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Speaking without listening

This month we’ve been mulling the latest employee satisfaction survey – one of the Holy Trinity of business results for our CEO (along with financial performance and customer satisfaction). As with any all-company census I’ve ever seen the top two comments are unsurprisingly 1) Pay me more and 2) Communicate more.

I’ll admit to feeing a little hurt by the latter point when the results were first revealed. I happen to think that, compared to many other organizations I’ve worked with, that our internal communications function is pretty darn good. There’s commitment from the very top – with the CEO drafting his own all-company email, without fail every week, regular newsletters for each functional unit and a rather marvellous international bulletin every month drafted by yours truly.

But, when even your own CEO’s email only attracts an average 40% open rate then you need take stock. Our content may be Premier League, our engagement levels, barely Conference level.  

The problem is that often brands which excel at external communications – from PR, to advertising to customer service – fail to invest similar energy and attention in their employee engagement. My colleagues in internal comms bemoan the fact that they are often treated like the orphaned children of the group. And I hold my hand up to being as guilty as the rest for pushing internal communications down the priority list in favour of the sexy, crowd-pleasing external campaigns. More often than not my four monthly blog pieces are punched out in the odd half hour between meetings rather than having a decent amount of time invested.

When we analysed our internal communications over the last year, the ones that performed best had some very distinct attributes. Strong storylines, rich multi-media content, multi-way dialogue opportunities, social media and brevity. Sound familiar? Sound a bit like… maybe… perhaps…your last consumer campaign?

To truly build employee engagement and an internal brand to be championed we need to invest time and money in it rather than reserving our best and brightest for external brand work and relegating internal communications to the bottom of the to-do pile. It also means listening, not just broadcasting and doing so in the most appropriate medium – email, phone, video cast or face to face. Smart brands recognise that employee engagement can really help build internal brand champions, which in turn provide great customer service, which leads to better financial results – the Holy Trinity for business success.

Headlines and heartlines

This week our team was boosted by a fresh import from the head office in San Francisco to head up business operations in the UK. Now it’s fair to say that my new desk buddy and I come from opposing ends of work spectrum with his love of math(s), stats and Excel spreadsheets and my preference for flowery prose and amusing cat videos.

This week the two worlds collided as I sought his help with crunching some numbers to evaluate the success of our launch PR activity. After a fruitless 30 minutes scrutinising some incomprehensible spreadsheets I had to admit defeat and ask him to please “just give me the headlines!” and tried to explain the concept of “PR Math(s)”. This, naturally, greatly offended his data purist sensitivities. A lively debate then ensued whereupon he laid out his inherent suspicion when he sees press articles with numbers that he suspects are “just PR numbers” while I tried to explain that for the sake of brevity and getting straight to the crux of a project, sometimes the wider view is necessary.

In an effort to break the impasse I shared some examples of raw data from research stories and took him through the process of turning it into press materials and then its final iteration on the printed page/online/on air. And by showing him the science (as well as the art) of PR he was better able to understand what my role is and how he can help. Too often, PRs complain that clients or colleagues “don’t get what they do” but in all honesty that’s as much the PR’s fault as the other party’s. In fact, as the professional communicator in the conversation it is often more their responsibility to educate than the other to learn.

For his part, my new colleague took me through the dreaded Excel sheet to show me exactly how he crunches the numbers and churns out detailed reports to measure against business targets. From this he explained (in somewhat excrutiating detail how we would be recalibrating the programme as a result – boosting investment in some channels and scaling back in others.  

By both sides taking some time and effort to understand the other’s role the result was an better oversight over the whole organisation and a more harmonious working relationship. And now, I can help turn his endless spreadsheets into pithy reports and in return, when he dumps a pile of numbers on my desk he takes the time and trouble to highlight the “headlines” rather than making me trawl through the numbers.

Now I just have to train him to make a proper cup of tea!

A tale of two Muppets

This week saw the august and secretive walls of Goldman Sachs shaken by a blistering missive from one of it’s former executives. Signing off after an illustrious 12 year career at the investment bank. Greg Smith spew forth his vitriol via a public resignation letter in the op ed colum of the New York Times.

Condeming the environment at his former employers as “toxic and destructive” and branding the majority of his clients as “muppets”, Smith launched himself out of Wall Street with only the millions of dollars accumulated during a stellar decade to cushion his fall. Effective? Perhaps. True? More than likely. Graceless? Most certainly.

Compare Smith Raging Bull-market approach to the take no prisoners approach of the incomparable Miss Piggy. Undisputed star of The Muppets, renowed editor of Plus Size Vogue, beloved of little green frogs everywhere and twice as tough as any toxic banker – this porcine diva has been the cornerstone of a superb PR campaign around the recent film. The campaign has stayed true to its starring characters particular histories whilst providing intriguing new twists and compelling journeys for its principal stars in the years between the TV Show and it’s current big-screen incarnation. Playing beautifully to the nostalgia of its fans whilst cleverly updating it to provide modernity to new ones, such as Piggy’s startling hint of using Botox – it’s taken the media along on its joyride – not just willingly but with whole-hearted enthusiasm.

And, more than a decade after they were last stars, its still apparent that Muppets, unlike bitter investment bankers, are kind not cruel, clever, loving and never ever mean. Which is why Muppets are making a welcome comeback and Mr Smith will shortly be disappearing into obscurity.

When the two day rule does not apply

New business is the lifeblood of any agency so here’s a salutary tale for all you business development gurus out there.

If a potential new client emails you to invite to discuss a potential project make sure you respond in a timely manner.

Failure to reply to a Linked In message, a text or a DM to confirm a meeting makes it highly unlikely that they will believe that you really are social media experts…

Going the extra 3,500 miles for customer service

This week marked the fifth aniversary of eBay’s acquisition of my present company and the weekly email from our CEO made much of our progress in that time. Of the three key metrics on which our performance is measured, the substantial increase in our employee satisfaction scores over that time particularly lauded, the principle being that engaged and happy employees  do a great job of making customers happy and those happy customers go and tell their friends who are then inspired to give our service a try.

Similarly, great service and employees who enthusiastically embrace and convey corporate brand values can help turn less than positive associations around.

Recently, I returned from a mammoth three week business trip to the States with the last leg seeing me fly from Indianapolis to Heathrow by way of Philadelphia under the minstrations of US Airways. While the journey was relatively seamless, the luggage almost always one of the first  five bags off the carousel and the business class beds perfectly comfortable, the whole experience was just a little underwhelming. I yearned some of Virgin Atlantic’s slickness or BA’s practiced aloofness.

This has been flipped 360° in the last fortnight after the fateful home stretch from Philadelphia to London. Taking advantage of the two hour layover and studiously avoiding the duty free fags I opted for a chair massage at the airport spa to unknot my travel weary muscles. So relaxed was my state of mind after this I blithely walked off without my necklace – a fact I only realised as the plane was taxiing for takeoff.

Once safely in the air, I buzzed for cabin crew assistance and explained my dilemma. They leapt into action with one running to the cockpit to get the pilots to radio down to the service desk (handily located next to the spa) and another feeding me red wine, comfort and Kleenex. Sadly the spa had already closed but the chief stewardess – the lovely Monica – assured me that she was flying back into Philadelphia the following evening and would personally check in at the spa herself to see if they had the missing necklace.

Having given her my contact details I sat back and resigned myself to having lost it.While not expensive, the necklace was given to me the day that I was born and so the sentimental value was beyond measure. But lo and behold, a mere two days later an email from Monica’s personal address lands in my inbox with good news. She had retrieved the necklace and asked her husband to post it via Secure Mail. Furthermore, she  declined all offers of compensation for the cost of sending it saying that she “only did it because it was the right thing to do” and asking only that I confirm it’s safe return.

I sit here typing with the necklace safely round my neck with a renewed respect and admiration for Monica, cabin crew in general and by extension US Airways who have, with a single act of supreme customer service, leapt from “meh” to “maybe” (I am still a difficult customer to please!). US Airways was the only airline included in the 50 Best Companies to work for in the US in a recent magazine poll. And if my CEO’s theory holds true and employee engagement and satisfaction leads to better customer experience then this airline must be a great place to work.

Opportunism knocks

Sad news from across the Pond this week as legendary singer Whitney Houston was found dead in a Beverley Hills hotel room.

As tributes poured in from across the world Sony Music came under fire for capitalising on her demise by immediately increasing the wholesale price of her greatest hits album – raising it from £4.99 to £7.99 on the Apple iTunes Store. While commercially understandable as a bid to capitalise on renewed interest and demand, the move was a crass PR blunder by the music giant.

Monetising tragedy aside, in the aftermath of death there are always vultures circling around the corpse sucking the last PR morsels out. For the Grammys to overlook the loss of one of their own would have been unthinkable so the tributes paid at the awards were genuinely moving, many more appeared to be leaping on the mourning band wagon. Whitney as an X Factor judge? Really?

Similarly, Daniel Day-Lewis, in an interview to promote his new film shortly after Heath Ledger’s death claimed kinship with the actor. Despite having never met him in real life, he broke down in tears claiming that he “had a strong impression” that he would have liked him very much if they had. If there was an Oscar for most blatant profiteering from the current news cycle Day-Lewis would be polishing a statuette.

However, the winner of the best PR move this week would have to be Apple. Having initially being portrayed as the people responsible for the Houston price hike once the real culprit was revealed they move quickly to cut the price back to the original £4.99, absorbing the costs themselves. With the artist earning approximately one tenth of the sale price (if they’re lucky) Apple benefits from the increased sales and visibilty and gets the reflected glory from a truly savvy PR move.

Going the distance

So after a much needed holiday over the new year, the second week of January saw me flying across the Atlantic to spend several weeks at Stubhub’s global HQ in San Francisco. In my fortnight here I’ve been flung head-first into US culture and the media – from my first tailgate at the 49-ers game when they narrowly missed out on a place in the Superbowl, to Napa Valley wineries to the curiously old-fashioned prose and layout of the New York Times.

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Keeping your friends close, and your references closer

The last few weeks have been a flurry of activity as I make final preparations to leave the world of freelancing and return to permanent gainful employment.

As I’m still awaiting formal paperwork, my inherent anti-jinx instinct prevents me from sharing the full details. This paranoia means that the circle of trust is limited to (excluding immediate family, other half and flatmate) just nine people – seven of which were asked to provide references going back six years.

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Do as I say, not as I do

The prize for cojones of the week has to go to Japanese MP Yashuhiro Sonoda who drank a glass of water gathered from rain puddles outside the Fukushima power plant to “prove” to watching journalists that the area was now safe from contamination. Reports that he followed this by nailing six shots of scorpion venom and arm-wrestling Chuck Norris have yet to be confirmed.

Similarly in the immediate aftermath of Britain’s “Mad Cow” crisis in 1990, the then Agriculture Minister John Gummer infamously fed his four-year-old daughter a burger in front of the waiting press. Read More

Lies, damned lies and statistics

This weekend I had the great pleasure of sitting not six feet away from 80s pop icon turned actor turned director Martin Kemp at the Grimmfest Film Festival as he fielded a Q&A session after a screening of his directorial debut, Stalker.

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