Crescenzo says Creativity over Crap

Corporate Communications needs to change its name to Creative Communications, according to WMPRSA speaker Steve Crescenzo

I have to admit to a bit of a man crush developed over lunch today.  Our speaker at the monthly lunch meeting of the West Michigan chapter of Public Relations Society of America was Steve Crescenzo, a large, bald, hilarious consultant who shared brilliant insights into the state of corporate communications today. For starters, he thinks “corporate” should be yanked from the title and replaced with “creative.”

After he was done speaking, I professed publicly that he had earned a little piece of my heart.  Literally.  I had to close the meeting with some WMPRSA info and, in thanking him, I let it slip. I’m sure he hears it all the time.

First of all, Steve introduced his company to us — himself, his wife, his son and two cats.  His cats, he said, are his IT department.  Why not, he explained, they don’t come right when you call them, they’re moody, they’re self-absorbed, and they like to lick themselves.  There was more, I’m sure, but that was the gist of it.  Within the first minute of his presentation he had the attention of the University Club crowd.

His main message to corporate communicators, and employee communications specialists in particular, was to stop putting crap out there and expecting audiences to actually read it.  It takes a lot to cut through the clutter these days, and formulaic, cliched newsletters are not going to get readers’ attention. He sympathized, however, acknowledging that corporate cultures today call for review of communications pieces by committee, with CEOs, Legal, Finance, and numerous middle management layers all weighing in with opinions and edits.

When’s the last time a PR person went down to Finance and asked to take a crack at the books this month?  How about we write up the next set of vendor contracts?  And while we’re at it, we’ll whip together the 2010 Strategic Plan for the whole company.  Why should non-communications experts attempt to do the jobs of the true experts they’ve hired to do the job?  Partially, Crescenzo asserts, it’s because we let them.  No longer should it be referred to as “approvals'” he said. Rather, routing of communications should be viewed as “fact checking” where accuracy is ensured but the tone and style is determined by the comms experts.

Crescenzo talked about just how busy everyone is nowadays.  When it comes to the communications pieces coming at them, their order of prioritization is 1) what they’re personally passionate about, 2) what they absolutely need to know to do their job, 3) what is done so well that it pulls them in, and 4) all the other stuff being asked of corporate communicators.  You’re lucky if your intended audience has the time to reach #3, so if you’re communicating changes to the benefits policy or recognition of a long-term employee, it had better be pretty darned creative.

From headline to graphics to the lead paragraph, communicators need to push the boundaries of “how we’ve always done it” or “what legal will approve.”  (My heart was really warming up to Crescenzo at this point!)   And with Facebook and the New York Times online and so much rich content competing for attention, it’s still hard to get audiences to read your nicely presented, well-written copy.

That’s when Steve showed some creative ways corp comm’ers are reaching their audiences these days.  Rather than the “lady with a stethoscope” billboard ad approach used so frequently to promote healthcare services, he shared an online campaign for a hospital that utilizes a mix of blogs, podcasts and videos — with healthcare staff sharing their compelling stories in their own words in ways a single billboard or flyer never could. He showed just a video of a nurse sharing a story about her work in a neonatal intensive care unit that, frankly, very nearly brought tears to my eyes.

OK, as my wife and kids will tell you, I have been known to tear up at the movies. They won’t let me forget that one time watching Bridge to Terabithia or that final goodbye scene from Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.  Yes, that one is embarassing. The point is, a billboard will not get that kind of reaction. A video might. My wife works at the NICU at Spectrum’s DeVos Women and Children’s Hospital, so I know the commitment they demonstrate each and every day. That doesn’t translate well to copy or an image. Crescenzo said that social media is a powerful tool that corporate communicators need to use to allow people to share their own stories in compelling ways.

So, as I said earlier, Mr. Crescenzo was earning little pieces of my heart with each passing minute.  He spoke frankly.  He was super funny.  He showed great examples of good and bad communications.  And then he started talking about using Facebook as your employee communications site because IT will roll their collective set of eyes at you when you ask them for a highly interactive employee communications intranet site.  “It’ll take nine months and half a million dollars,” they’ll say (based on experience, that would be a conservative estimate for time and budget).  And then Crescenzo started talking about how easy it is to use Flip Cams, and how communicators need to carry them around at all times “just in case.” Now he had my undying affection.

So much of what he said is exactly what I’ve experienced and come to believe about communications over the years. I’m proud to say that at Amway we did fight the internal battles to trim down approval routes and we did use creative new approaches to better share our stories with various audiences. Not always successfully, but we won some of the fights. That’s how Opportunity Zone came into existence.  That’s why I traveled to Baltimore and Seattle this summer to conduct interviews of Amway Independent Business Owners with an easy-to-use Flip Cam (although I don’t think IT has yet launched the site where those videos were to be used). That’s also why today there are Facebook pages for various Amway brands, sharing video content and photos.

I’m excited to take that experience, empowered with the affirmations of experts like Steve Crescenzo, and apply it to the communication needs of Luymes PR clients!  Who’s next!?

Name Collection Boxes

There are many different ways to tell your story … and you need to tell your story in many different ways.

Math hasn’t changed since the beginning of time. The expression and the teaching of it has, however, and I’ve often struggled with helping my kids when I first had to learn how the teacher was teaching it this year.  There were numerous “Chicago Math” years that were particularly troubling.  It seems, however, that our schools are returning to a more traditional style of teaching math.

Tonight I worked with my second grader, Jack, on “Name Collection Boxes.”  In a box, he had to express one number in 10 different ways.  For instance, for the number 10 he could write it out as “ten” and “diez” as well as show 10 hash marks.  Of course, 5 +5 and 20 – 10 were in the name collection box as well.  We talked about Roman Numerals and he learned that X means 10.

It made me think that for anything that is a “truth” there are a number of ways to express it.  When doing media relations for an organization that wants to get a story in the news, there are a number of ways to share that story to make it meaningful for different audiences.  “Diez,” for instance, will be more meaningful to a Spanish-speaking audience than “ten.” 

When filling your “Name Collection Box” in preparation to tell your story, you might include the set of facts pertinent to the story in bullet points.  You might include third-party testimonials from clients or customers.  You might include statistics, especially if they can be shown to be part of a larger trend occurring in the marketplace.  You might include personal stories that illustrate your story.  You probably want to think about visuals, including pictures, video, and charts.  These help make a TV or web story more interesting than plain text ever could.  Sometimes your “name collection box” could include a personal experience you could provide to a news reporter, allowing them to experience what you want them to report on.

In my past work, all of these story-telling devices came into play.  When we developed ThisBizNow.com to help tell the Quixtar business story, it definitely included the facts about the business but it also included third party testimonials, videos, logos, charts and much more. 

When we promoted the ARTISTRY beauty brand to editors in New York, we brought them to our manufacturing plant to see our skin care and cosmetic products being made.  We took them to our R&D labs to talk with scientists and get their questions answered.  We used our technology to show them their very own skin under high magnification (a scary thought!). They had the opportunity to make their very own shade of lipstick.  They were brought to our very own spa and given the full treatment with professional aestheticians. Oh, and to ensure these editors understood that ARTISTRY is a prestige brand, they flew here on a private jet and stayed overnight at the JW Marriott.  Yes, they also were provided the facts and figures and pictures and video to take back with them, but without the actual hands-on experience, the story wouldn’t be quite the same.  

To ensure you are reaching people as effectively as possible with YOUR story, are you using all the ways at your disposal to do so?  A news release is a start, but it is not THE way to tell your story.  It’s only the welcome mat to the complete “name collection box” that will tell your story to a broad audience in the most colorful, meaningful way.

Trolls & Other Scary Creatures

Trolls and goblins abound this Halloween!

As Halloween approaches, preparations are underway at the Luymes household. Costumes have been assembled and a pre-Halloween event — Sunshine Church’s “Trunk or Treat” — has already tested the kids’ door-to-door panhandling skills. Or, in that case, car-to-car.  It was a fun event and a good way for Sunshine to reach out to its community.

Pumpkins have been carved into scary visages that, apparently, do little to ward off squirrels that seem to love the rind of a semi-rotting gourd.  One little creature whom we’ve named Chunky, for obvious reasons, will run away when I charge him with menacing snarls, but returns moments later when I’ve turned my back on him.

In similar ways, another little hobgoblin comes back to “my house” to nibble in uninvited ways. Amway’s Opportunity Zone has or had its own troll, so called because he lingers under the bridge to pounce upon any unwitting passersby. When a “troll” invades your social media space, how best should you handle the situation?

My tendency has been more liberal than some others who would simply block negative posters at a site. I tend to be a little forgiving and allow posters to push boundaries a little. I believe a good dialog needs to have two strong viewpoints, well supported and shared in a respectful manner. In the social media world, however, there are some who too easily whip out their steely knives and look to inflict flesh wounds on anyone with an opposing opinion. When that happens, and others are scared away or just fed up with the type of conversations trolls like to ignite (the type that provokes an emotional response), the balanced blogger needs to step in and moderate.

Simple rules of engagement should be one of the first things a blogger establishes for his or her space. Here are a few of mine: stay on topic, respect others, avoid profanity, and know when to not have the last word.  Over the years, at The SuperDu Blog and in the Opportunity Zone in general, there were only a few commenters who abused these guidelines.  In most cases, even these individuals weren’t entirely banned although some of their posts were held back by moderators when they overstepped.

I think that will be the case here as well. After being a voice that advocated certain positions for Amway over the years, I cannot expect that those who disagreed will stay away from this space. That said, I’ve moved on to my own practice which, at this point, doesn’t include Amway among its clients. I’d like to encourage those who want to have the Amway “systems” debate to seek other playgrounds. You have an issue with Amway?  Tell the good people in The Opportunity Zone who will, if you’re on topic and respectful, lend a patient and responsive ear.

As for me, I need to finalize my Halloween preparations, including the purchase of candy to hand out to all the little monsters who drop by my house tomorrow evening. I gladly will give them access to my porch so I can drop goodies in their bags and buckets. Now, if they come back for seconds or thirds … that’s another story!

Web Reputation

Web’s increasing role in an organization’s reputation.

Back in the mid-’90s, I was fortunate to be at the right place at the right time. As a PR Administrator at Amway, I was given an assignment to check out this “World Wide Web” thing and find out more about this guy who was saying bad things about our company.

Other than an account in Legal, nobody among Amway’s 10,000 U.S. employees had company-provided web access at that point. I recall the web being very slow on my big bulky desktop computer. But I also remember being thrilled that I had access to a universe of information, even though I hardly knew where to go or what to look for. Search wasn’t quite developed yet, so you really had to know where you wanted to go.

My main assignment was to check out the website of a guy who had collected every negative thing about Amway that was publicly available. It was like an attic full of forgotten or unwanted items … stored away from the sunlight and from most viewers’ eyes. But once you discovered this secret room, there was a treasure trove of information. Well, one man’s trash is another’s treasure. The site shared just about every lawsuit ever brought against the company (but typically not the pro-Amway rulings in the cases). Every negative review a product had ever received was there (but not the positive ones). Some negative articles had been scanned in.  Some opinion pieces created by the site author.  And lots of emails he’d received from site visitors (before comment sections had evolved) sharing their support for his negative views of the company and its business. Plus a few that countered his position in support of their Amway businesses.

I had to print out the entire web site so others could see what was being shared. It took three volumes and resulted in a stack of bound pages about six inches tall. My analysis of the site — back in Januray of 1995, I think — was that what those pages contained would seriously harm the company’s reputation, if they were seen by enough people. I said that, at that time, few people were online so it did not pose a huge issue immediately. But, based on trending, it soon would.

Within a few years, that prediction proved true. In the following years, Amway created its billboard-style website sharing all the positives the business had to offer.  Soon after that, Quixtar was launched to bring e-commerce to the direct selling giant’s North American business. Despite considerable online efforts, however, the company’s Independent Business Owners cited web-based criticisms as the #1 issue they faced.  It required drastic action.

Some advocated extensive optimization efforts that would simply push criticism off the main search pages. Certainly it was important to ensure the company’s own sites appeared high (if not highest) on search engines like Yahoo, MSN and Google. But SEO was not the sole solution. The issues at the heart of online critiques also needed to be addressed, and the company needed to do a better job communicating what it was doing to resolve those issues to a general public that had grown increasingly wary of its business offerings.

Informational sites helped. So did properties like www.thisbiznow.com, which provided third-party and IBO testimonials. But more was required to address the free-for-all commentary that continued on critic websites. When www.OpportunityZone.com launched, it provided a place where an honest, open and transparent dialog about the business could occur. Some basic rules were put in place to ensure decency and respect for opposing opinions were safeguarded.  The O’Zone was quite successful in helping increase the company’s share of voice in the online dialog about its business, reducing the amount of dialog in horribly slanted forums, and putting human faces on the business.

Through Real Quixtar Blog and, later, The SuperDu Blog, I became the first corporate blogger for Amway. It was a great experience to serve as a spokesperson for the business and to serve as an ombudsman of sorts. That is one aspect of the PR role that often is minimized or overlooked. True public relations is about creating a “mutually beneficial” relationship between an organization and its key publics. That’s hard to do when your communications are all one-way and don’t provide enough opportunities to listen to the questions or concerns of your targeted audiences. A wise person told me recently that you need to listen twice as much as you talk.

Whether it be site creation (www.Amway.com, www.amwayglobalnews.com, www.QuixtarResponse.com, www.ThisBizNow.com, www.InspireWellness.com), SEO/SEM program strategies and execution, or social media program strategies and execution (www.OpportunityZone.com and various Facebook, YouTube and Twitter programs for Amway product and business brands), I’ve had the great privilege to lead or contribute to programs to manage Amway’s web reputation. The company still has its challenges, but I am confident it is doing its best to resolve the issues that contribute to negative perceptions.

I’m proud of the body of work that I’ve contributed to over the past 10-15 years, and hope to look back on Luymes PR’s accomplishments in a decade or so with the same degree of pride. For me, the work will always come back to reputation. That continues to include tradtional media and other types of public outreach, but there is no denying that the web is garnering more and more of the PR professional’s attention. Because, in the end, you need to talk to people where they’re at.  These days, that’s online. After all, it’s where YOU are at this moment, right?

Entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurship and the lessons I’ve learned

For nearly 20 years, I’ve observed and chronicled the art of entrepreneurship. As a business reporter, I interviewed men and women who had a great idea and started their own business as a result. I interviewed Dorothy Zimdar, the founder of Frames Unlimited, to find out what made her business tick.  For her, it was about outstanding customer service, product quality and selection, value, and integrity.

For Hendrik Meijer, who founded the chain of mega stores that have made Meijer Inc. one of the largest private companies in the U.S.,  founded his first store on the idea that “customers don’t need us, we need them.” A brilliant philosophy, ins’t it? One that led to brilliant success for the Meijer family, and innumerable benefits to the West Michigan community that embraced the company and its stores in their earliest years.

I remember strolling through the garage and pole barn of a west sider’s home. He was starting his own tool and die business with machinery bought from larger companies that had upgraded. I don’t know if his business survived the past few decades of manufacturing turmoil in Michigan, but his excitement to begin on his entrepreneurial journey was very real.

For a special section on entrepreneurialism for the Grand Rapids Business Journal, I was assigned to interview Rich DeVos. I called Amway’s public relations department to set up the interview and they said they’d see what they could do.  I hadn’t even properly prepared my questions when I received a call, not from the PR contact, but from Rich himself.  I began asking questions about a topic I’m sure Rich had discussed countless times.  He probably answered many questions I didn’t even ask.

Within months, I was working for that same Amway PR department. It had nothing to do with the Rich interview, or the other stories I’d written about Amway as the reporter assigned to the manufacturing beat. It was a matter of being in the right place at the right time, I guess. In any case, over the next 18 years I learned hundreds of ways to share the Amway story.  Hundreds of products.  Millions of distributors or, as they’ve been referred to in recent years, Independent Business Owners.  The story of the partnership between Rich and Jay Van Andel.  The story of the partnership between Amway and its IBOs.  The power of the business plan Amway created. The all-natural Nutrilite products, the organic cleaners. There were SO many stories to tell, and so great a need to tell them. The business model is often misunderstood and, because there are so many people involved, there are bound to be disagreements and abuses. It was a great place to practice public relations in all its forms — from product publicity and media relations to crisis communications and community relations.

Now I move on and become the entrepreneur, taking what I know best — public relations, communications, social media — and turning it into a product I offer to clients. Like Dorothy, I hope to offer outstanding customer service, value and integrity. Like the young man with his tool and die shop, I am excited to get on with this business (but there are no guarantees!). Like Hendrik, I need customers!  The lessons from Amway I’ve already learned and now I hope to apply that expertise to help clients of Luymes PR.  The first few have already signed on … who will be next?!

A New Start at Luymes PR

Going it on your own, at Luymes Public Relations

After nearly 18 years, it’s quite daunting to start your own business. Especially if you worked at a large, multinational corporation with many resources at your disposal, as I did when at Amway.  Starting a website?  I used to be able to call Amway IT and be assigned resources to help me build a custom website like The SuperDu Blog, provided it was warranted. Now? I am IT and need to figure it out on my own. 

Well, with a little help from my friends.  Thanks Doug!  Douglas Kelly of Evolve Solutions was a contractor at Amway until recently, but his contract ran out and now he’s looking for new clients as well.  He comes with my highest recommendation.  Today he helped me get the redirect from Luymes.com to where the content is developed in a sub-folder. This enabled me to actively start directing people to the site!

Billing?  That’s all on me too, now.  So is fixing the printer and getting my new business cards. I even have to make my own coffee.  Oh wait. I always did that!  (And anyone who knows me knows that I was very proficient, and prolific, at making my own coffee.)

This blog is going to be about how Luymes Public Relations LLC gets off the ground.  It will be about my experiences counseling clients on crisis communications, web reputation, social media, and general communications (to the extent that I am permitted). I began working with my first client this past week and the experience has energized me to sign up some more!  Who’s next!  I am ready to get to work for additional organizations that need to tap into my nearly 20 years’ of experience in communications!

Welcome to Luymes PR

Welcome to Luymes Public Relations! What will this blog be about and what are some expectations.

This week, I suppose, is “Independence Week” for me.  I formally registered Luymes Public Relations LLC last week and then purchased Luymes.com and then created this site using “easy” tools provided by my web host. I’ve blogged before, as SuperDu at Amway’s OpportunityZone.com, but I’ve never actually had to create the blog itself — just the content! So, bear with me as I learn the best practices of setting up the actual blog site.

In this blog I expect to share about my views and experiences as a PR professional.  That will include my opinions on best practices for the public relations profession, including use of social media by organizations. I likely will talk about my personal life as well, especially how that relates to my profession and my business. Many of my posts will draw upon past experiences, including those with Amway Corp., my employer for nearly 18 years, and as a reporter for the Grand Rapids  Business Journal before that.

To the extent that I can, I also will share experiences with new clients of Luymes Public Relations, understanding there will be times I cannot due to client expectations and desires. Please drop me a line and tell me your experiences and whether or not you agree with what I’m saying here. I am sure that active dialog will better inform my understanding and likely anyone else’s who reads this!