To Teach or Not to Teach: 10 Reasons to Consider

TeachingShotEver wonder: “Why didn’t they teach me this in college/university?” Likewise, have you ever asked: “Why can’t new grads come with these skills?”

Addressing these gaps initially piqued my interest but after teaching a mix of communications/marketing/fundraising to international development students for three years, plus PR program courses, I’ve found other benefits. Wealth is however not one of them.

So why teach? Here are my reasons that outlive the pay cheque.

Teaching….

  1. Forces you to re-think the rationale behind the tasks you intuitively do each day. It also motives you to keep current and gives you firsthand knowledge of “gen next” thinking.
  2. Opens access to insights in direct/related fields. While reviewing a paper on skilled migration, I recently learned about the large variance between remittance and foreign aid to developing countries.
  3. Connects you to academia and potentially the opportunity to inform the process. Your proximity and heightened understanding makes you a good candidate for surveys, review audits and panels to develop new curriculum.
  4. Gives you an excuse to expand your own network of experts. Sometimes you invite new contacts as guest speakers who can offer real life examples beyond your own. Down the line, these contacts may prove invaluable to your core work.
  5. Can lead to presentation opportunities and even new business. Last year I moderated a social media panel for a student-run event. The Dean attended and invited us to present to faculty and administrative staff.
  6. Provides an accessible database of talent to fill internships, one-off projects or short-term contracts. What’s a better time saver than having a direct line to emerging talent that you’ve vetted?
  7. Prompts interesting collaborative opportunities. To address the shortage of relevant case studies for the international development niche, I collaborated with an NGO to develop a case study on its challenges.
  8. Nets invitations to innovative initiatives in their infancy. One former student started Canada’s first North Korean Film Festival for Human Rights (now JAYU) and gave comps to his professors. The event has rapidly grown and even secured a space with TIFF.
  9. Delivers the intrinsic value of opening someone’s eyes to a profession you’re passionate about. And many students thank you in their own way. A few even send notes like one student who said: “I have found myself looking back on your slides for insights. ….bringing up our assignments to design strategies and tactics for NGOs has been a real point winner in interviews.”
  10. Offers the ongoing opportunity to “pay it forward.” The commitment doesn’t end with the final marks. I’ve provided a handful of references to commendable people, as well as editing and job hunting support. Hopefully they’ll do the same for others someday.

What have you taken away from teaching? What reasons have I missed?

Note: This post originally appeared in IABC/Toronto’s CommVERSATIONS blog in June 2013, but the messages are still relevant.

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.

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?

Why Reactive Letters to the Editor Often Get Derailed

Among life’s certainties, negative news follows closely on the heels of death and taxes.  This certainty keeps communicators on their toes, as they strive to continuously mitigate the risks for their organization or at least hope to net out with a balance toward the positive.

But what about stinging, factually erroneous coverage that comes out of the blue? This is particularly disheartening for obscure organizations or sectors that rarely hit the news media radar. I’d suggest it’s also an opportune time for these types of organizations to “step into” an existing news cycle, with potentially a receptive platform to tell their story.

The caveat is not all scenarios warrant a response or are likely to create a beneficial result; so carefully assess your options. (Our IABC chapter faced such a decision a few years ago and decided not to respond. We noted the negativity centered on subjective opinions and we believed most readers would dismiss it because the writer was known for consistent bitterness.)

When a response is the best action, a seasoned tactic is a Letter to the Editor.  I’ve seen and written such responses that made it to print with positive outcomes. Essentially, you need to straddle three hurdles to keep the letter on track:

1. Keep it positive & objective – What I’ve found works is to position it as providing helpful and factual information to augment the offending article (i.e., delicately sprinkle the commentary with sugar). Even if the writer is blatantly wrong or overtly malicious (sometimes due to a hidden agenda), it’s probably not safe to publicly tell them so.

2. Keep it short – A Google search reveals recommended word counts for a letter to the editor range from 150 to 300 words, with the average about 200 – 250 words.

3. Keep it prompt – Strike while the interest is there by sending the letter as soon as possible, ideally within two days of the article’s appearance or less.

To communicators, this is rote knowledge but best practices run amuck when the CEO/President/Executive Director weighs in. Although most leaders accept their association with each message their organization issues, it can hit hard when their name is clearly printed out. And here’s how their response often plays out against these best practices…

1. Positive? – “We must correct them.” – It’s hard for a leader not to be ignited when their organization is unfairly beaten up. They may react by peppering your copy with emotions and possibly direct accusations.

2. Short? – “We need to explain things to them so they get it right this time.” – And so the flood gates open with exhaustive detail as they attempt to edit your copy to cover every angle.  Given their passion for the topic, they might find it tough to imagine the letter being rejected due to length. You can gently suggest it may survive but the paper’s editor may cut it down by amputating key sections to leave diluted messages or fragments with skewed meanings, possibly pulled out of context. (Of course, the mere mention of this possibility may re-start issue one, with a few more heated phrases.)

3. Timely? – “I need to run it by the executive just to be sure…” – This means navigating tight schedules to cycle the letter (and edits) through several hands. By the time the letter is perfect, the story may be history (or these days, the paper may have closed).

Alternatively, the leader may get cold feet after looking at the edited letter (which is now long and maybe slightly explosive) — and simply cancel it. I’m not sure how many of these letters are abandoned midway but I’d suggest the number is high.

Surely writing one of these letters challenges the greatest rapport and trust between an executive and their chief communicator or agency. But without a response, the fallout may unfold with the initial inaccuracies fueling more rumors, more negative coverage and a damaged reputation, leading to sales declines, market price drops, disenchanted employees…. With so much at stake, what can we do to keep these letters on track and with them, an organization’s reputation?  I welcome comments and ideas ….

Six Reasons I Find Blogger Outreach Refreshing

A colleague recently suggested outreaching to media and bloggers has become one and the same, but I disagree. After years in the world of media relations, I’ve found blogger outreach opens new doors, creates opportunities and brings pleasant surprises. As I increasingly apply blogger outreach as a tactic, here’s what I’ve learned about the bloggers I’ve encountered:

  1. Bloggers command a personal approach and return the favor. Word is out that starting an email with Dear Blogger (instead of their name) is one of the best ways to burn a relationship at the get go. Similarly, a blogger wants a personalized pitch tailored to their interest, needs and format. In return, they don’t call you a “handler” and may even name you in their post. Being mentioned is not something I want but I met one blogger who did this as a part of her editorial style and I had to work with it. (Ideally you should pitch personalized opportunities to a traditional reporter but many tolerated generic titles and news releases for years.) 
  2. Bloggers don’t always take the liner path. You may pitch via email but bloggers respond on Twitter, LinkedIn or another social channel  but often not email. For this reason and to build a relationship before making the “ask,” I try to connect with bloggers and other influencers when I start work in their niche, by following them on Twitter, posting meaningful comments on their blogs or connecting on LinkedIn. 
  3. Bloggers are positive and passionate about their topic. Not that I haven’t met pumped traditional journalists but let’s face it, most reporters are assigned a beat or role but bloggers usually create their niche and embrace it.
  4. Bloggers are objective but many are also notably humane and striving for a greater ideal. They seek content with substance but rarely at someone’s expense. In reviewing products, some bloggers will hold the review rather than trash an item that proves disappointing.  This shouldn’t discredit covered products but rather raise a red flag on those omitted. In pitching a story on workplace tragedies, I found some print reporters wanted access to next of kin within days of losing loved ones; bloggers were content to profile older accidents with fresh insights on lessons learned that could prevent future tragedies. (I’m not suggesting all reporters are out for blood but we tell clients “nothing is off the record” for a good reason.)
  5. Bloggers like fun and rise to the occasion when given the opportunity to engage with a new curve. In pitching a book, I offered one copy to the blogger and one as a giveaway to their readers by whatever route they chose.  One launched a contest to draw a winner from readers who tweeted the book’s hashtag. When offered a sample of a pet food not yet available in her state, a pet blogger offered to spark interest by running a contest instead. Traditional reporters can be fun but their creativity is often restricted by the medium, as well as their publisher and other watchdogs.
  6. Bloggers do recurring coverage within a short time span. After reviewing a pet food, one blogger referenced the food in later posts on travels with her dog. Bloggers embraced my book pitch by running preview posts or contest follow-ups with additional excerpts and references.

On the flip side, as bloggers own their time and often blog as a sideline. They may feel less pressure to quickly turnaround a post, if at all. Although reporters do drop stories,  you generally sense an article will run once a reporter has clocked significant time and seems content with the way it’s evolving.

I still have a high regard and good rapport with traditional journalists but find these subtleties inviting.

I’m still learning about social media and how to best work with bloggers and other influencers but this is what I’ve found so far.  Are my experiences unique or “one offs”? Did I miss any other key differences? Please tell me.

Education Boosted By Integrated Campaign

I hope the 2011 Effie Worldwide Awards, which close this week, honor a campaign that matches or exceeds last year’s Grand Effie winner: the Detroit Public Schools’ (DPS), which epitomizes what I think of as integrity2impact.

When you work in communications, which not everyone ‘gets,’ it’s gratifying to hear of a program that exceeds objectives and links to cost savings or profits. Even better, if it shifts perceptions to the positive, like this school board’s “I’m In” campaign did.

This initiative was prompted by a $305 million deficit and school closures, driven by declining enrollment due to lack of public confidence. Years ago, I served as a communications officer for a large Canadian school board that faced similar issues. We offered a wealth of positives but I suspect like many school boards had to counter the fallacy that government-run or public sector programs are inferior to privately run initiatives.

Like the board I worked for, DPS honestly had many successes, but they were likely eclipsed by urban school crises, from virus outbreaks to fatal fights on school turf.

Leo Burnett and the board countered this with an integrated paid and earned media campaign that used appreciative inquiry, guerrilla-like tactics and the classic bandwagon principle. They created 172 blue doors to represent its 172 schools and the great opportunities behind them and placed them at community events and a downtown plaza. Each door showcased a school’s benefit to local neighbourhoods. Teachers, students, parents and celebrities used each door as a platform to showcase a school’s benefit to local neighbourhoods. Residents were encouraged to show their commitment with “I’m In” yard signs among other tactics. The impact? Enrolment rose by 6,500 and $49 million in funding was raised. [To read about this in more detail, see HBR’s article on it.]

With the explosion of social media tools and steady growth of cause marketing, I think other public sector organizations could potentially adapt this approach and take it even further.

TransitCamp for Social Change Fuelled by Communications & Web 2.0

Burdened by frustrated riders, cash shortages, a dysfunctional website and a declining reputation, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), heeded an innovative idea from the city’s local bloggers in early 2007: leverage the community’s network of transit and IT geeks as a vehicle for innovative ideas.

The result was TransitCamp, a day long out-of-the-tunnel thinking “think tank-like initiative” on how to improve the TTC – or more specifically its website, shelters, subway cars and the way it communicates with its riders.

The event was modeled on the California-born “BarCamp” format, which is an open-ended gathering where participants think creatively, across disciplines and about a specific theme or area of concern. In this forum, which can become a sleepover of several days duration, leadership emerges from the group but all participants are equal and all sessions are meant to be complaint-free crucibles of ideas that belong to the collective, not individuals. It sounds like a throwback to a 60 commune but appears to have merit in addressing today’s issues.

TransitCamp was held on February 4, 2007 and attended by 120 ‘campers’ comprised of IT geeks, communicators, artists/designers, web developers and university students – all united by a passion for transit. They used a range of Web 2.0 collaboration tools to engage with each other live and in person. Some of the ideas to emerge from the session included: setting up designated quiet cars and an ESL car; a design competition for metro passes; and distinct maps for each street car line showing its intersection points.

A more telling result was following the session, a previously issued RFP for a new website was canceled and a new one developed based on the needs and principles identified by the community of interest that collaborated at TransitCamp.

Buoyed by technology and social media tools, this communication initiative fostered cooperative problem solving between two potentially antagonist groups, and comes close to the ideal of 2-way symmetrical communication.

Was it 100% successful in terms of achieving flawless-transit? No, but it initiated constructive dialogue with riders about which trade-offs are most feasible – and set the stage for positive social and community change.

Interestingly enough, the TTC is currently in tense contract negotiations – but word is they are open to less disruptive alternatives if resolution can’t be reached by a strike deadline. And the second TransitCamp is set for this Saturday, April 5. The only sad note for communicators is searches of the TTC website could not uncover any mention of past or future Transit Camps – while blogs are full of them.