Behind the Headlines With Travis Bullard
When a crisis hits, is your team scrambling to come together or prepared with a plan?
Travis Bullard, director at APCO Worldwide, says the preparation before a crisis is more important than what you do when you’re in the moment.
In this interview, Travis shares the essential elements of a successful communication strategy, the biggest mistakes communicators make and why understanding your target audience is so important for creating effective communication.
How did you get your start in corporate communications?
Early in my career, I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. After college, I was a ski instructor for a couple of years and eventually started working for startup and tech companies, but I wasn’t sure where I wanted to focus.
Eventually, I decided I wanted to set a more intentional course for my career, and communication was a natural fit. I love to write, I’m curious about the world, and I have a talent for building relationships and bringing people together. Working in public relations and corporate communications gives me an opportunity to do all of those things every day.
Have you ever had to deal with a major communication crisis? How did you handle it?
Yes, I’ve worked on a number of major crisis situations ranging from environmental issues, construction accidents, major lawsuits and some just plain crazy situations. There are three basic phases to any crisis: preparation, response, and recovery. Most of the focus is on the response to the danger, but in my experience, the most important element to handling a communication crisis successfully is the preparation phase.
Investing the time and resources into preparing for a crisis situation allows you to be in the right position to effectively respond to the situation, and then build upon the response as an opportunity to strengthen relationships with key stakeholders.
As President John F. Kennedy once noted, “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity.”
What are some of the key components of a successful communication strategy?
We create countless techniques for effective communication. When it comes down to it, the newest communication trends can only improve upon what established strategies have already accomplished.
The most essential elements of an effective communication strategy vary depending on your project, but successful strategies almost always include information about the target audience, specific goals for the campaign and a team of inspired members with the right traits.
What are the biggest communication mistakes organizations make?
Communication skills often define the success or failure of a leader, and ultimately an organization. Effective communication skills often set leaders apart and give them the right to lead others.
I think the biggest communication mistakes usually fall into one of three categories: relying upon a “one size fits all” approach; trying to make communication a one-way street; and finally, under-communicating.
The world is a complex place. Having a great message is not enough. Leaders need to work hard to get to know their audiences, incorporate a feedback loop into the communications process, and find new and interesting ways to get their messages across.
With so much competition in the marketplace, how can organizations ensure their messages stand out?
People are bombarded all the time with messages, social media, emails, phone calls and more. It’s increasingly difficult to find a signal in the noise. To be successful, organizations need to start with a strong strategy rooted in an understanding of the right target audiences.
There really is no such thing as a “general public.” You have to get to know your target audiences. You need to understand current perceptions, current behaviors, the barriers that exist and the desired behaviors that will help you achieve the desired outcomes.
What has been the proudest moment of your career?
I’ve been fortunate to be part of some really interesting, challenging and worthwhile projects. As the head of corporate public relations for a semiconductor company, we hosted David Muir for a tour of our new factory in upstate New York for his “Made in America” series on ABC’s “World News Tonight with Diane Sawyer.” Our CEO loved the story so much he insisted on showing the clip at every customer and employee meeting for years.
What advice do you have for those looking to begin a career in communication?
Focus on building relationships, taking risks and asking questions. Most opportunities come from the people you know so it’s important to invest the time and energy into building positive relationships. Reach out to professionals in your field and introduce yourself to smart people who are doing interesting things. Put yourself out there and try to find ways to contribute and be helpful.
When I decided to focus my career on communications, I left a job to volunteer as an unpaid intern with a small communications team. I had no idea what I was doing, but it gave me an opportunity to interact with new professionals, learn quickly and take on my own projects.
Rapid Fire Round
1. My hobbies outside of work include…hanging out with our kids, trying new restaurants and squeezing in a round of golf here and there.
2. I laugh most at…raising kids at very different stages. We have three kids ranging in age from 2 to 15, so we’re potty training one and teaching another to drive!
3. If I won the lottery, I’d…do a lot of good, have a lot of fun and leave ridiculously large tips.
4. My hidden talent is…moving efficiently through airport security. I have my system down, but unfortunately I usually manage to end up on the slowest moving line.
5. One thing most people don’t know about me is…I get teased at home for having the most shoes of anyone in the family.
6. My biggest inspiration is…my wife. She’s the most compassionate person I’ve ever met, and she inspires me to be a better person every day.
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