Companies often hire former government officials and other subject matter experts with great fanfare. Our branding expert tells you how to make sure you get the steak along with the sizzle.
Did your company hire a recently retired government official to help open doors at agencies where it wants to win more business? Do you plan to bring on an industry heavyweight to bolster a growing business segment or jumpstart a fading brand?
Hiring “name brands” is certainly not a recent phenomenon in the government market. Established contractors frequently hire former government officials with impressive pedigrees and valuable subject matter expertise to open new doors, broaden relationships, deepen existing business or help a company launch into a new domain. For many large contractors, recruiting former government officials is routine and inculcated in their corporate culture.
For smaller contractors, a big name hire can quickly put a lesser-known company on the map and validate a company’s credentials, qualifications and reputation. Snatching a subject-matter expert right out of the government or from a corporation or think-tank can bolster a small company’s presence and awareness. It can send a strong signal to employees, customers, competitors and investors that the company is a formidable player in a particular market segment.
However, small government contractors who are not as experienced in bringing on an industry heavyweight or a former government official should carefully think through the optics – both internally and externally – and develop a strategic communications plan to convey the reasons, drivers and intentions for making this kind of hire.
As importantly, a small government contractor must carefully plan how it will on-board a former government official so the company maximizes the brand value.
Here are five steps companies should take when hiring former government officials and other subject matter experts:
1) Carefully plan how your company will communicate the intersection of personal and corporate brands: No matter who you’re hiring, the person joining your company has a reputation and hence, a personal brand that may be viewed by some as favorable and by others as a potential liability. It is essential your employees be the first to know about your company’s strategic hire before they read about it in a press release or in the next day’s news clips. Provide talking points for your employees, customers, partners and investors ahead of issuing a press release to help them understand the strategic reasons for bringing on a well-known name. If the individual has a controversial or colorful past, help employees understand how to talk about their actions in the context of their new role. Communicate in black and white how he or she will enhance and complement your company’s brand and business. Plan how your new hire can become a credible voice and face to market your company. The time your company puts into communicating the who, what and why behind a key hire will go a long way to strengthen your brand value and ultimately grow the business.
2) Do the due-diligence and boldly communicate how you’ve dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s: The challenge for any contractor considering the decision to hire a former government official or subject matter expert is to carefully evaluate how best to leverage existing business interests against future procurements and business opportunities at the agency or organization they recently left. Strict ethics laws govern exiting government officials and their ability to interact, contact or even step foot in the agency they’ve departed. A wise investment for small contractors is to have an experienced general counsel on staff or a relationship with a government contracting lawyer who specializes in advising companies how to navigate these waters and to ensure compliance with federal or state laws and agency-specific regulations.
3) Announce your former government official’s new role at your company in the context of their previous positions and experience, not vice versa: Often times, companies are so excited to announce they’ve landed a retired three-star general or a former high-level government official that they overlook explaining what they will do in their new role and how they will enhance the company’s value. Carefully choose language to describe how the individual will bring a specialized expertise, sought-after insights, unique experiences working with your clients, relationships with influential organizations or credibility that comes from published works that will complement and strengthen your company’s current assets. Avoid language that could be interpreted as fluff. And resist the temptation to regurgitate a long list of credentials or degrees.
4) Invest more time than normal in on-boarding a former government official or subject-matter expert: “The indoctrination into the company’s culture must start on the first day,” stated Peter Jacobs, corporate vice president and director of marketing and communications at Alion Science and Technology. Alion has brought in a number of retired flag officers to work alongside the company’s engineers and technical experts. Some of these former military leaders head up business units, while others are in pure business development roles. In both cases, Jacobs said it is critical they’re able to appropriately represent the company. “In meetings with prospective customers, your [subject matter experts] need to articulate the full value their new employer can deliver.” Create a tailored on-boarding plan to help your former government official understand the nuances and differences between the government and a private-sector company. Don’t underestimate the cultural differences between working for the government and working in a corporate environment where employees are motivated and incentivized for different reasons and behaviors.
5) Assign a corporate communications resource to support, watch over and leverage your name brand’s media power: Often times, former government officials and subject-matter experts have a decent rolodex of press contacts they’ve accumulated from their years of service. During their government tenure, some officials develop relationships with influential reporters who frequently seek out their insights and opinions about new legislation or policy changes. Government officials must adhere to standard procedures for talking to the press that are closely monitored by public affairs officers. However, when a government official resigns and steps out of their agency, they may not think those rules still apply in the private sector. A key move for contractors, no matter how small, is to assign a communications resource to work with your new hire to manage their press exposure and help navigate and manage their network of media contacts. They may be able to contact news organizations you may not have been successful reaching in the past. Cultivate your new hire’s media and press contacts for future news opportunities. Reporters are always looking for a new story.