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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Glitter, Big Hair and Spandex as Powerful Public Presentation and Communications Tools

At CommCore we always remind our clients that interesting, relevant and – above all – memorable analogies are a staple of strong public presentations. Proper use of anecdotes, 3rd party validations, items from the day's news, true personal stories – all are "visual" data points that can make the difference between an audience's eyes glazing over, or a message that sticks.

A recent posting on Ragan's PR Daily on the do's and don'ts of public presentations is about as good and amusing an illustration of that as I've seen. The author cleverly marries examples and clips of well-known (and sometimes eminently forgettable) hit pop/rock videos of the 80s with the basic techniques of good presentations. Talk about teaching by example; it sure caught MY attention: http://www.prdaily.com/Main/Articles/7655.aspx.

The cleverness aside, the author's points are in line with best practices.

What are some of your standout examples of making publicly-delivered messages memorable?

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Friday, March 18, 2011

Proper Planning is the Key to Crisis Communications

The current spate of international and domestic crises is a stark reminder to all professional communicators: in Crisis Response there is no substitute for preparedness.

An enterprise paralyzed by a devastating earthquake or tsunami. Employees trapped in a violent revolution abroad. An entire sector such as Nuclear Energy under scrutiny after a plant disaster. Economic hardship to a community from a lockout or strike. A fraud investigation involving your organization. An IT security breach resulting in leaked sensitive data or embarrassing documents. In any such case proper crisis communications planning can be the difference between a glancing blow and a crippling punch to your organization’s reputation and operations.

Some crisis communications preparedness tips CommCore shares with clients:

• Have a crisis communications plan in place and update it more frequently than you used to. Know how to access it 24/7 on-site and remotely; your headquarters may be inaccessible, compromised, or severely damaged.

• Conduct crisis communications plan audits as needed. We recommend this review must be at least once a year. Is your plan still relevant? Does it need updating?

• Appoint a designated crisis communications team representing all relevant sectors of the enterprise (corporate and product/service division leadership, internal and external stakeholder communications, media relations, IT, security, HR, legal counsel, etc.)

• Establish clear lines for decision making and authority. Crises don’t happen on a schedule; they can occur when key crisis team members are unavailable. In their absence know who has authority to do what in the Golden Hour after a crisis is declared.

• Conduct regular simulations involving both disaster response and reputation management.

• Identify, establish and maintain key internal and external stakeholder and media relationships on an ongoing basis BEFORE a crisis strikes. Trust and familiarity are key ingredients of successful crisis communications. If I already know you, I’ll be more likely to believe you when you need me to.

• Have template "dark" websites for any contingency ready for launch in the event of a crisis. The internet is where most people go to find out what's going on.

Most important of all, have a protocol in place to determine at the outset if a reported problem is a fixable emergency to be dealt with transparently and quickly, or a crisis that threatens to damage the enterprise or brand that must be addressed quickly and publicly.

Does your organization have an active, updated crisis plan? Do your clients have one?

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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Not Every Brain Can Storm

Brainstorming sessions are critical to the success of any business or business unit seeking to grow and attract new audiences and customers. But, if run poorly, these sessions can be “useless,” according to an article in Chief Executive Magazine. We couldn’t agree more. In fact we go further than the article and recommend that more often than not the session should be guided by expert brainstorming facilitators rather than the head of the unit or the project leader. Yes, those “brains” may be the best in their industry. But it requires a distinct and different skill set to be a great facilitator. Often, the unit leader is too close to the project/subject and is better as a contributor.

When performed well, facilitating message development or positioning can yield immediate and hugely productive results. This fits well into CommCore’s “workshopping to goal” philosophy. In fact, we believe that more solutions can be found, more creativity can be revealed, and more challenges can be met in a properly conducted workshop environment than through most other methods.

Aside from the typical uses for brainstorming sessions – creative ideas for marketing campaigns or a new way to launch a product – how else can one utilize this methodology? How about to tackle a persistent problem? To create new product/service descriptors? For new web/website content? To analyze an audience and discover a new way to approach them? All are examples of potential brainstorming sessions that should be facilitated by someone who knows how to do it well. Or else bring in a trainer to build up the enterprise’s own brainstorm facilitation skills.
Brainstorm facilitation skills are distinct from other leadership or communication skills. Below are a few of the many tips we teach when building these facilitation skills in managers:
  • Prepare an Opening Statement – Lay out general rules & procedures
  • Protect Every Idea – Do not allow ideas to be attacked until evaluation time
  • Encourage Expression – Promote balanced participa¬tion, validate varying points & keep track of participants
  • Focus on Process – Concentrate on getting things done, not on the outcome
  • Cross Organizational Silos – Try to make sure new ideas from different units are represented
  • Organize, Connect & Summarize – Gather data & arrange it in an order that makes sense, continually summarize
What do you think? Tell us about brainstorming sessions that went horribly wrong or particularly well. Do you agree that more solutions can be found through this process?

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Friday, March 11, 2011

The "Duh" Principles of Communications: Important Lessons Still Unlearned

Three recent avoidable communications no-no’s reinforce the "duh" principle. Think and ask questions before your speak, blog or engage in public conversations. Items:

• National Public Radio SVP of Development Ron Schiller talking with members of a group he has never met before, that it turns out has been organized by a provocateur. He is caught on an undercover videotape insulting the Tea Party and claiming NPR would be better off without federal funding. NPR's CEO resigns in the aftermath. http://wapo.st/fQpl2O

• An employee of Chrysler's social media agency posts an offensive tweet with an expletive referring to the bad driving skills of Detroiters. Chrysler is in the midst of a huge ad campaign touting the re-birth of the Motor City, with Chrysler as its symbol. The agency fires the employee. Chrysler issues an apology on its corporate blog. http://buswk.co/ht2QTk

• Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker – in the midst of a boiling political battle with unions – is tricked by a blogger for online publication The Beast into thinking he is talking on the phone with a supporter, conservative supporter David Koch. The blogger then posts the audio of the very frank and blunt conversation online. http://bit.ly/endAZX

These missteps suggest it's time to repeat the most elemental crisis preparedness counsel:

• First and foremost, make sure everyone in your enterprise understands and applies your organization's basic rules of public and private engagement:

• Never assume there's such a thing as a truly private verbal or online conversation unless you are talking 1-on-1 with a close friend or associate in a trusted location.

• Check your impulses at the door when addressing controversial issues before an audience, even in a supposedly closed session.

• Remember that every Smartphone is a video camera, and everyone within earshot is a potential "citizen journalist" or blogger.

• Verify who you are meeting with or talking with on the phone before engaging in a conversation or interview. Screen all incoming inquiries from unrecognized numbers or sources by taking a message and calling back the main switchboard to verify the source of the call.

• Never publish anything on a social media platform that you wouldn’t want the whole world to know.

How strong are your organization’s internal communications protocols? Are they followed? How about your clients?

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Thursday, March 10, 2011


Good stuff from current CEO of Mandalay Bay Peter Guber. He believes storytelling is at the heart of effective communications and success in business. So much so that he's written a book about it, "Tell to Win." As a former Hollywood mogul/producer, he ought to know a good story.

In its own way, Guber's book mirrors a lot of what we at CommCore tell our clients – compelling and relevant storytelling commands an audience's attention by inserting your message into something they can relate to. As Guber says in an interview about his book in Inc. Magazine http://bit.ly/fXXgjR: "You have to try to engage an audience. You cannot just talk at them; you have to talk with them and modify your story as you tell it, based on their feedback. If you do this successfully, your listeners are more likely to metabolize the information you wish to convey, to change behavior, and to repeat your story to others."

If you think it's easy, think again. A story's effectiveness is only as strong as the amount of preparation you put into it:

• Know your audience and what's important to them: What's In It For Me?

• Read up on recent news about their sector, company, brand, product, service or issue.

• Scour home pages and websites that are relevant to the audience to find out how they position themselves.

• Make sure your own message and desired outcome dovetails seamlessly into the story you are going to tell so it doesn't seem like a forced pitch.

• Practice your storytelling – memorable sound bites, analogies, 3rd party validations.

• To the extent possible, try and make the story a natural, organic extension of your own self; it will be more believable.

Guber credits good storytelling for his own success. Does that apply to your business, or to your clients?

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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Tweet By and By

As is often the case for some adopters of new technology, what's new today can get old very quickly. A recent article in Politico points out that politicians are increasingly tiring of Twitter and its 140-character limit, as well as other social media tools. http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0211/50299.html. The article quotes congressmen saying things like, "Social media is a pain in the a--," and, "There's a lot of trolls on Twitter. I just got to the point that I was sick and tired of it."

Besides sorting through social media messages in addition to e-mail, Hill staffers are now of the opinion that social media isn't helping them as much as they had hoped. Politico's survey reports that staffers said Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and MySpace are among the least useful forms of communication for gauging constituent views. Less than half, 42 percent, said social media had any influence on lawmakers. And nearly two-thirds of the 250 staffers who participated said that e-mail and the Internet have reduced the quality of constituents’ messages. Only 51 percent said form e-mail messages had influence. (We're not fully sure what to make of this, since emails should have at least replaced letters as a means to reach a member of Congress.)

At CommCore, we counsel our clients that social media remains a powerful force in the world of communications. Witness the Twitter and Facebook-influenced cascade of events in the Middle East. Witness the never-ending series of consumer-driven Tweets about product flaws, or "surprise" YouTube video postings that embarrass officials and force them to recant, resign, or lose credibility. Yet, we also remind our clients that no one form of communication applies to every communications challenge.

Social media is a powerful platform for snippets of real-time information that create a sense of urgency, drive action, help monitor reaction, and foster community and identity. But as the Hill staffers noted, it's not an exclusive platform that can accommodate extended 2-way communication. Learning how to adapt the on-point and on-message brevity that is a staple of social media is essential to good communications of all types. But on its own it doesn't allow for the nuance and detail that is sometimes required subsequently. Now that we understand and have experience with its applications, we are better able to counsel on how social media should be PART of a communications plan and skill set, and not the whole thing.

How do you handle your clients' or your organizations' communicators' views on social media applications? How have they evolved in the past two years?

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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

‘Contextualizing’ v. Spin – Is There a Difference?

Toyota’s woes continue. On the same day they called a “Day of Reflection” on the two years of seemingly unending recalls totaling in the millions of cars –more than 2 million additional vehicles were added to the heap. Sometimes, news stories just write themselves! (Here’s one from the Associated Press )

So, as a professional communications advisor, what would you say to Toyota? Just throw up your hands and tell them that the deck is stacked just too high against them and all they can do is wait it out? Of course not. But, what can a Toyota spokesperson say? What possible twist or positive light can they shine on this ironic timing?

Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons gave it a try. Regarding the additional recalls, he said: “While our actions up to now have led to a substantial reduction in reports of acceleration concerns, we mutually agreed that Toyota would take these additional steps to help ensure that acceleration concerns are further reduced." Some might conclude that Mr. Lyons is trying to twist or spin the story by inserting the mention of fewer incident reports before confirming that they are going along with the additional recall. Others would contend that it is perfectly reasonable to provide context in your answer.

Ah, so it’s not spin, it’s ‘contextualizing.’

Is there a difference? If so, what is it? At CommCore, we believe there is a difference. Spin is when a speaker attempts to change a definition or reality through avoidance and distraction. The worst kind of spin is when the spokesperson ignores the question altogether. This is the person who tells you the grass is green when you asked if the sky was blue! Thank you for that, but can we get back to my question about the sky? Contextualizing is the coupling of facts or perspective with a response that directly addresses the question.

Spin hurts the spokesperson and the organization he or she represents. Not just because it is usually transparent, but because even the most fair-minded and deferential readers (and bloggers, viewers and listeners) assume the worst when they hear spin. Let’s say, for example, that Mr. Lyons attempted to fully spin away from the question about the additional recalls and just mentioned the progress Toyota is making on prior safety problems. Readers would certainly determine that this is spin and that Mr. Lyons wishes to avoid directly answering the question and confirming the recall. But, we believe the reader could take it a step further. Perhaps Toyota is not fully cooperating with the NHTSA. Perhaps they don’t believe these additional steps are necessary. Perhaps they aren’t putting the safety of their customers first after all. This is a natural, cynical cascade that occurs in a reader’s mind when they spot spin.

This distinction between spin and contextualizing is not unique to Toyota’s communications. Every spokesperson facing an issue or crisis has a choice to make: Do I attempt to twist and distract from the truth (spinning), or do I take the truth head-on while looking for opportunities to add in fair frame-working (contextualizing).

With properly constructed and legitimate “contextualizing,” most readers will simply recognize that the spokesperson is trying to add a fair and relevant point while also directly addressing the question - and hoping the reader will consider this before he/she passes judgment. For the most part, we believe that this practice of contextualizing is largely deemed acceptable and does not damage the credibility – or further damage the reputation – of the spokesperson or his organization. In fact, it may well enhance the statement.

What do you think? Do consumers of media differentiate between spin and contextualizing? Does it depend on their personal experience with the brand? What other examples have you seen?

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