Key Messenger

A critical eye on communication, by Tom Poldre

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ASEAN Economic Integration: Corporate Brand Implications

The final installment in a series of excerpts from an article I co-authored with Patrick Rekart at Black Inc Group, for the January 2015 edition of the Thai-American Business magazine.

Famed marketing guru Peter Drucker once stated that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” in the context of organizational culture, but clearly the observation has relevance in the regional context as companies continue to broaden and deepen participation across the ASEAN cultural mosaic.

In terms of corporate communication and brand marketing, we all know that new levels of regional integration will introduce “Thai-family” and Thai-based corporations – many of them multinationals – to a range of new audiences.

Insightful marketers know better than to see these audiences as one homogenous group of consumers, B-to-B customers, or business partners, and will quickly adopt new, highly targeted ways of identifying discrete market segments and deploying communication strategies specific to each.

Yes there will obviously be country-specific strategies, but new models of “cultural segmentation”, transcending national boundaries, will reflect a keen awareness and understanding of indigenous ethnic and national identities.

A potential partner or prospect might self-identify as Malaysian, for example, but are they the twenty-six percent of that population who consider themselves Chinese, the fifty-three percent who are Malay, or the eight percent who are Indian? Consider the fact that the Vietnamese government recognizes fifty-four distinct ethnic groups. The AEC presents a rich ethno-cultural prism (actually, a kaleidoscope) through which to view the regional marketplace, and corporations must insist that their agencies and planners reflect these cultural segments in their outreach strategies.

With new opportunities come new complexities and an enhanced need to understand the nuances of the ASEAN cultural mosaic. Core values serve to unite the members of the AEC, while even the subtle differences between national personas have now been charted and analyzed for greater understanding.

Take this new level of acumen and sensitivity among executives who are “hard wired” with the requisite “soft skills”, equip them with a compelling corporate narrative that conveys differentiation yet familiarity, and the key elements will be in place for cross-cultural comfort in the new pan-ASEAN reality.


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Defining the Pan-ASEAN Leader

The following are edited excerpts from an article I co-authored with Patrick Rekart at Black Inc Group, for the January 2015 edition of the Thai-American Business magazine.

Multinationals based in Thailand, especially those continuing to look outward with an ASEAN perspective, will need to critically examine the executive leadership skills required to meet performance goals in the AEC. The first obvious step would be to ensure all expatriate senior managers, including the CEO, understand all ASEAN cultural traits. Fundamental to this is also the understanding that the definition of “expatriate” is no longer the exclusive realm of the Western “businessman”.

What is relevant, however, is the concept of a leader’s personal brand. True, top managers and contributors are hired based a functional skill set. Over time, they are differentiated by their attitude and personality (i.e. how they get the job done). Then, as their brand matures, they contribute enhanced value to the organization based on their ability to comfortably, effectively, graciously, effect change and achieve results across numerous cultures.

Senior executives in Thailand (or anywhere, for that matter) regardless of background, would benefit from an assessment of their cross-cultural acuity, along with access to specialized training where their own cultural inhibitions can be revealed. With this awareness, leaders can be empowered to move forward and embrace changes in their business persona.

We already know some of the “areas for development”: assertiveness training, accountability, interactive capability and critical analysis are among the highly interrelated traits which are vital in the pan-ASEAN corporate context. Also, as one expatriate executive commented, here in Thailand there is often a “failure to differentiate the professional from the personal”.

It will be fascinating to monitor how those clearly and uniquely Thai traits that have almost become clichés – “kreng-jai” (giving extreme consideration to problematic situations; saving face or maintaining external stature despite costs) and “mai pen rai“, (a way out of most embarrassing situations) – will play out on the ASEAN stage.

Thanks to interconnectivity through technology, trade, travel, and no matter how entrenched traditional values and inertia might be, the business and social contexts will keep evolving and shifting. Inevitably, misunderstandings and conflicts will arise internally, externally; locally and regionally.

The best preparation is to ensure your managers are empowered with executive leadership skills and corporate competencies. “Soft skills” should become “hard-wired” into individual and corporate brand personas.

With individual managers, this means a new and enhanced emphasis on self-awareness of personal communication styles. This is an important capability, leading to greater confidence, credibility and persuasiveness in meetings, presentations or even in local media encounters. For the pan-ASEAN leader, adaptability to cultural environment has Darwinian implications.

Just as European managers so often operate seamlessly, comfortably, across EU markets, a new breed of successful intra-ASEAN manager will increasingly emerge. The “chameleon communicator” will show an innate ability to shift style based on cultural intelligence while still remaining true to their genuine character.

With English accepted as the business language of ASEAN, and with such variation in English language proficiency across the region (compare Singaporean and Malaysian managers versus their Thai counterparts) non-verbal skills will continue to play a vital role in connecting with new ASEAN audiences.

It’s been proven that eye contact, body language and the use of gesturing are far more effective than words in the total communication context. Often, however, acceptable Western norms of dramatic display while communicating may seem aggressive and threatening – indicating a loss of control, anger, and diminishing one’s stature, credibility and dignity.

Cultural “faux pas” happen all the time on the world stage. Risk is best mitigated through intensive cross-cultural programs and communications workshops available through many sources, where simulations serve to deconstruct and better prepare local and regional leaders for the new international business environment.

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Crisis in a Fishbowl, Part II

Today, there’s no question about social media receiving equal consideration alongside traditional “legacy” media when managing response to a crisis. While the media landscape has shifted dramatically, the fundamental principles of speed, tone and planning still apply.

First, you’ve got to be quick off the mark. Speed remains essential in responding to any crisis, but especially now in the social media fishbowl. There’s no time to hide; no response is seldom an option.

Compare two major disasters: the first traditional media report of the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident emerged about 6 hours after its occurrence. Twenty years later, when US Airways flight 1549 (the “Miracle on the Hudson”) landed on the river, social media accounts lit up less than a minute into the drama.

The head of KitchenAid responded in eight minutes to that inappropriate tweet about the President’s grandmother, averting a social media maelstrom.

If you don’t fill the channels with some acknowledgement or appropriate message, everyone else will fill the vacuum with rumor, misinformation and nasty commentary. Since social media is a dialogue with your audiences, you can’t simply disappear in the middle of a conversation.

Call this “getting out in front” of the story, demonstrating that you’re aware of the situation, taking action, and not frozen like a deer caught in the headlights. But what do you say?

Next, you’ve got to strike the right tone – you need to demonstrate “empathy”.

Numerous cases have shown that the inability to get the tone and messaging right is what so often sinks the best intentions of an organization dealing with a crisis. Remember how Tony Hayward, the former head of BP, wanted “… his life back…” in the midst of the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico?

It is absolutely vital to quickly express concern and empathy. Complete information won’t be available during the early stages a crisis, hence the desire to avoid comment, but the conversation that is social media requires a message that the team is aware of what’s happening and acting upon it: containing the crisis, working with the authorities, comforting victims, reviewing procedures, communicating updates, taking disciplinary actions…

Finally, as with old-school crisis management, an organization must plan and prepare. Not much should change here; work on the assumption of “not if, but when”.

Comprehensive crisis response plans provide detailed operational and communications procedures including a complete list of all stakeholders and important media outlets. These plans did not get tossed out with the arrival of social media era, but are complemented with a social media component. Ideally, organizations would invest in a social media strategy before the crisis hits. Call it “plan-ticipation”.

This requires careful pre-planning and investment. You need smart, mature people manning your channels and creating your content; anticipating how social media will react when a situation occurs. They must know which channels your audiences are on, and how to deploy the myriad social media monitoring tools to keep a finger “on the pulse” and actively participate in the conversations.

So yes, it’s a strange new normal in crisis management as the speed, compression, loss of control and misinformation magnified by social media are now even created by social media. This means that the fundamentals of response — timeliness, tone and plan-ticipation — are unchanged and perhaps even more critical in that fishbowl we call social media.

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The “New Normal”: Crisis in the Social Media Fishbowl

I gave a couple of presentations recently to local chambers of commerce on “the new normal” of crisis communication in the fishbowl that is social media.

Some video footage always sets the tone early in the talk: An office manager in Singapore slaps an employee repeatedly, an incident uploaded for the world to see on YouTube. A hotel employee in the U.S. records his resignation, complete with marching band (four million people have watched his on-line video). Employees of a major pizza chain post footage of themselves seemingly contaminating food with their body fluids.

This is the new normal of operating in a fishbowl: the prevalence, accessibility and immediacy of social media have quickly created a world where news breaks instantly and previous models of communication have been upended. This is a world where traditional media turn to social media for news; where citizen journalists armed with mobile phones upload scenes of unfolding disaster or brutality with the click of a button.

Imagine how this upheaval impacts the way organizations communicate during a crisis. More complicated? Undoubtedly! Pressurized? Absolutely! And of course, the crisis management industry, the masters of disaster, see the opportunity to revive interest in their practice by highlighting a world of instant on-line catastrophe, complexity and chaos.

But, have the fundamentals really changed? Has the management of crisis communications been completely upended by the onslaught of social media?

My view is that if you strip away the complexity and added pressures from the speed, scope and volume of social media, you’ll discover that the strategy fundamentals remain unchanged. Now, as always, you’ve got to be quick with your timing; appropriate and empathetic with your tone, and prepared for the worst through planning and anticipation.

Content digitalization and the explosive growth of, and access to, technology make social media participation easy: consider the 6 billion hours of YouTube videos watched every month, the 55 million photos posted daily to Instagram, the 5,700 new tweets produced every second.

New Pitfalls in the New Normal

This convergence of speed and volume is most evident when a major crisis or catastrophe hits, with the new normal presenting unique pitfalls which organizations must be aware of and plan for.
There is now an entirely new category of crisis: The social media crisis, or on-line “faux pas”, is the self-inflicted injury where an organization manages to offend through ignorance, carelessness or lack of sensitivity:

On Tumblr, American Apparel posted an image of the Challenger space shuttle exploding, mistaking it for a fireworks celebration. Employees can confuse corporate Twitter handles with their own personal accounts: A KitchenAid employee tweeted out an inappropriate message on the corporate account about President Obama’s grandmother. Similarly, an (ex?) employee at Chrysler’s social media agency tweeted about how people in Detroit can’t drive.

There is also the reality of having “nowhere to hide”, where sites such as YouTube become the repository for company and employee misbehavior – permanent images of poor service, questionable food safety (think chicken processing in China), or violent abuse at the hands of overzealous security personnel.

As if the management of a crisis wasn’t intense and pressurized enough in the pre-social media era, today it becomes even more so as a result of the double-edge sword of social media. Here’s the bad news: with social media, bad news reaches a lot of people very quickly. The good news is that you can reach a lot of people very quickly.

The criticism of corporate crisis mismanagement, however, whether pre or post social media, echoes the same themes: “No information… slow response… cold, cruel, insensitive” and “tone deaf”.

While social media amplifies the speed, pressure, noise, and sheer volume of communication, three fundamental “old school” crisis response principles still apply: the need for speed; the need to demonstrate the appropriate empathetic tone, and the need to plan for the worst.

I’ll go into more detail on these aspects of speed, tone and planning in my next post, to reinforce the premise that the more things change, the more they seem to stay the same. Even in the social media fishbowl.

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Another wardrobe malfunction?

U.S. President Obama took considerable heat last week. Not over racial unrest in the Midwest, or lack of response in the face of Russian tampering in the Ukraine, or the unchecked spread of Islamist militants.

No. Horror of horrors, he gave a press conference in a TAN SUIT! A casual, summery TAN suit!

Derision was fast and furious, especially in the twittersphere:

“Not only is Obama wearing a tan suit, it seems way too big for him too. It looks like he’s about to be bar mitzvahed in Miami”.

Here’s my personal favourite:

“The Audacity of Taupe”.

(Check out the full range of commentary here:

The merciless snark-asm of course stems from our collective expectation of what constitutes presidential attire: the somber power colours of navy blue and dark grey. The conservative cut, lapels not too narrow or too wide – all meant to reassure an anxious public and NOT detract from the message.

As a televisual society, we have become accustomed to, even comfortable with, the dark power suit as the dress of authority and gravitas. The design of our modern business suit apparently evolved from the military uniform and its projection of authority, hence those power shades are the military colours of navy blue, grey and perhaps, just perhaps, even a very dark olive green.

Serious men, when working, are expected to wear the dark-coloured “power” suits. Audience members, as receptors of messages and images, have subconscious expectations of appearance adherence from politicians, bankers, lawyers, TV newscasters and funeral directors.

Similarly, doctors can wear white lab coats, athletes can wear ball caps and jerseys, and rock stars can wear anything they want. Deviate from the norm and the brain goes “huh?”, spending more capacity processing the disconnect than absorbing the message, as per the tweet from Daily Beast reporter Olivia Nuzzi:

“Obama just announced we are going to war with Canada and none of you noticed because you were distracted by his outfit.”

(Women fortunately have a bit more latitude: Margaret Thatcher was renowned for being able to successfully wear power jacket-and-skirt ensembles in bright scarlet, even lime green — she, of course, needed to stand out in a sea of grey and blue suits).

What are at work here are some basic communications fundamentals that I always stress:
1) Most communication is non-verbal.
2) First impressions matter, and are solidified within about ten seconds.
3) There must be congruence between the message and the messenger.

In the late 90s and early 2000s, the tech sector led to a relaxation of corporate dress code – still, however, Wall Street didn’t quite know how to handle Zuckerberg and his hoodie. We’ll see what the next generations bring to the conventional wisdom, but in the meantime my advice remains the same: if you’re in doubt what to wear to a presentation, pitch, meeting or conference, go conservative.

Unless, of course, you’re the president of the United States of America.

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Communicating to the Power of Three

I’m not a particularly religious person, but I am a firm believer in the power of three.

Three is the magic number when it comes to finding order and meaning – in religion, in corporate thinking, and ultimately, in communications.

It begins with the three-part structure of our brain: instinct (reptilian brain), emotion (limbic system) and thought (neocortex). We exhibit three levels of consciousness: the subconscious, the conscious, and the super-conscious, each representing differing degrees of intensity of awareness.

Let’s consider religion: the Christian Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; three jewels of Buddhism, Islam’s three levels of faith.

That other great religion, business, also seeks order and understanding. From what I’ve experienced, three-part models often appear in systemic thinking frameworks for leaders to better understand patterns and trends. (See McKinsey & Co.’s “three horizons” model).

It is no surprise then that the mystical power of three applies to so many aspects of communication.

In brand management, we see the relationship with consumers across three levels of engagement: the rational (thinking) aspects of the brand; the emotional (feeling) aspects and finally, the values-based (belonging) aspects.

When it comes to communicating a corporate story, whether in a media interview or through a presentation, we assume the role of storytellers – so why not make it easy for yourself and your audience?

First, get ready to convey solid key messages. Our goal is to communicate conclusive, relevant insights, messages that provide the “so what?”. Your distillation of information into memorable chunks is the point, the service you, as storyteller, provide to your audience. They give you their attention, you provide the thinking.

Next, identify three key messages as a framework for your story. It’s back to our brains, which remember patterns of three (ready, steady, go… one, two, three… ABC… Curly, Larry and Moe). As the storyteller, you can easily remember three key messages; more importantly, your audience will easily remember them.

Whether packaged according to past, present, future; people, products, service; context, action, vision; or boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl… feel free to repeat your messages. Repetition is vital to audience retention. In a media interview, repeat as often as possible without seeming robotic; in a presentation, aim for the “three-peat” – at the beginning, middle and conclusion.

Conveying information through three messages is a tough discipline, especially for business leaders, technical spokespeople and professionals who have a lot of information rattling around in their heads.

I once had a client who had to give an important presentation about building a new railway to the Chinese Ministry of Transport. He was distraught because he had over 500 slides. We boiled it down to messages which covered the opportunities, the challenges and finally, the resource requirements – supported now by only 200 slides.

The information that was cut? Saved for another presentation!

That’s another trick to good storytelling: leave them wanting MORE.


About that presentation…

Recently I attended a luncheon speech by a senior executive from one of the world’s leading technology firms. I even sat next to be guest speaker. During lunch, his colleague indicated that the presentation had technological issues: the file wouldn’t speak to the laptop, which was angry at the projector from a different generation (my paraphrasing).

“Oh well”, said the speaker. Someone had to figure this out.

Being a communications trainer, I mentioned that slides and video, while wonderful, were not essential for a great talk. I joked that Martin Luther King never used PowerPoint; I had seen Margaret Thatcher in Parliament and she hadn’t relied on slides…

By the middle of the main course, the guest speaker turned to me:

“Wouldn’t it be funny if the guy from a major tech company couldn’t get the audio-visual to work?”

I said don’t worry you’ll be fine. Tell us a good story… Just talk.

So he started to speak, but the slides refused to cooperate. The text was cut off, mostly invisible. Stuff happens, we know, but rather than laugh it off and proceed, he wallowed in it: Trashed the hotel’s equipment; blamed the software. Ran his videos, but abused his slides:

“What this is SUPPOSED to say is…” or

“If this hotel would enter this century, the slide would show…”

And so it went.

I talked with audience members afterwards and what they remembered were terrific on-line videos, no analysis, and a frustrated presenter.

It’s a shame, because he’s quite a funny and charming gentleman with interesting things to say, all of which was lost due to technological betrayal.

So if I could rewind my conversation with Mr Technology, I would share these as my key messages:

Tell us a story, one that grabs your audience. Understand that audience, prepare insights in the form of messages which resonate. Package these in a meaningful structure, so our overburdened brains can absorb your bite-sized bits of information.

Next, BE the storyteller. I can watch video clips at home, download a slideshow from anywhere. What I want is human, passionate and purposeful engagement. (Imagine if Mr Technology had said screw the slides, I’m just going to talk… He would have held that audience).

Finally, don’t rely on technology to tell your story. Technology makes it easier to communicate, but makes us lazier as communicators. And if you must present with technology, then YOU personally must check it in advance.

Welcome you my blog. It’s about training people to be better communicators; about misguided communications that drive me crazy, and great examples of communication that need to be recognized.

Without the slides.