The truth about true stories

People are too complex to have just one truth. Everyone’s truth is malleable depending on who’s telling it and why.

What does this mean for your integrity as a writer?

I believe a skilled writer, much like a skilled counselor, can work with sources to share their story in a way that is true to them and about them while at the same time nailing the particular communication purpose at hand.

This juggling act is an important skill for those of us on the softer news, public relations side of the communications business. There is power in what we say and how we say it, that should never be underestimated. And it should always be a part of strategy conversations.

If you aren’t sure you can believe that, you should watch this short video. “The Power of Words” is an amazing piece created to promote Andrea Gardner’s book Change your Words, Change your World. It illustrates the importance of framing someone’s truth to match the communication objective.

It’s worth the two minutes it will take you to see it.

I write a number of feature stories about successful people. When I do so, I have communication goals, but it is also imperative that the stories I write are truthful.

Typically, I offer the people I write about the opportunity to review the article before it gets published.

If that shocks anyone’s journalistic sensibilities, let me remind you that I’m not a reporter for the Washington Post or The Detroit Free Press or even a weekly tabloid. I write for Michigan State University. So my sources for success stories are our faculty, alumni, donors and friends, which means I am free, if not compelled, to involve them.

Does that mean my stories are any less true than those written by news reporters?

As a third grade child, I had to learn the difference between an autobiography and a biography. My third grade self was sure that the truest story would be an autobiography. How could someone else know a person better than they know themselves I innocently reasoned?

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In my idealistic youth years, I sided with the biographers and thought any autobiography was self-indulgent at best, probably a bore and certainly not the whole truth.

Turns out the truth—especially when set down in writing—is a bit trickier.

When I was fresh from J-school, the thought of allowing a source to review your story was something I thought of as a harsh reality in public relations. Though, I probably kept quiet most of the time and hoped my sources wouldn’t insist. Then, felt violated if they did but, shamefully, relieved if they spotted an inaccuracy.

Not surprisingly, most people want things that are written about them to mirror the story that they would tell about themselves. I can’t always do that depending on my objectives, but I’ve yet to come across anyone who wanted me to lie.

In fact, I could never really reflect anyone’s internal self even if I wanted to. No matter how much time I spend with someone, I can’t live in his or her head.

All this is less about preserving some idea about journalistic integrity and more about portraying someone authentically while at the same time crafting a message that helps your organization. That takes time, trust and finesse.

Telling my sources upfront that they can see what I write before it goes out into the world instills trust. It’s concrete evidence that they are not being used, that I actually care about them. It helps them talk more freely and makes them more willing to let down any walls. Which in turn, can open the door for telling a fuller version of their truth that is consistent with what and how I need to communicate with our audience.

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A couple of years ago, I interviewed a Hollywood producer. When I asked him if he wanted to see what I wrote before publication, he said: “No, whatever you write is what you saw in me, and I wouldn’t want to change that.”

Maybe that was merely a function of his busy life. Or, maybe I’d really won his trust. I’m pretty confident it was neither of those. I think he just understood that his story could be different for different people and he was okay with that.

Career advice blogger Penelope Trunk writes,

“every summary of any part of your life could be a totally different summary as well. And be equally true.”

She knows out that her resume could tell the story of her as a writer. But if she needed to get a job in operations, she could rewrite it to indicate that operations had been her focus for the last fifteen years…without lying. She’d just frame her truth from a different angle.

The man in “The Power of Words” had a message that was true enough but it didn’t work for what he needed. The writer reframed his message for him in way that had impact which is exactly my point.

It’s okay to share the truth that works best for the situation you find yourself in.

Are you the Next Twinkie? Creative Destruction for Writers

We are entering a period where the slow, the inflexible and the bureaucratic, will find themselves extinct in record numbers, according to Chris Zook in his Harvard Business Review blog.

Zook asks if it is just another example of Joseph Schumpeter’s creative destruction; an expected and profitable culling of businesses, enterprises—and people—that can’t keep pace.

Are we all that close to going the way of the Twinkie?

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It’s a little frightening to contemplate. Especially when it seems like your seasoning as a professional writer might be more comfortable camping out on the cozy little cottage side of the lake than the pull up the stakes and move out this afternoon, rustic tent sites.

It’s no secret that technology has dramatically changed the way people communicate, so when creative destruction talk surfaces, it is easy to assume that’s what it’s about.

Sometimes I feel like Drew Barrymore’s character in “He’s just not into you” who, while trying to decipher the success of a recent date, complained so heartrendingly: “And now you have to go around checking all these different portals just to get rejected by seven different technologies. It’s exhausting!”

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Zook says that probably isn’t what is holding you back.

He believes organizations aren’t innovative due to slow cycles of decision and adaptation. In other words, it may not be a keeping up with technology thing so much as the general ability to adapt to rapid changes at all.

Nothing gums up moving forward more quickly than a bunch of unproductive complexity whether it’s in processes or decision-making.

Put simply, leaders need to find ways to focus and simplify their organizations.

What does this mean for communicators?

Focus your content.

Look for three or four things you can clearly articulate that your organization has that others don’t. Apple’s comeback in the late 90s began with the simplification of their product line down to just four products.

That’s no accident, Zook points out.

Apple’s comeback also was about a renewed focus on the user experience. They made industrial design a strategic tool and a marketing point, not only for the computer industry but also for everything! They modeled success by only making a few things, but making them really, really well.

Apply that lesson to your messages. Before you start worrying about how many tactics you can take on or which ones you should creatively destroy, make sure you’ve got messages that people want and can easily grasp.

Stress your organization’s strengths: the niches where you do things better than your competition.

And don’t try to push too many messages at once. Concentrate on the pillars of your brand.

There’s nothing slow, unresponsive or out of date about that.

Who’s Afraid of a Little Evaluation?

If producing spot-on, graphically appealing, dynamic messages is the cherry on top of every professional communicator’s list of things they love to do, measuring results is the pit inside it.

But as Yogi Berra once said:

You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.”

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If you want to claim you are a strategic communicator—and what communicator doesn’t—showing a relationship between your efforts and your organization’s success is essential. Once upon a time, communicators might have gotten away with saying their goal was to produce XYZ communication on time and under budget. But this implies that the purpose of communication is simply to exist. And it’s not.

The purpose of your efforts is to affect your organization’s mission—whether it’s selling more widgets, gaining more members or curing cancer.

When you start to look at measuring what matters, process indicators can help you learn how internally efficient you are, activity indicators can tell you how much communicating of what types of messages you did and relationship indicators can tell you something about the ongoing level of engagement you have with key audiences.

But the real sticking point lies with results indicators. This is where you hope to show that your communication efforts helped your organization to achieve its goals and objectives.

For most communicators, especially those of us in nonprofit organizations, establishing a direct link between your communication products and the organization’s achievements is messy if not impossible. You can point to easily attainable social media metrics like Klout scores. But you don’t want to just measure what you can measure. For example, tracking lots of website hits is a great way to assess whether people came to your pages, but it doesn’t tell you if their visits were of any strategic value.

UMagazinology blogger and John Hopkins magazine editor, Dale Keiger, nailed it when he wrote: “This month’s most overworked meaningless statistic: Number of mentions something related to the school received on Twitter. Nothing says you’ve assumed your rightful place in the upper tier of the world’s academies of higher learning like 1,547 retweets.”

To combat this, you can go down the road of surveys, personal interviews and focus groups. Certainly there are instances when the time and expense for these kinds of evaluation tools can and should be justified. Even then, when it comes to showing cause and effect, communication efforts are more likely to influence attitudes or merely trigger the conditions in which a behavior or action can occur, than to be found directly responsible.

Directional alignment may be your answer.

Caroline Kealey, in her recent Communication World article “Real Value”, suggests that it is enough “to show that your communication efforts have been directionally aligned with other factors that collectively led to the achievement of a corporate goal.” She believes that an alignment of factors can imply a plausible causal connection.

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My department is involved in fundraising. So, a primary goal of all our communication strategies is to boost the number of gifts and givers. But the influence of a myriad of other strategies, from gala events to informal visits to countless hours spent on building one-to-one relationships, play their roles at the same time. According to Kealey, this is nothing to worry about. She believes communicators can make a compelling case that communication has contributed to organizational success with a well-presented set of directional alignment indicators.

In other words, we probably won’t ever be able to say that our communications caused a donor to make a gift, but we can probably make a case for the more we do X (say, communicate how our organization makes a positive impact on the world), the more we see Y kinds of results (say, donors who make inquiries about funding our programs).

But that doesn’t mean all of your measurements must be quantitative. Qualitative efforts such as the tone of an event or of media coverage, can point to communication success too.

As author and social media expert Philip Sheldrake says in another Communication World article “A Measure of Influence” (Yes, the January/February 2013 issue themed around Measuring What Matters was chockfull of great stuff!): “Reputation management does not actually mean managing reputation and brand management does not actually mean managing a brand. They mean actively attending to the business of influencing and being influenced such that the resultant beliefs or opinions held about us and our products are conducive to our achieving organizational objectives.”

Or as Albert Einstein once said:

Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.”

Sadly, most communicators spend nearly all of their time and energy executing communications. A very small amount of effort goes into planning and of that almost none of the planning is spent on developing performance indicators. I believe this is primarily because we communicators are not particularly drawn to accounting. And traditional evaluation can start to look like a whole lot of bean counting in a hurry.

But, perhaps it doesn’t need to be so complicated, or onerous. Look at your organization’s mission and set a few simple result indicators to help you learn whether you helped it move the needle.

Evaluation does matter. Done right, it guides our efforts, helps us justify our results and gives us a place to start for the next trip.

What’s your opinion? Do you think directional alignment indicators would be enough for your organization to acknowledge a link between communication efforts and your organization’s accomplishments? Could it be enough to help you define and assess your strategy?

Communications and Marketing: Which is What Exactly?

Here’s a confession. I’ve never fully understood the difference between communications and marketing. Or at least I struggle to come up with a useful answer in a nonprofit environment.

For a long time, I’d say prevailing wisdom in higher education was “we’re really, really good; we just need you to inform people.” Thus, when I started out in this business everyone in communication-type jobs in higher ed. was called an “information officer.”

One day in the later 90s, the HR leaders in my institution switched the information officer job classification to “communications manager.” Today most communications-related job titles, including mine, tend to name both marketing and communications. And it’s all about promoting a brand with strategic communication and marketing.

Apparently, somewhere along the way communications and marketing got married. That makes sense. It’s not like they don’t have a lot in common. And maybe they’ve been together so long now that they’ve started to look like each other?

In any case, I’ve noticed no marked improvement in most people understanding what communications or marketing jobs entail no matter how blended the two may be.

Usually when someone asks me what I do, I just flail around terms like public relations, communications, writing and editing, promotion, marketing and, even, information officer. Until the asker either loses interest or seems to comprehend something.

One heated online discussion I stumbled onto regarding the difference between marketing and communications came up with the following collective wisdom:

  1. In Neuro Lingusitic Programming terms, you cannot, NOT communicate. So everything you do is a communication of some description.
  2. Marketing on the other hand is about crafting a message to achieve a desired objective.

If we can accept that, then communication is far broader than marketing and could include the scribbles on my office white board. Even though they are not exactly brilliant or strategic.

My Office White Board

David Williamson in “Marketing and Communications in Nonprofit Organizations” by Georgetown Public Policy Institute says marketing gets no respect in the nonprofit world. He writes:

“..the marketing function masquerades under many names within nonprofit organizations—Communications, Advancement, External Affairs, Public Relations, or Brand Management — the primary objectives are pretty much the same: to define and then defend an organization’s position, and move it closer to success in its mission.“

So does it matter what you call it? And if so, is there any agreed upon, clear designation between marketing and communication? Does it make a difference if you are working in nonprofit or commercial? What do you use in your organization?