Archive for the ‘Planning’ Category

Communication lessons learned:

Experience and research teach that intended messages are often not what audiences receive. Therefore, what a monument communicates will depend on what its’ various audiences want to receive. And even then, that will likely change when situational, historical or political circumstances change.

When a monument is intended to mark a historical event, it should best be placed in a museum-like environment where context can help reinforce its history lesson purpose. A clearly defined indoor or outdoor museum space with historical captions and explanations is the best approach. Otherwise, any monument will mean different things to different people, and there is no way to change that.

So in the case of today’s monument controversy, unless they are already located in a museum-like space, some people will be thinking either positively or negatively about a divided country, white supremacists and Nazis will have racist and pro-slavery responses, others may simply see a message of hate, and only a very few will see the monuments as purely historical. And the strong emotion produced by all these different responses will very likely lead to hostile demonstrations, and some of those certainly may turn violent.

For better or worse? Simply put, context clearly helps define how most messages are received. If a statement is intended to be historical, a clearly defined historical context is essential. Otherwise, most people will only “hear what they want to hear.”




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Many years ago I used a film called “Meetings Bloody Meetings” in some management training. It was a hilarious look at why so many people say they hate meetings, and it demonstrated many of the problems associated with making meetings productive.

I was reminded about this film and its lessons when I overheard a reporter talking on television about a meeting he attended in the White House Oval Office. Apparently the president briefed reporters with numerous staff members constantly wandering in and out. The meeting was not well-organized and took place in a confusing and chaotic environment. The reporter came out not sure about why he was there.

VIP’s have been invited to the White House for meetings that obviously were not called to use their experience and expertise to find workable solutions to complex problems. Rather they simply appeared to be awkward gatherings of important people to hear a brief report from the president, give a few informal reactions, and then be photographed.

Effective meetings are complicated and require expertise. My training film showed meetings that were called at times people were not prepared to listen, or were confused about the purpose. The film also depicted the consequences of inadequate preparation, the absence of an agenda, poor group facilitation, missing key people, people present without a role, needed expertise that was not there, distracting noise nearby, and much more.

Successful information giving, problem-solving, planning, and evaluation meetings all have their own planning, facilitation, and follow-up requirements. Meeting management expertise is therefore a requirement for everyone involved in advancing institutions, causes, and yes even cities, states, and countries.

Sadly, after 100 days of governing many observers are still wondering if critical domestic and foreign policy decision-making meetings at the White House are engaging the best experts and incorporating even a few of the most essential planning and process requirements.

Astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson said it best… when he said, “Let’s make America smart again!”

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Somewhere in the avalanche of pundit commentaries following the inaugural address I remember ‘hearing the words “Trump is more interested in America’s competitive interests than in our founding values.”  From my perspective as a communicator, that characterization rang true.

In fact, listening carefully to Trump’s actual content it seemed to me that he made “America first” his primary value, and possibly his only one. He asserted that coming together was important but there was no empathetic content or even tone there to support it.

He made firm promises to literally fix all of America’s infrastructure problems… from roads, to overpasses, to bridges, to tunnels, to organizations. All of them.  He also said all the problems of the inner cities… from poverty, to drugs, to police violence, and all that “carnage” will be fixed immediately. And he further asserted that beginning right now it will be “America first” in all dealings around the world.

Thinking as a communication analyst, experience teaches me that with speeches like this audiences will fall into at least three response categories: First, there are those who see these pronouncements as huge over statements; they don’t expect much of this to actually happen; but they are willing to hope that some improvements will be made. Second, there are those who are in really dire situations and actually do expect significant improvements in their personal lives. And finally, there are those who see all of this a pure theatre; they see the lies, personal attacks and vulgarities of the campaign as character traits, and therefore find that the tone of “America first” so aggressively stated to be a threat to the world order, and maybe even world peace.

If poles were completely reliable we could use audience research to see how many people are in each of these categories. We could then determine each category’s preferred media, and we could contact each of them… learning from and responding to interactive dialogue. In this way pragmatic problem solvers could try to work gradually at adjusting each overstatement to doable improvements.

But alas, the campaign proved that our polling is not yet accurate enough to accomplish this. And extreme polarization in congress currently continues without any hope of collaborative pragmatic planning. So from a communication perspective, we are beyond “calculated risk” well in to “high risk” territory.

Trump’s book “The Art of the Deal” argues that keeping the other guys guessing is good. But the entire history of foreign policy, diplomacy, and at least two world wars would warn that this approach could result in international chaos, or even worse.



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Watching the current chaotic and confused political party conventions I found myself recalling how I felt on July 4th.

I had spent the day listening to eloquent speeches, captivating patriotic music, and watching amazing fireworks with great pride. But I could not help but worry about the long-term consequences of our mean-spirited polarized politics and the recent frightening increases in terrorist assaults.

“You have a republic if you can keep it,” said Ben Franklin. So in the midst of celebrating our independence I found myself asking: “What can we do in these volatile times to keep it?”

Somehow I found myself recalling a project I had the pleasure of directing at Texas Christian University called The Commission on the Future of TCU.” We recruited a highly visible volunteer chair along with experienced opinion leaders from all segments of the university and community. These participants served an entire year on 18 different task forces and were asked to help clarify the university’s competitive advantage, articulate an appropriate vision, and make suggestions for what needed to be done to secure a strong future. The result was that 75% of the commission’s suggestions became a reality.

On this day, and again during the recent party conventions, I wondered if this commission concept could be modified to develop a meaningful plan for the future of America?

For example, could a U.S. president form such a nonpartisan commission successfully, or is this a project for a former president, or a respected think tank, or an especially created nonprofit institute?

I pondered how it would work for participants to be asked to clarify America’s competitive advantage, restate its core values, articulate a strong future vision, and make suggestions for how to proceed. Task-forces could be formed around urgent needs such as jobs, defense, political process reform, healthcare, energy, foreign policy, terrorism, and so on.

It seems to me that what America needs now is a basic, non-partisan, straightforward strategic plan. I believe that even if it didn’t work miracles it certainly could educate large numbers of people about the possibilities, and result in a dedicated group of leaders committed to making some really good things happen.



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Last week I discussed the danger of rigid marketing models and evolving executive groupthink when the market outside is changing. However, this should not be confused with a strong corporate culture that monitors and embraces ongoing change.

Some organizations build their corporate cultures gradually over time. Other organizations are created at the outset with values and cultural characteristics intended to differentiate them from the others.

For example, some silicon valley companies are building team cultures by offering free food, child care, attractive health and other benefits, parking, recreation facilities, mid-day rest time, paternity and maternity leave, etc. These perks serve as hiring advantages, team building tools, and high productivity incentives.

On the other hand, Amazon was recently criticized for a no-nonsense culture with high expectations for fast work and long work hours. But the company responded that employees there were energized by a culture based on exciting new challenges and being a part of a cutting-edge organization on the move.

Even though universities are more like small cities they too have corporate cultures that help define their competitive advantage. Some use benefits and a sense of family in place of salary to attract top quality faculty and staff. Others count more on a culture of rigorous scholarship, academic prestige, and competitive salary to motivate achievement and define competitive advantage.

No matter how corporate culture is established it becomes a major  part of an institution’s brand identity. A clear understanding of “how we do things around here” can be a positive force so long as those things can evolve with outside market changes. The challenge is to let those things evolve without damaging  the features which have established the institution’s competitive advantage.

The interesting thing about corporate culture is that it both defines the nature of the workplace inside and much of the appeal the institution has with most of its external constituents.

Experience suggests that cultural features can be so strong in many organizations that even in hard times every effort should be made to hold on to as many as possible. Some may go so far as to prefer cutting staff positions before damaging the external “brand promise” and the internal work experience for those who remain.

In the final analysis, groupthink and marketing models that insulate executive teams from the forces of change are certainly harmful. But organization-wide task forces and internal think tanks that monitor market changes and carefully manage the evolution of strong and creative corporate cultures are really powerful and essential strategic communication tools.


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Last week I attended a strategic planning meeting at the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE). Those attending described the organization as “the collaborative integration” of professionals in marketing and communication, fund-raising, alumni relations, government affairs… all focused on advancing education.

CASE has long been a truly international organization with offices currently in Washington, London, Singapore, and Mexico City… and now with growing activities in Africa. This planning exercise is taking a new look at the rapidly changing international education landscape.

The arrival of a new CASE president in Washington from Australia, and the appointment of a new international vice president based in London, has made this project particularly timely, relevant and exciting.

It was agreed early in the planning process that CASE’s basic aspirations are to be “bold, agile, and innovative.” And strategic goals were described as producing collaborative thought leaders; identifying, developing, and managing high potential talent; and engaging members worldwide in the planning discussions by making maximum use of technology.

I believe the daily work of these professionals positions them perfectly to scan the scene, recognize strong trends, keep constituents informed, and help their institutions determine the best way forward. In fact, I can see many of them assuming new leadership roles because finding new funding resources, adjusting brand identity, revising marketing plans, cultivating the help of international alumni and parents, and relating to governments in new ways, will be major challenges.

One CASE strategic goal that stood out to me is to act as “the voice of the industry.” This goal is especially relevant to my fellow professionals in marketing and communication. Indeed, we simply must prepare our external constituents (and in many cases even our top executives, administrators, faculty and students) to effectively address growing societal and political threats at home and abroad … as well as to identify and seize the many new and exciting opportunities that internationalization offers.

Just imagine the possibilities of a truly global education industry: Better cross-cultural understanding. Serious world problem solving using university experts. And the effective development of global leaders with a truly international perspective!

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What is the consequence of arguing against ideas or programs without providing alternative solutions? Simply put, you are leaving your audience hanging with the most constructive part of your message missing. Such an approach might gain support from sympathizers in the short run, but it is likely to prove insufficient in the end.

Republican legislators have spent the last several years objecting to the president’s initiatives and policies without offering specific alternative solutions. Now the new speaker of the house said this week that this will change. This new development is important, but for practical reasons it might be easier said than done.

While the politics of “no” leaves the communication loop incomplete and audiences ultimately unsatisfied, it still is much easier to rally people around their common dissatisfaction with a situation than it is to get them to agree on a solution.

This dilemma has also appeared in foreign policy matters. There was widespread support for the rhetoric to oust the Iraqi government, but there was no agreed upon plan to replace it. In Egypt it was easy to rally people against the government  but impossible to find agreement on who and what should replace it. The situation has been the same in Libya and elsewhere.

Now we are facing the same dilemma in Syria. Even if the US engineers the ouster of the current government, what will follow. What kind of government? Who will lead it? What will it cost? Who will pay?

This is both a political and communication reality. The lesson is that in the long run it is impossible to have success by only  objecting to the current state of affairs. In the short run it might seem to work, but over time it will become apparent that tearing down without a plan for what follows can leave entire nations in endless turmoil.

On this issue, political leaders with a truly international education might ultimately be our only best hope. This is because a global  education will feature multicultural forums for both the systematic nonpartisan examination of ideas and programs, and for finding pragmatic workable solutions.

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