“What do you think about getting my board members more actively involved in our public relations efforts?” My response to the transit CEO who’d asked this question during a recent coaching session was an unequivocal “Yes!” The subject is really close to my heart, since over the course of my 30 years of work with public transit CEOs and their boards I’ve seen many transit authorities fail to capitalize on their boards as a powerful asset in the external/stakeholder relations arena, leaving them terribly vulnerable when asking taxpayers for increased financial support. Let’s be honest. Public transit systems – unlike zoos – are pretty hard to love: difficult to understand; high-cost; and most memorable for the occasions when they fail us. I’ll never forget standing on a wind-swept platform on a bleak winter day in Cleveland years ago, waiting for a train to the airport that arrived so late that I missed my flight. I shiver thinking about it! So we need all the horses we can get to pull our public relations wagon, and board members, in my experience, make a valuable addition to the team.
But – and it’s a pretty big but – as I observed in my February 10, 2015 article here, “Getting Your Board Involved in Image Building” (http://boardsavvytransitceo.com/getting-board-involved-image-building/), if you do enlist board members as ambassadors for your authority, you’d better make sure they succeed in playing the role. Unless you meticulously plan and manage this add-on board function, you risk board members failing – and being embarrassed – in public, which will inevitably earn you these board members’ undying – and well-earned – enmity.
So what can you do to ensure that the board members who sign up to serve your authority as “Ambassadors-in-Chief” succeed in playing the role? Here’s what I’ve seen several public transportation systems do to ensure success:
- Assign responsibility for overseeing and coordinating this add-on governing function to a board standing committee: often governance or external/stakeholder relations.
- Treat the involvement of board members in the external relations arena like a formal program – with an annual operating plan with specific objectives; a well-designed structure; and strong staff support.
- Set clear program priorities: identifying in a given year the stakeholders (for example, the commissioners court in a Texas county) and the community forums (for example, Rotary luncheon meetings) that will receive special attention.
- Provide your board Ambassadors-in-Chief with strong staff support, including: a formal “script” with specific talking points; visual aids when appropriate, such as PowerPoint slides; a back-up executive team member to field questions when necessary; and an opportunity to rehearse before hitting the public relations trail.
If you handle this critical board function well, your authority will without question reap significant benefits in terms of enhanced public understanding and support. You can also expect a powerful spinoff: a richer, more satisfying governing role for your board members that translates into higher morale and stronger commitment. And you’ll almost certainly relieve some of the pressure on your CEO if she’s been carrying most of the external relations burden.