The University of St. Thomas

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

And the survey says…

The long running game show “Family Feud” has long made entertainment out of survey data. Businesses, organizations and students attempt to make sense from similar data. The problem facing researchers: too many researchers.

Before getting too deep into this tirade, for context you should know that my first job out of college was as a field interviewer conducting surveys for Burke Market Research. I believe audience research represents a core element of any viable communication strategy; I sit on the advisory board of Quirk’s Publishing, which serves the professional market research community; and since coming to the UST MBC, about half of the nearly 200 final research projects I have supervised included survey research. In short, I am a fan of good survey data.

In recent years, my email seems to attract at least one survey request a day (often more). Every grocery and restaurant receipt includes an invitation to participate in a survey. Most purchases online offer the same, and some even force some level of participation. Many use incentives from discounts to drawings to induce engagement.  There are only so many times in a day when people can justify “…a few minutes of your time to complete our survey, so we can better serve you.”

Add to this deluge of click-button information gathering the most potentially damaging genre of survey research: homespun surveys made “easy” through tools such as Survey Monkey. To these well-intentioned inquisitors I have only to suggest that simply because I can wear a bikini on the beach does not mean it has the same impact as when a Sports Illustrated model does so.

The result of this over saturation becomes progressively lower engagement rates.  While this is of no concern to the monkey-shiners, professional and academic researchers have reason for concern. Poor participation means poor data or increased cost in order to get sufficient samples to assure data quality.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a panacea to offer that will make your next survey participation rate skyrocket. I do have a thought on the “quality” issue, however. Even though qualitative interviews will never provide data generalizable across large universes of individuals, from an applied perspective the activity may offer a general idea of what quantitative measures might show.  Plus, interviews often provide new insights beyond the perspective of the researcher.

Pulling together enough participants to conduct good interviews can be fast and fascinating. If nothing else, it can reduce the number of survey questions you ask and help refine those that are left. Case in point: I had planned to include a link to a survey about your satisfaction with this blog, but after asking a few people around the office, decided I didn’t really want to know.

Published on: Monday, February 17th, 2014

Did you get that? Oh yah, you betcha.

Most people talk to themselves, regardless of whether the intended audience is a family member, neighbor, co-worker or the dog.  In other words, the golden rule of human communication tends to be: speak unto others as you would have them speak unto you. 

That’s great if you never go far from the street on which you grew up, but that bias works progressively less well the further one gets from “home.” 

For the professional communicator, the luxury of assuming everyone receiving a message is “like me” never resonates as reality, but the truth today goes almost beyond comprehension.  Whether an announcement to the press or a 140-character social media post, the world could be listening (or at least the NSA).  So what does that mean to the creator of the message?

First, it means knowing your “real” audiences. That takes identification of the multiple stakeholders critical to the strategic purpose of your organization, and then thoughtfully building a hierarchy of those people for the message in development. 

Part of that message content prioritization depends on the channel via which the message travels. For instance, perhaps your primary audience doesn’t use Twitter much, but the secondary audience lives by it. Time to lean in to the second string.

For each audience, the thorough communicator wants to know as much as possible. A significant part of that knowledge should entail not only how the individuals consume information and via what platforms, but also what “language” they use. Are these people using street slang or techno-speak of their own?

If this sounds like work, consider that much of the real effort comes next, because it requires change on the part of the writer. A great communication professional must become fluent in the language of each key audience. While it may be impractical for the strategic leader to actually craft content across these nuanced iterations, as the decision maker, that individual must engage support personnel who can and learn to discern the differences.

What if the language is literally different than yours? Who can you get to assure an absolutely accurate translation of your meaning from Minnesotan to Swahili?  It may take time and energy, but if that African audience is critical to reach, the effort will be well placed.

Published on: Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

Lurking or Working?

Some time ago, I wrote a case study about the UST MBC program and submitted it to an academic journal. One of the reviewers took issue with the idea that this program aims, in part, to develop advisers to C-suite leaders. The reader angrily asserted that it was terrible to be “limiting” the prospects of students by implying that they would not be qualified to be in the C-suite themselves. 

The assumption in this argument boils down to the idea that every graduate business student should aspire to hold the most senior roll in the firm. While it might be imprudent of me to speak on behalf of all communication people, the vast majority of MBC students and my colleagues over 30 years do NOT hold such aspirations.

Again, I can’t speak for all professional communicators on the subject, but can assure you that I have never wanted to be the CEO of a large organization. I do, however, gain great satisfaction from advising those who act in that role. I also miss the days of ghostwriting articles and speeches – playing my part in the shadow of others.

What I learned in that shade was that sometimes the person in the spotlight can only see so far in front of the stage. As an adviser, the presence of the leader in the limelight afforded me the ability to see some things beyond the glare, and the chance to call attention to the issue off stage. This perspective often contributed to change, although in subtle ways and rarely with any acknowledgement. That comes with the role.

In advisory roles, one must nurture personal satisfaction that can be sustained by self-acknowledgement of contributions and successes. This type of role is not for everyone, but neither is that of CEO.

 

Published on: Monday, December 16th, 2013

Who made this cookie?

In a recent discussion in my Strategic Writing course, we considered a company called Mondelēz International.  Actually, we started by looking at a snack-sized package of Oreo® cookies.  The point of the dialogue was to consider what  “corporate” messaging  means to a copywriter in the marketing department asked to develop material geared to sell snack-packs? 

Now, you may not have heard of Mondelēz International, but if you took the time to click through on the link above, many of the brands featured in the animation will prove familiar.  And there in the midst is Oreo®, a product that still bears the Nabisco logo on the package (which ends up being a brand between other brands).  Further, if you look at the current packaging (which we did, and somehow the cookies never got back to me…), one can find the Kraft brand logo on the back.  This parent brand logo on the back wouldn’t even be worth mentioning if not for the fact that Kraft spun off its snack brands into a completely new and separate company in October 2012 – Mondelēz International.  So either the cookies we were working with were pretty old, or Mondelēz is taking its time working through the old packaging stock. But I digress.

Without taking time to dig deep into the online presence of Mondelēz, I asked the class to decide what underlying corporate message seemed evident from the one page we viewed and how it should impact the writing of cookie copy.  Someone noted that the type treatment of the corporate name looked European, and others noted the unfamiliar brands in the mix.  A quick look at the “Company Facts” yields the knowledge that 80% of Mondelēz sales are outside the U.S.

What this means to the cookie promoter writing for the domestic market is it may be in the greater interest of the company to infuse a tone that acknowledges this broader corporate identity.  While this may take the form, eventually, of a tagline (“Part of a world of snacks from Mondelēz International”), it may also be less obviously enforced in the choice of characters and storyline used (International travelers picking up familiar Oreos at U.S. airports). 

The ultimate point of course, is that even in the most granular product marketing message, there are elements that should be considered regarding how that message connects back to the image and brand positioning of the corporation.  Certainly we can sell cookies without acknowledging the parent firm, but that would be missing an opportunity.

Published on: Monday, October 28th, 2013

Clients, connections and creativity

Greetings from our guest blogger, Glenn Karwoski:

It’s not only the agency world that has clients – if you’re in a marketing communications function within a company, you have internal clients, and that’s a good mentality to have when it comes to producing great work.

A big part of doing great work is making meaningful connections. Connecting with your clients, whether internal or external, to make certain you’re asking the right questions and solving the right problem/challenge.

Great creative work is always rooted in great strategy, which begins with solving the right problem/challenge. The classic example being the railroad industry approaching strategy from a perspective of being in the railroad business, not grasping that they were in fact really in the transportation business.

People often ask if creativity and innovation are skill sets that can be taught and learned, or are people born creative or not. It can be taught and learned, and a significant factor in being more creative and innovative is the ability to be open to possibilities, and the ability to make connections.

The “sidewinder” missile system was developed when a scientist walking through a desert area saw a “sidewinder” snake, Crotalus cerastes, which senses its prey based on heat. The ability to connect the sensing physiology of the snake and apply it to a delivery mechanism of a missile led to a new, creative innovation. 

We become more creative when we can get beyond the obvious – beyond the obvious utility of things and see the different connections that are possible.

Research shows us that the most creative and innovative people have diverse networks of friends and colleagues – they connect with a wide variety of people and that enhances their ability to be creative and more innovative. The networks that students develop at St. Thomas helps them expand their life experiences and facilitates them being more creative and innovative individuals.

Glenn Karwoski

Karwoski & Courage

Opus college of Business, Adjunct Faculty

Published on: Tuesday, September 24th, 2013