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"Deer In The Headlights" Is Not A Media Strategy

Whether you regularly deal with the media or not, if you are anywhere near the professional communications field, at some point you will get a call from a reporter.

How are you planning to handle that?

Screenshot source here

Here's a quick graphic (download the slide here) offering some very basic steps you can take to be ready for that call. See explanatory notes below.

Step by step:

1. Coordinate response: Reporters are always, always in a crazy rush. However, the information you provide is forever, so you cannot provide a rushed response. Your official organizational representative, whether that's a PR firm, your own internal press relations folks, or whoever - should be the lead and you work across stovepipes to get them the information they need to provide the reporter.

2. Package information: People assume that reporters somehow "should" know what is available. They don't. In fact, reporters are immersed in a sea of information. It is almost overwhelming for them to sort out what matters and what doesn't. Moreover they are often looking for information that is not readily apparent. What they need is to have primary data packaged for them so that they can use it in a story. Optimally this data will already be out in the public sphere. Ideally you will give them links to official, releasable photos, fact sheets, reports, and video footage, in that order. Then, if they want to do a followup, they will be better situated to ask for what is lacking. 

3. Document response: Reporters prefer talking on the phone to corresponding by email, for obvious reasons. Email is very static and dead, and it doesn't give them an opportunity to ask an expert directly about whatever areas are of most interest - about gaps in the available information - about the angle of the story that is of primary interest to them. At the same time, a telephone conversation is liable to be misinterpreted and you may be misquoted. As a protective measure for yourself, and as a reference point in case there is any confusion or inaccuracy later on, write down what you said in the conversation, and email it from your work account to your work account to keep it secure. If the reporter tapes the conversation, tape it yourself as well - don't rely on the reporter to give you a copy.

4. Always on the record: You know this already, but it can be difficult to remember in the moment when you are engaged back and forth with the reporter on some issue. The reporter may bait you to say something and it's not clear whether it's for the story or not for the story, whether you're on the record or off. In your head you should be thinking, "I am always on the record here." That way, you will be less likely to say or release something you shouldn't.

5. Simple and visual: It's not enough to package information for reporters, although that's good. Everything you convey to them - whether verbally or in writing - should be conveyed in simple, visual terms. This means that they should be able to picture in their minds the words you are saying. If you are making a complicated point comparing this versus that, or describing an official position on a matter, this is all the more important. Imagine that you are stranded on the side of a highway, have one phone call, and the person you've reached is not a native English speaker. Simple, clear, visual and to the point.

A Possible Brand Strategy Behind Trader Joe's Ripping Paper Bags

Screen shot via

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. So I must be insane for going to Trader Joe's, bagging my items in a single brown paper bag, and being surprised when the bag immediately rips and everything falls out of it.

No I am not buying the reusable bags because I end up leaving them at home. And I need them for trash.

Over time I have learned how to double bag at Trader Joe's. It's an art form you need to know because the store folks will automatically single-bag and stuff tons of items in each one. Causing the break.

The way you double-bag is to open up a single bag, put a closed bag inside, and THEN open the second bag up carefully. Voila - double bag. 

But even that doesn't hold about a third of the time.

I've decided that I really like Trader Joe's as my go-to store and the ripping paper bags don't daunt me. In fact I think they are part of the brand strategy. Here's why:

Trader Joe's is about delivering great food, at a reasonable price, in a manner that does not harm the planet. 

This is my interpretation of their brand promise, based on the way they describe the products they sell - e.g. "tasty," "no GMO" and price them. 

So when those paper bags - bags labeled with the words "reusable and recyclable" start ripping, what it says to me is:

Trader Joe's cares about the planet more than money. 

Meaning, even though it's more convenient to use plastic, the company is committed to something higher than just making a buck.

So when I participate in the world of Trader Joe's by using a recyclable but ripping plastic bag, I am inconveniencing myself for the sake of a higher value. 

That may explain why I keep going back to the experience of the ripping bag, when there are other ways to transport the purchases.

Don't know if that's their plan, but on a certain level it works for me.

Bring It

I work in government and it's the stereotype about us that people want to get paid, but don't want to do their job. That's not true.

More often than not people are pretty passionate about doing their job and doing it well. Because when they perform they get recognition, and recognition enhances their self-esteem. So there's a natural motivation to succeed.

When people don't try, whether in government or anywhere, there's always a reason. 

* They're in survival mode. They lack options. They'd rather be at home taking care of their kids, their elderly parents, their own ailing health. Or it's the wrong kind of job for their talents.

* Trying is not worth it. They get in trouble every time they color outside the line. Or they produce, but don't get promoted. Or they experience personal, unfair treatment, whether it's discrimination, bullying, marginalization, and so on.

All of the above can be dealt with. Not easily, but in a fairly straightforward fashion because the logic makes sense.

There is one kind of problem very hard to eradicate: the double-bind. That is, sometimes people are caught between trying and not trying because the cultures they're a part of send mixed messages.

Culture is a series of intersecting circles - family, education, workplace, friends. Anytime you find yourself in a peer group.

Many potentially high achievers seem to stop themselves in their own tracks. They block their own promotions! Because they're part of a culture that tells them "don't bother." For example:

* Their work friends hold them back. People spend a lot of time at work. Sometimes peers hold an otherwise productive person back. They want to try, but they withdraw and act sarcastic or less motivated in fear of losing the friendships. You see the conflict often when people get promoted, leaving their friends behind.

* Upbringing has left them confused. You see this a lot with Generation Y. They've been rewarded for following the rules, any rules, instead of getting the job done. Then they get to work and bosses want them to go a level beyond, not just do what they're told. Plain hard work and memorizing doesn't get the gold star anymore, and it's frustrating.

* They've internalized sexism, racism, and so on.  This one is very subtle, starts young, and gets reinforced in adulthood. For minorities, women, and other groups that face discrimination, it sometimes seems impossible to win. For when you fail, you hate yourself because you don't measure up. When you succeed, you hate yourself because who do you think you are? Either way you're wrong.

But the reasons don't really matter. Only in the Army should you follow blindly - and even in the Army I've read about the desire for recruits to take on a more empowered role. Certainly in the knowledge workplace you better think on your own.

In other words, you've got to bring it.

The workplace is unforgiving. So is the relationship market. People who don't care, who don't try, who are self-hating don't add value. 

When I have a choice about who to work with, I only have one criteria: that the person wants to help solve the problem and then they do it. If someone is hungry, and they're unblocked, that person is a valuable member of my team.

Lately I've been trying to write some fiction when I have time. Do you know what? I can't write it. Because I'm just not willing to go out there and do what it takes; I'm blocked. It's painful to admit, but it's better to be honest than to walk around fooling yourself.

Jim Collins, in Good to Great, has a great formula for deciding what companies should be doing to make money, and you can apply it to any aspect of your life. It can help you learn how to bring it, even when you've failed in the past.

Find yourself in this intersecting series of circles:

1) What are you passionate about?

2) What can you do better than anybody else?

3) What will the market pay you for?

When you think about yourself from this outside perspective it's so helpful. You get out of all the internal deliberation and see yourself as an outsider does. Aligned with the world, you are automatically positioned for success. 

Imagine if, for the rest of your life, you didn't have to take a single word of advice. It is possible. Just consider this: If you care about it - if you're good at it - and if other people value it - you have a good chance at succeeding. Now you just have to let yourself succeed. 

Can you get out of your own way and go for it?

Your Job: Make It Easy To Say "Yes" (3 Ways To Do It)

Over the weekend I was working at Panera. In between observing the usual scenery - weekend workaholics like me, fighting couples, families planning their bar mitzvahs, weekend custody visits, elderly people grabbing a sandwich - a lightning bolt struck me:

Winning people over doesn't have to be hard.

Or, put another way, 

Make it easy to say "yes."

How I got from the usual scenery to this insight was pretty simple: It came from a sandwich.

The elderly couple sitting next to me had identical sandwiches on the table - either tuna or chicken salad. Each had a small bag of chips. And they were chirping happily as they ate, leaning over the table, discussing this thing and that. 

I got the impression that they barely even noticed what they were eating. Even though those sandwiches and chips probably cost about $15 with beverage.

In my mind I had the following thought - "those sandwiches probably cost Panera about $3 to make, if that." Imagine the profit margin on bulk tuna, mayo, potato chips and a couple slices of bread.

Did that couple care whether they overpaid for their sandwiches? NO!

Did they want Panera to innovate the sandwiches every time they ordered? NO! In fact the opposite is true - people want their favorite dishes, at their favorite restaurants, made EXACTLY the same way every time.

So Panera, like McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks, Coca-Cola and other big brands, have made it easy for the customer to readily buy a hugely marked-up item - by giving them the same thing, the same way, every time.

Consistency is one tactic. It works when you're a customer-facing brand; it works when you're an employee on the job. Your boss does not want different things from you every day - rather that you perform at a consistently high level, in the style to which they are accustomed from you, over time.

Another way to make it easy to say yes: Relieve immediate pain. Very literally - if you have a headache you will buy any kind of pain reliever out there that will make it go away. Even if a little packet of ibuprofen costs you 50 cents. Even if you have to buy a whole bottle for $6.50. You do not care - the pain has to go away.

Pain relief comes in many forms. At work, for example, we often hear stories about people who want to introduce change but find themselves stymied. The problem is that they are offering change at a time when nothing seems wrong! Why do I want to interrupt my life and make it harder for no clear benefit. The key with introducing change is to wait until that moment when things are difficult precisely because the old system is unworkable. At that point, change feels good - and you have made it easy to say yes.

A third way to make it easy - simply being there physically. Ubiquity. This is a well-known principle in branding. Starbucks is everywhere - there are Google map mashups that will help you find the nearest one - and if it's more than 3 blocks away some people start to panic. The reason we panic is that Starbucks has become a part of the physical landscape. I can tell you that often I don't even like how the coffee tastes anymore. But the fact that Starbucks is there, means I trust them, and I will go in there. They've made it easy to say yes.

It's a similar dynamic at work. There's all this hullaballoo about virtual work, telework, remote work, et cetera. But the reason people are a little uncomfortable with it at the senior level is - when you're teleworking, they can't see you. When an executive wants something done, it's urgent. They need to be able to reach around the corner, literally, and pull in the people who will (see above), solve the current point of pain. The advantage goes to those individuals who are physically there, who make themselves present, as much as their leadership wants them to be.

So, to summarize, here are three ways to make it easy for a potential customer to buy from you, and/or to keep an existing customer loyal:

1. Be consistent.
2. Relieve immediate pain.
3. Be physically present.

Good luck!

Let's Talk About Those Eyebrows and 12 Other Notes from Last Night's Debate

Eyebrows are a very important but often overlooked part of any communication strategy. I was raised on eyebrows as I have a cosmetologist in the family. "Honey, those eyebrows are out of control!" was a common refrain. 

Watching the debate last night brought eyebrows into sharp focus for me. From a communication standpoint, both candidates have issues around them:

  • President Obama's eyebrows meet his eyes, though they do not cover them. This is not in and of itself remarkable, except that it sharpens the edge when he speaks fighting words. The eyebrow-eye combination is in stark contrast to the President's trademark wide smile, which he seems to be able to produce on demand. The communication impact is that he seems able to project any emotion desired without necessarily feeling it. 
  • Governor Romney's eyebrows cover his eyes to the point where they seem to peer out at you from underneath. It makes him seem like he is hiding something. The effect is further amplified by his trademark closed-mouthed half-smile and turned head, which he employs when listening to an opponent speak. The communication impact is that you never know exactly what the Governor is thinking, but you do get the sense that he's not telling you. 
Here is a list of other things I noticed last night. By the way I did think the President won:
  1. The debate was boring. Governor Romney was determined not to attack. The President seemed determined to attack, but didn't get a response or the Governor said he was lying and then stopped. Attacks make debates interesting. I turned it off after an hour.
  2. Governor Romney agreed with the President a lot. When you're a challenger brand this is not a way to convince people to switch to buying your product.
  3. Governor Romney kept bringing it to his safe place - the economy. He did fine there - he could talk about tires in China and all that - but when he talked foreign policy he did not seem comfortable ("we have allies all over the world...42 cities and France?"). As Jack Welch once said, if you can't be #1 or #2, you can't compete. 
  4. In contrast, the President seemed comfortable on foreign policy - saying "so you just want to do the same things we did, but say it louder" or some such. He was visibly uncomfortable on the economy. See above on Jack Welch. 
  5. On Israel, the President scored points when he mentioned visiting Yad Vashem in Israel and taking a concrete action in response to his visit as a candidate - implementing the Iron Dome. Governor Romney scored points when he mentioned the President not visiting Israel during what he called the "apology tour." In the end they both used similar words "we've got Israel's back" so ultimately it was a draw.
  6. Both of them kept referring to "workers" rather than the "workforce." We live in a knowledge economy, not a manufacturing economy - we're a "workforce" - and I kept waiting for the story on that.
  7. I wondered whether it was wise for Governor Romney to say that the teachers' union would have to get in line behind the parents and the kids. It wasn't what he said, but how he said it...there is a certain awkwardness there where the President is a very smooth talker. This after Big Bird during the other debate gave him a bit of a mean appearance. 
  8. It seemed like each was taking the opportunity to mention "women" as many times as they could. Didn't seem authentic on either side. 
  9. The President used the word "we" referring to his administration, but Governor Romney used the word "I." The word "we" is associated with teamwork and strength. 
  10. The number 5 was repeated several times in answers. My daughter remarked that she liked how Governor Romney segmented his answers that way. (The Governor also mentioned a 7 point plan for dealing with Iran.) It seemed like the President was copying the Governor on that. 
  11. Specifics are important. The President scored a point when he said to the Governor that "We've visited your website many times" and still could not find the specifics the Governor was referring to.
  12. On CNN Governor Romney's flag lapel pin was visible, but the President's was obscured by the icon on the lower right. Not a true representation of what they were wearing, but it was there nonetheless.
*Note: As always, this is a communication commentary, not a political one, not an endorsement or non-endorsement of either candidate. All opinions are my own. 

5 Internal Communication Activities Your Boss Will Support

Ragan Communications reports that "Employee Engagement Is (A) Top Challenge For 2013": Executives don't agree with communicators that it's a top priority ("engagement didn't even make the list.")
In any large, complex organization, internal communication must normally go through many bureaucratic hoops to be approved. Also, operational matters frequently crowd out what seem like "mushy" matters to executives.
If you are eager to promote internal communication, but are finding it a daunting hassle, here are 5 tactics that I've used across three government agencies. They may be helpful to you:

1. Daily News Clips: Circulate to managers; include blog, twitter and Facebook mentions; make available to all by posting on the Intranet. The more information available to employees, provided by you, the better.

2. Repurpose External Interviews: If a senior leader gave an interview to the media, share it with employees or do a weekly roundup. External media tend to force leaders to answer more critical and objective questions because they are answering to the public.

3. Simplify Existing Language for Factsheets: These are always needed and if you use existing language, not objectionable. Take a policy guidebook and turn it into a one-pager with graph, chart, or FAQ. Do not change the language; only bullet it, shorten it, and generally make it more accessible.

4. Provide a "News You Can Use" Weekly Email: This gives executives an opportunity to share important information, and employees want to hear directly from executives. Most of the email should be substantive but some of it should provide strategic context around news and updates.

5. Rally Around Giving Activities:  Campaigns that occur regularly, like the CFC (Combined Federal Campaign) in government, are an opportunity for people to let loose a bit for a good cause. Chili cook-offs, book sales, potluck lunches, and similar activities are good for the spirit, the soul and the community.

Argo: A Quick Review

1. It's mostly an intense thought piece with a lot of thinking, drama, meta-messaging, subtext, some insider jokes etc. Clearly in the Ben Affleck genre.

2. If you prefer action films don't bother.

3. It is more of a meditation on propaganda and narrative, fatherhood, character and friendship than a topic film. Not a comprehensive treatment of history.

4. It is apolitical.

5. It feels very "real" in terms of telling a historical truth. You walk away having learned about Washington.

Marketing Ice Cream To Women: 5 Observations

1. It is an emotional purchase - guilt, depression, self-soothing. Guilty so an impulse buy.

2. Environment of consumption - social if virtuous (frozen yogurt), isolated if not (e.g. hiding in the car eating a sundae).

3. Toppings are an important part of the experience. It feels like reward and is similar to wanting icing and sprinkles on cake, etc. Or even salad toppings.

4. Small but heaping portions are preferred to big tubs, which are associated with being fat.

5. There is actually a preference to pay more not less as a sign that you're getting "premium" (calories for the money).