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Ahead of the Curve

Wow … a recent post on PR Daily News Feed proclaims that there are ‘5 office trends and technologies that will disappear soon’, according to a LinkedIn survey. Listed are the quaint rolodex, the dinosaur fax machine, the desk phone that ties you in place, tape recorders (anyone remember these?) and standard work hours. According to the post, these office trends and technologies will disappear in five years.

As I read the post, I came to the realization that we are well ahead of the curve – maybe something of a trend-setter. When I started EnSpire Communication, none of these common office standards made it into the mix as the business plan was formulated. When someone asks me to fax something, it is scanned and emailed or simply uploaded to the cloud ready to be plucked. And, I’ve taken careful measures to not get wrapped up in the traditional office phone cord, relying on mobile technology. The last time I used a recorder was 10 years ago to record an especially hateful, abusive boss’s tirade. Certainly don’t plan to have that need ever again.

The nice infographic includes dream office tools and upgrades, many of which I believe are counter-productive to accomplishing anything. But I do kind of like the idea of a clone.

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Where is your company today? Where do you foresee it being in the next year or in five years? One thing is for sure, organizations must constantly embrace change in order to survive and thrive in a fiercely competitive environment. And, the other thing we know for sure is that change is never easy. In fact, Fast Company magazine has devoted a number of articles to the mechanics of change saying, “significant organizational change is one of the most difficult strategies to implement.”

Here, we will focus on one critical piece of the mix, whether an organization is restructuring, merging or just shaking up the org chart – employee communications must be a priority. The one truth that should never be overlooked is that employees are an organization’s most critical audience and their reaction to change can make for smooth sailing or place the company’s very survival in jeopardy.  Employees not only keep operations running, they are brand ambassadors – representing the face of the organization to customers, vendors, the community and the media. Ensuring that employees understand and embrace the change and are prepared to deliver key messages to external audiences is an essential element of the process.

Internal communications during a time of change takes careful planning, regardless of the size of the organization. One mistake we see far too often is that senior management waits until there is a backlash and the gossip vine is running rampant before bringing in a communications professional. It’s smart to include a professional communications strategist at the very beginning of discussions, making him or her a part of the strategic team.

So, what value will a professional communications strategist bring to the transition process? Expect a series of steps that will include initial research, the development of a plan that outlines specific objectives, and careful implementation that allows for continuous feedback. The following steps can serve as a guideline for establishing an internal communications plan.

1.    Do the Research

The first, and arguably most important step is research. A strategist will need to know how internal communications are currently structured or if a communications program will need to be built from scratch. Are management and employees engaged in a two-way conversation? Will focus groups need to be convened? How will the planned changes impact employees, the community, and the longevity of the organization?

Internal audiences will need to be clearly defined, especially in large, complex organizations. Each group of employees may require different channels of communication (emails, small group meetings, etc.), and the changes may impact different groups in different ways.  Demographics must be considered. For example, people from different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds may not fully understand the use of bankruptcy as a corporate strategy and become fearful that the organization is liquidating.

Managers’ communications skills will need to be evaluated and training provided as needed. Those on the front lines must be empathetic to employee fears and prepared to relieve anxieties.

Even senior management should be evaluated, as they will set the tone and provide inspiration for success. The strategist will want to consider every eventuality.

2.    Identify objectives, develop a plan and communicate often

Together with the strategy team, the communications professional will identify key objectives such as maintaining morale and productivity, retaining high-performing individuals, getting buy-in for the vision and establishing the credibility of new management.  Once objectives are agreed upon, the strategist will develop a plan and a timetable for implementation.

Employees deserve timely, frequent updates. They must be given the opportunity to express their concerns and know they are being heard. Knowing what to expect, even if it’s negative outcomes, will help relive anxiety and avoid wild speculation. Throughout the process, top executives will need to be visible and accessible.  Employees will respect management for providing explanations as soon as possible. Allowing employees to hear of the merger by radio on the ride home will cause distrust and anger. If things are not yet certain, tell them – they will appreciate the frankness.

Executives will need to be prepared to tell employees how the change will impact jobs and what the future holds. Tell a story – link business objectives and goals with strategies and values. Engage the employees and allow them to become a vital part of the process, to experience the changes and see the benefits. Communications strategies must engage, motivate and inspire management and employees.

Part of the planning process will include the selection of communications channels. Face-to-face meetings tend to be the most effective during times of change. These may include manager briefings, one-on-one meetings with with key personnel or in the case of multiple locations, a town hall style meeting with senior management appearing by video in all locations. Today’s technology allows these types of meetings to actively engage the audience and immediately capture employee reactions.

Ensure that employees have ample opportunity to make suggestions, ask questions and express concerns. Surveys, focus groups, employee hot-lines, suggestion boxes and open-door policies are just a few simple ways to encourage employees to engage in two-way conversation.  The key is to communicate often, let employees know how the merger is progressing and how their roles may change. Make employees feel as though they are part of the family, that the success of the business strategy is important to them.

When layoffs are unavoidable, let employees know as soon as possible. Use tact and be empathetic in the messaging. Treating employees with dignity will engender respect. Smoothing the transition by providing resources to employees who are leaving, including payouts and retraining, will create good will with those who remain. Avoid making promises as change is risky and circumstances can change.

Finally, be sure to thank employees for everything they are doing to ensure the success of the merger, restructure or management change.

3.    Evaluate consistently, listen to external conversations, and make adjustments as needed

Every communications program should include several measures so that the success or failure of tactics can be evaluated frequently as the plan progresses. Two-way conversations are an important tool for understanding if employees understand the business strategy and their roles.

As with most communication plans, the strategies and tactics for internal and external audiences will dovetail with one another. Monitoring external conversations is critical to tracking all the factors that shape employee perceptions. Social media can allow a rumor to go viral in a short period of time. Launching an internal social media platform in the communications mix might be a good way to encourage employee feedback and gauge reactions.  But don’t overlook the buzz on the outside – your employees are certainly hearing it. Mainstream media will need to be tracked so inaccuracies can be corrected and rumors dispelled. Community leaders will need to be engaged, as they will have concerns regarding the impact of large layoffs or the closing of local facilities, and their reactions will have an impact on employees.

Ultimately, organizations must communicate early and often, with total honesty during periods of change or risk severe damage to the credibility of the management team. Bringing in a communications strategist early in the game is good business strategy.

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In our last post from the Search for PR series, we talked about knowing who you are. So, now that you have a clearer picture of your existing resources and the objectives you’re reaching for, it’s time to ask yourself what kind of PR support do I need?

In order to assess the kind of PR services you need, some of the things you’ll want to think about include:

  • Will senior management, including the CEO, benefit from regular outside counsel in order to protect the organization’s reputation, assess risks and manage issues and crisis communication?
  • Is there a need to gather additional intelligence in regards to competitors, existing customer preferences, public perception or any issues that affect your stakeholders?
  • Do you need help identifying all your audiences and crafting targeted messaging?
  • If your industry is highly regulated, do you need specific skill sets or is your in-house team prepared to guide communications?
  • If public relations will play a support role in product/service marketing, what specific needs will be filled by an outside firm – media relations, community outreach, collateral, promotional events, social media or even ghost writing?
  • Do you need help developing a comprehensive marketing communications plan, or just need to add manpower to carry out an existing plan?
  • Have you developed a crisis communications plan and are your spokespeople media trained?
  • How will you measure your efforts and what kind of reporting system will you require of the PR firm?

Taking the time to specifically describe your needs will result in a search that is targeted, efficient and successful, helping you to avoid costly oversights.

 

Image – © Michael Brown | Dreamstime.com

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Up Close View of Atlas V Rocket

My husband recently turned to me and said, “you didn’t win anything on Twitter this week, now what are we going to do this weekend?” He was referring to my healthy social media contest winning streak that included tickets to many events as well as some rather interesting prizes.

I swam in a tank at the Florida Aquarium and watched the Weeki Wachee Mermaids perform just below me in the water. I have sampled restaurants before they opened and was even part of the Orlando Broadway Twitter Force, earning me season tickets and special access to each performance’s cast party.

The point is that businesses are finding creative ways to engage existing fans and attract new audience on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. An often-successful strategy is to offer what is referred to as a priceless prize – something money just can’t buy.

The social media realm is quickly becoming a crowded place and it’s going to take some pizzazz to stand out from the crowd. Offering a once-in-a-lifetime prize creates a brand ambassador for life, but more importantly, creates exciting buzz for your brand in the process.

In true once-in-a-lifetime fashion, I was selected to participate in probably one of the greatest examples of a “priceless” Twitter campaign. In an effort to attract new fans to space exploration, NASA began holding “Tweetups,” an exclusive event that grants unprecedented access to the Average Joe. Since the first Tweetup at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on January 21, 2009, the Tweetups have become high-demand events with thousands of Twitter fans entering to win, on average, one of 150 invitations issued for each Tweetup.

I was fortunate to experience the 31st Tweetup, which was a two-day event to celebrate the launch of the Mars Curiosity Rover. NASA stationed the “tweeps” in an air-conditioned tent outfitted with Wi-Fi, power strips and workstations right next to the famous countdown clock. We heard briefings from the brilliant minds that made the mission possible, hung out with astronauts, toured the Vehicle Assemble Building and even got to visit Space Launch Complex 41 for an up close look at the Atlas Five rocket before getting front row seats to the launch.

Bill Nye the Science Guy from the popular children’s television program, as well as Will.i.am, member of the famed musical group, Black Eyed Peas and STEM education proponent, were on hand to speak to the crowd and add even more excitement to the event.

It was a truly amazing experience, but I also had my eyes opened to the fascinating projects NASA works on outside of the shuttle program and will continue to learn as I follow Twitter feeds, YouTube accounts and Facebook pages belonging to NASA.

Are you looking to make your social media debut or wanting to enhance existing efforts? Why not do it with a splash and offer something spectacular to turn heads online.

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What a year for public relations.  A plethora of PR crises has given rise to many articles and blog posts – Cain’s presidential race defined by PR missteps in addressing harassment allegations, Penn State’s failure to manage issues and communications effectively – not to mention the toll of senior management’s neglect to address serious allegations in a timely manner, and Blackberry’s failure to communicate during four days of outages and service interruptions.  And these are just a few – neglecting to listen to customers and mishandling crisis communications have tarnished many brands – Bank of America and Netflix readily come to mind.

At the same time, I’ve seen an upturn in issues and crisis management activities.  Clients know that we have to stay ahead of the curve – identify and mitigate risks, prepare for full crisis communications and be proactive in handling issues transparently.  Much time and money is invested in building a respectable brand and it’s foolish to not protect it.

In the past year, I’ve led several media training sessions for clients.  Broken down into three modules, media training takes clients through the basics of understanding how to work effectively with media to intense on-camera interview training and individualized coaching on creating compelling messages and delivering sound bites.

While the media training sessions have focused primarily on traditional media, we are also working closely with organizations to understand the ramifications of social media on crisis communications.  Social media has led to viral transmission of information – many times inaccurate.  Organizations are finding they must place more focus on listening carefully to audiences and responding quickly, getting their stories out before someone else does it for them.

I can’t say we have all the answers – each incident presents its own challenges and the continually shifting media landscape keeps us on our toes.  However, the basics still work and taking a proactive transparent stance usually elicits a nod of respect from our audiences.

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Looking Back … Again

Three years ago, following a visit with my father, I wrote about the stories he shared about life during the Great Depression and the Second World War. On October 8, 2008 I wrote: “As he nears his 83rd birthday, Dad spends more and more time recalling past years. The details in his recollections have become more crisp and compelling. His life’s lessons more relevant, especially today – as we awaken to even more dire economic predictions. As I listened to my Dad, it became apparent that honesty, hard work, courage and leadership were the underlying strengths that sustained him throughout his life.”

James C. DavisHonesty is not always easy – not everyone wants to hear the truth. And, having the courage to be truthful with a potential client can sometimes be a real deal-breaker. Committing to hard work takes time, perseverance and the risk of failure. Taking a leadership role takes courage and adds more responsibility and more hard work. Courage is the most difficult to sustain. Without courage, you won’t face risks, you won’t speak your mind and confront someone with truth. Without courage, you won’t lead. And, without courage, you risk allowing fear to rule.

A little more than 18 months ago, I was informed that Dad has Alzheimer’s. The decline has been sharp and swift. But in the face of this most daunting of challenges, I’ve observed my father to consistently exhibit both courage and humor. In fact, it’s the humor that seems most remarkable. Especially since it’s most often aimed at himself.

I hope to continue sharing the values that shaped my father’s life with my family and through my work with my colleagues and clients. But recent events have led me not only to reorder their importance in my life, but to also add one.
• Courage
• Honesty
• Leadership
• Hard Work
• Humor

 

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Deep down I know – just like every other Facebook revamp – the transition to Timeline will likely be a rough one filled with many complaints and “how do I get my old profile back?” status updates. I also have hope that users will see the beauty of the Timeline much quicker than updates of past.

I went ahead and upgraded to the Timeline format, possibly set to start going live for users on October 19 – though that date currently seems up for debate. I’m not going to lie there was a certain “wow” factor the first time I scrolled through my own timeline. Not so much visually profound as it is nostalgic.

It’s like a trip down memory lane. As you scroll through the years, Facebook pulls out the highlights of time gone by showcasing your memories through popular photos, status updates and wall posts. For me, I saw memories of graduating college, getting married in Italy, and many other milestones, like the day my husband’s Visa was approved and he came home from Europe. Pictures of me anxiously waiting at the airport alongside excited wall posts from family and friends, followed by photos of my husband and I enjoying life in the same country, brought a big grin to my face.  I can’t say I have ever had such a touching experience with any other social media account.

Oh I know, so cheesy! But if you’re an old sap like me, you’ll love the new changes. Here are some of the more “nuts and bolts” of Timeline:

  • Cover Photo a large photo that is much larger than your profile picture and is the first thing someone sees when visiting a Facebook profile. It’s an opportunity to further customize your page.
  • Dashboard – stores all your vital stats, friends, photos, map, likes and more all in one place.
  • Interactive Map – Arranges all photos that have a location denoted as well as check-ins, life events and other activities.
  • Activity log – contains all recent activity and updates. It’s private and allows you to easily change privacy settings for posts.
  • Timeline top stories arranged chronologically with a navigation bar to let you jump from year to year. The Timeline also identifies milestones like “started working at EnSpire Communication” and lets you add a photo to commemorate the occasion.  You can also add in “life events” to enhance your timeline.

I’ll be curious to hear overall reactions to the new changes, but I for one, am excited about Facebook’s new look.

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