Martin Flegg: “Becoming a trusted advisor” – thoughts from the recent CIPR Inside event

Becoming a trusted advisor

Martin Flegg

CIPR Inside recently hosted a panel discussion on becoming a communication and PR trusted advisor. Martin Flegg, our committee member and treasurer, was in the audience and reports on some of the insights and advice from the event. You can also view a recording of some of the highlights from the panel discussion on our member’s only Facebook page.

There are a few longstanding myths in the world of internal communications and PR. One of the bigger ones is that you need to have a seat at the boardroom table to have any credibility or influence with senior leaders and be regarded as a trusted communications advisor.

At our recent trusted advisor event in Manchester, hosted by CIPR Inside and CIPR North West, a panel of internal communicators and PR professionals busted that myth with their own experiences of working with senior leaders.

The expert panel, hosted by Advita Patel, Chair of CIPR Inside, included:

  • Bridget Aherne – Head of Communications at KeolisAmey Metrolink,
  • CIPR North West Chair and Owner/MD of Outwrite PR, Anthony Bullick,
  • Helen Schick, Head of Internal Communications and Engagement at Alzheimer’s Society.

All of them had a huge wealth of agency and in-house experiences to share.

A quick poll of the audience revealed that virtually no one had the elusive seat at the boardroom table and only a few had direct and easy access to their CEO. Bridget asked ‘who could text message their CEO right now and get a reply?’ I think I only counted about three or four hands go up in the audience.

Is this a bad thing, a barrier to getting things done as a communicator and being regarded as a trusted advisor? At one time I might have thought so, but from my own experiences and certainly after the event, I don’t think it is. Here are some nuggets of advice from the event which will hopefully convince you that you don’t need a seat at the boardroom table, or a hotline to the CEO, to be regarded as a trusted advisor.

Speak truth to power

The first big takeaway from Bridget was to ‘speak truth to power’ and be upfront and straightforward in your dealings with leadership teams and stakeholders. This includes giving them a true and realistic picture of an issue or situation, however unpalatable that might be, to help them make the right decisions.

Sometimes getting your own voice heard in the boardroom is difficult or impossible and Bridget’s advice was to cultivate relationships with board members who are perhaps new to the organisation or looking for support to help them establish their own credibility.

This is similar to a tactic I’ve frequently used myself to get my ideas and advice heard by executive teams. There are people in your organisation who do have that boardroom seat, equivalent influence and maybe direct contact with the CEO, who will be willing to listen to your ideas. Find out who they are, build a relationship with them by helping them solve some of their own problems and you’ll earn their trust.

Educate about your role

Many senior leaders and stakeholders don’t have a good grasp of what communications and PR are actually for and their understanding is often framed by the use of tactics and channels. Anthony’s advice was to educate leaders and stakeholders about your role and how communication and PR can deliver better business outcomes. Don’t make the assumption that they instinctively know what communications and PR can contribute beyond the tactical. This should be continuously explained and demonstrated.

Helen commented that having a really good understanding of the organisation’s business and current issues was fundamental to becoming a trusted advisor. Her advice was to not use examples of communication best practice as a reason to communicate about anything. Instead talk about business problems that need to be resolved or opportunities to be taken advantage of, and how communication and PR can help with those.

Bridget picked up on this and said that one way to become a trusted advisor was to ‘do well in a crisis and to then stick around’. In other words, help resolve a real issue for an organisation with great communication and PR and use that as a basis to build an ongoing relationship. Anthony commented that this approach had also worked well for him and his PR agency, when building a relationship with a new client.

Obviously, not being the cause of the crisis in the first place is essential to this tactic working well, as one member of the audience commented!


It was inevitable that part of the panel discussion would focus on measurement. After all, the language of the boardroom is numbers and being able to prove the worth of communication and PR activity means demonstrating some kind of return on investment.

Helen focused on setting objectives and counselled against coming up with really complicated objectives where the cause and effect relationship between communication and outcomes was difficult to see. Often taking a simpler approach is more effective to demonstrate the contribution of communication and PR to leaders.  Helen’s advice was to focus on what you want people to ‘know’, ‘feel’ and ‘do’ as a result of receiving a communication and then use some form of evaluation afterwards to test those three outcomes and report the results back to the boardroom.

There was general consensus amongst Anthony and the other panel members that the same planning rigour needed to be applied to internal communication as was done for external communication. In external communication and PR there is often a large amount of planning effort put into audience insight, segmentation and messaging. A lack of effort to do this for internal audiences and to just send out a poorly planned ‘all staff’ message makes it more difficult to measure outcomes, prove return on investment and the value of internal communication to leaders.

Be courageous

How you approach your interactions with boardroom members, senior leaders and other stakeholders is fundamental to how you will be viewed and regarded, however knowledgeable and experienced you are. Get this wrong and your journey to becoming a trusted advisor will be much more difficult.

Helen mentioned a long standing piece of advice she had once been given, to always think about the amounts of courage, humility and humour she needed to demonstrate when having discussions with CEOs and leadership teams. To paraphrase Helen ‘sometimes when they have messed up you need to have the courage to give them a telling off, at other times you need to have the humility to listen and take their advice and at others the humour to lighten the moment to get your point across’. Helen likened this to a ‘pie chart’ and accurately judging the relative sizes of the three slices before you engage in a discussion about a particular issue.

Bridget commented that despite all her qualifications and experience, and even after becoming a chartered PR practitioner, that she still sometimes experiences the ‘imposter syndrome’ that haunts many people in communication and PR roles. As she said ‘understand that you’ve got a right to be there, just like everyone else with their own qualifications and experience’.

I think this last piece of advice from the event is the one that resounded with me the most. Personal confidence in your knowledge and abilities is a huge part of becoming a trusted advisor. You don’t need a seat at the boardroom table to be a confident PR and communications professional, just the belief that you are one.



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