On Top of PR with Jason Mudd

Leaning into uncertainty with guest Diane Schwartz and show host Jason Mudd

September 28, 2021 Jason Mudd, Axia Public Relations Episode 63
On Top of PR with Jason Mudd
Leaning into uncertainty with guest Diane Schwartz and show host Jason Mudd
Show Notes Transcript

Our episode guest is Diane Schwartz, the CEO of Ragan Communications. Diane is a powerhouse in the communications sector with more than 20 years of experience as a trusted leader and creator. 

Five things you’ll learn from this episode:

  1. The key day-to-day roles of communicators
  2. If and how brands should take a stand on social issues
  3. The most important skills that communicators need today
  4. How PR professionals can reduce stress 
  5. The importance of brand consistency and transparency 


  • “What we used to call soft skills like empathy, relationship building, trust, and presentation skills, these are hard skills now. They are absolutely necessary.” – @dianeschwartz
  • “The leader in the room should listen to everyone first before weighing in.” – @jasonmudd9
  • “Communicators need to learn how to ask for more and not be afraid to ask for more.” – @dianeschwartz
  • “We should be hiring people who are curious, who want to learn more, who want to dig in; people who are really curious about the market they serve and the people around them.”– @dianeschwartz

If you enjoyed this episode, would you please share it with others and leave us a review?

About Diane Schwartz

Diane Schwartz is a powerhouse in the communications sector with more than 20 years of experience as a trusted leader and creator. She serves communicators at all stages of their careers through conferences, training programs, councils, and subscription products. Through Ragan’s Workplace Wellness Insider, Diane provides resources to promote corporate well-being and align employee health with company goals. 

Guest’s contact info and resources:

Additional Resources:

Episode recorded: September 24, 2021

Sponsored by:

  • On Top of PR is produced by Axia Public Relations, named by Forbes as one of America’s Best PR Agencies. Axia is an expert PR firm for national brands.
  • On Top of PR is sponsored by ReviewMaxer, the platform for monitoring, improving, and promoting online customer reviews.
  • Burrelles has a special offer for On Top of PR fans. Check it out at burrelles.com/ontopofpr.
Support the show (https://www.buymeacoffee.com/OnTopofPR)

- [Announcer] Welcome to "On Top of PR with Jason Mudd" presented by ReviewMaxer.

- Hello and welcome to On Top of PR, I'm your host, Jason Mudd. And today I'm joined by Diane Schwartz with Ragan Communications, publishers of PR Daily and Communications Week. Diane, welcome to the show.

- Thanks Jason, thanks for having me.

- Well, we're glad you're here. I'm glad to be here and excited to share some of your smarts with our audience today. And we're recording this on September 24th, 2021. And you were telling me that you've got a great view here for those of us that are viewing the video version of this episode. So Diane, where are you exactly?

- Yeah, well, I'm in my dining room, exactly. But I'm in Wilton Connecticut, which is about an hour north of New York City. I live along the Saugatuck River.

- Very nice, what a great and inspiring view. And you were saying you get to work from home.

- Yeah, I mean like a lot of us during the pandemic but we are based, Ragan Communications is based in Chicago, but we have employees all over the country.

- Okay. And so tell us about Ragan Communications and some of the new initiatives you have coming up.

- Yeah, thanks for asking about that. Always nice to be able to talk about Ragan. We've been around 52 years, little over that, and we are a media and publishing company. We publish PR Daily, www.ragan.com. We recently acquired Communications Week, which is November 15th through the 19th, and that will mostly be online events. And I encourage everyone to check that out at www.commsweek.com. We also, we do conferences. We have membership councils, a Communications Leadership Council is one of our, one of the top membership organizations for communications leaders. We are going to be launching a PR leadership network shortly. We have a crisis leadership network. We do webinars and awards programs. And so essentially Jason, we are, we serve the communications professional from all stages of their career, from college to retirement. We also are in the wellness space workplace wellness, and we have a brand there called Workplace Wellness Insider.

- [Jason] Very nice.

- And we're doing more and more in that space as well.

- I think if you're in the PR business, you already know that Ragan Communications is omnipresent with the awards you get, the events you can go to. I know I subscribed to PR Daily and certainly have partaken in your webinars and other content that you guys produce, which has been, always seems to be first-class and relevant to what the industry's looking to. So I know we were gonna talk about this at the end, but let's just do it here. You've got a special offer for the audience of On Top of PR also. And I want people to be aware of that as we're talking during this episode.

- Absolutely, during Communications Week, we're holding an event called the Future of Communications Conference. It's a full day virtual conference with amazing speakers and topics all about the future of communications from all angles of the profession and the challenges that we're facing as communicators. For those listening to this podcast, if you go to www.ragan.com/ontopofPR, you will be able to see your discount there for registration to the Future of Communications Conference, a hundred dollars off for your listeners. And we hope to see there online.

- Well, thank you. Thank you for offering that. And I hope some of our audience will redeem that and enjoy the conference because it's a great conference. Not just because they save a hundred bucks, but a hundred bucks is always worth saving.

- And by the way, that's November 17th.

- Okay, perfect. Yes, I was just gonna ask you that. So let's jump right into this. So tell me, what are some of the key day-to-day roles for internal communications?

- Yeah, so we cover both the internal and the external communications role, as you know, we're covering the whole profession. And it's really been an amazing ride for internal communicators during this pandemic, actually multiple crises going on with social justice issues, political unrest and the pandemic.

- [Jason] Right.

- So for internal communicators, they've been on the forefront. They're the ones that have been dispensing the information, accurate information to employees. They've been helping their C-suite with messaging, particularly the CEO who's been in the spotlight on a range of issues. So they are responsible for all employee communications, executive communications, it's everything from the internet to town halls, to newsletters, to overall communicating out and inward to employees, working with other departments like HR and PR and marketing, to make sure that employees are informed and engaged and present and productive and stay with the company. Their employees are the number one customer from our point of view. And so internal comms is an increasingly important role within an organization. And I think the C-suite has begun to recognize that, fortunately.

- Absolutely, we are a PR agency specializing in external communications, and we completed more internal communications in the last 18 months than we probably did in our previous 18 years as an agency. And that was where the business was headed to where the client needs were. And so we were responsive to that while consciously kind of making a decision that we would remain focused on external communications, but use our time and talent to help our clients in need with their internal communications needs. So speaking of, we talked about some internal comms trends, what are you seeing for external comms challenges and trends?

- Yeah, I wanted to know one more thing with that, Jason, is at like what's internal is external, right? So especially with social media, what your employees are doing on social media has an impact on your brand. So there's so many reasons why there's that interconnectivity and interrelation between PR or external comms and internal comms. So I wanted to note that, but for the.

- [Jason] But they can't be different, right? They can't be in contrast with each other, for sure.

- Right.

- [Jason] Compliance is important.

- So a lot of the areas for external communicators match up with the challenges that internal communicators are having.

- [Man] Right.

- But I would say that some of the key challenges we're saying at Ragan and through PR Daily is trust, brand trust. And we know what that meant, in the environment that we're in right now, the climate, at least in the US, that is a very important issue. And communicators are the ones that are steering their organization toward the storytelling for their organization that is transparent, that instills trust in their key stakeholders. So misinformation, disinformation, trust, and purpose, are pretty top of mind to those in PR. Also diversity, equity and inclusion. That's both internal and external, but you're telling your true story as a brand, but making sure your house is in order first, right? So there's one thing about being proponents of DEI and then everyone in your organization is white. For example, I mean, we have a real challenge in the PR industry with diversity as it is, and that's just in the PR space. But really making sure you're true to your brand story and getting that in order first, even if there are some things you choose not to do, because you need to line up things internally.

- Absolutely agree, Diane, that's some good words of wisdom there. Let's talk about your view on whether and when brands should take a stance on social issues.

- For the most part, I think brands should take a stand, not on every issue, but employees expect that. Employees often choose to stay or join a company based on the company and what their values are. And they're watching, they're watching what the CEO is saying or not saying when there's something going on in the mainstream, in our mainstream lives. So, brands should take a stand, but very carefully.

- In fact.

- They should choose very carefully what stands they take and then be sure to be consistent and follow through and know that people are watching and holding them accountable.

- First of all, I completely agree with you, certainly employees, internal and external audiences are watching carefully to make sure to see if the values of the organization align with their values before making a purchasing or employment decision or supporting decision to join them. And then secondly, I believe it was really, I believe it was your organization who was the first one to report to me, meaning the first one I saw reporting on it, about how many brands really failed a year later to make good on their pledges and promises to the marketplace of how they were gonna become more diverse, how they were gonna support social justice more and things like that. And I think that's so important to hold these companies accountable to that, it reminds me of when so many brands were going dark on a particular day during social media. And we actually advised our clients, hey, you can do that, but I'd rather you try to do something more meaningful, right? Don't just show up, visually supporting, but let's do something that financially supports or puts time and energy and effort into it. And so for example, one thing we did was launch the George Floyd Business Mentoring Program. That's a free program for Black men in America to help them with their business and give them PR advice or just business advice or whatever it might be. And so, that was something we created as a way of saying, gosh, we wanna do something to make a difference and something more than the lip service of just a thoughtful social media post.

- Yeah, that's a great program. I would say the last couple of years. So a couple of years ago when DEI became sort of a hot button issue and one that everyone was focusing on there was a lot of talk and a lot of statements put out and a lot of commentary. And then it was said that this year 2021 was a year of the receipt, where it sort of show us-

- [Jason] Right.

- What you've done. Think it's a little bit unfair. I mean, there are small steps that I would say almost all companies have taken and it takes a while to ride the ship. And I encourage organizations like in the PR space, there's the Diversity Action Alliance. Ragan Communications is a member of that. It holds you accountable for different metrics within your particular organization and set. So things like that, they can hold you accountable. Industry organizations would be really important, but I think the year of the receipt is gonna be more like next year.

- [Jason] Okay.

- When we start to really see things happening in a positive way around diversity, equity and inclusion.

- Well, I don't wanna make excuses for anybody, but certainly we're still living through a pandemic. And so, there are some limitations. For example, we give out a scholarship and the foundation we give out the scholarship through was having a hard time sending checks because of the pandemic. And so I really leaned in and just said, "Hey guys, this is a student, school start in August. They need our money. You've got my money, figure this out. You've had 18 months or so of a pandemic to figure out how you pay people. And clearly you're still paying your staff and your rent and your other expenses, let's make sure this student gets their due." And so, I think people need to take action, but certainly we probably need to give them a little bit of the benefit of the doubt as you're mentioning there.

- Yes, I think so too.

- Yeah. Well, good. Let's talk about the future of the communications profession, kind of, what do you see as being kind of the most important skills and competencies that we need today? And what should communications professionals be thinking about for the future?

- I am so excited about this question in particular, because we are at a crossroads. Communicators are at sort of this walk in the road. One road is going back to the way things were. The other is building on the momentum from the past couple of years where this communicator has been elevated and many are now getting invited into the room and having a seat at the proverbial table. But seriously, like being able to be in those strategy meetings and be invited to the board meetings and the C-suite meetings is very important, we need to see more chief communications officers. We need to be mindful of where that sits in the organization from an organizational structure hierarchy standpoint, because that is important in terms of budget and resources, in terms of skillsets and what communicators need now and for the future. What we used to call soft skills like empathy and relationship building and trust and presentation skills and writing skills. These are hard skills now, no longer soft skills that are absolutely necessary. I'm now not even, five years from now and one of the most important areas. And we've really been encouraging our Ragan Community to take business courses. And we do a Business Fluency Bootcamp, couple of those a year, get involved with your CFO and learn the business language, be fluent in the business. Not only the business that you're in, whatever vertical you're in, but knowing what EBITDA is, PNL, being able to talk the talk, but really understanding that and how that relates to PR or communications. The more business fluent you can be, the more that you begin with the business conversation, not the PR conversation, the more successful you'll be with your campaigns, with your budget, with the C-suite.

- Diane, I completely agree with you. That's the one thing I certainly recall a point in my career where I didn't understand financials, didn't care to understand financials. There's a consultant I know who says, "If PR people wanted to know financials, they would work in math, they would work in advertising." And that kind of described me years ago until I started my own company. And then I realized the importance of understanding the P and L and there's somebody in the industry, John Herbkersman who's been on our show before. And I remember hearing him speak at a conference once. And he said, "If you don't understand how a company that you work for, or a client you have makes money, then you're not very valuable to that organization." And so he would use that technique when he would be brought into turnaround, a corporate communications department, he would interview each employee who was there and ask them, how does this company make money? And if they'd been there for years, and they didn't understand that he was very suspicious about their contributions to the organization and seeing it past their specific job description kind of thing, so.

- That's so true and just really understanding how communications contributes to the business.

- [Jason] Right.

- Right, that's key or else what will continue to happen is PR and communications professionals feeling like order takers or like The Deli Counter, like Take a Number and What Do You Want? The PR person delivers it. We don't want that. Nobody wants that. In every job, there's a little bit of that, but for the most part, communicators can help really drive the business. And if you're in a PR firm, as I'm sure a lot of people listening today are from the agency side, understanding your client's market and the ecosystem and the supply chain and all the different variables that impact that client and the business that they're in and their competitors and the market forces, read "The Wall Street Journal", ask a lot of questions. I would say the other skillset that I wanna make sure that I add to my list, Jason, if you don't mind is curiosity.

- Right, that's good.

- Right, we should be hiring people who are curious.

- Yes.

- Who wanna know more who wanna dig in, who are just really curious about the market they serve and the people around them.

- Well, and I think one thing that's beneficial a lot of times to our industry is we attract journalists to the profession. And they're naturally curious. I found that's how I got into journalist, journalism was my natural curiosity and my desire to share stories or share news with other people. And then at some point, I started doing PR on a volunteer basis. Didn't think I wanted to do that. And I got the itch to do that. So, hey, Diane, we've got to take a quick break and come back with more from you and I'm looking forward to that.

- Okay.

- So we'll be right back.

- [Narrator] You're listening to On Top of PR with your host, Jason Mudd. Jason is a trusted advisor to some of America's most admired and fastest growing brands. He is the managing partner at Axia Public Relations, a PR agency that guides news, social and web strategies for national companies. And now, back to the show.

- Hello and welcome back to On Top of PR, I'm your host Jason Mudd, joined today by Diane Schwartz from Ragan Communications. Diane, welcome back.

- Thank you.

- During the break, we took just a moment and we were just kind of chatting amongst ourselves. And I think this is a great spot to start in with our next question, which is year over year, the public relations profession is listed as one of the top 10 most stressful jobs in America. And as I'm thinking about, you not only being in this space, but you're also running a media company that focuses on employee communications, public relations and wellness. So, I'm gonna put you on the spot a little bit here, Diane, and tell us, why do you think public relations is such a stressful profession? What can we do as employers and communicators to reduce the level of stress that we have, or that our team has?

- That is one loaded question.

- [Jason] I know, right.

- It's stressing me out.

- [Jason] Put on your therapist hat and your PhD and this, right?

- Yeah, well we, our Communications Leadership Council, Ragan's Communications Leadership Council, we do a benchmark survey every year. And this past year, one of the questions is sort of what's holding you back or what's a barrier to effective communications? And 60% of the respondents said too many last minute requests. And right under that, was not enough resources. So you can see that convergence of that too many requests or what I was talking about before the order taking, and then not having enough resources. Now, part of that goes back to that skill of like negotiating skills and fighting for more of the budget. If you're, depending on where your budget sits. I mean, it would be awesome if everyone in communications reported into the CEO rather than other departments. But communicators need to learn how to ask for more and not be afraid to ask for more. And we have the metrics and the data to support those needs. So that is one of the reasons, or a few of the reasons why there's so much stress. There's a lot of expectation especially on the external comm side, the PR side, to get positive media coverage and unrealistic expectations. So managing expectations is another area that could reduce stress if you manage up appropriately. There are a fewer reporters out there, but they need communicators more than ever. And if you can supply, if you can become sort of industry friends with those media and really get to know them, I think you have a better chance of reducing your stress level, especially when there's a crisis and the media will help you with that.

- What I'm really hearing you say is a little bit of being more strategic and planning and that kind of thing you mentioned. We can't all report to the CEO and yes, that's absolutely right. Or else the CEO will have zero efficiencies and won't be much of a CEO at all. But I agree with you. I think it comes from some planning and planning of resources and the last guest we interviewed for the show, Chris Jones, FanDuel. He mentioned just the importance of being in those meetings from the beginning, so that when a new program, a new product, a new service is being discussed, that PR is there early versus at the last meeting, right? Where they're like, oh, by the way, this is going live next week. And we need some media coverage for talk about a lack of opportunity for the PR people to think expansive and creatively, and to deliver more value in the room. And also to be that listening voice of the customer of the external audience, of the newsrooms to start asking the questions they would be asking, and maybe pivot the messaging in a way that is in the best interest of the people that you're serving through your organization. You're reminding me of the time, Diane, when I went to a focus group round table of PR professionals, and one person in the room said, "Strategy planning, we don't have time for that. We're too busy doing all these things." And I said, and I just kind of said, the problem I think you're having is you've got a lot of activity, but no strategy. And if you slowed down created a strategy and a plan, you could probably eliminate the things that aren't valuable or delivering enough outcomes for the organization.

- Right, put in the tactics before the strategy.

- Exactly, yes, yes. And I was at a PR conference a couple of days ago and the person said, "Oh, I had this client and they were looking for a young person." And I said, well, what does that mean? You know, like, and by the way, this was a speaker, someone who speaks on diversity and inclusion. And I said, what do you mean by that, a young person. And they described it as they wanted somebody who was doing a bunch of tactical work. And I said, well, that doesn't necessarily have to be a young person, right? And anybody can be a strategist at any age and someone can be more tactical or tactically minded at any age or experience level. And, so I think that's important that we think about that too, but no, I mean, these are great observations for what someone needs to do. So, do you have any other tips about communicating to your team and leading through a time of uncertainty, which we just happen to be living in, in spades right now.

- We've been looking a lot at manager communications and the role of the manager changing in this hybrid work environment. I mean, not everybody is working from home and there have been millions of employees who have never had the chance to work from home. They're in factories or in retail or whatever. Nevertheless, the manager's role is more important than ever because they're the ones closely connected to their team.

- [Jason] True.

- So the more that we can help managers communicate and listen and help employees and give that feedback to upper management, that would be important. The one-on-ones are more important than ever. I mean, the Zoom, Zoom has really democratized meetings in many ways. All of the boxes are the same size and we really have a chance in some ways to have more intimate conversations with people, which I think we should be leveraging rather than holding back from video interviews, video meetings, being able to have face-to-face conversations in this hybrid environment. And I think some of us were spending more time with our team and being able to connect with them.

- [Jason] Right.

- And you know, I just think that flexibility, we're gonna be seeing that, the return to work, there's gonna be no date in particular, just like there's no date I think where the pandemic ends, there is no date when everyone returns to the office, right? It's gonna, we're gonna have to be used to this uncertainty with flexibility and that will help relieve the stress if you just put it out there and say, I don't know yet when we're opening our office. I don't know yet how we're gonna handle this. What do you think? How are you doing? What's your feedback here?

- I like that. One thing I learned early in my career also was that the boss should always speak last when soliciting input around the room or around the table, because then it's so easy to be able to say, oh, I just agree with what the supervisor said, the manager said, the CEO said, and instead the CEO should do a very good job. Or the leader in the room should do a very good job of just listening to everyone first, before they weigh in on their thoughts or opinions, because their opinion could be persuaded. But the minute they shared their opinion, there's no more collaboration. There's no more input and sharing. Everyone's just like, okay, that's what you said. Yeah, and I've seen that so many times in client meetings and whatnot that I almost always tried to facilitate the conversation. I hate to use it this way, but from the bottom up, right? As opposed to the top down. So everyone has a voice and feels heard and has an opportunity to share their unique perspective.

- I heard on another podcast, Jason, a little tip that I'd love to share. It's really helped me. It's the word wait, W-A-I-T and just put that on an index card in front of you when you're in meetings and what that stands for is why am I talking?

- [Jason] That's good.

- So before you just talk, because maybe like the sound of your voice, or you feel like everyone should be hearing you, maybe take a step back no matter what level you are. And say like, why am I talking right now? Maybe I should listen right now. So just wait and listen. So why am I talking? But that was a great tip.

- Yeah, I think that's really smart. And some of the best information comes from those awkward moments of silence where someone feels pressure to keep talking. And then it's really what they say after that that is really oftentimes insightful.

- Or key, reporting tactic, right?

- Yeah, right. Keep them talking, make it uncomfortable and see what they say. So, okay. So we need to wrap up, this has been a great conversation. I've got one more question for you. And that would be talking about the future of communications. Fill in the blank for us, what does the future, what is the future of communications?

- Well, I have two answers for that. The first is the future of communications is brighter than ever.

- [Jason] Okay, yeah, I like that.

- My second is a little promotional, but the future of communications is November 17th, the conference during Communications Week. So check that out. No, but really it's a great time to be a communicator.

- Well, speaking of November 15th, remind us what the special offer is and how do people take advantage of it?

- Yeah, go to www.ragan.com, r-a-g-a-n.com/ontopofPR. And it'll take you to the Future of Communications Conference page, where you'll see a special discount for our listeners.

- I love that. And we'll be sure to put a link to that in the show notes, to make it convenient for our audience. Speaking of show notes, how would you like us to list how our audience might connect with you? If they have questions or they want to get to know you better, or just have you in their contacts and network?

- Yeah, you can reach me by email, [email protected] or follow me on Twitter, Diane Schwartz is my Twitter handle. I don't think I'll give out my cell phone number yet. But other than that, these are two good ones to give.

- You got to earn that cell phone number from Diane, everybody. What about LinkedIn? Are you on LinkedIn?

- I am on LinkedIn. You can find me there under Ragan.

- And you're active on LinkedIn?

- I try to be.

- Yeah, don't we all? In fact, I met a CEO this week of a big company and I didn't get his contact information, wanted to follow up with him. And so I sent him a LinkedIn message, I doubt this guy even checks LinkedIn. And all of a sudden we were going back and forth on a meaningful conversation through the LinkedIn messaging. And I thought to myself, I didn't think this guy was on, or be on LinkedIn at all, based on his experience and his rank in the organization. But I finally had to say, hey, can I get your cell phone number, so we can just talk about this? Because I was getting exhausted with the back and forth. So anyway, Diane, it's been a pleasure having you on the episode today on the show, and we really appreciate you being here. Everyone knows how to reach you now, and they're aware of the conference. So, we really appreciate that and look forward to building our relationship with you and also our audience being able to reach you. And hopefully, we've gotten your organization in front of some new people who weren't yet aware and not yet subscribing to your publications and your conferences.

- Thank you, Jason. Thanks so much for having me, allowing me to talk about communications. I always love talking about that.

- Yes, we're always passionate about our profession and helping others stay On Top of PR, which is why we do this show every week. So, if you've been listening or watching on your preferred platform, do us a favor and share it with one of your colleagues so that they can learn from Diane and her smarts that she's shared here. I'm sure you've got a friend or colleague in the business that would benefit from this episode today. Otherwise, we wish you well. And staying On Top of PR, I've been your host, Jason Mudd. Special thanks to our guest, Diane from Ragan Communications.

- [Announcer] This has been On Top of PR with Jason Mudd, presented by ReviewMaxer. Be sure to subscribe, so you don't miss an episode and check out past shows, at www.ontopofpr.com.