How to negotiate a last-minute strategy shift

Your plans went sideways and you’ve got to make a call—but before you start getting the stage fright sweats, take a breath. It’ll be OK.

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It’s happened to every PR pro. You’ve delivered a thoughtful strategy for an upcoming initiative, the client is on board, you’re working full steam ahead until—screech!—a wrench is thrown in your plans, and your client is looking to you to react in real-time and make a recommendation on the spot.

In today’s media landscape, 11th-hour changes are becoming more commonplace. So, the next time your client makes a last-minute change, or breaking news upsets your plans, here are a few tips to help you navigate a quick strategy shift:

1. Don’t panic—listen.

The most important thing you can do when facing new information is to hear it. Pick your jaw off the ground and open your ears. Take a moment to listen to the new information, jot down notes while your client is talking, and repeat back what your client said to make sure you understand correctly.

When new information is hitting you quickly, write down one or two words that will help you remember what you want to circle back to.

2. Ask questions.

A good way to buy some time while you’re thinking about next steps is to ask specific questions, and recap what you think your client said. A helpful phrase is: “Let me see if I understood correctly…”

And if you’re not sure about something, ask. This isn’t the time to feel shy about questions. Your client may realize they forgot to tell you a crucial piece of information, or maybe they’ll need to gather more information internally.

3. Walk through scenarios.

When something changes on the fly, it can be helpful to “play out” potential situations with your client. Ask their opinion and encourage them to brainstorm with you—this can help create a collaborative environment. It can also help you gauge a quick reaction and get buy-in from your client, rather than just feeling it’s all on you to have the answer immediately. Phrases like “Let’s explore how X idea might play out,” can help.

Remember that keeping your same strategy is also an option. New information doesn’t mean you have to start from scratch. Ask yourself: Does this information really need to change my strategy?

4. Don’t be afraid to circle back.

If you’re just not sure what to do, or you want a gut-check on an idea from a colleague, don’t be afraid to ask your client for some time. Thank them for the information. Say you’d like to bounce a few ideas around or think some things through, and provide a specific time when you’ll come back with a formal recommendation—even 30 minutes can help.

Your client is probably freaking out as much (or more) than you are, so give them a timeline for next steps, and stick to it.

5. Recap next steps in writing.

I believe the written recap is the best kept secret in communications. It’s an easy step to skip when you’re trying to move quickly, but a fantastic tool for the last-minute change scenario.

Writing a recap can give you some time to think after the fact, determine if you have all the information you need to make a strong recommendation, and have a written plan that your client can circulate with other key stakeholders as needed. Perhaps most importantly, it provides a written account of the day, time and reason you switched gears from your original plan. This can be a helpful record if things go sideways.

We can’t control last minute changes, but we can control how we react to them. Giving yourself the space to listen, be thoughtful and provide your best recommendation—while giving your client a calm, strategic sounding board—can set you up for success.

 

Katherine Grubaugh is a vice president with Method Communications.

 

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