October 27, 2018

Lessons on Running Communications Workshops from Nikhil Dey of Genesis Burson-Marsteller

One of the best parts of my job is running communications workshops for clients. I am always keen to learn from others who do similar work. On that note, I am delighted to have picked Nikhil Dey’s brain on this topic. Nikhil is President of the award-winning India-based PR agency Genesis Burson-Marsteller (part of the global firm Burson-Marsteller).

Among Genesis Burson-Marsteller’s services are media training, crisis preparedness workshops and messaging workshops. Nikhil, named by PRWeek among the most influential PR professionals as part of the Global Power Book 2016, conducts some of these communication courses for clients. He also has been a guest lecturer at many institutions of higher learning in India.

The following interview highlights his insights on the keys to a successful communications workshop. He also delves into how marketing communications professionals can play a role in instilling a learning culture in their organizations.

What are the common reasons why organizations reach out to you and your colleagues at Genesis Burson-Marsteller for communications training?

NIKHIL: There is a high degree of customization we bring to the table. For example, our media training sessions have ranged from one-on-one coaching for a CEO, to 300 people in an auditorium. The one-on-one coaching mainly is focused on how to tell the company story better, while the large format group training focuses on helping non–spokespeople stay clear of telling stories inadvertently. The workshop involves lots of role plays. We typically use ex-journalists who are now on our team to conduct the interviews.

Crisis workshops on the other hand focuses on helping teams in organizations to come together to better understand their roles and responsibilities as well as the resources at their disposal. We aim to familiarize them with best practices and help them respond with speed.

Messaging workshops range from architecting something from scratch for a new organization to more often finding ways to tweak a global narrative to make it more relevant and resonant in an Indian or Asian context.

Based on your experiences, what makes a successful communications training session?

NIKHIL: “Keep it real”is my mantra for a successful workshop. If the participant(s) leave the workshop feeling that they are better prepared to handle a situation that is coming up next week or next month, they feel empowered. So we customize the role play for each participant differently. It could be related to a speaking opportunity where they are scheduled to show up and media could be present. Maybe is a launch for someone else. For a third person, it could be simply being seated next to a journalist on their next flight.

“Less theory, lots of examples and more practice” is my second mantra. This might entail being on camera, different settings, a quick standing interview, a long freewheeling conversation for a feature story and sometimes a hostile journalist.

“Changing hats” is mantra number three that I have found really works well. For example, making the interviewee become the interviewer has been the moment the penny dropped. It helps the participant change the prism through which they view the conversation. They start thinking headline and story rather than just message and corporate speak.

Tell us the story of a particular training assignment you were involved with that had an impact?

NIKHIL: I had run a series of workshops for one of my clients in the Food and Beverage (FMCG) sector. It started with their leadership team and then went to training each plant team as well.

For the teams at the manufacturing facilities, the trainings were designed to help the free flow of information across the organization. Simply put to “break the hero mindset” and also reassure people that “the bearer of bad news would be welcomed”. I had shared my mobile number with all plant teams to call at the slightest hint of trouble at the plant.

One day not so soon after, my phone rang. I got two quick updates. First, the annual wage negotiation was taking place. Things were going fine, but as a token mark of protest the plant workers were not going to have their 11 am tea and biscuits. The second update was related to a road accident that had taken place 13 kilometers away from the plant in which the relative of one of the workers had succumbed to injuries.

At noon my phone rang again. This time it was a journalist from a wire service. He wanted to know if there was a hunger strike on at the plant and if one person had died. My ability to navigate past this potential crisis due to a journalist being fed misinformation was only because of our training. I was able to immediately provide the facts, point out that someone was trying to cause trouble and that was the end of it. In the absence of this information, I would have lost precious time trying to ascertain what was going on and a story saying “hunger strike at xyz co plant, one dead” would have gone out. We would have spent days denying and trying to present the correct facts.

In what ways do you provide training internally to your colleagues at Genesis Burson-Marsteller?

NIKHIL: We have a range of training programs, from the front line employees up to senior leadership. Our flagship program for entry-level talent is called the Associate Learning Program. It is the only formal and structured program that nurtures young public relations talent at the workplace in India today. We have been running this program successfully for 12 years. We also have a program called LEAP for our future leaders. The trainers are a mix of our senior leadership team as well as professionals from outside the firm.

How do you create a culture of knowledge sharing internally at Genesis Burson-Marsteller?

NIKHIL: Apart from the structured learning programs, we also have another more informal learning push through an initiative called Pushing Boundaries. We have divided our entire team into four clusters: Media, Creative, Content and Digital. Each group has a lead or ‘Energizer’ and some strong second in command called ‘Catalysts’ who then create and deliver learning modules ranging from 3 to 5 hours on Fridays. This has over time brought about a culture of sharing of ideas, solving problems together and having fun. We have also come up with some really cool campaigns for our clients.

What in your mind are ways that marketing communications departments can contribute to an organization’s learning culture?

NIKHIL: I believe that making every employee a brand ambassador is the shared role of the L&D and marketing teams. Employees who become believers and brand evangelists are often those who have been nurtured through the right learning interventions. This collaboration of building a culture of learning and celebrating the success of individuals and teams is the sweet spot where marketing communications and learning teams can make a huge difference if they work together.