Category Archives: Corporate Communications

Never Stop Learning — Ever!

When the opportunity to go “back to school” for the MBA I always wanted became reality, I didn’t quite know how to react. It had been a while since I was in a classroom. I wondered what it would be like to be a student again.  And, just how difficult would that Mercy College “TURBO” program be.  Five nights a week and all day Saturday for four weeks is grueling, especially with a Long Island commute.

imagesBut, I love it.

Being in a learning environment again is inspiring.  The first class had me hooked. It’s something that had been missing over the past few years and I didn’t realize it until I was back in the classroom and saw what my professors and fellow students had to offer.  I know now that it will be something that I continually pursue whether in college or at another corporation.

We’ve all heard how important “training” is to corporations.  “We have a strong commitment to training our people” is a sentiment that can be found in most annual reports.  But what’s that “training” all about?  Mandatory ethics training that’s about as inspiring as…. well, you know.  Classroom training for the chosen few.  Online training for the rest of us.

What’s missing from many corporate training programs, from my perspective, is the stimulation you get from being part of a true learning culture.  I would argue that the degree to which businesses, big and small, can integrate a spirit of learning in their own environments would help corporate commitments to training get beyond mere platitudes.

Regular classes started earlier this month – a mixture of traditional and online.  Like everything else, some are more interesting and easier than others.  But understanding the business environment with a fresh lens is priceless!

 

 

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Long Live the “Systematic Buzz Phrase!”

This little gem was a favorite of a veteran college professor. He used it in class to highlight how easy it is to create speeches, presentations, business plans, news announcements and general messages that contain pure nonsense. I thought it was worthy to share.

thThe “Systematic Buzz Phrase Projector” first appeared in 1968 in Newsweek Magazine in an article called “How to Win at Wordsmanship.” A U.S. Public Health official, Philip Broughton, then 63 years old, came up with the idea to show how buzz phrases run rampant in business communications. It is as relevant today as it was then.

Here’s how it works. Thirty popular buzzwords are organized in three columns. To create a perfect-sounding, legitimate buzz phrase—applicable across as many industries as you can think of—simply choose any three-digit combination and select the corresponding word from each column!

For example, 4-9-0 translates to functional policy options!  My lucky numbers 7-7-7 translate to synchronized incremental projection!  

Go ahead, try it!

Column 1 Column 2 Column 3
0. integrated 0. management 0. options
1. total 1. organizational 1. flexibility
2. systematized 2. monitored 2. capability
3. parallel 3. reciprocal 3. mobility
4. functional 4. digital 4. programming
5. responsive 5. logistical 5. concept
6. optional 6. transitional 6. time-phase
7. synchronized 7. incremental 7. projection
8. compatible 8. third-generation 8. hardware
9. balanced 9. policy 9. contingency

I would add a few more words to the column lists—big data, multi-channel, ecosystem, engagement, earned media, owned media, ROI, scalable and viral immediately come to mind.  What are your suggestions?

warroomMy guess is nearly 50 years after the “Systematic Buzz Phrase Projector” debuted, far too many corporate marketing materials, business plans, executive letters and online copy use more buzz phrases than any of us would like. It’s so easy to fall prey to industry jargon, especially when social media and online communications put increasing pressure on timing.  Unfortunately, I’m sure I have been among the guilty.

Abraham Lincoln said of his communications: “I determined to be so clear than no honest man could misunderstand me and no dishonest one could successfully misrepresent me.” He would be horrified to read some business communications today.

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“Survival” vs. “Strategic” Employee Communications

Do customers know more about your business than your employees? Do employees find out about executive changes or new products and services in a tweet or a post from friends? Are teams clueless about where the company is headed this year… or in the future?

2imagesWhen employees are in the dark about important company news, they go into survival mode; and, that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Too often, employees face an information void either because management has not made a strategic commitment to invest in communicating to its most valuable resource, its people, or because of inadequate internal communications systems and processes. Employees who feel disenfranchised are left to their own devices. “Survival communications” emerge that benefit their individual needs, not the needs of the organization.

A successful employee communications infrastructure is not complicated; it will mitigate, if not eliminate, the need for ad-hoc, often destructive, survival communications. Its three essential elements are: 1) commitment from the top; 2) role clarity; and, 3) customized delivery.

1. Commitment from the Top
A CEO’s main thrust must be chief communicator of the organization’s vision and strategy. Too often, CEOs of large and small businesses alike find it difficult to speak with their own people directly. This problem infects the entire organization. Division and business unit leaders become the lead communicator within their own spheres of influence, often without the right message. Hence, many leaders get caught up in a complex network of survival tactics instead of a healthy system of strategic communications.

low section view of three people walking --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

A newly minted CEO who rose through the ranks scarcely had a profile with employees. When it was suggested he “walk the halls,” his first reaction was reluctance. “What would I say?” he asked. “Ask people what they are working on,” he was told. We started with a small list of well-respected people  throughout the organization—at all levels. As expected news traveled quickly of these impromptu conversations, which gave him the perfect opportunity to reinforce the company’s mission. Of course MBWA (Management by Wandering Around) is not new, Abraham Lincoln used it before the term was coined, but it is often sorely overlooked.

2. Role Clarity
confused1Any successful internal communications plan must ensure that every employee, at every level, in every office understands his or her role in achieving the organization’s mission. It’s common sense. But this is made more difficult because it requires not only clear, consistent messages, it requires these messages to be tailored in such a way that they are internalized, and hence, acted upon, by employees.

If employees can’t answer the simple question, “who’s in charge,” turf wars, wheel-spinning and scapegoats abound. Nothing gets done. When this occurs at the highest level, the void is apparent with glaring clarity to most everyone. Without clarity, employees simply will carve a survival path of their own. Ultimately, they will leave.

3. Customized Delivery
Employees have different information needs. Tailor employee messages by segment—executives, top tier management, sales teams, support services—and across geographies. tumblr_inline_mm3bqpMsEV1qz4rgp-300x300In addition, just because something was communicated once (in a company meeting, or in a global message) doesn’t assure “message received.” It takes a few times for that to occur. Company news must be communicated frequently, in context and in ways compatible with the corporate culture and the way people use technology. It we are out of touch with the lifeblood of the organization, neither our people nor our communication will survive.

When Yammer and What’s App were all the rage, some mandated their use in internal communications. Yet, few used them, and fewer used them effectively. Understanding how mobile fits into an organization’s internal communications strategy is critical. What role does texting have? Does email still rule? Are intranets optimized for mobile? How is privacy and security baked into the communications strategy? These are just a few questions to consider.

Avoiding Survival Mode
Understanding the communications dynamic enables organizations to break the cycle of stagnating survival communications. Healthy organizational environments provide employees with the information needed to perform and understand their future roles. As a result, employees can feel confident that leadership is on the right path as the organization grows. This only happens when company news is timely, shared freely and communicated in ways that are easy for every employee to access and understand. And this starts at the top.

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Face it. You Are Addicted!

Having neck pain?   Walking into people on the sidewalk?  Experienced a near miss crossing the street?

img_0792Sometimes I think the “DON’T WALK” signs should read “STOP TEXTING.”  We are not only more connected than ever, many of us have a tinge of “connectivity addiction.”

The more devices we have, the happier we are. In fact, we have more devices and spend more time on them than any other device prior. With computers, laptops, television and radio, the on/off button was something regularly used. Not so with our devices today. Always-on is a badge of honor. And who doesn’t feel the onset of anxiety setting in when the juice runs low or heaven forbid, runs out?

We think we are “connected” because we are “always-on.” We see a tweet, a post or an update as soon as it occurs from friends, family, colleagues and even world leaders. But are we? Are we truly connected to what matters most to us? Moreover, do we really want to be that connected? Is it healthy? Is it productive? Am I really more informed or better off because I can share a photo of my pancakes, the skyline, a dog or cat or whatever I fancy right now?

Anectdotal evidence suggests there are cracks in the connectivity dream. In some circles, disconnecting is the new black. And yes, you guessed it, there’s even an app for that.

Companies must better understand the dynamic between man, woman and child and their devices. And we all need to be connected in different ways. Real-time data gives us the ability to get more of what we want and less of what we don’t want and do so when and where we want to receive it. Today, uber relevance reigns. There is simply too much competing for our attention. I ask again, to what end? Is all this connectivity leading to better, more targeted, more relevant communications?

The Wisdom of Lester Wunderman

lesterI learned a valuable lesson from Lester Wunderman, the father of direct marketing, years ago: “Just because you know my name doesn’t mean you know me,” he said. Taking that a step further, it also doesn’t mean I want it now (even though all the data suggests it) or I want to do it with my phone.

In the world where we can access any and everything with a swipe or command, a “connectivity gap” is emerging, and it is getting in the way of communications that really matter to consumers, businesses, employees and even our friends.

We think we have communicated something because we just “sent it” or “posted it.” But unintended consequences are real. Delivering bad news in a text doesn’t work. Un-vetted blogs, tweets, posts (light on facts), do more to un-inform, than inform. Hashtag photo opportunities too often backfire. And the list goes on.

There simply is no substitute for well-conceived communications strategies that close the connectivity gap and free us from our connectivity addiction. Integrating new media technologies and an understanding of how social media channels wield their influence are part of it. But make no mistake, nothing happens without a plan and a commitment to stick to it.

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Have you been to “customer service” hell?

Earlier this year, I recounted various disastrous scenarios of customer service gone digital (see prior post). Of the four, I had a sneaking suspicion that one would continue for months. I was right. I had little faith that “fax” the company insisted I send would do the trick—especially since the company claimed it was the fastest internet in the country. Communicating only via fax seemed at odds with its very being.

inbound-call-centre-vacancy.jpg_1352272647Calls to customer service last year (September 20th, two calls on November 15th and another on December 13th) to resolve the case of the “missing” digital box seemingly were going to produce a positive result. In fact,  I was told by Mikisha (reps won’t disclose their last names, even when pressed), that the $398.61 replacement cost for the digital box that was returned in person 11 months earlier was credited to my account. Good news!

Not so fast. In March, a collection agency got involved. Oh good. To recap the insanity: Verizon (oops, did I let that slip?) sent my account into collections to recover the cost ($398.61) of a digital box that was, in fact, returned to a company storefront months earlier, and later verified by the company as returned. I was also erroneously charged (and paid) for nine months $7.99, plus taxes, for this returned box. This means the company was pursuing collection of more than $470 (less taxes) for merchandise it had acknowledged was returned and services for which I overpaid. Nuts!

Upon learning this, I called customer service again (March 25th) and was told it was an error. The charge for the returned digital box was reversed while I was on the phone with the representative and she said within 48-hours I would have an email indicating the charge reversal was pending, followed by a second email, indicating it was processed. Furthermore, my account was marked with a “code” indicating the supervisor would call me to resolve the overpayment.

“A code?” I asked. “May I have the name of the supervisor?”
“No. We can only give you a code,” the rep responded.
“Okay,” I conceded with skepticism.

Predictably, more than 48-hours later, no email and no phone call from the supervisor. I called customer service again and was directed directly to the collections agency. [As you can imagine, that went well.] I tried again. This time I got through to another rep who was going back to the very beginning of the saga. That wasn’t getting me anywhere, so I asked to speak with a supervisor. I was prepared to be on hold all day, if necessary; it turned out to be just about 15 or 20 minutes.

The supervisor was skillful in calming me down and worked through the issue. After a time, he said someone, early on, neglected to ticket the incident correctly, which is why each time I called, I was sent in circles. The proper ticket number was needed to trigger the correction in the system. Without it, the account was considered delinquent and automatically went (and stayed) in collections regardless of what any other customer service rep said he or she did.

Post Script: As of this writing, it appears the $398.61 charge for the returned digital box was recorded and the Collections agency was notified the account is settled. It also appears that a check for $72.80 for monthly services I never received will be sent in a few weeks. If all this, in fact, is true, thanks goes to a patient Verizon customer service supervisor named Jay (though he did give me his last name).

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Put on Your Weekend Face! Its Impact on Employee Communications

Once considered less glamorous in the corporate communications repertoire, employee communications has new found respect in the C-suite.

imagesExecutives have consistently informed me of their interest in placing more emphasis on ensuring employees at all levels and locations know the firm’s strategy and direction, important successes, innovations, research, and the list goes on. They realize a common understanding of what drives the organization, shapes its world view and guides its business decisions, will increase the chances of marketplace success. At the same time, they are baffled by how little employees know about their firm’s business beyond their individual responsibility and express weariness over why.

So, I did a little digging and found this…

“A job is something to do in between weekends.”* This is how millennials and generations younger view employment. Whoa!

That mindset, combined with blurry lines between what’s “internal” and what’s “external” (fueled by a 24/7 news cycle), have big implications for how organizations keep an increasingly younger workforce informed.

images-textThe job/weekend mindset

Today’s aspiring workforce grew up living for the weekend. Planned playdates, professionally-run birthday parties, destination weddings are just some of the childhood/young adult norms that reinforce the high value they place on weekend fun.

While hard work is in their DNA, it’s there for a different reason than it was for prior generations—to finish the task at hand and get on with the fun. I see it with my own family members who work in banking and finance. They put in long hours, weekends too. But their weekends are jam-packed with parties, mini-vacations, “tickets” and so much more. “Work hard, play harder” is an apt mantra.

The implications for employee communications are many. Take a page from the popular consumer communications playbook and start with the big “R” for relevance. Don’t waste time on news millennials and generations younger can’t use to do their jobs faster, smarter, or better. They want to know what is relevant to them, now.

Corporate updates from other offices or business units, as important as they are to the organization’s success, will break through only if done in a way that means something to an employee’s individual accountability. So, a company-wide email blast doesn’t cut it. Depending on the goal, treat employee communications as you would a consumer communications campaign. Have clear-cut objectives from the start. Craft a message that resonates. Segment communiques to like-minded groups—management, influencers; sales team, account teams, support staff; etc. Above all, don’t be boring—in content, channel or media.

I once approached an HR exec about rewriting the “employee handbook” into an entertaining guide that imparted all the relevant facts, akin to Virgin Atlantic’s flight safety instructions. I even volunteered to write it! I received a blank stare. Millennials and generations younger want to be entertained when they consume content—even corporate communications. Use videos, images and infographics; and, if you have all the important information available as an app, all the better!

Blurry lines

Thanks to the 24/7 news, citizen journalists and The Rise of Fishbowl Journalism (see prior post), the holy grail of corporate communications—tell your employees first—is getting harder, if not, impossible. Big news, i.e., leadership changes, acquisitions, notable hires, important business contracts, etc., invariably leaks before employees receive the official word.

images3What you say internally must play externally. Though it can be done—with strong leadership, a clear purpose and uniform understanding and respect for both—keeping corporate news confidential is hard. A simple Facebook post with a photo of a soon-to-be launched product, for example, is all it takes to blow up that established communications timeline.

Therefore, reaching employees with the corporate news first, may mean shorter initial messages, scant of detail. A long form message, following the external communications blitz, may add details and greater context. In addition, local managers and team leaders may play an increasingly important role in the internal communications process. After receiving a more complete brief, they can address the news in team meetings and answer questions on the spot.

The new face of employee communications is young—and getter younger; busy—at work and at play; social—extremely social; and mobile—incredibly mobile. Why not give them the opportunity to discover corporate news on their own time and in their own way? Employees are always-on consumers; employers need to treat them that way!

*“Myths about Millennials” by Cam Martson, About Money

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