The University of St. Thomas

So… about that message strategy

Once upon a time, there was a little boy who stepped on a bee.  It was an accident.  The bee got startled and did what anxious, barb-ended critters do, and the child was stung.  Crying and running ensued, and a genuine hatred of “bees” was born.

Some time later, the boy happened to spy a winged creature with distinct yellow and black markings.  He swatted at the bug in the air.  He chased it with a broom, and ultimately followed it to its home.  The boy did not know that the large gray ball of paper was not a bee hive, but a wasp’s nest.  He did know the broom would reach it to punish the “bees.”

One good swat and the target broke loose and bounced on the ground.  A few dead wasps could be seen at the edges of the cracked shell, but were quickly obscured by a legion of their brethren that were very much alive.

Running ensued, and stinging and crying and more running.

The message was sent, but generated far more pain than having left well enough alone.

Terrorism is about a message of fear. Sometimes, the perpetrators attempt to tie that fear to a specific organization, country or even people. Sometimes the message strategy involves attempting to scare others into stopping a behavior. 

But what if the message emboldens the audience to do just the opposite, to send its own message, magnifying the original offending behavior exponentially?

To paraphrase French author Michel Foucault: The power of an action is not in its intended outcome, but in the actual outcome.

Perhaps, even if you kill the offending bee, there is more kinship among like creatures than expected.

Je Suis Charlie

Published on: Thursday, January 22nd, 2015

And the bully wins!

To paraphrase a Janis Joplin song, “Freedom of speech is just another word for not being threatened into submission by a hacker on the Internet.”

Okay, I’ll give you that was a push, but at the time of this writing, a couple of comedians exercising their right to free speech in a “free” country have been squelched by hackers that are clearly fans of a dubious foreign power. 

No questions remain that these hackers had the power to infiltrate the systems of a major corporation, but whether these offshore brainiacs had the connections and resources to make good on threats to movie goers seems much more vague.

To their credit, Sony executives didn’t intend to pull the plug until its channel partners – the theater owners – got anxious.  Thanks to those business leaders, every corporation in the world has just become a target for extortion.

But that’s all incidental to a communication issue – how do the powerless (i.e. – some nerd living in his grandma’s basement, or hungry North Korean) end up with so much influence over a monolithic corporation? 

The media needs to share some complicity in cases like this.  I may have suggested this before in relation to terrorism.  None of these bullies would have success if it weren’t for the publicity generated by muck racking media outlets thirsty to break “News.” Even mainstream reporters fall in line behind the most radical of internet sources, often finding out later that the facts were incorrect.

For media relations professionals, this is a double edged sword.  We rely on the same media for delivery of our messages (hopefully ones that add constructively to society) to audiences deem important.  Corporate communicators and marketers strive to position the story they want to tell in ways that seem newsworthy to media channels that reach the organization’s stakeholders.

The hackers leveraged the truth in their ability to invade company computers to lend enough credibility to threats of physical violence that the theater owners wilted. 

It is the perception of potential to harm, not actual ability to harm that bullies have depended on for millennia.  Today the channel to communicate that threat has magnified from a shaking fist on the playground to a worldwide web of chatter. 

The fist, in reality may be no bigger than ever, but the multitude of cameras and attention deliver exponential magnification.

However, I would like to believe that even though the power in this case shifted from the monolith to the ant, that there is a way to shift it back.  If the markets demand “The Interview” and it runs in spite of the threats, the power of the hackers will be removed.

Published on: Monday, December 22nd, 2014

That time again!

It’s that window of certainty between Halloween and Thanksgiving when corporate human resource people face an annual anxiety. Not the hiring of staff for the holiday rush, but the toughest sell of the year – getting employees to complete their annual benefits enrollment on time.

These efforts have multiple barriers working against the communicators involved. The material is complicated, lengthy and important. Like taxes, everyone knows it has to be done. Many also dread the process. In no small part because people don’t want to be “wrong.” Unfortunately, there’s not a TurboTax® for health care benefits calculation.

Sometimes it feels like completing the forms, online or on paper, is just filling in dots on a lottery card. Choose wisely and you dodge the bullet. Choose poorly and you either spend too much on insurance or too much on care. 

On top of all these challenges, communicators must convince people to take an action – the hardest part of the persuasion process. (Ever see someone take a sample at the store and drop it in the next waste basket untouched? It was right there in his hand, yet trial did not occur!)  Plus, that action has to be completed by a specific deadline.

In some organizations, communicators get supplemental help from supervisors and middle managers, whom HR holds responsible, to a degree, for the compliance of employees they oversee. Still, these managers must be provided with tools for success – such as email templates and flyers. So things still land in the court of the employee communication staff.

In other firms, even with the advent of online forms, the “best practice” seems to be tenacity. Employees receive reminders at every turn. While internal communication leaders don’t see themselves as “marketers,” they rely on deeper frequency and reach for promotional messages than MarComm pros do in advertising. 

So, in facing down the menace that is your annual benefits enrollment, think about what it took to encourage that action in timely fashion. Then be glad you weren’t the one responsible for making it happen.

Published on: Monday, November 17th, 2014

A tale of two concierge desks

Establishing brand expectations represents a “must do” in order to get someone to try your product or service, but delivering on those expectations may be even more important.  Those expectations must be set so that the customer continues to believe the brand promise in every encounter with your offering.

Consider some experiences from a recent one-week trip to Orlando. I stayed at two resort hotels: the first being the Hilton Grand Vacation Club at Sea World, and the other was “On Property” at a major entertainment mecca I’ll call Mouseville. (To paraphrase my mother: If you can’t say anything nice… don’t provide a link.)

The Mouseville brand has been cultivated as the penultimate in leisure and entertainment experiences, claiming that its “cast” will always go the extra mile for guests in every interaction. Even though a majority of cast members exemplified the brand as projected, many just seemed exhausted by their roles, and “costumes” often seemed forlorn and worn in a disheveled way. A number of Mouesvillians were outright grumpy.

The resort concierge desks represent a good encapsulation of brand fulfillment, and a perfect opportunity for contrast. 

As someone who must eat gluten-free (GF) for health reasons, I went to the Mouseville concierge desk the first night after viewing the menu in the dining hall and not finding a proper sit-down restaurant. Upon asking “Is there a place to eat other than the cafeteria? I have gluten issues and don’t see anything on the menu I can eat,” I was told there was no other restaurant, but to talk to a chef, “… not one of the costumed cast, they don’t know anything.” (A. There is a sit down restaurant 100 feet from the concierge desk, just not well identified.  B. Nice support of your coworkers.) A second individual joined in to help me and provided a freshly printed list of GF foods at all the destinations in the park. Unfortunately, it had not been updated since 2007. Enough said.

On the night before leaving the resort, I joined my wife, who was asking a stoic concierge about paying to stay a few extra hours in our room. She told us how much it would be, we agreed to the charge, and she went off to find out why she was getting an error message in setting it up. She returned to tell us that because the hotel was completely booked, we could not extend our time in the room. Rather than attempt to make other arrangements or suggestions, at that point she simply stared at us, like an animatronic figure that had reached the end of its performed task. Meanwhile, the other three clerks milled about chatting with each other. Over-staffed and underperforming, this team was among the worst concierge people I have experienced anywhere.

By contrast, the Hilton also had multiple people managing its two desks during our stay.  We realized the second day that we had been treating the events desk the same as the “real” concierge desk. In spite of our error, no one at the desk ever sent us away.  Rather, they made sure absolutely every question was answered and need fulfilled before leaving their care – even when it was outside the boundaries of the resort. Isn’t that the purpose of a concierge?

These experiences with resort staff were not particularly extraordinary for any hotel chain of that stature, but in recent years Hilton has applied its brand to various levels of accommodations. The association of the Hilton brand with Doubletree hotels, for instance, raises my expectations of service there. While I would not be surprised to receive extraordinary service in any Hilton property, the bar has been set within reason – leaving room for staff and management to “wow” even the most demanding and jaded traveler.

Our friends in Mouseville have established expectations of exemplary experiences for everyone… a difficult thing to achieve under the best circumstances, and more difficult to maintain over time. That doesn’t take anything magical, but it does require a great deal of stamina on the part of marketing to assure that every customer interaction meets the standards (and perhaps more marketing cops watching the customer service people).

I’m always behind the idea of more opportunities for marketers, but it might make more sense to manage customer expectations. 

Published on: Friday, October 17th, 2014

How enterprising of you!

In the TV news business, when a reporter “enterprises” a story it means the person has developed and delivered material that otherwise would have gone unnoticed. This may be an in-depth profile of a homeless family that turns into a one-hour special, or even an investigative report that reveals a whistle blower on an issue, generating a thread of news across all media outlets.

The enterprised story begins with an idea – a realization that something of value deserves attention. However, simply identifying these hidden opportunities does not represent the prize. The enterprising bit comes through gathering information and then working to find ways to pull all the elements together practically to make a compelling story – and knowing what message goes with it. Following through on this effort generally takes some element of passion for the story from the reporter, and some tie-in with the goals of the news organization.

Think about that process through the lens of entrepreneurship. The idea, however revolutionary or valuable to a target market, cannot stand on its own to reach fruition.  Successful entrepreneurship requires commitment, work, passion and, most importantly, an understanding of the mechanics of ushering the idea to practical and profitable delivery.

Every professional communicator exercises some level of these entrepreneurial skills on a daily basis. Certainly some do this more effectively than others, but the simple act of formulating a creative approach to a communication issue or even developing message strategy demands creativity; understanding of the value proposition; commitment; work; passion; and the knowledge of the practical elements necessary to deliver the communication.

Like reporters and entrepreneurs, many “stories” generated by communicators never go much beyond the excitement of ideation. But like great entrepreneurs and journalists, excellent communication practitioners generate many possible solutions and think each through the process of execution. 

The most savvy communicators and entrepreneurs also understand that any idea (regardless of how dear it has become to its creator) must be sidelined at the point in the process where the return on investment of effort or cash no longer makes sense.  For both groups this can be the most challenging part of the process.

Still, when someone manages to take a business or message to a place no one has gone before, it can seem like magic…even if we know it’s really more about where the audience is standing and how hard we worked to position the mirrors.

Published on: Thursday, September 18th, 2014

Success measured in verbs?

This month I have been serving as a judge for a Public Relations Society of America chapter awards competition in another state. One particular submission captured the essence of a common problem in communication planning and, ultimately, in measuring the success of that communication.

In the planning portion of the award submission, judges look specifically for objectives that are SMART: Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely. One submission relating the planning for a promotional event for a consumer product had five objectives, each centered on an operative verb: drive; celebrate; leverage; inspire and build.

What the team intended to drive, celebrate, leverage, inspire and build ends up being immaterial, because no quantifiable measure was associated with any of the objectives. 

Each objective certainly represented an element important to delivering real value in the campaign. Without some measure of substance, however, how can the team prove the worth of the effort and themselves?

Further, some objectives in other submissions included things such as “increase awareness by 25%” – because the creators knew someone (whether boss, client or judge) would be looking for a number. However, most neglected to provide a baseline. This was especially true with awareness; it appeared most were just guessing awareness was zero, or similar to some unrelated number they had in other research.

Assuring your planning has measurable objectives and realistic means of validation could develop from the verbs professional writers infuse into plans. Start by devising one simple thing you can count that might show movement or change. This can be easy for verbs such as drive, build or leverage through numbers of clips, hits, mentions, tweets or whatever.

But how might you quantify celebrate and inspire? The first answer may be “These are not the objectives we’re looking for.  Move along.” However, the number of celebrants, or indications of inspiration, might actually be tangible. Maybe you can find substance by looking beyond the number of individual tweets to the content of the posts: “Inspire customers to increase the number of fan soup recipes from 4% to 30% of all tweets.”

The critical element for professional communicators: consider and establish measureable goals first, and write a plan with compelling language afterword.

Published on: Wednesday, August 20th, 2014

Two eyes, One perspective

Most people write from a single perspective… their own. The professional communicator attempts to write from many different perspectives, taking on the “voice” of others:  the CEO, the marketing leadership or “the organization.”

Consider the complexity of shedding one’s natural perspective and attempting to wriggle that perspective into the mindset of another person, consistently. 

How much more difficult must it be to immerse the writing mind into the persona of a shapeless organization – which in actuality has a perspective shaped by the current leadership, but also by its past. The truly excellent business writer lends an ability to decipher the culture of the company – old and new – allowing the outward “face” of the organization to take substantive form.

Balancing all these elements and weaving together an appropriately representative narrative merely represent a starting point for the writer. On top of this confluence of thought, every corporate writer must focus on the intended message and, more importantly, the targeted audience.

In this last bit, even the most gifted communicators face the ultimate dilemma of developing messages in the 21st century: infinite diversity of audiences and respective perspectives. The professional scribe for the majority of organizations likely has at least one college degree, and in spite of the associated college debt, relative affluence compared to at least some of the people who might read any message.

So what?  This means that more than half of all people who may come in contact with the carefully crafted narrative will potentially have drastically different interpretations of the message based solely on socio-economic factors. This says nothing of religious, ethnic or other influences that may cross the lines of money, education and other forms of social power.

It is almost impossible for a writer to completely account for the many nuances of audience interpretation. This means that many readers will misinterpret any given message based on their unique perspectives. While some may believe this to be justifiable if those readers are not part of the target audience, one should consider that others who read the material have the potential to react to the message if read. This reaction may be positive, negative or neutral. There is the potential that a few of these unintended audience members may have strong opinions about your message, and in the age of social media, this means in minutes your message can be under scrutiny nationwide.

What began as a writer’s challenge has then evolved into a communication management issue. Communication leaders must decide, quickly, whether a misinterpretation warrants response, reformation, retraction or disregard. 

Certainly not every message will devolve into a social media squabble, but two things can help: writers must consider (to the best of realistic possibility) the potential interpretations of a message by peripheral audiences that will be exposed to a message; and communication managers should consider various scenarios that might arise and have plans for multiple responses.

Published on: Monday, July 14th, 2014

Dis close to right

Recently, Jim Lukeszewski (world-renowned crisis communication consultant and co-author of the current code of ethics for the Public Relations Society of America) asked me to contribute to the process of creating a new “Ethics Standard Advisory” from the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards. This ESA, a supplement to the code of ethics, regards disclosure. In this context, disclosure means providing relevant information about an organization or crisis in both a timely and complete manner.

Most professional communication practitioners advocate for disclosure, but the ethical question becomes just how much, and what, should be disclosed – and when. Many stakeholders outside an organization’s leadership demand unequivocal revelation of information, particularly in instances where the stakeholder perceives some level of crisis.   

In our discussions of the ESA, it seemed prudent to preface any ethics discussion with exposition of the times when disclosure clearly is not possible. Jim suggested these situations can be considered “Process Nondisclosure.”

Process Nondisclosure represents situations where conditions exist that legally preclude disclosure, and therefore do not represent “unethical nondisclosures.” These include: material information about publicly held companies (insider information); institutional secrecy, i.e. grand jury proceedings, police reports in criminal matters or personal information related to employment; proprietary information in commerce; court ordered non-disclosure; privileged communications; various classifications of secret government information; and officially sealed records and data.

While some people may bristle at not being provided information legally protected in the situations suggested above, the really messy part begins on the edges of legitimately withheld information. Especially in a crisis, once individual judgment of organizational leadership comes into play, the true transparency of the firm will be revealed.

In any question of disclosure, one needs to differentiate between what any stakeholder may “need or should have to inform their decisions, plans and actions” and what these individuals have a “right” to know. Certainly a consumer or other community member endangered by a firm’s product or actions should have the “right” to know post haste, but in many instances that individual’s desire to inform decisions, plans and actions for personal gain may not represent a “right.”

The demands of stakeholders (activists and media primarily) on companies in crisis to disclose the unknown or even unknowable details of an incident create great consternation for me. Certainly being forthright trumps hiding the truth, but there appears to be ever stronger pressure on firm spokespeople to speculate and prostrate themselves before all the facts become available. No one wins when this happens.

Published on: Tuesday, June 17th, 2014

Service with a smile… no, a request

Let me begin by making it clear: Nancy’s service to us was excellent. Bear in mind, we were a couple who marched into a major retailer knowing full well we would be walking out with a receipt for four major appliances. From our first words, Nancy knew she wasn’t going to be wasting time on window shoppers, for whom she appears to have developed the patience of a biblical character. All things considered, we spent more time at the register trying to get all the coupons and discounts straight than committing to models and handle styles (if you have ever experienced true love or a kitchen remodel, you know about the struggles of commitment).

As the 36-inch register tape was stapled into the little folder containing our assurances of delivery and extended warranty information, Nancy slipped in THE request, as she circled a URL on the paper. You know the question: “Would you mind taking a few minutes to visit this site and provide an evaluation on your experience today?”

Then Nancy added the little hook that landed her story here. “You know, anything less than a 10 is a failing grade for me.” 

First of all, on what planet is 9 on a scale of 10 “failing?”  Second of all, and more importantly, what is the value of the data gathered if the call to action predisposes the participant to only give the highest rating? Third, what is the likelihood that Nancy or her colleagues remind customers to complete the survey if it seemed like the sales process was less than stellar?

This isn’t an uncommon or even new situation. I get the same comments from my service advisor at the car dealership. Having worked in the late ‘80s with dealers on “CSI ratings” (Customer Satisfaction Index – common to all the leading brands), I know the evolution to Nancy’s request began a long time ago. That doesn’t make it sensible or right.

The real irony is for service people like Nancy. She would have gotten mostly 10 scores from us without the request. Assuming her colleagues make the same plea, this only serves to mask the really excellent performers – clouding and/or lowering the bar of expectation overall.

Not sure that’s what the people analyzing the data had in mind.

Published on: Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

Etiquette for fun and profit

Back in the dark ages of the 1980s, I did my first hiring of people while still an undergrad and was trained to regard all the candidates with respect.  That meant the ones that were clearly not qualified, but especially those with whom we had interviews that did not get selected for positions.  We sent letters to people as soon as possible once a decision was made, regardless of whether the outcome was positive or negative. 

By 1986 I was responsible for hiring, training and managing nearly 350 people – including 15 supervisors.  Again, that process included respectful and prompt handling of both those we wanted to hire and those best suited for other employment (sometimes elsewhere in the organization).  So everyone got letters regarding outcomes, and in hiring supervisors, those who did not get promoted learned of that fact in face-to-face meetings. 

In the decades since, there has been a marked decline in the respect afforded candidates.  During periods of my own job search in the 1990’s, it appeared to be the poor behavior of certain firms at which I interviewed.  Unfortunately, it seems to have been a trend across all organizations.  Whether facilitated by the advent of email and the Internet, legal counsel advising against some forms of communication, or other cultural factors, the net result remains saddening.

The worst part of this situation stems from the fact that while managers and HR people at organizations large and small attempt to be insulated from having to personally or even electronically give people bad news, their organizations suffer diminished reputation in the process.  Interviewing people and then never communicating again, with a “they’ll figure it out” attitude, deeply changes the perspective of your 2nd, third and other level candidates.  Certainly each ignored candidate represents only one stakeholder of the many thousands or millions the organization serves, but how much might it truly cost the firm for managers to act in this cowardly way?

Imagine your firm is a service company that survives by conducting a dozen or more major projects in a year.  After interviewing candidates for a project management position, you choose to hire one of five candidates who came in for interviews with three or four people at the firm.  In the old world I knew, the day the position was accepted we would send letters informing the other four candidates.  Today, most people just ignore the other candidates and hope eventually the rejected folks stop making inquiries about the process.  The assumption appears to be that these people are low level workers and have no influence or status that warrants the courtesy of an acknowledgement that a decision has been made.

What if one of those individuals goes on to work for a company that your firm will likely pitch in a few years?  What if another one has a family member who is a decision maker or key influencer at one of your prospective customers?  Maybe a third has a grandfather who golfs with one of your current clients?  What if the last one has nothing to lose and starts a social media barrage against your firm?

Only one of those potential pains will ever appear on your radar, but all could cost your firm money.  If you are absolutely confident your current customers will always be sufficient to meet your income goals, or you don’t plan for the business to grow in the future, none of the potential issues mentioned will matter.  Otherwise, investing a few moments to complete and send an email form letter in timely fashion seems like a pretty good communication investment.  Especially if you are among the minority of firms that continue to treat people as important.

Published on: Thursday, March 13th, 2014