Leadership Miscommunication: The Seven Deadly Spins of Connecting with Employees

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Leadership Miscommunication The Seven Deadly Spins of Connecting with Employees By Jay Robb

What PR pros say, what employees think and what leaders can do instead.


“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” - George Bernard Shaw

“The difference between a good leader and a great leader is humility.” - James Collins

“The motto of a great leader is talk less, do more.” - Patricio Telman Chincocolo


Table of Contents Introduction………………………..…….4 First Principles......................................7 Spin #1: Social media..........................15 Spin #2: Videos & podcasts.................20 Spin #3: Coffee chats & breakfasts…..24 Spin #4 : Thought leadership...............29 Spin #5: Strategic planning..................34 Spin #6: Speechwriting........................40 Spin #7: Town halls..............................47 Postscript: PR advice for leaders……..52 Postscript: PR advice for PR pros…….56

Acknowledgements..............................61 About Jay………………………………..62


Introduction That sounds awful, said my boss. She was asking for new ways to communicate with faculty and staff. So I pitched an old idea. You could host breakfast meetings, I said. Invite a dozen different faculty and staff every month to join you for breakfast. No death by PowerPoint. No prepared remarks. No agenda. Just an hour of informal conversation.


INTRODUCTION

I’d introduced breakfast meetings at two previous organizations. We invited everyone from new hires and awardwinners to opinion leaders and justpromoted supervisors. Sure, the conversations were sometimes slow to start and could get a little stilted. But the breakfasts seemed like time well spent. And who didn’t want to have breakfast with the boss?

I’d never heard a leader say this before. And, to be honest, I'd never given it much thought. I didn’t empathize with the employees who were pushing eggs and bacon around their plates and hoping they wouldn’t get called on to talk about their favourite vacation spot, the latest show they’re watching on Netflix and the one thing they love, and the one thing they’d change, about their jobs.

No one wants to have breakfast with the boss, said my boss. People are just being polite. She said awkward and forced conversations would add up to an all-round awful experience. A waste of a good hour.

I’d spent 28 years in public relations helping leaders get the word out. I paid zero attention to the employees on the receiving end of all that communication. I’d sometimes remember to ask employees what they wanted to hear from the leader. But I didn’t ask how they wanted to be communicated with, when, how often or if they even needed to hear from the leader. What employees wanted finished a distant third behind keeping leaders happy and keeping myself busy and employed.

So she nixed the idea and proposed something better. Instead of summoning a random group for bagels in the boardroom, she’d join their regularly scheduled team meetings as a guest. And she’d make time for post-meeting tours if the teams offered. She sent out an email and teams were quick to extend invitations. The conversations were better and my boss was in her element. She got to be curious, listen more than she talked and show genuine appreciation for the day-to-day work being done by the teams. As an added bonus, she’d recap the visits and tours when meeting with other people from across and outside the organization. My boss passed on breakfast meetings not because she didn’t want to play host but because she didn’t want to make people endure them. She empathized with everyone who’d start stressing the moment they got the invitation, second-guess and overthink everything they said during the longest breakfast of their lives and then bolt as soon as the hour was up.

With breakfast meetings off the table, I revisited the other greatest hits from my leadership communications playbook. Were these tried tactics no longer true? I was also rethinking that playbook from a new vantage point. For the first time in my career, I wasn’t working in a central PR department or camped out in a president’s office. I was now closer than ever to the frontlines. I went from being the sender to a receiver of leadership comms. I didn’t spend my days in meetings with senior executives and PR pros. Instead, I went to meetings with colleagues who didn’t work in PR and were preoccupied with other priorities.


INTRODUCTION It was a good reminder that not everyone rolls into work hoping today’s the day they get a three-page memo, a five-minute video or an all-staff invite from the leader. So I spent part of the pandemic rethinking what I thought I knew about leadership communications while also reflecting on all the senior leaders I’d worked with over nearly 30 years.

That rethinking and reflecting led to Leadership Miscommunication and what I’m calling the seven deadly spins of leadership communications. For each of the deadly spins, I’ll sum up what PR pros typically say, what employees think and what leaders can do instead. Happy to hear if you think I’ve hit or missed the mark. Send me an email at jayrobb@cogeco.ca. Cheers,

The Seven Deadly Spins of Leadership Communications You should be all over social media. You should be the star of a podcast or video series.

Jay

You should invite everyone to have coffee or breakfast with you.

December 2021

You should be a thought leader. You should invite everyone to help write the strategic plan. You should hire a speechwriter. You should host regular all-staff meetings.


First Principles of Leadership Communications


FIRST PRINCIPLES Before getting to the seven deadly spins of leadership communications, let’s start with some first principles. I’ve based these principles on my experiences working with, and watching, dozens of senior leaders from five organizations over the past 28 years. I took lots of notes. Some of these leaders were exceptional communicators. A few made you wonder if the hiring committees had played a cruel joke. Either way, there were always lessons to be learned. Here's the PR advice I'd give to leaders. #1. BE A LEADER OF FEWER WORDS. One of two things happen every time you communicate. We either stop what we’re doing and pay attention or we ignore you. What we do is up to you.

You’ll condition us to tune you out if you use a lot of words to say little or nothing at all. So for your sake and ours, only communicate when you have something to say that’s important, relevant, urgent and can only be said by you. Put others to work in getting the word out – especially our immediate supervisors who, research shows, are the ones we prefer and trust as communicators. And when you do communicate, use weekend words.

Talk with us the way you talk to your kids, grandkids or neighbours. No one likes to feel stupid and we’re too busy doing our jobs to consult Dictionary.com. So please don’t be a sesquipedalian (that’s a nonweekend word for someone who overuses big words). Spare us the slow build and cut to the chase in your communications. Not everything needs to be a story and you don’t always need to be our Storyteller-in-Chief. There’s no rule that says you must lead every communication with a context-setting “as you may recall” refresher of what’s already been said and done (there’s a reason Netflix lets us skip the “previously on” recaps and title sequences to the shows they stream). If you can say what needs saying in a fivesentence email, don’t send us a two-page memo, a five-minute video or make us sit through a 90-minute town hall. Ruthlessly edit your communications. I know an anti-sesquipedalian leader of fewer words. He emails his team a monthly update that’s never more than 100 words and often less than 60. He uses bullet points. There’s no musing, pontificating or sharing of deep thoughts. It’s just “here’s our department’s priorities for the month”, “here’s who’s joined our department so let’s welcome them aboard” and “here’s some of the amazing work being done by our colleagues so let’s congratulate them”. I look forward to reading this leader’s emails even though I don’t work for him and I have 3,015 emails in my inbox (more than a few are unopened).


FIRST PRINCIPLES

I also worked for a leader who threw a stuffed animal at you (I think it was a moose) whenever you stopped making sense and started loving the sound of your own voice a little too much. I never saw anyone throw the stuffed animal at the leader. It wasn’t out of fear. You just never had to guess what this leader was saying and he never wasted your time with unnecessary communication. He was a leader of fewer words. He knew you had a job to do so he kept his communications / interruptions to a minimum. As a result, when he spoke, everyone listened. #2. WE REALLY ONLY NEED TO KNOW THREE THINGS ABOUT YOU. It’s nice to know that you’ve just adopted a rescue dog and you’re a huge fan of Ted Lasso on Apple TV+. It’s also nice to know more about what books you’re reading, where you plan to spend your next vacation and what’s on the playlist for your daily 5K morning runs. But here’s all we need to know about you as our leader. Aim to answer these three questions early and often in your communications. Do you know what you’re doing? I worked for a steel company that year after year ranked as one of the best places to work. The company that ran the rankings surveyed employees to measure their level of engagement. All the companies that made the list as top employers had the same two key drivers of employee engagement – employees were confident in senior leadership and they were proud to work for the organization.

So, are we confident that you’ll take us to the promised land or do we worry with good reason that you’ll drive us into the ditch and cost us our jobs? Will you make us proud to be part of our organization or leave us embarrassed to publicly admit where we work? We don’t expect you to have all the answers but we are counting on you to at least know where to take our organization and how to get us there. Do you know that we’re doing a good job and going above and beyond? How we will know if you know this? Because you’ll publicly and privately say “good job” and ‘thanks for going above and beyond.” It was the late Mary Kay who said “the two things that people want more than sex or money are recognition and praise.” You don’t need to give us pink Cadillacs – an enthusiastic public shout-out and a sincere private note of thanks will do the trick. Do you know how lucky you are to be leading us? Leading is a privilege. Working for our organization is a privilege. Nothing is quite as demoralizing as working for a leader who’s suffering from an acute case of entitlement and counting the days until they retire or move on to bigger and better things. You can’t fake pride in our organization, no matter what your PR team tells you to say and do. You either have it or you don’t and we always know when it’s not there in a leader. You can’t fake it once you’ve made it.


FIRST PRINCIPLES

I worked with a pair of senior leaders who weren’t thrilled to be with us. In case you didn’t know this, they told you. They let everyone know they deserved and were destined for something bigger and better. They were doing us a favour by slumming it in our organization. To no one’s surprise and everyone’s relief, they didn’t last long. The best thing about their brief tenure was that it ended without the obligatory farewell party in the staff lounge.

#3. WE PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT FOUR GROUPS SAY ABOUT YOU. Your actions speak louder than whatever words your PR pro can dream up. And your actions with these four groups will speak loudest of all. Think of these groups as your character witnesses. Do they respect you? Trust you? Like you? If they do, we’ll follow your lead. There’s your senior leadership team. Do they sing your praises? Do they say nothing? Or do they groan, gripe, grouse and grumble whenever you’re not around? We also notice if your leadership team’s cohesive and high-performing or if they’re a dysfunctional hot mess with knives out for each other. If you can’t lead your team, what hope is there that you can you lead an entire organization? It’s no coincidence that the best leader I ever worked for had assembled the strongest senior leadership dream team I’ve yet to see in action. Any one of them could’ve been president.

Yet I never once heard anyone on that team throw the president or their colleagues under the bus. While they had epic knockdown debates in the boardroom, they were a united front once decisions were made. There are the executive assistants, admin assistants and receptionists who work for you and in the executive wing / Hall of Justice. They see you at your best and worst and when your guard’s down because no one else is around. Are you a pleasure or a pain to work for? A mensch or a menace to their mental health? Do you smile, scowl or wander through the office with your head in the clouds? There are the frontline employees who you run into every day – the security guards, parking attendants, cleaning staff, maintenance and facilities crews and cafeteria workers. Do you say good morning and good night? Do you know their names? Do you ask about their families? If you see litter in a hallway, do you stop to pick it up? Do you wash out your coffee mug or dump it in the lunch room sink? How you treat the people who get paid the least in our organization reveals a lot about your character. And you should know that word will get around if you had $32,514 worth of new furniture delivered to your office and had the walls painted three times until it was the exact shade of pale oak and hague blue that matches the walls and trim at your Muskoka lakeside summer home.


FIRST PRINCIPLES

I worked for a leader who didn’t have gourmet lunches delivered to his office. Instead, he took every guest, including VIPs, to the cafeteria. They picked up cellophanewrapped ham and cheese-slice sandwiches on Wonder Bread and cans of Coke. How did I know this? The cafeteria workers talked all about it. And finally, there are the long-service employees. They’ve seen many leaders come and go. What’s their first impression of you? Who do you remind them of? How do you compare to your predecessors? These employees have finely tuned BS detectors. Are you setting them off? Maybe you can fool some people some of the time. Bank on fooling long-service employees none of the time. #4. JUST BECAUSE YOU CAN DOESN'T MEAN YOU SHOULD. Yes, you could be on TikTok, host a Clubhouse Room and launch a Discord server. It’s never been easier to shoot a video, put out a podcast or take centre stage in a virtual event complete with polls, live chat and breakout rooms. Resist the urge to try everything. Rein in your PR pros who want to test drive something shiny and new with you strapped behind the wheel. Remember, your credibility is on the line every time you communicate. Ask your PR team why you should do something new. “Because everyone else is doing it” or “no one else is doing it yet” are the wrong answers. “Because it’ll help advance the strategic priorities of our organization,” is the only right answer.

Early in my career, I created PowerPoint decks for leaders. PowerPoint was a new technology. These decks were loaded with bad clip art and used dozens of fonts, every colour of the rainbow and every available slide transition and sound effect. Many of those decks topped 75 slides. Why did I do this? Because I could, I had time to kill and PowerPoint was still a novelty. I owe those leaders and former colleagues a belated apology. I put audiences to sleep and eroded the leaders’ credibility. Instead of doing anything and everything, pick and stick with one way of communicating and be consistently good at it. Choose a way of communicating that plays to your strengths, won’t damage your reputation and will reach the greatest number of employees with the least amount of effort on their part. If we know that you’ll communicate with us by email, we won’t worry that we’re missing something from you on social media. Focus on writing the best emails rather than trying not to look like a hostage in front of the camera. Likewise, if you shine on camera but your writing is drier than the fine print on an extended warranty, send us videos. #5. PLEASE DON’T COMMUNICATE THE SAME THING TO US SEVEN TIMES. Ask your PR team how often you should communicate and they’ll reassure you that can never communicate too much. After all, that’s our job and it’s in our best interest to stay busy.


FIRST PRINCIPLES

So we’ll tell you to communicate, communicate, communicate. If you think you’ve communicated enough, we’ll say that you’re just getting started. We’ll even remind you that you need to say something seven times before anyone pays attention. After all, it’s a proven scientific fact. Actually, it’s not. Turns out it’s called the Rule of 7. It was dreamed up by Hollywood executives back in the 1930s. Seems that’s how many times they had to advertise a movie before our grandparents and great grandparents put on their Sunday best and spent 25 cents tickets for a show at the downtown movie palace. Communicating anything seven times violates the first of our first principles – be a leader of fewer words. If you’re clear, concise and relevant, you won’t need to repeat yourself. If you’re unclear, convoluted and irrelevant, you could tell us 70 times and we’ll keep ignoring you. Still not convinced? Picture this. You’re giving everyone a bonus week of paid vacation. How many times would you need to tell us? Seven? Or could you do it once with a two-sentence email? “All of you have gone above and beyond for months on end. As a thank you for all your hard work and dedication, everyone’s getting an extra week of paid vacation.” You could even send that email to just five people in your entire organization and within 10 minutes, everyone would have a copy and they’d be finalizing their holiday plans.

#6. WE'RE NOT FAMILY. I worked in a PR department that was suddenly without a director. A consultant was brought in to lead our team while a search was underway for a new leader. If looks could kill, the consultant would’ve been serving 150 consecutive life sentences. He scared most of the team. I thought he was great. On his first day, he gave us a set of ground rules. Rule number one – he wasn’t our dad. He was our boss. Don’t confuse the two. Yet you’ll confuse us, and open yourself up to a world of grief, any time you refer to us as a family. And not just any family – a big, happy family. A family that pulls together and stays together when times are tough. A family that looks after its own (at least until budgets need cutting). But we already have a family outside of work. We don’t need, or want, another one. We don’t want to be your children or have you play the role of fun aunt or uncle or the weekend dad who feels guilty about breaking up the family. We don’t do quarterly performance reviews on our kids. We don’t make them submit annual work plans with key deliverables and professional development goals. We don’t promote, demote or reassign our kids or announce that they left the family earlier today to pursue exciting new opportunities and have our best wishes for their future endeavors. You do these things with employees, not family.


FIRST PRINCIPLES

And you should be careful what you ask for if you still insist on calling us a family. Brace yourself for those high-maintenance, lowperforming employees who can’t get along with anyone, need a referee to resolve conflicts they’ve started and who crave constant attention, affection and affirmation. Neither you or the rest of us need the drama. Also, please don’t refer to us “your employees” or “my staff”. And NEVER, under any circumstances, refer to the women who work with you as “my girls”. Because it’s 2021. While we work for the organization, you don’t own us. That steel company with offthe-chart employee engagement? My boss was adamant that we never refer to “our employees” in any communications. It was always and only “employees”. #7. GREAT PR CAN'T SAVE LOUSY LEADERS. If anything, it’ll make things worse. Much worse. Our work as PR pros will expose the gap between what you’re scripted to say and what you’re actually doing and saying when you’re not being fed your lines and stage-managed. Again, everyone knows if you’ve checked out, you’re bored, restless or in way over your head. From experience, the best leaders request and require the least amount of PR support. If they ask for it, they use it to publicly recognize staff who are going above and beyond. It’s never about them. They don’t seek out the spotlight. But they know exactly where to point it.

My current boss doesn’t ask for PR support. She’s mortified if her photo’s in the monthly newsletter. Along with leading a team of more than 300 faculty and staff, she runs a research lab. She leads and mentors a couple dozen graduate, undergraduate and high school students. The students run research studies with community members. My boss volunteers to be the first test subject for each and every student in her lab. This sometimes involves doing a stress test on an exercise bike, pedaling to the point of exhaustion. You and I would only do this once and be unable to say anything during and after the test. My boss gets on the bike over and over again and talks with students the entire time. She does this to help students feel comfortable, get some real-time constructive feedback and know that they’re a valued member of the team. My boss mentioned in passing that she did this mentoring. She didn’t think it was a big deal. She was reluctant to turn it into one and only agreed to let the world know if students were front and centre. With some leaders, you have to stage an event where they interact with people. You hope that, out of the 100 pictures you take and the 30 minutes of video you shoot, there’s one pic and a five-second clip that doesn’t look and feel like a PR exercise and the leader appears somewhat human. When people ask what it’s like to work for my boss – and I like to tell people without even being asked – this is the story I share. It’s better than anything I could dream up as a PR pro.


FIRST PRINCIPLES

First Principles Recap Be a leader of fewer words and we’ll pay attention. Show and tell us that you know what you’re doing, you know that we’re doing a good job and you know how lucky you are to lead us.

We pay attention to what your senior leadership team, EAs and admin assistants, frontline staff and long-service employees say – and don’t say – about you. Don’t test drive all that’s shiny and new. Stick with what you do best. Ignore the Rule of 7. We’re a team, never a family. And great PR can’t save a lousy leader. So be a decent human and a good person. Word will spread, no spin required.


Deadly spin #1: You should be posting constantly to social media.


SPIN #1 – SOCIAL MEDIA

WHAT PR PROS SAY The more you post on social media, the more that employees and the rest of the world will get to know the real you. And the more they get to know the real you, the more they’ll like, respect and trust you as a leader. The more they like, respect and trust you, the more they’ll like, respect and trust our entire organization. That’s good for you and great for us. Every time you post to social media, you’re making a deposit in our organization’s trust and forgiveness account. Building up a healthy balance means we have something to draw from if we’re ever hit with a crisis that puts our reputation at risk. Because your followers know, like, respect and trust you and us, they’ll be quick to give you and us the benefit of the doubt – trusting that we’re right or we’ll make it right if we’re in the wrong.

You’ll return the favour by liking, sharing and commenting on posts from employees and very important people. You’ll stay connected with your followers, building a reputation as being a leader who’s authentic and transparent, who shares and cares, listens and takes a stand on important issues that keeps our organization on the right side of history. And best of all, you won’t have to do a thing. We’ll do it all for you. We’ll set up your accounts. We’ll post new content daily – photos, videos, quick updates, shout-outs and links to positive media coverage. We’ll reply to comments on your behalf, start and join conversation and make sure you’re following the right people on social media. Every leader’s on social media. You need to be there too and we’ll make sure no one does it better than you. WHAT EMPLOYEES THINK

We’ll use your accounts for show and tell, giving your followers an all-access backstage pass that lets them read, watch and listen to what you’re saying, doing and thinking at work and away from the office in real time. You’ll share news, give your views and weigh in on the issues that matter to you, our organization and your followers. We’ll personalize your posts with a healthy mix of wit, wisdom and warmth. And we’ll humanize you with guest appearances by your family dog, spouse, kids and grandkids and lifelong childhood friends. Posts featuring this supporting cast is guaranteed to run up the likes and shares.

You post as much as my kids. And they’re teenagers who aren’t running big organizations. How exactly do you have the time to constantly post to social media? Is all that posting really the best use of your time when you’re making $250 an hour? How about putting your phone down and actually talking with us face-to-face offline here in the real world? If I posted as much as you during the workday, my supervisor and a rep from HR would be sitting me down for a meeting.


SPIN #1 – SOCIAL MEDIA

But maybe you’re not the one who’s posting. Some of us have clued in that you’ve outsourced your social media accounts to the 20-something comms coordinator / digital native / social media whiz kid on your PR team. How do we know? There’s your love of multiple exclamation marks at the end of every sentence!!! The emojis, memes and in-jokes that only a Gen Zer can understand. And there’s that since deleted but screenshotted Friday night post where you confess to being “way too lit” at the club with your BFF who’s “fire fit”. Just how authentic are you as a leader if that’s not you posting to social media? What’s your true motivation for being on social media? Is it to raise the profile and enhance the reputation of our organization? Or is it an ego trip? Are you really that hungry for attention, adoration and affirmation? Shouldn’t your paycheque, perks and power be enough to build up your sense of self-worth? All those pics of you standing and smiling next to very important and powerful people don’t make you look well-connected and equally important and powerful. It just makes you seem like a fanboy / fangirl and that’s never a good look in a grown-up. How much time do you actually spend in the office? We used to look for your Lexus LS in your reserved parking spot to know if you were at work. Now, we just check your social media accounts. Today, you’re out on the west coast. Last week, you were down south. The week before that, overseas. Are you working at all these conferences, retreats and meetings?

All we see are the photos you take while going for your morning runs past landmarks and tourist traps, heading out on the town for dinner and drinks and hanging out in super luxe first class airport lounges. Maybe you were in one of those lounges when you signed off on the no-muffins-atmeetings memo because we need to curb discretionary spending. As hard as you (or your comms coordinator) tries to make you appear like an average Joe or Jane, you’re not. Your paycheque puts you in a whole different snack bracket. Your taxable benefits are more than what some of us earn in a year. The lifestyles of the rich and famous used to make us envious back in the 1980s. Now, the gap between the haves and have nots just makes us angry. So if you want to fan the flames then keep posting pics of the 2,500 square foot boathouse at your summer cottage on Lake Rosseau, the bottle of Philip Togni Cabarnet Sauvignon 2017 you pulled from your wine cellar to cap the end of another week of out-of-town travelling, your three rounds of golf at OldHead Links in Ireland and that fun-filled 14 days you spent at Disney World spoiling all your kids and grandkids after last winter’s family vacation at a rented estate in Barbados. Being active on social media makes you an easy target – it’s like you’re walking through the woods during deer hunting season wearing plastic antlers and a brown jumpsuit. Trolls – who aren’t happy until you’re not happy – will be very happy making you, and us, look very bad. Some trolls will be disgruntled ex-employees.


SPIN #1 – SOCIAL MEDIA

Others will be disgruntled current employees. They’ll have axes to grind, scores to settle and one side of a story to tell. Some will have been fired, disciplined and demoted for good reasons that you can’t disclose unless you’d like to be sued. You can’t disarm trolls with your charm, wit, logic, rational arguments and dad jokes. They’re not going to take you up on your offer to move the conversation offline. Trolls aren’t looking for answers – they’re just playing to an audience. And we’re following along from the cheap seats. Trolls also know that powerful people like you can’t punch down on social media because that makes you a bully. And no one likes a bully. Along with trolls, you’ll have to deal with whistleblowers on your social media accounts. These are the employees whose concerns you’ve ignored, dismissed or downplayed. If there’s smoke in a social media post, count on journalists to go looking for fire. And like whistleblowers, journalists won’t hesitate to call you out on social media if your PR team’s not returning their calls or waiting until the end of the day to email one-sentence holding statements handcrafted by the legal department. And there’s also the potential for a new or old post to make a mess for you and us. Count on anything you say in a post being used against you at some point to whip the social media mob into a frenzy. Your 20something comms coordinator could say something that’s dumb, misreads the room or gets misconstrued.

Or, like more than a few episodes of Friends, an old post won’t age well – especially the one of you posing with a very important and powerful person who’s just been exposed as a crook, predator and racist. The photo of the two of you arm-inarm with big grins and hamming it up for the camera will come back to haunt you and hurt our organization. WHAT LEADERS CAN DO INSTEAD Two suggestions – don’t make it personal and have subscribers instead of followers. Don’t make it personal. Set up social media accounts for your office rather than in your own name. An account for the office of the president / executive director allows you to keep it professional and not personal – there's no need or reason to share how you spend your time away from work. The account will continue after you’ve moved on and a new leader’s at the helm. And no one will be shocked and offended to learn that you’re not the only one posting to the account. Focus the account on praise and recognition of employees, partners and suppliers, and the people you serve – your customers, clients, patients, students. Don’t make the accounts all about you. Ditch the pics of you posing with important people. Wherever possible, fill your feeds with photos and video of ordinary people doing extraordinary things in your organization. If very important and powerful people pay a visit, have pictures of them meeting and talking with employees on the frontlines.


SPIN #1 – SOCIAL MEDIA

Also, have subscribers instead of followers. E-mail a newsletter or regular update to employees and anyone else who’d like to sign up. Social media is rented land, with terms and conditions that can change at any time along with fast-shrinking organic reach that makes it harder and harder to connect with an audience. When you send out an email, the land is yours. And every employee has a work email – not all of us are on Facebook, Twitter or TikTok. As an added bonus, it’s tough to troll an email. If someone sounds off, it’s in a reply that only you see. What’s more, you’ll know who’s reading, sharing or ignoring your emails. You’ll get a clear sense of what content’s a hit and what’s missing the mark so you can adjust accordingly. Like the social media accounts for your office, use your newsletter to maintain line of sight to your strategic priorities.

Recognize and celebrate employees who are delivering on those priorities and living your organization’s values. Bolster sense of pride among employees by sharing inspirational stories about the people they serve, showing how employees are changing lives and making our world a better place. If your email is just a collection of photos of you meeting and greeting, you’re doing it wrong. And “me” and “I’ are two words that should seldom, if ever, be found in your newsletter. Ultimately, our organization will be known, liked and trusted not because you’re active, warm, witty and wise on social media but because you and our organization are so obviously proud of employees and grateful for the people we have the privilege of serving.


Deadly spin #2: You should be the star of a podcast / video show.


SPIN #2 – PODCASTS & VIDEOS

WHAT PR PROS SAY:

WHAT EMPLOYEES THINK:

You know what's hot right now? Podcasts. More than half of us listen to podcasts at least once a month.

Please, for the love of God, don't ask me to be a guest on your show. I'll be mercilessly teased by my colleagues and not necessarily in a fun, light-hearted way. Some will wish it was them, asking "why her?" and "why not me?" and resenting me for being invited on your show.

And do you know who employees would love to listen to? You. So let's do a weekly podcast with you as the host. You'll interview employees. It'll be a candid conversation where you talk about the awards they've won, the projects they're leading, the jobs they do day-to-day and all the reasons why they love working for our organization. We'll even have you do an opening monologue and closing comments, offering up words of wisdom and inspiration. Let's not stop at a podcast. Let's make you the star of a video series. It'll be a roadshow where you go out to the frontlines and strike up conversations with employees. They'll talk about what they do day-to-day and then you'll try your hand at doing their jobs. Hilarity is sure to ensue. We'll post your videos on YouTube, with its two billion monthly users who watch more than a billion hours of video every day. Employees, and the rest of the world, are looking for great content and that's what you're going to deliver with our help. And just like your social media accounts, these shows will be an awesome way for employees and the rest of the world to get to know the real you. Once they know you, they'll like, respect and trust you too. They'll want to follow you, and not just on your shows.

Trust me, I'm not going to say anything remotely honest, spontaneous or candid during our interview. I'll be like the athlete who's interviewed postgame on the way to locker room and says "we dug deep, pulled together and played as a team. For us, it's all about the logo on the front of our jerseys rather than the names and numbers on the back." Listening to your show will be like sitting in on the most boring job interview ever. It's going to sound scripted, even if it isn't. We're also not your props. And pretending to do our jobs either badly (mopping floors, cleaning bathrooms and sorting mail sure is hard) or effortlessly is patronizing. Can you imagine if we put on a power suit, stormed the boardroom and pretended to chair one of your meetings? Or got up during a town hall and walked the audience through one of your PowerPoint presentations? And all the while we're hamming it up, playing for easy laughs and pretending that running meetings and giving presentations is actually interesting and hard to do? Hilarity is sure to ensue.


SPIN #2 – PODCASTS & VIDEOS

Podcasts are hot but here's a fun fact to consider. As of April 2021, there were more than 2 million podcasts and over 48 million episodes. The average podcast gets fewer than 30 listeners. You'd reach a bigger audience if you stood on a table in the cafeteria and shouted at us or spent an hour riding the elevator and talking to whichever poor souls got on. Your odds of finding an audience are even smaller if you're posting video to YouTube. Every minute more than 500 HOURS of video is uploaded. Yes, podcasts are hot but you're no Marc Maron, Sarah Koenig, Terry Gross even the Smartless trio of Jason Bateman, Will Arnett and Sean Hayes. These hosts make it look easy. But interviewing guests and making those conversations worth listening to is very, very hard. Same holds true for videos. Most of these hosts went to school and were formally trained as journalists or performers. They've spent years honing their craft. If you listened to their first podcast or watched their first video, you'd cringe. That's exactly how we'll react every time we watch and listen to you. We'll be laughing at you, not with you. While no one around you will dare say it, we can - you're just not that good. Stick to leading our organization. If you still dream of hosting your own show, wait until you retire and then volunteer with your local community access television station where you might double your audience to 60 viewers.

Remember those first principles of leadership communications? Confidence in senior leadership is one of the key drivers of employee engagement. You performing badly, or worse still, taking yourself way too seriously while performing badly, shakes our confidence. If you're introverted, incapable of small talk, deadly dull and prone to saying awkward things at the wrong times, that's not going to change when you hit record on your video series or podcast. The same holds true if you're a narcissist, shameless name dropper or someone who must always be the centre of attention and the smartest person in any room. Do you really want to amplify your less than enduring traits and broadcast them to the world? If your podcasts and videos are done on the cheap by your PR team, we won't listen or watch. You're competing against shows like This American Life, WTF, The Daily, Smartless and everything streaming on Netlix, Apple TV, Disney Plus, Crave, PBS Plus and Amazon Prime. Just because you sign our paycheques doesn't mean we're going to listen and watch. Although if we're smart, we'll lie and say we're loyal listeners and viewers. But if the production values are high, we'll wonder why you're spending so much money on what seems suspiciously like a vanity project. It's as if you're playing both roles in the classic movie Citizen Kane you're both Charles Foster Kane and his talent-challenged wife Susan Alexander. Spoiler alert - things don't end well for Charles and Susan.


SPIN #2 – PODCASTS & VIDEOS

WHAT YOU CAN DO INSTEAD: Maybe the time and effort spent by your PR team to put out a podcast or video series could be better spent getting your organization featured on established and popular podcasts and shows that already draw big audiences. You don't need to be the guest - recommend an all-star employee who's doing remarkable work and who will do an outstanding job representing your organization. If your team decides to go ahead with a show, don't be the star. Don't even have a supporting role. Maybe make one brief cameo but nothing more. Instead, be a booker. Recommend guests for the shows - the unsung heroes who are quietly making a big difference in your organization, who live the values and deliver on strategic priorities. If the host or crew asks you to be a guest, graciously decline and recommend someone else who deserves a star turn.

When new episodes come out, encourage everyone you know to watch and listen. Give these shows five star reviews. Send personal emails to the guests, thanking them for sharing their stories. And let the host and crew know they're doing a great job too. Give them a vote of confidence by staying hands-off. Don't be an executive producer or ask to review and approve the shows - trust that the team knows what they're doing and they'll deliver something that'll make you, and the entire organization, proud. Great leaders have the confidence to let other people shine and be the star of the show. They know where to focus the spotlight. Smart leaders also know their credibility is on the line every time they communicate so they don't put themselves in spots that ding, dent and damage their credibility.


Deadly spin #3: You should invite everyone to join you for coffee or breakfast.


SPIN #3 – COFFEE CHATS & BREAKFASTS

What PR pros say: You’re in your element and at your best when you’re having informal conversations with employees one-on-one or in small groups. So let’s have you meet every month with around a dozen employees. We’ll invite a different group each time. One month, you’ll meet with new hires (it’s sure to be the highlight of their onboarding experience). The next month, it’ll be award winners (a great way for you to congratulate them in person) or frontline supervisors (the key communicators for employees, next to you of course) or the informal opinion leaders who everyone knows, respects and trusts (and who think you’re doing an absolutely bang-up job as leader BTW). These breakfasts won’t have formal agendas, PowerPoint decks or even talking points. You’ll just strike up a conversation with everyone around the table. It’ll be just like family get-togethers, minus the drama. We can structure the meetings one of three ways – it’s your call. You can run the meetings like a focus group and ask open-ended questions. What’s the one thing you enjoy most about your job? What’s the one thing you’d change? Why did you choose to work here? How would you explain our culture to someone who knows nothing about our organization?

You can run the meetings like a media scrum, inviting the group to ask you questions. They can ask about anything and everything but just not the winning numbers for Friday’s LottoMax draw (you can make that disclaimer at the start of the meeting to break the ice and show everyone you have a sense of humour). What’s on their minds? What’s the one thing they’ve always wanted to know? What have they always wondered about but were too afraid to ask? Reassure everyone there’s no such thing as a dumb question. You can also use the breakfasts to float trial balloons. You can preview an idea you’re mulling over or an initiative that you’re about to launch. Ask the group for their unfiltered feedback. And when you launch the initiative, you can say that you consulted with, listened to and acted on the advice of frontline employees. Regardless of what you do during the breakfast, employees will be excited to spend some quality time with you. They’ll take that excitement back to their teams and departments. They’ll sing your praises to their colleagues. They’ll tell everyone that you’re a gracious host, good at small talk, funny, smart, quick on your feet and a good listener. You’re someone that anyone would want to get to know over a cup of coffee. Our PR team will take care of everything. We’ll figure out who to have at the table and draft invitations for your EA to send out on your behalf. We’ll book the room and order the food. And of course, we’ll sit in on the breakfasts to capture the conversations and note what needs to be followed up.


SPIN #3 – COFFEE CHATS & BREAKFASTS

What employees think: You’ll be sitting down to breakfast with three groups of employees. Some – if not most – of us will dread being there, especially the introverts. We’ll be wondering why we were invited. After all, there’s no such thing as a free dinner, breakfast or cup of coffee. There’s always an agenda at play. We only accepted your invitation because it seemed like a command performance. Our hope is that we get through the breakfast by saying nothing at all, or at least saying nothing that won’t embarrass ourselves in front of you and our colleagues. So don’t expect us to be honest. Why did we choose to join the organization? We won’t to tell you that we’re here because we’d been out of work for eight months, drained our life savings, maxed out our credit cards and failed to get so much as a rejection letter from the 40 other organizations we applied to. And what’s the one thing we’d change to improve our jobs? We’re not going to ask you to fire our clueless, lazy, demotivating and casually cruel supervisor. Instead, we’ll float the idea of a recognition program that doles out certificates and gift cards and a special breakfast just like this for award winners. While some of us will stay silent and reveal little or nothing at all, some of us will jump at the opportunity to ingratiate ourselves with you. We’ll talk a lot but say nothing that’s important, insightful or remotely interesting.

We’ll overshare with too much personal information in the mistaken belief that everything we say during the breakfast stays in the room. We’ll shamelessly amp up our enthusiasm for working here and having you as our fearless leader. What’s the one thing we’d change with our job? Absolutely nothing because everything is awesome! Maybe we’ll try to break the habit of pinching ourselves every day on the way to work to see if this awesome experience isn’t just some wonderful dream. And one of us will use the breakfast to cut our supervisor off at the knees. We have a big, bold and brilliant idea that we’re super excited about. Our supervisor does not share our excitement. She’s repeatedly shot down our idea. First, it was “not now” and “maybe someday” but now it’s a firm “no” and “we’re never doing that so quit pushing your idea and pestering me”. Apparently, we have other priorities to focus on, even if they’re nowhere near as big, bold and brilliant as our idea. During the breakfast, you’ll ask for ways to make our organization an even better place to work. The silence will be deafening as everyone stares at the food on the plates. It’ll get awkward. Someone will suggest switching to four-ply toilet paper in the staff washrooms or replacing the air dryers with paper towel dispensers. You’ll be relieved and eternally grateful when we save the day and pitch our big, bold and brilliant idea. You’ll say our idea sounds outstanding. It’s so big, so bold, so brilliant. We should definitely look into making your idea a reality right away. The PR person at the table will take notes and get our contact info.


SPIN #3 – COFFEE CHATS & BREAKFASTS

You’ll talk about our idea during your next meeting with senior leaders. And when we go back to our team or department after breakfast, we’ll tell our supervisor that you’ve blessed our big, bold and brilliant idea and you personally want to see it implemented ASAP. Sure, you’ve lost the respect of our supervisor but you’ve won us over and we had something to talk about during breakfast.

I worked for a leader who sat in on a meeting where a guest speaker was talking about the unexpected death of their child. While the parent talked, the leader looked at their phone. The parent stopped talking mid-sentence and called out the leader, asking if what was on the phone was more important or interesting. Everyone who wasn’t in the room soon heard about what happened. Don’t make the same mistake.

What you can do instead:

If you want to remembered the right way, be like Robert Munsch and just drop in unannounced. Here’s one of many stories about the children’s author. An elementary school librarian wrote to Robert for more than a decade, inviting him to their small island school. One morning, Robert showed up at the school alone and out of the blue. He spent the entire day telling stories to students in every class from kindergarten to grade eight.

Ditch the coffee, sausage links and powdered eggs. Instead of having employees come to you, go to them by joining meetings already in progress. Send an email to managers and supervisors, offering to drop in their regularly scheduled weekly, monthly and quarterly meetings. Make sure those managers and supervisors are in the room, so no one tries to pull an end run. Instead of talking the whole time during your visit, just listen. Be an observer. Don’t play the part of the all-knowing wonderful wizard of Oz, with the answers to any and all questions that employees may have. Be a good guest. Give your undivided attention during the entire meeting. Turn your phone off and put it face down on the table. Or better yet, don’t bring your phone with you. If the world’s coming to an end, your EA will find you. Let everyone know you’ll have to slip out if your EA shows up. But don’t tell them it’s because the world’s ending.

So, just like Robert Munsch visiting that small school on an island, ditch your entourage when you pay a visit. Show up alone. Don’t take your PR pro up on their offer of tagging along and capturing the moment with photos and video. This isn’t meant to be a publicity shoot. Also insist that these drop-ins are not to be treated like royal visits (another benefit of showing up unexpectedly). You don’t want the teams and departments spending weeks planning, rehearsing and ordering an obscene amount of food or baking their grandmothers’ favourite cookies and squares that you’re not going to eat because you spending 14 hours a day sitting in meetings.


SPIN #3 – COFFEE CHATS & BREAKFASTS

If you’re offered a tour or meet-and-greet after your visit, graciously accept. Shake hands. Thank everyone for their hard work and dedication. Be open to taking selfies. End the tour by asking for a group photo that you’ll send to the supervisor. Just like in the meetings, give everyone your undivided attention. Leave the impression that there’s nowhere else you’d rather be and no one else you’d rather be spending time with. When the meeting’s over and the tour’s done, you can talk about what you heard, saw and learned when talking with other employees, or with folks from outside your organization. One other option – assemble an informal kitchen cabinet. Recruit a half dozen staff from across the organization. This’ll be easier if you’ve risen up through the ranks and have a network of colleagues. To join the cabinet, you have just one rule for prospective members.

Be honest at all times. Request that your cabinet speak truth to power. Don’t announce that you have a cabinet and reveal who’s on it. Don’t bring the cabinet together in a room. Just pick up the phone and call each of them individually. No need to bribe them with coffee, bacon and eggs. I worked for a president (one of the best leaders I’ve seen in action) who assembled a kitchen cabinet of veteran employees. They kept him grounded and finely tuned to what was really going on in the organization. They were his sounding board and reality check. If you want honest, unfiltered feedback, this is the way to go.


Deadly spin #4: You should be a thought leader.


SPIN #4 – THOUGHT LEADERSHIP

What PR pros say: You’re the E.F. Hutton of leaders. When you talk, people listen. Why? Because you always have something to stay that’s important and interesting. You have decades of experience. Loads of charisma. And a unique view on what’s happening, why and what’s next.

So let’s leverage all of that and make you a thought leader. We’ll build your thought leadership strategy around a hot button issue, worthy cause, big idea or trending topic that you care about. Ideally, it’s an issue or idea that lines up with the mission and vision of our organization and there are lots of people who care as much as you. Drawing a blank? Not sure what cause to champion? No worries. There’s no shortage of topics to choose from. There’s climate change and sustainability. Practicing corporate social responsibility. Standing up for social justice. Paying a living wage. Building a welcoming and inclusive workplace. Or a workplace that’s free of harassment and sexual violence. Closing the wealth gap and having equal pay for equal work. Rethinking jobs and reinventing the workplace in a post-pandemic world. Winning the war for talent. Being an agile, resilient, innovative or entrepreneurial organization. Using tech for good. Protecting privacy. Earning and restoring trust. Finding common ground and uniting a divided world.

Becoming a thought leader checks two boxes at once – it’ll raise your profile and the profile of our organization. Being bold and taking a public stand on an issue that matters will help you, and us, stand out from the crowd and win hearts and minds. Doing good is good for business. Even better is taking a stand that shows up our biggest competitor who’s doing the opposite, doing nothing and will struggle to follow our lead. And you being recognized as a thought leader is sure to impress employees. Your thought leadership will be yet another reason for us to be proud to work for this organization and follow your lead. Everyone wants to be part of a winning team that’s on the right side of history. Yes, becoming a thought leader takes work and won’t happen overnight. We’re ready and willing to help. We’ll draft your speeches, op-eds and guest columns. We’ll line up speaking engagements and get you a TED Talk. We’ll tee up media coverage and send you into interviews fully prepped with soundbites that capture the zeitgeist. We’ll nominate you for awards so you’ll be billed as award-winning thought leader. We’ll hire a ghostwriter and land you a book deal so you’ll be an award-winning thought leader who’s an author. We’ll make you a bestselling author by buying a book for every employee. It’ll be the perfect gift.


SPIN #4 – THOUGHT LEADERSHIP

What employees think: Be honest. Who are you promoting? Us or you? What’s your motivation for barnstorming conferences, summits and retreats and meeting the press? Are you advancing the strategic priorities of our organization? Or is this an audition for a better job and bigger paycheque? Or a testdrive for a pre-retirement career change as a consultant, author and professional speaker? You’re a thought leader who’s MIA here at work. Big decisions are being put on hold in your absence. We’re waiting on your signature and blessing. Meetings are being scrubbed and pushed months out because of your limited availability. It’s bad when you’re not around yet worse when you get back. You return with a head full of ideas and an armful of books courtesy of the thought leaders you’ve wined and dined with at conferences. And on your way through the airport, you pick up the latest Harvard Business Review and skim the articles on your flight home. Like a lousy boxer, you’re leading with your chin. When the punches come, all of us will feel the pain. In less time than it takes you to deliver your TED Talk, someone will dig up proof that you’re a hypocrite. Maybe it’s something you’ve said or done recently or in the distant past.

Maybe you’ve rewarded, tolerated or ignored the misdeeds of someone on your team or in our organization, a supplier, contractor or key customer. You’re a champion of a welcoming and inclusive workplace yet there’s zero diversity on your executive team and the golden parachute you gave to a senior leader who’d been harassing women for the past decade. Here’s a thought for your next talk – people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Our reputation could also take a beating because of what you haven’t said or done. It’s a bad sign that none of us at work can ever remember you publicly or privately talking about what you’re now pontificating about from podiums and in opinion pages. What’s worse, you’ve never reached out to the people who’ve dedicated their careers to the cause you’re championing. This makes you, and us, seem opportunistic. We’re going to get called out for virtue signaling, greenwashing or something worse. Or maybe you’re passing yourself off as a resident expert when everyone knows, or will quickly realize, you’re clueless. You have no idea what you’re talking about. You’re all hat, no cattle. Again, not a good look for you or us. And for the record, no one wants your book. We’re never going to read it. We’re not going to regift your book to family or friends. That would be cruel. We’ll either dump your book in the recycling bin or drop it off at our local thrift shop.


SPIN #4 – THOUGHT LEADERSHIP

Instead of writing a book, how about reading a story. There’s a lesson to be learned from Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes. Here’s an excerpt. “But he hasn’t got anything on,” a little child said. “Did you ever hear such innocent prattle?” said its father. And one person whispered to another what the child had said, “He hasn’t anything on. A child says he hasn’t anything on.”

Bill led with his chin. And then came the punches. Here’s the lede from a column about Bill’s book courtesy of Tom Peck with The Independent in the UK. “Bill Gates appears to think he is the hypocrite the world needs. He’s got big ideas about how to tackle climate change (or rather, he’s got a book out containing other people’s big ideas about how to tackle climate change), but he’s also not going to stop eating hamburgers or flying by private jet.” The hits kept coming.

“But he hasn’t got anything on!” the whole town cried out at last. “The Emperor shivered, for he suspected they were right. But he thought, “This procession has got to go on.” So he walked more proudly than ever, as his noblemen held high the train that wasn’t there at all.” What you can do instead Listen to Bill Gates. “The world is not exactly lacking in rich men with big ideas about what other people should do or who think technology can fix any problem.” Unfortunately for Bill, he ignored his own advice. One of the world’s richest men went ahead and wrote a book telling the rest of us how to avoid a climate disaster, with a major assist from world-saving technology. That sentence about rich men with big ideas is lifted from his book – it was a brief and fleeting moment of self-awareness.

Here’s Jason Murdock reporting in Newsweek. “Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates defended owning a private jet while warning about the dangers of failing to reduce carbon emissions.” A story in The Sun starts with “Billionaire eco-warrior Bill Gates told Brits to give up their cars today – while admitting he still uses a private jet.” The Nation’s Tim Schwab wrote “the billionaire’s new book, a bid to be taken seriously as a climate campaigner, has attracted the usual worshipful coverage. When will the media realize that with Gates you have to follow the money? It seems likely he will continue to take up oxygen in the climate discourse going forward.


SPIN #4 – THOUGHT LEADERSHIP

“If so,” continues Tim, ” he proceeds from a precarious position, not just because of his thin credentials, untested solutions, and stunning financial conflicts of interest, but because his undemocratic assertion of power—no one appointed or elected him as the world’s new climate czar—comes at precisely the time when democratic institutions have become essential to solving climate change.” David Thorpe, writing for the Fifth Estate, made it personal. “Bill and Melinda Gates’ home in Medina, Washington, which cost over $60 million to build, covers more than 6100 square metres of floor space and contains $80,000 worth of computer screens, garages for 23 cars, a home theatre for 20 guests, six kitchens, and 24 bathrooms. Gates reportedly pays to have sand imported from St Lucia in the Caribbean to the shore surrounding it. He has plenty of other homes too, including a vacation ranch in Wellington, Florida, and the 28-acre Rancho Paseana, California, not to mention strings of hotels, three private jets, and a collection of expensive cars.” If those takedowns can happen to Bill, they’ll happen to you. So what should you do? Don’t call yourself a thought leader. Don’t let your PR team brand you as one. Arrogance isn’t a classy look.

Be honest with yourself and your PR team. For thought leadership to work, it takes a sustained effort over many, many months. It’s not a one and done speech and op-ed. Do you really have the time, energy, drive and desire that thought leadership demands? Your PR team was ready and willing to put in a ton of work on your behalf. Have them shift their focus to pitching journalists and creating in-house content. Make it clear that you don’t want to be the centre of attention. Instead, amplify other voices within your organization and in our community. Rather than telling us what to think, recommend who we should listen to. Put the spotlight on the people with deep expertise and lived experience, who’ve dedicated their careers to driving real change on issues that matter. Remember, great leaders redirect rather than seek the spotlight. Sure, you could own the stage for 15 minutes of fame and hopefully escape with your reputation intact. Or you could show some humility, cede the stage and let your actions speak louder than any thoughts that you and your PR team could dream up.


Deadly spin #5: You should invite everyone to help you write the strategic plan.


SPIN #5 – STRATEGIC PLANNING

What PR pros say: Strategic planning is like the World Cup and Olympics of employee engagement. Every four years, it's an organization-wide event and everyone's invited. It's a great opportunity for you to win over employees. You can show that you're a big fan of consultation and collaboration. That you listen. Genuinely care what employees have to say. And you're humble and confident enough to admit you don't know all the answers or have a monopoly on the best ideas. As an added bonus, it pays to get employees involved upfront. It builds a sense of shared ownership. The payoff comes when it's time to deliver on the deliverables. Employees will be ready and willing to help with the heavy lifting. Many hands make light work. And as the African proverb says "if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." So here's how we can get everyone going together. First, let's brand it and make it a full-on campaign. We can call it Momentum 2026 or Mission Forward or Building a Better Tomorrow Today Together. To build some early buzz, let's invite employees to pitch and pick a logo, tagline and even a strat plan mascot.

We'll have you kick off the campaign with an all-staff memo, a video (where you talk about the future while looking off into the distance, preferably from the top of a hill) and a high-energy all-staff town hall streamed live with a talk show format and feel. You'll remind us how far we've come and how much we've accomplished. How we're building on a strong foundation standing on the shoulders of giants - with the opportunity to add to our remarkable legacy of success and well-earned reputation for excellence. We're looking for ways to not just sustain our success but to accelerate - turbocharge - our momentum. You'll also highlight a few threats and challenges coming our way - challenges that we'll recast as opportunities so it's good vibes only. And we'll work some inspirational quotes into your memo, video and town hall remarks. There's John Naisbitt's "strategic planning is worthless unless there is first a strategic vision", Yogi Berra's "if you don't know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else", Will Roger's "even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there", Andre Gide's "man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore" and Lewis Carroll's "if you don't know where you're going any road will do". We'll then break out the Post-it Notes, flip chart paper, coloured markers and stickers for a series of in-person and online consultations with employees. We'll launch a new and interactive strat plan webpage and mobile app.


SPIN #5 – STRATEGIC PLANNING

We'll run a series of invitation-only brainstorming sessions plus drop-in workshops to round up employee ideas. We'll draw crowds to the workshops with the promise of free lunches and snacks.

What employees think:

We'll host conversation cafes and strat plan pop-ups in the cafeteria, lobby and parking lot. We'll have you host a live and interactive online chat. We'll put daily posts out on social media and posters up in hallways. We'll give out strat plan swag pens, mouse pads and coffee mugs are always a hit. Maybe we can even give bigger prizes for the best or most popular ideas, as voted on by employees.

What is this costing us?

After the consultations wrap up and all the ideas are sorted, collated and rolled into a plan, we'll repeat the cycle. You'll send out another all-staff memo and video (maybe walk down the hill and onto the frontlines with shirt sleeves rolled up?) and host a town hall / closing ceremony with upgraded snacks (celebratory cupcakes or premium cookies for everyone). You'll unveil our bold new strategic plan and thank employees for helping chart a brilliant future for our organization. We'll send out strat plan posters to be displayed in every office and department. We'll pass around quick reference wallet cards for every employee to carry with them at all times. We'll put plan highlights out on social media and update the strategic plan webpage.

Two questions and a comment. Why are we doing your job?

And you might be overestimating our level of interest in helping you chart the future. Remember that all-staff memo announcing your appointment as our new leader? Right in the first sentence of that memo, you were billed as "a bold visionary and brilliant strategic thinker who will guide us to an even brighter and better tomorrow". You're being paid the big bucks to be visionary and strategic. To think bold and brilliant thoughts. You have the luxury of working at 30,000 feet while the rest of us are in the weeds focused on the day-to-day. So why are you offloading the "charting a better and brighter tomorrow" to us? Isn't that in your job description and the reason you're here? It's not just us doing your work. You've brought in an army of consultants. They're getting paid a small fortune to be workshop flight attendants. Instead of passing out drinks and bags of peanuts, they're handing out markers, Post-it Notes and flip chart paper, sorting us into breakout groups and telling us when it's time to head back to our seats for some show and share with the entire group. Sadly, the consultants aren't pushing around a drink cart.


SPIN #5 – STRATEGIC PLANNING

But the consultants definitely work hard for their money. They have to decipher and somehow make sense of what we've written on all those Post-it Notes and sheets of flip chart paper. While they told us at the start of the workshops that there are no dumb ideas, we proved them wrong. The consultants spend long hours preparing a report that senior leaders then scrub and sanitize, taking out the problematic ideas (reduce the number of senior leaders) and inserting their own big ideas. Like us, the consultants are probably also wishing there was a drink cart. Along with what you're paying consultants, there are the off-site retreats for senior leaders who apparently can't think big thoughts onsite, the catered meals, refreshments, snacks and the swag that our keener co-workers will prominently display on their desks for the next five years. The rest of us will us the branded t-shirt when we're painting the walls at home. And here's the hard truth. We're spending a lot of time and money on something that most of us will pay little to no attention to, won't remember or think about ever again. Ask your IT folks to pull the visitor stats for your current strategic plan website. Now validate those numbers by randomly stopping employees in the hallway. Ask us to name a strategic priority from the plan and recite the mission and vision statements. No dropping hints or telling us what our priorities rhyme with. You'll be lucky if the majority of us know the strat plan is posted somewhere on our organization's website.

‘\Here's the deal. Lots of us aren't looking five years out. Best of luck if you're working on a 20-year plan. We honestly don't know if we'll still be here or if we'll be gone by choice or circumstance. And we'll be genuinely surprised / shocked if you haven't moved on before all the deliverables are delivered and a new strategic planning process (Momentum 2031!) starts up all over again with a new leader and a fresh bunch of swag. What you can do instead: Go first. Write a draft of the strategic plan all on your own. Don't consult with anyone or have someone ghostwrite it for you. Take an informed, educated guess on where your organization needs to be in five years. Then put your name to the plan. I've been part of many strategic planning exercises. We didn't always know at the start what the leader was thinking. What was keeping the leader up at night? What got them excited? What was changing in our industry and with our competitors? What did they think were our organization's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats? It was a mystery. We only knew the answers once the leader had made final edits to the strat plan. And then it all made some sense.


SPIN #5 – STRATEGIC PLANNING

I was at a strategic planning workshop earlier in my career where the leader did their best not to leave any fingerprints on the plan. A consultant counted us off into break-out groups. We rotated from table to table. Each table had its own strategic theme. Every time a new group moved to one of the tables, the leader wandered over. The leader pitched their big and unworkable idea to each and every group. Each group then dutifully adopted the leader's pet project, adding it to the list of their ideas. At the end of the workshop, the groups shared their lists. Every group talked about the leader's idea, which made it seem like an obvious choice to put in the strat plan - a consensus pick and evidence of great minds thinking alike. Instead of lobbying each group, the leader could've stood up at the start of the workshop and said "we're going to ask for your big ideas. Let me go first. Here's my big idea. I'd love to know what you honestly think." Make it clear your draft plan is the first word but not the last. It's the starting line, not the finish line. Tell employees what you believe your organization should start, stop and continue doing. Provide the context and rationale - here's what we're good at, here's where we can be great, these are our constraints, here's what is shifting under our feet and here's who we're competing against and what they're up to.

Keep your draft plan to no more than six pages. Write your plan using complete sentences and paragraphs - no bullet points, charts, tables or PowerPoint slides. Make it a narrative, with a beginning, middle and end. Show us what success will look like when we achieve what's in your draft plan. Who's the hero? Who's the villain? What's at stake? Write your plan like it's a feature-length magazine profile about your organization written five years in the future. Now release your draft plan into the wild. Email it to employees. Put it up on a website. Send around hard copies. Instead of inviting employees to help write a plan from scratch, ask them to edit it. Focus their feedback on telling you: (1) what's the best idea in your plan and why? (2) what's the worst idea and why? (3) what's the one idea that's missing from your plan? Why should you add that missing idea to the plan? Try to avoid groupthink when asking for feedback. We've all been in planning workshops where we're given markers or a sheet of stickers and told to put check marks or stickers beside the best ideas. It's dotmocracy in action! I admit that I've sometimes followed the crowd and added my stickers to an idea that was the most popular but maybe not the best.


SPIN #5 – STRATEGIC PLANNING

Use that focused, individual feedback from employees to revise and refine your plan. Settle on a handful of priorities. As Stephen Covey once said, "when you have too many top priorities, you effectively have no top priorities." What you have with three dozen priorities is a wish list where not every wish will come true. There's only so much you can do over the next five years. And many of those 1,825 days will be consumed by issues, crises and course corrections you didn't see coming and aren't in your plan. If your plan includes core values, know that the worst behaviors you tolerate and ignore in your organization are your real values no matter what's listed in your plan. Now share the new and improved strat plan with employees. Thank them for their feedback. Highlight what you added, deleted or tweaked based on their feedback. Tell them why some ideas didn't make the cut. Tell them this plan is everyone's roadmap for the next five years. This is where we're going. How we get to there is up to you. So let's get this show on the road.

Feel free to borrow this quote from Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher. "We have a strategic plan, it's called doing things." The sooner you get through talking and brainstorming about the strategic plan, the sooner everyone can start doing what's in the plan. It's actually possible to go both fast and far if you have the courage to go first. And you might not need swag, cupcakes or video shoots at the top of a hill.


Deadly spin #6: You should work with a speechwriter.


SPIN #6 – SPEECHWRITING

What your PR pros say: Giving a speech is a great way to win the hearts and minds of employees. They'll give you their undivided attention while you say something important that everyone needs to hear at the same time - straight from your lips to their ears. When you step up to the lectern, it becomes a powerful platform for sharing your views, spreading your ideas and inspiring change. Delivering speeches to employees and other audiences is a sure-fire way to grow your influence and authority as a leader and give your self-confidence an extra boost. Communication skills are widely seen as the single most important skill for leaders. And nothing shows off your communication skills like standing and delivering a speech that engages audiences. We know that you're busy. Your days are jammed with meetings. No worries. We'll write you a speech that does it all - informs, inspires, entertains. We'll help you shine on stage. We can write a complete ready-to-deliver speech. Or if you like, we can give you crib notes and talking points. You're a skilled communicator. A natural storyteller and performer. Quick on your feet. Loads of charm and charisma that'll win over an audience. Sometimes, it's better to stray from the script and be spontaneous. In the moment. Connecting and responding in real time with an audience.

We'll share the speeches you give outside our organization with employees - whether it's a video, audio recording or a written transcript. We'll also turn your speeches into guest columns and op-eds. You'll reach and influence an audience far beyond who's in the room where you deliver your speech. What employees think With apologies to Paul Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover", here are 34 ways to lose us and the rest of your audience while giving a speech. We'll start tuning you out if you: Grossly overestimate your public speaking skills. It looks like we're an engaged audience. We're looking up from our phones, we're laughing, nodding our heads and applauding. We're less an engaged audience and more a captive audience. We're pretending to pay attention because you sign our paycheques. We have a mortgage to pay and kids to put through school. So please, for our sake and your's, don't wing it. You're not that gifted. If you can't be bothered to rehearse, we won't be bothered to do anything beyond pretending to pay attention. Go way over the top in giving thanks for such a warm, kind, flattering, glowing, sweet, humbling and generous introduction. We all know that you or your PR people wrote it. Stick with "thanks for introduction and good morning / afternoon / evening everyone".


SPIN #6 – SPEECHWRITING Take out your phone, pan the audience and then post the video to your social media accounts. The audience in front of you matters more than the bots that follow you on social media. Confuse us with your kids and order us to put away our phones and give you our undivided attention. Our attention is earned. If you see us on our phones, take it as constructive feedback to do better at the lectern. Lead off by telling us you didn't have time to write a speech so you jotted a few notes down on a napkin while you were being introduced and you're just going to wing it. Lead off by telling us your PR team wrote the speech and "let's see what they want me to say". Lead off by telling us your PR team wrote the speech but you're going to ignore what they want you to say and wing it instead. Toss the speech over your shoulder for added effect. Open with a joke we've all heard before.

Misread the room and open with a joke that's in poor taste or offensive. Open your speech by recounting how you started your day, with a litany of first world problems that none of us in the audience can relate to. Your nanny was sick so you had to pack your kids' lunches but you instead gave them $50 to buy a sandwich in the school cafeteria. You had to take your car in for a tune-up at the Mercedes-Benz dealership and waited 15 minutes for the keys to a courtesy car and then spent another 10 minutes readjusting the driver's seat and side mirrors. Your new $10,000 sub zero fridge was delivered the same time you were heading out to the dealership, and your feverish nanny who's whacked out on cold medicine, just texted to tell you the glass door on your fridge is chipped. But on the good news front, your breeder called to say you can pick up your Tibetan Mastiff puppy next weekend. Start any sentence in your speech by saying "the Merriam-Webster defines...". Start any sentence in your speech by saying "It all started back when I was a young child growing up in...".

Open with a joke that's not funny. Open with a joke but flub the punchline. Retell the joke. Open with a joke but never get to the punchline because you're laughing too hard at your own joke that no one else finds funny.

Make a reference to a Family Circus cartoon from 1982, the one where all four kids when to the Sugar Bowl ice cream parlor and had a zany adventure.


SPIN #6 – SPEECHWRITING

Deliver a string of quotes we've all heard many, many times before, with a mix of historical figures, authors, motivational speakers, Harry Potter, Yoda, superheroes and Peter Parker's uncle (with great power comes great responsibility). If life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Reach for the moon - if you miss, at least you'll be among the stars. The world needs dreamers and the world needs doers - but above all, the world needs dreamers who do. If you want something said, ask a man - if you want something done, ask a woman. Do or do not - there is no try. Patience you must have my young padawan. Deliver these quotes while trying to impersonate John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Mark Twain, Batman, Yoda or whoever you're quoting. Break up your string of quotes with a proverb we've all heard many, many times before (If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together) and that has no obvious relevance to what you're talking about. Deliver a speech that seems like it was cribbed from motivational posters that plaster the office of that one eternally positive and blindly optimistic co-worker that everyone secretly worries about. The only way to guarantee failure is to never try. Tough times never last but tough people always do. Even worse, show a screen shot of a motivational poster and tell us it's hanging in your home office.

Read your speech for the very first time while you're delivering it from the lectern. Seem as genuinely surprised as us by the words coming out of your mouth. When you stumble over a sentence, stage whisper something about needing to hire a better speechwriter. Read your speech either very slowly or very quickly without once looking up and establishing eye contact with anyone in the audience. Read the stage directions embedded in your speech that aren't meant to be read aloud (Pause. Look up. Smile. Breath. Slow down. Look concerned. Try to be human). Do nothing but inform, battering and burying us with a barrage of facts and stats for 45 minutes straight. Do nothing but entertain, playing for cheap and easy laughs and saying nothing of substance for 45 minutes straight. Turn your speech into just another PowerPoint presentation with you standing off to the side narrating in the dark. Turn your speech into just another PowerPoint presentation with you standing in front of the screen with your back to the audience and obstructing our view. Apologize in advance by telling us we won't be able to read any of the charts on your PowerPoint slides and then go ahead and walk us through each and every unreadable chart.


SPIN #6 – SPEECHWRITING

Rip into whoever's running the PowerPoint when there's a technical glitch, the slides don't advance or there's no audio with the video. (I was at a conference where the speaker tore into the AV team. He then quit giving his speech in mid-sentence and stormed off the stage. The audience didn't just boo. We hissed. Someone even clapped when he left the banquet hall.) Avoid using weekend words at all costs. You use big, confusing words that make you feel smart even though they leave us feeling stupid. Run way past your allotted time, especially if we're waiting for breakfast or dinner to be served and we've long since eaten the muffins, buns and pads of butter that were on our table when you started talking 90 minutes ago. End your speech without a rally cry. Don't tell us what we should or could do next. Don't close the sale or ask for the order. End your speech by saying "well, I guess that's it. I've got nothing more to say. Thanks for listening". Invite us to ask questions but make it very clear by tone of voice and body language that you want nothing more than to get off the stage. What you can do instead. You don't need a speechwriter. What you want is someone who can start and carry a conversation that gets you opening up.

I've written lots of speeches. Most were forgettable. Some were truly regrettable. And only a couple were memorable. The best speeches were never really speeches. They were transcripts. Lightly edited transcripts from open and honest conversations with leaders who made it personal. Who told a story that only they could tell. A story that didn't have a single quote from Yoda, Harry Potter or Maya Angelou. I wrote a convocation speech for an interim president. He was a good leader and a great guy. Low key, no ego and definitely not a natural performer. We didn't want to dust off and recycle a speech given by a previous president. He deserved a speech to call his own. A new president would be installed by the time the next convocation ceremony rolled around. The interim president agreed to meet and gave me an hour of his time. I pitched the idea of having the president reflect on the advice he was given during his graduation ceremony many years ago. What advice was out-of-date? What advice aged well and was still relevant today? What advice did he follow? What advice did he wish he'd been given? The president didn't want to do that. I can't do that, said the president. Were his graduation speeches that forgettable? I don't remember the speeches because I wasn't there, said the president. Were you working? There was a long pause.


SPIN #6 – SPEECHWRITING

The president looked uncomfortable. I didn't to my graduation ceremony because I didn't graduate. Okay, how about the speeches from your high school graduation. I didn't graduate...from high school, said the president. I was a high school drop out.

The president didn't read his speech. He delivered it. There's a notable difference. And it wasn't a speech. It was his life story. It's a story that had important life lessons for each and every grad. It was a speech free of jokes, quotes and proverbs. It was a speech only he could deliver.

And now we had something to talk about. The president explained why he dropped out of high school and relived the moment when left his desk during first period, cleaned out his locker and walked out of school. How his dad gave him an ultimatum - get a job by the end of the week or get out of the house. How he got a job and started out in a mailroom. How his job included checking the clocks in all the offices. How a senior executive struck up conversations every time the future president delivered the mail and checked the clocks. How the senior executive asked if he aspired to do something more than work in a mailroom. How that executive gave him a vote of confidence and inspired him to go back to night school while working full-time and raising a young family. How he somehow made it all work and wound up a college president. The president was very reluctant to share this story with the graduating class and an auditorium full of their family and friends. He was slightly embarrassed. But he finally agreed. It took real courage to be that vulnerable - to stand in front of freshly minted grads and say he was a high school drop out.

He gave the same speech many times over a week's worth of morning, afternoon and evening convocation ceremonies. At each ceremony, it was like he was delivering it for the first time. He wasn't bored or going through the motions. And each time, he got a big round of applause from grads, family and friends who usually tune out when presidents start talking and serving up career and life advice. Grads thanked the president while they shook his hand on stage and accepted their diplomas. Family and friends did the same during the post-ceremony celebrations. The local newspaper reprinted his speech. He got nice emails and was thanked by strangers while out in public for months afterwards. So you don't need a speechwriter. What you want is someone who can start and carry a conversation. Someone who can gently persuade you to make it personal and stray outside your comfort zone. To be vulnerable. To speak less from the head and more from the heart. And someone who will then take your conversation and lightly edit that transcript into a story that only you can tell and that everyone will listen to and remember.


SPIN #6 – SPEECHWRITING

Giving a speech isn't a chore. It's a privilege. Where else do you have the opportunity to get in front of an audience who's willing to look up from their screens and give you their undivided attention? It's a gift. Don't waste it with bad jokes and Yoda quotes.


Deadly spin #7: You should host frequent all-staff town halls.


SPIN #7 – TOWN HALLS What PR pros say: Town halls build community. Everyone – you, the entire senior leadership team, managers, supervisors and all of our employees – get together in one place at the same time for a shared experience. Interactions are a big part of that experience. You get to interact with employees in person and face to face. Those employees get to watch how you interact with your senior leadership team on stage and see that you’re a cohesive team of senior leaders who know their stuff and enjoy each other’s company. Employees get to mix, mingle and catch up with colleagues before and after the town hall. And thanks to all that mixing, mingling and interacting, information gets shared. Ideas get kicked around. Questions get answered. Problems get solved. Partnerships and collaborations take root. So there’s no question that a town hall is time well spent for everyone involved. Town halls are also a great way to break big news. Everyone gets the same information at the same time. If it’s difficult big news, everyone will see that you’re concerned and that you care enough to stand up and deliver it in person. You share everyone’s pain.

To save you time, we’re happy to run the show from start to finish. We’ll write the script and prepare remarks for you and even every presenter at the town hall. We’ll pull together the PowerPoint presentations and run the AV. We’ll livestream and record the town halls for employees who can’t be there in person. If you want a Q&A at the end of the town hall, we can solicit questions in advance, get employees to fill out question cards during the town hall or just invite folks to step up to the mic.

We could even kick it up a notch and turn your town hall into something like a talk show. We’ll replace the lectern with a desk and couches. We’ll bring in a DJ or even a house band. You can deliver an opening monologue. We could show pre-recorded skits and segments between presenters. It’ll be a blast – edutainment at its best. What employees think: This town hall should’ve been an email. We just spent 90 minutes listening to what we could’ve read in 90 seconds. And that time we wasted getting to and from the town hall could’ve been spent doing our jobs. Or taking a break and grabbing a coffee.


SPIN #7 – TOWN HALLS Town halls are the National Football League of meetings. An average NFL game lasts three hours and 12 minutes. The ball’s in play for around 11 minutes. We’re lucky if six per cent of what we hear during a town hall is news we can use in our jobs. The rest either sails over our heads like a throw from a rookie QB who’s been flushed out of the pocket or it means nothing to us and we forget all of it as soon as we’re out of our seats and back to work. Everyone knows when a town hall’s been slapped together at the last minute because it was on the calendar and no one thought to cancel it. We’re served up a grab bag of reheated presentations delivered by presenters who are already bored of walking yet another audience through the same slides one more time. We watch senior leaders who’ve already heard these presentations multiple times bolt for the exit or break out their smartphone. Along with being the NFL of meetings, town halls are not unlike family get-togethers during the holidays. Like those gettogethers, every town hall is pretty much the same. Nothing really changes except the date for when the town hall’s being held. It’s the same format, the same line-up of presenters, the same PowerPoints and the same content.

The only unpredictability comes at the end if there’s still time left to open the floor to questions. Which brave soul will risk making a career-limiting move by pointing to the elephant in the room, saying what everyone in the audience is thinking or challenging what was said as the gospel truth? Who’s the lost soul who’ll confuse the town hall with a confessional and overshare personal information with a question that turns into a five-minute monologue? And who’s the sycophantic coworker who’s ready to sell their soul by serving up a flattering, obsequious softball question that seems like it was planned and rehearsed in advance? Watching you as our leader react, recover, keep a straight face and not lose your patience in real time during the Q&A is pretty much the highlight of the town hall. And thanks for trying to shake things up by turning your town hall into a talk show. But the novelty wore off after about the first five minutes. Talk shows are written, produced and performed by professionals. Famous people come on as guests to pitch their movies, TV shows and memoirs. You’re not a professional when it comes to talk shows and no one on stage is remotely famous. The effort’s appreciated but it doesn’t change the fact that this 90-minute town hall could’ve and should’ve been an email we read in 90 seconds.


SPIN #7 – TOWN HALLS What you can do instead: Fewer is better. But don’t stop at holding fewer town halls. Put fewer items on the agenda. Have fewer presenters, with fewer hand-offs and fewer chances for technical glitches. If you have to use PowerPoint, use fewer slides. Put fewer charts, facts and figures on those slides. Have fewer calls to action. Ideally, employees leave with just one call to action, which would be one more than what’s given at far too many town halls. Plan your town hall in reverse. Start by asking two questions. What’s the one thing you need every employee to know and remember from the town hall? And what’s the one thing you want every employee to do after the town hall? Build the agenda around answering those two questions. Strip away everything else. A week after your town hall, ask employees “what do you remember?” and “what did you do?” If they remembered and did what you wanted, congratulations. If they remembered and did nothing, sharpen your focus and do better at your next town hall. Remember that what you do during the town hall is more important than what you say. Showing matters more than telling. And showing genuine appreciation matters most. Spend your town hall thanking, recognizing and celebrating employees who go above and beyond in advancing the strategic priorities of your organization.

Thank individuals and teams. Thank your superstars and your unsung heroes. Give shout-outs to employees who live your organization’s core values, who do the right things even when no one’s watching. It’s not just what gets measured that get’s done. It’s what get’s recognized that’s get done and repeated over and over again. Rethink who presents at your town hall. Bring in a grateful customer, client, patient or student to share their story and show how your organization changes, saves or transforms lives. Use town halls to remind all employees why their work matters and the difference they’re making. I’ve helped put together many town halls. The best presenter I ever saw – the one who got the loudest and longest round of applause from an audience that emotionally choked up – wasn’t a senior leader or a professional speaker. It was a grateful and emotional dad who spoke from the heart about how the organization had changed the trajectory of his son’s life. There were no PowerPoint slides. If it’s a town hall where you have to deliver difficult news, give a heads up to managers and supervisors. Don’t blindside them – they’re your organization’s key communicators. They’re the ones who’ll field all the questions that employees will ask once they’re back from the town hall. It’ll be tough for everyone to keep calm and carry on if managers are stunned and angry.


SPIN #7 – TOWN HALLS For these town halls, ditch the PowerPoint slides and prepared remarks and don’t hide behind a lectern. Stand at the edge of the stage, say what needs to be said and then answer questions with genuine empathy and honesty. For your regularly scheduled town halls, think like your employees with each and every proposed presentation. Could and should this be an email? You could pack employees into an auditorium and then force-march them through PowerPoint presentations on a new policy, quarterly results and the latest KPIs. Or you could you announce the policy, results and KPIs in emails? Worried no one’s going to read the emails? Write better emails. Don’t assume that everyone’s paying attention just because they’re sitting in an auditorium staring at PowerPoint slides on a giant screen. Minds wander.

Emails are a good way to send out information. But an email is not a good way to get everyone in your organization to break out into a spontaneous round of applause. So take the time you would’ve spent anesthetizing your audience with a 20-slide PowerPoint deck introducing a new policy or summarizing quarterly results and invest it instead in thanking, recognizing and celebrating employees and bringing in guest speakers who can remind everyone why we’re here and why our work matters. “We must find time to stop and thank the people who make a difference in our lives,” said John F. Kennedy. Town halls are the perfect time and place to stop and thank the employees who are making a difference in your organization and for the people you serve. Employees will come out of your town halls knowing they’re valued and appreciated. Managers and supervisors will follow your lead and make recognition a big part of their team and department meetings. And everyone will forward to experiencing it all again at your next town hall.


Deadly spin postscript: PR advice for leaders from a PR pro.


POSTSCRIPT PR ADVICE FOR LEADERS #1: Show us your calendar My current boss did this a couple years ago. I wish my other bosses had done the same thing earlier in my career. It would’ve saved them from some unnecessary and unrealistic requests from me. Yes, communicating with employees is important. It’s a full-time job for some of us in PR. And it should be a priority for all leaders. It’s been a priority for pretty much every leader I’ve worked with. They’ve all known it’s tough to lead if no one’s willing to follow. But leaders have dozens of other priorities. They’re all important and urgent and constantly competing for a leader’s time and attention. I’m not sure we fully appreciate how unrelenting those demands are day after day after day.

We’ll get ruthlessly efficient in helping you get the word out.

That’ll be good for you and good for employees on the receiving end of your communications. Sure, we could have you host a town hall, run a live chat online, take over our organization’s Instagram account, sit down for a coffee klatch or do a star turn in a video. But if an old-school email does the trick – an email that takes you less than 60 seconds to review and roughly the same amount of time for employees to read – that’s what we’re going with. An email won’t win us PR awards and accolades but it’ll get the job done. That’s all that matters. And we’ll pick our spots.

Hopefully, here’s what’ll happen when your PR team sees that every minute of your day (plus your nights and most weekends) is already blocked and accounted for in your calendar.

When we ask for an hour of your time to connect you with employees in-person or online, you’ll know we’ve done our homework, we’re being strategic and we know this will be time well spent for both you and employees. We won’t be making this request on a hunch or because it’s a new and novel way to communicate as a leader.

We’ll up our game.

#2 Help us keep our egos in check

Whatever we send your way for review and approval will be good to go. You won’t have to waste time don’t have on editing, rewriting and fact-checking our work. And we’ll give you as much turnaround time as possible. No more expectations that you’ll review and approve our drafts before the end of the day or within the next hour.

Some PR pros can get confused about who’s in charge. It happens to the best of us and it’s easily done. You look to us for strategic advice and counsel. You send us to meetings you can’t attend and deputize us to speak on your behalf.


POSTSCRIPT PR ADVICE FOR LEADERS We help draft your all-staff memos, town hall addresses, keynote speeches and opeds. The more we draft, the better we get at capturing your voice and the less you edit and change. We recommend projects for you to lead and causes for you to champion. We make introductions and connect you to the right people. And you confide in us. Sometimes, you admit that you’re making it up as you go. Or you’re tired, burned out, dreaming of calling it quits and thinking that folding towels poolside at an allinclusive resort sounds like a great career move. A little recognition and appreciation can go a long way in keeping our egos in check. So too can a gentle yet firm reminder that you’re in charge and you’re the one calling the shots. But sometimes we won’t get the hint and course correct. Resentment will be on a slow simmer and then boil over (curdle is another useful image). We’ll start letting anyone and everyone that we’re the one pulling the strings and telling you what to think, say and do. That we’re the one who wrote every word of your all-staff memo, town hall address, keynote speech and oped. That we dreamed up the project you’re leading and the cause you’re championing. That without us, you won’t have connected with the right people. We take credit when you hit a home run and blame you when you strike out because you didn’t heed our advice. Instead of going to meetings and sharing what you think, we say here’s what you’re thinking, here’s why it’s wrong and this is what you should be thinking instead.

If it comes to this, you have to let us go. You and the organization can’t afford to have us around. It’s only going to get worse, more toxic and a distraction for everyone. If we genuinely believe we’re the brains of the operation and we have what it takes to lead an organization and get paid accordingly, then give us that opportunity to prove it somewhere else. Your PR pro should always be an ally and never an adversary or saboteur. For whatever reason, it seems to be the initially sycophantic and fawning PR pros who are most susceptible to crossing over to the dark side and going down in flames. #3 Defend our core values whatever the cost I’ve worked with lots of leaders who were good people. They treated everyone with respect. They were kind and quietly generous. They were gracious and humble. They were proud of the organization and knew that leading us was a privilege. They followed the Boy Scout Rule of always leaving a campground cleaner than when you first found it. Yet some leaders inexplicably tolerated peers and direct reports who were behaving badly. They ignored, excused, justified or downplayed raging egos, flaming tempers, bullying, harassment, selfishness or laziness. Everyone knew what was going on. And everyone was waiting for the leader to step up and do something about it, even if it cost them a star performer or a personal friendship.


POSTSCRIPT PR ADVICE FOR LEADERS Here’s the problem with condoning bad behavior and doing nothing about jerks in positions of power. The worst and most egregious behaviors that you tolerate as the leader become the core values for everyone in our organization. It doesn’t matter what values we dreamed up and agreed on during strategic planning and then posted online, framed and displayed on walls and printed off as laminated cards for everyone’s wallets.

No amount of PR will cancel out the disconnect between what we’re saying we stand for and what you’re allowing to happen on your watch. It’s not enough for you to be a good person. You also need to hold everyone who works for you – including your PR pro – to the same high standard. Regrets about my career? I have a few. Not giving this advice to a couple leaders makes the short list.


Deadly spin postscript: Three pieces of PR advice for PR pros from a PR pro.


POSTSCRIPT PR ADVICE FOR PR PROs #1. Choose wisely. You have a choice as a PR pro. Serve your organization. Or serve your leader. If you're lucky, your leader puts serving the organization ahead of serving their own self interests. I've worked with these organization-first leaders before. I work for one now. I appreciate just how lucky I am.

With this kind of leader at the helm, you can do your job with a clear conscience. There are no ulterior motives, hidden agendas, nasty surprises or secrets waiting to be told. And you're communicating to an audience of employees who trust and respect the leader and have confidence in the future of your organization. Things get trickier with a leader who's put self-interest ahead of doing what's best for the organization. They're in it for the fortune and the fame, whether that's a super-sized retirement nest egg, the maximum allowable performance bonus despite a year of minimal effort and middling results, a headhunter calling with the offer of a golden ticket to a bigger and better job somewhere else, or industry awards and accolades plus adoration and envy from their peers. So why would you choose this kind of leader ahead of serving your organization? A self-interested leader on an ego trip can offer up a sweet, sweet ride. No expenses are spared and loyalty's richly rewarded. There's also the thrill of getting pulled from the kids' table and welcomed into the inner circle.

But this may not be your smartest choice for five reasons. You could turn into a jerk, thanks to an acute sense of entitlement and delusions of self-importance. Early symptoms would include bitching about the quality and variety of the catered breakfasts and lunches that get wheeled in for leadership meetings (usually by staff who brown bag it because they can't afford to buy their lunches) and whining about the wine selections and pairings during off-site retreats and post-conference dinners. You could find yourself put into morally compromising situations, having to explain, defend and justify something the leader's said or done. And you're told to do this while being kept in the dark yourself and having not been told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Earlier in my career, I was hauled on the carpet for a story that ran in the local newspaper. The coverage was very good for our organization and very bad for another organization. My supervisor wanted to me to call the reporter and demand a correction, to replace a truth with a lie and dent our organization's reputation in the process. Cooler heads prevailed. No correction was demanded. None of this made sense until a few months later when the organization that got hammered in the story announced their new leader.


POSTSCRIPT ADVICE FOR PR PROs Flagging emerging issues and the dangers ahead is a key part of your job. Sometimes, you're the bearer of bad news and you have to say what others are thinking but are too afraid (or smart) to say within earshot of the leader. Maybe your self-serving leader will even encourage you to be open and honest, to speak truth to power and point out the elephants in the room. But you're not keen to find out if the leader's serious or if you're about to bite the hand that feeds you. You really don't want to get banished from the inner circle and sent back to the kids' table. Yet staying silent can blindside your leader, isolate your senior leadership team (this is when the team starts referring to employees as "them" or "FTEs" instead of colleagues) and steer your organization into an iceberg. And even if you work up the courage to speak up, you no longer have your finger on the pulse of the organization. Your colleagues will quit talking to you. They'll stop confiding in you because they won't trust you to keep confidences. They won't give you a heads up or be open and honest because they know that raising any issues or concerns with you will launch you into a spirited defense of the leader. I once had a colleague tell me he was surprised I'd stuck around and hadn't bolted with the leader. You seemed like you were the president of the leader's fan club. Sometimes, the truth hurts. So I course corrected. A few years later, another colleague said I was the least "PRish" PR person he'd ever met. He said he meant that as a compliment. I took it as one.

And finally, every leader leaves eventually. Some leave sooner and more unexpectedly than others. There's no guarantee that you'll get invited to tag along as the leader moves to a new job. Loyalty can be fickle and fleeting. And they'll be no job openings if the leader's retiring or has been quietly persuaded to spend more quality time at home with their family (unless you want a second career as the leader's caddie or a nanny for their kids). Loyalists tend to be the first to go when a new leader takes the helm, especially if the previous leader left with underwater approval ratings, under a cloud of suspicion or in the wake of a scandal. You either were clueless as to what was going on and were played for a fool or your silence equaled complicity. Either way, your days are likely numbered. So choose wisely when deciding whether to serve the leader or your organization. There's nothing wrong with staying at the kids' table. And bringing your own lunch to work. #2. Keep giving your leader someone to talk about The best leaders make a point of giving public shout-outs and heartfelt private praise. They're quick to thank employees who've gone above and beyond and made a difference. They know that recognizing employees who are doing what needs done is the best way to ensure that more employees start doing it too and keep at it. But it's tough for leaders, who spend pretty much their entire days sequestered in meetings, to find these employees on their own.


POSTSCRIPT PR ADVICE FOR PR PROs So that's where you come in. Picture yourself as the booker for Good News Today and your leader's the host. When you find an employee who's gone above and beyond and made a difference, let the leader know. Even better is an employee who's gone above and beyond and made a difference by advancing one of your organization's strategic priorities. Great leaders will weave shout-outs into their all-staff notes, town hall remarks and hallway conversations. They'll shoot the employees an email or drop off a handwritten note.

There's a fine line between employees laughing with your leader and laughing at them. Don't put your leader on the wrong side of that line. A little self-deprecating humour is a good thing. Playing the clown, or making mean-spirited jokes at someone else's expense, is not.

I worked for a president who kept a wellworn thank-you note folded in his wallet. He had been given the note decades earlier at the start of his career from his supervisor. He showed me the note once and said he looked at it often as a reminder to give thanks and show appreciation.

Spell peoples' names phonetically to save your leader from embarrassing themselves as they stumble over and butcher someone's name. Especially if that name belongs to a long-time employee, the keynote speaker or an award recipient being introduced by the leader.

Helping your leader make the same impact on employees can be the best part of your job. And the most important, given the lasting and big impact of a little recognition from a grateful leader.

Put your leader's scripts and speeches in a binder. Number the pages. I worked for a leader who'd crumple the corner of each page so it was easier to turn and the pages won't stick together. That binder with the crumpled pages means one less thing to worry about when your leader has to stand and deliver.

#3 - Set your leader up for success. Confidence in the leader is a key driver of employee engagement. So never put your leader in situations where they're going to shake the confidence of employees. Here's my parting advice, based on 28 years of getting it right, and sometimes very wrong, in helping leaders communicate with employees.

Never send your leader to the lectern with an unreadable script (hello, worldclass classrooms). As Harrison Ford said to George Lucas on the set of Star Wars, "George, you can type this shit but you sure can't say it.“

Gently recommend a reshoot of a video if, on the first, second or third take, your leader looks like a hostage, someone who hasn't slept in a week or speaks and moves like an animatronic that's escaped from Disney's Hall of Presidents.


POSTSCRIPT PR ADVICE FOR PR PROs Gently dissuade your leader from using big words in their written communications to employees. Stick with "weekend words" and use short sentences. Big words will confuse, bore or embarrass employees. No one wants to feel dumb. No one wants a sermon, lecture or dissertation. And no one has the time or patience to decipher what the leader's trying to say. Don't laugh if your leader's not being funny. It'll only encourage them. Play to your leader's strengths. If they're socially awkward doing small talk in small groups but shine on the stage in front of a large audience, find ways to get them on stage and don't let them wander into a small group without someone tagging along to initiate and wrap up the small talk.

If your leader's an introvert, make sure they have downtime to recharge before sending them back out to connect with employees or shoot a video. Thank your leader when they've done good. Everyone - even the leader - wants to know when they're doing a good job. And always remember, your leader has a plate. Their plate is always full. Your job is to take work off that plate and to never add to it.


Acknowledgements A very big thank you to some exceptional leaders who showed how to connect and communicate with employees: John Mayberry, Joan Weppler and Bronko Jazvac Brenda Flaherty, Pat Mandy and Charlotte Daniels Cheryl Jensen and Bob Carrington, and Maureen MacDonald Thanks also to Bill Gair for the constant reminders to “push the pride button” in all communications going out to employees. Didn’t fully appreciate the advice then. But I do now.

And a tip of the hat to Steve Crescenzo for his reminder to use “weekend words” and Joe Pulizzi and Robert Rose for warning against posting content exclusively on the rented land that is social media.


About Jay Jay Robb has worked in public relations since 1993, with tour stops at a provincial non-profit (where he learned how to skin a black bear but left before he had to), a hospital, a steelmaker (“our product is steel, our strength is people”), a community college and one of the world’s top universities. He has spent most of his career helping senior leaders connect with employees. Jay has also read and reviewed more than 600 business

books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999. Reviews run every second Saturday. He is forever grateful to the editor who shot down his initial idea of a column about public relations done badly by local organizations, which would’ve gone unread and been a career-limiting move. Jay graduated from the University of Western Ontario (Harvard of the North) with a graduate degree in journalism and a less useful undergraduate degree in political science. Instead of going to class, Jay drew a daily cartoon strip for the student newspaper. Jay calls Hamilton, Ontario home and lives with a very patient wife and two great kids who thankfully take after their mother in every way that matters most. Rather than bake sourdough bread, adopt a rescue dog, train for a marathon or attempt a home reno, Leadership Miscommunication: The Seven Deadly Spins of Connecting with Employees was Jay’s 2020-21 pandemic project.

Email Jay at jayrobb@cogeco.ca. Jay’s book reviews are archived at www.jayrobb.me