Category Archives: Client relations

The Art of Being Assertive

I got married in August – which is why all my dreams of reviving this blog were, yet again, pushed aside in favor of catering coordination, bridesmaid management, and marriage counseling. Sorry for that.

We were engaged for 9 months prior to the wedding, and it took almost as long for me to learn just how I should plan a wedding. You see, when you get engaged, everyone has ideas about how things should be done – everything from who should be in the wedding, what time the wedding should be, the kind of meat and beer served at the wedding, the easiest way to decorate tables, how long the waitstaff should be expected to stay. It’s endless. It’s awful.

I’m not a timid person, but throughout the wedding planning process, I have had THE WORST time filtering these outside opinions so that they make sense to me, and lead to decisions. Whether or not these people are important to me, their opinions have become expectations in my mind. Fearing an uncomfortable situation with future-in-laws or friends, I’ve enthused: “oh, wow, what an awesome idea!” when I’ve inwardly cringed at their suggestion.

Don’t get me wrong – most of the suggestions have been truly helpful, but the best advice I got came in a question posed by my mother: “Meg, what do you want?”

It occurred to me that what I’d always counted as one of the attributes of an outgoing person, is actually an acquired skill – assertiveness comes with practice. And since this epiphany, I’ve realized that my days are fraught with opportunities to sharpen this skill. And in working remotely, this skill couldn’t be more important. Making sure that you’re understood, informed and confident is elemental in telecommuting for two reasons:

  1. So the work gets done efficiently and correctly, and
  2. So you’re taken seriously and your ass is covered.

Details

In emails, it comes in the form of clarifying details and situations, and making sure that what you want or need from someone is always on the table at some point. In emails, you can finesse the language of the “ask” or “clarification.” On the phone, it gets a little harder.

Whether I’m on a call with a client or my team, or even a recent call working out the parameters of a campaign with a promotional partner, I need to speak up if I feel like there’s some confusion on my part or overall. You can look a little less poised if you’re asking for info you may have missed, but I’ve learned the hard way to get my questions addressed on the phone rather than “off-line” with a teammate (who 50% of the time also likely missed the detail I’m looking for).  It’s doesn’t look good if you get off the phone looking buttoned up, and then send a email illustrating the opposite.

Impressions

Besides details, being assertive gives teammates, clients and media an important impression of the remote worker. This, in my opinion, is the most important aspect of it. I’m a relational person and need the people I work with to take me seriously. So I make it a goal to speak up, ask a question, chime in with an idea on every call I’m on (that isn’t a media briefing). It’s important because it communicates an element of control and let’s the other participants of the call know that you have some stake in the conversation.

Assertiveness = Balance

It’s a delicate balance to strike on the social spectrum between passive and aggressive. There’s always the temptation to be polite and refrain from voicing concerns, but this is a passive way to communicate, and people will walk all over you. On the other hand, an aggressive nature will give the call a tense dynamic and people won’t want to work with you – they’ll feel run over and defensive.

Here’s the bottom line: when you’re remote, your emails, voice and ideas are frame your colleagues’ impressions of you. It lets them know whether to trust you with a partnership negotiation, pitching a curmudgeon journalist, or presenting a plan to a client. Good work gets done when people can communicate openly with each other, and being assertive is your best shot at making sure that happens.

And making sure that there’s NO IVY in your wedding bouquet.

Advertisements

On Being the Expert

One of the things I’ve really struggled with in my client relations development is being “the expert.” When you work for an outside consulting firm, as I do, you are basically the adviser to your client in all things media and publicity – you are the expert. It’s difficult, as you build rapport with your client, maybe even to the point that your team calls with them are friendly and collaborative, to assert yourself with authority, especially if you’re young. This can mean telling a client when one of their ideas sounds like a bad one – horror of horrors.

  • Speak with conviction. You can be unsure about something, without sounding like it. And you can say you don’t know without sounding incompetent. The more you express your ideas with conviction, the more confidence your client has in you, even if you’re wrong.
  • Be researched. It’s easier to speak with conviction if you know what you’re talking about. Be ready to address all the outcomes, all questions, all concerns with sound and knowledgeable advice.
  • Rehearse. Speaking confidently with clients comes with experience and a lot of practice – and even with critique. Ask for feedback from your teams and your coworkers and really work on areas where you falter.
  • Disagree with a client. Being upfront about bad and risky ideas tells the client that you’re forward thinking, not combative. This also means you’ll need to have an alternative direction or a new idea at the ready. When you’re able to be on-the-level with a client, you can get a lot more done.
  • Be firm. Part of this is the whole “speaking with authority/conviction/your heart” deal, but in the long run, it’ll let the client know that you’re not wishy-washy. But this also means being ready to hash out why it’s a bad idea.
  • Be flexible. Your client is paying you. At some point, they’re going to remember that too and you need to know that they’re going to make whatever decision they want to make. You need to be ready to go with it whole-heartedly and have a game-plan around it.
  • Have managers/coworkers read your client emails before sending. Feedback is important in your growth here. You may think your email conveys a lot of value and expertise, but your more experienced coworkers can help you spot weak and passive language and ultimately make you a stronger communicator.

The point here is that you never want the client to have to ask “Why didn’t you tell us this was a bad idea?” if you can avoid it. What they decide after you advise them is their own deal. And they’ll know “you told them so” without you having to say it. But this isn’t about being right – it’s about putting the client first and trying your hardest not to let “wrong” things happen. That’s what makes you the real deal and the expert.

Why Startup PR Is Great for Recent Grads

The answer is simply – that they’re so much alike. Startups (the term chiefly pertains to the technology industry) and new companies, like recent PR grads and even nearly-finished students, are bright-eyed and optimistic – no matter the economic climate. Here are a few reasons why those of you who are looking for jobs, may want to rethink the big names (ie: Edleman, Hill & Knowlton, Fleishman Hillard) and put your name and interest out to the small or, er – no names.

  • Agility: Like you, small companies don’t have a ton to lose. They don’t have families (long-standing business partners) yet, they’re not bound to a location or direction. They can bob and weave through sticky situations and can focus more on innovation than stabilizing a large company. While large companies tend to drag their feet with announcements, small companies have the advantage of churning out huge updates to their products and services on a regular basis.
  • Experience over Security: This is my promise: The experience and knowledge you’ll garner in one month will be equal to that of 6 months at one of the big firms. While with big firms, you’re pretty sure of your job ( bonuses, raises), you will likely be doing grunt work for a while, no one-on-one work with clients and no significant media outreach for months. With a startup, you’ll likely be pitching the Washington Post right off the bat.
  • Fresh meat: For one, it gives you the chance to take “no-name” companies and build their awareness from scratch, no bad blood, no skeletons. Just your strategy, guts and fresh approach. Same idea with the next…
  • Story: Like your resume, they’re still developing their story – very much your job to help with that. But because they’re small, they’re able to adapt and mold their story – or even completely switch gears, without killing it. They don’t have a ton of history to hold them down or to overcome.
  • Startup community: One of the coolest things about the startup culture is how tight-knit it is. Take events like Ignite, Startup Weekend, and SF Beta. They bring together and showcase some of the newest and breaking technologies as well as the companies that are about to explode (in a good way) within their veins of technology. Cool stuff, and while they don’t always center around technology, they provide a wonderful support system and network for new companies. Some cool emerging startup communities are:
  1. New York City – Yes, kind of surprising since it’s the center of all industry, but their startup community is very tight-knit and supportive. Companies don’t drown in NYC, they thrive – Take Etsy, Foursquare, Meetup, and Boxee
  2. Boulder, CO – They say it themselves: “Boulder is for startups.” They are famous for a wealth of beer-charged meetups and a ‘cool kids club’ type of environment where technology thrives. Some of the coolest companies come out of boulder.
  3. Portland, OR – Wedged between Seattle (Microsoft fortress) and Silicon Valley, Portland seems to be a catch-all, a stewpan for new companies. Their famous phrase “Keep Portland Weird” should actually read “Keep Portland Innovative.
  4. Atlanta, GA – There are some sweet things happening in the south. It’s a hotspot meetups, conferences, web development and design, social web innovation not just in Georgia, but spanning a huge community south of the Mason-Dixon line.
  5. Austin, TX – Home to the insanely popular annual film/music/interactive festival, SXSW, this community is huge for technology innovation: Check out Austin Startup for upcoming events and companies to watch.
  • Do or die: Either execute or be executed – startups are ALL IN from day one, because if they don’t strategize, execute and deliver, they’re down for the count. No pressure.
  • Innovation/Creativity: When working with startups you see the coolest and newest technology in its earliest stages. But whether companies are unfunded or are there is an element of desperation (see “do or die”) and it’s this desperation that triggers innovation and thinking outside the box with their technology – just like you will need to think outside of the box to give your company a voice and make some noise in very noisy industries – tech or not.
  • Triumphs are longstanding/failures short-lived: [for the most part] The nicest thing is that with such a high metabolism, a startup can quickly recover from a flawed beta test or an awful review in Macworld. What’s more, when you land a great story in the New York Times, the interest in new technology is so great, that the story has potential for massive syndication, follow-up/response stories and tons of tiny blog posts. You, too, are young enough that you can recover from mistakes and make improvements.
  • Opportunities for disruption: Startups have the unique opportunity – responsibility, really – of disrupting their channels of technology, taking done ideas and reworking and revamping them to turn the industry on its head and take it in new directions. You, too, have the chance to take a very done practice, like PR, and create new ideas for awareness and storytelling.

I’m just sayin’ – lots of opportunity here to give yourself a leg up without depending on larger companies who are already drowning in resumes. For starters, search and GO TO  your local tech events: Ignite shows – see who’s sponsoring them, find out who’s presenting. Eventbrite, while focusing on all types of events, is a startup itself and thus is used by lots of startups – look at different events in your area to find out who is participating. Easy enough, right?

The point is that it’s a tough market for a new job-hunter. And here’s one place where your communication training and skills are so needed. And if you think you can’t get into tech, believe me, it’s more relevant to you than you might think – and pretty addicting stuff.

Details, details… Why You (as a young PRo) Need To Be Nit-Picky NOW.

picture-1I am not the most detail-oriented person. Not by a long shot. I am more what you’d call a “Big Picture,” conceptual person. Which is why, in the first months of my job, I struggled a lot with not seeing the value in details and not grasping for a while just HOW MUCH I needed to harness those details on all of my teams.

If your work environment is anything like mine, you’re on multiple teams and it’s very collaborative. Everyone does everything until the job gets done. It’s nice to see the managers of accounts chiming in and even sometimes drafting pitches and releases.

These are wonderful things to be able to expect from your teams and and managers. However, bear in mind what is expected of you at the bottom of the totem pole:

1. You are the gate-keeper of information. Your account managers will often be overseeing all of the high-level activity in several accounts, not just yours. It’s up to you to be on top of every single detail and moving part within your account so that if they need to know if a client has sent their feedback on a release, you can update them right away.

2. You are the task master. If someone’s been assigned a new Washington Post target, you need to check and make sure they’ve been pitched. You need to be sure of everyone’s pitching progress at any time. You need to know everyone’s progress on everything at all times. Don’t be afraid to manage up on this one.

3. Your clients probably care. Client-facing emails, especially with small companies aren’t uncommon for the young AA or AAE. Typos (and believe me, I am THE WORST with typos, just read some of my past blogs) look so bad to clients. Doesn’t matter if it’s a short, logistical (“Please use the usual dial-in”) message or a large, content-heavy correspondence. Same for client deliverables – PR reports, tracking sheets, whether hard copies, PDFs or Google docs, these need to be flawless.

4. Your teams DO care. They definitely care if they can’t trust you to send simple messages that are error-free to clients. Especially avoidable errors. Spell-check and have them proofed (it’s a killer to your writer/communicator’s ego, but worth it when you start to pick up the nuances of client communications). Never send a client email without letting your team know, or CC-ing them (once again, please learn from MY mistakes here).

5. It kind of becomes second nature. At some point you just learn how to do it without thinking about it. And you’ll find that as your organization increases so does your productivity. So it’s definitely worth the extra care and time that you put into it now.

6. Important: If you let them, disorganization and small mistakes WILL run the way you do things and define you as a professional. Small mistakes that go unchecked can quickly brand you as sloppy and unprofessional and will even faster become habits and harder to manage and rid yourself of.

This has been one of the most aggravating things to learn as I’ve gone out into the “real world.” Do whatever it takes to incorporate this into your work habits even if you’re cursing those detail oriented, anal-retentives who sit next to you. Eat some humble pie and learn from them.

*Organization tips to follow. Photo courtesy of Details magazine.

Fresh Meat Advice: Contribute what you know – in my case, Twitter.

On a tip from Kelli Matthew’s PRos in Training blog, to which I still subscribe, I read the post by Julia Roy called “Getting More Twitter Followers and Twittering for Business.” In the post she talks about gaining more Twitter traction – a whopping 4,000 followers – and how she decides to follow people back.

STUDENT TWEETS: Everyone has to start somewhere.

I started Twittering in February with no idea what I was doing. How did I become acclimated? I was online three or four times a day looking up tech news, reading Mashable and TechCrunch, NYT Tech columns, PRWeek, Business Week, poring over Google Trends, getting GMail alerts for news and blog posts on PR and Social Media, virtually all of the blogs in my Google Reader were tech and PR blogs. I needed to be able to engage with the people who were on Twitter about things that were important to them.

When LaunchSquad, found me on Twitter, though, it was because I’d “tweeted” about one of their clients – Vivaty.

TWITTER ON THE JOB?

JetBlue was one of the first business Twitter feeds that I followed and actually tweeted back at. They are one of the best Twitter business models I’ve seen.

When I started here, one of the first things I was asked to do on each of my accounts was either establish or revamp their Twitter activity. I wrote a Twitter strategy based on a case-study on JetBlue’s Twitter activity.

WHY I PAY ATTENTION: Their 4,800 followers are resulting from updates about their flight schedules, flying/travel tips and steady responses to customers and other Twitterers.

WHAT I TAKE AWAY: To be savvy with customers and Twitter, you need to pay attention to what they’re saying. People often express frustrations with software and companies on Twitter.

Another great example is Mighty Leaf Tea. They’re hardly tech, but they’re in the East Bay and so here in San Francisco – and silicon valley, we’re big fans. They’ve got great, unique flavors which makes for great “Tweets”. 

WHY I PAY ATTENTION: They’re not tech. At all. They sell tea, for god’s sake. But they come up with useful ways to discuss their products over Twitter and currently have 500+ followers in their pocket.

WHAT I TAKE AWAY: They post “relevant” issues and articles and are engaged in their industry beyond just their product – like the above post: List an interesting article and bring it back to the product. Very nice.

THE SKINNY

I suggest before taking on a client’s Twitter campaign, work on beefing up your own feed in addition to the rest of your online presence. Social media savvy applied to personal uses can only help when you’re asked to do it for a client.

A friend of mine and former intern here at LaunchSquad, Ben Kessler, has a great blog as well as a juggernaut Twitter following (currently at 579) and has managed 6,200+ updates so far – In September he averaged 24 updates a day. Makes me tired just thinking about it.

In my own case, I eventually found an even balance for my Twitter feed: my initial rabid tech/PR discourse combined with a cultural commentary (articles, music, film, events) and have – to reinforce Julia Roy’s point – seen a steady increase of 5-10 new follower’s a week.

Once you’ve honed this aspect of social media – and not to imply, by any means, that I have – you’ve become a valuable asset to any company, client and agency as they all are trying to figure out what Twitter means and could do for their business.

Schizophrenic 2.0

Like The West Wing and Subway sandwich punch-cards (I recently learned they brought them back) the Bryant Park Project,  so many good things in life come to an end: In my case, college. In the midst of finishing final projects, studying for finals and saying goodbye to life as a student, I have been eagerly and frantically looking for housing as I relocate to the Bay Area. I’m already anticipating the repercussions of this huge change: distance from friends and family, a busier, fast-paced lifestyle, a much more steady income, less sleep, more reading, less homework, more client work.

There is one aspect of this situation that I hadn’t considered prior to reading Todd Defren’s post entitled “The Secret Life of Runners.” In this post he brings up an important issue: talking about client work on company or personal blogs. As far as my blog goes, I’ve never held much back. It’s been a log of my PR experience and discoveries as well as a personal manifesto as to my intentions for PR (to treat it like a lady, of course).

This blog has been a very successful resource for finding ways to not only join the conversation, but also to ask questions and get them answered by PRos. To say that this blog has been merely instrumental in where I am headed as a recent graduate and practitioner-on-the-verge would be a gross understatement so – I hardly intend to abandon it and the further lessons that could be gleaned from continuing to maintain it.

My question is, where’s the line? Can I afford to discuss my work in an anonymous way in a Web 2.0 world where to join the conversation is to, essentially, have a strong web presence and thus have your job, your work, your personal profile easily accessible? Do I refrain from discussing whatever career/life lessons I learn on this blog? Do I sacrifice my transparency by being secretive about my work? Does it benefit my client at all from any discussion I might have on them?

Any insight would help here, I’m having trouble with this one.

Cinematic Savvy: Cool Hand Luke

Thought I’d get your attention with Mr. Paul Newman.

“What we got here is a failure to communicate.”

This observation from the road crew captain in the film brings to mind several instances where this very truth has caused havoc in my personal and professional (or pre-professional) life. Whether it’s laziness, disdain or sheer ignorance that’s ruptured the flow of healthy verbal relations, it always means another failure is in store.

Relationships – duh. Oprah and a host of highly-qualified psychological professionals say we need communication for our relationships and if it isn’t there, relationships sink.

But in the professional environment, maybe you don’t get emotionally wounded, but lack of communication means your team, and ultimately your client, takes it right in the gut.

I’ve experienced this on both sides. There was an instructor who failed to clearly communicate expectations, due dates and functions of each task assigned and remained unapproachable. This led to a lot of struggling and eventual dissent from the class members who left the class confused about what was assigned, much of it very important to our careers. The one lesson I’ve taken from this example is that you can’t always trust the people you work under to lay it all out for you. I guess.

On the other hand, in leaving town on a planned trip one week, I left my team high and dry without knowing it and accidentally skipped out on a huge deadline because we failed to properly communicate under the urgent circumstances. Luckily, the client was still provided with information they needed in a timely fashion and no bridges were burned.

Now, it would be easy for me to say: this is what happens when there is a failure to communicate. But it can get much worse. When communication is sacrificed, other things are tossed out too: trust of team members and clients, reputation among colleagues and networks and most importantly, the ability to hold yourself to a standard of having decent respect for those you work with and the things you work for. These are big losses.

I hope my examples illustrated that it isn’t always a lack of timely or dependable communication that’s the problem- when I’d gone out of town, my team had attempted to reach me by e-mail rather than phone – but sometimes it’s the quality of what’s communicated that causes a problem. Sincerity, consideration, and professionalism are always appreciated.

Honesty will also score high.

The Cinematic Savvy series is designed to explore themes and ideas from certain films. Inspiration can be drawn from characters, their quotes, their circumstances, historical approaches depicted – it’s my blog, I’ll take it where I get it. I love film and I love PR. Let’s see how they influence me.

*Image courtesy of /www.johnmariani.com