Communication and politics: What a drag

November 24th, 2015

Aside from being heartily amused by the rhetoric of what passes for political discourse in 2015, I’m also rather concerned about what it says about the power — or lack of power — of communication in the political realm.

Let’s start with the amused portion: We have an avowed socialist who doesn’t believe in the replacement of private property with state ownership. That make him more of a social democrat rather than an actual socialist. Socialism is the public ownership of property, goods and the means of production. ( It is an economic term, not a political one.

We have an avowed Democrat whose track record is moderate by Democratic Party history, and whose husband declared, “the era of big government is over,’ ( ) but who has spent the entirety of her presidential run so far tacking left to appeal to the wing of her party that wants the U.S. to become a European Social Democracy.

We have a bloviating egomaniac with no filter representing the fever swamp id of the most afraid constituency, railing against not the dying of the light, but the continued ceaseless change of the United States itself.

There are several highly capable people running alongside the loudmouthed lout — a couple of U.S. senators, two sitting governors, a neurosurgeon, a former CEO and several others (regardless of what one thinks of their political perspectives, they are accomplished people.)  And yet, polls show the moron leading the race.

It’s either laugh or cry, and I refuse to cry. You can’t make this stuff up — it’s quite entertaining to read the news stories that emerge…

Now for the “concerned” portion:

The Twitter age has demanded we communicate with brevity, but at the cost of probity, wisdom, depth and breadth. Politics should not be ephemeral. Politics should be an exercise in intellectual discourse. The news media no longer serve as skeptical third parties striving to attain fairness (quote from my journalism professor: “We’re human and cannot truly be unbiased, but we can be fair.”)  Instead, readers/viewers/ listeners need to fend for themselves in sorting through increasingly biased coverage. Watching broadcast news is worse than a root canal.

Other media are similarly challenging — read the NY Times, the WSJ, National Review and The Nation. You hardly know they’re talking about the same country, let alone the same people and events.

The language candidates and their handlers use make things worse, not better. Even my words above largely are attacks based on something other than mere perspective – calling someone an egomaniac (regardless of its truth) is not helpful.

What would be helpful is analysis that puts this race in context — what are the competing visions and what are the pros and cons of each?  What are the unintended consequences of these perspectives? How will those consequences be mitigated or at least addressed?

A few more thoughts:

  • Mr. Trump is not a conservative, nor a Republican. He is a Trumpian.
  • Secretary Clinton should be held to account over the email situation, and the Benghazi explanation (video versus terror attack.)  Democrats should be careful what they wish for.
  • Republican candidates should stop treating Trump as a serious candidate. But they should listen to people who are afraid and angry and convince them that those emotions are unsuitable as a platform for governing.  Most of the candidates have articulated specific platforms and proposals that are worthy of discussion and coverage (again, regardless of political orientation, there is serious information available for debate.)
  • Mr. Sanders should be asked to describe the impact of a large tax increase (for free college? How will making more graduates result in greater economic activity instead of merely devaluing the bachelor’s degree?) What about keeping the corporate rate where it is versus making it higher versus raising the individual rate. What does history tell us? How might that record apply to that decision?
  •  Candidates should not be included in TV debates based on polls. Devote as much time as required to hear from all of them — carry on CSPAN, and air without advertising. Have a conservative and a liberal interview each candidate together (Rachel Maddow and Megyn Kelly; George Will and Chris Matthews) — post the live feed and raw footage to YouTube.




Proctor Academy Comms head nails marketing advice

September 17th, 2015

GirlHandUpAs I’ve written before, the main issue with independent school marketing is their belief that they don’t need it. Second — once they realize they DO need marketing — is that they lack proper planning and strategy. You can’t know how to get where you want to be without a map.

In a recent podcast interview, Blackbaud K-12’s Peter Baron and Proctor Academy’s Scott Allenby discuss the latter’s excellent case study on how independent schools can use inbound marketing.  Aside from spot-on comments on the requirements to develop and maintain the website content needed to help tell your school’s story effectively, Scott avers that schools must start with understanding the distinctiveness of their offerings.

This sort of soul-searching (Who are we as a school?) is much more common in the business world, particularly in the service industries like banks and retailers.  The products most often are the same, and many are commodities. The “secret sauce” needs clear definition in order for the marketing and communications folks to do their thing.

In our work with schools (and other types of organizations), we start with the research and planning needed to set a proper course for the future. We want to know what makes you, you! Why families choose you, and why they take a pass. What truly is unique — which should be something other than selective admission, smart children and great history. If a school isn’t really distinctive, no amount of marketing magic is going to change that!

Take the 25 minutes or so and listen to the interview — it’s well worth your time.



HBR covers employee complaints about managers

August 12th, 2015

It’s almost a cliche, so much so that some don’t even believe it.  Employees have certain expectations about their managers, and too many managers totally #fail at meeting them.  In the Harvard Business Review, Lou Solomon hits the high (or low) points.  Read the article, then see





You are the expert in communication

July 27th, 2015

Does that headline make you nervous? A lot of corporate communicators (public relations, internal comms, etc.) don’t embrace the full extent of their capabilities. Your organization has internal experts in finance, law, accounting, operations, supply chain, marketing, public relations, etc., but you might not be seen in the way that could be most valuable for your organization.

What sort of impact would improving communication among managers and employees yield? If you seize the mantle of “expert in communication,” you can move into new territory beyond being the tactician, and have great impact on the functioning of your organization.

There is no one better qualified than you to take this on. Your friends in HR may “own” training, but you’re the best judge of the state of communication among managers and employees. You can be the sponsor for improving it.

When I ran the Face2Face Communication Learning Program for Joe Williams Communications, the people who typically brought us in to train their managers were communicators. Companies like John Deere, Lucent, Merck and Prudential had communicators who saw the effort to build communication capability in their companies as crucial, and they made it happen.

Now that I’ve bought the F2F program from Joe, I’m once again beating the drum for a more strategic view of communication that includes this type of training. Sure, I’m a capitalist – but this happens to be intrinsic to my purpose in professional life: To help people and organizations communicate more effectively.

This purpose gets me going every day. It’s a passion — because I see the impact in real terms. Companies that communicate, perform. People who communicate well foster and maintain better relationships with everyone.

I can help people, teaching them these tools, sharing my own experiences and setting an example to others.  Communication can change peoples’ lives for the better, and it starts with someone declaring that more effective communication is something the organization deserves, wants and needs.

Can we start with you?




Remembering a friend

April 22nd, 2015

Eleven years ago, my high school friend John Voland died. He was the first of my contemporaries to pass away, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. He was survived by his mother, Jean, brother, Mark, and his daughter, Hayley, then 14.

John wasn’t a particularly health-conscious person. He battled weight for years (he was 6’4″ and big), and his death from a heart attack was in some ways not surprising.  We hadn’t spoken in years, not out of animus but lack of proximity; I’d moved to Seattle and then Cleveland, he’d remained in L.A. freelance writing.

The last time we saw each other was a little rough.  My wife and I met John at DuPar’s on Ventura Blvd., a regular haunt following poker games, for lunch, and John was agitated and distracted. We talked at the time about how much we loved living outside of Los Angeles, and he denigrated our decision as moving to “the sticks.”  His behavior was rather off-putting, and so we quickly wrapped up the visit and went our separate ways, as it turned out, forever.

I thought of him often, wondering how he was, worried he might have some problem that perhaps I should have helped him with.  When he died several years later, I felt guilty, like I had failed him somehow.  I also worried that others in our coterie of pals might also be struggling. We’d been a tight group — Josh, John, Ken, Bill, and David formed a fairly regular six-some for poker or hearts or playing music or whatever. And of these, I’d lost touch with just about all of them.

Now, Josh and I are Facebook friends; Ken, following his usual pattern, was back in touch for a brief time; David and I corresponded a bit, and Bill disappeared.

I’m not sure what made me think of John today — maybe it was running across news of his brother’s death again (in 2010), or the impending 40th high school reunion next year, or maybe just finishing graduate school prompted a reflective mood.

I find that I wonder what he might have written, whether we might have regained our friendship, whether we had enough in common to stay in touch.  One thing is for sure – once, we were great, close friends, and that memory is something to keep close.

I’m so grateful for my friends now, so thankful they’re in my life — Jon and Patty, Janet and JJ, Lori and Jamie, Jim and Jodie (wow, lots of “J’s”), Heather and Brian, Greg.  We are only on this earth for a certain allotment of days, and none of us know how many.

If there are people in your life who mean something to you, be sure to let them know.



5 questions to ask your employees now

April 17th, 2015

ThinkstockPhotos-185452608We’re struggling in internal communication. The move to “social” within the enterprise is shifting our focus to tactics when we are still grappling with strategy.

What is internal communication for?  Are we advocates for employees? Advocates for management? Internal propaganda officers? Magazine editors?

We exist to help create organizational competitive advantage. Our executional elements for that will include tactics and tools, certainly, but in the end, our messaging and measures must reflect our existential mission.  Research from a few years ago (O’Neil, J. (2008)) shows that the answers to five questions can reveal *53% of the variance in employee comprehension of strategy, vision, values, etc. Here they are:

I am kept informed about the reasons behind company decisions. Nothing is more important to comprehension than reasons, and yet, organizations still persist in the belief that they’re not relevant or important enough to share. I think there’s a fear factor here — “What if they disagree with the reasons?” So what! Tell people plainly why you’re doing what you’re doing. They may not like it, but will respect you for sharing.

My business unit/function does a good job of communicating information to all employees. Perception of value is crucial. When employees believe the organization is good at internal communication, they tend to better understand the business.

The information I receive from my business/function is complete. Another faux pas is restricting information from internal communication. Employees are smart. They know when the sin of omission is committed, and in the absence of information, they will make up their own.

I am kept informed about major changes occurring within my business/function. When the answers to this question are poor, you’re almost guaranteed to have a workforce that doesn’t comprehend what you need it to. It’s shocking how many times leaders will assume that people don’t need to know about a major change, often claiming that because it’s outside of their area of direct responsibility, it’s not relevant.

I am kept informed about major changes occurring within the company. How can you operate your organization without keeping people abreast of the most significant changes? There are too many organizations which simply don’t think employees care. Good heavens, of course they care! Don’t you care about your organization? There are counter-examples, but the exchange relationship commonly associated with customer relationships usually doesn’t apply when you work for the company. It’s a less transactional, deeper and more substantive relationship with employees that leads to high performance.

Why not ask these questions every three months for a year?  Quick, easy surveys, postcards after town halls, postscripts to intranet stories.  Ask them and use the results to guide your editorial and manager communication activities. You might find the results more than compensate for your time.
*R2 = .526; F = 625; p = .000


I’m in a reflective mood, and thankful

March 26th, 2015

Seanwilliams-tieNext week, five years of part-time graduate school culminates with my defense of my Master’s thesis, “Beyond Klout®: An exploration of online influence.”  This has put me in a somewhat pensive mood, and a number of things are on my mind as I prepare for the defense and graduation from Kent State University.

First, when someone sets a goal, attaining that goal can bring a bit of a let down, an anti-climax. It happened to me when I went to work for Joe Williams Communications, leading the Face2Face Communication Learning program. I’d attended Joe’s Dialogue in the Desert workshop on strategic planning, and had kind of dreamed of working for Joe. it became a reality, and over the course of  two-and-a-half years, I worked with about 15 clients, taught communication skills to more than 5,000 managers, facilitated strategic planning workshops and generally learned a ton about myself.

It happened again, when I decided I wanted to lead internal communications for a global company, and joined The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. in that role. I supervised the internship program (and what a great internship it was – a year-long, 20-hour per week gig for two students), and got introduced to the great people at Kent State.  I left Goodyear and went to National City Corporation, where I realized another ambition — to create a public relations measurement program from the ground up.

I had, for years, had the goal of becoming a teacher in university when my corporate life was through. For that, I knew I needed at least a Master’s degree. As it turned out Kent State had a need, I was available, and they let me come in to teach without one. My first class taught was a graduate class in PR Theory. Over the past five years, I’ve taught that and many other classes both in-person and online. I even created a course — PR Measurement and ROI — that is a smash hit.

I also had goals about writing and speaking, and have published four scholarly papers and presented them at the International PR Research Conference.  I speak 4-5 times per year at industry conferences. I’m finishing the thesis.

So, now, comes the realization (G-d willing!) that yet another life goal is on the cusp of being realized: I’ll have a Master’s in Journalism/Mass Communication.

This has made me very thankful this Thankful Thursday.  Here’s a short list of people I’m thankful for, who have helped me attain these life ambitions, and who sustain me.

Sandy – my wife.  I dedicate my thesis to her in gratitude for her love and faith in me. She has had to put up with my building a business at the same time I take graduate classes and write and present and teach and…You get the picture. Thanks hon.

Then, in alphabetical order:

  • Janet Gaydosh, Patty Vossler, Heather Marks, and their husbands, JJ, Jon and Brian, respectively, and Jamie and Lori Owen. Your friendship is the most amazing gift! Thank you.
  • Robert T. Gill — Rob was my boss in Seattle at KeyCorp, first as my supervisor when I interned during the management associate program, then as my manager when I became first employee communication manager for Washington, then for the Northwest Region. He taught me about responsibility, dedication, and deadlines, and about what the heck PR is all about. And also about the need for open communication and avoidance of “Reindeer Games,” his phrase for talking trash about your boss. Hard lessons, but essential.
  • Dennis Long — Formerly the head of Retail Banking for Key in the Northwest, Dennis taught me humility and the delicate art of asking questions rather than making sweeping pronouncements. It was my first lesson in consulting. A quote from Dennis: “There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance, and you’re crossing it.” Yipes.  Thank you.  He’s now the CEO of a bank in Western Washington.
  • Bill Sledzik — Professor, colleague, friend. He had faith in me and took a risk to have me teach. He now heads my Thesis Committee, and I am grateful for his wise counsel. I’m also grateful for the quality of student Bill and the Kent PR program produce!
  • Joe Williams — Joe, a Fellow of IABC, a pioneer in strategic planning for communicators, a veteran entrepreneur of more than 30 years, is an inspiration. I got to chat with him and his wife, Barbara, last year in Toronto at IABC. He has meant the world to me, not only because of his wisdom and talent, but also because of his imprecation to me: “Trust yourself!!!” It’s a long road to heeding that instruction from the depth of low self-esteem, but I’m finally about there!

There are more, and I could go on, but I’ll stop there. My heart is so full! #ThankfulThursday



Major imbroglio from Forbes piece on PR and ROI

March 12th, 2015

186140619I’m not including a link, because generally speaking, this is a case of not wanting to feed the trolls.  Over at Forbes, some guy wrote a post saying that nobody should pay for PR if they aren’t in a major organization. This brought the PR defense out onto the field, including Stephanie C from PRSA. Next thing you know, it’s a party.

OK, maybe not a party. Instead, it was a comment Battle Royale, with wounded PRs insisting that PR had value, and the writer asking for ROI figures as proof. Not awareness, not reputation, real money. Katie Paine ran in and offered her 30 examples of PR driving sales, and many others (including a great post from Gerry Corbett) supporting the bloodied public relations profession.  The writer, meanwhile, agreed that PR had value, but not for smaller enterprises who really need to convert prospects to dollars.

I thought about commenting myself, but in the end, it’s just a post with a link-bait headline and a pretty half-assed set of complaints about high retainers and lack of sales as a result. Yawn.  What’s interesting to me is the reaction from the industry. I mean, look, I say all the time that ROI is just one useful measurement of public relations — there are all kinds of things that organizations need we PRs to do other then sell. We certainly can, and do, do that, and often at much lower cost than our pals in marketing.

All marketing is communication, but not all communication is marketing.

As I’ve said about 20,000 times, attempting to reduce all value to the monetary leads to all kinds of mischief.  If it’s just about revenue, get rid of your overhead departments entirely. Let managers take care of HR matters, use outsourced legal, stop internal communications, forget branding, make business units manage their own financials, and don’t bother with community relations or government relations… Yeah, right.

The biggest error in that guy’s thinking is that PR can be done by amateurs. Hey, if it’s only about getting your local media to cover you, just reach out to them, it’s easy, he says. Send a letter or email, do a list of media influencers on Twitter and tweet to them. Of course, unless what you have is newsworthy, you’re going to fail. Part of what we PR people do is counsel our internal or external clients on what constitutes news. We do all kinds of stuff that has value, but no direct contribution to sales. It’s not required. We help make a field more fertile for sales, we don’t plant the seeds, pull weeds (well, maybe we do that…) or spread fertilizer (except in political PR. Just kidding. )

In the end, if we add value, organizations invest in us. If we don’t we’re out. Some of that will be ROI. Some of it will be common sense.  We want to help our organizations win in the marketplace. How we do that is STRATEGY. And no matter how smart a business owner may be, chances are a professional public relations person can do a better job of creating comms strategy than he or she can.


The ongoing debate about PR & Sales

February 28th, 2015

37c10c2This is how the meme goes: Every activity by a commercial organization, profit or nonprofit, is in the end about selling. It’s the ultimate triumph of marketing, the absolute ultimate objective. Let’s explore this thinking.

Mike Love (@therealitygap), in a Twitter discussion with Judy Gombita (@jgombita) and several others, avers this perspective, which prompts this post. Love’s view is that the sale is the thing and challenged all of us to describe what else it possibly could be.

I realize that I straddle the fence between practice and academy, and so that makes me a bit didactic, but my view is the all marketing is communication, but not all communication is marketing. I therefore reject the conclusion that sales is the ultimate objective. This might be better understood through the prism of the “3-outs.” When we measure comm activity (internal, external, regardless of industry) we need to measure at all levels — the output level, whether we are conducting activities appropriately; the outtake level, examining the immediate result of our activity; and outcomes, the business results emerging from the communication results.

An example would be following a strategy intended to educate and inspire employees involving changing the content of our intranet, increasing the number of stories focusing on strategy and the human results of our business strategy — we analyze the content to determine whether that occurred. First level measurement, but important. Second, we look at intranet traffic, to see whether employees consumed the content, including commenting, sharing, downloading, etc., AND we ask them to what degree the content helped them better understand our organization, feel more connected to it, and/or prompted them to recommend it or its products to others. Lastly, we look at retention, job performance, internal job posting, managerial affinity, etc. For some, we may examine impact on revenue or expense control. These are the business results and they constitute the deepest level of measurement.

In the Balanced Scorecard, enlightened organizations consider not only the usual metrics, but also the non financial metrics — attitudes and behaviors that might be distantly connected with sales, but largely are not, or at least are not provable conclusively. These types of organization define success more broadly than purely at the bottom line; it is true that enlightened organizations often do perform better than their counterparts, but which came first? Chicken or egg?

Contrast that perspective with that of a company that places sales at the point of the triangle – some of the most notable scandals (WorldCom, Enron, Arthur Anderson, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers) were also notable for their “anything goes” attitudes, driving sales at all costs.

This is what I think of when I see a meme like the one above. If everything is about sales rather than customer relationships, being a great place to work, being a stalwart in communities, making a difference in the world, then we risk becoming amoral slaves to the sales imperative.

In some ways, it’s a semantic distinction, and probably reveals a soft view of the role of business in societies. In others though, it reflects a sincere belief in the power of words. That’s why I see the “it’s all marketing” crowd as reductivist. It reduces the core relationships between organization and publics to a mere transaction, an exchange relationship. Especially as regards employee communication, such thinking makes building strong communal relationships (absolutely critical to employee engagement) much more difficult, more disposable.

When we declare that the only purpose to our activity is to sell, we define ourselves solely as agents in a transaction, powerless and dependent on the payment received. When we see the sale as one possible result of an effort to build a trusted relationship, we elevate ourselves and our publics to a more sustainable, deeper and more ennobling purpose.

Your thoughts?


3 reasons why independent schools must market

January 9th, 2015

CityOfLondonSchoolAn axiom in independent schools has been that marketing is unnecessary. Reputation, history and narrowness of market obviate the need to invest very much in the marketing effort, so the meme goes, especially in boarding schools. After all, when Presidents, Senators, and Captains of Industry graduated from your esteemed institution, why sell your school like soap?

Schools are finding, however, that a number of factors now are putting paid to the past preferences. It’s no longer nearly enough to buy a few ads in the local newspaper, and any effort to buy advertising in national publications carries a much bigger price tag than most schools are prepared to pay. But that’s a tactical problem, and the big issue is strategic; it’s the plans and thinking that most need to change, and here are three reasons why strategic and sophisticated marketing and communications are crucial for independent schools, especially boarding schools.

  1. Your alumni’s kids don’t live near you anymore. The demographic shift south and west has resulted in Washington, San Francisco, Atlanta, Phoenix and Dallas as places your alums now live instead of New England, Pennsylvania and New York. While boarders might “come back,” they’re not doing so at the same rate as prior years. For independent day schools, it’s much the same story: there are fewer families to draw from locally, and many schools are located in older neighborhoods no longer favored by full pay families.
  1. There is competition never before seen. Charter schools. Parochial. Magnet schools. Independent day and boarding. Home schooling. There are many outstanding public schools. This places parents in the catbird seat for choice. Add to that a fountain of data, information and wisdom about education, educators and schools, and you’re just one piece of the puzzle.
  1. Changing trends in news are challenging communication strategies. Let’s not belabor the point, but suffice to say that people get their news and information differently today than just 10 years ago. TV ratings, terrestrial radio and newspapers have lost market share. People don’t have to rely on curators like editors to get access to crucial information, and that means your school’s story should be told in multiple ways in multiple channels. It’s more than just a website, because the story is told by more people than just you. That was the case before, too, but now social media has made it easier than ever. Mind you, this doesn’t mean eliminating other media — it just means being strategic and data-driven in your paid media mix, your public relations, your community relations and your admission contact strategy.

There’s no doubt that the independent school world is being tilted on its axis by these relatively recent developments. In many schools, there still is a sense of denial — but this is a world where even the top, elite boarding schools are banding together to share techniques, tips and strategy.

What is your school doing to prepare for the next disruption?


{Note: This post also appeared on LinkedIn.}