Category Archives: Organization

Employee Benefits for the (Non-Lawyer) Communicator

My 20-something years as a senior-level communicator serving large corporate clients have led me to some strange places indeed. There was the time I was hired to write the announcement speech for a secret product launch which was to include two “endings” so that the executive speaker could choose the one most appropriate, based on the audience’s (employees’) reaction. Then there was the time I was entrusted with drafting a series of “confidential” documents outlining a marketing strategy that would ultimately be vetted through no fewer than 43 people (not kidding), leaving me to wonder who didn’t know about this particular plan. In short, I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve not wanted for intrigue and interest during most of this journey so far.

There’s intrigue, and then there’s harsh complexity. That’s where the subject of employee benefits comes in. In the marketing communications arena, I’ve habitually viewed those communicators who can tackle this subject matter with even moderate fluency as the rock stars of our profession. Why? Employee benefits are like the second cousin of fixed income securities: they are complex, rarely intriguing, lack any hint of excitement and are almost always dry and loaded with tedium. Usually, only communicators with superior attention to detail and a solid grasp of the regulatory backdrop dare to tread on this subject, and with good reason.

After obtaining a law degree it occurred to me that my ability to swiftly and effectively communicate on this complex topic was supported by a more robust understanding of the regulatory environment that drives this arena. As such, the following is the first in a series of a few short articles for those non-lawyer communicators seeking a clear, simple roadmap to this rather annoyingly complicated landscape.

ERISA – What it Is

To know employee benefits you have to begin with ERISA. The Employee Retirement Income Security Act is a federal law, to be blunt, administered by the Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA). The provisions of Title I of ERISA cover most private sector employee benefit retirement plans. Such plans are voluntarily established, and maintained by the employer. Sometimes, they are maintained by more than one employers, or even an employee organization, for example. These plans include pension plans (defined contribution or defined benefit), simplified employee pension plans (SEPs) and 401(k) plans, as well as profit-sharing and stock-bonus plans, along with employee stock ownership plans, or ESOPs.

The most important thing to start with is that ERISA does NOT apply to plans established or maintained by government entities or churches for their employees. Plans maintained solely to comply with workers’ comp, unemployment or disability laws are also NOT subject to ERISA. Finally, ERISA does not cover plans maintained outside the U.S.

What it Does

What ERISA does is set uniform minimum standards to ensure that employee-benefit plans are established and maintained in a fair and financially sound manner. Think of it as a regulatory “floor.” Employers can deliver above and beyond what ERISA mandates, but not below the standards set forth in the law.

Here’s a general smattering of what ERISA does:

  • Requires plans to tell plan participants what’s going on with the plan, and on a regular basis.
  • Sets minimum standards for participation, vesting, benefit accrual and funding.
  • Requires plan fiduciaries to be accountable (more on that shortly).
  • Gives plan participants the right to a cause of action to sue for benefits and/or breaches of fiduciary duty. (For non-lawyers: you cannot sue unless federal law [or, if applicable, state law] unless there is a basis for the cause of action. Meaning–there has to be either a statutory or a case-law/common law basis for a cause of action. A cause of action is “Negligence,” “breach of contract,” or “breach of fiduciary duty,” or the like.)
  • Guarantees payment of certain benefits if a plan goes under, through the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.

ERISA also sets forth requirements that obligate employers to provide promised benefits, and which guide employers when managing and administering private retirement and welfare plans.

Who’s The Boss?

EBSA, along with the Department of Treasury’s Internal Revenue Service (IRS), has the statutory and regulatory authority to ensure that workers receive the benefits they are promised. EBSA has principal jurisdiction over Title I of ERISA, which requires persons and entities that manage and control plan funds to do so according to various standards and duties. They must:

  • Manage plans for the exclusive benefit of participants and beneficiaries;
  • Execute duties prudently and refrain from any activity that constitutes a conflict of interest;
  • Comply with limitations on certain plans’ investments in employer securities and properties; 
  • Fund benefits in line with the law and plan rules;
  • Report and disclose plan info both to participants and to the government; and
  • Comply with investigations whenever necessary.

ERISA also sets forth standards and rules for plan fiduciaries. Individuals who exercise discretionary authority or control over plan management or disposition of plan assets are “fiduciaries” for the purposes of Title I of ERISA. The discharge of these duties must be executed solely in the interest of plan participants and beneys and for the exclusive purpose of providing benefits and mitigating reasonable expenses of administering the plan. In general, fiduciaries are required to “act prudently” and in accordance with plan documents. 

I hope this basic foray into ERISA can benefit at least some of you communicators out there faced with a project involving employee benefits. Next up in the series: FAQs on employee benefits – making sense of the offerings. Thanks for reading, and as always, comments/suggestions welcome!



Marketing Like a Large Corporation – It’s Easier Than You May Think

It’s no secret that the marketing and advertising budgets of some large-capitalization companies could seed the launch of a private college and perhaps rival the GDP of a few developing economies.  This is clearly not the case for most smaller, independent (non-publicly traded) businesses. However, this disparity in dollars-allocated doesn’t mean that small- to mid-sized businesses and professional practices cannot apply some of the same marketing and growth-promoting principles that larger entities employ.

As we bid a farewell (or “good riddance,” from my own personal perspective) to 2012, small businesses face a potentially bumpy 2013 ahead. Ramped-up levels of uncertainty overall, a still-sluggish U.S. economy, a growing tax burden, and regulations that have grown in number and complexity are all ingredients contributing to the extraordinary challenges the business sector faces.

At the same time, there are ways closely held businesses and professional practices can plan for growth and increased profitability in the coming year. Primarily, these entities can apply the same marketing and growth-inducing principles and tactics that their larger counterparts use to increase sales and grow the business.

1. Using social media outlets is no longer optional. In order to “borrow” marketing principles and tactics from the Big Boys, as a small-business owner you must first discard any doubt in your mind regarding the efficacy of using social media outlets to market your business. It’s no longer optional, but rather mandatory.

Talking frankly with my own clients recently has helped reveal a somewhat common stumbling block on this issue: Many smaller-business owners believe that social media outlets — because they are so broad and big in scope and reach — are incongruous with the goals of a smaller, more localized business. This is a common misconception. Think of it this way: You can still target smaller, more defined client segments, geographical areas or a narrowly described prospect profile through these sites. Just because the site itself boasts a global reach doesn’t mean your business has to do the same. You can “use” these sites to reach as small, narrowly defined or predesignated audience as you wish.

The anemic economy does offer a related opportunity: many qualified, experienced social-media experts are either un- or under-employed right now, and some are willing to provide their services on a consulting basis at reasonable rates. Find an expert if you are daunted by or unsure about how to use social media to grow your business — it will be worth it in the long run.

2. Niche marketing works. Believe it or not, larger corporations engage in “niche” marketing frequently. It doesn’t appear to be niche marketing, however, because the segments they target within the consumer population are usually comprised of millions of potential buyers. But that doesn’t make it any less of a niche-marketing effort.

Niche marketing is nothing more than identifying a specific segment of the general marketplace of consumers that is likely to find your service/product appealing. How? You can either a) make that determination based on experience (you have stumbled upon a few similarly situated customers/clients who rave about your offerings) or b) decide that you want to infiltrate and target a customer base that remains out of reach. Either way, the defining moment lies, well, in defining that client segment. Examples include “households within this zipcode with at least two children under the age of six,” or “single men, 22-29 years of age, who rent but don’t own a residence,” and so on.

Then, you need a solution unique to that segment, and a special expertise to provide (give credence to) that solution. Let’s take the first example above: local households with  at least two children under the age of six, assuming you own a retail establishment that provide tangible products. Special solutions for this niche might include operating during evening hours, demonstrating your understanding that many households with kids of a young age need more flexibility around shopping. Another “solution” might be to offer a playspace within your store so parents can shop. Providing credence to this approach might be to have your advertising feature an actual parent from your staff, or executive team. The message you convey is: We understand your needs, because we’re just like you.

Once you get this far, you need to choose the appropriate channels through which to get the message out that a) you are uniquely qualified to serve this niche market and b) you are better at understanding these consumers’ needs than any competitor.

Keep in mind, too, that you can build a solid stream of revenue from a single niche. I know of one financial advisory practice in the Midwest which accomplished this nicely. One of the principals of the firm has a brother-in-law who works for a large retail company based in Minnesota. Rather than simply engage the brother-in-law as a client, the advisor decided to custom-design a seminar on investing for brother-in-law and his associates at the company. The seminar emphasized the need for corporate professionals to plan “holistically” rather than simply taking advantage of company-sponsored benefits. It was clear that even with the plethora of attractive wealth-building benefits the company offered (stock options, deferred comp, 401(k) match, etc.), some of the employees using these benefits lacked an overall financial plan that incorporated them to address financial goals that are likely to change over time.

Then, the advisor built on the fact that this particular retailer is very big on philanthropic efforts. The financial advisory firm offered to provide a free 30-minute, on-site seminar on investing to the employees who contributed the most to a specific charity drive at the company. Within a few months, this financial advisory firm ended up gaining 33 new clients who invested anywhere from $35,000 to over $1 million with the firm–not bad for an effort that is based largely on common sense and listening. What’s more, the basis for referrals continues to grow, and the advisory firm continues to build and expand offerings, on-site educational seminars and good-will activities in tandem with or in partnership with this larger, corporate entity.

3. Realize the advantage of being small(er). No, your firm doesn’t have the millions of dollars to allocate to marketing like Coca Cola and Target do. But likely, your firm also doesn’t suffer from bureaucracy that can stifle real innovation, flexibility and speed. You can move faster on an idea, and change your mind on a dime, if something isn’t working as you’d hoped. Larger corporations typically cannot boast the same ability.

That said, you still need a plan. Remaining agile and flexible does not mean flying by the seat of your pants when it comes to marketing your business or practice. You must at least outline your goals (“to build clientele within the newly employed segment of younger professionals,” etc.), decide on the exact tactics you’ll use to pursue those goals (“offer three free seminars for the New Lawyers Division of the State Bar Association on financial planning,” etc.), and then track and evaluate the success of these tactics (“we added four new clients based on three free seminars, so something is amiss”) and so on.

4. Make it a partnership/team effort. Have you noticed that you can typically get great deals on air travel if you book a flight with a credit card co-offered by the airline itself? This larger-enterprise marketing tactic can work for a smaller, local business or practice.

Tap into potential collaborators, and team up to offer clients a greater benefit than if you go it alone. For example, a financial advisory firm could team up with a local charity, and co-sponsor fundraising drives. The events will provide exposure for the FAs at the firm, and possibly lead to referrals. The charity gets a new supporter (the FA firm), and perhaps a free financial assessment could be offered to select donors who contribute on a regular basis. This type of effort can be done on a local basis, with “local” meaning whatever you want it to mean–a specific county, zip code, geographic region or clientele that may be based nationwide.

You can market your smaller business as if you had a larger budget, especially if you reward innovation and foster an environment of ownership among your employees and principals. And most of all, when you hit an obstacle or problem that seems insurmountable, always, always, always view it as an opportunity for growth.




Most of us have heard claims that public speaking ranks second only to death as the thing people fear most.  It sounds feasible, because public speaking is perhaps our modern day equivalent to being thrown to the lions in a different type of coliseum – the corporate conference room, to name one. After all, it’s one thing to possess a solid body of knowledge on a given subject; It’s quite another to effectively convey that knowledge or information in a manner that captivates. In short, it’s not easy to get a group of strangers to not only listen to you but to also remember what you said.

A close friend recently asked me if I’d be daunted by the prospect of “pitching” ideas to various decision makers in the corporate sector on a select topic. I appreciated the question, because it forced me to take a step back and realize that public speaking really is something most people avoid, even when it involves smaller audiences, such as less than six or seven people, even. It also prompted me to don a more critical lens when watching speakers so as to better discern what makes a speaker successful, and what makes a speaker ineffective. As a result, over the last few weeks I’ve been more closely tracking my observations of live speakers as a way to help provide more clarity around this skill, and hopefully, help ease the panic so many feel when faced with a public-speaking obligation.

1. Ummm..No. — Let’s start with the simplest and easiest tip. I realize that “umm” and “uhh” can sometimes serve as useful tools when you are speaking under pressure, or particularly, when you are speaking in a public relations capacity or directly to the press. These “crutch words,” as I like to call them, can buy you time and help you stay focused. However, when you use “umm” in between each and every sentence in your speech, you sound like you are nervous and don’t know what you are talking about.

Relying on “um” and “uh” is nothing more than a habit. Before your presentation, practice your speech over and over and make a deliberate effort to not say “um,” even once. Record yourself practicing. You will hear how sounds like “um” diminish your authority and make you sound like you are struggling — even when you aren’t. Eliminate this from your presentation technique entirely. You can do it, because it can become as much of a habit not to say “um” 46 times in a five-minute presentation as it is a habit to reach for “um”  46 times in five minutes. You get the point.

2. Stop Questioning Everything — There’s a disturbing trend nowadays that has unfortunately become so prevalent, people do it all the time, even on television. Tragically, it’s a trend that more women seem to have embraced than men. (I’ll explain why I believe this is tragic shortly.) It’s the tendency for speakers to raise their pitch at the end of every sentence so it sounds like a question, even when it’s a statement. I attended a college-planning seminar at our local high school, and the three women presenting on the topic seemed knowledgeable, but their credibility (at least for me) was immediately diminished by the fact that virtually every statement they made sounded like a question.

I don’t know where this comes from, but it should be returned promptly with a sharp word to the originator. It’s a terrible delivery choice, because everyone using it almost instantly sounds like a teenager who is unsure of him/herself and searching for validation. Unless you are striving to sound desperate or like Sally Field delivering her Oscar-acceptance speech (“You like me, you really like me?”), stop doing this.

If you are unconvinced, imagine former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld or General Colin Powell speaking and using this technique. “It is the job of the Department of State to recommend additional security measures at U.S. embassies, worldwide? Then, the Department of Defense executes those requests?” And so on. Ridiculous.

I find this trend tragic as it relates to women, because in a world where women still make less than a similarly situated male doing the same job, and where we continue to fight for credibility in male-dominated professions, women are choosing to voluntarily give away their assertiveness, authority and credibility through this awful delivery technique.

Once again, record your own voice delivering a presentation. Stop posing every sentence as a question unless it’s a question. By “asking” everything you state rather then asserting a statement with strength, you run the risk of sounding like you are asking the audience to maybe, do you think, agree that this statement is okay…? You get the point.

3. Easy There — Above all, slow down. One speaker I heard recently was sharp and clearly an expert in his field, but because he was firing off his information so quickly, I had to check my program to see if perhaps I’d stumbled into the wrong room and was listening to an auction instead. Slow down. Words over a microphone do need to be paced differently from when they are delivered face-to-face, one-on-one.

If you’re faced with a time crunch — a lot of points to get across in a small window of time — boil your points down to sound bytes. Every detail is not necessary (always) to inform your audience. Further, concise points are easier to remember than ones that drone on and on with additional layers of detail.

If your speed-delivery problem is due to nerves, let’s attack that common problem head-on.

4. I’m Scared! — I’m convinced that with the exception of Donald Trump and a few high-profile politicians, no one really loves getting up in front of a crowd to deliver a speech. Most of us don’t live for the sound of our own voices, especially in a public setting. So if you’re feeling anxious or apprehensive about public speaking, you are not abnormal – you are among the majority of humans alive today.

Once you accept that nerves are a normal and expected part of public speaking, it’s time to make the nervousness work in your favor. There are a few ways to do this. First, you can learn to channel the nervous energy into simply energy. Rather than “listen” to your wavering voice and shaky tones, focus on using the nervousness to add flavor and flair to your speech. After all, we’ve all attended monotone speakers’ presentations, and that’s no fun either. I remember working with a portfolio manager who was so learned and intelligent, he’d bring most MIT professors to their intellectual knees. However, his presentations skills brought him the nickname “Toe Tag.”  Use nerves to bring life to your speech, and to make it interesting. No one expects you to be completely calm, because the members of the audience themselves are sitting there, in awe of you, because they a) admire that you are up there, and b) are eternally grateful they are not up there.

Another way you can put nerves to work for you is to break your own “ice” right away. I remember presenting at a room of about 400-500 people on the subject of insurance marketing in the dawn of compliance crack-downs. In lieu of throwing up, I chose to start my presentation with a quick scan over the crowd of sales people and corporate heads with, “Well, thank God this isn’t intimidating or anything.” The laughter alone helped establish that the audience recognized this was a scary prospect, and that they empathized with me. Right away, the line between me and the audience blurred just enough to ease the panic.

I’ve never personally tried to “imagine the audience members in their underwear,” a recommendation from times past. I have, however, reminded myself that I must have something to offer or no one would have requested that I speak or put me on the program. You’re up there because you have something important to convey. Focus on that — your role as messenger, authority, teacher, whatever it is you bring — and aim to do a good job. As you get steeped in your objective, the nerves will have to take a back seat.

Most of all, public speaking is like ice skating. You have to practice, practice, practice to get good at it, and it’s the first spin around the ice that hurts the most. Keep at it. Over time, you’ll have fewer “bottom landings” on the ice and many more moments in which you’ll soar.

Job Hunting Down the Rabbit Hole

As a consultant, I am privileged to serve clients from all walks of work life, although the majority of my clients are the very corporate professionals that now sit in the seat I once held, on “the inside.” While these clients often express similar frustrations, concerns, and even victories, the past several years have revealed a single theme that is unerring in its consistency: the problem of what it’s like to look for a corporate position amidst a surge of layoffs, cutbacks and raging unemployment levels on the macro level.

There are few things as upsetting, unsettling and unnerving as a job hunt. Uncertainty reigns, outcomes evade, and the “dance” of interviewing for a position seems more like a death march over a threadbare rope strung carelessly over the River Scylla. Hiring managers will ask you to become available for an initial interview almost immediately (“Can you conduct a short interview right now? Just tell the pilot to hold the plane, we are hoping to make a final decision in the next five days…”), but will languish lazily when it comes to getting back to you once you do invest time in an introductory interview. You will be asked to rely on a printed job description for information, but when you request greater clarity on that description, the human resources person (now known as ” a recruiter”) will not be familiar enough with that description to answer your questions. It’s maddening, but if for nothing else, at least consistent; These are a few of the aspects of job-hunting that have pretty much remained static up until about four-to-five years ago. That’s when the whole job-hunting experience, in my opinion, ambled crazily down the rabbit hole.

What’s changed? Aside from the dismal labor market overall, which is far worse than government reports are ready or willing to disclose, there have been a few significant shifts in what it means to look for work if you are a corporate professional.

1. Human Resources to the Forefront — Gone are the days when a hiring manager on the line was able to select, interview and prepare an offer to the most qualified candidate, only to contact “HR” at the back end to ask them to handle the requisite paperwork and seal the deal. Today, the human resources professional, or “internal recruiter,” holds firm at the front line. What happened? First, with scads of applicants vying for each rare opening, HR is now necessary to the corporate entity on the front lines as a mere screener. In short, HR’s first order of business is to find reasons to weed out applicants, not consider their merits or what they might bring to the table. The sheer numbers of unemployeds seeking a shot at the same position has been a driving force in this trend.

Another reason why HR is now holding the keys to the entrance gate is partially remedial. Line managers of all levels–Assistant VPs to Executive VPs, and everywhere in between–have across the board demonstrated that selection and hiring isn’t always neutral, or merit-based. Think of the co-worker who you discovered was the granddaughter of the firm’s top sales person, and you’ll have that “aha” moment. That’s why she was taking up space in a job for which she was ill-suited, making your life and your other co-workers’ lives miserable. She was a bargaining chip in much larger favors, from which you would never benefit. In this respect, corporate leaders had no choice but to at least attempt to neutralize the cronyism that crippled efficiencies and decimated morale.

A third possible cause is the increasingly complex and burdensome regulatory backdrop encircling corporate entities today. Line managers just don’t have the support, time or training to comprehend these ever-changing rules, much less comply with them during the charged process of selecting and hiring candidates. Human resources management has become a multi-faceted labyrinth, and amidst an increasingly litigious culture, you better believe companies have pushed HR to the forefront.

Notwithstanding these reasons, having to clear HR as your first hurdle to getting an interview is no fun. Many of these professionals don’t know as much about the position as they’d like you to think; they are often relying on a printed job description prepared by the line manager him/herself. Second, the HR recruiter today is jumping off a springboard of a very different nature than in years past: he or she is looking for reasons to eliminate each candidate, rather than reasons to give a candidate that green light to move to the next stage. Finally, the presence of HR at the outset of the job-hunting process nearly ensures that qualified candidates may never get a crack at their ideal position. This is because HR begins with set, standardized criteria, raw numbers and even hiring quotas–a set of tools that couldn’t be more impersonal, basically disregarding you as an individual job candidate.

2. Let’s Talk Money — In the past, salary was not even a discussion until an offer was at or near the table. Now, as a candidate, on the first contact with HR, you will be asked about your “salary expectations.” Considering that the HR recruiter’s primary task is to evaluate you based on static, impersonal criteria and to eliminate candidates, consider this question a potential disqualifier.

I’ve had HR-affiliated acquaintances admit this to me, so while it may not apply across the board to all job searches, it does come into play, so be prepared. Frankly, I believe this question is unfair, regardless of the HR recruiter’s motives, because what a candidate “expects” in salary from the position is irrelevant. HR, and you, know full well that what matters most is the salary range that the company pre-designated for the position long ago.

How in the name of Alfonso are you supposed to answer this trick question? A recent conversation I had over dinner with a good friend (who is seeking a position) culminated in the following suggestion. When asked about your salary expectations (and you haven’t yet met a single human being in-person as part of the interview process), try this: “I appreciate your asking about compensation. However, we both know that since the onset of the Great Recession, a virtual reset button has been pressed insofar as salaries in most all industry sectors. This has made my last corporate salary somewhat irrelevant as a benchmark. What matters most is what your firm has allocated for this position. What has your firm set for the salary range for this job? I would appreciate your candor. For me to just suggest a ‘number’ without any sense of what your firm pays for this position might inadvertently disqualify me, and I am very interested in this opportunity.”

If that is met with stony silence or resistance, you could say, “I understand you need to report some feedback from me on this important question. I’ll tell you that I made $Xk annually in my last corporate position, and I do know that today, many firms are paying $Y to $Zk for a similar level of responsibility, in our industry. Now, given that, and in the spirit of openness, what is the salary range for this position? I will be forthcoming and tell you if it’s within a range that I’d be happy with.” Etc.

3. The Instant Interview – This one I love, because as we addressed earlier, it can take weeks for HR — or anyone — to get back to a candidate on the outcome of the hiring decision. However, the new wave of job-hunting protocal calls for you, the candidate, to be ready on a dime to speak to HR to get that first screening-out call completed. I heard of one story wherein an HR person called the applicant, and on the spot, requested that she make herself available to talk within 45 minutes. It’s beyond crazy, but actually, it’s solid evidence leading to the reasonble inference that they are merely looking to weed people out of the running.

If this happens, and you can’t possibly accommodate the request, try this: “I can appreciate your sense of urgency in speaking to me; That indicates that filling this position is a high priority for your firm, and that’s a good thing. However, something this important deserves adequate preparation. In addition, I’m tied up honoring prior commitments that I pledged to complete on time and on budget. I could, however, make myself fully available to you starting on Monday at 9am. Would you have time then?” Etc.

4. The Sounds of Silence – Alas, silence is indeed golden in many circumstances, but when you are anxiously awaiting word from the firm to which you devoted countless in-person interviews and stressful hours of travel, preparation and nervous energy, silence is most decidedly not golden. It’s rusty corrosion, actually. And rude.

However, get used to it: The new wave of hiring practices has brought out the very worst infractions when it comes to basic courtesy, and this is perhaps the harshest among them. You will have to assume if you don’t hear anything within two weeks, there’s no action. I’d recommend strongly that you don’t let any HR or line manager hang up or leave the room until you have a business card in hand, and even just a weak sense of when they expect to make a decision. Mark that date on your calendar, and if you’re still hearing the sound of silence by that date, call or email.

While this next point has little to do with the way companies hire now, it’s worth including, in my opinion. I talk to a lot of clients, former clients, friends, associates, and people in other settings about this topic, and if there’s one thing that the majority of them say, it’s that job hunting can be hazardous to your emotional health, but getting out among people and talking about the process helps. If for nothing else, you will feel less alone, and you might even pick up some helpful suggestions on coping. Hang in there. There will come a day when you won’t have to be “screened” at the outset by an HR recruiter, so until then, stand firm and do your part to bring courtesy and decorum back to this arduous process.

The Right Writer

Like many of you, I’ve operated on both sides of the content “fence” in that I’ve worked as an editor in the position of hiring a writer,and as a writer myself. For those of you who are in the hiring seat currently, how do you know you’ve chosen the right writer for a given assignment?

Whether your product is a brochure, speech, video script, commercial script, article, or book, you ultimately need a writer who will accomplish the goals of your project and make you look good. So how do you know when a candidate is the “right one?” Here are some tips to consider in identifying the right writer for the job, and for working with him or her productively in pursuit of your content goals.

1. Hire What You Like.  You’ve just read an article in a relevant trade magazine that not only piqued your interest but also held it long enough for you to read the entire article. Aside from clipping the piece and perhaps saving it for reference, what’s next? Track down the author. Even regular columnists may be interested in additional assignments, so make no assumptions that a writer will not be interested in a corporate assignment. If you like a writer’s style, expertise and grasp of a given subject, reach out and see if you can’t make a deal. On the flip side, while professionals do tend to charge more than writers with little or no experience, it’s almost always worth it. Don’t try to cut corners by using college interns or someone’s nephew who “likes to write.”

2. Show Me the Samples. Always ask for samples. A professional won’t balk at this request, but rather, will likely be delighted to show off a recently published piece. If a writer hesitates, or takes more than a week or two to get you the stuff, move on. However, samples are critical in gauging how well a writer can address a subject fluently and effectively, and, how well she or he can write for a given medium.

3. You Get What You Pay For. Pay the prevailing rate, or better, if you can. Why? A writer is more likely to deliver his best if he’s treated as if he’s valued and appreciated, much like other humans do. If you don’t know what the going rate is for a given project, don’t panic–it’s a common bind for many content managers, and one that can be solved. Contact your local chapter of either IABC or another communications industry trade organization, and ask for help. Many organizations are more than happy to assist their members, or at least, aid in furtherance of the profession.

4. Play a Role in the Writer’s Success. You wouldn’t ask your roofer to slap some shingles on the roof “in a hurry,” or tell him/her, “I need this done yesterday.” Why, oh why, then, do corporate managers do the equivalent of this when hiring freelance writers? I’m not correlating the writing profession with roof repairs; I’m asking why something as important as your work product and reputation deserve less attention and care.

Give a writer a reasonable amount of lead time, if possible. If you truly need the draft in 24 hours, then pay accordingly, and provide the highest level of direction and guidance to enable him/her to write something cohesive in that timeframe. Provide the writer with samples of the style, approach and format you need in the end result. Offer to be available for a “check-in” call at some point in the short term, so you can answer questions or even scan a partial draft. Working at the front end will absolutely save you trouble and grief at the back end, I promise you.

5. Stay In Touch. When operating on a more realistic timeframe, stay in touch with your writer. Don’t be so hard to reach that she or he cannot possibly get critical feedback when needed. I’m not suggesting you install a red “hotline” phone and have it glued to your hip; I’m suggesting that you at least make a good-faith effort to be available for a 5-minute call to gauge progress and answer questions. Scheduling this call might be a good idea. Otherwise, use email. And never, ever be afraid to call on a writer mid-assignment to ask how things are going. Silence is never “golden” when a project is in progress, unless you’ve worked with the writer several times before and have faith in a demonstrated track record of solid deliverables.

When the project is finally delivered, try to assess it objectively. Did you set realistic goals? Did you communicate them clearly? Did you provide meaningful and timely revisions and/or feedback in the draft stage? Did you find it easy to work with this writer? All of these questions can help you determine your own style of management and detect areas that you can control and therefore, improve upon.

All of that said, if you have stories of what to do/not to do when hiring freelance writer, please feel free to share. Nothing is more compelling than experience…and yours matters. Thanks in advance.

Project Management Software: Is it Worth it?

God bless those of us who take it upon themselves to earn a PMP–Project Management Professional–certification from the PMI (Project Management Institute). The undertaking is not an easy one, and fairly expensive, at that. It’s one of those efforts that I view from a distance, warily, and avoid unless absolutely necessary (translation: new job requires or demands that I pursue the additional letters after my last name).

For the rest of us, project management seems to be a skill that we learn and execute somewhat informally. I worked with a woman on Wall Street who could run circles around portfolio managers when it came to performance measurement and reporting, but she “managed” her workload off the hundreds of Post-It Notes that decorated every available piece of surface area in her office–even her handbag, at times. That can’t be the best way to do this, no matter how well it worked for this particular whiz kid.

Personally, I find myself on the fence even when it comes to what I consider a happy compromise between colorful sticky notes and a new certification: project management software. Is it necessary? If so, when? To answer those questions, I’d have to first actually understand what it does and how it works. Like most everything else, if you are struggling with something, chances are, there are others like you.

My cautious foray into the world of project-management software has revealed a few things. First, most, if not all of these products can help you manage complex, overlapping or multi-participant schedules. If your project is big enough to involve more than, say, five participants and a slew of tasks-to-be-completed, you may want to begin researching PM software. Another capability these products can offer–one which I’ve found to be equally important as schedule management–is information sharing. (See my article on this site entitled, “Surviving the Office Demon.”) When you work in a highly competitive, aggressive and even hostile environment, posting your project’s progress and status for select users to view can be a boon to your career and reputation.

Next, given what PM software can do, it’s important to consider whether or not such software is suitable for your project. Better yet–research and determine which software packages are more “friendly” to your office’s technology platform, your budget, and your own tolerance for tech and/or learning curve. Some projects simply don’t warrant the investment in a new software package, and a well-prepared Excel report might do. Others will require so much training to get to a basic level of competence, they may not be worth it. And so on.

If your project is so potentially unwieldy that you do need some computer-based help, think of whether you’d be better off using a desktop system or a web-based one. Also, some PM software products are designed for personal use, single-user or collaborative (multi-user) capability. For those of you braver than I, look into software that can interface, or be integrated with, other company programs, such as individual calendars, and the like.

It’s also important to research user-reviews and criticisms of any package you are close to buying. Another tip: Have someone in-the-know show you what the software looks like and feels like to operate. I saw one PM software-generated chart that looked like something NASA produced. It should not be so sophisticated or convoluted that no one can read or understand what the program is spewing out.

Another thought: corporate or workplace life is difficult enough without yet another shield behind which people can hide in order to avoid personal contact. Don’t use a PM software program as a way to avoid having to actually speak to your co-workers, unless, of course, you are working with or near the company’s Office Demon. Then, by all means, go find the most user-unfriendly, complicated, what-the-hell-is this-chart-saying software program that money can buy. The complexity of the output, hopefully, will put at least a temporary muzzle on your office nemesis, and buy you a little bit of peace in the process. And for that, personally, I’d pay top dollar. 🙂