Monday, November 24, 2008

Where has the pace gone?

There are two apples left on my tree.....not normally something I'd notice. But it has been a SLOOOW day today. Much of it has been taken up editing and rewriting a document written in American business speak with the goal of making it rather more readable and relevant for an audience of sales people. It's not the most exciting piece of work I'll ever undertake, but ultimately it's quite satisfying to turn the unreadable into words that both flow and make sense. However, it has taken a long time, punctuated with periods of staring out the window at the leafless twigs that only a few weeks ago were home to about 2,000 apples (it's a wide, 40 foot high dual varietal tree!).

Other than that, today has mirrored the last few days - in fact not much has changed work-wise since the last posting. There's a real feeling of caution in the market at the moment. All I've heard for the last week is job losses and lay-offs. It started with freelancers and agency people, but has now spread in-house. I'm less affected than most - so far - but I could certainly be busier.

What I've noticed most though is a malaise around getting anything done. I have a list of interviews to set up and complete - but the first action's taking forever, and too few people seem to want to put their heads above the parapet and say anything of note at the moment. Those who have jobs are working hard to protect them. Those who don't simply don't want to be controversial at all at this time. There's no pace to communications activities in too many places. Any discretionary spend that was out there has gone, and even projects that have to happen are happening with a sense of shell-shock around them.

I suspect it's temporary, bout doubt we'll all get back to our senses before the New Year. Until then, I guess we'll all just battle on.

Meanwhile, it's getting dark...but there are still two apples on the tree.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Just one of those days

There's something about Monday. For whatever reason, it never seems to be the most productive day of the week - and today has lived down to this unloved day's reputation.

Apart from a trip to the dentist which has left me with a fixed but sore mouth, most of my day has been spent trying to move three projects on.

One has actually reached a stage close to a conclusion - I just need one more quote to complete a piece of work. But that quote has to come from a Czech property developer, and today's a public holiday in the Czech Republic. Ah well, when I emailed the commissioning editor to let him know, I found out he was away as well today. Maybe he's in Prague??

For project two, the client seems to have disappeared - phone calls and emails limbo rules.

Project three is trundling along, and today I've called three press offices, and emailed three others with follow-up information to previous calls (if you follow). All have edged things slightly further forward, but none has led to a definitive result. So, as I prepare to hang up my keyboard for the evening, I'm hanging on x 6.

Maybe next week I'll start work on Tuesday.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Can one 'tone' fit all?

There's a good debate happening on the Communicators in Business freelance forum at the moment about tone of voice.

The first posting said (in part).....

A company I am working with has just adopted a new "Tone of Voice". It has hired a "Tone of Voice" consultant and we are all told that this is how we will now write, whether we like it or not.

The ToV will be used for ALL communications and contains such nuggets as: From now it will be "XX are" not "XX is" as it is more inclusive. In fact, forget the "XX are" - from now on it will be "We are" in all communications, even if we don't say who "we are" actually is and it is not attributed to anyone.

We are to use contractions wherever possible, so in comes "we've", "I've" "we'll", "they're".

All sentences must be between 15-20 words long and we must stop using boring, banal quotes from managers. While I agree with him, having spent 25 years playing ping-pong with managers during a sign-off procedure is there not a point where you just have to accept them?

All features must show an element of "recognition" wherever possible. That is someone must be "recognised" for doing "something". Everything must be "energetic".

So the question is, do you forget 25 years of best practice and journalistic theory and concede defeat? Or do you wave ta-ta to a contract?

I know the writer and feel for him - especially as this tone of voice stuff seems to have been created elsewhere and foisted on the professionals working in and for the communications team.

My contribution to the debate stated: If we're doing our job and identifying the right internal audiences and the right means to connect with them, the tone of voice should follow that segmentation of audience and media so that the information is presented in a way that's familiar for the audience and prompts them to action. So, our skill surely is to understand how our internal communities communicate among themselves and tap in with a style and tone that connects rather than jars.......That's a hugely long-winded way of saying one size can't fit all, and imposed tonal rules set themselves up for failure.

I was doing a job for one of the big banks over the summer and was presented with a set of style/tone guidelines that looked set to make everything sound like a cross between 'Dick and Dora' (that'll be lost on anyone under 40...) and the instructions for an Airfix model kit. The 'rules' worked wonderfully well for conveying procedural information and 75 per cent was just common sense. However, they were too restrictive for presenting guidelines to managers and senior execs on how to manage change and simply didn't give the scope to connect with that audience in a way that would actually get them to read the stuff and then bring it into their own working lives.

Anyway, my internal client backed me over their comms team - and have come back to me with more work subsequently.

I have no problem with working inside a well thought out and articulated employer brand. But visual identity and tone of voice are just tiny pieces of the Employer Brand since the 'EB' (as my consultancy friends call it) is what differentiates the organisation from others. It's far more about identifying, attracting and retaining people who share the organisation's ethos and values. Thus EB covers culture, leadership, environment, performance, development and reward - and communication is a support and enabler to all of these.

Those brand consultancies trying to impose one tone of voice on an internal organisation miss a trick. While it may be essential to have a single solid presence in the minds of consumers, we tend to see our own organisations as a collection of divisions, teams and individuals, all with their own personalities. We're interacting with them daily - not once in a while at the point of purchase. Consequently, the real trick is to give people within organisations the skills and tools to communicate effectively and with personality. Great guidelines are useful and can be supported by IC professionals. But imposed 'one size fits all' rules stifle and breed a million little work-rounds.

So, I'm pretty much against 'tone of voice' rules internally - unless they're part of a far more encompassing and flexible 'cultural DNA' practice. It's one avenue where the rules of marketing don't translate internally. Good practice shared widely is one thing. Po faced rules are quite another.

Monday, November 10, 2008

How embedded is CSR?

I'm researching a follow-up piece to the CSR feature I wrote for Badenoch & Clark's Connections back in the summer (follow the link and it's on pages 10-11).

It's an area I'm very interested in - possibly more so since I've been working on the International Relations MA. Now my initial research showed a tailing off in CSR spend among corporates - and certainly many charities seem to be suffering as corporate philanthropy dwindles as the winds of recession blow ever harder.

But CSR guru Wayne Visser on his CSR International blog has run a poll recently that indicates CSR spend might actually strengthen as the economic downturn continues to bite. Ok, so he got only 48 respondents, but they're probably near enough all people working directly in CSR.

His line is that corporate philanthropy will, indeed, decline - and those indulging in it in the name of responsibility will be exposed. But for those organisations whose ethos is responsibility and whose practices are tackling the world's great problems such as water management and climate change, corporate responsibility will be unchanged since it underpins these organisations and is embedded at their core.

I'd like to think he's right, but suspect CSR isn't as well embedded as we'd hope. Anyway, I'm happy to be proven wrong and will enjoy researching this piece over the next couple of weeks.

Another Irish president

Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton.....It was only a matter of time.....He's really O'Bama.....with a tuneful ditty to prove it!

Friday, November 07, 2008

Hail Fellow, well met

Busy old week, this week, and not a lot of time to pause for breath. However, I was most chuffed to get one email yesterday afternoon from CiB's National Chairman, Paul Brasington. It read, in part:

Dear Mark

Hope all is well with you. One of my more pleasant duties as CiB chairman concerns the association’s recognition of the highest standards of professional practice. Its fellowships are awarded only to a limited number of members working at the top of the profession and so I am delighted to be able to congratulate you on your election as a CiB fellow.....

Now I have a pop at CiB every now and again - normally for not being as fleet of foot as I would like it to be, but it's the one professional organisation I've been a member of continuously for the past two decades (well, 19 years anyway). It's a very nice feeling to be recognised by my peers.

So, I've had a grin on my face for most of the last 24 hours, and I'm looking forward to collecting my certificate (or whatever marks a fellowship) in London next month.

Now, I must dig out the invoice and pay my subs.....!

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

21st century candidate secures a place in history

Barack Obama wrote to me last Friday - in fact he's been keeping up a pretty good correspondence for quite a few months now - him, Joe Biden, Michele, David Pouffle and other 'names' from the Obama ticket.

The messages have been well-written - straightforward; not at all complacent; a call to action with a personal touch - despite the fact that I'm just a faceless piece of data on a mailing list.

Yet, throughout this campaign I've felt connected to the candidate despite being an Irish citizen living in the UK, thousands of miles from the action.

Some time ago, I was attempting to fix up an interview with the former VP, Walter Mondale (it never happened!) and went through the Democeratic Party HQ to gain access to 'Fritz'. Obviously my email details were picked up at the time and I started receiving regular campaign updates. I could, of course, have unsubscribed, but it was interesting to see the issues emerge and the candidate's response to them - and indeed the stands he took and issues he generated himself.

Obama used the 21st century communication tools to full advantage. His messages were simple and elegantly packaged. He carried through the power of his oratory by judicious use of video to back the written word and his tones remained measured - indeed presidential - throughout. He offered plenty of opportunity for face-to-face contact; and even incentivised donation-giving and volunteer work with the kind of back stage pass access normally offered only by rock stars.

He seemed to 'get' the changing demographic of the nation far better than McCain - targetting those who usually didn't vote rather than merely attempting to change the minds of those whose partisan voting patterns were simply a lifetime's habit.

I went to bed last night in the hope that Obama would pull prevail, and woke, excited this morning knowing that he had. We may have an ocean between us, but the air of connection on this side of the Atlantic is palpable.

I'm looking forward to seeing how the US reconnects with the world. Since 9/11, Bush has appeared to be only an avenging bounty hunter, sometimes bully, sometimes isolationist, rarely statesmanlike in his foreign affairs dealings. I'm genuinely interested to see the Moslem world's reaction to a black President. I'm excited by the prospect of a new Secretary of State ready to enagage with the world on different terms from the Bush administration. I'm hopeful that the simple message of change will resonate through world economics and that Obama's arrival in the White House will signal the first flowers of economic recovery.

America will be a different place over the next four years and by its massive global impact, the world will be a different place too.

The President is only three years older than me. I'm excited that the time for my generation has arrived.