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The message you didn’t know you sent

February 17, 2012

Closed-door meetings. Extra “suits” wandering around. A sudden flurry of communications.

As we help organizations communicate with employees, one issue that regularly rises to the top is the unintended communication that results from little changes in office routine.

Think about it: Nothing sends a wave through an organization faster than a bunch of C-level leaders and VPs scurrying from office to office for closed-doors huddles. When they emerge with eyes down and manila folders in hand, they can cause more panic than any shout of “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater.

Want to generate more fear and loathing? March a bunch of outside white-collar types through the workplace without introducing them to anyone. Or suddenly send an unprecedented amount of email to staff about long-ignored workplace rules and regulations. Start measuring offices.

Of course, you could have plenty of perfectly innocent reasons for these activities. Maybe your leadership team is dealing with a sensitive but meaningless financial matter. Maybe those “suits” represent a potential client. Maybe those extra emails get the firm caught up on legally required communications. Maybe you’re ordering new carpet.

The problem is, if you don’t let your people know those perfectly innocent reasons, they’ll speculate. And that can lead to all kinds of problems. As we like to say (and we’re not the first), into every communications void will flow speculation and gossip … generally followed by panic and anger.

The good news is, these problems are easily avoided. How?

  • Awareness. As a leader, always be aware of ways you and the leadership team might be sending unintended messages.
  • Transparency. Let everyone know what’s going on. Send out an email saying, “You’ll see some new faces around the office today …” or “Over the next few days, you’ll be getting some emails about …”
  • Honesty.  If there is something about which you can’t be open, let people know. To calm concerns, have managers deliver the message in team meetings or one-on-one: “Over the next week, I’ll be involved in meetings about a sensitive subject. It’s nothing for you to worry about, but I am going to be a little preoccupied. I’ll fill you in on details as soon as I can.”
  • Consistency. If you almost never communicate with your people, they’ll come to think of communication as something that carries bad news. To avoid this, create consistent communication vehicles – a regular email, scheduled employee meetings, etc. – so you’ll have built-in opportunities to deliver all manner of messages. That way, your people won’t live in fear of that “email from corporate.”

Sure, it’s work. Sure, it requires a little extra time and energy when you’ve got other things on your plate. But look at it this way: You can spend the time to do it right now, or you can spend the time later to repair the damage of unintended communications.  I bet you can guess which is easier.


Make the case

January 24, 2012


Really, that’s the big question we face every time we try to push audiences into action … whether we’re trying to get them to buy a product, attend an event, care about an issue, purchase a service, or anything else. We must be prepared to answer the question, “Why?”

Why should I buy that? Why should I attend? Why should I care? Why should I [fill in the blank]?

As persistent as this question is, though, it seldom looms larger than when we’re asking someone to give money to a nonprofit organization. And that, my friends, is why a good case statement is so important. At the simplest level, it answers one question: “Why should I support this organization?”

I could spend hundreds of words discussing the art and nuance of the case statement; however, in this post I’m addressing only the basic elements of the case statement. Before I do, though, I should acknowledge the book Writing for a Good Cause, by Joseph Barbato and Danielle S. Furlich. This smart guide to writing for nonprofits was given to me recently by a client as we launched a case statement project and, while much of the information in the book was not new to me, I found that Barbato and Furlich do a tremendous job of articulating and organizing ideas and practices that I, through experience and good instruction, have come to simply “know.”

For me, the case statement process comes down to successfully performing four simple jobs:

Present basic information about the organization. Give the reader access to simple facts such as history, focus, programs and activities, and the people who make it all happen.

Present the vision. Describe the philosophy behind what the organization does, the challenges it faces and the way that the world/community/society benefits because this organization exists.

Be blunt but visionary about the financial request. Some organizations want to be coy about numbers – they hesitate to say how much they want. But a good case statement is clear about goals. It puts the numbers in print – both the big bottom lines and the subtotals for projects or program areas. It also describes financial hurdles the organization faces, the impact a gift can make, the benefits of giving (including naming opportunities, perks or access that can come with a gift), and the ambition aspirations tied to the money you’re asking for now.

Frame it all in compelling copy. Build your case on a theme that’s memorable and succinct. Tell your “Where we came from, where we’re going” story, and share stories of impact and potential impact. Most important, bring your case to life by sharing stories of real people who benefit from your organization. Finally, put it in the context of your audience(s), so they know how the organization affects their lives.

With these four components, you will have the pieces you need to assemble a solid case statement … so long as you infuse them with solid information, sound rationale and a certain amount of storytelling artistry.

A good case statement moves and informs. It appeals to both intellect and emotion. It moves both heart and mind. And, through this blend, it achieves one simple goal: answering the question, “Why?”

That audience you see every day

January 16, 2012

It happens over and over: We ask new clients about the audiences they need to reach in order to achieve their objectives, and they quickly zero in on potential clients and customers. Then they talk about collaborators and marketplace influencers. Then, as an afterthought, they might mention employees.

Usually, this isn’t because there is some desire NOT to communicate with employees. It’s just that, when these clients focus on making sales and closing deals, they too often take their own people for granted. They assume they’re onboard and now what they need to know.

And then they wonder why their people say things like, “I don’t know what our company’s strategy is,” or “I really can’t say what our priorities are now.”

Your people need to know where you’re headed and what role they play in the bigger picture. And they won’t get that information unless you give it to them, clearly, concisely and without “spin.”

It’s not difficult to do this, but it does require time, forethought and faith in your people to put the information to work. It also requires adhering to a few simple rules — which I offer here, as “John’s Rules for Internal Communications.”

  1. Tell employees everything you can when you can.
  2. Don’t lie. (This might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many organizations justify lying to employees, or at least not telling the full truth.)
  3. Tell employees first – before anyone outside the company’s walls – and never let them learn anything about the      organization through the media unless it is absolutely unavoidable (for public companies, for example, legal or SEC regs sometimes dictate timing, and all organizations could encounter a rare exception based on business developments or relationships … however, even in those cases, employees must be informed as soon as is legal and feasible).
  4. Never put out vague or incomplete communications – you’ll raise more questions than you answer.
  5. Never leave employees to draw their own conclusions.
  6. Understand that any information void will fill quickly with rumor, speculation and gossip.
  7. Treat employees like adults – give them bad news as well as good news. Be clear, don’t sugarcoat, don’t try to sell them on a particular point of view.
  8. Always assume that a question raised by a number of employees is on the minds of many more – but don’t respond on a global scale to a localized problem – and always be prepared to answer calmly and directly the most cynical questions.
  9. Overcommunicate … but remember that burying employees in useless information will dull their senses to real information.
  10. Consider: Is there a chance I will regret what I am saying? Will I have to eat my words, or explain myself later?

Looking at this list recently, I’ve been inclined to add a new rule: Go with the flow in terms of communications vehicles. Learn how your employees like to get information, and then provide it that way. Communications is an ever-changing process. Adapt and assess, and repeat as needed.

PR: Get a clue

November 30, 2011

It stings, but we have to admit that it is far too accurate …

The book The Cluetrain Manifesto says this about public relations: “The PR version of the Titanic story would be headlined ‘705 delighted passengers arrive after the Titanic’s maiden voyage.’”

I wish we could categorically deny that charge, but we’ve seen too many PR practitioners who would happily gloss over the truth in order to “stick to the talking points,” “stay on message” and “deflect negatives.” Then they wonder why the media and the public have such a low opinion of the PR profession.

Unfortunately, those practitioners have forgotten one important truth. In the end, we’re all – the media, the public and PR pros – after the same thing: the delivery of information.

Over the past couple of decades, of course, the nature of how information gets delivered has changed. Once upon a time, the world relied almost exclusively on media outlets to deliver information. The PR industry developed as a link between those who have the messages and those who deliver the messages. In the most cynical view, the profession was built around the effort to manipulate the media; in more idealistic eyes, it was built around a desire to smooth the message-delivery process and ensure the right information gets into the marketplace.

For a while, the Internet promised to eliminate that tension. By giving communicators more direct access to the public, it eliminated the need to use the media as an outlet. We quickly discovered, though, that the public still puts great value in third-party sources … it’s just that now those third-party sources include bloggers, web reviews, comment boards and Tweets as well as traditional media.

Which means PR types still need to act as intermediaries. Which means they need to continue to practice good PR … and not employ the kind of tactics that so annoy the Cluetrain folks: burying editors, bloggers, et al., with useless press releases; spinning devastating situations into positive stories; holding “news conferences” when there isn’t any news; expecting the world to be interested in every word they issue simply because they issue it; concocting quotes from people they’ve never spoken to; hiding information in jargon and hyperbole … the list goes on and on.

What should they do instead? They could start by adhering to The Cluetrain Manifesto’s list of what good PR professionals do every day:

Study the audience and offer what the audiences wants to know. “Their job—their craft—is to discern stories the market actually wants to hear,” the authors say.

Make it easy to get information. Some “flacks” are expert at hiding information rather than providing it. The best ones know how to make information easily accessible and, in fact, send it out to the people who want it rather than waiting for them to ask for it.

Guide their organizations. They don’t just take orders; they play strategic roles in their organizations, and they argue for the cause of candor and authenticity when others try to introduce jargon, complexity and obfuscation into the conversation.

Start conversations. The best PR pros don’t act as information barriers or gatekeepers; they put meaningful information out into the world so people can have real conversations about their clients’ products, services, causes, etc. Because, after all, starting a conversation is what it’s all about.

Simply put, PR is a function of assistance. It helps get information out in order to help organizations, people, causes, etc. – whether that’s through traditional media, internet outlets, word of mouth, or whatever. View it any other way, and you’re, well, clueless.

Good anecdotes gone bad: Surveys

September 28, 2011

A few months ago, we wrote about the power of anecdotes (Anecdotes all around you — put them to work), describing how stories engage audiences more effectively than stats and leave more lasting impressions than data. Since then, we’ve been reminded of one setting in which anecdotal information can get in the way: the survey.

We’ve noticed this with a number of organizations. Good for-profit and not-for-profit organizations occasionally plan surveys to learn what their customers, employees or other audiences think. When the surveys are conducted and the results are in, a team reviews the data, crunches the numbers and recommends changes that will address problems or build on strengths.

So far so good. Unfortunately, too often, just as this process is winding up, someone on the board or in the front office gets a copy of the survey report and reads the responses to open-ended questions … and everything gets messy. Why? Because they read a few compelling individual concerns or complaints and they want to “fix” them.

As a result, an organization, hypothetically, might learn that 90 percent of employees love the soap in the restrooms, but one person got a nasty rash from it, another gets sick when she smells it, and another thinks it’s ridiculous that the company is spending so much money on soap when employees could just bring their own (admit it: There’s one in every office).

OK: That’s an exaggeration, but we have seen plenty of situations in which the majority of respondents are happy with a policy or program, but one  or two comments grabs a leader’s attention enough to make him or her wonder if some companywide change is in order.

While this individual concern is admirable (better to have that problem than have to deal with leaders who don’t care about people), it can throw one heck of a monkey wrench into a carefully crafted process. In fact, as we work with organizations planning to conduct surveys, we often suggest that they avoid       open-ended questions or, if they feel such questions are necessary, that they not let their leaders see the answers.

All of which begs the question: Should open-ended questions even be included on surveys? On a limited basis, maybe, because they can help provide context for trends revealed in data. But they should not be a big part of your survey, because they seldom lend themselves to quantification and metrics (that is what surveys are for) and they too often distract from the real information.

So, does this contradict what we wrote back in January? No. In fact, we would suggest that it proves that anecdotes are far more powerful than stats. As a result, once you have your survey results and you’re preparing your report, definitely quote respondents’ comments that support the prevailing results, but — after careful and sensitive review — downplay comments that contradict a survey’s finding.

Measuring the impact of storytelling

September 15, 2011

As previous posts demonstrate, we believe in the power of storytelling. We know from experience that a story about one individual can make a greater impact that the most startling and well-researched statistics.

So, I guess it’s a little ironic that we turn to research to prove our point. But, then again, we also believe that you need to test strategies to ensure their validity.

Which brings us to the results of a 2006 study. We had heard of this study some time ago, but were reminded of it while reading The Hole in Our Gospel by World Vision President Richard Stearns. For the study performed by researchers Paul Slovic, Deborah
Small and George Lowenstein, a study group was divided into three subgroups:

  • Group A read about and saw a picture of Rokia, a poor and starving 7-year-old African girl.
  • Group B was given a statistical overview of 17 million Africans who, as a result of crop failures and food shortages, were desperately hungry, and another 4 million who were homeless.
  • Group C received both Rokia’s story and the statistical overview supplied to Group B.

All three groups were then asked to donate money to relieve the suffering. Which group do you think gave the most? Yep: Group A. The least? You guessed it: Group C.

Story matters … and not just to those of us who make our livings telling stories or to our clients, but most of all to the people whose stories we tell.

In other words, if you want to help somebody, tell his or her story. If you want to help a lot of people, tell that same story.

Lessons learned from a ‘failure’

September 2, 2011

By John B. Thomas

Technically, I suppose, it’s a failure.

My friend Bruce announced this week that he’s shuttering his 18-year-old business. Once the state’s second-largest PR firm (and my employer), Hetrick Communications played a role in business-changing marketing campaigns and big-impact public service initiatives. At the same time, the firm navigated a topsy-turvy economy, adapted to an evolving marketing/communications world and embraced business risks.

Along the way, it taught me and a bunch of other folks a heckuva lot about communicating.

I arrived at Hetrick thinking I was pretty smart. From Day One, I discovered I had a lot to learn. While I couldn’t possibly list everything I learned under the tutelage of Bruce, his late wife Pam Klein, the remarkable (and lovable) Jen Schmits Thomas and others, here are a few lesson I find myself repeating to clients, colleagues and young up-and-comers.

  • It’s about the benefits. When I got to Hetrick, my instinct was to promote clients by talking about things like awards, “unique” products and rapid growth. Bruce redirected my thinking. “Less chest thumping, more about what they do for their customers,” he’d say. “What do people get from our client?”
  • Good writing matters. Take the time to look for the right word. Polish. Edit. Use verbs. Love words.
  • Sometimes, you’ve got to kill your babies. It’s a pretty crude way to say it, but, here’s the thing: Generally speaking, less is more, and, sometimes, to get the right “less” you have to sacrifice your favorite elements – that sparkling turn of phrase, that artistic photo or that clever design. As Bruce and Pam would point out, it’s not about you or your “babies.” It’s about what works for the client.
  • Maintain relationships. OK: hard truth. Not everyone who took a desk at Hetrick found it to be a paradise. In the course of the firm’s 18 years, a few folks left on bad terms. But I was amazed at how often Bruce would have lunch or meet with one of those folks after they left. No one leads a business without chasing a few people off, but Bruce seldom burned bridges.
  • Admit mistakes. When I talked with Bruce earlier this week, I suggested that the economy did him in. He refused to take the bait. Sure, the economy played a role, he said, but he could also look back and see how his own choices and mistakes contributed to the sad conclusion.
  • Take a risk (or “Accept Reality, Part II”). A few years ago, when I was in a leadership position at Hetrick, we made some business decisions that, in retrospect, probably were wrong. As such, I accept some responsibility for the firm’s demise. But Bruce and I had a number of chats that could be summed up as, “Well, we’re taking a big risk, but it’s what we need to do to keep the firm moving forward.” As another mentor, Jeff Smulyan, once told me, “If you’re not failing every once in a while, you’re not trying.”
  • Measure what matters. Want to make Bruce happy? Ask him how much money he’s helped nonprofits raise for their causes. Sure, he also can describe how he helped add to for-profits’ bottom lines, but he loves helping a nonprofit make an impact.
  • Tell stories. Want to sell your product or service to the world? Don’t talk about its features; tell stories about how it  changed lives. Remember: People forget facts and figures; they remember (and retell) stories.
  • Touch hearts. … and how do you get people to remember stories? Touch their hearts. Draw forth a tear, spark a giggle, kindle a warm feeling … then you’ll get your point across.
  • Hire for talent, train for tasks. Bruce overlooked my considerable shortcomings as a communicator because he believed in me as a writer. Then he taught me more than I ever could have learned in a college PR program. For that, and for the friendship that evolved from our collaborations, I am truly grateful.

While I appreciate these and other lessons, I appreciate even more the fact that I’m not the only one who learned these lessons. Every person who walked through Hetrick with a willingness to learn did learn. And now those people are working in agencies, organizations, governments, nonprofits, mom-and-pop PR firms and more, helping to tell stories and make a difference.

If every “failure” can have that kind of impact, then we certainly could use a few more.