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Communicating Under Pressure

One of the fastest ways a company stands out from the crowd (for better or for worse) is how they communicate with the world when facing difficult circumstances. The tone that is set during these challenging times will resonate far and wide.

It is likely that your company will experience a delicate situation at some point in the future. (Perhaps you’ve already been through one.) What’s most important is how you communicate internally — with your executive team, other company leadership, and your employees. It is this tone that will then be conveyed outside your company, so you want to be sure to do a great job communicating internally before doing anything else.

Rumors of layoffs, potential buyouts, and pending lawsuits can spread like wildfire through your organization. Those rumors are often more frightening than the situation itself. Honest, clear communication from company leadership can put a halt to speculation and ease fears that may otherwise halt productivity and focus.

Yes, at times the details are classified or confidential. But if an information leak has occurred, it is better to devise a communications strategy before the news spirals out of your control. Rumors flying around internally soon make it outside of your company walls, and the media can disseminate the information — whether it is true or not — faster than you can contain it.

After communicating what you can with your teams, relaying a unified and thoughtful message to the rest of the world becomes priority. Your investor and public relations departments will be key in crafting and then communicating your message. Press releases, media alerts, television or radio interviews, blog posts, and social media, when used properly, can all relay your message quickly and clearly.

Honesty and transparency mixed with some tact and thoughtful compassion is a great formula for setting the tone of your message.

Accessibility, willingness to communicate, and reasonable response times can halt negative reactions and criticism.

Setting expectations appropriately and then meeting those expectations keeps trust in tact. (It’s always better to under-promise and over-deliver than over-promise and under-deliver!)

When a sensitive situation arises, balance out your speed of response with the time it takes to craft a thoughtful response. A hasty reaction without considering all of the potential impacts it may have is a mistake. The phrase, “slow is steady, steady is smooth, smooth is fast” is a good one to remember here!

Above all else, remember that you’re dealing with people and their lives. The situation you’re handling will have an impact on your employees and your customers. By being willing to put the people first, ahead of the company, you’ll gain loyalty and trust.

Let me give you an example.

The popular investment show Shark Tank recently featured a small home-grown business run by a young couple. They literally ran their business out of their garage, had no employees, and made many of their products by hand. They received a rather large investment from one of the “Sharks” and the moment their episode aired on TV, they sold out of every bit of product they had in stock.

Even factoring in the show’s estimated increase in business based off of past companies’ experiences, they surpassed those estimates by over 100%. They had to scale, and quickly! The holiday season was approaching, they had tens of thousands of new customers, and they simply could not keep up with demand.

What did they do? They communicated! They communicated often. It was with honesty, integrity, and compassion. They did their very best to ramp up production, hire a team, set up multiple manufacturing and fulfillment partnerships, train an entire customer service department, and handle the overwhelming response to their product.

Were they perfect at this process? Absolutely not. Some of the promises they made still weren’t met, they still had a large amount of unhappy customers, and it took them a number of months to get on their feet. But through it all they communicated with grace. When they were all caught up, they sent out an apology email with a large discount coupon for a future purchase. I’m certain they retained most of their new customers.

No company knows exactly what is coming around the next corner. No team or individual will always make the right decision in how to communicate during a crisis. However, making wise communication a priority during the tough times will strengthen your relationship with your employees and your customers. It is absolutely essential to success.

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Communicating Effectively with YOUR Audience

In a prior blog post, I discussed the fine line between keeping your company communications professional, yet personal.  I suggested that high-quality communications are a positive representation of your company, and a personal touch can really help to draw in your audience so that they make a connection with your company.  This balance is extremely important to maintain and can make a big difference in your marketing efforts.

Today, I’d like to take this a step further and talk about how to communicate effectively with your target audience.  All too often, companies miss the mark when talking about their products and services by not realizing that their audience may not have enough background knowledge to understand their technical terminology.  Even though your engineers and scientists may be able to explain company concepts most accurately, it’s important to “translate” this information into common, everyday language.

Here are a few keys to keep in mind:

  • Acronyms can be exhausting.  Even though the employees of your company may have them down pat, you cannot expect your customers to remember all of your acronyms.  If you are going to use them, be sure to define them clearly and often.  Limit the number of different acronyms you use.  Focus on the most important ones, and build recognition by repetition.
  • Internal company lingo or made-up words are cool, but they can also be confusing!  If you’re trying to get a new word to pick up traction with your target market, be sure to introduce it in a clever way and use repetition to make the word stick.  Eventually, it will hold some value – if you position it correctly.
  • Use examples, especially ones that give your audience a mental picture of what you’re talking about.  Some people learn best by visualizing.  Photographs, diagrams, and videos do a great job of saying a lot in a short amount of time.  A picture is worth a thousand words!
  • Step outside the box.  Or rather, step outside of your company’s four walls – and into the shoes of your audience!  A marketing or sales pitch that makes perfect sense during an internal planning meeting may not make a lot of sense to a stranger on the street.  (Have you ever seen a commercial that just made absolutely no sense to you, or was so off-the-wall that it actually made you not want to buy the product or service?  That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about.)  Do your research, test out your pitches on your target audience, and listen to their feedback.  It can be very valuable.
  • Ask for help.  Find someone on your team who is really good at taking technical, difficult-to-understand concepts, products, and terms, and have them help write the “everyday language” version of the information.  This person should be involved with your marketing and public relations team as well.  Then, leave it to the experts!  Your marketing team (whether internal or external) will be able to communicate your information even more clearly.  Often times it helps to have someone not associated with the company do the majority of your writing.  Because they have to first understand and grasp your concepts in order to write about them, they do a great job of putting it in a way that anyone will understand.

If you keep these tips in mind when preparing your sales and marketing communications, you will certainly notice a better response from your audience which will translate into more success for your company.  Not only do we want to keep our communications personal enough to be engaging and professional enough to garner respect, but we also want to speak appropriately and effectively to our audience.  Stay tuned for more communication tips in the future!

Interview with Charlie O’Rourke on The Pros and Cons of Outsourcing

Interview with Charlie O’Rourke, Financial Services Leader, former SVP of First Data and currently Chief Technology Strategist with the Fotec Group: “The Pros and Cons of Outsourcing”

Recent industry surveys reveal that more businesses are using outsourced services as a means of cost-cutting and potentially a strategic business productivity tool.  In these studies, executives said they believe outsourcing can provide many benefits, including access to a valuable talent pool where a company may lack expertise.

We asked Charlie O’Rourke, one of the financial industry’s most respected and successful veterans, to give his insights around the growing outsourcing trend and provide some tips on how a company can be successful leveraging outsourced services while avoiding potential pitfalls.

Attain Marketing: We’ve seen more companies looking to outsourced services as a way of achieving their business objectives.   In your opinion, is this a good trend for businesses and what benefits can they gain by outsourcing?

O’Rourke: Yes, I believe those companies that prepare themselves for outsourcing can benefit immensely as part of an overall business strategy.

First, let me clarify what I mean for our purposes here today.  To me “outsourcing” is a practice used by companies of contracting out some of their business functions to an external provider.  For the purpose of this discussion, I am referring to outsourcing as the utilization of hired resources inside U.S. borders.

While I agree there are benefits that a business can gain from outsourcing, there are also potentially huge downside risks of incorporating outsourcing without proper evaluation of its practice within a company.

Outsourcing is not something a company should embark upon simply for cost savings, recommendations from others, or without a critical eye toward the potential outcomes and whether outsourcing fits within their overall business strategy.

I realize expense reduction is often a very significant factor.  However, other considerations are just as or even more important.  A proper corporate outsourcing readiness evaluation would include, among other things, assessment of the company’s strengths and weaknesses, core competencies, culture, traditions, and vision for the future.  When a company’s strategies are well defined and aligned with a vision toward the future, they will include how to utilize outside resources to augment and complement business objectives.

If there is no strategy and strict oversight, outsourcing may end up costing your business more in the end.  Additionally, it could possibly destroy effectiveness in other areas such as agility, flexibility, customer service quality and competitive advantage.

However, if consistent with its strategic objectives, incorporating outsourcing of appropriate business functions can provide a company with the ability to better focus on its core business and gain competitive advantage at the same time.

Attain Marketing: Should businesses have concerns about outsourcing certain business functions?  In other words, are there “best practices” around outsourcing?

O’Rourke: Someone once told me that if everyone is adopting a “best practice” you can bet that it is no longer the best.  Now that the “best practice” is well understood, it is a perfect opportunity for consultants to provide textbook solutions and cookbook remedies while extracting nice fees for their services.

Mindlessly following “best practices” because they have been used at a Fortune 500 company, are the newest fad, everyone is adopting them or they are the rage for consultants nowadays, may not be in a company’s best interest.  Each strategic and tactical practice needs an evaluation with a critical eye on your company objectives.  Specifically, the practice should fit strategically, operationally, and culturally in your company.

It is unwise to “copy” or “clone” another organization’s recipes in terms of strategy, business theory, management tools or technologies.  Only when you understand your culture, values, purpose, strengths, and direction should you consider which business functions are eligible for outsourcing.

Each company has unique requirements and needs to evaluate which practices are “best” for its business, culture, and customers.

If I were to give general guidelines for outsourcing, I would say companies should retain their core functions in house and then look to outsourcing those business functions that are noncore.  That is the simplest guideline I can give.  Although often difficult and time consuming, proceeding without a diligent assessment will guarantee less than optimum results and possibly failure.

Attain Marketing: What are some of the business functions that are best suited for outsourcing?

O’Rourke: Given some of the caveats above, some logical places (unless of course a core competency) to look may include functions in human resources, administration, accounting, marketing, public relations, communications and legal.

There will be many others depending on the company and each business will have to decide on the criticality and impact of outsourcing in a particular area.

Attain Marketing: Being marketers, of course Attain is interested in your thoughts about outsourced marketing and PR services.  Are there advantages?

O’Rourke: I believe companies like Attain can definitely enhance a company’s marketing, media relations, and communications capability.

Small companies are obviously going to benefit quite a bit by using companies like Attain because they typically do not have sufficient, or in many cases, any expertise, talent and skills to effectively perform many of the required functions in these areas.

In the case of larger companies, the ability to utilize outside marketing expertise often times yields tremendous advantages.

I believe a company can achieve optimum outsourcing success when it embeds the resourced personnel with their internal employees.  They assimilate into the culture and have the same objectives as others in the corporation.  They understand the company values, culture, strategies as well as the industry, the business, and the company’s products and services.  They serve as an expert member of teams, departments, or divisions of the company.

Attain Marketing: Well said Charlie, and many thanks for the unsolicited plug ;-).

I’d like to add, potential advantages gained through an outsourced marketing team include access to an expanded list of analyst and media contacts, specialized public relations and marketing tools – as well as expanded services that may be limited or not be available at all within a company.

In addition, an outsourced team of marketing/PR specialists can provide an expanded scope of services in the categories of lead generation, sales support, social marketing, communications and media relations – possibly at the same cost as one or two internal employees who are providing a more limited scope of services defined by their specific role.

Any last thoughts?

O’Rourke: Companies that are too quick to outsource business functions as solely an expense reduction often suffer negative consequences.  Lower cost is always alluring but results may be much different than expected.  Companies should adopt an outsourcing plan that fits within their overall strategies.  This will yield results that are consistent with their direction and that do not negatively affect the company.

Again, I want to emphasize that company culture is very important.  Culture is often overlooked in the total equation.  The ability of a company to accept outsiders and embed them into the business is crucial.  Outsourcing will fit in some cultures but not in others.

I believe outsourced marketing is an area that makes sense, especially when outsourced personnel become an extension of the client’s in-house marketing, public relations, and public relations teams.

Attain Marketing: Many thanks, Charlie, we appreciate your input.

Today we’re seeing many companies turning to outsourcing as a way to deal with budget restraints while staying competitive in a sluggish economy.   Smart companies know that they can’t stop their marketing activities – especially if they plan on establishing healthy longevity in their business, so they see outsourced services as a great way to leverage talent and stay proactive.

Communications in the Social Media Age: Yearning for the Authentic Voice Online

For this week’s blog post, I’ve asked long time colleague, friend and community expert, Rachel Medanic, to write about the challenges companies face keeping an authentic voice in today’s “always on” world.  Rachel has been a marketing pro for over 14 years and currently is a Community Manager for the Cisco Learning Network.  For more insights into marketing from someone who always “keeps it real” you can read Rachel’s personal blog.

Thanks to social media and the power of the searchable web, the era of the authentic voice has arrived and our customers are demanding it publicly using their voices.  In his blog post, Keith Ferrazi apologizes and speaks honestly about his overly aggressive marketing campaign to which his customers responded negatively. Their responses all told him he’d failed to use an authentic approach in his communications campaign. The authentic voice is a proactive approach companies can choose as they embrace all the new realities social media is exerting on customer relations and the practice of marketing.

I recall first feeling the need for an “authentic voice” in 2001. After 7 years in technology as a marketer describing customer “solutions” “platforms” and “implementations,” I longed for something more authentic, but I wasn’t sure how to achieve it. In truth, these words (sterile and impersonal as they are) have become a tried and true way of communicating. They have a place and serve a function. But with the turn of the Millennium, the new social mediums such as blogs/micro-blogs, wikis (online communities and collaboration), podcasts and video have quickly expanded the number of channels with which we must engage to reach our target audience. The din of competitive messages and voices is now a roar of billions of voices around the world.

As marketers this more than triples the amount of work we must do and as a result (intentional or not), some of us have let the unthinkable happen:  we have allowed these sterile messages and this impersonal tone appear in our company blog posts and in communications with our online communities. We’ve told ourselves that if it doesn’t have a voice or a persona, or that if it is vague and doesn’t tell the customer what is really going on, it must be a safe investment for our brand. Perhaps some of us are ignorant about using social media in business, we have stifling corporate communications policies or we anticipate and fear negative consequences for using a more genuine and human way to communicate.

But what masquerades as safe and sanitized messaging now no longer is as credible with customers because it lacks authenticity. In addition, social media demands interactive communication, participation and upkeep. The fast-paced, highly interactive social media driven world is truly an exciting circumstance for us to thrive in professionally as marketers. We get instant feedback, but along with that comes the need to be able to respond quickly and to accept that we may have failed and will be told so directly by our customers rather than by a bad click through rate. As Lorraine wrote in her blog post, Keeping it Real: Marketing Success Tips for 2011 and Beyond, “…it’s always better to be honest about mistakes…” Mistakes or even just bad marketing choices don’t have to be something we hide.

In 2007, I began working with online communities. What I have learned most from community work is it that honesty (especially where policy and practices that pre-date social media proliferation are concerned) has the ability to earn respect from customers who know businesses are still evolving to align social media practices and expectations into the way they do business. Customers who have embraced and who use social media at the speed it allows for sharing information work quickly, expect a lot and can often effect change faster than businesses can create solutions.  In community work we can match them by bringing our real selves and company policies to the table—openly—even if it is just to say, “Please be patient, we are working to revise our policies to your expectations, but this will take some time.” Show your customers that your company is making the effort and keep communicating. For those customers who haven’t embraced social media, they are also still adapting to all the new possibilities it presents.

Keeping up in the social media world is a fast-paced game, but if we invest early on in an authentic voice and honest communication, we will be protected when bad situations arise.

Some Tips and Techniques on the Care and Feeding of Spokespeople

I asked a long time colleague, Jessica Johannes, a communications pro with more than 15 years of progressive experience in communications, public relations and marketing for Fortune 500 technology companies, to share her insights on the importance of media training for executives. Her background includes extensive experience developing hard-hitting, creative global communications programs to promote technology and innovation for Fortune 500 and emerging businesses.

A solid media relations program entails a steady flow of continuous interactions with media and influencers all with a few goals in mind—obtain the coveted media interview and secure the coverage your client or company is seeking. While the journey and path to securing the interview is one facet of the process, after the victory dance for landing the interview is done, there’s prep to do to make sure the conversation your spokesperson has with the reporter is meaningful and produces a positive outcome. Each interview is a critical component of the media relations campaign and holds the promise and potential to forward a company’s thought leadership initiatives by helping to establish a unique point of view and voice. Although there is no one formula or magic bullet for getting it right every time, there are some approaches that in today’s world – where traditional and social media models are colliding – still stand the test of time.

Know Your Spokesperson’s Style
Every spokesperson will bring a varied level of skill, knowledge and expertise. Having an understanding of the mix they bring will help you to assess how to get them ready. We’ve all been trained to do our homework and view past videos on YouTube or find quotes from previous interviews. We all know to provide our spokesperson with clean, concise briefing materials that outline the opportunity and make it easy for the spokesperson to deliver the message. Meeting with the spokesperson and having a short discussion regarding the goals you want to achieve and the story you want to tell is a standard practice for many practitioners. Using the meeting to establish or strengthen rapport with the spokesperson, understand any objectives or concerns they might have about being interviewed and just engaging with them in a conversation can aid in the success of the interview.

Focus on a Few Key Messages
In today’s noisy world, where the volume of information we are bombarded with is growing at an extraordinary rate, netting out a few key messages is critical. The company you work for or client you represent will always want to drive more points across than the media will have time, space or room to cover. Although the battle of what’s essential and what’s nice to have is always a tough conversation to have with an executive, having a few succinct points the spokesperson can bridge back to will help lead the way to the goals and objectives your organization wants to achieve.

Allow the Spokesperson’s Authentic Voice to Emerge
In the age of PowerPoint, ghost writers, tweeters, bloggers and teleprompters, it’s gotten easier to tell when someone knows their content and truly has a passion for their industry. Surrendering control is one of those sage pieces of advice that is even more imperative due to a number of factors such as emerging social media models and the growth in the volumes of information and external influences. Allowing the spokesperson to tell the story in their voice can often lead to new story opportunities and spark new, creative ideas that help to enhance and evolve the programs your leading.

A Few Closing Thoughts
There’s plenty more ground to cover on the care and feeding of spokespeople. Knowing your spokesperson’s style, identifying a few key messages and giving the spokesperson some runway to make the content their own are only a few tips that can aid in success. These methods are just a small sampling of the strategies I’ve tried that have worked over the years. In today’s world of hybrid, traditional, emerging and social media models, there are no hard and fast rules or a magic formula for success—just an abundance of opportunity, fusion of approaches and many great stories to tell.

Radical Transparency

In my last post, “IT Buyers Search for the Truth and Come Up Empty Handed,” I talked about the lack of trust companies have with their technology vendors these days. And I posed the question related to vendors being transparent with customers: what are we so afraid of?

I had an experience recently that was so unusual, so fantastic, so transparent that I wanted to write about it here.

I am the CEO and Founder of a start-up called Wisegate. We are in stealth mode, are working with a tight budget and needed a web conference service. I found GoToMeeting had a free 30-day trial so I signed up.

The month of using the service was fine (easy to use, good experience) but that is not the story here. Four days before my free trial ended they sent me an email telling me my free trial would end in 4-days and telling me how to cancel the service. They did this right up front in the email, no small print, no convoluted machinations required to cancel.

That is transparent behavior! I was so impressed and felt like I could trust them to make it easy should I need to cancel in the future that I stayed with the service and did not cancel.  Since then I have told quite a few people about this experience which I can only call radical transparency.

This is a great example of how behaving in an honest, open manner can grow business. No fear required.

Thought Leadership 101

The point of thought leadership is to express a point of view in the context of market conditions. Most companies focus on their products, functions and features. A real opportunity exists for companies that can paint a vision of the key issues, challenges, needs and requirements that truly concern customers. In doing so companies become an invaluable resource to the media and potential customers.

Future-focused companies that provide meaningful insight and guidance to support buying decisions (vs. just marketing fluff) are often rewarded with more press coverage, better lead generation results, and a shortened sales cycle. To succeed, companies need to directly focus on industry relevant issues and approach the marketplace strategically by building communications platforms that establish credibility and position the company and its stakeholders as subject matter experts.

We’ve boiled down some basics for thought leadership success:

  • Take the 40,000-foot view. Look beyond your technology-focused issues and geeky acronyms. Identify hot trends and determine how your company and products relate to the most current events. Companies should expand their network of contacts and company messaging to embrace the bigger picture. Innovative campaigns like rapid response media programs can provide a systematic approach to introducing your company to key industry influencers who will help bridge the perception gap.
  • Be an evangelist. Select one or several company spokespersons that can be both seen and heard as the voice of your industry. Scrap the tradeshow budget in favor of a limited presence at key venues. Although speaking opportunities can be difficult to secure, event coordinators will bend the rules to accommodate a cool customer case study. Of course you can host your own speaker’s webcast series, but the key is to invest in a good list of prospects to invite to your events. Today’s social media forums like blogs and online communities offer a great vehicle for company evangelism, but avoid preaching. Don’t just follow the herd mentality – taking a controversial position will increase your chances of being heard.
  • Involve customers and partners. Realize that your customers and partners might be very interested in claiming a thought leadership position in new markets as well. Use this to your advantage – instead of asking them to endorse your products, invite them to participate in an industry forum that addresses hot market issues (Thought Leadership webinar example). And for your next product launch tour, offer “select” customers the opportunity to meet with analysts and press to discuss key industry issues and position their company as a visionary – you’ll be much more successful getting them on board and be rewarded with more press coverage had you gone it alone.

The Bottomline: To escape today’s marketing black holes, adopt a thought leadership strategy that elevates both principal and firm above the fray.