An old Celtic saying, or possibly one of Confucius’ depending on which part of the Internet you trust, warns: “Never give a sword to a man who can’t dance.” I would stretch the original metaphor for corporate communicators, and the businesses who rely on us, to say “Never give your pen to someone who doesn’t know how to play.” The pen is, after all, “mightier than the sword” (a phrase coined, ironically, by the infamously bad novelist Edward Bulwer Lytton who also brought us “It was a dark and stormy night…”). Whether first uttered in Gaelic or Chinese, the clear implication seems to be that the only good fighter is the one who knows what to do when there is no fighting to be done. In other words, for both the warrior and the communicator, engagement must not be an end unto itself but rather a means to strategic success. When the campaign is over, it is time to take stock, evaluate success and plan for the future.
In the world of corporate communicators, however, it is all too easy to lose sight of the “why” when facing the constant urgency of the “what,” to focus on swordplay when really the fiddler is warming up for his next set. All communication professionals, whether in-house or in an agency, face the same pressure: how to demonstrate and measure the value of brand communication to managers or clients trained to value the quarterly earnings report above all other metrics. Every marketing director or head of public relations knows all too well the intangible worth of an engaging brand, and the tremendous headache of translating that worth into something more tangible for the board, shareholders or investors. Especially in the current media market, where traditional print journalism is dwindling, newsrooms are consolidating and social media platforms are exploding as primary news-discovery tools, it is all too easy for even seasoned communication professionals to respond rashly to that pressure, confusing the quantity of their coverage with the quality of their service to the brand. After a while, when all that counts is growth over last quarter, then all that starts to matter is the next announcement, and the next, and the next in an endless cycle of generating “hits.”
Or whatever next year’s widget of personal engagement turns out to be.
When this happens, a communication practice of telling stories strategically devolves into a mere exercise of collecting as many hits/friends/followers as possible, rather than of evaluating what any one of them is worth.
This is not a blog about taking up arms for the measurement fight. There are plenty of far superior resources to draw from already for seasoned advice on social media analytics, from writers as diverse as the thinkers of the Altimeter Group to my own colleagues at Edelman Digital, to name just a few.
No, this is a blog about learning first how to dance or, rather, to play.
Business competition depends on storytelling, and storytelling is an aspect of play. The capacity to “make believe” as a child is only a step removed from “suspending disbelief” as a reader or “connecting with an audience” as a writer, a speaker, a manager, a CEO. Business leaders must be storytellers if they are going to connect their company and its solutions to the real needs of others. That takes more than a barrage of accolades in impersonal press releases. It takes the ability to imagine what those needs are, to answer them with a convincing narrative communicating value, and to prioritize the messages and audiences in such a way as to build not just awareness of one’s company or service, but sustained interest and involvement with it. To resonate with stakeholders, whether customers (consumers, B2B, enterprise), channel partners, investors, NGOs, regulators or legislators requires an ability to imagine the world as the other sees it and to present your value in the framework of their priorities. In other words, dress up and play house.
While assembling a number of my son’s new birthday gifts last week, I observed how they outlined a spectrum of play. Some toys captivated right out of the box, but quickly lost their charm in light of “the next big thing.” Others sat on the sidelines for a day or two awaiting assembly at a better time before becoming new favorites. At first glance, it seemed somewhat arbitrary which playthings resonated with the four-year-old mind over the long term, and which merely diverted in the moment. But the more I thought about it, the simpler the explanation appeared:
The more engaging the toy, the more complex a story it supports.
“Hot Wheels” Announcements – Consider this Hot Wheels race track, for instance. My son could not wait to get this out of the box. Of the many generous gifts he received from friends and family, this was the one he chose for the launch. After all, it has a loop! It has jaws of death! It has a really cool car! It reminds me a lot of the stereotypical press release, and the kind of last-generation approach to public relations that relies entirely on releases to drive attention to one’s company and client based on standalone achievements without context for news value. It is a common mistake, especially among start-up firms, to confuse the technology with the story. Such companies assume that simply putting out news releases announcing their latest/fastest/best/most efficient accolade will see the press beating a path to their door.
The problem with such toys and such strategy is that the focus is on a single achievement (i.e. getting the car through the loop, announcing a big name corporate partner, etc.). It lacks a narrative needed to sustain interest. It is a one-trick pony. After a few plays, the audience is left asking “okay, but what have you got for me next?” If the answer is simply “rinse and repeat,” then it fails to create relevant value for the stakeholder. Yes, it may offer something truly innovative and exciting, but does it combine with anything else to create an ongoing conversation? Once the trigger is pulled, does it help the audience apply this innovation to attack a specific problem and deliver a measurable value? Or is the content of the communication simply about the mechanics of navigating the loop? The press release, like the race track, is essentially a launch tool. But what happens after the launch? Does this announcement/achievement establish some element in a larger business story and help set up a strategic conversation to come, or is it simply shooting the car through the course to get as many eyes on the stunt as possible? The communication strategy built on nothing more than a series of disconnected announcements is like a novel that is nothing more than a list of characters or settings. There is no action, no consequence, no sense of who is important, or what is at stake.
“Tonka” Engagement – For a more multi-faceted engagement model, consider the analogy of this Tonka play set instead. At first glance it seems to follow a similar concept with similar limitations: run the car through a track built to perform a single stunt. However, something was different about this toy. Once assembled it proved more versatile. For one thing, the car is a character too. Unlike Hot Wheels, Tonka’s “Chuck & Friends” vehicles are anthropomorphic and have faces with personalities. Moreover, the car can pass through the course in more than one direction, under its own power, inviting repeated play. The packaging also makes it clear that this play set is one in a set of four, each with its own individual stunt and character, all of which can be played with independently or interconnected for a complex system. Last, and to me most interesting, is the fact that the toy comes with a picture book illustrating the characters interacting with each other and with the playset in an imaginary adventure. This creates an imaginary context in which the child can visualize the toy. Handy the Tow Truck isn’t just climbing over a plastic track. He is trying to cross an impassible chasm to save a friend on a rickety bridge that tips him to the other side as it starts to collapse beneath him!
Communication that follows this model of engagement does not merely fire off press releases like artillery to pepper media and search engines with irrelevant, unasked-for corporate information. It saves releases for what they do best: launching new products and inviting further discussion, while expanding the brand in between announcements with more diverse opportunities for engagement. Promoting carefully chosen customer referrals helps establish a connection with strategically important audiences by giving your brand a face they can recognize (their own). Harnessing your service or product to timely market trends for executives and even customers to speak about as subject matter experts without pushing product establishes impartial credibility and promotes trust. Establishing dialogue with potential customers and partners through social networks or sponsored award programs can help them imagine your offering in the context of their own business. Create and pitch business case studies, white papers and bylined content for strategic placement to create a context for understanding your technologies or solutions through the real-world problems they address. The imagination born of play helps turn the business problem around, from “how can we get our company into the news” to “what conversations are our customers having, where are they having them and how can we join in to share our expertise?”
“Batcave” Positioning – At the far end of the spectrum was the toy my son chose for himself: a Super Friends Batcave he bought with birthday money and gift cards he received. There is a lot here to catch the eye. Batman and Robin! A Batcycle! Elevators and turntables and secret passages! A great big bat symbol on the front! Once assembled, however, it was not so much a toy as it was a self-contained environment where my son (and I) could play for an hour or two at a time. Moreover, by being more of a playspace than a plaything, it allowed my son to continue expanding the story as he saw fit. As you can see, one of Batman’s earliest cases involved an army of Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars, half the cast of Pixar’s “Cars” and a daring rescue of Scooby-Doo and the gang using the Batmobile and a preschool art project. The key, I realized, was in the toy’s ability to foster sustained storytelling. This capacity is quite consciously built into the product itself, as evidenced from the promotional copy used on the box:
Imagine a world of action and excitement where you decide what happens next! Sword fights, jungle safaris, daring rescues and more. Whatever world you travel to, it’s a whole new adventure every time you play!
Like the picture book included with the toy above, it grounds the plaything in the world of storytelling. But unlike the picture book, it does not prescribe the action. The toy itself just gives it a place to unfold.
In the world of public relations, this is the effect of grounding one’s communication strategy in a well defined positioning platform. Positioning goes beyond the individual tactics used in multi-faceted engagement campaigns. It is the research-based thinking your communication strategy should consistently reinforce at every point of contact with every relevant audience. Positioning isn’t a tagline, or a specific set of messages to be communicated. It is a carefully defined attribute that speaks intuitively about your brand and the value it can deliver. Reactive, opportunistic public relations lets the market… or worse, the competition, define your brand for the sake of exposure. But as we discussed above, if there is no strategy guiding your media exposure and networking, then it is ultimately self-defeating since it fails to resonate. Strategic public relations invests the time, budget and research, before a single press release is drafted or a plan developed, to define brand attributes that will not only communicate unique value in a changing market, but clearly differentiate a company from its closest competitors by speaking to pains they ignore or fail to address. Positioning outlines key attributes that must be reinforced at each point of contact, from sales calls to marketing collateral, advertising campaigns to media interviews. Every media or social networking opportunity has a reference point. With a positioning platform, a company has a story to tell about the problems facing a troubled market, the failure of the competition to solve them and the hope you bring to customers/investors/partners through the innovation that you and you alone have to offer. Instead of merely generating exposure, strategic public relations is about communicating your position, literally “telling your story” rather than just “getting your name out there.” A clearly-defined positioning platform creates a safe place for sustained storytelling, a conceptual Batcave that all your engagement activities can inhabit.
True, every business needs a competitive edge in order to survive in the marketplace. Whatever the industry, in a crowded market teeming with close competitors, it takes more than fiscal performance or technological innovation to establish oneself as the de facto market leader. In a trying economy, everyone is struggling to beat analyst expectations. Moreover, especially in the world of Silicon Valley, everyone can stake a claim to innovation. Such factors are critical to success, but on their own they fail to deliver a competitive advantage. To truly differentiate itself, a company needs more than a pipeline full of technology accolades and funding announcements. It must develop a multi-faceted engagement strategy, grounded in a well-researched and relevant position that speaks to concerns beyond those of the investor community alone by having the best story to tell, a story that relates clear value in simple, relevant ways to answer the real needs of an intended audience. To do that, strategic business communicators must be able to do more than compete. They must also be able to play.