How to Become a Communications Chameleon
Print Issue: July/August 2022
How people interact with one another, how they process information, even how they view the world—all of these things have become digitized. Society is at a communications inflection point, and this is an opportunity for security professionals to modernize their approaches to communications and build their reputations as vital connectivity conduits.
The ongoing global COVID-19 crisis has allowed security and emergency management professionals to raise awareness about their value and effectiveness during a vulnerable time. However, now they face the challenge of maintaining that awareness outside an active crisis. Once chaos is no longer knocking at the door, can security professionals command the same urgency and attention from their C-suite? Are there ways they can help executives continue to see the value of security projects and services—and, importantly, funding them?
In this, security professionals can learn key lessons from a different department: marketing.
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Marketing professionals regularly craft specialized and compelling messages for various stakeholders, customers (both internal and external), and the public, and some marketing approaches can translate effectively to security professionals’ strategies to gain buy-in.
When approaching C-suite executives, effective communicators work like chameleons, adapting their methods and pitching style to meet the needs of the moment and the audience, all while maintaining authenticity. This relies on a few prerequisites, including an open-minded attitude, knowledge of the business environment and pain points, and interpersonal skills to pick up on different communications styles and preferences. But applying these factors helps pitches resonate with executives and allows security teams to present more compelling offers during times of crisis, as well as times of tranquility.
Prepandemic, the traditional corporate security model for initiating new projects relied on booking in-person meetings far in advance and drafting annual reports outlining requested budgets and appropriate inquiries. This was followed by a presentation of that paperwork and waiting for weeks—or longer—to receive an approval or a rejection. Usually, an approval would reflect a lesser budget than originally requested, impacting the security team’s professional development opportunities or travel.
Amid the upheaval of remote work and digital transformation, this method is outdated. Savvy security leaders can take advantage of recent changes to adjust how they pitch their department’s value and the need for investment.
In corporate boardrooms, there is often a preconceived notion that security is only important and required during an incident and the subsequent response. But this dogma has led many businesses to lose significant capital and even declare bankruptcy. For instance, investing time and resources in the development of a sound business continuity plan can be the difference between an incident being manageable versus catastrophic.
Arguing for the initiative in advance of a crisis, however, takes business acumen, substantial communication skills, and a clever presentation process.
Tuning into Culture
How do you adapt to a changing environment? Some people knuckle down and keep doing what they know, relying on experience and muscle memory to power through a challenge. Chameleons, on the other hand, adapt to their environment, changing colors to match their surroundings. Successful communicators do the same. Being able to adapt and respond to a situation while remaining cool and collected takes years of consistent and adaptive practice, as well as intimate knowledge of the culture you are adapting to.
Focus on two cultures. The first is company culture, which guides how a company operates and the shared goals, ethics, practices, and values of its employees. By understanding the main objectives of the company, security leaders can craft their pitches and operational goals in a compelling way.
Company culture is also essential for employees because they are more likely to enjoy work and remain loyal when their needs and values are aligned with those of their employer. Employees place a high value on intangible elements of their company’s culture, such as regular and candid communications, recognition of employee achievements, and access to management and leadership. Companies that similarly value this internal culture will want to see it reflected in presentations.
The second form of culture is societal culture, which essentially describes an audience’s origin, upbringing, languages, traditions, morality, and values. This can impact the way security leaders present information in personal and professional settings. Understanding societal culture allows communicators to easily identify and pinpoint a target audience. For instance, a pitch for a new intelligence analysis function presented to a North American C-suite should likely differ from one presented to a C-suite in Asia, Eastern Europe, or Latin America due to differences in cultural norms and priorities.
The chameleon approach requires security professionals to effectively understand both cultures when developing their next pitch, concept, or budget. This allows them to expand their horizons and business possibilities.
Understanding culture, both corporate and societal, is a major step in getting to the ultimate goal: understanding the psyche of the decision maker. All communicators need to place human interaction—and human psychology—on the highest pedestal. When you have a better understanding of how someone thinks and why they think that way, you will have a better understanding of what they are trying to accomplish. When you know what they are trying to accomplish, you can craft a message that shows how your project or initiative contributes to that goal. The security professional who can do that is becoming a master chameleon communicator.
Pitching with Proof
Take it from marketing—pitches require substantial work and research, especially when looking to pitch a high-value product to stakeholders like the C-suite. Advertising a specific product or service is only a small piece of the marketing puzzle. What many fail to understand is that marketing and communications are powerful tools to help practitioners explain the value of their services and come up with new initiatives while building relationships with potential clients. Security can do the same.
There are essentially three stages to building your pitch: determine what you want to achieve, decide how best to present it, and research how you will defend it. Security leaders should already have their ask in mind—more security officers, funding to upgrade legacy surveillance cameras, or adding a new function like a travel monitoring program—before deciding to move forward with a pitch. From there, it’s a matter of communicating the value of that request effectively and gathering information to support it through a proof of concept.
First, there is strength in numbers. Effective communicators often work with a group of trusted internal professionals to brainstorm and workshop ideas. If you have access to outside stakeholders who can provide additional information, use that to your advantage as well. Once the team is gathered, identify five essential elements to your message.
The target audience. Consider who will receive this proposal. How many individuals are being targeted, and do you have information on their professional and personal backgrounds? How do they fit into your analysis of company and societal culture?
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Presentation plan. Create a table of contents outlining strategies of how you will present the numbers and budget. Use graphs, charts, or spreadsheets, depending on what method tells the story most effectively. Be sure to think about the tough questions your C-suite will ask and then plan to preemptively address them in the presentation: if you are requesting an extra headcount, what additional value will it bring? Having a devil’s advocate on your brainstorming team will help to identify these tough questions early.
Research. If possible, get internal information on what C-suite executives might be seeking and how they like to receive it. Executive assistants are fonts of knowledge on this front. Remember: the goal is to blend in with your audience’s preferred communications methods to connect with them more seamlessly.
Proposal structure. Consider: When is the proposal due? How much time will you have to present it? Is your budget flexible for more creative but potentially costly options? Do you have a high-level manager you can leverage as a project champion during the presentation and in separate conversations?
Presentation method. What presentation method will you use? What format will the proposal take? When compiling a presentation, good marketers rely on visual reinforcements, and so should security leaders. Avoid simplified Word documents or PowerPoint decks, instead think outside the box by leveraging storytelling elements, interactive tools such as polls or quizzes, virtual tools (i.e., using a virtual reality demonstration of a requested security system in action), custom videos, or brochures. And while thinking like a marketer is a good start, security professionals can also go straight to the source and collaborate with branding and marketing teams, either in-house or outsourced, when building a high-stakes presentation.
Once these structural points have been identified, dig deeper into the value you can offer to the prospective clients—the C-suite in this case—by gathering data and determining how to present it effectively.
One strategy to consider when creating any competitive pitch is the ART method: analyze, resolve, and track.
Analyze. Analyze the tools, resources, and budget that you already have at hand. How can they benefit your process in building an original proposal? Can you demonstrate that your existing resources can be repurposed to support the new goal, or can you demonstrate that the existing resources fall short?
Resolve. If you have—or would be granted—appropriate tools and resources, how will they help you achieve the results your organization needs moving forward? Determine what the ideal goal is and strategize how to effectively communicate it with multiple stakeholders when making a request.
Track. Measure what matters. C-suites and other stakeholders are compelled by metrics, so effective communicators will know in advance how they will track a project’s success, which milestones matter to stakeholders, and what progress they should see at each level. Cultural drivers will influence this stage—a C-suite heavily influenced by company culture might value metrics around employee satisfaction, so the security leader could leverage internal surveys about users’ security experience and its improvement as a key metric.
By using the ART method, communicators can take the time to ensure that all gaps are covered while mapping out an action plan for the next step: defending a proposal through an effective proof of concept.
A proof of concept is ultimately evidence that you have gathered to prove that your idea is feasible, functional, and valuable for the organization. Ideally, the concept will demonstrate that similar projects have proven successful elsewhere. This will likely require you to do additional research; external or internal surveys are not uncommon.
Security leaders can search for similar concepts on social media and peruse journal articles and books. Keeping confidentiality in mind, the leader could ask his or her professional network about the concept and how to support it. Take a broad view—adding an international perspective can uniquely reinforce different ideas.
Additionally, conduct research into industry trends. What is currently trending in your sector that you can leverage? What are your competitors doing? There are a variety of benchmarking reports available that can be useful on this front.
Consider social media—these tools enable marketers to leverage the multiplicative power of networks to get their messages across, but it can also be used to find trending information and success stories of companies that implemented similar solutions to the project in question.
One caveat, though: the online world can expose users to large volumes of digital noise. The challenge is to effectively filter this noise to find nuggets of informational gold. C-suites’ time is valuable, and attention spans are short.
Effective communicators know to whittle down the vast amount of research they collected into a few compelling elements. Don’t jettison any research that doesn’t make the cut, though—having additional supporting material in reserve can be useful if a stakeholder requests more information on short notice.
Now that you have identified your target audience, done your research, created a proposal structure, pinpointed a presentation method, and developed a proof of concept, you must fit all of these pieces together to form a final product under the cultural wisdom of the chameleon approach.
For example, consider the following approach in are targeting a corporation in Paris, France, offering travel security consulting services. Using appropriate imagery, colors, and symbolism, you create a few custom slides about France’s history around security (this will demonstrate your historical and cultural knowledge) and how that specific corporation responded to some travel incidents that share similarities with what you are proposing (showing that you have done your research and know why you are approaching this company). Then present a future strategy and value proposition that encompasses the company’s plans, demonstrating that you have considered how potential geopolitical or economic shifts can impact the organization and its travel operations.
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The cherry on top could be creating a bilingual deck to accommodate your audience. This way, you deliver a custom presentation that reveals your knowledge of the company and your cultural understanding while showcasing your security expertise and soft skills.
It will likely take a few attempts to perfect new communication methods. But applying the chameleon approach, incorporating cultural knowledge, and creating custom presentations when seeking buy-in will undoubtedly give security professionals a significant competitive advantage.
Suzanna Alsayed, MDEM (Master of Disaster and Emergency Management), is a trilingual security and emergency management specialist in Toronto, Canada. She is the founder of Evolutz, an independent brand, design, copywriting, and website development agency.