5 Signs It’s Time to Clean Up Your Brand Message

Messy Message Closet

We all have one of those closets in our homes. You know. The one nobody wants to talk about. What array of stuff is jammed in there with the clothes we don’t wear anymore? Only our worst demons know what lies in the deep reaches of this particular hell. It took a long time to turn it into chaos so it’s bound to take forever and lot of frustration to clean it up. Right? Actually, it’s more like the parable of the boiling frog. If you were suddenly dropped into chaos, you’d see it and deal with it. More often than not, the disarray sneaks up on us because we miss the signals – we’re not aware it’s as bad as it is.

This is true of our corporate, culture and product brand messages. So take a step back, look for the signs of message messiness and clean up your message house before the chaos takes over.

Message Messiness Sign #1 – Lack of message architecture

The most obvious sign is lack of a message architecture or one that hasn’t been updated and used in . . . a long time. This one speaks for itself, yet there are so many brands out there that don’t have a defined message architecture. This is a clear structure that states the overall brand essence with reasons to believe and supporting message tracks. And, there are even more brands that once had a message architecture at launch but that document now collects dust on a shelf or a virtual dusty shelf within a server. If there is no organized architecture for messages, or it isn’t used and refined regularly, of course chaos rules.

Message Messiness Sign #2 – Gaps in story flow

When communications and marketing materials are long and meandering with gaps in story flow, or are too short and abrupt, there’s a message issue. The key here is to look for gaps or leaps in logic that don’t hold up to the objective straight-face test. Invite the objective voice in to pressure test your story. We seem to forget after launch, that the markets and the context for our story are constantly changing. Stuff gets thrown into the message closet over time because it seems to make sense in the moment. Issues come and go. Opportunities come and go. The messages concocted in those moments too often stick around. And, now you’ve got tennis rackets and alarm clocks in with your clothes and shoes — and nobody wants to open the closet anymore.

Message Messiness Sign #3 – Nobody can tell the story

If members of your team and leaders can’t articulate the brand story or, even worse, tell many different versions of the brand story, you’ve probably got message chaos. Sure, this can mean teams and leaders aren’t bought into the messages or they aren’t properly trained. Check first on message organization because the chances are pretty good that this is the real issue. Also look for the people who tend go their own way, developing materials and communications on their own in the shadows. The intentions may not be as nefarious as they seem. In some cases, it is frustration with the condition of the messages. Granted, these folks should raise their hands and point out the problem instead of going it alone. Ultimately, isn’t it easier to clean up the messages rather than letting team drama continue?

Message Messiness Sign #4 – Message gurus

Message gurus are a sign to watch out for. When there is only one person or a small number of people on the team who know the story or can answer questions about messages, it usually means there is so much complexity that a human compass is needed to navigate others through it. These gurus typically have the institutional knowledge about why there are gaps in the story, weird little nuances, odd little nuggets that got jammed into places they don’t belong. They are unconscious or conscious curators of the chaos. They may be great professionals, collaborators and people, but they’ve become enablers. Message gurus may or may not be proud of it, but have become explainers and protectors of the status quo. Also look for the person who feels an exaggerated sense of protecting the messages from you.

Message Messiness Sign #5 – Excuses and accusations fly

Excuses and accusations about communications, marketing and branding are other signs it’s time for message clean up. “This is an old brand.” “This is a new brand.” “We’ve gone through a lot of change.” These may or may not be signs of a larger problem. But look for a simpler solution first. Addressing messaging while creating alignment and ownership within the team could be the treatment equivalent of taking an aspirin compared with fixing sweeping communication problems or team dynamics.

Some people love to organize. Some people hate the process. I’m willing to leave the crazy piles of paper and stuff on my desk and the floor of my office. Can’t stand organizing paperwork and I know exactly where that one piece of paper I need is in the chaos I’ve created there. But I can’t – and we can’t – do that to our marketing and communications teams when it comes to our brand messages. A well organized message architecture reduces drama, increases alignment and overall it is a roadmap to success. Don’t we owe that kind of sanity to ourselves and our teams?

Content Laboratory

Workplace Snakes Are Culture Killers: Communications Warning Signals

Workplace Snakes Graphic

When you cross paths with a rattlesnake out in the desert, it is really scary. You fear the fangs, the venom and the damage they can do. When you hear the rattle, they are ready to strike. Sometimes it’s already too late. If not, you have to quickly recognize the danger and evade it.

Toxic leaders are like rattlesnakes.

Workplace snakes are just as venomous and toxic as the slithering variety found in nature. Like a rattlesnake, toxic leaders give signals, evident in their communications, you should watch out for before they strike.

Know the signs so you can evade and repel workplace snakes.

Here are some types of workplace snakes and the communications signals you should look for before they strike:

The I’m Too Busy for You Snake that uses busyness for defense and offense. This is especially true when a leader implies you might be the cause of their busy problem when you bring them an important issue or opportunity. They are using busyness to keep you from their cozy nest. They hide from people and expectations. To the snake, having to take responsibility for an issue or opportunity is an enemy that needs to be attacked with busyness.

Snake Signals: Significant levels of disengagement, can’t get on their schedules, don’t return calls or emails, talking constantly about busyness and issuing edicts that make them less approachable.

The Blame Gamer, Spotlight-Needy Snake that points fingers (or whatever snakes point), casts blame on others and takes undue credit. They have enormous egos combined with sweeping insecurities. These leaders are like the king cobra of workplace snakes. Look for the puffed up, hissing leader creating smoke and mirrors in an attempt to make themselves look good, while making others look bad.

Snake signals: Throwing team members under the bus, owning team members’ accomplishments, desperate to be noticed, demanding a “gold star” for everything, identifying other team members as “causes” and stating “the real problem in our organization is communications” (meaning the function not the skills).

The Liar, Ethically-Challenged Snake that, well, lies and has a loose relationship with ethics and values. This one is pretty self-explanatory. Those team members that are most at risk from the venom of these snakes are spokespersons, or represent some other kind of relay point for potential lies or unethical deeds. Beware of the signals because these snakes are not only culture killers — they can be a career killer.

Snake signals: Comfortable lying, lying for self-preservation, thinking a lie is a white lie and therefore doing the right thing, passing off lies as mistakes or inaccuracies, creating a sacrificial lamb, blocking team members from talking to authority figures, carrying vendettas and rationalizing bad behaviors.

The Performance Evaluation As Punishment Snake that uses the talent development process as a tool to put transgressors in their place and punish those who aren’t on board with their agenda. This is a weapon of deflection to cull out team members the snake doesn’t like or sees as threatening survival.

Snake signals: Conducts a performance evaluation in a public place or even by phone (yes, this actually happens), makes it personal with commentary on personality and likability rather than results, refers to what other team members think of the person being reviewed, has favorites on the team, has impossible expectations and creates no-win situations, is mean-spirited in reviews, and includes backhanded compliments as strengths.

The Loyalty Is Everything Snake wards off the consequences of bad behaviors and poor communications by commanding absolute loyalty from their teams. These snakes are blocking transparency. They live under rocks hoping that the sun won’t shine on what they say and do. Loyal team members are the blackout shades that can keep others from seeing the truth.

Snake signals: A close circle of confidants, a fear among team members of saying the wrong thing, limited communications about the team’s activities, a lot of misdirection communications going on (hey, look over here instead of looking over there) and extreme jockeying for position among team members.

Healthy organizational cultures don’t tolerate workplace snakes. Leaders of healthy, positive cultures ensure the values foundation is solid and woven throughout the organization. Leaders of healthy cultures ensure the talent review, people development, rewards and recognition are fair and focused on actual performance, not likability/popularity/personality. Leaders of healthy cultures support and cultivate transparent, direct communications throughout the organization and all teams. These basic structures work together to act as a form of snake repellent. Ultimately, we are all happier, more productive and more secure in a snake-free workplace.

#NoWorkplaceSnakes

Content Laboratory

Let’s stop the non-apology apology: the do’s and don’ts of “I’m sorry.”

I'm sorry graphic 4.12.17

It’s been a rough week for the people and companies issuing apologies. From Oscar Muñoz to Sean Spicer, the word “apology” seems to be a fixture on the news crawl.

The problem is that too often the apology isn’t an apology and the person saying it isn’t really apologizing. Rather, they are apologizers or apologists, justifying an unpopular or improper thing and excusing themselves from accountability. Or, they’ve spent so much time being apologizers and apologists previously that by the time they authentically apologize for the bone-headed move, it’s too late and their credibility is already eroded. Basically, in these moments, they stink at apologizing.

It shouldn’t be this difficult. Defending your boss or standing behind your employees is NOT an excuse for gross negligence in your job as a leader. It is not an excuse for passing the buck or trying to spin something awful. It is not an excuse for hurting the people you serve verbally or physically. There is very simply no excuse for it. Certainly not when there is disturbing video of a human being bloodied and likely unconscious in the aisle of one of your planes — on your watch, on the orders of your frontline employees. It’s not okay. Period. End of story. (Note: If your communications staffs suck at apologizing too and can’t help you do it better, it’s really time to restructure.)

In situations that require apologies — not in a case where you are defending a true and authentic cause — there are do’s and don’ts of apologizing. Here are the helpful definitions that may improve all these sad apologies we are seeing far too often.

Do this: 

a·pol·o·gy — A regretful acknowledgment of an offense or failure.

Say the words, tell people you regret what has happened and that you are holding yourself accountable for the mistake. Give them assurances the horrible thing won’t ever happen again. Do it quickly, do it definitively and follow your words up with transparent actions. Do think of an apology as something you owe your constituents, a tab that has to be settled for having the privilege of being a leader.

Don’t do this and don’t be this:

a·pol·o·gist — A person who offers an argument in defense of something controversial.

Don’t make excuses. Don’t try to justify the thing and make it seem like it wasn’t your fault. Don’t shift blame. Don’t spin it and think believers outnumber cynics. Don’t lash out at your critics. Don’t delay. Don’t swing and miss at the first apology and think you can hit a home run later. Don’t let your ego take over.

Some people believe that apologizing affects credibility in negative ways. That’s completely false.

Apologizing badly affects your credibility. Doing it right and authentically does build credibility and positively enhances your reputation. It makes you human and empathetic. I say it every day, and I mean it when I say it.

Apologizing is a muscle of humanity I try to exercise as often as I can.

Like any other skill, the more you practice apologizing, the better you get. The more you practice, the more you will find that the corrosive aspects of your ego get pushed into the back seat. Until people, companies and governments stop doing knuckle-headed things, we will have to learn to excel at apologizing. And that’s when we become more effective leaders and more civilized human beings.

Content Laboratory

Is there one single trait all great content creators must have?

trait-of-content-creator-graphic

No. There isn’t one single trait, or skill, needed to make a content creator great. Content creators must have several of the traits/skills on the list to consistently produce original content that is readable, engaging . . . and credible.

But wait. There’s more.

There is a staggering quantity of bad original content out there. The why of this is actually pretty easy to diagnose. First and foremost, there are many, many thoughts and ideas that cross our brains every single day. Not all of these thoughts (probably very few) are worthy of becoming a post or other content for audience consumption. Too many mediocre thoughts do leak outside our heads and onto our social media channels. It’s the same as going to an all-you-can-eat buffet and heaping the plate so full it can barely be carried back to the table. This is when a communications diet may be warranted.

Not every idea needs to end up on the communications plate.

So strategic thinking and ideation may be one reason why all this lousy content is happening. But plenty of these ideas are great and worthy, so there’s another reason we have to consider in our diagnosis. Great content doesn’t miraculously appear out of thin air because you have a thought or even a terrific insight. Ideas are important, but if you can’t execute because you don’t possess at least a few other traits, the original content won’t be great. It won’t be great consistently. One particular skill stands out above all the other skills needed to execute well.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Writing matters.

Writing matters a lot. It matters because when it’s not good, it not only doesn’t show your ideas in the best light, it makes you look like you don’t care.

Bad writing is like pitching new business to a client in a wrinkled, stained shirt and torn sweat pants.

Every day I read original content that contains some wonderful insights buried deep within poor writing. Now is a good time to note that this isn’t about English, or any other language, as a second language. There is bad writing in every language. While grammar and spelling are important, we’re not talking about perfection here. (Busted. I ended a sentence with a preposition.) It isn’t about that. This is about highlighting a great idea or insight with credible writing that is as engaging, readable and entertaining as possible.

When bad writing happens you’ve not only lost my attention, your ideas and reputation are circling the drain.

If you don’t write in a way that puts your ideas in a good spotlight, it’s probably smart to find some help. It’s not about being intelligent or not intelligent. Somewhere along the line, we seem to have developed a lack of respect for the skill and art form of writing. Possibly for liberal arts as a whole. That’s a mistake. Not everyone can write in a way that engages broad audiences externally and internally for our organizations. It’s not possible to be good at everything. Not everyone should try to be a brain surgeon. My developers would really like me to steer clear of mucking around in the code of our ContentWeb application. They’re right. I’m nowhere in the vicinity of being able to do that job. Of course I should stick to what I’m good at. (Oops! Another preposition at the end of a sentence.)

Ideas are the heart of great content. But they can’t stand alone. Content creators need many traits and skills to consistently put out great content. Most if not all of the traits on the list above, at least with regard to content creation, are symbiotic. Basic business writing is one thing, but if we’re going to develop the best content creators we can on our teams, we have to respect and cultivate the important skills and talents needed to do the job. Once we’ve done that, we’ll go from all-you-can-eat communications junk food to five-star communications fine dining. (Yep. Just pushed that metaphor way too far.)

Content Laboratory

Here’s My One Piece of Advice for Up-and-Coming Executives. What’s Yours?

one-piece-of-advice

There’s one piece of advice I give to young, talented, up-and-coming communications and marketing executives when asked. They’re often surprised to hear it. I think, usually, they’re looking for the golden goose to be handed over. The one pearl of wisdom that will have them rocketing to the top of the food chain. They may be hoping for the super special secret handshake that will get them the title and rewards they’ve dreamed of.

The advice is based on more than 25 years of my version of success in varied executive roles, including the top of the ladder that I’d ever hoped to climb. However, it is not the key to vast riches and power. Rather, my advice is the key to happiness and peace of mind while in a position of power. This little bit of advice is the key to the kingdom where strong values and personal satisfaction rule.

Know your boundaries and don’t ever get pushed over the line by anyone, for any reason.

This is about knowing who you are and what you stand for in this world. It’s about the people you stand up for. You cross the line enough and it disappears entirely. Then what? It’s not corny to say that in this life we have nothing if we don’t have our integrity. We have less than nothing if we gave it away for our ambitions. Our values are everything in my opinion and it makes no sense in the long run to trade that for power or income. If honesty is a value you hold dear, don’t be a spokesperson for a liar (person or organization). Certainly don’t do it because you feel you’ll make VP if you do. My experience behind this advice is real — if you know yourself and you stay true to your values, you can still make VP or higher with your core intact. You just may not be able to do it in the same organization or for the same boss that is testing your foundation.

Values aren’t all shared with everyone, including our colleagues. In fact, they will very rarely match up line for line. Loyalty may be more important than honesty to your colleagues or your boss. The compass that is made up of our values is personal. We should choose our path for ourselves and how we will serve the people we care about in this life. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be pushed in a direction we don’t want, believe in, or that is not worthy of our personal sense of right and wrong.

There certainly are a lot of opinions out there in the world, but maybe not enough advice from experienced professionals to help the next generation leaders navigate the difficult choices they have now and ahead of them.

I’d love to hear what you say to those who are making their way in the professional world and up the executive ladder of success. What’s your one piece of great advice?

Content Laboratory

Do 1 Thing to Stop Being an Email Victim

email-overload

Enough. Seriously. Enough already of the productivity hacks around “dealing with email.” (Note: Let’s stop using the word “hack” overall). If anyone is peddling tricks and tips for handling more and more emails in your world, run away – don’t walk. If someone is naming and even branding their twisted little rituals for managing an exploding inbox, don’t buy into it. Email overload isn’t a trauma or an assault. It isn’t an evil invader coming for you every morning. It doesn’t require extraordinary shields to keep it from taking over your life. Email overload is something we do to ourselves because we give it way too much power.


Email isn’t an invader and we are not victims of its effect on our work lives.


Why do we give email so much power? Because most of us use email as a communications hub. Bad idea. The end all be all of communications it is not. For executives and leaders, the Catch 22 of email as a communications hub is troubling. The more we try to read everything that comes through, respond to and triage high volume, the more our effectiveness as leaders erodes. You can’t see the big picture, you can’t give teams white space to think and innovate, and you sure can’t enable and develop your people if you’re in the weeds. It’s lousy behavior to model and pass along to your teams. When you obsess about email, the message you are sending is that busy is more important than results. No matter what super special process or trick you have, you’re still obsessing. Email is a hamster wheel that keeps us constantly spinning with success out of reach for us and our teams.


Stop making email your primary communications hub.


You have a lot of responsibilities and accountabilities. You do, absolutely. But that has nothing to do with email directly. As a leader, you can’t miss something big that might come through email. There are opportunities that come through email and your teams are counting on your response, approval, etc. Leaders in the service sector can’t miss a client email or something that affects clients. No doubt.

Nobody is asking you to stop being accountable or completely ignore your email. What is called for is to pick your head up out of it more often to address all the other important duties we have as leaders.


No complicated rituals needed. We can achieve more email sanity by doing one thing better.


This one thing will help guide our people about how to treat their leaders and each other better with regard to email. Don’t use email for the kind of knowledge/content sharing and collaboration that is better served by far, far better tools at our disposal. First and most important is face time (over Face Time or the old fashioned ways). You can say you’re doing as much of it today as possible, but if you’re obsessing over email, objectively, you really can do more. Have you trained people around you to use email as the only access point to you because you’re overloaded during the work day?


Way too much is put over email rather than more personal tools — period.


We can go over all the reasons why email has eclipsed real, face-to-face interactions and it’s not necessary. Bad use of time. We all know it’s a problem. And, there are other tools that are far better than email for knowledge/content sharing and collaboration. If every bit of content or knowledge (including slide decks, etc.) is swirled around over email for comments, approvals, editing, and sharing for final use — of course we’re bogged down in email because it really isn’t an ideal tool for this in today’s day and age. Most of the modern tools for sharing and collaboration aggregate things for action into one single email each day. This kind of tool helps our teams better plan their timelines and deadlines rather than assuming you’ll get the eleventh hour one-off email needed for approval of their project. (Note: If you’re using collaboration tools so complicated they make people cringe — there are other tools that are actually easier and we should use them).

We train people how to treat us and each other. Don’t be victimized be email or you’re just making daily life miserable for yourself and others. Take the power away from email and use face time along with efficient, better tools that move the ball forward and make work easier for everyone.

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