10 Ways Communicators Must ...


Communication Issues

After addressing the topic of ghost blogging, 4 Perspectives on 4 Communication Issues enters week two.

This week’s question: How should communication professionals evolve to stay relevant?

It’s been almost a year since Steve Farnsworth hosted my guest post, “A Mass Comms Curriculum Alone Short-Sheets Tomrrow’s PR Pro,” which tackled the question from the perspective of an aspiring communicator.

My premise –

A communications curriculum should straddle business and science as well as the arts because success increasingly depends on interdisciplinary skills.

That’s a good segue into my top 10 ways for communicators to evolve and remain relevant:

1) Keep learning

The acceleration of change in today’s world defies belief.

Apple owns the music industry.

Henry Blodget parlayed media, not finance, to rehab his rep.

Facebook enjoys the clout of a sovereign state.

Shrek is a has-been.

If you don’t make a conscious effort to keep learning, you will be left behind.

It’s that’s simple.

Most of us come out of a mass comms education, which isn’t enough today and definitely won’t be enough tomorrow.

Author Malcolm Gladwell in a TIME magazine interview discussed how Jonathan Weil, at the time with The Wall Street Journal, broke the Enron story. Sure, he was an excellent journalist, but so are thousands of others. It was Weil’s ability to analyze a balance sheet that hung Enron by the toes.

The same concept holds true for communications, even at the tactical level.

For example, quality writing will always be valued.

But combine writing expertise with an understanding of WordPress and SEO, and all of a sudden you’re in a position to develop owned-media campaigns that play at a strategic level.

Try doing this with a news release.

Communication Issues-Teach2) Teach

This is one of the best ways to learn.

There’s nothing like a tough audience to “tune one’s senses” to borrow from Robert Duval in Apocalypse Now.

By the way, I’m not only talking about the over-30 crowd.

Young professionals have plenty to share. Developing the finesse to teach the older folks without “bruising” only enhances the process.

3) Build new relationships outside your circle(s)

As a closet introvert, I personally find this one to be tough.

Yet, this is a key component to evolving and staying relevant.

It’s great to command a rolodex of reporters and industry analysts.

Now take this core expertise in relationship-building and connect with people outside your typical circle … with no agenda other than expanding one’s horizon.

Quick vignette in this regard –

I met David Nordfors, a professor at Stanford who created the InJo (Innovation Journalism) movement. The dialog has given me a fresh window into communications. It wasn’t until years later that the relationship connected to a client.

I figure I better save my second example in case I’m challenged by a posted comment.

4) Don’t embrace social media

Before the Lou-Hoffman-is-a-heretic tweets descend on Chris Brogan, hear me out on this one.

Social media provides a means, not an end.

As just touched on, embrace expanding your relationships.

Embrace fortifying your organization’s online presence.

Embrace helping your organization cultivate a sense of community.

Social media represents one of many ways to achieve this.

5) Tell stories

No top-10 list for evolving PR’s game would be complete without hoisting storytelling on the stage.

Whether you’re hawking cupcakes, phones or field programmable gate arrays, the people you’re trying to reach are pummeled by facts, figures and other sundry data.

And it’s only going to get worse.

Building an entertainment dimension into your communications helps rise above the noise.

But it goes deeper than this.

People gravitate toward companies with a personality and a “face,” where it feels like a real human sits on the other side.

That’s exactly what storytelling facilitates.

6) Lose control

I don’t mean rush the stage at a Lady Gaga concert.

I’m talking about giving up the old-fashion quest to control the message.

In spite of all the blather about “engagement,” many practitioners still adhere to a control and command mentality.

And it’s not just about the message.

It’s time to let go in transforming employees into communicators.

Geez, if you can’t trust your employees to post a comment on a blog without divine intervention, I’m not sure the Six Sigma police can solve the issue.

Scientist.jpg7) Experiment

I recognize if you reside at a mega corporation, going off the grid can be career limiting.

So do it on your dime during evenings or over weekends.

Just playing with the ever-growing pool of tools – I’m currently kicking the tires of OpenSite Explorer – represents a form of experimentation.

Here’s another example.

When the Toyota recall hit the fan, we decided to build out a digital property on the PR crisis to experiment with different SEO dials. Within two weeks, the site was showing up on Google page one for most long-tail searches on the Toyota PR crisis. Keep in mind this was achieved with content already in the public domain. We learned a ton that has been applied to client campaigns.

The marriage between art and science in communications is only going to become more pronounced in the future. Experimentation will help you come up the curve.

8) Understand the sales process

Marketers are from Mars.

Sales people are from Venus.

To bridge the two, it behooves PR practitioners to understand what goes into morphing a prospect into a customer.

Picking up the lunch tab for salespeople and folks from your distribution channel results in a positive double whammy: insights on the sales process and an expansion of your relationships.

9) Remember the end game

Our work should build brands, expand public profiles and deliver air cover for sales.

That’s how we stay relevant.

Measuring our contribution to these grand objectives has been a challenge in the past. After all, while cranking out a report that shows 3,232,394 impressions might indeed indicate a job well done, it doesn’t answer the question of how the effort influenced the beliefs of the target audience.

Thankfully, as our role increasingly moves online, there’s more science to measuring how we move the needle. If you’ve never looked under the hood of a Google Analytics console, there’s a good starting point.

Stepping on my digital soapbox for a moment –

It kills me that the logo jockeys continue to dominate branding assignments. As transparency of business operations and depth of content move center stage in building brands, there’s a tremendous opportunity for PR to grab the reins.

Our consultancy has created a methodology for what we call content-driven branding. The phrase might need some work, but the point is content, not looks, should lead the branding charge.

PR is the discipline of choice for content.

Communication Issues-Smell10) Smell the carnations

Or java or whatever suits your fancy.

This is a tough business.

It can be a grind.

This final suggestion is as much a reminder to myself as it is for you.

My grandmother on my mom’s side was a practical gardener with a preference for root vegetables. For whatever reason, she made an exception for carnations which became my favorite because they were her favorite.

I’m thinking it would be a good idea to make a regular trek to the flower shop for carnations.

That’s a wrap.

I’m as interested as you to read the perspectives of my colleagues which you can find by clicking on their names, Steve Farnsworth, Todd Defren and Paul Roberts.

I’m sure their perspectives will enrich the dialog.


  • Sara Nixon

    This is an excellent list, Lou. I have to admit, #4 knocked the wind out of me for a second. But you’re right – social media is just another weapon in the PR professional’s arsenal. One that makes starting conversations and building relationships much, much easier. Really looking forward to your second example for #3.

  • Lou Covey

    I liked point 4 especially. Most people got to the point with traditional media that it was a magic box: put stuff in one end and out the other came coverage. Being able to post news releases to the web without going through a publication made that belief even stronger. Over the past decade we’ve lost the ability to recognize that a medium was just a medium and someone actually has to put some thought and effort into the process. Social media, once established, requires less time for the communicator, but takes more thought and consideration.

  • Lou Hoffman

    Thanks Sara.

    That #4 kind of falls under the heading of “cheap parlor trick.” Felt the need to jar readers half way through the list.

    But still believe in the general point that social media in a means, not a end.

  • Lou Hoffman


    I like the way you put this, a given medium is just the medium, not a magic wand that magically builds a brand.

    One could argue one of the best example of this point can be found Twitter. I’m bullish on Twitter and find it a useful tool but it’s nutty how many people think a link retweeted by several people with say a collective number of followers of 10K automatically conclude 10K people actually clicked on the link and read it.

    You’re right. It takes little time to bang out a 140 character tweet but how it fits into the total picture of developing online presence is a different story.

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  • Elise Lopez


    your cheap parlor trick worked on me, haha. However, after taking the time to re-read it, I have to say I agree. I would add this-

    I think people can benefit from treating their social media efforts and interactions more like their face-to-face ones.
    1) Really have conversations, not just all canned stories and points.
    2) Listen- no one likes to feel like their comments are going into a black hole. So keep your community interested by commenting back and producing content that resonates with their interests.

    Your thoughts?

  • Lou Hoffman

    Makes sense.

    There will always be tools to reach masses with a vanilla story.

    The companies getting the most out of communications are the ones doing exactly what you suggest, engaging in genuine conversations that build relationships and ultimately equity in the brand.

    Ironically, the companies with the most resources seem to be leading the charge in scaling communications across their employee bases, not just depending on the comms department.

    I look at a company like EMC (not a client) with their zillion blogs and can’t believe all that content gets vetted before the individual blogger hits the publish key. These “communicators” get trained and then the company trusts them to stay betwen the lines.

  • Jason Gerdon

    Great post Lou! You cover the spectrum of steps necessary for a PR professional to evolve and stay relevant. #6 is especially powerful. Convincing an old PR dog that losing control is a good thing can be awfully challenging. You handled in masterfully. Always appreciate your perspective Lou, thanks!

  • Lou Hoffman

    Glad you weighed you in Jason.

    This issue of a control is a tough one.

    I know many companies and even some of our clients still believe in the concept of “staying on message.”

    The problem with staying on message is that’s how you sound, like a person staying on message.

  • Matt Shaw

    Lou, this is a pretty comprehensive list. I would say you covered most of the waterfront within these 10 points. I would add a corollary to #1, which is to keep learning about how the world works. Being a counselor of consequence will require not only sharp communications skills and business acumen, but also a real understanding about our increasingly interdependent planet and all its moving parts.

  • Lou Hoffman

    Thanks for the input Matt.

    I think I’m going to borrow your phrase:

    “… a real understanding about our increasingly interdependent plant and all of its moving parts.”

    Well put.

  • Paul Roberts

    Great list Lou. The only one that actually made me say ‘wow, I never really thought of that,’ was number 2 – Teach. While I’d like to think that I’ve done this to some degree when I’ve had the opportunity, but it isn’t something I considered as a way for me to learn. Thanks.

    I’d also be remise if I did say right on to number 3 – Build New Relationships.
    “As a closet introvert, I personally find this one to be tough.” That was the best line in the entire piece for me. I can relate completely.

  • Lou Hoffman

    Appreciate the positive words Paul.

    I don’t quite know why, but lately, I’ve noticed how much teaching feeds into learning.

    My daughter’s high school chemistry teacher also said something during the parent’s night that made an impression.

    In explaining why his class is so hands on, he pointed out that a basketball coach doesn’t spend his/her time lecturing week after week in the classroom. That would be crazy not to mention the athletes would revolt.

    It hit home because I realized my own style of teaching leaned too heavily on the theoretical side which I’m now striving to change.

  • Emily Yuan

    Hey Lou – Sounds to me like you’re saying “get dirty people!”

    From carnations in the garden to introducing yourself to new execs. Giving up control. Believing in what you know.. enough to teach.

    Many items on your list are not easy. Experiments blow-up sometimes. But need to be done just the same.

    Attempting to play in the mud (and smell the roses) myself right now. Thanks for sharing.

  • Lou Hoffman


    You’re right.

    It’s not easy.

    Just like today, tomorrow’s world will find only a fraction of communication practitioners reach the great quadrant.

    And just like today, attributes such as bravery (dodge that experiment that goes astray), critical thinking and chutzpah will help push an individual in the right direction.

    P.S. You’re certainly in the perfect climate for gardening.

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