Tag Archives: Opinion

What Bronze Quill judges can teach you about communication

In our shop, we’re getting geared up for entering the Kansas City IABC chapter’s Bronze Quill Awards.

And as we’ve been going through the annual procrastination that postpones actually writing our entries until the last minute, we’ve been discussing strategies for winning judge attention to and appreciation of  the full brilliance of our work.

In a moment of pontifical self-importance, I penned (electroned?) the following guidance based on my experience as a communication awards judge and my observations of other judges.

It strikes me that the counsel here – assuming you find it persuasive – also generally applies to any situation in which you’re trying to communicate complex information to people who are interested in a topic, but by no means necessarily experts in the specifics you’re trying to convey. Where the word “judge” appears, just think audience or stakeholder or whomever is the target of your communication affection.

So, for your use or toss:

“As you are preparing your Bronze Quill entries or future communication competition entries, here’s my perspective on what plays well based on judging a lot of these competitions and hearing other judges beef and moan about things they are reading.

It is just one person’s perspective, however; so take it with that grain of salt.

  1. Judges are looking for significance. Why is this project important? What did it accomplish? What and how did the effort and its results help the sponsoring organization achieve? It’s hard to answer those questions too often or too thoroughly to turn off a judge.
  2. Keep in mind that your judges are looking at dozens of entries. It’s at the end of the day, they’re tired and preoccupied reviewers. They most likely are skilled communicators who know very little about you, your client or the subject matter involved. Anything you can do to help them understand and remember you and the project is a good thing – including repetition.
  3. Judges often are looking for easy-to-spot (and sometimes trivial) reasons to hammer or elevate entries. So here’s my list of things that may keep your entry in contention.
    • Judges usually are experienced communicators (i.e. many like me are in bifocals and/or are suffering from computer eye fry).  If they have to look at fonts that are intricate or smaller than 11 points, they will hate you. Likewise, they will be seriously peevish if they have to read some dense river of text. Simplify and open up text by:
      • Using simple, direct language.
      • Highlighting by position, formatting and other techniques what is important about the material you are presenting.
      • Scrutinizing every sentence that has a comma in it to see if the sentence should be broken up into two or more sentences or edited down to one simpler sentence.
      • Using bulleted or numbered lists wherever possible.
      • Moving complex or lengthy material to appendices if rules allow it.
    • As experienced communicators and smart humans, they likely have seen or shoveled more professional manure than you, so will disdain your use of adjectives but praise your reliance on facts and analysis to make your case.
  4. Bottom line, what’s story have you told.  A judge judges by mentally recounting to herself or himself the abbreviated, cocktail party version of the story you’ve presented and then assesses whether that story is true, important and compelling.  Have you told such a story in the project summary – which sets or at least frames the judge’s perception of everything that follows?  And have you then constructed your entry to support and extend that simplified understanding?”

Keith and Rush are right for all the wrong reasons

If you listen too long to Keith Olbermann or Rush Limbaugh, you may come to believe politics are important only as a tool for beating the tar out of those you don’t like.

No wonder most people are turned off to politics all together.

That’s a shame, because politics – like coalitioning(?) – is really important as the art of the possible:  How do you  assemble the right groups of stakeholders to identify, implement and sustain effective solutions to important problems.?

And when it comes to achieving success on issues or projects that are complex, large-scale or heavily regulated or legislatively affected, likely nothing happens without engaging in – or at least understanding how – the politics of getting things done.

That’s why I recently counseled a new PR professional looking to be successful in public policy communications to familiar with – and hopefully comfortable at – working with governmental relations.

Even in outcome-neutral public involvement programs, success as defined by the client and the community will rest in part on how well goals and issues are communicated to elected and regulatory officials who have to implement any recommendations.

There are lots of ways to gain familiarity with politics and with the unique pressures and motivations that drive public servants.  But here are two great organizations and sources for becoming more adept at government affairs and using that skill appropriately:

Time spent with either of these two groups are likely to be more productive when it comes to politics than another minute spent with Keith and Rush.

Online polling plays special role for coalitions

Ken DeSieghardt is one of the best strategists I know when it comes to understanding how to pull together people into coalitions and motivate them to action. 

For example, his firm, Patron Insight, is very successful in identifying, communicating with and moving to the polls those taxpayers who are most likely to support bond issues backed by school districts and municipal government.

Ken and his partner, Rick Nobles,  see a special role in online polling and surveying when it comes to existing or coalescing coalitions. They share it here:

“Online research deserves a spot in the researcher’s tool bag. But, like any tool, you have to know how, when and where to use it if the information you collect is going to be of value.

Specifically, online research provides the most helpful, credible information when it is disseminated as a secondary tool to a captive audience whose members care about the subject matter.

Note the key words in that last statement.

Disseminated: Don’t just stick a survey on your Web site and wait for the responses to roll in. Send the link to people who you want to hear from.

Secondary tool to a captive audience: Online research should never be considered primary data, because those who participate choose to do so – meaning they are already connected to a cause or an issue. It’s ideal for gathering data and seeking input from a coalition of advocates who are already in place (either formally or informally), but should never be confused for primary research of the masses to determine the general mood of the citizenry.

Care about the subject matter: Online surveys work when someone who receives it thinks, “If I respond to this, something that matters to me might change in a way that I like (or might stay the same, if that’s what I’d prefer).”

It’s also important to put a time limit on when you will accept responses, to nudge your target audience about halfway through with a message that says, “If you’ve responded, thanks; if not please do,” and to use the feature on the programs that allows you to limit responses to one per computer.

If you follow this recipe (and, of course, have a well-constructed survey instrument), you’ll get back information that clues you in to the thoughts and ideas of those in your key target audience who took the time to respond.

Like all research, it should be seen as one piece of data in the decision-making process. But, at least you can be confident that what you received was credible.”

How To: Poynter Shares Ideas for How to Make Commenting Systems Work Better

Here’s an interesting conversation on how to add value to the comment sections of websites.

Commenting is going to grow in importance as more and more stakeholder engagement clients lose their squeamishness about unfettered public discussion of agencies and their actions.

And the truth of the matter is, it does takes pretty vigorous oversight and technology to manage out the dreck that sometimes overfills comment sections.

Ideas for How to Make Commenting Systems Work Better: “Many journalists complain that comment threads to their news stories represent the worst of online media. But it doesn’t have to be that way.”

(Via E-Media Tidbits.)

Rat House Lesson No. 1 – Eliminate Ambiguity

Every day the Imagineers at Disney build a coalition of fun – and trust me, I gacked a hairball when I wrote that.

But it’s true.  They have to entertain hundreds of thousands of people (coalition members) who already buy into the idea that Disney is the happiest place in the world.  And at a minimum, they also have to make sure that grumpy husbands and other sore heads (allies of coalition members) aren’t griping, complaining and generally trying to drive a wedge between Disney, the true believers and the family bank account.

One important way they protect the experience is to make sure that there is no ambiguity or uncertainty in the Disney experience that might motivate or enable “allies” to sabotage the visit (by going elsewhere, spending less, staying home, etc.).

They do so in any number of ways.  It begins with clear signage about where you are, where you’re going and what you’ll find there.  Everywhere you turn there are  uniformly nice and knowledgeable personnel; And above all else, there is a consistent delivery on expectations in a way that might best be described as “predictably satisfying.”

Why is that important?  Allies who don’t want to be involved with an organization or initiative often attack it by seizing upon any lack of detail, inconsistent direction and the like.  Repetitive failure to deliver upon expectations further fuels criticism and rejection that, left unchecked, can spread to a coalition member (or at least drive the coalition member away just to get some peace).

So Disney in effect robs the “dragged along” of the bulk of their “crabbing” opportunities by eliminating the easiest lines of attack against it.

Any coalition builder can do the same by making sure that:

  1. Everyone – including those who influence the actual coalition participants – understands at all times what has happened and why, what’s going to happen next and when, and how it all inter-relates.
  2. People charged with shepherding the coalition building along are thoroughly and uniformly educated about the issues, goals, process and participants.
  3. All participants – coalition builders, members and allies – understand and share a common set of expectations about what’s going to happen.  Their respective expectations don’t have to be completely congruent.  But there does have to be some overlap in the Venn diagram from which they can measure common and individual experiences and successes.

All hail the rat and his frozen overlord

Those of you who know me well, know that at least once a year I prove my love for my wife by going to Walt Disney World so that she can enjoy the happiest place on earth and I can help pay for the cryogenic upkeep of Mr. D. himself.

As much as I’m loathe to admit it, however, the Rat Mouse House has important lessons to offer about the care and feeding of secondary allies and supporters when you’re building and maintaining your coalitions and networks.

I’ll be sharing those in an upcoming series of posts.  But now I must elude the fun police.  Pray for me.

The Anguish Patient

“Oh-oh, that’s the hootchie cootchie,” my roommate called out at the top of his quavering voice.  “That’s naughty.”

I pulled the pillow tighter around my head, failing to stifle the noise from his running commentary on the Hip Hop Abs infomercial playing at a volume that would have done Godsmack proud.

In another 30 minutes, if I couldn’t get to sleep, I would call for another shot.  They might be unwilling to move me, but they’d give me all the morphine I’d let them stick in my arm.  God bless American healthcare.

So went the ninth hour – or was it the 9,00th – of my recent two days in the hospital with a mild case of Scrivener’s palsy complicated by effluvia.

My nonagenerian, stone-deaf, slightly confused, pneumonic roommate spent the whole time babbling, snoring and playing the TV at decibel levels to rival a jet engine with the throttle stuck wide open.  

All other times he was querulously questioning nurses and physicians regarding his diagnosis, treatment and release.

It all made for such an unappealing combo (with my own whining added in) that the staff kept our room’s door always closed. They minimized their interaction with him, since every contact had a Emily Litella-like quality. And when they did try communicating with him, you didn’t need Gene Hackman’s trick bag from The Conversation to hear the condescension in their voices.

Bottom line, as far as they were concerned, he was a pain that was obstructing the patient-care process they had set up – for their benefit and efficiency.

I’m not faulting them. I was desperate to get away from him, too.  But in quieter moments, like the time he got stuck for 30 minutes watching and commenting on the QVC Jewelry Showcase, I contemplated how liking the unlikable, and effectively working with them, may be one of the toughest challenges we face when building and managing coalitions.

(No. Really. That’s what I thought. Cut me some slack.  I had nothing else to do.  I sure wasn’t getting any sleep. And one of the first lessons I’ve learned from this blog is that you’re pretty quickly hoovering the universe for content for the insatiable, Borg-like demands of a regular publication schedule.)

After all, boiled down to basics, my roommate really only wanted a meaningful role in what was happening.  He wanted people to talk to him in ways that were respectful of his personhood and situation, in language that was clear and meaningful to him.  He wanted to know what the likely outcomes would be, when they would occur, and how he would be affected.

When none of that happened, he began “acting out” more and more from boredom, anxiety and alienation.  And the process – and the personnel – instead of refocusing efforts on meeting his not-unreasonable expectations, just excluded and ignored him even more.

That may be the lesson that I take away from this whole incident (oh – and the one about how it’s easier in a hospital to get narcotics than move 20 feet). That when building and maintaining coalitions, difficult or fringe constituents may be more than unlikeable souls.  They may be a symptom that the engagement process has become focused on the implementers, instead of on those it was designed to serve.