Category Archives: Strategic Communication

Signal and Noise

Blackout Tuesday taught us something about Instagram.

During the BlackLivesMatter “Blackout Tuesday” protests last week, many of us saw the following admonition in our various social feeds and in the comment section of Instagram posts:

Unintended Consequences

Why did these most earnest of social justice warriors want us to stop using #blacklivesmatter in our posts? Wasn’t solidarity and the spread of a movement the whole idea? 

The Signal

When these concerned organizers saw their own feeds become clogged with one blacked-out image after another, they realized that their messaging was lost in a sea of black. Organizers, who ironically tried to police Blackout Tuesday, were being frustrated by both the nature of social participation and how Instagram works. 

Instead of letting the protest form organically, these organizers wanted to disseminate specific messages and information using Instagram. To them, the critical thing was the signal. By focusing on their messaging, they missed the beauty of the noise. They began tamping down the participation they had encouraged. The “don’t use #blacklivesmatter” scolds started trending and became one of the predominate messages of the day. I think the simple blacked-out screen shot was more artful and positively impactful.

Blackout Tuesday

The Noise 

What the organizers perceived as noise was, in fact, the most important thing—participation. Blackout Tuesday was a success because it got millions of people to express themselves on behalf of an issue when they  might otherwise have stayed silent.  

When we participle in any social media campaign, we incrementally move from being spectators to stakeholders. This shift is gold to companies who spend millions on influencer marketing, interactive media and direct response advertising. Converting a passive consumer to a co-creator for any brand is a major step in creating lasting brand loyalty. 

No individual post listing real injustices, “important” Netflix docs, or local meet-up times is as important to the success of the movement as having millions of people do something, even something as seemingly insignificant as posting a black screenshot. Each of those little blacked-out posts represents buy in from a fellow citizen and voter. Marketing gold.   

The Platform 

Why wasn’t Instagram effective for disseminating information in the way conceived by Blackout Tuesday organizers? The easy answer is always the algorithm; that mysterious artificial intelligence that determines who, what, when and where a post is displayed on Instagram or any social media platform.

The algorithm is easy to blame, but hard to understand. Actually, it’s impossible to understand because it’s always changing. First, the algorithm’s output is always changing due to exigent conditions on the platform—like millions of black screen shots using #blacklivesmatter. And secondly, social media platforms are constantly tweaking their algorithms to make the user experience better and to increase ad revenue.

Probably the easiest way to understand why the algorithm is a necessary evil is to consider your own social media feed. First, look at the size of the feed space. Depending on your device (Instagram is a mobile phone app), you’ll see one or two posts at once. Interaction is limited to that space and by how much time you spend scrolling and interacting with each post. 

Let’s say you follow 500 people, brands and hashtags. If half of those post every day, it will take some time to get through all of those posts and stories, especially when you factor in the fact that the rate of ads in your feed might be 1:3 in prime viewing times. So, how many of those 250 posts do you actually interact with every day? 

You may think your posts reach all of your followers. They don’t. If you don’t interact much with your followers, the algorithm pushes your post down the queue, behind that follower’s more relevant interactions and behind paid content. And as time goes by, your post becomes less relevant. Even when you make it into your follower’s feed, if they don’t look at your post in a timely manner, it slips further and further down their feed. 

Consider the millions of users and companies vying for space in your feed and you’ll get a picture of how ineffective Instagram is at timely messaging. Instagram is better for branding and low-touch interaction with user-generated content. Other platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, can be more effective dissemination tools due to certain affordances like groups, direct messaging and content structure. But they also are limited by algorithmic control over the vast torrent of content generated each second. 

Complementary Media

Many try to use social media as a broadcast medium without recognizing how the media shapes the message. Consider the following simple diagram explaining user relationships to the messages via different media. For the user, social media is not like watching a single television channel, or connecting to a website. It’s like having 500 channels streaming in all at once. 

Social Media overloads the user.

Social media is a complementary media. The most effective strategy for social media–based information dissemination is to use social media to draw users to an information rich website. There, users can engage with your messages and information and action strategies. They can also up their commitment by signing up for future email, texts and other vital updates from your organization. 

As in all communication, the media matters. Understanding the limits of social media will help you determine how it fits into your quiver of options. While I can help with ways to think about and use social media, I can’t help turn it into something it’s not. For that, you’ll need to sign up for my $5,000 a month newsletter. LOL

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What is communication?

One communicator's musings on my craft.

What is communication? Communication godfather Louis A. Allen may have described it best: “Communication is the sum of all things one person does when he wants to create understanding in the mind of another.” It can be in the form of a tweet, a blog post, an advertisement, etc. But, when it effectively conveys the originator’s idea, I feel like it’s more than that.

As a former Opinion section editor of my college newspaper, I can’t help weighing in on this one, especially because the plethora of complex definitions and flowcharts describing “communication” found on Google weren’t that helpful. I’d say communication is much like a simple algebraic expression; it’s a combination of symbols, variables, elements and processes that combine to produce an outcome. When done right, it’s known as strategic communication. 

Here’s how I’d write out my formula for strategic communication.

Here’s what I’m thinking.

Message includes words, sounds, visuals or feelings. It’s the essence or substance of the communication. Thus it can be read, heard, seen and/or felt.

By felt, I mean the thing that’s conveyed between two people who’ve known each other for a long time. I can walk into a room and without saying a word or doing anything, my husband can tell when I’m angry or sad. Psychology refers to this as “nonverbal interpersonal communication.”

Intent is the goal of the communication, though sometimes the stated goal is not the same as the intent. For example, a company may send wellness communications to employees so they can “live healthier, more fulfilling lives.” While that’s certainly one goal—who wouldn’t desire improved wellbeing for everyone?—the intent is to reduce healthcare claims from chronic diseases. 

In my invented formula, Message plus Intent is multiplied by Medium. The medium is the communication mechanism or format. This includes written, spoken, acted, audiovisual, etc. I like to think of the Message plus Intent being multiplied by the Medium because the appropriate medium is most impactful. 

Think about the different impact levels between receiving an email to “Sign up for your benefits by Friday!” versus a short video with moving graphics and music with the same message. Adding a link to the benefits website optimizes the impact of this communication.

Now, let’s talk about Barriers. These are critical to consider since barriers “subtract” from the success of the communication, depending on how strong the barrier is.

Comprehension is a significant barrier today, with strong language and cultural differences in parts of the country. The same word in different languages can change the Message. 

Relevance is another important consideration. The audience is always asking, “Does this matter/interest me?” For example, if you want employees across the company to calculate what they’ll need for retirement, this barrier generally will be stronger for employees in their 20s than for those in their 50s. One size does not fit all.

Time can be a barrier. Think about what your audience will be doing when they receive your communication. How frustrated will employees be if they missed the Monday raffle for free tickets to a sold-out sporting event because the notice came on Friday afternoon? Instead of a morale win, your communication just created some resentment—aka, a communication barrier.

Arguably the biggest barrier I commonly see is bias. This is the audience’s prior exposure to you or some element of your communication. Bias can be unconscious, but sometimes not. Let’s explore conscious bias first.

Let’s say that at an important meeting, the head of the organization bypasses the long line of attendees waiting for pre-dinner cocktails and goes behind the counter to get his drink from the bartender. It’s likely that the thirsty queue-formers will perceive his behavior as self-importance. How will this influence the way they process communication from him in the future? Perfect example of conscious bias.

But what about unconscious bias? It’s trickier. Also called “implicit bias,” these pre-conceived judgments are usually formed early in life. I would argue that we can’t escape unconscious bias completely, and they’re not always wrong, but we can form beneficial views through the modeling of positive behaviors by people in positions of authority. Consider this: How powerful would it be if a CEO appoints someone with autism to an executive position?

Celebrated self-advocate Dr. Temple Grandin said, “The word ‘autism’ still conveys a fixed and alarming meaning to most people—they visualize a child mute, rocking, inaccessible, cut off from human contact. And we almost always speak of autistic children, never of autistic adults, as if such children never grew up, or were somehow mysteriously spirited off the planet, out of society.” If Dr. Grandin, who was diagnosed with autism at an early age, had been a victim of unconscious bias, her ground-breaking improvements in animal science probably wouldn’t have been realized. 

These are just a few examples. It’s impossible to remove all possible barriers from every member of your audience, but you should plan for them. Practicing consistency, integrity and transparency in your communication will go a long way toward minimizing barriers.

Because human beings are delightfully unpredictable, I like to refer to communication as a formula of some sort. For me, it’s the best way to factor in key elements, account for variables and come up with a solution that is effective in today’s world. “Message plus Intent, multiplied by Medium, then divided by Barriers” is a much easier formula to remember than a complex illustration or the 75-word paragraph that shows up in my Google search. 

Effective communication can seem elusive⏤this formula works for me.


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Are your employees ready for the new normal at work?

A survey of employees’ covid-19 concerns could help you plan a smoother transition.

Political and business leaders are starting to talk about reopening the country for business. But, after months of being told to stay home and keep our distance from each other, how comfortable will we be re-entering the workplace? Will resuming more normal business operations be as simple as unlocking the doors and flipping a switch?

What concerns will your workforce have? Will they be eager to come back to work or reluctant? Should temporary changes to your work-from-home policies be made permanent? What previously overlooked benefits helped employees cope? 

A survey of your workforce could give you actual data to use in your decision making, leading to more effective outcomes and greater performance. 

“Surveys really have a dual benefit for organizations,” said Aaron Van Groningen, senior organizational development and training consultant at Hicks-Carter-Hicks, LLC, a boutique firm that specializes in using surveys and assessments to help organizations enhance performance. “First, direct feedback from employees allows decisions to be made using data rather than guesses and hunches. Second, surveys communicate to employees that their opinions are valuable and important to the organization, which is positively associated with organizational commitment.”

Should You Conduct a Survey?

By replacing guesswork with data, surveys can help organizations use their time, energy and money more efficiently. And who doesn’t want that right now? 

However, if your organization is not likely to heed the results of a survey, don’t do it. Asking your employees for their input and then appearing to ignore or disregard it could have a serious impact on their trust in the organization and their engagement.

What Should You Ask?

When crafting questions, consider how your organization responded to the pandemic and how your workers and workplaces were affected. Avoid infringing on employees’ privacy; steer clear of specific questions regarding personal health or circumstances. Also avoid asking employees to make comments they think will jeopardize their jobs, careers or income.

For some ideas, check out our brief “Return to Work” survey sample. Feel free to complete the survey or just peruse the questions.

If an employee survey is already part of your post-covid-19 return-to-work strategy, or if you’re looking for help designing and/or administering a survey, we’d love to hear from you.

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