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Communications Devolution Or Revolution?

It’s trendy for big companies to devolve authority to operating units, and the jury is still out on whether or not making them compete as collections of smaller independent ones makes any sense (the management consultants who came up with the plans will be long gone before there’s a verdict).

But it’s already clear that giving marketing communicators responsibility for overarching corporate communications is dead on arrival.

First off, they’re just two different animals, by definition: Business marketers talk to customers who might buy stuff and to those with whom a company is already doing business. This is incomprehensibly important because buying things is what keeps them and everyone else employed. Therefore, marketing communications is often an adjunct to sales, which makes perfect sense.

Corporate communications has a broader remit, tasked with talking to investors, employees, suppliers and partners, and non-business entities (like universities and NGOs), all of whom “buy” ideas about a company. This is also really important because it helps brands differentiate, adds to equity valuations, and makes everyone more loyal. Corporate communications is an adjunct to every other department in the company.

It has been fashionable for some time now to default to the communicators at operating units to manage both functions with a glib “that’s where the money’s made” comment to explain why. Staff and budget at the corporate level is often reduced to what’s essential to cover financial reporting requirements and catering to the egos of executives who want publicity.

It’s a mistake, for at least three reasons that are structural to how work gets done:

The timeframes are wrong. Customers don’t buy promises or pay for things that don’t exist; they have immediate needs that need to be addressed which, ideally, matches with the products and solutions sellers have in stock and ready to sell to them. Any perspectives on the future are really extrapolated from the present, usually in “use cases” of how those products and solutions would function. Operating units need to communicate this information even if it’s limited to statements of what is (with the occasional buzzwords about purpose or something else thrown in for good measure).

Other stakeholders are all about buying promises, especially those who “pay” for them with their belief, goodwill, and loyalty. Some make this distinction by describing brands as present tense perceptions and reputations as confidence in future tense performance. Corporate communicators necessarily look at the future and deduce back to the present, usually via what if statements on why and how product and solutions might function. It makes no sense for operating units to communicate this information; worse, it’s antithetical to their core and necessary purpose. 

Different planning tools. The core of any viable marketing communications plan is a product release calendar, which is based on the availability of products and solutions for shipping and implementation (and closely coordinated with dates for sales targets and, by association, buying cycles for major customers). Sure, they consider things like holidays and major trade events, but they otherwise look inward at what matters to a company, and when. Operating unit communicators must invent ways to bring such glorified product catalogs to life. This usually means defaulting to functional performance specs which, by definition and with good reason, limit the audiences to whom they can talk.

Corporate communicators need to be aware of what the operating units are selling, but their purview should reach far beyond that internal calendar to look outward and see all of the requirements of external stakeholders: For instance, when are sustainability reports compiled and issued? What are the major themes, and conclusions, media are covering? How has the chatter on social media about employee conditions evolved and what’s coming? Corporate-level topics (or issues) get asserted and ideally owned based on a different timing and planning approach that requires far different content.

Saying something memorableDeclaring that a product or solution is the greatest thing since sliced bread isn’t thought leadership, just as overviewing the conditions of a present tense market isn’t terribly memorable. Operating units are actually disincentivized from saying things that break through the clutter because they can’t risk getting too far ahead of their customers. They also can’t share things that are underway or imperfect since communications are intended to describe things that work; therefore, it’s really tough for marketing communicators do accomplish more than describe the status quo, which is rarely newsworthy.

Corporate communicators should do the exact opposite and put out content that is bold, contrarian, and risks pushback; there’s a case to be made that if you aren’t risking being wrong or offending someone, your thoughts don’t lead. Corporate-level content should speak on behalf of the businesses overall and insert the company into conversations that otherwise ignore product-based communications. This includes sharing the narrative of research and innovation and being transparent on the ups and downs of development. Business units need to present things as if they’re always right; corporate communicators need to earn credibility by revealing when things are sometimes wrong.

I’m reminded of the old adage the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, which is a misquote; “sum” should be “besides,” according to the guy who wrote it, and speaks less to an additive mathematical outcome and more to the emergence of something different from something else.

Applied to the business communications, it means that branding content distributed to operating units doesn’t necessarily add up to a broader, coherent or compelling identity. The mechanisms of how marketing communications operates, again by legitimate necessity, simply don’t allow for it, and all those shared slogans, proof points, and beautiful graphics are often included as awkward, inauthentic add-ons to the stuff that really matters to them.

It also means that relegating corporate communicators to investor relations support and stroking exec egos is a missed opportunity, as is tasking them with promoting some permutation of “purpose” campaigns which tend to all be the same and don’t legitimately draw on those very activities underway at the operating units. 

Instead, I vote for a revitalization of corporate communications as a function, and inspiring it with the goal of achieving the forward-looking, outward-facing, and memorable content that complements the work of the business units so, together, something unique emerges from that integration. Something big, different, authentic, and compelling.

I say we make business units as agile and successful as possible, but let’s stop expecting them to accomplish things that simply aren’t within their purview. Enough with the devolution.

We need a revolution.

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Does Corporate Sustainability Have A Credibility Problem?

If the content on company websites was complete and truthful, you’d have to conclude that we’re turning the corner on climate change and social injustice. Only it’s not, and we’re not.

Yes, corporate sustainability has a credibility problem.

The recent news about Coca-Cola is a good example. A special interest group called the Changing Markets Foundation recently revealed that Coca-Cola reached less than half of its goal for using recycled plastics in its bottles by 2015 (announced in 1990), and missed various revisions of that target between then and now. Also, the company has provided no updates on its announced intentions to use plant-based materials for a third of its bottles by 2020.

The interest group blames the company’s preference for making donations and grand gestures, all the while pocketing the cost savings from plastics prices that have gone down along with the price of oil. This practice was called greenwashing before it was subsumed by purpose.

And, sure enough, Coca-Cola made new pledges on recycling to an MacArthur Foundation initiative in 2018, encapsulated in its gloriously branded World Without Waste program.

A visit to the company’s website yields page after page of content about its progress on a variety of sustainability-related issues and its plans “to make the world’s packaging problem a thing of the past.” 

But the world’s problem is that Coca-Cola has a problem.

This truth is evidenced by a revelation the company made to the MacArthur Foundation that it produces 200,000 plastic bottles every minute…only that information isn’t on its website. What’s there instead is a wash of happy, inspiring language, numbers and percentages that all point in the right direction, and images of its products being held high by people as if in a salute.

So, there’s no reason to believe the company’s claims or its intentions.

What’s sad is that its lack of credibility is a self-inflicted wound, for three reasons that are common with many other companies’ reporting on sustainability:

The targets are unreachable, whether for wholly reconstituting the company and/or taking responsibility for saving the world. Citing lofty goals that management consultants have said that consumers care about says nothing about the reality of business…other than that companies are lazy, purchase the same research, and say the same things.

Stating a corporate purpose of making the world a better place (or whatever) is akin to voicing support for happiness and sunny days…it’s generic, and it sets up a crashing disconnect between what a company publicly claims and what it’s doing privately to stay in business.

Instead, why not pick targets for things that a business is pretty sure are reachable and then exceed them (that’s the stuff of an undergraduate class in communications, BTW). Skip all of the fluffy language — Coca-Cola says its Business and Sustainability Report is about “working together to create a better shared future for our people, our communities and our planet” — and focus instead on the specifics of a business and how sustainable practices are good for it first, not the planet or good feelings. Businesses are profit making entities and not NGOs, and if the truth that staying in business is a fundamental goal, someone will catch the disconnect sooner vs. later (as is the case for Coca-Cola).

Report honestly along the way. I’m sorry, but Coca-Cola’s sustainability reporting is disposable, as is similar content from many other companies, since it doesn’t reveal the complex and difficult realities of its efforts, nor the many shortcomings and failures that must be as common as its glowing accomplishments, if not more so.

Change is hard, and admitting that truth is a lot easier than pretending it isn’t because it screams authenticity — truth has a way of doing that — and helps inform as well as manage expectations, so when you know you’re going to miss one of those formerly achievable goals, saying so preempts it getting characterized as a willful crime. 

What’s hard, though, is that communicating honestly about sustainability must include revealing the tough operational decisions behind it, including making clear the trade-offs between short profits and longer term value expected from sustainable practices (or your metrics for them that should matter otherwise). Then tell your investors and your customers; if you can convince these two stakeholder groups, the Changing Markets Foundation and their ilk will pin blue ribbons on your company. 

Don’t brand sustainability. I mean, really? It’s the same for the nonsense names attached to corporate innovation programs; you’re just daring people to suspect that you’re up to something other than what you claim you’re doing. It is common sense that the bigger noise you make about things, the more attention you’ll get. Coca-Cola, like many companies, spends a lot of money producing content that declares and promotes its purpose to do things other than make fizzy drinks.

Despite this glib business strategy du jour, company purpose is still selling stuff and not even the gods of McKinsey or the Business Roundtable can absolve businesses of that sin. It’s just too easy, primarily because it’s unbelievable and ultimately unsustainable, despite all of the marketers happy to take client money to promote it.

To be judged honestly, companies need to be honest about the challenge, which is to choose operationally to destroy the planet and its people or make it and them better while selling whatever it is they sell. Sustainability is a business practice, not a good deed or marketing campaign attached to a brand, and it’s just sad that Coca-Cola and other companies buy into such branding inanity though, as the Changing Markets Foundation alleges about Coca-Cola, “it’s easier…than to really invest in it [solving plastic pollution].”

The only place that the world isn’t incinerating itself and punishing millions in poverty is on corporate websites. Starting tomorrow, companies should lock the marketers out of the room when it comes to communicating on sustainability.

I get that challenges from special interest groups are often based on facts taken out of context, and no non-profit is going to give its full blessing to a for-profit company. Interest groups exist as foils to corporations, so if businesses operated effectively on issues they cared about, and were convincing in communicating those efforts, those interest groups wouldn’t have a reason to exist. 

Since they thrive on conflict, there’s no resolving it.

But an open, honest, and ongoing conversation with stakeholders about realistic goals, the challenges in reaching them, and the centrality of any meaningful activity to business decisions that have real consequences for employees and investors would go a long way toward tipping that debate in the favor of businesses, at least with the stakeholders who are interested in the truth.

If Coca-Cola and other companies embraced this approach to addressing sustainability, it would also make it much harder to allege that they’re operating in bad faith…because they wouldn’t be doing so any longer.

Otherwise, who knows whether or not accusations like those from the Changing Marketing Foundation aren’t true?

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What’s Your PR Skunk Works Project?

Corporate communicators are working hard to make programs work in a ‘new normal’ of changed expectations and, generally, constrained budgets. I worry that not enough of them are experimenting with new ones.

Who could blame them? All of us are being challenged to do more with less, and do it while facing the most challenging professional and personal circumstances that most of us have ever experienced.

But that’s exactly why experimenting now isn’t just an option but a necessity.

Here’s why:

Nothing works like it did. The rules have changed for even the most proven, established activities, so none of them are or will work exactly as they once did, yet any remit to return to normal requires that communicators figure out how to deliver them. The likelihood that results won’t be up to snuff, especially over time, are high. Doing the “right” things now may well turn out to be “wrong.”

Everyone is doing the same things. If anything, the pandemic and resulting economic uncertainty have forced communicators to default to core activities like product-focused content and hosting webinars. Everything needs to somehow support the business, not just in the short-term but somewhat immediately, since sales are required to pay everyone’s salaries. Good luck standing out.

They’re saying the same things, too. Promises of corporate largesse or the benefits of stuff they make feel somewhat generic now, especially since the pandemic revealed that we were about as prepared to deal with it as we are to fight climate change or social injustice. No, it actually seems less believable now that the world has melted. There will come a time when you’re held accountable for it.

I get the necessity of sticking to process and striving to meet your internal stakeholders’ expectations, but there’s a solid self-interest case for experimenting, either with something you’ve done and think you might disrupt (I wrote about this idea a few weeks ago), or choosing something novel.

I say give novelty thing a shot. You need a skunk works project.

The term “Skunk Works” comes from a secretive weapons development group at Lockheed during the waning days of WWII. Now, Wikipedia says:

A skunk works project is a project developed by a relatively small and loosely structured group of people who research and develop a project primarily for the sake of radical innovation.

What would the project look like? It would depend on what you want to accomplish. Perhaps you could pick one of your existing communications goals and consider novel ways to achieve or augment it. Could it be a new approach to your thought leadership content? Using a new technology tool? Risking engagement with a third-party that might otherwise be an opponent?

They key would be to structure the project like Lockheed did: A stand-alone team tasked to operate without touching existing activities so, in the spirit of a medical treatment, do no harm while risking improvement. Don’t distract your existing external agency. Set boundaries for what’s allowable and what’s not, but otherwise let the internal/external team challenge every conceivable convention you (or your stakeholders) might take for granted.

What’s cool is that you can’t fail; a truism of any innovation activity is that you benefit from learning even if you don’t get the outcomes you’d hoped. Plus, you’d likely get credit from stakeholders for innovating (and there many even be public content to be had from your efforts, whether successful or not).

The trick with any skunk works project is to not get caught up in the same restrictive expectations you apply to existing activities. It won’t work the way it’s supposed to work; that’s the point. There are no guarantees when you experiment.

The thing is, there aren’t any guarantees for anything else we communicators are doing anymore, expect it’s all but certain that they’ll tend to disappoint us.

So, what’s your PR skunk works project?

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Intel’s Next Announcement Needs To Blow Our Minds

Earlier this month, Intel rolled-out a new logo and graphics color scheme. It deserves new actions to give the new look credibility and meaning.

Its announcement came replete with all the “right” words about what the branding meant. The company is “a catalyst for world-changing technology,” it is “[making] a leap into the future,” and pursuing a growth strategy for AI, 5G, and other popular buzzwords in order to “do something wonderful” and “create a more responsible, inclusive and sustainable world.”

The company already knows it needs more, noting:

“We know a new brand won’t come to life with new colors, sounds and logo; it needs to be a unifying rally cry built on action and aligned with our company purpose. We recognize that only through time and a continued track record for excellence and delivering for our customers will we share and define ourselves.”

In other words, the branding is the cart before the horse, only we don’t even know if it’s going to be a horse, donkey, 4-wheeler, or alien surfboard.

Or a Model T, if Intel’s current situation is directionally relevant.

Intel all but started the PC revolution and its chips have been pushing the edge of processing power for mainstream computing since the 1970s. Its products are in just about everything, everywhere. It employs over 100,000 people and grossed over $70 billion last year, or just about half of the revenue of its largest 9 competitors combined.

In other words, it’s a huge, lumbering target that must defend its positions in numerous markets while its competitors can pick and choose where, when, and how they attack.

Suggestions that it possesses some “heritage of innovation” or record of world-changing activities is like saying that an old person has a “heritage of having been young once” and vaguely remembers having done cool stuff. Its CEO’s recent passionless defense of desktops/laptops as somehow positioned for the future, which they’re not, doesn’t cut it.

So we’ve got the new cart. Now what?

My fear is that we’ll get more of the same, highfalutin babble that came with the branding announcement. Intel will announce incrementally improved products and ink new or renewed partnership deals with every tech brand you could name. It will flood the mediasphere with content — it has an endless number of outlets for news, blogs, videos, and speaking platforms — and the only thing it’ll all have in common will be some boilerplate references to the above mentioned branding babble.

It won’t be self-evidently credible or meaningful, though lots of senior execs will say so in their finely crafted PR quotes. It will reference itself as “a leader” as if doing so made it true.

Worse, I fear that “strategy” will get conflated with business news and will continue to focus on sales forecasts and results. “Selling more stuff” isn’t strategic, wherever and however it’s targeted, and no sales rationale is powerful enough to pull a kid’s wagon, let alone that branded cart.

My dream is that it would come up with some illustrative activities, not words, that warranted a second look from customers, partners, and potential employees. Doing so would take reimagining PR as a driver of operational action, not just the window dressing on those aforementioned legitimate but wholly uninspiring business decisions.

Here are three examples of what I’m dreaming about:

First, it could lead on some big, hairy issue, and my vote would be for cybersecurity. If Intel created a new threshold for software and/or silicon-level chip security it would be the de facto standard for the entire industry. Maybe it would rely AI, human oversight, and/or involve a number of its business (i.e. perspective and resources its competitors don’t have). I’d throw a bunch of engineers at a Manhattan Project-styled crash campaign to do it, and then narrate its setbacks and progress. Now that would be purpose.

Second, it could declare the PC/laptop idea dead (and then rename it). Make a big stink about the end of an era and announce the next one, full of specific new uses for the greater processing power only available in those configurations…which have been renamed: Desktops are exclusively workstations or communications centers and laptops are mobile controllers or whatever. And then invent new configurations for its chips, and encourage new software that requires all that processing heft. Smart furniture. Devices that merge gaming experiences with daily calendar management. Put a swat team of smart people on it and talk about their great and silly ideas.

Third, get active in really visionary, far-out stuff. Where is Intel on quantum computing? What will make quantum computing yesterday’s news (could it be intelligent biochips or processors that run on tachyons)? Intel should be involved in more failures than successes, if only to keep pushing the boundaries of what’s even conceivable, let alone possible. Where’s the cross-industry platform tasked with inventing a statistical successor to Moore’s Law, so maybe something that addresses the very core of our relationship and future with tech (or maybe something about AI)? Think less business plan next quarter and more Hari Seldon’s Foundation.

Intel is aware that it’s facing a reinvention moment, a point of inflection for its business. The new branding is the easy response, but it says nothing other than “stay tuned.”

What comes next must be actions, and my hope is that they’ll blow our minds.

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Does Corporate Purpose Need A New Purpose?

While most of us think about “corporate purpose” as companies adopting programs to promote public good beyond what directly benefits their bottom lines, I wonder if a bigger, more complex transformation is at hand?

I’ve been an outspoken critic of the philosophy as it’s currently conceived (here and here), but what if believing in brands, whether as employees or consumers, is more like faith than any traditional ideas or language of business?

I’m going to make the case for seeing companies as religions instead of commercial enterprises. If I’m even partially right, it has massive implications for how they function and communicate.

OK, for starters, pull your camera back from the purpose movement and consider three bigger trends:

First, the organizational structure of companies is changing. Uber, Airbnb, and others in have forever changed our conceptions of employment in the geophysical world, much the same way that Facebook, Google, and other online platforms have redefined the roles of makers and consumers. The idea of “employee” is no longer a standard nor a function on which these businesses rely, at least not solely.

We now participate in the economy in “gigs,” loosely defined by various roles depending on circumstance. Ditto for assets; why own when you can rent? Companies can outsource almost everything from workers (who are now independent contractors or freelancers) to parts and products (Boeing outsourced entire sections of its 787, and Intel will finish its Aurora supercomputer using chips from other manufacturers).

If companies were once seen as owners of productive assets and arbiters of worker employment, they are becoming primarily owners of ideas — the intellectual property behind products or services — for which they aggregate the necessary people and tools to create. 

Second, they’re all relying on the same resources. Automation, 3-D printing, and other digital technologies are reasonably available to any company that can pay for them. Digital platforms for supply chain, manufacturing processes, accounting, market research, and pretty much any other outsourced functions that were once owned and managed in-house are equally available, many times being offered to multiple clients from the same service providers.

Even the race to capture data, used for activities like targeting customers, vetting employees, and educating robots, tends to default to commonly known norms, as companies are seeking to answer the same questions by using many of the same sources of data (captured directly or bought from service providers). The premise that my robots will be better than yours is a fleeting proposition, as is your hope that you might target customers with more insights for more than a brief (or slight) moment of difference.

If companies were once seen as possessing competitive difference based on their operations, they’re becoming primarily owners of applications — the outcomes to which their ideas or IP are directed — for which they harness generic technology and put it to novel use.

Third, the “big” challenges they face are identical, too.

Every company faces the same meta challenges — climate change, employment diversity, community improvement — because all of us face them as individuals, too. There are 17 of them, according to the UN, and most companies set out to map and measure their progress at making improvements against those goals.

So, any company that produces pollution, which means every company should do its part to reduce it. They should hire or do business with a more diverse universe of people, and make management and leadership more diverse, too. If a company isn’t contributing money to education or community good deeds, it’s probably an outlier. These are all legitimate issues that need to be addressed, and we increasingly look to businesses as the engines for change. Doing what they do in response is also legitimate.

But it is purpose?

Think about it: Companies using the same people and same tools and technologies to address the same big picture outcomes.

That doesn’t sound like purpose in any way we’d understand the term. It sounds generic, like table stakes. Every company is trying to solve the same problems.

OK, now about that camera I mentioned earlier? Fool around with the focus a little and consider this:

Religions tend to be incredibly similar in terms of the “big” questions they try to solve — literally, they don’t get bigger than eternity and the meaning of the universe — and rely on the same pool of people and tools to address them, like source materials, roles and rituals for the faithful. A large percentage of the content the distribute is somewhat interchangeable, especially when it comes to the processes they promote for leading good lives.

What differentiates them is how they go about doing it, and whether or not someone finds it believable and applicable to their own life.

You could say that the purpose of religion is to give its adherents purpose.

Just imagine if religions went about purpose the way companies do.

“Thought leadership” pronouncements from leaders that all said the same things: “People need to live just lives,” or “heaven’s really important,”delivered at religion conferences filled with religious people or in media directed at the same audiences. Infographics on metrics of reduced sins committed and increased good works, and slick videos on the importance of the afterlife. Announcements of contributions to charities.

What would be missing? Reasons to believe that one approach was any different than another save for differences in language and allusions. Reasons to care.

A religion would be an “it is” instead of an “I am,” and it would go out of business before long.

Now, imagine if corporations went about purpose the way religions do. I can think of at least eight things that would be different:

First, a company would assert a new way of looking at the world and its problems and opportunities. It would describe unique outcomes and ways to achieve them, taking the generic questions that everyone asks and translating them into bespoke answers. Most importantly, it would present really big things in terms of personal experience and achievement in ways that no other company did. This would be its thought leadership.

Second, a company would talk to stakeholders differently than it talks to everyone else, since its members had asked for revealed wisdom. It would tell them things that substantiated its way of looking at the world and empowered its adherents to realize those truths. They would always be the audience that mattered first and the most; never taken for granted, or presumed to be “informed” of things going on beyond them since the things that mattered were being done by them. This would it its content.

Third, a company would be defined as much by what it didn’t do as by what it did. It would necessitate difficult decisions, not just strategic ones, because forsaking actions can be as potent an expression of purpose as actions and they are a tool to help stakeholders realize the meaning of their faith. This would be a binary thing, so no protestations of “we’re working to reduce XYZ.” This would be its business strategy.

Fourth, a company would have its own rituals. It would go far beyond events that stakeholders “attended” or could consume online as spectators; they would have active, emotional elements that gave participants a sense of involvement and co-ownership. It would unlock the meaning of its purpose by enabling its stakeholders to unlock aspects of themselves, and provide newbies with impactful visceral experiences. This would be its special events plan.

Fifth, a company would constantly reinterpret its message delivery, sticking to its ultimate destination but finding new ways to realize the journey. It would dare to share new, sometimes difficult or challenging content that added meaning or nuance to prior statements. It would anticipate the latest difficulties the faithful might face and preemptively address them, taking an active role in helping guide their experience. This would be its crisis communications.

Sixth, a company would speak primarily through its believers, encouraging them to be evangelists. It would never talk about what “it” did, since there is no IT, but rather about the actions of its stakeholders to realize its IP. It would transform every statement and policy into possible actions that could be taken by its adherents, as its ultimate purpose is only “solvable” by their actions (and for them, since the corporation has no destiny in the afterlife). This would be its process.

Seventh, a company wouldn’t shy away from imposing burdens on its stakeholders, in addition to expecting them to spread the faith. It would link expectations for longer work hours, more productivity, added volunteerism, etc., with greater access to revealed wisdom and participation in rituals. It would make annualized celebrations of working together truly holy events and artifacts like pins celebrating years of employment into true badges of meaning. This would be its loyalty.

Eighth, a company would always highlight work undone and shy away from celebrating too much success. It would identify a new step after every old one, providing its stakeholders (and potential new applicants) with a continuing journey as the central tenet of their participation. It would be on the lookout for ways to apply its content to new issues, new needs and new opportunities. This would be its branding.

Ultimately, there has to be more to corporate purpose than another marketing campaign, and even today’s most celebrating communications activities seem oddly detached from the transformations underway within and around companies.

And, oh yeah, the world is still on fire and it seems to be getting worse, so all that corporate purpose marketing is failing to achieve its purpose.

So why not change the purpose?

I wonder if acting more like a religion would yield business plans that were more honest, give people things in which they could believe, and just maybe deliver outcomes that truly changed the world (or at least changed the lives of believers).

Maybe the remit for corporate purpose is faith?

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Blow Up Your Corp Comms

The world we knew at the start of 2020 longer exists. Covid has disrupted how we work, live, and learn, and the only certainty about the future is that we’re not returning to the past.

Therefore, it’s the perfect time to disrupt how your company (and how you) communicate.

No, it’s past time, and it’s not an opportunity, it’s a requirement. Your stakeholders require novel approaches, and your management wants better ideas that cost less money.

So, here are 5 ways you could disrupt what you do:

The Gauntlet To Mediocrity

First, blow up your processes. Does your company communicate by committee? It’s common to put communications content through a wringer of brand and marketing types, business leads, subject area experts, and often a very senior exec (or more), each of whom has 1) A different agenda, 2) Limited knowledge of the requirements of your media customers, and 3) About a nanosecond to review your stuff.

Now is the time to challenge that Gauntlet to Mediocrity and tell people the truth, both about the form requirements of your tools — like press releases, for example, they can’t have headlines longer than a few words, and filling exec quotes in press releases with buzzwords about strategy are not only routinely ignored but actually harm your credibility — and the strategic realities of your intent (i.e. participating in public conversations means talking about issues that matter to your customers which, in the press release instance, are media who need blunt ideas and conflict vs. blather from your branding strategy slide presentation).

When your stuff gets challenged, muster the audacity to ask for more clarity on the basis of those comments. Dare to tell your internal stakeholders what can be achieved based on what they’ve given you, not what they abstractly hope for. Add, when your stuff takes more than a day or two to get approved, or gets watered-down, risk telling them that there’s no point in distributing it. 

Thought Followship

Second, let’s face it: Almost all of the “thought leadership” that we impose on our external stakeholders 1) Isn’t really thoughtful, since it usually parrots the same research, whether you’ve conducted it or bought it from pricey consultants, since every other company is buying and promoting the same content, and therefore 2) Doesn’t really lead on anything.

Thought leadership is about telling people stuff they didn’t know, didn’t want to know, and/or might not agree with. In fact, if you don’t risk pissing someone off with what you publish, it’s likely thought followship.

Imagine if the content attributed to your senior executives challenged conventional wisdom on some topic relevant to your business (or, better yet, relevant to your customers and communities)? These topics should originate in the outside world and not bubble up from the pit of your branding gurus, since it’s rarely going to be about how your company “leads” on so-and-so product or market specifics, nor how your stuff is uniquely suited to answer questions that nobody has asked of you.

Chances are you don’t even know what your execs think about the realities of social justice, artificial intelligence, climate change, or any other topic that your external stakeholders read, write, and care about. Can you say something different or challenging about something? Would it risk putting one of your execs out on a limb, if not actively encourage people to voice their competing opinions? Isn’t it time your stakeholders heard stuff that actually mattered?

Dare To Fail

Third, if you spent any time reviewing the content on most big company websites, you’d think the tide is turning against global climate change, full-time employees are driving miraculous innovation, and smiling, happy people in far-away places are incredibly thankful for corporate largesse.

And then we wonder why people don’t trust us.

How about making a fundamental change in the purpose of your comms, shifting from solely touting successes to sharing ongoing challenges, too? After all, having a corporate “purpose” isn’t about being right all the time, or having solved the problems of the world, but striving toward betterment…a journey that is not linear nor always happy.

So, those stats you provide about your great progress in reducing carbon emissions? Have the honesty to point out that you still generate too much of the stuff and are struggling to innovate ways to capture more of it. What are the thorny aspects of your customers lives that aren’t easily fixed with a charitable contribution or volunteerism from your employees?

Perhaps most importantly, what have you tried that didn’t work as you’d planned, and how have you learned from it? Being right all the time just isn’t credible.

Let Social Grow Up

Fourth, do you remember that generational change-thing that was a big deal before the pandemic struck, specifically as it related to both how you communicated and what tools you used? Many big companies created social teams, or outsourced the activity, and always made sure that they were staffed with Millennials or, better yet, Gen Z types because, well, they genetically just knew how to do whatever needed to be done.

Turns out 1) They aren’t predisposed with an affinity for doing anything in particular, other than being human beings, 2) They’re not the only ones using social media or the social functions of media overall (hint: we all are), and 3) All the made-up processes and measures for their activities via said media are overdue for rehab and should probably get folded back into the org and process norms of your communications overall.

It would disrupt what you put into social channels, how often you did it and, most importantly, what you expected from it. I’m reminded of the transition CRM software made from its introduction as “this thing you have to do” with requirements of faithful obedience, to an integrated component that supported what you already did. Maybe it’s time to let social grow up, too?

Death To Stock Photography

Fifth, and this is an ongoing bugaboo for me, it’s long since past time to stop using generic stock photography in your comms (see social above).

You know the images I’m talking about: Versions of cityscapes crisscrossed with glowing lines intended to say “digital,” people having orgasms while getting something accomplished on their smartphones, and the omnipresent shots of diverse individuals sitting around a table, staring at a whiteboard, or otherwise working together in pixelated harmony.

Who ever told us those pictures communicated anything whatsoever? The idea that we put them on websites, at the top of blogs and press release or, gasp, push them out on social (because people want images…like these?) is laughable.

An image should add value to written content because it communicates something that words couldn’t, or does so in a different or more compelling way. Think how differently you’d approach your visual toolbox if you kept this remit front and center? An imperfect but authentic shot that communicated something real would be far more beneficial to you than a perfect ersatz shot that communicated nothing.

PS, the same goes for your videos which, if they come with even a hint of being corporately-produced, are probably a waste of your money (because they’re a waste of your stakeholders’ time).

There are dozens if not hundreds of other ways you can and should disrupt your communications.

If the ideas scare you, consider this: That changed world I mentioned at the start of this essay? It’s already disrupting what you do, so you might as well lean into the challenge and embrace change. There’s no going back to the way things once were, and practices that presume that they’ve never changed are only going to get more irrelevant going forward.

It could be a glorious opportunity to experiment, have fun, and maybe even succeed!

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“SDG” Is Just An Acronym

Many global businesses use the UN’s SDG’s as drivers of their sustainability comms. There must be a better way to narrate their journeys.

The Sustainable Development Goals were adopted by the UN’s members in 2015 as the areas in need of change in order to live up to its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. They cover everything from ending poverty (SDG #1) and achieving gender equality (SDG #5), to making cities inclusive and safe (SDG #11) and ensuring affordable and sustainable water (SDG #6) and energy (SDG #7) for all.

Where are we now, five years later and a third of the way closer to the 2030 deadline? Last time I checked, the planet is on fire, societies are in chaos, and nations are cooperating less than ever before.

You wouldn’t know this from the reporting of large global businesses, however. Progress is being made on all 17 SDGs, and there are percentages and cartoony infographics to prove those accomplishments. Heart-tugging personal story vignettes often accompany this reporting.

The result is a huge gap between what we’re being told and what we see around us.

I’m not questioning the work itself, which is both real and absolutely necessary; rather, it’s how companies talk about it, and there are three reasons why referencing SDGs doesn’t help their case:

First, I’d wager that most people don’t even know what they are.

Acronyms are where words go to die. They’re secret code, meaningful only to the initiated in the way that EBITDA has meaning for accountants (or OPS screams importance to baseball fans). Acronyms are the labels for diseases and spy agencies.

Specific to SDGs, we Americans can easily mistake the acronym for “STP,” which is either an oil additive or 90’s grunge band, depending on your age.

It’s impossible to make progress against an acronym that has no meaning for most of your public stakeholders. No handful of letters can bestow an imprimatur of legitimacy.

My experience is that the real measures for any sustainability initiative are a company’s performance metrics, in that companies need to show that doing good is good business. But more on that in a bit…

Second, most people (at least most Americans) don’t know or care about the UN, and many who do are critics.

I lived in NYC in the 1980’s and I can tell you that we were blissfully unaware that the UN was headquartered there. We all knew where Wall Street was located and that it was very important. My only memories related to the UN are of limos with diplomatic license plates parking where others couldn’t.

More broadly, many Americans aren’t big fans of global cooperation. We refused to sign up for the UN’s predecessor, the League of Nations, and we ended up hosting the UN because we were pretty much the only economy left standing after WWII.

We are its largest single source of funds, though not out of any sense of altruism. A world that doesn’t blow itself up is good for American interests, and an entity that often (though inconsistently) support ours interests is a good thing in practice, even if we don’t approve of its existence in principle.

Nobody has ever bothered to explain that to us, however, so lots of us default to our genetic distrust of overseers (of any ilk). We’re also predisposed to believe in wild conspiracy theories, so the premise that some supposed world government and its bureaucrats are going to tell us what to do is, well, just un-American.

Being seen as doing its bidding is probably not the best PR strategy, even if they’re right.

Third, the SDGs are insanely beyond the reach of anyone’s imagination, let alone our ability to achieve them.

I mean, really, 17 commandments? God only needed 10. Net Promoter Scores require three. Showing up in court requires one.

The totality of some of the SDG goals (like eradicating hunger) are only matched by the vagueness of others (such as “decent” work for all). Maybe that’s why there are an endless array of summits, conferences, agendas, frameworks, and reports produced in support of them; the UN’s website lists “960 Events, 1205 Publications, 5132 Partnerships, and 174 Targets.”

Again, I’m willing to believe that its architects are all principled, well-intentioned individuals, but whatever positive change they enable is buried under whatever next round of blather they’re publishing or promoting. There’s no way to reach some of the goals and no way to objectively know we’ve reached others.

The cynic in me sees it as a full-employment program for bureaucrats, along with the “public interest” groups that track the SDGs and the corporate communicators held accountable for reporting against them.

And the world continues to burn.

What could sustainability comms look like instead? Well, for starters, it would avoid references to global-level measures and look closer to home. The actions of even the biggest companies represent a drop in the bucket against worldwide numbers. Take it as a given that a business supports the UN’s SDG goals. It’s like stating that you believe in happiness.

Instead, look to metrics on actual business performance and set goals based on the contexts of the communities in which you operate.

Dare to swap a happy infographic for a comprehensible statement of activity, like expressing your carbon emissions not in metric tonnes or as a percentage of some exotic global number, but in a commonly-understood analogy, like “we kept X number of Olympic-sized swimming pools filled with soot from entering the atmosphere.”

Risk telling the truth about what you’re doing wrong as well as right; the journey to sustainability isn’t made up only of positive steps but rather lots of difficult and nuanced trade offs. And failures. And imperfect solutions. And more work to be done.

Dare to address the trade offs, especially those in customer experience (including pricing), as well as the detrimental impacts progress in one area might have on another. Educate your stakeholders on what your progress means for product updates, durability, your profits, etc. Make them participants in your journey, not just spectators.

Dare to acknowledge what people can see with their own eyes, and craft your comms to talk to them about it, and not about SDGs.

Ultimately, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development will end in disappointment, as no goals will be met completely. Another plan will be announced, perhaps targeting 2045, and certainly another round of SDGs (perhaps more of them) and a new array of meetings and papers.

Supporting the spirit of those efforts is spot on, but focusing your comms on your business and you efforts to reach your own goals, and not those labeled with the UN’s acronym, is the better way to narrate your sustainability journey.

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People, Not Channels

If your sales team approached customers the way we communicators talk at our stakeholders, your company would go out of business.

The differences are shocking, and for years they’ve been evident in the different ways each department is treated:

  • Sales departments are all but untouchable by others in the organization because what they do is too sensitive and vital to a company’s survival. Nobody can tell a sales person how to sell (other than other salespeople). The company exists to give them what they require, if not simply tolerate them.
  • Marketing and communications departments are everyone’s business because everyone else knows what’s best for them; in fact, everyone is an expert, so they feel empowered to question and otherwise manage what marketers and communicators do, and tolerate their protestations otherwise.

I say we communicators are mostly responsible for this condition and, instead of bemoaning the fact that we’re “not at the table” or getting replaced by automation, we could face up to the three problems inherent in the very premise of what we do (and how we see ourselves):

Messaging

I hate the word messaging because it’s almost as generic as content only it comes with an implicit assumption of meaning or relevance. It has neither.

Messaging is usually nonsense because it arises from the mistaken assumption that our job is to tell people what they should know.

Sure, research identifies interests and triggers for categories of “buyers” of information, but those are treated as mere tactical considerations. Messaging is somehow strategic because it comes from inside, from the beautiful conceptions of brands that exist nowhere in the world other than on slick PowerPoint presentations from branding consultants.

Haven’t you ever wondered how so many companies can lead on things like sustainability or fighting climate change and yet the world is still burning to a crisp? What about all the promises of better living with technology that seems oddly detached from solving the problems that we truly face? Did anybody ask to live in a “smart city” or volunteer to give up their job to a robot?

Every company is changing the world for the better yet nothing seems to be getting better.

How many times have you looked at (or been responsible for producing) a list of corporate or brand messages and said to yourself “nobody has asked for this, and nobody will believe it?”

People are crying out the world over for simple, honest, and credible communications from us, and we give them messaging. The good news is that we’re not solely responsible for it since everyone else in the organization is telling us what to do.

But that’s the bad news, too.

Motivators

Our goal is to occupy our target audiences’ time, usually by throwing stuff at them (see messaging above).

It’s kind of hilarious, if you think about it. An entire canon has emerged that dictates we spend time and money utilizing a long list of communications channels, broken down into categories of paid, earned, shared, and owned media. We’re told, and tell our compatriots, that we must fill them with stuff and, since most of them apart from the most discerning earned outlets are willing to propagate whatever garbage we throw out (see messaging above), we can then point to the barrage and claim victory.

We’re constantly looking to push stuff at our customers to motivate them to…wait for it…endure it. We make it funny, or brief, or attach a stock photo of some ersatz scene because experts tell us people like images. We reformat it for various technology platforms, so we can push stuff on peoples’ smartphones as easily as we once did on their TVs.

And we repeat all the tactical advice research gives us about topics and keywords, attaching them to our messaging (see…well, you get the drift) because our strategy is motivated by channel abuse, not content care.

Imagine if sales people were dumb enough to approach their customers this way. I’ve known sales people who made a big noise about how many meetings they held in any given month. If closed deals didn’t soon follow, they were out of a job.

Imagine if we were daring enough to say nothing when we had nothing to say.

Metrics

We watch made-up measures of acknowledgment and feeling while sales looks at, well, sales. And then we wonder why our budgets get cut before theirs.

The list of invented metrics for communications is too long to repeat here, so I’ll highlight one I particularly hate: Share of voice. I’m not sure there’s any one definition of what it means but I think it’s a measure of how broadly and often company messages appear in all of those media channels I mentioned earlier.

More is better, of course, and repeats of those messaging messages are worth bonus points.

It’s glorious nonsense, considering there’s no direct or reliable causal relationship between mentions in the aggregate, in that brand names mentioned more often don’t necessarily sell more or more profitably, and repeats of those marketing messages don’t make them more credible or useful.

Imagine if your conversational strategy with someone who didn’t understand you was to raise your voice and repeat what you were saying more often.

It’s worse when you consider the fundamentals of branding on which our marketing and communications are based.

What’s a brand? Good question. No two people, not even in the branding world, agree. What is or isn’t branding? Again, who knows? It’s either certain stuff or everything, depending on who you ask and what services they’re hoping to sell.

At risk of misapplying a Churchill quote, “Marketing/communications is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

We measure our successes at realizing that fantasy with marvelous charts and graphs, even computer dashboards that tee them up in real time (because real time fantasies are better than fantasies postponed).

And then we tell one another how to do it more often. I caught an article this morning arguing that marketing and communications need to up their budgets during downturns.

I get the doubling down response, but anybody who saw the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid knows how the movie ends.

Monday

We could start changing the deal next week, and the pandemic provides the perfect prompt since things are and will change whether or not we’re authors of it.

I’d risk borrowing ideas from sales, starting with how sales folks message — they generally discover what customers really need instead of lecturing them — followed by coming up with motivators other than consumption for the stuff we produce and then measuring results other than that consumption.

Less sharing and more selling, and then standing up for what we’re doing with real world backup.

Just imagine a day when your organization has as much faith in (or fear of) marketing and communications as it does for sales. Here’s a simple measure that’ll reveal how you’re doing on that front: How many non-sales executives presume to review what sales people say to current or prospective customers, or how they they say it?

Yeah, zilch.

The closer we get to that number, the more proof it’ll be that you’re doing things that actually matter.

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The WHO Hired A PR Firm. Good Luck With That.

The World Health Organization (“WHO”) is paying PR firm Hill + Knowlton (“H+K”) $135,000 over the span of six weeks to assess its problems, identify its potential advocates and detractors, and test its messaging.

Good luck with that.

[Read the essay at Spiritual Telegraph]

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You Should Plan For Alternatives To CES

It’s not certain and a lot can happen between now and early 2021, but my bet is that the annual Consumer Electronics Show (“CES”) will be cancelled or severely curtailed.

The show is still on, according to its organizers (the Consumer Technology Association, or “CTA”), and it promises to “highlight technologies that help provide solutions for some of the day-to-day challenges created by the pandemic.”

But the numbers just don’t look good. Over 175,000 people attended last year’s event, and anybody who has gone to a CES knows that the crush of crowds is the rule, not the exception. If you’re not stuck in a gaggle of people on the show floor or at a bar, you’re likely standing in a line to get from one to the other.

In fact, interacting with people is pretty much the only reason why CES still exists.

Brands have been pulling back from trade shows for decades, choosing instead to host their own events (made possible by technologies that connect them directly with their customers and other stakeholders). Also, definitions have blurred, so many of the sellers and buyers of once distinct technology products are now the same department or person.

After the COMDEX shows folded in 2003, CES made itself an annual gig and became the only place everyone could reasonably expect to run into everyone else.

So, when the CTA promises to “sanitize spaces across show venues,” it’s referencing about 3 million square feet of various surfaces (i.e. good luck with that). “Widening aisles” will just let more people crowd into them, much like extra highway lanes do nothing to relieve congestion, and “cashless systems for purchases” will still require buyers to touch whatever it is they buy (or eat).

When you add the political insanity of some Americans refusing to wear masks (despite CES’s “best practice” suggestion otherwise), and the likelihood that the coronavirus will be raging without a vaccine and, well, there’s just as likely a chance that the CTA won’t cancel or cut back on the event…but that people just won’t come, especially from countries around the world that have better managed their outbreaks.

Exhibiting at CES can be a significant expense for brands, so it makes sense to plan for some sort of disruption of next year’s event. Here are three things to consider…

[Read the entire essay at Spiritual Telegraph]