“Potato!”

Ah, right, my two-year old wants that mash potato she didn’t finish earlier, I better go get it.

“No, potato”, she says again but pointing at her craft box.

“Oooh, you’re asking for your Play-Doh.”

I wasn’t listening intently enough, and instead heard what I wanted to hear – her wanting more of the wonderful meal I prepared, of course!

Miscommunication and misunderstanding are part and parcel of life. They happen often, and if corrected in good time, no big deal. But what happens when there’s a communication breakdown that is left unaddressed? The relationship breaks down too.

At the end of last year, I read a WSJ article based on a report from McKinsey that revealed nine out of 10 CEOs feel that marketing has a clearly defined role at their companies, yet only 22% of marketing leaders agree. And it’s down from 31% in 2019.

This gap is significant and is likely largely down to assumptions and misaligned expectations. And why the widening of this gap? It’s been a tough economic climate and when there’s pressure, there’s more scope for misunderstanding and miscommunication.

An analysis in the report also found that “C-suite leaders, with scant to no experience in marketing, reach out to the department hoping to find growth drivers in a very mixed economy.” This sentiment is backed by the fact that only 10% of CEOs at Fortune 250 companies have worked in marketing.

The ‘understanding gap’

C-Suite leaders don’t actually need first-hand experience or an in-depth understanding of marketing operations, but the CMO does need to understand exactly what the CEO requires. And then deliver it. This ‘understanding gap’ worsens when expectations are not made clear.

An ‘understanding gap’ can also turn into an ‘appreciation gap’, and this is where frustration festers which doesn’t bode well for anyone, or the wider organisation. If a relationship isn’t based on mutual respect, then it’s not a functional relationship.

Getting on the same page

1. Listening, and I mean really listening

I will never forget delivering training on ‘active listening’ to a team member, who then said, “this is a bit basic”. Yes, it is basic, but active listening is actually harder than you think. You may believe you’re doing it by listening, staying quiet, nodding your head and maybe even repeating back what you heard. But have you done it with self-awareness and empathy, making sure to pick up on other subtle cues to ensure the speaker feels truly listened to?

You can hear, or you can actively listen. I heard potato, I responded. Had I actively listened – listening attentively to my daughter, really looking to understand what she was saying, paying attention to verbal and nonverbal cues – maybe I would’ve given her what she was asking for.

Of course, that’s not a high stakes scenario. But when the consequences are major, active listening becomes so incredibly important, not only so a situation is crystal clear in your mind, but also for trust and respect.

2. Clarifying/Replaying

Clarification is part of active listening and is the best way to proactively ensure everyone is on the same page. It’s not just about repeating back a point either, it’s about rephrasing it or re-contextualising it, or even asking further questions around it, to be certain that what’s being said is clear and understood.

And be mindful, the person you’re clarifying with may not be actively listening, so how do you navigate that? You clarify and replay in multiple ways to catch misunderstandings early. For example, in the moment or maybe after the meeting in written form.

3. Atmosphere of collaboration

Good collaboration starts with judgement-free exchanges of ideas and insights. In fast-paced environments, pausing and having moments of reflection can be hard to squeeze in, but they become an important part of staying aligned and fostering strong collaboration.

Defining clear roles and responsibilities enables fast progress in-between these moments of pause, particularly when it comes to streamlining decision-making processes. By leveraging respective areas of expertise, CEOs and CMOs combine their super-powers to drive growth, enhance brand reputation, and capitalise on market opportunities.

Effective communication is not just a matter of exchanging words; it’s about truly understanding and aligning with one another. My “potato” incident illustrates how easily miscommunication can occur even in seemingly simple interactions. However, when miscommunication happens in professional settings, the consequences can be far-reaching, leading to strained relationships and hindered organisational growth.

The worrying widening gap between CEOs’ perception of marketing’s role and marketing leaders’ perspectives highlights the importance of actively working to bridge understanding and appreciation gaps within organisations. The market is still a little volatile and now more than ever we should be investing in relationships which are critical for our organisation’s success.

This summer, there have been two instances where I have been in a privileged position that has hammered home how impactful PR can be. I am a judge for the PR Week awards this year and read many entries of our industry’s finest work. And I was also at this year’s PRCA International Summit, moderating a panel and hearing from our peers at a global level.

Something came up in both these situations that was an important reminder for me – strategic thinking combined with a good dose of creativity has tremendous impact!

It’s an easy thing to forget when ploughing through the day-to-day task list, but as communicators, we are in a unique position to have a significant impact on our clients’ reputation.  

As communications professionals, we are supporting an organisation’s goals and objectives through our work, and that requires us to be strategic in how we do this. If we don’t create impact, we’re just making noise, and so what’s the point!

We are constantly absorbing the news, tracking trending topics and have a good feel for public appetite for certain stories. Having this contextual awareness enables us to get the timing and positioning of our communication right. We know what the conversations are, when it is right to wade in or when it is right to add a new perspective.

At the same time, we’re creatives. We may not get the same recognition as those working in advertising, but our work requires creativity in a world where so many have something to say.

We know and are regularly reminded that facts are boring, and people seek entertainment. You only have to see how far and wide misinformation goes when it feels scandalous, or extreme, versus how far something goes when it’s sensible and correct. Internet bots fuel misinformation, with generative AI not helping matters, meaning creative cut-through couldn’t be more important these days.

Strategy needs creativity and creativity needs strategy

You can have a very strategic communication campaign and you can also have a very creative campaign, but for true success you need to marry both.

During the PR Week award deliberations, there was much discussion amongst the judges on commending very creative work especially when it felt original and fresh. However, the judges and I would often track back to the organisation’s objectives and whether this very creative and fun campaign actually achieved the desired outcome. If it didn’t, it was hard to justify giving it a higher score than an entry that did hit the objectives.

Likewise, creativity came up in many sessions during the PRCA International Summit. Diversity leads to more creativity, generative AI still needs human creativity, young talent bring huge amounts of creativity and keeps them inspired. Creativity, however, is something that is cultivated and has widespread impact on our work, our people and our industry. But for us to have creativity that inspires, it must tie to a strategy that hits a bigger objective than just ‘standing out’.

Strategic thinking and creative ideas are not mutually exclusive and aren’t we lucky as PR experts to bring both together. It’s a powerful combination.   

Quiet thriving (the opposite of quiet quitting) is the newest HR buzzword doing the rounds. Quiet thriving essentially means making small changes, shifting your mental state and helping give you a positive outlook. And we could all do with that positivity right now after the disruption of the great resignation teamed with economic uncertainty. 

For those in comms, what does this trend mean? How much positivity is there within your organisation and are you using that to fuel growth?

A company’s reputation is shaped by perceptions of others – that includes your workforce, and their voices can have huge power in enabling success. When employees become advocates, they act as a reliable source of truth. But like everything, if it’s not authentic, you’ll get found out and it will backfire. So, how do you know when the time is right to tap into the advocacy potential of your workforce, particularly if you have had a lot of turmoil following the great resignation?  

Step 1: Where do you stand on employee sentiment?

Before creating any kind of communications strategy, you must understand the current sentiment of your workforce. The best way to do this is to carry out an audit and analyse your current company culture. During the great resignation period, many organisations have had their true culture revealed for all to see. For some it’s been great and for others it’s surfaced underlying issues. Regardless of where you are, you must understand what situation you face and how you want to shape your culture here on in.

In particular, evaluate your values. Does your workforce embody the ones you have? Is there a value set not covered that resonates more strongly? Do the values align with behaviour – i.e. more than just words on a page? It’s important to understand these as they become guiding principles to where there needs to be a change and shift in behaviour.

Once confident that your people are on side, are true advocates and believe in the goals of the company, you can work with them to amplify that passion for the good of all.

Step 2: Crafting an employee advocacy programme

All employees will have influence – when it comes to where to place your efforts, it really depends on your communication goal. If a goal is to attract young talent, fresh from universities, then spotlighting your new recruits and using their university networks is the right path. But if your goal is to reach more prospects, then a communication programme which profiles your executives and experts is the best way to go. And there’s no reason for a multi-pronged communication programme if you’re looking for communication to serve several goals – what’s important is to not have a one-size-fits-all approach.

Also, there are often synergies between your communication goals and HR goals. For example, HR may want to showcase a successful LGBTQ+ employee community programme, which could lead to more unusual perspectives and storytelling. For example, a new product may be about to launch, and instead of having the CEO talk to a journalist about it, how about having a member of the team who helped develop the product, and was greatly supported by the company’s LGBTQ+ community? Often, this version of the story is more refreshing! 

If you’re looking to scale your employee advocacy programme, start small and build up. In the era of authenticity, the quality of the communication is more important than the quantity.

Step 3: How do you measure up?

Starting small helps you establish meaningful metrics, particularly if this is a new approach for the company. Getting a baseline in place, means you can benchmark yourself from there, then build and pivot as your communication programme grows. Part of measurement must drive back to employee sentiment, because if there’s a shift, it may mean putting the brakes on your employee advocacy programme to fix things internally.

So, as we head into Spring, with sunnier days, are you using your people’s positive sentiment to help shape your organisation’s reputation?

It’s the month of love, so what better time to take a good look at your PR crush and why you admire them so. I’m talking about organisations, not necessarily PR professionals, but actually there’s always an incredible team behind great PR so it’s good to look at the drivers of the comms engine too.

When speaking to organisations, I often ask the question, ‘who do you admire?’, ‘what is it that they do in comms that gets you excited?’. The answer I get most of the time is, ‘good question, I’ll have to think about that one.’ I don’t forget to go back and ask the question again, because there is so much to learn from what a person says in response to that question – and all the more interesting when it’s an organisation outside their industry.

Could admiration be a reputation measure of success?

Measuring PR impact is a topic continually discussed – it takes many forms and can get a little heated with many differing opinions.

But to use a phrase that doesn’t prompt the nicest visual, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. There are many tools and methodologies to help PRs and marketing folk calculate the impact of PR. The starting point is to determine what’s important to the business and work backwards from there.

A very familiar metric is share of voice, which measures a company’s presence in comparison to a set of competitors. Another often used metric is ‘share of conversation’, which measures a company’s presence in conversations around a certain topic. That’s a great way to look outside of your industry and understand broader points of view and how your company fits in.

I’m adding ‘share of admiration’ to the mix, and this would be measured against companies that you do not compete with, at a sales level, but you may at a reputation level. You essentially benchmark yourself against their reputational strength. To make this measurement a fair comparison, you need to look at universal reputation metrics. This can include:

  • What stakeholders think about the organisation. In terms of products/services, leadership, innovation, sustainability etc
  • How stakeholders feel about the organisation. Assessing the strength of the emotional connection
  • How stakeholders behave towards the organisation. Do they trust the company? Are they an advocate? Are they regular customers?

There are numerous ways to measure these elements, and various sources you can pull from – within and outside your organisation. For comprehensive reputational intelligence, we work with our partner, RepTrak, who have a proven model for corporate reputation management, taking multiple data points and applying its algorithm to create actionable insights.

Whichever way you measure, the most important thing is looking at reputation from all angles. Reputation often feels intangible, but it’s simply the sum total of perceptions and actions, good and bad.  

Why it’s important to look outside your industry

Looking at competitors is important, of course, as you’ll be competing with them on sales which is a key driver for growth and success. Often competitive insight either shows what they’re doing differently (where you may need to play catch-up) or certain aspects where your company may be ahead. However, it can be limiting. By looking at companies outside of your industry, it can help with creativity or ideas that can differentiate your company further, not on a service/product level, but in the way your organisation behaves and engages with stakeholders. Getting out the industry bubble can bring real freshness to a comms strategy, and possibly something your industry may not have seen before.

So, who do you admire?

The current global economic backdrop is not a pretty sight and many businesses have had to make cuts of various kinds. Whether it’s a restructure, layoffs, or re-evaluating big expenditure like office spaces, the pressure following a drop in consumer demand continues to mount.

There are glimmers of light, though. There was surprise growth in the UK economy in November 2022, and France and Germany are currently set to narrowly avoid recession. Plus, we’ve got to remember that we’ve been through the turmoil of COVID-19 – and we made it to the other side.

So, as leaders in PR and marketing, what did we learn then, that’s relevant now?

Showing deep business understanding: If the board is focused on profitability, show you can do more for less by being resourceful and demonstrating how to be more effective. If the board wants growth, show that you’re focused on lead generation, customer engagement etc. Proving that your marketing focus aligns completely to the priorities of the organisation means you’re less likely to have your resources cut.

Create connections: If you’re not already, get out of the marketing bubble and make stronger connections internally. Is there a way you can get closer to finance? And if not finance, the people that influence finance, for example the senior team in sales or other C-level executives. You want others to support your case to retain your budget – you need to make them realise ‘I cannot be successful without marketing’.

Visibility and promotion: A way to get closer to board members or others in leadership is to build their profile externally, showing the value directly. You’re probably already doing this by positioning experts and leadership as the faces of the company, but also look at your board and ask yourself: who could be more visible? Like the above, you’re creating more allies internally. 

Don’t think you can hide: All costs are on the P&L and a discussion about your budget will happen if it hasn’t yet. Be proactive and think of solutions that work for both you and the business. In this current environment, the finance team will currently be focused on cashflow so maybe there are ways to create an impact now and pay later. For example, working with a PR agency, the payment terms can be 30-60 days, meaning results today, payment the following month. Not many organisations have cut their way to survival, rather it’s more about keeping costs down within acceptable limits.

More for less: Ensure you are doing the majority right and fast and don’t let perfection slow you down. Timelines have shrunk meaning the time for change is today, this week –- forget about plans looking eight weeks down the line. And repurpose, repurpose, repurpose. Be as resourceful as you can.

It may feel gloomy right now, but this is the time for marketing, because once we’re on the up, growth will come fast again. Being prepared will mean you can go after every opportunity and look back at this time as just another blip!

As Monday rolls around, another episode of House of the Dragon is ready for me to watch. I hit play. But oh, the c-word is used again by one of the main characters. It’s really becoming annoying.

The c-word has always been very divisive, some people can easily say it, some just can’t. But the overuse of such a strong swear word is beginning to cheapen the script, in my opinion. Whilst dropping it in occasionally may make things a bit spicy, saying it so regularly loses its shock value and begins to grate.

Why am I talking about this? Comms professionals are the masters of words – how, when, where we use them, as well as what we want to hammer home. It’s important to use big powerful words so people sit up and take notice, but it requires careful balance to make an impact.

Getting the messaging on point

It’s important to spend time on messaging because it’ll give you the exact words to sum up what your company does, concisely, as well as create consistency when it comes to the company tone and characteristics. And the smart use of these words is the difference between your audience tuning in, versus switching off, or worse, actively disliking you (nobody wants that!).

For any company, your starting point is analysing your competitors and the words you’re currently using. Ask yourself:

  • Are you standing out?
  • Are you consistent across your digital channels?
  • Are your employees consistent in how they describe the company?
  • Does the style and tone of the words work with the type of company you are?
  • When a customer says something nice about you, what do you love?

Breaking it down

The messaging I’m talking about here is for communications, not ads. Remember that you’re not creating a strapline, you’re creating clear and concise ways of describing your company. The best way to write this initially is three sentences – what the company does (and for who), why it’s different and what the benefits are to the customer. Those three lines are your messaging anchors so it’s worth spending time on these, very carefully choosing the words and structure of the sentences.

Remember to:

  • Avoid jargon (or use it very carefully if it’s a word that your customers heavily use)
  • Be believable and true to your organisation
  • Have proof points and the ability to back up anything you’re saying
  • Make it relatable to your primary audience’s needs

Tailoring

These three anchor sentences are your framework. Once you have these you need to consider your audiences – i.e. how do you tweak these for current customers versus new customers? How about employees and future hires? Again, look at proof points, making sure you have ways of backing everything you say.

And now the balancing act

You’ve now got a framework, you have your proof points, you have the tailored versions, now you’ve got to make sure it’s all being used in a way that makes an impact. The first step is to bring consistency across all your communication channels – digital and physical. The second, is knowing your ‘shock value’ words (and I advise not to use the c-word!) and making sure that’s used at the right moments. Shock value words could be for securing someone’s attention in the first instance, or when you want to highlight a certain point. Just be smarter than the script writers of House of the Dragon when it comes to the reaction from your audience!

The pandemic hit some organisations harder than others, and for companies like Airbnb in the hospitality industry, it was a big blow. So, it wasn’t a surprise that Airbnb made the decision to pause all its performance marketing, but what may be a surprise is that the cut is going to be permanent.

Airbnb’s founder, Brian Chesky, explained that despite taking performance marketing down to zero, the company still had 95% of the same traffic from the year before. This lesson has prompted a complete rethink of marketing spend at Airbnb.

Airbnb plan to move spend away from performance marketing and into brand marketing, with a focus on media relations. During the company’s earnings call, Brian Chesky said that this new ‘full funnel’ marketing strategy is “very important to the corporate story”.

Looking at the numbers, it’s not a decision that has been made lightly either – and I should say that they haven’t cut performance marketing altogether, but reduced it significantly.

Now, you may be thinking that it’s alright for them to make such a bold move, they’re already so well known. And you’re right. The Airbnb brand is strong so getting people to the site is not an issue.

The focus now for Airbnb is different – their communications objectives are now centred around broader reputation and helping people to understand the brand better. The company wants potential hosts and guests to understand the benefits and what makes the experience distinctly Airbnb.

This isn’t just a strategy for brands with big reputations, it’s about applying the right marketing mix to support your objectives. What PR allows is more than just eyeballs on your website, it’s a vehicle to educate, inform and shape your company’s reputation.  Those who get it really right create more than just a commercial connection, but an emotional connection to the brand too.

Airbnb really get this.

What’s the takeaway from all this?

Now is the time to reassess your marketing spend. The pandemic has changed everyone’s behaviours, so consider this: Do you have a clear understanding of what these behaviours and beliefs are? How do you adapt your comms with that understanding? The European Journal of Social Psychology states that it can take between 18 and 254 days to form a new habit, and an average of 66 days for that habit to become an automatic behaviour. We can safely say that we have had very long stints with significant government restrictions, meaning our routines have changed. How we all live and work will never go back to the way things were, so your marketing strategy mustn’t either.

And it’s not just about gaining a better understanding of your audiences – it’s about realigning your communications to this ‘next normal’.

But remember that there are always changes around the corner. The beauty of Airbnb’s move is that they’ve allowed for flexibility in their marketing strategy, and have kept a mix of tactics, which can be dialled up and dialled down. 

We’re on the path out of the pandemic – be bold and #reset!

Oh, February – the month of love letters and pancakes. It’s also been the month of smartwatches checking our heartbeats and companies flipping out about acquisitions. See what I did there?

Here’s a round-up of the tech stories that are hotting up right now and worth keeping an eye on.

Hands up if you’ve started a new form of exercise this past year? Maybe you are new to running or maybe you’re taking it to the next level? You’re not alone and the tech companies know it. Garmin has just launched a smartwatch, specifically for trail and ultra-marathon runners. Apparently, our trail running activities are up 70% during the pandemic! Meanwhile, Facebook is rumoured to be creating its own smartwatch for 2022. According to the Independent, Facebook will be integrating with apps from health and fitness companies including Peloton.

Facebook was also making the headlines earlier in February for the ongoing fight against problematic social media content. Facebook decided to reveal the full scale of its problematic content – with a view on being more transparent about how this is all tackled. The company also announced that it would scale back political content in its News Feed for the next few months, whilst Instagram will ban accounts which send racist abuse to others via direct messages. Sadly, this abuse is rife – with many footballers speaking out. More on this via The Metro.

Whilst there’s a fight on bad content, many tech firms are fighting each other. Google and Microsoft have voiced their objection of Nvidia’s takeover of British chipmaker, Arm. The deal currently faces an in-depth investigation from the US watchdog – read the full story in CityAM. The European competition watchdog is being roped in over Epic Games’ dispute with Apple. The maker of Fortnite claims that Apple is abusing its monopoly in the market. Lastly, the UK competition watchdog has raised concerns over Adevinta’s acquisition of Gumtree, warning that consumers will face higher prices and less choice.

As some tech firms fight, others collaborate. Apple is reported to have approached Nissan to work on an autonomous car project. Meanwhile, Volkswagen CEO has been covered by Reuters saying that he’s not concerned with Apple’s electric car plans, “The car industry is not a typical tech-sector that you could take over at a single stroke.”

But accelerating too fast on electric cars could come with problems. The Daily Telegraph reports that UK public charging points aren’t growing quickly enough to meet demand, putting pressure on the Government.

Did you looove that tech news fix? You can get more technology news delivered daily to your inbox by signing up to our Firewire newsletter here.

It’s been a month of twists and turns! The US has a new President, there has been a breakthrough in finding a Covid-19 vaccine, the UK economy has grown… It’s exciting but there’s still a way to go before getting to anywhere resembling normal. It has been a busy time for tech too, accelerating innovations and navigating new regulations. Here’s a roundup of this month’s top technology news stories.  

The pandemic has given a real kick to retailers as more tech gets rolled out in supermarkets. M&S has expanded its scan-and-pay technology to all stores; stores director Helen Milford told the BBC that “With the current restrictions in place, making shopping as easy and efficient as possible is really important to us and our customers.” Meanwhile, Ocado is automating more warehouse tasks that handle online orders.

Online shopping has truly soared but we’re being warned on the impact of our spending ahead of Black Friday. Emission levels are expected to boom. The advice to reduce our carbon footprint is to not expect – or demand – next day delivery.

Big tech also continues to face antitrust crackdowns around the world. Regulators in China are drawing up new rules to keep firms in check, whilst the EU has announced charges against Amazon – news via the FT. And to add to that, 165 organisations have clubbed together to push the EU to take a tougher line against Google. Read more on this in this Reuters article.

As we stay inside during these colder months ahead, there will be plenty to keep us busy in the run up to the festive season, particularly for gamers! The recently released Xbox Series X has already triggered record spike in internet traffic. Daily Mail has all the details. If you’re more of a PlayStation person, the PS5 has also just launched and promises ‘more horsepower and [will] run faster with better graphics’.

And if gaming is not your thing, TV and film streaming sites will have you covered. In fact, Netflix is testing linear style programming, specifically for those who can never pick a programme or film. It’s only in France at the moment but if successful, it may be rolled out elsewhere!

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Expansion into and across Europe is a major move for most businesses. Whether based in another continent such as North America and tackling Europe for the first time, or already established in one European country and now entering other markets, Europe presents significant opportunities to grow a business and reach new prospects.

Getting your communications strategy right is an important factor to break into the European market.

Representing France, Germany and the UK, Fireflies Zahra, Marco and I, joined Jill Creelman from our partner agency Inkhouse, based in NA, to share our tips for successfully expanding into Europe.

In this video, we answer the questions:

  • We often hear from our US-based clients that they’re ready to expand PR and comms efforts to Europe, where do you recommend they start?
  • Is it crucial for companies to have a physical presence in all their target countries?
  • What would be your recommendations when it comes to creating a PR program that is consistent globally?
  • What do you find is the best way to measure results in Europe?
  • How much should a company invest in comms in Europe?

Inkhouse | A Video Q&A with Firefly from Inkhouse on Vimeo.

Think you’re ready and want to hear more?

We’re hosting a webinar on 21st October to go through the practical steps of creating and running a pan-European campaign – from the right tools to collaboration tips and tricks. Join us: https://fireflycomms.com/en/pr-in-europe-webinar/ 

And if you have any questions email the team directly at hello@fireflycomms.com or Inkhouse at workwithus@inkhouse.com.

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