ComPRehension

Professional development and training blog of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)
January 6, 2009

In Bad Times the Table Is More Crowded. Is There a Place for You?


Whenever bad times occur, more people have more advice for the leader. Competition for leadership attention and interaction is fierce. Communicators have an added disadvantage in this struggle because virtually everyone, especially managers, feel that they are good communicators anyway and can provide this advice as well as other suggestions and ideas.

The reality is that there’s going to be enormous change in the C-suite during the next couple of years. Much of this change will be due to the previously undiagnosed incompetence of those in charge, actual malfeasance, or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time with wrong competencies or inadequate ideas. This list of leadership change causes alone is something of extraordinary value to the communicator to think about and anticipate, or counteract, if possible.

In bad times it’s more essential than ever for communicators to understand the core concept at the heart of managing anything. That concept is that every problem a manager or leader faces is a management problem before it’s any other kind of problem. Yes, communication may be at the heart of the problem, but management issues and questions come first. If all you have to offer when you walk in that room is a communication-related solution or concept, the odds of being heard are relatively low. If you wish to be heard, you need to come at all problems from a management direction before a communications direction.

It’s helpful to also understand just how vulnerable the boss is in these times. The place to begin is with the five major reasons CEOs and managers lose their jobs, in good times and bad. This knowledge fortifies the communicator with important management information that precedes advice-giving before offering communication-related solutions.

Job Loss Trigger #1: Failure to complete the job or to accomplish what was promised. This seems very obvious, but often isn’t realized until it’s too late to do anything significant to counteract it. Virtually every leader is hired, appointed, or even elected in anticipation of what will be accomplished; expectations are set, anticipation is initiated and hope begins.

Can you notice when failure is beginning to occur? Do you have the fortitude to raise the issue and suggest some remedial options?

Job Loss Trigger #2: Overoptimism. The fact is, even having been in public relations and communications work for some 30 years, the best public relations people in their businesses are the leaders and those around them. After all, they’re the ones who really know what the business is all about and what’s really happening, and they’re the ones eager to put the best faces on virtually anything that happens at any time. It’s quite often the failure of key advisers to help keep a leader or senior manager’s feet on the ground that allows them to get into deeper trouble.

The question to ask yourself is, are you a truth teller, a pragmatist, an individual who can make constructive suggestions to close the gap between what’s being hoped for and imagined and that which is actually being accomplished?

Job Loss Trigger #3: People problems. The first obligation of a leader is to identify destinations and the strategies to achieve them. This individual is, in reality, the organization’s chief strategist. The second responsibility of leadership is to put the people in place who can achieve the vision, goals and strategy. The leader’s job is also to continuously assess the performance of those they select.

The question for you is, how are you at assessing the performance of leaders against their expectations? Communicators often seem to demure from this responsibility, feeling it somehow undercuts or is inappropriate, or they are just too fearful to do it. Reluctance to evaluate other key individuals is viewed as a serious deficiency in the relationship between adviser and leader.

Job Loss Trigger #4: AWOL. CEOs that are making speeches and public appearances, appearing on television and getting famous rather than running their businesses are quickly noticed by boards and shareholders. The communicator’s role in building the visibility of executives needs to be focused on and done in concert with what senior leaders are achieving and their primary reason for being on the job.

The question for the communicator is, are you helping the boss stay focused on those things that really matter and being a voice of constructive commentary when it comes to accepting visibility opportunities that are more distractive than productive?

Job Loss Trigger #5: Getting stuck in the mud. One could also call this the “failure to launch” syndrome. For whatever reason, despite the highest of expectations, the greatest level of board support, the enthusiasm of shareholders and even the anticipation of employees, one in three CEOs fails to make substantial progress. Disappointment mounts rapidly. This is another strategic opportunity for the communicator, both in terms of helping the leader have a sense of what they are supposed to be accomplishing, but also in providing productive recommendations that might help this individual make some limited incremental progress at the beginning, in the hope that the combination of increments will eventually add up to solid accomplishment.

In bad times, many work to save themselves, and their advice tends to reflect this. Leadership is more expendable. Just remember, you are the table.  When you are there, giving advice, nothing else matters. There’s a place there for you, because you’re going to make one there for yourself.

By James E. Lukaszewski, chairman and president, The Lukaszewski Group Inc. He is one of public relations most frequently quoted and prolific authors and is a national practice leader in communications strategy and strategic counseling. He is the author of “Why Should the Boss Listen to You? The Seven Disciplines of the Trusted Strategic Advisor.” Sign up for Jim’s free Executive Action e-newsletter at www.e911.com.

Join Lukaszewski for his teleseminar, Building Community Relationships: Overcome Opposition and Gain Community Consent and his two-day seminar Advanced Crisis Communication: How to Think and Advise Management Strategically During Tough Situations and Crises two-day seminar on Thursday, September 17–Friday, September 18 in Philadelphia, PA!

  • http://www.forrestwanderson.com Forrest W. Anderson

    This is a great post. What I like about the way you approach our business is you consistently look outside the PR/Communications box. I think that, more than anything else, is what makes you a successful strategist. You look at the entire client’s or employer’s business and then think about how communications might help. Too many PR people get to caught up in communications and fail to get their heads high enough to realize communications is a part of something else.

  • JLukaszewski

    Thanks for your comments.

    There was a subplot in a West Wing episode where President Bartlet had just returned from a 45 day trip abroad. During his travels he collected nine or 10 unique chess sets, all gifts from other heads of state. They knew he was a chess fanatic. In this subplot, the president gave away all the chess sets to people on his staff and began to simultaneously to play a chess game with every staffer who received a set. Small vignettes revealed progress of the games throughout the episode.

    There was a high school student, who got to spend a couple days shadowing the president, in the oval office. He was also given a chess set, and the president was teaching him to play. At one point late in the show, as the president was coaching the high school student he said approximately the following,” Chess is a game where you have to monitor the movement of every piece because the movement of any piece affects the movements of every piece. You have to play the whole board. You have to have the altitude to watch all the pieces.

    This is the metaphor, for the philosophy you noticed and commented on. The trusted and strategic advisor plays the entire board, the entire time. There is altitude, rather than whiny, negativity. Our job is to be at 50,000 feet on everything. This is a powerful perspective, which any boss will notice and benefit from almost immediately.

    Incidentally, every advisor, regardless of staff function, should own and periodically re-watch West Wing, all seven years. This is a show about staff people serving larger interests and ideas. These show are inspiring, informative, interesting, reasonably true life, and every episode has valuable lessons for all of us.