Back in 1998, I was the director of communications for a Circuit City-backed startup that was poised to introduce a new product to the marketplace that we hoped would reinvent the video rental business. Company management had made the strategic decision to pilot the product rollout in two cities where retail distribution would be strong – Richmond and San Francisco. And so I went about putting together a media relations strategy designed to engender consumer excitement about the imminent availability of a product that had been years in development. This was going to be fun.
But then I was handed some deflating news, news that, to say the least, threw a wrench into my media relations plan. It seemed that Circuit City was upset with the local daily newspaper, so much so that it had imposed on itself a moratorium that forbid anyone in the company from talking to the Times-Dispatch. Including me, and including now.
I received the directive as if I were some lowly private ordered to “take that hill,” but to leave my rifle behind. It was frustrating not only because the underlying rationale seemed so unsound, but also because I was in no position to raise some counterpoints for consideration. In other words, I had no seat at the table.
My fellow PR professionals can no doubt relate to this story – commanded to carry out a directive that, in their minds at least, could have unintended consequences. To shed some light on the topic, the Richmond chapter of PRSA recently held a panel discussion, asking “How Can PR Pros Get a Seat at the Table?” Sharing their insights were Paula Otto, the executive director of the Virginia Lottery, and Shawn Boyer, a serial entrepreneur and founder of Snagajob, the country’s largest online site for hourly workers.
As someone who rose through the ranks of public relations, Paula’s perspectives were especially resonant. She earned her seat at the table through a combination of preparation and communication, elements that helped her earn the trust of the management team and make her an indispensable voice. She made it a point to keep her bosses informed (one insisted on “no surprises”), even going so far as to fax her boss anything he should know about the lottery on Sunday mornings before he left for Sunday school (this was before email and texting). Engendering the respect of the C-suite proved especially valuable in times of crisis as her views most often carried the day on how best to respond. In sum, Paula earned her seat at the table, building her reputation as someone whose views could be trusted as informed and well-reasoned.
As the CEO of his two companies, Shawn of course started in the inner-circle, but he conveyed how public relations had always been an essential part of his marketing mix. And he echoed Paula’s sentiments about building relationships with PR counselors that are built on trust. When Snagajob experienced a data breach many years ago, Shawn looked to his public relations team to review the range of communications options and help him land on the best path forward. More generally, Shawn said that a startup’s founding story was critical, and he always saw public relations as the best vehicle for telling that story, and so there was never a moment when he didn’t consider working closely with his public relations team.
And speaking of stories, I should conclude the one above by telling you that Circuit City management eventually relented, and I was permitted to reach out to the T-D. The coverage went great. The product’s sales – not so much.