The very first class I took as part of the NTL Organization Development Certificate Program was one that focused on the process of entering into a relationship and contracting with a client. I approached the class with some resistance, as I presumed it would be centered around legal processes and other “very serious” things which intimidate the heck out of me.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. The course and the contracting process itself provided the missing link that shifted the way communication strategy was done and elevated the image and effectiveness of the communications team at The Entrepreneurs’ Organization during my final year there.
As many communications professionals know, the communications function is often seen as a purely tactical one in many organizations. Communications staff are often seen as the ones who make things “pretty” in writing, messaging and design, which usually means they are the last to be involved in any project.
The conversation, such as it is — more often than not it’s sent in an email and isn’t an actual conversation at all — usually goes something like this: “We want people to (insert desired action here) so we need you to make us a brochure/one-pager/webpage/email blast…oh and can you do it by tomorrow?Kthanksbye.” Magnify this request by the number of departments, teams and/or projects competing for “make it pretty” bandwidth and you create a communications hairball from which no real results have any hope of emerging.
Enter the contracting process. Here are the basics. Just because I can’t help it, I made them into an acronym for CONTRACT:
As my contracting instructor, the incomparable Susan M. Gallant, would say, “The end is in the beginning.” Every email request was responded to in person, either with a visit or a phone call, to chat about the project and create a plan (aka. contract) for its execution.
I say it on my home page and I’ll say it again. Effective communication isn’t about what is said or what is heard. Effective communication is all about what happens as a result. So, in order to build an effective communications plan, we needed to know what the desired result or outcome is.
Here is where we walked the tightrope a bit. Most often, or at least in our case at EO, the person making the request for the brochure/one-pager/webpage/email blast wasn’t the one who decided on the ultimate deliverable. And most often, the requested deliverable was not what we knew would actually produce the desired outcome. Negotiation of the final deliverable often included a second conversation with the decision-maker to ensure that he/she understood that we weren’t saying no to their request, but that we had some suggestions (often guised as questions) to deliver the results they wanted.
Creating a timeline is crucial to effective communication plans. I encouraged my team to set metrics, based on the desired outcome, and plot them along the timeline, building in if-then scenarios in case the results were not tracking with the tactics. (For example: If we don’t have the minimum number of registrations by April 1, we will begin to make phone calls to member leaders.) This can be tough when the requests come last minute, but as a former boss of mine used to say, “You can get it done fast or you can get it done well.” Last minute requests were always respected, but we made sure part of the conversation included a discussion about the time necessary to create effective communications. After a while, most of the last-minute, wait-and-hurry-up requests subsided (most of them…)
This one is simple: Who is responsible for doing what and when? In the contract, this would look something like: “Message draft will be completed by M and sent to L by April 1. L will review and respond with edits, suggestions or approval by April 10.”
This one is not so simple. What if M doesn’t get the draft done by April 1 or what if M never hears from L on April 10? To ensure accountability along the way, I was copied on all contracts so that I could check in periodically with both my team member and the person with whom they were working to ensure everything was being done as agreed, work through any conflicts or facilitate tweaks to the contract if necessary.
Once the conversation had been had and all the details hashed out, my team would write up a contract to communicate their understanding of all that had been agreed upon. The contract itself was a simple email that followed a structure like this:
- Project name and contact person
- Desired outcome
- Timeline with metrics, tactics and responsible parties assigned
- Request for agreement, clarification or changes from the person receiving the contract
Work on the project would not commence until all parties had reviewed and agreed on the content of the contract.
8. Touch Base
After the project was complete, I would touch base with everyone involved to find out how the process went for them, celebrate the wins and discuss any challenges.
Implementing this contracting approach not only helped us create more strategic and effective communication programs to support our organization’s external efforts, it also created a stronger internal communication structure, earning our team a seat at the table early in the planning process.
You don’t have to be a communications professional to apply a similar approach to your work. Try it today and see what will transpire.