Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Don't ask for work - fill the need

I'm finding that there's a plethora of talented freelancers out there all chasing limited amounts of work at the moment.

I've been doing my bit to build some new links and re-establish old ones - but haven't yet resorted to tapping up contacts with the 'gissa job' line made famous by 'Yosser' in 'Boys from the Black Stuff'

So far, the cold lead approaches have been met by stony silence - and frankly in an industry that lives and dies on relationships, I wouldn't expect anything else.

But I had an interesting conversation last week with an agency MD who appeared to be operating on very much the same lines as my recent forays into finding new projects: we agreed that there was no point just offering our services to fill any gap there might be. Instead, we were far better off identifying a need and showing that we were the best people to fill that need.

The more conversations I have with people - those who already give me projects on a semi-regular basis, and also those I'd like to work more with - the more I'm tuning in to a few areas dominating organisational comms at the moment.

Within the wide area of engaging the workforce in a downturn, there are some specific needs emerging where effective organisational communication can help. So for the moment I'm targeting:

  • Aligning communication activity with business priorities - my old chestnut, focus on the outcome not the output;
  • Making leaders work harder as communicators - ensure they're seen to be leaders and give them the skill and tools to pull their people in one direction;
  • Employee retention in tough times - how can you keep top talent engaged and creating a halo for the rest of us mere mortals; and
  • Corporate responsibility - how can you ensure your employer brand still shines when all around are battening down the hatches.

All of these activities are aimed first at communicators, but are intended to open conversations with their Leadership teams and HR functions in particular. It's early days yet, but it's surprising the doors that are opened when you come along with a very specific proposition rather than simply touting talents without purpose.

In-house teams are in a tough position: budgets are slim but the workload's increasing - and recession is unfamiliar territory. In my experience, that's fertile ground for experienced, cost-effective and motivated freelancers.

Monday, February 23, 2009

What gets measured gets done...

There has been a lot of discussion in the last few days on the Melcrum Communicators' Network about strategic comms plans - particularly ramping up leadership communications in these tough economic times.

I'm for this - though the leaders should have something concrete to say, and be sufficiently skilled to talk and listen well before facing any organisational teams.

But I'd hate anyone to forget that there are a few very basic rules for comms planning at the moment - especially if those plans involve line managers at all levels.

So if you're planning to build your leaders into your new comms plan (and if you're not, you're mad) remember:

  • If communication will drive forward your business strategy it's worth doing
  • What's worth doing should be measured measured
  • What gets measured gets done better than what isn't measured
  • What gets rewarded gets done well.

The upshot is that your leaders will communicate better if they're held accountable for their communication performance and if part of their reward is linked to communication efforts and results.

If they're not being rewarded for their efforts, those efforts will assume a lower priority - somewhere behind all the other stuff they're measured against and rewarded on.

Consequently, communication has to be built into every aspect of a leader's role - even performance management.

Fa(n)x for the memories

By midnight tomorrow, we will no longer have a fax line. For the past nine years we've had the fax - and modem - plugged into a dedicated line here and in previous offices on Henley and Oxford. Nowadays, there's simply no need with a hub and a wireless network keeping us connected to the world.

Nine years ago, in the days of dial-up Internet connections and exceedingly long CompuServe email addresses, faxes rattled through the machine at the rate of a few a day. Up to last year, one company still sent regular purchase orders and receipts that way, but now the only regular fax user I know is my dad.

Really, as soon as email took off faxes became cul de sac technology, though some industries, notably the legal profession, were slow to ditch the electronic paper trail in favour of the electronic paper-less trail.

My current fax machine is also a scanner, copier and printer, so it'll stay where it is in the office. And if any client really does want to go back to the old technology, I'll just grab an extension cable and plug it into another phone line socket.

I doubt I'll lament the loss of this particular piece of technology but it's yet another piece of business kit that I've seen dumped by the market in my working life along with the likes of the electric typewriter, the telex and the VHS.
I wonder what'll be next?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

New course date for 'output to outcome'

I'll be running a revamped and updated version of my From Output to Outcome course through CiB on April 28th in London.

Here's the blurb:

The global economic downturn has placed ever greater responsibility on internal communicators to add tangible value to their organisation. That means being seen to deliver more for the business than simply managing corporate media. This courses links internal communication directly to business strategy so that communicators are delivering communication outcomes that directly contribute to driving the business forward.

You will learn how to:

  • make communication an integral part of the business planning process

  • use challenge and build with business leaders

  • shine when the going gets tough

  • think impact first, media second

  • make communication a process - not a series of set-piece events

  • use the line more effectively to manage messages and response

  • manage the communication needs of different audiences

  • embrace 'horses for courses'

  • create learning loops.

There will also be hints and tips on how communicators can be the conscience, challenge, diplomat, creative genius and commercial guru every organisation needs when times are tough.

About the tutor

Mark Shanahan began his career with a three year stint on Which? magazine, before joining the PR department at Nationwide Building Society in 1989. He subsequently held communication management roles at Barclays Bank and the Forte Hotel Group and has been a director of Leapfrog Corporate Communications for the past nine years. During that time he has worked on major change programmes within Diageo and Orange and has also worked with a wide range of private and public service communication clients, including Aviva, the BBC, CMS Cameron McKenna, Northamptonshire County Council, UBM and United Utilities.

Full booking details are here

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The nametag guy may be on to something here...

Some I do, some I don't and some I don't agree with, but Scott the Name Tag Guy's list of what to do to make the trickle of readers to this blog become a seething mass has got me thinking.

Perhaps it'll work for you too. What do think and what could you add to the list?

I was alerted to this by Melcrum's Communicators Network, which I joined last week. Interesting stuff so far, though I haven't yet dived into the debate. Too busy to do so today, but maybe tomorrow.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Bloody Bankers

You'd think in these days of no good news about bankers that they'd at least be doing something to ensure good service for customers. But no. It seems that we're just a human commodity to milk for as much return as possible. At least that's my current experience with Lloyds TSB.

I pay £12 a month on my current account to ensure a reasonable overdraft facility - not the cheapest deal and possibly not the best. But inertia has kept me a loyal Lloyds customer for about 25 years - not that loyalty counts for anything in these bank-crunched times.

Anyway, I exceeded that overdraft by £9 for less than 24 hours last month. As soon as I realised what was happening, I put the account back into credit.

Yet Lloyds has written to me charging me £21 - 225% of the amount I went over - hardly a sum likely to make me feel positive about the bank I now own a part of, and something of an insult given the excessively poor decsions the bank has made in my name in recent months.

Now, having worked for banks in the past, I can see both sides of the argument around bonuses. I actually have little worry around those people in the retail bank who pick up a small sum for a good job in a customer-facing environment. But as for the investment bankers. That's a wholly different story. There's no way they should be rewarded for driving a culture that's taken the world into depression. Perhaps, indeed, they should be footing the bonuses of the rest of the bank?

In fact, the more I read about Lloyds TSB, the less i like them at the moment. They say the average bonus they're paying is £1000 but the total is £150 million. With approximately 70,000 staff, that would account for £70 million - assuming everyone got a bonus....and of course not everyone will. So there's 80 million going over and above - which seems to imply that a number of fat cats are getting fatter at our expense, while I get a bit thinner due to excessive overdraft charging.

Anyway, on hearing about the charge, here's my response to Lloyds TSB:

Dear Mr Williams

I was rather disappointed to receive a letter from you this morning indicating that you plan to charge me £21 for going £9.33 past my agreed planned overdraft for one day.

At 225% of the unplanned overdraft sum, I find your charge excessive and would ask you to re-credit it.

I note your letter was sent yesterday, January 21st. Yet had you looked at my account statement, you would have seen that the account, which generally operates in credit, never mind within the agreed overdraft limits, was not just back inside the agreed £400 overdraft, but indeed over £200 in credit.

Slapping on a grossly disproportionate fee rather than alerting me to my account status first smacks of sharp practice and leaves a very bad taste in my mouth – especially in light of the less than glowing examples the banks have shown in their recent conduct of business.

I would ask you to use your common sense in reassessing whether my misdemeanour was worthy of such a charge, and to reinstate the sum to my account as soon as possible.

Yours sincerely

Mark Shanahan

I've had no response from Mr. Williams at the laughingly-named Privilege Direct Team in Glasgow. Instead today I received a standard computer-generated statement of monthly charges stating the £21 will be taken in a few days time.

Totally ignoring me does not sit well with me - and in a time when banks are under such scrutiny, why should I simply accept such high-handed service? Clearly banks have to make a profit - no more so than today. But it should not be through poor customer service and excessive overdraft charges.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Linking up

I've been having a serious go today at updating my LinkedIn presence - and it has proved to be a great way to get back in touch with people again. Actually, I was prompted by someone else asking to link to me, but it has been well worth the last hour spent bringing some more contacts on board and tidying up various bits and pieces of my networking presence - I even got my first recommendation (having always been too shy to ask in the past), so thanks Pauline at RBS.

Like most freelancers I'm talking to at the moment, my work situation isn't great. In fact, hearing about the jobless figures spiralling towards two million today made me think that very many self-employed people are the silent jobless at present. In theory we're employed by our companies, but if we're one or two-person operations, and there's little or no work coming in, we're as good as unemployed. Thankfully things aren't that bad here - work's slow, but at least I've got meetings in the diary and know that I'll be able to get at least a couple of invoices out this month.

And today's LinkedIn effort has already led to a couple more meetings. That may not lead to anything, but hey, if you don't try, there's no chance of getting anywhere.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Communication confidence is crashing

Some scary figures on the latest poll on the CiB website......And perhaps the scariest is that 3.8% of those people polled feel very secure in their jobs!

While it's sad to see that 13.3% of people polled have already lost their jobs in this recession (there's now a network of more than 100 'resting' communicators already on Linkedin), the concern is that 40% of respondents are feeling insecure about their jobs.

The poll asked: How secure do you feel in your job compared with 12 months ago?

About the same 24.6%
Quite insecure 21.3%
Quite secure 18.5%
Very insecure 18.5%
Have been made redundant 13.3%
Very secure 3.8%

At times like this, great communication, great engagement and great leadership are all vital for business. Yet our industry leaders haven't got the confidence to make their communicators feel secure. Is that because they still don't understand the value of effective organisational communication, or is it because some of our communicators are being shown up as lacking the skills necessary to thrive in a tough environment? I suspect it's a combination of the two - and the next few months will be very telling.

Moving on from a static website

So, after about six years, we finally took down the Leapfrog website last night. Now there was nothing particularly wrong with it. And Steve Nichols who designed the revamped version for me a few years ago and has maintained the site through Infotech Communications, is a pleasure to work with.

But when push comes to shove, the site was basically a brochure - and people don't tend to look much at brochure sites these days, or come back more than once. So, I've taken the decision to use this blog as the electronic presence for Leapfrog. Most of my work comes by word of mouth or, increasingly, through the extended network of comms professionals and small agencies I engage with. And if people want to google to find out about what I think and what I do....I tend to pretty much wear my heart on my sleeve here.
In recent months, all my updating has gone on here rather than on the static site, so it wasn't actually too hard a decision to pull the plug.
It may be that Leapfrog will go back on the web at some point - and I've retained the domain name. But for now, I think I'll concentrate on networking - and actually making far more of the blogging community.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Going nowhere fast

There's a routine in our house: at 6.45am the radio clicks in with the sound of the Today programme. Jac and I stir slowly. At 7am I shout 'It's seven o'clock L-B' ......and a few minutes later there's the clunk, stomp, stumble, click of our 15 year old wandering into the bathroom. Over the next
hour and a half it's five showers, three kids leaving at different times to different schools - the last one walked to primary by me as Jac heads off to her office. I return about 8.45am, grab that second cup of coffee, and if I'm working from here, settle into the routine of the rest of the day.

Except it hasn't been like that this week. The seven o'clock shout has prompted L-B to scuttle down the stairs and into the office to crank up the PC. On three days out of four it has shown that all three of my kids' schools have closed for the day. On Monday, Jac reappeared after a couple of hours. On Tuesday she worked from home. On both days at the start of the week, hardly any of my clients made it to their offices. Phone interviews have been rescheduled, planning meetings put on ice...literally.
Yesterday was better and a sense of normality returned, briefly. But we've had a heavy snow fall again overnight and things have returned to that surreal state where normal working life is suspended.

(That's my office)

The view from my office window is once again a magical white against a heavy steel sky, but I wonder how much work will actually get done here today? I'm geared up, but the three kids consider today another extra holiday. Jac has headed off for Hughenden with our coal scuttle as a shovel and my high vis jacket just in case. But I doubt her office will stay open all day. Who knows how many of my contacts have made it to work - and how many are stuck in the same situation as me with schools closed and children at home.

We live in a temperate country in a maritime clime completely unprepared for snow. But climate change does seem to be making its effect felt - sharper winters, warmer springs, wetter summers. But as a country we're reacting slowly. We had four inches of snow last night. It seems to have paralysed the whole district. That shouldn't happen.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Did you ever see a cat's skeleton up a tree?

I'm glad January's over, though this first working morning in February has dawned cold and snowy. The effect over here is for all three of my kids' schools to close for the day - and the prospect of them opening tomorrow isn't too great either.

Jac got to work this morning, but skidded 5o yards out of control down the country lane that leads to her office. She's expecting that office to close shortly.

Still it makes a change from last week when I realised I was completing my worst month in nine years of business. Just over a year ago I billed my best ever month. January 2009 was less than one eighth of that figure. Just enough to pay the mortgage, but frankly not anything else. Firtunately I have a little reserve in the business, and also some work in the pipeline. But, when all is said and done, at the moment, work at the end of the communication food chain is pretty grim.

However, I was talking to a Russian guy last week who hit me with a terrific phrase: "Have you ever seen a cat's skeleton in a tree?" He's right. However bad prospects may seem now, there's always a way out.

Things will get better - and February will be a much more positive month than January.....when we finally did ourselves out here!