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To be a communications advisor is an exercise in humility. In a business where there are no “right answers”, there’s only what’s right for this particular client, it’s critical to be open to self-reflection, course-correction and even criticism.

Given how relationship-based the work is, so much of what we do is not only checking in on the effectiveness of the work (are we reaching our targets, is the click-through what we want it to be, are we getting the media attention we need?), but also checking in on the relationship (how are you feeling about us, is there anything that we could be doing differently, are we making you feel confident about the strategy?).

Clients pay for two things: competence and confidence.

They want to be assured that we are making wise choices with their money and guarding their reputations carefully. This is not a business for those without a confident take on the direction of the idea – but it also not a business for the cocky or obstinate.

We’ve all been in “my way or the highway” relationships and they feel dreadful: high handed, disrespectful and rigid.

The trick in our business is to not trade away one’s certainty or passion, all the while allowing for good ideas to emerge from unlikely places.

Clients are brilliant. Members of the public can hit on a transcendent thought. The quietest person in any room can sometimes nail a solution. But you’ll miss it all if you’re busy being positional, proud or “expert”. Yes, we know what we’re doing and yes, we must make an impassioned case for a smart strategy, but to be unbending in the face of other people’s good ideas is an unattractive act of hubris. Confident and mature (and that has nothing to do with age!) practitioners are open-minded and open hearted. The work is more important than the ego and doing the right thing trumps being right every time.

I am a huge believer in taking a reflective approach to the way we do business, and for me that means paying attention to the following:

1. Start with questions not answers

Questions are central to understanding. You don’t know everything at first. Smart questions are far better than superficial answers. It takes confidence and experience to ask the best questions.

2. See your client as a partner (and understand partners have shared power and deep respect)

It’s just too easy to think of clients as the “people with the problem” as opposed to our partners in the solution. As in the rest of one’s life, a true partner has power in the relationship and always commands respect.

3. Establish mutually agreed-upon relationship parameters early on

There’s real value in talking about “how we’re going to work together” right away. Unspoken assumptions are risky in any relationship; they can be lethal in a business partnership.

4. Check frequently on the status of the relationship not just the status of the work

It’s easy to default to project talk as opposed to “how are we doing” discussions. We’re hardwired to talk about product not practice. But truly, the key to longevity, repeat business and joyous working relationships is taking the time to talk about “us.”

5. Be open to recalibrating the relationship to keep the partnership strong

The thing about asking the question is that you have to do something with the answer! Authentic discussions about how the relationship is going may yield some insight that requires a thick hide. Constructive feedback is a gift. Take it on the chin. Use the insight to make improvements. Tweak the relationship so that it’s stronger and smoother.

6. Debrief the project, use these learnings to strengthen the way you work together

The work you’re doing together is what binds you to a client – so be sure to use the project learnings to inform how your working relationship might evolve. We have a number of debrief techniques that we use that are simple, honest and quick. Used as a listening and learning tool they give us great insight into how we might change for the future. They demonstrate that we’re serious about reflection and self-improvement as well as committed to the best possible partnership.

7. Humans are complex

I’m a fan of Maya Angelou’s adage:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

If you’re not proceeding authentically, if you don’t truly respect your client, if you’re letting your own stress show – it will affect how everyone feels. Working with a complex human mix of business pressures, personal aspirations, professional accountabilities and in our case often, crazy deadlines, can bring out the worst in us all.

Be disciplined. Think long term. Focus on the relationship.

Interested in working with our CEO? Contact Catrin at cowen@calderbateman.com to see how she can help solve your communications challenges.

About the author

Catrin Owen
As the frontwoman of an 80's Welsh punk band, Catrin is no stranger to winning over a crowd. Today she not only facilitates sessions with some of Alberta’s most powerful leaders and passionate advocates, she guides the path for Calder Bateman. Catrin is always prepared to help bring clarity and understanding to some of the province’s most complicated issues.

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