Good Leaders Should Read Novels

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Sea Rocks at Dawn-s.cI recently trailed one of my children on school visiting day and was struck by the relevance of the English lesson. The students were discussing difficult choices, using as their texts the novel “Tuck Everlasting” and Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Less Traveled.”  The lesson reminded me of why I love novels (aside from the fact that I was an English major), and why I think leaders should read them.

In an article earlier this year about CEO character traits, the New York Times’ Peter Brooks postulates that reading novels could offer these leaders “greater psychological insight, a feel for human relationships, a greater sensitivity toward their own emotional chords.”  He’s on to something. I would add to his list the following:

  1. Perspective on Difficult Choices. As in life, the characters in novels rarely get black and white choices.  Tom Sawyer has to confront racial injustice as he considers his friendship with Huck. Edith Wharton’s Lily Barth in House of  Mirth tries to find a way to avoid the socially and financially correct marriage that society in her time demands. James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom struggles with the existential crises of the individual living in modern collective society in Ulysses. The list goes on.  By reading these novels we gain insight into our own dilemmas.
  2. A View of Character.  “The Gravedigger’s Daughter” by Joyce Carol Oates was one of my favorite–yet difficult–reads this year. The way this brilliant novelist draws us into the protagonist’s shocking childhood helps a reader understand what can lie behind broken familial relationships and what it takes to be a survivor.
  3. A View Into Other Cultures. Another favorite novel of mine is “The Piano Tuner,” a stunning first novel which provides a view into the unequal relationships within the British Colonial empire, and specifically in Myanmar, at the end of the 19th century.  While set in a distant time and culture, some of the scenes are achingly heartbreaking, and can give us some context for the continuing struggles of the Burmese people.
  4. An Ability to Change One’s Mind. I recently read “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” by literary power-house John Fowles, and had the pleasure to discuss it in a book club led by my wonderful former high school English teacher.  Over the course of reading the novel, I completely changed my mind about the “woman” of the title, Sarah.  Through Sarah, Fowles slowly brought me to a new perspective on all the characters in the book, as well as a view of modern relationships.  Being able to change one’s mind is something we are less and less able to do in our society, as we seem to be forced into clearly defined groups whose minds have been made up for us (by religious affiliation, by gender, by political party, neighborhood, school choices for our children, etc.).  Being able to think about perspective is the great gift of the novel.

So for all these reasons, I highly recommend that leaders read fiction, and specifically the novel. Try handing out a novel to your board and staff at your next meeting and then schedule a discussion of one or two of the topics above at a subsequent gathering.  It might just give you a new way to think about problems, people, and choices.

Do you have a great novel to recommend?

5 Free Ways to Boost Your Brand

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Balt. Bldg.1 - IMG_0407 sIn the “jobless recovery,” it’s important to be strategic about spending on your brand. Here are five ways you can support your product, service or nonprofit mission without spending a dime.  (Alright, in total fairness, time is involved and we all know that’s valuable.)

1. Deploy Your Leaders. Boards of directors, partners, the executive team–they should know all the in’s and out’s of your brand and be the spokes on the wheel of your brand promotion. But sometimes they are not deployed in an intentional way with marketing your brand in mind. Make a conscious effort to (re)educate your board and leadership team on your “elevator pitch” and “brand promise”–what unique value you provide–at their next meeting. Ask folks to give their elevator pitch to the group, to help them hone their own description of your brand essence.

2. Engage Every Employee. Your leadership team, marketing or development staff may all be cognizant of your key brand messages. But what about your interns, the people at the loading dock and your new receptionist? Everyone communicates your brand–to customers, to donors, to other employees. Make sure you take the time to engage everyone. One great experience can make all the difference. So can a bad one.

3. Let Others Speak for You. Referrals are the best sales. Ask your best customers, donors, community volunteers, etc. to help you promote your brand. Ask them to Tweet about your latest accomplishments, mention it on their company blog, or be willing to wear a nametag that says “So and So, [Your Charity Name] Volunteer” at their next business event. In the advertising world, everything is measured in the volume of “impressions” your ads get. But also every human impression counts.

4. Cross-Promote. Whether you are a for-profit or a charity, find organizations that don’t compete directly with you but who offer complimentary products/services.  Then create a monthly program for cross-promotions. For example, if you’re a florist, have your link featured on the page of an event organizer and vice versa.  If you’re a charity with a national walk or run coming up, cross-promote with an athletic shoe or apparel company.  And don’t forget to cross-promote yourself: be sure that every communications tool you use–email, e-newsletters, blogs, websites, business cards–promotes every other venue through which you communicate, so customers can reach you in whatever way they like best.

5. Increase Brand Clarity. Brand audits can be very expensive and time-consuming projects, but here’s a mini-audit you can assign to a couple of folks for a considerable impact. Have them review your letterhead, website, print pieces, blogs, Facebook pages, etc. and tell you whether your logo, name, tag line and mission statement appear consistently. Look at color, size, fonts and wording. You’d be surprised how many times these communications tools are inconsistently branded, thus diluting your impact.  You don’t have to reprint everything all at once, but be aware so that the next time cards go to the printers, for example, they can be in sync with your website.

Of course, there’s no free lunch.

If your brand is struggling because your mission is fuzzy, your leadership isn’t strategic, or your staffing is weak, then no amount of free branding solutions will help.  But in tough times, these simple tools can also go a long way while we all wait for recovery.

What’s my online identity?

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Abstract in Green s.c.2By now you’ve probably read that after 44 staffers were laid off at CQ-Roll Call at the end of September,   veteran editor Brian Nutting e-mailed the entire editorial staff (and cc’d the newsroom) a letter demanding answers from management.  His email was immediately “leaked” online and a day later, he was fired for insubordination.

A few days later, The Washington Post released new social media guidelines for its writers which take a pretty dim view of journalists having social media lives. The rules have resulted in journalists closing twitter accounts. Post journalists must refrain from “writing, tweeting or posting anything – including photographs or video – that could be perceived as reflecting political racial, sexist, religious or other bias or favoritism that could be used to tarnish our journalistic credibility.”

The Red Cross takes a different tack. It created—with input from employees—a Social Media Handbook that makes some common-sense recommendations. These include “Use disclaimers” “Respect work commitments” “Be a good blogger” “Be transparent” “Be accurate” “Be considerate” and one of my favorites “Be generous.”  (This particular recommendation is about being generous with links –that is, information–for your readers.)

These two approaches beg the question: who are we online? And can we be more than one person (the private and the public) at the same time?

Particularly if we work in a field where people pay us for our opinions and expertise (journalists, lawyers, doctors, consultants of various stripes), can we still express our personal views online and keep our jobs/clients?

What’s your SM policy? Can your employees make personal comments on their Facebook pages and still keep their jobs with you? What are the parameters? What is working and what isn’t?

I’d really like to hear from you on this one, so comment away!

Does Management Care About Our Brand?

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Red Wheel s.c.Sure they do. Management’s focus on the 50,000 foot view of an organization includes issues around brand. But what I’ve found is that they are not always aware of mission-critical elements that contribute to how your brand is perceived–by customers, donors, investors, or other influencers.  Here are two areas where the executive team often falls short, and what you can do about it.

The Virtual. Let’s face it, many in executive leadership are from a generation that’s not entirely comfortable with the virtual world of the internet and social media–even email. A good friend of mine in his 60’s ran a highly successful international foundation without so much as a computer on his desk. His secretary read and responded to all his emails!  Other execs can be suspicious of social media being merely social and not having any business function, so they won’t allow employees to use it.  Or they limit online time to younger subordinates–interns and such–without realizing these have become the face of the organization and their first responders in a crisis. (And they might be perfectly well qualified for this, but that might not really be the communications strategy when the assignment is made.)

So how do you get management to care about the virtual iterations of your brand?

1. Provide real feedback on what others are saying about you and your issue or product or competitors on a regular basis–a quick overview report at least weekly. You likely already know the tools (Google Alerts, Twittalyzer). But also write the report in “real English” so that those of us who aren’t as facile with technology can “get it” and understand strategic implications.

2. Offer a virtual brand game-plan with a specific group of staff and targeted number of hours they will spend listening and responding on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc.

3.  Be willing to revise the game plan. Test a variety of strategies and personnel. Some people love to write, for example, and could be great bloggers for your brand. Others might be better suited to the 140-characters-or-less world of Twitter.

The Physical. I recently attended an after work networking event at a company that reminded me how much the physical still matters when it comes to your brand. The party included a number of people I wanted to meet. However, the bar was located right in the entrance area, so everyone was crammed together there and no one could circulate. The food was elsewhere–sitting on small, lonely plastic platters in several conference rooms too far from the main action to attract much attention. But for those who ventured in search of nourishment, the message of the meager fare was either that the company was suffering greatly in the economic downturn, or they didn’t like their customers enough to invest in more than a bowl of peanuts. Probably not the message management intended to send.  My guess is management didn’t even involve itself in the layout or the menu decisions.

By contrast I attended another business event for top-level CEOs where clearly the economic downturn played a role in the decision to change the evening from black-tie to business dress. The food was well laid out and appetizing, but not overly luxurious. The content and networking spaces were well-planned. Result: a good boost for the host company’s brand.

How can you get management to care about the “physical” expressions of your brand?

1. Include them in your decision-making. Even if it’s the tablecloths for an event or the new office chairs, make sure management knows What you’re suggesting/deciding and Why you’re making those recommendations.  What is the impression you are trying to make? What do you want customers or donors or investors to think about you when they leave? (note: “they’re suffering” doesn’t always translate into increased donations on the nonprofit side.)

2. Show them examples (photos) of what your event/office would look like if these decisions get made. I’m sure that if one of the top executives of the firm I mentioned above had seen what a little plastic platter of vegetables looked like sitting alone on a vast polished wood conference table, he might have endorsed a different food budget.

3. Poll your guests and share outcomes with management. Survey Monkey and other online tools make it so easy to find out whether or not your guests liked your event/their meeting at your office/etc. Social media also allows you to hear from important players and share back their comments.

All I can end with is the line from the wonderful Maurice Sendak book for children, about Pierre “who didn’t care” (Spoiler alert: he gets eaten by a lion): Care!

©2009 Amy DeLouise. All Rights Reserved. For reprint permission, please contact amy(at)amydelouise(d0t)com.

Handling Disgruntled Customers

Oakes Red - IMGP1335 s.cThere are three kinds of unhappy customers. The ones who let you know about the problem right away. The ones who tell other people they are unhappy, but avoid telling you directly.  And the ones who are mostly happy customers and have only one issue they are unhappy about, but this is the only thing they communicate about with you, so it seems like a much larger problem.  It’s really important to discern which kind of customer you are dealing with before you can help them.  And especially in these days of social media, when a problem that is small can become exponentially larger due to word of mouth.

Learn About the Problem

If you are hearing about the problem from someone other than the customer, or through a group venue such as social media, seek out the customer to discuss the issue directly and privately. You can still make some kind of public response when all is resolved, but don’t duke things out on your Facebook page.

Really listening is key. This means a willingness to see the issue from their perspective and problem-solve in a way that ensures they will still be your customer. Okay, in fairness there will be rare instances in which you need to “fire” your own customer because, as it turns out, their goals and your mission/brand promise actually just don’t fit. But this is a rare instance. More often than not, a disgruntled customer will become less frustrated just through knowing you understand their pain.  By listening you can also discern if this is a generally happy customer (and not over-react) or if there is a big issue you need to address with a full-court press. And when you listen, be sure to share with colleagues (as appropriate, depending on sensitivity) within your organization so they understand your brand values when it comes to problem-solving.

Find a Solution

The worst thing you can do to a customer is make them find their own solution. This happened to me recently with the Smithsonian Institution, an organization of which I’m highly supportive. My family joined about a year ago because we live in Washington, DC and visit the museums regularly.  We received the magazine immediately but never got the membership card, so we had to sign in at the information desk every time we went to a museum—several times a month–for a “temporary card” in order to enjoy our membership benefits. This got tedious, and yet no one suggested how we could solve our problem and get a permanent card.  Finally, one day I walked to the Smithsonian’s main offices to ask for help. I was sent to another building. Then from that building, back to the first one. And so on. It was starting to look like a Marx brothers movie, but not as funny since I had kids in tow. Finally, a woman at the main office handed me a sticky note and said “call this 800 number and maybe they can help you.”  I recently spoke to a helpful customer service rep there and we’ll wait to see what happens.

Communicating About Problem-Solving

A lot of organizations do a tremendous job of communicating about their mission, their brand values and their goals, but do a terrible job of telling customers about how they solve problems. In the more customer-driven environment of today’s economy, customers and prospective customers want to know that you can solve their problems, even if they don’t have any right now.

You can communicate about your problem-solving in a number of ways. It’s a great blog topic. It’s worthy of a line or two in your monthly e-mail or memo to customers. It’s even worthy of mention to your own staff, so they understand a model of successful problem-solving. Do you have a good example of communicating around problem-solving in your organization? Or a problem-solving disaster? Please share…

Ban Social Media from the Workplace?

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3 Glass Bottles-1b sI recently read an article in a business magazine that blew me away. It outlined a case in which an employee of a trade association and lobbying organization made unflattering and unprofessional comments about her boss and employer on her Facebook page, and was subsequently fired for doing so. It concluded with this recommendation:

“Every single employer on the face of the planet ought to prohibit their employees from: 1) accessing social networking sites while at work or from a company computer; 2) publishing any comments or statements about the company, including identifying themselves as company employees, absent advance written consent, which should be conditioned upon employee permission to monitor online profiles. This should be an express, written workplace policy, signed by all employees, as well as a term of all independent contractor agreements.” – www.smartceo.com, September issue, “See Jane Play: Is an employee’s online image trashing yours?” (I don’t see an online version yet)

Wow.  I hardly know where to start.  But I’m going to try.

1. Social Media Has No Place in the Workplace. Or does it? Neilsen recently showed that more people are using social media than email (The Nielsen Company, March 9, 2009. Social networks & blogs now 4th most popular online activity, ahead of personal email). And corporations are taking notice. Forrester Research projects that companies will spend $3.1 billion on social media by 2014. Why? Because this new genre of communication allows for interactive conversations with customers, users, donors, policymakers and supporters. It engages in new ways, with immediate outcomes. It can launch a major viral campaign in minutes that would have taken months or years (and plenty of dollars) to succeed through traditional media or behind-the-scenes lobbying. That is, if you know how to use it. Which you won’t if you ban it from your workplace. Instead, you will have fewer tools than your competitors do for managing your brand and your message. As an executive, your job is to be what CEO and marketing guru Yuri Radziesvksy of GlobalWorks Group LLC calls “the lead brand custodian.” Whether you love it or not, leadership means embracing new technologies, and guiding your team to leverage them fully to achieve stated goals. Rather than banning these new tools, consider a role in which you embrace innovation.

2.  Employees Will Bad-Mouth You Through Social Media. Yes, they will. Just as they have at the water cooler, on the golf course, in their living rooms…you get the idea. Unhappy employees will always vent. And occasionally even the happy employees will slip-up and post something you both wish could now be deleted. But the new landscape of social media won’t disappear just because you ban it.  (One of the things I always surprise clients with is a summary of the number of mentions they get on other people’s blogs, etc.–and the posters aren’t employees.) Instead, create a policy for social media use. Better yet, get your stakeholders–board members, employees, donors, etc.–to weigh in. Take stock again in 3-6 months. Of course, there are brave and highly successful companies like Zappos who have purposely avoided having an official policy (and hey, they just got bought by Amazon so they must be doing something right!). Says Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, who’s got 300 of his customer service reps using Twitter, “People don’t relate to companies, they relate to people.” (For inspiration, read Tony’s always enlightening blog.)

3. Social Media Isn’t for Serious Professionals. The article described the employer organization as a trade organization that lobbies on behalf of its “high-powered members.”  It refers to employees who use social media as those who “play on these Web sites” and “the lad who updates your profile.”  No serious social media users here, right?   I’m going to guess that there’s some discomfort with the democratizing effect of social media–that it puts the voice of a junior employee on equal footing with that of the CEO. Well, um, yes. Exactly. And ditto with members of the general public.  Who can either be your friends or your foes if you happen to be, say, a trade organization that lobbies on issues before Congress. Case in point: I have a client who is considered one of the most powerful advocacy voices in Washington and guess what? They have a Facebook page! They have employees who, yes, are paid to “play” on this site and promote their organization’s perspective and encourage members to engage on their issues, especially when they have an important advocacy event or vote coming up in Congress.  My guess is that the “influential members” the author describes may not be well-versed in social media. Like any foreign language, it requires time and assistance to learn. The association could do a great service for its members by hosting a webinar or teleconference on how to incorporate social media into a strategic communications strategy, how to effectively engage social networks for political advocacy, how to build a network of influentials, and new tools for measuring ROI. As George Colony, CEO of Forrester Research, says on his blog for CEO’s “Social marketing is here to stay. It’s time for you to understand it.”

4. Monitor Employee and Contractor Use of Social Media. Yes, definitely.  If you are opening an office in Communist China. And if you have all the time in the world. But if you’re here and don’t, then this kind of policy means you will lose out on some of the most well-networked and effective people and companies you can employ. And I don’t just mean the current digital-native generation. I include those of us boomers who have learned our way around the social mediasphere and use it not just to promote our own work but to monitor the work of thought leaders in our fields and develop networks of highly qualified people on whom we can count for advice and referrals.  (Did you know women over 55 are the fastest growing groups on Facebook? And that Pew research has found the media age of a LinkedIn user is 40?).  You need these folks to propel your mission and brand in the 21st century.

5. Ban Employees From Mentioning Where They Work. One of the most useful parts of the fastest-growing social media network, LinkedIn, is its virtual rolodex aspect. Obviously this won’t work for you and your contacts don’t know each other’s places of employment.   Part of what makes LinkedIn work is the credibility of its members. Once you have a solid base of contacts, you can reach out to their contacts for advice, when filling positions, etc.  As a board member, for example, I was recently able to find highly valued contractors for a bid we were issuing by querying my Linked In contacts and some of their contacts for their recommendations. Why would you want to exclude yourself from this resource?  And why would you be so concerned about your own vendors and employees bad-mouthing you that you would ban them from naming their employer, and thereby preventing you from connecting your brand with their prestige (in other words, employees aren’t always jerks–most of the time they reflect well on you). This policy might speak to internal issues around employee engagement and team-building?  Without a real inside look at the organization, I can’t tell, but it’s worth considering.

So for my money, I wouldn’t recommend items 1-5 above. But hey, I’m self-employed so we already know my boss is hell to work for!

Lowering the Cost of Brand Promotion

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Columns and Arches sPromoting a brand in a recession is a challenge. Budgets are slimmed. Staff are trimmed. And you don’t have much time to pull campaigns together.  But consider trying what wardrobe stylists have recommended for years before spending a lot on new services—“shop in your own closet”!

What do I mean by this? Well, you may already own the best tools to promote your brand:  pre-existing photo and video content. This archival content is a gold mine that can be re-purposed to promote your organization and your brand in advertising campaigns, newsletters, YouTube and website videos.

Finding Your Content

You’re not alone if you are having trouble locating your existing content.  This summer, NASA released its “restoration” of the 1969 moonwalk video–restored because they actually lost or destroyed the original footage of the most important event in the agency’s history.  You probably have video or photographs of important achievements by your organization. But do you know where they are? And are they in a format you can now use?  Here are some ways you can improve this resource so it is just a click away from helping you be cost-efficient in your brand marketing.

Tips to Make Access Easy

  1. Identify key people and events that are essential to your product, service or mission.
  2. Locate photographs of these items.
  3. Scan stills that are not digital. Be sure to scan at high enough resolution (at least 300dpi for video, even higher for print) to use for print and video projects.
  4. Organize photos into folders on your server that are easily accessible to others throughout the organization and share a list of what you have available.
  5. Be sure you own the copyrights to these images, and have the permission of people featured and indicate in the file any photo credits required.
  6. If you want to be able to share photos with outside consultants, ad agencies or press, consider a software package such as Portfolio by Extensis or Cumulus from Canto.
  7. Create an index of your videotapes. Archiving video for in-house editing departments could fill another blog post, so I won’t get into those details here. But even if you don’t edit in house, you may have boxes of tapes you don’t know what to do with. You may only have consumer copies of videos you hired others to produce (i.e. DVDs or VHS). Or you may have some Betacam-SP tapes—a professional format that is just beginning to phase out–hanging around the office.  It’s best to organize these according to Source Footage (the original tapes shot in the field) versus Final Masters (or copies). It’s easier to use source footage to create new products, but sometimes masters or even consumer copies can be used.  At the very least, create a spreadsheet that lists each of your tapes, the date they were made, and a rough idea of the content (i.e. who was interviewed). Even a basic Excel spreadsheet will be searchable. Or you can get more sophisticated with various video archiving software tools, especially if you have an in-house editing system.
  8. If you have the capability, digitize mini-clips of the video footage you are most likely to need, such as an important CEO speech, highlights of a recent event, etc., so folks who might need to access them have a sense of what’s available.

Future-Proofing

  1. Moving forward, make sure you acquire video and photos in the highest possible quality, so they can be multi-purposed easily. Save video masters in digital codecs that are not going to change with the latest technologies (such as loss-less animation codec or MPEG-4) as opposed to tape formats.
  2. Have a process in place so that anyone who acquires video or photos for your organization sends originals or copies to your communications/marketing department so that they can be catalogued and archived for future use.

Your archival media is connected to your brand marketing, and can save you money and help you tell your story.  It’s a resource that sometimes gets overlooked, but is actually worth thousands of dollars that you won’t have to spend again if you keep it up to date and organized.

Is It Time to Change Your Name or Tag Line?

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Tulip Bud s.cThe simplest way to tell the story of who you are to everyone you contact is through your organization’s name.  A second opportunity to communicate your mission is through your tag line. It is amazing how many groups have names and/or taglines that, at best, don’t tell people what they do, and at worst, confuse them about the organization’s mission.

What’s in a Name?

If you are just starting an organization or are very new, it’s critical that you take a look at your name and see if it conveys your story, or at least some critical parts of your mission.  Miriam’s Kitchen is one such nonprofit, a soup kitchen and social services organization in Washington, D.C. that addresses the root causes of homelessness (watch Michelle Obama’s visit there earlier this year on You Tube ).

The word kitchen of course conveys that Miriam’s serves food.   Using the possessive of the name connotes a homey and welcoming place.  People from a Judeo-Christian background may also recognize Miriam as a biblical name.  Since the nonprofit was created by a church (Western Presbyterian) as part of its urban ministry, that is an important connection.  Miriam was the older sister of Moses, a woman of faith who helped to serve her people and supported their release from bondage and, in effect, homelessness.  So the name Miriam’s Kitchen conveys a message about why the group does the work it does (because it feels God calls it to do so) and how it operates (by helping people be fed and find a home).  All of these elements make Miriam’s Kitchen a great name for a nonprofit that feeds and supports the homeless.

We’re Too Old to Change Our Name

If you’re an older organization, you may think a name change is too difficult and expensive.  You may be right. Both goodwill and community connections are associated with your name.   But there also may be missed opportunities for immediate brand connections during email and direct mail campaigns.   And with the increase in on-demand printing and online communications, the cost of reprinting costly brochures is less of a consideration. Take the Sitar Arts Center in Washington, D.C.   Originally named the Patricia M. Sitar Center for the Arts in honor of an arts education advocate for the children of the Adams Morgan neighborhood where the Center is located, the name also evokes the historical Indian instrument.  But the Sitar Arts Center is a vibrant urban arts center providing visual, literary and performing arts experiences for economically disadvantaged children in the District of Columbia.  To ensure it communicated its mission more clearly, a recent re-branding campaign shortened the center name to Sitar Arts Center with the tag line “celebrating kids, arts and community.”  This is a good compromise for an organization wanting to keep its original name but better convey mission.

Given the importance of electronic communications today, your name and tag line will appear literally hundreds if not thousands of times every day as members of your staff and volunteers are emailing people about your work.  And that goes a long way towards detracting from or supporting your brand. Every institution should re-examine its name and tag line at least every 5 years, or when you are conducting your regular strategic planning. A good match can help with donor and marketing campaigns. And a mismatch is not something you can afford.

Are you considering a name or tag line change? What are your biggest obstacles? What are the opportunities? Please share…

Creating an Effective Brand Emergency Plan

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Red Berries - IMG_4552 sSeptember is coming and it’s time to dust off those emergency plans.  Schools have just mailed out their reminders of what to do during “code red.”  But does your organization have a brand emergency plan? Years of good work with customers and your community can be eclipsed very quickly by a few misspoken words by a board member, or a complaint floating around in social media.

Why Plan?

The simple answer is that you’ve spent years, perhaps decades or even centuries, building up your brand. And yet in an instant it can be destroyed. So when complicated issues arise, such as an unexpected firing, natural or man-made disasters, public health concerns, etc., it’s important to have a plan for how you will brief all staff, board members and volunteers on how to handle potential questions from customers, supporters, the community and the press. That might just mean responding with a very brief factual answer and then providing contact information to the questioner so they can refer additional questions to the communications liaison, CEO’s office, or the Chair of the Board.

What’s in the Plan?

It’s not a question of hiding information, but rather of giving it out in a way that is unified and easy to understand. Most importantly, the way information is communicated, as well as the content of that information, contributes to how your brand is perceived. “No comment” is a deadly answer. And blogs and the 24-hour news cycle can make other voices louder than perhaps their numbers truly reflect. Your Brand Emergency Communications Plan should include how to respond to:

-traditional print media

-cable news and radio

-bloggers

You should also be able to proactively post information to your:

-website

-Twitter account

-Facebook or MySpace pages

And be prepared to send email announcements or texts to update your community of supporters.

Who Executes the Plan?

The days of the communications office controlling the message are over. The message is already out there, especially if it involves some catastrophe related to your brand. So you need to have well-briefed team to help you engage in the conversation and include your information and perspective. For a nonprofit, this team can include not just executive level and communications staff, but also board leadership and key volunteers. In for-profit organizations, important customers may be recruited to assist in disseminating the message. Government agencies need to engage their counterparts in the private sector, depending on the issue at hand, to ensure effective response to an emergency.

So just like your home or school, this fall your place of business should practice its emergency communications procedures on a regular basis, so that when the time comes, you are able to quickly implement your plan.

Have a recent brand crisis that put your plan into action? Please share!

Does Your Board Support Your Brand?

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This past week I spoke on a teleconference workshop about tools to engage boards to supporBarn in the Palouse- s.ct fundraising auctions. Many of the 50+ organizations who signed up indicated that their board members are not fully engaged in outreach events and fundraising. Does this mean they have the wrong board members? Do they need to define roles and expectations?  Or do board members actually need some training? I find it’s a bit of each. Whether you are a for-profit or nonprofit, your Board of Directors is a critical component of how you connect to the communities and constituencies you serve. They need to be supporting your brand in multiple ways. How can you help them do this?

Board members need to know their financial role.

As we all know from the recent financial meltdown, governing boards were blamed for taking their eye off the ball. What are you doing to be sure your board knows its role and its responsibilities when it comes to fundraising and financial oversight?  Prospective board members should be clear on the requirements of their role. They need to know the hours of the commitment, the dollars they will be expected to give or raise, and how they can help you propel the mission.  They also need to feel comfortable with nonprofit financial statements, which can look very different than corporate ones.  New board members should have an orientation to remind them of their roles and help them with tools in the areas where they are the least comfortable (i.e. making an “ask” for your organization). Even experienced board members need refreshers, especially if you have an important event coming up or a major campaign.

Board members need to see the goalposts.

Board members need more than the annual report. They need specifics.  If you’re holding an auction, what is your fundraising goal? What happens if you don’t meet it?  What are your most important programs? What outcomes will determine your success?

Board members need to learn about your brand.

Board members are obviously committed volunteers, but sometimes they are connected to your organization through only one pathway (i.e. a child with a disease that you are trying to cure, a son at your school, as a professional member of your association, etc.)   They need to be briefed on the big picture about your brand promise to all of your “customers,” including the experience you promote for your donors, your staff and your other volunteers.  They need to be able to easily talk about your “elevator pitch” and connect it to their own experience with your organization.   Give them talking points. Let them practice on one another.  This way, your board members can be better—and more comfortable—cheerleaders.

Board members need recognition.

Board members need more than their names on the masthead. They need to be publicly thanked when they do a good job of supporting your mission. When involved board members receive thanks and recognition—whether it’s for a report well-researched or getting out more volunteers for your walkathon—then other volunteers are more inclined to give you their time, talents and money.

Engaging boards can be a challenge, but it’s one worth the effort. When they are part of a team with staff, the winner is your mission.  Do you have a good story to share about supporting boards? Please share it!