NH – a law that still stands today. She was the first woman president of the NH Timberland Owners Association and served on both the boards of Lamprey River Watershed Association and UNH Cooperative Extension Rockingham County Advisory Council. Passionate about land conservation, she worked closely with the Southeast Land Trust on their efforts to conserve open space.


http://bodypiercingsavedmylife.com/

Since 1963, Isobel lived on Tributary Farm, a 1745 house in West Epping, NH with 700 blueberry bushes and 160 acres of forest land.  She loved spending time outdoors and in her garden; and every July, she would host a blueberry breakfast for members of her JJ&W family. Raised in the Episcopalian church, she became a long-time member of the West Epping Quaker Meeting.  Loved and respected by countless family members, friends, professional colleagues and clients, Isobel will be missed by us all.


A Celebration of Life will be held in the spring and announced when set. In lieu of flowers, please make a donation to a conservation or environmental fund of your choice.

Strategic PR Planning Is Critical To An Organization’s Success

If your first thought when presented with a public relations problem or opportunity is to brainstorm tactics – e.g. “let’s do a newsletter” “send a tweet”, “post on Facebook”, “hold a meeting” — then you are planning, but not strategically.

If your first thoughts are: “how does this opportunity fit with our overall goals?”, “what behaviors do we need from our priority stakeholders?”, “what are the underlying psychological or structural barriers in the way of achieving those behaviors?” , “what communication/behavioral theories or case studies could support or guide our decisions?” … then you are being strategic.

I explain to PRSA Strategic Planning workshop attendees that they probably are strategic thinkers already. However, it’s often easier to default to tactics that are in our comfort zone and can be quickly implemented. The problem is that just executing tactics without strategic direction could end up being a waste of our time and our organization’s resources. In today’s environment, public relations practitioners are being held accountable to the bottom line … we need to be able to justify our actions to senior management and provide measurable results, just as legal, finance and other departments do..

The strategic planning process consists of five distinct areas of work: 1) Establishing Direction, 2) Gathering/Conducting Research, 3) Objective Setting by Priority Publics, 4) Determining Strategy, Tactics, Evaluation, 5) Setting Timeline, Budget and Staffing. Once the plan has been determined, we need to stay flexible, knowing the environment we are operating in could change; a “triggering event” could impact the effectiveness of our strategy; or research could show that our priority audiences are not responding to our key messages.

Before we even begin the implementation of our plan, we must have a clear idea of what success will look like …for example: our internal audience will buy-in to and support our process; senior management will lead by example; our budgets and person power will increase; we will achieve the behaviors we set out to change or reinforce; and we will become an integral part of the leadership team charged with achieving the organization’s overall goals.

I’ll be presenting a half-day version of the day-long workshop at PRSA’s International Conference in Austin, TX on October 7. Join me!
For more information about Jackson Jackson & Wagner, visit our website at www.jjwpr.com

22 Measurement Standards To Help Really, Really Understand Employees And Build Effective Communication Systems To Reach Them

For a long time, the focus for internal communications has been building and measuring employee engagement. How “engaged” are our employees in our organization and in what they do? How does our workforce compare to others? Fortunately, there are all kinds of tools to measure employee engagement and see how your organization rates compared to others. Woo hoo!

But in the words of legendary PR practitioner Patrick Jackson, “SO WHAT?” What does it mean that your employees are on par with or slightly above (or below) others in your industry or region on their engagement score? And, what can you do about it? What does it really mean and how do you raise a low score or increase an already high one?

This month, the PR Journal has published a paper on this very topic that I have been working on, along with my colleagues, Julie O’Neil, Ph.D of Texas Christian University, Michele Ewing, Associate Professor at Kent State and Sean Williams, M.A. True Digital Communications, OH, for the past few years. We recognized a while back that it is the components of engagement that we must measure, in order to affect change — not the overall concept of engagement. “But what are those components?” we wondered.

After conducting both professional and academic literature reviews, a two-round Delphi study with leading Internal Communication professionals (those with 10 years plus of practice in the field and a known thought leader in the profession), plus numerous presentations at PRSA, International Public Relations Research Conference (IPRRC) and elsewhere, we arrived at 21 specific standards divided into 3 “buckets”. Those buckets are:

1) Outtakes (whether employees received, paid attention to, comprehended or retained particular messaging),
2) Outcomes (evidence of changes to or reinforcement of opinions, attitudes or behaviors)
3) Organizational Impact (if and how internal communication has influenced organizational performance).

Each bucket has specific standards that can be measured independently of each other and thus be tackled for improvement in many ways– words, symbols, actions, etc. All together, these 21 standards might define “engagement” but without measuring them independently, we really don’t know the root cause of an engagement problem. See specific standards for each bucket below or in the article at: https://prjournal.instituteforpr.org/

We also believe that it is not necessary to measure all 21Standards concurrently or even work on all of them simultaneously to see improvements. Your organization could identify a few in each bucket (or just one bucket) to begin work. Just identifying areas for work is a step in the right direction! Utilize your employee body to help select those standards that need the most attention. Ask them what can be done to improve. Involving them in the process is a great first step to building a new path and a culture builder/healer.

Currently, the team is seeking a few organizations who would like to work with us in identifying how to measure each of these concepts — with survey research and behaviorally with data an organization may already have on hand. If your organization might have an interest, let us know!

Measurement Standards for Internal Communication 2018

MEASURING EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT — WHAT TO MEASURE & WHY

“Engagement” is, as we like to say, the “flavor of the month” amongst organization leadership, employee communication and human resource professionals.

Getting an engagement score helps an organization know how they compare with other organizations like theirs as well as win headlines for “best places to work” in magazines and newspapers. What it doesn’t do is tell leadership anything about what might be wrong and what to do about it. Does the score reflect a problem with trust? transparency? empowerment? teamwork? satisfaction? something else?

A team of public relations academics and professionals set out a few years ago to dissect employee engagement in order to understand what are the driving factors of employee relations, and what truly contributes toward building a workforce that is committed to and fully productive for the organization. Lead by Sean Williams of TruDigital Communications, Ohio, Julie O’Neil, Ph.D. of Texas Christian University, Michele Ewing, Ph.D. of Kent State and myself, along with 13 other international professionals and scholars, we sought to fully define Measurement Standards for the profession around employee relations.

A glimpse into the soon to be published paper, shows 22 Standards, broken down into three key categories:

 Outtakes — Whether employees received, paid attention to, comprehended or retained particular messages
 Outcomes — evidence of changes to or reinforcement of opinions, attitudes or behaviors
 Organizational Impact — Whether and how internal communication has influence organizational performance

What is NOT a category is outputs, what is generated as a result of a program or campaign, and now typically measured by the number of releases, brochure, posters, meetings held, etc. or the number of column inches generated. Outputs were discarded by our group because they show no impact, only production. Using these data points for measurement would be like rating your dentist’s effectiveness on the number of x-rays he took of your mouth to cure a toothache!

Next steps for the committee is to identify methods for measuring each of the 22 Standards — both by self-reporting (surveys) and observation (behavioral indicators already available in an organization). The committee hopes to work with three different organizations to test these standards and their measurement methods — Southwest Airlines is already on-board!

We expect the paper to be published soon, but if you are interested in a bootlegged copy of the 22 standards and their definitions, contact me at ssmith@jjwpr.com.

Just Because We Can, Should We? Why Organizations Should Not Rollback Policies, Just Because Washington Now Says We Can

The Trump Administration is busy reversing a myriad of policies that had been put in place by the previous administration.  They say these policies "hinder productive business growth and job creation".  I am not arguing that one way or the other. I do want to remind us, though, of the impact these decisions could have on the bottom line of many organizations. 

It is evident, despite the pendulum swing to the right, that the majority of society does care about — and hold accountable — organizations who conduct themselves in ways that damage the environment, discriminate against employees, cheat customers, etc.  Even if the court of law says these actions are technically legal, the court of public opinion will prevail in the form of fallen reputations, loss of profits and in some cases, businesses that are forced to close their doors.

Consider just a few examples from the past and today — Philip Morris and cigarettes, Hooker Chemical and Love Canal, W.R. Grace famously retold in "A Civil Action", and more recently, Volkswagen and BP Oil.  Sometimes these actions were legal — but eventually, these companies suffered for those actions and were deemed “unethical” if not “immoral”.  As society evolves and becomes more and more sensitive to "bad actors", it is even more critical that public relations have a seat at the management table to weigh in on business decisions, anticipate the issues that could take our organizations down and help to build the bank of goodwill that will keep reputations intact during a crisis situation.

Public relations practitioners today have the great responsibility of building and protecting organizational reputations over time.  We should be impacting decisions before they are made and warning leadership about actions that could hurt the organization in the future. It is our job to warn leadership of the long-term effects of bad decision-making.  Whether these actions are legal or not, the question is:  are they ethical? responsible? in the best interests of our organization in the long run? 

 Here are a couple of examples of businesses seeking regulatory rollback:

http://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/329664-chemical-companies-ask-epa-to-kill-pesticide-risk-study

https://thinkprogress.org/mats-delay-pruitt-trump-5c9ad958b44f

And some examples of companies trying to do the right thing:

https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/jan/10/donald-trump-climate-change-letter-businesses-investors

https://www.bna.com/industry-scrambles-save-n57982085162/

 

Stacey Smith, APR, Fellow PRSA
Senior Counsel & Partner, JJ&W

 

Schools in Crisis : Why Schools Administrators Should Continue To Be Afraid … Very Afraid

School predatory sexual abuse scandals continue to be a “hot” issue for decades for educational institutions. Schools can be a Petri dish of opportunity for those who seek to abuse or exploit young people, much like youth sports, summer camps, church groups, etc. How it is handled — whether it happened last week or many years ago — is critical to an institution’s reputation and relationships for decades to come.

It can feel unfair to have a school condemned for something that happened decades ago, when no one currently on staff, the board, or others were present. It can be frustrating to have a pristine institution painted with in broad-brush strokes, blemished just because something happened elsewhere. It can be horrifying to watch an institution’s reputation implode because of the actions of one individual.

There many examples of how not to handle these situations. Many administrations have chosen to keep their heads down, praying that nothing happens on their watch. But it is their responsibility to reduce the risk to their organization now and in the future — not just while in positions of responsibility.

It takes guts and a real concern for the future to scrub the institution for current or historical missteps, misdeeds or outright crimes. To face them, own them and do the right thing now. Tearing off the band-aid, acknowledging what went wrong, addressing the pain and then making things right is the only way to assure that an organization now and in the future will be understood as one that truly cares about its students and doing the right thing.

There will be those on the Board, as well as alums and staff who will react in horror: “why are you bringing this to light? Why would you voluntarily acknowledge something like this? This was decades ago and no one cares?” Ah, but they do. Somewhere, someone is dealing with the consequences of the decisions made by educational institution and their leaders.

If you educational leaders care about their school, then they need to stand up for the right thing now: Do a cleanse that goes back to the beginning and examine anything that can be found; Talk to those who were involved, document what happened and why, and start talking about it in ways that show an enlightenment that proves that your school will never again allow, never tolerate, never cover up, never sweep under the rug something so hideous.

Will it be bumpy? Yes. Will it raise questions? Of course. Will these schools be setting the best example for their students, their faculty – their community and other schools? No question. But, will the school that does the right thing be better off for it in the long run? Absolutely. And should you have a plan of action for how to handle, who and when to inform, how to talk about things? No Brainer!

 

Stacey Smith/ssmith@jjwpr.com