Writing for the Internet: The Shallow Shores of a Very Deep Ocean

Writing for the internet is one of the most valued skills of a communication professional. We use it daily – at work, while blogging or when we post on social media. Producing web-friendly copy has also become a business, and with that, it has to a large degree become formalized, templated and, frankly speaking, boring.

writing for the internet Writing for the Internet: The Shallow Shores of a Very Deep OceanThe size and the complexity of the internet is unimaginable. It is huge and deep. In contrast, much of the professional communication advice we now get on the internet lacks imagination. It is limited and shallow. There are, of course, professional communication associations, like IABC and EACD, which generally produce a lot of valuable and educational content for its members, but there is also a whole lot of empty content being pushed around.

I am starting to think that we, communicators, are getting trapped by the advice that we hand out so generously.

“Don’t write more than 300 words, because nobody has the time to read anything online!” “Keep everything structured and stick to one idea per paragraph, using headlines evenly across the text – people need to anchor onto something when they scan the text!” “If your visitors spend more than 2 minutes reading a page on your website, you are doing well!”; “Optimise, optimise, optimise!” And while there is nothing horribly wrong with these and other similar pieces of advice, our obsession with these rules makes our writing look the same. It is becoming a genre of its own, which isn’t necessarily a good thing.

I have a feeling that even in blogosphere, communicators have to continue proving their worth – the ghost that also haunts us at work.

Communications is a field, which gives its practitioners a huge advantage – they are already trained/experienced in the art of writing. Professionals in other fields can be excellent experts in something – be it engineering or playing a classical guitar – but they may have to overcome some initial obstacles before they hop onto the wagon of blog writers. On the other hand, I believe that their content runs a much lower risk of being superfluous. I have a feeling that even in blogosphere, communicators have to continue proving their worth – the ghost that also haunts us at work, whether in the corporate environment or as part of an independent consulting agency.

This lack of inspiration and the never-ending recycling of ideas is not exclusive to blogging and social media communication. I have experienced this at work many times over. Promotional copy pops right out of my mind and onto the screen – I hardly have to look for words or new angles. I know the topic so well; I have almost merged with the topic.

Why should I be complaining about this enviable ease of writing? Well it bugs me. Even the word itself – copy – carries a shadow of something boring and uninspiring, in any case something that is not original.

I guess I miss my journalistic exploits, where curiosity was the drive behind the article, as well as the lack of knowledge. There was always a degree of investigation, a whole lot of unknown and some gaps to fill before the article could be written. Many will argue that there is also a lot of bad journalism around and indeed that is the case. Bad journalistic articles, however, usually lack in such areas as ethics, facts and impartiality. Bad communication copy often lacks in imagination and effort.

It has been a few months since I am back from my maternity leave. I hope to be able to benefit from my rested, happy and ready-to-communicate professional self and maintain that mind-set for a long time.

Here is my personal TO DO and NOT TO DO list, which will hopefully remind me to be a better communication professional even when I don’t really feel like it. I have to say that much of it goes against what is usually considered good practice in writing for the internet. But I believe good practice isn’t something we have to follow blindly.

  • If you don’t have anything to write about, don’t. The blog will not go anywhere and squeezing out that “one blog post a week” might fill your site with content, but it will also make you feel like you are going for quantity, not quality.
  • Look around, question and be curious. Before you know, there will be something interesting to write about. Even if nobody else finds it particularly useful, you had fun exploring the topic (Alright, one concession: at work, the things you do have to be useful, otherwise you will get fired!)
  • Look around, question and be curious. Before you know, there will be something interesting to write about. Even if nobody else finds it particularly useful, you had fun exploring the topic (Alright, one concession: at work, the things you do have to be useful, otherwise you will get fired!)
  • Be a journalist – a least a little bit in every piece you write. Investigate. Be newsy. Be controversial. Be provocative. Whatever works best for the piece you are working on.
  • Read newspapers and magazines in hard copy and be conscious about the old-style techniques that you could apply when writing for the internet.
  • Make an effort, don’t just watch your fingers type the words that you have typed many times before.
  • Avoid reading anything that starts with a number. OK, not everything but most of the things along these lines: “3 Most Important Skills of a Communication Professional”, or “50 Words You Should Avoid When You Write for the Internet”. Never ever write anything like that for your blog or your employer. It is such a bore!
  • Ask your colleagues or peers to read what you wrote and ask for feedback. Not just on grammar and style, but also content, logic and everything else that usually makes you proud. Be open to feedback. Think about the feedback. See if you can use that feedback. Don’t do this too often though – once in a while should be enough to make you feel slightly insecure and force you to scrutinize your writing.

Communicator’s Crisis: When There Is No Buy-in

I have not written anything on this blog for months, taking a good amount time to redefine myself within the communication profession. It has been a very strange experience as the usual enemy causing the communication crisis didn’t appear in the form of an exceptionally difficult stakeholder or bad publicity.

Instead, here I was, full of doubts whether my approach to corporate communications adds any real value to the organisation I work for, whether my own strife for perfection is a mission impossible and whether compromise means failure.

no buy in Communicator’s Crisis: When There Is No Buy inIt is unlikely that I am the only communication professional who has experienced a crisis of faith. And yet, we communicators are trained to announce successes, turn crises into opportunities and bring out new angles in worn-out stories. So when I noticed the first signs of wear and tear in my approach to communication management, my first reaction was to go into denial.

One of the universal truths seemed to escape me: for strategic communication programmes to succeed, top management has to be on board. I thought that if only I worked a little harder, if only I showed how every project I take on becomes a success, my management would recognise the value of strategic communication. In moments of extreme optimism – or frustration – I even thought I could strategize and implement without having them involved.

After a while, I realised that I am not getting anywhere. I wasn’t sure what I was doing wrong, but my attempts at getting the management’s buy-in were not yielding the results on the scale I was aiming for. I decided that the best way to go about this would be to retreat into the role of an observer for a while (which happens to be a perfectly valid communication research technique). Clearly, I had been operating on a different frequency and I needed to remove myself from the epicentre of internal debates and power games to get a clear picture of where I stood.

For the love of elephants

While working within this organisation, I have formed a belief that my performance would earn me the trust I needed and allow me to tackle the real elephants in the room. The elephants which had grown so big that there was hardly any space for anything else.

After my rather lengthy period of observation I am still not willing to part with this belief, although I did realise that I was too eager and too impatient. It is obviously a tough job to walk a huge elephant out through a tiny opening in the wall, and many are reluctant to embark on an endeavour which may collapse the whole structure.

And while the logistics are important, my real struggle was of emotional nature. Elephants can become one of the most loved, feared and revered pets within the organisation. I have not yet had the time to form such an attachment, so I didn’t vibe with the rest of the company.

So what am I going to do? I am still going to have to bring these elephants down to make substantial improvements in the communication strategy. But I have to devise a gentle method or I will never get that elusive buy-in.

Compromise, consensus, responsibility

Most literature and best practices claim that it takes at least 8 years for a company to develop, adopt and fully incorporate a new culture within an organisation (which must be a top-down initiative). And while I wasn’t advocating for such a huge change, I was certainly very motivated to get rid of a very annoying and counter-productive fragmentation of communication activities. It was a legacy that the company had inherited from the pre-comms era – yes there was one! – and a by-product of  a very special cluster-slash-project-based organisational culture.

This free-flowing working culture has a lot advantages for implementing communications activities, and on a small scale it can be very rewarding. It inspires creativity and activates the participants to invest their best skills and qualities into the project.

On the other hand, this approach can become a hideous hindrance to all progress. Endless meetings and discussions involving representatives of all departments, the tiring search for a consensus which turns into a half-baked compromise and a complete vagueness as to the roles and responsibilities within a project.

There is no surprise that while on a small scale our projects were successful, any large undertaking would not take off.

My observation period got me to realise that I have actually been able to convince a whole lot of people that communication is integral and valuable to any business process. It dawned on me that I no longer needed for fight for my department’s raison d’être. What prevented me from creating a wholesome structure was the fact that communication is still being regarded as everybody’s job. Well, why not? We all know how to use Facebook, and MS Office is all you need to make a nice brochure – start to finish. Personal taste was the beacon in all decision-making processes, leaving very little space for professional communication advice.

My plan of action? The issue of fragmentation is deeply rooted in the culture of this organisation, which is unlikely to change soon. At the same time, as the organisation continues to grow, I will need to reinforce the idea of narrow specialisation, creating more clarity about the mechanisms and objective techniques used in the communication profession. It is a big job, but one worth the effort. Else, there a risk that you will not be able to use or develop your professional expertise and lose yourself in the endless to do list of odd bits and bobs.

Steve Seager: The Traditional Approach to Strategic Communication Is Outdated

I am passionate about the communication profession – I experience it as a fascinating and meaningful journey which is never monotonous and which keeps me on my toes. Year on year, project by project I continue to shape my professional communication infrastructure and my personal perception of what this profession is all about.

The better I seem to master the ropes of the trade, the more I wonder how other communication professionals experience our shared field of expertise. Communication involves many disciplines and it is strongly affected by the field in which it is practised. A marketing specialist with a furniture manufacture will not experience the communication profession in the same way as a crisis communicator working for the municipal government.

There is no better way to explore all the facets of the communication profession than through the stories of those who work in the field. For my very first story, in the series which I plan to expand, I went to Steve Seager, co-owner of Storywise, Strategic marketing and communications 2.0, the Netherlands.

steve seager strategic communication Steve Seager: The Traditional Approach to Strategic Communication Is Outdated
Steve Seager: “Practice what you preach… become the best communicator you can.”

I first met Steve about a year ago – on an airfield waiting to board a plane. We were both going to an IABC EMEA meeting and happened to recognize each other as we had already been connected on LinkedIn through the IABC NL group. I was really excited to learn more about this organization, and Steve, being the IABC EME Director of Communications, was definitely right person to answer all my questions.

Two hours later, walking through Copenhagen in search for the meeting venue, we were discussing communication and the challenges each of us had to deal with at that point. Steve talked a lot about Storywise, the company which he runs together with Michiel Gaasterland, and how it enables him to be do the work he really enjoys – provide strategic advice in the field of communication.

A year later, I was at the door of Storywise, a light and spacious office in a lively area of Amsterdam.

“This really is a boys’ office,” he said apologizing with a huge grin, letting me in, “And this is also where our communication magic happens.”

Communicating business strategy: the pitfalls

Originally from the UK, Steve has lived in Amsterdam for a few years now. Here, he has found it possible to do the communication work he enjoys most.

“Above anything else, I am a strategic communication professional – I help organizations tie communications to business goals. But of course, there are many tactical aspects in my work which I thoroughly enjoy – such as media production and writing.”

“Why am I so concerned with strategic communication? Basically because I feel that’s the area in which the business communication profession still has to make the most progress. The majority of discussions that you see on the subject, on LinkedIn for example, maintain that the core role of a communicator within an organization is to communicate business strategy once it has been set. That’s a view that has been out there for decades. And think it’s outdated.”

We have to address some core stuff like building our strategic competences so we can better tie communications to tangible business outcomes.

“By limiting ourselves to only ‘communicating’ business strategy, we’re overlooking a range of other highly communication-dependent internal aspects of organizational life – aspects that should actively influence the development of business strategy: change management, lean management and so on.

On top of that, communicators have almost no input in the development of business strategy on an external level – which is incredible, considering the masses of market and stakeholder insights that our new media ecology offers.

In turn we have to address some core stuff like building our strategic competences so we can better tie communications to tangible business outcomes. Still, if you think about what we have to offer, the opportunities of the new media, and the new business environment, then the traditional idea of strategic communications – ‘Here is our business strategy, go and communicate it’ – is obviously outdated.”

By chance and by choice

I know a lot of people who decided to be a doctor, a teacher, artist or an entrepreneur very early on, passing all the right A-levels, followed by a university degree and later on by their dream job. I don’t really know of anybody, who said “when I grow up, I want to be a communication professional”. Some of us do a degree in communication, but many arrive here through journalism, advertising, marketing or a similar field.

Perhaps, you don’t choose communication, but rather you end up doing it because your natural skills and previous work experience are a perfect combination for the job, because you love how versatile communication is, and you hate being bored.

“I arrived at communication both by chance and by choice. Back in the UK, I was a professional musician. For more than 10 years we toured and I did all the promotion and PR work for the band. Other bands, local event organizers and various gigs thought I did well, so I started doing promotion for them. Later, I did a degree in management and information systems, with a practical in film production, which was a great school for creative communication. The multimedia skills I learned then are invaluable today. Gradually, I moved into my first full time communications job – a corporate communications position with Saudi Aramco Overseas here in Holland.”

Personal bests

storywise Steve Seager: The Traditional Approach to Strategic Communication Is Outdated

Storywise, the Amsterdam Bureau of Strategic         Marketing & Communication 2.0

“There are a few projects that I really enjoyed. But the best are the ones which were fun, which were challenging and unusual. But nothing can beat my first major international project with Aramco. It was 2004, not long after 9/11, and the Arab business community was going through its all-time low in terms of public perception. On top of that, the oil and gas industry was also under a huge amount of criticism in the face of climate change and more. It was Saudi Arabia’s turn to host the OPEC meeting, in Vienna.”

“How do you talk about policy and development when everybody actually thinks you are evil? How do you position yourself in such a way that the audience becomes interested in your message? Why should they listen? Our solution was to take everybody back in history and remind them of the pivotal role the Arab world has played in the development of science and culture, and how knowledge has flowed in cycles from Europe into the Middle East and back again, inspiring new developments for both East and West, throughout the ages. We wanted to remind the world that the Arab world is completely intertwined with the West, and that we need to go forward together too.

“We used many different tools and channels to explore and develop this theme throughout the event – from the initial invitations to an exhibition, the program itself, the music we chose, the press releases – even down to the CEO’s and Minister’s speeches. We received a great response from all sides. The participants, critics, and even the partisan European media gave us great positive coverage. It was a complex challenge, great fun, and an wonderful opportunity to lead such a talented multinational team.”

Personal branding: overrated

Throughout the interview, Steve was very careful not to put any labels on the way he approaches communication. It was new for me to see the decisive and turbo-energetic Steve slow down: he would listen to my question carefully, look out onto the busy street before us, sometimes shrugging his shoulders as he was thinking, before he would finally answer with a smile.

“I don’t find it useful to have a set description of myself and the way I work,” he explained.

“I find it limiting. The whole idea of personal branding – as in a ‘commodity’ – doesn’t appeal to me much. That implies you need a posh photograph, a beautiful website and an image to maintain. On the other hand, you do have to practice what you preach. People need to be able to see that you apply the communication principles you claim, in your own work. In this respect, my blog is my platform and there I can be true to myself. I am not sure if that’s personal branding in the way many refer to it today. I personally think its more about positioning. And for our profession, that should be a result of simply being the best communicator you can be.”

Branding Is Dead: Long Live the Corporate Story!

corporate story Branding Is Dead: Long Live the Corporate Story!

Richard Coope at Radley Yeldar’s “Connected Storyteling” event.

What we know as brand management is being replaced by a much more dynamic field where the ability to maintain a coherent and enticing corporate story is taking centre stage.

Although closely related, branding and storytelling have so many things that set them apart. The corporate story is growing up to be rather different from its parent – branding – and these two are finding themselves on the opposite ends of a big huge generation gap. As is often the case, the generation gap manifests itself through differences in mentality, outlook and the perception of self.

A little over a week ago, I attended a Radley Yeldar event which focused on how corporate storytelling is practised by some of the very best –the FTSE 100. The discussion revolved around the results of two large research projects recently published by Radley Yeldar, which revealed some very fascinating trends: “What’s the story 2012?” and “Connected storytelling 2012”.

I won’t be writing much about the results of this research here – RY have published detailed reports on their findings and one can find an extensive feature article on the topic in the May 10th issue of Marketing Week.

Instead I will outline the main messages which I took away from last week’s event and explore the possible implications of our transition into the multidimensional world of corporate storytelling.

Corporate story: the formula

According Mike Oliver, who talked in the opening part of the event, the concept of branding has gained some negative connotations over the last years as something cold, polished and not necessarily alive. He said that, in contrast, storytelling is a concept which everybody relates to because the human brain is wired to perceive the world in the form of a narrative.

He talked in detail about the qualities of a good corporate story, which include the context, the purpose, the secret weapon (how you are going to achieve the purpose), the reason to believe and the greater vision – comparing this formula to a good film trailer.

Depth of field

At first sight, the formula itself is not hugely different from the way we have been taught to develop and manage a brand. But I do see a major qualitative shift here. If we are to transition to corporate storytelling we have to reset our focus from the relatively shallow depth of field which is so characteristic of branding.

A brand is often described as a sum of unique benefits associated with a company. Brand managers are tasked with shaping and maintaining these associations in the minds of various stakeholders. The sharp focus on the elements of differentiation creates a relatively static picture of the company, one that doesn’t easily evolve over time. Also, as RY’s research has shown, differentiation is often taken for granted, with even large successful companies settling for the most obvious discriminators, such as “largest”, “global”, “leading”, and “international”.

The corporate story can easily adapt to the changes in the external and internal environments.

Corporate storytelling, however, implies a more dynamic representation of the company and a less simplistic one. We can continue to incorporate clear messaging into the corporate story, but not at the expense of detail, creativity and playfulness which would otherwise be blurred and relegated to the background. If thoroughly thought out, the corporate story can easily adapt to the changes in the external and internal environments and remain relevant without the need to have an extensive makeover every 5 years.

Breadth of engagement

Another advantage of focusing on the corporate story rather than the brand in all communication activities is the opportunity to increase stakeholder engagement across the whole board and in a fairly consistent manner.

According to Radley Yeldar “the corporate brand often complains that, unlike its consumer cousin, its audience is too broad to tell a compelling story to”. They then argue that storytelling is in fact an opportunity to build in a strong sense of purpose which will appeal to all of the right audiences, be it a specific segment or “anyone and everyone”.

I think that the far-reaching appeal of a good story does not only lie with its sense of purpose but also its incredible flexibility. We can tell a story in a different voice, in a different language, we can simplify it for kids or add a layer of complexity for the adult audience, we can go into a lot of detail for those who have time on their hands, and we can chuck out an abridged version for those who have only a minute to spare. Meanwhile, remaining consistent in all of the main messages.

This consistency is more important than ever. Stakeholders come into contact with companies through so many channels and these points of contact are increasing by the day. The companies must have a consistent and appealing story to tell if they are to benefit from all these extra dimensions of engagement. And while this seems like the world’s most obvious conclusion, in practice very few find the time and resources to make sure that all the chapters in their story actually line up into a beautiful narrative. If you work in a corporate environment, you will probably recognize the challenge.

If you do, you are not an exception. According to the second Radley Yeldar research which was discussed at last week’s event, the FTSE 100 generally fail to tell a consistent story and link between their digital channels, scoring an average of 26% in the category of “Connectedness”. According to Richard Coope, who was presenting on the topic, many companies are still completely lost in the digital space and there is a lot of progress to be made.

I will be looking forward to the next year’s “Connected storytelling” report, for I am hoping to see improved coherence in the way we communicate for our companies. I am certainly going to give it a good try in my line of work.

Exploring the Role of Communication in Change Management

Ours is a very fluid discipline and its strength is in the ability to adapt and serve the most urgent needs of an organization. It is, therefore, not a surprise that every existing model in the MBA armamentarium discusses the essential role of communication in change management. Every book on change management has a chapter dedicated to communication. Every sound change management strategy includes supporting communication activities.

Communication is versatile and can yield great benefits at all stages of the change process.

This seems like a reason to celebrate. Corporate communication practitioners have been longing for this strategic recognition for years, if not decades, and finally here we are.

And yet, something doesn’t add up in this equation. At least, I don’t experience communication to be a separate part of a sum called “change”. Communication is a process, as is change. These processes must be aligned, as one doesn’t happen without the other.

Communication fuels the organization’s ambition to climb a steep hill of change and it preempts danger when the organization is about to take a sharp corner. Communication is versatile and it can yield great benefits at all stages of the change process.

In this post I am going to explore the role of communication in change management – from tactics to strategy and from being active to being proactive.

The supporting role of communication in change management

The organization is going through a change programme and communication facilitates change by providing a comprehensive support system to all those involved in the process. This function of communication is vital to the life of any organization and today it is also best rehearsed. There are multiple models that define the role of communication in change management and the extent of its contribution within each individual programme.

Models differ in the amount of detail, but many of them are built upon Kurt Lewin’s unfreeze-change-refreeze paradigm, in which change can only be implemented and then maintained if the environment is responsive to it.

According to these models, it would thus be the job of communicators to take on the leadership’s strategic vision and

  • convince the stakeholders that change is necessary and beneficial
  • translate the leadership’s vision into specific messages, tailored to the needs of the stakeholders and communicated through appropriate channels
  • motivate and empower all participants to adopt the behaviour which would successfully transition the organization
  • provide mechanisms for broadband leadership-stakeholder communication
  • provide long-term support for the change programme, by generating measurement and evaluation insights and communicating milestone successes to the stakeholders.

This approach, in its multiple variations, brings very tangible benefits. Y. Yates & S. Vallas, quoting the Change and Communication ROI Study in their article “The Character of Communication” say that organizations that are highly effective at both communication and change management are more than twice as likely to outperform those that are not effective at either.

It would be too optimistic to say that the supportive function of communication in change management is successfully executed in the majority of change programmes – change is risky, unpredictable and cannot be jammed into a simple template. On the positive side, we do have the recognition, many tools, years of accumulative experience and a whole library of best practices to rely on and this significantly increases our chance to succeed.

Communicating to change

There is a lot of chatter in the communication ether these days with many saying that the role of communication in change management holds much more potential than described above. Various LinkedIn groups regularly raise the issue, pointing to the fact that communicators are strategically placed to resolve various organizational problems and inspire change.

This potential is best realized when the organization’s leadership acknowledges the need for change but lacks insights into the root of the problem. Here, communicators come to rescue with their research, insights and situation analysis – they break down the vision of the leadership into specific objectives, talk to the people on the floor (or any other relevant stakeholder group) and identify that elusive gap. This gap can be anything that prevents the vision from being translated into practice – from misinterpretation, conflicting messaging to the lack of support mechanism.

Jim Shaffer, IABC Fellow and author of Leadership Solution calls this process “communication to change”. In his article “Taking the Wheel” for the April-May 2011 issue of Communication World he argues that “managing communication to change is a proactive approach, as it correctly assumes that communication breakdowns cause people to do things that hurt performance.” He then goes on to describe a relatively traditional mix of communication tactics which enable communicators to deal with the gap and implement the change.

Communicating about change vs. communicating to change – what’s the difference? It is subtle but important. In the first case we broadcast the leadership’s vision of change and make it relevant/applicable for everybody and everything. In the second case we help to shape this vision by treating communication as an inseparable element of all processes within an organization, regardless of its core business.

Advocating change

zenlight Exploring the Role of Communication in Change ManagementI wonder if we can take this discussion even further. Communication practitioners, if wholeheartedly involved in the life of the organization, are in the unique position to identify and bring attention to organizational bottlenecks. Often involved at an interdepartmental level, we are usually the first to spot inconsistencies in the way organizational strategy is translated and practiced internally as well as perceived from the outside. In an ideal situation, one that is highly conducive to proactive behaviour, communicators could be excellent advocates for change.

Would this be the ultimate marriage of communication and business strategy: communicators with their audits, research and analyses gathering intelligence and shedding light on issues where change is due? Perhaps this picture is slightly utopic, but not entirely unrealistic.

I can already see elements of this in my work, and I can imagine that I am not the only one thinking and acting along these lines.

How The New Hive Won Me Over or the Power of Creative Communication

A few weeks ago, I joined The New Hive, and I am really impressed. The main focus of this new network is creativity and expression – a niche that none of the social media channels had been able to approach with such a degree of elegance.

Social networks as a medium of communication: What’s lacking?

As any other communication practitioner, I actively partake in all sorts of social media – usually with a professional objective in mind. They all have a role to play: career development, networking, driving traffic and learning from all sorts of inspiring people.

In a professional setting, the value of all social media, be it Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Google Plus, revolves around communication. Various mechanisms have evolved for us to derive this value and achieve very concrete communication objectives: spanning from relatively superficial, such as information, to rather complex – such a brand awareness and loyalty.

the new hive creative How The New Hive Won Me Over or the Power of Creative CommunicationAnd yet, social media is wanting. It is still a means to an end and hardly an end. You link, you talk, you share, you comment and you like. Most of the storytelling you will still do on your blog or your corporate website.

I have always found social media uninviting in terms of creative communication: storytelling through a free-form fusion of the written word, sound and image. Largely, it’s because the technology has not yet been able to provide us with tools that enable full-scale customization of the web space without knowing how to code.

Of course, there are also other factors such as our obsession with quantity and speed – of everything – there has been only limited pressure on the social media market to cater for creative communication.

It is a shame, because our lack of reflection is not inductive to inspiring storytelling, which is a very powerful tool of communication.

On the positive side, there is a new player in the market and it has brought a whole new bunch of toys.

The New Hive: Express Yourself

The New Hive say they are the new creative playground, and justly so. You can create your own pages – aptly called “expressions” – to display whatever content you wish: text, videos, audio recordings and images. You can, of course, create as many pages as you wish, but the really nice thing about these expressions is that they are self-contained and you are forced – ever so gently – to treat this space with respect. Almost as if you were standing in front of a freshly primed canvas.

You have the opportunity to reflect, develop a story and then finally create the whole thing in your browser window. Easy.

Technology rocks

The technology behind The New Hive is amazing, even in the current beta stage. I am not highly proficient in website development, but I can’t help visualizing a whole army of little divs manoeuvring around while I drag and drop my content into place.

This video, however, can probably say more than the preceding 504 words.

Is this going to be useful in a professional setting?

I believe so. Whether you are working for a company, an agency or as an independent communication professional – you are most likely always conceiving of a good story to tell. The concept of The New Hive and the technology behind it enables you to do just that – be creative in your communication on top of all the benefits that social media is already expected to provide.  Wait and watch: as The New Hive community grows, so will the opportunities it provides. Or go give it a spin, and let me know what you make of it!

You can find me on The New Hive here.

Communication Objectives: Why Bother?

Nearly every project within an organization must be communicated at one point or another. Interestingly enough, few companies set communication objectives for individual projects.

“Let’s just skip this part – we have all our project objectives listed here, that’s kinda like the same thing”, isn’t it?”

Well, it isn’t, unless we are talking about pure and undiluted communication projects, which are rare, considering the supportive function of communications within an organization.

Where the action is

Sally J. Patterson and Janel M. Radke make a clear distinction between project and communication objectives in their work Strategic Communication for Non-Profit Organizations. They point out that while the two include similar measures on behalf of an organization, communication objectives are solely geared to elicit a desired action or response from the target audience.

From my personal experience, the best way to check if you are not confusing the two is to ask yourself two questions:

1. “What will happen as a result of this project?” – “We will have a brand new intranet”

This would be a project objective.

2. “What will happen as a result of communicating about this project?” – “The employees will know about it, will know how to use it and will feel very happy about having it.”

This would be a communication objective of the project.

It is a simple and yet effective way to review the objectives set within the project. Whenever I am utterly confused – which can happen after a long brainstorm meeting with the whole project team – the little formula above makes it all nice and clear.

A flight of stairs

Although very useful in many every-day working situations, my simple approach to communication objectives will not meet the needs of a complex project or strategy. In such situations, I refer to the idea of Paolo Mefalopulos and Chris Kamlongera. In their book Participatory Communication Strategy Design, the authors argue that the mechanisms necessary for eliciting a response are comparable to those used in the process of innovation adoption.

new blog post Communication Objectives: Why Bother?In their Adoption Ladder model, Mefalopulos and Kamlongera identify six types of response: awareness, interest, comprehension, attitude, legitimation and practice. This model implies a hierarchical relationship – one cannot expect to elicit change in practice without having climbed all the previous steps of this steep staircase.

I like to use this model in my work, and while it may seem a little too academic for most projects, it can, in fact, be easily implemented. I don’t worry too much about skipping or not skipping the steps – it comes naturally, as the logic behind the model is actually common sense. People cannot be interested in something, if they are not aware of its existence. Similarly, they will not bother to form an opinion on an issue, if it doesn’t spark their interest. And so on.

Why I like this model so much is because it allows me to formulate the most appropriate communication tactics and pick the right set of communication tools. I use the table below to figure out the most appropriate communication objectives for each step of the strategy.

Here is how the Adoption Ladder model works for me in practice.

The Model Communication ObjectiveResult
AwarenessTo inform ...The audience knows about
InterestTo engage...The audience is interested
ComprehensionTo explain...The audience understands
AttitudeTo convince...The audience feels/believes
LegitimationTo commit...The audience shares ownership/relates to...
PracticeTo empower...The audience know how to...

So why bother with communication objectives?

I personally believe that it is great practice to include communication objectives into every project plan, big or small, even if the project does not accommodate for a communicator in the implementation team. Most organizational projects are process or product oriented and their managers tend to focus on delivering these end results.

If a communication plan is included into the project, it will often list a set of tools and channels through which communication will take place – websites, brochures and Facebook pages – and will rarely describe the desired results of communication. If we don’t know what we want from the audience, our communication efforts are likely to make little or no impact at all.

So let me ask you – why bother with the project to start with, if we cannot make it meaningful to the target audience?

(Ok, I admit to having a very strong communicator bias. :))

What is Communication Management?

Scientific and applied literature offer extensive definitions of communication management. Oftentimes these definitions embrace an integrated approach which suggests that a fusion of various communication-related disciplines within a company fall under the responsibility of one team and its manager.

Communication management is defined as a systematic planning and realization of information flow, communication, media development and image-care in a long-term horizon. – P. S. Tripathi, Communication Management

So what is communication management in this new world of integrated disciplines? Internal and corporate communication, marketing, public relations and branding – how do these parts interact with each other to give us more than the sum of their individual contributions?

For me, this alignment of communication disciplines also implies an opportunity to mix and match, to redistribute discipline-bound corporate communication objectives into free-form clusters.

This clustering can be helpful in practical, day-to-day communication management. It serves as a reminder of the intrinsic role corporate communication plays in the life of a company – expressed in actionable concepts, rather than outputs.

what is communication management What is Communication Management?

One for all

The communication department is pretty much useless on its own. It exists to support the life of the organization as a whole and also of its various bits and bobs. There is a downside to this: it can be difficult for communication managers to prove their worth in tangible terms.

On the positive side – and that’s exactly how I see it – communication is a great problem solver. By positioning themselves correctly and by making themselves useful to the top management and various departments, communicators are able to multiply the value of all sorts of organizational efforts.

Being indispensable, in more conventional terms, is a mix of various internal and corporate communication, as well as stakeholder management objectives.

I spy, I spy

Gathering and interpreting intelligence is an essential objective of inspiring communication management. Through research and analysis, we are able to pinpoint the right solution for a whole range of issues. The James Bond in us comes in handy whenever the organization is going through a crisis or change, pursues a branding strategy or a product launch and much more.

Loud and clear

What is communication management without being able to formulate and disperse important organizational messages? We do this a lot in the context of internal and corporate communication; it is also an important component of public relations activities.

Frontline defense

Should an issue or a crisis occur, communication will be there to take the first blow. If communication is managed appropriately, the damage can be softened, diffused or even solved. This crisis communication concept rests on effective stakeholder management, timely internal communication and intelligent PR.

Dress to impress

The woman in me loves all things branding. From visual and linguistic identity to brand values, promises and benefits, dressing a company is one of the most creative and enjoyable aspects of communication. Post-development stage is just as exciting – communicating the brand internally and externally requires a great interdisciplinary effort!

Communication and Change: The Story of 3 Dutch Brands

eacd communication and change Communication and Change: The Story of 3 Dutch Brands

Debating change and communication: Davis Brilleslijper, Nanne Bos and Pieter Schaffels

Communication is essential in the time of change – we know that already. This is what we read in all professional literature on the subject, this is what they tell us at school. Nonetheless, this happy marriage of communication and change continues to invite discussion, debates and speculations.

That’s the thing about change: it’s usually unpredictable, rarely expected and almost never wanted. Objectively, organizational change is influenced by a great number of external and internal factors; subjectively, we all experience and deal with change in our own very different ways. This makes for an exciting topic and a difficult one to tame into a single model or action plan.

While models and prêt-à-porter templates certainly have their place in corporate communication, I also strongly believe in the power of story-telling. Learning from the experience of others applies wonderfully to the topic of communication and change management.

Two weeks ago, I attended a regional EACD debate “Organizing Communications and Aligning with Other Functions in Times of Disruptive Change”, which took place in Utrecht, the Netherlands. The event revolved around 3 case-studies presented by corporate communicators from three NL-based companies. Here are several stories plus a couple of lessons which I took home from the debate.

Ordina: Make it brutally honest

In the opening case-study, Pieter Schaffels, Director Corporate Communications & Investor Relations at Ordina, talked about his company’s quest for survival amidst severe external and internal crises. Ordina’s rise to incredible heights in the mid-1990s and their near-fall in the last few years led the company to take on an extensive change programme.

Ordina refers to itself as a Benelux-wide knowledge provider, which offers a combined IT/business process expertise to a range of stakeholders.

Schaffels, who has been with Ordina since the crisis hit, said that while “it is quite typical for companies to shut down all communications when they are in trouble” his team took the opposite course of action. The company launched intensive restructuring and refinancing programmes, which, from the communications point of view, represented an opportunity to regain trust and rebuild reputation.

Communications is neither the privilege nor the task of a communications department.

Schaffels acknowledged that choosing refinancing as the central theme for communication may have been unusual, but in the circumstances it was the most effective and the shortest path to regaining trust. “We had to be brutally honest with ourselves, our stakeholders and our employees,” he said, “It definitely paid off to be authentic, and we are now ready for the future.”

Ordina’s communication and change strategy included a range of activities: pre-visiting large shareholders, press and analyst conferences, investor road shows, stakeholder dialogue events and more. Schaffels also highlighted a long list of lessons.

For me personally, the most insightful was his reminder that communications is neither the privilege nor the task of the communications department. We often forget that, as it does go somewhat against the grain, considering all this effort that we, communicators, have put into consolidating our weight and strength within the corporate setting.

Nationale Nederlanden: Brand as a Mr. Guide

The guiding role of communications – as opposed to that of control – was also well illustrated in the presentation by Nanne Bos, Director Brand & Reputation Management at Nationale Nederlanden, a Dutch insurance company.

Bos made a case for the wide-scale brand transformation strategy that his company has been undergoing in the last several years, pointing out that rebranding in the times of Europe-wide crisis is a double-edged sword. Along with the usual dangers of initiating a change in a shaky environment when all the stakeholders are looking for is stability, there are also a number of hidden opportunities. “This instability reveals the bare truth about the brand, which communicators can use to build a rebranding programme based on very valuable insights.”

“We found out that Nationale Nederlanden was a trusted household brand, but at the same time very stuffy and old-fashioned,” said Bos. “The brand was poorly maintained, and there has been no major revision since the late 1960s.”

Start with a central programme and then let go.

In some detail Bos covered the rebranding process, which included extensive research and follow-up. He said that Nationale Nederlanden chose to build a brand which provided vision and behavioural guidance to its internal audiences. According to him, this model stimulates a better financial performance, by taking into account the company’s strategy, organisation and processes.

In his take-home messages, Bos echoed the previous speaker saying that rebranding has to be planned and executed by the communications, but that the actual implementation must be left to the organization. “Start with a central programme and then let go,” he said.

Delta Lloyd: everything that can matter, will matter

For the third case-study of the debate, David Brilleslijper, Director Corporate Communications & Investor Relations at Delta Lloyd’s Group, took the floor.

His talk on the challenges of a company going through the process of initial public offering revealed a four-stage communication strategy. It included the kick-off during the official IPO preparations, first marketing efforts at the time when the IPO ambitions are made public, full-fletched marketing in the period around the IPO date announcement, and the equally challenging follow-up in the new environment as a listed company.

Brilleslijper said that one of the keys to successful transition and stakeholder management is to get communication involved in the process as early as possible.

“In this environment of market sensitivity, the company finds itself under an omnipresent magnifying glass, therefore everything that can matter – will matter,” he stressed. “Communications have to co-write the equity story, as we are the ones who have to translate it to our many stakeholders in a consistent, helpful and transparent manner.”

Are Corporate Communicators Entitled to a Personal Brand?

personal brand Are Corporate Communicators Entitled to a Personal Brand?We are only credible as corporate communicators if we believe in what we say on behalf of our company and if we live its values – which, by no coincidence, we help formulate and integrate. This sounds idealistic, but as far as I am concerned this is the only way to add value to business operations and to generate strategically useful insights.

On the other hand, how does this dedication affect the corporate communicator’s personal brand?

I am (not) what I say I am

Being something else 40 hours plus each week, putting on a corporate hat and speaking in a voice that I wasn’t really born with obviously comes with a price.

When I go to communication meet-ups and engage in the usual networking exercise, the conversation immediately steers to our employers. Of course, my position may be regarded as a matter of status and my justification for being there in the first place. At the same time, I always wonder what motivates me to say “We are Europe’s largest association in this field”, or  “Our members come from all over the world”?

Admittedly, it is easier to articulate. What a mouthful it would be to churn out phrases like “I work for an organization the members of which come from all over the word”. Of course, I also want to come across as an involved and dedicated professional and there is no doubt that the qualities of the largest, the most dynamic, and the most forward-looking company in Europe rub off on me in the most positive fashion.

On the other hand, during moments of self-reflection, I wonder if I am speaking to my colleagues in phrases which I had worded so thoroughly in the last annual report.

Personal brand: a way out?

Would creating my very own personal brand help me break free from this strange dependency? Or would it create an internal conflict of interest?

The good thing is that personal branding in itself implies a high degree of authenticity. The brand personality is in fact my own personality, brand values are my own values and the brand promise is a total sum of my skills which one way or another translate into unique benefits for my stakeholders. So no conflict of interest here.

Things get a little more difficult when I have to  justify this brand and support it with a reason to believe. The easiest way to generate credibility for a personal brand would be to provide examples of my corporate communication work with extra emphasis on the most proud achievements. That, however, would not be the most effective way of disassociating myself from my other employed self.

The more difficult solution would be to build up an independent body of work, which helped to translate my corporate experience into models and insights that are interesting and useful in settings other than that of my employer. The process of creating this new set of independent experiences simultaneously offers plenty of opportunities to experiment, think big and think small, and act outside of limitations which stem from the organizational order of things.

Of course, just like any other, personal brand has its inherent limitations – a niche to fill, messages to make consistent and visual identity to design. It is no easy task, but certainly worth the effort, especially if along the way I will be able to enjoy and explore myself, as well as find my own voice in the profession of a communicator to which I am so committed.

A note to myself

Here I am, finishing off the first post in my blog. I think I have managed to convince myself that personal branding works just fine for corporate communicators. I will have to get back to this topic in a while and see where this path will have taken me by then.