Apr 27 2020
Since the Covid-19 shelter-in-place orders went into effect, organizations have been forced to respond quickly to stress-inducing and constantly changing information. Some are succeeding brilliantly; others are failing miserably. Here are some tips to keep your audiences engaged and informed during this unusual time.
Meet People Where They Are
During a pandemic, people are emotionally exhausted and overwhelmed. If your messages ignore this and you proceed with business as usual, you will miss an opportunity to build connection—and you’ll likely fail in getting your message across.
Keep Messages Short and On Point
When people are stressed, scared, or distracted, it is essential to communicate clearly and concisely. In written communication, this means crafting messages that resonate and then breaking them into bite-sized chunks so people can absorb them. As you sit down to write, do your best to read the room, as they say. Imagine you are trying to grab and keep the attention of an employee who has a toddler in need of a diaper change. Start your message with a recognition of their challenges, a note of appreciation, and then expectations.
Also, keep things brief. It’s best to simplify complex information so people are compelled to comply with instructions or recommendations but not overwhelmed by all the details.
Even when there’s nothing new to say, keep updates coming. Their frequency depends on your audience, of course, but ideally, you want to communicate often enough that people don’t start speculating on their own. Consider sending brief messages every few days or once a week to employees, and maybe every couple of weeks to other stakeholders.
Consider sending brief messages every few days or once a week to employees, and maybe every couple of weeks to other stakeholders.
Reinforce talking points (e.g., we’re complying with government orders to remain shuttered, but here’s how we’re supporting our employees/clients/community, or here’s what we expect for the weeks and months ahead.). You don’t have to have all the answers, but you do need to address people’s most urgent questions–even if that simply means saying something like, “We don’t know when we’ll reopen, but we have applied for the Payroll Protection Program to secure funding for those who are working from home.”
Because people are distracted and sometimes disorganized, it’s important to create a central location where people can find your most recent updates–a webpage, Facebook page, or emails with a consistent subject line such as “Covid-19 Update.” Make it easy to stay informed.
Remain Positive, Yet Honest
Possibly the most important role of communication during a crisis like this is to build trust. No one knows exactly how the Covid-19 pandemic will affect our world going forward. All we can do is to plan for the most likely scenarios with the best information we have at any given time.
And it is best to share updates with your key audiences along the way. Although it would be ill-advised to share details about every decision, it is wise to bring people along so they do not get a nasty surprise at the end. Clearly, this requires a nuanced approach, but keep in mind that the idea of protecting people by withholding information often backfires.
If you need help communicating with your key audiences right now, let us know!
Jan 24 2019
Disagreements are unavoidable, but if you keep an eye on the prize, stuff a sock in your ego, and help your rational brain overcome your emotional brain, it’s amazing how often you can get what you want.
As I write this, we are in our fourth week of a partial government shutdown, primarily because our president and the speaker of the House can’t seem to stuff a sock in their egos and get their emotions in check.
When we argue about something we feel passionately about, it can be hard to remain rational. The part of our brain that controls higher thinking, the prefrontal cortex, gets clubbed by the caveman part of our brain, the amygdala.
When we feel threatened during an argument, the amygdala has a hard time differentiating an argumentative threat from the type of threat that a saber-toothed tiger may have posed. In an effort to keep us alive, the amygdala immediately sends oxygen to our extremities so we can fight or flee. This takes oxygen away from our brains and, you guessed it, away from the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that recognizes that your colleague’s argument is offensive but not life-threatening.
Breathe into the Corners
To win arguments, we must get our prefrontal cortex back in control. Focused breathing is a great start. I recommend “square breathing” or imagining yourself breathing into the corners of a box. First, take a deep breath and imagine all the air going into the upper left corner of a box. Hold your breath for four seconds. Then exhale slowly for four seconds as you imagine moving to the upper-right corner. Hold for four seconds. Then use another four-second inhale to move to the lower-right corner. Hold for four seconds, and exhale slowly to get to the lower-left corner. The first time you make it around the box, your heart will probably still be hammering, but a few times around the square and it’ll begin to slow down.
Respond with Curiosity
When someone is verbally belligerent, it’s hard not to respond defensively, but that response only confirms the expectations of the person attacking. “Yep, we’re arguing. I must respond accordingly.” If instead, you respond with curiosity, you change the dynamic. If you try to figure out what is causing the fear and/or anger, it can make the belligerent person pause.
Find Common Ground
That pause is an opportunity to look for common ground. In the current political situation, Republicans and Democrats are at war over a border wall. President Trump wants one; Speaker Pelosi does not. If this argument remains focused on the wall, we may never have a functioning government again.
President Trump says he wants a border wall to safeguard Americans. Speaker Pelosi says she also wants to safeguard Americans but she doesn’t think a wall will get the job done. Leaving all the political maneuvering aside for a moment (politicians pandering to their bases), if this were really about safeguarding Americans, the government shutdown could be over in an hour. Both sides want to safeguard Americans–they have a common goal.
Kick Your Ego to the Curb
Now, even with a common goal, arguments rarely just end. There are lots of ways to achieve a goal and during the course of an argument, people often become invested in winning rather than accomplishing that goal. Our egos are powerful and, like the amygdala, not the most rational parts of us. So if we want to end arguments and still accomplish the goal, we need to figure out how to create win-win solutions. If you can help your opponent score a win, you’re a lot more likely to get what you want.
Will either of you get everything you want? Probably not. In most cases is some better than none? Definitely. Just ask all the federal employees not getting a paycheck right now. Do you think they’d be happy with a compromise, regardless of their political affiliations? I sure think so.
So the next time you feel your heart racing in response to a verbal attack, breathe, put your ego in check, and remember why you engaged in the first place. If you keep your eye on the prize, you’re a lot more likely to walk away with a win.
Oct 30 2018
It would be great if we could personally meet with each and every prospective client and share all the reasons they should choose our product or service, but unless you have really limited ambitions (e.g., your entire target audience consists of your three best friends), that’s not too practical. So, you need a way to communicate with people through other means. These days, if you’re in business, prospective clients expect you to have a website.
Your website should be the foundation for all your communication, public relations, and marketing endeavors, so while the goal is to have plenty of site traffic, the process of creating a great website is incredibly useful before a single person sees the site.
If you’re a new company, working through all the pieces of a good website will force you to get clear about who you are, who you’re trying to reach, and what you offer. If you’re a company that’s been around for a while, updating your website can serve as a much-needed strategic planning or visioning session. If you don’t create communication plans, strategies and content for a living, this can feel a little overwhelming, which is why companies like mine exist to help you.
Here are the most important things to consider.
The first step is branding. Branding is more than a logo, a color palette, and a tagline. My friend, branding designer extraordinaire Karen Adair at DG Creative Branding, describes it better than I ever could. I recommend reading her short but entertaining blog on branding when you get the chance. Basically, the process of branding defines who you are and incorporates that into everything you do–especially into your interactions with employees, clients, board members, and even critics.
What are your organizational values? Should your tone be friendly or formal? What colors evoke the right emotions? What image represents your organization’s unique personality? To be successful, you’ve got to be clear and consistent about who you are as a business and how you meet your clients’ needs. Relationships are based on trust, and a consistent approach builds trust.
Once you’ve gone through a comprehensive branding process, it’s far easier to define (or refine) your messages. One word of caution: the biggest mistake many of my clients make is that they come from their own perspective rather than that of their clients or stakeholders. Instead of focusing on what you do, focus on how you help others do what they want to do. The most effective messages resonate because they help clients solve a problem or reach a goal. For example, you may sell socks, but if you donate part of your proceeds to clothing the homeless, a certain segment of sock buyers will choose to buy from you rather than your competitor. They’re buying socks either way, but since you helped them align their buying habits with their values, you win their business and hopefully, their loyalty.
Think about what separates you from your competitors and how that influences your clients, and build your messaging around that.
You may think that now that you’ve established your branding and messaging, your website will build itself.
First, you must create a site architecture–figure out what goes where. The same mistake that many organizations make with messaging gets repeated in website design. I recently worked with a company that insisted a top menu item should be Departments. When I asked why, they explained that a list of departments would make it clear how visitors could find the information they wanted. The truth is, their visitors have no idea which programs and services are aligned with which departments. The proper menu title was Programs and Services.
When you create a menu structure, it’s important to think about the problem you’re solving for your client and how your client would refer to the product or service they need. Be sure to avoid industry jargon that makes perfect sense to you and very little to your clients. For example, I’m working with a school district to reorganize their website. They want to share information about everything from school events and accolades to budget and bond measure updates. In California, the budgeting process is ruled by something called the LCAP (Local Control Accountability Plan). Anyone in education knows this, but the families whose children attend schools in the district rarely do. “LCAP” should never be a menu item. Rather, they should use “Budget” or “Funding our Schools” or some other common term that doesn’t require insider knowledge.
Once the site architecture is determined, make sure the site is designed so that regardless of where visitors land on your site, they can easily navigate to wherever they want to go next. If you continually think as though you’re one of your clients/site visitors, you’re far more likely to be successful. Then, test your design. Ask clients or those in your target demographic to browse around and see if they can find what they’re looking for. If there is information you want visitors to see, ask your beta testers if they saw it.
If you get rave reviews about your website, chances are you’ve nailed the branding, messaging and web design. Now you have all the building blocks for a successful communication, public relations, and marketing strategy.
If you’d like help creating or renovating your website, contact us. We’d be happy to help.
Sep 18 2018
How many times has a new initiative born in the executive office fizzled once it hit the ground because employees couldn’t get behind it? Sadly, this is pretty darn common. Each person is motivated by different concerns and values, and if a company doesn’t take the time to build consensus within its ranks, new initiatives can be doomed to fail. The key is recognizing that employees make decisions based on self-interest. This doesn’t make them selfish jerks; it makes them human. Think about it: how often have you made decisions intended to harm you or your family? Not too often, I’m guessing.
Create a Culture Where Employees Can Politely Say, “WTF?”
Before we dig into how to help people accept a new paradigm, let’s back up. Long before any new initiatives are introduced, companies first need to establish their core values and create a culture of trust. You may have heard the axiom, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” It’s true. Creating a culture where change can take root is important. One way to do so is to foster transparency and innovation–allowing rank-and-file employees to share ideas and/or provide respectful, constructive criticism without putting their jobs at risk. Companies who invest in teaching employees how to effectively communicate differences of opinion create a culture where healthy discourse can happen. Change is often perceived as a threat, so if people know they can share their concerns openly, they are more likely to get questions answered and fears allayed.
Ask for Feedback–Then Use It
Let’s say you, as the CEO, have created an emotionally safe working environment where employees can say what’s on their mind. This does not guarantee they’ll like your new idea. Now you must figure out how to get buy-in, but how? Well, let’s look at why you like this new initiative. Have you had any part in creating it? Do you feel some ownership? Most likely so. People typically feel more vested when they’ve had a role in creating an initiative. Is it easy to create an initiative with dozens, hundreds or even thousands of employees? No. But is it worth the effort? Absolutely.
Before you craft every element of the new initiative, consider asking for input. Be clear about the problem you’re solving so people can share creative solutions rather than simply polishing those already offered. If critiques hit the mark, acknowledge them, even if you don’t have a way to address the newly identified problems yet. If feedback improves the initiative, share that information. It’s not enough to ask for feedback and incorporate it. You must let people know you’ve done so.
Pay Attention to Haters
If you have intransigent opposition, it may be worth seeing whether it is the initiative itself or something else that’s bothering people. Are they afraid of the change? Are they actually upset about something else and using this as a surrogate? Or, is the business case for this initiative simply not as strong as you first thought?
Having consistent internal and external messaging (i.e., telling employees the same thing you tell the public) reinforces trust. If your internal audience (employees) can’t get on board, it’s probably worth slowing down the new initiative’s implementation and public roll out. When executives get excited about something, they sometimes forget to make time for the process of creating buy-in, assuming employees will agree on the obvious merits of the new direction instantly. This is a dangerous mistake, one that can cause the initiative to fail.
What Next? A Few Resources
Depending on where you are in the process, here are a couple books for teaching employees how to have difficult conversations:
If you want a facilitator to help build consensus, Heather Paulsen Consulting can help.
If you’d like to create a culture of transparency and trust within your organization, call me. I’d love to help. It’s easier than you think.
Aug 09 2018
I recently hired a full-time project manager, Kendyl, and it’s been interesting to see the reaction of her friends as she tells them she works for a small public relations firm. Some nod noncommittally, not really sure what a PR firm does. Others recoil a bit, as though Kendyl has just contracted a mildly contagious illness.
I get it. PR firms can use their power for good or evil, as it were, and in this do-not-trust-the-media environment, PR firms can be viewed as spin doctors. However, those of us in the communications business with scruples can do tremendous good in the world, building community and reinforcing positive change.
I focus on the “relations” part of public relations. I help my clients build relationships with the public, with their clients, and with their employees, shareholders and board members. I even help them improve their relationships with their detractors–by publishing factual information, at least people can form opinions based on the truth rather than rumor. While marketing depends on paid advertising to enhance credibility and popularity, public relations focuses on unpaid sources, or “earned media.” In my mind, this is a huge distinction. If you pay for an ad, it’ll get published. It’s a whole different deal when you send a press release to an objective member of the media and they decide the information is newsworthy enough to share with their readers.
I focus on the “relations” part of public relations.
And the media isn’t the only one source of news. Word of mouth has always been the most powerful way to spread information. These days, with social media, word of mouth can spread to thousands or even millions of people almost instantly. As a consumer, the trick is to be a savvy, discriminating reader.
Because there is so much information out there, it can be hard for organizations to get much attention. This is where I come in. When people make the world a better place, I share their stories, so they can get the support and credit they deserve. I do my best to build confidence in our fellow man by reminding people they are surrounded by those who heal, who educate children, and who put themselves at risk to safeguard others.
Locally, did you know that Ross Liberty of Factory Pipe donated the land at the old Masonite site for the Mendocino Complex Fire staging area, instead of charging the state the thousands of dollars (a day) that they’d have been willing to pay? Did you know that Ukiah Unified School District bus drivers and mechanics volunteered to help evacuate the Lake County Jail inmates during the fires? Did you know that over the years, Mendocino College has worked with local businesses to create programs like the Nursing Program and the Sustainable Construction Program, so we have the workforce we need to care for people and build homes in our valley? These are the stories a PR professional shares.
Every company has a set of values. As a PR professional, I choose to work with people who contribute positively to society. You don’t have to eradicate hunger or single-handedly reverse climate change, but you can’t be in the business of hurting others or ruining the environment in exchange for the almighty dollar. I work with educators, healthcare organizations, local governments, and community-minded businesspeople. I help my clients increase their profits, so they can do more good work. Most of us in the PR world, either out of ethics or self-preservation, won’t help a client misrepresent themselves. I certainly won’t.
If you decide to work with a PR professional, you should expect to be lead through a process that helps you define your key audiences and messages (aligned with your strategic goals, of course). The PR professional should help you set realistic goals based on your budget, timeline and ultimate endgame. He or she will use the tool of the trade, including writing press releases, speeches, and blogs; developing speaking engagements and fostering strategic alliances; and making pitches to the media and influential opinion leaders. Working behind the scenes, the PR professional can help you earn prominent coverage where it matters most.