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The unifying theory of communications: Sustain us

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unifying theoryWhen less is simply less 

Look at Earth, hanging in space, alone in darkness. After you’re done admiring the beauty of what you see, you can’t help but think, on some level:

Will we be able to sustain such a hurtling jewel?

What if we looked at communications in that context?

Sometimes communications are used in less-than-best practice.

Infographics are great. They convey information quickly. They’re on everybody’s lips.

But infographics can mislead. When infographics are over-tasked with carrying the thrust of a message alone, they fail.

Communications is about integration: a unification of channels. It’s about sustaining brilliance, about sustaining best practice.

Shaping a story

Some creatives can do graphics with great impact and shape a great story. It depends on the strategy behind the message. Infographics are brilliant tools, but success is in how infographics are used.

Words have built empires. There is no escaping our need for information. As we move into any subject, we want deeper information.

We live in a world where our communications race forward into space. Connectivity. Speed. Data blasting forward. It’s all tough to process.

Infographics are everywhere. They provide snapshots of almost anything you can imagine. Done well, they are useful, but …

How deep are some really?

The shallow end: Don’t use audiences when using data

Go out and search. You will doubtless find an infographic on what you’re looking for. Now, look for the source.

Where did the information come from?

Some infographics don’t reference where the research for the data comes from. They tell a story, but if the story’s fiction, consider its value.

Organizations have objectives. If data and infographics are used to mislead, you risk credibility.

In our race to process information, to relay information, to demonstrate concepts to people more easily, more accessibly, without demanding too much of the beleaguered audience or public, we sometimes forget to look into where the research for the data comes from.

Who did the research? If we don’t know … Are we setting up our audience, and so, ourselves for disappointment?

In these days of content curation, we still have to be conscious of where data comes from, and its interpretation. That can be difficult. Speed is of the essence.

Even the research process itself has come under repeated analysis. There have been a number of papers criticizing peer review. Often, the conclusion is, peer review may be imperfect, but it’s still the best thing we’ve got.

Questions, questions: Ask some questions

At the very least, we should ask questions about what research seems to demonstrate. We live in a time of rapid change.

Since Einstein, and beyond, we’ve learned that things are relative. We may like slow cooking, but we still have priorities related to “getting things done”. In a historical context, Einstein did pretty well without all the technology we have at our disposal today.

Take research on phones. As one of the largest manufacturers of phones used to advise us: Think different. A recent study suggested a few things about different phone manufacturers. One idea was that the wealthy / intelligent buy a certain model of phone.

What’s being suggested here? That the phone makes you wealthy or intelligent?

Let’s ask some questions: What types of phones are we talking about? Does one brand sell a greater variety of phones across a broader spectrum within a broader price range? (For example, if wealth determines intelligence, then obviously Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are smarter than Steve Jobs was.)

Which company focuses on the high-end? If a product costs more, it doesn’t take Einstein to figure out that the wealthy might buy that product.

Sheep or deep?

Questions can start to reveal bias or data manipulation. There’s a difference between interpretation and distortion of data. Insights have to be as deep as the data.

None of us are perfect, but If we use data with less-than-best-practice, doesn’t it reflect our opinion of our target audience? Our publics?

Is there an element of danger in such a strategy? How do people feel when there’s a massive pullback in a company’s stock? When IPOs and exchanges are held up as parlayers of bad practice?

Researching media reports after such errors in judgement – more often labelled as “debacles” in the media – provide clear evidence. No management team wants to see its name lit up in a reputational example of bad practice.

Need more evidence? Take a look at questions asked about the U.S. government’s reputation following the Merkel phone-tapping.

The complications involved in communicating, and various organizational debacles, are bound to affect brand and reputation. Do consumers want to know we’re burying poor references to our brands in cyberspace, or, that:

  • We’re addressing issues from stakeholders
  • Opening a channel of dialogue
  • Working hard to improve our organizations

and,

  • Willing to listen to feedback that provides insight?

Daniel Libeskind and David Chipperfield discuss why architecture is collaborative and is a form of communication. Any new building is bound to cause controversy like any great new idea. The discussion is the thing.

Flip the agenda on its head

Some believe that in a world where our communications burn across media at a faster and faster pace, the potential for backlash is vastly accelerated. But isn’t it important to consider that people are also getting more discerning? Aren’t people looking for something to believe in?

Aren’t we building a form of architecture when we reach out to talk to publics and audiences? Aren’t we better off building a foundation that lasts?

Isn’t there opportunity here? And if you’re not involved in the discussion, not seated at the table, digitally, with your publics, then, who is?

If you’re not dealing with stakeholders’ trust issues, then who is?

Won’t integrity stand out?

Peter Lynch and Warren Buffett have been cited for discussing how a company’s focus on how to spend its money (read: not spending outlandish amounts on offices, furniture, etc.) shows a competitive edge in these companies, especially for the shareholder. Does this frugality on the part of management mean that the managements of these companies aren’t intelligent?

Warren Buffett still lives in a modest house. Is he less intelligent for doing this?

Meanwhile, some companies spend a great deal on their employees including training and R&D to help stimulate creativity, engagement and innovation.

Is there more than one way to get to an outcome? In fact, is the construction of outcomes liquid? In constant flux?

A river flows out to the sea, but the way the water gets to the sea is epic. It’s a story of flow, of perpetual change. It’s the story of nature’s architecture.

A discerning audience is able to deconstruct what it sees. New York has taken steps to protect consumers from fake reviews. Is it really sound to imagine that there are no customers that have ever considered that these kinds of bad practices are going on?

Smart competitors will create smart campaigns centred around companies’ branding. Clever advertising is full of examples of a brand’s position being reframed – even if you’re reframing the idea that consumers of that brand are “creative”.

If an infographic misleads, does it take your audience where you want to go ultimately?

Information in infographics absent best practice, can mislead. What can it do to a brand?

Data can be used in a self-perpetuating, self-aggrandizing way to rationalize, what? That a product makes us look smarter? Makes us superior to others because we spend more on it?

Publics are going to change as fast as the media that bombard them. Appealing to customers will be an act of ultimate creativity. Some will do it brilliantly. Others are going to be remembered for compromising their ethics.

Customers, more than ever, want organizations that walk the talk.

Even if an organization mounts a comeback related to a major stumble, followed by negative media coverage, wouldn’t it have been better to follow a sustainable path of best practice in the first place? Wouldn’t it have been better not to suffer the reputational damage – to have more consistent growth?

Isn’t this why business schools hold ethics classes? Why reputation and trust factor large in polls? Why the Warren Buffetts of the world focus on the long-term rather than the short-term?

Are we telling stakeholders that all of this is mere lip service? Do we want to build our communications architecture like a house of cards?

Consider smartphone advertising, public relations and marketing. Just this sector is full of (depending on your opinion and metrics) winners, winners who became losers, organizational wrestling with public perception of privacy issues, the rapid pace of technological change, intense competition, shrinking margins, hype, hubris and successes that are hard to maintain.

Looking for a bullet-proof suit? It exists in best practice. The structure that sustains is the structure than can be built on.

Privacy, hacktivists and change giving birth to change

What of privacy? How much are people willing to give away? With social media, many of us are more visible, willingly, but there’s still constant debate about what amount of social media exposure is healthy. We do that regarding television, and electronics generally, too.

Hacktivists seem to be playing a major role in our public perception of networks, our personal, societal and corporate treatment of information.

Doubtless, security plays in the minds of our publics even as they increasingly give more of their information away. Security issues could impact dramatically on collaboration and information exchange, but innovation depends on such exchange.

Multiple security issues can change perception about services. New perceptions create new realities.

Many in the media and related professions and organizations are trying to appeal to their audiences. We could go on and on asking questions: The pace of change is making us move from what we are, are becoming and will be. It’s a never-ending cycle of change.

Change begets change.

Audiences and publics are undergoing ferocious transformation, and they will undergo all manner of metamorphoses as they absorb their new universes.

The portals are everywhere

In our hands. In our pockets. On our desks.

Portals. Everywhere.

Our world has become worlds. Some of us are spending as much time in virtual worlds as in real ones. Since the advent of screens and all their permutations, we’ve gained new devices offering  portable portals.

Some won’t care. Others will constantly jump on the “new”, but the reality is, sustainability of anything, idea, product, service, depends on growth. But what kind of growth?

Integration and ethics: The song that remains, sustains

Infographics work best in an integrated communications plan. They are a great tool when used wisely. Today, the way you reach out has to have a long-term focus. There may be short-term tactics, but they have to rationalize with a long-term vision. Content is everywhere, so, creators of content need to work together to move mountains.

Eventually, you have to bring people somewhere where they access deep, meaningful research or information. While short pieces are the rage for grabbing views, leading audiences to deep information increases credibility. That, in itself, is the message.

Fluff eventually blows away. Substance is permanent. A well-built foundation upholds a structure.

Unethical manipulation of public trust, of audiences, can only end badly. Look at the U.S. and world stock markets as an example. It’s only this year that retail investors have come back.  If people hold great and enduring mistrust against the stock markets, what will the impact be on innovation, societal development and wealth creation?

The great thing about asking questions is it can help you formulate long-term strategy. In a world where you want to be aware of weaknesses and threats against your organization, your society on a small and large scale, you have to focus on ways to create opportunity that resonate for the long-term. (This should be in our DNA. It’s the double helix of a virtual spiral.)

We’ve all heard pop songs that are one-hit wonders, but there are some songs that sustain us, and in turn, we sustain them.  Quality endures. We make sure of it.

In a world of change, where there are so many one-hit wonders, songs that remain sustain.

Image source: Flickr/Ted Kendell

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N.B.: When it comes to integrated communications, here are three excellent key messages:

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Images: Flickr, Daily Dividend.

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The hydra upon you: Hype and its dangers for public relations and marketing

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Today’s post is a continuation of Silos, silly season, social.

The many-headed hydra and key messages

If you believe in dialogue, if you believe in the multiple digital channels that can help convey key messages, then you know the potential for communications. Still, there’s been so much noise during the iPhone 5 announcement, you might wonder why the heavens haven’t opened up and why we aren’t being visited by angels of innovation blessing all things with an “i” before them.

Never mind that sales are being reported as a disappointment.

In the post-Facebook IPO era, best practices, truth and open communication should be reinforced as the way to communicate. Sustainability as a strategy looms large.

Hype is a many-headed hydra. When all the hydra’s heads are talking at once, which one will consumers believe? What are the key messages? Is it just confusion?

Do target audiences believe they have a part in the conversation, or is it just the heads of the hydra talking to themselves?

Just as I’m writing this, a connection of mine, Mark D’Cunha posted this on LinkedIn:

Ears that do not listen to advice, accompany the head when it is chopped off.

— African proverb

Media is a wonderful creator, but what it creates, it can take away.

Satire and blowback:

Reputational damage is best avoided in the first place

When people start satirizing a brand en masse, what does it say about a brand’s future business potential?

Some outcomes are beyond even the most careful planners’ control.

The blowback from the Facebook IPO resulted in a ton of reputational damage, left many who talked about Facebook’s short-term growth potential looking a little ridiculous while reinforcing the long-term thinking of those who understand what P/E ratio means.

Companies have bottom lines. Attenion has to be paid to profitability.

Still, attention also has to be paid to whether a brand can wear out its welcome. How much is too much?

informal
Definition of hype

noun

[mass noun]

  • extravagant or intensive publicity or promotion: his first album hit the stores amid a storm of hype
  • [count noun] a deception carried out for the sake of publicity: is his comeback a hype?

verb

[with object]

  • promote or publicize (a product or idea) intensively, often exaggerating its benefits: an industry quick to hype its products they were hyping up a new anti-poverty idea

Origin:

1920s (originally US in the sense ‘short-change, cheat’, or ‘person who cheats etc.’): of unknown origin

Credit: Oxford online dictionary

IPO gaga and the misvaluations from Mars

If you’ve followed what’s happened to the Facebook brand since IPO, you’ve more than a clue about what could happen in a less-than-best-practices environment. From a risk mitigation point of view, when the crowd’s gone gaga, there’s definitely potential but also a proportionate increase in exposure.

What happens with Facebook is still unwritten. What’s sure is that amidst the feeding frenzy of negative news post-IPO, there were also stories working hard to portray potential, still. If public relations around the Facebook IPO had been conducted differently, less energy would’ve had to be directed toward rehabilitating the Facebook brand.

Facebook isn’t the first nor will it be the last to suffer from its own success. When hype goes out-of-control, it ceases to be good public relations, good marketing. Because target audiences are left with the feeling of being had.

This is sort of like a salesperson thinking of her potential clients as “marks”. Maybe the naming of things creates destiny. Clients are people.

Growth: The greatest investment the world ever knew was the investment in you

Audiences are made up of individuals. When they get together, they have awesome power. It doesn’t matter if they’re internal or external.

If you invest in treating people like smart human beings, they’ll invest in you.

I’ll be continuing posts on Silos, silly season and social. I’d like to share them with you.

If everyone’s thinking the same thing, give me a contrarian

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We need to learn how to listen to the contrarians. The ones who don’t feel it.

They won’t always be right. But they will help challenge beliefs we see as self-evident.

No as affirmation

People who challenge us to challenge our own beliefs are worth their weight in gold.

Sadly, contrarians are often labelled as “difficult” or “disruptive” — just like creative kids in school. They don’t swim with the majority.  This is their strength.

We all have biases.

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.

— F. Scott Fitzgerald

It’s largely the contrarians who force you to analyze the greatest dangers to a popular idea, company or product. Part of leadership is having the confidence to listen. Listening is too often the forgotten communication skill.

Whether dialogue begins as scribbled notes on paper or a conversation in a cafe — dialogue is communication. Communication is at the heart of all innovation.

Diverse communication, voices with differing opinions, offers the best framework for generating/evaluating new ideas and alerting an organization to:

  • Illusions of invulnerability
  • A pervasive belief in the moral goodness/rightness of the group or the group’s ideas
  • An often self-imposed inability to think critically

Sometimes no is the no we should’ve said yes to

Rarely is the short-term gain of a less-than-honest tactic effective in the long-term. Flouting best practices can work for awhile, but, ultimately, less-than-best practices will fail.

When the consumer sees what she deems to be corruption, poor customer service, bad labour practices or other corporate failings, she tends to react. She exercises the freedom she has:

Choice.

Maybe not immediately but eventually.

Social media, highly mobile, has amplified the ability to react with great impact.

When a company, product or idea reaches a certain mass, it becomes its own worst enemy. Some stakeholders can become inculcated. Perhaps this is one of the most vital times to challenge biases, beliefs and assumptions.

Momentum carries forward, but eventually reality strikes like the force of gravity. In crisis, leadership may exert more control and listen less. Can success cause a similar phenomenon?

A company, product or idea has hit (or is very close to hitting) its zenith at the point of maximum group think. It’s different this time is the tolling of a bell. The point of critical mass often exerts itself in a mania, and depends on people thinking the same and buying the same products or consuming the same products or beliefs.

Success breeds failure: Failure breeds success

There’s an irony in that success can breed failure.

Often, the ones we should’ve listened to go unheard.

Eventually, you’re expending most of your energy trying to convince consumers that your product or ideas are still the best or the coolest rather than coming up with the products or ideas that truly are the best or the coolest.

Maybe you forget to develop the relationships that fulfill the need that needs fulfilling.

In all creative thinking, the really new looks ugly at first. It’s threatening. And it threatens the adherents of the current popular idea, product or company most.

Do we just want our lives to be easy? Do we resist being pushed to think? None of us think so.

If the majority of people are consuming the same product or idea, are they thinking differently or thinking the same? And what will this lead to?

A complicated question.

Rare is the product or idea that is perpetual. Our digitized world has shrunk space and time. We are accelerating. Even the speed of light no longer seems beyond us.

The challenge of challengers

Challengers are generating ideas, products and services. Forming relationships. They’re innovating. Somewhere amongst those challengers is the next monster product or idea, waiting to be born.

Partnerships create value. Considering biases is part of the value partnerships create.

Think or be out-thought.

We need to continue to listen to those who criticize the present – not because they are difficult, but for the potential to see the unseen, to hear the unheard. We need to listen to those who are looking toward the future rather than fixating on the present, or worse, the past.

Will we?

Killing creativity: Is everyone thinking the same thing?

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What kills creativity?

Group think.

Patton said:

“If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.”

The leaden wings of group think

What is it about human nature that makes us want to be the same?

The first thing we do when a company, product, or idea becomes popular is jump on the bandwagon. Everyone has to have the same product. Some will stand in line. This is, of course, very profitable for any company selling that same product or idea.

Many companies thrive by creating this “need” we didn’t know we “needed”. But often the “need” we didn’t know we “needed” was actually an extension of something we do need everyday. For example, tools for communication.

How often have we reinvented pen and paper? The tools change, but the end result is the ability to create, to communicate.

Success, right? Success can be when the problem starts.

Think about the future!

While we can learn a lot from past successes, we can learn from manias also. Facebook’s IPO is a case in point. (It was valued at 100 times earnings!) It’s easier, in retrospect, to wonder how an IPO is worth 100 hundred times current earnings. It’s easier to look at a stock chart and say, yeah, it was overvalued after a big decline.

No wonder IPOs so seldom live up to the hype.

It’s easier to look at a product everybody had, and announce that the market had been saturated, after saturation.

It’s hard to do the same thing early. You have to go against opinion. You might be ridiculed. You might be ostracized.

Some of these voices demanding you conform will be shrill.

They might even tell you that if you stop thinking, you’ll start thinking.

But it’s diversity in thinking that truly creates.

And relationships don’t need to be adversarial. They can be focused on growth. For all parties. But that doesn’t mean you have to agree.

We fear creativity and often reject it.

But nobody will admit to it.

It’s easy to jump on the bandwagon of a current winner.  It’s much harder to pick the next winner.

It’s easy to pick a winner due to sheer momentum. Momentum will carry you forward for awhile. This is true whether you’re talking about a stock, a company or a product.

But in assessing now and moving into tomorrow, consider:

  • The rapidity of change in an environment or sector
  • The difficulty of maintaining leadership if you are one of the leaders
  • Increasing competition
  • Increasing negative feedback from consumers or users

The listening tree

Creative thinking demands the discussion of threats as much as it does strengths or opportunities. Rather than being ridiculed, people presenting reasons they think a company, product or idea won’t maintain its momentum are often the best opportunity to understand how to improve a product, service or idea.

And then, of course, there’s listening to your customers. Strategic listening is an art in itself.

Rather than plucking the last fruit from the tree, we need to grow new fruit.

We need seeds — and to plant new trees.

Related:

Collectivism and size drive unethical behaviour: The diffusion problem

When reality becomes perception

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Reputation and brand: Facebook strikes a blow — against itself

I blogged about social media and a potential backlash to use of private information in “Three digital considerations for the year(s) to come”.  In an interesting twist, “Facebookgate” is a signpost of what not to do on the road to establishing great reputational capital for companies. Not only is use of private information important but immoral tactics employed to “go negative” against competitors reveal the emperor as naked and scared.

Facebook was trying to expose Google for privacy issues through public relations firm Burson-Marsteller. Considering Facebook’s own past issues regarding users’ privacy concerns, the hypocrisy of this tactic is thick and hard to digest. Equally hard to digest is Burson-Marsteller’s use of tactics that have been described as “shadowy”. Burson-Marsteller’s former UK chairman says executives involved in the escapade acted like “backstreet spin merchants”.

Terence Fane-Saunders, ex of Burson-Marsteller UK, soundly criticised his old employer on his company blog, aptly titled:  “What on earth has happened to Burson-Marsteller?”

Obviously, grubby tactics  like those displayed in the Facebookgate case have done a lot of damage to the public relations industry in the past. Such tactics as those employed by Burson-Marsteller have led to the portrayal of public relations practitioners as hacks.

Amazing that such tactics still see the light of day. Facebook is now left with its brand highlighted in the media beside such less-than-brand-enhancing labels as “furtive”, “smear campaign” and “creepy” to list but a few. Not exactly words that most companies would revel in being associated with.

And, of course, every mention of Facebook adds mention of Burson-Marsteller’s involvement and bad public relations practices.

Companies would do well to pay attention to the fallout from such tactics. Perception may be more important than reality, but, in the case of Facebookgate, reality has had an enormous impact on perception. The problem is, in the Facebook case, reality was far worse than almost anybody perceived.

Video:

Blogger Soghoian speaks about Facebookgate

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