Beware of the latest cool communications tool if you haven’t first developed your message

Today’s post by Hollie Geitner is courtesy of WordWrite Communications of Pittsburgh, a fellow member firm of PR Boutiques International.

Some time in the mid-late 1990’s electronic mail (email) became the widely used and preferred mode of business communication. Announcements that had in the past been shared internally by paper memo were soon disseminated electronically via email. Soon after, some companies decided to go “paperless” and ceased publication of their internal company newsletter—much to the dismay of workers who enjoyed reading about a coworker’s wedding or latest hunting prize. I say this jokingly, but it’s true, and there is something to be said for feeling a closeness with your fellow coworkers, even if seeing the 12-point buck picture your cube-mate snagged last month is a bit much.

internal-communications-resized-600The challenge for internal communicators has always been in reaching those who are “front-line” or who don’t sit at a desk all day. When I worked in the corporate communications department for an energy company, about 70 percent of the workforce was in what we considered “the field.” They were lineman, maintenance workers, tree cutters, meter readers and others. Unlike corporate staff, they were out and about all day or running equipment in a power station. If they saw email, it was perhaps at the very end of their shift and often times, they felt out of the loop on company happenings.

Today, the challenge is still there but electronic devices such as smart phones have made communicating with field employees a bit easier. Ragan, the leading source of information for PR and corporate communications, published an article about the growing trend of using digital signs in the workplace. Companies like Auto Trader Group, based in Atlanta, are using digital signs to recruit employees to volunteer in the community as well as to welcome new sales representatives to headquarters for training. While I think it’s a solid strategy for communicating with employees in the places they are in the building (near elevators, on factory floors, etc.) nothing beats person to person communication.

Digital tools—signs, mobile phones, kiosks–are just that, tools. In fact, everything we use to communicate is a tool and the great thing today is that we have more to use than ever before. The risk, however, is in relying too heavily on the tool instead of the message. Nationally, employee engagement is low—only 13 percent according to a recent Gallup poll, State of the American Workplace are actively engaged and committed to their jobs. This means that the majority of employees today are not happy, lack motivation and in the worst cases, spread their dissatisfaction throughout the workplace or in public. It would behoove employers to invest in communicating honest and compelling messages to their employees before they spend thousands on high-tech equipment (tools) to share their message.

It seems so basic and logical, but because messaging can be complicated or uncomfortable and since many leaders are so busy just trying to keep things afloat and make a profit, it may appear more doable to purchase a tool to share a message because then the impact is immediate. “Wow, look at that cool new digital sign in our lobby. It makes us look so high-tech and cutting edge.” Sure, it might, but what do your employees think? Are they reading the messages on it, or are they silently cursing leadership for spending money on unnecessary equipment when all they are interested in is whether or not they are doing a good job for the company and if they’ll be compensated for it with a bonus.

While the latest bells and whistles for sharing messages with employees seem way cool, I would caution companies considering implementing them. Before such an investment, it’s best to have a solid communications plan in place with real and authentic messages that will actually resonate with employees and move the needle on engagement.

Communicate to the middle

In companies with several layers between field employees and top executives, the most effective communication often occurs between manager or supervisor and employer. This is because they have more direct contact with each other on a daily basis. A bunch of messages from the CEO on digital signs will do nothing to engage employees, but meaningful conversations and an open line of communication between leadership and employee will.

Focusing your efforts to the middle and teaching those leaders the best way to communicate with employees is a much more strategic and meaningful investment.  Remember, if nothing else, it is the message, not the tool that is most important. Beware of what we call at WordWrite, “the shiny object syndrome.” Don’t be compelled to invest in the latest or coolest tool, like a digital sign, if you haven’t first put together a comprehensive strategy for what you plan to share with employees and how you plan to measure it.

 

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Social Media’s Growing Impact on Businesses

Years ago, before social media was even a glimmer in the eye of the most Review Sitesadvanced techie, my school-age daughter asked me after a particularly bad consumer experience,  “Mommy, is this one of those places we’re never coming back to?”

Back then, that was pretty much the only recourse – especially for some of the chain stores where complaining to the manager did not seem to make much of an impression.

Poor customer service has been – and probably always will be – part of the retail experience.  People are fallible, after all.  They make mistakes; they have bad days.  But it’s becoming much more dangerous for businesses to screw up in this area.  Social media has provided the sword for customers who, rightly or wrongly, feel they have been treated unfairly.

According to data reported in a Forbes article, “nearly 95% of customers share bad product experiences online; 45% share bad customer services experiences with others.” The results can be devastating, especially for a small business without the public relations staff or resources to fight back.

This trend is only getting stronger. BrightLocal’s Local Consumer Review Survey 2013 reported that 67% of consumers read fewer than six reviews before making up their mind about whether or not to patronize a local business; only 22% read more than ten.

Their analysis?  “Consumers are forming opinions faster now than before. . . .This means that local businesses need to manage their online reputation even more closely than before.”  You can access the full survey results here.

You may not be able to resolve every customer’s complaint right away, but it’s important to treat it seriously, and to treat the complaining customer with respect.   In these situations, what your customers want, first and foremost, is to be listened to.  They want to know they matter to you.

But what about the customer who never complains in person and goes directly to social media to post a complaint?  That’s where the real work comes in.  You should regularly monitor any sites that are likely to post reviews on your type of business.  It’s time consuming, but essential, to search for – and promptly respond to – complaints and ask for an opportunity to resolve the issue.  It’s also a good idea to thank people who give you a positive review.

Whether you respond online or off line, you may want to do some internal research before you respond to get some background on what could have gone wrong.  Just keep in mind that a positive experience in resolving a complaint can often turn a complaining customer into a dedicated customer, and there’s a good chance their next post will be a rave review.

(Search tip:  Many customers will use your company’s hashtag to “tag” their post.  If your business is called Mary’s Pet Place, for instance, your hashtag is #maryspetplace. You can search for the hashtag to see what comes up.)

Posted by Margot Dimond

So as I was saying…

Dictionary Series - Marketing: communicationI thought it was just me, but apparently people have been noticing this occurrence for quite some time:  the use of the connective word “so” as the beginning of a sentence.

Indeed, it was featured three years ago in a New York Times column by Anand Giridharadas, who examined the current usage, gathering the opinions of experts and finally speculating on the fact that in a world in which communication is fragmented and there is so much competition for our attention, the use of “so” is our effort “to be heard,” and he concludes: “We insist, time and again, that this is it; this is what you’ve been waiting to hear; this is the ‘so’ moment.”

My concern is not based on linguistics or psychology, as interesting as those topics are; it’s more about what the use of “so” to begin every sentence does to “messaging” – the ever-important PR tool.

As I listen to media interviews on the radio or watch them on television, I hear “so” at the start of responses to questions so frequently that it’s hard to ignore.

Interviewer:  “What is the nature of your business?”                                                 Response:  “So our main product is information.”                                                 Interviewer:  “That’s a pretty broad topic.  What do you mean by that?”                Response:  “So we collect and analyze data for surveys and productivity studies.”

You get the idea.

This is the problem with crutch words in general, and “so” is only the latest to join the crowd.  Well, like, um, uh and the ubiquitous you know are all distracting fillers.  What’s even more of a concern, the use of these words seems to be contagious.  We often hear them a few times and begin using them ourselves.  Like weeds in our gardens, we must be ever-vigilant to keep crutch words from invading our vocabulary.

These words are a serious impediment to good communication, and they can completely overshadow your message points in a media interview.

Posted by Margot Dimond

 

 

Write Right

One of the most Writingimportant skills for a public relations professional is the ability to write clearly and concisely.  Writing well takes practice, and practice often means opening yourself up to the critique of others.

Unfortunately, some people take offense to criticism about their writing.  They either want to think they are good at it, or that they should be good at it because…well…because it’s supposed to be something everyone can do.

As someone who has been writing for a living for many years, I’m happy to pass along  some basics for writing well:

  1. The most important part of writing is re-writing.  Nothing is perfect the first time around.  If I’m writing something important, I like to do a draft, then let it sit there for a while (assuming there is time).  Waiting even an hour after writing something makes me more objective about what I have written.
  2. There is a difference between style and basic grammar.  No, that run-on sentence is not creative.  It’s just wrong.  Yes, you can occasionally use a sentence fragment for emphasis, but know the rule before you break it.
  3. Punctuation is not an afterthought.  In fact, punctuation provides the framework for communication.  It’s what helps people understand what you mean.  A misplaced or missing comma can change the whole meaning of a sentence, as was cleverly demonstrated in the title of a book on punctuation, published in 2003:  Eats, Shoots and Leaves, by British author Lynne Truss.
  4. Sometimes what looks good on paper may not be what it seems.  Especially in the era of computer editing, it’s easy to become sloppy when making changes.  If you are writing an important paper, read it aloud.  You may be surprised by what you have written.
  5. Be careful with your tone.  This is especially true with email, which can cause all kinds of misunderstandings.  If you plan to discuss a sensitive subject, it’s often best to just pick up the phone.

Most of us have pet peeves regarding the written word.  Here are some of mine:

  • Misplaced modifiers:  Don’t confuse your readers.  “She saw two cows on the way to school.”  Were the cows on the way to school?
  • The use of less when you mean fewer:  If it’s something you can count, use “fewer.”  The use of “less people,” for example, is like fingernails on a blackboard to me.
  • Misplaced quotation marks:  Periods and commas always go inside quotation marks, even inside single quotes (unless you are using British English).
  • Not finishing the comma set-off for nonessential sentence elements:  “The author, who was born in New York, wanted to write about her city.”  When you leave out the comma after New York, you are separating a subject and a verb with a comma – a big no-no!

I’m sure you have your own pet peeves.  Please feel free to share them.

Posted by Margot Dimond.

Email Marketing: Does it Work?

News PhotoOften neglected or forgotten, email marketing is the stepchild of the social media world, regularly taking a back seat to The Next Big Thing.  Yet, depending on your business goals, it may be one of the best ways to expand your client base.

Email marketing is “one of the most effective means of communicating your brand identity and generating sales,” according to Michael Beaulieu, group manager for digital media at Wayfair – a U.S.-based multinational e-commerce company – who is quoted in a recent article on Digiday.

At our firm, we have had success with e-news – a more subtle form of email marketing that includes newsletters, news announcements and articles on topics of interest to the people on your email list.  Clients who were initially reluctant to try it have been surprised at the positive feedback they get with this means of communication.

Obviously, it’s just one tool in the PR toolbox, but if your firm is trying to reach a specific market, rather than promote to a broad consumer base, it is a cost-effective way to get your message out.  In addition, by using a professional program, you can see who opens your email and how often they do so.  A regular reader might be someone who is interested in hearing more from you.

So while e-news coming from your company will not replace external media coverage, it does offer distinct benefits:

  • Clarity:  Your message is sent – exactly as you want it worded.
  • Frequency:  You can send emails as often as you have news to impart.
  • Targeted:    You can send directly to the decision-makers who can influence your business.
  • Feedback:  You will know if and when your news is welcome – if your email is opened; if you get new subscribers; or if your subscribers “unsubscribe.”

Some cautionary notes to keep your subscribers interested:

  • Keep the content valuable.  If your email is all puff and no substance, people will stop opening it.
  • Don’t send it too often.  You don’t want to overwhelm your audience to the point that you are a nuisance.
  • Make sure everyone on your list is part of your target audience.  Sending information to the wrong person can put you in a Spam category.
  • Have a recognizable design and layout for your email.    You want to look as professional as you are.

Posted by Margot Dimond

What does your front desk say about you?

There is one client I always look forward to calling or visiting.  The receptionist, who also handles all incoming calls, is unceasingly cheerful and professional.  She is a valuable – and no doubt valued – employee.  I hope she realizes how much she contributes to the success of the company she works for.

The people who are in charge of your front desk and answer your telephone play an extremely important role.  They are the “public face” of the company – often creating a lasting first impression. They should be treated with respect, paid well and know how important you think their job is.

What does this have to do with public relations? PR is essentially reputation building and reputation management.  “Perception is reality,” we often say.  It’s difficult to see how much an executive really cares about his or her company’s image when the first – or even second or third – impression people receive is negative.

And don’t forget to keep your front desk people informed.  You may get a call from a reporter wanting to do a positive story on news your PR person has sent out, but if you never communicate with the person who answers your phone, the reporter may get transferred all around the office and finally give up because no one knows what’s going on.  (That’s why our firm does call list instructions for clients to distribute to their office staff, by the way.)

Smart company managers know this, but sometimes we all get so busy we forget to become objective observers of our work environment.  To quote Scottish poet Robert Burns:  “Oh would some power the gift give us, to see ourselves as others see us.”

Posted by Margot Dimond

Your Crisis Communication Plan

Do you have a crisis communication plan?  Crisis planning is essential for any company or organization – but especially for one providing products or services directly to consumers.  With social media, small incidents can go viral, making company reputations one step away from shattering.

Sometimes it’s the response – or lack of response – to a real or perceived problem that causes the crisis.  Any delay in responding, or even a tepid response, can add fuel to the fire.  It’s important to show concern for those affected – whether they are employees, customers, or bystanders.  (Think of what happened to Tony Hayward, former CEO of BP, after his initial response to the Gulf oil spill.)

Having a plan already in place makes damage control much easier.  With the understanding that specifics will change with each type of crisis, here is a basic overview of the essential elements of a crisis communication plan:

1.  Have a Crisis Communication Team.  The team should include key people in the organization who can develop a plan of action and decide on the spokespersons in case of an event.  Everyone on the team should have – and regularly update – a management roster with every type of contact information.  The crisis team should meet on a regular basis to keep everyone in a state of readiness.

2.  Identify Designated Spokespersons.  The main spokesperson should always include the CEO or someone of equal authority, plus anyone in a management position in the area where the crisis occurred.  All designated spokespersons should have media training with an emphasis on crisis communication.  Sending someone in front of a bank of television cameras without this type of preparation can backfire – even with the best of intentions.

3.  Establish a System of Communicating with Employees, Clients and Other Stakeholders.  The system could include email alerts, an online social network platform for web-based crisis communication or even a special crisis web page.

4. Designate a Media Center.  The site for media interviews should be some distance from the crisis communication office, which may be a hub of activity.  Depending on the nature of the crisis, policies and procedures should be set for media access to people involved in the crisis.

5.  Gather the Facts.  As soon as possible, the team should gather all of the facts surrounding the crisis and issue a prepared statement to the media.  They should also release new facts as they are confirmed.

6.  Establish the Message and Key Talking Points and Prepare the Spokespersons. A crisis situation is stressful; this is not the time to “wing it” with the media. Before doing interviews, spokespersons should be rehearsed on the message, key talking points and  questions that could be asked.  There will always be information that cannot be rehearsed, but it is important to be as prepared as possible.

7.  Monitor Media coverage.  Consistently monitor both online and offline media coverage throughout the crisis to make sure your message is being communicated accurately.  If not, you may have to adjust your strategy and messaging.Posted by Margot Dimond

In Your Expert Opinion: Contributing Articles for Publication

If your business provides a professional service, your marketing plan will no doubt revolve around showcasing your firm’s expertise. One of the best ways to do this is by writing an article that is published in an influential business or trade publication. When your article is published, you can make reprints to use for marketing purposes.  Recognition as an expert by the media enhances your credibility.

Not everyone is successful in getting these articles published, however.  Doing so requires more than just knowledge of the subject matter; it requires a basic understanding of what the editors of these publications are looking for.

Expert OpinionHere are five simple rules that will help you get published:

1.  Check out the publication and the type of articles it publishes.  Who reads the publication?  Are the articles technical or general in nature?  How many articles by outside contributors are published in each issue?  Are the articles mostly opinion, or are they factual reporting of research findings?  How long are the articles?

2.  Write about something specific.  This is not the time to share every bit of expertise you have accumulated over the years.  Stick to one topic, and save additional topics for other articles.

3.  Organize your article for an easy read.   The traditional advice for speech writing applies here as well:  Tell them what you plan to say; say it; tell them what you’ve said.

4.  Use conversational language.  Even people in your field won’t want to read an article full of technical jargon.  Keep it readable.

5.  Don’t promote your company in the article.  Doing so will guarantee rejection of your article.  Remember that you are writing to contribute valuable information or to share a point-of-view on current events.  You and your company will be mentioned at the end of the article.

Posted by Margot Dimond

Are PowerPoints Passé?

PowerPointsAs is the case with any public relations firm, we have done our share of preparing PowerPoint presentations.  Although many of our clients prefer using a PowerPoint to going PowerPoint-less, we believe it has become an overused tool, one that is actually more of a crutch than an aid.

We do realize that there are benefits to PowerPoint presentations:

  • PowerPoints are simple to use and offer a quick way to organize your thoughts and turn them into an effective presentation.
  • PowerPoints emphasize the key parts of your presentation, making it easier for someone to catch the critical points, especially if you are presenting a highly detailed study, report or survey.
  • PowerPoints offer countless design templates that can add value to your speech while keeping the attention of your audience.

But there are drawbacks as well:

  • Instead of a visual aid for the speaker, the speaker becomes an audio aid for the slides.
  • It’s easy to become dependent on a PowerPoint illustration when you could actually find a more creative and interesting way to make a point by forming a mental picture using words.
  • To be sincere and authentic, you can’t appear to be too scripted.  But with a PowerPoint presentation, you often can’t avoid looking scripted.

That said, we recently saw one of the most entertaining presentations in a long time given by a local leadership trainer.  Thinking back, we remember she used a PowerPoint, but we really didn’t even think about the presence of it until now.  The point being :  A good presenter is a good presenter, whether he or she uses a PowerPoint or not.

On the flip side, what if the Gettysburg Address had been delivered with the aid of a PowerPoint?  Check out this PowerPoint presentation of the Gettysburg Address, developed by Peter Norvig, Director of Search Quality at Google, to imagine what Abe Lincoln might have done if he had used PPT rather than the power of oratory at Gettysburg.

If you plan on doing a PowerPoint presentation, you can find some good tips in this article by Brad Phillips in PR Daily.

PowerPoints

 

Posted by Lisa Dimond Vasquez, principal, DoubleDimond Public Relations, LLC.

 

The Importance of Being Silent

Two things happened this morning that made me think about our new “very connected” world.  The first was a (thankfully, positive) discussion with a journalist about something that had happened years ago, but that is still present on the Web.  “Nothing ever goes away anymore,” he said.  So true.

The second was an incident of someone I knew, planning to forward an outraged response to an email she had received, but accidentally sending her response to the original sender instead.  Ouch!

In the first instance, it does amaze me how a simple Google search of my name produces items from jobs and volunteer activities long forgotten by me – but not by the Web. In the second instance, who hasn’t meant to forward an email with a comment to a friend or business associate, yet accidentally sent it to the originator?

We have a tendency to think that famous people – actors, politicians, media figures – are the only ones who have to worry about this.  After all, they have such a large audience, and in many cases, a wrong phrase or embarrassing video gone viral can put the brakes on their careers.

But we all have audiences we care about, and we should be mindful that what we do and say may become public.  Obviously, we should behave well anyway; but a slip in demeanor nowadays can have wide-ranging and long-lasting consequences.

As public relations counselors, we’re often tasked with encouraging our clients to communicate – to tell their story, present their message and respond quickly and clearly in a crisis.  But we now have to add a caution to our communication trainings.  After all, anything you say publicly “can and will be used,” will never be forgotten, and may define your forever.