We’re quickly approaching the end of the year, when businesses close out projects and assess their progress for 2013. As attention is turning to plans for 2014, many managers will evaluate their public relations, marketing and communications activities, and consider whether to seek the assistance of an outside firm, or, if the results have not been satisfactory, decide to look for a new agency.
Before becoming an independent consultant, I worked for more than 20 years on the “client side,” in corporations and, early in my career, in government. In a variety of situations, my colleagues and I would interview, evaluate and select public relations firms and counselors. Based on that experience, the following are some important factors to consider in your own deliberations:
(Although these tips are written in the context of evaluating public relations and communications firms – e.g., referring to “they” – the suggestions can also apply to evaluating sole practitioners.)
Are they strategic?
There’s probably no more overused word in business today than “strategic,” yet its true meaning is often overlooked; specifically, the ability to plan acourse of action to achieve a goal or objective. The responsibility of a public relations counsel is to chart a public relations strategy that will, in turn, support an organization’s business strategy.
The communications objectives, for example, might change opinions, increase awareness or establish an organization’s reputation. The key is to have a direction and an ultimate objective – and for that objective to enhance an organization’s overall success.
Too often, however, public relations firms and counselors tout their capabilities, and whether they can utilize the latest in communications tools or innovations. One firm or counselor may showcase their experience in social media; another, in video; or yet another in events that have attracted wide publicity.
A prospective PR firm must have the right capabilities, but it’s important for the client not to become enamored of the “latest shiny thing” in media and communications. Instead the client should ask the firm to demonstrate how it has developed strategies in the past, and applied its capabilities to achieve measurable objectives. If a firm is truly strategic, they’ll be able to answer those questions.
Do they understand your business?
This seems like such a basic requirement for outside counsel, but over the years I’ve been struck by how agencies – whether from public relations, marketing, advertising or other disciplines – don’t always take the time to get to know the business of a prospective client.
Certainly, this requires some perspective: you’re hiring someone for their talents and skills in public relations, not to understand every single aspect of your company or to manage your business overall. Still, I’ve been surprised when people from agencies working with my employer, when offering advice or ideas, demonstrated that they didn’t understand basic aspects of my business.
On the other hand, I can recall pleasant, enlightening – even exciting – experiences during interviews of prospective agencies, when their answers to our questions showed that they had taken the time not only to learn about our company, but to understood key challenges and issues we were facing. It’s in those moments that a prospective agency or counselor shows that it can offer new, helpful insights on how you can succeed in the future.
Do they offer a fresh perspective?
As noted above, along with the understanding of your business, an agency needs to offer fresh perspective on your public relations, marketing or communications programs. In fact, the best counselors can take their knowledge of your company, business and industry and apply it to help your company stand out from its competitors.
Please note: No consultant can bring a fresh perspective to a client’s program if the client is not willing to consider new ideas. In fact, no company or manager should even consider hiring an outside expert if the manager is not open to new perspectives. If you hire a public relations counsel and begin to feel like all you’re doing is giving orders, it might be time to question whether the counsel is really adding value. Likewise, a smart client should expect outside counsel to question old assumptions – diplomatically, to be sure, but to question them nonetheless.
Do they take the initiative?
There’s no “one size fits all” approach to compensating public relations counsel. It may involve payment according to an hourly fee, payment for a specific project or payment of a pre-agreed, monthly retainer.
One case involving compensation structures, however, actually taught me the value of a public relations counsel who takes the initiative. When I was given responsibility for the communications and public relations of a division of my company, I was assigned an agency that had a long-term relationship with the corporation. At first, the agency provided me with great support and counsel. But it experienced management changes, and I was assigned new people.
The compensation was based entirely on hourly fees. I seldom heard from the staff assigned to my account; then, when I called the agency with a simple question, I’d get my answer, but soon afterward get a bill for 15 minutes of counsel. This happened repeatedly – it’s what some might call “nickel and diming.”
I evaluated the relationship, and decided to seek a new agency. The firm we hired convinced me of the value of putting them on a retainer, and once that was signed the agency always took the initiative to contact me with ideas, advice and recommendations. They demonstrated that a valuable public relations counsel will be eager to learn about the client’s business, then “take the first step” to provide assistance and support
What is their reputation – professionally, and ethically?
Getting the answer to this question will involve talking with past clients of the firm, and with other corporate communications executives. When interviewing a firm, the client also can ask if the agency belongs to a professional organization, such as the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) or the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), and if employees are required to adhere to the codes of ethical conduct prescribed by those and similar organizations.
A public relations firm’s responsibility is to help manage the reputation of the client. Before hiring a public relations agency, make sure the agency itself has established its own strong reputation, for integrity as well as expertise – among its clients, competitors and others in the marketplace.
What other factors do you consider important in evaluating a public relations firm?
First, let’s dispel a persistent myth regarding speeches and public speaking: there is no definitive evidence that Americans fear public speaking more than they fear death.
That canard began in the 1970s, when the Book of Lists put public speaking at the top of the list of Americans’ fears, with death coming in second. It was later found that, apparently, those surveyed were just asked to identify their fears, and public speaking was identified more than death. But the respondents were never asked to rank their fears, nor compare the fear of public speaking to that of death.
As for me, if I ever find myself in front of a firing squad and somehow learn of another person who’s been asked to give a speech, I’ll be glad to trade places.
Wherever it may rank, however, there’s no question that the fear of public speaking is very common. To help overcome those fears, I’d like to offer a few tips– specifically, for the first step involved in a public speaking opportunity: writing the speech.
I’ve been a speechwriter throughout my career, and it can be a satisfying opportunity to work with top management and utilize communications to help them achieve important goals. So if you’ve been assigned to write a speech, here are some tips – not a complete “how-to,” but some ideas to consider as you stare at the blank screen:
1. Research the audience. This is a simple step, yet one that can easily be overlooked if the speechwriter is too focused on what the speaker will say. Before beginning to write a speech, find out as much as you can about who will be in the audience, what they’re interested in, what opinions they may have, and what concerns them. The goal, in this step, is not to find out what people want to hear, but to understand the audience as much as possible so that the message of the speech is most effective.
2. Don’t start with a PowerPoint. When meeting with executives to begin preparing speeches, I’ve often been amazed to hear the speaker begin by saying “Let’s start with a PowerPoint,” as if completing a PowerPoint presentation is the same as writing a speech.
Much has been written on how PowerPoint has infiltrated corporate America to the point where some executives cannot speak to any group without it. Yes, PowerPoint has many uses; for example, it can be a great way to illustrate trends or complex data. But it’s a speaker support tool – it’s not a substitute for outlining, then writing, an actual speech.
Instead, start with a thesis. How to form a thesis? A very helpful resource is a book written in 1970, How to Write and Deliver a Speech, by John Ott. Although there are many other books about speech writing (a search of the term on the books section of Amazon.com yielded more than 40,000 entries) this still remains a good, easy-to-use manual for the craft of speechwriting.
Ott writes that a speech can have one of six purposes:
- To inform,
- To persuade,
- To motivate,
- To stimulate,
- To entertain, and
- To commemorate.
Based on the purpose of your speech, how you will achieve that purpose provides the basis for your thesis or objective.
A still-useful guide to structuring the speech is perhaps one of the oldest: A good speech requires a lot of research, organization, writing, re-writing and more re-writing. But one guide for how to structure a speech still resonates:
3. “Tell ‘em what you’re going to say, say it, then tell ‘em what you said.”
Sounds odd, doesn’t it? But you’ve probably listened to many speeches that were structured just in that manner. where the speaker may have opened with a story, joke or other introduction, and then said “Today, I’m going to talk about ______ ” [the thesis; for example, the need to support a ballot measure]. “I’m going to address these three [supporting] points.” Then, at the end, the speaker reiterates those three points, and winds up with a big finish reiterating the main thesis.
You’ve may have heard many speeches organized this way. It’s a popular way to do it, because it works: if the thesis and supporting points are presented in this way, audiences tend to remember them.
4. Don’t be vague or theoretical: be concrete and vivid.
Tell stories; use metaphors; try to “paint a picture.” Here’s one way a portion of a famous speech, delivered in 1963, could have been written:
When our nation was founded, documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution referred to “unalienable rights” of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” which were guaranteed to “all men.” At the time, however, those rights didn’t apply to large segments of the population, including slaves. And even after a Civil War was fought to resolve the question of slavery, and after progress in black-white relations, many black Americans still do not share those same rights. Because they do not fully share in the rights guaranteed in our nation’s founding documents, many people of color remain dissatisfied.
But when he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King made that point, but much more effectively, through the use of a simple image:
When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”
The image of a “ promissory note” was powerful and meaningful for his audience, and remains memorable and vivid today.
5. Write for the ear, not for the eye.
This might be one of the most difficult aspects of speechwriting. In our education, we learn more through reading than through listening. If we then become writers, it’s natural to write with the expectation that what we have written will be read, not spoken.
For the speaker, however, it’s easier and more effective to deliver a speech with short, direct sentences, and with words that begin with more “hard” consonants (for example, k’s, m’s, p’s) than “soft” ones (in particular, s’s). For the listener, simple, active, direct sentences – with varied rhythm and tone – are, for the most part, easier to listen to and follow than long, complex sentences, phrased in the passive voice.
This may be especially important today, where the pace of communications and notoriously short attention spans demand that speakers be more direct, concise and to the point. One example, to perhaps the leading speaker of our day, is President Obama. His speeches contrast to the texts of great speakers of the past (Reagan, Kennedy, King, Roosevelt) in this regard. Obama’s former speechwriter, Jon Favreau, has commented that paring down the words of a draft speech to such direct and active sentences was often his most consuming task when helping the President with a speech text.
6. Leave ‘em wanting more.
Have you ever found yourself listening to a speech and, well into it, you begin to think that it seems that it could have ended a lot sooner? Often, that’s because you’re correct: it probably should have ended a lot sooner.
It can be tempting, in writing a speech, to be so eager to make a point that you load up the text with as much supporting examples, documentation and information as you can, as if you’re doing a summation in a trial. The best speakers, however, know when to stop – they have made their point effectively, supporting that point with well chosen and memorable examples and evidence, and ending at a place where the audience has not only heard it, but is ready to respond: with agreement, action, approval, or whatever the speaker sought to achieve in the occasion. Following a speech, you want the audience to think, “That person is a real authority: I want to know more,” not, “Thank God that’s over.”
These are some ideas to help in the first half of speech preparation: writing the text. The second half involves delivering the speech. I’ll offer some ideas on that in a future blog post.
There are many volumes (as noted earlier, at least 40,000) that offer help in speech writing and delivery. These six recommendations have helped me as a speechwriter: what are principles that you consider important in speech writing?