Be brave! Ask the awkward questions

Our ability to influence uncompromising colleagues and the board lies in the art of asking the right questions. But as an industry are we nurturing this ability?

"Everyone wants to be bolder in the work they do," said Stuart Yeardsley, creative director at 3 Monkeys Zeno, "but it can be pretty hard on a grey Monday morning when you don’t know whether your colleagues will have your back."

With a communications industry increasingly asked to be brave and to solve more commercial challenges than ever before, Yeardsley told a roundtable at PR360 that it is the art of asking the right questions that increases our ability to influence uncompromising colleagues and the board.

There’s no such thing as a stupid question, as the old saying goes. "But how many organisations actively encourage people to ask the obvious, but also painfully awkward, question that can lead to a more meaningful and deeper outcome. How many of us have the courage to challenge a brief, challenge a client or even your boss?" said Yeardsley.

Asking the hard questions

"I’ve always found it quite challenging asking questions internally as there seem to be varying levels of understanding about what PR is across an organisation, especially at the top," said Sarah Kemp, head of communications at PageGroup.

Elizabeth Randall, senior media relations manager at law firm Allen & Overy, agreed: "As PR people we often have to tell very senior people things they don’t want to hear. It’s often about managing expectations – and making them realise you’re not their Fairy Godmother. It’s about bringing the truth into the room."

The group felt there has been a shift in the role and expectations of communications. "In my experience, it’s gone from expecting very service-oriented functions – drafting press releases and the like – to a much more strategic function. And this means we need to be included much earlier in the decision-making process – and since this change there has been much more acceptance from C-suite," said Natalie Buhl, leader, therapy area communications & public affairs at Janssen.

"If you can show the right evaluation tools – and that what you do adds value to the business – it allows you to be in a position to ask those questions. Nobody wants to be asked questions by somebody whose work isn’t valued, because that’s when you become irritating," said Natalie Billington, PR manager, MSC Cruises.

"It’s also about using the right language with the people you’re trying to communicate with. There’s no point using PR language and metrics to try and convince the CEO or marketing director. I have to use their language and their terms to help them try to understand how I’m helping them," said Emma Mead, head of global PR at Visit Britain.

Transacting or relating?

"We’re increasingly working in more complex environments. And with the joys of email, Slack and everything else… the speed and rate at which we communicate is getting quicker. But the question is: are we now transacting rather than relating?" said Sarah Ogden, head of corporate brand at 3 Monkeys Zeno.

"Everyone should have a license to ask questions," added Ogden. "It’s questions from unusual places, and the perspective they bring, where the real opportunities lie for organisations – certainly in terms of creative interrogation. Being on the agency side and working with many people under the age of 30, I’ve seen the art of conversation dwindle and people being terrified of being seen as stupid."

"We started a new company-wide practice to address the problem of people not putting their hand up at the Town Hall meetings by introducing an anonymous way to ask questions via Slido. It resulted in a barrage of – often difficult to answer – questions. So now as part of my team’s quarterly evaluation I insist they share three questions they asked or challenges they overcame that quarter they’re proud of," said Mead. 

"It’s also about leadership," said Kemp. "If the leaders aren’t creating an environment that allows people to feel like they can voice their opinions then that fear will remain."

"I was taught something early in my career that has worked for me and I continue to use with my team now. I was told that if you’re going to come up with a question then also come up with the reasoning and the solution as well. If you can back up your reasoning then it tends to get received more favourably," said Katie Watts, senior press officer, Money Savings Expert.

Be brave, be creative

"We as professionals aren’t asking enough brave questions of ourselves, or of the business, to provide creative and original solutions," said Yeardsley. "There are very few companies that are empowering that to happen. An example of one that did is a little Peruvian potato company that asked an agency ‘How do you make our potatoes famous?’ And they said, ‘Can you grow your potatoes on Mars?’. So the company figured it out and grew a potato in Mars-like conditions. And it got them global recognition and notoriety. So there are businesses out there that are being creative, but it really depends on the culture of the organisation and how open they are to risk."

Is it easier for agencies?

"If you’ve got a board that’s quite risk averse, having an agency potentially offers more experience than their in-house team. It’s a safety blanket essentially. It can be really beneficial to have an agency come in and endorse what your in-house team is doing – in some ways it lands better with the board than if it was just your in-house team making a recommendation," said Natalie Wheble, head of media relations, Thames Tideway Tunnel.

"There is a science to asking questions. Not all questions are combative. Knowing how and being confident enough to ask the question that elicits the answer you’re after is a skill," said Ogden. "According to research carried out in the USA, people are becoming less likely to compromise and adapt their point of view. People are coming in to discussions with a perspective that is pretty locked and loaded. So where are the forums for us to come together and mediate that opinion so we reach a common ground? When we’re trying to do big work we’ve really got to think about the role of conversation and discussion. And being able to challenge colleagues in a way where you’re actually coming together to find consensus and can move forward."

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