Archive for February, 2012

When a crisis breaks you should think immediately about protecting your brand.  Before creating your fact sheet and writing talking points you should review your branding themes in your mind.  What differentiates us from our competition? And most especially, which of our branding themes define our culture and values? Now think, how will I reinforce these themes through the crisis talking points I choose?

Consistency of message, product, and distribution is the lifeblood of brand stability.  Once defined, the key to brand effectiveness is to always deliver the same experience, and the same quality. One bad meal in a restaurant and the business can lose a customer forever. And what’s more, the word-of-mouth of that one customer can literally destroy that brand for a huge number of people. You can either be admired because the way you handled a crisis is compatible with perceptions of brand expectations, or you can destroy all trust in your organization with a disappointing level of performance.

Once the crisis moment fades you should launch a “post crisis” initiative. Your purpose should be to re-build and reinforce your fundamental brand themes, with special emphasis on those that articulate your culture and values. State the themes, and then find and tell stories that reinforce them. Repeat the themes often to remind employees and constituents what your organization is all about.  And don’t forget to continue your new-found relationships with the news media so that you have journalists who know your values when other crises strike.

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This was a recent topic of discussion in my graduate seminar on integrated marketing communication (IMC). There were a lot of opinions, many of them formed from hard lessons learned in real situations. It certainly is very easy to conclude from experience, and from all the communication research and theory I have encountered over the years, that it’s virtually impossible for communication to ever be effective!

A careful study of the communication process will reveal that meanings are always in the minds of the people with whom we are communicating.  When I say the word “dog” I am only making a noise, or writing a series of letters.  The meaning for that word is whatever is in the mind of the receiver for that noise or collection of letters.  Dog lovers will have one impression, and cat lovers will very likely have another! There is also noise in the channel itself, which is likely to interrupt and confuse part of the message. And what’s more, when the message is a collection of words many analysts point out that most receivers only retain about 50% of the message… and which 50% they retain is determined by what each one wants to hear!

This is how rumors start:  Let’s say the receiver hears half the message, the half he or she wants to hear. When the message is retold, some of what is remembered is left out, and other ideas and examples from this new communicator’s experiences are added.  When this process is repeated several times, the message changes completely.  And this is not the result of anyone’s malice, but rather it is the inescapable result of the normal communication process.

For professional communicators there is the added complication of an already cluttered environment. It’s a media message environment so saturated that more information runs the risk of only contributing more clutter, resulting in more confusion. In other words, in today’s world more information is not necessarily better. This is not good news for professional communicators.

So is there any hope at all for successful communication? It seems to me there is some hope, but only if several basic conditions are met:

1. The message is very simple…say 4 or 5 key points, with compelling examples to aid recollection.

2. The receivers attention is gained before the message is sent.

3. The message is sent using several communication tactics simultaneously to cut through the media clutter and coverage on each individual audience segment with added intensity.

4. Interactive tactics with feedback and response features are included in the mix.

Communication success requires repetition. When an advertisement is beginning to sound old to you, it very likely is just starting to work.  When a branding theme sounds repetitive to you, it is just now getting through.  Strategic communicators need to think “dialogue”  when planning every important communication initiative. Send, get feedback, send again, and again.  Otherwise, at least 50% of your message will be lost… and you will have no idea which 50%!

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Teaching is why I got into higher education in the first place. Even with the many administrative positions I held over the years, I continued to teach and lead professional development programs along the way. If there is any lesson I learned about teaching, it is that you cannot “teach to a test.” It creates an ever-expanding negative atmosphere, and eventually learning  is no longer satisfying and fun.

Teaching is about finding the talent potential within each student and working hard to develop it. Some do best with abstract thinking, or artistic expression. And they are likely to demonstrate it better by writing essays, or expressing themselves artistically, or presenting material orally. Some subjects lend themselves to memorizing facts, but many others require seeing big picture trends, thinking critically, or solving problems that have more than one right answer. This type person has the same potential for long-term career success as anyone else. He or she, however, is likely to become unmotivated in a quantitative testing environment that features threats of punishment for everyone involved–students, teachers, and administrators. 

Students with learning difficulties, no matter their cultural background, generally lack basic self-confidence and will not respond well to calculated discipline and pressure.  But an ideal teacher will find their special abilities and interests, use intellectual freedom to nurture them, and locate other mentors and influencers to reinforce them. In schools like this, pure magic can happen.

And what’s more, the teachers become energized.  This is when teaching becomes an art, and teachers get hooked on a way of life.  They sacrifice to stay in their profession rather than burn out and bail out as so many are doing today.  Most new teachers in a “teach to the test” environment last only a few years because threats out balance emotional and professional rewards.

My story as a student is a case example. A professor in junior college helped me discover that if I would pick the courses where I could write essays and term papers I could excel. Armed with this self understanding, the further along I progressed in school the better I performed. And when I eventually learned that being a teacher was really a wonderful life of “living a subject matter I could master,” I was hooked on the very profession that earlier was turning me off.

The key, therefore, to improving K-12 education is to find young people early who want to make a difference, and then help them see they can really do this as teachers. Encourage them in developing their own best talents, and make  sure they are in a learning environment that supports their quest. Simply put, teaching excellence requires the flexibility to deal with each student and situation individually, and getting to do it in a system that rewards doing it well.

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Everyone is concerned about the cost of higher education. Make no mistake, institutions are concerned too.  But finding solutions will be difficult.

The president’s recent proposal that institutions that fail to keep tuition low will be punished by receiving less student financial aid will only be constructive if it leads to honest industry and government dialogue. Otherwise, it sets a totally negative tone, and demonstrates no comprehension of the management realities facing today’s colleges and universities. 

First, it must be acknowledged that diversity of type is what distinguishes US academic institutions in all the world. Second, that diversity means that even now there is a quality institution somewhere accessible to most everyone desiring an education. That said, virtually every institution I know is also working hard to cut expenses, and to keep its net price as low as possible.

For solutions to be found, it must first be acknowledged that each institution has a different set of factors each year that determine budget and pricing.  For example, each  one  serves a specific market, and must respond to the expectations of those in that market. For many, maintaining a high level of academic productivity with top performing faculty and state of the art facilities is expensive. Also, certain types of programs cost more to offer than others, and so financial parameters will vary widely among institutions.

For everyone the cost of maintaining buildings and grounds moves higher every year. When utilities and vendors increase prices, everything else is affected. Universities are really small cities and have similar constantly increasing maintainance challenges. And it also must be noted that costs driven by the need to monitor and comply with over 25 categories of government regulations is counterproductive to keeping costs lows.     

An acknowledgement that each institution is different, that government-funded financial aid is critical, that the amount of regulation should reconsidered, and that universities are capable of creative cost-cutting initiatives, is the constructive way forward. As with so many of the issues facing this country, if government and higher education  will  accept that each has a role to play in this solution, and will sit down together to collaborate, I have no doubt that we can make higher education available to everyone.

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