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20 years

Monday, January 31, 2011

CommCore Shares Photos on FlickR

Happy Monday! We're starting off the week with a picture update. CommCore has recently joined FlickR. Check out the link to see our photo albums so far and leave us suggestions about what else you would like to see on our FlickR page!

We recently hosted two celebrations, in New York and Washington D.C., to toast our 25 years of business. Thanks to everyone who joined us! Here's a peek from our parties:

The rest of our photos can be found on our FlickR page!
Special thanks to our venues: Hudson Restaurant & Lounge in DC & Boom Restaurant in NYC

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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Survey Says: Sexy Female TV Anchors Don’t “Communicate.”

A very clever Indiana University experiment has firmly established what most of us have probably intuited: sexy, attractive, sultry-sounding female TV anchors boost ratings by drawing male viewers, but the men don't remember what was being communicated: http://bit.ly/hPzh96.

OK, so there’s a bit of a "duh" factor here. Still, the subtext of this interesting experiment's findings is not to be sneezed at. At CommCore we always review the importance of visual appearance and vocal impression with our clients. Content may be King or Queen, as the saying goes, but first impressions matter…a lot. However, looking and sounding good to an audience during a speech or presentation is a just one of the variables that make a difference in successful communications. You have to always consider your communications goals, the audience, the surroundings, and the subject matter as much as what you think makes you look, sound and feel good. And this applies to male presenters as well as to females.

The sexy female TV anchors are clearly intentional – they evidently boost ratings, and if that's a conscious decision by a TV news department, fine. By the way, since many of us spent a good deal of time in the news business, we know that attractive female reporters are just as smart as those that wouldn't necessarily be in the Indiana University study. But as the experiment clearly shows, some of the message – news – is lost in the process, predominantly by male viewers.

Some CommCore rules about public appearances:

• If you have to guess what's appropriate, show up as the best-dressed person in the room or broadcast studio rather than most casual. It's easier to dress down by removing a tie or suit top, and rolling up your sleeves, than try to dress up a polo shirt.

• Make sure your manner and tone fit the live or TV audience and occasion. Sexy is distracting, unless sexy is what you are pushing.

• Make sure your message fits the occasion. A flirty, light presentation during a somber period might offend rather than uplift an audience.

What are your thoughts on the Indiana University experiment? How do the findings apply to your or your clients' communications strategy and tactics? What does it say about how broadcast news is communicated these days?

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Monday, January 24, 2011

Is Business Jargon Good or Bad?

OMG, I can't believe that the business clichés are under siege. Have fun reading a recent LinkedIn discussion on business buzzwords (BWs) and which ones communicators would like to see dropped from our lexicons.

Actionable, robust, outside the box, energize, synergy, low hanging fruit, win/win, paradigm shift, giving 110%, scalable, bringing value...you name it (oops that could be jargon), there's a buzzword that one writer abhors; yet there's probably another abuser of the bus speak.

The French have a phrase for this: chacun a son gout, aka to each his own taste. For each buzzword that one hates, there's someone else who relishes the phrase like mustard on a hotdog.

An I've got your back BW defense.

Buzzwords have a place in business and in our everyday conversation. BW's are shorthand, with shared and broad meanings. They save time, create efficiencies and convey true meaning. In the world all too often influenced by PowerPoint and Twitter, BW's are the low hanging fruit of communications that help when you don’t have more argot to explain.

Would you rather use a BW that the troops can synergize with, or invent a new BW that people will get tired of in about two weeks or a fortnight?

A great buzzword goes viral or spreads globally in a nano-second. I don't object to any BW as long as it's in context, aka inside the sidelines, and not outside the field of play. If used too much repeatedly, redundantly or more often than necessary, a BW definitely qualify as buzz kill.

Frankly my dear, I love BW's when used well, but if abused watch out there will be hell to pay.

What's your take?

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Friday, January 21, 2011

Is Goldman Sachs in Danger of PRing itself into Mediocrity?

It is PR gospel that Goldman Sachs and its leadership have committed a series of communications blunders, particularly in the past two years, which have dinged its otherwise stellar reputation. As a result, the firm has embarked on leadership “road shows” and other PR activities in an effort to repair its image. Some suggest that Goldman must change its culture at the very core. Our question: isn’t the deeply ingrained and truly unique culture a critical ingredient to the firm’s success?

The Abacus debacle (regarding fraudulent mortgage-backed securities) resulted in Goldman having to fork over $550 million to settle the charges. CEO Lloyd Blankfein’s declaration of doing “God’s work” -- even if taken somewhat out of context -- will be repeated as a PR misstep for the next decade. Embarrassing emails from Goldman mortgage salesman Fabrice Tourre show a real hubris "the whole building is about to collapse... Only potential survivor, the fabulous Fab" and set off a firestorm of reporting and investigations that dealt a serious reputational blow and required real costs. It was even suggested that Goldman was responsible, in part, for the Greek debt crisis. And, now, of course, the mishandling of the Facebook deal, skirting regulations, leaking information and blocking US investors. (See articles on the Facebook mess from The Business Insider and DealBook).

So, it seems perfectly reasonable to suggest that Goldman must address their reputational issues. Some may argue that the only true fix is a complete cultural make-over. But, we wonder… Consider that confident, power-wielding and influential image Goldman has carried for over 140 years. Consider the track record of success and the fact that it remains the sought-after destination – the “golden ticket” for ivy-league B-school graduates. Look at the esteemed alumni who include governors, congressmen, cabinet members and advisors etc. Is it not quite possible that some of the very perceptions that hurt them, also attract critical audiences including clients, peers and talent?

For Goldman, we might argue that not all image-boosting PR activity will help and may in fact hurt. A whole cultural shift may soften Goldman’s image, but do they really want “soft”? It is conceivable that a kinder, gentler Goldman can also mean a less competitive, less talent-attracting organization that lost its edge, lost its way? And, that would spell disaster.

Perhaps the best advice calls for a parsing out of PR fixes. Certainly, any illegal activity that Goldman is engaged in should be eliminated and PR should support those policies and protocols. But what about its practices that are perceived as “pushing the envelope” or edgy? What about actions that project an image of self-assuredness and almost bull-headed confidence? In this very specific culture, is arrogance always a liability or is it in fact a perception asset?

Do you agree that Goldman may not benefit from a total image overhaul? Should they be selective on their fixes or try to address all criticisms? What would you advise?

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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Bringing out the passion...

CommCore was privileged to work with the Chevy team on messaging and media training throughout the development of the vehicle up through the launch. The Volt was an effort that pre-dated the GM bankruptcy and with a lot of hard work and planning, made it through to the finish line.

A key component of the marketing and communications plan was to place the car in many cities, office parks, universities and at public events, and let journalists, electric vehicle enthusiasts, regulators and lawmakers, and everyday drivers experience the vehicle. Chevy recognized first and foremost that the car was the star because of the sheet metal and the unique electric motor first, gas engine second combination. In addition, Chevy knew that training the engineers and designers would be critical in explaining the technology and answering questions - from the driver's vs. the engineer's point of view.

CommCore was of course thrilled to receive an email from the Chevy team: "The training you provided our engineers helped 'release their passion for this vehicle' in a way that was both recognized and appreciated by the media."

I don't share these kudos to brag, but to reinforce the point that so much of communications is how we communicate, not just what we say. Whether it's a politician, a teacher, a business leader or an engineer, unleashing the "passion" of your words goes a long way to reaching the audience. The facts about the Volt are really quite extraordinary. And while GM and Chevrolet are working to improve their respective reputations among skeptics, communicating facts and information in an enthusiastic way has an additive effect.

One of our mantras is that there are three overlapping factors that make you more persuasive: It starts with the message. Then there's the focus of the message on the audience, followed by the third component, you the communicator. And it's often the communicator's passion that ultimately connects with the audience. When a GM doubter learns about the Volt from an engineer who is passionate about his or her work, it sinks in. If the FDA advisory committee members hear the appropriate energy and enthusiasm from clinical investigators - in addition to the data - they are more likely to think favorably about the drug or device. It’s not a matter of form over substance, it's both.

We're always looking for examples of when passionate communications makes a difference. What can you share?

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Friday, January 14, 2011

Of Sound Bites and the Vitriol Police

The punditry since the tragic shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and others in Tucson, Arizona suggests we are in for an extended period of dissection of public comments past, present and future. This is a heightened version of what's been going on for a while. Almost every one commenting is being examined through the lens of political correctness and "bias" from Arizona talk radio hosts, to MoveOn.org, to Sarah Palin’s "cross-hair" map. This adds on to the NPR/Juan Williams debate and the Jon Stewart/Glenn Beck rally fight over sound bites.

The purported theme of the national discussion on talk radio, TV panels and in the blogosphere may well be the "civility" in politics and society addressed by the President in his speech in Tucson. As students of media, we’re noticing that just about any pronouncement by a public figure is now being vetted in the media for the slightest hint of incitement to violence or intolerance. I’m not sure if this is political correctness, incorrectness or our inability to talk about the issues and achieve a middle ground. Since almost any complex discussion contains a few words or a sentence that can be taken out of context in a tweet or blog to reinforce a fixed position, it's a challenge to communicate – unless all you want to do is stake out or reinforce your original position with all audiences.

But we are now seeing a fine-tooth combing of less obvious comments or action by other politicians and public figures.

Besides the Sarah Palin, Keith Olberman, Bill O'Reilly, Juan Williams jousting, the latest salvo is the Daily Beast's take on comments more than a year ago by Republican presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty to a gathering of Conservatives: http://bit.ly/eiAtxV. Apparently Pawlenty's reference to Tiger Woods' wife, and the metaphor of using a 9-iron golf club to "smash a window out of Big Government in this country" was incendiary enough to some to merit retroactive examination.

Without passing judgment on these and other related public comments, the ongoing discussion underscores several key points about sound bites that we at CommCore remind our clients of:

• Sound bites are effective precisely because they are short and memorable, which is also why quick quips can become negative sound bites. Think before you speak, particularly if you are one of those prone to quick quips.

• Creating a good sound bite is an art that requires careful understanding of messaging, story-telling, and context.

• Clever is not necessarily good. It's just clever, and it could be too clever by half.

• Remember that a sound bite is not just about YOU and YOUR point. It’s about YOUR AUDIENCE and THEIR frame of reference, too. Never forget who you are talking to when you deliver a sound bite.

• Remember that every cell or smart phone is a camera, and every member of the audience is a potential "citizen journalist." Be aware of the potential for any sound bite to be repeated out of context and disseminated, and frame it accordingly.

Has the current debate over public comments affected your or your clients' organizations' communications and public relations? If so, how? If not, why not?

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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Is it Any Easier to Restore Trust When You Are Clearly the Victim?

From our point of view, the years-long debate on whether vaccinations cause autism should be coming to an end. Just last week, Ron Winslow of the Wall Street Journal may have put the proverbial nail in the coffin with his article that the evidence has been largely discredited and medical journals like The Lancet and The British Medical Journal have published articles showing the connection as fraudulent. This wasn’t real news since retractions had been made. Several of the original researchers have withdrawn their original results supporting the connection. It’s important to note that the lead researcher, Andrew Wakefield is unrepentant and still defends the findings.

In the decade since the original research was published, hundreds of British parents and thousands worldwide declined to have their children vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella. Subsequently, measles outbreaks have been reported in many Western countries. As it stands today, 1 in 4 parents surveyed still believe there is a link between childhood vaccines and autism.

Vaccine advocates and organizations like the Immunization Action Coalition have been fighting the public perception battle. Likely, recent articles will serve to boost the assertion of no link between vaccines and autism. Heartstring-tugging stories like one on NPR show the consequences of believing the mythology. With the retractions and mounting evidence against Dr. Wakefield’s findings, will a reversal of the public’s negative perception on vaccines just take care of itself?

We don’t think so, and most PR pros would probably agree that the battle is not yet over.
The conventional wisdom is that now is the time for a new ongoing public awareness campaign. But, what should it consist of, and how far do they take it? Is there a professional (physician) outreach called for? Should advocates pursue legal action against Dr. Wakefield or would that result in reputational backlash? Does the scientific retraction give the coalition and its supporters leverage to mount other aggressive challenges against anti-immunization influencers? Would that seem punitive and distracting to the core mission, or an opportunity that must not be passed up?

What would you do? What are your thoughts? What if the pro-immunization and vaccination organizations were asking your advice?


Friday, January 7, 2011

You Are What You Wear

"Perception is Reality" is just one of the bromides quoted regularly whenever the subject of first impressions comes up. Others include, "What You See is What You Get," and "Clothes Make the King" to mention a couple.

But the Swiss bank UBS has taken the notion of the "business appearance" of its employees to a new level. In December the bank instituted a far-reaching trial dress code at selected offices that goes beyond what you wear (http://on.wsj.com/gtEAb2). The code includes hygiene and grooming requirements, and behavior, fashion, and style tips straight from men's and women's lifestyles magazines and books of etiquette.

At a time when banks are relatively low on everyone's reputation index, UBS believes upgraded and uniform formal appearance, especially for retail staff, is essential to "symbolize competence, formation and sobriety." Marketers are we all, they seem to be saying, and you better fit the brand image.

Now, one can argue that over the long haul this is not news. Military, boarding school, and industry-specific dress codes have existed for centuries.

But we are only a bit more than a decade removed from the high point of the dot-com era when less was more, "Casual Friday" became an institution across almost all business sectors, and shabby fashion was not only chic, but a symbol of executive-level creativity, independence, entrepreneurship and success.

Most clients won’t go as far as the UBS dictum. Certainly most attendees at this week's annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas will likely show up in khakis and a sport coat rather than a full metal jacket business suit. But perhaps those khakis will be pressed this year, and the sport coat more tailored.

The issue does highlight the advice we often provide to CommCore clients:

• If audiences notice Nancy Pelosi’s fashions and John Boehner’s ties, they probably will note your sartorial splendor.

• Regardless of the dress code – business, business casual, casual – the presenter should always be the best dressed person in the room.

• Using good judgment, dressing and comporting yourself in a manner consistent with your audience and their expectations sends a signal that you are listening, and are sensitive to their concerns.

• Dressing up tends to raise your own awareness of the importance of the meeting and presentation.

• It’s easier to roll up your sleeves and take off your jacket, tie or ensemble top if the occasion turns out to be less formal than you expected, than it is to “dress up” a polo shirt, casual top, and jeans.

Does your company have a dress code tied to its brand message and communications policy? Have you noticed a change in dress codes and messaging since the financial meltdown in 2008?

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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Making Statistics Sing and Dance! (Or at least a little less boring)

Hans Rosling is a Swedish medical doctor, academician and statistician - but he is also an engaging and entertaining public speaker. He has captivated audiences large and small for many years and the world over.

What does he talk about? Statistics! If you're wondering how statistical data points can be enthralling, you'll have to see it to believe it! Here’s one where Dr. Rosling discusses global demographics, health and wealth over a 40 year period at a 2006 TED Conference:

Some 100,000 data points went into this 20-minute talk and yet, Dr. Rosling made it compelling - even riveting. How did he do it and what can we learn about presenting our own boring data?

First of all, Dr. Rosling used a software program he helped develop to make data points come alive and animate in a way that makes it entertaining. Many presenters will not have the option to use such software for a variety of reasons. But, what are other aspects of the way he presented these boring statistics that we can learn from? Here are a few from CommCore's point of view.

  • Excite Through Your Own Excitement: In the video clip (and in the many others you'll find on the web), you can see how Dr. Rosling injects his own personal passions and excitement - often in a humorous way - with high energy when he explains the data and trending. The audience responds in kind. I would wager that you can take the same audience with exactly the same content, but delivered in a more subdued way, and the response would be a sea of yawns.
  • Call Outs For Specific Examples: Often, statistics alone - or even grouped into a trend - bury your message by making your audience's eyes glaze over. But take a key portion of the statistics that is memorable or surprising and make a specific example or comparison out of it. Try out these call outs - create different examples and comparisons and find which make your point in a compelling way.
  • Two Illustration Options? Sometimes Choose Both: For some of your most important "take-away" messages, you may have a couple of different options to illustrate graphically. Sometimes, you may well consider using both. Bar graphs and pie charts may prove memorable to some, case study pictures and maps might work better for others. "Let me show you this in another way..." This can really help you expand and expound while underscoring what you want your audience to take home with them.
So, the audience then asks: 'Ok, now what do I do?' - we In our experience at CommCore find many talented speakers who successfully bring excitement out of their content, but fail to make a connection to the audience. It's one thing to bring boring statistics to life, but you must be sure to be clear with the audience about what you want them to do with this information or how to use these data. It's a simple, but critical preparation step.

I recognize that many of us - especially those in regulated industries - do not have the luxury to use special software to bring life to boring statistics like our friend Dr. Rosling. But, there are some important reminders here.

What others are there? What has your experience been? How else can you bring excitement to otherwise boring content?

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Monday, January 3, 2011

Non-Profit Exposure and Having Fun - Hitting the Trifecta

Gaining publicity for a non-profit is not much different than for private sector companies and large associations, except for the fact that you usually need to work with fewer resources and equal if not greater creativity. Here's a story of hard work and creativity.

I have been involved with FAAN (Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network) for 16 years ever since our son, Sam, almost died from eating just one peanut. An estimated 12 million Americans have food allergies, and for some the condition is life threatening. I currently serve as Board Chair of FAAN.

Until we have a cure, the best we can do is create awareness, educate, advocate and fund research. Last week - about a year after an initial contact - we hit it big time for education, awareness and advocacy. The big day was December 30th. The New York Stock Exchange usually hosts public companies for the opening and closing bell ceremony. Several times a year, the NYSE Euronext invites non-profits to ring the bell. At precisely 4 p.m. 7 children with food allergies, their smiling parents, celebrity Chef Ming Tsai and FAAN CEO Julia Bradsher had the honor of ringing the closing bell. The ceremony was a win/win. FAAN received great exposure and publicity, and the NYSE adds to its reputation.

Earlier in the day, my son and I were interviewed by Harry Smith on the CBS Early Show. In two minutes, we must have plugged FAAN and its web site 3 times. The piece is still on the CBS Early Show web site and will be used in our marketing and outreach efforts.

The trifecta was the passage of the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Management Act as part of the Food Safety Bill passed in Congress. This bill, several years in gestation, will provide guidelines to schools throughout the U.S. on how to appropriately plan and accommodate children with food allergies.

This was one of the most rewarding days of my career. Since we don't have an effective treatment or cure for Food Allergies, awareness and good PR literally saves lives.

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