Monday, July 12, 2010

A PR Succession Strategy – Do You Have One?

Chief PR Person Leaving? Have a PR Plan, or Face the Consequences

Most companies have established communications policies they follow when important executives leave. For publicly held companies, the departure of certain executives may be material information. For any company, saying the right thing is just good business. An executive’s departure (or temporary illness) may affect the company’s reputation.

So, why do so many companies fail to have a similar policy in place for when their chief public relations person leaves? PR people come and go all the time – either voluntarily or involuntarily.

Your chief PR person is usually the front line to journalists, bloggers, industry analysts, and possibly financial analysts. His departure will be noticed – possibly more quickly than the departure of a senior executive. His departure also may send a message (accurate or inaccurate) about the company and its stability. Many reporters and journalists assume that the chief PR person has insights into subtle changes in the company, which may or may not figure into the departure. (For example: a good high-level PR person will spot a change in the CEO before anyone else does.)

And reporters often keep track, as one company I know learned the hard way. When the chief PR person left, the beat reporter remarked to the temporary replacement: “That’s the seventh PR director to have left in 10 years, you know.” The temporary replacement to the PR person was aware of only five – but the reporter was right.

So, it’s important to have a communications policy that kicks in when your chief PR person leaves, to both protect the company’s reputation and ensure continuity. (It’s usually good to check with Human Resources and your Legal Department when you develop your policy, as there may be contractual or other legal considerations.)

It’s critical to make a seamless and immediate transition to a successor – even if it’s only a temporary solution.

Keep in mind that many reporters routinely watch for clues of senior managers’ attitudes toward the Public Relations department – for example, senior managers who disdain, ignore or fear the PR department. Therefore, when a senior PR person leaves, sloppiness or delay in the transition may reveal or confirm those attitudes.

So, you need a policy and a communications plan to execute it. Here are five things to think about as you create your plan:

(1) Check All Connections
Change access (passwords) to the chief PR person’s company phone/cellphone, phonemail and email immediately, and forward to a successor. This should be done immediately, or by the end of the day at the latest. (In a company under fire, this is crucial – the chief PR person may get dozens of calls or emails every day.) If your PR person used a personal cellphone for business, ask that he change his voicemail message temporarily to refer company calls back to the company. The bottom line: Never leave the press hanging.

(2) Don’t Drop the Ball
Debrief your chief PR person about projects in progress. Identify what press opportunities or inquiries are in progress, and understand their status. Proactively call or email reporters on important inquiries to provide them with the new PR contact.

(3) Agree on a Statement
Just as you would for a departing senior executive, have a statement about the chief PR person’s departure that the departing chief PR person and the company can agree on. Provide it to the successor, the chief PR person’s manager and anyone else who may have to answer questions about the departure. Then stick to the script.

(4) Prepare for the Worst, Hope for the Best
Sometimes employment or consulting relationships end badly. Don’t be surprised if news about the PR person’s departure ends up in blogs, on social networks and even in the mainstream media – remember you are dealing with a communications professional who is both concerned with his personal brand and adept at using the media. Most PR professionals are ethical and governed by their profession’s code of conduct, but never rely on this alone.

(5) Don’t Drop Your Guard
Set up Google Alerts to monitor for the person’s name, and keep them in place for a reasonable amount of time. This way you will know immediately if any stories run, and can respond accordingly.

By having an established communications policy in place for your chief PR person’s departure, you can ensure continuity of service to the press and other important constituents. And you can usually prevent PR from becoming the story, instead of telling your story.

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