Why Leaders Can’t NOT Communicate – Even as a Mortgage Company CEO

I love my job. I mean that. I look forward to Monday mornings on Sunday nights and when I took a half-day in April to attend a friend’s wedding, my boss had to force me out of the building when the time came. I genuinely enjoy what I do, and I believe in my employer.

A lot of my personal satisfaction comes from the fact that I simply love to write, paired with the constant state of ecstatic disbelief that someone is actually paying me to do it. I know I’m not in the majority; most of my friends either hate what they do or they can’t stand whom they do it for. I’ve always thought this was just a natural attitude toward the “dues paying” stage of the career life cycle I made up just now. I never stopped to think about why I believe in my company.

At the July PRSA Houston Workshop, David Grossman, president and founder of The Grossman Group, practically laid it out for me. Speaking on the subject of executive communications, Grossman said many executives have no idea how to communicate, often having been promoted for other reasons. However, while my company’s CEO prefers to handle much of the internal communication himself, he seems to have a natural handle on many of the ideas Grossman shared. That’s not to say his expertise is common knowledge. I know my college courses focused primarily on what we say to the public rather than maintaining corporate morale.

While working in the mortgage industry during the now waning housing crisis, being informed is crucial to establishing and maintaining employee morale during these troubling times. It’s hard to put forth your best effort and focus on the job at hand when the possibility of unemployment and the terrors of job hunting loom over your head. Nothing is neutral; even to stay silent during periods of uncertainty sends a strong message to the workforce. I have no way of knowing whether our CEO is familiar with Grossman or the ideas he shared, but my company’s leader seems to understand how powerful the messages he sends to his employees can be. He kept everyone informed, and I’m certain that it’s at least partially through those efforts that our organization made 2009 its most profitable year in its 22-year history.

According to Grossman, employees want to know answers to eight key questions.  Our CEO provided those answers throughout the housing crisis. The questions are arranged in a hierarchy beginning with a desire to know how the individual fits into the organization and ending with how the company is functioning as a whole. It’s knowing the answers to these questions that helps establish a vested interest in the company and the sense of security that goes hand in hand with a feeling of sustainability from the organization.

1.     What is my job?

2.     How am I doing?

3.     Does the organization care about me?

4.     What’s going on with the company and with my personal status?

5.     What is our business strategy?

6.     How is the company doing as a whole?

7.     What are our vision and values?

8.     How can I help?

It’s also important to note that whenever industry or corporate change occurs, we return to question one.

What many executives don’t understand is that communication sends the message that they mean business. According to research Grossman presented, effective employee communications is a leading indicator of financial performance and a driver of how engaged employees are with their companies. Organizations that are led by highly effective communicators had a 47 percent higher total return to shareholders over the past five years compared to firms with less effective communicators.

It’s not that business leaders don’t want to communicate, but rather that they believe one or more of three common myths about employee communication. They think they don’t have time to communicate, or that they don’t have time to plan for it. But as Grossman pointed out, companies typically allocate time to clean up a mess, but don’t always invest time to prevent a crisis.

Another myth is that people won’t react to a lack of communication. However, people naturally interpret just about everything. Even if we stay silent, it is in our nature to speculate and theorize amongst our peers as to where the organization and our jobs stand.

As for the third myth, many leaders believe that simply talking is communicating. However, communication is much more involved than that. It requires listening, acting, purpose and strategy. Communication is a two-way street. We have to listen to those we entrust with the day-to-day responsibilities to create positive employee engagement.

It’s important to practice and plan communication. I don’t know what my CEO’s strategy is when planning his communications, but he inherently understands how much it affects his employees’ performance. It’s the reason our company has thrived while others have failed. It’s the reason I love where I am and intend to stay there for quite awhile.  It’s the reason I look forward to the Monday morning grind as soon as the final credits of The Simpsons roll on Sunday nights.

Jason Saenz is a public relations writer/editor at Cornerstone Mortgage Company and has been a member of PRSA Houston since January 2010.

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Want more success working with the Houston Chronicle?

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Sage Advice

Did you miss PRSA Houston’s April luncheon? Don’t worry. With this video, we captured a few of the sages giving career advice. Thanks, Ed Davis (PRSA Houston board member and director of communications at the United Way of Greater Houston).

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What do newspapers and cereal have in common? The breakfast table?

As the economy recovers and PR job openings increase, don’t pass up positions that require industry-specific experience even if you don’t have it. Let HR or the hiring manager disqualify you.

But first let them know this. PR skills are a communications professional’s most important asset, not knowledge of a given industry. Expertise in PR is transferable to a variety of industries. As an outsider, you may be in a better position to render an objective opinion on the strategy and tactics of a PR program by leveraging knowledge of other business models.

We’ve all heard managers say that they have been around their industries so long that they have lost the “big picture.” PR practitioners are big picture people. Share your knowledge of what other industries do. Don’t hide it. Draw parallels.

Companies that place a premium on talent will invest in educating new hires. If companies are not willing to do that, then perhaps they are not the best employers.

Recently, an out-of-work colleague was disqualified for a PR coordinator position because he did not have industry experience. He landed a PR management position at another company after that. Good for him. Bad for the entity that passed him up.

Don’t let this get lost in the discussion either: Several high-profile companies have hired CEOs and top managers from industries totally unrelated to their own. The Times Mirror hired CEO Mark Willes from General Mills.

What do newspapers and cereal have in common? The breakfast table?

Likewise IBM lured CEO Louis Gerstner from RJR Nabisco. Eastman Kodak enticed CEO George Fisher from Motorola. AT&T hired CEO Michael Armstrong from Hughes Electronics.

If companies can do that for CEOs—alpha leaders who make (not necessarily earn) millions of dollars a year— what is stopping them from doing that for PR practitioners?

Recently, we had a local example. A few months ago the Port of Houston Authority hired energy executive Alec Dreyer as its executive director. Dreyer was formerly CEO at Horizon Wind Energy.

Insist that companies wanting industry experience consider your resume and skills first. The worst that can happen is that they don’t listen and you don’t get the job. But you’re better off trying than doing nothing at all.

— Mike Wysatta, PRSA Houston board member

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Finding Mr. Miyagi

Believe it or not, the movie The Karate Kid has influenced what most of us expect from mentoring relationships.

Mr. Miyagi takes young Daniel LaRusso, the underweight outsider bullied in his new school, under his wing. With patience and commitment, Mr. Miyagi teaches Daniel about succeeding in martial arts and life.

Wax on. Wax off.

By the end of the movie, Daniel’s life has been transformed.

In the real world, mentoring takes many forms and it doesn’t always conform to popular preconceptions. The current landscape of our profession requires us to stay on our toes. Knowledge sharing enriches us all. Developing mentoring relationships can be a rewarding experience for the protégé (I hate the word “mentee”) as well as the mentor.

Mentoring is simply when someone helps someone else learn something. The image many of us have of seasoned pros forming lifelong bonds with fresh-faced college graduates, helping them navigate the peaks and valleys of their careers is a limited view of what mentoring has to offer. A mentor is also not responsible for helping a protégé find a new job.

In the real world, mutually beneficial relationships can develop between peers, or around a specific topic or issue that one professional faces in his or her career. Throughout your career, expect your mentoring needs to change.

At the April luncheon, the PRSA Houston chapter will offer a different type of program and provide a venue for informal mentoring.

Rather than our typical speaker presentation, we will facilitate conversations at the luncheon tables with several of Houston’s PR sages. This format provides a unique opportunity for attendees to tap into the minds of some of Houston best-known PR professionals — leaders of their fields in a variety of industries.

Around the table, PRSA Houston members and guests will also have opportunities to exchange ideas and information around shared interests that will undoubtedly promote peer-to-peer mentoring and help expand professional networks like few other events could.

While the idea of finding your Mr. Miyagi may seem as unrealistic as mastering the “crane kick,” open your mind to the many possibilities mentoring has to offer and you’re sure to reap the benefits.

Stephanie Dedeaux, APR is an independent public relations consultant and 2010 PRSA Houston chapter president.

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PR Day 2009 Co-Chairs Explain How You Get What You Give

“When Lisa and I were asked to co-chair PR Day 2009, I resisted. Over the years I had served in many roles—from committee chair to chapter president to assembly delegate—so I felt I had done my part for PRSA Houston. Add to that the fact that I am co-owner of a small business, which takes a tremendous amount of time and effort to run. But I finally agreed, and I’m so glad I did. For one thing, we were able to recruit a great committee – made up of both newcomers and long-time members of PRSA. In addition, we had wonderful support from the board and Paula Ruth, our chapter administrator. As we began our monthly meetings, it became clear that we have incredibly talented and committed people in PRSA. We got a lot done and had fun at the same time. I encourage every PRSA Houston member to chair or serve on a committee. It was a terrific experience for me – one that I will never forget!”

Margot Dimond, APR
Principal
DoubleDimond Public Relations, LLC
Co-Chair of PR Day 2009

“Fairly new to PRSA, I was a bit surprised yet honored to be asked to take on the important role of PR Day 2009 co-chair with my business partner (who happens to be my mother) Margot Dimond. I had served on the PR Day committee the previous year and picked up a lot watching Jennifer Evans’ strong leadership, but actually taking the reins as co-chair would be taking things to a whole new level. Like Margot, I was also a bit concerned about juggling PR Day along with the needs of our clients. I soon realized that with a very active committee made up of both experienced PR pros and those new to the industry, a timeline and persistence, we were able to put together an amazing PR Day 2009! And I have to say I gained so much both personally and professionally from this experience—not only the obvious—that I met so many incredible people and made so many friends—but I also learned so much from our committee members whose countless contributions led to a successful event.”

Lisa Dimond Vasquez
Principal
DoubleDimond Public Relations, LLC
Co-Chair of PR Day 2009

Interested in chairing PR Day 2010? Visit the PRSA Houston job bank for more information.

PR Day 2009 co-chairs Margot Dimond, APR (seated) and Lisa Dimond Vasquez of DoubleDimond Public Relations

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Bloggers, not mainstream media, broke the news on Parker’s mayoral campaign

Targeting undecided voters through social media and blogs was a key to Houston mayor Annise Parker’s successful political campaign last year, said campaign manager Adam Harris, who claimed that the mainstream news media didn’t cover the issues as much as he expected.

For instance, Harris organized a press conference to announce Parker’s Hire Houston First proposal, an economic plan to ensure that jobs funded by local tax dollars go to Houstonians first. Harris said that only KIAH-TV Channel 39 attended.

“The (Houston) Chronicle would not write about it so we went to the blogs,” he remarked. Key blogs covering the campaign were Off the Kuff, Muse Musings, Greg’s Opinion, Dos Centavos and Bay Area Houston.

Harris explained that mainstream media outlets with reduced staffs are relying on blogs to pick up breaking news. The targeted blogs posted news and commentary on the Hire Houston First initiative and influenced the way mainstream media covered that issue. Harris said that research showed that any one of the blog sites received 200 hits a day from Parker’s target audience.

Last July, every campaign released fund raising totals showcasing how much their candidates raised, spent and had in reserves. Before going to traditional media outlets, Harris invited bloggers to a luncheon to announce campaign finances, provide talking points and answer questions. The David Ortez blog and others posted news on Parker’s “impressive” fundraising totals. Traditional media followed.

Harris said that campaign staffers figured that Parker’s Web site would pull in 300 to 400 hits a day in traffic but did not advertise the site. Instead, they concentrated on pushing out the message through Facebook and Twitter. In May, Parker posted a link on Facebook to a short video on YouTube explaining her Hire Houston First policy.

Harris said that traditional media sources, such as TV and radio, don’t offer fine segmentation of audiences now but “cable (broadcasting) is coming where you will be able to target three of five houses in a block.”

The Parker grassroots campaign also contacted undecided voters and veins of Democrats in Republican areas through a door-knocking campaign. Database research where consumer information is merged with voter files guided campaign staffers in identifying key neighborhoods and households for door knocking and phone calling.

Harris said that he used a phone bank system developed by telemarketers in 2007 where live calls go through a computer. The system notifies available volunteers with beeps to pick up the phone lines and talk to live voters. That eliminates time spent dialing or listening to phone rings or recorded messages while maximizing talking time.

“In the old days, I hated phone calling, but now it’s a new world,” said Harris.

He made his remarks at the PRSA Houston luncheon on Feb. 3. The next luncheon is Wednesday, March 3. For more information, go to http://www.prsahouston.org/en/cev/545.

— Mike Wysatta, PRSA Houston board member

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Lead sentence stretches from Houston to Sugar Land

Public Relations Tactics newspaper published a January article, “Outlook 2010: PR trends,” that predicts that press releases will be packaged like news stories. I reviewed a few releases on Business Wire today to see if this trend is taking hold.

I don’t see it but I’m not a trend spotter either. I am no Bianca Bartz.

What I did see is a bunch of wordy, insignificant, self-flattering announcements that any editor would toss in one to five seconds. I say five seconds because it took me that long to speed read a 73-word lead sentence in a press release issued by a multibillion corporation in our state.

The lead reads, “As government and healthcare leaders invest billions of dollars in healthcare information technologies (IT) to improve the accessibility, affordability and quality of healthcare for their citizens, hospital datacenters may not be ready for the demand that more patients and digital information will create, according to a survey of hospital IT executives at small and medium hospitals in the U.S., U.K., Canada, China, France and Germany conducted by the HIMSS Analytics, sponsored by (name withheld).”

For fun, read that as an announcer would. I am a jogger with good aerobic functions, including lung capacity, and I recited it all on my second try after sucking in several cubic feet of air. (Yes, I know that sentence lengths for the eye are longer than for the ear, so no blog responses on that, please.)

Newspapers articles are written at an eighth-grade reading level and so are press releases as a general rule. The supersized lead has a Flesch-Kincaid Grade level score of 14.

It scored 19 on the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease test. The lower the score, the harder to read. The Harvard Law Review has a readability score in the low 30s.

The lead sentence registered a Gunning Fog index measure of 16.25, just under 17, a university graduate level. An eighth-grader wouldn’t make it past the first couple of lines without tweeting, “OMG, this smarticle hype is an endlessbummer.”

Granted, writing on technical subjects aimed at college graduates can exceed an eight-grade level. But certainly, that lead—long enough to reach from Houston to Sugar Land if put in 36-point type—doesn’t effectively isolate the kernel of the message.

The stripped-down version is hospital datacenters are not prepared for the coming influx of more patients and digital information, indicates a company-sponsored survey.

My blog was written for high school sophomores if you cut out the datacenter lead sentence that I quoted. That one sentence increases the reading difficulty one grade level. LOL.

— Mike Wysatta, PRSA Houston Board Member

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Minimalist PR: Where less is best

A corporate PR type a few years ago told me that he was paid to keep his company’s name out of the press.  In an age of Web 2.0 and the information explosion, I don’t know how a company crawls under a rock.

Evasiveness and declining comment can backfire.  Just ask Tiger Woods.

I have always fought to comment.  But lately, I have learned not to trust well-meaning journalists to get it right.  And without trust, mum’s the word. 

Call me jaded but at least, hear me out.

Recently, I provided backgrounders to two seasoned journalists writing for respected publications.  And twice the information was maligned. 

The first reporter worked from a draft with “embargoed” stamped on it in big letters.  I cautioned her not to use it yet.

Consequently, we found a mistake in the draft, corrected it and sent her the final approved version under her deadline, pointing out the error in the previous version. 

Despite our best efforts, she plugged the error into her article draft.  As a courtesy, she provided the article to us before it went to press.  We caught her mistake and she corrected it before it went out. 

Or should I say that we caught our mistake?  Perhaps, giving her a draft subject to change was our miscalculation.  For sure, the incident caused friction and finger pointing and most likely, mildly damaged our relations with the journalist.

The second journalist received highly technical background information from us that was intended as a primer.  The problem was that the reporter used too much poetic license in his article and misapplied language in the backgrounder to a specific case involving our company’s product. 

The reporter also failed to interview our product developers despite an opportunity to do so.

The article, unseen by us in draft form, went to press and is now a problem.  We will ask for a published correction that readers rarely notice. 

Did the reporter make the mistake?  Or was it ours for providing information that was misused?  

Certainly, our company has benefited from being proactive with the press.  So the answer is that providing backgrounders to journalists is a judgement call.  The upside for us has usually been better than the downside.

But never overlook the wisdom of a minimalist approach.  Sometimes to say less is best, especially in cases where the company is not familiar with the reporter.

Now you can call me jaded if you must.  That is, if you can find me.  I’m under a rock now.

— Mike Wysatta, PRSA Houston Board Member

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More on January’s Luncheon Topic “Context is Decisive”

Most people seldom think about the air that surrounds them and about how it provides an essential life-giving ingredient, oxygen. We take it for granted because it appears to be “just the way things are;” only when we are deprived of it does it become frighteningly apparent that we need it.

Context, much like the air that we breathe, is transparent precisely because of its everyday occurrence – its institutionalized normative features in the cultures of our companies and our projects. And because we basically think of ourselves as doing our best at most times and that we are unbiased in our perceptions, we feel the current “context” is obvious or simply “the that way life is.”

Enormous challenges in project implementation exist as people struggle to map new ways of thinking, new practices or operating tools, onto firmly entrenched habits of the “as is” context of their organization.

We will investigate the role of one’s current context, in shaping what one thinks, how one’s project team interacts, the decisions you and your teams make and the actions you and they take in your daily work. We will uncover leverage points distinguishing how one might go from executing a “good enough” project to creating a new context for implementing a “breakthrough project.”

Contributed by Pauline Serice with King, Chapman & Broussard, who is an expert in performance-based leadership development and change. management

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