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February 2016
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Become knowledge seekers

by Martin Snoek APR

Following a three year internship in publishing I spent most of my working career on the client side with one of the world's largest electrical and electronic engineering companies (Siemens: Corporate Communications) and for the last five years managing my own consultancy. Regrettably the book, 'The Black Swan' by Nassin Taleb was not published many years ago and it only caught my attention recently as I may have tackled my communication assignments with a different perspective over the years.

It is the most thought provoking book I have ever read. In a world of Black Swans the first step is to understand just how much we will never understand. It is about the impact of the highly improbable and about random events that underlie our lives. It underscores the fact that we should try to predict everything and take advantage of uncertainty. Much credit therefore goes to companies like Siemens for investing on average 8% of turnover in research and development having 'banked' around 20,000 patents that ensure the longevity of the organisation and providing for the 'improbable'.

In the book Taleb refers to Huet who spent his life reading. Huet, who lived in the nineties, even had a servant following him with a book to read aloud to him during meals and breaks and thus avoiding lost time. He was deemed the most read person at the time. Corporate communication, or public relations, must be one of the most challenging careers anyone can follow. To deliver an intelligent client service we have to be knowledgeable about a very broad spectrum of subjects in the economic, social, political and global environments. We should be learned (erudite) and seek genuine intellectual curiosity and probe the ideas of others and become dissatisfied with our own knowledge as a measure of knowledge ownership. An academic knowledge without erudition can lead to disasters.

As one moves on through the journey of a career, the balance between a relevant academic qualification and experience becomes crucial in the offering, while experience may be regarded by some clients as more important. After all, how can you offer the service of crisis communication to a client if you have not had some experience in that field? You can of course add much more value if you have read several case studies on crisis management and become learned about the subject through the experience of others and to be dissatisfied with your own limited knowledge. This you would only establish once you start reading.

Over the years there has been much debate whether or not corporate communication is a function of marketing. In this case it is immaterial whether it is the dog wagging the tail or the tail wagging the dog. Fact remains that marketing is the process that supports and advances the flow of goods from inception to consumption. If a communicator does not understand the total value chain or any of the components in the client's business, then the consultancy may be in for a hiding.

At one stage Siemens was trading in many different products and services, from radiology to cell phones, from mine winders to telecommunications infrastructure, from electric motors to lighting equipment, from railway signalling to electric cables – to mention a few. Each of fourteen Business Units had to be serviced as a separate client. This was a tough assignment for in-house communicators and even more so for the consultancy. To be knowledgeable about each one with their respective business processes, own sets of values and clients, own demands for communication strategy development and implementation proved to be a tough assignment. For virtually all those years I engaged the same consultancy as the process of learning and adopting the business culture of a client who conducts business in the space of technology proved to be a major challenge, and time spent in the learning process must be viewed as an investment.

As a result of the diverse technologies I received around fifty publications a week and the printed media allowed me to gain new insights to the communication activities of different competitors and technologies. Reading was my source for new knowledge and I spent many hours marking information relevant to the portfolios of my in-house colleagues (communication consultants). I still do that today, as a consultant is worth very little without the client's sector specific knowledge. Of course, digital media has influenced my process of knowledge distribution to the colleagues in my own consultancy, but I am grateful to those publishers who still send me their publications. They are read from cover to cover and are distributed with the conventional 'route slips' to relevant colleagues. Of course, with relatively young colleagues who work and read intellectual (assumed) matter online, one can only trust that the knowledge they gain work in favour of enhancing client relations.

As in 'The Black Swan', communicators should be a step ahead and be forward thinking. You cannot manage a client relationship professionally by having the occasional status meeting. Proactive engagement builds confidence and allows you to advance information to the client as potential knowledge prior to the incidence that may require communication intervention. However, do not try to be everything to everyone at the same time. Multi-tasking should be mastered as a fine art, and to work across different clients at the same time you stand the chance to become an order taker, cracks start to form and the same hand that feeds you could be the one that ends the relationship.

As in chess, always be a move ahead and differentiate yourself or your consultancy as being smart and knowledgeable. In engineering customers buy solutions on the basis of innovation, price and performance. Can you spot the difference in the offering of communication consultancies? I doubt it, except perhaps more diversity as the consultancy of today will have no place in the business of tomorrow.

by Martin Snoek APR from Marketing Services and Communication


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