Gini Dietrich

How Communicators Should Work with Difficult Executives

By: Gini Dietrich | March 13, 2013 | 

How Communicators Should Work with Difficult ExecutivesThe other day we were talking about Elon Musk in the comments here and Brad Marley asked, “How do we deal with difficult executives?”

This is hard for me because I am an executive so I have an advantage many don’t: Other business leaders see me as a peer, which gives me some leeway in counseling them to do something new, different, and scary.

That said, there are lots of times we have to gain consensus and approvals from the leaders of our client’s organizations and sometimes that isn’t easy.

Often times you’re trying to convince them they not only should have open, honest, and transparent communications, but it’s a complete mind shift from what they learned in business school and how they’ve run their organizations for years.

There are a few things that speak to difficult executives when you want them to take a risk: Money, proof, buy-in from his or her executive team, and what the competitors are or are not doing.

Let’s start with the competitors.

Competitive and Market Research

When I spoke to the Central Ohio PRSA chapter last fall, a young man came up to me afterwards and told me he’d really like to get his organization to do things differently, but he didn’t know how to make the case.

We talked about doing some competitive and market research. I asked him if he knew, off the top of his head, what their competitors were doing on the web. He didn’t know.

That’s your first step. Maybe you did a competitive analysis when you began your job or took on a new client. But one thing is certain: Things have changed, even if you did it just a month ago.

Keep the research open and go back and add to it at least monthly. This will help you build the case to say either, “XYZ competitor is doing this and they’re leaving us in the dust” or “No one in our industry is doing this, but it works with these companies so I’d like to try this so we can gain the leadership advantage.”

Which leads us to proof.


One of the best ways to gain their consensus is to show them what the companies they admire are doing.

Ask them which companies they admire, which they want to be like next year, five years from now, and 10 years from now.

We work with an organization that has the vision to become one of the best companies of our generation.

That means we review what companies such as GE, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Apple do and provide them with thinking on changes they can make to achieve that same status.

GE is one of my favorites because they use Instagram and Tumblr and Vine in really creative ways to showcase some of their innovation. But the cool thing they do? They’re not doing it for the people who buy airplane engines. They’re doing it for you and me because they want to go down in the history books as one of the great companies of our time.

This gives us great fodder for our client in changing how they approach communications.


Many leaders want to know they have consensus and buy-in from their executive team.

Which means you have some work to do before you can approach the corner office.

If you’re in a large organization, start with your boss and then their boss and then their boss and so on.

Show them the competitive and market research you’ve pulled together. Give them the industry or admirable company proof. Get their buy-in.

In some cases, this may mean they’ll take credit for the work you did. If that’s the case, start looking for a new job.

But also know, if your idea is worth stealing, you didn’t win the battle, but you’ve won the war.


And the last thing is money. Money talks for everyone and difficult executives are no exception.

During your market and competitive research, you’ll find new ways to make money. If you can present a new revenue stream while you’re gaining buy-in, you’ll win every time.

Think about things such as content created from your intellectual property you can sell, professional development for the industry, a new product or service, or even getting your executives on the paid speaking circuit because of the unique thinking they have to offer.

A super smart client emailed me the other day and said, “The growing distance in thought leadership between us and our competitors makes me wonder if we actually have new competitors?”

When clients or the leaders inside your organization begin to think this way, you’ve won.

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.

  • The biggest challenge for me is that during the initial phase, they usually get it. They understand how they can get a competitive edge if they implement a content marketing and social plan…but…they are so used to seeing bottom line results so fast, I have to work hard to manage expectations. Even though they are told up front not to expect  immediate results, withing a month or two I sometimes hear, “But where are the sales?”. For some business sectors, it takes a lot longer, but if they stick with it, they WILL see the results.

    • @KenMueller We find success in having some short goals that give them success within a few weeks while we work on the longer-term strategy. One example is a client had Google alerts set up and nothing was showing up in them. So our short-term goal was to get content up that began showing up for him. It’s silly, but it worked and now he’s happy as a clam.

      • @ginidietrich  @KenMueller clams may be happy – but they would be no good as PR experts – not enough communication…

        • @Nic_Cartwright  @KenMueller True…they do have a hard time talking.

      • @ginidietrich  @KenMueller  I’m not sure it’s all that silly — it demonstrates that it’s a process, and the Google Alerts are a small bit of evidence that their content is now circulating amongst the interwebs. Which is better than where they started. (But yeah, I get that’s it’s “silly” in the long run!)

  • One of the real issues with competitive research is a sense of realism. Too often, I hear people, when comparing to the competition, say something along the lines of “yea, they do X, Y, and Z, but what we do is soooooooo much better.”
    Is it truly? Sometimes the truthful answer to that question is very difficult to accept.
    There is also a sense that since they are smaller they can’t hurt, however, it the cliche about bleeding to death from a thousand paper cuts came about for a reason. We face this in the newspaper industry. In my own market there is a free weekly paper, a free twice-weekly paper, a monthly entertainment publication, a competing magazine, and all sorts of digital products. It would be easy drop our guard and suffer hundreds of small wounds, and lose the battle to not one competitor, but to all of them, some of which we may not even view as competitors.

    • I agree with you @ClayMorgan I work for a food co-op and I think at times we are so busy being different (from Foods For Living or Trader Joe) that we are unwilling to look at how we are the same.

      • @aimeelwest  You just reminded me of an ad I heard on the radio for Trader Joe. It was all about how they have real people at the cash registers and that’s their big differentiator. I thought it was a stretch.

        • @ginidietrich  Wow what a way to stand out! *shakes head*  We don’t have Trader Joe by us, we do have a Foods For Living – right on the next block!! (.08miles away)

    • @ClayMorgan I’m glad you won’t let your guard down. I’d be sad if you died a slow death by paper cuts.

  • SpinSucks

    ScottPropp Great tips as usual 🙂 Thanks for sharing Scott!

  • SpinSucks

    JenKaneCo Agreed Jennifer!! She always has good tips doesn’t she?!

  • SpinSucks

    tfoxlaw Thanks for sharing Thomas!!

  • ginidietrich

    JenKaneCo Grazi, grazi!

  • ginidietrich

    ScottPropp You’re always so good to me!

  • This is a question I get all the time from PR people. They get it, but how do they get their boss or client to get it? I think looking to “admired” companies is important, because that takes them beyond just looking at industry competitors, who may not “get it” themselves. So, for instance, for a B2B company to look at one of the great consumer marketers as a model can be really eye opening.

    • @RobBiesenbach I’m glad you like that idea. I know it works when my team says, “Yeah, well so and so is doing it.” OK! FINE!

  • John_Trader1

    Very appropriate post Gini and good information to ponder and implement. I agree wholeheartedly with @KenMueller when he stresses that managing expectations, especially in a B2B sales environment when the cycle can be much longer, is key.
    I’d really like to see an additional post written on your thoughts about what it takes to get difficult employees, specifically sales men and women to buy into the use of content and social tools as a means to add to the bottom line. It’s an issue I’ve been struggling with for quite some time.

    • @John_Trader1  @KenMueller Wholeheartedly agree that a post on this topic would be valuable. Convincing difficult employees is a foundational piece in the whole process and not often easily done. Doable, but not without work (and stress).

    • @John_Trader1  If you can show the sales people how the use of a tool/resource will make their job easier and generate more sales they will buy in.
      I spent years in sales and was always grateful when someone provided this sort of help. Sometimes it requires a little extra work to explain to them how it will help, but once you get them to buy in…

      • John_Trader1

        @Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes Thanks for the advice. For me it hasn’t been so much showing them how to use the tools, but coming up with examples of how others have used them to generate more sales. I can’t seem to get that one evangelist to stand up and demonstrate on how using social tools has led to a sale or qualified lead.

        • @John_Trader1  @Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes LET ME AT THEM!

    • @John_Trader1  As you wish.

    • photo chris

      John_Trader1 KenMueller Buy in how so? Do you want them to CREATE the content and HANDLE the social media? They’re not always the best at that, but, sales people want to sell. ANYTHING you can give them to make their sale easier will be appreciated once it’s proven to them that it works. It doesn’t take long. A customer calling up and saying, “I saw that xyz will SOLVE my problem, can you tell me about it?” will spread pretty quickly as a good referral source.

  • This is an excellent strategy.  It’s showing executives the evolution and advancement of benchmarking and best practices, which are certainly terms they are familiar with from business school.  Thank you for sharing!

    • @jolynndeal The problem, of course, is that we’re all busy and these types of things take time and have to be done outside of our regular jobs. But it’s always worth it.

  • Executive? = yep.
    Difficult? = in my darker moments.
    Good Communication advisers around me? = mmmmm
    When do you open your ME office???

    • @Nic_Cartwright We’ll get there…maybe by June? 🙂

  • SpinSucks

    RobBiesenbach Thanks for sharing Rob!! I really love what GE does with their social networks. I wish I was that creative!!

    • RobBiesenbach

      SpinSucks B2B or B2C, buyers and sellers are ultimately people, and should communicate that way — human to human!

      • SpinSucks

        RobBiesenbach Agreed 🙂

  • SpinSucks

    colleenrkennedy Thanks for sharing Colleen!!

  • @ginidietrich Thanks for writing this. I think most CEOs came to be where they are by relying on data to drive their actions, so, like you say, if we can show them what works, they will be more open to accepting our advice. Once again, research plays a large role in our work. We need to do more of it.
    One thing I want to add: Communications professionals need to not be afraid of stepping in and interrupting our leaders when they say something we shouldn’t, especially when staffing an interview. That’s why we are there. It’s up to us to ensure the message is accurate. If we let them  keep talking when we know it’s inaccurate, what good are we?
    p.s. I also love everything GE does.

    • @bradmarley Totally, totally agree with your second paragraph. We just had a situation with a client that he met with a journalist without telling us and then was angry about how the story was positioned. Well, um, you have to let us know so we can step in and be the bad guy if necessary.

      • @ginidietrich It should be a reality show: “When Executives Go Rogue.” I would watch at least the pilot episode.

        • photo chris

          bradmarley ginidietrich ohhhhhh, this is my daily life! It’s good to know I’m in good company, lol!

  • AnneReuss

    KIckass post! 

  • SpinSucks

    susanweiner Thanks for sharing Susan 🙂

    • susanweiner

      SpinSucks I know many communicators who deal with difficult executives, so I figure that was my public service for today.

  • SpinSucks

    bradmarley Research is just the beginning! Thanks for sharing Brad 🙂

  • SpinSucks

    AnneReuss Thanks for sharing Anne!!

  • SpinSucks

    360connext Thanks for sharing Jeannie!!

  • Branding_Guy

    4 ways to get buy-in from your executives on changes in #communications – Great tips frginidietrichich

  • “Just do it” doesn’t have the same pull it used to.

    • @JayDolan Were your ears burning?!? @belllindsay and I were JUST talking about you!

      • belllindsay

        @ginidietrich  @JayDolan *waves hello*!!!

        • @belllindsay  @ginidietrich  They don’t let me out much these days.

  • Thoughtful and systematic. You keep thinkin’ and writin’ Gini!

  • ginidietrich

    RTRViews Are we back to agreeing?!?

    • RTRViews

      ginidietrich I completely agree with you on that post! 🙂

      • ginidietrich

        RTRViews WOO HOO! LOL!!

        • RTRViews

          ginidietrich What do you expect? Always: Great Post Gini? I’m a certified curmudgeon and intend to keep that certification. 🙂

  • ginidietrich

    KeriToomey kshe W00t! Thanks!

  • ginidietrich

    giulianalonigro I love gifts!

    • giulianalonigro

      ginidietrich You write so many amazingly helpful blog posts. It’s great to read about a savvy C-Level executive’s thoughts

      • ginidietrich

        giulianalonigro That’s very nice of you to say. Thank you!!

  • ginidietrich

    robinbroder I’ll bet they love you!

  • ginidietrich

    LoriMillerWHNT Thanks Lori!

  • ginidietrich

    martinwaxman Or all executives!

  • ginidietrich

    jpippert Thanks Julie, love!

  • SpinSucks

    DavidaPride Thanks for sharing David!!

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  • ginidietrich

    erikj Thanks Erik!

    • erikj

      ginidietrich My pleasure, Gini!

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    howiegoldfarb ginidietrich I have heard that works.

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        • ginidietrich

          howiegoldfarb TheJackB No!

        • TheJackB

          ginidietrich howiegoldfarb I heard about this place in Tokyo that has a great recipe. Might be on Pinterest. 🙂

        • ginidietrich

          TheJackB howiegoldfarb No, no, no!!

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