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Tuesday
Apr152014

Charting a Communication Course

Blending a chart with the design qualities of an infographic can result in a clear picture of what you want to say. Two examples in the Sunday edition of The New York Times prove the point.

The first appeared on the newspaper's prestigious op-ed page and was called an "Op-Chart." Running in a vertical column, the Op-Chart consisted of a series of squares that showed the relative value of a $1 in purchasing square footage in a number of American cities.

The least space per $1 was in several New York City neighborhoods such as the Flatiron District, Greenwich Village and Chelsea. You could get the most square footage for your $1 in the Berclair-Highland Heights section of Memphis.

In addition to the raw information, the Op-Chart conveyed the context of "space," which was the factor being compared. You could see, without any computation, that $1 would get you twice the square footage in Brooklyn as in the Upper East Side of Manhattan and four times the space in Sherman Oaks in Los Angeles.

The chart did its job with one paragraph of text and a blurb indicating the source of the information. It was efficient and effective.

The second chart showed up, again somewhat improbably, on the front page of the sports page. It showed the hole-by-hole results of the final round of the Masters Golf Tournament between the winner, Bubba Watson, and his 20-year-old challenger, Jordan Spieth. It quickly told the story of how Watson won.

You could read the accompanying story to find out the turning point in the match, but the chart told you all you needed to know. Spieth lost in the middle of the round on Holes 8-11, after leading after the 7th Hole. The chart contained two explanatory notes documenting what you could easily see

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Tuesday
Apr082014

From a Press Release to Cooperative Journalism

The odd experience of pulling The Oregonian out of the middle of ad "inserts" tells you all you need to know about the state of contemporary newspapers. It also should tell you something about your chances to land a story in the news columns.

Organizations often substitute their need for coverage for a newspaper's ability to provide it. This only leads to confusion and disillusion with traditional media.

Newspaper staffs are leaner and working within new incentives, such as the need to develop an online presence. With less news space, the competition for stories is intense. Soppy story pitches won't grab much attention for reporters and editors on the prowl for stories with some pop.

Communicators can throw up their hands in disgust or they can resolve to become more of a partner with newspaper reporting teams. They can commit to story pitches with punch and built-in help pursuing the story line.

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Monday
Mar312014

Jumping into Hot Water

World Vision joins the cadre of organizations to plunge into the pool of social issues and discover it holds hot, unforgiving water.

The $1 billion charity, which is affiliated with evangelical Christianity and provides humanitarian aid, decided to standardize its policies by allowing celibate gay singles and legally married gay couples to work for the organization.

World Vision President Richard Stearns said the decision was consistent with its practice on other socially divisive issues such as divorce, remarriage, baptism and female priests. It wasn't intended, Stearns said, to endorse homosexuality or gay marriage.

"Changing the employee conduct policy to allow someone in a same-sex marriage who is a professed believer in Jesus Christ to work for us makes our policy more consistent with our practice on other divisive issues," he told Christianity Today. "It also allows us to treat all of our employees the same way: abstinence outside of marriage, and fidelity within marriage."

News of the policy change prompted a not-unexpected uproar in evangelical religious circles. Critics charged that World Vision had betrayed its Christian principles. More significantly, many donors said they would stop giving money to the charity.

The backlash caused Stearns to reverse course within 48 hours and issue an apology in which he asked for forgiveness. 

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Monday
Mar242014

Looking Past the Chaos of Crisis

When events are out of control, focus on what you can control — gathering corroborated facts, aggressively addressing the problem at hand and proactively communicating. 

Energy is wasted trying to control a crisis. By definition, a crisis means events are out of control. 

Chaos can paralyze otherwise prudent, resourceful leaders. Real leadership requires looking past the chaos to deal with a crisis and preserve a reputation or brand. 

While others are in a daze, leaders look for facts. What happened? How did it happen? What needs to be done? 

Solid facts usually illuminate the path of what to do. Then it takes courage to follow the path, even if the chief financial officer or legal counsel argues for caution or delay. Acting decisively on good data is a sign of leadership and it builds credibility with those impacted by the crisis.

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Thursday
Mar202014

Once Is Never Enough

Like most good things in life, once is never enough. Once is certainly not enough to ensure that your well-crafted key message gets heard and absorbed.

It's not that people, including your target audience, are dumb or inattentive. They simply have a lot going on and are constantly bombarded by messages. Your message, as compelling as it may be, is just one more inbound missile of noise.

Repeating your words over and over might get the job done, but it also may set audiences to wondering whether you have lost your bearings. A better approach is what we call integrated communications.

Integrated communications is really just another name for having your messages reach people in a lot of different ways. The tobacco industry perfected the ability to surround people with a message, which is why you saw cigarette logos on billboards, in newspaper ads and on race cars. Because putting something that's on fire in your mouth and inhaling the smoke isn't natural, tobacco marketers worked overtime to show all kinds of people smoking in all kinds of places. They wanted smoking to seem the norm in society.

The principles of surrounding people with your message — and helping them put it into a familiar, personal context — is the heart and soul of integrated communications.

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Tuesday
Mar112014

Making Your Point with a Chart

The struggle to convey complicated or comparative data can be simplified in a chart.

For people addicted to Excel spreadsheets, charts look like pies or pillars. But they don't have to. Charts can be lively visual communication companions by making your point quickly and effectively.

Southwest Airlines famously launched its service with a series of print ads that featured a chart. The chart showed Southwest Airlines' fares to various cities compared to rival airlines. No further commentary or hype was needed. Message delivered and received.

Creative communicators now think of charts as more than arrays of data. They see charts as powerful message boards, backed by data points, as illustrated by the "Diamonds Were a Girl's Best Friend" chart. Both renditions contain the exact same data, but the one on the left packages that data in a much more engaging and, arguably, informative format. It is the difference between plastering data points on a page and making a point.

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Tuesday
Mar042014

Communication is vital skill for crises

The Oregon Department of Human Services building in Salem. Image via Google Street View.If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging. Instead, state officials last week dug deeper.

Word broke that they had decided to ship a 6-year-old Oregon foster child — a U.S. citizen whom we identified by the pseudonym of “Susana” — to Mexico to live with her father, an Oregon prison parolee. That decision quickly evolved into a public debate, one in which officials deserve an F for their communication skills.

The Oregon Department of Human Services is not unique in mishandling a communications crisis. Few organizations are prepared, as a crisis requires different skills — and more internal clout — than day-to-day public relations.

A communications crisis can happen to any organization — an employee scandal, a food-borne illness that affects customers, a product defect, the closure of a revered program, a financial downturn or widespread layoffs.

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Tuesday
Feb252014

Framing and Headlines

Framing an issue and writing a headline require the same skill of knowing how to distill your point in a few, catchy words.

They also share an important distinction — how an issue is framed and how a headline is phrased may make the difference of whether anyone pays attention.

Clever framing and headline writing don't guarantee readership, but they sure help. Poor framing or weak headlines are proven attention-killers.

Framing an issue and writing a headline require skill. But more important, they demand focus and a willingness to discard your first idea for a better one.

Some people just have the knack for summing up an issue or story. For others it takes a village. That doesn't matter. Unlike works of arts, well-framed issues and reader-fetching headlines don't carry signatures or bylines. Their value is in their impact on intended audiences.

Common characteristics of framed issues and good headlines include concise description, crisp wording and a memorable twist of phrase.

One of the best current examples of a reframed issue is shifting from "same-sex marriage" to the "freedom to love." It is hard to find a word to hate in the expression "freedom to love." Moreover, it fits well in a sequence of mentioning free speech and freedom of religion. While more opaque than the literally correct "same-sex marriage," freedom to love carries more emotive value and avoids other charged words such as gay, lesbian or transgender.

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Thursday
Feb202014

The Interactive Illustration

Sometimes words fail, a photograph doesn't show enough and a video shows too much. The happy medium can be found in an interactive illustration.

No other visual tool gives you as much absolute control over an image. You literally can create the image you want, in the style you need. 

Illustrations can offer visual explanations, but they also can act like mini-websites, with "data" packaged in an arresting, accessible visual manner.

Illustrator PingHua Chou offers a great example with an engaging illustration of six "bad drinks." Animals slither, a helicopter hovers and a cloud drops rain in various drinks called Snake-Teo Beer, Iceberg Whisky and Monday Flood. There is sound that adds to the fun.

Clever, you say, but how would I use that in a serious situation? Good question, simple answer.

Let's say you have a complex project with multiple elements spread over a large area. An illustration would allow you to show the entire project with enough, but not too much context. The major features of the project could be interactive, allowing viewers to hover over or click them to pull up details. There also could be a link to get a more in-depth look at that project element.

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Monday
Feb102014

Mitigating Risks to Avoid Inflamed Issues

The best issues-management strategy is one that recognizes risks before they become issues. This requires the foresight and courage to identify risks and take proactive action.

The advantage of tackling risks is avoiding protracted public debates when those risks fester into issues that cause heartburn in a neighborhood, community or state. Drawn-out controversies cost money, often lead to expensive settlements and deeply bruised reputations. 

A month ago, Freedom Industries informed West Virginia officials of a leak from one of its chemical storage tanks into the Elk River, the source of drinking water for 300,000 people and hundreds of businesses.

Embarrassment abounded. Freedom Industries couldn't say for sure when the leak began or how much of the chemical spilled into the river. Government officials admitted they knew little about the chemical that potentially contaminated Charleston's water supply. The issue has gone from bad to worse with admissions of an additional chemical involved in a spill and reports of lax oversight of the company's accident prevention plan.

Freedom Industries has filed for bankruptcy, amid questions of who really owns the company. State and local officials are scrambling for answers. Meanwhile, community residents are unsettled and unsure whether their water is safe to drink — or even use in toilets.

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