The Bookshelf – When Words Lose Their Meaning

By Monty Hagler

As RLF packed up the office space we occupied for nine years, I faced difficult choices on what to keep, give away, recycle or trash. That is particularly true when it comes to books. I’m old-school print, with hundreds of books in the office and thousands on the shelves at home. Sinceimg_5279 childhood, literature has fueled wonder, discovery, laughter, suspense, adventure and knowledge in my life. It’s easy to gather, much harder to discard.

When the dust settled, 20 books made the move to the new office. This Orange Slices post marks the first in a series about each book that opened my eyes to a broader world or taught me lessons that still resonate. I don’t distinguish between reading for pleasure or business, but I do follow a cardinal rule to put a book down if I’m not enjoying it or finding value from it in the first 35 pages.

Read more

Don’t Get Your Torch Snuffed: Communications Lessons from Survivor

By Adam Bowers

For the past 14 years, there have been two days each year that I look forward to more than Christmas: the fall and spring premiers of Survivor. The season 29 premier was one of those nights. While most seasons include some kind of twist (this season’s twist has the castaways playing with and against family members), every season essentially begins the same way: the castaways land on the island, exchange awkward “hellos,” attempt to build a shelter and make fire, compete in a challenge, and then decide who will receive the humiliating distinction of being the first person voted out.

After watching 28 seasons of the show, it’s easy to guess who that first person voted out is going to be. The most likely contenders are always contestants who are either obnoxious or threatening in some way. SPOILER ALERT: The person voted off in the episode two nights ago, Nadiya, was a little of both.

The truth is, most of the castaways who get voted out early could greatly benefit from some simple communications counsel. Here are 3 communications lessons from Survivor that could help you not get “voted out” of a job, team or business deal:

The Loudest Voice Doesn’t Always Win

On Survivor, the loudest person nearly always assumes an initial “leadership” role because he or she steam-rolls other competing voices by sheer virtue of volume. He or she assumes this role for about three days, but then is quickly voted out because the tribe mates are tired of hearing him or her talk.

In the real world, this happens too. How often does the loudest person in a meeting dictate the conversation, only to annoy every other person who has something to say, but can’t? How often do companies think they can sell a product or service by sheer volume of ads? The most effective communicators know that the message itself is far more important than the volume at which it is said.

Sometimes, Your Audience Doesn’t Care

The domineering loudmouths who get voted off the island first never see it coming. They can’t believe their fellow castaways didn’t want their advice on how the shelter should be built or where the fire pit should be established. They assume that everyone was sitting on the edges of their seats, just waiting to hear their next piece of sage-like wisdom. They don’t realize that their audience was never interested in their thoughts in the first place.

When crafting a message in the corporate world, it is imperative to know how receptive or primed your audience is for the message. If they aren’t receptive at all, your strategy shouldn’t be to beat them over the head with the message until they happily receive it. Seeing two back-to-back GEICO ads in a commercial break doesn’t make me more likely to make that 15-minute call and switch to GEICO; it just annoys me. In cases where your audience isn’t ready to hear what you’ve got to say, it may be better to start with a conversation that gauges what they are interested in hearing. For example, you might do this by interacting with your followers on social media, listening to their opinions and then adapting your message based on what you hear.

Positioning is Crucial

For Survivor contestants like Nadiya, who get voted out largely because they are considered a threat, their demise is largely due to an inability to position themselves well to their fellow players. In this case, Nadiya might not have been voted out if she had positioned herself as a reality show expert, with the know-how to get her alliance far into the game. Instead, she seemed unconcerned about her tribe’s perceptions and failed to play up her strengths. Obviously, this mistake cost her.

In marketing, positioning is crucial. The foundation of any campaign should involve research to understand where you fit within your market, what your audiences’ needs are, and what messages will be well-received by key stakeholders. Only with the right strategic positioning will you truly thrive in your sector.

Ultimately, Survivor is a show about communication. The players that win understand their audiences, know which messages their fellow contestants want to hear and recognize how to best deliver them. One of the most enjoyable parts about watching the show is witnessing the truly great communicators at work (and also seeing the terrible ones crash, burn and get their torches snuffed).

Photo courtesy of Kristin Dos Santos’ Flickr photostream.

Five Communication Blind Spots to Avoid

By Mark Tosczak

You would think, after almost 20 years in the communications business, that I wouldn’t be surprised anymore by the blind spots that still afflict many organizations.

Photo courtesy of Emilio Labrador

Photo courtesy of Emilio Labrador

Here are five of the biggest communications fallacies I see.

1. Thinking everyone understands your specialized terminology

About 15 years ago I was doing some public relations consulting for a Fortune 50 company, handling local media relations in one of their markets and doing some community affairs work. I used to sit on conference calls with media relations staff from across the company (and across the country). I also used to sit in meetings with the local public affairs team in my market.

One day I found myself using the term “SME” in one of those local meetings. The employee communications head spoke up and asked what that meant. I was a bit surprised, because on the media relations calls, that term was tossed around all the time; I assumed everyone working in the company’s public affairs and corporate communications function would understand it. Turns out they didn’t.

I made the mistake of assuming that because that acronym was used and understood within one part of the public affairs group, that everyone understood it. (By the way, it means “subject matter expert” and was a shorthand way to refer to the internal company employees for whom we sometimes arranged media interviews.)

I still encounter this problem today. Product specialists believe customers understand their jargon. Or they believe their category is so well known that all potential customers, industry influencers and people working in the field understand the term. Heck, we still find ourselves explaining to clients the difference between a pitch and a press release — our clients often don’t understand PR jargon.

This is, by the way, one of the reasons AP Style almost always requires spelling out acronyms on first use. Organizations should do the same. If you have to use specialized terminology, make sure you explain it.

2. Believing everyone pays as much attention to your industry, company, brand or product as you do

You work at your job 40 or 50 or 60 hours a week (or maybe more). You spend your time thinking about what you and your company are doing, and what your competitors are doing. As a result of that, there are things in your professional life that are a big deal to you – a new product launch, a milestone in the life of your company, a decision made by a government agency that regulates your industry.

But for most other people, those things are not a big deal. Your current customers may take notice. Prospective customers could notice, but probably won’t. And journalists and other influencers – even if they notice – probably won’t think those events are as important as you do. Those people are not spending all of their time focused on the things you (and your bosses and clients) are focused on.

So how do you get others to pay attention, care and take action? Understand what those other people care about and make your events and milestones powerfully relevant to them and their needs. Instead of trying to persuade people to see the world the way you do, focus on making those things in your world important to them.

3. Using fancy language to communicate with the fancy crowd

Understanding your audience is critical. But too many organizations think that because their audience is well educated, affluent and successful, the language used to communicate with them should sound like something out of a grad school textbook. It shouldn’t.

If your audience is better educated and more affluent, chances are they are also busier and more pressed for time. (Attention B2B marketers: This is especially true for your buyers.) Those people don’t need, and won’t respond well to, lengthy sentences, 50-cent words and “sophisticated” vocabulary.

Instead, focus on communicating your messages simply and clearly. And if you can use visuals and typography to make your communications clearer, do so.

4. Thinking communications and relationships can cover up problems caused by bad products or bad relationships

When organizations run into problems due to bad products or bad actions, sometimes they think the easiest way to solve those problems is to try to paper them over with some slick PR or a few persuasive phone calls to influencers “we have a relationship with.” That can be a mistake.

If you’ve got bad products or you’re doing something wrong, the first thing you need to do is fix those products and policies. (Of course, I’m assuming you’ve got enough objectivity and clarity that you recognize those are the problems.) Sending out a news release or calling an influential friend might seem like an easier, cheaper, faster way to make the bad news go away, but it probably won’t help.

So fix the problem first. Once you’ve started down that road, you can focus on communicating how you’ve fixed it, or that you’ve started to address it, if it’s not a quick fix. I’m not suggesting you go silent for a long time — that can be disastrous. But you’ve got do more than just communicate; you need to take action to address the underlying issue.

Trying to communicate without working to solve the underlying problem will probably make things worse.

5. Believing the media is biased against you

I worked as a journalist for quite a few years. I’ve also worked on “the dark side” for quite a few years, pitching stories and trying to get journalists to pay attention (in a positive way) to my clients. I’ve seen very little “media bias” (as most people use that term).

I have seen and heard, though, a fair amount of complaining, though, about media bias. It’s a lot easier to explain away negative coverage that way then it is to either acknowledge there are legitimate differences of opinion within your industry or accept that you haven’t been very persuasive in communicating your point of view.

For the most part, news reporters are interested in stories they find interesting or that they believe are important for their readers to know. Frequently, “interesting” and “important” means that there’s conflict, questions of whether something is “good” for society, or some very compelling human angle. Journalists sometimes also have biases toward sources that make their jobs easier, toward sources that are pleasant to interact with and toward sources that help provide them those interesting and important stories.

I don’t always agree with the news judgment of news outlets, but I think complaining about that news judgment or labeling it as biased is the easy way out. More challenging, but potentially more fruitful, is acknowledging how the media actually makes decisions and working to communicate your point of view within that framework.

Can we escape these fallacies?

Seeing through these blind spots can be tough. There are organizational and social pressures that sometimes make it easier to ignore these blind spots rather than recognize them. But skilled communicators know that recognizing these blind spots and working to overcome them is one of the few true competitive advantages they can develop.

Public Relations – It’s More Than Issuing Press Releases

By Michelle Rash

While traveling a few weeks ago, I had the chance to meet some old friends for dinner. While they knew I had made the career switch from journalism to public relations, I could tell they didn’t understand exactly what I do. This is a situation I have been in several times since making the transition to public relations – there seems to be a fair amount of confusion about what public relations professionals actually do and, perhaps more importantly, about the strategic value we provide.

On some level, I understand this. Public relations professionals, and firms such as RLF, often provide a broad range of services. For my clients, on any given day I may be creating social media content, drafting a news release, working on a strategic plan and coordinating the placement of a paid advertisement.

So what is “public relations”? There are several definitions, including one recently updated by the Public Relations Society of America. But even with these definitions, explaining what it is we do, and more importantly the role we can and should serve for companies, can be difficult.

Public relations professionals are most known for the tactical things we do — securing media coverage, managing social media channels such as Twitter and Facebook, creating compelling collateral pieces, planning special events. While these things all play a role in our jobs, they downplay the most important and valuable position we can fill – that of trusted counselor.

So how can a business utilize its communications team in the most proactive, strategic way?

public relations strategy

1. Invite them to the table. Nearly every decision a business makes has a potential communications impact. When making significant decisions, invite your public relations team to be a part of the process. Get their input up front. The more information they have, and the earlier they have it, the better they can manage communications to convey those decisions and key messages to important audiences, including customers, employees, government officials and the media.

2. Share your business goals and objectives. Every business establishes goals and priorities. Make sure your public relations team know and understands those goals. When they understand the business from the top down, including all of the goals and objectives, we can better craft the right communications strategy. This will also allow your public relations team to better prioritize their work and only focus on the core things that will have the greatest impact on your bottom line. As one of my clients explained to one of his colleagues recently: “We need people we can trust to help us achieve our goals. These are those people.”

3. Integrate them into your team. Most public relations firms have one or two primary contacts at all of their clients. However, it is crucial that that this is not the only point of contact. To have the most insight into a company, and thus to provide the most valuable advice, your public relations team should not just know the marketing person, but also key executives. If possible, they should have the chance to meet and interact with people all across the company to gain the broadest insight and perspective into the business. If you utilize multiple agencies for different communications needs, it can also be beneficial to set up regular meetings for them to make sure everyone is on the same page and moving towards the same goals.

As companies begin to plan for 2013, they should re-examine the role their public relations firms play. Are they being used just to carry out tactical executions after the strategies have been finalized? If so, it may be time to consider whether there are ways to better utilize your PR professionals. While this may involve a little more time, energy and cost on the front end, the rewards will be reflected on the bottom line.

Photo courtesy of Fotosearch Stock Photography.

“Maybe We Should Have Asked the Public Relations Team If This Is a Good Idea….”

The New York Times’ recent article about manipulating Internet search engines was a fascinating glimpse into the world of search engine optimization. Most companies want their products and services ranking high in online searches, particularly a Google search. There is an ongoing cat-and-mouse game between the search engines (which do not disclose their specific ranking formulas) and the individualscompanies who make a living trying to move clients higher up the search rankings.

As The New York Times story points out, something had clearly gone very wrong (or very right, depending upon your point of view) when J.C. Penney popped up as a top site for items ranging from dresses, luggage, skinny jeans, tablecloths, comforter sets and furniture. Those results didn’t happen by accident; they were part of a deliberate and well-executed “black hat” strategy over many months to raise J.C. Penney’s rankings. Google executives called it the most ambitious attempt they had ever seen to game their system.

I’ll leave it to others to debate if the strategy was “ethical” or not. What I found most interesting was the denial by J.C. Penney that the company had engaged in any deliberate attempt to manipulate the search engines.

“J.C. Penney did not authorize and we were not involved with or aware of the posting of the links that you sent to us, as it is against our natural search policies,” said a spokesperson. I feel for the J.C. Penney public relations team. The search engine results did not happen accidentally. It took time, effort, resources and money to systematically create thousands of artificial links to the J.C. Penney website.

Evidently, the Internet marketing team at J.C. Penney did not consider it important to get the input of public relations professionals about the potential negative fall-out from engaging in this type of activity.  I am sure they were very proud of the results they achieved, right up to the day when The New York Times called Google to ask about this jury-rigging, resulting in a painfully long story in the Sunday Business section.

The bottom line is that actions have consequences, and public relations professionals provide the most value to organizations when they are in the loop BEFORE decisions are made and executed. Marketing and public relations are complimentary, but different, disciplines within the corporate structure. Neither should control the other, but they must be at the table at the same time so that all voices and perspectives can be evaluated and weighed.

Engaging Shanghai

Twenty years ago, I confidently entered the business world with a freshly minted master’s degree and doe-eyed optimism. Over the next few years, stints in politics, business and the recession of 1991 slowly adjusted my view of the world.

It only took one week in Shanghai recently to reshape my perspective.

Much has been written about the opportunities emerging in China. It is a country pulsing with energy, determination and focus. You are engulfed in it the moment you step off the plane into an airport that defies your expectation of what an airport can be – spacious, clean, beautiful, efficient – and hurtled into the city at 263 mph on a magnetic levitation train. China may still be a communist country, but there is some form of beauty in the trains running on time and every person you encounter taking pride in their work.

My focus in China was two-fold: develop relationships with agency leaders from communications firms throughout the globe and gain perspective on what opportunities might exist in China for my own agency. I was successful on the first front. I am uncertain about the latter.

But from a communications and marketing perspective, the China market is not so different from the world we know.

In the keynote address for the conference I was attending, James McGregor, an American expat who has been in China for 20 years, offered sage advice for those seeking to do business. Be patient. Demonstrate that what is good for your business is also good for China. And above all, think about the people you deal with as individuals, not as bureaucrats. If you take time to understand what can help them be successful – what matters to their boss, and their boss’s boss – then you are more likely to be successful. Listening is learning, and that is sound advice for communist and free market systems alike.

During our trip, we visited the World Expo (the modern day version of the World’s Fair) with hundreds of countries hosting giant pavilions to showcase their culture, music, food, art, history and commerce. There were fascinating exhibits, but they all paled in comparison to the stunning visual of more than 300,000 people a day crowding through the gates. Most pavilions had lines that made Disney at spring break seem like a ghost town, but without the reward of rides or games. The reward was knowledge and understanding, the desire to be engaged in a way that is not possible via television, radio or the Internet. The allure of touching, tasting, hearing and seeing a different world come to life was worth every minute that people experienced standing in line for two, three or four hours to enter a single pavilion.

On a more intimate scale, I witnessed the power of personal engagement. We heard before going to China that blonde-haired, blue-eyed children were popular. But nothing prepared us for the throngs of people who crowded around our young daughters, stopped them for pictures, reached out to touch their hair, gave thumbs up signs and watched until they disappeared into the next throng. It was wonderful, even if at times it was almost overwhelming.

Those experiences reinforced for me that even in an age when likely every person we met had seen blonde-haired children on television, magazines or billboards, there is something magical about connecting with them first-hand. The sight of my daughters stopped thousands of people in their tracks, and the ability to interact with them – for a photo, a smile, a touch – opened up their eyes to the world in a new and wondrous way.

Corporate brands need to harness that same type of power. To connect with people in a way that transcends words or images in an advertisement. Brands stand for something. They bring experiences, emotions and expectations to life — not just in China or the US, but around the world.

2010 Sabre Awards Dinner

Even in a deep recession, the public relations profession is turning out amazing and meaningful work for clients.

That thought has resonated for me during the last month, since I attended the SABRE awards dinner at the gorgeous Cipriani building across from Grand Central Station in New York City in May. More than 1,000 public relations professionals had gathered for one of the big three awards shows to honor the best campaigns and teams in our industry (the PR Week Awards and Silver Anvil Awards are the other two major national awards).

Paul Holmes, the organizer of the SABRE Awards – which stands for Superior Achievement in Branding and Reputation – set the tone for the evening when he remarked that despite all of the economic troubles that have challenged our industry, the number of entries for SABRE recognition set a record (1,700) and the quality had never been higher.

As Paul noted, public relations has demonstrated that reach and frequency are not enough to create successful outcomes in today’s world. There must be engagement as well, and public relations has taken a leadership position among the communications disciplines in creating engaging, meaningful campaigns. This is particularly true in the realm of social media, which our profession has done a remarkable job of weaving into the overall communications mix.

Over the course of five hours (from the first cocktail to the closing coffee), Aleasha Vuncannon and I had the opportunity to talk with fascinating professionals from around the country, review the lists of finalists for the awards in each category, and enjoy the pageantry of an event as a participant (instead of as a behind-the-scenes organizer, which is our normal role!).

And when our time came, when the finalists for the top campaign in the category of Educational & Cultural Institutions were announced, we were thrilled to hear that our work in partnership with the International Civil Rights Center & Museum had been recognized as the best in our business. We had felt like it was worthy of this recognition. We knew how hard our team had worked and how much had been accomplished. Yet, we still held our breath in anticipation as the winner was announced, because every campaign that had made the finals had strong results.  It felt good to scream when we heard the results.

Here is a brief glimpse into the work that we did for the grand opening of the International Civil Rights Center & Museum:

After the dinner, Aleasha and I walked through Times Square at midnight, dressed in our best clothes, carrying a deceptively heavy trophy and reflecting on the evening (not surprisingly, no one batted an eye at us or thought we were out-of-place in the crazy scene that is Times Square). It feels good to do great work for clients, to create campaigns that generate meaningful results and advance our client’s objectives. We do this work not for awards, but when we strive to be one of the very best agencies in our industry, it is evenings like this that provide the mileposts to let us know that our agency is on the right road.