How to Win, and Keep, Your Seat at the Decision-Maker’s Table
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How to win, and keep, communicators’ and marketers’ seats at their utility’s decision-making table was discussed at several industry conferences I attended in 2014. I expect that will continue to be a top-of-mind issue in 2015.
That’s why we visited that topic when EEC conducted its first annual survey of utility communicators and marketers. In Budgets, Gadgets & Price Increases, practitioners told us how they got a seat at that table, and what they do to keep it.
If communicators or marketers do not have a seat at that table, they will not be able to shape the discussion there and offer counsel on the risks of a particular course of action. They will not be able to coach the leaders on potential problems that could arise during the implementation of a strategic initiative.
If that initiative is successfully implemented, communicators and marketers may not get a lot of credit because they weren’t at the table when those decisions were made. The best they can hope for is an acknowledgement that they did what was asked.
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However, if the initiative goes south, there’s a very good chance the communicators or marketers will get some of the blame. That may not be fair, but it happens all the time. Part of the reason for that is many executives still see communications or marketing as a largely mechanical process: we give you the facts, you turn the crank and out pops the fully formed communications plan, piece of marketing collateral, or new web page.
That outdated view of communications and marketing becomes downright antiquated, and dangerous, when you consider how social media has transformed corporate communications.
Here are some of the findings in Budgets, Gadgets & Price Increases:
- Only one in five respondents said their utility’s communications department had a “significant” influence on the strategic decision-making process
- One quarter of respondents said their utility’s communications department had “minimal” influence on strategic decision making while about 54% of those surveyed said it had a “moderate” influence in that area.
In the “sometimes things have to get worse before they get better” category, one respondent told us their leadership team used to be willing to listen to counsel from communicators. However, strategic changes at that utility closed that door — until PR problems that communicators had warned about happened, at which point the leaders became more receptive to the views of the communications professionals.
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One communicator who told us their department has minimal impact on strategic decisions said, “Executive management invites the communications manager into discussions, so we really haven’t done anything to secure that spot, other than be available and willing to contribute.”
That’s better than not getting invited, of course, but how does one get invited to those all-important meetings? It’s virtually a gimmie if you work in a utility that has a Chief Experience Officer or a Chief Communications Officer position(s). And if your utility has a Chief Customer Officer, it’s still a good bet, as that officer’s team typically includes the heads of communications, marketing, customer service and field services.
If you don’t happen to work at a utility organized that way, some clues come from other respondents who said they had a significant role in decision-making at their utilities.
Communications Tip of the Month: Communicators and marketers are more effective if they have a seat at the table where important decisions are made. As trained professionals, they can offer counsel that can keep a utility out of trouble, or better prepare for its arrival. Delivering results is the fastest way to win, and keep, your seat at the decision makers’ table. Find out what matters to your leadership team, and then find a way to deliver those results.
As one respondent told us, “We gained the confidence of the CEO and leadership team long ago and held it by consistently delivering results. We are constantly demonstrating our value in managing sensitive issues and have turned the media relations landscape around in the past several years.”
Some variant of “delivering results” is the most common answer to the question about getting and keeping your seat at the decision-maker’s table. But “delivering results” means different things to different people.
Keeping executive management informed is a critical first step to delivering results.
Earlier in my career, I had the good fortune to work at a utility where the general manager (CEO rank) was a believer in issues management, the process companies use to assess and stay ahead of emerging issues that could affect their business. To do that, he held a weekly meeting that included the heads of communications, legislative affairs, legal affairs, environmental affairs and customer service. This meeting kept relevant departments apprised of events that could make their unexpected way into the legislature, the court room, the news media and the call center.
My favorite definition of delivering results is, “We kept the CEO from being surprised.” CEOs typically hate surprises, because they are almost always negative, such as:
- One of our facilities had an accident
- Regulators have opened an investigation into our utility’s business practices
- Reporters are calling with hostile questions, or
- People are saying nasty things about us on Twitter
These days, it seems utilities are surrounded by banana peels. Disaster is only one ill-considered step away, and there is no shortage of parties that want to give utilities a fateful push. Strategic risk management — keeping your utility away from banana peels — is a powerful argument for winning, and keeping, a seat at your utility’s decision-making table.
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