Visualization: Telling your story without words

The number one skill an effective communications professional needs? Writing, of course. It’s no accident that most college public relations programs are housed in the journalism department. Clear, concise, effective writing technique is critical to conveying your organization’s message – to the media, to employees, to investors, to the community.

But as information overload continues to shrink our attention spans, it becomes increasingly important to figure out faster and more compelling ways to tell stories. Written pieces certainly have their place and purpose, but an eye-catching chart, infographic, or photo set may convey your message more memorably and in less time. Presenting information graphically forces us to trim away the superfluous details that can clutter our writing. If you’re pitching a story to a swamped journalist or busy blogger, getting right to the point is always appreciated. Often an infographic can do this better than your writing can.

Two of my favorite “just for fun” blogs are Strange Maps and Flowing Data, which both curate interesting data visualizations from across the Web (I also check out Information Is Beautiful on occasion). One of the primary reasons I keep up with these blogs (other than the fact they’re just plain fascinating) is that I can consume the content pretty quickly. Whereas a 1,000-word blog post requires 20 minutes of my time to get through, I can check out a stunning graphic in just a few minutes. I’m also more likely to share an interesting chart or graphic to Facebook or Twitter.

Need another example? Think about how effective The Oatmeal is at presenting information. Their comics are funny and memorable, but also educational. One of my favorite Oatmeal posts is 20 Things Worth Knowing About Beer (shocker). Sure, this could have been written as a list-style blog post and contained all the same information, but it’s so much richer and more compelling when presented visually (and much more viral).

PR pros, especially those of us who are “classically trained” in journalistic writing, tend to talk (write) too much. I’m certainly guilty (heck, I’ve just devoted 400 words to a post about how we should write less and use data visualization more). We’re verbal people who use words as our go-to tool for telling a story. Often it doesn’t occur to us to present information in a different format.

Sometimes we need to think beyond words on a page or screen. How can we quickly and compellingly convey our stories, in a way that will engage audiences and encourage them to share the information? Try some eye candy. Find a graphic artist (or experiment yourself) and adapt wordy stories to appealing visualizations. Information is indeed beautiful.

Luring ‘Specialized’ candidates through social HR

I’m really fortunate to be in a job that I love at a company that’s a great fit for me. But so many people in a variety of industries and careers are struggling right now to find a job — and they also want to make sure it’s the right job. Likewise, companies want to hire the best candidates who can get the work done but who also fit in with the company culture. Often this matchmaking is difficult because each side doesn’t effectively articulate what it’s looking for — especially on the company side.

Sure, plenty of corporate sites have dry and bland “Careers” sections that give a few paragraphs on the company environment with (sometimes stock) photos of happy looking people in generic conference rooms. Then they dump the job seeker into a dizzying maze of job search queries (function, business unit, department, location, etc.).

If finding the right talent is so important to companies, why are so few taking advantage of social media and other avenues to help them communicate to job seekers what they’re looking for? It’s fairly quick and easy these days to add context to a careers Web site and give candidates a lot more information about what to expect.

One company that is doing it right is Specialized (Disclaimer 1: I’m a loyal Jamis rider. But the Tarmac is one sexy bike. Disclaimer 2: Team Saxo Bank rides Specialized and I love Frank Schleck). The most prominent feature on the Careers section of its Web site? Videos. Embedded from YouTube, these videos interview employees and describe some of the interesting benefits Specialized employees receive. You get a nice sense of not only what the company offers, but also what the people who work there are like.

What’s most impressive is this video interview with Specialized’s director of HR. She tells candidates exactly what the company is looking for and what job seekers need to do to land a gig there:

She answers the real questions that most job seekers want to know. What kind of people are you looking for? What do you want to see in a cover letter? What are the steps in the hiring process? How can I impress you in the interview?

Specialized could have easily listed out this information on its site, but the video interview makes a much greater impact. What’s more, the videos on the site can be easily shared and linked to. Maybe a job seeker realizes that the company isn’t a good fit for him or her, but knows of someone who would be great at Specialized. A few clicks and that person can post a link to the YouTube video to a friend’s Facebook page.

Companies don’t have to dive headlong into a social media strategy before they’re ready, but quick hits like this are a relatively easy way to connect with an audience in a more personal and engaging way.

Reputation management: Royal Caribbean and Haiti

External crises can force companies to make consternating choices.

Royal Caribbean has come under fire for continuing to dock its cruise ships on the Haitian peninsula of Labadee in light of the devastating earthquake. An article in The Gaurdian, later picked up by The Huffington Post and the LA Times travel blog, among other outlets, questions whether passengers should be sunning themselves and enjoying cocktails on the beach when so many are suffering in Port au Prince.

It’s a sticky situation for Royal Caribbean. On the one hand, they’ve used their cruise ships to deliver pallets upon pallets of supplies and drinking water for the residents of Haiti. They’re bringing economic activity to Labadee, where hundreds of Haitians rely on tourism income to feed their families (in fact, it’s probably less a matter of the positive economic impact of the cruise passengers than it is the avoidance of the negative impact should the cruise ship divert to somewhere else and thus leave those who depend on tourism revenues in a lurch). Royal Caribbean has also pledged $1 million in relief to Haiti.

Opinions are flying around the Internet and in the media as to whether RCCL is doing the right thing. Passengers themselves are divided, and some refused to disembark during the Labadee visit and stayed on the ship. Others are glad to be spending their money and be involved with the relief effort. Some have made the argument that Haiti (and for that matter, most Caribbean vacation destinations) was abjectly poor and in need before the earthquake, yet that didn’t stop cruise ships from docking there and passengers from visiting.

It’s a reputation management nightmare. There’s no clear-cut “right answer” that will make all RCCL stakeholders happy. Royal Caribbean made its decision and while many are supportive of their efforts, some are swearing off the cruise line and calling it insensitive, shameful, or even disgusting.

Blogging the company’s rationale

I do admire the way Royal Caribbean has communicated throughout this crisis. The company’s blog, written primarily by the CEO, has been almost entirely devoted to Haiti for the last two weeks. One post details the internal processes the company is using to monitor and manage the situation in Haiti – they’ve even posted a link to a .pdf of their daily meeting notes. Another post addresses the Guardian article and defends their decision to continue operations in Haiti. They’ve posted several photos of relief supplies and discuss a meeting with President Clinton. Both the CEO, Adam Goldstein, and Associate Vice President, John Weis, are posting a few times a day.

Sometimes CEO blogs get a bad rap, and it’s often deserved. They can be dry and uninformative. But having a CEO or company blog in place gives you an instant response platform when a crisis arises. Royal Caribbean had to make a tough call, and through its blog has been able to not only explain and defend its decision in detail but also receive instant feedback by way of comments. Many of the comments support the company’s choice.

I’m sure the RCCL team agonized over what the proper course of action was. I’m still not entirely sure what I would have chosen to do had I been the one making the choice. But I can appreciate that Royal Caribbean was honest, forthright and transparent about its reasons and processes with its customers. I read the posts and can relate to Adam and John as real people who had to make a difficult decision and ultimately are trying to do right by the people of Haiti, their employees, their customers and the public at large.

Did they get the communications piece right?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. Instead of debating whether or not RCCL made the right choice to continue docking in Labadee (those discussions are happening all over the Web at the links I included above), I’m more interested in hearing your reactions to how they’ve communicated their choices and actions during this crisis. What could they or should they have done differently? What risks do they still face in terms of reputation management and how do you think they should address them?

How you can help

My earlier post on how to donate and support Haiti relief efforts

Image via Royal Caribbean’s Why Not blog

One Question: HubSpot’s Rick Burnes

How can businesses use Twitter to drive leads? Rick Burnes of HubSpot shared his thoughts at the New York Capital Region American Marketing Association’s “Twitter for Business” workshop. I snagged Rick after the presentation to ask him this one question:

Two other good tips from Rick during the presentation:

  • Companies should create a page on their Web sites with a list and links to the Twitter handles of all their employees.
  • “Favoriting” positive mentions of your company on Twitter is a great way to assemble third-party endorsements. You can send the link to your favorites so that people can see what’s being said about you.

Check out Rick’s full presentation on SlideShare.

Six suggestions for communicating change to employees

Although we’ve all roared into 2010 with optimism that the recession is soon going to be behind us, many companies are faced with difficult choices in order to survive: cutting or outsourcing jobs, consolidating plants or divisions, eliminating product offerings, slashing funds for research and development, divesting a unit, or even restructuring in bankruptcy. All involve lots of change, especially for employees. What can communicators do to keep the wheels on the bus during the upheaval? Here are six recommendations:

1. Set expectations

Explain to employees what’s going to happen when. Layout a timeline of expected milestones and actions. Address critical issues upfront: how are the changes going to affect the things they’re most worried about: pay, benefits, time off, job security? Let them know what will be expected of them: do they need to fill out any paperwork, make choices about benefits or change their work schedules? The more uncertainty you can remove for them, the better.

2. Create a rhythm

Incorporate change communication into regular channels, but also consider special daily or weekly updates to keep employees abreast. Make sure that the frequency matches the amount of information available, however. Don’t schedule daily updates when it’s likely that there will only be new information each week or month. Most employees will be more comfortable knowing they can expect new information at set times versus not knowing when the next update is going to come.

3. Admit when you don’t have information

In many situations (layoffs, divestitures, bankruptcy filings) legal regulations dictate what you can disclose, when, and to whom. Sometimes even communicators themselves aren’t informed of all the details of a situation until it’s well underway, or if they are informed, they’ve signed a nondisclosure agreement and can’t reveal what they know. Other times, information just may not be available. It’s okay to tell employees that. Not every detail of a situation is going to be worked out from the first moment. It may take months before it becomes clear what’s going to happen with a particular product line, department or program. Employees would rather hear that you don’t know something versus hearing a lot of speculation.

4. Enable feedback

Whether it’s weekly roundtable meetings, an anonymous Web form, an e-mail address, or just a good old fashioned suggestion box, ensure that the communication is truly two-way. Give employees the opportunity to submit questions and air out concerns, and then answer them as promptly and thoroughly as possible. Chances are if one employee is asking about a topic, three or four others are thinking about it. Monitoring feedback is also a great way to catch rumors as they surface. Situations that involve a lot of change can be stressful, and communicators can sometimes get so caught up in making sure information gets disseminated that they forget to check the feedback loop and see where the gaps are in what employees are really hearing.

5. Dispel rumors before they get out of hand

Again, sometimes your hands may be tied with what you can confirm or deny about a situation, but to the extent possible, put the kibbosh on outlandish rumors before they get a chance to spread. Easier said than done, of course. If you can dispel something that’s patently false (and even better, replace it with the truth), do so. Fast. And frequently. Even rumors that have been put to bed end up recirculating among different employee groups.

6. Reinforce the positives

It sounds trite, but there’s always silver lining to be found. Maybe your company is still profitable and growing. Maybe your customers love you. Maybe your employees are racking up awards, patents, conference slots or other accolades. Find the bright spots and incorporate them into communication to employees.

Big changes in a company can cause fear and uncertainty among employees, but they can also lead to a stronger organization. Communicators play a major role in helping make the transition smooth and as transparent as possible, but it takes a lot of effort and planning.