Category Archives: Communications Strategy

Just a few thoughts on the dark art of corporate communications and how one should approach it – and when you’ve approached it, whether you should embrace it with open arms, or simply walk away. Quite quickly.

The Savagery of Social – implications for internal communication

This, I suspect, may get me into trouble. Let’s talk about the nastier side of social media for a moment, and then let’s consider the implications that arise for internal communication and the already established trend of using enterprise social networks like Yammer, Workplace by Facebook and, well, Sharepoint. (There are others, clearly – like Slack and Unily – arguably collaboration tools, or bespoke intranets, but as it’s all about ‘sharing’ – and odds are on that ‘conversation’ is also being mentioned – they’ve got all the characteristics of the established social media channels.)

And that’s the issue, really. Here’s a piece from The Irish Times (written by Jennifer O’Connell) which says ‘social media has shown us that when humans gather with no rules, savagery prevails’ and goes on to say ‘there’s a brutality now in the way we communicate with one another that did not exist before social media’. The article, which is definitely worth a few minutes, starts out looking at Ed Sheeran’s decision to leave Twitter, touches on the Orange Mussolini in the White House and uses personal experience to further illustrate the point. And it’s all demonstrably true.

Quite some time ago, I attempted to categorise this phenomenon. (If you can be bothered, you can find my original post here.) It’s ‘an ailment that afflicts a small but significant proportion of the population when they are presented with the opportunity to post whatever they like to a public forum’ – appearing to be compulsive and involuntary. It can take the form of simple intolerance of anyone else’s point of view, or extreme bad language, or posting of inappropriate material (visual or written), or racial harassment or career-threatening stupidity. That it’s a small proportion of the population is important – although the Brexit ‘debate’ has shown that the proportion may be larger than first imagined – however, as is always the case, it only takes one.

So – what does this mean for enterprise social networks? First, let’s go back to the Irish Times piece (above) and note the words ‘with no rules’. Social media have no rules, and anyone can say whatever they like, hiding behind a blank avatar and an anonymous username. Obviously, in the workplace, there will be rules governing the use of corporate intranets, collaboration tools and how employees represent their employer on external social media. Won’t there?

Well, actually, not necessarily. From personal experience, there are companies that have not thought about a code of practice. That do not have a Use of Social Media Policy. That – and this is terrifying – won’t implement guidelines because they don’t see them being at one with the spirit of social media. It’s all about sharing and collaboration and conversation, apparently – placing guidelines on how you do it would stifle its very essence. Hang the potential consequences.

Again, quite some time ago, I did a piece on my experience of implementing a very early version of an enterprise social network. (And again, if you can be bothered, you can read the whole thing here.) The conclusion was – ‘give people a voice and they will use it, as if it is a right. They will use it despite the fact they have nothing to say. They will use it to settle grievances, even scores, wash dirty laundry, put hearts on sleeves, bare souls and share the unthinkable. And probably try to unscrew the inscrutable, given half the chance.’

There are many companies (three that I know personally) – no names, no pack drill – who use enterprise social networks. There are consultancies who offer to implement an enterprise social network in your business. My experience is that they do not work – amongst the workplace as a whole – as they were meant to, generally because a busy workforce does not have the time to add an extra layer of complexity to its day-to-day and also – obviously – because not everyone wants to share their work. Because it’s theirs.

So what happens is that the expensive tool becomes a means for the few to blow their own trumpets and a further few to ‘like’ the fact that they’ve done so. And there is always the risk of wholly inappropriate, reputation-damaging content – although, in fairness, there is a less of it than I envisaged, way back when. But still, the expensive tool is a reflection of the shiny object that it imitates – faint, but a reflection nonetheless. And if social is becoming increasingly savage, thoughtless, stupid and radical then – without the policies, guidelines, checks and balances in place – so must your internal network.

From all of this, there are clear take-outs:

  • If you have an enterprise social network, govern it with a strict policy
  • Have a corporate ‘Use of Social Media’ policy in any case – you never know when you’ll need it
  • If you haven’t got an enterprise social network, think carefully – do you need one, or is it Shiny Object Syndrome?
  • Remember, the role of internal communication is to keep the workforce appraised of the organisation’s successes, vision, values, strategy, policies, procedures and its corporate religion, thereby generating a sense of belonging, belief and purpose. It is not to encourage free debate around these things, as Google has found out.

 

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Corporate Communication: Speaking Simple Truth to Power

Reading, the other day, that French President Emmanuel Macron has decided that his thought processes are too complex for the media to understand, and thus has cancelled a traditional Bastille Day press conference, made me consider (again) two things:

  • The core of communication is simplicity
  • Speaking communication truth to the very powerful is a vital, but thankless, task

Clearly, Msr Macron was ridiculed roundly for his perceived arrogance, and there were those who accused him of having a Louis XIV complex. (Which appears to have some substance, if you read the reportage following his speech at Versailles on July 3.) He is obviously an incredibly intelligent man and has crammed more into his 39 years than I could hope of achieving in as many lifetimes, however, from a communication standpoint, he has alienated a key stakeholder group, who will have gone on to influence a large proportion of his supporter base.

Some have said that he may have been misrepresented or misconstrued, but my own experience leads me to believe that he simply saw no issue. He’s the cleverest boy in the room, why would he waste his time on people who aren’t going to understand what he’s saying? And that will be his experience of the media. They keep asking questions, the answers to which are, to him, blindingly obvious.

I say my own experience, because it’s happened to me on at least three different occasions – and by different occasions, I mean different companies and different C-suite executives. ‘Why, oh why, oh why’ they said ‘do I have to do this early morning call to the media? They never really understand what I’m saying, it’s all too complex for them, and we often have to go back and mop it up later. Why?’

Sometimes they were a bit harsher than that.

The real question, of course, is not why don’t they understand the complexity, it’s why can’t you make it simpler and easier for everyone. Those in the public eye or in a position of power – our heads, our leaders – are expected to be on top of their material, their field of expertise. They are rewarded for so being.

The media, on the other hand, are – in the main – overstretched, underpaid and covering a wide variety of different topics. Their audience – the public, the consumer, the voter – has neither the time, nor the inclination.

Thus, and as always, the truth of communication is ‘the simpler the better’. Simple, however, is not to dumb it down, but to express it in a way (or ways) that all your audiences will understand and relate to – this will undoubtedly involve a layer of extra work, on top of the work you’ve done to get to where you are. Which is inconvenient.

Speaking this truth to the very powerful, thus, is an extremely dangerous occupation. Someone who believes that their thought processes are too complex to be understood doesn’t take kindly to being told that they can (and should) be simplified.

it is vital that the communication expert steps up to the plate however – the alternative is a leader viewed as aloof, arrogant and possessed of delusions of grandeur – or, in a more corporate context, a leader viewed as aloof, arrogant and out of touch. And with today’s focus on customer experience, inclusion and satisfaction, that’s simply not going to work.

(A final thought – if Emmanuel feels that the media are going to have a hard time understanding him, why has he issued an invitation to Donald Trump? Maybe it’s a President thing.)

 

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Filed under Communications Strategy, Corporate Reputation Management

Corporate Reputation: Not enhanced by Gurus, Black Belts, Ninjas or Masters

Way back when – 1985, to be precise – a gentleman called Nick Graham founded an underwear company called Joe Boxer, and appointed himself Chief Underpants Officer. And why not? It was irreverent and amusing and – this is the key element – it reflected what the company actually did, and his role in it. His claim that “The brand is the amusement park, the product is the souvenir” provides insight into his thinking and an interesting take on customer relations, not suitable for all, but worth a moment’s consideration.

The point is that it is possible to break away from the conventions of job titles and role profiles – Chief Executive Officer, Sales Director, National Accounts Manager, Head of Human Resources, IT Analyst – and, in so doing, enhance corporate reputation and make a clear statement about strategic direction.

This piece, by Sir Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology at the University of Manchester for the BBC, provides a couple of further examples. Let’s hear it for the Captain of Moonshots at Google, who heads up research and development (and whose name, brilliantly enough, is Astro Teller). And take a bow, Berkshire Hathaway’s Director of Chaos, who manages the organisation of the company’s annual shareholder bunfight. From the ridiculous to the sublime, let’s not forget the sandwich artists at Subway.

There’s a point to all of these and even Captain of Moonshots is sufficiently evocative that it’s clear what the job entails and, perhaps more importantly, why it needs/merits an extraordinary descriptor. However, there is a newer and perhaps slightly worrying trend towards ‘differently naming’ roles and positions, and Sir Cary’s article goes on to discuss it.

Coming from the private sector, and having worked in environments where ‘process efficiencies’ and ‘continuous improvement’ (read cost saving and downsizing) had become central to the culture of the business, I am no stranger to people with ‘guru’ in their title. I have met those called ‘ninja’. I have held meetings with ‘commercial black belts’ – people whom, I suppose, will cripple you on price.

Sir Cary says that incomprehensible job titles are an elitist affectation.  All of this stuff surely adds value, but not knowing what the job title means, it’s difficult to ask the right questions about the job, and not asking the right questions means not getting the right answers, and thus not being certain of the value added. But, and going back to what the Chief Underpants Officer said, an organisation which allows incomprehensible, and above all unfriendly and slightly intimidating, job titles – for whatever reason – is not going to have the cultural mindset to be an amusement park for its customers.

For the record, the latest examples appear to be the job titles of ‘scrum master’ and ‘agilist’. The first, ‘scrum master’, gives little clue to what it might be, save (for me anyway) a vague sense of foreboding that it might involve large, sweaty men tearing each other’s shorts. The latter, ‘agilist’, for which you can train and obtain a qualification, is someone who promotes agility in an organisation (I think). And – as an aside – for anyone who’s ever spent time in a large organisation – well, I don’t have to tell you how well that’s going to work.

So what does it all mean for the Corporate Affairs/Corporate Reputation manager? Well, it’s an object lesson in how reputation enhancement and good public relations start at home. An internal view is as important as an external one. It’s no good focusing on overall customer experience and corporate image if – to over-extend the metaphor – your publics cannot relate to those who run the amusement park. And if the corporate culture allows for ninjas, black belts, gurus and masters – then it’s probably about due an overhaul.

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No Measurement, No Value

One of the things about being an old communicator is that you’ve seen such an awful lot of it before – and never more so than in the field of evaluation and measurement. Without wishing to bore the pants off of anyone, in the nigh on three decades that I’ve been a jobbing spin doctor, no-one – but no-one – has come up with a robust and meaningful method of measuring the results of communication/public relations activities.

There have been attempts, sure, some more successful than others. Six years ago the Association for Evaluation and Measurement of Communication formed to address the issue, led by some of the biggest names in the global communications industry. Credit where credit is due, they made a good fist of it and, for those who want to have a look at the results, here’s a link for you.

Problem is, I’m afraid, that it is unutterably complex and, unfortunately, carries with it considerable cost – even if it is just the cost of the human resource that you have no choice but to allocate against it. You see, complexity and cost are the downfalls of any half-decent attempt at cracking the evaluation and measurement conundra.

The communication function has never enjoyed the budgets that are allocated to the marketing/advertising functions and thus the proportion of total budget that meaningful measurement would suck up is far greater. Given a straight choice between greater levels of activity or a nicely-produced report measuring the effectiveness of much lower levels of activity – well, rightly or wrongly, it’s more activity, every time.

And did I say that meaningful measurement is also very complex? Meaningful measurement, simply put, revolves around understanding the impacts of your activity against your varying target audiences and aligning the impacts against the various goals that you agreed at the beginning of the campaign.

And that’s in its simplest form. Never mind – should you wish to examine your return on investment – putting a price on the attainment of those goals (which won’t always be increased unit sales, or net promoter scores, or share price increments) and then balancing that cost against what you paid for the campaign. And it is, I am afraid, an eternal truth that the more complex it is, the less time the intended audience (senior management, of example) will spend trying to understand it.

Which is why, for so long – and still today – Advertising Value Equivalent (AVE) is many communicator’s measurement of choice. Even I have used it – albeit apologetically, and with a full disclosure of the system’s inherent limitations and less-than-robust nature – because when you can’t afford anything else, something is better than nothing. If you don’t show some form of evaluation, you don’t get accorded any value and if you’re not accorded any value, then you’re not going to be top of mind when the FD’s divvying up next year’s spend.

So I was interested to read about Earned Media Value (EMV) – via Stephen Waddington’s excellent blog – which is, to all intents and purposes, AVE brought up to date. Or at least, AVE for the PESO media environment. (OK, OK – Paid, Earned, Social, Owned.) It’s still hogwash, it’s still fatally flawed (some might say meaningless) and it’s still chock-full of limitations. But – if you’re all out of alternatives…………..

Let’s be clear. Right at the beginning of the planning cycle, we need to ensure that we (or our client, dependent on whether we’re in-house or agency) are lobbying for a budget allocation that allows for proper measurement and evaluation.

Very, very simply put – we need to explain what proper measurement is and get the blessing of the exec directors and the board. This will be difficult first time round and then progressively easier as it becomes accepted. We need to shield them from the complexity of it and present the results to them in top-line findings aligned to the agreed goals – which, clearly, should be, or should closely mirror, the overall corporate objectives.

The problem is – if you’re not successful in this course of action, what do you do? I am not advocating listening to the snake-oil salesmen who would make AVE or EMV industries in themselves and money-spinners for the unscrupulous.

But you might look at them and think – without any form of measurement at all, no matter how flawed, what we’re doing is simply tactical, not strategic and of little perceived long-term value.

But that’s another can of worms.

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Scaffolding

Not so much scaffolding, actually.

What I’ve got in mind is the sort of thing that used to come up in EVERY SINGLE creative ‘brainstorm’ (why does my computer desperately want to correct that to ‘brianstorm’? Are they building these things with senses of humour these days?) that I attended in the heady days of agency and then when I scored my first in-house job.

The brief would be something along the lines of ‘no holds barred – we want a really big idea – one that’s going to translate across marketing, advertising and PR – doesn’t matter where it comes from – simply has to be big and attention-grabbing – yes, yes, if it’s good enough, we’ll find the money, never you mind about that – we don’t want anyone to be negative – no ideas are bad ideas’ etc etc. This would be followed by a sort of free-form bunfight as the various different functions, including serried ranks of consultants and agency bods, all tried to out-creative each other, the ideas getting more and more ludicrous and spiralling further and further out of control.

And, no. Before you ask, there was never any money for the big idea. A small fortune would be spent on getting everyone to the brainstorm – remember, the agency bods and consultants are charging by the hour – but when the sparkledust and dreamtinsel had settled, there was never, actually, the enormous pile of wonga we’d been promised. Maybe the ideas weren’t the right ones. Who knows?

But I digress. In every brainstorm – for a while, part of the zeitgeist I guess – the idea was put forward that we should get ‘those guys, you know, the installation artists – the ones who wrapped the Reichstag – Christo et Jeanne-Claude‘ to wrap a building in corporate colours. Overnight, obviously. To ‘surprise and delight’. (That combination of words still makes me shudder.) The choice at the time was usually either the Empire State Building or One Canada Square. (Yeah, overnight.)

So. I’m going to have a go at curating this blog. Make it easier to find stuff. Get rid of some of the self-indulgent twoddle (don’t you be telling me that I’m not self-aware) and get a focus on the stuff that might be useful in some way. Crisis Management. Media Training. Language and Writing. All that good, good stuff (as a rather strange ex-boss of mine would have had it.)

So – in the meantime – while I do a bit of bumbling workery on it – just imagine that, overnight, it’s been wrapped in thewordmonger’s corporate colours. Money no object when it comes to you, dearest blogsnorkellers.

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Internet ‘not all bad’ shocker

There are over a billion websites. 17% of people admit to arguing with their partners every day over their use of mobile devices (read ‘looking at Facetwat during dinner’) – 17%! Every day! I’ll admit to not being certain that either of these statistics are correct – but it’s that sort of order of magnitude and if it’s not that’s because I’m slightly ahead of my time, but given the way that anything to do with technology is growing these days, then it will be very soon. Alternatively, I’m way behind the curve, the actual numbers are much greater and if this is the case then we can only but sit here with our mouths open at the sheer gigantic aweseomeness of it all. Anyway, whatever, I think we can all agree safely to assume that most of the internet is bad, unnecessary and destructive.

What do you mean, you’d like me to explain that?

Oh – so you’d like me to explain that then?

OK. Supposing I’m within the ballpark and there are a billion websites. (It’s certainly not a million, definitely had ‘bill’ in it, so it’s a big number. Well, it is to most of us. Not so much to Len Blavatnik.) So you got to ask yourself why there are a billion websites. My money’s on because none of them are very good. If they were any good, then, d’you see, there wouldn’t be any need for more than say – ooooooh – ten? 20? 72? Definitely not a billion.

And if they were just ‘not very good’, then there would be less than a billion, I’m guessing, because, let’s face it, it can’t be that hard to make a decent website and once you’ve got some, then you wouldn’t need any more. No – we’ve got a billion websites because some of them are not just ‘not very good’, they’re the complete opposite of good (which isn’t ‘evil’, it’s anti-good, where no good exists in any form) and these sites act as a negative number and require correspondingly more good websites to – I believe the phrase is – ‘net them out’.

And the fact that the internet and its proliferation of anti-good sites can cause 17% of us to have a row every day – well, do I really need to spell it out? What kind of dystopian dysfunctionality is this that we (as a society) seem to be accepting, here?

But that’s the thing, isn’t it? The internet has coerced many into selling their souls for the proverbial mess of pottage (apart from me, of course, I’m in PR and I sold mine a long time ago for a pot of messages) – easy access to news, film, music in return for your personal data and your privacy. Now looms the Internet of Things – not content with having created an internet for people, the shadowy people who control the whole show – yes, they do – have created an internet for things, over which 17% of your fridges can have daily fallings-out with 17% of your toasters, and, of course, in many ways, it’s already here and – here’s the kicker – nobody has noticed.

It’s all gone rather Aldous Huxley, I fear. With a smattering of George O. But if you want to see what it’s going to be like in the very, very near future, then can I suggest ’12 Tomorrows’ – 2014’s MIT science fiction anthology? Or perhaps just pick a Bill Gibson, any Bill Gibson. The truth is that the access to all this stuff that has been granted over the last 15 years or so is now inseparable from daily life and the loss of a few secrets seems a small price to pay.

Like I said, bad, unnecessary and destructive.

And then yesterday, as I was walking through Piccadilly on my way to a reasonably acceptable luncheon, I was stopped by a Australian lady, who asked of me directions to Warwick Street. Now I’ve been living in the Smoke for years, but – dear reader – I had no idea where Warwick Street was. All seemed lost – I know, I know, you can see where this is going and, yes, were I much younger I’d have got there quicker too – but, of course, it wasn’t because in my pocket, I have an internet-enabled device with some of that good, good 4G onnit. So, with a flourish of buttons, I was able to furnish lost Australian lady with directions and we both went our separate ways.

And, in truth, I am prepared to give up a little privacy – in this case, for Google to know where I am – in return for that sort of informational access.

 

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There Is No Secret Ingredient…………..

Those of you who – like me – thought ‘kids – how difficult can it be?’ and then went and got yourself a handful, will most likely be familiar with the film classic ‘Kung Fu Panda’ (2008). And I’m not kidding – it is a classic. Those of you who haven’t got kids, and haven’t seen it – stop what you’re doing right now, hie thee to Netflix with alacrity, sit back and enjoy.

So, having just done you a big favour (no worries, you can – as the Americans would have it – get me back later) I am going to reveal a big truth that will benefit us all. (Yes, it’s in Kung Fu Panda. I’ve not gone all Barry Norman on your collective ass not to make a point.)

It comes when Po (the eponymous panda) is running away from his destiny because he doesn’t understand the scroll of the Dragon Warrior. (See? I told you. Brilliant.) His adoptive father is a duck called Mr Ping, a noodle chef, who shares with him the secret of his famous Secret Ingredient Soup.

“The secret ingredient is…..nothing!……There is no secret ingredient.” At which point Po has an epiphany, which is explained, for an audience that is probably quite young and still slightly hard of thinking, when Mr Ping continues “to make something special, you just have to believe it’s special”.

Which brings me to my point. I don’t for one moment believe social media is special, but I am realising that there is no secret ingredient. And, of course, this has been the problem all along – why otherwise sane companies have chucked endless resource at social media (talking to an airline recently – 130 people on their social media team – think about that for a second or two), why organisations with no revenue-generation model are suddenly worth billions and why social media gurus are the rock stars des nos jours. (Probably a bit of an exaggeration, but you know what I mean.)

A mass breakout of Shiny Object Syndrome caused – and still causes – many to believe that social media are special in some way. And as Mr Ping said, the belief is enough to gloss over the inherent non-specialness. Worse, like Mr Ping’s Secret lngredient Soup – only were I to use a food-based metaphor for social media, it would be Secret Ingredient Tripe ‘n’ Onions – it has been assumed that there is, in fact, a secret ingredient. Something that’s not unakin to the philosopher’s stone of ‘virality’.

And, clearly, while these assumptions still hold sway, you average social media guru can get away with charging over £400 for – I kid you not – a Pinterest Marketing Masterclass. (I’m talking about you, Social Media Advance, of London EC2.)

But there is no secret ingredient. The same stuff that has always counted, still counts. There are still about five elements that will make your narrative a story. A picture will still do its business with a thousand words. The difference is that if the social audience like what they’ve seen, they’ll share it virtually, rather than really chatting to their mates about it down the pub.

But that’s it. You don’t need content prepared especially for social, on the basis that it’s somehow different. You don’t need distinct strategies. You don’t need gurus. You don’t need hundreds of people. You do need great customer service and unique product proposition – ‘twas ever thus – and, if you’re going to take part, you should be readily available to respond.

There is, of course, one secret thing about social.

It’s a new class of data called “social data” which are data that people create when they use social platforms like Facebook, Pinterest or LinkedIn – their likes, pins, favourites, retweets, status messages, the content of those messages and the people we are friends with.

Needless to say, I doubt you’ve given anyone permission to gather this data – but they’re mining it anyway.

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