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!?