The basics of communication

I just viewed a news story about a company that lost 70 years of customer goodwill in a few days. It takes a long time to build a good reputation but only a few ill-conceived company responses to tear it all down.

Knowing what your company stands for and preparing key messages can help during challenging times, as well as in all communications.

Although we all think our businesses are immune to a media onslaught, think again. In the example above, one person was fed up with the company's poor customer service policies. With no social media experience, the customer started his own Facebook group, encouraging people to pile on the company and post bad experiences. No expenses were incurred for the angry customer, only time and motivation. The online venting then caught the interest of the local news media. So, the complaints were multiplying because the television news media started covering what these unhappy customers were saying online. That's not the end of it. Poorly prepared, the company spokesperson got angry on camera and handled the media improperly, which added fuel to the fire. She blamed the customers and complaints for her woes. The company had to field all of the escalating complaints coming into the customer call center because of the interview, as well as responding to even more media interest. The Facebook group now has 350 members creating constant activity.

From routine business to a madhouse. Without being prepared, this can happen to your business, too. You've got to stay close to your stakeholder groups to know what's being said about your company.

Stakeholders for me in the "old world" (a few years ago) would have been the media. Today they include customers, activist groups, employees, investor groups, and environmental groups.

Although it is important to monitor what is being said about your company online and in social media networks, this column is not about social media. It is about the very basics of communications. Even if you don't have an extensive communications plan, companies should have basic messages written and adopted. These then become the foundation for all company communications.

Targeted, clear and consistent messages instill trust and confidence in your company because people know what to expect. They should be used in all forms of communications from what management and employees say about the company, to what is in your promotional materials, and what to say when the media calls because some customer is not happy with your company.

Defining your messaging points is the first step in a quality communications process. The key points must be aimed at providing people with the message and commitments that you want to get across. As you look through all of your existing materials and online presence, you already have recurring messages about your company, product and services. This is about getting deliberate and consistent in doing so, if you haven't already. The following areas are good topics to start with:

customer service, sales, recruitment, research and development, values, operations, environmental stewardship, reliability, etc. There can be more than one message point for each area.

When the company spokesperson mentioned above got the media call, key messages could have prevailed instead of frustration. Some examples that might have been used: We are committed to answering customer feedback within 24 hours. Our policies protect all customers. We are committed to resolving customer problems quickly and efficiently. We listen to customers and are receptive to their points of view. Always follow the message point with what you are doing specifically about the current situation.

Don't think, however, that messaging is only needed when you are in a crunch. It is even more important for building customer loyalty and employee and stakeholder trust. If your key messages are conflicting, or different among communication channels, you will portray an inconsistent and unstable company.

Here are a few hints to get you going:

* Who are your targets (internal and external) and what do they want to hear about your company? Make your messages relevant how it benefits them directly.

* What promises, statements or descriptions, about your product or service, should be used at all times? Messages should be about facts and what you can deliver. Goals and dreams belong in your strategic plan.

* The messaging points should be concise. Readers should be able to quickly understand the key messages, and explain the content to others.

* Use plain language; keep messages simple, but not simplistic. It neither talks down to the reader, nor dumbs-down content. It structures information logically, in familiar terms.

* Show the benefits, just don't tell them. If you have to say something is quality, then it's not. Quality or benefit should be demonstrated in an understandable way.

When you are finished, you should be able to say, "This is what our company is all about our brand." Now use these messages in all forms of communication: from conversations to annual reports, from your Web site to tweets.

It takes a long time to build a good reputation but only a few minutes, or one public response, to tear it all down. Company reputations are fragile, which is why communicators spend so much time worrying about it.

Marlene Olsen is president of Olsen & Associates, public relations agency in Reno. Contact her through the company's Web site,


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