Public Relations Tactics

Interim Communicators Fill an Organization’s Leadership Void

February 1, 2017

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Independent communications professionals tend to bestow a range of titles on themselves, from “president” and “owner” to “principal” or “consultant.” But every now and then, the word “interim” is thrust on them.

Whether the client is new or existing, they need someone to run their communications function until the communications chief can return to work or the client can hire someone on a more permanent basis.

Independent Anthony Harrison, principal at Sprauve-Harrison Communications in Oakland, Calif., currently serves as the interim chief communicator at a former employer that is having difficulty “replacing my replacement,” he says. This isn’t his first time as an interim communications chief.

“Previously, I was brought on at another firm to manage the launch of a new product, which lasted six months, where I worked with no internal staff, but managed external PR agencies,” he says.
Harrison says it’s important for an interim role to be clearly scoped and supported, so both sides have clear expectations of priorities and what success looks like.

Maura Campbell, APR, principal at Campbell Maegdlin in Detroit, has served in interim roles four times. She had offices at each organization and was embedded much of the time, while serving other clients, which ranged in size. She had staffs three times; one time, she didn’t have any direct staff. In most instances, Campbell reported directly to the C-suite.

In each case, she found that “Culture eats strategy for lunch every time,” she says. “Keeping that in mind going in is important. It helps to be quick at picking up on culture clues and adaptable to using different systems and adjusting to different styles while still adding that trusted adviser perspective and professionalism. You have to build trust quickly and be flexible.”

Ellen Werther, principal at Ellen, Ink, in New York, has served in an interim communications position for one client since January 2016.
“Over time, my role has expanded from public relations to anything brand-related: creating packaging; overseeing marketing; developing the website; researching, developing and launching new products; and entering new markets, including Canada, Mexico and Singapore.”
Werther says she has been able to serve other clients as time has permitted.

D. Elaine McEachern, APR, principal at McEachern Communications in Atlanta, was hired by a client to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of communications, and then served in an interim position to develop and implement a strategic branding plan.

The value that she provided is the ability to leverage her depth of experience honed through working with clients, combined with her focus on results-driven communications.

“Organizations have the opportunity to hire a professional with senior-level expertise to create a brand and implement a plan that can then be turned over to staff members who are able to continue executing the plan on a day-to-day basis,” she says.

If you’re an independent considering an interim role with a client, then Campbell advises that you have a strong on-site presence to build rapport, and that you constantly communicate your whereabouts when not on-site. Throughout each engagement, she has had one simple objective: “I tried to leave each organization after every assignment in a better place than when I started,” she says.

“Interim roles can be very exciting and satisfying,” Harrison adds. “You come in, solve a problem and move on. It’s a great opportunity for someone who is a quick study and has the ability to hit the deck quickly and work independently.”

Tim O'Brien, APR

Tim O’Brien, APR, owns O’Brien Communications, an independent corporate communications practice in Pittsburgh. Email: timobrien@timobrienpr.com. Twitter: @OBrienPR.

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