7 Tips for Hiring a Communication Consultant

Do you know how many consultants it takes to change a light bulb? Five. One to change the bulb and four to tell him how much better they could have done it.

One of the biggest complaints about consultants is that they tell clients what the clients already know and then charge an arm and a leg for it. That can be true – if you choose the wrong consultant, or choose one for the wrong reasons. But conversely, a consultant can provide a lot of value if you know how to choose them, and hire one for the right reasons.

I’ve played on both teams. For 12 years I worked in corporations that hired communication consultants and for 12 years after that I worked as a self-employed communication consultant. Now I’m back on the inside and work with consultants from time to time. Based on my experience, here are some things to keep in mind if you decide to hire a consultant to help you with your communication projects:

  • Be clear about why you are hiring a consultant. Do you simply want a “yes-man” who affirms everything you are doing is right? That’s not a good reason to hire a consultant. Getting a fresh, third-party perspective can add value, however. So can the addition of someone with capabilities your staff doesn’t have. Draw up a specific scope of work that clearly states the value your consultant brings to the table.
  • Hire a consultant with corporate experience. I’ve always been wary of consultants who have done nothing but consult. A consultant really can’t understand how corporations work unless he’s spent significant time inside of one – on the payroll. Even then, it’s important for a consultant to become immersed in your organization and to understand its unique culture, protocols, practices, etc.
  • Hire a consultant with practical communication experience. Has she ever developed a strategic communication plan? Has he managed an intranet or a publication? Have they conducted a communication audit? Find someone with the depth of practical experience that will enable them to view your program from a well-grounded perspective. It’s easy to suggest a new series of face-to-face meetings, but does the consultant really understand how that would play out? You want someone who has been there and done that.
  • Hire a consultant who asks a lot of questions. A good consultant will ask more questions than you do. Her advice and recommendations should come only after she asks a lot of probing questions. The greatest value a consultant brings to your organization is a fresh perspective, and that comes as a result of deeply understanding the problems and challenges your communication program faces.
  • Hire a consultant with an affable personality and straightforward delivery. The stereotype is those four consultants who tell you how much better they could change the light bulb. This is entirely subjective, but personality counts. Find someone who puts others at ease, but whose friendliness is genuine. You don’t want to feel as if they’re only being nice so they can sell you a bill of goods. Their delivery style should be straightforward – absent of jargon and consultant-speak, with a minimum of diagrams and other “products.” Trust your gut on this one – if you can have a conversation with him without cringing, that’s a good sign.
  • Hire a consultant who will tell you when the emperor has no clothes. An easygoing personality is important, but that doesn’t mean your consultant should be a pushover. You want someone who will be honest about what she observes. Again, a fresh perspective is a consultant’s most valuable offering. Be sure your consultant has the confidence and the wisdom to point out things that aren’t working and areas for improvement.
  • Hire a consultant who will work for a project fee rather than an hourly rate. From the consultant’s perspective, agreeing on terms is one of the most difficult parts of the arrangement. It’s especially difficult to estimate the amount of work that a project will entail, so estimating a project fee can be challenging. However, if you hire a consultant by the hour, you are paying only for his time, which is a commodity. Instead, the focus should be on the value the consultant provides in terms of experience and knowledge. Settle on a project fee and then you won’t be watching the clock all the time. At the very least, arrange a fee for a limited but specific period of time and agree to revisit it at some point in time when you can assess how the project is going.

Do you have experience working with communication consultants? What are some other tips for making the experience a productive one?



Birth of a Tumblr

Oh, to be 25 again. And rich. And the founder of one of the fastest-growing social media platforms in the world.

David Karp, the founder of Tumblr, arrived 10 minutes late to speak to a sizable audience of students and professors at VCU’s School of Mass Communications on April 2. Nobody seemed to care that he was late. Dressed in black skinny jeans, a plaid shirt and a gray hoodie, Karp looked more like one of my son’s friends than the leader of an Internet upstart. Actually, maybe this is what leaders of Internet upstarts do look like.

One student tweeted that Karp “looks like the long lost 5th Beatle.” (You can read more of the live-tweets in this Storify account of the event.)

But all similarities to either my son’s friends or to the Beatles ended there. The guy is brilliant. He started selling computers at 15, dropped out of school at 16, learned the ropes of web development here and in Japan (to which he escaped after a girl broke his heart), and caught the blogging bug in 2005. The problem was that he didn’t like the limitations and the “big, empty text box” of standard blogging platforms. So he created one of his own that emphasizes the sharing of multimedia — photos, videos and music.

Today, Tumblr has more than 50 million users who post 600 new items every second. There are creators and there are curators who share the creations with the broader audience — 9 out of 10 posts are shared items. Although unintentional, communities began to pop up across the platform and today Tumblrs of all ages can be found all over the world.

Two principles guided Tumblr’s creation and growth: let people share anything and customize everything. So simple, yet so effective.

The takeaway for me was that David Karp identified a need and found a creative way to meet it. And it made him a millionaire. It’s a formula that has worked millions, if not billions, of times over the years. It’s just that most of us don’t tap into such an enormous need with such a creative solution before the age of 20.

Drop the Membership Requirement for Accreditation in PR

Last year, while still a self-employed communication consultant, I allowed my membership in the International Association of Business Communicators to lapse. When I did, I immediately lost my Accredited Business Communicator (ABC) status, which I had earned in 1992.

I had been an IABC member for 23 years before ending my membership. I had been president of the Richmond, Va., chapter twice, district director for two years and served on the international executive board for three years. However, I didn’t have an employer to pay for my memberships in both IABC and the Public Relations Society of America. I chose to stick with PRSA because it better meets my needs at this point in my career and due to dissatisfaction with IABC’s focus on products and programs rather than the member experience.

When I dropped IABC, my accreditation went away, as if I never had it.

Accreditation was a point of pride for me, but it was also valuable in other ways. The ABC process is rigorous. It includes submitting a portfolio of work and sitting for a thorough written and oral exam. (PRSA’s Accreditation in Public Relations process is even more so.) Achieving the designation was like receiving a seal of approval from my profession. I can’t directly quantify its value in terms of getting higher salaries or better jobs – I got my current job without having the letters behind my name – but I do believe ABCs are looked upon as leaders in the profession, just as those who have the APR label.

I pay more attention when I read articles or listen to presentations by accredited communicators. I figure they have the body of work and the recognition of their profession that lends a bit more credence to what they have to say.

Accreditation also opens doors. At chapter meetings and conferences, I had a conversation starter when I ran into other ABCs or APRs. Accreditations aren’t exclusive clubs, and most accredited members don’t look down their noses at peers who are not accredited, but having an ABC did create an immediate camaraderie.

It’s time to remove the “members only” requirement for accreditation in IABC and PRSA. Lack of membership in IABC doesn’t mean I suddenly became less experienced or knowledgeable about my profession. It simply means I could no longer afford, or no longer found value in, membership. IABC does give me the option of preserving my accreditation for an annual fee (which I won’t do). It’s just another way to make money rather than focusing first on what’s right for the profession – which is one of my gripes about IABC in the first place.

PRSA requires ongoing professional development and public service, making the APR a more meaningful designation that goes beyond simple membership. Beyond the membership requirement, the APR at least helps to strengthen the profession. IABC should adopt similar conditions and drop the membership requirement. Both designations would then serve the public relations profession by setting standards through their accreditation programs rather than simply using them to add numbers to their membership lists.

P.S.: There’s an interesting, relevant discussion going on over at Gini Dietrich’s Spin Sucks blog about her proposal to somehow regulate the public relations industry. One idea is for required accreditation to be the mechanism for setting some sort of minimum competency level for PR professionals. Of course, the first step in that scenario would be removing the membership requirement for accreditation by either IABC or PRSA.

The Rodney Dangerfield of PR

“Employee communication is the Rodney Dangerfield of PR.”

That’s the assessment of Bruce K. Berger, Ph.D., the Reese Phifer Professor of Advertising and Public Relations at the University of Alabama. While researching the latest literature on best practices in employee communication, I came across his excellent speech delivered in October 2011 to the PRSA International Conference. In it, Dr. Berger makes a compelling case that in spite of all the research proving the business value of employee communication — and there has been much in the last 10 years — it still gets no respect.

Dr. Berger argues that employee communication in most companies is “utter folly” because they “continue to act against their own self interests by perpetuating failed communication programs that drive employee distrust and
cynicism and reduce engagement and commitment.”

He adds: “We know what needs to be done to create cultures for communication, but too many organizations just don’t do it. They fail to move from KNOWING to DOING.”

I’ve chosen to make employee communication my career because I believe in its potential to change and drive organizations. I’m passionate about it (despite agreeing with Dr. Berger that employee communication is decidedly not as sexy as media relations or crisis communications). From the beginning, though, I had to dig deep for research that bears out employee communication’s value. Well, we have the research, so now there’s not much excuse for organizations that fail to actually do something.

Read Dr. Berger’s lecture here. It’s only 10 pages and worth every minute if you believe, as I do, that employee communication is the most important communication in which an organization can engage.

The Fine Line Between Proficient and Poser

I don’t like being the new guy in the office. After 12 years of self-employment, I recently rejoined the corporate workforce. While I like my new job, my co-workers and the company I work for, I can’t stand not knowing all the particulars about how to do my new work, where I can go for the information and expertise I need and how things are done around here.

That will come with time, of course — it’s only been three weeks — but I am impatient when it comes to these things. After nearly 25 years in this profession, I had gotten used to knowing how to get things done — or, at least, acting as if I do.

There is a fine line between proficient and poser and I have walked it successfully for many years now. Allow me to explain.

I know how to do certain things very well. I can write and edit other people’s writing. I know how to form strong relationships. I know how to analyze communication problems and suggest effective solutions. I know how to think strategically, to build a plan and to measure my work. I know how to teach others about my craft.

But when it comes to certain specifics, I know nothing. As a consultant, when I began working with a new client, I knew little to nothing about them. I didn’t know the culture of their organization. I didn’t know their processes and their internal politics. Often I didn’t know their industry or the products they made or the services they provided. I had to learn all of that fairly quickly.

This lack of knowledge used to rattle me. But early in my self-employment, a more experienced consultant advised me: “Never tell a client you don’t know how to do something. If they ask you to do something and you can’t do it or have never done it before, just say ‘Sure, I can do that,’ and find someone who can.”

That’s called “faking it ’til you make it.” Well, not really. It’s called providing total solutions for your client by assembling the right talent for the job and managing the project to successful completion.

Sometimes, the trick is to understand the real problem and apply your skills to it. One of my last clients, a large non-profit association, initially called about performing a communication audit. What they really wanted was for me and my partner to conduct in-depth interviews with staff regarding a difficult personnel situation involving one of their managers, to assess the problem and to recommend a range of solutions. Neither my partner nor I had ever performed this kind of human-resources work before, but we had the interviewing and analysis skills necessary to do it. So we did, and the client was pleased.

One of my new co-workers, herself a relative newcomer to the company, gave me some good advice. She encouraged me not to feel bad about not knowing anything. “Your job right now isn’t to produce, it’s to watch and learn.” I just need to get comfortable with that fact until I can start producing.


5 Traits of a Successful Independent Practitioner

I’m in the third week of my new job as employee communications manager for a Fortune 500 company based in my hometown of Richmond, Va. It’s going about as well as I could hope. I wish the first few awkward weeks were behind me and that I was able to be more useful and productive than I am at this point.

As the length of time between my current situation and my self-employment widens, I gain greater perspective about those 12 years of my life. When I talk with friends, especially those who work in communication, the discussion often comes around to the adjustment I’m making to a new way of life. Yes, I miss the two-minute commute down the hall to my home-based office. Yes, I miss the flexibility with my time — being able to run to the grocery store during lunch, being there when my son gets home from school, the ability to schedule doctors’ appointments almost anytime during the day. But, of course, the benefits — and I mean that in the healthcare sense as well as more generally — help to balance things out.

A few people have asked me if I would recommend self-employment to someone considering it. So, with the benefit of said perspective, I thought I’d write about some of the traits of a successful independent practitioner. My work is PR and communications, so bear that in mind as you read on.

You must be comfortable with uncertainty. This is probably the greatest single trait necessary to succeed in self-employment. I mean uncertainty about everything, beginning with where your next paycheck will come from. Nothing is guaranteed except uncertainty itself. When I started my consulting practice in 2000, I (perhaps naïvely) was completely confident that I could succeed. That blind faith probably helped me more than it hurt because I simply proceeded as if I knew what I was doing and that there was no question I would make it. Even when I had to borrow money from my parents and take withdrawals from my 401k to pay a few bills in the early going. Fortunately, the clients grew and the income became more regular as I landed contract work, but there was always the chance that they would go away as quickly as they came. If you don’t have the stomach for uncertainty, don’t be self-employed.

You must be self-motivated. The first thing I did when I unexpectedly lost my job and, the next day, decided to start my business was to consult with my mentor and friend, Les Potter. He gave me some advice that I’ll never forget. “Get up in the morning, shave, shower, get dressed, go into your office and get to work,” he said. Doing what? “Anything. Make phone calls. Send emails. Read professional journals. Set up lunch meetings. The work will come.” He was right. To be successful as an independent practitioner, you must be able to motivate yourself to do those things and a lot more. It will be tempting to watch the afternoon baseball game on TV or do laundry or be distracted by any number of things. It’s fine to take time off now and then (but remember, you don’t get paid for it), but 95% of the time you must motivate yourself to work. Alone.

You must be able to work alone. I’m an extrovert. I draw energy from being around people. This was one of the hardest adjustments I had to make. The majority of my work was performed in my home office by myself. It was a gift that I eventually was part of a team of contractors working for one client because I got to be with them for a few hours a week. When Facebook came along, that became my water cooler. If you need to be around people to be productive, don’t work for yourself.

You must be willing to maintain networks of friends and colleagues. It’s more difficult to do this when you work on your own. I tried to regularly schedule lunch dates and attended PRSA meetings to maintain my professional network. It’s also important to work harder at keeping up your friendships and social life. It’s surprising how much of my social life revolved around work. I’m divorced and have dated quite a bit in the last 10 years. That was important to me, not only personally, but also because it energized me for work. That might seem weird, but it was true for me. My dad recently said that being a full-time employee with a great company that pays well and provides benefits will make me more attractive in the dating arena. I’m not sure how much more attractive I am, but he is right that what we do has a big impact on the people we’re with.

You must assess the real cost of being self-employed. Not only is your income less stable, but you incur much greater costs. You must pay quarterly taxes, buy your own health insurance, provide your own 401k, maintain your own equipment (computers, printers, software, telecommunications, etc.) and buy a lot of little things that might not be apparent. Sit down and formulate a budget — not just for your business but a personal budget as well — and determine the real cost of working for yourself. It might surprise you.

Those are five of the traits you must possess to be a successful independent practitioner. If you’ve been down this road before, please add your own in the comments below. One thing I’ve also learned is that everyone’s experience is unique.

Things I’ll Miss — and Some I Won’t

As I shared in my previous post, I’ve accepted a full-time job as employee communications manager for a Fortune 500 company, so I’m giving up my independent consulting practice after nearly 12 years.

In the interview process, we talked quite a bit about my experiences as a consultant — what I’ve learned, how I’ve grown, the good aspects of self-employment and the bad. As the reality of giving up my business and joining a company has begun to sink in, I’ve had even more time to reflect. I thought I’d share some of the things I’ll miss and some I won’t.

What I’ll Miss

Flexibility with time. One of the great lures of self-employment is that you work on your own schedule. That’s not entirely true; you work when your clients need you, which sometimes can be at odd hours. Still, self-employment does provide some degree of flexibility with your time. I started my business when my sons were 8 and 4; I became a single parent when they were 10 and 6. I’m so grateful that I worked in an office in my home during those years and had more hands-on time with them than a corporate job would have allowed.

Working with a variety of clients. I have had so many wonderful experiences working with so many different people and organizations — some of which I never knew existed. (Who knew there was an entire industry of equipment-leasing brokers and that they had their own trade association?) I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the best organizations and some of the best-known brands. But it’s the people and the myriad projects that I’ll really miss.

Growing a business. It’s exciting to start a business from scratch and watch it grow. There’s a different sense of personal fulfillment that is just not the same as you get with a corporate job. You know the success — or the failure — of the enterprise is largely up to you, which can be both a tremendously motivating factor and scary as hell.

Partnering with the best communicators. I’ve been fortunate to team up with some of the most talented people in my industry: Les Potter, Steve and Cindy Crescenzo, Shel Holtz and others. And I loved assembling great teams of people with skills complementary to my own: Katrina Gill of Gill Research, Katie Casler of Casler Design and others. I’ll greatly miss working with one of the best teams of independent contractors joined together for one client: Michele and Jonathan Rhudy of Rhudy & Co. Communications and Marketing, Jennifer Pounders of J. Pounders & Partners, and Wendy Martin of W Communications and Marketing.

What I Won’t Miss

Estimated taxes. Self-employed workers get hammered with taxes, which come due every three months. I am happy to pay my taxes because even with all the government waste this is still a safe country filled with opportunity. But that doesn’t make writing those checks much easier.

Lack of benefits. The cost of my health insurance has skyrocketed over the 12 years I’ve been self-employed. Whenever I took a day or (rarely) a week off, that was a day or week with no income. It will be nice to work for a company that provides great benefits.

The cost of doing business. It’s amazing how many things you take for granted when you work for a company. Copier paper. Toner. IT support. Communication devices. Travel expenses paid up front. They all add up, even if you’re thrifty like I am, and I won’t miss them coming out of my pocket.

Unpredictable income. You can plan and market and work hard, but ultimately your monthly income depends on whether you have clients and how much work they give you. I look back in amazement that I made it sometimes, especially in the early days of my venture. Having a regular paycheck is a luxury I’ll never take for granted.

Loneliness. I am an extrovert, a “people person.” I draw energy from being around others. Although I have done my share of work in the offices of my clients, a great majority of my days were spent in this little office over my garage. The silence can be deafening. I can’t wait to have regular human contact again.

On the whole, I wouldn’t trade the last 12 years for anything. This time has been one of the greatest learning experiences of my life. But the time is right to leave it behind for the next great adventure. And I can’t wait!