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Opportunities in communications training for 2011

Into the Looking Glass

We are now into the final quarter of 2010 and the conversations I am having with people these days all centre on the key business trends for 2011 and the sort of communications training programmes we need to have in place to support them.

The trends I am outlining here are based on discussions with business leaders as well as learning and development professionals, as well as wide research into the key business, technology and consumer trends outlined for next year by research think tanks, trendspotting agencies and journalists.

Social media goes to Main Street

Nielsen data tells us that currently, there are about 2 billion people who are Internet users –roughly 30% of the world’s population, and this is growing at the rate of 500% each year. Internet penetration is highest in Asia, at 42%. Europe is a distant second at 24.2%.

The Internet is a phenomenon that is still on fire, and social media is one element that is fuelling usage rates all over the world across a wide demographic What does this mean for business in 2011?

Basically, no-one can ignore the firestorm that is social media but if you haven’t already jumped on the bandwagon, 2011 is the time to do so, or you might miss the boat. Like online marketing in the late 1990s, social media is the new big thing and over the last three years or so, marketing professionals have greeted it as the best thing since sliced bread. In 2011, my bet is that social media will not only hit Main Street, it will enter homes and become part of the wallpaper!

What this means is that marketers will have to seamlessly integrate their social media strategies with other marketing strategies. In the past, digital strategists were just the geeks in the marketing department with an iPod coming out of their ears. They merely responded to and supported the overarching marketing strategy, but certainly did not influence it. Well, their time has come.

The new wave of marketers and communicators must be people who are intimately familiar with the vagaries of the Internet, the myriad of social media as well as traditional marketing and communications platforms. Marketing and communications strategies will have to interlock online and offline campaigns to address the relative strengths of all these platforms as equal parts of the campaign. This will be no easy feat – the viral nature of online conversations make them difficult to get a handle on.

Engagement with customers will have to change as well. In traditional marketing, relationships tended towards arms length. With social media, relationships are becoming much more intimate and communications are to customer segments of one. This will cause ripples of impact through marketing and communications strategies and indeed, it will be some time before marketing strategies and technologies evolve enough so that the new business-to-customer relationships reach their full potential.

Leadership gets personal

According to independent news agency Mathaba, an April 2010 Pew Research Center (PRC) for the People & Press study and others report growing public anger, distrust, and hostility toward business and government because of a “perfect storm of conditions” – wrecked economies, fueling “epic discontent” toward responsible officials.

Additionally, there has been a large number of corporate scandals and failures (beginning with Enron and Tyco in 2001/2002, and more recently with the various players who were party to the huge sub-prime disaster last year) in the last decade, thus adding to the general air of cynicism in the corporate world.

In 2011, constituencies will say enough is enough, and hold CEOs to higher standards. They will assess corporate chiefs not merely on their ability to manage the business end of things, they will also demand CEOs of higher moral fibre, leaders with a heart who truly walk the talk. CEOs will have to be able to shape the ethical backbone of their companies, fire both the hearts and minds of their people, and galvanise them towards positive action.

Leadership, after all, is not merely the ability to envision and initiate change and growth for the better; it is also the ability to draw people to the vision, and to persuade and influence stakeholders to actively commit, support and work towards the vision. When there are no followers, there can be no leaders.

Leaders will therefore be challenged to find new ways to relate to their staff as human beings. Too long have the key performance indicators focused on balance sheets and ignore the human side of business. 2011 will be a year of transformation for leadership – it’s back to school, for corporate honchos dig deep to rediscover find their hearts and their moral compasses.

Linking a diverse and remote workforce

In several talks I have given over the past year, I have mentioned that technology is driving a new collaborative spirit in the workplace. In 2011, this trend, catalysed by the pervasiveness of social media as workplace communication tools, will continue as the demographics of the workforce change as a result of cross-border staff deployment.

We will see HR and management being challenged by issues linked to workplace diversity and inclusion. More and more, we will see businesses, even and small and mid-sized companies, having to review HR policies relating to equality and inclusiveness with regards to gender, nationality,  religion, age, even different job functions, and asking for more diversity and sensitivity training. Engagement as opposed to mere dialogue will become more important.

Of course, this means that team building will take a different slant. Where once teams comprised of a fairly homogenous group of people, teams are now becoming increasingly diverse and differentiated. Team building training needs to include a cross-cultural slant as well as teachings on how to manage remote teams.

In 2011, office demographics will change also because more people are being hired on a contract or freelance as a measure of dealing with the ongoing economic challenges. Budgetary conservatism will be the order of the day. Companies will be looking for ways to keep doing business but at a lower cost. Enter the part-time contractor. They are cheaper than full time headcount because they are on a different compensation structure and if they need to be laid off, they will not require severance benefits.

Managers therefore are having to think like business owners because they are hiring their own contractors. (HR typically only gets involved for full time headcount.) Executives will be negotiating directly with freelancers on the terms of engagement, and becoming more sensitive to headcount budgets – much like business owners. With ‘floaters’, managers will learn to manage differently – learning how to motivate people who are not committed to the company because of the short-term nature of their association. Management by project will continue as a trend.

Corporate social responsibility goes green

2010 has been dubbed the year of natural disasters, with 94 volcanic eruptions, floods, storms, avalanches and mudslides counted so far and two massive oil spills (in Dalian, China and the Gulf of Mexico). Add to this the uncertainty over the long term global oil supply, the unstable political situation in the Middle East, and the rising price of oil, the urgency behind the search for alternative energy sources has never been more acute.

Community outreach programmes by corporations to establish positive corporate citizenship will continue as a trend, but will increasingly focus on the environment and related issues just because the sheer mindshare generated by the coverage has raised environmental consciousness and made it a hot button issue.

Sustainability will become more important and big corporations, under pressure to act as citizens with a conscience, will put their resources behind issues and initiatives to save the planet and point to other ways of energy sustainability.

Fuelled by viral conversations on the Internet, environmental activism will be all the rage and will keep gathering steam. Community outreach has been a means in the past to engage employees and build a strong employer brand positioning. With the need to motivate staff in lean times without necessarily paying them more, this could be a useful gambit which will speak to a number of corporate agendas – employee engagement gambit, and adding depth to corporate brands in front of external customers and other stakeholders.

Customers make themselves heard

Customers will become even more demanding in 2011 – simply because tough economic conditions will continue to impact household budgets. The good times aren’t really here yet and the doomsayers (although becoming more subdued) are still predicting a double-dip recession. We all know that the world economic order has been turned on its head but at the moment, we don’t have a clear view of what will emerge in place of the old.

So, customers will want to hang onto their dollars and businesses will have to work extra hard to persuade them to part with their hard earned cash. It’s a buyers’ market. Rather than spending money frivolously, consumers will continue to seek out deals, using coupons and loyalty programmes for the best bang for their buck.

More than ever, customers will want value, and they want good old fashioned honesty in advertising. Less spin, please.

Consumer campaigns will have to up their game and seek out higher ground beyond the crowded space that is already occupied by deals, coupons and loyalty programmes. In the absence of huge marketing budgets, online marketing campaigns which speak directly to individual customers in a very personal way will make their influence felt.

The tone, language and nature of the offers made by marketing campaigns will therefore have to change. Marketing as a discipline will find itself on a different and new developmental curve.

Customer service in Singapore? Pure rubbish!

I live in Singapore and there have been many reams written about the horrendous level of customer service in Singapore. Many reasons have been cited for this – the fact that many of our service staff are not from countries famous for their customer service is one. For another, because Singapore is such a cultural melting pot, we don’t all speak the same brand of English and so, what is rudeness for some is merely conversational for others.

Take my conversation this morning with Allgreen Properties Centre Director for Great World City, for example. I had complained three days ago that the security guards at Great World City had given me and my mother (who has just had leg surgery and was painfully hobbling around with a frame walker) grief for wanting the cab to stop right at the curb of the office tower rather than the outer lane usually designated for taxis.

Since I had not heard back, I called them for an update, and when I got stonewalled by the frontline person, I asked to speak to her supervisor, who answered the phone with ‘Ya, what?” Charming. And a portent of things to come. Needless to say, I have complained to higher authorities within the company – let’s see if I will be surprised and delighted by actually getting a timely response.

Customer service issue #1 – lack of accountability, can’t wait to pass the buck

This happens alot. When you don’t get any satisfaction from the frontline staff, most people ask to speak to the supervisor. When you do get a supervisor, you find yourself repeating the whole story again. Then you are passed on to someone else because your issue belongs to some other department…and so on.

Here’s a newsflash for companies who have customers (ie all companies) – when we call in to complain, we are already frustrated. Do not compound the frustration by making us relive the service lapse again and again…and again. Deal with it, take responsibility for it, brief your internal people appropriately so that the customer is greeted with a proactive willingness to work towards a solution, rather than a ‘Ya, what?”.  Makes sense?

Customer service issue #2 – lack of service culture within the company

When the frontliners are rude, have a poor service attitude and are inflexible, this is usually a reflection of the culture of the company. Service tenets trained into staff usually have been approved by the company and this means they reflect the thinking of the company, and its culture. When Allgreen promised to get back to me about my complaint and did not, it was already a bad sign. It says – you don’t matter. Your issue doesn’t matter.

After the “Ya, what” greeting, the Director proceeded to tell me about their procedures and processes. She explained the security guards’ thinking and approach. She said that the security tapes had been reviewed but there was no audio and therefore she had to take the security guard’s version of the incident. Not once did she apologise for the nasty experience, or the fact that the security guards were unsympathetic to my mother’s condition or assure me that the security guards would be counselled and trained to do better next time.

When I explained that the ramp they had wanted my mother to walk to was several steps away and that any downward direction, no matter how gentle, was terrifying to someone unsteady on their legs, she said -“Oh but there’s a step”. Ye gods.

Lack of understanding, lack of effort to establish understanding, bespeaks arrogance.  I suppose once upon a time one could have attributed this to the authoritarian Asian culture. Not these days though, with our forthright youth. And certainly not after the reams that have been written about what makes good customer service.

No, I’m afraid this service lapse is due to a lack…lack of a customer service orientation. No excuses.

By the way, I attended a conference a couple of weeks ago, where someone brought up a very interesting point – to get good service, CEOs must have his or her compensation tied to the level of customer service in the company. What a fantastic idea. The fact that no Singapore company has initiated this says alot for the future of customer service in Singapore.

Service issue #3 – poor job definition

One  key issue is that companies don’t define the job of frontliners well enough. They are not mere followers of customer service procedures. They are in the business of delighting customers.

Great World City was one of my favourite malls in Singapore, so I was fooled into thinking that the property managers’ brand traits would reflect the mall’s. What a mistake. I used to think of Great World City as a gem in a part of town that isn’t the best. But that image is now tarnished by the property managers’ poor service attitude.

I wish companies would train their staff not so much to follow procedures, but to delight the customer. Essentially, that is what service is all about. But we train them to follow procedures, to follow scripts, and not to really do their jobs. To me this is the real crime – to restrict the native initiative of people so that they become a walking procedure manual. This is what kills customer service.

Customer service issue #4 – the customer is not at the centre of the business

In  the long term, simply training via script and procedures is not viable simply because where customer service distinguishes itself in in service recovery, not in the initial front line encounter. And good service recovery lies in initiative and a clear focus on delighting the customer.

Here in Singapore, the frontline staff are usually not of the best calibre – we are told this is because ‘the best’ calibre don’t want the frontline jobs.And because the frontliners are not ‘the best’, companies feel they have to train the initiative out of these people, ostensibly to give the customer the best service experience.

As a brand communications professional, I think this is amazing. I am constantly recommending to my clients to regularly review all customer touch points to make sure they are top-notch and speak of the brand values they want associated with their business. A company’s brand, especially if you are a large enough concern to be able to employ customer service staff, is a key asset. Yet, many companies trust this asset to people who are ‘not of the best calibre’. Why on earth would you do that? Surely you would want only ‘the best’ to be your brand guardians?

In essence, I don’t think the issue is so much one of trust as it is one of not valuing your brand and the brand experience you want your customers to have. Ultimately, this means you don’t value your customers enough to want to give them ‘the best’.







Talent Management – It’s Not Just About the Money

OVER the past  few months, I have been receiving calls from companies keen to put in place an employee (or internal) communications programme to staunch rising staff turnover now that the economy in Singapore and the rest of Asia is picking up.

I believe this imperative for better employee engagement is going to become a bigger issue as economies in Asia begin to recover, and as more global companies begin to see Asia as an engine of growth for the rest of the world. A corollary of this is that more companies will have to take a more strategic view of employee retention, talent management and human capital development. Ultimately, the timing has never been better for HR practitioners to position themselves as being a strategic partner to business leaders – in fact, I believe that business conditions are ripe now for a re-staging of HR.

These thoughts reverberated again last night as I read some of the recent studies conducted by HR consultancy Hewitt Associates. The following data points leapt out at me:

a) China and India see salary increases of close to 10% in 2010 – at the same time, the rest of the Asia is projected to languish in the 2%-3% range of wage increases. The two powerhouse economies will mop up talent in the region, while the countries with slower growth will be hard put to compete on the same level for staff. Implications for companies with cross-cultural operations are obvious.

b) Asia is seeing double digit employee turnover rates – the numbers of staff quitting their jobs is seen to be increasing, and this is consistent with rising compensation levels. Hewitt puts staff turnover in India at 13.8%, Australia at 11%, and China and New Zealand with 10.3% each.

c) About 46% organisations report lower employee engagement levels – a June 2010 Hewitt study of 900 organisations says that this dramatic drop in engagement levels (down from 15%  in the last poll) is due to the growing strain between employers and their employees. Employers are trying to stabilize their businesses and employees are exhausted after 18 months of “stress, insecurity and bewilderment” as a result of the economic recession and the continual rounds of retrenchments and other belt-tightening actions.


Talent must be nutured and retained

A key component of an employee engagement program is retention of current staff, especially those who are highly valued within the company. However, given that it can cost 150% of the annual salary to replace an employee, why is it that more companies don’t take definitive, concerted action to retain their staff?

I think the truth of the matter is that most companies don’t really take a holistic look at staff retention. Often, the response is tactical rather than strategic – retention bonuses being the most popular knee-jerk reaction, with offers of other perks, such as stock options, or even a car, coming a close second.

However, none of these address the key reason why someone might leave in the first place and this is also why many people who are persuaded to stay by these tactics usually leave in a few months anyway.

Five no-cost ways to amp up employee communications

The heart of the matter is the people need to feel valued and there is a long chain as to how this value is communicated to staff. Here are some of my favourite low-cost opportunities to ‘convert’ employees who are neutral (or even negative) about their company into brand ambassadors:

1. A well-thought out orientation and onboarding process – many companies don’t orientate new staff properly, erring on the side of productivity where the orientation process is cut short so the new person can get to work immediately, or where it is long but not very practical. The ideal onboarding process should enthrall and excite the new employee, and begin building a sense of pride in his new company. One client has deployed a joint HR-corporate communications administered ‘newbie blog’ to help new staffers orientate, learn how to navigate a complex matrix structure and start building their informal business network within the company.

2. Using job descriptions to set expectations and market your corporate culture and the company’s business – an effective job description tells people what exactly the company wants them to deliver in terms of results, why and what it means to the company. In other words, it says why their position is valuable and necessary. This is not the same as micro-managing. Rather, it is a clear statement of the deliverables expected, ideally agreed in conjunction with the employee. The roadmap to delivery can be left up to the staffer – but they must have unequivocal knowledge of what is expected of them. This is true of all employees, from receptionist  to chief executive.

3. Positive training and development opportunities – many managers feel that this is something they tick off at the annual performance evaluation meeting. Performance gap = development opportunity = training programme. Check. But in reality,  training and development opportunities exist every day for both managers and their staff – and this comes through mutual interactions, discussions, ongoing coaching and mentoring, and in this, both staffers and their managers learn about different ways of doing business from each other. Quality communication builds quality teams. The hot word in HR circles now is ‘high touch’ management. We take communication for granted because we do it all the time, and in so many ways. But people (ie, staff) can be an unforgiving lot, and managers (and their staff, too) need to have a high degree of self-awareness to be conscious of the impressions they create via everything they say and do.

4.The big picture approach – everyone in the company needs to feel that they are doing their bit for the success of the business and good managers make sure they get the opportunities to do so, and that they are recognized for their contribution. I was in a dental clinic the other day, and the receptionist apologized for the outdated magazines. She was new to the job and said she would be buying new magazines that very afternoon. “After all,” she added, “old magazines affect our brand.” Everyone, and I mean everyone, wants to feel they are making a difference.

5. Showing fairness and transparency across the board – any communication to do with staffing (hiring, promotions, transfers, rewards, recognition) needs to be seen as fair, equitable and transparent. If there is a recognition program for high achievers, for example, criteria for entry into that programme must be seen to be fair, equitable and transparent. No exceptions, no bending of the rules. If the rule says that no-one can win an award twice, then that rule must stand, no matter how deserving a candidate might be. If the rule is that 10 years’ work experience is mandatory for admission into a high-potential programme, then that rule must stand. Otherwise, the award loses credibility and, therefore, its value. Worse, unfair administration of criteria leads to corporate cynicism and this condition is viral in nature – pretty soon, even the most innocent of slip-ups will be held up as examples of a management that is not to be trusted. Winning back that trust will take much longer than it did to lose it in the first place.

This is just the short list, and all of them can be incorporated into course-of-business activity at no increase in expense. Creative managers would be able to come up with many more opportunities to reflect the positive aspects of the corporate culture and to persuade their employees to follow them into the fold, so to speak. Of course, all of these do take some time – but really, how much time does it take to refine course-of-business communications?

Isn’t it worthwhile spending some time streamlining your communications processes now, rather than spending a lot of time (and money) replacing the employee who quit because he did not feel valued?

Time To Smell the Coffee, HP!

WHETHER it is aware of it or not, the much-storied Hewlett-Packard Company is still undergoing transformative change – 11 years after it began down this path with its first HP-outsider CEO, Carly Fiorina. At the heart of the fact that it had to fire two CEOs in a row – both non-HP-insiders – is that the HP Board has not acknowledged this transformation in progress in any meaningful way. It has not addressed this in the hiring of its CEOs. It has been this failure that resulted in dancing between cubicles when first Fiorina (five years ago) and then Mark Hurd (last week), were fired.

Getting people on-side is key in corporate change

In the case of Fiorina, the celebrations over her departure from the company (headlined Ding dong, the witch is dead by a certain Silicon Valley newspaper) were attributed to her inability to deliver results that would have revived the then troubled company, despite round after round of gut-wrenching organisational change. In the case of Mark Hurd, the celebrations were attributed to his unflinching wielding of the axe, and his iron-fisted control over cost which has resulted in a fatigued and demoralised workforce. There is a story making the rounds in HP where Hurd was asked at a meeting about what he was going to do about low staff morale. His response was: “That’s not my problem.”

A chief of 300,000 people who doesn’t care what they think? Well, duh.

But I’m not going to blame Hurd for this attitude. Indeed, it is only to be expected from a man who, by all accounts, was more comfortable with a spreadsheet than with actual people. I blame the HP Board, which includes some of the most illustrious names in Silicon Valley, for not hiring an authentic leader to start with.

First of all, in both cases –  Hurd’s and Fiorina’s – the Board knew a transformational leader was required. However, no real change is possible unless there is a culture change at HP. And no true culture change is possible unless the people recognise this, and are willing to support the direction of change. Neither of the two outsider CEOs could get HP-ers on-side with their change programme. Hence, any kind of change wrought would be doomed to be superficial at best.

There are many traits that can be attributed to a transformational leader, but the one that is mission-critical is his or her ability to inspire in the workforce the passion and willingness to work their fingers to the bone to help the CEO effect the change required.

1. The common touch

A truly transformational leader recognises that he needs his people, not just in terms of work output, but also in terms of their hearts and minds. He puts in place both a short term and a strategic change strategy because he has some idea, if not a clear vision, of where he wants to take the company, and what kind of staff he wants there (wholeheartedly) with him when he gets there. A truly authentic, transformational leader recognises that emotions play as important a role in leadership as facts and figures, and that the carrot sometimes works much better than the unrelenting stick.

2. Vision, schmision!

Lou Gerstner was famous for saying, when he took over IBM in 1993, that the last thing the company needed then was a vision. He said: “Visions are easy. The hard work is to change to succeed,” adding: “The levers you have to pull are cultural, not directional. It’s how people think, what they value, what they do.” Two years after he took over IBM, he finally articulated a vision:

“IBM’s mission is to be the world’s most successful and important information technology company.

Successful – in helping our customers apply technology to solve their problems. And successful in introducing this extraordinary technology to new customers.

Important – because we will continue to be the basic resource of what is invented in this industry.

Note the emphasis on execution in the second line. I think most of us would agree that this rather ‘blah’ vision statement could apply to any technology company , HP included. There’s nothing in it to reflect his reputation as one of history’s great corporate change artists. Basically, Gerstner just wanted IBM to be great again. He managed to convince IBM-ers that he had the chops to do it, and they worked hard for him and for every victory that came to IBM over the years.

And here’s where people come in – they must want to make their company so much better so badly, that they will work harder than ever before, because they share the same dream – to make the company great.  CEOs must be able to get people on-side, through their hearts and minds.

3. Corporate trust

IBM’s changes were gut-wrenching. Indeed, there were many thousands who left the company during that time. But those who stayed gave Gerstner their absolute loyalty and today, he is revered as the man who saved IBM. The new CEO that HP hires will need to be able to engender that same level of corporate trust. In this sense, sacking Hurd over fudged expense reports was the right thing to do. It sends a strong signal about the company’s values system and the imperative that the CEO is a trustworthy steward of the company’s future. All its stakeholders need to be able to take the CEO’s word as golden, unimpeachable.

But how do you get someone to trust you?

First, apart from being true to your word, you also need to get them to like you. This comes through being able to identify with them on a personal level.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that the very best leaders always have affectionate stories told about them, such as the one from a telecommunications company where the CEO personally emailed someone much lower on the corporate ladder to say that he had taken discreet action to open the doors he needed to get his job done. This was in response to an email that this employee’s manager was not being supportive. Or such as any of the many Bill and Dave stories that used to circulate around the HP world.  All of these make the CEO more human, more accessible, and help generate loyalty.

Is personal trust in the CEO the same as corporate trust? I think the answer must be yes, because the CEO and his values reflect the company’s values and ethical standards. Certainly, it is not possible to say that one trusts the company, but not the CEO. A CEO tends to mould the corporate culture almost organically, based on his own belief system. If a CEO’s personal belief system are at odds with the company’s values system, then a separation is inevitable.

Second, there must be transparency in decision-making. Chinese walls do not make for trust.  There are many instances of less than competent people keeping their jobs for no apparent good reason, even as others who have been seen to deliver value lose theirs. I have also seen many instances where people are given jobs they are patently not qualified for because ‘there was no-one else”. Pity the poor employees who had to work with people in poor-fit situations. And certainly no-one respects or trusts a manager who hires someone less than qualified, then does not mentor or coach them so that they can grow into their roles.

Sometimes, when a trust is broken, we hear people say: It’s just business. Well, heck no –  it isn’t. Trust is always personal. It starts with the very first interaction with managers and team members. And if trust issues are allowed to fester, morale, team work and efficiency suffers. The organisation weakens.

4. Support of constituents

Transformation takes the support of people. It takes a leader, not a high ranking manager, and certainly not a spreadsheet technician, to make it work. It takes a heart of courage and a strong, focused mind. Truly authentic, transformational leaders could be the new heroes of the 21st century.

Too often, the selection of leaders has been done without input from the rank and file, the worker bees of the company. In today’s world, with shorter business cycles and ongoing slew of corporate scandals and economic melt-downs driving corporate change, transformational leadership is, and will continue to be, a big issue and, as a corollary, so will the question of who follows these leaders and why.  In fact, the leadership literature – mostly written from the perspective of leaders – is severely blinkered today because it glosses over the fact that support from employees is mission critical for any successful corporate venture.

I wonder if the HP Board will do the courageous thing and institute a program of dialogues with staff before deciding on the next personality to lead the company through its transformation? That would certainly be one for the history books.


Measuring public relations

Over the past couple of weeks, I have had several discussions with clients on measuring public relations. If they take my recommendations, how would they measure ROI, they ask.

I’m going to stick my neck out and say that everything can be measured – certainly at least benchmarked, if not dollarised.

Many practitioners believe that it is not always possible to draw a direct connection between PR activity and business results. As a practitioner on the agency side, I have had occasion in the past to convince my clients that PR outcomes cannot always be dollarised and it is devaluing the practice if clients try to push for measurement, especially if a PR campaign is highly strategic.

However, having worked on the client side, and having had to justify my budget asks every year, I think it is high time PR consultants begin their recommendations by identifying the expected outcomes, and  how these will affect the business. If they can identify ways that their efforts can be measured, they will find it easier to convince their clients to give them the budgets they need because their clients would, as a corollary, be in a stronger position to get budget approval by justifying  ‘asks’.

PR practitioners do not do themselves any favours by saying that you cannot always measure outcomes. In lean economic times, PR budgets which cannot be justified are the first to cut and when budgets shrink, so does PR headcount. Sales teams, while rigorously measured, are also much safer than the corporate communications teams, because they are purely about revenue generation. PR teams should learn from this.

If we begin our recommendations with an assessment methodology which will tell clients if our communications efforts have been successful, we are more likely to be more stringent with our recommendations, and devise campaigns which speak to particular issues, and particular business results. And subsequently increase our contribution to the clients’ businesses, as well as our reputations as trusted advisors.

To my mind, that is one of the best indicators of PR success because no business will invest in something that does not yield business results, one way or the other.

Of navels and key messages

Having been around the block a few times with various marketing teams, I find that there are very few companies out there willing to invest properly in creating effective, differentiated messaging – with the emphasis on ‘differentiated’. Too often, as a consultant, I hear people telling me – but we talk to our customers all the time, we know what they want.

In our most intimate relationships, we know that we sometimes soft soap the truth so as not too hurt feelings. Here in Asia, where sometimes causing someone else to lose face is a huge taboo, not telling it like it is is par for the course. So why is it that so many people say they know what their customers want? And if they really did know, why aren’t they closing more sales than they are?

Navel-gazing is  the latest corporate short-cut – understandable in the current economic climate but really, rather short sighted

I would like to suggest that more of an investment in terms of market research is called for – and I don’t mean an intern surfing the internet to see what’s out there. It is always (I think) worthwhile investing in an objective, blind or even double blind study to get a sense of the lie of the land, at least to benchmark your go to market plans. I have conducted numerous studies myself to benchmark messaging and positioning – and there has not been a single instance where I did not get an ‘aha’ moment.

With good planning, this study could be good for up to 2 years. Isn’t two years of certainty (or as much you can get these days) worth investing in, rather than navel gazing and second guessing?

This single exercise could yield huge dividends – in terms of corporate strategy, product development strategy, marketing strategy and yes, differentiated messaging.

For when you communicate in a way that sets you apart from the competition, you are memorable. And isn’t that the name of the game – to be set apart so that customer remember what you stand for, and that (hopefully) is something that they want in a product/service/partner?

I train corporate spokespeople and communicators in message development, and sometimes we are grasping at straws for differentiated messaging – simply because we don’t have data to build a message platform. And when the leadership  team of a company cannot articulate why their product/service is better than the rest, we’ve got problems.

The world is changing right before our eyes – companies we once thought inviolate are slowly, painfully crumbling. We would have bet the farm on Citi a scant year ago, but today, the sun rises daily in a world where Citi is teteering on its foundations.  Now, more than ever, research is called for, because we really can’t see beyond our own noses and objective research is the best thing we have to navigate by.

Of digital conversations and internal marketing

When the internet was the best thing since sliced bread – a decade ago – marketers all round the world could not wait to deploy their online marketing campaigns to target millions of customers, both current and new.

Today, ironically, as I reflect on why I am such a believer in the use of digital communications in internal marketing, I realise it is because this medium’s single best value proposition is the basis of its promise years ago – the ability to build intimate relationships with many, at the touch of a button, at the fraction of the cost of a traditional direct mail campaign.

Conversing with select, discrete communities is a key strength of online communications

Conversing with select, discrete communities is a key strength of online communications

What makes the online medium more powerful is that groups of people can interact with each other, sharing information and shape perceptions almost as and when information hits the ether and travels across the world in a heartbeat. The challenge for digital communicators is to influence the ongoing conversation and to manage the noise.

What’s the difference between how we perceive the online medium today, compared to a decade ago?

Firstly, today we recognise that to see it as a means to build an intimate relationship with millions of people is oversold. It is a great means to pull these millions into the shade of the corporate brand umbrella but greater intimacy is still elusive.

However, using the online medium to communicate with discrete, known audience communities – to employees, particular customer sets (such as premium customers, or all customers who like the colour green, for example) and partners – is coming into its own, especially with social networking sites being leveraged by marketers.

For companies whose products and services are costly and take months to install – such as all kinds of infrastructure vendors – a site for project teams to share information and learnings is a useful platform to smooth the implementation process. A simple blogsite would do the trick here.

Second, we have realised that no matter how powerful, or cool, there still no substitute for face to face communication, or more tactile interactions with products and services. The online world will never replace bricks and mortar – well, at least not in my lifetime, simply because human beings still want to be able to see, touch, smell, hear and talk to gather experential knowledge. Part of this is because there have been instances in the past where the digital face presented to the world was not all it was purported to be – hence, online interactions are therefore tinged with some sceptism. So, traditional marketers can breathe easy.

Last (at least for this post), we have realised that to build an intimate relationship with many, a huge investment is needed – if not financially, then certainly in terms of resources to keep the conversation going. One side-effect of the pervasiveness of the internet is impatience. People can so easily click out that if new information and answers are not available almost immediately – certainly within 24 hours at the very most, a relationship opportunity is lost. And, like most relationships, it would take more to recover, than simply to build it from scratch. Thus, to keep budgets manageable, marketers and communicators have scaled back their audience targets, and campaign parameters.

Bottom line? The digital medium has emerged as the ideal platform for internal marketing. Staff audiences are discrete, profile-able based on their HR records, have implicitly given their permission by joining the company, and have a stake in the company and its business. Plus, most companies at least have email, thus they can be communicated to. If they have an intranet, then the stage is set for internal marketing campaigns to influence corporate culture, staff perceptions and behaviour.

Role of HR in Employer Branding

Good employers build a sense of unity and pride of belonging amongst staff

Good employers build a sense of unity and pride of belonging amongst staff

Is it possible to build a strong employer of choice brand position without the involvement of human resource partners? It certainly is possible, but – to my mind – this is a path that is fraught with problems, stumbling blocks and wrong turns.

Building an employer of choice position in the general market place begins inside the company, and in building brand ambassadors amongst staff. If people say good things about their employers, prospective employees tend to believe them – much more than anything they might read in the newspapers or hear on the radio. If people are lining up to join a company simply on the basis of their perception of the brand (I’d really like to work with that company) then you are a preferred employer.

Apart from financial stability and strong business prospects, a preferred employer is also marked by a halo of several intangible traits – they tend to treat their people with respect and all that entails. HR policies are front and centre in building a framework that builds a corporate culture that staff can feel proud of.

The management of human capital really has to be a strategic function, one where top human resources executives work with business leaders to assess key business challenges and targets, and determine the type of workforce required to respectively manage and support these.

More than that, HR can hold up a mirror to management decisions, highlighting the various implications of management decisions on certain intangibles such as morale, motivation, and retention.

Sometimes, people management is not just about salaries and stock options. In fact, as the world moves into knowledge management and the term ‘knowledge worker’ becomes more prevalent across industries, a different style of management needs to be evolved here in Asia. Knowledge workers typically are more critical, more independent and demand to be treated as human beings rather than as cogs in a huge corporate wheel. Work-life balance is important to them, as is recognition. Talent management acquires different layers of meaning with this new workforce attitude.

Trust has to become central in the employer-employee relationship. Partnering, dialogue, coaching and persuasion are all words in human resource management that needs to enter mainstream corporate lexicon.

With knowledge workers leading the emergence of a sense of empowerment in many sectors of the workforce, HR as a function has never before been so well placed to stake a claim in strategic management. A scant decade ago, HR tended to largely administrative. However, with a dynamic and fluid business environment, companies are increasingly realising that strategic human capital management could not only increase business efficiencies and profitability, it could influence the company’s longer term survival.

Eye on the 8 ball

I read today of how both the CEO and chairman of Alcatel-Lucent had left the company, in the wake of increasingly poor business results. I sympathise with the people who are working with the company. A scant 18 months after a merger that threw the organisations of he two companies into turmoil, the staff of the new company are now basically leaderless. (The news report did not say who would be running the company in the interim.) I can imagine the uncertainty eating into the ranks.

Communications at this point in the company’s history would be critical. Poorly done, it would only mean staff might experience a crisis in confidence in their top executives, and more than that, begin to exhibit unproductive behaviour, such as standing around water coolers (or what passes for these in the Alcatel-Lucent offices) discussing job security.

This is where what I call strategic confidence comes in and it has two parts – first, when executives take communicators into their confidence, confiding in them strategic business issues and second, when their see this confidence paying off in terms a communications program that makes a positive and lasting contribution to corporate branding.

Communications really only begins to pay off when corporate leaders take their communicators into their confidence. Until this happens, corporate communications is very often more of a tactical function. And while communications does not influence the actual business decisions,  the communication of those decisions becomes more effective when PR professionals are kept in the loop as early as possible.

This gives them a strategic perspective of the business at the helicopter level, and all its associated issues. The savvy communicator can then identify potential communications pitfalls, prepare executives for any negative (or even positive) fall-out, and even leverage these in the ongoing effort to protect and build the corporate brand – in front of both internal and external audiences.

Only when this type of ‘strategic confidence’ exists at the highest ranks of the company can communications live up to its promise with strong, multi-layered programs to support the business and corporate direction. This type of PR practice usually comes from experience, from a strong business focus, and the ability to ‘link minds’ with executives. One kind of confidence leads to another, with the result being great communications, as opposed to merely adequate.

Back to Alcatel-Lucent. Their communications team in their Paris headquarters would certainly have seen this latest announcement looming, and at the very least, would have been briefed prior to the press announcement. They  would have put in place a tactical campaign to control the fallout. But if they had been involved strategically, well before this announcement, or if their communications leader were savvy enough to see the writing on the wall, a program would already have been in place to evolve and hold staff attention away from the executive floor and water cooler gossip – and on ‘business as usual’

An Attitude of Apreciation and Joy

Pure Communications is a business that places authentic, appreciative communication at the heart of everything that it says and does. We feel that good communication has transformative power, which can lift relationships to the next level, increase team and business effectiveness and imbue individual lives with an ineffable joy. We find our own joy in working with clients in a meaningful way, facilitating honest, open conversations with the people who matter to them - and thereby, making a real difference in they way they operate and succeed.