What Not To Worry About

We are about six weeks into the new year and thought it was high time to check in. While most are sharing how they think the new year is shaping up, we’re taking a different tact.  Rather than rehash the same old public relations trends, we’re going to share the things you needn’t worry about, communications wise, in 2013.

1. How many people are in your social networks. Really. The question is, do you have the right people following you, posting on your channels, and engaging with you?

2. How many awards you are winning. Kudos are nice. But, do you have the clients you want? Do you have the kind of work you want? Are you being profitable?

3. How much volunteer work you are doing. We are all for pro bono work. We do much of it ourselves. But, are you ignoring your profitable work for affairs of the heart?

4. When you are working. Yes, you should be available when clents need you. But, when does your best work happen? Work then.

5. If Washington, Wall Street and Main Street will work it out. If you watch enough news you might want to throw in the towel (or other things). Ask yourself, am I doing the best I can today and are we making progress?

Measurement: The Most Ignored Section of the Communications Plan?

This section in your communications plan is one of the most well-intentioned but often ignored areas. You may be saying to yourself, of course we’ll be watching what we’re doing and see how well it’s going. But, do you know how you will go about monitoring and capturing the results from your communications work? And, once you see the outcomes, will you understand what they mean and the influence they are having? How will you track the results against your goals and objectives?

First, know how you would know you’ve reached your audience and reached them well. If your communications effort is a success, what will your audience learn from you, what will they understand and believe, and how will they act from now on?

From there, you can identify what is important to measure:

  • actual traffic, such as how often people visited your Web said or other online channels (social or otherwise), how many people attended your speaking engagement or stopped by the trade show booth and more,
  • level of engagement, such as number of comments on blog posts, retweets on twitter, questions at events, conversations going “viral” online and more,
  • extent of interest in your stories, which is often measured by media attention, attendance at speaking engagements, sign-ups to blogs, RSS feeds and more, and
  • a change in attitude or behavior among your target audience members, most often measured formally via market research or sales cycle changes.

Then, set up a monitoring system to track those results. A myriad of online tools exist for tracking traffic and engagement levels. But, we believe it takes a human being to monitor both offline and online conversations and messaging to see if the work is “taking hold.” Someone should be in charge of actively participating in the channels being used to communicate.

If I were to be asked for an ideal measurement scenario, it would include formal market research. Budgetary concerns often make the ability to conduct surveys, studies and focus groups difficult. But, by measuring attitudes and behaviors of your target group via formal market research before the communications plan is executed and then again after the effort, the level of change affected in your target will be much more apparent than just counting up number of media hits and retweets (as important as doing those things are).

Regardless of the measurements you will use, benchmark the results gathered against the milestones you’ve identified for the plan (in addition to goals and objectives) and see how results track over time. In general, communications activities do not produce results over night even in our fast-paced online world. Be sure to set up realistic goals for seeing results.

If you know your target audience well, you should be able to see if the results the communications effort produced are a substantial change or shift in your audience’s understanding about you (and their actions) or not.

A Template for the Modern Communications Plan

Beyond the usual strategy and tactics (reaching out to reporters, attending trade shows, etc.), what are some of the things that need to be considered as part of today’s communications planning? Below is a template that we use for planning our clients’ overall communications and special projects. Each day I will blog about the main parts, including providing questions  that need your answers, tips and techniques, and identifying the big changes taking place in the world of mass communications.

  1. Vision. This section is a one paragraph answer to how the organization wants to be known. Or, if it is a project, what do we want to leave behind when the project is complete?
  2. Our Greatest, Desired Accomplishment.  This section highlights the single most important communication accomplishment that the organization or project can achieve in one year.
  3. Goals and Objectives. This section differs from the greatest accomplishment in that goals are things you reach (milestones such as audience numbers) and objectives are things you create (new creations, such as new conversations and ways of thinking or a new status).
  4. Target Audience. This section can include demographic data, market research, and other information that describes who you are communicating to.
  5. Main Communications Channels. This section should describe the main channels (social channels, traditional, media outlets, events and shows and more) that you are going to use to push out your information, thought leadership and ideas.
  6. Strategies. This section discusses the main strategies employed and why.
  7. Main Tactics. This section is the action plan. It answers what you are going to do on a daily, weekly and monthly basis to move the communications effort forward.
  8. “We Won’t” List. This section does precisely what the title says. Knowing what you will not focus your attention on (but could) is vital to having a focused effort.
  9. Content Strategy. The section addresses how you are  going to assess, develop and manage the ideas, thoughts and content you will use to direct conversations, viewpoints and reputation and image.
  10. Positioning, Messaging & Storytelling. This section should include your story and message guide, from a positioning statement, value proposition and spotlight pitch on the organization or project to a few signature stories that illustrate what you are accomplishing or how you think.
  11. Monitoring & Measurement. This section, one of the most well-intentioned but often ignored  areas, will go into measuring how well you are doing and how to share that with managers, executive teams and other stakeholders.
  12. Team Players. This section will identify – by name – who is going to design and implement the plan.

We are open to your ideas, as well. If you believe a modern day communications plan should include sections we neglected to include, let us know. In the meantime, check back daily for the plan’s breakdown.

Who is that Masked Writer? The Disappearing Professional Journalist

Thank you Internet and social media for turning the world of media relations on its ear in the last five years. It was time for such a communications upheaval. It is creative and exhilarating.

But, this revolution has not been without consequences. And, we have seen something new emerge, which has us a little perplexed and unsure of how we should feel about it.

First, know that we are unafraid of new trends (we’ve seen quite a few come and go). You could say we are “well-seasoned.” Four Leaf is comprised of PR professionals who have all used a typewriter for work (not at a museum just to see what it feels like), can recall when a two day turnaround at a mail house was considered fast, and can tell you what a color separator used to do.

We have watched the world go from a one way street where you could only go 35 miles an hour to an information superhighway (remember that phrase?) where you have to go the speed of light just to be seen or heard.  You could say the world has grown into Audrey, the flesh-eating Venus flytrap from the Little Shop of Horrors, crying out Feed me! Yet while the world’s insatiable appetite for information, entertainment and material has grown, one little wrinkle formed: not enough people to fill the content hole.

In fact, today’s media outlets are so hungry for content that we hear more questions more than answers to our media pitches. We used to  hear, I liked the idea. Let me get back to you after I’ve talked with my editor. Today, we most often hear, Sounds great. Can you produce a 1,000 word article on that topic for us?  

But, that’s not the trend we’re noting today that has us scratching our heads. It’s this: we have seen an increasing number of “journalists” who, well, aren’t. They aren’t even close. These writers, who clearly have good backgrounds in their topic, come from anywhere: from non-media companies, from non-profits boards, from the blogosphere, from twitter (because they were prolific there?), from PR firms.

The surprising part of this is that we didn’t know they weren’t a card-carrying journalist until we did some digging. It wasn’t apparent that these were not “media people.” They were hired to write. There is a difference. Journalists aren’t supposed to have an agenda except to write an unbiased account of what happened. Writers from a non-media source can cross the opinion line.

We’ve run into writers for Forbes, CNN, Psychology Today and more who own PR firms, are book authors, or own software companies and other non-media businesses. Hiring writers from non-media sources is not uncommon. But, the fact it’s not transparent that they aren’t on the media’s payroll is what has us wondering what has happened.

Have you noticed this? What do you think of this trend? Smart and savvy? Or, dishonest and scary?

Is Organizational Storytelling a Fad?

I’ve been in the communications field for 27 years. I’ve seen all the fashions come and go. First, there was corporate speak. (Think Mad Men, where the old boys’ network and the Ivy League degrees caused people to listen.) Then, dot-com speak. (Think “mission-critical, 24/7 value proposition” messaging -nonstop). Then, social media speak. (Think soundbites. About everything such as “I just ate a tuna fish sandwhich.”) Today we are coming full circle to return to an ancient form of communication that actually never went out of style. That’s storytelling.

Corporate or organizational storytelling uses the technique of using narrative that evokes an emotional response from its audience. And, in today’s information superload world, it is turning out to be the best way to get your targets to listen and remember you.

Storytelling is now the cool kid on the block for two simple reasons: 

  • The re-introduction of the power of individuals in communication
  • The increasingly noisy and data-packed world in which we live

With the change in “who’s in charge” around communication (thank you, social media) the corporate veil has dropped to show the people behind the magic. And, with real people come some very real needs – to be heard and to make a difference. People also are the heart of all organizations (not to mention news stories), so keeping them interested means talking about them or other people for relevance.

Additionally, the noise level has risen. Did you know we consume 174 newspapers’ worth of data a day (compared to just two and a half pages 24 years ago)? And, we produce the equivalent of six newspapers a day? That’s a lot of stuff. 

These two characteristics of our changing world – people taking control of communication and the increase in information coming at us all the time – is why I believe we have a resurgence of using storytelling techniques to our professional lives. Because, let’s face it, hearing “let me tell you a story,” is far more interesting than “let me tell you about our services.”

Investing In Your Corporate Language: Priceless

Under the umbrella of “things we wish every company would do” is proactively spending time (and not just two hours during a board meeting) selecting the language they will use when describing themselves. Developing an elevator pitch, an organizational story, and top level messages are just as important strategic actions as designing a financial strategy. Sound like strong medicine?

Right this very minute, words are crossing hallways, being flung over board room tables, getting sent via Twitter and Facebook, being left on voice mail messages, and being printed and copied.

Apparently people like to talk so much they need many words, nuances, and options to hone their thoughts, beliefs and ideas. According to the Global Language Monitor, it is estimated more than one million words exist in the English language alone. (According to this group, the English Language adopted its millionth word to our speech on June 10, 2009 at 10:22 a.m.)

Today everyone in a company has the option of delivering those words and messages on your behalf (Hello, social media!), impacting your brand, your narrative and your relationships with customers, vendors, partners, investors and other stakeholders. Would your associates choose the same words as you – from the million or so available to them – when it comes to describing your company? How much thought have you given to your messaging, really?

Missed Our Webinar on Social Media for Finance? Never Fear…

In case you missed our early December webinar on Real World Social Media for the Equipment Finance Company, you may now download the presentation from slideshare.

Not involved in finance? This presentation includes many nuggets — including the most important questions to ask — when planning and executing social media and social networking campaigns regardless of industry.

Naturally, the world has changed beneath our feet. So expect (very slightly) outdated statistics. LinkedIn now has 85 million users, for instance. Wow. That’s a lot of networking.

Do You Trust Your Employees Online?

Unless you’ve been under a rock at the bottom of the sea, you have been witnessing a fundamental shift in how organizations are telling their story and by whom.

Thanks to social networks, corporate brands and customer interaction are becoming increasingly tied to the individuals who work for them.  Individual employees, once hidden behind a corporate veil, are now taking the reins, empowered through new technologies and media to communicate with and solve problems for customers, shape brands, and tout their expertise. They are the new forward face of business.

Today, the very brand of a company is being built from the bottom up. For instance if you conduct a quick search of LinkedIn for any major company name, dozens (if not hundreds) of individual profiles will come up. Type in “Caterpillar” and more than 4,600 profiles emerge of individuals who work (or worked) for the company. Those profiles give a LinkedIn visitor a sense of the company.  

And, this is why we believe we have hit a wall of fear among executives in corporate America over social media and social networking. We hear that an individual’s presence online, uncontrolled and not directed is, well, scary.

But, corporate America will need to prepare itself for the rise of the worker who is empowered over what is possible – versus what is permissible – with today’s new technology landscape.

Some people – the early adopters – are even tapping into social networks and adopting the corporate spokesman role without being told to or getting permission (which only rachets up the fear factor.) We have found this is usually not out of defiance, but rather, out of a sincere passion to engage with others and advance their careers, profession and employers.  So, for the first time ever, we may have reached a place in corporate America where saying we trust our employees will be finally proven or not.

As Charlene Li stated in her book, Open Leadership, “A key difference today is that a new generation of workers is coming of age that believes ‘sharingness’ is next to—or more important than – godliness.” Do you trust them to share? Who do you believe it doing a good job of trusting their employees as the forward face?

What Happens When Your Social Media Star Leaves?

Earlier this week I spoke at the Equipment Leasing and Finance Association annual convention. More than 800 financial folks attended, and I had the pleasure to lead a panel on social networking for the equipment finance industry.

I spent the summer studying how social media and social networking can be incorporated into equipment financiers’ marketing plans. The research findings – including a survey of equipment finance professionals, three case studies, and a plethora of best practices — can be found in our report, Social Networking for the Equipment Finance Industry, from the Web site of the Equipment Leasing and Finance Foundation (a different organization from the association). The executive summary can be accessed at no charge.

But, I’m not here to sell you on the report (okay, well, maybe a little), but rather share what I heard at the convention. As we heard during our summer research, businesses are interested in social media. They just don’t always know what to do with it. Regardless of the thousands of articles, books and advice available today, it’s still hard to get one’s mental arms around some very important pieces — including calculating return on investment, metrics, and security and privacy concerns.

During the presentation, I received numerous good questions. But, the one that evoked much discussion was the fact that social media can make an individual a star. So, similar to your favorite sports figure, what happens when they switch teams? Do they take all your social media cache with them? Do all their followers (read: prospects) go with them?

Well, yes and no. 

Yes, individuals take themselves, their contacts, their enthusiasm, and social network know-how with them. They also take their positive online reputation (that you hope they built and you profited from) with them. People follow people on social networks, after all.

To avoid having a social media superstar’s departure mean the end of your online presence, a few precautions can be taken, including:

  • Ensure a mix of both corporate face and personal face is distributed. This means allowing the real person to have his or her voice online, but perhaps tweeting and posting under a corporate logo (the extreme) or making it known in their profile who they work for (the least they should do). If the person is responsible and accountable for social media for the company, then one should never eclipse the other. 
  • Make certain your social media star references your company frequently and isn’t just talking about themselves like they  – and they alone — are responsible for all the terrific resources and connections they offer. If the goods really are theirs, then they should say so. But, if the information is produced by a company, then it should be obvious to the reader who the author is.
  • Ensure a social media team is in place. This may seem obvious. But one very enthusiastic player can easily cause other employees to “lay back” a bit and not develop their online presence. Frequent rewards and support will ensure a team of tweeters, posters and bloggers maintain their desire to use social media. If a social media star departs then at least the organization has a set of individuals ready to go when the screen goes dark on the superstar’s computer (or smart phone).
  • Have a formal policy in place for a social media “hand-off.” If a superstar decides to leave, then you can rely on a procedure and system for organizational memory and social media knowledge to be transferred to the team (that we hope you developed by then).
  • Collect passwords of corporate-led social media channels and accounts. Be sure that your departing social media evangelist doesn’t walk out the door with the only keys to the castle(s). After all, institutional social media channels and blogs should be readily accessed by whoever is in charge of updating them — even someone who has to take over relatively quickly.

Yes, cultivate those social media celebrities, but remember what that fame is really for — advancing a mission.

Social Media for the Equipment Finance Industry: Divine or a Distraction?

We spent our summer not at the beach, but rather buried deep in journals, books, online conversations and talking to as many experts as possible about how to incorporate social media into marketing efforts for the equipment finance industry. Working under grant research from the Equipment Leasing & Finance Foundation, we were unsure what we would find. After all this is a conversative (albeit entrepreneurial), regulated B2B industry.

But, after digging deep, we discovered there is a path to take that can yield marketing success. The 135 page white paper will be available in a few weeks for download from www.LeaseFoundation.org. But, in the meantime, one of our conclusion is this: Corporate America will need to prepare itself for the rise of the worker who is empowered by what is possible versus what is permissible with today’s technology. Help channel that empowerment by immersing employees and partners in your brand. Then, listen for where what you have to offer contributes to the online dialogues and needs. From there, you will be better prepared to act in the social media realm.