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Five steps towards better innovation communications

Innovation strategies, programmes and initiatives can be tricky for professional services firms to communicate effectively. Disruption is real for professional services and the industry is going to look very different in a few years, but the often-nebulous nature of disruption and innovation poses some inherent challenges for communicators, says Michael Evans.

Some of these challenges can be overcome with clarity of thought and the right approach. With this in mind, here are five tips for communications professionals to make sure your firm’s innovation messages make an impact.

  1. Define what innovation means (and what it doesn’t mean) in your firm

Remember, the mere existence of an innovation programme or initiative is not in itself innovative. Some firms hang innovation off an incubation program, others have set up separate businesses developing and commercialising innovative services, and a number dabble in a bit of everything. Some innovation may be the digital transformation of the business itself, which is hugely important internally without meaning a great deal outside the firm. Legal tech can be innovative but not all innovation is tech-based. Meanwhile, plenty of grassroots initiatives will be the hard and unsexy graft of incremental improvement.

You need to work out into what category your firm falls and the comms work appropriate for each. For example, an incremental improvement might have no chance of winning an award or being covered in the press, but you absolutely should celebrate it internally to make those doing the work feel appreciated and to help ensure the improvement is properly taken up in the business.

An internal playbook is a great place to define all these things and set out the overarching strategy, as well as more granular elements for specific initiatives.

  • Take the opportunity to do things differently

Your innovation communications do not in themselves have to be innovative. But they should be different from the normal firm communications, and you should work on them differently. Applying normal firm processes and thinking just means innovation communications will look and feel just like everything else the business puts out, which is unlikely to help achieve strategic goals.

For large firms, doing things differently could mean giving one member of your communications team responsibility for all things relating to innovation and allowing them freedom to work outside of some normal processes. Smaller firms may not have this luxury, and must consciously put themselves in a different mindset when working on innovation-related comms. Flat structure, multi-disciplinary innovation team calls can really enable this change of energy and thinking. Make sure you are part of these calls.

Doing things differently might involve working with an external PR agency or even a technology vendor’s agency when you usually do everything in-house everything in-house. Or targeting social media over traditional media to tangibly and demonstrably reach and engage with particular clients or influencers. Another example would be to consciously move much faster in getting a story about an initiative out even if not every detail is yet in place – something that  law firms can find challenging.

Finally, get on board with a sub-brand. I’m not a huge fan of sub-brands but they are vital in this area to differentiate teams and groups with innovation responsibilities from the rest of the business. This feeling of difference grants people permission to think differently and is particularly important when an innovation program is fully within the business and not carved out of a firm’s regular structure.

  • Attend to your internal audience

Your people are your greatest asset in driving innovation. Research shows that giving everybody in an organisation opportunities to succeed and innovate generates more ideas and better results than limiting opportunities to a small group. That means as long as you have your governance right, you want to open up your innovation program to as many people as possible across all areas of your business. Internal communications are key to engaging them. Organic, bottom-up channels are best. Workplace or other internal social media tools focused on innovation are a great way to build your community. Competitions and other incentives are useful to generate grassroots innovations.

  • Throw everything you have at publicising your moonshots

Most innovation programs will have one or two centrepieces that you can really go for and build a narrative around. Leave nothing out on the pitch in publicising these when they come around. It could be a transformative software tool, an unprecedented collaboration, a major acquisition or something else. Whatever it is, make sure everyone internally and externally knows about it. Maximum transparency; maximum publicity; maximum impact.  Do not be conservative when you have something novel, exciting and tangible that you can show the world. No-one will ever tell you that you got too much publicity or that too many clients got in touch.

  • Get your client story straight

A lot of PR is done in the hope that clients are reading. Often they are. Sometimes they will get in touch when you announce a major innovation development, even if the initiative is not quite client-ready. Talk to your BD and client-facing colleagues to ensure you have joined up messaging and partners are given everything they need to be able to talk to clients about the latest developments, either proactively or reactively. A ton of media coverage that generates client questions that partners weren’t expecting or don’t know how to answer is not going to do anyone any favours.

Michael Evans a freelance PR, marketing and reputation management consultant. He previously led communications in EMEA for Baker McKenzie and was the global comms lead for the firm’s innovation program, Reinvent. He also worked in the comms team at Herbert Smith Freehills and was a journalist and editor at Euromoney Institutional Investor PLC. Get in touch by email or on LinkedIn if you would like to discuss any element of communicating your innovation strategy or initiatives.

Matt Baldwin
Co-founder – Coast Communications

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