- 35 years experience in corporate communications, heading communications teams at Merck, United Technologies, Purdue Pharma, Yale University and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
- Offers expertise in foundation leadership, academic public affairs, and issues management.
- Founded True North Strategies, LLC, strategic communications consultancy to build on leadership role at Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, guiding communications strategy to advance the influence and effectiveness of non-profit organizations.
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Achieving Impact Through Integrated Communications
- Transparency with employees and the general public is a requirement in business today.
There's no such thing as a secret anymore when every employee is a media company of one. Even if they embrace your overarching direction and messaging, employees will comment about it on social media. So employees should be valued as your front-line brand ambassadors. You want them to be effective evangelists, and that means training them on key messages and sharing your best "elevator speech."
And when an organization's leaders are communicating with the public – particularly in moments of crisis – transparency and compassion are particularly important. In 1982, there was a terrible scare when seven people in the Chicago area died from Tylenol laced with cyanide due to drug tampering. James Burke, Johnson & Johnson's CEO at the time, spoke the truth and acted quickly – and saved his company from a financial disaster. Another more recent example of a CEO who stepped up to the plate in a time of crisis is AirAsia's Tony Fernandes, who was accessible and compassionate after AirAsia Flight 8501 went down in December 2014. Compare that with Malaysia Airlines now-former chief executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya, who was widely criticized for his awkward, insensitive response after MH370 went down. He lost his job, and the company will likely suffer for his communications blunders for years to come.
- Millennials are now the largest component of our work force in the U.S., and they have different values than previous generations.
- Millennials, meaning those aged 22-35 (born between 1980 and 1992), seek jobs that are affiliated with a social good. Social values are really important to them, and they choose their employers based on alignment with the values of the enterprise. This doesn't necessarily mean that they're only interested in cause-related employment, but they want their values reflected in their work. Even if they're working in a law firm doing mergers and acquisitions transactions all day, far removed from social frontiers, they want to know that their firm has a foundation or a philanthropic tie to a greater good. Also, millennials often choose career paths where they eschew the partner track and just stay as an associate because they want to be home at six o'clock so they can have dinner with their kids or attend their soccer game.
The preferences of millennials also affect the market dramatically. Millennials demand more social value from the companies they choose to do business with. It's not enough to produce the best widgets today. Today's consumers want to see a portion of all widget sales earmarked to help feed a hungry child or to build to a hospital in sub-Saharan Africa or something else that responds to a social need beyond the marketplace. Just building the best widget on the market is not a sustainable strategy if you want to retain a motivated customer base – or workforce – of millennials.
Millennials are motivated by working on solutions. They want to move beyond researching problems. They believe in collective action, so they seek a group or team experience. They don't want to work in silos. Finally, never forget that millennials are all digital natives. So if your communications with your employees are all in print, you're missing them. You'll only reach them through web-based and mobile platforms. Meet them where they are, and where they're going.
- Marketing and communications are converging.
- The traditional structure, where you have silos for advertising, public relations, marketing, and HR, is evolving into a new paradigm where those those functions are blended. This underscores the need for alignment and coordination and communication among these different, traditionally vertical functions.
There's a need for a shared playbook and connective tissue to knit their work together so that HR, marketing, and media relations, public relations, advertising all navigate using the same North Star, while respecting each others' disciplines, and coordinating and calibrating their work so that they create greater impact. As a case in point, at the world’s largest airline (American) the marketing, communications, and talent functions all roll up to one senior vice president.
- Particularly in the age of social media, culture trumps strategy.
- You cannot impose a communications strategy that is not authentic to the culture of an enterprise. The most elegant communications strategy will not succeed if it is not respectful of and resonant with the culture of the organization. Effective, authentic communications must be grounded in the best elements of a corporate culture – that is the surest foundation upon which you can build change.
It is important to note here that you cannot “muscle” the culture of a large, established entity like IBM, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, or Yale University to change in 6-12 months. That doesn't happen. You would be pushing against this immovable object called the culture of the organization. So anything you do has to really track to and be respectful of that unique culture. The CEO’s role is to steer the evolution of that culture – not to destroy it.
- There's an increasing need to influence the influencers.
- In my experience, there are a lot of followers in this world and very few leaders. There are three discrete cohorts of very high-level influentials that you have to engage with and you can't ignore: bloggers, Hollywood producers and academic thought leaders. It's a good use of resources to develop relationships with these very small subsets of influencers. In any industry there are probably a 10-15 bloggers who can move entire markets just by what they say on a daily basis. Academics are often involved in setting policy on a national level; what they publish, what they say on NPR, and how they influence policy makers are all very important. You can't ignore them just because you may not agree with them.
Finally, you have to be mindful of pop culture. You can harness the power of pop culture, so that your issue gets favorable treatment on a popular TV program, by pitching the Hollywood producers behind the shows. This is especially true for social causes. There is an organization called Hollywood Health and Society which is dedicated to bridging the gap between the entertainment industry and the healthcare sector. Based at USC, Hollywood Health and Society is credited with shining a spotlight on the backlog of thousands of unopened rape kits across the country, through an episode of the popular show "Law & Order: SVU." The show generated a groundswell of outrage which has resulted in millions of dollars of new appropriations for law enforcement agencies to eliminate the rape kit backlog in many urban centers.
- Content marketing has become a crucial component in successful branding and communication strategies.
- Content marketing – communications that showcase your brand's value without explicit selling – is a really important tool for elevating your brand. It's about delivering information that is truly relevant to your customers, rather than focusing exclusively on selling the product itself. Through content marketing, you can authentically educate your peers and customers and, at the same time, build the reputation of your firm as a thought leader.
There are many channels for content marketing, ranging from blog posts musing on a trend in your industry to "how to" videos to meme-generators to infographics. One great strategy for content marketing involves mining the rich experience and technical knowledge of your top leadership and creating bylined articles which are placed in trade and business press. Another effective approach is to generate case studies that highlight interesting and perhaps unexpected ways that your product or service has been used to great effect. For greatest impact, look for case studies that have an unexpected or "feel good" impact.
- "Big Data" has dramatically changed marketing and communications.
- It's now possible to do market segmentation right down to zip code. There is no excuse for “random acts of marketing” that are not data driven. But as our ability to target our audiences becomes more sophisticated, it heightens the need to customize messages to be respectful and relevant to these micro-audiences. That requires sensitivity to the cultural differences between geographies. I don’t think you can successfully operate a “national communications campaign” today – everything has become hyper-local.
The best communicators today are often the best listeners – they are focused on understanding their audience at a much deeper level and then aligning their messages accordingly.