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.  

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.

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.

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.

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.