Heather Feimster

The Sole Practitioner: How to Succeed As the Lone Comms Pro

By: Heather Feimster | February 18, 2019 | 
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The Sole Practitioner: How to Succeed As the Lone Comms ProNot all communications professionals get the chance to work alongside like-minded, strategy-focused teammates.

In the early 2000s, I enjoyed positions at two national PR agencies, working with teams who understood communications campaigns, and trained me up in best practices and how to work with clients.

After four years of studying in the PR degree program at Drake University, I enjoyed teaming up with my communications “peeps” for crazy brainstorming sessions and debates over tactics.

It felt like home.

However, there is more to the communications industry than just agency work. “In House” practitioners face some unique challenges, whether they have a team with them or not.

After my agency experience, I found myself in several positions where I was the only (or one of a few) communications professionals on the team.

These included a manpower staffing company, an international school in the Middle East, and now an engineering consulting firm.

While these businesses could not be more different from one another, there were similar challenges I faced at each.

Given this situation is far from unique, I reached out to some others in the industry via the Spin Sucks Community, and my own network to get a more comprehensive understanding of how we can be successful in a sole practitioner situation.

Interestingly, most of the advice and tips for success fell into one of four categories.

So, if and when you find yourself flying solo within a company, here are some suggestions for ways to achieve your goals.

Educate Your Coworkers and Management

Prepare yourself to educate your coworkers on what you do, why you do it, and how.

Imogen Hitchcock observes that…

…the danger is because communications are so small, the department will be seen as a newsletter factory, or someone to go to when it all goes wrong. You need to establish your expertise and educate the rest of the team on what it is you actually do–and how good communications provide ROI and affects the bottom line.

Make an effort to make relationships with those outside your department.

Alan Dunton says this situation is:

A great opportunity to gain expertise in a variety of business functions. Make friends with business development folks first. Definitely make the rounds, explain to folks what your role is and how you can help. The more people you encourage to think about communications, the easier your job will be.

Suggest ways to enhance what they are already doing through communications activities.

Maris Callahan suggests:

You might have company leaders that know they need communications, but don’t understand exactly how it works.

This disconnect can lead some managers to question our role in an attempt to better understand our efforts.

pBe prepared to guide the conversation professionally—try to avoid feeling that they are doubting your abilities.

Expect Choppy Seas

Expect some push-back from departments who are used to running their own show.

Sarah Rockey shared her experience:

I’ve found a number of departments think they can circumvent the communications role because they “know how to do it” both internally and externally, but when messages go out to the larger employee population or over the wire, it doesn’t get doesn’t read, or it’s not understood. By providing metrics, we have begun to find allies within each of the departments who have taken to the time to understand why we do what we do. Once we have those people, you can use their messages as a case study to show other execs the power of good communication.

Make sure you establish and manage expectations for what is achievable within a set time frame and with finite resources.

This may involve getting creative, which leads us to…

Get Creative to Get What You Need

This starts with a thorough understanding of what motivates your supervisor/manager/leadership: is it cost savings? Publicity? Staying competitive?

Then tailor your tactics (or how you internally pitch them) to align with their current priorities.

Creating content means you need participation.

But what if they won’t write?

Send them questions to answer and summarize the responses.

Conduct impromptu interviews before/after meetings, or in the hallway.

Especially if their hours are billable, it’s essential to find concise and effective ways to extract information that is as least disruptive as possible.

Go Story Hunting

Listen in on meetings for pain points or creative solutions, attend industry events and panel discussions, and read industry publications.

Build smart goals with your supervisor that includes a budget for your strategies and your own professional development.

Conduct “proof of concept” campaigns as case studies that show results, and allow you to argue for wider deployment, wider engagement, larger investment.

The right metrics are critical here.

Prioritize

You can’t do it all.

Shelley Smith recommends:

When you are a one-person team, having a communications plan helps to maintain focus. Know your goals, identify objectives to meet them, and then set achievable deadlines. When your to-do list starts to get overwhelming, go back and prioritize your tasks according to the plan.

Create or Join a Community (Spin Sucks!)

Finding a community is crucial.

Whitney Danhauer shared:

I was lucky enough to have Gini and Laura as consultants at my other companies, but I also joined local advertising and marketing groups so I could get out and (a) network, and (b) bounce ideas off people. You can’t do the job alone, and everything needs a second set of eyes, so don’t be afraid to ask questions!

In short, it helps you stay current on best practices, new technology, and better techniques.

Find Your Communications People

Next, find a group specific to your arena: B2C, B2B, Retail, Technology, Science, Education.

Your industry has unique challenges. Network with others in your space to get tried and trusted advice.

Your community can (and should) be bigger than just other communications professionals.

As Shelley Smith notes:

A good investment of your time is building relationships with those who make your professional world go ‘round–media sources, communication outlets, colleagues in other departments, etc. When you find yourself faced with a challenge that’s daunting, calling on those relationships can sometimes provide you with the assistance or the solution you need.

Remember Your Value

It’s easy to doubt yourself when you’re the “odd man out.”

As Elizabeth Goldman puts it:

It sometimes feels like everyone has an opinion on communications, and it’s your job to hold fast to your strategy through the noise. Of course, there is always some agility and flexibility required, but at the end of the day, the buck stops with you.

Remember, your perspective is valuable because it is different.

I don’t need to think like an engineer—we have plenty of those in our company.

I’m in the room to think like a communications professional because no one else does.

Create a “Pick Me Up” folder in your inbox.

When you get those rare and brief feedback emails complimenting the work you’re doing, stash them away.

Read through them when times get tough, and you feel like no one is listening.

While you are valuable, keep perspective on your purpose and role.

A Sole Practitioner Doesn’t Have to Go It Alone

Involving others in our process is important.

Jenn Blackmer Jacome says:

Our team, whenever possible, provides at least two options. We strongly advocate for the option we think is best, providing specific details about why we feel that way, but we provide an alternative path forward because determining a communications plan and strategy shouldn’t be done in a silo.

Make sure you capture and use data metrics that support what you do, and work to understand that data correctly.

Find a way to incorporate a regular report into your work that allows you to present your efforts and results to management.

Many times, they don’t think about the connections or ROI of communications efforts until we show them.

Be engaging. Make it meaningful. Become indispensable.

Are you a sole practitioner? What other advice would you give someone else who has just started out in a company as the only communications pro?

Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash

About Heather Feimster


Heather Feimster is a Communications Coordinator for Provenance Consulting, an engineering firm specializing in process safety management in the oil & gas, energy and petrochemical industries. She is an expert in working with companies to develop scalable and manageable communications strategies, including content marketing, PR, social media, and graphic and print design. She learned much living in Saudi Arabia for five years, and credits her current success in the oil and gas industry to being a fourth-generation Texan and growing up with “tales from the plant” over dinner. She enjoys art museums, crazy socks, and has a love-hate relationship with her Peloton. Heather lives in Houston, Texas.