Crafting and executing an effective communications plan requires long-term vision, daily execution and a strategic direction. These same elements are readily apparent with a successful baseball team.
The best teams research in advance and focus on the fundamentals every game. Sheer talent is only one ingredient, and often the team with the biggest “stars” is not the winner. Rather, those that play every at bat and do not relent until 27 outs are recorded are frequently the victors.
Let’s take a look at how a professional services company can draw parallels from baseball:
Before the Game – Research, Research, Research! – The best players watch video of their upcoming opponents, looking for tendencies and weaknesses. Teams identify lineups that have the greatest probability of success given historical data and determine defensively how to shift fielders to take away hits.
Professional services companies need to know the broad issues that they are looking to comment on in the media. Awareness of developments locally and nationally is critical along with knowing the appropriate outlets and reporters to target. Previous articles on the topic need to be digested and news alerts and legislation tracking need to be set up in advance of major developments.
The Game – State Senator John Johnson Introduces Legislation Aiming to Overhaul Corporate Tax Deductions.
Innings 1-3 – Anything can happen in innings 1-3. However, let’s assume we have a 0-0 game at the end of three. Both pitchers are hanging in there, and while a few hits have been had, no serious scoring threats have materialized.
In terms of a communications plan for this emerging issue, basic execution is critical. Members of the media should be contacted at this early stage to position a designated in-house expert as a “go-to” source – “As you continue to cover Senator Johnson’s proposed overhaul of corporate tax deductions, X is available for comment.”
In addition, byline article opportunities need to be pursued at this stage. Authoring a third-party credentialed article that can be publicized through traditional (physical mail, email, handouts) and social media (Twitter, corporate Facebook page, company blog) channels serves two purposes:
1) It educates clients and potential clients.
2) It often educates reporters looking to learn more about the issue.
Innings 5-7 – Our hypothetical game is a tight, 2-2 affair after five innings.
Success so far has been defined by these outcomes: 1) a response from key reporter thanking your communications department for reaching out and informing them that they will keep X in mind as the legislation advances; 2) the publishing of byline article outlining the potential impact of Johnson’s overhaul bill in client-targeted trade publication. So far, in monitoring media coverage, competing companies have achieved the same or less media attention.
Errors and Pop Outs – Sometimes a routine ground ball is anything but routine. It can clank off a second baseman’s glove, extending an inning and leading to unearned runs. On the other end of the spectrum, a team can load the bases with no outs and fail to score even a run. The premier power hitter in the league can, with two outs, get jammed and hit a high, lazy pop out to end the inning.
Failing to return a reporter’s phone call is one of the ground ball, double play scenarios. Media sources need to advise their communications teams of availability and actually be there to field inquiries.
The power hitter popping out is a company source getting a call from a major publication only to lack focus and try to do too much. Instead of being thoughtful and concise, they prattle on with no cohesive point – working the count full, but resulting in an out and being left out of an article. Alternatively, a source gets greedy and makes overly bombastic claims – trying to create that perfect, home run of a juicy quote – and ends up, again, being bounced from a story (and a reporter’s contact list) entirely as they sky one to shallow left field.
Innings 8 and 9 – These innings are crucial. If you have a slight lead, your bullpen is called on to lock the win down, earning “holds” and a “save” in the process. If you are down, these same players are employed to keep the score as it is and give the offense a chance to come back. In this scenario, we have gone to the top of the 8th (as the home team) ahead 3-2.
We “manufactured” our last run by: 1) taking a walk by pro-actively reaching out to the media during a lull in the bill’s progress; 2) stealing second by catching our competitor not paying attention to media inquiries when the bill passed one legislative body; 3) bunting the runner to third by again reaching out in advance of a scheduled vote – a “productive” out; and 4) hitting a sacrifice fly by lining up a byline article opportunity in advance of final passage.
The end game is to ensure that all media opportunities are taken advantage of, positioning the company and its designated source for business development success. This is why you need an aggressive, 95 mph closer that can shut the door on an opposition. When the bill finally passes, extensive, pin-point pitching to the reporters covering the news takes place, leading to a lock down on numerous commentary opportunities.
This focused approach often leads to a whole new and different ballgame – a potential new client.
You can debate the merits of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s “ban” on working from home until next year (which is likely when we’ll have a sense of whether or not this management move was a winner), but you can’t debate the importance of the HR director’s internal memo in fueling the debate. This “internal” document is featured – complete with proprietary and confidential warnings – on the hallowed tech site AllThingsD.
This clunky internal announcement has been panned alternately (and, in some cases, simultaneously) as Yahoo’s (and, in turn, Mayer’s) broad rejection of working from home as a viable career option; an attack on single mothers and involved parents; reneging on various flex agreements and promises; evidence of a “backward” technology company; and a sure-fire catalyst to mass exodus.
Much of the criticism is the result of what folks are reading into the memo, not the actual content. Sure, it suggests that employees will need to plan to work from the office in June, but it doesn’t say there is no room for discussion or that it’s forever. It doesn’t address issues of childcare benefits (which Yahoo undoubtedly offers). It doesn’t offer severance or job placement assistance for those unable to make the commute (an immediate and pressing concern for those affected by the change). It’s a brief and vague memo that’s clearly angered more than a few Yahoos and many others in the blogosphere judging by the avalanche of posts and comments.
In follow up to days of widespread criticism, Yahoo issued a response:
“This isn’t a broad industry view on working from home,” it said. “This is about what is right for Yahoo right now.”
So why not say that in the first place?
The take-away here: There is no such thing as internal communication. In our hyper-connected world, internal documents are also external documents. Why leave it to employees or, worse yet, the industry to speculate on your intentions?
It’s not enough to have the HR team draft up your internal memos, or the legal team, or the management team or even the PR team. Smart companies look to all of these resources and leverage their respective strengths and perspectives. Think of communications like a load of laundry. They have to go through all the cycles – soak, wash, rinse, spin and dry.
Solid communications planning anticipates questions in advance and provides answers or a clear path for getting the answers. Yahoo may need to reevaluate its resources – either that or the PR team just scored a home run because it seems everyone’s talking about the Yahoo working from home ban!
The New Year is still in its infancy, and there is no better time to craft a list of professional resolutions. Hopefully, you’ve finally digested that fruitcake and are now knee-deep in thoughts on how to have a more dynamic and successful year. To ease into the process, the following are easy steps for super-charging your marketing and communications efforts in 2013.
1) Spend 15 Minutes Updating Your Bio
Shut the door, close Outlook and really consider whether or not your firm bio says what you want it to say about you and your practice. Study it to ensure it contains all your salient achievements (significant matters, articles written, speaking engagements). If you are stuck, and as your door is already closed, go through the exercise of introducing yourself to a potential client out loud. If your bio isn’t conveying that message, then change it so it does.
2) Spend More Than 15 Minutes on Your Self-Evaluation
Riding the bus home the other day, I noticed a man awkwardly contorted over a laptop and scanning through a Word document. I peeked a little closer and realized he was a lawyer working on a self-evaluation. Having read dozens of these, I’ve seen that the effort put in is, at times, minimal. Your self-evaluation can serve as a central source from which you operate, provided you put real effort into it. Like the bio, this is an exercise that requires your attention and some serious self-reflection — not exactly in abundance in today’s harried workplace. Consider purposely coming in a half-hour to an hour before you normally do, closing the door and focusing.
3) Spend 15 Minutes a Day Reading the News
My line of work goes part-and-parcel with the news, so I read multiple newspapers every day. By doing so, it is possible to identify issues to pair with attorney clients who may be in a position to serve as an expert source — or at least to add their educated perspective on the emerging issue at a cocktail party. This practice affords great fluency in the issues of the day (both banal and weighty). By taking just a few minutes to go through the news, online or in print, you will find more to talk about with others, as well as trends and issues that connect naturally to your business. Your commute is a great time to do this — Angry Birds can wait.
4) Take Your Marketing and Communications Team Members to Lunch
Sure, I love a good meal, but I also really appreciate the opportunity to learn more about the lawyers with whom I work. A meal is an opportunity to mutually learn about each other professionally and to connect on a personal level. The more knowledge the marcom team has about who you are and your practice, the more these individuals can help you achieve the goals you have laid out in your self-evaluation — whether through securing byline article opportunities, scouting for speaking engagements or finding the right words to encapsulate your expertise when writing proposals.
5) Attend One Industry Group Event
Beyond CLE requirements, identify and go to a presentation by either a local bar association group or an industry trade group. Take your business card with you and try and make at least three connections. (One trick, for those who tend to be a little shy, is to take five business cards and allow yourself to leave only after they’ve been given out.) Industry group events are great from both an educational standpoint and for networking.
6) Write a Byline Article
There are publications for every industry and robust legal trade publications locally and nationally. Find a niche topic in your area of law that you would like to address from an educational perspective, contact your marcom team and have them find an opportunity and then write — it’s typically only 1,200 words we’re talking about here.
Publishing a byline article will bolster your bio, provide a quality collateral item to send to clients and may ignite the writer within. You may also find yourself getting calls from reporters as you have demonstrated expertise and can serve as a valuable source when they are drafting articles or from peers looking to round out a speaking panel or, better yet, from potential clients. (Psst! It also is a nice accomplishment to highlight come review time.)
7) Engage Beyond Work with Clients
It is often said, but rarely really considered, that relationships are crucial in building and maintaining business. Even a silly sitcom like The Office provides examples of this principle in action. In season two, when paper company executive Michael Scott (played by Steve Carell) gets the business of Lackawanna County (home county of Scott’s fictional Dunder Mifflin), the sale wasn’t closed based purely on price. Scott, much to the chagrin of his boss, spent a long evening at Chili’s building rapport with the county executive while making convincing points about why Dunder Mifflin, although more expensive than big box retailers, was a better choice. The scene is hyperbole, but the core message is true — people like doing business with people they personally understand and enjoy.
Look everywhere for opportunities to connect with your clients and build relationships. For instance, every year I like to see what schools are in the NCAA basketball tournaments and then I’ll reach out to lawyers with whom I work when their alma mater has a great game. It’s enjoyable to connect with my clients beyond the issues, and it provides an opening to deepen both our professional and personal relationships. Use all of the data you get — schools attended, birthdays (something perhaps to add to a client intake sheet), publicly available social media and tidbits dropped in conversations — to really engage and connect.
By taking the time and being disciplined, you can craft and implement an effective marketing and communications plan for 2013. The goal of all of these exercises is simple — maintain and develop more business in the New Year. That is a resolution I think we can all agree on.
This article originally appeared on Law360 on Feb. 13, 2013.
Listen up, litigators (and dealmakers)! We are aware of the amazing high you get when the jury delivers that winning verdict after a hard-fought trial for which years of your life were spent in preparation – or when those transactional documents are signed, sealed and delivered after many days and nights of intense negotiations in an enclosed room with recirculated air. Ah, sweet VICTORY!!!
But wait, you want to share the news, right? You want the world (or at least your friends and foes) to know it was you and your amazing team that got the job done. Well, remember to call in your communications team before you send out an all-firm email celebrating your success. After all, news – unlike the ubiquitous holiday fruitcake or the recently departed Twinkie – has a shelf life. Reporters like it when it is fresh.
The news cycle is never-ending. News breaks 24/7. Citizens (and reporters) are tweeting from the courtroom, so results are circulated within minutes of being read. The recent Apple-Samsung verdict – which had many components – was live tweeted. Investors are speculating and corporate PR machines humming along and poised for immediate disclosure. There are no “presses” to stop for breaking news. Reporters need the “news” of your victory within minutes because the deadlines for the web are relentless. Good news is like milk on your countertop – wait too long and no one wants to touch it.
We’ve been “breaking” legal news for more than two decades, and we used to have the luxury of “picking” our timing. A verdict read late on a Friday – traditionally undesirable news timing because you don’t want to be in that skinny, overlooked Saturday edition – might be held for release on Monday morning, after the celebratory hangovers have subsided, talking points have been vetted and client approvals confirmed twice. Well, just like sending press releases via U.S. Postal Service, this is a communications practice of the past.
If you’d like news coverage of your case or deal, it needs to be communicated as soon as possible after the big verdict is read or deal closure secured. Better yet, let’s chat in advance and get it all ready to go – “just in case.” Consider creating a mini-communications “strike force” – prepared with sources, talking points and materials for all possible outcomes. Bear in mind that confidentiality agreements exist for a reason and we are disciplined when it comes to safeguarding your information.
Competition is stiff. If you’re not sharing the news, but the other side is beating its chest and screaming about an appeal, you may see some coverage, but it will likely quote the attorney who was sitting on the other side of the courtroom or across the table.
We PR-types don’t mean to be buzzkills, but please don’t wait to move on big news. We exist in symbiotic relationships with you, our clients – and we enjoy popping a few bottles ourselves upon getting the right message out at the right time and into the right vehicles.
When it comes to news, think fresh.
On Monday, the New York Times ran a story on Coca-Cola’s latest website revamp. It is being molded into a publication, complete with stories and an editorial calendar, that the company is titling Coca-Cola Journeys. This may seem a bit extreme. Let’s be honest, this is a beverage company not The Atlantic. Yet, the company makes a solid point that its products are often constants in our changing lives. This uber-brand awareness is exactly the sort of thing that professional services companies should look to achieve.
As your company grows, XYZ Law has always been there.
Take a look at this passage from the piece on the Coca-Cola website:
The journey to introducing Coca-Cola Journey began about a year ago when Muhtar A. Kent, chairman and chief executive, “challenged us to find a way to bring back Journey (the title of an internal Coca-Cola publication from 1987-1997) in the digital age,” Mr. Brown said. “And we thought, ‘Why should our great Coke story stay internal?’ ”
The use of the word “story” is significant because the website changes are indicative of the growing interest among marketers in recasting their communications with consumers as storytelling rather than advertising. Just as attention is being paid to developing content to use for brand storytelling, an appetite also exists for corporate storytelling.
Telling a story is exactly what professional services companies need to do in communications. Client engagement is a critical.
Why not recast your website in a more story-focused vein?
- How did your use of an expiring tax cut save a company substantial money?
- What is the story behind the new school that is now populated by bright-eyed students?
- Share a story of firm-wide teamwork on a major case. Talk about the contributions across the board and the decades of expertise that were called upon. And, mention the piles of pizza boxes on a Saturday when the team had to come in to the office.
Besides websites, there are numerous opportunities to employ storytelling to engage an audience and demonstrate expertise. Consider writing byline articles for trade publications or pursuing speaking engagements before target audiences.
The reality is that the tax code by itself, or the text of a building permit or the letter of the law all can be fairly overwhelming in scope and underwhelming in interest to even those that are deeply reliant upon your mastery of them. Effectively communicating how you, as a professional service company, utilize experience and education to navigate these complicated areas is essential to proving your worth and forging lasting relationships where the client truly understands your role.
Whether directly or indirectly, the story you can tell is that of your clients. I realize it is hyperbolic to think, as perhaps Coke’s marketers do, that people look back on memories and think about their soda. However, professional services firms play a more important role than just an accessory. They help companies achieve great things and get through difficult periods.
The stories of professional service companies and individuals are compelling. They just need to be carefully crafted and effectively trumpeted.
What is the best message when it comes to politics? Well, professional services companies would be well-advised to avoid taking a public stance in favor of one candidate or another. Today, it was reported that Howard Schultz, founder and CEO of Starbucks, endorsed President Obama. Although it is inexorably intertwined with Schultz in many minds, Starbucks as a company posted this extremely on-point message to its Facebook feed that walked-back his action somewhat:
A major election is a time to avoid appearing partisan and potentially losing market share for a non-product or service reason. However, if you have a passionate member of the c-suite who is quite visible, consider aping the message that Starbucks put out. Voting appeals to both sides.
If you need more – humorous or serious – tips for navigating politics in the workplace, give this article in Bloomberg Businessweek a read.