26th October 2015
Imagine someone you’ve never heard of calls you up at an inconvenient time, wants you to do something for them and they need a quick response. How would you feel towards them?
Given how busy most of us are, it’s understandable that many people only devote time to relationships when we have a clear and relatively immediate need – contacting our customer when we’ve got something to sell, a journalist when we want them to do a full page spread on our amazing new widget, or the fire service when we’ve got a fire.
The challenge with this approach is it is all about our needs! Great business relationships are built on trust, respect and have a clear element of mutual benefit. As a first step, it’s worth identifying the people that determine whether your business is successful or not. Then take the time to understand their needs and help them where you can. It sounds so simple but it makes the world a better place and it’s also good business.
Having the right information at the right time
By way of example, when I worked at Chevron, we had a leak at Cardiff Terminal and the fire service were working with our operational team to manage the response. Fortunately, we had had a series of positive meetings with the emergency services, local council, Environment Agency (EA) and Health & Safety Executive (HSE) over the previous few months as part of our emergency planning exercises.
As a result, when the leak happened, I had the phone numbers and was in regular contact with my counterparts in these organisations making sure that we all had the latest information on the size of the incident and progress of the response when dealing with enquiries from the media and local community.
Similarly, I had met with a number of our key journalists over the previous couple of years to understand more about what areas were of interest to them, what were the right formats and styles for their audience, when their deadlines were and the best times to call them. When the leak happened, this meant that I was able to provide them with the right information at the right time for them.
Sometimes, business leaders will fret over how to respond to a media enquiry, but if you miss the journalist’s deadline, they’ll still do the story…without your input. Instead, they could contact your competitor, disgruntled former employee or the regulator instead.
If a journalist is writing for the Six O’clock News, it’s better to get a pretty good statement to them at 5.30pm than a perfect statement at 6.30pm
At one stage during the incident at Cardiff, there was an erroneous report by Sky News. The journalist that I didn’t know simply cut and pasted the story, whereas the journalists that I did know took the time to call me and I was able to check whether the story was correct or not. Building these relationships wasn’t just helpful for me, it meant that the journalists I knew produced news supported by verifiable data rather than rumour.
Building a strong relationship with the local community
Before my time, at Chevron, there was an explosion at their refinery in Pembrokeshire which damaged a number of windows of houses in the local village. Without admitting liability, the team at the refinery contacted glaziers all over South Wales and got them to fix any windows that were broken. As well as communicating with bodies such as the EA, HSE and emergency services, they also took the time to keep community leaders such as the local MP, mayor and councillors informed of what was going on.
Chevron had built a strong relationship with the local community thanks to their active involvement and support over a 40 year period. As a result, when a TV crew contacted the local MP and residents in the village and asked: “Presumably, it’s a worry to you to have such a dangerous facility so close to peoples’ homes?” the response they got back was: “Of course, we’d rather that incidents like this didn’t happen but Chevron has been a good employer and member of the local community and they’ve already been round to put things right.” The company’s investment, at a time when it did not need anything from the local community, paid dividends. Positive third party commentary such as this was far more powerful than anything the senior leaders of the company could have said.
For some finance directors, the time and money spent in the local community can look too intangible and offer potential for cost savings. However, for Chevron, the strong relationships built locally and the time taken to engage during the incident response were worth every penny.
So if I’ve learned something over the last twenty years in the communications industry, it’s that a couple of hours every month investing in key relationships creates a solid base for the company and can pay dividends in a time of need.
NB: It’s interesting to see Lord Browne also talk about the need to build relationships when you don’t need them in his new book.