Categories
Content

Interrogative on Storytelling

You can’t talk about branding or public relations without tripping across promises to tell stories. It’s catnip to clients who feel like their stakeholders don’t understand or value them properly. Storytelling can substitute creative technique for substantive content, or so goes the sales pitch.

But successful storytelling has nothing to do with creativity.

A story is good or bad depending on its structure and substance, first and foremost. You don’t need a lit professor to tell you that good stories share common qualities: protagonists, conflict and uncertainty, human drama, internal consistency and, most of all, describe things that are real and believably true. This truth applies equally to news reports and the plots of romance novels.

It’s also what makes it harder for companies to tell great stories because it requires a willingness to embrace all the things that brand and marketing communicators don’t like, such as change, risk, and transparency. A great story is the antithesis of what’s covered in your typical press release or slick video.

In other words, the medium isn’t the message. The message is the message.

It your agency promises otherwise — offering creativity as some panacea workaround that will magically prompt greater awareness and credibility forf garbage you want to promote that nobody cares about — they’re either lying or don’t know what they’re talking about.

Here are 3 questions that can help you come up with better stories:

First, who wants to hear your story? This is the exact opposite starting point from deciding what you want the world to know. Your story needs to answer questions and interests of its intended recipients, which means the topics may not be those that you bought in that last glossy agency presentation. It also must be timely and have relevance to what’s going on in their lives and not your need to coordinate launch timing for a new product.

PS, if what you want to do is labelled “thought leadership” before you’ve filled in the blanks, it probably isn’t.

Second, how is it any different from other stories? Think about how many times you’ve shared stories about your company being “first,” “best,” or having accomplished something that you’ve said was “strategic.” None of those terms have any meaning because every company says the same things. It’s not helpful that everyone is reading the same market analyses from their consultants but it’s a good reminder of how challenging it is to be different.

It also means that nuance, complexity, or your own spin on some well-worn topic is not going to fly; instead, what stories can you tell that have not been told before? The world thought X but it’s really Y, or This is something that you’ve never heard of. …You need to think in these terms before you start creating content.

Third, are you prepared to tell the sequel? When people like stories they want to know that they can return to the narrative…to see what happens next, resolve unanswered questions, and ask new ones. That means describing where your story is going “next” is as important as describing where it’s at “now.”

It means that great storytelling promises goals and actions that are incomplete and ongoing; targets that may or may not be reached, or not so completely; people who have choices to make and decisions that haven’t been taken. A great story is as much about the story yet to tell as it is about the one it details.

It’s why tech startups leave big public companies in the dust when it comes to storytelling: two guys in a garage with no customers can happily declare their smartphone app will someday be able to read minds, while corp comms gets caught up in only sharing work that has been neatly wrapped in a ribbon, approved by legal, shared with investors, and blessed by the brand marketers.

Asking more questions about storytelling will get you a lot closer to creating truly great ones, or if you can’t answer them to your satisfaction, help you resist producing bad ones.

Considering how much owned content is available on company websites these days, there seems to be no shortage of the latter.

Categories
Corporate Communications

Interrogative on Executive Quotes

As you read this, there are PR folks around the world busy writing long, sonorous, buzzword-filled quotes for executives to deliver in press releases, blogs, social posts, and other corporate content.

Few people will read or hear them, and even less will believe or remember anything if they do.

Here are five questions that will help make any quote more meaningful and memorable:

First, does it say something that matters to your stakeholders? This means quotes shouldn’t reference back to your branding messaging or the macro trends identified by your management consultants. Is there a need or opportunity for a personal commitment or statement about policy (i.e. something only the exec could say or know, like sharing a personal anecdote that adds color to whatever you’re promoting)? If your quote can’t bring such content to your communication, consider omitting it. Bad quotes are far worse than no quotes.

Second, does it embrace the POV and language of your stakeholders? Buzzwords and jargon should be explicitly off limits. Uber is an IoT engagement platform, but it talks about providing gig jobs and ferrying passengers and stuff. 5G is gloriously technologically advanced but consumers are still searching for reasons why they need it (and not why companies need to sell it). Nobody is trying to “have seamless transactions” in their lives; further, achieving some gigantic, far-off UN SDG goal is about as inspiring as a sneeze. Quotes should be simple and their effect immediate.

Third, does it acknowledge the elephant in the room (and there is always one of some sort)? Such context can be past news, current events, or forecasts…the reality in which your executive quotes will be consumed (usually a far cry from the calm and informed hallways of your office or agency). Better to address the ones that will matter most, whether positive or negative, so they don’t detract from the credibility of your content. Stuff that doesn’t pass a smell test, no matter how brilliantly conceived, still smells bad.

Fourth, does it declare what something means? The old saying at MTV was “if you have to say something’s cool, it’s not,” and that’s still true today; no matter how important your leadership or messaging matrices say references to the IoT, AI, or whatever “wave” of an esoteric industrial trend, it’s your readers, viewers, or listeners who have the authority to make those connections and judgments.

Five, is it short? Today’s tech has conditioned all of us to equate any increase in length with a decrease in relevance, so exec language that involves not just buzzwords but utilizes convoluted grammar and too many words is pretty much DOA. ‘Nuff said.

The key to asking these questions and then collaborating with your leaders to arrive at the best answers starts and ends with telling them the truth and, when they or others push back in fealty to tradition or brand messaging, you need to challenge them.  

Today, communicating effectively requires that your content earn the interest, belief, and retention of your stakeholders. Don’t let your leaders be fooled by their own expectations or understanding of how your stakeholders experience media. It’ll make it harder for you to achieve your goals.  

Categories
Corporate Communications

Interrogative on Reputation

Resolving the differences between brands and corporate reputations might seem about as important as deciding how many angels fit on the head of a pin, but confusion over definitions is a chronic drag on corporate communicators.

For sake of argument:

Brands are made up of the experiential or emotional benefits that businesses attach to their products or services via marketing communications. It’s a future value, or “intangible” that reveals itself when you ask stakeholders what they think about it. It represents your hope that your stakeholders will, one day, choose you over your competitors based on what you’ve said to them.

Reputations are made up of the judgements and actions businesses earn by their performance via operational behaviors. It’s a present value, or “tangible” that reveals itself in purchase price premiums, happier and more loyal employees, better borrowing rates, longevity of stock ownership, and other objectively real attributes. It represents your stakeholders’ expectation that, today, they’ll choose you over your competitors based on what you’ve done for them.

If branding is the outcome of what a company says, reputation is the result of what it does. Marketers promote branded content and corporate communicators share components of reputations (when stakeholders can’t or don’t experience them directly).

As such, I would argue that we PR types should get a lot closer to reputations and not get distracted or sidetracked by branding. Here are three questions that might help bring such an approach into focus:

First, do you know that you can’t control reputation? Unlike branding, which can be creatively decided on a PowerPoint slide and literally bought with marketing funds (isn’t it interesting that the entries on every list of the “greatest” brands usually correlates with the largest marketing budgets?), reputation emerges from every point (and every moment) in the life of your business. It’s an endless list of experiential outcomes that add up to stakeholder conclusions.

Your delivery truck cut off another driver when making a turn. Your investor relations folks have a habit of talking down earnings expectations every quarter. One employee is an irascible idiot to his vendors, and another one is a saint to hers. New products tend to come from your research folks more regularly than others, and they sell better, too. Your CEO talks in bland tautologies that he thinks are visionary.

Reputation is synonymous with truth, however imperfectly or subjectively understood. At least it’s what your stakeholders have decided is true, and that means they’ve purposefully or unconsciously compared what they expected and what you delivered. Their conclusions underlie their next decision(s) related to your business.

This has interesting implications for what PR people can and should do. For instance, any promise that you could somehow “manage” it is either naive or disingenuous. It’s far more important to be the voice of reason for your leadership and internal stakeholders on the reality of reputation and what they can do to impact it.

Second, are you focused on the right risks? Reputational risk is the delta between what your stakeholders know about your business and what the truth might be, so unawareness or misunderstanding are your enemies.

Your corporate video declares your commitment to saving the planet from climate change but your activities don’t match up (and it was unreasonable to presume to make a major contribution anyway). Your actual employment practices don’t embody your official policy (and more glossy propaganda) on worker and workplace conditions. You bury your privacy policy in dense mouseprint so your customers aren’t aware of how aggressively you monetize their data. Your branding claims leadership and uniqueness but your performance is pedestrian and your offering is generic.

At some point, people will discover the truth and punish you for it, so your goal should be to minimize these risks.

How? By making every effort to reflect and respect reality in your communications content. Is your announcement really the best thing since sliced bread? What about acknowledging the context in which you operate, not to mention the obvious questions that will be obviously asked the moment you reveal whatever it is you’re doing?

Transparency and disclosure aren’t just buzzwords when it comes to reputation, but rather the methods by which truth is revealed. Reputation is recognizing that you’re having actual conversations with your stakeholders, not simply promoting content for them to consume.

If there’s something that they’d find surprising if they discovered it, chances are you should figure out how to share it with them sooner versus later. If a critic will denigrate your use of the calendar, perhaps you should note it proactively. Issues that are too complicated to be reduced to simple positions should be described with the nuance they deserve; conversely, when it’s painful to be clear on things that are painfully clear, provide clarity.

Third, do you know how to measure reputation? In a sentence, look to operations for reputation metrics and not media or survey results.

If only opinions were enough; the various measures of sentiment or “share of voice” make for great graphics but they have little to no causal connection to what people actually do, and it’s where the branding people make their case. Instead, consider looking at operational efficacy for the outcomes of reputation (so don’t try to measure “it” as much as its effects).

Companies with good reputations should spend less money trying to sell stuff and have supply chains that are more impervious to disruptions than others. They might retain employees longer, and at less outright cost, as well as attract better talent than the competition. A good reputation could mean that vendors and suppliers provide more liberal terms, and are higher quality than not. There’s no good off-the-shelf model for these metrics, perhaps because no agency wants to live and die by actual results, so you can come up with a model of the performance indicators you want to influence and then work backwards to your content development for ways to do it.

Ultimately, making clearer distinctions between brands and reputations will benefit both communicators and the companies for which they work.

Categories
Content

Interrogative on Predictions

’Tis the season for forecasts and predictions about the coming year. Everyone seems to have an opinion about what can or should happen in the communications and marketing world.

Very little of it ever comes true.

Sure, there have been loads of recommendations for using new gimmicks or tools, usually coming from the folks who’ll happily provide those services to you (or profit from covering them when you pay others to do the work). But, more broadly, the world next year will look a lot like it does this year: the details will be different, as will the events that precipitate our collective joys or woes, but people will remain the same.

Here are three questions you might want to ask of a prediction before you decide it’s legit (or go to work trying to make it so):

First, does it challenge basic truths of human nature? People, and our psychological subsets called “consumers,” have been acting the same ways for the same reasons since time began. Customers shopping online today are driven by the same needs, interests, aspirations, limitations, and fears as they were when they visited medieval marketplaces. Digital might condition us to actuate ourselves differently, but it doesn’t change us.

That means if a forecast suggests otherwise, it’s either foolish or purposely a lie. Your customers won’t stop being curious or judgmental (or whatever) next year. They won’t want content from you that doesn’t address their needs, and they won’t want to change whatever imaginary relationships your brand evangelists wish existed between them and your business. You need to be relevant to their purchase decision making in 2022 and not to tangential or unrelated issues. Your “purpose” will remain to sell them stuff.

Put your money on people being people, just like always.

Second, does it sound too good to be true? It’s less a prediction than a certainty that there will be more opportunities for you to pay for publication of your content, as established and novel platforms have figured out how to monetize their brand names (why try to earn coverage in so-and-so media if you can buy it by producing a TikTok video?), delivering glossy reports that make your internal stakeholders feel important.

Such “paid media” is really advertising only without the creativity, purchase decision-relevant content (see Point #1 above), or accountability. Views aren’t purchases.

Next year will challenge you to uncover and present content that could get in front of your customers because of its credibility and merit, and gives them information that’s so timely and useful to them that they’d be willing to pay for it if they had to instead of relying on you buying their attention. Promised shortcuts will continue to be too good to be true.

Third, why are you interested in it? Another eternal truth of human nature is that keeping our jobs is always a component of our jobs, regardless of the other outcomes of our work. For some of us, it’s the primary driver of every decision, while others seem to exhibit at least an occasional disregard for their job security. The pandemic has moved millions of people to explore and reconsider how this tension plays out in their careers.

It’s through this lens that you’re seeing every forecast for what’s on tap for next year. It’s a bias, too, that makes things seem more or less relevant to you and will impact what you do in 2022.

Why and how you interpret and apply predictions is far more important than any of the predictions themselves. What are you trying to accomplish next year? Why do you think it’s right for you and/or for your business?

Making a forecast for your own motivations and goals is probably loads more important to your success than any blather about the near-future of communications or marketing.

Happy New Year!

Categories
Content

Interrogative on Relevance

Companies need to be relevant these days, though there’s never been a time when they succeeded any other way.

But now corporate purpose has PR and marcom folks running around as if they’ve discovered some magic elixir that requires the invention of new ideas, platforms, and metrics. Yet how does this idea get attached to concepts and proofs of relevance?

Good question. In fact, I’m amazed by how poorly it’s done, so here are three questions you might want to ask about if, how, and when your internal conversations about purpose can translate into externally relevant content:

First, is it reasonable? It is accepted wisdom that companies need to address the world’s “big” challenges, and many are doing so by spending lots of money to produce gloriously beautiful ad campaigns (print and video) and bold declarations on their websites. There’s also been a lot of internal communications on the topics, waxing poetic to employees about what “we” stand for.

Little of it is reasonable and less of it is effective, for at least two reasons:

Your purpose can’t be to save the world. Not aggressively destroying the environment or encouraging social injustices are table stakes for companies these days, so telling the world that you care about them isn’t unique or particularly compelling, let alone relevant (no matter what your internal PowerPoint slides claim). Unless you want to become unemployed, your purpose remains to make money and, secondarily, doing it in ways that satisfy the expectations of your stakeholders. Saying anything more isn’t credible.

You can’t tell your employees what they care about. Any time you see a company communication that presumes to speak for a “we,” there’s a good chance that its purpose is to fill an empty box on a slide in a comms plan that calls for it. Corporate purpose, like the way any individual expresses it, comes from specific choices and actions. Money spent on telling people what to think instead of empowering them to act is, well, not relevant.

Second, is it necessary? Relevance is dependent on necessity, at least if you want your stakeholders to care (otherwise, your content may relate to a topic of interest but not come across as memorable or particularly smart).

That means doing things that only your company can do, or at least do uniquely well…or taking on the biggest, most difficult challenge that your company faces. For instance, it would be particularly relevant if you use lots of paint or concrete in what you produce and vowed to figure out how to stop using so much water. Huge container ships that cross the world’s oceans spew air pollution to rival all the world’s roads, so transitioning to a renewable fuel would be a necessary thing to do.

Things that are necessary are also urgent, so plans to fix stuff that don’t come to fruition until 2050 or something are effectively irrelevant, since the planet may have incinerated itself by then (and we’ll all be old or dead).

Same goes for efforts to address social justice issues: appointing gender or racially diverse executives, often in charge of gender or racial diversity, might be necessary to address the immediate and fleeting needs of the most vociferous advocates for change, but doing so sets the clock ticking for effecting necessary changes, like figuring out how to bring diversity to that roomful of data scientists toiling away in your basement or empowering diverse suppliers to operate as suppliers (and not exceptions).

Symbolism can be necessary, maybe, but only up to a point. I’d offer that we’re at the cusp of 2022 and the time for symbolic gestures has passed. It’s no longer relevant, if it ever was.

Third, is it actionable? This means being willing to do stuff that may not be photogenic or lend itself to getting praised and winning awards at the next special event created to praise and reward purpose communications campaigns.

Relevance comes from doing, not saying.

Another proven component of relevance is making things actionable, so that your stakeholders aren’t just watching your beautiful declarations of philanthropic intent but can join in the fight. Is it really possible that your company can institute world-changing stuff without your stakeholders taking some responsibility? They could pay more, or differently, for starters, or do more recycling of packaging. They could recommend recruits and offer to co-mentor them. There’s a lot of research that suggests people don’t take things seriously unless it impacts them directly.

So why not ask for their participation, not just their ?

People are starved for more relevant messaging from the businesses and brands that fill their smartphone screens. But without a reasonable promise, necessary scope, and actionable effort, much of the communications that aspire to be relevant today is pretty irrelevant.

Categories
Content Corporate Communications

Interrogative on Events

Technology makes scheduling and hosting events easier than ever before. Isn’t it funny that nobody wants to attend them?

At least a sparsely attended webinar or Zoom call isn’t as uncomfortable as a room with a podium and lots of empty chairs, and even if so many beautifully rendered virtual trade show exhibits have been seen by so few people, there was no there there in the first place.

The the pandemic hasn’t changed the rules for events, whether virtual or geophysical, and it’s a good moment to pause and consider them.

Here are three questions you can ask before you schedule the next one:

First, is it necessary? I’m not talking about your internal need to announce a product or make your execs feel important, but rather, do your stakeholders have needs that can only be met by attending an event? Most times, there are better and cheaper (i.e. more effective) ways to meet their requirements, if you simply stop to consider them before contemplating your own.

A good number of events are repeats, like regular customer or user conferences, but that’s still no excuse for thinking you have an agenda to fill vs. attendee needs to meet. What will they get to see or experience, virtually or in tangible reality, that would warrant their attention? Nobody wakes up in the morning wondering what your new product will be (unless you’re Apple), so what is it about whatever you want to promote that can only be communicated in real-time to an audience? What would make it something that they’d hate to have missed?

Remember, they don’t have to attend and they often don’t, so unless you have a really good idea of what they want, you aren’t going to automatically get a chance to present anything to them.

They’re not a captive audience if they don’t show up.

Second, is it live? Nobody wants to attend an event consisting of prerecorded content, so stop creating that glossy brand video that you want to force on them. And please, please don’t create some CGI exhibit that people can explore by clicking on renderings of objects and displays, since it’s too much work for too little return (i.e. playing bad video games is more fun).

Canned presentations, whether shot prior or consisting of execs reading scripts, are not only not special, but they’re not really events.

Think of the immense potential of live experience, especially in terms of communicating authenticity and surprising people out of their preconceived notions. Your attendees aren’t an audience as much as participants in an experience that needs to be somehow unexpected, personal, funny, even dramatic. Your event should be a performance, not a platform for serving up your content. This means being less concerned with making every moment as perfect as a digital readout, and allowing for informality and imperfection that brings your attendees into the spirit of the moment.

Third, is it unique? Even if they’re relevant and live, the best special events reach beyond those attributes to stand for something and become things that matter.

Remember how you felt the last time you attended a play or art exhibit, and left thinking to yourself Wow, that was different or I’m glad I was there! Maybe it was a family event, or simply a chance moment when you and a loved one shared something that you just know will stay with you for years, if not for your entire life. Online or for real.

We crave these moments because we’re human, and they stand out especially when contrasted with the canned and framed experiences we’re led through on our digital screens. This doesn’t mean your new product announcement has to come across like the opening night of Hamilton. But the same principles apply: Content that is relevant, that embraces live experience, and adds up to something more than just a sum of its parts.

Why will they remember they were in the room? What will it say to our employees, or to our client? How will it evidence the ways we are truly different than our competition?

The jury is still out on how and how often we’ll get together in geophysical space; my bet is that we’ll do so when the opportunities warrant it, whether company meetings, trade shows, or any activities in our personal lives. We’ll go somewhere when there’s a compelling reason to do it.

But it turns out the same criteria already apply to virtual events. We don’t need or want more of them, and the capacity to fill airtime with beautiful content doesn’t take the place of meeting audience needs and interests.

A bad event is still a bad event. Question your plans before you host the next one.

Categories
Corporate Communications

Interrogative on Live Interviews

A company exec in front of a live camera or microphone is a unique opportunity to connect directly with an audience. So why are so many of them so bad?

Spend some time watching the daytime programming at CNBC, for instance, and you’ll see what I mean. Most interviews are filled with buzzwords and non-news piled on top of news that have me remarking “wait, she didn’t even answer the question” more often than not. Most exec podcast interviews put me to sleep.

Such stumbles don’t come with lots of hard work: PR people produce soaringly generic talking points which then get vetted by marketers to make sure they’re suitably skewed to whatever messages they’ve deemed important. Approvals from legal departments ensure there’s nothing said that could be construed to be surprising or meaningful.

It takes a community to produce an “on brand” throwaway interview.

Before you prep for the next one, here are three questions you should ask yourself:

First, is your exec prepared to be a human being? Doing so is the first if not sole objective of any live appearance, whether video or audio. These media are visceral, not literal, which means that your exec needs to successfully establish credibility and rapport with the interviewer and audience before regurgitating whatever branding blather you’d made her memorize.

This is easier said than done, since many top execs don’t really come across like real people in their daily lives, having spent their careers learning to measure their responses and guard their personal feelings. Some never had much of a personality in the first place, while others have horribly inflated opinions of their own likability (which deservedly should be kept hidden, however imperfectly).

Therefore, you need to help them understand that their goal isn’t to appear smart or leaderly but rather to be human. If they aren’t comfortable with this, you must teach them a few tricks to pretend.

For instance, tell them it’s OK to not know the answer to a question, to smile or frown, and to always speak in the first person (only royalty get to use “we” without sounding like a stunt double for a real person). Talking about the dullest news should be presented in terms of how the exec feels about, wonders, or has hopes for it, and not as if he were some spirit hovering over an operating table describing a procedure.

There are also tricks, like pausing before answering as if they’re actually thinking about what to say (Winston Churchill used to script them) or complimenting their interviewers because they’ve asked a good question or made an interesting point.

Humanity first. Messaging later.

Second, will she talk about solving a real problem? Every strategy seems intended to “create value” these days, especially if it involves technology, as if there were ever plans in the past to purposefully spend or destroy it. It’s a term that comes from corporate boardrooms, where you create value because you can’t credibly explain what you’re really doing.

Further, many (if not most) interviews are booked in hopes of talking about some recent news event. Even if your exec gains airtime to do it, the messaging will be mostly DOA because the media and its consumers are far more interested in ongoing challenges and work; the news prompt is, by definition, no longer newsworthy unless your exec can add something to it.

Whatever the prompt for the appearance — last quarter’s earnings, a tech innovation that proves time travel is possible — your exec should be prepared to talk about some real, unresolved problem and how your company is focused on it.

Think real problems that involve suffering, injustices, and other impacts that don’t require a fancy online dashboard to measure, and not making shopping easier.

Real problems require vision, ingenuity, fortitude, and a host of qualities that audiences respect, both in individuals and from the businesses they represent. Problems make strategies necessary, not just nice to have, and they make talking about your latest breakthrough in using machine intelligence to mine microbial data, or whatever, far more relevant and memorable.

Third, does your exec know that humility is the new confidence? If your exec had all the answers, your company would be the most profitable and untouchable entity if all of human history; if this isn’t the case, live interviews should be considered installments in your search for answers.

Sure, your exec should articulate goals, aspirations, and even talk about confidence in the future as long as it’s couched in terms of personal hope and intention. But the future is unwritten and any interview should reflect this fact.

All of us face that truth every moment of every day.

Maybe it would help if your exec thought of your blathertastic “brand journey” as an ongoing experiment; this would mean that even the most impressive recent accomplishment would be tempered by admission that more work and even greater risk/reward work would follow. One successful test begets the next, which may or may not succeed.

This perspective would allow your exec to use live interviews to invite audiences and journalists into this ongoing narrative, and give them milestones upon which to track it.

It’ll take work to reconfigure the way your execs do live interviews, and you may never succeed in getting marketers and/or lawyers to let them talk like human beings. But even small steps in that direction will improve the credibility and benefit of doing the gigs in the first place. Maybe add some humanity training to the next media training?

It might even create value.

Categories
Content

Interrogative on Owned Media

Owned media are the artifacts of content over which PR people have total control, as we use it to propagate content that ranges from business updates, to philanthropic activities and dicey public policy issues. Most legit media outlets will publish it in exchange for lots of cash. It’s included in PR academic circles as part of a well-rounded publicity offering.

Most of it stinks. It’s the cereal component to a breakfast of fruit and milk.

Communicators are their own worst enemies on this front. Since owned media are literally dictated, the content is primarily accountable to branding, customer messaging, and executive egos.

None of these qualities have anything to do with whether or not the content is relevant, useful, or even true, but it can yield nice examples of them “successfully” doing their jobs.

Instead of using owned media as mirrors into which your company can stare adoringly, here are three questions you can ask:

First, would a real journalist ever write your story or shoot your video? If it couldn’t pass that test, it’s a good indication that it’s not relevant or believable, so why would you pay to promote it? The bar for owned content is actually higher when it comes to credibility (since audiences arrive with preconceived notions about commercialism). Your content has to be objectively newsworthy, and your approach needs to scream necessity and meaning, not just gargle all of the buzzwords and images you think you’re supposed to promote.

Here’s a good test for your next creative effort: If it never appeared, or disappeared the day after you published it, would anybody care (other than the agency you paid to develop it)?

Second, why does it have to be slick? This is a particular problem with websites but also includes many of those paid placements in media I mentioned earlier. If your video or branded article are beautifully written, or your video is narrated by that same voice that introduces Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride, then it’s generic garbage. Sorry, but no stakeholder has asked for another unremarkable piece of content in their lives; if you are going to intrude on them why not make a bluntly compelling ad? Better yet, put on that journalist hat from the prior point and challenge yourself to create something that reads and looks like news and not a corporate brochure. It’ll help keep you honest on the content.

Third, what makes it uniquely yours? If your article or podcast could have been produced by one of your competitors, let alone other companies, you need to really ponder why you’re producing it in the first place. I mean, who cares? Instead, consider what your stakeholders are interested in hearing or, better yet, dare to address the complex and even challenging topics that you’ve avoided because they aren’t highlighted on that grid your marketers use to determine messaging. Present a unique POV instead of your execs extolling the merits of the IoT and you may actually get somebody to care about it.

Owned content is a huge and incredibly promising proposition that can be used to articulate unique POVs, educate stakeholders on issues they care about, and change hearts and minds, but only if companies use it wisely.

Maybe it’s time to stop looking in the mirror?

Categories
Corporate Communications

Interrogative on Crisis Communications

The crisis communications industry is good business. Triggering events seem to occur in lockstep with the tech and services made available to discover and share them. People have learned to expect the worst of businesses and institutions; trust in authority is low and suspicions of nefarious purposes are high.

So, while these circumstances serve as full employment act for PR people and their specialized crisis response plans, it begs a simple question:

Does it do any good?

The cynic in me says no. Crises that are truly unexpected are incredibly rare. Aside from a meteor made of an undetectable mineral crashing into your factory, most crisis events are the result of decisions that could have been made differently.

In other words, every crisis other than a truly Black Swan surprise is a self-inflicted wound.

Businesses are run on balancing the probabilities of risk with the financial implications of addressing them. Data are protected with layers of security defined by regulation and past experience and then considered against the potential liability of a hack. Oil pipelines can withstand the most ardent animal bites and even a minor earthquake, but those tolerances are chosen based on cost to implement and sustain.

Filling a car cabin with Jell-O might cushion passengers from some one in a million crash incident, but it would cost too much to put in every vehicle.

Crises reveal the decisions made by businesses and institutions. They’re interruptions of fact in the face of promises, assumptions, and sometimes benign neglect.

Crises, like political gaffes, are when stakeholders get a glimpse of reality.

There are three questions that will help you manage crises:

First, does company leadership grasp the PR downside to their decisions? You could spent ten minutes and come up with a list of, say, a dozen crises that are on your company’s horizon, and then work up communications scenarios if they occurred; not your blah blah statements but frank assessments of what company policies and actions will be blamed or questioned (i.e. the causes, or at least the set-ups, for the crises), including what the coverage might look like and what it could lead to, thinking beyond media to impacts on suppliers, lenders, employees and new recruiting Then, push it in front of your company’s senior leadership (and board, if possible) and challenge them to face their complicity and risk exposure. Hopefully, they’ll choose to preempt the worst possibilities through changes in operations.

The best way to manage a crisis is to make it less likely.

Second, are your customers prepared? I’m reminded of those mouseprint data privacy contracts that we sign before activating some silly smartphone app. Business are happy that we don’t read them, because we’d be scared if we did. Yet by tolerating this disconnect — and encouraging our happy ignorance — they prime us for disappointment and potential damage to the brand when a hacking crisis occurs.

It’s the same on most other issues that customers care about, or would if they knew about them.

Are you telling them the truth about your activities and responsibilities when it comes to combating climate change, or just producing slick content that positions you as “a leader” in meeting some far-away goal that sounds great and has no meaning?

Do you disclose the reality of the gender and ethnic diversity in your company, or have you simply hired a spokesperson to represent what is an outlier effort or simply perpetuation of the status quo?

Will you educate your customers about the challenges and trade-offs your company makes on sourcing, security, and any other activity, or do you rely on the grandiose and outdated nonsense of branding to promote it?

Can you acknowledge that customers have relationships with your company and not some artificial construct from your marketing Brahmins?

The second best way to manage a crisis is to deal with informed stakeholders, not surprised victims.

Third, are you ready to fix the problems? This is another business operations activity and not something that arises and lives in communications: crises need to be addressed and resolved as quickly as possible. It’s the only real response to questions from the media and other stakeholders. Even the finest holding statement can’t hold a candle to reports of real action and insight. Every minute that passes in which your company doesn’t know something is a minute somebody else fills with their own assumptions and accusations.

This means that those dozen crises on your list need detailed operational frameworks that are focused on swift, all-hands-on-deck solutions to crises, and your associates in other areas of the company need to understand their roles and responsibilities. Keep repeating this mantra to them (and to yourself):

Crises aren’t communications events, they’re real.

Also, don’t get distracted by all of the silly and ephemeral “crises” that might pop up because somebody Tweeted something or a social media influencer decided your shoes chafe instead of fit. Much of the corporate reputation industry (along with the brand gurus) have gotten horribly distracted by this content and its purported effects, mostly because there are shiny computer dashboards that can track them…until they evaporate a day later, if not sooner.

The third best way to manage a crisis is to, well, manage the crisis. For real.

In a real sense, businesses and institutions are always in crisis, only to different degrees of intensity and impact. The more you recognize it — and work to bridge any explicit or implicit divides between what your leadership is willing to tolerate and what your stakeholders believe to be true, rightly or wrongly — the next blunt revelation of such disconnects will be less damaging.

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Content

Interrogative on Technology

New technology is an old idea. We’ve been singing its praises since our caveman ancestors first learned how to grill.

Today’s digital tech is so pervasive that it makes every business a technology company, which makes it particularly hard forth to differentiate based on tech alone. It’s why the most popular tech stories are about people, usually at startups and the occasional billionaire rocket launch. Big, established businesses that tangibly do more with tech that any entrepreneur promises are left out of most coverage.

There are three questions that will help you get in on those conversations:

First, are you changing the world? Tech that enhances, improves, or otherwise makes things better in some incremental way is what drives the vast majority of real business innovation, development, and sales, yet it’s DOA from a news perspective; only your most informed customer cares that your whatchamacallit increases resonance variability by 4 percent, yielding a richer user experience, or that your thingamajig works at the periphery of the value chain instead of midway.

Yet talking in this mixture of gibberish and complacency (“we’re the leader in…” is a kiss of death phrase) keeps most tech marcom content on the sidelines. It doesn’t help that a big company’s stock price is dependent on its ability to reliably make profits, and even the suggestion of a Hail Mary pass could whack said value. There’s no money in dreaming big.

You need to question this assumption, however, and challenge yourself to see a bigger, longer play in what you’re trying to accomplish. Little steps aren’t so little if they’re steps along a bigger journey and are communicated with consistency and meaning.

Second, are you aware of your stakeholders’ interests and concerns? Most technology development happens based on prior tech performance specs and expert analyses of what improvements are possible within the limitations of time and budget. Making it relevant to different stakeholders is an afterthought that usually involves bolting-on references to the IoT, smart (insert industry here), AI, or some other buzzworthy topic suggested by management consultants (who make the same suggestions to everyone).

The thing is, nobody cares about technology except technology people; the rest of us are happy using streaming movies and flying in airplanes with limited to no understanding of how those miracles are even possible.

This means that your stakeholders probably aren’t interested in your latest tech announcement, so the media outlets they consume aren’t, either.

Instead, what if the comms planning for your next tech news started with a deep understanding of what issues a particular stakeholder group cared about, we’re hearing about in the media, and then imagining how and where your content might fit into that construct?

Third, are you willing to talk about people? Anybody who innovates for a living knows that it can be challenging, scary, thrilling, rewarding, dumbfounding, demoralizing, and then all of it all over again. Even the most inarticulate engineer feels deeply about her or his work, maybe never using the word “passion” but certainly revealing it by doing things like working at home or forgetting to bathe.

How is it that corp comms manages to produce content devoid of any of this humanity?

Before you produce that next glossy video or try to erase your spokesperson’s personality with corporate messaging, consider letting people talk about their technology journeys, not just your corporate destination. Let them share hopes, dreams, successes and failures. Let them be themselves, whether in front of a camera or simply getting their names pasted on top of expertly produced blog posts.

Like I said at the beginning, technology stories are people stories, and there’s no reason your comms have to be stuck inside a box that is separated from goals, stakeholder needs, and authentic personal voices.

It’s time to think outside the box. Now there’s a new idea!