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 ContentThe 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 PersonaWhat 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 AudienceWhen 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 HomeworkThis 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 WorkWrite 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.

Using Journalistic Writing

The Journalistic Style: How to Use It in Your Content

For firms in the government contracting or B2B sectors, a journalistic approach to written communications can inspire confidence in your expertise and industry leadership, and position you as a credible authority in your field. This style of writing is also ideal for webpages and other forms of online content, where users often quickly scan rather than read in depth.

But what exactly do we mean by a journalistic style, and how can you incorporate it consistently into your company’s written content?

Defining the Journalistic Style

The journalistic style has traditionally meant streamlined, factual writing. Here are some hallmarks of this style and tips on how to apply them.

  • The 5Ws of journalism traditionally referred to the five questions that a reporter should answer in the lead paragraph of a news story: When, What, Where, Why and Who. Addressing the 5Ws helps you focus on informative content—no reader should come away with unanswered questions.
  • Brevity. Eliminate roundabout phrases for cleaner, uncluttered writing. For example, you can easily replace “due to the fact that” with “because.”
  • Straightforward, fact-based writing, free of overly opinionated or emotional language, persuades readers by presenting yourself as a trustworthy source of information.
  • Active voice. Whenever possible, rephrase sentences to be active, not passive. “We developed the software” appears stronger and more assured than “The software was developed by the company.” A stronger phrasing reinforces credibility in what you are saying.

And here a few things to avoid.

  • Informal or chatty tone. An informal writing style has its place, depending on the audience. B2C (business to consumer) content, for example, can strike a less formal tone. However, if you strive for a professional, journalistic tone, err on the side of formality.
  • Over-reliance on jargon. Your level of technical terminology needs to be appropriate for your audience.
  • Clichés or slang. Next time you’re tempted to think outside the box, build from the ground up, or stay on fleek, reconsider. Tired clichés make your content sound tired; expired slang makes your content sound dated and strained.

Storytelling: The Secret to Journalism

Journalism does not mean dry, uninteresting writing, however. What interesting or intriguing stories have you read in the news lately? Why did they stick with you? The answer is storytelling.

Storytelling is a critical part of effective online content today. At first glance, the term “storytelling” seems to apply to creative writing more than your company’s public-facing written content. However, storytelling is a critical component to branding in today’s environment, and your written content should always support your brand. Journalists are trained to craft facts into compelling stories; similarly, your content should tell a story.

How can you use this concept? Think about telling your clients’ stories, not your own. For example, how have your products or services solved their problems?

Maintaining a Consistent Style

Developing and applying consistent guidelines for grammar, spelling and punctuation can help maintain your journalistic style across the board. This takes a commitment to detail, but the effort is well worth the time. Well-edited, polished writing builds credibility; inconsistent, mistake-ridden copy does the opposite.

Some large companies may have the staff and time to develop an internal style guide of their own. Most businesses, however, can use the leading industry standard styles. The AP Style Guide is the well-known “bible” for journalists and editors in the United States; for those in the government contracting sector, the U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual is appropriate.

Using the Journalistic Style in Your Content

Once you have established your journalistic tone, the next critical step is to include it in your public-facing content.

  • Press releases. The 5Ws are crucial here for reaching out with newsworthy information. Again, no question should be left unanswered.
  • Website content and blog posts. Website content should be brief, clear, informative, and above all, easy to read. Your blog needs to follow the same rules. Also, keep in mind that much of today’s online content is accessed on mobile devices; a concise style is more mobile-friendly.
  • Email campaigns or newsletters. Emails, like website content, need to be quickly scanned. Succinct content with a snappy headline (your subject line) is mobile-friendly and is more likely to be opened and read.
  • Brochures and other printed marketing collateral. Keep your journalistic voice consistent in all of your public-facing materials: factual, accurate and readable.
  • Other long-form content. This includes white papers, case studies and ebooks, all useful content that positions your company’s expertise and brand.

Thinking about your company’s content in terms of journalism helps you maintain a consistent focus on excellent writing in all of your content. By applying the concepts of the journalistic style, you ensure that your target audience will never lose sight of your company’s 5Ws.

Handling Bad Publicity: Good Examples

Handling Bad Publicity: Good Examples

Lessons Learned From a Crisis Communications Success Story

In a previous post, we wrote about poor public relations crisis management, with lessons on what not to do from the Wells Fargo false account crisis of 2016. Other recent examples include: Mylan raising prices on EpiPen epinephrine auto-injectors, Samsung’s exploding phones, and the disastrous United Airlines incident that resulted in an injured passenger. Where, then, are the positive lessons on crisis communications?

Stopping Incidents Before They Start

Is it hard to think of positive examples? There’s one simple reason for that; successful crisis management means stopping crises before they get off the ground. Planning for the unforeseen may seem like an oxymoron. Yet companies and organizations must have a solid plan for when crisis strikes. Some even prepare a boilerplate library of language ahead of time for every conceivable crisis situation. Fortunately, most of this language may never be used, but time spent preparing is better than last-minute scrambling when the worst happens. Even if the situation has not been fully anticipated, having basic language ready to go can help.

The Cincinnati Zoo

The second-oldest zoo in the country, the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, experienced a major crisis in May 2016 when a child climbed through a fence into the gorilla exhibit and the zoo’s Dangerous Animal Response Team was forced to kill a gorilla out of fear for the child’s safety.

We all remember the media storm that followed, but the zoo’s communications throughout this episode (through press releases and social media) were exemplary. From the first press release issued on the day of the incident to statements in the following days, communications were quickly disseminated to provide information and transparency. They struck the right balance of tone: sorrow for Harambe the gorilla, concern for the child involved, and level-headed defense of the zoo’s actions. Without being defensive, the zoo set the record straight that a tranquilizer takes several minutes to take effect and was not an option in a life-or-death situation. Critically, the zoo did not blame the child or parent involved, despite the social media outcry.

In subsequent releases, the zoo continued to maintain the same quality of response, with positive information on how concerned animal lovers could help wild gorillas, and stories detailing the zoo’s proactive compliance with the USDA on fencing surrounding the exhibit. This steady public relations response served as an excellent counterweight to the flurry of negativity and anger around the event and allowed the zoo to move forward after a tragic and upsetting incident.

Lessons Learned

This crisis offers excellent examples of how to react to a negative situation.

  • Act quickly. Zoo communications reacted immediately and clearly to the incident.
  • Be mindful of tone and authenticity. Zoo staff, dedicated to preserving the lives of endangered animals, were clearly devastated and let their sincere sorrow show through without being maudlin or angry.
  • Keep your position consistent. At the same time, the zoo stood unwaveringly behind the actions of its staff.
  • Do not place blame. The zoo refrained from blaming the child or parent involved, resisting the anger emanating from social media.
  • Be ready immediately with a positive follow-up. In response to the outpouring of emotion over Harambe’s death, the zoo outlined actions that concerned animal lovers could take to make a positive difference.

Planning a communications strategy ahead of time, including your choice of language, can help you be prepared and level-headed when a crisis strikes. Most importantly, a solid plan means organizations can react quickly. But having a strategy in place doesn’t mean your communications will lack authenticity. On the contrary, a communications plan can give you some breathing room so your company’s authentic voice can shine through at crisis moments.

Have you considered what crises could impact your organization?

Handling Bad Publicity

Handling Bad Publicity

Four Communications Lessons from the Wells Fargo Scandal

When confronted by crisis, it may be a natural response for companies to batten down the hatches and wait for the media storm to pass. However, in our current age of social media and two-way customer engagement, crisis communications takes on a new urgency. Hoping that a crisis will blow over is simply not an option.

The 2016 Wells Fargo debacle offers a worst-case scenario for public relations and communications professionals. Under intense sales quotas, bank employees opened 2 million false accounts without customer knowledge; this resulted in millions of dollars in fines, and more than 5,000 employees—nearly 1 percent of the Wells Fargo workforce—fired. This painful episode offers valuable lessons in how to handle bad publicity.

Lesson 1: Apologize to the right people.

Many PR journalists and bloggers have commented on the initial “dry and sterile” statement offered by Wells Fargo in the aftermath of the crisis. The fraudulent accounts resulted in bounced checks, lowered credit scores and other real problems for Wells Fargo consumers. In their September 8 statement, the company said:

“Wells Fargo reached these agreements consistent with our commitment to customers and in the interest of putting this matter behind us. Wells Fargo is committed to putting our customers’ interests first 100 percent of the time, and we regret and take responsibility for any instances where customers may have received a product that they did not request.”

This statement did assume responsibility, and detailed the settlement amount. Yet the impact on consumers was downplayed: “Accounts refunded represented a fraction of one percent of the accounts reviewed, and refunds averaged $25.” Other words that stand out are “putting this matter behind us.” Is this matter behind the affected customers, or for that matter, the fired employees? The language used reveals it was mostly written to minimize the damage and appease regulators, lawyers, and investors—not the consumers harmed.

Lesson 2: Don’t mince words in your apology.

Wells Fargo ran a full-page newspaper ad with a letter shortly after the settlement announcement. While it did express “regret,” it never used the more powerful words “apologize” or “sorry.” It also danced around the issue by never mentioning “false” or “fraudulent” accounts. Clearer, stronger, more direct language was called for here. Instead, the letter seems to be a half-hearted apology, one that minimizes the impact of the damage.

Lesson 3: Assume personal responsibility at the top.

The initial statement and the subsequent newspaper ad did admit regret. However, the language used in these initial reactions shifted the blame to lower-level employees without fully taking on responsibility for the large-scale fraudulent activity on a company level. For example, John Stumpf’s signature as company CEO failed to appear on the letter in the newspaper ad. This gesture, although small, would have been a meaningful symbol of top-level accountability; all crisis-focused statements ought to be attributed to the CEO from the start.

When John Stumpf testified before Congress, he not only admitted regret, but even said the golden word “sorry” and noted that he was “fully accountable.” This admission is critical: Those at the top must take ownership and accept responsibility in crisis situations. But Stumpf’s testimony before Congress may have been too little, too late for a company facing a scandal of this size.

Lesson 4: Move quickly with specific fixes.

Company ads, web pages and television ads rolled out weeks later offered a few more details. However, a television ad by Wells Fargo concentrated mostly on nostalgic imagery and a vague promise to “make things right.” It made mention of refunds, but did this refer just to fees or to other damage (such as fees sent to collection agencies) that impacted customers with these bogus accounts? Wells Fargo did not mention one inconvenient fact: Consumers with complaints about their accounts would be referred into binding arbitration, a system that puts consumers at a disadvantage.

In our social media-driven age, customers expect an immediate reply to problems and mistakes. They complain on Twitter and Facebook, and increasingly major companies, such as airlines and hotel chains, move immediately to respond to issues through social media. Similarly, small businesses on sites such as Yelp and Angie’s List do well when they own their pages and respond to negative reviews quickly. Consumers can tell when companies drag their feet.

Does all this really make a difference? It did in the case of Wells Fargo. According to the LA Times, only 3 percent of bank customers in a survey reported being directly affected by the fraud—but 32 percent said they were actively looking for another bank. In addition, the percentage of prospective customers considering business with Wells Fargo shrank to 19 percent, down from 52 percent before news of the scandal broke.

Excellent customer service and accountability define a brand. The Wells Fargo response has been slow-moving, reluctant and vague, providing an object lesson in how not to react during a crisis. This lesson applies to communications and public relations professionals at companies big and small. Apologizing with the right language to the right people, taking responsibility at the very top and quickly resolving problems can all go a long way in fixing damage—and protecting a brand’s reputation from the start.

What Will Happen Next?

The short-term damages of a scandal can mean litigation, settlements, layoffs and new hires. It means some customers will get scared and close their accounts and others will think about it but ultimately take no action. The stock will likely fall, but if the company gets itself on track, it will rise again. The long-term damages to the brand are another matter. Brand reputation is intangible and sometimes difficult to measure. It’s one more reminder that your brand and your company operations are not mutually exclusive. Your brand is the external perception, and you need to help make that perception as positive as can be.