Clarity of message and clarity of metaphor

Many years ago, I worked for a company whose leader was a brilliant speaker.  In general, he also could create create thematically compelling presentations, but he tended to reuse his metaphors.  In his original presentation, the products of the company were represented by a triad metaphor.  Then the three principles of the company were represented by the triad.  And then… until he was reined in, any three things were represented by that one metaphor.

This is a problem.

Here is another problem, illustrated by the inimitable Fry and Laurie:

Stephen Fry’s character keeps trying to make his point with an ever-shifting array of metaphors.  Hugh Laurie’s character keeps trying to anchor it by saying, “Hello.  We’re talking about: _____.”  Fry’s lyrically tripping tongue speedily outstrips Laurie’s ability to keep the audience tuned in to the topic at hand – they are unmoored in a restless sea of images.

Neither of these approaches work to create effective business communications.  Metaphors need to be selected carefully, crafted carefully, and presented carefully.  When used correctly, a metaphor can be a great tool to connect with your audience.  When selected, crafted, or presented haphazardly, metaphors can only create confusion.  Or, in the case of Fry and Laurie, humor.

I have only one thing to add to this

Techdirt has a great (yet horrifying) piece from the “how not to connect with customers” trenches.  I agree with it pretty completely, but I would also add to this statement:

At some point or another everyone screws up. Everyone makes a mistake. Customers recognize this. But if a company never makes a mistake, then customers may still wonder how they’ll be treated when that future mistake comes. However, if the mistake has been made, and the response was good, the customer is confident that future mistakes will be handled well also.

Screwups are also memorable interactions – and how you handle them is memorable as well.  Not to skew too far into the territory of silver linings, but a single screwup handled well can be more memorable than 100 mediocre-to-satisfactory experiences and might translate into good word-of-mouth.  I would argue that a customer may not spend much time wondering about how a fairly competent company might handle a screwup, but that company may just not be very top-of-mind.  You wouldn’t recommend them, because you just might not think of them at all.

Extraordinary service is memorable.  A screwup, handled badly or well, is memorable.  Reasonably competent service or an experience that gets you where you need to go without any great highs or lows (barring any extraordinary expectations from the consumer)?  Not very memorable.

How many examples do we need?

Briefly noted: the United Airlines broken guitar public relations fiasco.

I have one quibble with the linked article, which says, “Companies have to be tapped in to social media to quickly right wrongs and head off bad press before it spins out of control.”  While this is true, it is also often too late by the time it gets to the social media stage.  The cat is out of the bag, and the company has lost control of the opportunity it once had to make things right.

Doing the right thing at the management level early on would have been smart.  Training and empowering employees to do the right thing at the customer service level would have been even smarter.

Related posts: Now hiring: Corporate Spokespeople, Your brand is your brand

A small example of why version control is so important

Working at a breakneck pace?  Think that release is ready for the wire?  You might want to open the document and check just one more time.

While you’re at it, you might also want to make sure young aides are briefed in the concept of keeping the meta-commentary out of the document itself.

Just a thought.

Breaking news: a case study in handling it right

Developing crisis situations demand regular updates.  But all too often, communications professionals get too enmeshed in their own story, forgetting that not everyone is fully aware of the history of a given situation.  In that case, updates occur without context, leading to confusion by some readers.

As a reader, keeping track of the update cycle itself can also be fraught: without a photographic memory, it can be hard to tell if a press item has new information or if it is the  same release you read a few hours ago.

Crisis communications also brings with it a huge load of stress, so a communications professional who keeps a cool head and continues to deliver valuable information in a meaningful way is a huge asset to an organization.  That said, I have to applaud the communications people at the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority (WMATA).  Reporting on your own tragedy is surreal and awful — I know, I have done it.  But they have kept a steady stream of information coming via their web site, and as their top story refreshed, they noted how many updates had been given to orient the reader in the news stream.

They also have not overwritten their news as the sad toll has mounted — their archives contain the string of releases they have put out, maintaining a good degree of transparency.

How not to use Twitter – a UK case study

Twitter – it’s either all the rage, or a cause of rage among people you know, right?  Mostly people seem to either love it or hate it to the point where they rant about it for what may seem like several days.

The service is admittedly quirky – it has its own syntax and rules.  You can target a specific person by placing the @ symbol in front of their user name,  and you can identify a topic or issue by prefacing it with a hashtag (e.g. the protests and crackdowns following the Iranian elections means that #Iran is a very common hashtag term at the moment).

Identification via hashtag does more than just giving a regular reader a categorical “heads up.”  It makes a topic easier to search for.   For instance, a search for “law” might give you everything from gripes about someone’s mother-in-law to a legislative alert; however, if you search for “#law” you will get messages (“tweets”) specifically relating to law and the legal field.

Hashtags, therefore, can serve as primitive but valuable finding aids for people interested in certain issues or topics. tallmanwalking {at} gmail(.)com" target="_blank"> So, consider this case study of the UK furniture firm Habitat, who signed up for Twitter and immediately started populating their tweets about store sales with random hashtagged terms like #iPhone and #Apple.

Who thought this was a good idea?  What happens when someone who is interested in the new iPhone runs into a tweet about a furniture sale?  Do they say, “Oh – I thought I was interested in an iPhone, but perhaps I will purchase a sofa instead”?

I have to say that I think the chances of that happening are extremely low.  I would even go so far as to venture a guess that people running a search on #iPhone might feel as if they were the targets of a very inept con.  I don’t know about you, but when I am the target of an inept con, I either think that the person attempting to perpetrate it is exceedingly stupid or has such a low opinion of my intellect that they haven’t bothered to make an effort.

It’s not especially good branding strategy to either look really stupid or assume your customers are really stupid.

The original post linked above has fantastic advice about how to step back from the brink of such a PR disaster.  The best of these in my opinion is this:

Its ok to fail. Do it quickly and apologise publicly. People are a lot more forgiving when you admit to your mistakes rather than deny any wrongdoing.

Very, very true.  If you are stepping up to use a medium that is expressly designed to communicate both directly and publicly with your customers, you really need to proceed with utter openness and honesty.  Otherwise, don’t bother.

Now hiring: Corporate Spokespeople

As a follow up to my post Your brand is your brand, I thought I would address a few additional points.

First, among the many hits that post generated, I got  at least six visits from  Actual direct outreach from the company?  Nothing.  No use of my contact page, no comment on the blog, nothing.

While this didn’t surprise me, it does allow me to make a collateral point, which is well known to many people in relationship management:

When your customer knows you are listening and you do not respond, they will assume you do not care.

Not caring about your customers or service may work in the short term if you are a monopolist selling a necessary product with high barriers to entry.  In that scenario, you basically have a captive audience until someone gets clever enough to surmount those barriers and compete effectively.

So what does Jo-Ann’s competitive landscape look like?  They carry sewing supplies (fabric, thread, notions, sewing machines, etc.), craft supplies, and some knitting/crochet materials.  The bricks-and-mortar options in my local area are thus: there are at least two other mass-market fabric store chains in my area with multiple retail outlets for each within 25 miles of my house.  There are also at least two stores that carry craft and hobby supplies and a great wealth of independent knitting/crochet shops.  There are probably also additional specialty niche shops in a variety of areas that could compete in areas where J0-Ann plays.

On the Internet side of things, there are also several large players and I don’t even want to begin to count the number of boutique players (including eBay sellers) who can compete with Jo-Ann.

So, the market is anywhere from very to intensely competitive and the Internet makes the barriers to entry exceedingly low.  Not caring about your customers is a really bad idea in this instance.

Second, in not responding to my original post (which generated quite a bit of commentary and interest – at least by the traffic standards I usually go by), Jo-Ann basically ceded the conversation about their brand to me, which cedes a bit of control over their messaging.  It is madness to chase rumors, but it is smart retail brand management to reach out to a customer you know is disgruntled and to try to fix the situation.  Any person has the capacity to be your unpaid corporate spokesperson – you can either work with them and help them to be a source of positive brand messages, or you can ignore them (or worse yet be antagonistic towards them: see the recording industry for too many examples) and make them a font of negativity.

My third point is is also about who some of your other corporate spokespeople are.  In retail operations, your store employees are your spokespeople — they are the face of your brand.  “Corporate” may not recognize it, they may pay lip service to it, or they may embrace it.  Not recognizing or ignoring this fact will not help you, because the people who come face to face with your customers every day are the ones who are creating impressions, building (or destroying) loyalty, and making your store a destination or a place to be avoided.

It is fashionable to be disdainful of retail as a career.  There are exceptions: specialty shops are often repositories of knowledge, some large retailers (Apple, for instance) are known for their well-trained and enthusiastic staff.  But for the most part, we have low expectations that are often disappointed — which only lowers our expectations further, and the next time… swings and roundabouts, ever downward.

But, in many cases, a person chooses a specific retailer to work for because they have a passion for the subject and knowledge in that area.  Art shops draw artists to their payrolls.  Fabric shops gather seamstresses.  Fishing shops lure anglers (okay, I’ll stop).

Give that employee the opportunity to create bonds with your customer.  After all, these two people already probably have something in common.

Will every customer coming in for a $2 spool of thread become a customer for life?  Of course not.  But they are far more likely to if they are confronted with an employee who is engaged, knowledgeable, and empowered to help, rather than hinder.

In this way, you create not just employees but spokespeople who are ambassadors for your brand, instead of apologists for your policies.

Does this really happen?

Today on Language Log, Mark Liberman points to a recent study regarding the somewhat dodgy intersection of science, academic PR, and the press.  I have never worked in a university public affairs office,* but I spent several years working in communications for various biotech and healthcare firms.  So this passage surprised me:

But Woloshin et al. do conclude that investigators should “review releases before dissemination, taking care to temper their tone (particularly their own quotes, which we often found overly enthusiastic)”. This is certainly good advice, though it’s not much more likely to be followed than any other good advice that runs counter to its recipients’ interests.  [Emphasis mine]

The title to this post is an honest question: do university investigators really not review releases before they go out?  Where?  I have never worked anywhere where press releases were not reviewed by just about everyone involved with the project.  I have had to try to rein in investigators who wanted every name on the publication to review the press release. For those of you keeping score at home, that can be up to about an even dozen, many of whom have only worked on a small corner of the project and don’t have the requisite big-picture experience to review a two-page (double-spaced) press release with anything like objectivity.

I have also never worked with (or talked to) anyone who has worked in science PR who did not sincerely try to balance the demands of precise scientific language with the layperson’s need for simplicity and clarity.  It is a very difficult juggling act — no, it’s more like trying to pack a car for a vacation.  The scientists want to throw everything in, so they are prepared for every eventuality from the beach to the ski slopes.  The PR person is desperately trying to winnow things back, because they are pretty sure there is no need for wooly hats and ski pants when you head for Florida.

It is true that investigator quotes often do start out “enthusiastic” — but that is usually the first draft.  The PR person throws something against the wall that sounds sunny.  Then the scientists get to it and try to insert so many disclaimers that the quote ends up sounding like, “Well, we may have done something moderately interesting here, but don’t get too excited: it probably won’t work at all.  In fact, I don’t even know why you’re reading this.  Never mind — sorry to have bothered you, please carry on with whatever it was you were doing,” and you’re back to packing the car for a winter trip to Park City, only to find flippers and wetsuits in the trunk.

So if the university press offices of the world really are working in a vacuum without investigator input, this is certainly something that needs to be fixed.  But is it the case?  I know that sometimes getting investigator input can be difficult — scientists understandably would rather be in the lab or clinic, and they sometimes view a press release on their work as irrelevant fluff: something that will take valuable time away from their “real work.”  But that is a different problem than the one articulated in the quote: you don’t just need to get the investigator to review the release in that case.  You need to ensure that they are aware of the collateral effect good press has on their projects.  Funding doesn’t come from thin air, after all, and press is a pretty logical thing to point to when you are talking about how donors view the institution.

In that case, we’re back to relationship management. The press officers need to ensure that they have good relationships with the scientists and need to ensure that the scientists understand the value of their work.  We can’t control what the press builds with a press release, but with a good working relationship with the scientific staff, we can give them a better foundation to start from.

*I’ve worked with them, but my data set is too small to draw any conclusions.  All of the university press officers I have worked with were even more conservative than their scientists.

Yes, do sweat the small stuff

Five years of my career were spent in high-level relationship building (mostly at the C-Suite level), and one of the biggest things about relationship building I learned was that it is not about the big stuff.  Grand gestures are nice, but being there day in and day out is really what a business relationship is all about (I am sure devotees of romantic relationship self-help would agree with me here).  Part of this is because opportunities for making a grand gesture naturally are somewhat rare, but it is also because trust and understanding are qualities that are built over time, not made in a flash.

Relationship building is also not just about serving the client.  Other vendors, nonclients, and even honorable competitors are valuable sources of relationships, because all of these people have the potential to influence those who may become your clients.  A good word from an influencer can go a long way toward swaying a potential client’s decision-making process.

My brother Brian knows a lot about this: he’s a professional wedding photographer who also owns a wedding photo editing service.  Here, he explains how and why his editing service can help wedding photographers build relationships with their fellow vendors:

EditTeam: building vendor relationships, one wedding at a time from Edit Team on Vimeo.

Smart guy, my brother.

Your brand is your brand

…or, the $1.75 reason why Jo-Ann Fabric just lost a customer today.  Behold:

The $1.75 reason why I won't shop at Jo-Ann Fabric anymore

This arrived in a larger order from yesterday.  It was in a plastic bag with a few other spools of thread, and the missing pieces from that spool were not in the bag, so it was clearly broken before whoever packed the order put it in there.

No problem, I thought -  I can take this to the local store and get an exchange.  So, in the process of running errands this morning, I swing by the local Jo-Ann Fabrics to make the exchange and pick up a few other small items.

From the start, I have a bad impression: the store is beyond dingy.  It is dirty and run down.  The stock is disorganized and untidy.  The clerks’ uniform shirts are uniformly dirty.  It is not long after opening, and there is already a long line and only one cashier.  This is not promising, but I am already there, so I pick up a few small purchases and resign myself to the wait.  To the store’s credit, they slowly add staff members to the registers.   Even so, it takes quite a while, and when I get to the front of the line, I quickly explain that I have a bad spool from an online order.

“Oh – we don’t do returns from online orders.  It’s not really the same store.”

“Really?  Because they have the same brand.”

“No – somewhere on the website it explains that.”

Let me explain something as clearly as I can to the people who make decisions that create these kinds of conversations:

Your brand is your brand.

If you want to benefit from a brand name that has customer loyalty attached to it, you have to be prepared for your customers to view that brand as a whole entity — online and off.  Your customers neither know nor care about your corporate structure. Beyond that, when a customer is faced with an employee (your corporate spokesperson, like it or not) explaining that their broken item must be mailed back to the online entity for the approximate replacement cost of the item itself, it makes your customers… unhappy.  And that unhappy experience creates a very strong impression.  Call it a brand association.

As a result, I now associate the entire Jo-Ann Fabric brand with dingy, disorganized stores, unhelpful employees in dirty uniforms, and a corporate policy that is a paragon of customer-unfriendly “gotcha” rules.

Congratulations, Jo-Ann Fabric branding team.  That’s a clear picture of a store I won’t shop at again.