Comms Principle #3: The Importance of Dialog

Comms channels and stakeholders

Hooray – ‘Oliver’ is getting the message, so put your feet up and wait for the change program to succeed

In the first two Comms Principles of this series, I’ve talked about channel selection and stakeholder segmentation.

Now, let’s imagine that one of the key stakeholders your segmentation process has identified is a cat, ‘Oliver’, and that the channel you have selected to deliver the message is a train, a train that can be verified as one that will reach Oliver.

The message is consistent.  Delivery is always complete.  So the comms strategy must be succeeding.  Right?

Now that may seem like a rhetorical question but it’s not, and those of you that answered “no” are wrong.  On the other hand, anyone who answered “yes” (and there may be one or two) is also wrong.  The correct answer is “we have no idea”.

What do we know about ‘Oliver’.  It’s true that he’s getting the message, but what is his reaction to it?  Does he like it?  Is it annoying?  Why isn’t he moving?  In fact let’s make the question even simpler.  Has Oliver looked at it, or is he ignoring it? The answer is still “we have no idea”. Hmmmm.

Incomplete Comms Process Flow

A Comms Process Flow….sort of

OK, let’s have a look at our Comms Process flow chart – maybe that will tell us what’s going wrong.  As we can see, the Comms Manager sits within the Project Team.  Communications are developed via his interaction with other project team members.

The Comms Manager is not an IT expert.  He’s not a member of the Management Board, he doesn’t get involved in financial planning, and when it comes to Supply Chain processes, he can’t see the Forrester Effect for the trees.   Because of this, he needs access to the people who are specialists – the workstream leads; the senior user and supplier; the Project Manager.

In partnership with the workstream leads, he develops multiple pieces of communication.  He talks to the IT lead, discussing the challenges they face with the legacy systems.  He talks to Operations to learn about inventory visibility.  He talks to finance to understand what the key reporting metrics are and whether there are any that conflict across functions or business units.

With the help of all these experts, he develops a suite of communications materials – some high level and aimed at Senior Management, some in greater functional detail.  All are designed to give each stakeholder the information they need, built with the input of experts, validated across other key project streams and with the Project Manager, and delivered by channels that are proven to reach the target audience effectively.

Yet something is lacking, and if you look closely at the chart you can see why. Despite the fact that the communications pieces themselves are excellent, the process itself is flawed.

Just because you served it up doesn't mean they'll swallow it.

Just because you served it up doesn’t mean they’ll swallow it

The communications are developed within the project team as an iterative process, seeking feedback, involving experts, using their expertise, building layer upon layer.

Then a hatch is opened, the comms pieces are thrown out to the stakeholders, and the hatch closed again.

Now, if the comms materials are raw meat and the stakeholders are ravenous lions this process may work, up to a point.  But as we’ve already discussed in an earlier post, people usually don’t like change, so there’s a good chance that you will not see a feeding frenzy when you serve up a nice plate of Raw Comms.  In fact, this approach has been known to result in the lions eating the Comms Manager.

And so we return to Oliver and we think “If we asked Oliver what he thought about all this, would he have something to say?”.  We look at the process flow chart and we say to ourselves “Why are we seeking feedback within the project to increase our understanding, and yet not soliciting feedback from the stakeholders – the very people that we are supposed to be influencing? Why are the arrows only going one way?”

Engaging with Oliver would tell us whether he (a) knows what is going on and supports it completely without needing more information, (b) doesn’t know what is going on and knows he needs to understand it more, but is afraid to admit he doesn’t understand it and is therefore being stubborn, or (c) knows exactly what it means and disagrees so completely that he is stopping the message getting any further, hoping that eventually it will derail.  There are reasons (d) through (w) as well, but you get my point.

If I was asked to put money on the main reason that project communications strategies fail, this would be it. The feedback of stakeholders is not sought, not valued, not discussed or not addressed.

Some great lessons for communications

Some great lessons for communications

This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, but frequently it is.  A fairly senior adman that my wife worked for a few years ago used to live by the mantra that if you say something a minimum of three times people will get it. How he rose to his exalted position with such a facile view of communications is beyond me, but the main point that he fails to take into account is that ‘getting it’ is not the same as ‘believing it’.

In his book ‘The Righteous Mind – Why Good People are Divided about Politics and Religion’, psychologist Jonathan Haidt, a Professor at NYU’s Stern School for Business provides a rationale for this key difference. Expanding on observations originally made by Plato that human beings weigh evidence in the search for knowledge, Haidt says that we are hardwired to make snap judgements based on our emotions, and then we manipulate the manner in which we process facts in order to justify the largely emotional conclusions that we had already reached.

Ah, you may say, but the people we are seeking to influence are experts in their respective fields.  They are the ones whose experience needs to be leveraged in order for the change to be successful.  This being the case, surely these are the very people that will weigh the evidence to arrive at “knowledge”?

Well, no, or at least not as far as I have observed in my career.  While it is possible that these people are experts, let’s not forget the other ingredients that make successful communications such a difficult recipe, some of which I discussed in Principle #2 – reasons which in many cases are significantly more personal in nature than they are professional:

  • Despite the fact that they are experts, they are first and foremost human
  • Their personal career objectives may not align with your corporate ones
  • There are usually several ways to skin a cat (sorry Oliver) and they may think that the efficiency of their way outweighs the effectiveness of yours
  • They may already have too much to do, and you’re asking them to relearn it
  • The change that you are proposing may make their current role redundant, or require a change in reporting or remuneration with which they are extremely uncomfortable

Of course there are other potential reasons as well, but while not one of the reasons above could be said to disprove any of the theory, invalidate any of the process changes or discredit the new IT solution or organization structure that you are intending to build, any one of them is a very good reason for a stakeholder to not support the change.  They are selfish reasons to be sure, but that fact does not make them any less real, or valid, and as a Comms Manager it is your role to find out what the reasons for the lack of engagement are, and to see what can be done to address them.

Without engaging with your stakeholders, it is unlikely that you will be able to combat these issues.  Certainly there may be ways in which you can address some of them by talking about best practice, pointing to improvements made by other companies or organizations, or talking about changes in the marketplace, but these are somewhat sterile responses and don’t go very far towards addressing what may be intensely personal concerns.  Your stakeholders know that they are personal issues, and may therefore be reluctant to discuss them openly.  And of course if one of your stakeholders feels this way there may be others.

Find a way to discuss the facts, not the conjecture

Find a way to discuss the facts, not the conjecture

To engage with them, you have to make them truly believe that you value their feedback, that you want to hear their concerns or suggestions.  They must have the means to review the documentation as and when they have time, and have a number of clear channels via which issues can be raised.

If you don’t give them the opportunity to air their opinions with you, and thereby have the opportunity to address them, you will usually find that they share them with their colleagues, but that they do so in a manner that undermines the change program, starts rumors and leads to a much greater volume of negative feeling.

So how do you engage with literally hundreds of stakeholders?  I’ll be offering some suggestions in Comms Principle #4 – A Multi-Faceted approach.


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Comms Principle #2: It’s Stakeholder, not Steakholder

Melanie Griffith in 'Working Girl'. Photo: 20th Century Fox

Melanie Griffith in ‘Working Girl’. Photo: 20th Century Fox

In the 1988 movie ‘Working Girl’, Alec Baldwin delivers an ultimatum to Melanie Griffith, to which he receives the response “I am not steak – you can’t just order me.”

I’m sure the line was never meant to be relevant to corporate communications, but I’ve never found one that better sums up the manner in which some communications strategies rely on beating their audience into submission.

In the past (and I mean the long distant past), leadership styles were significantly more authoritarian than they are today.  Raising issues with management direction could have been a career decision.  And in some companies this can still be the case, although thankfully it is now the exception rather than the rule.

Today’s Management Boards have recognized that simply mandating a change does not ensure its successful delivery.  While everyone may pay lip-service to the objective the fact remains that people are, in general, very resistant to change.

Daniel Burrus

Daniel Burrus – Collaboration vs. Cooperation

When proposing a program of strategic change, one of the first things that needs to be appreciated is the fact that dragging people towards an objective is not nearly as effective as having them gravitate towards it.

One of my favorite bloggers, Daniel Burrus, wrote an interesting piece on LinkedIn a few weeks ago that clearly articulated the difference between collaboration and cooperation, and pointed out that people confuse the two. The key distinction he makes is worth repeating here:

“Cooperation is based on a scarcity mindset; it’s about protecting and defending your piece of the pie.  Collaboration is based on an abundance mindset, working together to create a bigger pie for all”.

Change means uncertainty - people don't like uncertainty

Change means uncertainty –
and people don’t like uncertainty

Seems obvious, doesn’t it?  But where Change Management activities are concerned, it’s one of those key distinctions that tend to fall by the wayside in the headlong rush to build consensus and move forward. The problem of course is that if you settle merely for stakeholder cooperation, everything you build thereafter will be less stable and the consensus is liable to develop cracks.  If you want to build on a solid foundation, you need your stakeholders to want what you want.  In order to do this they have to share your vision, not just execute it.

And that, when all is said and done, is the tough bit.  How do you get a group of stakeholders not just to move in the same direction, but to want to move in the same direction and to encourage others to come with them?

Your new strategic direction may promise inescapable benefits for the organization, but it may also have a dramatic impact of a vast number of careers.  It may require employees to learn new skills, or new ways of working.  It may require changes in their reporting lines or the manner in which they are remunerated.  Suppliers or customers may be required to work with you in new ways (which can be tricky to enforce with suppliers, and next to impossible with customers).  It may also mean that some existing roles become redundant, in which case having your stakeholders believe that as one door closes several others will open is of critical importance.

There will undoubtedly be personal issues that shape the opinions of stakeholders both inside and outside your organization, and you will need to understand them (something I’ll come back to in a future post), but your first priority should be to understand where everyone fits, both in terms of how they can impact the project and how they are impacted by it.  This is the essence of Stakeholder Segmentation.

A typical stakeholder map for an internal change program

A typical stakeholder map for an internal change program

A large group of stakeholders can be segmented in a number of ways, but the key requirements are to understand where they fit in terms of reporting and role, to understand their level of seniority or influence, and to understand the likely impact of the project on their day job or, for external stakeholders, their business.

Getting the names of all these stakeholders, their responsibilities and other key information is not a difficult task, but it is time consuming and unfortunately there is no way around it.

Existing org charts will take you some of the way there, as will mailing lists, but the remainder will largely be grunt work – talking to colleagues, making phone calls, sharing iterations of the list and seeking feedback until such time as you can be sure it is broadly complete. There will always be one or two that you miss, but they will become apparent as soon as the comms flow starts.

With the list in place, you can start to determine what kind of communications detail will be required for each audience.  Your IT stakeholders will likely require very different information that that required by your marketers, or by HR, or your suppliers, and while you may be able to use some of the communications materials across all stakeholder groups, each group should feel that the materials you develop have something in it for them.  Remember, the more information that does not apply specifically to a particular stakeholder, the less likely that stakeholder is to read it.  Management may have mandated the change, but getting the stakeholders to pay attention, understand and actively engage will be on you.

Prince2 Project Management structure

Prince2 Project Management structure

If you need to go to the length of producing modular communications material, which is entirely possible, you will need to start building relationships with the experts in your project team and project board.

The Project Manager is always a good place to start, and he/she will be able to describe the skill sets available to help you develop the detail that the communication may require.  In addition, your project’s Senior User or Senior Supplier will be able to help you be aware of some of the key challenges that exist, both in terms of the benefits that are expected and the challenges of implementation. I should probably point out here that I am using Prince2 project management structure, since that is what I was trained in, but other Project Management methodologies encompass similar roles.

This will be the point at which some sensitivities exist, as you will also have to segment your stakeholders based on perceived level of support and influence.  Those who support the activity may be able to become active in influencing others, but you will need their support to be on message because not only do you want them to communicate correctly and not start any unnecessary rumors in motion, but also you want them to bring you feedback so that any level of resistance apparent in initial discussions can be addressed while it is still just a risk, rather than waiting until it becomes an issue.

There will invariably be certain key stakeholders who are skeptical or hostile.  It is particularly important to highlight who they are at an early stage, particularly if they have a level of seniority that could delay or undermine the project, or if they have expertise that is held in high regard by other stakeholders.  A bit of extra time or effort spent on syndicating objectives with this group of individuals, and sounding them out for objections or concerns will pay dividends in the long term.

Assign responsibilities for covering key stakeholders

Assign responsibilities for covering key stakeholders

In order to be certain of their views and to encourage their positive engagement, you may need to use “man defense” rather than relying on “zone defense”, meaning they will need to be approached on an individual basis, ideally by someone within or close to the project, and with whom they have a good relationship.

This ‘relationship owner’ takes responsibility for representing the details correctly, engaging frequently to secure feedback, and reporting the substance of any resistance back to the center.

This is unfortunately quite a labor intensive way of engaging (to ensure just one individual is in possession of all the facts, and that his or her opinions are accurately recorded), but in a small number of cases you may find there is no substitute for it, and even that it can be more efficient.

Finally, while it is important to know what your stakeholders think, it is just as important that they know you know and that they have confidence that their concerns are being taken seriously.

There is only one thing worse than being confronted with a change you don’t agree with, or not knowing who to talk to and how to raise concerns, and that is to talk to someone and raise concerns and never hear anything about it again.  If this happens, you’ve taken a key step towards getting your stakeholders engaged and then dropped the ball by not letting them know that you’ve heard their concerns, that you’ve shared them with the relevant people and that an answer is being developed.  In short, you’ve given the impression that their views are irrelevant.

If you don’t have an answer, don’t bullshit them.  They will almost certainly find out and when they do you will have gone 90% of the way towards losing their trust forever.  Tell them you don’t know, then go and find out what the answer is.  Unless you’re dealing with a stakeholder who has a particularly poisonous agenda (and they do exist), you will gain points for honesty and collaboration far more often than you will lose them for being “unprepared”.

Is this all there is to stakeholder management?  Of course not but this is a blog not a book, and following these basic steps will at very least move you in the right direction.

I’ll cover more on the subject of establishing a dialogue with your stakeholders in Comms Principle #3.


Posted by on January 15, 2013 in Change Management, Communications


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Comms Principle #1: If it Ain’t Broke…

The world is overloaded with information

Information overload and channel multiplicity – how do you get your message heard through the background noise?

How do you consume information?  And why?

Well, if you’re anything like me, you used to read a lot of newspapers, a few magazines. You watched the TV news and perhaps listened to the radio.  And when you found something that was of particular interest, maybe you bought a book. And why? Because you had an interest in the subjects being discussed.  And of course in the modern world a plethora of other ways exist to receive, retrieve and consume information, with more seemingly added every month.

In business communications however, and particularly as it relates to Change Management, there are a host of other, more specific reasons.  Some people want to develop professionally and are actively looking to be educated about a particular subject.  Others may be developing a new strategy and are looking for examples, precedents and case histories.  While still others are quite happy with the status quo, but are faced with a need to change ways of working or learn new skills because of a new strategic business imperative.

As a Communications Manager, you have to cater to all the requirements of this diverse audience.  And when I say cater to them, I do not mean send them a few emails, the occasional powerpoint slide and a couple of spreadsheets.  If it were that easy I wouldn’t be writing this, but unfortunately that’s often exactly how easy people think it is, and what some people consider to be a perfectly reasonable Comms approach.

Interconnected people, different requirements

Interconnected people, different requirements

But let’s consider a worst case scenario.  Let’s imagine you have to provide compelling and accessible communications about a new change project to an audience of 500 people – people in different roles, in different offices and maybe even in different countries.  The change in question has been tried before in a previous project, and failed.  Everyone spent a lot of time on it, and the months of effort delivered nothing.  In fact, those that worked on the project – and that includes you – are considered to have failed, and everyone has a view on why.  There is now an atmosphere of mistrust about the new project.  Your audience is at best ambivalent and, even worse, there are 30 or 40 people in your key stakeholder group who are actively hostile to any further innovation or change activity in this area.  Many of these doubters have the expertise, the influence, the seniority to derail the project.

Now let’s throw out the term “worst case scenario”, because that’s the way most business change projects begin.  So, you need to write and run a Comms strategy that takes account of all these complicating factors.

Before you even begin getting your head around the information that needs to be communicated, the best way to move forward is to step back.

Step back and think about a handful of Comms principles that will not only make writing the strategy easier, but will also improve the likelihood of success, the retention of the messages and the engagement level of your stakeholders.

It is these key principles that I will be blogging about over the next several posts, taking a single facet at a time.  I’ll be talking about stakeholder mapping, the importance of dialogue, developing a multi-faceted comms approach, engaging senior management, and translating strategy into execution.  But I’m going to start with what I consider to be the most important enabler of all – that of channel selection.

Channel selection - likely the most critical part of a communications strategy

Channel selection – likely the most critical enabler of a sound communications strategy

When I started this post, I asked how you consumed information.  It was not an idle or rhetorical question.  Every project will be different, and the selection of the appropriate comms channels will be one of the most important decisions you will be faced with.

I have seen, on numerous occasions, communications activities fail because a comms strategy tried to force a method of communication down the throats of stakeholders.  Expensive new brochures have been produced, databases set up, swathes of email sent out with slides, spreadsheets, gantt charts attached.  Then three months later the Project Board members scratch their collective heads as the Comms Manager is forced to admit that despite all this activity, many stakeholders don’t know what the objectives are, don’t know where to get more information, don’t agree with the information they have received, and do not support the project.

And the simple reason for this is that the Comms Strategy never took account of the relationships that exist, the venues that were already available.  Instead, the strategy drove activity in a manner that required stakeholders to learn the methods of communicating before learning about the project.  In effect, it treated stakeholders like sheep, requiring them to consume information when and where they were supposed to, not when they wanted to, not when they needed it.

You will never engage stakeholders
by herding them

This group of stakeholders, many of whom started off as suspicious or hostile, now have

  • A beautifully printed brochure gathering dust in a drawer
  • A dozen emails with huge attachments that are somewhere among the thousands of emails received over those 3 months
  • Access to a database that contains all the relevant information – but they don’t know where the database is located, or how to access it.  Even if they do, the database contains so many documents that finding the pieces relevant to their questions is a nightmare

Most worryingly of all, because they are not engaged and do not know who to talk to or where to go to get themselves up to speed, their first reaction is to complain about a lack of communication.  Because they don’t know where to go to get the facts, this complaint gains traction. And the moment it reaches that point, your job becomes twice as hard.

So, how do you avoid getting into this position?

To answer that, we need to go back to the original question “How do you consume information” and remember that the “you” is not you the Comms Manager, it is you the stakeholders – how do they consume information.

What relationships exist around the enterprise?  Are reporting lines (hard or dotted line) affecting resistance? Who shares information naturally with whom? What existing platforms are in place with which your stakeholders are already familiar?  Are there any conferences or events planned that your stakeholders are likely to attend or follow?  Equally importantly, assuming your stakeholders don’t always avidly read the communications you transmit the second you send them, how can they go back to them and access them hours, days or even weeks later?  Where do they find them?  If they have questions, who do they talk to?

Stop.jpgDon’t try and reinvent the comms wheel by developing new channels – first use the ones that are already known, then think about whether these channels need to be augmented.

By using new channels, you may engage early adopters (those who actively seek new information channels) but you are unlikely to reach traditionalists, and traditionalists are likely to be the majority.  This isn’t about impressing people with your knowledge of social media, or database management, or intranet development.  It’s not about you at all.  It’s about the stakeholders.

Don’t think that if someone has questions about what comms materials exist that they will come to you and ask.  Some people may not even know you exist.  They may not really like you, or may be worried that if they approach you they’ll be told “I already sent it to you 3 times”.  This is not about making them feel stupid. It’s about making them feel engaged.

Don’t brush aside feedback that indicates people aren’t getting it.  It may well be their fault, but it’s your problem.  Abdicating responsibility for ensuring that stakeholders have the facts, or know where to get them, or know who to talk to, is the best way to ensure hostility from the very people on whose positive engagement the success of the project relies.

Most importantly of all, do everything you can to ensure that if your stakeholders are determined to be critical of the timeline, budget assumptions or deliverables of a project that their criticism is related to the facts rather than to incorrect assumptions.  A quick review of Politifact’s ‘Truth-o-Meter’ is an excellent example of how a half-truth or an outright lie can derail debate of the facts to the point where further discussion is pointless, even after the truth has been made known.

Politifact's 'Truth-o-Meter'

Politifact’s ‘Truth-o-Meter’

Churchill once said “A lie gets half way around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on”. Never was this more apt than where change is concerned.  There is no such thing as a communications vacuum, since rumor, supposition and in some cases deliberate misinformation will always breed in any gaps left by factual communication. Once the rumors gain traction, the requirement to disprove them is time consuming and frustrating. Most importantly, it does not move the project forwards – it merely stops it going backwards.

Don’t give troublesome stakeholders the opportunity to attack the project by attacking the communications. Make it as difficult as possible for them to avoid the real issues by saying “I didn’t know that, nobody told me”. If you can achieve that, you are more than halfway to winning the battle.

In post #2, I’ll be looking at another critical comms principle – that of Stakeholder Segmentation.


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If You Build It, Will They Come?

If you build it, he will come.

If you build it, he will come. Photo: Universal Pictures

For many guys of a certain age, the line “If you build it, he will come” is instantly recognizable.

A seminal moment from the 1989 Kevin Costner film ‘Field of Dreams’, it turns out to mean that if Costner’s character, Ray Kinsella, builds a baseball field in his corn he will have the opportunity to rebuild his relationship with his father.  And while it’s memorable for women too, this is principally a father / son / sports thing that transcends any rational explanation.

This instant familiarity is one of the reasons that the line has been paraphrased (sometimes simply as a joke, but also sometimes in earnest) into a management ‘axiom’ that if you set a strategic objective with clear goals and attainable benefits that people understand, then they will naturally gravitate towards it.  “If you build it, they will come”.

Clearly not only is this simplistic view of Change Management wrong, it is positively dangerous.  So much for life imitating art.

Miss Boo - poster girl for DotCom excess

Miss Boo – A salutary lesson in thinking a good idea is all it takes

That is not to say that people will naturally shy away from a good idea.  Venture capitalists will frequently consider first mover advantage as a key factor in making the decision to invest in a completely new business.  Indeed, early this century the emerging DotCom economy provided multiple examples of how first mover advantage was considered to be of primary importance – that having a good idea for filling a gap in the market was almost a guarantee of success if only a company could “get big fast“.

Of course, this was never really the only requirement and when the DotCom bubble burst and investment decisions matured, the tried and tested measurements once again reestablished their importance.  The objective has to be clear, the product or service benefits inescapable, the gap in the market obvious, the customer need well documented, the management skills and experience proven and – most importantly – the financial modeling sound and the ROI expectations reasonable.  If those requirements are met, then and only then does first mover advantage start to carry some weight.

But what about when the case for change, for establishing a new strategic goal, is one that relates to an existing business?  A business that has scale, history, embedded culture but that nonetheless needs to adapt to meet the emerging challenges or capitalize on new opportunities within a particular business sector.

A new competitor, the emergence of new technology, changing consumer preferences or legislation, to name but a few, can all throw a wrench into the workings of an existing, profitable and successful organization, or provide it with ways to enhance its ability to compete.

And of course in many cases, forward-looking organizations will be actively seeking ways to improve their performance, to increase their market penetration or to lower their costs before being faced with a business imperative to do so.  In such ways are great companies built – the ideal time to consider how the business can be improved is not when change is forced on it by external pressures, but proactively, while there is time for maneuver, time to model the options and measure their potential.

Good to Great, by Jim Collins

Good to Great – sound strategic decisions, equally sound implementation

In his excellent 2001 book ‘Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Other Don’t‘, Jim Collins took a group of companies that, for one reason or another, were able to take advantage of a business opportunity or new way of thinking to deliver financial results that saw them outperform a control group of direct comparison companies.

Moreover, they were able to sustain that performance for at least 15 years, a time period that transcends a single new product, or a single visionary CEO, or an extended period of sector-wide growth.

But whether one is facing an immediate external pressure to change or seeking to further improve an already healthy position in order that a business will be better able to meet any potential future challenges, the key hurdle to overcome is that of thinking that recognizing the opportunity and establishing a roadmap and timeline to deliver the benefits is the main challenge.   This is the key pitfall of the “If you build it, they will come” mentality.

Up to 75% of change projects fail

Up to 75% of change projects fail

Over the next few days, I’ll be blogging about some of the key challenges of organizational change, and how communications is a critical enabler that will frequently make the difference between failure and success.

Wherever you look for information about the success rate of business change projects, the figures you will normally see quoted are that between two-thirds and three-quarters of all projects fail.  And with at least two-thirds of competitors failing, consider for a moment the vast opportunities available to those organizations that do it right.

There are a number of communications rules that need to be considered when enabling change within an organization.  They’re not concepts that are hard to understand, and in fact the vast majority can be seen as good old fashioned common sense, but they are nonetheless concepts that are frequently overlooked.

In the blog posts that follow, I’ll be listing what I consider some of these key rules to be.  In doing so, I’ll describe why I consider them important, provide examples and observations, and where possible I’ll also include comments or advice from third parties that I consider to be particularly useful.

Throughout them all please remember that this is not meant to be an exhaustive list, merely a number of key principles that I personally have found to be useful in running communications within change programs over a number of years for both new companies and established multinationals.

Communications is often the last thing to be recognized as having had a positive impact when a change program is successful.  Conversely, it is one of the first to be blamed when the change fails.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.


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Social Media Fail #1: Cable Service with Time Warning

Patrick Stewart despairs

Oh no, it’s all gone Pete Tong

And so, finally, we reach my favorite Social Media Fail of 2012.  And though it got quite a bit of coverage in September, there’s a pretty good chance that not many will have heard of it.  But also a fair chance that many of you will empathize.

When was the last time you moved house?

For me it was about 4 years ago, and in my case it was actually moving from one continent to another, but whether it’s halfway around the world or only down the street, moving house is often considered to be second only to the death of a spouse or a child in terms of the levels of stress it is capable of inducing.

And of course it is only when you have sold your old house and bought your new one that the challenges really begin.  Finding someone to help you move, getting all the endless paperwork completed, finding new suppliers, comparing prices (not just the 6 month prices designed to hook you, but the long term prices where they really make their money).

Time Warner CableIt’s a seemingly endless round of searches and phone calls. Fortunately, since you’re a ‘potential new customer’ you can usually get straight through to a real person, a seemingly unremarkable fact at the time but one you will remember wistfully when you’ve been a customer for a while and you’re being herded through the autoprompts to the “Your business is important to us” holding area with the rest of the cattle.

Then finally, you’re into your new house, the power, gas, taxes and all the other annoying crap have been turned on or put in your name, and only one key task remains: the visit from the cable company to set up your cable TV, internet connection and (for those blissfully wedded to last century) your landline phone.

Most of us have been in the position of waiting, hour after hour, to see whether on the appointed day the guy or gal with all the cables, boxes and associated gizmos arrives on time, or even at all.

Patrick Stewart's cry in the wilderness

Patrick Stewart’s cry in the wilderness – an emotion
not uncommon among cable subscribers

In September this year, new New York resident Patrick Stewart set up an appointment with Time Warner Cable to come and install his links to the outside world.

The experience did not go well, causing him to tweet “All I wanted to do was set up a new account with @TWCable_NYC, but 36hrs later I’ve lost the will to live.”

Patrick Stewart's RejectionTo their credit, Time Warner responded promptly, tweeting to find out “How can we assist you?”, but Stewart clearly thought, quite rightly when all’s said and done, that he had a right to expect decent service from those who had been supposed to provide it in the first place., and that this offer of help on social media was too little too late.

Again, Time Warner’s Twitter team were professional and tweeted back “I apologize for the frustration.  If you change your mind we are here.”

Sir Patrick Stewart

Sir Patrick Stewart

This exchange happened on September 13, and the conversation could have ended there.  But overnight, I’m guessing someone in Time Warner’s Social Media team noticed the little blue check mark next to the name ‘Patrick Stewart’.

For those of you not familiar, the blue check indicates a ‘Verified’ account, meaning that twitter users can be certain that the person they are following is the genuine article and not a copycat.  People whose accounts are ‘Verified’ are movie stars, sports personalities, senior politicians, and so on.

So, when someone at time Warner noticed the little check mark it’s probably only then that the penny dropped and the sound that the penny made went something like “Oh, it’s Jean Luc Picard, that might not be a good thing!”.

Another dead giveaway might have been the fact that @SirPatStew had roughly 60,000 followers despite only having been on Twitter for a few months.  And another still might have been that his tweet was being retweeted hundreds of times an hour.  But, OK, they missed it, so let’s move on.

TWC - Ingratiation is the key to success

TWC – Ingratiation is the key to success

And move on was exactly what they should have done.  They’d dropped the ball on the install, but responded professionally on Social Media, so leave it at that.

But no.  They decided to try and cozy up to him, tweeting at him the following day using a couple of ingratiating Star Trek references to illustrate how much they loved him.  I can almost imagine half a dozen of them gathered round the screen, composing their masterpiece:  “Oh, dude, I got it, tell him we’re trekkers! Is it trekkers or trekkies?  Oh, what the hell, say trekkers.”  “What’s that catchphrase of his?  Oh yeah – ‘make it so’!  Tell him we’ll ‘make it so’ “.

To my absolute delight, Stewart was having none of it and sent back the equivalent of Monty Python’s ‘Fish Slapping Dance’, which basically stopped the conversation in its tracks.Patrick Stewart's dismisses TWC

Once again, that could have been the end of it, but alas for Time Warner, the pummeling gathered pace.

The original tweet had now received getting on for 2000 retweets, and practically everybody who retweeted or replied seemed to be agreeing that Time Warner installs were as organized as a tossed salad.  And that wasn’t the worst, not by a long shot.

LeVar Burton tweetLeVar Burton (Picard’s colleague Georgi La Forge from Star Trek TNG), replying to a tweet from the New York Observer writer Steve Huff said simply “Been there!”.  Huff’s tweet referenced an article on tech site Betabeat (for whom he also writes) chronicling the previous day’s exchange.

The Betabeat article was posted to reddit, where redditors agreed with Stewart’s decision in no uncertain terms.

Shatner's views on Time WarnerWilliam Shatner replied to Stewart’s first tweet, initially just saying that he agreed, but then going on to amplify his view in a separate tweet informing everyone that he’d been waiting for Time Warner LA to re-add Digital Talk Radio for nearly a month, and describing them as “Terrible”.

George Takei

George Takei

By this time the story was being featured prominently in the mainstream media around the world. However, after a couple of weeks, just as Time Warner might have though it was safe to come out of the bathroom, former original Star Trek cast member turned Social Media darling George Takei chimed in, saying “It doesn’t get much better than this” and sharing the entire story with his half million Twitter followers (leading to another 2500 retweets), and his legion of Facebook fans (over 3 million of them), resulting in nearly 25,000 likes, 5,000 shares and well over 1,000 comments, very few of them with anything positive to say about Time Warner.

Stewart meanwhile was maintaining a dignified silence while the interwebs were amusing themselves with poking fun at Time Warner.  In fact, his only related tweet during the entire time period was to @dish, to thank them for providing the “prompt and professional service” that he had originally hoped to get from TWC.

Patrick Stewart's tweet to DishThough it appears he couldn’t resist one final, priceless little swipe at Time Warner Cable, which I think ties the story up quite nicely – the perfect place to end.

Thanks for reading.  I’ve enjoyed writing these Top 10 Fails, particularly reseaching them, and hope you’ve found something that has either given you food for thought, or at least made you smile.

May I wish you a very Happy New Year.


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Social Media Fail #2: @Sweden and the Average Sven

Curation Rotation - the @Sweden twitter account

Curation Rotation – the @Sweden twitter account

During the week or so that I’ve been listing these social media fails, some of the most frequently trodden ground I’ve covered relates to the leap of faith required in hiring someone to manage one’s social media.

It’s easy for something to go wrong.  One mistake and the wise denizens of the internet start punching you mercilessly and holding you up to public ridicule.

And it’s possible you may deserve it, particularly if you’ve forgotten that while the person handling your social media may be responsible for what you share, you are still accountable.  It’s your brand.  The buck stops with you.

So consider the leap of faith required to hand your social media over to someone with no professional social media credentials – someone who is, in fact, a complete stranger.  Consider the risk in telling them that they can pretty much say whatever they want.

Then, if by some miracle it works out, consider taking the same risk a week later by giving the responsibility to a different person again.  And again.  And again.

And, the biggest leap of all, to have your entire nation judged by what these strangers choose to say.

Welcome to Sweden, where in late 2011 the idea of giving control of the @sweden twitter profile to a different member of the Swedish public every week was considered a good idea.

The idea came, not surprisingly, from an ad agency, Volontaire of Stockholm.  It was a brave idea, a new idea, an idea so full of both promise and pitfalls that the bravery of the agency in suggesting it dwindles to insignificance when compared with the bravery of the client that approved it.

The concept was borne of the idea that the world would better understand Sweden if the world understood the Swedish people.  Giving Average Sven control of @sweden would allow people to get a better understanding of what makes Swedes tick, what’s important to them, their likes and dislikes.

And so, in December 2011 and throughout the year that has followed, Svenska Institutet and VisitSweden gave one Swede every week the responsibility of curating the @sweden twitter profile, thereby pioneering what has become known as ‘Curation Rotation’.  The only rules were that you must be a Swede, you must tweet in English, and you shouldn’t do anything criminal.

Miss @Sweden, Sonja Abrahamsson

Miss @Sweden,
Sonja Abrahamsson

And do you know what?  It wasn’t the public relations disaster that might have been expected.  Erm…..for the first few months.

The first time that most people in the US will have heard about @sweden was in June this year, which coincidentally was exactly the moment that it became a much bigger story than it had been up to that point.

Folks who work in marketing may have heard about it a little earlier (it won a Gold Clio in May) but on June 10, @sweden moved into the mainstream in the U.S. as a New York Times article shone a spotlight its first 6 months of operation.

The article was interesting, gave a number of examples of some of the points of view tweeted and took Erik Isberg, the curator of the moment, as its main subject.

What's the fuzz?At the end of Mr Isberg’s week, just as the NYT article came out, Sonja Abrahamsson took over and by the end of her week the publicity of the NYT piece had been dwarfed by the publicity surrounding her tweets, which ranged from mundane to potentially anti-semitic to certainly gross and generally bizarre. An article on Mashable collected some of the most ‘memorable’.

In addition to Ms. Abrahamsson’s high profile tenure, yet more light was shone on @sweden when the campaign won a Grand Prix at the Cannes festival.

Across the remainder of 2012, the @sweden handle settled down again into the mundane, the everyday, with only the occasional blip.  That is not to say that there has not been some interesting stuff – there has – but none has even approached the levels of social media hysteria reached in June.

In general, the Swedes have shown themselves to be good natured, humorous, down to earth people.  Their ability to communicate effectively in a second language should put most English speaking nations to shame.  Given the opportunity to make a name for themselves in representing their country, the vast majority of them have behaved with grace and good nature, have taken their responsibility seriously and have been conscious of the impact they may have on their country’s global image.

That said, while clearly the unpleasantness of some of Ms. Abrahamsson’s series of tweets is likely to live longer in the memory than those of all the other, more mainstream-minded curators, can it really be said to have failed?

Gold Clio

The coveted
Gold Clio

No, and yes.

No because the campaign won a Clio award in New York and a Grand Prix at Cannes.  No, because the number of followers has increased.  And no because it can probably be said that followers of the @sweden account have a more rounded view of the Swedish people than they did before which was, after all, the objective.

But yes because for all the good things that may potentially have come of this experiment, the one thing that will most likely be remembered, the thing that received the most media coverage, was an image of anti-semitism and lack of education.  On the basis that perception is reality that is a sad legacy, and particularly sad for all those curators who provided excellent content only to see their efforts, thoughts and feelings swamped under a blanket association of bigotry and ignorance.

Is a picture worth a thousand words?

Is a picture worth a thousand words?

And remember that it could be said that the perception of bigotry is only a perception, and not reality.  Reading Ms. Abrahamsson’s tweets with an open mind, in the views of some Jewish commentators, leads to an understanding that she is not being bigoted, but is rather asking questions that many people might share, and that these questions stand on a foundation of naiveté, not one of prejudice.

At the end of her tenure as Curator of Sweden, she posted a somewhat bizarre video to summarize her week, and told people to make up their own minds.  Around the same time, she also gave an interview in which she explained a tattoo on the back of her neck  The tattoo actually reads “hej hej” (Swedish for hello hello) which could be seen as a link to her twitter handle @hejsonja but, from a distance, it could be read as something else, a coincidence that Ms. Abrahamsson explains as “a mistake”.

So, what can we learn from the @sweden experiment?

Well, clearly we can learn that handing over control of your brand without putting strict guidelines and safeguards in place is a very dangerous thing.  But perhaps more importantly, we can learn that tweeting half-formed thoughts or open questions is likely to result in a backlash.

It is not unusual in this day and age for people to extrapolate from any position that leaves any middle ground, in order to infer a whole host of other positions, and usually assuming these positions to be either black or white.

And so it proved with @sweden.  Ms. Abrahamsson’s tweets were largely taken to be an indication of an assumed set of values.  That assumption may be right or wrong, but 140 characters does not give much room for clarification.  Or as Time Magazine put it, “long enough to say something stupid, but not nearly long enough to explain yourself when you do”.


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Social Media Fail #3: Know what you’re talking about.

Numerous fails related to insensitive handling of current events

Numerous fails related to insensitive handling of
current events or just lack of vigilance

There were several ghastly gaffes this year that can be attributed to the lack of a professional approach towards social media marketing.

Retailers using Hurricane Sandy as a sales platform was not particularly smart.

NRA_Rifleman forgetting they’d scheduled a tweet only to have real life events make it completely inappropriate.

Someone (how many times have we seen this now?) at KitchenAid forgetting to switch between corporate and personal accounts when sending out a tweet.

They were all pretty bad and, not surprisingly, generated something of a social media beatdown.  However I’d argue that one stood head and shoulders above the others because it’s such a classic example of someone firing off a joke marketing tweet without stopping to consider whether the joke was funny.

On Friday July 20, just after midnight, James Eagan Holmes walked into Century movie theater in Aurora, CO., and opened fire.  12 people were killed, over 50 injured.

It didn’t take long for #Aurora to start trending worldwide on Twitter.

Celeb Boutique original tweet6000 miles and 7 time zones away, in England, Celeb Boutique caught sigh of the word ‘Aurora’.  Not yet being familiar with the shooting, they sent out a tweet offering the view that the trend must surely be related to their Kim Kardashian inspired ‘Aurora’ dress.  Which begs the question, is that stupid or is it just a legitimate mistake?

Well, I guess it’s a legitimate mistake if you hand your social media over to an idiot.  But if you’re actually paying someone to manage it for you it’s inexcusable, because you have a right to expect professionalism.

Celeb Boutique streamWithin a few hours, it had been retweeted over 1,000 times and the comments were coming in thick and fast at which point Celeb Boutuque did 3 things.

They apologized.

They retweeted about how excited they were about the weekend.

Then they apologized again.

To be honest, I find the ‘Fabulous Friday’ tweet as bad as the original one.

Celeb Boutique saw that there was a problem, issued and apology and then moved straight on to retweet their excitement about plans for the weekend, before going on to apologize again, and again, and again.

The implication of this seems to be that their initial apology was something of a perfunctory response, and the retweet was sent out before they really got to grips with the strength of reaction their original tweet had caused.

celeb-boutique-profileThat aside, Celeb Boutique’s response when they found out how dumb they’d been was, I believe, sensitive, complete and sincere.  They appeared to be genuinely sorry, and I do sometimes find the way that the holier-than-thou crowd turn into internet bullies somewhat sickening.

However, the fact remains that sending out a marketing tweet on the basis of a trending topic that you haven’t even bothered to investigate for 30 seconds is intensely dumb, almost as bad in fact as Kenneth Cole’s #cairo blunder last year.  Almost.  Cole’s was unforgiveable.

Sensitivity is one of the key skills that should be expected of anyone working in communications.  I sometimes make poor decisions as well.  We all do.  But thinking about what you say in advance of actually saying it is always time well spent.  For instance, when thinking of a title for today’s blog, I mulled over a number of euphemisms for ‘acting without thinking’.  One of the first that came to mind was an observation about how unwise it is to shoot from the hip.  In view of the subject of today’s blog, that particular headline was discarded pretty quickly.

Celeb Boutique makes my Top 3 fails of the year.


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