With PR Advisors Like These Who Needs Enemies?

If your organization is faced with the real possibility that it could be involved in a crisis centered on a controversial issue or development, the one thing you should be able to do is trust that your PR advisors are on your side.

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for some organizations to seek and receive counsel from PR advisors who may not quite have the best interests of the organization in mind. To be clear, we’re not talking about spies or subversive activities. We’re not talking about PR professionals who would intentionally do you harm. We’re not advocating a surrender of professional objectivity and detachment in favor of accepting only the client’s side of the story. And we’re not focused on PR professionals who are pushing the boundaries of PR ethics.

What we are talking about are those whose hearts simply may not be where yours may be – PR advisors who may be happy to get paid to provide PR service to you all within the bounds of ethics, but their sentiments may align a little more closely with your critics. When this happens, you’re likely to get and take advice from someone who has already accepted the premise of your critics’ attacks. Their inherent bias clouds their ability to provide the counsel you need. So much so that your critics’ reality is your PR advisor’s reality. That’s dangerous.

Here are a few hypothetical examples.

Apologize First, Ask Questions Later

A large consulting organization serving a large NGO is under fire by an extreme environmental activist group for having once worked for energy companies. The consulting firm made no secret of this. It listed energy companies as clients on its web site and had complied with all disclosure requirements. However, the critics treated the consulting firm as though by virtue of having worked for energy companies in the past it had done something wrong.

The consulting firm’s PR advisor counseled the firm to first issue an apology for having worked for those firms and to announce that it would be conducting an internal review of its client list to assure it would be more diligent about taking on “controversial” clients in the future.

Takeaways: There’s nothing wrong with consulting firms serving energy firms, so there is no need to apologize. There is no need for an internal review of client lists unless a specific business arrangement or contract warrants it. More importantly, it will undermine your own business if you start to publicly classify clients as “controversial.” This is a reflection that the PR advisor is working under a reality framed by critics. The lesson is, if your organization has done nothing wrong, there is no need to apologize. If your organization has to conduct an internal review to determine if it did something wrong, say so, but wait until the investigation is complete before even considering an apology and corrective action.

Give Your Critics a Forum

A real estate developer has announced it plans to build a new mixed-use development on the outskirts of a mid-sized city. As part of this process, it is compelled to meet with elected officials and local authorities, and appear at public meetings where the development is on the agenda. A group has formed to oppose the development and is waging a campaign based on fabricated claims in the media, on social media, and in public demonstrations.

The opposition organization has built its campaign around allegations that the developer is trying to hide its plans and is not being transparent. The developer’s PR advisor recommends to the company that it host a town meeting to foster dialogue with the community to be more transparent.

Takeaways: First, the PR advisor is coming from a place where it is presumed the developer has not been transparent. While there are appropriate times for town meeting forums, there are many times when a PR advisor recommends hosting a town meeting when all it will achieve is to give your critics a forum for their own agenda-driven campaigns. When you host a town meeting in a contentious situation you are giving your critics a forum to create a made-for-TV event that may give the misleading impression that what you are proposing does not have public support, or ironically, that you are trying to hide something – all because an organized and vocal opposition knows how to hijack such forums for their own purposes. A better approach in this situation, may be to communicate broadly and aggressively through your own channels: Web sites, newsletters, mailers, op-eds and ads, and when it comes to public meetings, consider them, but there are ways to structure them so that your critics cannot commandeer them to shut down real dialogue.

Appease Your Way to Failure

A bank is forced to reduce its philanthropic activity due to a downturn in its business. This means that certain local arts-related organizations will see significant reductions in funding. The bank is now under fire from certain community activists who say the “greedy” bank is putting profit before culture and is working to “destroy the local arts community.” With picketers outside of the bank’s offices, the bank’s PR advisor tells management to engage with the group by having an impromptu face-to-face meeting with the group’s leaders, hoping that they will understand the bank is not putting profits before the arts.

Takeaways: There is a place for engagement, but there are times when what looks like engagement is not. This is one of those times. In this situation, the messaging coming from the bank’s critics is highly strategic, designed play to stereotypes of big business. This signals that the creators of that messaging have no desire for real dialogue which can lead to real understanding. Rather, any event or activity in which they do engage is designed to further amplify that messaging. So, if the bank would take the PR advisor’s recommendations, it would be doing two things. First, it would be giving the community activists an event it can play to further reinforce its theme that that the bank is not “listening to us” or “trying to manipulate us.” Second, if the bank has made a firm decision on its philanthropic support of the arts, such a gesture as an impromptu meeting with this group (handled the wrong way) could give false hope. A strategy of appeasement only lasts so long, then critics are likely to feel misled, and their vocal attacks on the organization will then be proportionately stronger and longer.

You Have a Right to Expect Your PR Advisor to be with You in Heart & Mind

The main problem with these kinds of PR advisors is they’re not really sure who they work for. Some live to please the media before their own organizations or clients, and their advice reflects this.

Others see the issues your organization faces through the prism of your critics and not yours. They identify more with your critics than they do with you.

Of course we must do research on all sides of the issue. We can’t accept information on face value from clients any more than we should if the information or claims come from critics. That said, when PR advisors start by accepting the premise of the critics, they’re more likely to accept false assumptions and baseless allegations, and on this they will base their recommendations. This is quicksand for any communications program.

When Emotions are Weaponized Against You

If you step back and look at patterns in content and coverage that you see in digital and traditional media, you’ll find that the pendulum has swung decidedly toward the emotional as opposed to the factual.

Before the Houston flood waters receded last week, MarketWatch, (the financial media site), tweeted and featured a story by a New York Post writer that focused on the style of shoes the First Lady wore when boarding Air Force One on the way to Texas. Clearly, the intent of the story was to further inflame emotional feelings against and in support of the current administration.

You may wonder with good reason, “What do the First Lady’s shoes have to do my financial health or the nation’s business and economic well-being?”

The quick answer is “nothing,” but stories like that do two things. First, they enrage readers on both sides of the issue and that means traffic, the life-blood of any media organization, digital or otherwise. Second, they feed the echo chamber of social media, where “shares” and retweets further accelerate the constant movement of eyeballs from one page to the next. The highway for all of this traffic is emotion.

With this in mind, here are some tips for effectively engaging when simply laying out the facts does not seem to be as effective as emotion in making your case:

Pay Attention to Optics

Optics are symbols and visuals that you can use to send the right message, or that critics use to taint your reputation. The First Lady’s shoes, though trivial in a factual sense, gave the administration’s critics fodder to frame it as out of touch. While the story was clearly overshadowed by so many other Hurricane Harvey stories, this example serves as an illustration that in big and small ways, optics can become issues unto themselves.

As important as it is to consider optics when planning a communication or event, it is equally important to be prepared to respond to attacks from critics who seemingly can turn the most mundane visuals into a negative statement about you if that’s how they want to portray it.  If your critics are dead set towards finding something about you to make an issue, they will do so.  You just need to be prepared for it and know, at least in general, how you will respond. The one mistake to avoid is to automatically accept the premise of the criticism.

Exaggeration is King

From click-bait social media headlines to sensational TV news teasers, media thrive on exaggeration. Often, when you present most developments as accurately as possible in the proper context, it can be quite boring.  This is because when you communicate clearly, people get an understanding of the who, what, when, where, why and how of the story. Once they get the context, they are not as likely to be alarmed. If they are not alarmed, shocked surprised or angered, they won’t respond at an emotional level, which means they may not respond at all.  In media terms, this means they may not click, read or watch.

Generating an emotional response through exaggeration is highly effective. The tabloids have been doing this for decades. By exaggerating and selectively omitting certain aspects of a story tabloids sell newspapers.

Did you ever click on a headline about an explosion in a factory or a nasty car accident only to find out buried deep in the story the fact that no one was hurt? Those are common examples of how exaggeration is used to get you to click. If you knew no one was hurt from the headline, you may not have clicked on the story from the start.  Buried or missing facts are often by design.

It’s much easier for originators to create caricatures of people and simplistic “good” versus “bad” scenarios rather than to delve into the complexities and nuances of a situation. These are major ingredients to creating an emotional response.

Critics will Attack Anyone Associated with You

In the jungle, the lion will chase after the herd until the weakest member of the herd falls away and becomes easy prey.

This same law of the jungle comes to play when critics use social media and traditional media to smear their targets. They don’t try to bring down the entire organization all at once, but rather, they will seek to find out as much as possible about individual employees, consultants, customers, consulting firms, partner firms and associates, anyone who has a relationship with the critics’ larger target.  They will then try to paint that individual or firm as a villain to generate an emotional response.

I once saw an activist group pour through the innocuous social media posts of a consultant who worked with an organization that was targeted for vilification. The activists took a select few social media posts so completely out of context it reached a level of all-out duplicity.  The group then featured those comments in a malicious document they passed off as an “investigative research report.” Their goal was to marginalize the consultant (and others) as part of the larger effort to discredit their main target.

The strategy was – one by one – to pick off anyone who might be associated with the larger target of a smear campaign with no basis in truth. It also sent a chilling message to anyone else who might have been considering working for or with the targeted organization.

Peer Pressure and the Social Media Mob

Thanks to social media, the peer pressure dynamics you thought you left behind in high school are still with us. Peer pressure relies on emotional dynamics to work. You must want to be popular, liked or accepted in order for peer pressure to have effect. If you have thick skin and are more resistant to peer pressure, it is much less effective.  Where this becomes complicated is if others in your organization are easily swayed by such pressure.

In many situations where public relations is involved, the desire to be liked and accepted is a fundamental premise. For this reason, we see an increasing amount of peer pressure used in support of and against our clients and brands.

When peer pressure is used against an organization or brand, it is oftentimes combined with shame. Critics will campaign to shame a targeted organization through a “social media mob.” Typically these groups and online communities are well-organized and calculatingly assembled, yet to many they appear as spontaneous, grassroots eruptions.  These sophisticated organizers seek to overwhelm a targeted organization into submission – again, through emotionally driven messaging and tactics.

What takes this dynamic to a higher level is that the “mob” may not simply want you to be quiet. Rather, the organizers may even seek to force you to endorse their position on a given issue even if that position is at odds with your own value system or best interests. The implied message is, “You either publicly endorse us or you’re our next target.”

Maybe the social media mob took its cue from Godfather movie mob boss Don Corleone when he talked about making “you an offer you can’t refuse.”

Know Your Core Values

In this environment, it is more important than ever to know what your organization stands for. What are the core values that you consider uncompromising?

Steve Jobs once described Apple as more than a company that sold computer boxes. He said that Apple is a company that exists to help those who think they can make the world better do so.

Most often, when you hear executives talk about their organizations’ core values, they’re speaking in platitudes that drive marketing and other routine business functions. Perhaps it is most important to be aware of your core values when your organization is under fire for sticking to them.

As we see every day, it doesn’t take much for digital media and traditional media to latch onto some superficial concept that uses emotion to draw you or your organization into potentially controversial and viral situation.

There can be tremendous pressure to compromise on your organization’s focus and core values, and to cave into the expectations of others who seek to use your organization as an example of how they can inflict their will. The kneejerk response is to quickly appease and concede in the hopes your critics will move on to another target. More often than not, this action tends to embolden the critics, not soften them, leading to a situation where the critics demand more than they did originally. The stakes get higher.

Many organizations succumb to this because managers themselves can get caught up in the emotions of the moment. Keep in mind, average news cycles usually last 24-48 hours. At the very least, your organization needs to be able to get through that period as responsively and responsibly as possible without hastily over-reacting, causing the kind of fallout you have to live with when the spotlight is no longer on your organization.

Remember, your critics may represent a small minority and not the majority of people’s perceptions. Your job is not to change their point of view, but rather, to make sure your most important stakeholders are aware of your position.

When you have a strong set of core values, and you unapologetically stand by them and the responsible decisions you make that are in keeping with them, you will win at an emotional level that drives to the very core of what really matters to most people.

What Could be the Most Important Thing to Do in PR Before Labor Day?

Check your lists. Your media lists, your customer lists, your employee database. Check them all. Make sure they’re up to date.

Your analyst list, your vendor list, your influencer lists. Check them all.

Why?

Chances are you’ve been busy. You’ve had a fast start to the year and before you knew it, it was June or July. Then you took vacation. Then your team took vacation, and your bosses and their bosses. You did what you needed to do with who was available and what you had time to do it. Now, here you are about to cross over into Fall, and you just know there is more work in the pipeline. Are you ready?

Everyone will be back from their summer breaks. The kids will be in school, and you will have three-to-four months to get some big things accomplished.

If you work in public relations, there is a god chance the quality and currency of your lists will really matter, and by then, the time it takes to see these lists are up to date can prove to be a problem.

So where to start?

If you have a media database like Cision or Meltwater, take the time to go through your influencer lists. Make sure you have compiled all of the lists you think you may need. Purge those you no longer need. That’s a good start.

What about that employee phone list in your office or on your computer? Is it current?

What about that pile of business cards next to your computer? It’s probably time to input it all into your phone directories on your computer and your mobile phone. And while you do it, take the time to connect with some of those “new” contacts on LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter.

Speaking of Twitter, do you maintain any lists there or elsewhere on social? If you do, take some time to revisit them and determine if they’re working for you.

Once you get past Labor Day Weekend, the one thing you should not have to worry about is if you have the tools and systems in place to communicate to all of your most important contacts and stakeholders.

It may seem like a mundane task now, but you won’t regret it in a few weeks.

How to Communicate Change Management Like a Boss

You may never have heard of Herclitus, but something he said a couple thousand years ago is as relevant today as it was when he lived around 500 BC. The Greek philosopher is credited with saying, “Change is constant.”

I would suspect that even he would be amazed at the pace at which the world seems to change today. An entire industry – Change Management – has grown up around that very concept just to normalize the process of introducing and executing change in organizations large and small.

Change management represents the planning, implementation and follow-through required to help both organizations and people inside and outside of those organizations deal with that change. Think mergers, acquisitions, reorganizations, downsizings, changes in policy or procedure, consolidations, and much more.

The common thread is that as senior leadership is concerned with how people will react, respond and adjust to the change, it takes steps to make sure that potential reaction to change does not derail the larger plans.

Effective communication plays a critical role in a successful change management program. With this in mind here are five ways to make sure your communications efforts effectively support your change management initiative:

Listen

Before you even start, you need to get a handle on what people are thinking, what they are concerned about now, and what they might be concerned about when the time comes for change. The listening process starts simply by getting out of your office and talking to people at every level of the organization on a regular basis, taking the pulse of everyone from the work force to customers. Formal research could include surveys, focus groups, interviews and customized, individualized outreach. The key is to make sure you know how your most important stakeholders feel and think about the issues that will form the center of the change process. If you can do that, you can better anticipate their reactions and response to change.

Identify the Most Powerful Core Values at Play

Your organization may have a mission or vision statement that cites its core values. This is part of that, but it can be a mistake to assume that simply because the organization committed to those core values that the work force and external stakeholders are on the same page. As part of the listening and outreach process, you will likely get strong clues as what core values are most important to stakeholders. Some may be in your mission statement, some may surprise you. The core values you’re looking for are quite simply what matters most, culturally speaking, across diverse constituencies.

You should start to see patterns of what internal and external groups find to be the most important values that come to play in their relationship with the organization. Once you can identify these values, you will uncover what to many will be considered non-negotiable. These values will be the keys or the obstacles to success.

Create an Embraceable Vision

One of the more common mistakes organizations make when introducing change is to place the focus on the good the change will do for the organization, never adequately telling individuals how the change will help them on their terms. It is too often assumed that people will connect the dots themselves. If you’re charged with communicating change, you must create a vision that people can readily embrace. This usually involves speaking in simple terms, helping people best envision how their lives will be better (or not as bad as it otherwise could be) by embracing that vision. Whatever you do, don’t overstate the promise of that vision. Herclitus didn’t say it, but whomever said, “Don’t kid a kidder,” probably worked in change management. People can see through hyperbole and may not respond as you hope.

Demonstrate Your Commitment to People

Once you’ve revealed your plans for change, and what those plans are, you must do more than talk a good game. You must walk the walk, or demonstrate that the organization is committed to keeping its promises. Start with all of the little things you may be doing, but make sure to broadly publicize those steps, so that no one can ignore what is being done to deliver on your promises. This is important for the organization’s credibility, which it will need later when it asks people to make uncomfortable adjustments at some other point in the change process.

Be Responsive

Little things matter. Return phone calls, emails and suggestions left in “suggestion boxes.” When internal committees and work teams pass along feedback, insights or other information that goes up the chain, make sure they know the organization received it and is using it in the spirit it was provided – for the good of the organization and its people. If external stakeholders call your customer service line, tweet something positive or negative, a posture of aggressive responsiveness will go a long way towards building the goodwill needed to implement the sometimes volatile process of change.

These are just a few important things you can do to ease people through the change process at your organization. What ideas would you add to the list? Feel free to comment below.

This May Make You Think Twice Next Time Someone Tells You that You’re Over-qualified

You may have been wondering about this for a while. But if you’ve been told you’re over-qualified for a particular position, here is what certain hiring managers may really be telling you.

They think you’re too old.

Yes, the EEOC has regulations against age discrimination, but it still happens on occasion. One way this happens is when an untrustworthy hiring manager tells you that you’re over-qualified, increasing the likelihood that the job goes to someone younger.

They don’t trust that you’ll adapt to new ways, new technologies.

All too often, this concern is valid, but it’s a faulty generalization on the employer’s part. If you’re in the business of communications and you haven’t kept up with the latest communications tech, you reinforce their concerns. If you want to stay relevant, then stay abreast of changing operating processes, systems and communications technologies.

The manager feels threatened by you.

Not many managers like to be upstaged or second-guessed by a subordinate, even those who pride themselves on surrounding themselves with the best people. Some managers don’t like to hire potential rivals who could serve as natural leaders within the work group, and possibly serve as an easy replacement should the manager not perform.

You’re perceived as too expensive.

Even if you’re willing to take a pay cut in order to get the job, as a veteran professional there is a good chance your health benefits and other non-monetary forms of compensation will be important to you. And there is an increased likelihood that you will use those benefits which younger staffers often ignore. In the end, when you take into consideration these sorts of hidden costs, seasoned employees can tend to be more expensive than younger ones.

You may not buy what they are selling.

So, you’ve been through a couple of reorganizations already. You’ve experienced change, and maybe you’ve even led a change-management program or two. Your experience has taught you what works and what doesn’t. Now you’re talking to a potential employer that prides itself on a “new approach” to doing things. It’s not that you won’t take it where it needs to go. You may even be able and willing to perfect it in your own role. But if you’re in the least bit skeptical and it shows, don’t expect to get the job.

Chemistry with younger coworkers could be an issue.

Even if you are willing to come to work every day with an open mind and a complete commitment to finding common ground with your younger coworkers, there is a chance they may not feel the same way. Some may want their coworkers to be friends away from work, too, since work is as much a social experience as a professional one. They may want to work with people who are like them, in the same life stages, have the same questions they have, and have the same worldview. Unfortunate as it is, even some of the most inclusive workplaces still have a way to go in creating cohesive work environments that cross generations.

Usually when someone tells you that you are over-qualified for a particular position, they will explain that their fear is that once something more to your level of qualifications comes a long you’ll bolt for greener pastures. While there are cases where this is true, given the relatively large talent pool of “over-qualified” candidates on the market at the moment, there’s a good chance their concern is not warranted or genuine.

If you happen to be someone who has been told you are over-qualified, perhaps one of the best strategies to consider is niching yourself as someone seeking to scale back in your career and focus on your core strengths and duties you’ve grown to love over the years. And then make sure that in this context, you have a preemptive message on each of the six possible concerns cited in this post.

As a consultant, I rarely encounter the issue of “over-qualification” directly, but I see how it affects others almost every day in my work.

You may also find some good resources on CareerBuilder.com, Indeed.com, Monster.com,  and GlassDoor.com.

So, what are your “over-qualification” stories? I’d love to hear

You Don’t Have to be On Stage to Make Your Technical Content Sing

It doesn’t matter whether you have a presentation to deliver, an article to write, or a blog post to prepare, you have some pretty complex or technical information to convey and you’re just not sure how you’re going to connect.

It could be anything. A new medical device.  A legal or financial strategy. A component that enables your smart phone to work better.  A chemical coating that protects your car’s paint from sun damage.

To be sure, each one of these topics can be a cure for insomnia…if you let it.

So, you must ask yourself, “How do I clearly, thoroughly and accurately present information of a highly technical or complex nature and not lose my audience?”

The simple answer is to tell a story.  Tell an interesting story.  Make it about people not data, or components or acronyms.  Put the information in the context of how it helps the reader, the viewer, the site visitor – real people – at all times.

Numbers Can Talk

One of my most memorable examples of this was when I was working for a tech company and we conducted a series of investor road shows.

The first couple of times we did it, I watched the analysts nearly fall to sleep as senior management led off with a detailed tutorial on how the company’s technology worked and where it fit within the network.

But when the CFO stood up to speak, delivering a set of dry but highly respectable numbers, the analysts perked up, some even sitting on the edge of their seats.  The order of things seemed to be the problem.

newsletter-button

Sign up for our free eNewsletter!

So, counterintuitively, I suggested we change things up.  Let’s lead with the numbers and then explain what they mean, rather than the more common approach which was to give background before showing the numbers.

It worked.  The management team would talk about impressive sales figures, earnings per share, and the kind of cash reserves that allowed for potential growth through mergers and acquisitions.

In doing this, both the CFO and CEO grabbed the attention of the audience and planted the right questions in the minds of the attendees.  Can the company keep this performance up? What will they do with their cash reserves?  Will they try to grow organically or through M&A?

The rest of the presentation was the story – the context – of how the company could deliver results, what its strategy for the future would be, and above all, what it all meant to shareholders.

In the end, the company’s story was not really about the company at all, but about what the company’s performance meant to people.

Starting Points

If you have some technical information to relate and you don’t know where to start, begin with the people behind the new development or advancements. Who are they? Why did they see a problem?  What inspired them? What made their journey to a solution so innovative or interesting?

Find out more about the people to be impacted by the innovation or new technology. Who are they?  Why will they benefit?  How will they benefit? Will this change their lives in any way?

The answers to these questions can help turn technical information into understanding.  It can help your targeted audiences relate.

Your challenge is to put it all into an order that provide a cohesive narrative, one that takes the story from its beginning to its end, starting with the problem or challenge as it manifests itself in human terms. Then describe the process towards the solution.  This is the story that will open your audience’s eyes to the possibilities.

You Want to Know How to Create a Powerful Key Message? Try this.

hint-its-not-about-business

In my media training work, I once worked with a colleague who liked to handle the portion of the workshop on key messaging. That segment included classroom lecture followed by an independent exercise.

She would “click” to the Powerpoint slide that featured this question:

“What is the meaning of life?”

Then she would ask the group to spend a few minutes writing their own individual and personal answers to the question. She’d remind them, “There are no wrong answers. Please take a few minutes to think about this and after a break we’ll discuss your answers.”

Most of the time the break would start quietly as people would contemplate their answers. Sometimes a few stand up and get a cup of coffee or just stretch their legs, and they would talk to each other informally about the question, seemingly as a way to prep themselves for open discussion of such a personal topic.

After I saw my colleague do this in a few sessions, I learned to expect the same group behaviors every time.

When the break was over, group discussion would follow a round-robin format with volunteers reading from their notes. One might start with, “To me, the meaning of life is golf and sleeping in on Saturdays,” which  would predictably get a few laughs from the group.

newsletter-button

Get Communication Points, our free eNewsletter!

But pretty quickly, the tone would get serious, and some very simple and short concepts that had almost universal appeal and understanding would emerge:

“My family.”

“Faith.”

“Country.”

“Health.”

Consistently, it didn’t take many words or much time for people to answer the question, and very rarely was there any confusion or self-doubt. Almost to a participant, there was tremendous conviction behind the words or sentences.

At the end of the exercise, my colleague would tell the group that what they just did was come up with their own key messages. Then she would tell them what makes for a powerful key message.

If I may paraphrase my colleague, she would tell the group that good key messages are simple, clear and direct. They represent universal qualities that targeted audiences readily understand and appreciate.

She is no longer with us, but if my colleague were here, I know she’d add that a good key message is credible and believable because it isn’t just a set of words, at its core it’s honesty.

Let me know if you’d like to talk about key messaging.

Reputation Savers: 8 Incredibly Simple Questions to Answer Before Every Communication

think-before-you-clickIt doesn’t matter whether it’s a multi-million-dollar communications campaign or a single tweet, a professional communicator should know the answers to these 8 questions before touching that keyboard, mouse or computer screen:

#1. Why are we doing this?

If you don’t know why you are communicating, there is a good chance you will miss the mark in any number of ways. Know why you are communicating. Know what in the world can be made better through your communication and how that communication will make a difference. Otherwise, you’re probably talking to yourself.

#2. What are we trying to achieve?

What are the specific goals and objectives of the communication? For any communication to be effective, it must have an objective. All communication is designed to inform or educate, entertain, or persuade. But it should go deeper than that. You should know specifically why you are trying to connect with someone, and why that targeted audience matters.

 #3. Who are we trying to reach?

In the communications business, we often call them our targeted audiences or stakeholders. They are the people with whom we are trying to reach, connect with, educate or inform, entertain or persuade. All real communication is two-way, and as such, knowing as much as we can about who we are trying to reach and why is critical.

#4. What do we want them to do or think?

Whether the goal is to educate, inform or persuade, we should have a clear vision of how we want the targeted audience to react to the communication. Knowing this from the outset helps shape the message and helps determine the best way to time and deliver that message. Without a clear idea of the desired effect of communication it will fall flat.

#5.  Is it right or responsible that we are doing this?

newsletter-button

Subscribe to CommunicationPoints, our strategy email and get the latest issue!

Ethics. Are we doing the right thing? Are we doing it the right way? Do we have the appropriate credibility on the issue? These are just a few of the sub-questions that only we can answer before communicating. Since each case can be so unique, the key is to have a guiding set of values, principles and a code of ethics, not to mention a set of best practices. Not having any one of these things can lead to crises of credibility and not only a failure of the communications effort, but ultimately damage to your reputation and that of the organization.

#6. Is the information we receive accurate?

In today’s digital environment, it’s extremely common for many to receive un-vetted information and to share it without verification or to comment on it as though it’s fact. Very often, this information is inaccurate, misleading or wrong. It’s the equivalent of spreading rumors and gossip. Accepting the premise on face value of the information we receive is quite often the first major step towards disaster. Even if it’s “just” a social media share or post, make sure that the information or claims you are required to address are accurate and credible before you base any of your own presumptions and communication on it.  In other words, check it out before accepting it as fact.

#7. Is the information we are sending accurate?

Honesty isn’t just telling the truth. To borrow from a common term used in courtrooms, it’s “telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” More to the point, it’s assumed that in any human interaction you have a good faith obligation to be honest. This is often based on the accuracy of the information you share. When you engage in partial truths or untruths, you lay an unstable foundation and risk alienation of those most important to you. This is not to say anyone has an obligation to share proprietary or confidential information, or that others have a right to know everything about a particular person or organization. Without question, everyone should expect a certain right to privacy. This must be balanced against the need for accountability. When organizations communicate, accuracy goes beyond literal meanings and into intentions, which should be forthright.

#8.  Is this the right time?

“Timing is everything,” we all know, right? But when it comes to communications that’s an understatement. You can say all the right things to all the right people, but poor timing can create perceptions of insincerity or even callousness.  For example, you may have a great idea to boost employee morale after a round of layoffs, but the day after the downsizing is not the right time to announce much of anything.  That’s a mourning period, believe it or not, and no time to have a pep rally.

Or, let’s say a beloved celebrity died last night.  It’s probably not a good idea to flood your Twitter feed with gratuitous “tributes” that come off as thinly veiled marketing tactics.  Choose your timing carefully.

Anyone can think through these 8 questions in a very short span before engaging in every communications activity, from a simple social media post to the process to plan and implement a major communication initiative.

If you would like to receive future newsletters, articles and updates from O’Brien Communications, or  go over some questions of your own one-on-one, please let me know.

 

Open Enrollment: Will Your Employees Buy Into the Awesomeness of Your Wellness Program?

On the workforce management calendar, Fall is known as the time for open enrollment for benefits. As employers across the country prepare for this year’s open enrollment period, many have some familiar but bad news to report.  Health insurance costs continue to rise and there’s no end in sight.

For all the hype, it seems the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has not collectively made health insurance more affordable. This is the news many employers must now deliver to employees.

This has led some organizations to refocus their efforts on promoting employee wellness programs. Many employers may already have employee wellness programs in place, but they may not have seen them quite the way they do now, which is as a critical means to take control of rising health insurance costs. Still, other employers are now are taking a more serious look at establishing new employee wellness programs.

For an increasing number of organizations, employee participation in a wellness program is the key to better manage health insurance costs. The rationale is that with a healthier the work force, there will likely be fewer claims, and as a result healthcare cost increases can be minimized.

The common emphasis in many wellness programs is on biometric screenings, preventive care, and an intensified focus on weight loss through exercise and better nutrition. In addition, employee wellness programs promote a tobacco-free lifestyle, and engage in more open dialogue on stress reduction.

The Communications Challenge

The challenge for employers is persuading staff members to commit to the employee wellness program to the extent that they can make and sustain lasting health improvements and habits.

newsletter-button

Click here to receive new updates and fresh information from O’Brien Communications.

For its part, the communications effort in support of a wellness program should seek to do three things:

  1. Engage employees – create awareness of the employee wellness program, what it can achieve and what employees can do to manage their own health and health insurance costs.
  2. Increase wellness program participation – Create or increase participation in a new or existing wellness program. This means registering increasing numbers of employees, and then getting them to participate in each phase of the wellness program consistently, from biometric screenings to annual physicals.
  3. Keep the focus on positive outcomes – Because wellness programs are flush with data, it’s easy to gauge progress against goals. It is important from the start is to clearly communicate baseline numbers for the collective work force, and then to establish collective goals, be they averages or percentages. And then to keep those goals top-of-mind throughout the work force throughout the year and from year to year. Some employers provide financial incentives for employee wellness program participation and progress, but creative thinking and problem-solving can lead to more than just monetary incentives.

Brand Your Wellness Program

In a communications sense, every employee wellness program is a campaign. As such it requires a theme, a message platform and a campaign structure to create and build enthusiasm in a given time frame. Campaigns exist to package and deliver often complex information in such a way that it can be readily understood by targeted audiences, and so that enthusiasm for the message can be sustained.  For employee wellness programs, the campaign structure starts with the open enrollment period and continues throughout the year, following a schedule of quarterly, semi-annual and/or annual benchmark reports.

Given the number of communications vehicles now available to any employer, it doesn’t need to be very difficult to keep communications going and awareness of the employee wellness program high. From existing newsletters, employee events and communications, to Intranets, certain use of social media and special programs, all can work together to keep momentum up. And that’s just the beginning.

What do you think? What can employers do to get employees excited about employee wellness?  Let me know, and feel free to get in touch to discuss your own questions or concerns.

When the One Thing Your Talented Manager Can’t Manage is People

Connecting with EmployeesSo, you have one of the most talented people in your industry right under your roof. He’s a knowledgeable, insightful visionary who gives the organization a competitive edge.  And he’s a manager, which means people skills is a part of the job.  Problem is, that’s where he’s not a star.

Informally, and perhaps formally as part of the performance review process, you find that he’s building a reputation for himself as “difficult.”

How can you salvage him?

To be sure, effective communication can come naturally for some while require a little bit of work for others. The good news is, anyone can become a better communicator, which means better at connecting with coworkers and customers, and ultimately become a better manager.

All it takes is some training and consistent reinforcement to help replace bad habits with good ones. In other words, it may take some coaching.

In reading this, if someone you know has come to mind, then maybe that someone could use some communications coaching. Here are some steps you can take to help that employee on the road to better communication:

Establish a Baseline

How you do this is very situational. In some cases, you may not want to single the individual employee out, but rather, introduce a corrective process with some subtlety, perhaps more broadly to include several managers in a particular division.  In other cases, it may need to be more directly communicated.  Regardless, you need some set of broad measures from which to base analysis of future progress.

These could include documenting informal feedback from the individual’s coworkers. Analysis of recent performance review reports.   If the review report is not sufficiently detailed on the communications challenges he may be facing, consider a specific and confidential assessment from those who work with him and his supervisor.

If the organization conducts larger employee attitude surveys, see if any data from that can be applied to this individual manager.

One thing to know before you start is to know whether the individual has any diagnosed issues that could be contributing to his behavior. If some things are beyond the individual’s control, that could affect the way you proceed.

Be Up Front with the Manager

Once you’ve begun this process, at the appropriate time, let the manager know of the organization’s concerns and what it is willing to do to make him a better, more valued member of the organization.

Not only is this the right thing to do, but by communicating in this way very clearly, the employee knows that he has to change, that there is a process in place to help him change, and that it will be monitored and evaluated along the way to give him incentive to take this process seriously.

Bring in an Objective Third Party for Coaching

When you bring in an objective third party for coaching, such as an executive coach, a communications coach, or even a counselor, you will eliminate certain challenges to the corrective process. A third party can affirm what you’ve noticed or give you new insights as to the cause and nature of the challenges.  The outside professional will have his or her own relationship with the manager and can establish trust independently of any internal workplace dynamics that may exist.  And it will remove the sense of subjectivity on both the organization’s part and the manager’s.

Start with Listening

No employee or coworker will ever complain about a manager who is a good listener. But listening is a skill.  Coaching should start with a focus on doing a self-inventory of listening habits, both good and bad.

Then there should be a discussion on how to become an active listener, which means knowing when to ask questions, which questions to ask, and when to simply let employees speak. During coaching, role-playing exercises are an invaluable way to imprint new habits.

Tied to the passive nature of listening is the need for the manager to document certain concerns or questions from employees and then to follow up. That is how employees truly know their managers listen to them.

Become Knowledgeable on How to Communicate more Effectively

Coaching should cover everything from body language and tone, to word choice and the right approach to individual situations, particularly when it comes to instructing subordinates, conversing with them, or giving feedback.

That’s why regular coaching is much more helpful than a one-time workshop. One session cannot instill discipline and help the manager best identify and respond to his own managerial challenges.

Please feel free to share this, or let me know if you have any specific workplace communications issues to discuss.