Staying on Message

Executives who have to face the fire on programs such as CNBC's "Squawk Box" are well trained to stay on message.  That's why they're always worth watching.

Think of it like a free post-doc in how to get your point across in difficult matter what anyone throws at you.

So, whether it's in preparation for your first media appearance or you're going in front of your friendly local VC, C-level executive or Board members - you want to know what your message is and then keep to it.  Through thick and thin.

An excellent example was when Cisco's CEO, John Chambers faced the CNBC fire to give a very different perspective than the one the analysts had chosen to adopt.  Even though, as he was speaking, his company's share value had taken a 12% drop in morning trade.

His key message throughout:  We control our own destiny.

By stating and re-stating that - supported by all sorts of data for all the different markets in which Cisco plays - his purpose was to allay fears that market forces would drive the company's valuation and performance down further.  And then further.

I don't know if it will work over the long term.  After all, it has most recently resulted in the shut-down of the Flip video camera and laying off of 550 people.  But it is a great example of the messaging art.

The resource below will get you to the All Things Digital page with the video.


John Chambers Plays Defense as Cisco's Shares Tumble (ATD)

Executive Messaging: Learning from the LibDems

As I mentioned in my most recent Newsletter, the British General Elections have been called and election day has been set for May 6th.  Now it's time to watch how the messaging is managed by the political parties.

This is always a good lesson for executives.  It's worth seeing how those who are spending inordinate amounts of money work to make their particular case - for themselves as well as for their party.

It's a vision thing.  Not just saying it - but helping others to see it.

It's also a values thing.  By going positive or negative, a tone and direction are set for where the constituency - whether voters or shareholders and employees - understand the enterprise to be going and how it will get there.

And finally, it's a trust thing.  Because when all is said and done, your people - those constituencies again - look to you to determine whether they can trust what you're saying and where you're taking the enterprise.

That's why the new ad from the Liberal Democrats is such a good example of how it's done when it's done well.

It's balanced yet hopeful.  The focus is on the Party's Leader, Nick Clegg, but the language is inclusive and the message is personally directed to the viewer/listener.  There's a sense of movement - including the way he walks through the "litter" of broken promises by the other parties - all going in a new direction.  One in which he is taking them.

It's also low budget.  Probably the biggest expense was getting all the papers all over the streets and then getting them cleaned up afterwards.  (I'm putting my money on all of it being recycled, too - even any computer generated litter.)

What's most important about how this was positioned is that it takes greatest advantage of the fact that the LibDems are:

  • the underdog party (third of three),
  • never taken seriously as a contender for leadership of the country (because the conventional wisdom has always been that it will always go either to the Labour or Conservative Parties), and
  • have a young, comparatively untried Party Leader going up against Leaders who are more experienced and well-known than he.
As a result, the LibDems had to nail a way of getting a larger population interested in doing something more and different than before - trusting in and voting for their Party.

You may have nothing to do with the British elections and even if you have no intention of doing a commercial or even a video-conference with your employees, this is worth the watch.  It's a great lesson in how to get your message across to your people that they're in the right place, that you're the right leader and that it is well worth their time, action and trust to follow where you're taking them and the enterprise.

Clegg and the LibDems succeeding in nailing how an executive can present him- or her- self as a trusted leader.  It will give you food for thought as you consider how you want to message the future of your organization to your employees and investors.

Twitter, TARP and Getting Your Message Across

Recently, there were two interesting articles in the New York Times - one having nothing to do with the other.  At least on the surface.

In fact, they were both about exactly the same thing:  Messaging and communication.  In their own ways, they both dealt directly with how and whether those who are communicating are getting their points across.

More importantly, they were about the risks that different forms of communication have for those who convey them.

We'll take them one at a time.

First, Andrew Ross Sorkin, whose DealBook column is always worth the read, addressed the "good news" that the US Treasury periodically, strategically, leaks to make it sound as if the bank bailout is working.

Sorkin's point is not whether it is actually working or not (and, depending upon the measure you use, it can be argued either way).  It is that, more importantly, people don't believe that it's working.

It doesn't matter what the Treasury is saying.  Or Congress.  Or the bankers, themselves.  Especially the bankers.  And Congress.  And the Treasury.

To the people who are listening, it doesn't feel like the bailout is working - at least not on their behalf.  The actions that people see don't agree with the outcomes that are being lauded.  Loans are still hard to arrange.  Small businesses are still suffering as a result of limited credit.  The low interest rates the banks are benefiting from aren't being extended to the consumer.

All of which - and more - means that, to those who are listening to the "good news," it simply isn't true.  And that makes those who are conveying the news liars to those who are listening.

The second article of note is the announcement that the Library of Congress is going to save and archive Tweets.  Starting back from the beginning.  Every day's cache of Tweets.  At today's utilization rate, that's a treasure trove of fifty-five million Tweets a day.

Why this is of note is because, in direct contrast to the Treasury's, Congress's and the bankers' careful messaging, Tweets tend not to be as well thought out.  Nor are they usually considered legacy communications.

They're just thoughts.  Random.  Fun.  Sometimes pointed.  Sometimes mean.

And now discoverable.

Sure, the Library of Congress says that it is only for scholarship and research and, sure, Twitter says that only those without the necessary privacy settings will go in the archive.  Sure.

Which raises the question:  What have you been Tweeting?

One of the things my clients know about me - which usually drives them nuts - is that I am a great believer in information management.  You need to be forward thinking in deciding, carefully and strategically, what information needs to be conveyed, when and to whom - and what needs to be held close.

Internally, you need to make sure that your employees know what they need to know - usually more than many executives think they need to tell their people.  That's because unless your employees at all levels know why they are doing something, with all the good intentions in the world, they'll do their best and unintentionally go the wrong way.

They won't know the outcome you're looking for so, they won't know that they're taking the organization further away from it rather than directly to it.

Worse, if they're getting their information from elsewhere - anywhere else - they're getting someone else's version of what you want them to know.  And that is simply dangerous to the future of the enterprise because now you're dealing with someone else's agenda.

Not yours and not your organization's.

So you need to talk with your employees about strategy and finance and competitive landscape.  You need to engage them and encourage their thinking.  Then you need to listen to the answers that they give you - from the sublime to the ridiculous - because somewhere in there is an answer to a question you never even knew you needed to ask.

In contrast, if your message is too well constructed - to the point of being the equivalent of media "talking points" and all anyone hears is the exact same phrase over and over again (much like the information on the bank bailouts - no matter which side you're on), that won't engender belief or support.  Just mistrust.

Then you need to think externally.  That side now consists of the often too casual commentary that comes out in executive blogs and Tweets.  On Facebook and MySpace.  Even the commentary you include with your Flickr images of everything from family photos to vacation videos to professional conferences and presentations.  All those places where you just say what you say - not thinking that anyone beyond your immediate circle will see it or be interested.

Not anymore.  Especially not now that Tweets will live in the Library of Congress.  Forever.

Think back to when the internal Microsoft emails were, for the first time, included in an anti-monopoly lawsuit against the company.  They were a turning point in the consideration of the case and led to an international change in how that company had to do business.

No one ever thought they'd be out there for anyone to see.  They were wrong.

Now, inclusion of any accessible communique is considered normal in legal proceedings - civil and criminal.  Every possible form of communication is going to be subpoenaed and discovered to see if the content will help the cause.  Either side.  It doesn't matter.

But it has to matter to you.

What you say - no matter what the medium or venue - has importance.  Your employees, shareholders, analysts, customers - everyone in any way connected to your organization, no matter the size, industry or sector - is impacted by your words.  Because your words become the drivers for their actions and reactions.

Communication is an art and a science.  At least the messaging part of it is.  Most particularly the construction of those messages.

But if you're consistent in your dealings and messages; if you don't patronize or underestimate your audience; if you think ahead to the outcome of what you're trying to get across and what it will take to get there; and, most important, if you're honest in giving the information that those who access your message need to know, the extent of the outcomes will surprise you with their upside.

There is nothing more valuable than trust in an executive.  Your name.  Your reputation.

When you pay attention to what you're saying - and say it right - you'll create wins that extend and expand long after the message, itself, was conveyed.