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7 ways to hone your consulting skills

Like many in the PR/communications business, I’ve been on both sides of the table. As the consultant, you’re looked to for fresh ideas and sound advice. On the corporate side, you’re more accountable for the organization’s results and feel a little more connected to your employer. After all, you’re on the “inside.”

But, after sitting in both chairs, I’ve learned the consulting skills in both positions are quite similar–no matter if you’re on the inside or coming from the outside. Regardless, these skills are among the most important in your toolbox. You might have a great idea or strategy you believe your client should implement, but unless you can persuade, communicate and manage expectations, you won’t get too far.

So, as you sit down with your clients next week, think about how you can improve your consulting skills. Do you have a tendency to do all the talking in client meetings? Do you really understand your client’s business? How well do you know your client? As you assess your performance, keep the following tips in mind:

* Understand your client’s business–inside and out. This is imperative. You can’t provide effective counsel if you don’t understand the key drivers of their business. Who are the client’s key audiences? Who are their top three competitors? How are they perceived in the marketplace? Who are the key influencers in their market? You know the drill.

* Partner and collaborate–don’t preach and tell. Easiest way to get under a client’s skin? Walk in to the meeting and start telling them how smart you are, how much they have to learn and what they should be doing to improve. Yes, they want your advice–but it’s all in the approach. If you can learn to join forces with your clients and work toward common goals (isn’t that the whole idea?), it will pay huge dividends down the line. Results for your client. Additional work for yourself or your agency (results for you). And happiness. True happiness.

* Listen. Intently. Probably the biggest mistake we make as consultants–we don’t listen enough. We’re so eager to advise our clients and tell them what to do, we forget to listen. I mean, really listen. One way to do this? Ask intelligent questions. Start with the basics. What are your business goals this year? How do you expect marketing/PR/communications will help you achieve those goals? How are you currently performing vs. expectations? What are the top three challenges your company’s facing right now? What’s preventing you from reaching your goals? Get the client talking. And listen.

* Do your homework. The mark of any good consultant? Over-prepare for every client meeting. That means walking in with an agenda–even if the client didn’t ask for one. That means clearly laying out what you hope to achieve in the meeting. That means researching the client and their immediate and long-term needs, the challenges they’re currently facing and identifying any roadblocks they need to navigate. Never, ever, ever be caught with your pants down in a client meeting because you weren’t prepared.

* Tell them how wonderful they are. The great ones do this so well. I’ve had the privilege to work alongside some incredibly talented consultants in my career and they always made a point to commend the client and their team on their great work. Without flat-out lying, of course. Couple reasons why this is a smart move. A) It shows you’re paying attention to what they’ve been doing and that you recognize great work, and B) It helps you start building that relationship, which is critical. The client has to see you as a partner, someone who’s looking out for their best interests. By telling them how great they are, you’re in fact saying, “You do great work. I do great work. Let’s do great work together for your brand.”

* Manage expectations. An often overlooked component of the consultant-client relationship, but one that’s vitally important. Constantly look for ways to uncover the client’s expectations around specific projects you’re working on together, your role in the work and the overall relationship. This will help you manage those expectations when projects get derailed or sidetracked or results don’t pan out as originally planned.
* Date your client. Ok, not really because that will get you fired (or not, stranger things have happened). Instead, build a relationship with your client. Find out what they’re interested in outside of work. Find ways to incorporate those interests into your daily interactions with them. Remember their birthday. Comment on photos on their desk. Ask about their children. Just get to know the client as a human being. To a large extent it’s still a relationship-based business. People do business with people they like. Work on being someone people like.
So, how are you doing? Are you hitting on all cylinders in these areas? Any room for improvement? If yes, how do you plan to hone your consulting skills in the weeks and months ahead?
Note: Photo courtesy of Creator Apps

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PR Rock Stars: A conversation with LeeAnn Rasachak and Sarah Ryder


My first two conversations in the “PR Rock Star” series have been with fairly seasoned PR pros–David Mullen and Lee Aase. Today, I’d like to highlight two younger pros and a couple of the real up-and-coming PR stars in the Twin Cities community–LeeAnn Rasachak and Sarah Ryder.

If you’re on Twitter, you may know them as @uptowngirlmpls and @sleepnumbersara. Together, they make up a formidable social media and PR duo at Select Comfort, the number-one bedding retailer in the U.S. They’re also both past Dr. Willard Thompson scholarship winners (through PRSSA), by the way, so we know they’re smart, driven and ethical practitioners at their core.

OK, enough set up–let’s get on with the conversation! Hope you enjoy this installment of the PR Rock Star Conversation series.

You’re both active on Twitter professionally with Select Comfort, the number-one bedding retailer in the U.S. You share information, promotions and sleep tips through your accounts. What was your strategy as you started to use this new tool in your marketing mix? And what’s the one thing you’ve learned about your community through using Twitter?

LeeAnn/Sarah: As a communications team, we’ve adapted social media vehicles like Twitter and Facebook to reach our customers and consumers interested in getting a good night’s sleep. By providing followers and fans with sleep tips, sleep/health news and Sleep Number promotions, we’ve become a resource to help them achieve the best sleep possible. Fortunately, the Sleep Number brand meets two essential social media criteria a brand needs to have in order to be successful:

• The Sleep Number brand has a solid awareness among online consumers.
• We have a large group of satisfied owners, who are already highly engaged with the brand and online talking about it. Social media is another way to support a mutually beneficial relationship.

Sarah: As “SleepNumberSara” I’ve learned there are a lot of owners actively talking about and promoting the Sleep Number bed on Twitter, and the recommendation by a community or network carries a lot of weight in the consideration and purchase process. I’ve enjoyed connecting with consumers to gather testimonials, answer questions from potential buyers, troubleshoot issues, and ensure they have a quality experience with our product.

LeeAnn: From a personal perspective, I’ve become a Tweeter because it’s a tool to help me connect with other communications professionals, colleagues, friends and news resources every minute of the day. And, I do mean every minute! While external social media does not fall into my day-to-day Select Comfort responsibilities, I have an overwhelming interest and need to share my knowledge and serve on the “truth squad.” We have great products and I want to help people understand how each of the personalized products work.

Sarah: Through my personal Twitter account, I’ve learned that Twitter is a great resource to stay-up-to-date on news, trends and to maintain relationships. But it still doesn’t beat reading the Wall Street Journal or talking face-to-face with friends and colleagues. I love the ability to read my feed between meetings and conference calls, but no form of technology will replace the importance of face-to-face communication. On that note, happy hour anyone?

LeeAnn: I’ve learned many things about my community through Twitter but so far the most important lesson is to provide worthwhile content. My tweets reach beyond sleep and Sleep Number products. I speak to my personal life as UptownGirlMpls – sharing how to maintain a great quality of life within the Twin Cities as a single, 20-something who is active in her community. And as an Uptown community advocate, I’m always game for happy hour. 😉

Unfortunately, like many companies, Select Comfort has had to layoff staff recently. From some of our previous discussions, I know you have used social media tools internally as part of your strategy to communicate with staff and open up two-way dialogues. What tools did you use and what kind of response did you hear from employees?


LeeAnn/Sarah: We have many internal communication vehicles including a weekly e-newsletter, regular voicemail and e-mail communications, and an internal blog. One of the company’s goals is to foster true engagement. To help us reach this goal, it’s important that employees feel real ownership of the company. So, we created a company blog.

Our internal blog is a place where all employees have a voice. It helps to foster communication not only across the company, but across the country. New, relevant and important information is posted by contributors from all areas and levels within the company. And, we encourage all employees to comment, share ideas and engage in conversation. Ultimately, the blog is an importance resource for employees. A place where they can give and receive information that will help everyone feel true ownership.
Sarah: As a side note to our answer, I’d like to add that as a fairly new Select Comfort employee, I really appreciated the open communication and dialogue – especially during the past two months. The communication has truly helped foster great conversations, and has increased employee confidence and morale via our internal blog, brown bags and other employee engagement activities.

Staying on that topic for a minute. There are plenty of case studies online featuring companies that are using social media tools with external audiences. However, there aren’t nearly as many when it comes to internal audiences. In your experience, what’s the biggest challenge in using these tools to foster productive conversations and build community with employees vs. customers and external stakeholders?

LeeAnn/Sarah: In our experience, the biggest challenge to foster productive conversations is getting ALL employees to comment and engage in dialogue. We know there are many readers of the blog and the next step is to activate more voices. Our employees are passionate about the product, company’s success and display a personal commitment each and every day. The conversations are always productive and honest. We are working to bridge the gap between retail field and home office participation. While the retail employee base is larger than corporate employees, it’s a goal of ours in 2009 to evolve it to be more tailored. We have such different internal audiences that one tool is never absolutely perfect for everyone.

I know you’re both big supporters of PRSA and professional development. What have you found to be the biggest benefits of your involvement with the Minnesota chapter? And what is the one thing you learned this past year as a result of your involvement with this organization?

LeeAnn/Sarah: We both agree that we wouldn’t be where we are today without PRSSA and PRSA.

LeeAnn: The bigg
est benefit I’ve found in our local Chapter is overwhelming support. We have a great community of public relations professionals who take care of each other. My mentors are PRSA professionals who have connected me with many opportunities and helped develop my career path. In the last year as co-chair of the Student Relations committee, I’ve learned how to be a better leader by managing through change – listening to my committee, balancing workload and making decisions together.

Sarah: As a relatively new PR professional, it’s been wonderful and beneficial to have a nurturing community and a network of great professionals to learn from. I feel very fortunate to have great PRSA mentors and friends who have supported and shaped my career.

During the past year I’ve been a PRSSA president and a Classics committee member. Although both positions are very different, I’ve learned a similar theme; volunteering my time to help others is the best way to give back to the PR community that gave me so much. As there is constant change and learning opportunities associated with being an active PRSA member, I’ve also learned to become more adaptable to change.

You both played lead roles in your respective PRSSA chapters (Sarah at the University of Minnesota and LeeAnn at the University of St. Thomas—both
Dr. Willard Thompson Scholarship award winners, by the way) so you understand the value of effective leadership. As we continue to struggle in this rough-and-tumble economy, what are three characteristics you believe every leader should possess?

Sarah: I think a leader should posses 1) a genuine passion and excitement for the team members and the team’s goals, 2) good listening skills for open two-way communication, to identify emerging ideas/trends and gauge group morale and 3) have an overall vision for the group and the confidence to make quality decisions.

LeeAnn: Adaptability – not just during difficult economic conditions but always. As communications professionals there is constant change and without becoming adaptable to change, it’s difficult to grow and succeed. Social media is a prime example. So many professionals have tried to ignore it — but think of your audience; what are their needs and how can you help meet them? Be present in front of them; stop standing in the back waving your hand hoping they’ll see you.

Humor – without it, we’re toast. Sometimes it’s difficult to see the positive within a situation. But to operate without warmth or a way to connect to others does not help. Commit to optimism and focus on what you can control.

Keen listening skills – when things are tough all you hear is noise. The buzz about what to do next, questions to establish accountability and determining what the solve is. Now more than ever it’s important to use your listening skills. To hear the real question and concern, and tune into what your constituents are asking of you. To be an effective communications leader, you need to listen before establishing the course.

As companies think about integrating social media into their marketing and PR mix, some believe these tools are just for high-tech or high-profile consumer companies. You convinced a bedding retailer and mattress manufacturer to give it a try. How did you do it?

LeeAnn/Sarah: Select Comfort uses Twitter and other social media to not only spread the word about the benefits of the Sleep Number bed, but we also create genuine relationships with our owners while providing them with value.

We provide metrics that define our success with every communications tactic used. The same goes for social media. If we can measure what we implement, generate positive results and be cost efficient, it makes for a winning case with our senior leaders.

As technologies evolve, what remains the same is our great product and our owners genuine excitement to talk about it. Whether offline or online, we enjoy being involved in that conversation. Technology is one communications vehicle; it’s the connection that’s important.

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The PR Industry: Trusted business advisors or glorified party planners?


A few days ago, I found myself in a good discussion with my PR colleague Allan Schoenberg around the legitmacy of public relations as an industry. Allan was lamenting that yet another network TV series this winter may portray the PR profession in a somewhat negative light. I immediately responded by saying this has been going on for years (Sex in the City, Spin, PoweR Girls, for example) and that it doesn’t help our cause as we fight the good fight for a seat at the proverbial “table.” 

Allan’s response surprised me: “I actually think shows like Sex in the City legitimize the PR industry by highlighting it in a very public way” (I’m summarizing–Allan, correct me if I’m wrong). 
Hmm…what do you think? See, I tend to think every time one of these shows characterizes a PR professional as a flak or glorified party planner that we lose a little bit of credibility with our clients. They might not come out and say it–heck, they might not be every consciously thinking it. But I think shows like these affect people’s perceptions and attitudes toward our industry at the very least. 
Now, I know at the core, we need to earn our client’s respect by the work we produce and the counsel we offer day in and day out. That’s a given. But, I can’t help but wonder if these shows still have a negative impact on an industry that’s worked so hard to legitimize itself over the years. 
What do you think? Are we still seen as party planners and spinsters by our clients? Or, are we making progress? Do the clients we work with see us as true advisors and business partners–the same way they do their attorneys and financial counselors? 
Where do you stand?

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Twin Cities PR/communications pros online

As promised, below you’ll find the updated list of Twin Cities communicators online (Twitter and blogs). With your help, this list grew massively from just last month.

Again, standard disclaimer: This is by no means meant to be an end-all-be-all list. It’s a work-in-progress and a resource for us all. So please, if you know someone I’ve missed, please leave a comment below or DM and I’ll add their name, Twitter handle and/or blog to the list. My plan is to update this list and re-publish every month so we have a definitive, running online catalog of all Minnesota PR/communications blogs and Twittizens.

Blogs

www.beehivepr.biz (Waxings–authored by various Beehive staffers)
www.mnprblog.com
www.samerowdycrowd.wordpress.com
www.marketingpie.risdall.com (authored by various RMPR staffers)
www.dailyaxioms.com (authored by Tim Otis and other Axiom staff)
www.fasthorseinc.com (authored by various FH staffers)
www.providentpartners.net.blog (authored by Albert Marruggi)
www.toprankblog.com (authored by Lee Odden)
www.conniebensen.com (authored by Connie Bensen)
www.getfreshminds.com (authored by Katie Konrath)
www.socialstudiesblog.com (Shandwick PR/social medial blog)
www.providentpartners.net/blog/ (authored by Albert Marruggi and Mike Keliher at Provident Partners)
http://abovethebuzz.wordpress.com (Sterling Cross blog)
http://prmoxie.wordpress.com (Sterling Cross blog)
http://mediapirate.wordpress.com (Sterling Cross blog)
http://e-strategyblog.com/ (blog by David Erickson)
http://social-media-university-global.org/ (authored by Lee Aase)
http://prchickspov.blogspot.com/ (authored by Heather Schwartz)

Twitter

www.twitter.com/graemethickins (GTA Marketing)
www.twitter.com/jenkaneco (Jennifer Kane–Kane Consulting)
www.twitter.com/stephaniesnyder (Padilla Speer Beardsley)
www.twitter.com/annehendricks (Fairview)
www.twitter.com/patrickstrother (Strother Communications Group)
www.twitter.com/timotis (Axiom Communications)
www.twitter.com/aprilnel (April Nelson–Weber Shandwick)
www.twitter.com/mjkeliher (Mike Keliher–Provident Partners)
www.twitter.com/jeffshelman (Augsburg College)
www.twitter.com/albertmaruggi (Provident Partners)
www.twitter.com/katiekonrath
www.twitter.com/karyd (Kary Delaria–KD Public Relations)
www.twitter.com/asdeos (Anthony Deos–Target)
www.twitter.com/leeodden (TopRank Online Marketing)
www.twitter.com/cbensen (Connie Bensen–Techrigy)
www.twitter.com/reinan (John Reinan–FastHorse)
www.twitter.com/bskogrand (Brant Skogrand–Risdall McKinney Public Relations)
www.twitter.com/bmjewell (Bridget Jewell–Mall of America)
www.twitter.com/jasonsprenger (Xiotech)
www.twitter.com/saramasters (Minneapolis Synod)
www.twitter.com/rebeccamartin (Beehive PR)
www.twitter.com/curtisrsmith (Carmichael Lynch)
www.twitter.com/beehivepr
www.twitter.com/sleepnumbersara (Sara Ryder–Select Comfort)
www.twitter.com/prchck123 (Heather Schwartz–Weber Shandwick)
www.twitter.com/evakeiser (Risdall McKinney Public Relations)
www.twitter.com/risdall
www.twitter.com/ekdao (Erika Dao–Mall of America)
www.twitter.com/uptowngirlmpls (LeeAnn Rasachak–Select Comfort)
www.twitter.com/knegs (Keith Negrin)
www.twitter.com/terrijellman (Tastefully Simple)
www.twitter.com/kellygroehler (Best Buy)
www.twitter.com/minnesotaprsa
www.twitter.com/azemke (Ayme Zemke–Beehive PR)
www.twitter.com/perfectporridge (Greg Swan–Weber Shandwick)
www.twitter.com/joel22882 (Joel Swanson–Risdall McKinney Public Relations)
www.twitter.com/laskaroy (Jared Roy-Risdall)
www.twitter.com/mnpr (Ryan May)
www.twitter.com/melanieBB (Melanie Boulay Becker)
www.twitter.com/kaz152 (Laura Kaslow)
www.twitter.com/jbagdade (Jennifer Bagdade)
www.twitter.com/jmaustin (Jon Austin)
www.twitter.com/teddavis (Ted Davis)
www.twitter.com/dawnbryant1029 (Dawn Bryant)
www.twitter.com/bloisolson (Blois Olson)
www.twitter.com/susanbusch (Susan Busch-Best Buy)
www.twitter.com/amyLFisher (Amy Fisher-Padilla Speer Beardsley)
www.twitter.com/lizmiklya (Liz Miklya)
www.twitter.com/ngarrison (Nicole Garrison-St Paul Pioneer Press)
www.twitter.com/allinaComm (comm pros at Allina)
www.twitter.com/publicrelations (Shelle Michaels)
www.twitter.com/TCStace (Stacy Housman-Ameriprise)
www.twitter.com/haker (David Hakensen)
www.twitter.com/mcporter (Mike Porter-University of St Thomas)
www.twitter.com/roseMcKinneyPR (Rose McKinney-Risdall McKinney PR)
www.twitter.com/gabbyDNelson (Gabby Nelson-Select Comfort)
www.twitter.com/bworden (Brooke Worden-Weber Shandwick)
www.twitter.com/tkpleslie (Kaleidoscope Partnership)
www.twitter.com/MinnesotaPRSA
www.twitter.com/mhwright (Michell Wright-Padilla Speer Beardsley)
www.twitter.com/RPMaus (University of Minnesota)
www.twitter.com/ryanmathre (University of Minnesota)
www.twitter.com/DJWolter (University of Minnesota)
www.twitter.com/egiorgi (University of Minnesota)
www.twitter.com/MrChristopherL (Sterling Cross Communications)
www.twitter.com/PRMoxie (Sterling Cross Communications)
www.twitter.com/MediaPirate (Sterling Cross Communications)
www.twitter.com/DancingQueen1 (Sarah Ryder-Select Comfort)
www.twitter.com/derickson (David Erickson)
www.twitter.com/leeaase (Lee Aase-Mayo Clinic)
www.twitter.com/mariaenergia (Maria Surma Manka)
www.twitter.com/heatherwestpr (Heather West)
www.twitter.com/dloumeyer (Andrew Meyer-North Memorial)
www.twitter.com/IntervalAdam (Adam Meyer-Interval Marketing)
www.twitter.com/IntervalChris (Chris Bevolo-Interval Marketing)

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25 random things

You’ve probably seen the meme going around on Facebook that asks you to list out “25 random things” about yourself. I posted mine initially a few days ago, but since then I’ve been tagged by a number of people, so instead of reposting on Facebook, I thought I’d post it here for everyone to see. After all, I’m an open book for the most part. Nothing to hide here.

And, in typical meme fashion, I’m going to tag five folks who I’m hoping to get to know better in 2009 and potentially meet in person (please economy come through for me!): Jen Wilbur (@rockstarjen), David Mullen (@dmullen), Matt Batt (@storyassistant), Lauren Fernandez (@cubanalaf) and my new friend, Amy Mengel (@amymengel).

1. I have a Blackberry but I have HUGE iPhone envy.

2. On that note, I’m a Mac guy. Always will be. I think you’re either a Mac guy or you’re an idiot. Just sayin’.

3. I’m a relatively smart guy, just don’t ask me to do anything that involves a hammer, screwdriver or a table saw.

4. I spend WAY too much time on my computer every day. I cannot overstate this enough.

5. I’m a big wimp. Can’t look at needles when they draw my blood. Had to leave room once when they gave my son a catheter. Seriously, they gave him a catheter when he was 3 months old. I still have bad dreams about that.

6. If it weren’t for my wife, I’d be a walking pizza roll. Let’s just say historically, I haven’t had the best eating habits.

7. I need my Caribou coffee. Just started drinking a few years ago. Oddly, that’s about the same time we had our first child.

8. I live for my kids. Love my wife. Can’t believe how lucky I am each day to wake up to all of them.

9. I like having a broad network of friends instead of a few really close personal friends. Always been that way.

10. I played golf collegiately. Wasn’t all that good but I did play in an NAIA national tournament.

11. I really didn’t start my college experience until my senior year. Long story. But it led me to some of my best friends. No regrets.

12. I have wide-ranging music tastes. I can go from Disturbed to Journey to Johnny Cash to Jimmy Buffet in a 15 minute span.

13. I played in a “garage band” for a few years. And when I say “garage band” I mean five guys who had no idea what they were doing. Some very fun times though in Jay Troe’s basement. Kinda miss that sometimes.

14. If I had to do it all over again (collegiately), I’d go to school at KU for all four years, take the hit and pay off the loans. And I’d teach and coach boys basketball and golf somewhere near KC, Charlotte, or San Diego. I’d also spend a semester abroad–missed out big time on that one. Of course, I’d be broke as hell, but it’d be a lot of fun.

15. If I had to do it all over again again (professionally), I’d start my career working for an agency like Fleishman or Shandwick, travel the world and settle into a cushy corporate job in my mid-30s. Do ‘cushy corporate jobs’ still exist? 🙂

16. I’m looking forward to teaching my kids the game of golf and playing many rounds with them as I grow older. Then again, they could wind up playing hockey. Damn Minnesota.

17. My favorite spot on earth: Honeymoon Beach on St John. We will retire there. Mark my words.

18. I’ve always wanted a boat. Don’t know how to operate one. Don’t know much about them. But every time I’ve been on one, I just feel like I was meant to be on the water. Can’t really describe it. I need to act on this soon.

19. I’m a little bit of a video game nerd. Grew up on Track N Field, Qbert and Pitfall. Graduated to FIFA soccer and RBI baseball in my college years. These days it’s all about Guitar Hero and MarioKart.

20. I hate MN winters. HATE. I know that’s a strong word and I don’t care. I HATE them. If it weren’t for the fact that my entire network of friends and family leave within 30 miles of us, I would be out of here in a minute.

21. My dream job? Director of PR/communications for the PGA of America. Actually met the guy who performs this job three years ago at Medinah. Best. Job. Ever.

22. I’m a huge WI Dells rube. My Mom and Dad took us every summer growing up. Plan on doing the same with my kids. Love Noah’s Ark.

23. I live with a lot of regrets, but I’m always hopeful about the future. Never more so than this year. So much opportunity ahead of us al in 2009.

24. I grew up in the suburbs and now live in the city. That’s a microcosm of my life. I like to do things my way (Frankie style, baby!), not necessarily the way everyone else does it.

25. My dreams: Watch my kids grow up to be healthy, happy, productive human beings; live in St. John; live on a golf course at some point in my life; grow old with my wife; have at least three different careers by the time I’m 75.

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