Employees Are the Brand

Lincoln Memorial amid trees

Your employees are your brand, according to an all-star panel of communicators at the recent workshop, “Building an Agency’s Brand and Defining the Audience.”

The Federal Communicators Network (FCN) and the Partnership for Public Service sponsored this conversation on how to build a strong brand and better define your audience. This lively discussion featured real-world stories from professional communicators who have honed their organization’s brand and established a clear customer base.

Panelists included Danielle Blumenthal (NIST), Bill Walsh (AARP), Suki Baz (National Park Service) and moderator Dave Herbert (NGS).

Suki Baz began by describing the rebranding efforts going on at the National Park Service. They have a logo that’s iconic and instantly recognizable. However, the design of the NPS arrowhead is limiting, as it was designed before the needs of web pages and social media. As their 100th anniversary approaches, they’re reintroducing their logo with a fresh new feel that’s designed to appeal to millennials.

However, NPS recognizes that to appeal to younger audiences they need to do more than just change their logo. NPS is adding to their social media teams and encouraging their parks to actively engage with younger audiences, particularly online.

(An aside: of course I asked NPS about how they never respond to my tweets! Unsurprisingly, NPS is a large bureaucracy like any other one. Suki has little control over what local park districts do. So, how do you get in touch with a park if you have an issue? She suggested calling.)

Another organization that has approached rebranding is AARP. For most people, it’s an organization synonymous with senior citizens. The arrival of a letter inviting you to join AARP is like an official acknowledgment of old age. Bill Walsh of AARP hopes to change all that. AARP no longer stands for the American Association of Retired Persons. Instead, it’s just AARP these days. They’ve modernized their web, print and social media materials to reach out to Baby Boomers – you only need to be 50 to join. These efforts fall under a single banner: Real Possibilities. AARP no longer wants to be known just for travel discounts – they want to be seen as an organization that will help you reach your potential through career and life advice.

Employees are a key element in this transition. AARP has offices nationwide and a cadre of volunteers. Field offices have been provided with briefing materials and messaging guides so that the organization can speak in a single, consistent voice.

Danielle Blumenthal underscored this point with examples from her career in federal government. Her experience is been that most people don’t read the employee newsletter. The way to reach busy employees is through short, concise, valuable content. Instead of doing a newsletter, she suggests sending out a daily email with the three things that you need to know for the day. You need to focus on value (the things employees care about) and be real (speak as a person, not an organization). After all, the first people you need to sell your brand to are your own employees.

Employees are brand ambassadors. The public builds impressions of brands based upon the experience they have with them. New logos and redesign efforts are only part of the solution to modernizing a brand. Employees are the key element in any transition for they embody the brand.

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Every Communicator Needs a Real Photographer

Leica M9 and prosecco

This recent post by Vocus – Every Communicator Needs a Real Camera – highlights how important photography is for business. We depend on photos for blogs, web sites, brochures, tweets, Facebook posts and other kinds of marketing collateral.

Photos are a kind of shorthand, selling a product more effectively than a hundred lines of copy. They communicate who you are and what your brand stands for. Photos are essential to sharing your message with the world.

Despite this, photography is an unappreciated medium. Because free photos are widely available on sites like Flickr, and because anyone with an iPhone can take a picture, many organizations pay little money or attention to their photo needs. Yet, a compelling business case can be made for paying for photographers and photography.

A couple of examples:

1. At a company I worked for, the CEO received a major award at a trade show. We wanted to run a story on the web site about it. But the only photo we had was a blurry iPhone shot from fifty feet away. Without a good photo, we couldn’t do the story.

2. I was the photo coordinator for the DC Shorts Film Festival, responsible for managing a volunteer army of photogs who captured images of film screenings, crowded parties, red carpet arrivals and VIP events. This is an awesome event that you should attend. But don’t take my word for it – check out the photos and decide for yourself. In addition to helping attract attendees to the festival, these photos demonstrated to sponsors how their products were being enjoyed, were included in the annual report and were widely shared in social media.

The Vocus article states that communicators need a good camera. But a camera is just a tool. You need someone who knows how to use it. That person is a photographer. Look for one in your organization. Don’t make photography “other duties as assigned” but give them the time, money and equipment they need to tell your organization’s story. Invest in photography the same way you invest in web site hosting, email marketing and social media.

And if you don’t have a photographer, hire one through a group like APADC.

In this digital age, digital photographers are essential. Don’t miss the important moments in your company because no one had a decent camera. Hire a photographer to create images that you’ll use for years to come.

Storytelling: The Most Powerful Communications Tool in History

We are storytelling animals. It’s what differentiates us from our primate cousins. We are literally Homo narrativus. We use stories to assign meaning to our lives, transmit vital information and communicate with future generations. Without our storytelling ability, we would never have evolved out of the jungles of Africa.

Human history begins with stories, like The Bible, the Odyssey and the epics of India. These stories were so important that they were memorized and passed down countless generations prior to the written word.

Storytelling is an ancient and powerful tool that we all possess. The ability to process, remember and share stories is man’s oldest and best trick.

But we live in a dreary age of PowerPoints and TPS reports. Why can’t you remember anything from yesterday’s HR briefing? It’s not your fault; it wasn’t a story.

Lead with a Story

Paul Smith addresses that problem in Lead with a Story, a guide to using this ancient tool in the modern world. Storytelling is a skill that’s increasingly being adopted by major corporations trying to break through the clutter of messages that we’re all deluged with.

In a talk at the annual Federal Digital Communications event, Smith explained the power of stories to an audience of government communicators.

Storytelling is a skill that we can all learn. We literally grew up with it. What makes a great story? Great stories are:

1. Simple. What is the plot of Lord of the Rings? While it sprawls over hundreds of pages, the plot is really simple: destroy the One Ring. Great stories are simple, with a clear problem for characters to solve.

2. Timeless. Fads come and go, but the great stories are timeless. Boy meets girl, whether it’s Romeo and Juliet, or the latest Hollywood romcom, is one of the oldest and most commonly told stories.

3. Universal. While you may not speak ancient Greek, you can understand the desire to get home after a tough day (or decade). This is why a classic like the Odyssey is a universal tale.

4. Viral. Someone tells you a funny joke in the elevator and you immediately want to share it. Jokes were viral before the cat videos of YouTube.

5. Memorable. The story of Noah and the Great Flood doesn’t just appear in the Old Testatment – it is also a part of ancient Babylonian texts. Why? The whole world being wiped out with one survivor? That’s a great story.

6. Inspirational. We long for inspirational stories. While other ages had saints, we have business profiles of inspiring figures like Oprah, Steve Jobs and Howard Schultz. We read these stories of perseverance and success because we want to be inspired, looking for motivation to act upon our own dreams.

Good stories engage audiences. Rather than showing people a slide full of numbers, tell them what the numbers mean. Tell them how they matter to one person. Connect with your audience with stories of how people use your product or service.

For example, I had a job where I had to tell actors to be on time for a performance. I could’ve just yelled at them. Or just repeated the call-time over and over again.

Instead, I told them a story – The Tragedy of the Late Actor. The year before, one of actors was late. We replaced her. She didn’t get a chance to perform.

None of the actors were late. They remembered my message (don’t be late!) because I expressed it in the Tragedy of the Late Actor.

The reason is the human gift for narrative. Stories are how we remember information and direct our lives.

The next time you need to communicate something, whether it’s an article for the corporate newsletter or a message to your significant other, think about how you can make it a story. Write a beginning, a middle and an end. Have a clear protagonist, with a  problem for them to solve.

Tap into the ancient gift of storytelling – our most powerful communication tool.

Update: check out the slides and notes from the day’s presentations.



Communicating Science: Make It Relevant

How do you communicate science to a general audience? That was the subject of a recent presentation I gave to the Federal Communicators Network. Based upon my experience as a science communicator for NOAA and The Nature Conservancy, I suggest that writers:

  • Use common terms
  • Avoid acronyms
  • Get out of your organizational bubble
  • Make it relevant to the reader
  • Stress benefits, not features

In the talk, I used case studies from my current job as a Communications Manager for The National Weather Service (NWS).  For example, NWS has a great new technology under development  – Wireless Emergency Alerts.

When talking about this new service, do you communicate the features (cell towers, polygons, alerting authorities) or the benefit (getting a text alert before a tornado hits your house)?

You stress the benefit, obviously. The benefit establishes relevancy in the mind of the reader. Grab the reader’s attention by leading with benefits and then you can explain the complicated details.

Don't Mess Up My Block – Free for CyberMonday

Don't Mess Up My Block book coverGet my biz book satire Don’t Mess Up My Block for free this CyberMonday! My funny novel follows Laurent Christ, self-annointed business guru, as he travels the country dispensing bad advice to clients large and small. The book skewers social media consultants, big government, corporate-speak and other evils of contemporary America.

Find Small Business Success with The Pumpkin Plan

Around this time each year, you’ll see a news story about a farmer with a record-sized pumpkin, one much bigger than anything grown by his neighbors. How did he do it? How did he find success in the pumpkin patch?

He did it by nurturing his best pumpkin, a principle that can be applied to any small business. That’s the message of The Pumpkin Plan, a new book by Mike Michalowicz.

To make your business thrive, you must weed your garden, like a good farmer. This means removing the pumpkins that are too small or not worth your time, so as to focus on the one great gourd that can grow bigger than all the others.

In other words, the Pareto Principle. 80% of your sales come from 20% of your clients. The key to growth is to focus on the most profitable activities of your business.

(I satirize this idea in my novel Don’t Mess Up My Block, where my narrator chooses to eliminate all distractions – even family – to concentrate on getting rich.)

The most interesting section of The Pumpkin Plan is where Michalowicz talks about failure. So many entrepreneurial titles gloss over the hard work of building a business – yet, this is the norm. Each year Americans start one million new businesses, nearly 80 percent of which fail within the first five years. Michalowicz frankly discusses how his company was eating him alive, consuming every waking hour and ruining his family life. Only by concentrating on what he did best was he able to escape this trap. He learned to weed out the activities that weren’t worth his time so as to focus on his best customers.

Michalowicz is a serial entrepreneur who started his first business at the age of 24, moving his young family to the only safe place he could afford – a retirement building. With limited resources and no experience, he systematically bootstrapped a multi-million dollar technology business, sleeping in conference rooms to avoid hotel costs. After selling his first company, Mike launched a new business the very next day, and in less than three years, sold it to a Fortune 500 company. In the Pumpkin Plan, he describes his life story as well as the stories of similar entrepreneurs.

This is not a book of theory. It’s chock-full of real-world examples from people who have had to sell products, make payroll and keep themselves sane. Chapters expand on the Pumpkin Plan concept, with checklists on how to discover what you do best and how to get back on track if you stray.

What’s your Great Pumpkin? This Halloween, find out with The Pumpkin Plan.

Give Me Pizza, I Will Give You a Quote

No one can resist free pizza. That was the idea behind a novel recruitment effort by Vocus, a public relations software company out of Beltsville, MD. They sponsored a food truck on the streets of DC and gave out pizza in return for a resume or card.

Not only did I drop off a card, I got my name in a Washington Post article on the effort with a quote on how this tactic was good at reaching passive job seekers.

I’ve been quoted in articles before. My secret? Pithy ten-word statements of opinion that reporters can easily copy and paste into an article. Being a writer myself, I know what I like in a quote – something clear, direct and short – so I try to do the same when I’m asked for a comment. And bribing me with pizza doesn’t hurt 😉

Instacanvas Insta-Survey

Receiving an email survey from a company is not unusual in American life. Amazon, Caribou, Five Guys, Target – you’ve probably been been given the opportunity to rate the experience on a rigid five-point scale.

Instacanvas gallery now open

It’s unusual when you have the opportunity to provide feedback to an actual human, like I did with Instacanvas, the Instagram artist marketplace. Instacanvas turns your Instagram creations into beautiful canvas prints and gives you the opportunity to sell them online. It’s free to sign-up.

Instacanvas has reached out to actual users of the service and scheduled calls with them, to see what they could do better. I had the chance to talk with Todd Emaus, Co-Founder of Instacanvas. He asked about what I liked about Instacanvas, what I thought they could do better, ideas I might have for product enhancements.

In surveys from other companies, I’ve seen the question, “Do you think Company X cares about you as an individual?”, which I thought to be absurd. Starbucks does not care about me. I’m just a data point in the millions of transactions they conduct every day, to be crunched by soulless MBAs in Seattle.

But a company that assigns a person to call me personally – maybe they do care. Perhaps they do want me to be successful and design an “insanely great” product that meets my needs. It’s a thought, a tiny hopeful one in the spreadsheet world of American business.


Washington Monument at sunset
buy me on Instacanvas

Rant over. What did the Instacanvas guy say? Todd said they’re planning on rolling out more contests and greater social media integration to promote the company.

I asked – what are successful Instacanvas artists doing? They are:

1. Tagging their photos so that they could be found easily. Using tags like #bike, #scenic, #landscape, #sexy and so on.

2. Promoting the hell out of their work. They Tweet, Facebook and email continuously, with news of their online store and new photos for sale.

Check out my gallery when you have a chance. It’s filled with photos of iconic sights from Washington, DC, plus pictures of city life beyond the monuments.

GE Lights Photo Walk: Insta-Marketing with Instagram

How do you get consumers to learn about new products and build engagement with your company?


Lured by the promise of an open bar and the chance to wander the city taking pictures, I attended the GE Lights Photo Walk. Sponsored by GE and organized by iStrategyLabs, the idea was to have a couple drinks at a downtown bar and then take photos and videos of Washington’s monuments at night. Using Instagram and the video-sharing service Viddy, participants were to tag content with the hashtag #GELights. The event was limited to 250 participants and the prizes were two trips to London and a “re-lamping” of your home.

One missed opportunity: at Penn Social there was no information on GE Lights. Handouts, swag and some actual GE Lights to look at would’ve been a good idea.

After two hours of drinking, staff from iStrategyLabs gently herded the well-lubricated techies toward the door, so that they could get pictures of the city at night.

I headed toward the Navy Memorial. I didn’t want to get the traditional night shots of Washington landmarks. Since the contest was about lights, I wanted to get pictures of bright lights, with lots of lens flare, something I knew the iPhone and Instagram were well-adapted to do. I got this:

Navy Memorial at nightI like the flags whipping in the breeze and the fact that it takes a moment to realize that you’re looking at the mast of a ship.

I tagged my photo in Instagram with #gelights and headed home. It was really fascinating to watch photos from DC and around the world get uploaded to Instagram with the #gelights tag.

What’s next? The photo with the most “likes” on Instagram wins a trip to London.

Would you sit through a commercial on GE Lights? Not if you could help it.

But attending an event that is fun, social and with just a slight bit of marketing is a much easier commitment to make, especially if it involves playing with our favorite gadgets. An open bar is not required.

Instagram is a powerful way to connect with consumers, because it is participatory. Rather than passively watching a commercial, consumers are actively involved in creating an experience.

While GE has been a leader in using this social photo-sharing service, it’s not the only company creating some awesome Instagram marketing.

The era of the 60 second commercial is over. The future of marketing is prizes, experiences and audience participation.

The $100 Startup – Chapter Two: Give Them the Fish

fish tank

Some books deserve a closer read. One of these is The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau.

In the first chapter, Guillebeau set the stage, like a good novelist would. He brought out his main characters (unexpected entrepreneurs) and introduced his theme: building a microbusiness.

Now, in this second chapter, we get into the work of figuring out what kind of business is best for you.

But, first, a parable, one we’re all familiar with.

Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.

Yes, but when you go out to eat you don’t want to catch, clean and cook your own fish. You just want the fish. Give the customer what they want, instead of what you think they need.

This point is illustrated by the story of the V6 Ranch, which looks like loads of fun. This dude ranch offers more than just horse rides, they give their stressed Californian guests the chance to “escape and be someone else.”

Across the country, Kelly Newsome brings serenity to uptight Washingtonians through her yoga practice. As an ex-lawyer, she understands the pressure of the rat race better than anyone.

These two businesses understand that value means helping people. It is not about a long list of features – horse rides, yoga classes – but instead the value of the business comes from benefits. A meal by campfire is a feature; the feeling of relaxation you get is a benefit. Customers want benefits not features.

Focus on benefits when considering ideas for your own $100 startup.

Guillebeau illustrates this further with an example from his own business. He developed a product called Travel Ninja, based upon his round-the-world adventures. It was a detailed explanation of how to earn frequent flyer miles and book your own travel. It flopped. Customers were overwhelmed by the complexities of the offer. They didn’t want to know how the airline mileage system worked; they just wanted to be told what to do to get the best deals. He refined his product and developed the Travel Hacking Cartel, a simple guide to rapidly earning frequent flyer miles.

Honing in on what people actually want is key. Customers didn’t want to learn the ins and outs of the airline biz, like Guillebeau had. Instead, they wanted to travel to the places of their dreams. People aren’t attracted by features (detailed knowledge of airline programs) they just want the benefit (a memorable week in Bali).

The chapter closes with the story of Brooke Snow, a lifestyle photographer in Utah. I know a lot of talented photographers. With everyone a photographer these days, it’s a brutal business but Snow has differentiated herself by teaching classes online. This “professor of meaningful creativity” teaches courses on technique and storytelling, all of which are sold out. She shares her trade secrets, overcoming the fear that she was training the competition.

In the words of Guillebeau:

When all else fails, ask how you can help people more.

Give people what they want. Give them the fish!

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Have the dream of being a wedding photographer? My friend Mary Kate McKenna offers a reality check.

Are there too many yoga studios?

Another way to look at features vs benefits is in the recent Mad Men episode on Jaguar. Rather than pitching features in their ad (leather seats, British engineering), the team comes up a persuasive line that is all benefits, “At last, something beautiful you can truly own.” It’s about the emotional experience of owning a Jaguar.

Next: Follow Your Passion… Maybe.