Why Amputate a Communicator’s Added Value?

Knife on KeyboardWhen you book a painter, you don’t insist on adding your own strokes to their work. When you hire an accountant, you don’t recalculate depreciation in your own way, even if you excel at math. When you retain a lawyer, you don’t even expect to re-write sections of their work, even if you believe “everyone can write.”

Why then do many people feel compelled to make sweeping changes to the copy they approved an experienced business communicator or PR practitioner to write?

Here is what may be a well-kept secret: A skilled communicator delivers more than clear, concise and error-free writing. They tailor precise prose to resonate with their audience and achieve one step in a strategic series to meet specific objectives.

So when their copy is radically altered, consequences range from disjointed quality to a new meaning that undermines the reason for communicating in the first place. It’s like amputating a runner midway in the race.

If you’re a communicator, PR practitioner or similar, you know this firsthand but maybe we need to convey this message further. So here’s a partial list of the added value a communicator brings to writing. They…

  1. Sequence each point to tell a compelling and memorable story (ideally with their audience as a key character), versus a plethora of forgettable facts.
  2. Lead and end communications with positive messages or positioning, even if they must cover negative points within.
  3. Take a “devil’s advocate” approach to avoid any words our nuances that might confuse the reader or have a negative angle. For example, describing the “killer app” as such to a physician will not foster confidence. Similarly, it’s better to describe fertilizer as “granules” and save terms like “grains” for something edible.
  4. Aim for consistent terms, editorial conventions and metrics in all communications across the organization, target audience or strategy.  Also avoid using the same word or phrase for multiple meanings in the same document/presentation.
  5. Weed out phrases and terms that may conflict with the organization’s decision-makers, protocol or culture, even those with a subliminal impact.
  6. Apply affirmative words to convey a positive point, such as “safe,” versus relying on “not” to flip the meaning, as in “not dangerous.” This avoids giving the reader a negative cue or running the risk of the text being quoted with the “not” inadvertently dropped.
  7. Write like the audience speaks but avoid acronym clutter and define the few used, while keeping word count down.
  8. Identify any factual challenges, definitive or other statements that could pose issues down the line.
  9. Take steps to persuade the audience to respond as intended. This means focusing on benefits to the audience. It can also mean framing a complaint by: objectively describing the issue, defining impact on the reader and tactfully proposing a mutually palatable solution.
  10. Write for the current purpose but proactively consider how the text might be reused and build-in short-cuts. This includes constructing a speech with tweetable soundbites to writing punchy headings that transition smoothly from a white paper to a presentation.

If you’re a communicator and nodding in agreement, here’s a “Communicator’s Manifesto” with these points simplified and directed at your client/boss. So feel free to append/edit, as desired and ‘copy and paste’ next time you submit fresh or edited text to someone oblivious to your value-add. And tell me any pivotal points missed from this list.

For the rest, please safeguard your investment in a skilled communicator by revising for accuracy but avoiding amputation.

Advertisements

Great Content But Can Your Audience Find You?

Stone ArrowRecently I received an exhaustive URL to a great web page about a city’s new project. Then I looked for menu prompts to direct external visitors there but found none. Short of keying in a series of cryptic characters (which would look horrid in print), there was no way to find the page. Likewise, have you ever searched a website for an organization’s specific office or product and given up in frustration?

As communicators, we develop quality content and share it with our audiences, often using it to ignite conversations and engagement. But these efforts are in vain if a large segment of your audience doesn’t find you because the “path” is broken or desperately needs a renovation.

Sure you can fix website menus/links within your organization and use key words effectively but what about sites that others control?  Check how relevant third parties are representing your brand, if at all. You may find some surprises. I don’t mean media/blogger stories where editorial integrity has the last word and your organization’s core messages may never be conveyed verbatim. I’m thinking of websites/other digital properties owned by organizations affiliated with yours − so your brand has a legitimate reason to be there and properly represented.

For example, what if…

  • You manage communications for a public sector organization and your parent Ministry lists you on its website but with an outdated value proposition.
  • You work for a retailer that runs a customer loyalty program with a trusted vendor − but the vendor lists only a few of your participating stores on its promo web page, if at all.
  • Your socially responsible employer is actively dedicated to a cause; the recipient not-for-profit features all its corporate supporters on its web page, with links to their sites, but leaves yours off the roster.

Having lived each of these scenarios, I think it’s worth the time to occasionally retrace your audience’s steps to see how aligned stakeholders cite your brand on their sites.

To do a digital audit, run a:

  1. Manual check of all the relevant affiliate and stakeholder organization websites that should or could mention your brand.
  2. Google search and dig beyond the first couple of pages to find any gaps.
  3. Search on Bing/Yahoo or use other online tools to uncover missed opportunities.

If mentions or messages are amiss, you can outreach directly or use your contacts/networks to tactfully request changes.

More importantly, maybe it’s time to take a page from the social media best practice of “listening” to conversations and using what we hear to inform strategy.  We can do so by using this audit to find out why a mistake or omission occurred. Maybe your contact list is outdated, there is a major disconnect or a relationship gone amok?  With this insight, we can take steps to course correct or adjust our strategy for engaging that stakeholder as we move forward.

Do you do these checks? What works for you and what “surprises” have you uncovered?

eNewsletters: Constant Contact vs. Mail Chimp

ConstantContactSome time ago, I researched the merits of eNewsletter tools for a client, narrowing the choice down to: Constant Contact versus Mail Chimp.  I also discovered a few other tools in the process, such as iContact, which looks good but it forces its logo on your newsletter with no removal option.

In the end, we selected Mail Chimp, which
has a learning curve but proved effective.MailChimp

For the benefit of others seeking a cost-effective and professional solution for external or internal communications, I’m sharing my findings here.  (Click on the table to enlarge and then save the file, if desired.) I’ve also included links to various sources I consulted.  (Caveat: As this initial research was done in early 2012, some things may have changed. So if you discover any needed updates, please let me know.)

CCMC Comparison

Sources:

How to Communicate a Workplace Tragedy

Frontcover_April29As we approach International Day of Mourning on April 28, I recall a quick lesson in PR school on how to manage an employee’s death on the work site and how I hoped it was something I never had to do. So far, I haven’t.

A couple of years ago however, I learned much more about how best to deal with tragedy in the workplace,  from Shirley Hickman, a woman (and former client), who exemplifies the “integrity2impact” theme of this blog — out of a tragic loss.

In 1996, Shirley and her family’s lives changed forever when their son Tim perished after a traumatic workplace explosion. After the initial shock, the family looked for answers about what occurred and why. Beyond their own needs, they wanted to find out so they could help prevent a similar incident from happening to someone else. Sadly, they learned the explosion was predictable and preventable, if everyone had followed a series of safety rules.

Since then, Shirley has focused on making a difference in workplace health and safety through her own initiatives and Threads of Life – Association for Workplace Tragedy Family Support, a national registered charity, which she co-founded in 2003.

I met Shirley when I managed the PR launch of Forget Me Not, a book this charity produced to promote safer work environments through true stories of Canadian workplace tragedies. While doing background research, I found a noteworthy article entitled “Dealing with Affected Families,”  which appeared in Accident Prevention magazine. It outlines Shirley’s recommendations for communicating with this audience after a workplace tragedy/critical injury, as told to an interviewer.  Initially targeted at occupational health experts, I think these recommendations are also particularly pertinent to internal communicators and HR folks:

  1. Establish a communications link with the family as soon as possible – Contact the family as soon as the crisis communications team has assessed the situation and devised an action plan. Ideally assign one person to liaise with the family and keep them updated. The worst thing  Shirley said “is to leave the family to others, such as the Ministry of Labour….when that happens, the family becomes bitter towards the employer before they even know the facts.”
  2. Build compassion into crisis communications – Check what support services are available for employees and their families in advance and include these details in your corporate communications and crisis planning. Then, if a tragedy occurs, you can ask the family what they need, describe available services, such as grief counselling, employee assistance programs or media interview support, and connect them with the needed help.  In some scenarios, staff might also help with practical needs, such as arranging childcare or transportation, immediately after an incident.
  3. Manage the information flow – Screen new information, as it becomes available but maintain a sense of openness and transparency by not withholding critical information, including answers to tough questions. If however information can’t be released for legal reasons, then tell the family this.
  4. Establish a legacy, after the crisis passes – “Talk about who the person was, the loss to the family and the loss to the community, and how valued the person was as a worker,” Shirley recommends.  Positive gestures can range from a phone call to say “we’re thinking of your family right now” or a card to establishing a scholarship or post-secondary occupational or public health and safety program.

Shirley believes good crisis communications helps the company and those left behind by “reducing the psychological problems and absenteeism rates that go with extreme emotional stress.” She suggests a critical incident or fatality is not just about one family but the families of all their coworkers too.  “They’re watching how the company is responding to the family of the worker because it could have been them, and their families,” she cautions.

Granted each organization has its own challenges and limitations but these points provide a good starting place for how to enhance internal crisis communications, from the unique perspective of those directly affected for the long-term.

Reverse Spin: When PR Steers Ethical Practices

Amid the news of RBC swapping a handful of its Canadian IT staff for foreign workers, I zeroed in on a post about the bank trying to use crafty “PR-speak” to recover.  The challenge is, few are buying it. Quotes from one of the soon-to-be-replaced employees and resulting news stories had carried the story too far by the time RBC’s CEO spoke of the bank’s “very high priority on Canadian jobs” a couple of days later.

SpinningEdReality is a company’s brand is determined by what others say about it, not the image it attempts to create for itself.  The most brilliant communication is futile when the message is not reflected in the company’s actions.

What may come as a surprise to some is corporate communicators know you’re only as a good as the organization you represent. Simply “spinning” with minimal action to support your message is exhausting and soul-sucking.

Fortunately, those in corporate communication roles have a wide-angle view across the organization to foresee issues and a trained sixth sense to identify and appeal to their stakeholders’ self-interests. This often presents a huge opportunity for communicators to build a business case and steer the company to the “ethical right.”

One way is focusing on this “brand” ideal that marketers and communicators strive to nurture and sustain and how it actually translates into the tangible “goodwill” line in a merger or acquisition. Another way is to re-frame the scenario to highlight long-term threats, as Toby Heaps, CEO and Publisher, Corporate Knights did in a CBC interview when he cited the economic drain of chronic unemployment.

Many astute communicators and PR professionals serve as the company’s conscience by using these and other angles to push for ethical actions based on good business sense, which resonates with decision-makers. In doing so, they also strengthen the corporate message and its impact.

I’ve seen this approach used to persuade decision-makers to take ethical steps, such as restoring socially conscious programs, firing dishonest vendors and treating exiting employees as fairly as possible. Mark Schumann, a former IABC Chair, once referred to this role as being the “organization’s conscience and protector of the corporate soul.” When performed effectively, it’s likely averted many so-called “PR disasters.”

Unfortunately, this approach often fails in the first attempt or the PR team is alerted too late. Still, I suspect there are communicators, possibly in a bank somewhere, who continue to tenaciously pursue ethical practices that really “walk the talk.”

Although it’s usually below the radar, this too is PR and the polar opposite of soulless spinning.

What do you think? Have you seen evidence of this in your work?

Breaking Barriers to Get Your Message Online

YourHealthYourWagEx3Your organization’s website is likely its lobby to the world, with gateways to pages that convey its historical rise to its current value proposition. For brand consistency and streamlined access, the best practice is to have a single website but sometimes I don’t find this viable.

If you’ve  ever tried to “renovate” or add an item/page to your website for a valid purpose, only to be halted by a rigid platform, a tight budget, limited resources or a backlog of other priorities — you know what I mean.

Blogs are noted for their flexibility and capacity to go into overtime when a crisis occurs, while your website or traditional channels may be too slow or inaccessible. The same premise applies to using a blogging platform to create a “pop-up” micro site, for a short-term need or a “workaround” to the main website.

TrilliumHallEgWhen do you need a pop-up microsite?  What about when…

  1. You need to promote an event in a tight time frame (such as a first-time public information event targeted at local residents)
  2. You need to launch an unconventional application or brand extension for your product or service (such as a multimedia venue a hospital wants to market to “healthy” people)
  3. You anticipate multiple updates for a quick pace build or a tiered campaign roll-out (such as a conference assembled in an insane time frame with fluctuating abstracts and speakers joining at a staggered pace)

For mavericks who “dare to challenge” convention, a pop-up site can also serve as a workaround for the above or other scenarios when your main website is:

  • Governed by an umbrella organization and your initiative is sure to exceed the pages, resources or customizations allocated to your division, department or franchise.
  • Hopelessly hard-coded and long overdue an upgrade
  • Managed by limited resources, with many requests ahead in the queue.

SustainPlantExI’ve turned to WordPress to quickly and efficiently build a micro site as a central communications conduit for some of the above scenarios and more.   [Here are the steps I’ve followed to create a pop-up site in WordPress but you can likely do the same in other blogging platforms.] Be sure however to check WordPress.com policies before you start to ensure you conform and there’s no surprises.

Have you created a microsite to meet a short-term or other need? Have you had success in other platforms? What challenges did you face? When do you think a pop-up site can prove invaluable and when should it be avoided?

Did “Thank You” Get Archived?

 In recent years, I’ve noticed a growing scarcity of the phrase “thank you,” particularly between internal stakeholders and peers.  Sure we thank our customers/clients and external influencers  but when it comes to employees or volunteers, there seems to be a top-down belief that verbal gratitude for “doing your job” is irrelevant.This may, in part, be reflected in Ceridian Canada’s recent Pulse of Talent survey which found 44 per cent of respondents are either not satisfied (22 per cent) or indifferent (22 per cent) with the level of recognition they currently receive at work.

In some cases, I think this tendency stems from litigation-weary executives, who cynically lump “thank-you” in the same group as “sorry” — that is, a cause for suspicion or softening of their authority.  Case in point was an executive who forced me to justify why I wanted a “thank you” line at the end a letter asking franchisees to take extra steps to manage a vendor challenge (and protect the corporate brand). Similarly, I heard of a hospital VP forbidden by her CEO to thank staff for investing extensive effort to prepare for a stringent accreditation process.

Sadly, thanks is often replaced by citing tiny shortfalls of a job that’s generally well done and may even exceed objectives. Alternatively, there are those who grill employees (or even volunteers) in meetings but quietly thank them behind closed doors.

I’m not sure when this started. Maybe a time crunched world with many people agitated by email acknowledgments filling their in boxes prompted “thank you’s” dismissal? For some, I think there’s a tendency just to cut to the chase with “no time for pleasantries.”

But is that all “thank you” is? Hardly.

For one, isn’t it just common courtesy and good manners? Oddly enough though, a quick Google search for articles linking business etiquette with “thank you” came up blank.

There is however evidence that it makes good business sense.

O. C. Tanner built its organization around “The Carrot Principle” and data demonstrating that the most successful managers provide their employees with frequent and effective recognition.  They also use it to engage people, retain talent and accelerate performance.

Companies like this demonstrate the value of appreciation in a formal format but what about in casual exchanges?

2010 study (by Grant and Gino) published in the Journal of  Personality and Social Psychology found that people who received thank you emails after helping a stranger with a cover letter, were 66 per cent more likely to help this person again with a similar task because “they appreciated being needed and felt more socially valued when they’d been thanked.”  This sentiment had a lingering effect as 55 per cent of the same individuals responded to a similar call for help, from a different person, the next day.

Is it not then in an organization’s best interest to boost morale and ongoing engagement with a sincere “thank you” in meetings and correspondence?

Is my experience isolated or did “thank you” get archived? If so, here is one study to counter the skeptics and back up the value of gratitude. (Please tell me if you know of more.) With them, maybe we can help reverse this potential trend and in doing so, maintain and build support among our internal teams and our most vital ambassadors. What do you think?