Building the foundation

 Before you go into an executive’s office with a proposal, step back and assess your current relationship with this person. Ask yourself the following questions:

• Do you know the executive’s current business objectives and priorities?

• What is the executive’s “appetite” for communications and his or her communications style preferences?

• Have you previously demonstrated your skill as a communications expert?

To firm up the answers to these questions, which will be necessary to create a solid foundation for your relationship, I recommend setting up an introductory meeting (preferably in person). The idea is for each of you to walk away with a better understanding of the other person’s goals and talents, and for you to discern how you can add value to the executive’s team.

I’ve developed a brief set of slides for these meetings to stay on track, however, you should organize your points in whatever way works best for you. The goal is to hear business priorities firsthand, gain insight into the executive’s personality and explain how you can make a difference.

Gaining trust

After the initial meeting, the next step is to develop a communications plan. This should clearly outline how the strategies and tactics you propose will deliver on the business objectives the executive has shared. The plan should include a comprehensive mix of traditional and progressive Web 2.0 communication vehicles, keeping in mind the executive’s unique personality and communication style.

For example, one executive I supported was extremely formal and polished. To help him feel comfortable and provide him with the best venues to shine, I recommended large-scale speaking opportunities and more written communications.

Another executive who I worked with had a different personality — she was more casual and folksy. For her, we looked at more intimate activities where she could personally interact with the audience. She was also a great candidate for writing a blog, which gave her an opportunity to display her down-to-earth personality to readers through regular postings.

Along the way, clearly show how your efforts are achieving results, both qualitatively and quantitatively. This can be achieved, for example, through conducting surveys and by showing the amount of positive coverage generated. Since most executives are numbers oriented, try to provide strong data when passing along results. Sharing that 65 percent of employees have a better understanding of the business strategy after attending the last employee meeting is a much more insightful statement than just saying the session was well attended.

Taking them out of their comfort zone

After your initial success, it’s time to use your earned reputation to take some risks. This may include proposing a new communications vehicle or suggesting coaching that would help to improve the executive’s communication skills. Whatever you decide to try, thoroughly research your idea before proposing it directly.

First, just as you use hard data to highlight your results, always try to provide third-party information that supports your proposal.

For example, I recommended moving away from traditional, one-dimensional memos to more-personal and progressive podcasts when sharing quarterly earnings results. The proposal included statistics of low readership from past earnings memos and results from current surveys that indicated employees would welcome the new approach. Because I had previously proven myself, the executive agreed to give it a try.

The results were outstanding: Employees liked the new format, and the executive enjoyed the live interview process and the elimination of the lengthy memo review cycle.

Another example is when an executive wanted to launch a new strategy that I strongly felt wasn’t ready for broad public consumption. Instead of voicing my personal opinions, I recommended that we meet with a handful of top-tier industry analysts under an agreement of nondisclosure to gain their insights. This meeting validated my concerns, and because the executive was influenced by their objective counsel, the decision was made to step back and take more time to polish the strategy.

Second, when proposing something new, share with the executive how his or her peers (or superiors) are implementing those tactics.

When I proposed launching an executive blog, I was met with resistance. When I explained that other organizations, including the competition, had incorporated blogs into their communications mix, the executive changed his tune.

Finally, always share how you’ll support the executives and their goals through the entire process, whether you’re implementing a new communication vehicle or introducing a new coaching technique.

Maintaining a positive relationship

Over time, you may become your executive’s most trusted adviser, helping him or her to achieve the greatest communications potential. This truly is the ultimate goal for an executive communicator.

To keep the relationship continually fresh and valuable, I recommend hosting “touch base” meetings on a quarterly basis. You may choose to use the original slides from the introductory meeting, along with a summary of results to date, to help structure the conversation.

In doing so, you’ll share the contributions that you’ve made over the past quarter, hear about what’s next from a business perspective and gain an understanding of what the executive found useful and enjoyable in terms of communication activities. Based on the new information and feedback from the executive, you can adjust your plans accordingly.

Make sure you stay on the executive’s radar and demonstrate that you understand his or her business. Regularly share interesting articles and blog postings, give detailed briefing information prior to any communication activity and provide a recap (along with any coaching) afterward.

Finally, don’t be afraid to challenge the executive if you believe it is the right thing to do. Executives worth your support will appreciate your communications expertise and commitment to helping them and their businesses succeed.