Messaging Layoffs

Since I’ve been discussing messaging and talking points over the last couple of weeks, I wanted to share this chilling story from Marketplace Radio on the jargonizing of layoff language.

A reporter from Financial Times noted that Nokia, when putting 17,000 employees out of work, described the act as “managing them for value.”

Companies have downsized, rightsized, outsourced, delayered, OPEX’ed, and RIF’ed their way through the Great Recession as lawyers, HR and finance tried to spin the news for Wall Street. If communications professionals were involved in the creation of this sort of messaging, then, quite frankly, shame on them. Doublespeak always backfires.

I’ve had the mixed blessing of working for companies faced with the difficult position of laying off employees, yet they had the compassion to insist that the process – and the communications around it – be done with integrity and respect.

All told, I’ve communicated layoffs that affected the lives of more than 25,000 individuals and their families and communities. And I’ve had the job of rallying internal audiences and keeping them focused and productive once layoffs and facility closures were through.

The reason telling Wall Street that managing 17,000 people “for value” always backfires is that Wall Street isn’t the only audience. There are employees. They’re listening and, trust me, they are not impressed with “Up in the Air” glibness. That goes double if two separate departments are handling messaging, one spouting “managing for value” externally, and the other trying to ward off plummeting internal morale with compassion or simply by providing economic facts around a struggling business.

One of the most basic tenets of corporate communications is synching internal and external messages. No amount of compassion and respect in internal communications can combat hearing “managing for value” on TV.

If you do this right, you are hyper-aware throughout that layoffs are about human beings, not numbers. Compassion rules your heart and nothing blurs your vision of how this is done with integrity. Your credibility and your company’s rests on messaging – external and internal – that is respectful and, above all, consistent.

Clearing the Air around Firing

A side note about the misuse of language regarding layoffs: Isn’t it time we all – corporate communicators, reporters and HR people – stopped confusing layoffs with firing?

Firing is something that happens for cause, because an individual violates a policy, rules of conduct, or simply doesn’t perform appropriately in a job. Layoffs typically involve groups of employees and, while one or two might have made the list for cause, no one (especially not HR) will ever admit that.

Confusing or, worse, conflating “layoff” with “firing” does an enormous disservice to those who’ve just lost their jobs (and don’t particularly want to hear on the news that they’ve been “fired”) and the job-seekers who are trying to position themselves for new work (and don’t need the added pressure of having to answer an interview question like, “Why were you fired from your last job?” when in actuality they were laid off).

Out of the Mouths of Executives: How to Craft Quotes that Get Coverage

Your company has news to share, and you’re writing the press release. Of course, you want pick up, but instead only the lede and fourth graf were squeezed into a space smaller than your iPod Nano.

And those quotes you labored over for the executive leading this important project? They were left on the virtual equivalent of the newsroom floor.

Corporate communicators and PR folks create quotes for press releases. Reporters understand this. Good reporters, who work for the news outlets where you most want coverage, go out of their way to avoid PR. They look for the news, and they call for one-on-one interviews to get their own quotes. If they’re up against deadline, they’ll pull only what they see as “real news” from your press release and ditch the rest as too self-promoting.

Want your quotes to see the light of day? Here are 10 tips for crafting quotes that get play:

Don’t rely on key messages for the quote.
Here’s perhaps the single biggest problem with created quotes: They repeat what’s already been said in the headline (and possibly in the subhead) and in the lede. Why? Because the writer is using the key messages to craft the press release.

Consider the poor journalist who has to read this release. What’s going through his or her mind? “I know that. You’ve said it twice already. Tell me something I don’t know.”

This is why copy gets cut. Reporters want the news, which, by definition, means delivering something new in each sentence.

What? No messages? You can’t believe I’m suggesting this, can you?

Here’s a quick experiment I tried just before writing this: I Googled Fortune 500 companies, clicked on a link to last year’s list, and selected the first one that I didn’t have a vested interest in. The company turned out to be Chevron. I didn’t intend to single out Chevron; I just wanted to see how fast I could put my cursor on an example. Pretty fast, it turned out.

I went to Chevron’s corporate website, clicked on the News link, and opened a recent press release at random:

HEADLINE: Chevron Announces Natural Gas Discovery Offshore Western Australia

SUBHEAD: Vos-1 discovery adds to drilling success and further underpins development of world-class LNG business

LEDE: SAN RAMON, Calif., December 15, 2011Chevron Corp. (NYSE: CVX) today announced a natural gas discovery by its Australian subsidiary in the Exmouth Plateau area of the Carnarvon Basin, offshore Western Australia.

QUOTE: George Kirkland, vice chairman, Chevron Corporation, said, “The find at Vos-1 represents our twelfth offshore discovery in Australia since mid-2009. Our successful drilling program offshore Western Australia demonstrates Chevron’s global exploration capability.”

Barring key messages, what do you include in the quote? My recommendation is details. Why do you think the fourth graf always seems to make it into the newspaper? Because after the lede recaps the headline, and the second graf recaps the subhead, and the obligatory grafs for quotes, press releases often deliver backing documentation in grafs that follow. How about moving some of that business intelligence into the quote? The quotee is supposed to be a senior executive with deep expertise in the subject; this is the place to make them sound like a pro. Let them run with the important details, the numbers, the dollars or yen or euros, the insider’s perspective.

This can feel a bit like burying the lede, but if the quote is well-written, you’ll reap at least two benefits: 1) the quote will run because it contains new information pertinent to the story, enabling you to get more of the press release covered, and 2) if it sparks the reporter’s interest, you’ll get a call for an interview with the executive, and a longer story.

Do study your subject.
The best way to learn how to write convincing quotes is to understand how your subject speaks. To that end, if there’s an executive you’re going to be writing for on a regular basis, attend every employee meeting where she or he is a speaker. Revisit transcripts of old interviews. If you know of speeches he penned himself, read those. Look up articles or editorials she authored. Remember, a senior leader is worthy of quoting because he’s an expert in the industry, not just because of his title. Pinpoint how your executive talks, the insider lingo used, when he or she is deeply engaged in the details of the business.

And, whenever you have the chance, interview your subject and get to know his or her particular turns of phrase. Discover the linguistic nuances that make this person’s speech indelibly his or her own.

Don’t smooth off the rough edges.
Too often, when we create quotes, we polish them to such an extent that they feel manufactured. Like this: “Our successful drilling program offshore Western Australia demonstrates Chevron’s global exploration capability.”

Do you think this is what was said around the drill tower (or the corporate offices) when they discovered their 12th natural gas well off the coast of Australia?

Now, I’m not talking about putting in “ums” and “uhs” to make a quote look like a transcript, but I am suggesting using ordinary, everyday conversation that sounds real because it is real.

Are you trying to put words in the mouth of someone from South Carolina? London? Brussels? Tokyo? Mumbai? What about a doctor? A Ph.D.? An engineer? Or a CEO who worked his way to the C-suite from the manufacturing line?

You’ll likely find an unusual coinage, or two or three, if you talk to someone who hails from the south or once assembled the company’s key product. Even if the executive doesn’t have a regional dialect, you’ll find that no one speaks perfect English (or whichever language is primary for your business). There’s something about the inexactness of spoken language that makes it more believable, more trustworthy, more real.

Do eavesdrop at industry conferences.
Generally, you don’t have the chance to interview senior executives for every bit of news that needs a press release. The assignment arrives with instructions to create a quote that will be approved or changed before the release goes out.

If access is limited, then industry conferences and publications are a natural next best thing. You’ll be hearing the language of your industry as it’s spoken in its natural habitat. Listen, not to the speeches, but to the networking between sessions, over lunch, at coffee. Take copious dictation – this is not the time to leave out conjunctions and clauses – following the twists and turns as carefully as possible.

Likewise, avoid the articles written for industry publications that have lifeless prose. Look for authors who are clearly reporting from the front lines. Underline intelligent, elegant and unusual locutions and save them. You’ll be glad you did next time you’re asked to write a quote.

Don’t succumb to jargon.
Putting detail in quotes doesn’t mean resorting to jargon. Avoid consultant-speak and your company’s unique acronyms and naming conventions. If you mean IT, use IT, not the unusual name (Technical Information Resources & Services) your company has created for its IT function. If your company is drilling off the western shore of Australia, write it like humans talk. Don’t say: “Our successful drilling offshore Western Australia…”

Do know when to fold ‘em.
Really, I meant it when I said I didn’t set out to pick on Chevron. Something I love about this press release is that it’s short and sweet. You get the news, you get a couple of quotes, and you get the Chevron boilerplate. And, they avoid some of the sillier hallmarks of corporate press releases, such as…

Don’t make the CEO say how excited, happy, thrilled or delighted he or she is at the news.
Every press release ever written about good news seems to quote a senior executive saying how excited he or she is with today’s developments. Would you expect the CEO to say he’s unhappy? Because that might be news.

When writing becomes formulaic, it gives readers a happy excuse to skip over standardized phrases. Keep the reporter reading your press release on the edge of his seat. Or at least, keep her guessing. Let her be the one who’s thrilled and delighted that your senior leader has something intelligent and newsworthy to say about today’s developments.

Do individualize quotes if more than one person is being quoted.
You may be asked to create quotes for more than one executive, depending on the news or the size of the effort you’re announcing. If you want the quotes to get coverage, then Quotee #2 must sound different from Quotee #1.

Avoid doing what Chevron did. After their first quoted exec said this – “Our successful drilling program offshore Western Australia demonstrates Chevron’s global exploration capability” – their second executive said this: “Our on-going exploration success continues to add to our Australian resource base, further underpinning our drive to be a leading supplier of liquefied natural gas to world markets and natural gas to Western Australia.”

The substance of these quotes isn’t that different and, more to the point, the words they’re using are exactly the same: discovery offshore Western Australia drilling program success.

This is where knowing each person’s unique style of speaking helps. You can also focus on their different roles in the company. Quote #1 typically belongs to the CEO. But, Quote #2 may be from the person who led the five-year project and understands both the technical aspects and the hard work that went into it. So, the CEO can describe how this news affects the current and longer-term prospects for the company, while the project lead provides the interesting nitty-gritty details.

If the CEO is a well-known company spokesperson, but Quotee #2 is not, it’s wise to introduce her by name and descriptive role (use title on second reference or not at all) to give the reporter some idea why she’s being given airtime. For example: “Jane Smith, who oversaw the 400-member project team from start to finish, said…”

Don’t “further the legacy,” “expand on tradition,” or “continue the success.”
These are phrases that make a reporter’s eyes glaze. Sorry to say, but statements like these are clear indications to a journalist that there’s nothing of import in a press release. Journalists read dozens of releases a day that say exactly the same thing, which is why most press release prose gets the axe.

Many companies are bound by regulations to avoid certain “forward-looking statements,” which is why phrases like these crop up, designed to pretend to say something visionary without saying anything. If your hands are tied, and you really can’t say anything further, then don’t. You’ll make a better impression on reporters than writing stuff like this.

If you are allowed to broach the future, then avoid the clichés and have your senior executive say something meaningful or detailed.

Do bring a recording device – for video and voice.
If you’re lucky enough to be able to schedule time with a senior leader to interview them about the subject of the press release, then you’ll be 3/4 of the way to writing a great quote already.

Remember to bring a good digital voice recorder to capture the nuances of what the executive thinks about this announcement. And a hand-held video camera (if the executive is willing and if the news is important enough to warrant it).

Maybe you’ll only share the video with employees via your intranet. On the other hand, if you’ve got good soundbytes or video, you’ve created the opportunity for radio, TV, news websites, bloggers and podcasts to give you far more coverage than a regular old press release will generate. What you can give them is the real deal – honest-to-goodness quotes directly from a senior executive of your company – in multiple formats that have the potential to reach a much wider audience.

It will show that you understand what reporters need to tell a news story and that you work and think like a reporter. All of that is what makes you a trusted resource, which creates value and interest for the content you create in the future (and the quotes within it).

They All Laughed: Can Humor Be a Communications Asset?

It might surprise you that one of the career moments I’m most proud of didn’t involve handling a crisis or securing a talk show for a client. It was a brief event, lasting all of five minutes, when a conference room full of clients couldn’t stop laughing at me.

I promise this isn’t a painful-to-read story about learning from failure or an embarrassing tale that ends with me being remembered as “that woman who mooned Atlanta.”

Back when I worked for a large apparel company, I was assigned Logistics & Transportation as a client group. All I knew, at the start, was that our warehouses held three brands’ worth of men’s, women’s and children’s fashion.

The Logistics & Transportation guys (and they were mostly guys, in those days) knew their stuff. They knew their people, too – the ones who picked, packed and shipped product for hourly wages – and they understood how to talk to them. They had to. For a long time, Logistics was in the shadow of larger functions, without their own communications person.

So, my assignment wasn’t exactly greeted with a round of hearty cheers. Like most folks who work in remote locations, they had a healthy skepticism of “experts” from HQ – those pampered few with carpeted offices, who’d never walked the cement floors of a warehouse or had to make things work no matter how limited the resources out in the field.

Understandably, they were a bit aloof when we met, but in the politest manner possible. The one thing those tough exteriors never hid were the true gentlemen beneath.

I knew their work and lives were different from mine, and that I had a lot to learn about this key part of our business. I freely admitted it, studied hard, asked questions at every turn.

I’d like to say that hard work won the day. It might have in the long run – certainly, a strong work ethic is something they respected. But, the day I truly got my foot in the door went like this…

There was a pressing communications issue over the pay and bonus system at one of the warehouses. The facility leader knew it was a heated topic and decided, what the heck, give this supposed HQ expert a shot.

How we communicated the new pay and bonus design is a story for another post (which you can now find here). But, the employee team was gracious – and probably worried – enough to accept my help. Before the team could deliver communications to employees, though, the facility leadership team needed to review the design, approve it and give the go-ahead for an employee meeting.

You do the math, I’ll handle the words.

The Pay & Rewards team – all regular warehouse employees who’d received special training in pay design – brought deep knowledge of their subject matter; I provided messaging, organization and graphic design support. The one thing the team, with all their expertise, hadn’t been able to do by the time of the leadership meeting was explain one of the mathematical formulas so that I could convey it graphically in the presentation. It had been a bit like a game of telephone, with the team trying to help me understand, and me, via emails, conveying my impression to the graphic designer back at HQ.

Laughter the Best Medicine

The Pay & Rewards team, who’d never done public speaking before, overcame their nerves and gave an excellent presentation to leadership. When I advanced the PowerPoint to the slide with the math formula, though, it still wasn’t right. Before the leaders started asking, “What on Earth is this?,” I jumped in and said, “This one’s my fault. The team has worked valiantly to explain this to me, but I’m mathematically challenged.”

The tension in the room evaporated as everyone laughed.

They laughed a lot harder than that line deserved – laughter wiping away nerves over public speaking, concern about how the pay system would be received, doubts that an outsider would usurp the warehouse’s way of doing things.

Normally, when a room full of people laugh at you, it feels rotten, but I was over the moon and couldn’t help but join in. It was deliriously contagious.

This was the moment when it all changed, and it happened not because I played the fool – self-deprecation isn’t about being foolish – but because I didn’t insist on being the expert. And that can be a hard thing to let go of when our job is to provide communications counsel.

Once I’d demonstrated a willingness to learn from the people in Logistics & Transportation, no matter their position on the org chart or how much they were paid, my clients relaxed, welcomed me and gave me the chance to work with them and support their communications needs going forward.

When the conference room quieted, I quickly assured them I’d get it right so they could sign off on the communication. Then, I delivered on that promise and kept delivering. Because in the Logistics & Transportation world, delivering is what really matters.

Crafting a Strong Award Program Entry for Your Work

I promised a post for marketing, PR, corporate communications, and advertising pros interested in entering their work for awards. While that list corresponds to a broad swath of industries, award categories and potentially award-worthy programs, there is one thing they all have in common: the entry form.

The focus here is on creating a strong entry.

Out of necessity, this discussion is going to be on the long-ish side, so I’m dividing it into two blog posts: this first one covers Preparation and The Hard Truth, while the final one will offer tips on Writing Your Entry. For those truly serious about crafting a competitive entry, I recommend reading each section, though you may want to peruse the first post to see where you net out before tackling the actual entry-writing advice.

Preparation

I mentioned in my previous post that, these days, judges are looking for quantitative results. There’s only one sure thing with today’s award programs: if you don’t have the data to demonstrate results, no matter how excellent your creative or campaign, you will not win.

Set Aside Enough Time for Your Entry
You’ve worked hard all year. You pulled all-nighters strategizing the best way to connect with target audiences. You flew cross-country in a blizzard to do print check on the annual report. You gave up weekends seeing to every detail of a spectacular launch or event. You felt like you’d developed an alternate personality after tweeting non-stop for months in your client’s Twitter style.

To paraphrase that lottery tagline: You can’t win if you don’t enter. It’s a sad truth that many, many worthy programs go unrewarded because the people who shepherded them through to successful conclusions moved on to new work and were too busy to submit an award entry.

Your work deserves the chance to compete. You and your team deserve it. Your clients deserve it – and an award has the potential to boost your reputation and your client’s.

Set aside the time you’ll need to complete the advance work – client permission to enter, legal approval regarding any proprietary information (if that’s relevant), gathering research and result metrics – and the time required to write a competitive entry. (It once took me 27 hours just to gather the accurate statistics and backing documentation needed to accompany an entry – and that wasn’t the half of putting the entry together!)

One reason I’m writing this now is that some of the bigger award programs launch early in the new year. This gives you time to review your 2011 programs to decide which might be suitable for entry; more important, it gives you time to collect additional data on well-executed programs that could be award-getters if only they had the kinds of details that back up your strategy. Doing follow-up should be easier for corporate and institutional advancement communicators (who tend to have full access to the audiences they’re communicating with), but even agency folks may be able to survey their clients’ audiences with the goal of gathering metrics or researching campaign effectiveness.

Take Advantage of Early-Bird Deadlines
Perhaps the best reason to start early is the reduced entry fees for early birds. And won’t it be nice, when all your competitors are scrambling come late February, to kick back and focus on your stacks and stacks of regular work?

Time to Reacquaint Yourself with Your Campaign
Now is the time to revisit everything you developed for your campaign – down to emails with the client. When you sit down to write your nomination, you may be asked to provide detailed descriptions of the Communications Environment, Business Challenge, Research, Planning Documents, Competitive Analysis, Market Share and Positioning, Strategy, Goals, Plan, Integrated Activation, and Execution of your program. In addition, you’ll be expected to provide a succinct evaluation of the impact of your efforts and, quite likely, a blurb that encapsulates all of the above in under 100 words (to be used in case you’re a winner).

If you conducted extensive research, used those insights to drive your strategic platform, wrote detailed program strategies, objectives and goals, and put together a spreadsheet of projected media hits, you shouldn’t have any trouble. But, let’s be honest, how often do programs get that kind of attention to detail? And what about a crisis program, where you just did it and didn’t have time to document it (much less plan it extensively beforehand)?

Now is your chance to go back over your notes and planning emails, to retrace your brainstorming, and develop language around each of the questions you’ll be asked on the entry. You can still find previous years’ entry forms on most awards websites; the questions won’t vary too much from year to year.

If you created a campaign this year that utilized a brand new technology or that focused on an entirely new category (a few years ago, most programs added social media campaigns and environmental sustainability categories, for example), now is also a good time to look over the 2012 programs to see if a new category has been added to cover your program. If you don’t see it, connect with the program coordinator ahead of time to see if there will be new categories this year or to figure out which existing category is best for your program.

Better to Kill a Tree than Kill Your Darlings
I completely understand how hard it can be to watch what appears to be a video at your desk for 45 minutes while everyone else in the office is working. But, several of the larger award programs offer live webinars weeks in advance of entry deadlines, featuring award program coordinators and previous years’ judges and winners.

Since every program is different – and some have their strange little quirks, like still not providing an online entry capability – webinars are especially instructive. If you can attend a live webinar versus taped, you’ll really develop an understanding of the mindset of the judges, and you can ask questions. Take advantage of this and remember: if you need to ask the question, chances are another 10 people attending the webinar want to ask it, too, but are afraid to electronically raise their hands.

A few programs provide podcasts while others supply downloadable guides to the specifics of their programs, categories and entries. Go ahead and kill that tree – download it, print it out, comb through it, highlight it, refer to it when writing.

IABC offers an entire webpage of resources, including advice on award categories. PRSA’s Silver Anvil site provides a Search feature of previous winning entries by year and category and there’s an ongoing Twitter discussion about the awards and entry preparation at #PRSANVIL.

All of these are essential viewing/reading/listening/tweeting.

Carefully Compare Your Campaign with Award Categories
This step is far more important – and confusing – than you might think. Where might your client’s campaign for an existing product fit amongst categories as specific as Event Marketing, Influencer Programs, Branding Campaigns, or Re-positioning Programs? Did you notice whether there was a single and a multiple Event category?

Category selection is critical because once your entry is before the judges, there are no do-overs. If, during the judging sessions, the panel decides your entry is in the wrong category, it will be eliminated – completely – from the award competition. They will not contact you during the judging session. For every professional award program I’ve looked at, the judges have no discretion to move an entry to another category. Programs consider it entirely your responsibility to select the correct category for your entry, which is one reason why you’re allowed to enter a single program in multiple categories. Note that if you enter the wrong category, you typically forfeit your (hefty) entry fee.

So read the category descriptions carefully and, if there’s any question, ask early and often. Take advantage of webinars and expert resources to find the right answer for your program. It will be worth it.

A side note: many organizations honor career, individual, agency, and student achievement. Sometimes these are given out as part of their main awards programs, but schedules do vary, so while you’re taking a look at award program websites, it’s worth the time to explore all of these options.

Study Previous Winners
A number of programs share examples and case studies of prior winners on their websites. These can be especially valuable to read when they include the entire written entry. It’s worth noting that if you are reading a short and snappy write-up about a campaign, this is typically not what the judges used to determine the winner; rather it’s the blurb or summary you’re asked to include if you win. Blurbs can give you clues to why a program was awarded a top prize, but they are often too superficial to be helpful guides to writing your own nomination.

Ask Questions
If you’re planning ahead, you’ll avoid that frantic, last-minute phone call or email to the award-program coordinator five minutes before the entry deadline. Ultimately, everything about putting together your nomination is your responsibility, my final tip in the Preparation section is this: some resources may be more helpful than others.

This is not a diss on the official Contact person for these programs – in almost every case, they are standing by till the very last nanosecond, typing at a furious pace to reply to every email query, and returning every last voicemail. They are responsive and diligent. They are also official representatives of this year’s program. As such, they typically won’t provide specific answers, such as which category to enter, in areas deemed the entrant’s responsibility.

While previous years’ judges and winners are usually members of the sponsoring organization, they may be able to provide more specific guidance. As always, remember this advice doesn’t guarantee that this year’s judges will agree. Also, these folks are under no obligation to respond – as the program coordinator is – to close-to-deadline emails and calls. But, it can be more reassuring to hash out a rationale for entering one category over another with someone who’s been there before than feel like your entry is taking an expensive blind leap into the wrong category.

The Hard Truth

Revisiting your program may have the unfortunate effect of highlighting its shortcomings. Awards season is expensive and can get even more pricey when you think about entering a campaign in multiple categories across different programs. (The lowest entry fee I’ve seen is about $160 per campaign; some of the highest are well over $400 per entry, with late fees up to $195 for missing early-bird deadlines.)

Two areas that will be crucial to helping you make your decision are metrics and the timing of your campaign.

The bulk of your campaign should have taken place in 2011:

  • If you had a short-term program or event, you should be fine.
  • If your campaign launched in late 2010, but ran through 2011, it’s always a good idea to confirm eligibility with the award program coordinator.
  • If your program is longer-term and still running – or will continue into 2012 – you will have precious little or no time to produce measurements. Talk it over with the award program coordinator; these programs are best left to the 2013 award season when your results and data will make them competitive.

The good news about timing is that these awards aren’t like the Oscars, where films released in January are forgotten by November. Judges are reviewing your whole program and measuring your results against your strategy and objectives; timing isn’t going to be as heavily weighted as metrics (unless, say, you launched your big 4th of July event in late August).

I’m going to spend more time on this in my next post, but if you discover, after looking over your campaign, that your results or metrics don’t exist, don’t reflect your original objectives, or actually contradict your objectives, you do not have a competitive entry.

If, for example, the goal of an event for a consumer product was to “increase brand loyalty,” and the only data you have to offer the judges in support of your program is the number of attendees at the event and the amount of media impressions you got, you do not have a competitive entry. Your metrics are not tied to your goals because you haven’t measured how the event induced attendees to buy more product or promote the product via word of mouth.

To reiterate, there is still time to gather data before the major award programs launch in 2012. The results you need must be tied to your original program objectives and goals, so review what you set out to do with this campaign, figure out the kinds of data that will back up your goals and how it can be measured.

Once you’ve defined the data needed, you’ll have to ask yourself the hard question about whether it’s attainable. Do you have access to the target audience? Will they be agreeable to having you use their contact information? Can you gather the metrics you need without further cost to your agency or client?

The hard truth may be that the data aren’t within your reach. But, that’s okay. Even though it eliminates this year’s program from award season, it will spur you to include well-defined measurements in every future program you develop. And that, in large part, is what these awards are all about: rewarding the application of rigorous standards to every PR, marketing, advertising and communications program we undertake.

NEXT WEEK: In Part 2, I’ll focus on Writing Your Entry. The writing required for award program entries is highly structured, so I’ll provide more than pointers; I’ll share a free spreadsheet that I’ve developed which you may find helpful in preparing your award entries.

Awkward Beginnings, Lamentable Ledes: How to Avoid First Lines that Lose Readers

"Like all those Mr. Cool snowheads walking on mattresses."

How does the first line of a story create itself in your mind? Do you start with a feeling you want to get across, a concept, or do certain words emerge and begin to form a sentence?

Though there are many kinds of writers – fiction, memoir, corporate, literary nonfiction, journalism – the one thing we’ve all had ingrained in us is that opening lines can make or break a story. Readers will decide to buy or reject a novel based solely on the first sentence. Reporters need to answer Who, What, When, Where, Why and How in their ledes. PR pros have one sentence to convince editors there’s a unique story angle in a press release.

Feature writers have a little more leeway (though not by much). They don’t have to cram in every story concept plus the “five Ws” at the starting line. Still, they must craft an opener that entrances readers enough to keep them turning, scrolling down or clicking through the pages.

It’s easy to find examples of first lines that are enticing, just as simple to spy the clunky ones. But, what makes the great lines sing while the bad ones hit sour notes? Below I’ve described four of the most obvious feature-story mis-ledes and how to avoid them.

The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamlined Lede
The language swoops and careens, U-turns and dive bombs, attempting to leave the reader dazzled, but more often rendering them dizzy and disoriented. Perhaps the writer has been spending a little too much time with Tom Wolfe?

If you’ve been writing as long as I have, you’ve probably penned an opener like this yourself. I certainly have and more than once. Two of those ledes I’m fine with, one makes me cringe to this day. The ones that worked did so because they were finely detailed descriptions of a sequence of events, giving the reader a visceral sense of being there – in the moment – with the subject of the article. The cringeworthy piece is a classic case of a young writer hepped up on too many doses of New Journalism, trying to bluff her way around a subject she didn’t quite understand, resorting to hyperbole.

I’m not here to knock Tom Wolfe or Hunter Thompson – they were masters of literary journalism, fanatic observers, astute cultural reporters. They remain required reading for any writer.

For feature writers (especially in the corporate world), this type of writing can be tricky, and not only because your reviewers (and even your profilees) may not appreciate or approve a bold approach. If you’re going to attempt this style of writing, you’ve got to be able to maintain it all the way through – and, like reading long stretches of dialogue written in vernacular, that may be more than your readers or the story can bear. More to the point, you’ll need to have accomplished some seriously in-depth reporting to maintain writing like this at feature length. Most of us don’t have the months (in some cases, years) to dedicate to that kind of immersion journalism, and most subjects won’t give you the access necessary to achieve it.

To see what I mean, here are Wolfe’s opening lines from “The First Tycoon of Teen”:

All these raindrops are high or something. They don’t roll down the window, they come straight back, toward the tail, wobbling, like all those Mr. Cool snowheads walking on mattresses. The plane is taxiing out toward the runway to take off, and this stupid infarcted water wobbles, sideways, across the window. Phil Spector, 23 years old, the rock and roll magnate, producer of Philles Records, America’s first teen-age tycoon, watches . . . this watery pathology . . . it is sick, fatal. He tightens his seat belt over his bowels . . . A hum rises inside the plane, a shot of air comes shooting through the vent over somebody’s seat, some ass turns on a cone of light, there is a sign stuck out by the runway, a mad, cryptic, insane instruction to the pilot—Runway 4, Are Cylinder Laps Main-side DOWN?—and beyond, disoriented crop rows of sulphur blue lights, like the lights on top of a New Jersey toothpaste factory, only spreading on and on in sulphur blue rows over Los Angeles County. It is . . . disoriented. Schizoid raindrops. The plane breaks in two on takeoff and everybody in the front half comes rushing toward Phil Spector in a gush of bodies in a thick orange—napalm! No, it happens aloft; there is a long rip in the side of the plane, it just rips, he can see the top ripping, folding back in sick curds, like a sick Dali egg, and Phil Spector goes sailing through the rip, dark, freezing. And the engine, it is reedy

Gripping stuff, right? Draws you in, sits you down in Spector’s airplane seat and makes you see, feel, gulp right along with the ‘60s hitmaker.

Now, think about how much reporting – how much detail – Wolfe includes in one short paragraph in order to place you into the mind of his subject.

“Sometimes I used point-of-view in the [Henry] Jamesian sense in which fiction writers understand it, entering directly into the mind of a character, experiencing the world through his central nervous system throughout a given scene,” Wolfe writes of his New Journalism pieces.

For the Spector profile, Wolfe continues, “I began the article not only inside his mind but with a virtual stream of consciousness. One of the news magazines apparently regarded my Spector story as an improbable feat, because they interviewed him and asked him if he didn’t think this passage was merely a fiction that appropriated his name. Spector said that, in fact, he found it quite accurate. This should have come as no surprise, since every detail in the passage was taken from a long interview with Spector about exactly how he had felt at the time.” (Italics mine.)

If you’ve been given full access to a subject and won his or her trust, I encourage you to go for it: note the details that seem especially meaningful to the person and relevant to your topic, go beyond basic questions to ask what they were thinking and feeling, ask what surprised them, what was unexpected, what embarrassed or unnerved them. This is how you will gather the specific images that make a fully realized picture, how compelling writing can be sustained over the length of a feature.

The Spotlight-on-You Start
Making the writer the subject is questionable in almost all circumstances. The clearest (and possibly only) case for using this approach is asking someone renowned to interview a colleague with the goal of generating spirited dialogue that enhances readers’ understanding of a complex subject.

The “all about me” lede is a hallmark of celebrity reporters, callow journalists and misguided flacks:

  • “Emma Stone is telling me why she’s so over ingénue roles.”
  • “It takes me eight hours, riding shotgun in a Jeep straight out of WWII military surplus with zero shocks and dubious tires, to cross the blazing desert to Zacaro’s hideout. He’s eluded the ruling junta for 14 desperate years, but I am the journalist he’s chosen to tell his story to.”
  • “This writer spent a fascinating morning watching candidate Joe Smith return to his roots as a history teacher when he held a sophomore class at an inner-city high school enthralled with descriptions of Revolutionary War skirmishes.”

Writers who embed themselves in the story typically don’t have enough material to create a strong feature. They’re padding. If you feel the urge to spotlight yourself because you didn’t get enough time with your subject or because there’s honestly not a lot to say about something, use your creativity in a different way. Use photographs, illustrations or charts to underscore the subject matter and let your text supply the captions. Or simply keep the story short – every subject doesn’t automatically deserve feature-length prose, and your readers will appreciate a two-graf article that clearly and concisely tells them what they need to know without any gratuitous filler.

Quoth the Maven
You’ll find many feature stories leading with a quote from the profilee and, though there’s nothing inherently wrong about this choice, there are two things to avoid if you use a quotation-lede:

Skip lengthy, ghost-written, off-topic and pedestrian quotes. A sparkling observation by your subject will grab readers’ attention, but quotes that cram in too many concepts (often crafted by well-meaning communications folks trying to encapsulate every message they want to get across) tend to make your audience’s eyes glaze over. And, while you may have a few great lines from your source, a witty remark that’s just there to entice the audience to read the article may backfire if the rest of the article doesn’t offer a similar payoff. Dull quotes are just that and don’t deserve prime real estate in your feature.

Starting with a quote inevitably leads to this kind of locution:

“The economy is so anemic, even large transfusions of cash won’t restore it to iron-blooded vigor.” That’s the assertion of economist Dan Smith…

It’s not like that “That’s” is a sin against the grammar gods, but this usage is so frequently employed that it will mark your feature as a dashed-off piece of journeyman journalism rather than a selection that deserves the reader’s attention.

Commencing with a Question
Similar to the quotation-lede, the Q&A format can feel like a fallback position to the reader, particularly when the Qs are generic (“Where did you get your start in business?”) and the As sound canned. Worse still is the Q&A that strives too hard for authenticity by transcribing every verbal tic or pause: um, uh, well, like, sort of, you know (you get the picture).

If you attempt a Q&A and the answers read like well-prepared messages – or worse, like your interviewee can only speak in half-sentences, never clearly explaining something – when you read it through while editing, this is a signal to leap to the reader’s aid. Rewrite the piece, using your prose to guide the audience through the subject, zeroing in on only the sharpest quotes.

Let’s face it, we all can’t be Mike Wallace squaring off with corrupt politicians for perspiration-inducing interrogations – and frankly it’s not our role to be Mike Wallace if we’re corporate communicators. But, if you want to give your audience edge-of-their-seat Q&As and would like some helpful reading about how it’s done, you could do worse than search old issues of Playboy. I am actually serious about that. The reality behind the old joke “I only read Playboy for the articles” is a long tradition of incisive interviews with world leaders, innovators, artists and authors – all Q&As. (You can probably stop looking after the mid-1980s, though…) Also, watch or revisit the movie “Frost/Nixon” to remind yourself of the kind of questions that inspire insightful answers, raising both interviewer and subject to more stimulating levels of discourse.

What are your favorite examples of bad beginnings? Which opening lines do you love because they serve the subject matter so perfectly? Share them in the Comments.

Getting Along with Your Gatekeeper: How to Work with Communications Reviewers

A satirical article about working with reviewers of the Legal and HR ilk apparently hit home for a lot of communications pros, judging by the comments.

Let’s face it: anyone who serves as a gate rather than a conduit for communications is going to conjure up some ire from time to time. But, are reviewers such easy targets? Are they entirely to blame for uncomfortable review sessions? Do they always turn prosaic prose into tangled turns of lawyerly phrases?

I’ll be honest: my immediate inclination was to add a “Me, too!” kind of comment to that article. But, in all fairness, I’d answer each of those three questions above with a resounding “No.”

I’ve worked with reviewers for three decades in this industry – from the Legal, HR, Marketing, Regulatory, and Employee Assistance departments, to outside legal counsel and senior business unit leaders. While it’s true that communications reviews are more detailed and onerous than ever before, I find them invaluable, not simply for ensuring accuracy, but in improving my writing.

In my last job, especially, where the content was incredibly technical (yet needed to be explained in every day English) and highly regulated, our R&D, Legal and Regulatory reviewers kept each description and sentence honed to the core of its meaning. There is no wiggle room in the increasingly regulated health-care industry for language that isn’t exact. If I’m honest about what I try to do every day as a writer, I couldn’t describe it any better. And our reviewers helped me achieve that goal of being a clearer, more specific writer, even as they red-lined words and whole paragraphs.

In short, they’ve made me a better writer, one who demands more of my own skills. That’s a definite upside.

There are edit sessions that lean more to the downside. We’ve all been there (as the many comments attached to that article testify). But, in today’s – and tomorrow’s – communications environment, I don’t expect we’ll ever be without reviewers. How do we make these partnerships work so that we communicators don’t feel like we’re constantly bashing our heads against an immovable obstacle?

Here are a few thoughts on maintaining a good relationship with gatekeepers:

Have a known review process
Whether you’re just starting to work with reviewers or have had a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach for years because you all know each other, take the time together to establish a process and put it in writing. Having a known route for review and approval is crucial – even if the process differs slightly each time based on content and new subject matter experts. When things are running smoothly, this doesn’t seem as important; when an error occurs, it can be the only thing that guides your team to a solution and a way to prevent the same problem in the future.

A slightly different interpretation of the same topic: Let each reviewer know who else will provide reviews and, if you’ve got a new player in the mix, what area each person is responsible for, so that no one assumes that certain fact-checking areas are covered when they’re not.

Schedule enough time for reviews
Whether your review cycle involves concurrent reviews (with everyone providing feedback to you, the writer, to collate) or sequential, build a schedule that is fair and respectful of everyone’s workload. This includes yours, if you need time for a final polish before the communication goes live.

Five business days is common courtesy, though unlikely in today’s corporate world. Two-to-three days is fair (if the reviewers agree that’s enough time), however, if you find yourself continually sending out review requests with High Priority exclamation points on them, it’s time to revisit the review process and talk with the team about adjusting the timeline so that everyone has enough time to cover the content they’re responsible for.

Meet your deadline – and help everyone on your review team meet theirs
Showing respect for your colleagues means not shortchanging their review time because you deliver late. If one of your reviewers is consistently missing her or his deadline, bring the team together and show them the review cycle in the form of an MS Project plan, with each person as a linked dependency to the other people in the review process. Note how one weak link in the chain can create havoc for everyone downstream. More to the point, link the seniors leaders or company initiatives that are dependent on this communication and explain what delay means in business terms.

Create understanding for the role of Communications
Surprisingly, this can create tremendous confusion in the review process. Legal and HR reviewers typically see themselves as the safekeepers of corporate reputation and information. If you find yourself repeatedly frustrated by disagreements over what cannot and what can be shared in corporate communications, what you may have is a misunderstanding about the role of Communications. (Or your reviewing departments may have mandates that you’re unaware of because you never explicitly asked.)

It’s worth at least a process check to help your reviewer colleagues understand that communicators have the exact same mandate to protect the company’s reputation and proprietary information and that you follow this mandate to the letter. Getting agreement on a shared set of values can go a long way toward cementing understanding of and team spirit around the work.

Share the purpose of the communication
You don’t need to go to great lengths here, simply include in your cover email the corporate goal, initiative or business unit that the communication supports; list the key messages you want to get across to the audience; note whether the audience is internal, external or both; and itemize key facts that you and your sources feel are vital to making the communication substantive. Be up-front about your goals, and you’ll create a clear sense of why certain information is included.

Find compromises
If an especially descriptive section or paragraph that you feel absolutely must be included – in fact, if it’s the heart of your piece – is causing consternation among your reviewers, and they won’t budge, ask them to be as specific as possible about what can’t go in. Sometimes it will be a single word that’s causing alarm or a turn of phrase that’s setting their teeth on edge. In these cases, your willingness to remove the cause for concern and finesse the language will enable your reviewers to see how the section contributes to the goals for the communication and greenlight what used to be a sea of red ink with only a minor change.

Be prepared to double-check facts
As part of the team, it’s important to share the work and worth the effort to re-check something, especially if it comes back with a red line through it. That senior business leader may, on second viewing, be glad his 10-year outlook on the company’s stock price was removed or revised to something a little less crystal ball-like.

Acknowledge reviewer contributions – before publishing and after
Thank reviewers for their help and their time and include a bulleted list of the agreed-upon changes you’ve made to the piece. Wait a week after publishing and consolidate all of the audience feedback and share it with reviewers.

Never respond to public comments by blaming an error on a reviewer. Ever noticed author acknowledgements in books? Paraphrased, this is what most of them say: “The things that make this book helpful and easy to read were contributed by my reviewers; all errors are mine.”

Follow up on errors offline, one-on-one. It’s a generous and team-spirited approach and one that goes a long way toward creating a conducive long-term working relationship with your gatekeepers.What about your department? How have you created effective partnerships with your reviewers? What tips would you share with fellow communicators?

How Do You Prepare for Crisis Communications?

I’m not going to sugarcoat this: Strategizing and preparing for crisis takes time. It’ll take a lot of your team’s time, more than one brainstorming session, with several hours of message-writing to follow.

That can be a painful proposition for many communications departments these days. It’s also the best reason to walk through these exercises now. When you see how long it takes to prep strategies and messaging, you’ll understand why you don’t want to be spending precious time not communicating in the midst of a crisis because you’re still formulating a response.

I discussed addressing crises that relate to your company’s core competency in my previous post. Now, let’s look more generally across your business.

Don’t panic when you see the long list that follows! You and your team will decide what’s relevant to your organization, which will help you cross off items that don’t need to be discussed (of course, you’ll want to add concerns specific to your industry or company).

Here are some crisis-generators, both internal and external. Which are relevant to your organization?

Corporate policy
Financial impropriety
Operations (including supply chain, vendor management)
Workplace safety
Employee relations (labor practices and contractor management, office/plant closures, layoffs)
Deliberate acts of omission (issues the company knew about in advance and didn’t resolve)
Product development
Community relations
Employee sabotage
Overt acts (protests, tampering or hacking, lawsuits)
Violent acts
Natural disasters
Crises experienced by competitors in the industry (or by suppliers) that may reflect on your company
Events near company locations that may disrupt business

Next Steps

The following exercises will define how you respond to many of the potential crises identified above.

Start by brainstorming troublesome situations that have the potential to become crises using the questionnaire below. A few words about leading a brainstorming session:

  • Establish an open-minded atmosphere for brainstorming where everyone is encouraged to contribute and no suggestion is insignificant or off-the-wall.
  • Encourage team members to think like a reporter, play devil’s advocate, explore worst-case scenarios.
  • Enable the team to speak candidly about the company in the spirit of protecting its reputation and best interests. This isn’t the time to look at the company through rose-colored glasses – reporters won’t. No one should feel like she or he might be considered disloyal or “negative about the company” for suggestions made during brainstorming. You need everyone’s best ideas to develop crisis communications, not thinking that skirts issues because of politeness.

Use or adapt the following questionnaire for your brainstorming session:

  • List any troublesome situations that your company has faced in the past (even if you didn’t receive publicity at the time).
  • Define current or future initiatives or changes that might generate negative discussion of your organization.
  • What people, events and situations have caused negative publicity for others in your industry?
  • What other industries share similar issues with yours? What people, events and situations have caused negative publicity for those industries?
  • What allegations (as opposed to actual events) could be made about your organization, senior leaders or business operations?
  • What policy, event, situation or allegation would most damage the reputation your company has for its commitment to its values?
  • What policy, event, situation or allegation would most damage your organization’s reputation in the communities where you do business?
  • What policy, event, situation or allegation would turn suppliers and vendors against your company?
  • What keeps you up at night? What’s your worst-case scenario?

Now:

  • Make a list of business unit leaders and/or managers.
  • Assign team members to schedule interviews with business unit leaders/managers to discuss their areas of expertise and any potential issues that they’d like to have addressed by the crisis communications plan. Walk them through the questionnaire where it’s relevant and if it’s helpful.
  • Find out from business unit leaders/managers how the company will respond to a crisis in their area, how the chain of command works during a crisis, and what is and is not proprietary information.

Adding the expertise of business leaders can be essential in generating buy-in for the overall crisis communications plan. As part of this work, you’ll want to send out an email to business leaders prior to the scheduling of interviews to set the context for crisis planning and its value to the company, and to introduce the team member who will be contacting the business leader for an interview.

Can You Plan Crisis Communications?

Inquiries inevitably follow a crisis. Reporters, employees, customers, members of the board, suppliers, the social media universe – all clamor for answers often while companies are still responding to an event and are least prepared to deliver strategically developed, thoughtful, detailed statements.

The early hours of a crisis are a critical time period. If a company doesn’t help shape the perception of the situation in the public’s mind – or if the company’s response is incomplete, inconsistent or, worse, if the company appears to lack an understanding of the magnitude of the event or to be lying about it – traditional and social media will create a story for the public. Once that happens, it can be impossible to change first impressions.

Effective, planned crisis communications can prevent the misperceptions that lead to loss of reputation and revenue.

Planning the Unexpected

Is planning for crisis even realistic? Many people think of crises as sudden events that appear out of the blue and disappear just as quickly, like a thunderstorm. This is the reason some communicators offer for not planning ahead.

That seems logical: How can you write messaging to address something if you don’t know what it is; when, where, why, or how it will occur; and who will be affected?

But, I’d argue that crises rarely happen by surprise. Say, for example, your company or one of its branches or franchises is located in a region prone to earthquakes, hurricanes, flooding, or tornados. While you may not know exactly when a natural disaster will strike, it’s still possible to prepare a communications (and business continuity) plan to respond when they do.

Likewise, working with appropriate subject-matter experts in your organization, it shouldn’t take too much imagination to brainstorm the causes of other potential crises and get plans in place to address them.

In fact, negative public perception and negative media attention are far more likely if a company is believed to have ignored a minor situation, or allowed a grievance to fester, when it could have been resolved. These situations, improperly managed, can quickly escalate into full-blown issues.

In the Midst of Crisis, It’s Still Possible to Tell Your Story

When you’re prepared it’s possible, even during disaster, to turn on CNN or scan Twitter and find positive stories and messages about your company.

Two examples of this premise in action, one positive, one negative:

Johnson & Johnson’s response to Tylenol tampering in the mid-80s (an older example, and before the time of social media. Improperly handled, this crisis could have irreparably harmed the public’s confidence in the product. Yet with careful crisis management, which included swift, strategic messaging that focused on the company’s values and how they related to the public’s safety, the company was able to protect its reputation among consumers.)

Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s erratic communications, which continued for several months after a massive earthquake and tsunami hit the northwest coast of Japan, critically damaging its Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant

Crisis & Corporate Reputation

An excellent starting point in preparing for crisis is to focus on your organization’s key area of competence. (Note that this assumes you and/or your department already are responsible for crisis communications and coordinating with key partners in Risk Management, Business Continuity, Human Resources, Legal, and Security. Getting buy-in for crisis communications is a topic for different post, another day.)

If you’re developing crisis communications plans, try this exercise. Write the answers to the following questions and include them in your brainstorming:

  • What is your company’s key competency?
  • What is the organization known for?
  • What’s your company’s tag line or motto?
  • What’s your mission statement?
  • How is this competency reflected in the organization’s values and business operations?

Now, for each of the answers, dig deeper:

  • What are the worst events or rumors that could befall us in our key area of competency?
  • How might someone twist our tag line, motto or mission statement to attack the company?
  • What kind of failure in the way we operate might reflect not just on our ability to deliver products or services, but directly on our values?

Finally:

  • Develop messaging to address each of the scenarios you’ve brainstormed.

There are several reasons why this is a valuable exercise:

  • It will start the process of brainstorming around where potential crises might crop up.
  • It will help you to develop messages that reiterate the company’s commitment to excellence and its values, which is crucial during a crisis.
  • It will help you discover information or resources you may need to answer questions, explore scenarios, or develop messages, but don’t have right now.

Natural disasters, product tampering, questions about your company’s competency – and worse. This is the stuff nightmares are made of. They keep CEOs and communications people awake at night. I’ve raised these difficult and distressing issues – and there are plenty more – for a reason. Strategic, reputation-saving communications rarely can be developed on the spot when a crisis hits.

On Thursday: I’ll provide additional checklists that will help in crisis communications planning and messaging.

The “Busy” Brand

There’s a lot of discussion in business journals about the importance of establishing and managing “your personal brand.” Today, I want to explore one specific aspect of the personal brand that unfortunately has become ubiquitous in the corporate environment: the “busy” brand.

Whichever attributes you’d like to be known for, it’s best to avoid the appearance of “busy-ness,” especially for corporate communicators.

This may seem contrary to your best interests when the economy continues to struggle and companies remain vigilant about cutting costs and headcount. But, take a moment to consider: There is a difference between being productive (an attribute your company values) and simply being busy.

There are distinct risks to branding yourself as busy (or “super busy” or, even worse, “too busy”):

Colleagues forget to include you – if you’ve been skipping collegial lunches for emails or eschewing after-work drinks or the softball game to log more desk time, that informal network which used to be invaluable to informing your work may evaporate. Over time, you’ll find work friends become less open to sharing information with you.

Direct reports avoid you – sending out signals that you’re swamped can impair your formal network, as well. Direct reports have a strong tendency to assume that the work their managers do is more important than the work they do and, in an effort to be helpful, they avoid interrupting that work. This means you lose opportunities to hear what’s going on in the department, to mentor and to help your employees prioritize their work.

Senior leaders don’t bring you new projects – let’s face it, the whole reason people adopt the “busy” brand is to have an impact on senior leaders. Either they’re trying to prove their value to the company or they’re trying to avoid being assigned too much work. The problem with the former is that senior leaders are pretty savvy about “busy-ness.” They know what their and your priorities are and, with hundreds of emails and voicemails of their own to respond to, the bar is mighty high when it comes to impressing them with “busy-ness.” The problem with branding yourself with “busy-ness” to avoid an even more onerous workload is that you may lose out on the chance to lead a key project or achieve an important stretch goal that a senior leader wanted to assign to you.

Clients in the business stop relying on you  communications as a function has spent years building its credibility in order to get a seat at the senior leaders’ table. Don’t lose that hard-won opportunity with your client groups in the business by portraying yourself as “too busy.” Take a hard look at your company: as busy as the communications function may be, the business functions are busier. You’ve worked hard to build a strong, trusting relationship with your clients; you want them to pick up the phone when they need help communicating (heck, you want them to pick up the phone and call you for advice about whether something requires communicating); don’t give clients a reason to avoid looping in communications.

You risk looking disorganized  communicators who over-promote their “busy-ness” by citing the deluge of emails and voicemails and meetings risk looking inefficient, and even ineffective, at something that’s supposed to be a key skill set: information management. Project management is also a required skill for the job. A communicator who spends too much time talking about their “busy-ness” just may set a boss (and HR) to thinking: “Why did we hire someone who doesn’t have these skills in the first place?”

You become suspect  when all this busy-ness fails to produce tangible results, more serious questions will be asked. “What have you been doing with your time?” “Where have you and your people been focused?” If there’s no strategic purpose to “busy-ness,” then there’s little benefit to your team, the communications department or the company.

For those who work in a function skilled at brand-building and message creation, the “busy” brand is one to skip. This isn’t a case of trying to establish a brand attribute in hopes it will impress others. You can be too good at branding yourself and, as a result, you might just get what you asked for.

P.S. In today’s Harvard Business Review blog, there’s an excellent post, titled “The Busyness Trap,” with helpful hints about information management.