Communications is notorious for moving at breakneck speed; I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people say that a PR year is like a dog year. We juggle communicating with stakeholders from our own teams, to customers, to journalists, to analysts, and with partners, not to mention the higher-ups in our own companies – and they have stakeholders too! All this collaboration and co-ordination needs thought and not just snap judgments. But if you put that on top of all the other mental load that we’ve been experiencing this year, you’ve got a super-quick recipe for burnout.
The Roots of Slow Thinking
But why is this? It’s not just stress and fear of the pandemic – to really understand this we have to go a little deeper. We tend to quote Daniel Kahneman a lot, either in pieces for this newsletter or our own sales collateral, because his work is very important to reputation – and his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, is a banger*.
The primary thesis in TFAS is that humans prefer to ‘think fast’. We run on automatic, we take shortcuts, we become creatures of habit – whether that’s preferring Sainsbury’s over Tesco, McDonald’s over Burger King, or whatever else. This is because this automatic, ‘fast’ thinking is less energy-consuming than the alternative. Thinking ‘slowly’, deeply, or however you want to refer to it, is literally an energy drain. It’s tiring.
And during the pandemic, we’ve all had to think more slowly. Where do I need to wear a mask? How many people can I socialise with? Am I following the latest government guidelines? Am I more than two metres away from that dogwalker on the pavement? Do I have hand sanitiser with me? Is it safe to go to the cinema?
Every single time you force your brain to think, it’s working out like an Olympic athlete. When you add all of this to the fast-paced world of comms and it’s no wonder people are exhausted – it’s been a tiring year! Clearly, the same is true for other industries as well – it’s not just comms, it’s HR, it’s sales, and so on – any part of the business that went into over-drive has been running on empty for some time.
Can I Think Fast and Still Get the Job Done?
As a manager or director in comms, it’s a tough job to balance looking after your team and still getting the job done, because a lot of our work is ‘thinking slow’, deliberate, considered work. There will be some jobs – reports and the like – that can be done on automatic, but in general, it’s better to look at measures where you can save mental energy to begin with. So here are a few starters for ten:
– Know Thyself: You can’t do a good job if you’re not looking after yourself, so be aware of whether you’re having an especially bad / tiring day. Be kind to yourself and remember that we’re living through a pandemic and that’s incredibly hard.
– Know Your Team: They’ll be having ‘off days’ as well, and that’s ok. Everyone will have felt the strain of the pandemic differently, so keep an eye on them, force them to be kind to themselves. Above all, make sure they’re taking holidays!
– Trust (and use) Your Team: With any luck, not everyone will be having a bad day at the same time, and while we’re not saying to ‘push everything down’ and delegate wildly, your team is there to support you – so make use of them (and vice versa). Sometimes this means getting someone else to check that email you’ve just written if you know you’re having an off-day because you’ve exhausted yourself mentally and sometimes it’s doing that for someone else.
– Rest Properly: The urge to ‘fight back to normal’ at weekends can be strong, so if you’re busy during the week, don’t push yourself to catch up with *all* your friends and relatives at the weekend, because that requires lots of thought, and although it might be good for you on a social level, it’s also draining. Get the balance right.
– Insist on Routines: Routines are mental shortcuts (‘thinking fast’) – and as you build habits and get into them, you can ‘think fast’ about them, rather than always having to ‘think slow’. Similarly, avoid unnecessary distractions – unsubscribe from newsletters (not Firefly’s, obviously) and try not to multi-task too much. This will help to conserve that valuable mental energy!
As I write this, the government is issuing new guidelines on how many people can gather in public in the UK, and the news sites are speculating about the possibility of curfews being introduced. The Economist is warning that unless we can beat Covid globally, we won’t beat it at all – and even the most optimistic estimate doesn’t see us beating the pandemic before the end of 2020. In short – it ain’t over yet.
This means that we need to start – or continue – measures to adapt to this temporary (but lengthy) difficult period. Most of us have our masks, hand sanitiser and (where appropriate) home offices set up, but now it’s time to make sure that we’re being kind to ourselves, realise the impact that the pandemic has on our mental states, and adapt sustainably so that we can continue communicating efficiently and effectively.
* Put it next to Oren Klaff’s Pitch Anything and Kotter’s Leading Change and you’ve got three of the best communications books in the world.
In recent months, there has been an undisputed rise in discussions around corporate purpose. Many organisations are discussing how to be better workplaces, serve their customers more effectively and are carefully examining what they stand for. But there does seem to be a divide between companies that treat this exercise as a re-hashing of the old ‘vision and mission’ straplines and those who are treating it as an opportunity to seriously reconsider what they stand for.
What is Purpose?
There’s a lot of ambiguity around the topic of purpose. Many firms treat their sustainability initiatives as statements of organisational purpose, which can lead to a very narrow focus. However, some have taken the bold step in defining a purpose that resonates through not just marketing and the C-suite, but through every part of their operations.
I struggled to find many landmark reports on the subject but EY’s Beacon Institute released a report in September 2019, defining purpose as “an aspirational reason for being which inspires and provides a call to action for an organization and its partners and stakeholders and provides benefit to local and global society.”
The first two sections, in italics and bold, are not too different from a standard company mission, but it’s the last part, in underline, that sets it apart. It’s the intention to make organisations not only offer valuable products and services, but also to serve society in some way. In the words of the Harvard Business Review, to “connect with the heart as well as the head” or Bizfluent, “how you will improve the lives of those you serve”.
Now, we’ve had a number of discussions about whether the benefits do need to be both local and global, because the latter is a big ask! However, there are a number of bigger questions in my view, including how purpose can be balanced with profit, and who should be accountable for company purpose.
Can Purpose be Profitable?
According to Gallup, when companies get their purpose right, it can make a difference. When a company’s purpose – and the corresponding behaviour – line up, customers will give the brand 47% ‘share of wallet’ (i.e. their spending on that category) than a non-aligned brand, which only receives 23% of ‘walletshare’. Gallup also cites a few good examples of purpose statements, including this one from Southwest Airlines in the US: “To connect people to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable, and low-cost air travel” – and this has clear implications for the entire brand experience.
Similarly, looking at EY’s research, 42% of ‘purpose laggards’ report flat or declining revenue compared to only 15% of purpose ‘prioritisers’, so the report seems to imply that revenue growth is somehow linked to corporate purpose. I’m extremely hesitant of correlating purpose and performance because I suspect that it’s linked to a third variable. I don’t have any data to back this up, but it’s entirely possible that organisations that have the time and resources to develop their purpose are likely to be larger, leaner and potentially more successful firms.
Furthermore, there’s the problem of definition. Some might argue that SW Airlines’ purpose statement doesn’t provide benefit to global and local society, only global and local travellers – after all, according to Wikipedia, the aviation industry is responsible for 3.5% of all climate change. That said, this reminds me of an episode of the philosophical Netflix comedy The Good Place, where one character works out that most humans are being sent to hell because of ‘unintended consequences’. For example, the apple that we buy in the supermarket on the first day of turning vegan was shipped on a plane, adding to global warming. Its plastic packaging is thrown away and later chokes a dolphin, etc.
It’s important to remember, though, that most initiatives need to start small, then grow. Even Google was a small organisation at one stage, so any change can begin to have a bigger impact further on down the line, and we can begin to tackle those ‘unintended consequences’.
Accountability and Cost
One of the other key challenges with building company purpose is accountability. The natural main stakeholder for company purpose is the CEO. In a traditional, non-purpose-driven organisation, shareholders shout at you if you don’t achieve goals – but who shouts at you if you don’t have a purpose? Potentially no-one.
But there is a longer-term cost to a lack of purpose, or a purpose statement that is poorly executed. Employees will leave. They’ll be less motivated. You’ll lose the halo effect of a good reputation. And when ‘reputational value’ makes up 41% of the value of the FTSE 100, that’s not something to be sniffed at – in fact, it’s just under a trillion pounds.
Furthermore, there’s the absolute cost. That if we don’t want dissatisfied customers – or, considering purpose from a sustainable standpoint – a greater number of hot, wet summers, droughts or to run out of resources, we’re going to have to find this balance a lot, lot more in our lives. But this can be hard.
Time to Get Creative
A contact of mine, a careers coach, used to tell her ‘coachees’ that it was daft to tell people that they could do anything. You can’t, she’d say, become an astronaut. It’s really hard, your country might not even have a space programme, and you might wear glasses (or something).
I’ve got to say I disagree. If you really want to be an astronaut and wear glasses, then start your own spaceship company, or join the Virgin Galactic programme. Admitting defeat is creativity failure. Sometimes creative suggestions might seem crazy, but then it’s important to remember that sometimes crazy can work. For example, no-one thought NASA’s idea of lowering the Curiosity Rover down to Mars using a ‘sky crane’ (essentially a UFO with a winch) would work, but after testing, it became the only viable option – and performed perfectly.
Of course, sometimes the biggest barrier to developing corporate purpose isn’t creativity, it’s the potential for reducing revenue. In the short term, this may well be true, but a good purpose also has the long-term potential to transform a company, motivating employees and maintaining relevance. It’s like any kind of transformation – if companies are smart enough to take their eyes off quarterly targets for a moment, look at the bigger picture and cut the staff some slack, it gives them space to manoeuvre.
Furthermore, in an age when simply running a profitable business is growing ever-harder, finding a purpose may seem like a tough thing to do. But in the absolute long term, it’s the right thing to do if organisations are to retain customers better, create a robust reputation and help to sustain the planet. So perhaps the right question isn’t ‘can profit and purpose co-exist’ but ‘why aren’t they co-existing right now?’
For many brands, the New Year brings new budgets, and with them, new marketing campaigns. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the idea of planning a new campaign, don’t worry – you’re not alone. The sheer volume of channels and tactics available to every single marketer today is daunting by itself, let alone trying to corral them into a coherent, impactful campaign.
And it’s a New Year! Are you worried if you haven’t kicked off an exciting new campaign by the first week of January? Be careful and don’t rush – starting a campaign with rushed objectives can backfire badly.
This confusion and concern about disciplines, channels and tactics doesn’t have an impact on just you. Unless you’re absolutely crystal clear on what you’re looking to achieve, then your marketing or communications team – and any suppliers you work with – could fire off in completely the wrong direction as well. If your remit is broader than our UK shores and you have pan European marketing, communications or PR campaigns kicking off in many countries, how do you give enough guidance in a brief without being overly prescriptive?
We’ve had written briefs that are 180 pages, and briefs that are one page. We’ve had verbal briefs lasting between four hours and sometimes just five minutes. If you’re looking for some agency inspiration, the clue is in the name – be brief – allow them to ask questions, give room for some elasticity and imagination. If a brief is so lengthy and descriptive, it becomes more of an instruction manual rather than an invitation to suggest ideas and solutions to problems.
Metaphorically speaking, it’s times like this that trying to give an appropriate length brief might have you wondering if you need thermal long johns or lightweight tighty-whities, but don’t worry – we’ve got some helpful suggestions to cover all bases.
The three B’s for perfect-sized briefs are: Business, Brevity and Budget.
Regardless of whether you’re the founder of a start-up and handling the marketing yourself, or a senior marketer with a large team and a diktat from the C-level, don’t panic. Take a deep breath and think about your business goals. That is what you should be working towards. That’s the top line of what your brief should specify, and sometimes that’s almost everything an agency needs to know.
Once you’ve got a bit more clarity and a good download from wider stakeholders, you can embark on writing the RFP. Regardless of whether you’re putting pen to paper, or talking an agency through the specifics face-to-face or via Webex, there are a few things that you should remember if you want to get the most back from an ‘elastic’ brief:
Agencies understand that no-one has unlimited funds, and not everyone can go over the budget. Any client should have realistic guidelines as to how much they want to spend. Then you should be able to compare agencies and work out what you can and can’t expect to be achieved.
If in doubt – and if you work with other countries that manage similar marketing, communications or PR agencies – look at what they’re spending and take that as a starter.
Investing the time to create a thoughtful, business-oriented brief that provides transparency about what your business is really looking for in a communications partner is key. This process ensures that you receive quality proposals and pitches that are directly aligned with the business strategy of the organisation, allowing you to handpick the most suitable PR partner going forward, whose strategies will complement and drive your communications programme forward to achieve your desired business outcomes. Read here for more guidance.
Oh, ‘networking’, that mucky word that has people either reaching for their business cards or frantically thinking of excuses why they simply can’t attend that event or function.
Don’t be scared. Embrace it. But be true to yourself in doing so. And this is why:
Networking connects people together, and this connection may or may not bear fruit one day. It doesn’t necessarily mean winning a contract or making a newbiz contact but meeting someone new who enriches your life in any way – an insightful comment, an experienced operator, or tips or tricks for doing better business. Networking, especially online, is an opportunity to learn, share and gain insight as much as gain contacts, business or even find a new job! Getting to know people truthfully could lead to the beginning of a mutually beneficial relationship, especially if you have enough in common to stay in touch.
Many people are afraid of networking, but we network every day – with our family, colleagues and friends. It’s no worse that walking into your local boozer or wine bar and introducing yourself to your mate’s mate (in fact, you’ll be surprised that in practice it’s actually a lot easier than that). Just prepare a little patter to explain who you are, what you are about and maybe what you do. Keep it short, make it entertaining if possible, and see if what you are saying registers at all or if their eyes glaze over.
You already know the net worth of your network? In what way has your network brought benefit to you personally or professionally. That is its true net worth. If you throw out a post or question, do people respond, or react? Will they help you? You can calculate time saved, costs saved and corners shortened by going directly to your network for help, answers or suggestions but networks must work both ways. As so often in life it is better to give than receive so be generous with your support to your network and you will reap your reward.
Whether you like it or not, if you work in business, then you have to build a strong network (and LinkedIn in makes it so easy; sites like Meetup.com are also invaluable for finding new events in your field of interest). If you want to sharpen your networking skills, add a little sparkle to your conversation, overcome your fears of walking into a room full of strangers or build your confidence in how to meet people (or get away from people) then come on my networking course which is run by the PRCA. It’s half a day of hilarious fun and by the end everyone leaves the room brimming with ideas and confidence.
Finally, if you want more tips on networking, check out our MD Phil Szomszor’s blog post on sociable business networking – it was written back in 2010, but the advice is just as relevant today.