Round tables are an excellent methodology to help public relations professionals achieve positive media coverage, enhance relationships with important organisational stakeholders and strengthen organisational positioning. The white paper, produced from a round table, resources issues-driven media campaigns (of which opinion pieces are likely to play a leading role), direct mail and online communication campaigns.

The round table/white paper methodology can also be used in an even more targeted, discreet manner where very confidential, targeted relationship enhancement (i.e. management) will deliver results.

Strategic communication results with target audiences

The white paper is generally a strategic branding, rather than a tactical sales generating, mechanism, though it can be used for the latter. When using the white paper as a direct mail piece, for instance, in many circumstances a follow up phone call will take place to the prospect to use the thought leadership it features as a ‘door opener’ for an appointment.

Another reason why the white paper can assist with positioning, tactical sales or organisation-stakeholder relationships is that the target audience finds its content of value – so recipients appreciate the white paper’s ‘sponsoring organisation’ for producing it.

A final reason for adopting this approach is that it can be part of a program to help rehabilitate an organisation’s reputation after it has undergone a crisis. The thought leadership it shows, its linking/partnership/alliance with other reputable organisations and the manner in which it discusses its insight and activities can all impact positively on knowledge of, and perceptions towards, an organisation

White papers have an excellent track record, if well done, of achieving high level, top tier media coverage. They play an important part in an holistic communication strategy.

A round table (RT) is generally constituted of:

  • six to ten participants
  • a sponsoring organisation participant and external, non-organisational participants
  • participants who are experts, and/or thought leaders, in a particular field
  • an agenda for discussion that features a single or a series of closely-related issues that are topical, compelling and of business-relevance to all those participating, as well as the sponsoring organisation’s target audiences.

The ultimate objective of the RT/white paper is to position the organisation (and/or individual, such as a CEO) more favourably with priority stakeholders. From a process perspective, the objective of the RT is to generate ‘content’ that can be leveraged through a white paper, and/or other communication mechanisms, that enhance the positive positioning of the sponsoring organisation.

The credibility factor

There are a number of rationales for having non-organisational employees present at round tables:

  • They automatically bring with them 3rd party credibility when you are using the content generated by the discussions when positioning your organisation and engaging with your stakeholders
  • From a positioning perspective, the non-organisational attendees shine a certain light on the sponsoring organisation. If they are well known or experts in a certain field , this spotlight is shared with the sponsoring organisation. This is different to 3rd party credibility – it is about what the sponsoring organisation does and what it is good at
  • Their presence has a snowball effect in filling the seats on your round table. The more credible people/organisations you get to participate, the more attractive the round table becomes to prospective participants
  • Similar to forming a strategic alliance, the content from the round table can be leveraged through their organisation’s communication mechanisms (website, newsletters, social media etc). This helps raise the profile and positive positioning of the sponsoring organisation.

Elements of a marketing communication round table

There are no hard and fast rules as to what constitutes an effective round table, but primary elements to consider generally include the following:

  • Having only one representative of the sponsoring organisation present, though you could do two at a push
  • Those present need to be senior organisational stakeholders. Preferably, organisational leaders. But if not leaders in title, then certainly they should be leaders in thinking, intellect and/or standing
  • Eight to ten participants is ideal. Any less and you may not get the discussion, debate and quality content required to give the white paper ‘heft’. Any more and it can become unwieldy, with many participants potentially becoming frustrated at their lack of opportunity to make a meaningful contribution
  • Eight to ten participants also allows those present to network effectively and to have side-conversations. This is a key attraction to attracting participants to the RT in the first place
  • Limit the discussion to one morning. A whole day is too long and most high-level potential participants will baulk at giving up this much of their time. The brain and the body are likely to be more willing and more engaged at this time of day. Enthusiasm and quality input will be greater
  • Follow the round table with a lunch, by all means, but don’t have a meal during the RT process. Make the lunch optional. And don’t make it War and Peace. The mechanisms of serving food will impede and/or upset the thinking and interaction process. These things get in a groove and you don’t want to stymie the flow provided is appropriate, with an 8.45 or 9am sit down and rev up the talk fest time making sense
  • Two to three hours should be the limit of time allocated to the round table, with a morning tea break an option to consider, though it is best to keep participants in the room and make it very short
  • Make an audio recording of the discussion. Keep it on file as it may be called upon if participants disagree with the way they are quoted
  • The white paper produced of the RT discussion will need to be signed off on by all participants.

And remember, as the issue(s) being discussed in the RT should be topical, there is a need to accelerate the white paper generation. Don’t hang around.

Importantly, you want to get that paper and its supporting communication out and in front of stakeholders quickly. You don’t want someone else to beat you to the punch.

 Additionally, a slow white paper production process will mean reduced buy-in and attention to it from participants through the sign off process. And that is nothing short of death to ROI.

This is the first of a three-part series on round tables and white papers. The next post will feature tips on getting participants to attend a round table, facilitating it and taking an alternative approach to round tables. The final post in the series focuses on the media relations dimension of a round table and white paper: should they be invited and getting editorial placement results.

What did you think of this discussion? What is your experience in holding round tables and producing white papers? Did they achieve the intended results? What were the non-media related outcomes, such as stakeholder relationship enhancement?