Posts filed under ‘Organizational communications’

Using a Gavel To Hammer Citizens’ Groups Can Cost More Than Legal Fees

Lawsuits, especially over opinions of a citizens’ group, can cost a lot more than dollars.

Should a developer facing a boisterous and vocal community group sue the members of that group to muzzle them? Tempting, isn’t it?

On the Jersey Shore, a homebuilder has done just that. That company received permission to build and sell 76 homes to the general market instead of to active adults, as originally approved. A group of residents, however, doesn’t agree with the change, and has expressed its opposition in a variety of ways. The builder has filed suit, according to the local newspaper, complaining that one of the members of the group has “issued defamatory statements and information constituting libel and slander.”

I don’t know any more than what’s been written in that one article, so I’m not going to comment on this particular case. But it got me thinking: Is it a good idea to fight back against citizen groups by using the courts?

Here are some of my random thoughts. What do you think?

  • Lawsuits are part of the development process in New Jersey. They shouldn’t be, but they are. Usually, suit is filed over interpretation of points of law, not over points of opinion. The arguments are usually esoteric, and tied directly to some law or regulation related to the project.
  • Companies that protect their reputation enjoy better sales, higher customer satisfaction rates and happier employees. They also can usually withstand the unsubstantiated verbal barrages of a citizen’s group. It is, of course, a different story if the citizen’s group is telling the truth and the corporation is isn’t being completely honest.
  •  Court is the appropriate place to prove a point of law, but is it the appropriate place to stop or hobble a conversation? Even if the gavel drops eventually in favor of a developer who complains in court that people are saying bad things about the company or a community, does anyone really believe they’ve gagged the opposition?
  • There are more expenses to a lawsuit than financial ones. One must weigh the reputational and good-will costs and compare them to walking away from a project or just gritting one’s teeth and bearing the insults. A lawsuit will be seen as heavy artillery wielded by a corporation against residents exercising their First Amendment rights. People – including those who will be giving you approvals and buying your homes – may wonder why the company was so heavy-handed.
  • There are other steps to try before filing a highly visible lawsuit (all lawsuits are highly visible). A developer can meet with the opponents to listen to concerns and, if possible, address them. Use public meetings; op-ed pieces; interviews with news outlets; alliances in the community; direct mail pieces; special Web sites, blogs, Facebook pages or other forms of interaction to communicate. A developer who wanted to build in my neighborhood went door-to-door. Does it work every time? No. Will you win over every opponent? No. Can you proceed and honestly say you’ve listened and tried to address concerns. Yes. Have communities been built and been very successful despite community activism? Yes.

A lawsuit is almost always a last resort. If used to stop someone from saying angry things against a corporation, it must be carefully considered, including how much it will fan flames and what it does to a developer’s attempts to build bridges in the community.

If, however, you find yourself filing such a suit, be ready to defend it in the court of public opinion as well as a court of law.

  • Make sure you can clearly explain in a few compelling words why you’ve filed the suit. You have about one sentence to make your case, whether it’s to the media, the mayor or the minions in your company and the community.
  • Make sure your allies and community officials know it’s coming, even if the warning is just a few minutes.
  • Decide with your public relations person whether the filing should be announced or if you should wait for questions.
  • Always respond to the media. Refusing to talk with the media allows your opponents to tell your story for you. Even if you’ve strategically decided not to comment, not returning a reporter’s call is rude. Returning the call keeps the lines of communication open. And remember: Never say “no comment.” You can explain that you can’t comment on pending litigation, or you can decline to speak about specifics, but talk generalities. Your PR person and your attorney must work together to counsel you on your response once a lawsuit is filed.
  • Remember to have your key messages ready and make any interview — media, community appearance or small meeting — yours.

Your development team should include an experienced public relations professional to protect and build your reputation by helping you deal with the media, the community and the government (shameless plug: like In-House Public Relations). Your public relations team is your diplomatic corps. A lawsuit is a big military weapon. You need both to navigate the crazy populist regulatory paths in New Jersey. And your PR team may keep you out of a lawsuit.

The method of dealing with issues that I’m suggesting may take more time and the outcome isn’t assured — you may still wind up in court. But then, a legal verdict is not a sure thing either. The longer method enables you to look everyone in the eye and honestly say you tried to be a good neighbor.

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July 25, 2012 at 10:46 am

Blogging is a great tool for small business owners

If the various ways of communicating and engaging on the Internet has “democratized” (is that really a word?) the media, it also has “equalized” (OK, a little better, but I hate ize words) public relations and business communications. One person really can run a worldwide business out of his or her basement.

While public relations used to be something used only by the largest companies, the craft’s ability to engage people means that small business, whether they know it or not, are engaged in PR. With that in mind, I had a great time the other night meeting with a group of small business owners at the Mendham (NJ) Business Association about blogging. The slides I created and presented are on Slideshare and  you can see them here.

Blogging is a great way to engage your customers, clients and even employees. I found some of the reasons people weren’t blogging interesting:

  •  “I have nothing to say.” Of course you do! You’re a business owner, which means you’re knowledgeable and passionate. You could write every day about your customers, tips on doing whatever it is you do or issues in your field that impact your clients (or customers or whatever you choose to call them).
  •  “I don’t know anything about the Web.”  Sites like WordPress and Blogger make it simple and tell you everything you need to know.
  • I don’t have the time.” So who does? Keeping your posts short is one of the keys to good readership. And if they’re not perfectly composed but the info is interesting, who cares?

Blogging is one of those activities that’s easy and fun. It’s just another habit to develop. We talked about the need to be honest and authentic, but when you’re speaking to business owners in a small town, that’s usually a given.

Let’s watch for some new blogs from businesses in Mendham, N.J.

July 22, 2011 at 8:06 am

Crisis Communications: Not Just For the Big Guys

More than three-quarters of companies recently surveyed by one of the nation’s largest public relations firms say they expect to have a crisis within the next year, according to PRWeek.  More than half of them agree that the rise in digital communications and new media make a crisis more likely and more difficult to manage.

While the Burson-Marsteller study, as reported in PR Week (I’ve posted the brief article here), is talking about large companies, it’s an issue smaller companies should think about, too.  Digital media and social networking make it possible for even a sole proprietorship to play in the big guys’ sandbox. What small businesses often don’t realize is that if they play in that big-guy sandbox, they must accept some big-guy liabilities.

Because In-House Public Relations is new and small, I talk with a lot of small businesses. They’re thinking about increasing sales. Very few want to talk about crisis management. Increased sales activities, however, means increased exposure (I know: It’s a problem you’d love to have).  I’m aware that small business people don’t often have time or money for a full crisis plan, but I try to at least have a conversation about crises:

  1. Being a small business in today’s Internet-driven business climate means more people are seeing you. That means you’re more vulnerable. An angry customer or employee, an innocent mistake, a problem with materials you use and you’re in the soup.
  2. Just because you’re small doesn’t mean you’re any less vulnerable. The wrong tweet or Facebook posting can land you in hot water. And you probably don’t have the financial cushion big companies have to ride out a crisis.
  3. Take a few minutes and develop a mini-plan:
    1. Understand what a crisis is: Anything that can threaten your reputation and your business.
    2. Have a list of who gets called ASAP. I tell people to put me on the list, along with the lawyer, insurance agent and financial counselor.
    3. Set up a way of monitoring what’s being said about you on a daily basis in the social world. That can be as basic as a Google alert or as complicated as monitoring and participating in social media channels. Don’t neglect traditional channels either.
    4. Think about your worst nightmare and have a plan – at least in your head – of what you’d do if it happened.
    5. Make sure someone else knows about this miniplan in case YOU are the crisis.

 It’s not much, but at least it starts the discussion.

 I’d love to hear from entrepreneurs and small business people: Have you thought about crisis management? If you’d like some help thinking about it, call me.

July 7, 2011 at 10:29 am

Keep Communicating, Even When Times Are Clear As Mud

The news headlines that I receive each morning from Google make the housing market very clear. Look at a recent sample:

  •  Brinkman Sees Signs of U.S. Housing Market Recovery – Washington Post
  • Cold Reality for housing market here – STL Today
  • Economist sees housing market stabilization – Chicago Tribune
  • Spring market declines – WTHI, Terre Haute, Ind.
  • Housing market continues to disappoint – WNYC, New York
  • Demand up for downtown housing – Montgomery, Ala
  • Don’t expect a housing market recovery until 2014 – Forbes

 So, folks, there you have it: the market’s recovering. No, it’s down. Wait, it’s stabilizing. Ulp, it’s declining. Wait, it’s up, at least downtown. OK, it’ll recover…in three years.

This clear analysis and definite trending makes it easy to plan, right?

You’re already dealing with a market that is at least confusing and, according to some, in a double-dip. I can’t tell you what to do about the technical part of your business. But I can tell you that it’s not the time to be quiet.

Just as you’re thinking strategically about buying supplies, what projects you undertake and who you hire, you should be thinking carefully about how you’re communicating with the world.

Here are three things to think about: 

  1. What are you communicating?

Yes, you are communicating. If you’re hunkered down waiting for the good times to return, it sends a message. If you’re out there doing events, seeking out people and advertising in real estate sections, you’re sending quite a different message. You should think about the messages you are sending and the messages you should be sending. Are they the same? Are they proactive, strategic messages or are you just answering questions? Do they send information about who you are and how you want to be understood? 

  1. With whom are you communicating?

Customers, right? But how do you know that? Are you talking with past and present customers as well as potential customers? And what about the other groups on whom your business depends? Are you communicating with your employees and business partners? How about officials who have an impact on your business?  How these groups understand your business can have as big an impact on your business as customers coming through the door. And, by the way, what are your customers, employees, business partners and media people saying about you? 

  1. How are you communicating?

How you communicate sometimes sends a louder message than what you say. Everyone expects you to run pretty ads with your best product on it. But are you being cited as an expert in professional panels and by reporters in traditional and new media? Does your opinion carry weight? Are you using social media to blast out ads or are you actually engaging in conversation? Are you out in the community, participating in events and ready to answer questions or are you hiding in your office? 

 After you’ve thought about all these things, there’s one more question you need to ask yourself: Am I being heard?

 The better people understand you and your organization, the more likely they are to do business with you and to give you a little latitude as you work through the realities of getting the job done. How you communicate, what messages you send and how you send them create your reputation and people’s perception of your business. It’s not the kind of thing you want to leave to chance. You can’t handle the communications aspect of your business on the run.

 Running a business means being an expert in a lot of things, including knowing when to ask for help. Many organizations find it helpful to work with a communications professional, much like they have an attorney look at legal documents and an accountant look at the books. If you’re more comfortable negotiating a deal than writing and optimizing a news release, a firm like In-House Public Relations can help you.

 The economy and the housing business probably won’t become clear for a while. In addition to everything else you’re doing to protect your business, managing its reputation and making sure people know what sets you apart from others will establish and maintain your leadership.  Maybe they won’t call you tomorrow. But when they’re ready to call, you’ll be at the top of their list.

June 1, 2011 at 10:54 am

Customer Service Needs To Be On PR’s Radar

My wife, Karen, and I had an incredible customer-service experience at the Culinary Institute of America this weekend. We had dinner at one of the student-run restaurants. The food was incredible and the service was like watching a ballet. With all that, students still had time to talk with us about their curriculum and studies.

What does that have to do with public relations? Everything. Public relations professionals must do better at considering the reputational impact of customer service, especially in today’s social networking world.

 I doubt any PR person wants to run call centers. But what sales department doesn’t want to work with PR? What progressive legal team doesn’t consider public relations to part of their strategy? So it should be with customer service.

Ken Blanchard and Sheldon Bowles wrote about the sorry shape of customer service in their wonderful book, Raving Fans. If you haven’t read it, buy it today. It’s a quick read, but one that will change your view of serving customers. “Good or bad,” the book concludes, every “company had a customer service product that was how well the merchandise suited the customers’ needs and the human dimension of the customer/company relationship.” Another word for that combination is reputation.

Every customer contact is an opportunity to reinforce your organization’s reputation, good or bad.  Every question, comment, compliment or complaint is an opportunity to build relationships and reinforce reputations, especially in the social networking world.

“Social media represents an entirely new way to reach customers and connect with them directly,” say Deirdre Breakenridge and Brian Solis in Putting the Public Back in Public Relations.  “Your new role transcends the process of broadcasting messages and reactively answering questions to investing in and building a community of enthusiasts and evangelists.”

But even in the real world, you can observe customer service and consider its impact on reputation. The student restaurateurs were a good example of good customer service. More routinely, a lady at Staples who walked me through placing an order online because the store didn’t have what I was looking, presenting another wonderful example of customer service. She even helped me fill out the rebate request…all for a $10 sleeve of labels.

When you watch the people who represent your organization to the public, either online or face to face, what kind of reputation are they building for you? We would never let someone talk with the media without some coaching. Should we let people talk to individual customers without coaching from PR when those customers can instantaneously tell the world about their experience?

February 23, 2011 at 2:30 am 1 comment

“We’ve communicated enough” means you’re not communicating at all

At what point does an organization get to say it has “communicated enough?”

I sat in a meeting last night of an organization of which I’m a new trustee. After a member came before us and asked for more transparency, I asked how we communicated the proceedings of our board meetings. Members were shocked that anyone would want to do that. Further questions about communicating with members were met by exasperation.

Any member can come before this group to tell us what’s on their mind, one member said. We tell them what’s going on through the newsletter, said another. Yes, said a third, and we have the Web site and we do email blasts.

“We communicate enough,” declared one to nods of affirmation around the table. “If members don’t know what’s going on, shame on them!”

How many organizations and executives feel that way? We continue to see that people demand that the organizations that serve them be more engaged and responsive to them. And we continue to see executives and leader boards regard silence and indifference as endorsement.

I would argue that if the directors of the organization I spoke of were managers of a company, and engagement was being measured by sales, the whole board would be rightfully fired.

The new management team that replaced them would not accept the argument that “we’ve communicated enough.” If people aren’t responding to newsletters, Web sites and emails, then those newsletters, Web sites and emails clearly aren’t communicating. This is one of those areas where good, old-fashioned communications strategy is still important. Yes, that group is using social media, but social media is just a tool, like the newsletter. Perhaps they’re the wrong tools. Or perhaps they’re not being used right.

The new board would try new tactics until they started making sales – in this case, engaging in conversation with customers, or more accurately, members.

Carrying on conversations, mining them for information and counseling executives how to react is what public relations people do. With that information, public relations can people can improve an organization’s reputation and standing in whatever community it exists. That results in sales, support, membership…whatever that organization needs.  It’s not about any kind of specific tactic, it’s about achieving that conversation and from it, better understanding of the organization’s place and where it needs to go to achieve its goals. And that, you’ll notice, has nothing to do with social media.

The moment an executive – or a member of leadership board – says they’ve communicated enough and it’s the target audience’s fault for not participating, it’s the beginning of the end.

It seems to me that no organization that wishes to grow and thrive can ever say it’s communicated enough. Even after it’s acheived full engagement, there are new stories to tell and new concerns to hear about and respond to. Making leaders understand that is also seems to be a never-ending task.

November 9, 2010 at 10:23 pm


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