(Editor’s Note: We’re very happy to welcome friend and colleague Robert Lanier to The Crisis Communicator blogger family. I first met Rob at a full-scale disaster response exercise in New Haven, Conn., in the late summer of 1998 [I think that was our first meeting? Rob?]. He was a few years into the job, but had already cut his teeth communicating critical incident information in the wake of the TWA Flight 800 crash off East Moriches, N.Y. And, soon after our first meeting, he would be heavily involved with doing the same for the massive maritime search and rescue efforts following the 1999 crash of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s private plane off Martha’s Vineyard and, a few months later, the EgyptAir Flight 990 crash in the Atlantic Ocean. Working three critical incidents with high global interest in your first three years on the job?! That’s a lifetime+ of experience for many people in this line of work. Yeah, Rob did that – and is still going strong 20 years later [with many more critical incidents under his belt]. Also: if “public affairs” is a foreign phrase to you, think of those staffs as roughly [or exactly] equivalent to the staffs in a public information office, press office or corporate communication office – responsible for the triad of media relations, community relations and internal communication for the organization.) ~ brandon
We public affairs professionals are always reminded to “know our audience,” in an effort to provide them with the information they need to tell the most accurate story. I was faced with the three questions (in the headline) the very first day I started a new position as the public information officer – and the questions pertained to my employer.
During my entrance interview with the CEO of the organization, I was basically told “I don’t see the value in public affairs, but the regional office told me I need this position.” My internal reaction was confusion. Here was a person with more than 20 years experience in the organization who had no idea about public affairs. To add to this conundrum, the CEO maintained a gruff exterior, which caused people to limit their interactions with him. As we concluded our brief interview, he said, “Impress me.”
As I left the interview, my first thought was “I better update my resume/LinkedIn profile, because I think this will be a short-lived position.” My second thought was – those three questions:
- Do I know the CEO? No. And, because of the walls he put up – during this interview – I lost (or never took) the opportunity to know him, learn about his career, learn what we may have in common, etc.
- Does the CEO know me? No. He was not a part of the job interview process and I was sure he had not read my resume. During the entrance interview, he never took the time to ask for – nor did I provide – enough information for him to know me. Truth be told, I was a little astonished by his approach, so that threw me off my game.
- Does he know what I can offer? Restated: did he know what I, as a public affairs specialist, and/or what a public affairs program could provide to his organization? No. And I wasn’t sure how, during his 20+ year career, he had missed out on that knowledge.
So, how did I resolve this? How did I establish a more professional rapport with my CEO? How did I show him the value of a public affairs program? How did I change his cultural identity of public affairs? And, was this the organization’s cultural identity of public affairs and, if so, how did I change that?
I took a deep breath and remembered the words of one of my mentors: “Speak Truth to Power.” As I mentioned earlier, the CEO’s approach threw me off my game and (somewhat) intimidated me. So much that I failed to introduce myself and/or explain the value that I and a public affairs program could bring to his organization. I also failed to learn about him – what makes him tick – and use his strengths to make the public affairs program successful.
The CEO was not only the company’s chief managing officer, but someone who performed operations as well. His schedule had limited openings, so I scheduled another meeting at the end of that first day on the job. Prior to the meeting, I read the CEO’s biography, and read/identified the organization’s mission, vision and values. During the meeting:
- I introduced myself and provided my professional experience – including major critical incidents/responses.
- I identified and explained some similarities among us, and I spoke about the similar desire we shared for the success of the organization.
- Lastly, I explained how I, as the public information officer, and public affairs, the profession, could effectively support the mission of the organization; and how public affairs could increase/improve (internal and external) confidence in the organization.
The overall tone of this one-hour meeting was much better than the curt 10-minute meeting earlier in the day.
For the two years after the meeting, the CEO and I worked very well together. We were in no way friends, but we had a cordial, professional relationship. When he retired and a new person assumed the CEO position, I remembered those three key takeaways from my first day on the job:
- Take time to get to know who you are working for. Whether it’s the CEO or a supervisor, try to establish the professional relationship up front.
- Take time to introduce yourself to the CEO/supervisor and explain the value you bring to the organization.
- Take time to learn about the organization – the mission, vision, and values. This will become your professional compass when determining what best you can provide to the organization.
Robert K. Lanier is the Public Information Officer for Keller Army Community Hospital, located at West Point, N.Y. He has more than 20 years of professional communication experience including managing major emergency responses and mass casualty incidents.
Image from the British Library collection of rights-free images on Flickr. Image taken from, page 167 of “Personal Recollections and Observations of General Nelson A. Miles, embracing a brief view of the civil war … and the story of his Indian campaigns … Copiously illustrated … by F. Remington, etc.” Original image at: https://goo.gl/vF73mw
Excellent insight! People listen and hear better when they can relate to what we say. How well they relate to us has most to do with how we relate to them.