Erin Johnson knew that something had to change. A few years ago, she was working in the meeting-planning department at American Express, handling big meetings and big budgets for Johnson & Johnson Co. But while everyone in her department understood the quality — and quantity — of her work, she found herself being overlooked when it came to getting recognition.
“I was doing equal work but always standing on the sidelines watching other people get more kudos,” recalls Johnson, CMP, currently foundation services specialist for meeting planning and special events at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Princeton, N.J.
The only difference she could identify between herself and her colleagues was that they were better at promoting themselves.
So she got down to business, becoming more vocal during meetings, asking for higher-profile projects, and making sure that copies of any notes of praise found their way into the right hands.
“You have to get up there and say, ‘Look what I did,’” she says. “That's a learned skill.”
A Certain Image
What Johnson did not realize was that the steps she started taking in order to get recognized are the same ones that branding experts use to promote products. Just as certain images pop into your mind when you think of Apple computers, Ford trucks, Johnson worked hard to make sure that when people think of her, they make certain associations: highly skilled, knowledgeable, motivated.
In other words, she was building her own brand, realizing that people interact with you based on that. “There are meeting planners who will follow a convention services manager from property to property,” says Pamela Wynne, CMP, CMM, vice president of client relations at EMC Meeting Solutions, Brielle, N.J. “It has nothing to do with the meeting space. They want to work with this convention services manager so badly that they will follow him wherever he goes. When you think of that person, there are probably certain characteristics that come up: attention to detail, dedication to the program, the ability to troubleshoot any situation.”
Wynne should know about branding: While manager of corporate meeting planning at Educational Testing Service, Princeton, N.J., she spent a lot of time honing her brand, making sure that she left the right impression wherever she went. She set herself up as an expert, speaking at internal events on topics ranging from meetings best practices to business etiquette. Finding a natural talent for public speaking, she applied and was accepted as a platinum speaker for Meeting Professionals International, gaining valuable exposure outside her company.
Through MPI, she was asked to speak at EMC on procurement and meeting consolidation issues. For a year and a half, every time she made a presentation, that company's president would joke about hiring her. Then one day, she did just that and created a position for Wynne.
“They knew they wanted me because of everything I'd been doing — speaking, being on their advisory council, being interviewed in the industry magazines. So I brought, I guess, a certain amount of credibility.”
Who Says That Self-Promotion Stinks?
Just as an excellent product might go unnoticed without advertising and promotion, a meeting executive's work — even if he or she does great work — doesn't always speak for itself.
“You have to help people connect the dots,” says Karl D. Speak, principal at consulting group Beyond Marketing Thought and author of Be Your Own Brand. “The impressions you leave are just as important as the work you do. Meeting planners … measure themselves by, ‘Did I get it accomplished?’ What they should say is, ‘What impression did I leave when I accomplished it?’”
In fact, self-promotion is an uncomfortable concept for a lot of planners. As Mariela McIlwraith, CMP, CMM, director of conference services, conferences & accommodation at the University of British Columbia, put it, “I don't see myself as having actively promoted myself, but rather have focused on promoting my organization or the event I am planning.”
And of course, that's a priority. “Yes, you want to be an equal player, and you want your autonomy level to go up, but you really aren't hired to be the star,” Johnson says, adding that at her quarterly board of trustees meetings, “it's important that I support them to do the work they were hired to do. That is my job — to make them look glamorous. I am not the star of the day.”
That can be frustrating at times for Vanessa Hubbard, CMP, senior corporate meeting planner and former colleague of Pamela Wynne at Educational Testing Service. “If management isn't closely involved with the planning of the meeting, they see it as flawless. … A problem can never get to the level where the attendees know about it. So it sometimes can be a thankless job.”
Even when planners get compliments, their first instinct is to deflect them and modestly say it was a team effort, Johnson points out. “There has to be a point where you say, ‘Yes, I did do a great job. Thanks!’ But I think that's uncomfortable for many people, not only meeting planners.”
Elevating the Meeting-Planner Brand
Another challenge for planners is to get recognized on a strategic level when colleagues think of them more as a manager of rooming lists and coffee cups.
“They [attendees and executives] don't look at the planner as someone who set the objectives or made sure the agenda ran smoothly or that the venue met the objectives,” says ETS' Hubbard. “The planner may have planned all that, but someone else is hosting the event — and they get all the kudos.”
The problem is a misconception of meeting planners in general. “It's not that they can't contribute strategically, but that the way people think about them, based on their behaviors, conversations, and other attributes … is tactical,” says Speak. “The impressions that you leave give you the permission in the future.” In other words, if people think of you as a strategic partner, they are more likely to give you strategic tasks going forward.
Repositioning the perception of planners within your company involves every interaction you have. Consider what happens when another department calls and says that it needs to schedule a meeting. Asking how many attendees they have, for example, instead of the objectives immediately solidifies that “tactical” brand impression.
“If you're asking tactical, you're going to get tactical,” Speak says. “That may very well be reinforced every time someone in the meeting department talks to somebody, say, in the marketing department.”
The best way to change these perceptions is to be proactive. Says Speak, “I would think in terms of getting way ahead of the game — not waiting until the sales manager calls for the next meeting, but instead sending strategy-related articles and other information along during the year — different ideas about the learning process, for example.”
Wynne was proactive in her outreach at ETS, putting together a vendor expo featuring preferred vendors and inviting everyone from the company. Her department also conducted training sessions with each department after identifying their trigger points. For example, when she met with marketing, she emphasized the importance of making sure company meetings were up to the organization's brand standards. When speaking with HR, she mentioned ensuring that the people planning meetings were setting up in a style that maximized adult learning.
All of this outreach got her noticed by upper management — so much so that when Corporate Meetings & Incentives did a cover story about ETS' meeting consolidation program, the company's CFO was happy to appear with her on the cover.
Such efforts can benefit the company, too. “We sent that article to all the people who were not compliant and pointed out that this national publication thinks we're doing a really good job,” Wynne says. “Compliance went way up after that.”
Expertise is Everything
In addition to getting media visibility, another way to elevate your brand is to develop an area of expertise and hit the speaker circuit. Andrea Nierenberg, speaker and author of several books, including Million Dollar Networking, suggests that planners start by writing a brief article on an area of expertise — say 10 Negotiating Tips that Work.
“Don't make it a commercial — make it so people will walk away having learned one or two tips,” Nierenberg says. That article can then be the basis for a speech or something you send to suppliers or the company newsletter.
It's easiest to preach to the choir — such as industry peers at MPI — but instead, Nierenberg suggests speaking at your clients' events or internally or even in the community. “Go to your local vocational school or university or your church, synagogue, or library. Ask your suppliers or speakers if you can speak at their association meeting. … What you're doing is building buzz and building your brand.”
Find the Time
No question, adding a layer of brand management on top of an already full schedule is hard work. Every one of the planners contacted for this article had to reschedule at least once, working to balance the demands of her job with a dedication to enhancing her brand image.
“I see planners who have high exposure levels, and I have to say to myself, ‘When did they have all this energy to put that on their plates?’” Johnson says. “It's a gray area — if you're stressing yourself out to make yourself feel fulfilled, you probably would have been better off keeping a low profile.”
However, she would also be the first to say that the effort she's put in has paid off: Her foundation is in negotiations to outsource some of the day-to-day tactical aspects of her job, enabling her to work more closely with grantees to make sure they get the most from their meetings.
“Take opportunities when they're given to you,” Johnson says, which could be why she squeezed in the time in the middle of her crazy summer schedule to pose for our cover photo. “You can be a great meeting planner, but if you don't seize the opportunities, you won't move forward.”
Your 30-Second Elebator Speech
How would you describe your position to someone in the time that it takes to share an elevator ride?
Most important, don't define yourself functionally, as in, “I am a meeting planner,” says Karl D. Speak, principal at consulting group Beyond Marketing Thought and the author of Be Your Own Brand.
“People already have a preconceived notion of what that means,” he says. “Instead, try something like, ‘I help the organization facilitate its strategies through different events. I use my organizational skills and strategic thinking to help the organization deliver events that make a difference for the business.’ Use words to call to people's attention the impression that you want to leave.”
Pamela Wynne, CMP, CMM, vice president of client relations at EMC Meeting Solutions, Brielle, N.J, agrees that a great elevator speech is a critical part of a self-promotion campaign. She suggests that planners reflect on their own on-the-job experiences when people fail to impress them: “We've all met someone who gave us the 20-second speech: ‘I'm from this property, and we have 20,000 square feet of meeting space and this many guest rooms.’ … Bor-ing!” she jokes.