Rethinking Successful Communications...with Edward A. Orgon
Edward A. Orgon is a founding partner, president, chief operating officer of The Torrenzano Group.
Ed is the senior executive responsible for all firm business and client activities, including managing account teams, developing client communications strategies and directing the implementation of supporting communications programs.
In this capacity, he has represented such clients as the NASDAQ Stock Market, including its demutualization and the launching of its exchange traded fund (ETF), the QQQ; the National Association of Securities Dealers (FINRA) and its acquisition of The American Stock Exchange (Amex), and the Amex on its portfolio of ETFs.
Following is a conversation he had recently with Richard Torrenzano:
Question: How have business' needs and concerns changed in the midst of the global economic crisis?
Edward A. Orgon: Several things to consider. First, less margin for error as the competitive environment is much more difficult, products more difficult to sell, investors are more difficult to attract. Missteps are unacceptable. Precision is critical in decisions and actions.
Second, if their fundamental foundation activities are sound they need to avoid the “take action for action sake” syndrome.
It's akin to a team finishing second with the fans clamoring for a championship. The owners wildly spend for free agents no matter the cost. They're panicking because of their fans. That will hurt that team for years to come.
Overreaction to real or perceived crisis is a major error. If a company has a sound plan producing reasonable results, meeting expectations it should maintain course and look for opportunities.
Question: How have clients adapted over the years?
EAO: The most critical factors all businesses face are the speed and reach of communications. The never-ending, get-it-now deadlines. If you're a bureaucratic company with several levels to approve a news release or media response, you may well have lost the game.
The biggest --- and ultimate --- success in communications is actually getting your message out. Establish the agenda. On your toes, not your heels. If some second level lawyer is still looking at the communications, dotting the "i's" and crossing the "t's" because they don't like the way that word is used, you're going to be nowhere and will go down in flames. You have to flatten the organization; you have to have decision makers at the right levels.
Question: Speed is definitely a factor in social media, a major communications channel now. What do you advise companies to consider before they take the plunge into social media?
EAO: The first thing clients should think about when they consider social media is ask themselves: "Who am I trying to influence? Who is my customer? Who is my investor? Who is my prospect?" And preciseness is called for.
Let's take an example. If their customer is on a trading desk they should ask themselves the question, "Does that individual have time during his work day to be watching and responding to Twitter?" I put the question to you. Do they? On the other hand, if you're selling a home product, social media may well be the most exact and effective communications channel to engage --- and capture --- that customer.
Companies fail with social media because they ultimately they use it as simply another direct communication channel, not as a feedback mechanism, a conversation enabler and point of engagement.
Clients also have to invest in resources and in decision-making.
If you're going to engage a customer or a constituent, you have to have the authority to make statements about that company, about that product. Otherwise it becomes drivel and a waste of time for your soon to be ex-customer.
Question: That wouldn't necessarily be a CEO's role? Maybe it would be a CMO's role in terms of communicating with the key constituents?
EAO: The personality of the organization, the individual personality of the executives drives that. Large consumer companies get thousands of contacts on their social networks. They should consider building a well thought-out and organized response model, with different levels of authority to make statements and to do things.
A good example is Amazon and how they operate their customer service. Their customer service has different levels of people who can take certain actions. Some employees will say, "I understand what you're asking, but that's not within my realm to take an action like that, but I'll be happy to pass you to some one who can." You might move up the chain until finally they give you a million dollar gift certificate for your trouble!
Question: Would you say a key to social media is being able to consistently describe yourself and what your company stands for?
EAO: It's not simply describing yourself. That should have already done that. It’s interacting with your constituent whether a customer, a prospect, a friend of the customer and investor, whomever it may be.
Social media should fulfill the individual's, the target's, the constituent's needs much more than it fills a company's need. If you're just using it as a push mechanism, it will fail.
Question: Do you think companies have an integrated approach to their communications needs or do you think different parts of companies are communicating differently to each of the constituents? How do you advise companies to remedy if this problem exists?
EAO: Good question. You would think as a company gets larger sophistication grows, but it’s also where silos can grow.
Question: What do you see as the major communications challenges clients face today that weren't an issue when the firm was founded in the mid-90s?
EAO: A two-part answer. Number one, look at how the communications apparatus has developed. We hinted at that before when we talked about speed and reach.
Back then, if you scored with one or two key media, whether Bloomberg or The Wall Street Journal or Associated Press, you did your job, you went home. Today more scattered, more fragmented. That's number one.
Number two, our country has changed. Look at the Hispanic market, look at women in very senior important positions. You have to think differently.
As the culture of companies changed, the culture of the business world changed. Twenty percent of the people are going to be ahead of that culture change curve. The bell curve applies across the board on many items and it applies there. There are some companies that are far ahead, others who do lip service; the phrase is "they talk the talk but they don't walk the walk." Then others who do neither.
Question: In the current environment, what do your clients need the most help with?
EAO: All clients need a willingness to change, and have people who are willing and able to tell them what reality is.
Some companies have tremendous ability to have vision about 12 inches, to the end of their hand … and they think that's the world. But it isn’t. The critical issue is making them see the reality so they can act on it.
Question: Do you think the culture of companies has changed to keep up with the culture of the country?
EAO: The answer to that question would be yes. The truly enlightened ones have, but there are many that haven't because life is a bell curve. Twenty percent of the people are going to be ahead of that curve and bulk of the people are going to be coming through it. There are going to be the laggards, so that bell curve applies across the board on many items and it applies there. There are some companies that are far ahead on that, others who do lip service; the phrase is "they talk the talk but they don't walk the walk." Then there are the others who do neither.
Question: Would you like to make some more predictions on how the client agency relationship is going to change in the next five or ten years?
EAO: There are going to be two types of firms. There's going to be the commodity firms that can take a product and get the appropriate placement in Good Housekeeping or Popular Mechanics or Science Magazine as pure publicity, have no real strategy and those firms will enjoy success on a different basis. Then there's going to be the other set of firms --which our firm will continue to be--where their advice, counsel and work will make a material difference in the progress of the company no matter what that challenge is, whether it's to enhance shareholder value or whether it's to move products forward or to have a voice in public policy. Those are based on experience and relationship and knowing the environment.
Question: Have you found clients are more concerned with protecting their corporate brand and managing reputational risk?
EAO: Our clients self select themselves because we tell our clients what they need to know. We tell them when they're doing things right, we tell them when they're not. Our clients are prepared. They recognize reputational risk.
Question: What would you say to someone just starting out in the field of public relations? How would you advise them?
EAO: They need to honestly evaluate themselves, and find several characteristics: Serious intellectual curiosity and broad interests.
Second, be able to communicate. If someone can't think and write it, don't bother. Clear thinking combined with clear writing remain critical skills.
Think about it. If we agree that communications is at light speed, what does that imply? Someone has to write something and guess what? You have to write it clear and fast --- communicate fast. So you better be a good writer. If you think about blogs you think about interaction on a social network. If something isn't written well, if it’s not clear, not compelling, or relevant, then it's going to fail. If you can't do that, pack it in.
Finally, if you're not willing to stand up, reach out, pick up the phone and call someone like we all do, then you're also going to fail. There is little if any room for shrinking violets in this business.
Question: Do you think journalists make good PR people?
EAO: It depends on the journalists' orientation. The journalist is trained and brought up to be a skeptic and that's a great role they play in our society.
We, as corporate consultants and communications experts are advocates. While being advocates we also, of course, have to have an objective view of that world I spoke about earlier.
Being an advocate takes different thinking, a different orientation than a skeptic. The journalist has to be able to cross the chasm and become an advocate. If they try to straddle being skeptic and an advocate, it doesn’t work.