Archive for January, 2011
The State of the State of the Union
How many times have those of us with children been asked, “Tell me the story about the day I was born” (or if they were adopted, “Tell me the story about the day you brought me home.”)? Children never get tired of hearing stories about themselves, because those stories help them define who they are. As a nation, we listen every year to the story the President tells us about our country in the State of the Union because it defines who we are, and who we hope to be.
The great speeches of our time are those that tell a story that unites us and that captures an emotion we all are feeling. Think about Ronald Reagan (or actually, the great speechwriter, Peggy Noonan) who captured the nation’s grief after the Challenger tragedy:
We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”
Each year, I like to watch the State of the Union to see the story the President will tell. As communicators, we work to craft stories in a way that will compel and convince, and each year, it is fascinating to see how every President tells the story of the United States. We know that, whether we’re giving a speech or relaunching a brand, we need to know our audience, to control our own message, and to be prepared to defend our brand in a crisis. To accomplish all this, President Obama’s State of the Union speech needed to capture the somber mood of a nation still remembering the Tucson shooting, reframe the mid-term election which handed his party solid defeats, and convince the nation that “the state of the union is strong.” He also wanted to move the country away from “business as usual” in the ways it governed and invested. From a communicator’s perspective, how did President Obama do?
Know Your Audience
The Congressional cliques were broken up when Democrats and Republicans comingled in the audience, instead of sitting along party lines, for the State of the Union. But Congress still looked to their party leaders — embodied by Vice President Joe Biden and Speaker John Boehner sitting behind the President — for how to react to the speech. President Obama began by praising and welcoming Boehner and by mentioning the empty chair where Representative Gabrielle Giffords should be sitting. We often counsel clients giving speeches to include “shout-outs” to people so that the audience is immediately engaged. While President Obama went on to do the traditional shout-outs to people who were brought in because their stories proved a point, these first two acknowledgments were clever because every member of Congress was likely to applaud either Boehner or Giffords, if not both.
Control Your Story
You might never have known that the Democrats suffered bitter defeat at the hands of Republicans in the last election if you listened to President Obama’s speech. In his speech, the American people had voted to ensure that government ruled with strong voices from both parties, and the divisiveness was really just the “contentious and frustrating and messy” process of democracy. Obama went a step further, making the party differences seem trivial compared to the big picture:
We may have differences in policy, but we all believe in the rights enshrined in our Constitution. We may have different opinions, but we believe in the same promise that says this is a place where you can make it if you try. We may have different backgrounds, but we believe in the same dream that says this is a country where anything’s possible. No matter who you are. No matter where you come from.
Defend Your Brand
Anyone who has fundamental policy differences with the President represents a dissenting story from the one the President wanted to tell during the State of the Union. Obama preempted much of the dissent by painting disagreement as a welcome part of the democratic process and by making the villain of the story — because every good story must have a villain — not the Republicans, but the other countries who are poised to take advantage of any competitive weakness we show:
Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik¸ we had no idea how we’d beat them to the moon. The science wasn’t there yet. NASA didn’t even exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs. This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.
Some criticized the President for a lackluster delivery, especially after the rousing speech he gave in Tucson.
But, from a communicator’s perspective, I think he did what he needed to do, which was to turn down the heated rhetoric. He acknowledged that he knew his audience, he reframed his “story” and he preempted some — although certainly not all — criticism from Conservatives. And how did he communicate about innovation? Interestingly, if you look only at the words that Obama used, you will see the hot-button issues he emphasized, despite the tone. “Americans,” “jobs” and “work” — all key issues. But also one other word, which has not played a large role since Johnson and Kennedy State of the Unions: “new.”
Live Blog: What's Next DC Conference Afternoon Session
Good afternoon! Today, we’re live blogging the What’s Next – Your Marketing Communications Roadmap event at George Washington University in DC. The morning session was jammed packed with great speakers and information on issues impacting the future of how we communicate social change. (more…)
Live Blog: What's Next DC Conference Morning Session
Good morning! Today, we’re live blogging the What’s Next – Your Marketing Communications Roadmap event at George Washington University in DC. It’s an all day event, so we will be capturing the day’s insights in two posts — one during the morning presentations and one covering the presentations this afternoon. The day will be filled with great speakers discussing issues impacting the future of how we communicate social change. (more…)
CHSE Partner, National Indian Education Association, Comments on Common Core Standards in The Hill
Colin Kippen, executive director of the National Indian Education Association, a partner organization of the Campaign for High School Equity, comments on the benefits of common core standards for Native students and students of color in The Hill.
Read the entire op-ed at The Hill.
A Year of InSites: Sticking to Goals Leads to Success
This guest blog post is from Juanita Panlener, an Account Supervisor at Vanguard Communications.
This past year, I’ve been reminded of one of the most important aspects of social marketing — creating and sticking to a communications plan that guides and drives outreach strategy and activities.
A trusted colleague recently compared the role of strategic communications plans to the work of career counselors. Sometimes, people simply don’t know what career or line of work fits with their vision of themselves. Career counselors help people uncover (and often, untangle) their interests and talents, and identify how to make the best of them in the workplace. This can be a tough job because people tend to have many more interests than talents — the trick is to match interests and talents in a way that translates into a physically and emotionally rewarding employment situation.
The strategic communications process is similar in that it involves identifying, as clearly as possible, what we want the end result of our efforts to be. Along the way, we can be tempted to add other interesting but unrelated endeavors to our work — but our goal is our anchor that brings us back to our core strategic plan.
As professional communicators, it is our job to help those who’ve entrusted us with their mission to keep them on track, no matter how exciting or popular that latest communications tool may seem. If it doesn’t in some way contribute to the communications goal, we should be the ones to steer them away from it (unless it’s time to adjust that goal).
But doing so is not easy. At times, it can be very challenging to be the ones to repeat and reinforce the communications goal, objectives, audiences, messages, strategies, and tactics. I admire and endeavor to learn from my fellow communicators who do so confidently, persuasively, always tactfully, and without discouraging creativity. After all, despite our knowledge of communications and years of experience, we never want to think so much of ourselves that we dismiss the knowledge and insights of those whose mission we support. We also don’t want to be so accommodating that we allow our clients to head into a direction that might hurt them in the long run.
But time after time, we’ve seen how leaning on the strategic communications plan leads to positive outcomes for our clients, and ultimately, for us as communicators.
A Year of InSites: Internal Communications Helps Move Things Along
This guest blog post is from Tracy Packard Ferrell, Vice President of Operations for Vanguard Communications.
We moved our offices this year. Even though it was not a part of most employees’ responsibilities, it still impacted everyone, so communication with staff became an important part of the build and move process. Perhaps because Vanguard is a staff of communicators, they expected more information than just knowing when the move was going to take place.
It came to my attention very quickly that staff wanted to know not only about the move, but about the space selection process, design and color concepts development, and space build status, too. It required a communication system that allowed employees to learn about the updates without disrupting the workflow of the operations staff.
Because building and moving activities are so fluid and change so rapidly, I established an activities entry on our Intranet. At the end of each week, I would list what was accomplished for the week and what was scheduled for the coming week. At each milestone, we talked to the staff directly and answered their questions. One month prior to our move, we had a meeting just to discuss the move, how the whole process was going to transpire, and what was expected of every employee.
Communication with staff reduced the stress about the move and changes that occur when moving. But best of all, it created excitement about the design of the new space. Like many external communications efforts, all it took was knowing our audience, appropriate planning, and thorough follow-through.
A Year of InSites: New Tools, Same Rules
It seemed like every time you turned around in 2010, there was a hot, new social media tool or a story about the innovative ways people were using these tools, such as in the aftermath of the earthquake in Chile. While it has been tempting for public relations professionals and their clients to jump on the bandwagon and sign up for every new tool out there, we have to remember that the “old” rules of public relations and communication still apply. Some of these include:
- Know your audience. To communicate effectively with your audience, you have to know who they are, where they spend their time, what they care about, and what they want. It has been tempting to blast information across all channels, new and traditional alike, but those efforts can be a waste of time if they’re not targeted. Knowing where your audience spends time, whether it’s on Twitter or reading the local newspaper, can help you to communicate your message more effectively to the people that matter to you.
- Talk with your audience, not at them. Social media allows for an unprecedented level of interaction with your audience. Why not take advantage of it? Start by responding to tweets or comments on your Facebook page, blog or website. Conversing with your audience will make them more engaged and loyal to your brand.
- Grammar and spelling will always be important. There has been some speculation this year about whether or not social media tools and texting are destroying the English language — perhaps it is because most of us are using the same tools in our personal and professional lives. But we must all be mindful to use grammatically correct language in all professional communication, whether it is a tweet, blog post, or e-mail. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt to use the same grammatically correct language in our personal communication as well.
As we move into 2011, let’s all embrace the new communication tools that come our way while remembering and applying the key elements of successful public relations and communications campaigns.
A Year of InSites: Real-Time Communication is Critical
In the public relations world, we’ve always known that being responsive to hot stories is a great way to get your issue, organization or idea out there. While the old rules still apply, the game changed a little in 2010. Responsiveness still reigns supreme, but with a twist. The faster we respond with bold, sensational commentary, the more likely we are to make it into prime time.
With political discord reaching new heights from coast-to-coast in this election year, the media proved that the old rules regarding responsiveness are important. Stories evolved quickly to incorporate new elements and points of views. But these days, it seems cable news and online channels are giving the most attention to those who can yell the loudest. Whether an opinion is sane, sound, or evidence-based seems to be of little interest. Death panels come to mind. If a pundit or a pundit-in-waiting rants about something remotely relevant, they get the top spot on evening broadcasts and homepage treatment on conservative and liberal blogs alike.
It sounds like a scary world out there in the media. I won’t lie, I’m often afraid – terrified, actually - of what constitutes news today. But I think we can learn something from these ravenous ranters in punditville.
Many nonprofits think long and hard – and then think some more – about what they want to say, how they want to say it, and where it’s safe to say it. In the mean time, it’s already being said by those ravenous ranters, and likely in a way that isn’t very flattering to the issues that matter so much to all of us working hard to change public discourse.
For the sake of our credibility, we want to be sure that we only craft messages based in fact and driven by sound advice, rather than emotion. But let’s resolve in 2011 to be more prepared to respond quickly, with bold, relevant ideas that can compete with some of the death-panel-proponent types on the six o’clock news. Let’s make social issues a prominent part of the real-time, 24/7 news cycle.
A Year of InSites: A Focus Group of One
This guest blog post is from LeAnne DeFrancesco, Editorial Director for Vanguard Communications.
Ever been to an ugly sweater party? They seem to be sweeping the nation, inducing mostly laughter, but some uncomfortable situations as well. “Um, these are just my normal clothes,” I heard one party guest say this December, where he sported some reindeer on his zip-up as part of the Christmas theme. Remember the old adage about how one man’s trash is another man’s treasure? In this situation, one person’s “fashion tragedy” is another’s “fashion triumph.”
It got me thinking about how we weigh opinions in communications. In a profession filled with niche specialties — be it social marketing, media strategy or creative design — it’s easy to sell your opinions short when asked to respond to an idea or product that falls outside of your traditional area of expertise. This could be because when give your honest feedback, the folks on the receiving end want to know “why” you feel that way. In other words, can you back it up? To avoid having to provide research via an extensive literature review or focus group results, I often start by saying, “Well, this is just my opinion. Take it or leave it.” And that usually gets me off the hook.
Having that fresh perspective that exists outside of a particular realm of communications expertise can add tremendous value to an end-product. You don’t always have to justify the why. All opinions are valid and are based in something legitimate, whether it’s a previous experience, a memory of something somebody said long ago, or just personal instincts. You could be anticipating a potential audience response or recognizing a brand infraction that you can’t quite put your finger on. Products and strategy can only be helped by meaningful discussions among a variety of brains – be they “left” or “right.”
As long as you’re willing to live with the possibility that your feedback won’t be applied, or at least applied to the letter, I say, offer it up!
A Year of InSites: Navigating Relationships Matters in Communications Efforts
This guest blog post comes from Stephanie Dukes, Senior Account Executive and Media Strategist at Vanguard Communications.
The complexities involved in collaborating with people with diverse professional backgrounds have a way of sneaking up on you. As professional communicators, it is our responsibility to sell our strategies effectively. But the issues that often get in the way of effective collaboration between a public relations pro and an executive or employee without a communications mindset may be nuanced and deeply rooted. Personal experiences really shape the way an individual hears what others have to say, so we as communicators should frame our advice in ways that respect the agendas and personal sensitivities of someone coming from a different point of view.
I’m reminded of a real-life situation in which a school district tried to roll out sweeping changes to its curriculum in order to close an achievement gap between diverse student populations. District administrators hosted several Q&A session for parents, but the implied tone was “this is what we’re going to do because we know best. You can ask questions and we’ll answer them, but you’re not really an important part of the process.” The approach resulted in a huge backlash from parents who felt the new curriculum undermined their children’s education. So, they organized a highly publicized protest that sent the curriculum and its creator packing.
I’ve always thought the curriculum wasn’t the real problem. The real problem was that administrators didn’t take the time to truly assess their audience and shape their message accordingly.
It’s well worth the time it takes to listen and assess each situation carefully before jumping in with sweeping recommendations on what should happen in terms of effective communications. Our job is to help individuals get their message across to their audience, but those same individuals are part of our audience. We should remember to take our own advice.