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CLARITY

STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS

PO Box 522 Bethel, VT 05032 (802) 234-6785

Columns

Keep talking; it’s like money in the bank If you don’t manage your image and reputation like you manage your finances and inventory, it can damage your company just as surely as running out of money or trade goods would. For some folks, it’s as easy as doing your job better than anyone else. There’s a firewood provider in my town who has to turn away logging jobs because business is always booming. Why? His reputation is stellar. He’s fast, he’s good, he’s dead honest, and everyone says so. But for most folks, it’s not that easy, or that type of approach doesn’t fit their business. Let’s take a look at two hypothetical inns in the Upper Valley. We’ll call them Jane’s B&B and John’s B&B. They cater to basically the same type of clientele, they’re located in the same town, and they even get their food and other services from some of the same suppliers. Jane has decided to make an investment in her inn’s image and reputation, and so, in addition to advertising, she offers an internship program with local schools to help get young folks interested in Vermont’s hospitality business. She gives talks at local and regional organizations, including universities and colleges, about the unique challenges in the industry and how she addresses them. She requests customers’ e-mail addresses and sends them a bi-monthly newsletter to keep them up to date on improvements and changes since their last visit. The inn sponsors a local youth soccer team, and Jane sends press releases to local and regional publications about all of these activities, as well as whenever she offers a new hospitality service, hires a new chef, achieves a coveted certification or rating, or when she decides to expand. Business is great. John’s B&B is successful too. He advertises in the publications that reach his targeted demographics; the ads are well-produced, and convey the excellent quality of the place, its wonderful cuisine, and its recreational opportunities. Business is going well, and he plows his profits into ensuring that the place is top-notch in terms of amenities, infrastructure and staff. And then, six other Upper Valley inns are hit with food poisoning due to an unfortunate oversight at a popular food supplier. A local newspaper is localizing the story, so John and Jane have been contacted to provide commentary, even though their inns weren’t hit with the illness. Let’s look at Jane’s and John’s situations. John has an unblemished record of quality and satisfied customers to lean on, and he can tell the reporter he is working with his own suppliers to ensure continued quality and safety so that this never happens to his inn. This is a great opportunity, and he gets some positive coverage for his inn. Jane, on the other hand, knows the reporter who is working on the story because she has talked with her dozens of times regarding press releases and has seen her covering Jane’s local lectures. Journalists rely on credible sources in order to do their jobs well, so Jane already has an advantage in this situation when it comes to getting her quotes into the paper. Therefore, readers also have a positive association with Jane’s inn. The power of reputation is in her favor. Similarly, Jane’s ongoing contact with guests provides her with the means and the opportunity to jamal.kheiry@clarity-stratcomms.com

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CLARITY STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS

contact them about this incident before they read about it in any news coverage. It’s an opportunity for her to detail the specific steps she takes to prevent this type of incident from taking place at her inn, and to renew her commitment to flawless service. And what about her reputation in the community? She uses it as an instructive tool to the interns from the local school, who see it as an exciting episode in their education and tell their parents about what a tight ship Jane runs. And it can’t possibly hurt that dozens of kids around town wear their Jane’s B&B soccer jerseys on a regular basis, right? These factors make it possible for Jane to continue attracting the best and brightest talent to staff her prestigious business. John got some positive exposure, but it’s just a drop in the bucket compared to Jane’s. Over time, Jane’s superior reputation will cut into his market share and recruiting power. The critical point here is that communicating with your organization’s stakeholders on a regular basis is like making deposits in a bank; in this case, it’s a bank of good-will with customers, clients, employees, neighbors, government regulators, or anyone else who could have an effect on your success. If you have a good story to tell and you present it to these folks routinely, and in a way that is meaningful to them, it’s like money in the bank. Hopefully you’ll never have to draw down the balance. But even if nothing ever happens to threaten your image, you’ll still reap dividends from keeping your stakeholders informed: loyal customers and clients, a community that wants your business to succeed, employees who are proud to come to work each day, and more. The key to successful business communication is in good planning. Next month’s column will focus on how to plan for your own public relations strategy. Jamal Kheiry is a public relations professional based in Bethel. He can be reached at jamal.kheiry@clarity-stratcomms.com

jamal.kheiry@clarity-stratcomms.com www.clarity-stratcomms.com


CLARITY

STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS

PO Box 522 Bethel, VT 05032 (802) 234-6785

Columns

DON’T say it until you’ve planned it When you talk to a friend, a relative, a business colleague you’ve worked with for years, you don’t plan your conversations. You don’t have key points to convey and then carefully work out how to deliver them. You just talk. So it’s no surprise that when it comes to a business or organization, we do the same thing. We’re opening a new store, so we’ll tell the newspaper about it and run an ad. Maybe we’ll also make up some brochures to have in the store. Just talk, right? But hold on just a second. I’m not talking to my cousin, my best friend since high school, or the owner of the corner store where I’ve shopped since I was a 10 year-old blowing my allowance on candy. Those folks know what they can expect from me, because over time we’ve developed a relationship that has built my reputation, so they have an established image of me. But trying to make a living based on a much broader group of people — trying to get dozens, hundreds, or thousands of people to spend part of their treasure on your product or service — is far more complicated. If we want your business to survive, and eventually to thrive, we have to not only convince people that money spent with you provides them value, but also that you’re a better business than your competitors. In other words, you have to build a reputation by consistently delivering your image. That takes careful planning, and there’s a series of steps to make sure your planning takes into account the most important factors for success. The first step is to define your mission and vision. Okay, you might say, my company pumps out septic tanks, or sells precision-made ballbearings. Or I run a diner that simply serves food. Or I run a non-profit food bank that simply doles out groceries to people in need. The mission is obvious, and what does a vision have to do with anything? But the truth is, people expect more from the merchants where they spend their money, and a vision helps to create that all-important image. So for the septic cleaning service, for example, your mission could be: “To provide expert installation, diagnostic, cleaning and repair services for septic systems in the [name of local market] area at a price that reflects our investment in top-notch equipment and technicians, and our customers’ need for reasonably-priced, long-term service.” And for a vision? How about: “We envision [name of local market] with clean surface and ground water, free of home waste-disposal problems, and homeowners informed about how to achieve worry-free septic systems through regular maintenance and best-practices in their homes.” And what about the “plain-old” diner? How about a mission, “To serve the next-best thing to homemade food in a friendly, family-like atmosphere at prices that make customers happy to get the bill.” Vision: “To contribute to a tight-knit [name of local market] by bringing people together as friends over tables full of good food.” jamal.kheiry@clarity-stratcomms.com

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CLARITY STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS

Starting with a solid mission and vision as a foundation, your communications plan will be able to convey a consistent image throughout. For an example of this type of planning at work, look at one of the largest economic sectors in Vermont: healthcare. Browse any hospital’s website and you’ll find its mission and/or vision. Then look at everything else it says; you’ll notice that it all contributes to the fulfillment of its mission and vision. Gifford Medical Center, for example, puts its mission on its main page (giffordmed.org), and all its messaging springs from that. Business objective: Now it’s time to come up with your business objective — the whole reason you’re contemplating a communications plan in the first place. Is it to turn a profit during your first year as a new consultant? Derive additional profits from your expanded services or new product line? To eliminate a morale problem among employees that is affecting sales? Whatever it is, try to make it quantifiable and linked to a time-frame, so that at the end of the period, you can say “Yes, I achieved this,” or “No, I’m not there yet.” Communications objective: This stems directly from the business objective. Using our above examples, your communications objectives might be to persuade 50 people to call you during the first six months about retaining your services, and retain 10 as clients. Or to convince all of your existing clients/customers to try your new services or products at least once during the first three months after their launch. Or to get your five most influential employees to buy in to a new commissions structure that will be phased in over six months. Define your target audience: Who do you want to reach with this campaign? Existing customers? New ones? Your employees? How about the neighborhoods nearest to your building? And government officials who inspect your facilities or ensure compliance with regulations? Any of these could be your primary audience, depending on what you’re trying to achieve. But don’t forget secondary audiences — the ones who influence your primary audiences. Say, for example, you’re implementing a new healthcare plan for your employees. In addition to the primary audience — your employees — you also have to make sure their spouses/partners have all the relevant information. And, as a tertiary audience — those who “influence the influencers” — you might also want to target doctors at the area’s main healthcare facility. Craft your messages: Now we come to the core of a communications campaign — what you say. You have a mission, a vision, a business objective, a communications objective, and you know what audiences you want to hit. Now, you distill all this information into one, two, or three key messages that really mean something to the target audiences. In many cases, this means positively affecting people’s bottom line — providing the most or best product or service for the best price. In the case of the diner, for example, the messages that come from its mission and vision could be something like: 1) Jane’s food is made-to-order and priced reasonably, because we want to see you here every day! 2) At Jane’s, if we don’t know you on a first-name basis, we invite you to become part of our friendly group of customers. For the more technical case of the septic company, key messages could be something like: 1) Sal’s Septic has highly-knowledgeable staff to provide you with the best installation, service, and maintenance available, at a reasonable price. 2) Sal’s Septic handles waste according to stringent environmental standards, and offers its customers the best advice available on minimizing their environmental impact and keeping their home waste-handling systems in peak condition. 3) Sal’s Septic is committed to retaining its customers’ long-term business, and will work hard to ensure your satisfaction with our expertise. jamal.kheiry@clarity-stratcomms.com www.clarity-stratcomms.com


CLARITY STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS

These messages come directly from the mission and vision of the companies, and strive to make an impact on the target audiences in terms they understand and care about, and they offer more than simply products or services; they make promises. They steer people toward understanding the image they want to convey. And, over time and with consistent communications, this will result in a reputation that’s in line with what they want. Selecting communications channels: Now that you have messages in-hand, you have to choose from the hundreds of ways to convey them to your audiences. If you know that the majority of your target audiences read the local paper, then you might gravitate toward press releases and advertisements. Do they attend trade shows? If so, you should be there too, with publications to give them — a brochure, perhaps. An annual sustainability report, maybe. How about testimonials from happy customers/clients? Would you reach them by delivering presentations to schools or at community events? Selecting communication channels can be one of the most bewildering aspects of a communications plan. The next several columns in this space will be devoted to some of the most effective means of reaching people. Next month will focus on the most popular — and potentially risky — communications channel: the news media.

jamal.kheiry@clarity-stratcomms.com www.clarity-stratcomms.com


CLARITY

STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS

PO Box 522 Bethel, VT 05032 (802) 234-6785

Columns

Media relations: high returns, but higher risks, too I was working in my office in the Middle East a couple years ago when a reporter from Reuters called. He was new to the Reuters bureau in Dubai, having been transferred from London. At the time, I was head of international media relations for the world’s largest energy company, and I knew the energy reporters from Reuters, Bloomberg, Associated Press, Dow Jones and others. But this reporter had a question about a very sensitive story: an oil-futures trader in London (one of his regular, trusted sources, no doubt) had told him that the company I worked for was selling jet fuel to a foreign military force in the Persian Gulf, which was leaving the company’s home-market short of jet fuel. It was an absurd angle, because the company did no such thing, but I told him I’d get right back to him with a confirmation of my initial thought on the matter. Sure enough, research with our sales and marketing folks confirmed it was a bogus story, and I called the reporter back and gave him the company’s official position in the form of a brief statement. The next few hours saw the story run, and I was stunned. The headline screamed that we were selling fuel to the foreign military, and the information was attributed to “unnamed sources.” My quote about the whole thing being false was not placed until the fifth paragraph, and then the rest of the story continued to refute the company’s position. I fumed about it for a few hours, but the journalist that still lurks in the back of my mind pointed out the facts: this reporter was new to his bureau, had never met me, and had rarely talked with me before. His initial information came from a trusted source. The “official position” of the company came from me, a corporate spokesperson, and he had little reason to trust me or the company. I was managing editor at a couple of newspapers before moving into corporate communications, so it was clear to me what was missing. Over the next several months, I sent him a few press releases earlier than I sent it to his competitors (in the world of wire services, a head start of five minutes makes a huge difference) and trusted him with some off-the-record conversations that helped him understand how things worked in our company. Eventually, we had a solid relationship of trust, and I never got burned on a story again. Not by him, anyway. This illustrates the most important point of effective media relations, and the guiding principle of all public relations: trust is essential for it to work. The reason news organizations are such coveted channels for corporate communications and other forms of public relations is that they are trusted by the public to be fair and impartial. Reporters know this, and therefore take their responsibility to be fair very seriously. You can be reasonably assured that if you read an article in the paper, it is balanced and the facts have been checked. The same thing goes for radio and other broadcast media. So given this aura of trust, it’s no wonder companies and other organizations want their messaging disseminated by the news media. jamal.kheiry@clarity-stratcomms.com

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CLARITY STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS

But then there’s the human element. This is the part that makes media relations much more art than science. Reporters and editors are not — contrary to what they might like to believe — sterile conduits of information to the public. They have their own prejudices, career ambitions and emotional baggage, just like the rest of us. They also have extremely demanding jobs that require long hours, and the pay is relatively low. I assure you, I relate this from personal experience. So if you want to incorporate media relations into your PR campaign, your number-one directive as you work to establish trust is to make the reporter’s job easier. When I was a journalist, I wish more people would have adhered to these rules: 1) Always tell the truth. If you say you’re the only tool-and-die maker capable of making doublefreemed widgets or the only restaurant in New England to win the Puffy-Hat Award, the reporter had better not find out otherwise. And if you take liberties with the truth, you will be found out; journalists have a sixth sense about this type of thing, and even if they don’t, they’ll make calls to verify. 2) Provide numbers and statistics. Reporters are always trying to contextualize their stories, and numbers help do that. For example, if your non-profit aid agency’s press release says you provided 8,000 free meals to needy families in the last eight months, how does that compare with other aid agencies that do the same work? What is the national average for similar organizations? This helps reporters determine how big a story it is. 3) Provide sidebar information. A sidebar is a sort of “story within a story” that helps to illustrate the main article. For example, if your home-builders association press release is about how your members are thriving despite the slow national market, a sidebar story could be about how you’ve paired up with the local Realtors’ association to better serve your customers. 4) List additional resources. Reporters have to fact-check and find additional information to make sure a story is balanced. Let’s say your law firm has just added intellectual property rights as a new practice area; your press release could include links to the American Bar Association’s intellectual property rights section, and a number for Professor Thomas Field of the Franklin Pierce Law Center. 5) Write well! There is nothing more frustrating — and detrimental to your credibility — than a poorly-written press release. Bad grammar and spelling, inappropriate syntax, lack of organization, glaring omissions… these are all things to avoid in a press release. The headline should be short and descriptive. Your lead sentence should summarize the entire story in a nutshell, with each successive paragraph revealing more detail. 6) Don’t expect verbatim reproduction of your press releases. Journalists are in their profession because they love finding out the truth and telling everyone about it. They’re in the business of keeping our democracy flourishing, so the last thing they want is to seem like they’re being used as an implement in your PR toolkit. So don’t expect — and for goodness’ sake don’t ask — that they use your word choice for anything, or that they should be sure to include this or that piece of information in their article. These rules, although useful, are not guarantees of good publicity. If the truth of the matter is that your product, service or announcement is not newsworthy, you’re not likely to get any columninches or air-time. Even worse, if the truth of the matter is that your product, service or announcement opens you up to criticism or liability, good journalists will find out about it and you could end up damaging your image or reputation. jamal.kheiry@clarity-stratcomms.com www.clarity-stratcomms.com


CLARITY STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS

Therefore, before you undertake to include media relations as part of your communications plan, think through possible vulnerabilities. Could a competitor take issue with some of your claims and turn the story into a he-said/she-said story? Are there lawsuits pending or threatened against you? Do you have disgruntled current or former employees who might go to the reporter? Has a government agency ever fined your organization? These types of things are public record, or can quickly become so. That means reporters can find them, so be sure you’re on solid ground before you jump into media relations. The rewards can be very high in terms of credible third-party presentation of your messaging, but the risks can also be high if you don’t take steps to earn trust based on truth and respect for the journalist’s craft. Jamal Kheiry is a public relations consultant in Bethel. He can be reached at jamal.kheiry@clarity-stratcomms.com

jamal.kheiry@clarity-stratcomms.com www.clarity-stratcomms.com


CLARITY

STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS

PO Box 522 Bethel, VT 05032 (802) 234-6785

Columns

Show your expertise; don’t just tell One of the biggest mistakes a business can make is not showing off its expertise. You may say to yourself, “I don’t make that mistake because I advertise.” That leads to another big mistake: assuming that telling is the same as showing. To successfully manage your image and reputation, you need to do both, and you need to do them in a variety of creative ways. Let’s say you’re in the real estate business — an appraiser or a realtor, for example — and the folks you work with are among the absolute best in their field. How do you go about leveraging their expertise so that potential customers come to you instead of to the competition? Ads are an option — you can tell folks about the awards you’ve won, the milestones you’ve achieved — but in the final analysis, that’s still just telling… sort of like an introduction to what makes your business so much better than the others. Along with that introduction, there needs to be followthrough in the form of demonstrating your expertise in ways that are meaningful to potential customers and clients. If you look around your community with the right kind of mindset, you should have no trouble identifying opportunities to demonstrate your expertise. Let’s take those real estate professionals, for example. An appraiser’s knowledge might be appreciated by folks trying to sell their homes in a slow housing market, so he or she could offer a free talk focusing on the kinds of factors that bring up a home’s value and those that reduce it. Realtors could do the same thing from their unique perspective. These talks, including a question-and-answer session with the audience, could be hosted by a local service organization that would open it up to anyone who registers to attend. Such organizations can include Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions, Masons, churches, libraries, school boosters… the list is long and varied. Free talks or presentations are great ways to demonstrate your expertise, and can be applied to almost any business. From financial advisors to well-drillers and from lawyers to caterers, there is always knowledge you have that potential customers would be happy to know more about. This tool can make a huge difference in how your company or organization is perceived compared to competitors. Just in this one example, notice how many points of positive exposure there are to potential customers/clients: 1. To get people there, fliers could be posted around town, and notices could be prominently displayed on the civic organization’s website. Maybe there would even be a notice in the newsletter of the organization. All of these would include a couple of sentences about your representative’s expertise, as well as your company’s name. 2. Your company’s website and other publicity materials would announce the free event. Not only do you demonstrate expertise, but you also win points for sharing some of it at no cost. 3. Advertising it in local publications would be a good idea too, as long as you keep in mind that the word “FREE” should be prominent. 4. You should write a press release for the local papers about the upcoming event. In it, you want to have a quote from the expert about how excited he or she is to share years of experience with people, and they should be identified by name and title as your company’s representative: jamal.kheiry@clarity-stratcomms.com

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CLARITY STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS

“…said Jane Doe, Senior Appraiser at Real Estate Solutions, Inc.” 5. Personally invite a reporter to attend when you send the press release, and pitch the idea by mentioning how much interest you’ve had from people registering. Reporters are interested in stories that appeal to the most readers, after all. 6. You’ll need to provide a take-away for the people who attend so they don’t feel like they have to take notes, AND to make sure they remember who provided this free talk. This could be as simple as a single page with summary points of the presentation and your company’s logo. Or, it could be more flashy: A branded folder with your company’s logo containing a one-page biography and photo of the presenter, summarized points of the talk, a copy of the presentation, additional resources, brochures/booklets, and a pen and note-pad with the company’s name on it. 7. Finally, a press release summarizing the event and its success should be sent to local papers (or to the reporter who attended), as well as thank-you notes to all involved. Although free talks are effective, they are by no means the only way to show what you can do. Other tactics include: • Positioning yourself as an “expert source”: There may be dozens of landscapers in the area who know about building beautiful rock walls and how to make lawns drought-resistant, but YOUR landscaping business should be the one that approaches the local newspaper’s features editor with a list of your key employees and their specific areas of expertise. Joe, for example, is certified in environmentally-friendly methods of weed control, while Janice has a bachelor’s degree in exterior design and has 12 years of experience in the field. And, you mention, they are more than happy to provide background and quotes for the paper’s upcoming Home & Garden special section. They probably even have story ideas that might not have occurred to the editor. • Donating your expertise to civic and/or charitable organizations: Your arch-rival in the catering business is doing well, and in fact she just took over an account that used to be yours. But maybe you can tilt the reputational field to your advantage by serving as an expert consultant to the school on its nutrition program. If you offer to serve as the go-to guy for moving the school toward using local produce and meat, you liaise with dozens of individuals in the area in the name of a good cause. Likewise, would the food-shelf benefit from your nutritional knowledge? How about the local meals-on-wheels program? Can you start a community-supported Thanksgiving dinner delivery program for people with mobility and/or financial challenges? • Start an internship or job-shadowing program: If you invite motivated young people to your place of business to learn about what you do, your business approach and knowledge is on display to the kids, and this gets passed along to parents and friends, too. The ripple effect in a community can be significant, and your reputation can benefit from providing professional development opportunities for young people. • Make your expertise front-and-center in all communications: Most people can’t afford to buy an item twice — or pay for a service again — because it was poor quality the first time. That’s why they look for someone who does things right the first time. For that, they seek someone who is an expert, so include your expertise in your organization’s basic marketing materials (brochure, fact sheet, press releases, website, ads, etc.) Demonstrating your expertise to potential and existing customers and clients is a powerful way to differentiate your business from your competitors. As long as you surround these demonstrations with the right kinds of communications (combining the showing with the telling), you can reap benefits of a significant competitive edge AND do the right thing in your community. Jamal Kheiry is a public relations consultant in Bethel. He can be reached at jamal.kheiry@clarity-stratcomms.com jamal.kheiry@clarity-stratcomms.com www.clarity-stratcomms.com


New England Business Journal columns