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.

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.

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.”