Archive for April, 2010

This week I met with the students that will go with me and my colleagues to London in June. Each year as I prepare to teach “International and Intercultural Communication” I am reminded that the principles of strategic communication are the same no matter where I am.

Organizations and individuals, be they domestic or international, require the same kind of analytical thinking. It is true that market segment analysis, cultural norms, and preferred media tools vary from group to group and country to country, but strategic thinking processes remain the same.

Just as I do back home, I begin the class in London by discussing the importance of source credibility. That is the starting point in strategic communication for any organization or individual, at home or abroad.

Next, I describe the power of a differentiated brand identity for individuals and organizations everywhere. Then, we discuss how the meanings of words really reside inside each person, no matter where that person lives or works.

For example, when I use a word like “democacy” the receiver hears only a strange sound. The meaning of that sound is actually added  by the listener based on past experiences and beliefs.  And what makes it even more complicated is that when my message is retold only about 50% of it gets through, and the listener chooses which 50%.  Plus, the listener adds his or her own creative twist in the transfer. And just as in domestic situations, differing beliefs and values are to blame for many of the world’s misunderstandings.

This tendency for communication to break down makes it all the more important to have constant feedback and opportunities to respond. And it also underscores the importance of knowing what media each market segement prefers and how to use all the “tools” that will best cut through noise and clutter.

Connecting with each target market requires knowing their needs and trends. In fact, connecting by demonstrating a deep knowledge of  “the way we do things,” and “what we believe”  just may be the most critical factor of all in making communication successful anywhere in the world.

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I had the honor this week to moderate a panel on “Public Diplomacy in an Age of New Media” for The Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars.  More than 300 students from all over the country attended, and the panel was the best Washington has to offer:

Juan Zarate, former Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Adviser for Combating Terrorism; Jared Cohen, member of Secretary of State Clinton’s Policy Planning Staff; David Nassar, Executive Director of the Alliance for Youth Movements; and Helle Dale, Senior Fellow for Pubilc Diplomacy at the Heritage Foundation.

The basic question was how to make America better understood around the world at a time when governments have little credibility as trustworthy communicators.

The challenge for our government is how best to communicate “the fundamental idea of America” and to counter extremist rhetoric when terrorists find it possible to steal the news media agenda even when they fail.  Indeed, the “underwear bomber” at Chistmas failed in his misson but still made headlines that frightened travelers all over the world!

The panel members who were or are now in government argued that empowering third parties outside of government to use new and social media is the best approach. Facebook, Twitter, and cell phones enable groups and indviduals to communicate basic values and ideas interactively.  Thus messages can flow in and out of places like Iran and North Korea, and they have more credibility when the source is not the government.

This fundamental truth about the credibility of “the messenger” has led some of us to yearn again for an organization like the US Information Agency. The USIA, which was eliminated by the Clinton administration, was an agency of government that communicated the “idea of America” around the world, pretty much people to people.  It was independent of the State Department, which was and is still seen as the communicator of the foreign policy of the administration in power. 

“Diplomacy” can be defined as “government to government” communication, and “public diplomacy” can be defined as either government to people OR people to people communication. 

I believe the best way for the US to communicate with maximum credibility around the world is to reinstate a USIA-like organization as the organizer of a more neutral people to people initiative. There are a number of compelling ideas floating around Washington that are public private partnerships, or even private foundations. 

One thing for sure: The credibiity of the source, be it an individual or an organization, either reinforces or totally cancels out the message.

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In recent years I have focused my attention mostly on academic institutions. So I am often asked if the lessons I learned will apply to nonprofits and other organizations.

Simply put, integrated marketing is “a way of thinking”  and it certainly will apply to any organization. But it always must be adapted.

In fact, before I focused on colleges and universities I was thinking mostly about other nonprofits.  My first book, Communication Power (1997), is really a strategic communication manuel for nonprofit executives. 

A student of mine is working now with a homeless shelter on the branding of a “social enterprise” project.  The project is a home cleaning service, and the marketing challenge is to demonstrate that these homeless workers will do a professioal job cleaning your home. She is using integrated processes to help the staff clarify a credible brand identity.

In past years I was the volunteer president of both a community theater and a human services agency. Both responded well to a more integrated marketing approach clarifying their competitive differentiation. In the case of the human service agency the challenge was also to clarify sub-brand identities for its many separate services.

As co-chair of the board and marketing chair of the Fort Worth Convention and Visitor’s Bureau we used interactive integrated processes by involving a cross section of the city’s leadership to clarify the city’s brand, Cowboys and Culture.

As chair of the membershp committee of the board of a major higher education association we applied market segementation analysis to set membership objectives and strategies.

Integrated marketing turns mission, vision and values into a differentiated brand identity. This both enhances an organization’s visibility and competitive advantage. It uses group process to get as many people as possible “on the same page,” “telling the same story, “generating a captivating buzz.” Group process is also used to identify market segments, needs and trends, and the best media platforms to converge on specific markets and build relationships.

Each organizaton is different, to be sure. Some have divisions or programs that should be treated as sub-brands, while others have a single cause.  Differing management cultures must be taken into account when designing processes and timeframes.  And some have more roadblocks to change than others.

At present, besides serving my university I am working with a think tank, a higher education association, a citizen-to-citizen internatonal nonprofit, and am also involved in a network of professionals considering new strategies for American public diplomacy. 

Make no mistake, integrated marketing combined with dynamic leadership can transform most any kind of organization.

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      Following my first posting there was a comment about faculty members objecting to marketing because they don’t think higher education should be subject to giving students what they want.  I have encountered this objection many times over on campuses, and also with some nonprofits. So I respond here as my second lesson learned.

   When I am called to help address issues related to integrating marketing on a campus the situation often is that a number of academics are raising serious concerns. And I must say as a lifelong academic myself I can empathize with faculty members who are skeptical about basing education content on what students think they need.  Indeed, an experienced faculty member will know better than students what they will need to know to be successful. So its very important to understand that  just giving students what they want is not what educational marketing all about.

      Marketing research indeed asks both students and parents about their perceived needs and expectations.  And what we learn tells us how to make a connection with them.  But that’s it.  The process that follows is much more sophisticated.  Integrated marketing communiation properly carried out exposes students to choices they never knew they would have.  And when they finally arrive on campus the faculty will open a whole new world of ideas and possibilities they never knew existed.

     Public speakers have been told for years that they need to begin a speech by demonstrating that they know what the audience wants and needs. Then the challenge is to craft the balance of the speech so as to lead the audience into new insights and awarenesses. Even the car salesman asks what you expect in a car. He then shows you one that meets those needs but also shows you features you never knew existed.

    Marketing research and analysis then merely provides the point of departure. The faculty must take it from there. This same situation applies to many other organizations. We begin finding out the needs of people and then take them into whole new worlds.

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