How to focus your EYES on content development

eyes

What’s that saying about the mind believing only what the eyes can see? The basic idea is really about what we choose to focus our eyes on. What we believe is often driven from a “I’ll believe it when I see it” disposition or it’s about only believing what your mind already comprehends … like when you selectively see only the arguments that support something you already believe (which explains a lot about our political divisiveness today, but that’s a whole other story). Hopefully, you will see what I mean and how it relates to business communications.

For several weeks now, I have had an interesting opportunity to see my community with a new focus as a “temporary” resident in a local extended stay hotel. Granted, it is on the property of a local mall and not being much of a shopper, I don’t go there all that often. Still, in the 10 years we have lived in our suburb, I have used the access roads around it a fair bit. So it has really been interesting to find myself living life like a visitor to my town. The eyes seem to see things you never quite saw before.

For example, several times a day, evening and night, I get to rescue doggie from his temporary inside domain to go take care of business outside. How come I never noticed before just how much green space and sidewalks are there? Apparently there’s not much your eyes notice when you are cruising through in hunt of a parking spot or simply passing by on the adjoining road. Thanks to doggie’s determination to cross the road, we even discovered a quaint neighborhood we didn’t know about.

Those eyes quickly refocus when you are looking with a different perspective. One walk, when the grass wasn’t quite dry, made me really stop and think. Despite the newfound pleasant consideration of how nice it is for the mall properties to have such green landscaping, I suddenly refocused on what that really meant. Chemicals! My shoes were covered with something orange that had to be wiped off. Hope that isn’t harmful to doggie’s paws! Environmental sustainability here apparently hasn’t crossed the perception barrier of only being about recycling. I mean, where’s natural over “man-icured?”

But back to business. Focus has everything to do with business, right? It is so easy to get distracted and look at the wrong things. Like when we get bogged down in strategy planning to the point that little “doing” takes place. Or when we measure activity instead of results. With communications of any kind, it is important to have a natural flow – a voice that captures the perception and eye of the intended audience. So here’s a few thoughts to keep your EYES wide open during content development:

Everyone sees the world differently. Perception is reality. Tune in to the perceptions of your target audiences.

Yes, your personal perceptions will influence how you communicate. In business, you are most likely writing on behalf of someone else, like a company executive. Present the world through their eyes.

Engage the audience by speaking their language, not your industry or company jargon. Be sure your words and approach can bring the story to life for different targets.

Speak up when perceptions are not aligned. Know your business and your audience well enough so you can see and explain the big picture.

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How to Make Culture Work for You

culture-mission-statement-cartoon

I was thinking today about culture. On one hand, it’s a pretty vague word, isn’t it? I mean, it’s one of those words tossed about where you think everyone understands exactly what you mean – and yet they probably don’t. The definition of culture is probably as varied as the people who speak of it.

On the other hand, culture can be so very specific. “Indian culture, Asian culture, cultural awareness” all seem generally understood on the surface. But a question like, “How cultured are you?” is elusive. How do you answer that? Not that anyone would likely ask you specifically least they offend you, unless maybe it was poll in some Millennials’ favorite ezine. And what about culture at work? For that one, it can be elusive yet specific. If you understand the company culture – and can define what that means – it may well make or break your chances of feeling good about the job you do.

So let’s start there. Over the course of what I often call my “crazy, wonderful, wouldn’t change a thing career,” I have had the opportunity to experience several different companies, industries, segments, bosses, environments … and yes, cultures. Before you think that sounds rather schizophrenic, I can legitimately vouch for time spent with corporations, government, nonprofit, startup businesses, agencies and education. I only mention that as validation for having any sort of culturally ingrained right to profess knowing anything at all about workplace culture. I am not a HR expert or a guru of any type that might qualify. I am simply a fast learner and adaptor who has been around a bit.

Early in my career, I don’t think I thought about culture all that much. I just wanted a good job with opportunity to move ahead [yeah, my generation was/is very into climbing]. I did know that I loved working with various cultures, meaning people from different backgrounds. But it would be years before I put those pieces together with the opportunity to work with a global focus.

It took a sharp change of cultures between one job and the next before it hit me. Yes, that means I made a major culture-fit mistake before I even realized what to look for. So I thought I would save you the trouble and offer some little ways to read a culture before you take that next position (or even transfer within a company where there can be nuances between departments). I’m sure there are a gazillion other ways to do this, but these are a few that I find work.

How to Read a Company Culture

  1. Look at the company’s website, annual report and advertising.
    Forget the buzzwords for a moment. What do you see? Is everyone in a suit or any ‘unwritten’ uniform? Even hairstyles among women can be a clue. [Don’t laugh, I have been several places where a certain style was the mainstay for a large majority as if it were passed down from on high!] Do you see diversity in the pictures? Women? Latinos? Asians? Black, white, purple? Do their smiles look natural or forced? Are they more ‘corporate’ or laid back? Could you see yourself working with and for these people? What does it say to you if they only show product in their pictures?
  2. Now read the words.
    Think back to English class. What mood or setting are they trying to portray? Are you similar to their target audience? If you were, could you relate? Would you buy this product or service? What are they not saying? If you read the words and didn’t know it was this company, could it be any other competitor making that claim? And don’t forget to check the company’s social media presence. Does it appear that employees have permission to participate?
  3. Visit the office.
    Glance around. If you have the opportunity, notice the differences between the look of the boss’ office verses everyone else, versus the lobby, versus the employee gathering spot. Most likely there will be differences, but what impression does each setting give you? What do the differences say to you?
  4. People watch.
    Watch the administrative assistants react to and with anyone who comes by. Do they stiffen as the executive enters? Do they have time to be friendly and chat with you or do they seem rushed? You’ll get a good feel from the receptionist, but most companies know they need friendly front office people so it’s not quite the same. Watch every interaction you happen to see in the hallways, even in that fast glance as you walk past a conference room. Your split second impression is your gut instinct hitting your brain. What is it saying to you?

Instinct is huge. Yes, your gut does actually tell you whether to escape fast or relax. I once went on an interview and as soon as I hit the waiting area, I saw something that was so against my comfort level, I couldn’t wait to run out of the place! I knew it would never work before I even talked to the person I was there to see.

But here’s the thing. Reacting on instinct is helpful but the real secret lies in being able to connect the dots. No one aspect of these tips may mean much on their own. But the ability to know what 1 + 2 + 3 actually means to you, now that’s a cultured difference!

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Top 10 Biz Headlines You May Never See

Attention-Grabbing-Headlines

Maybe it goes without saying when you work in public relations that you become a news junkie. One of my college graduation gifts was a book with the best headline stories from The New York Times. Back in the day, someone knew I thought that would be pretty cool. In fact, I passed that book on several years later to an intern who was, to say the least, thrilled. I actually was surprised he loved it so much. I’d say even more than I did.

What is it about headlines that pack so much emotion for us? Yet we scan and discard probably hundreds, if not more, in a typical social media day, making split second decisions on whether it has any relevance.

Of course, relevance means it is most likely to apply to or impact my (or your) life in some way. Or perhaps it is pure emotional response (have to give a shout out to UK headline writers on that one – cheeky!). Either way, it’s not easy to write the perfect headline.  Despite chastising from myself and countless others when spelling errors aren’t caught, I can only imagine the challenges of the headline writing job for those in the News business. I mean, it’s not only a new world problem. Even when newspapers were the primary daily news source, there still was only so much room (or type characters) allowed.

In PR we run into the headline challenge, too. Like how to make the headline on a news release (or a post) enticing enough for the journalist to give it a second look, despite all the internal requirements companies often have about what ‘must’ be in there or the expected tone. It was always a good day for me when I fought for a creative headline on a news release – and then proved it got better pick-up. [grin]

Of course, with today’s 140 character tweets, which are like headlines on weight loss plans I suppose, (or steroids depending on your perception of length) many more people, including journos, have caught on to how to put just the right words together. After all, a great tweet, just like a great headline is like that book cover that draws you in. I mean, assuming you happen to be looking without a specific title in mind when browsing your online or local bookstore or library, what made you stop on any particular book?  Description, yes. Cover art, probably. But most likely, the headline (title). I mean something jumped out and grabbed your attention, right?

So, I was thinking about this in relation to social responsibility in business. If you aren’t familiar with the CSR movement, let me just say it is equal parts eco/green and etho/engagement. I’m sure I am not the best headline writer in the world, but I thought I would imagine the big ones we might someday see in CSR, or not. Are they so hard to believe that we couldn’t make it happen? Why? So here’s your challenge. Add to the list! Or tell me why these won’t see the light of day.

10. New Alternative Fuel Discovered by Company’s Venture with STEM

9. Hugging the Corporate Tree Today Took Root

8. After the GRI: 95% of All Companies Show Profitability Rises

7. XYZ Company Plants Park Program to Teach the World to Grow

6. Grandchildren Push Area CEOs to Plug into Electric Vehicles

5. A Million Mid-sized Companies March for Equal Pay for Women

4. Manager Evaluations Tied to Team Skills-based Volunteerism Efforts

3. Supply Chain Vendors Join XYZ Company to Expand Alternative Packaging

2. Entire Fortune 500 Commits to Fund Educational Paradigm Shift

1. Corporate Boards Hammer Out Plan to Shatter Glass Ceiling

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Psst! Business Secrets: When to Hold ‘Em, When to Fold ‘Em

poker hand

There are few things more sacred in public relations than the ability to keep business secrets close to the vest. It certainly rings true that information is power. Just look at recent news headlines and you will know there is more than a gray area, fine line or question in the mind of many about when secrets should be disclosed.

Let’s be clear, I’m not talking here about keeping dirty little secrets related to whistleblower ethics. As a public relations professional or someone who uses one, you have a bigger obligation to the world, the PR industry and countless other players than to allow yourself to become the willing or unwilling mouthpiece for an organization crossing ethical lines.

At times like that, your gut will tell you if your poker face is going to win the hand or cause you to lose or cash in more chips than you bargained for! Your reputation alone isn’t worth that risk (not to mention all the other potential fallout). Those are the times when you may find you need to “fold ‘em,” whether that means working the required internal chain, public or private disclosure, court-required disclosure, or just walking away.

By nature of PR’s role to share timely information with external stakeholders, we often have early indications of internal change or other impactful news. That comes with major responsibility. It is heightened, of course, when you work in a public company governed by U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) rules, but the need to know “when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em” is the same for any person entrusted with the confidences involved in doing business.

Holding such confidences can be particularly tricky when dealing with inquiring minds, be they fellow employees or reporters. In some organizations, leaking news of product launches, reorgs and anything with the remote scent of an “I know something you don’t know” advantage just seems to be an unfortunate yet ingrained part of the culture. Believe me, that adds incredible challenges for PR!

Now, you may be asking yourself, why and when would you want to keep a company secret? Surely, many companies already have a, well, let’s say a black eye when it comes to disclosure gone bad. Can’t argue that. But there are more legitimate times for holding a business confidence than not.  Here are some of the top ones:

When to Hold ‘Em

  • Anything under NDA – You don’t want to mess with any lawyer coming after you! When a major change is in the works, particularly one that can impact the financial valuation or obligations of a business, anyone with access to that information must sign a non-disclosure agreement. That means you can’t tell even your best friend she/he may be impacted. The gossip vine grows roots at times like this. And remember, even if you don’t sign a document for a specific disclosure, it is likely in your hiring contract. All PR professionals operate under an implied NDA regardless.
  • Embargoed news – Yes, there are still some news organizations that honor embargoes, but don’t count on it. In other words, plan for leaks either from internal sources or external. Granted, I have actually seen some organizations break their own embargoes to “whisper” about and test an upcoming product launch – but you shouldn’t. Remember, this is your bread and butter, your competitive advantage, and the reason your company has enough sales to pay you! Besides, an unbelievable amount of work goes into launching any new product. Don’t be the one that shows your hand too soon!
  • Customer/Client information – It goes without saying, well, maybe we shouldn’t assume. Let’s be clear, information gathered in the course of doing business with a customer/client is not yours to disclose. Always ask permission! That often means even to disclose they are your customer. Your PR team will have a strict process in place to verify any and all public disclosures about a customer. Often, disclosure is part of negotiated, legally-binding contracts. Hold ‘em tight!
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Breaking News! Really? How to Make Your News ‘Breaking’ Worthy

breaking-news

When did “Breaking News” start happening every day?  I mean, I get how news stations, particularly on the local level, are scrambling to compete and hold the attention of the viewer. But around my town (and we are not alone), weather is an all alert, hands down, meteorologists working ‘round the clock occasion. For a thunderstorm. Which one might well expect this time of year. And don’t get me started on the anticipatory two-inches-of snow-that-might-just-be-a-dusting reports that turn into an all out weather calamity for days on end!

But I digress. The purpose of this little observation is not to harp on what is happening in today’s newsroom, but to ponder why and what that means for those of us in public relations (and those of you who want us to do a great job on your behalf). I mean, breaking news used to be a rare and truly important occasion, didn’t it?

Yet, I have noticed a major change in what constitutes “Breaking News.” Haven’t you? Granted, as someone’s whose job has very much evolved around getting the attention of those who are issuing those alerts, I am a bit more of a news junkie than the average Joe. But still, someone else is noticing when the raindrops become “Breaking News,” right?

There are very valid times for “Breaking News” and major weather occurrences like we just witnessed in Oklahoma, are without a doubt valid contenders. If a tornado is in my direct path, you can bet I want to know! If a mass murderer is thought to be in the area, yeah, probably ditto on that one. If there is a fire somewhere in the city that isn’t leaking hazardous gas into the air we breathe, well, news item yes … breaking news, no.

Why is this important? Well, one of the major challenges in PR today is helping our companies/clients recognize and build stories that are actually likely to get coverage. In PR, we tout how the news must be newsworthy, timely and relevant. That gets harder to explain when the boss notices what is “top of the newscast” these days.

Now, I suppose you can argue that weather alerts and seemingly everyday news that become “Breaking News” do meet those criteria. But seriously, it’s like the boy who cried wolf. After awhile, everything sounds like “Breaking News” so you just tune it out.

What seems to have driven this change is the valid desperation that news operations feel today to find and keep viewers. After all, more viewers mean more advertisers. And more advertisers mean more money. News is business. Journalistic purism is valiant but it apparently doesn’t pay the bills anymore. Or at least, that seems to be the prevalent thought.

There is no question that more and more people are tuning out their local news. Yes, it is a vicious circle. Less people watch = more desperation for the station = more calls to “differentiate” = yep, more “Breaking News.” Now, I don’t mean to be harsh. I sincerely respect news directors, assignment editors and reporters who I know are just trying to do their job. And that is one tough job that just isn’t getting any easier! But I also see the changing use of “Breaking News” causing a dilemma for those of us in PR.

Granted, many may not even care what their local news station is calling “Breaking News.” They are more focused on generating coverage in New Media, i.e. online venues. But, I can guarantee you if their company, client or customer wants to be on that newscast or heaven forbid, they are somehow the subject of that “Breaking News” that isn’t so hot … I am betting they will want to know how to make their side of the story stand out. And sooner rather than later, that generalization of what constitutes “Breaking News” will infiltrate social media and any “medium of the day” — so get ready!

With that, here are a few questions PR (and all those who work with PR) should ask to help ensure our attempts at “Breaking News” actually meet the criteria to be called newsworthy, timely and relevant. Hey, maybe our friends in the newsroom will join us.

Newsworthy – Beyond the obvious, “how is your story unique?” Ask yourself: How many people will be impacted by your story? Will it make them change something important – their thoughts, actions or reactions? Will it stand out against the barrage of competing messages coming their way on a busy day?

Timely – Is your news so timely that it must be told today? What makes it more important today than next week? Is it tied to a national trend? Is your story a localization of a bigger news item, like a national news story or current happening?

Relevant – are you telling the story to the right audience? Will the viewer/reader/listener care? Does it impact them personally? This is where today’s “Breaking News” breaks down, in my humble opinion. Just as it is sometimes difficult to discern the relevance of breaking news for the broader audience, it is often challenging for PR to help internal customers recognize relevance. Ask yourself: are you telling or selling? Telling, which you can think of here as informing, is relevant. Selling — rarely so in news.

And while this isn’t exactly “Breaking News,” I sure hope it is news you can use!

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3 Obligations of Business: Will history repeat itself?

2012 Flood - Philippines

2012 Flood – Philippines

Have you ever considered whether the saying, “history repeats itself,” applies to business? Certainly every decade has its innovations that dramatically change how business operates, what the buyer wants and most certainly the tools for getting the job done. Without waxing philosophical with a trip down memory lane – really, I’m just as modern as the next gal – it did actually cross my mind recently to ponder the changing obligations of business today.  I mean, has it really changed?

Bear with me on the short history lesson but it was exactly 100 years ago that John H. Patterson, CEO of the then National Cash Register Company (now NCR), turned the mighty NCR factory power over to the community. You see, Dayton, Ohio in 1913 experienced a flood of record proportions and Patterson – be he community do-gooder or out for some ulterior motive (depending on who you ask) – quickly approved the building of boats in his factories instead of cash registers. In desperate times, he stepped up to lead the community re-building effort. And a massive effort it was, complete with unparalleled local fundraising. I don’t think they had FEMA in those days, but don’t quote me on that.

Now, I know you have to agree that the world has seen some wallops of natural (and sadly, even at the hand of man) disasters and crises of late. Just turn on the news. But isn’t it downright amazing and absolutely fabulous that in every situation – from hurricanes to tornados, from earthquakes to kidnapping, from shootings of children to bomb explosions (and the list goes on) – isn’t is inspiring that people do step up and pitch in? Fear and cynicism may reign in many day-to-day lives, but come disaster, the true good in mankind really does come out.

So, what do these disasters have to do with business? Well, I was just wondering if any company CEO today would do what Patterson did. Would they stop producing the widget to produce whatever their community needed? And is that sales motivated or community-minded if they do so? Would we ever again turn over factories to the government for war priorities? (Heaven forbid, what an awful thought!).

From that respect, business has changed dramatically and history is not likely to repeat itself. (Not to mention that we don’t have nearly as much onshore manufacturing stealth these days.) Yet, countless companies and their employees do step up when disasters strike. Fundraising for disasters certainly is breaking new records all the time. People do want to give. And the companies, just like Patterson’s NCR, likewise find either an obligation or a motive to be involved in big ways. That’s a good thing. And the really good news is more companies than ever are stepping up.

All of this is, indeed, part of the social responsibility movement. If a company is not operating in a responsible way – certainly from ecological and ethical standpoints alone – the customer, shareholder or community stakeholder will call them on it. We see this more every day. The obligation to do right by the environment, shareholders and stakeholders alike and the global community is stronger, and in some cases more regulated than ever.

Patterson and those of his era may or may not have had different motivations, but the history of businesses helping their communities has repeated itself. It haunts you if you do wrong. It rewards you with customers and great employees when you do right. It’s a good idea to be on the right side of history.

So, here’s a take on 3 Obligations of Modern Business:

  1. Do right by your shareholders.
    History will never change the fact that business is in the business of making money. Of course, that means making it ethically and hopefully being wise financial stewards. Today’s shareholders are just one of many stakeholders, but they are a vocal bunch. Balancing profitability with responsibility is a critical element in meeting modern business obligations.
  2. Do right by the environment.
    Whether you believe in global warming or not, there are regs out there and standards that you are obligated to follow. Contrary to historical beliefs, our natural resources are not unlimited. Be the one that figures out how to do right by the environment without being forced to. You’ll be ahead of the regulators and in step with all the others who will reward your company for ensuring we can live on Earth for the foreseeable future.
  3. Do right by your community.
    What is community anyway? It is where you live, where you work, the people who help you do business, and those who are impacted in any way by the way you operate – whether they are around the corner or around the world. It is those who respect you and those who don’t. It is a far-reaching and growing group that can have small and major impact on your reputation. Doing right by your community means making sure that stepping up for the betterment of the greater good is, in fact, a part of history that is always worth repeating.
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Rant: Can Communicators get a seat at the table?

seat-table

Given this blog site is titled, “Rants & Raves,” one could say that my prior posts were all “raving.” In other words, hopefully useful tips presented with a positive message. So, it’s high time for some ranting. But don’t worry. I promise there will still be usable information here. After I rant a little.

You know how fashion seems to repeat itself every, what is it, 20 years? I swear between platform shoes, maxi dresses, peasant skirts and now lace-inspired looks, I have been living the fashion déjà vu for at least the last decade. And so it seems with the topics that professional Communicators fret over, talk about and generally commiserate on.

Number one on the list when I was just starting out, and then 5 years on, 10 years on and well, it never really went away … was the “how do we get a seat at the table” question. A question which boils down to not feeling the profession gets the respect it deserves.

Having worked with many executives, I have to admit I have experienced a few that seemed to give Communications lip service. But there were so many others that were wonderful to work with because at the core we each respected what the other brought to the table.

Still, I certainly have seen organizations “demote” the Communications function from direct-to-CEO lines and felt the twinge like everyone else on the team that it meant a loss of respect for what Communicators offer, let alone necessary access to the top. Yet, the profession also appears to be garnering an all-time high of acknowledgement from CEOs as to the importance of the function in business. This is particularly true with the skillset of Public Relations when it is tapped for crisis management.

Something tells me that Communicators are not alone in this. That Rodney Dangerfield sense of “I don’t get no respect” can be heard from marketing pros in sales-oriented organizations, from sales teams in marketing-led organizations, from … well from just about any profession that isn’t credentialed like lawyers. (And, who today will argue that lawyers get more respect? Sorry to my lawyer friends.)

But the credentialing argument goes on and on, particularly since many non-accredited professions (including Communications and PR) have developed their own systems to try to even the score and differentiate one level of experience over another. Not that accreditation is a bad thing, it’s just that the argument for and against has gone on forever, hence feeding into the lack of respect perception.

But really, what is behind this sense of no respect anyway? Certainly, you must know of some very amazing professional Communicators who have attained that C-suite status. And yes, you could validly argue there just aren’t enough of them. But there are scores of others in every level of the Communications organization who clearly have the ear and respect of their executives.

I have to wonder with the Millennials seeming to not be as concerned with climbing the corporate ladder if, in fact, the argument will finally become mute. Interesting thought but like every generation, at some point they too may consider a change in how they are thinking at the beginning of their career compared to later. Maybe not, but it is a possibility.

Either way, if you are wondering how those dynamic communicators you know did it … win the respect of their executives, that is … well, here are a few thoughts. These are pretty basic actually, but like many things in life, saying and doing are two different things.

Just like being a good dinner party guest, these “etiquette” tips can help you get a seat at the table of professional respect:

  • Be conversational!
    How much do you know about the business and industry you are in? If you want to advise management, you absolutely must know how the business works just as well as you know your own skill set. Being conversational means you can bring the right discussions to the table.
  • Be the one they want to invite!
    Do you know what the exec’s challenges are? Can you help solve those? The exec may empathize (or not) but most likely does not have time for your problem. Be a solution provider, not a problem raiser. Being the one they want to invite to the party means you are trusted to add value. You can anticipate what the host (exec) needs, who to bring together for the solution and you can be counted on to get it done.
  • Be a pleasant guest!
    What’s that saying about how others don’t make you feel a certain way, only your reactions to their actions do? Something like that. Well, that is definitely true in any profession. If you don’t believe in yourself, who will? But don’t get cocky. Being a pleasant guest means being confident in yourself. And confidence will take you a long way, but only when you have actually earned it.

Bon Appétit!

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