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In a previous post the strategic power of round tables and white papers for public relations professionals was discussed. This post extends the topic, focusing on granular elements such as attracting participants to the round table and getting the best out of them. Finally, I take a lateral look at a different way of approaching round tables.

Getting participants to attend a round table

This will be one of your greatest challenges. There is not much point having a round table (RT) if you are going to get second rate participants who cannot generate true thought leadership through their discussions.

Use your contacts to get one or two ‘names’ that you know will agree to participate in the round table to begin with. And when I say ‘your’, I mean your organisation’s, so that might mean mates of the CEO.

That then makes it easier to ‘catch other fish’ to participate in the event because you will flag committed participants in your outreach to potential attendees. Once you have the initial names you can become more ambitious in getting even bigger, or more influential, people to participate.

In the previous post in this series, I was asked why a CEO would want to participate in another organisation’s round table. The motivation for high profile CEOs and their ilk to participate in another organisation’s round table (and hence white paper) is that by associating with others of similar high profile they enhance their own credibility/standing.

To be frank, part of this is an ‘ego thing’ as well.

Also, it allows their profile to be raised (and that of their organisation’s) courtesy of the efforts of another organisation – free publicity, if you like. If the process is being undertaken effectively, that means very targeted communication to very relevant stakeholders.

A final rationale for participating is contained in the biblical maxim…’do unto other as you would have them do unto you.’ Another, more rational, articulation of this notion is the theory of reciprocity. If you want your peers to help you out on occasion, then you’d better give it up for others! Really, if done well, it is a win-win situation for all involved.

Interpersonal approaches to potential attendees from people at the appropriate level (it may even be CEO to CEO), complemented by a formal, well designed hard copy invitation is a prudent approach to take. It is possible that more expanded information on the RT will be requested via email. This should be pre-prepared prior to the invitations being extended.

Facilitating a round table

Engage an expert facilitator. His or her role is to keep the information flowing and useful. They need to prompt, prod, query, clarify and challenge participants to extract ‘good’ information and redirect and stymie where the content is poor.

Whilst respecting participants is important, so is getting ROI on all the time, effort and money that is being put into a round table. The facilitator has a critically important role to play in this and must be well acquainted with each individual’s personality and potential attitude/demeanour and areas of expertise on the issue at hand.

They should not let any one person dominate; moving the focus around is important.

Despite the preparation that can be done on participants and the topic itself, the facilitator must be quick on their feet and have the ability to remain intellectually engaged during the RT process.

An alternative approach to round tables: leadership engagement and positioning

A potential exception to primary methodology I have been espousing in my discussions of RTs and white papers is holding an evening round table over a salubrious dinner. This is real high-end stuff. Only for serious CEOs or CEO-types.

The value of this is that participants won’t be rushing to extricate themselves from the round table as much as they will be during the day. Wining and dining and impressing peers with their intellect can have a certain…attraction (i.e. ego gratification…).

It may well be that the communication outcome from a round table such as this is limited to the relationship enhancement between the sponsoring organisation and the attendees (and their organisations). As such, there will be no white paper or broader communication outreach. (There are some topics or issues on which organisations do not want to see their views promoted.)

Because of the nature of this gathering it is fine to have more than eight to ten participants, perhaps as many as 16. The informal interaction will be as important as the formal discussions to the sponsoring organisation.

But the formal discussions provide a strong basis (or an excuse…) to attract the participants’ attendance. It is very important that the topic is one participants will see value in getting the views of others on, as well those participants having sufficient prestige. CEOs and their ilk want their own prestige enhanced by being in the presence of others of a similar level. Not having participants of this level present may make them feel as if they are being exploited or mocked.

There will be no recording of this RT, but the sponsoring organisation should do a debrief ASAP after it is held to capture the thoughts of those present. This information will be useful as it will serve as the basis for future discussions (or at least enhance them) when the sponsoring organisation is interacting with participants’ organisations in the hope of working with them.

The sponsoring organisation will use the participants as an ice-breaker when calling other people within participants’ organisations, using the participants’ presence, and the now enhanced relationship with the sponsoring organisation, to get a meeting and help pitch business. Even better if the participant reaches out proactively to their colleagues and says: ‘these people are good value: talk to them!

Essentially, this is solely about enhancing the positioning of the sponsoring organisation in the eyes of participants. As such, this is a very high level, strategic approach.

This is the second of a three-part series on round tables and white papers. The first post was an overall strategic discussion of round tables’ and white papers’ value. The final post in the series focuses on the media relations dimensions 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? What were the specific challenges you faced and lessons you learnt? And have you ever held a round table like the senior stakeholder one discussed above, with no ‘tangible’ communication outcome being promoted outside the round table itself? How did it go?