Monday, December 29, 2014

What is Your Message?

We are all barraged with thousands of bits of information every day. Attention spans are notoriously short and everyone’s brain is working hard to sift through the noise. This reality makes a clear, effective message essential if your organization wants to be heard – and understood.

A clear message does two important things:
  • An effective message gives your audiences an overall structure, or framework, to understand what your organization does and/or its goals;
  • An effective message gives your messengers (employees, board, etc.) a structure to tell people what you do, and to be heard and understood.
With the structure of a clear message in place, the facts and figures and stories you tell about your organization will serve to support and reinforce that message, helping people to understand who you are and what you do.

The lack of a clear, understandable message can be dangerous for your organization. Without a message, it is nearly impossible to describe your organization effectively, or to be understood. And without this fundamental understanding you will likely miss countless opportunities. Even worse, others - including competitors - can take the disjointed parts and define you on their terms, instead of on your own. Reporters, too, may be left to piece together the parts of your story on their own, defining you to fit their needs or confirm their preconceived notions.

Here’s an example of a bad, unfocused message, and a good, strong one. You’ll know who the company is after you read the good message. You’ll also realize how awful the first message is after you recognize the company - and probably have a rueful smile when you think about how often people describe their organization using something like Message #1.

Message #1
  • We were founded by a visionary who started a movie company, then we got into television and amusement parks – which we still do – but now we own a TV network with three channels - one for kids, one for sports and one for general audiences. We also sell books and toys based on the characters from our movies and we even run a cruise line.
Message #2
  • We use stories and characters – like Mickey Mouse - to entertain, to teach lessons and to give people and families fun things to do.

Clearly explaining your organization in a sentence or two is crucial to being known and understood on your terms. Your key message is what you want your audience to “take away” from their interaction with your organization. A clear understanding of your organization comes through the prism of a good, strong message.

Effective messaging also provides you and your team with a structure, or framework, to communicate with all your audiences: customers, potential customers, the press, investors, donors, partners and employees. It provides a framework for all of your communications: marketing materials, speeches and presentations, web site and social media content, news releases and op eds, and just about everything else.

Finally, it’s important to realize that your message and your mission statement are not the same thing. Most mission statements are vague, laden with jargon and buzzwords glued together and watered down by a committee. These statements avoid doing what a message needs to do – prioritize what is important for people to know about your organization.

With a strong message in place, an organization is well-positioned to tell their story, and have it understood. From there, the work of creating a 21st Century communications distribution network to effectively deliver your message to your key audiences can begin.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The 2014 Elections

The gap between the electorate in a presidential year election and a non-presidential year continues to widen.  This year, in both Rhode Island and the country, the electorate was significantly older, whiter and more affluent than the voting population as a whole.  This is a reality that benefits Republicans.  In addition to the fact that this was the lowest turnout in 72 years, here are two more numbers that jumped out at me: Only 13% (or one out of eight) 18-29 year-olds voted this year.  Meanwhile, 68% of voters were 45 or older.  Contrast that with 2012, when 53% of voters were 45 or older.

This new reality creates wide two-year swings in what the electorate says it “wants,” since the electorate in Presidential years is so much different than in the “off-years.”  

At first glance, the fact that Democrats swept all the statewide and federal races in Rhode Island would seem to indicate that the state was immune to the national trend.  But in suburban and rural General Assembly “swing districts,” Republicans enjoyed some success, defeating an incumbent state senator and knocking off six House incumbents, a rarity.  Outside the urban core, Rhode Island bore a much closer resemblance to the country as a whole.  The trick for R.I. Republicans now will be to prepare when the pendulum swings back to a much less friendly “Presidential” electorate, which is coming their way in two years.


They know who you are – and they are going to ring your doorbell, call your phone and even stalk you on the Internet (particularly Facebook) until you give them a reason to stop.  This was the year that the marriage between the “Big Data” tools of the two Obama presidential campaigns and plain old-fashioned door knocking by volunteers was consummated at the local level.  

Voters would be amazed (and maybe a little concerned) to learn what campaigns, even at a town council and school committee level, know about them, and how that information can now be sliced and diced in an effort to persuade them as individuals.  Why did that ad for so-and-so seem to appear for weeks on every web page you went to?  Because when you visited the campaign website, they dropped a cookie in your browser that “followed” you around the Internet, and showed you the ad everywhere you went.  The ad was probably targeted at you based on the pile of other information they had about you.  

In local campaigns it used to be enough to ring doorbells and send a few well-done pieces of direct mail.  By 2016 that will no longer be true – the candidate without a robust, smart, data-based on-line effort will be at a distinct disadvantage.  The good news for candidates is that it’s much more affordable than newspaper advertising, the now fading staple of local campaigns from the past.  The hard part - especially for local campaigns - will be to find someone who can manage the on-line effort, knows what they’re doing, and can do it consistently.  And even in this new age of technology, it still won’t work without those committed volunteers!


Those annoying robo-calls you got on your phone throughout the course of the campaign were not what you probably thought they were.  While they may sound like a cheap poll, they’re really not, since a poll conducted in that way has little value to a campaign as a measure of voter sentiment.  In reality, the calls are a cheap (pennies per call) way to get even more information out of you.  In this case, the sponsor of the call is trying to find out if you’re willing to identify yourself as a supporter, an opponent or still undecided.  If you want to the calls to stop, say you are “opposed” – the campaign will stop calling, since they don’t want to do anything that will encourage you to go to the polls.  The worst thing you can do?  Say you are undecided, or hang up.  They’ll just keep calling.


Speaking of polling - continuing a trend I first noted in 2010, for all practical purposes, it is now prohibitively expensive to get accurate polling data.  Campaigns do what they can because they have to, but any other poll, even from credible news sources, must be taken not with a grain, but with a mountain of salt.  It’s simply too hard and too expensive to get enough people to spend the 10-20 minutes per voter it takes to get a reasonably accurate gauge of voter sentiment.  Soon, only the best funded campaigns (or their related “Independent Expenditure” allies) will be able to afford truly accurate data.  The pollster who can figure out how to get accurate data in a world increasingly populated by cell-phone owners with limited attention spans will be much in demand.


Thanks in large measure to the Citizens United decision, arguably the worst Supreme Court decision of my lifetime, campaign finance is now officially a sewer.  You can’t blame candidates and interests for doing what they must under the new rules to win, but the public is poorly served by a system that practically requires a candidate to have at least one (largely unregulated, often secretive) SuperPAC in their corner to make “Independent” Expenditures.  Meanwhile, however, expect this behavior to continue until voters impose some kind of penalty on candidates.  Although maybe there’s a connection between the low turnout and obscene amounts of money flying around.


That said, a ton of money does not necessarily buy success.  Further, you don’t need to have the “most” money, you just need to have “enough.”


A few years ago, I noted that competent, professional campaign staff had become essential for candidates (#5), a trend that has accelerated.  Two interesting things have happened since: 
First, relative to the resources available for down ballot statewide candidates (Lt. Governor, Secretary of State, Attorney General and Treasurer) in Rhode Island, these campaign professionals have become more expensive, and in many cases, prohibitively so.  There are few bargains to be had.  Meanwhile, and more important, as party primaries have increasingly become an exercise in appealing to a party’s base, partisan campaign professionals (there are no other kind) who win primaries have become less adept at pivoting towards general election voters who are persuaded by a more centrist message, and more likely to be turned off by partisan code words and talking points.  Candidates, beware.


Only eight more years before Rhode Island is likely down to one statewide U.S. House seat.


The 2016 Presidential campaign will start before the snow melts.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Father's Day

A few years ago my cousin Kevin published this piece about his father, who was my father’s oldest brother. It is a fitting tribute. 

Father’s generation created better world
By Kevin D. Preston

He was the eldest son of seven children of an immigrant family. Born to a sickly father and a mother who lived a long life and worked every day of it, he inherited his father’s health, and his mother’s determination.

He began working at the age of 9 and quit school at the age of 15 to help put bread on the table of his family during the depression. A soldier at 21, across the beach at Omaha at 24, married at 26, the father of three by age 30.

He was a high school dropout who was determined not only to support his family, but to ensure that his children would have a better start than he did. He had only two things going for him, an unlimited determination to work, and an uncanny ability to fix things.

For more than half a century he worked in mills and factories at home and overseas, fixing warplanes, machinery, jewelry and antiques as well as the toys of his children and grandchildren.

But he has always been far more than just a workhorse. He knew that beyond the everyday struggle for survival there were larger issues which affected the quality of the world he and his family would live in.

By reasoning more simple yet more powerful than that of his college educated children, he knew that his country must support programs to reduce poverty, because he knew what it was to be poor. He knew that discrimination was wrong because as a French-Canadian, and as a Catholic, he knew of the crippling effects of bigotry on both the victim, and the bigot.

And despite the fact that out of devotion to his church he sent his children to parochial schools, he always supported the proper funding of public schools, because having been deprived of a proper education, he knew its value.

Out of the Depression 

Although special to me, my father’s story is typical of that of many of his contemporaries. His was the generation that as children saw and felt the devastation wrought by the Great Depression. His was the generation that as young adults fought and beat Hitler and all he represented. His was the generation that built the greatest economic power the world had ever seen. His was the first generation in history to choose to share their newfound material success with the poor and their long cherished political rights with minority groups which had long been excluded from their enjoyment.

It has become the fashion among my generation to denigrate the condition of the world which we are inheriting; to focus on problems which remain rather than on progress already made.

True Test 

But the final measure of any generation is whether they leave the world better than they found it. And by that measure my father’s generation has been exceptional.

The simple fact is that the sons of my father’s generation are, on average, richer, healthier, better educated and will live longer than their fathers.

They eat better foods and work shorter hours.

More of them have the right to vote and to stand for public office. Unlike many of their fathers when at similar age, the sons can, for the most part, travel across this country, eat in restaurants, sleep in hotels, rent apartments, marry, play golf and do pretty much what they want regardless of their race or religion.


It is by any standard an impressive list of accomplishments.

As a 10-year old boy in 1961, I watched on television the handing over of the reins of power from my grandfather’s generation to my father’s.

In his inaugural address 30 years ago President Kennedy said that “… the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war and disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.”

I knew even then that he was talking about millions of fathers, but in the eyes of this 10-year-old boy, my own father became my measure of what that generation was, and was to become.

Thanks Dad, and happy Father’s Day.

Kevin D. Preston of Attleboro is an attorney.

Monday, June 2, 2014

The On-Line E-Newsletter: You Can’t Live Without It

A respected non-profit recently sent out an RFP for a firm to create a newsletter for the organization. Although we rarely respond to RFPs at New Harbor Group, we strongly believe that having a newsletter is a good thing. Every organization should have some way to tell its story and update its key audience on a regular basis.

But here’s the problem: This particular group asked for proposals for putting together a print newsletter. Bad idea. If you don’t have a newsletter, and you’re thinking about starting one, here’s why an on-line edition is absolutely the only way to go:
  • Why pay for printing and postage? Who does that anymore? It’s simply a waste of money.
  • Keep it fresh. The on-line version won’t get stale waiting for that “one last story” to be submitted, then getting printed and then sitting around in the bulk mail trays at the post office.
  • Get (really valuable) information. An on-line version will give you data about your audiences – who opened the e-mail announcing the latest edition, and who hit “delete”; what stories are popular, and which ones aren’t. With a print newsletter, recipients may read it, or they may toss it – you’ll never know.
  • And speaking of data, your advertisers will be thrilled to know how many people visited their website – and perhaps even hired them or bought their product because someone clicked on their ad in your e-newsletter.
  • Keep the conversation going with social media. With your on-line newsletter you can actually engage with your audiences, either in the comment section, or even better – with social media. Your on-line e-newsletter is a great way to drive your readers to your social media pages (and your website itself), communicating with your audiences and finding out what they’re really thinking about you.
  • Also - it’s “green”.
Amazingly, the main objection to an on-line newsletter is usually this: Somewhere out there exists a mythical, 90-year old person who doesn’t have e-mail or use the Internet. Needless to say, I’m dubious.  After all, we live in a world where 84% of Baby Boomers – who are now well into their 60s – say that the Internet is an essential, like bread and milk in a Rhode Island snowstorm. I’ve never met this person who isn’t on-line, or learned their name, but this person is the reason why people tell me they can’t possibly put their newsletter on-line.

Nevertheless, if you’re in print and thinking about the transition to an on-line e-news, I have a solution for the “90-Year-Old Person Who Doesn’t Use the Internet” problem which works like a charm. I’d be glad to share it.

Our client the Rhode Island Society of CPAs has a very successful on-line newsletter called “What Counts.”  Not only does the Society enjoy all the benefits of an on-line newsletter I described above, they also defray nearly the complete cost of the publication with advertising, which you can see at the bottom of this – and every - page when you click here.

And yes, we are prepared for that “person who is not on-line.”  If that person calls the Society they will print this version, and mail it to him or her. First class.

If you have an existing print newsletter, you need to be thinking about how to transition to an on-line edition as soon as possible. If you don’t already have a newsletter, and are preparing to start one, the only place you should be publishing is on-line.

Friday, May 16, 2014

A Silver Lining to the Sterling Saga...

New Harbor Group is often asked to help a new client “deal with a potential problem.”   Many times, that “potential problem” is actually a significant problem and it’s time for some crisis management.   For those who haven’t been through one, managing a crisis isn’t just about how you react, but it’s also about how prepared you are for when one strikes.    

Hopefully, the next crises you or your company faces won’t be as potentially devastating as the one encountered by Adam Silver just a few months into his new job.   When Silver took over as the NBA Commissioner earlier this year, he probably never imagined that a member of his Board of Governors would be caught on tape delivering a racist diatribe (apparently a regular occurrence by some accounts).  Perhaps Silver knew beforehand that the LA Clippers owner, Donald Sterling, may have been a racist, but once Sterling’s rant hit the airwaves Mr. Silver was thrust into one of the League’s most serious and potentially damaging public relations incidents of all time.   

How Silver responded to the crisis would not only define his legacy as the League commissioner, but also impact the reputation of the League for years to come.

As most know by now, Mr. Silver responded swiftly, decisively, and effectively.  Not only did he decide to dole out the harshest possible penalty possible, but he was quick to offer a sincere apology, delivered a home run of a press conference, and even found himself looking like, something of a hero.   

What are some of the most important take ways you can learn from the Commish?
  1. Get the Facts:  Or as many of them as possible, as quickly as you can.   Silver’s first move was to authenticate the tape.  Once he knew it was in fact Sterling’s voice, he knew he had to act.

  2. Talk to Your Partners:  No one likes surprises, most importantly your key stakeholders.  One of Silver’s best moments in his press conference was deflecting a question asking if Mr. Sterling could remain an absentee owner if the Board of Governors didn’t force a sale.   Silver’s response: “I fully expect to get the support I need from the other NBA owners to remove him.”  Also to his credit, Silver was also in communication with several players, coaches and former players throughout his decision making process, likely gauging their reaction to different scenarios.

  3. Take Bold Action:  Mr. Silver weighed the pros and cons of taking big or little action, and perhaps even against some legal advice, he went big.  Whether Sterling can be forced to sell the team or not doesn’t really matter at this point.  Mr. Silver put his personal stamp of his new office on it by taking authoritative action.

  4. Get Out There:  Just three days after TMZ released its tape of Mr. Sterling, the Commissioner was holding a press conference in Manhattan to announce his decision.   It was pertinent as more and more stories were already percolating about Mr. Sterling’s racist history, more celebrities and athletes were urging protests, and the focus on the NBA playoffs was being seriously diluted.    (Candidly, 72 hours is a bit longer than we recommend waiting to respond, but Mr. Silver benefited from the story breaking on a Saturday.  Opting for a Tuesday presser gave his decision more attention than doing it on Sunday or first thing Monday.  The extra 24 hours was a gamble, but it paid off for him because he took the right action against Mr. Sterling.)

  5. Apologize:  After only being on the job for three months, Mr. Silver could have legitimately claimed non-culpability.  Fortunately, he did not.  He apologized for the comments made by Donald Sterling, expressed a deep sense of sympathy for those hurt by his comments, and displayed a genuine recognition of the time it will take to rectify this issue with the fanbase, sponsors and larger basketball community. 

  6. Hire the Experts Ahead of Time:  Probably the most important point of all - don’t wait until the emergency is upon you to have your crisis communications team in place.    One of Mr. Silver’s first calls upon hearing about the release of the Sterling tape, was to his crisis communications consultant who had been counseling the NBA for years.   
When a catastrophe hits, you want a person in place that knows you and you trust.   You don’t have time to look for one or second-guess their advice.   You need someone that can help you navigate the storm and help you defuse the situation.