How Stock Images Can Help—or Hurt—Your Brand

How Stock Images Can Help—or Hurt—Your Brand

Images draw us to blogs and social media posts, increasing engagement and shares. Images make websites unique and act as a visual extension of your organization’s brand. Images also turn simple printed brochures and flyers into memorable collateral.

However, unless you have a full-time staff photographer, you may not know where to find the best images, or in what context you can use them. Using stock photos in your design and branding efforts is often necessary, but you must source and use them correctly. Understanding image licensing terms is critical. Have you fallen in love with a photo, but it’s marked “editorial use only”? What if you need to use a photo of a celebrity or a well-known landmark? You may face the risk of copyright violation and a legal takedown notice. Aside from legal issues, a badly chosen photo reflects poorly on your brand and may not reach your target audience.

Copyright and Licensing Terms to Understand

Before looking at potential sources for images, it may be useful to review image licensing terms.

  • Royalty-free: This license type permits you to use the images for multiple purposes without having to pay a royalty fee for each use. Most stock images you find through online services fall under this definition. This license type also means you can use the same image both on your website and in printed material.
  • Commercial use: Stock photos licensed for commercial use can be used in ad campaigns, brochures, websites, and other places in print or digital where you promote or sell services or raise awareness for your business. This also applies to indirect ways you may promote your business, including blog posts and social media.
  • Editorial use: These are photos of recognizable people and places without model or property releases. You can use them to illustrate news articles, but not for commercial use. An article about a trend featuring a celebrity is acceptable; however, using that same photo on your website or brochure is not.
  • Creative Commons: This license type enables the free distribution of an otherwise copyrighted work. These images may be free, but they may require attribution. There are several types of licenses; see the Creative Commons FAQ for a detailed discussion.

Sources for Images: Paying for Stock Images

You can’t just grab images you find while performing a Google search and use them in your blogs or social media for free, with no payment or attribution. The simplest way to avoid issues is to purchase stock images. Shutterstock, iStock, Getty Images, and Adobe Stock Photos are good sites to start you on your stock photo journey. Most stock photos will require a license purchase to use them in a commercial capacity.

When searching for stock images, make sure that there are no specific names or dates that are associated with the image, title, or metadata. These specific images are editorial use only, and can only be used to illustrate news articles. To find images that are cleared for commercial use, search for broad terms that don’t infringe on events, celebrities, or certain landmarks.

Stock image companies have multiple levels of licensing. For example, Bigstock makes distinctions between “Standard” and “Extended” based on whether it will be used in print or digitally, and how many times the image will be reproduced. Remember, how the image will be used matters.

The bottom line: Determine the use of an image before setting your heart on a particular image―and do your homework on the correct licensing options to use.

Sources for Images: Free ImagesFinding free images that do not have licenses can be difficult, but two good places to start are Google Images with “Labeled for reuse or modification” checked. (You may still have to credit the author to use these images.) Some sites for free stock photos include:

Using Images to Enhance Your Brand

Besides licensing and usage of stock image, there are bigger questions to ask about the images you select. Are they a good fit for your brand and your message? A consistent brand means your communications have a sense of visual identity and cohesiveness, in terms of palette and message. This extends to your choice of images.

  • Clichéd, overused imagery does your brand no favors. Try to avoid obvious choices for stock photos, or think about using them in a fresh way. For example, images can be cropped to change focus.
  • Images also have to be appropriate for the audience. What grabs Millennial consumers is not the same as what appeals to a B2B audience of top-level managers and business decision makers.
  • Match the image to the content. An image related to the content of the post gives readers a preview into the content, and helps make it more likely they will click, read, and engage.
  • Make imagery consistent in style and tone. Websites with multiple images that are uniquely different without a theme connecting them creates a haphazard tone and may work against the professional standard you want to achieve.

These tips apply no matter where you use stock images, including websites, social media, blogs, or printed materials. If selecting stock images feels overwhelming, experienced graphic designers can work with you to understand your brand and recommend images that engage your intended audience, complement your content, and make the most of your budget. Used wisely, stock images can make your digital content shine and your brochures pop. 

Elements of a Successful Video

Elements of a Successful Video Script

Video content, whether for marketing or for outreach, isn’t just a trend anymore. It should be an integral part of your communications strategy. Videos can build emotional connections while delivering complex information in a fashion that is easier to digest than a dense page of text.

However, not all videos make an impact. No matter how compelling your photographs or images may be, an excellent video must start with a compelling script. When creating your video script, start with a clear goal, an interesting storyline, and an ear for sound.

A Tight Focus on Your Goal

The most effective videos are two to three minutes long. Just like online content must be concise, video content must appeal to the same short attention span. Given this time constraint, your video must have a specific goal and a tight purpose. The value of the video should be immediately clear. Videos that are slow to get underway may be high-quality videos, but they risk lower viewership. Here are a few basic video types to help you clarify your goals:

  • Explainer videos. Do you need to educate your audience about a new or difficult concept? Are you offering educational content that establishes you as a thought leader? Or do you just need an introduction to your company? Look for an interesting angle to explain information.
  • Testimonial videos. Real people talking about their experiences with your company can build trust, credibility, and emotional connections. At the same time, “talking head” videos risk losing viewer attention quickly. Find a way to combine the personal connection of a testimonial with additional visuals that provide viewing interest.
  • Demonstration videos. Do you have a new product or a new feature? Walk your viewers through it using the same UX approach you would apply to your website to ensure your customers’ questions and needs are met.

A Crisp Story

Once you have established your goal, focus on the story that your video will tell. Storytelling isn’t just for fiction; it’s a popular concept in the world of content marketing and communications. While it might seem hard to apply storytelling to your professional video at first, all good stories have a beginning, an obstacle to overcome, and a conclusion. Here’s a sample arc:

  • Introduce the problem. What problems are your viewers or potential customers facing?
  • Talk about your solution. How does your company or product solve those problems?
  • Make a call to action. What should your viewers do next? This can be as complex as “Subscribe to our newsletter” or “Sign up for a webinar.” Or it can be as simple as “Contact us.”

A Script Written for the Ear

Writing for the spoken voice, and the ear, is different than writing other genres of online content. Some tips to keep in mind include:

  • Use a more conversational, informal approach. What looks good as written content can sound formal and stilted when read aloud.
  • Write to your audience. At the same time, your tone and your word choice must be targeted for your audience. Will they appreciate technical detail or a high-level overview? Is humor appropriate?
  • Use short, concise sentences. Complex sentences and an overabundance of jargon make it easy for your point to get lost in translation.
  • Read it yourself. Read it aloud to yourself, or have someone read it to you. Do this not only to see how easy it is to hear and read but also to determine how long it takes. There are several online timers that can help you keep your script within your time limit.

Voice-over, visuals, and music will complete your video package, but it all has to start with a strong script. If you haven’t created a video before, video professionals can help you brainstorm your goals and story ideas into a well-written script and put it together with effective images and music to set the tone and deliver your message.

When People Become the Brand

When People Become the Brand

Using familiar faces as part of a company’s brand is a tactic as old as advertising. These faces come in many forms. Allstate’s campaigns over the years give us two examples. Dennis Haysbert, the former president from the TV series “24,” is a reassuring voice of calm wisdom and example of a spokesperson. On the flip side, Allstate also has the long-running character Mayhem, played by Dean Winters, instigating an untold number of hideous accidents; Mayhem is an example of a mascot.

These faces have provided recognition, branding identity, and an element of humor to Allstate’s ads. Both actors have been associated with the brand for years, which brings up the broader issue about using people as part of branding and marketing campaigns. Celebrity endorsements, brand ambassadors, spokespeople, and mascots are all different ways a brand can be tied to a certain face—and this can be a liability. What are the risks of using people in marketing, and what happens when a brand and a person become too closely entwined?


The “Vampire Effect”

As defined by marketing experts, the “vampire effect” refers to a celebrity endorsement that overshadows the product or brand being endorsed. The celebrity drains the lifeblood from his or her hapless victim­—the company or product being advertised—so much so that customer’s recall of the brand is significantly reduced. A team of professors in Europe conducted a brand recall study where participants were broken into two groups. Half viewed an ad with Cindy Crawford endorsing a hair coloring product, and half viewed an ad without a celebrity. In the study, brand name recall was significantly lower for the celebrity group participants than for the group who saw an ad with an unknown, but equally attractive, endorser. Celebrity endorsement impacted ad success in two ways: higher cost for the celebrity endorsement and lower product recall from advertisement viewers.

Worst Case Scenarios

For many years, actor Paul Marcarelli was the face for Verizon’s famous “Can you hear me now?” catchphrase. His work for Verizon ended in 2011, but in 2016 he became a well-known face for service provider Sprint. This is one example of a worst-case scenario for celebrity faces: Sprint was able to take Marcarelli’s fame gained from a competitor, and turn it to their own advantage. While a win for Sprint, it turned into an embarrassment for Verizon.

There can much, much worse outcomes than embarrassment, however, when real people turn toxic for brands overnight. Jared Fogle from Subway is the most infamous example. A real-life brand ambassador famous for losing weight on a diet of Subway sandwiches, Jared helped Subway grow for many years. Jared and Subway were working together on a rebranding campaign as late as June 2015. But the relationship went terribly wrong in July 2015 when Jared was investigated for spectacularly ugly crimes involving child porn and sex with minors. This public relations disaster broke when Subway was already suffering from sluggish sales after a decade of growth, and facing competition from newcomers such as Jersey Mike’s.

When Faces Fit the Brand

Flo, with Progressive Insurance since 2008, is another face made famous by a brand, but in an effective way. Played by Stephanie Courtney, Flo has appeared in hundreds of television ads and other content, even direct mail. Why has she worked so well? Flo hits the right mix of humor and relatability.

Flo from Progressive
Source: Progressive Insurance

With a background in comedy, Courtney was encouraged to improvise during the spots, thought of more as episodes than ads. Jeff Charney, CMO of Progressive, spoke about the success in Chief Marketer. “Get the right content in the right context and you’ll make a connection—conversion will come. … We’re crafting a network of content.”

Better Ways to Use People in Branding

Negative examples of using people as brand ambassadors, spokespeople, or mascots abound in marketing, yet the lure of familiar faces still holds power. How can companies avoid pitfalls?

  • Make sure the celebrity is a good fit. Is the celebrity spokesperson (or mascot) an appropriate fit for your brand—or could he or she pose a risk?
  • Avoid the vampire effect. The authors behind the vampire effect study cited earlier note that the effect can be mitigated by a strong, well-designed campaign that doesn’t let a face or name overwhelm what’s being advertised. Use focus groups to test the vampire effect before an ad runs.
  • Consider different kinds of celebrities. Think about bloggers and others who might be well-known within a niche or expertise that matches your brand and your product or services—and who could communicate genuine passion about your brand.
  • Consider different kinds of relationships. Dell Computers has formed a partnership with Adrian Grenier, formerly of the TV series “Entourage,” and the nonprofit he founded, the Lonely Whale Foundation. Grenier is Dell’s first “social good” advocate, working with the technology company on their sustainability initiatives. This is a great example of a new kind of brand ambassadorship focused around not just simply endorsing a product, but enhancing a brand through a social responsibility campaign—and doing real good in the process.

In the end, familiar faces and compelling stories should humanize your brand—not eclipse it. For more strategic communications, marketing, and branding insights, contact us.

Avoiding Proposal Mistakes

Avoiding Proposal Mistakes

Reaching the Finish Line: Avoiding Proposal Mistakes

Writing a winning response to a federal government request for proposal (RFP) is a complex process involving disparate elements: teamwork and individual effort, planning and last-minute pushes, structure and creativity. The result is a carefully crafted proposal that wins the contract. However, with many moving parts, proposals can go off the rails at almost any stage in the process. What mistakes could be standing in the way of a win?

At the Beginning: Starting Too Late

Waiting until the final RFP has been released to start working on your response may seem like the most efficient use of resources. However, this conservative thinking could lock you into what could be a tight timeframe.

Work can begin as soon as you identify an upcoming bid that looks like the right opportunity for your company. Frequently, the government will release a draft RFP that you can reference for specific requirements. Likewise, for re-compete situations, a previous RFP can provide direction. This extra time can be effectively used to develop your proposal solution, create outlines, confirm your team and gather their data, concept graphics, and write past performance profiles. If the draft requirements seem incomplete or contradictory, prepare questions early. Having this extra time transforms your proposal sprint into a manageable long-distance—and hopefully winning—run.

At the Beginning: Non-Compliance

Compliance is the single most critical ingredient to winning proposals, and it affects every part of your document. While compliance with page count, font size, and margins is obvious, compliance also encompasses the requirements of the performance work statement or statement of work, informing the overall structure of your proposal. Careful analysis of the RFP (“shredding”), planning, outlines, and compliance tracking spreadsheets are all tools to use at different stages of the process to ensure every aspect is in compliance.

At the Beginning: Lack of Strategy

Proposal writing requires compliance, but it also takes strategy and creativity. When confronted with a deadline, it can be tempting to jump directly into writing the required sections and volumes. However, a winning response requires big-picture thinking. What is your strategy that informs your response? What are your win themes? What story are you telling? Take some time while analyzing your RFP to flex your creative muscles. Strategic planning will ensure a cohesive proposal instead of a choppy narrative.

In the Middle: Requirement Parroting

Using key words and phrases from the RFP is a good idea, and a way to achieve compliance. However, simply repeating or even rephrasing requirements or tasks is not the best approach. You may fill up page space, but your content will not be enough to convince an evaluator. At best, this parroting will make it seem as if you do not have a complete understanding of the work requirement or of how you will approach it. At worst, it appears that you are bluffing your way through the proposal and hoping that no one will notice. It is important to work with subject matter experts and writers to develop real answers to requirements.

In the Middle: Not Differentiating Yourself

When worrying about compliance, technical details, formatting, and data calls it can be easy to forget about the most essential duty of your proposal: selling yourself. What value does your company offer? How can you provide innovative solutions? Your selling point—for example, experience, value, or skilled personnel—can be a resonating theme woven throughout your proposal content. Avoid getting so bogged down in the details of the proposal that you forget emphasize your company’s value.

In the Middle: Sluggish Writing

When writing for a proposal, writers can find themselves slipping into a passive, jargon-based language with a lot of extraneous phrases and bloated phrasing. Keep your proposal writing sharp, concise, and active. Additionally, you may notice that a certain section of text may work better translated into a graphic image. This serves the dual purpose of breaking up the page for the reviewer and potentially conveying your ideas and approach more effectively. Your solutions will stand out, and your page count will thank you for trimming the bulk.

At the Finish: No Final Edit

The planning process should build in time for final editing and proofreading right after gold team review and before final production to catch any last inconsistencies, typos, or grammatical mistakes. Are you dealing with acronyms in a consistent way by defining once, then using the abbreviation? Do you maintain a consistency and formatting checklist to help ensure a clean, uniform response? The last day can be chaotic if last minute questions & answers or a change in personnel throw a wrench in your carefully built proposal. Keeping checklists that help ensure a final polish will keep your sanity in check before proposal submission while also potentially being the difference between getting a great evaluation or being tossed aside.

Every step of the proposal process, from management to writing to editing, poses a different set of challenges. Dealing head-on with potential missteps ahead of time will improve your process, but needs careful planning. If your company could use assistance with proposal management, writing, or graphics, our experts can provide the help you need at each step. Contact Breck Inc. for more information on how we can help.

Breck is a MarCom Platinum Award Winner for 2017

Breck is a MarCom Platinum Award Winner for 2017

Breck Inc., a strategic communications and marketing company, has been recognized as a 2017 MarCom Awards Platinum Winner in the “Strategic Marketing to Specialized Professionals” category. The company was awarded for their work on behalf of Circinus, LLC. The MarCom Awards recognize outstanding achievement by professionals involved in the concept, direction, design, and production of marketing and communication materials and programs.

Breck was tasked by Circinus to help the company rebrand, expand new opportunities, develop detailed explanations of their Threat Deterrence products, and support the company’s overall mission of bringing real solutions to today’s most pressing security and intelligence issues.

The Breck team developed a strategy that began with a refreshed branding, logo design, and a new website and extended into a comprehensive marketing campaign. Circinus utilized Breck’s full suite of services including research and planning, content writing, graphic design, video production, search engine optimization, product research, product marketing, and collateral designed for print and digital distribution for audiences in law enforcement and the intelligence community.

“Our team monitored, researched, and analyzed current events for relevancy,” said Breck President Sarah Long. “We looked for opportunities to connect Circinus’s products to events happening in real time. Combining extensive research with an understanding of Circinus’s business strategy and products, we focused on content that would be impactful to our audience.”

MarCom winners are selected from more than 300 categories in print, web, video, and strategic communications. MarCom is one of the most prestigious creative competitions in the world, and is sponsored and judged by the Association of Marketing and Communication Professionals (AMCP), a 23-year-old international organization.

Breck Inc. is an Economically Disadvantaged Woman-Owned Small Business (EDWOSB) providing professional marketing, management consulting, communications, and multimedia services to federal and state government, private sector, and non-profit clients. Breck staff build and deliver successful programs that motivate thoughtful, meaningful action.

508 Compliance

508 Compliance

508 Compliance: Beyond the Checklist

Today, nearly everyone is aware of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination of Americans with disabilities and requires accessibility to public spaces. Not as many people are aware that government websites, like public buildings, have their own accessibility requirements known as Section 508.

Even those who are aware of Section 508 requirements may not understand their full impact. Section 508 compliance is not just a simple checklist; it’s a commitment to accessibility that has a real impact on the public and all stakeholders. Contractors developing websites for the U.S. government are among those who must demonstrate a thorough understanding of Section 508 requirements.

What Is Section 508?

In 1998, Congress amended the existing Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to require that all federal agencies make their electronic and information technology accessible to both employees and members of the public who have disabilities. This need for accessibility impacts both website design and documents, including PDF and Word. This doesn’t mean separate websites or documents for those with disabilities; instead, the same website or document should be universally accessible.

Why Does Section 508 Matter to Stakeholders?

When thinking about Section 508, it helps to pull back and get the big picture about its true impact. What does compliance mean in human terms? Think about users with vision problems who rely on audio Assistive Technology (AT) to navigate websites and apps, or who might not be able to easily differentiate colors. Consider other users with mobility difficulties, such as veterans with spinal cord injuries who may need to use AT such as adaptive keyboards or head wands; for these users, websites need to be easily accessed through keyboard strokes. Complying with these standards helps government agencies carry out their missions and helps everyday people access the information they need.

Section 508 and Assistive Technology

In practical terms, websites and documents must be readable and easily navigable for those who need to use AT, such as that found in Apple’s iOS, Windows 10, or third-party tools including the popular screen reader JAWS. Making websites and documents accessible to people with disabilities has to do not only with design but also with the entire approach to content. Some examples of 508 standards include:

  • Understandable link text. For example, instead of a link that reads “Click here,” try “Click here for more information about home loans.
  • Smart use of color. Colors used must have a high contrast.

This is accessible.
This is not.

In addition, information shouldn’t be conveyed by color alone.  For example, in the “Favorite Color Survey” in the graphic below, simply showing the color blue is not enough. The word “blue” must also be used.

Favorite Color Survey

  • Descriptive alt tags. Every image needs a descriptive alt tag that can be clearly understood by those using AT; the alt tag should describe the content of the image. This allows someone with a visual impairment to hear the description and not miss out on important content. (To see an alt tag in action, hover over the image above with your mouse.)
  • Navigable with a keyboard. Most AT for people with motor disabilities either work through the keyboard or emulate the functionality of the keyboard. Website content needs to be accessible to the keyboard with as few keystrokes as possible.

Beyond the Compliance Checklist

The examples noted above are just the beginning. Web designers and writers can find Section 508 compliance checklists all over the Internet. (For example, here’s a 508 checklist from the National Weather Service.) However, compliance with Section 508 means more than simply comparing your site against a checklist.

  • Training. Gaining a thorough understanding of Section 508 best practices often requires training, either online or in person.
  • Testing. Compliance and user testing for Section 508 technical requirements for software, websites, and documents is required (29 U.S.C. § 794 (d)), including testing against available AT.
  • Reporting. Some agencies require reporting on efforts to comply with Section 508 standards.

If your company does business with the federal government, Section 508 might seem like a burden. Yet compliance is not optional for government agencies. Contractors responsible for web design and development, or other communications or documentation, need to understand how to meet these standards. Is your own corporate website accessible and compliant with Section 508? Has your marketing team received Section 508 training? Even though it is not mandatory for private firms to comply, it’s good business practice to showcase your understanding of these compliance standards and accessibility with your own communications, including your website, newsletters, brochures, and even proposals.

For contractors serving the government, understanding and complying with Section 508 simply makes good business sense—as well as good human sense. If you need help with navigating Section 508 compliance issues, we can help you work compliance into your business practices and train your team.

Beyond Crisis: Marketing for Charities (Part 3 of 3)

Beyond Crisis: Marketing for Charities (Part 3 of 3)

With Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Maria, western wildfires, and other natural disasters fresh in our memory, we at Breck are thinking about those affected, and inspired by the many organizations and volunteers who have stepped up to help. We are also thinking about the roles that marketing and communications play in emergencies and for nonprofits and charities as they solicit donations and volunteers. In the third of our three-part series, we’ll discuss marketing and nonprofits.

Many nonprofits and charities have answered the calls for help that emerged from the many recent hurricanes. As they have for other disasters in the past, these organizations can meet needs that governments often can’t. We’ve written about effective crisis, and the critical importance of credibility during emergencies. Now let’s take a look at how can marketing help charities reach much-needed potential donors and volunteers both during emergencies and beforehand so they can be poised to act quickly when disaster strikes.

Marketing, Fundraising, Development

You may not realize it, but these go hand in hand. Development is about building and developing long-term, sustaining relationships with donors and potential donors. Fundraising is specific, short-term, and may be about events, product sales or other efforts to get donations. And marketing, well, it’s a critical tool leveraged to meet goals and achieve missions, to make introductions and keep up a group’s reputation. It’s not just about selling.

  • Marketing supports development. If development is about long-term relationships, marketing can make the first introduction with a well-placed social media post or online ad.
  • Marketing supports fundraising. Marketing spreads the news about product sales and events that bring in funds and awareness. Girl Scout Cookies and the Komen Race for the Cure are famous examples.
  • Marketing spreads your message to receptive ears. It can build awareness about a group’s mission and values.
  • Marketing builds your brand and credibility. Branding doesn’t just mean logos and colors; it means consistent identity and credibility—and credibility is critically important when it comes to messaging, fundraising, and volunteer recruitment.
  • Marketing efforts recruit volunteers. As with development, marketing helps make the vital introduction and points potential volunteers to the front door.

Planning for the Unexpected

A better understanding of marketing and nonprofits helps when thinking about emergency response. Marketing supports emergency response efforts. Marketing identifies groups you want to target; helps you choose the best channels to reach them; and crafts consistent messaging that will resonate. Marketing will also have laid the groundwork that makes audiences receptive to your message by preserving the credibility and branding that makes an organization trustworthy.

In short, marketing makes it possible for groups to be ready for emergencies. A marketing plan for emergencies can include:

  • Roles and responsibilities. Designating who’s in charge of emails, social media, and other elements is critical.
  • Content templates. It’s smart to prepare language ahead of time for worst-case scenarios that you can quickly put in place.
  • SEO strategies. Can your group be found quickly when donors are searching for your cause or the areas you serve?
  • Messaging with impact. What makes your organization the right one to receive and manage donations? Why should donors choose you? Why should volunteers help? What services do you provide, and how will you use the donations? Specificity is important in emergencies. Be prepared to share your story.

Marketing has an enormous role for nonprofits. In emergencies, a marketing and communications plan can make all the difference. Professional communicators can help you refine messaging and develop plans to ensure you’re prepared when crisis breaks.

While we’re thinking about charities that make a difference, consider donating today to Team Rubicon!

Why Is Trust Essential to Emergency Communications? (Part 2 of 3)

Why Is Trust Essential to Emergency Communications? (Part 2 of 3)

With Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Maria, western wildfires, and other natural disasters fresh in our memory, we at Breck are thinking about those affected, and are inspired by the many organizations and volunteers who have stepped up to help. We are thinking about the roles that marketing and communications play in emergencies and for nonprofits and charities as they solicit donations and volunteers. In the second of our three-part series, we’ll discuss the role reputation and brand play in emergency and crisis communications.

In our blog, Breck has discussed and of crisis communications, with companies and organizations coping with scandals and bad news. With recent natural disasters in mind, crisis communication takes on a new meaning. People need swift, accurate information about safety and measures they need to take. There’s far more to crisis communication, however, than saying the right words at the right time. In times of emergency, the most important tool for a government agency or a nonprofit is its reputation for trustworthiness.

Lessons in Trust from Business

Many in Texas were inspired by how the largest grocer in the state, H-E-B, worked tirelessly to support its communities during Hurricane Harvey. The astonishing work, planning, and commitment it took to keep stores up and running with essentials during the worst of the flooding serves as an inspiration. It also shows the power of reputation and trust for any organization. Scott McClelland, president of the chain’s Houston division, talked about that trust:

“I do the commercials for H-E-B in Houston, so people know who I am. So, as I walked in the store, people would come up and hug me and thank us for making the effort to open because the Kroger across the street wasn’t open. The Walmart down the street wasn’t open. One woman walked up and started crying and she hugged me to thank us for being open.”

How can this be replicated? The answer: There’s no quick way. Trust and reputation build upon years of good work.

Considering Credibility

To put it bluntly, for messages to be trusted people need to trust their source. Nonprofit and government agencies at all levels entrusted with crisis communications must protect their reputations. And a trusted reputation isn’t just about branding, although brand and reputation can go hand in hand.

Credibility is a priceless asset that enables organizations to carry out their missions. The best emergency response—credibility risk management—happens long before emergencies happen. Credibility risk management is a continuous process that safeguards that asset. Reputation is all about perception, and when the public has a negative perception of an organization’s character or results, it poses a risk to brand and reputation.

So, how can organizations reduce that risk?

Reputation Risks

An organization’s trustworthiness can be impacted in multiple ways. Fair or not, justified or not, reputation risks can arise quickly and create damage that takes years to repair. What are major risk areas to monitor?

  • Policies and programs, and their public perception. If promises aren’t kept or missions are carried out poorly, reputation takes a hit.
  • Members or employees of the organization. Irresponsible or harmful actions or words damage the whole organization and its messages.
  • Outside influencers. Talk and news, including social media, moves swiftly. Is your organization ready to respond?

Protecting Your Reputation

Enhancing and protecting an organization’s credibility and reputation involves strategic communications planning, branding, and outreach. However, it’s important to remember than communications alone cannot protect credibility. This begins with maintaining trust with stakeholders, fulfilling promises, and adhering to strong ethics. Here’s what’s involved when it comes to managing risks to an organization’s credibility:

  • Self-assessments of policies and programs, and how they are perceived
  • Engagement and honest communications with the public and stakeholders through multiple channels, including social media monitoring
  • Social responsibility as a policy, not a photo opportunity
  • Accountability for individuals within the organization at all levels
  • Sound, transparent governance policies and leadership

Mitigating Risks, Fixing Damage

Effective communications can build and enhance credibility with stakeholders and the public. When there is a perception of mistrust, effective crisis communications can help restore credibility. A plan for crisis communications and responding to emergencies is critical, but, more importantly, nothing can beat protective risk management strategies, as discussed above.

How can organizations assess credibility risk, and ensure that their messages and their brand inspire trust and confidence? The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) offers the RiskSmart™ tool to help assess reputation and credibility risks, among their many excellent crisis communications resources. When it comes to communications-focused work, professional communicators can help you analyze and respond to risks, develop plans, write press releases, and monitor social media channels. In the third part of this series, we will discuss messaging and branding specifically for nonprofits. Credibility risk management means that vital messages are trusted—and a trustworthy reputation is an investment with an incalculably high return.

Beyond Crisis: Effective Communication During Emergencies (Part 1 of 3)

Beyond Crisis: Effective Communication During Emergencies
(Part of 1 of 3)

With Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Maria, western wildfires, and other natural disasters fresh in our memory, we at Breck are thinking about those affected, and are inspired by the many organizations and volunteers who have stepped up to help. We are thinking about the roles that marketing and communications play in emergencies and for nonprofits and charities as they solicit donations and volunteers. In the first of our three-part series, we’ll examine effective emergency communications.

Crisis communications are top-of-mind with the recent disasters affecting the country. Breck has discussed poorly handled crisis communications, including a great example in our blog. But emergency communications to the public impact safety at a different level. When coping with emergencies and disasters (man-made or natural), how can communicators achieve the greatest impact when relaying vital information? What can be learned from the world of marketing and applied to these situations?

Consider the Audience

In marketing, audience segmentation is the key to effective campaigns. Demographics help target and refine messages tailored to audiences and stakeholders. Similarly, organizations charged with communicating with these groups must perform population assessments to understand the right way to frame communications, and barriers that might stand in the way of messages being understood and acted upon.  Groups can be narrowed down by many factors, including

  • Ethnicity and language
  • Location
  • Education level
  • Age
  • Family status (for example, married, single, with or without children)

These factors help marketers determine effective messages, images, and channels. This audience understanding is even more important when it comes to emergency communications. As in traditional marketing, special populations with unique needs must be identified. Understanding audiences means understanding any barriers and overcoming them:

  • Speaking a different language.
    Do messages need translation?
  • Messages with clear meanings.
    Will messages or recommended actions be misunderstood or even taken as an affront by members of the group in question?
  • Physical or mental impairments.
    Are communications optimized for those with visual or hearing impairments?
  • No access to social media or online communications.
    By choice or not, many do not have access to online channels.

Meet Emotion with Empathy

Engaging with frightened or angry people during times of crisis takes special skills. It may be tempting to attempt to respond to unreasonable emotions with reason. However, not will only will that approach fail to calm legitimate fears, it will actually prevent your audience from listening.  By acknowledging strong feelings, you defuse them.  Many crisis communications experts, including the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), advise showing empathy—and showing it as early as possible. The Cincinnati Zoo demonstrated this after the tragic death of Harambe the gorilla, expressing genuine sorrow in the middle of social media anger. Audience understanding will guide you to empathy, and the language you should use to express it. Genuine empathy means that you hear and understand emotions, that you “get it.”  Audiences want to know that you do. If you validate their emotions, this makes them receptive to your messages and instructions. If you don’t, it makes it difficult for them to focus on your message.

Be First with Accurate Information

At the same time, there’s no escaping the importance of factual, accurate information at a time of crisis. What happened? Is my family safe? What action should I take? It’s important to give the public and media as much accurate information as possible quickly. This cuts back on inaccurate analysis and information. Even background information about the nature of the current crisis can be helpful. If your organization is the expert on the subject, it’s your role to educate the media (and, in turn, the public).

At the same time, if you don’t know the answer, don’t be afraid to say you don’t know. In the case study “Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication: Lessons from the Elk River Spill,” confusion and bad feeling arose when government agencies and the involved company disseminated conflicting and delayed information about a chemical leak potentially affecting the water supply near Charleston, West Virginia, and how the public should react. Credibility was damaged, and the company involved filed for bankruptcy afterwards. The most trusted figure in the incident was the local health department, who expressed empathy while communicating clearly and honestly what the agency did and did not know.

Whether telling the public what to do during a natural disaster such as a hurricane, or a man-made disaster such as a chemical leak, audience understanding, empathy, and accuracy are vital. Credibility is another part of the puzzle, one that we will address in part 2 of our three-part series.

Before crisis happens, organizations can be proactive about their strategies. Communications professionals can help you create a communications plan, analyze your audience and stakeholders, and refine your messaging. When emergencies strike, your preparation will be worth it.


Personas and Writing for Audiences

Personas and Writing for Audiences

Using Audience Personas to Create Engaging Content

The secret to effective written content is defining your reader’s persona, and using that persona to create useful content. But where do you start?

Defining the Persona

What do we mean by “persona?” This is simply a shorthand term for a sketch of a typical member of a segment of your target audience. Defining your reader’s persona helps you deliver actionable, informative, engaging content aimed at your potential customers and stakeholders. Many companies develop several personas to represent the different segments they need to reach. These could be:

  • Prospects at different stages in the buying process.
  • End users of your products.
  • Decision-makers at government agencies.
  • High-level executives.
  • Other stakeholders in your project.

Each of these segments has different needs. End users need problems solved and questions answered. Contacts at the top of the buying “funnel” need awareness of your company and your services. Prospects closer to making a purchase need more detailed information.

Creating Personas for Your Target Audience

When creating a persona, think about a specific (if imaginary) person who represents the audience segment you want to reach. Then develop a list of questions that help you define this persona. When it comes to B2B content, especially for government contractors reaching out to government buyers and decision-makers, think in terms of professional roles and responsibilities and how these intersect with your company and your brand.

Some questions for your persona could include:

  • What job title or position does this person hold?
  • What business sector is she in?
  • Is he a primary decision-maker, or does he need to work as part of a chain of command?
  • What challenges does she face in her day-to-day job?
  • What information or tools might help her address these challenges?
  • Where is he in the purchasing process, if he’s a potential customer?

Besides these basics, you need to uncover what content best reaches this persona.

  • What social networks does he use?
  • Does she regularly read content on a mobile device?
  • Can he access content during work hours? Keep in mind that some government agencies have restrictions on social media consumed on site.
  • If you’re reaching out to consumers or others in the general public, what are their demographics in terms of age, location, and ethnicity? What social media channels do they prefer?

Your Persona Homework

This may seem like a daunting list of questions at first. How can you find the answers? When researching your persona, a few Google searches won’t necessarily help build an in-depth picture.  Some ideas to get you started include:

  • Talk to your current clients. Don’t be afraid to ask your customers serious questions; you already have a strong connection to them.
  • Keep up with trends in your field. Attend industry events and trade shows, and listen to what speakers and participants have to say. Read industry-oriented publications and sites. Follow social media accounts of industry associations and thought leaders.
  • Study web analytics of your website. What pages on your site do visitors linger on, and what pages do they skip? How do users find your site in the first place?
  • Research the competition and their content. What do they use? White papers, case studies, webinars? Are they filling a content gap you’re forgetting?

Putting Your Personas to Work

Write down your persona’s information and refer back to it as you craft your written communications and marketing content. Whether you’re sending a newsletter to current customers who might need an upgrade, or a creating a white paper aimed at high-level leaders, refer back to your persona and adapt your voice and your message accordingly.

Taking the time to develop detailed personas for all of your content means you can better engage with your desired target audience, whether they’re customers or other stakeholders. Personas help you specifically address their needs, answer their questions, and create awareness. Whether you create these personas internally or work with outsourced content experts to define them, the effort pays off for your company. Download an example persona.