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.

Hiring a freelance writer

Everyone has individual parameters for hiring a freelance writer.  Audiences are almost always specific, and a writer who excels at crafting speeches for senior executives may not have the requisite technical knowledge to create a software manual.

However, there is one thing that makes a freelance writer effective from your very first meeting with them: asking questions and really listening to the answers you give.

Sounds basic, doesn’t it?  But writers often like to talk even more than they like to write.  When presented with the opportunity to display their cleverness, they have a hard time passing it up.  It isn’t all about ego – a freelancer often wants to reassure you.  You’ve hired the right person for the job.  You are in good hands.  Never fear, this writer is so smart the stakeholders you are communicating with will be bowled over by the writer’s convincing way with words.

These well-meaning phrases that roll trippingly off the tongue can be a rabbit hole, however.  Valuable time can be lost while the writer goes haring off in various creative, possibly entertaining, but ultimately wrong directions.

So, the writer needs to give you the room to speak first.  They should ask questions and really listen.  Their follow-up questions should indicate that listening and be designed to elicit the core of the business problem you are hiring them to solve.  Only after you have talked for some time should the writer start making statements and offering up the beginnings of the scaffold of your new communications plan.