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Moneyball PR, Step 2: Challenge Authority

What if they’re wrong … even some of the time?

“You’re discounting what scouts have done for 150 years …”Moneyball

Okay, I’ll admit it. For 25 years, I’ve been faking it as an authority on strategic communication and marketing. Despite years of experience, two degrees, academic publications and international accreditation, I don’t have the answers.

We live in a business world where to be smart means you know the answers, fast. To admit that answers cannot be fished immediately from your intellect is to risk being labeled a dullard; a perception that can get you fired or keep you from being hired.

To find success as an in-house expert and as a consultant, I’ve had to play along, to speak with confidence and self-assured authority. But my dirty secret is that I surreptitiously read books and conduct science-based research.

If you are a thinker or discoverer your competition is with the self-assured authority: That individual with decades of experience who can recite the rules, like:

  • Every public relations problem has a news media solution
  • Unpaid media is invariably more credible
  • We can’t compete with a small budget
  • Communication is an art, not a science

Each of these myths can be exploded with science, but many companies keep that discipline locked safely away in the Research and Development Department. Business leaders are taught to rely on their own knowledge and the reassuring authority of consultants.

Public Relations, as a profession, is no different. We surround ourselves with comfortable rules based on the paradigms many of us brought from journalism. When we move to corporations, we find we’re expected to have immediate answers to every communication problem. And, if we’re great at sounding supremely confident in our prescriptions, we’ll go far.

But, every once in a while – particularly in times of crisis and down economies – measured results matter. Those times have great potential for the thinkers and discoverers of strategic communication. They provide the opportunity to challenge authority.


Ways of knowing

How do you know? This is a great question to ask of anyone who provides a confident prescription to a communication problem.

Authority: This can come from the power of position, the longevity in a career field, or even the number of speaking engagements and bylined trade journal articles. Self-assured authority does not make right, but it can be immensely reassuring in tough times.

Intelligence: Education does not end with grad school. If Forrest Gump was right and stupid is as stupid does, the same applies to smart. Intelligence is about making well-informed decisions and actions, and that may begin with Socrates: “I know that I know nothing.”

Intuition: Do you rely on your gut, and visceral sense of what the facts are? You may be right, but what if you’re not? How lucky are you?

Observation: Do you rely on qualitative research: The results of focus groups or even anecdotal conversations with customers? While these observations are vital to success, they are dangerous if the sole basis for business decisions. The truth is, we cannot always correctly understand what we see or hear.

Measurement: Are you a surveys, charts and graphs person? Do you live and die with Excel pivot tables and a love for descriptive statistics? This is my comfort zone, and it can be risky. What if the numbers are correct, but the questions wrong? If taken alone, measurement too is dangerous if the sole basis for business decisions.

Scientific method

Put authority and intelligence aside and hang onto observation and measurement. With a healthy dose of creativity, these form the most powerful tools in your communication arsenal. But, don’t tell your competition, they’re likely relying on big budgets and big name authorities. I’d even avoid discussing it with your boss. What goes on in the kitchen can stay in the kitchen. Serve up a great steak, and no one will ask how you did it.


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Marketing Echinacea: The Power of Belief

Cone flowers

Echinacea Angustifolia

Echinacea and marketing have a lot in common. At least that’s the conclusion I reached while listening to National Public Radio’s Morning Edition a few years ago.

It seems that common cold researcher Ronald Turner has confirmed what other studies have already concluded: the herbal supplement echinacea does not fight colds.

And yet, Turner told NPR’s Allison Aubrey he expects people will continue to take echinacea. “I’ve given up a long time ago with trying to convince people that science should dictate how they behave,” he said. “And so I don’t imagine that the people who are convinced that echinacea works for them are going to be swayed one way or another by the results of our study.”

It sounds a lot like the approach many businesses and organizations take to marketing. Don’t get me wrong; I firmly believe that well-researched strategic marketing is essential to business success. And there is ample scientific evidence that strategic marketing can be effective.

However, a distinction must be made between two variants of the marketing herb:

  1. Strategic Marketing: Research-based marketing strategy that utilizes a scientific approach to develop disciplined, targeted and effective marketing tactics.
  2. Marketing Echinacea: Seat-of-the-pants marketing tactics based on intuition, gut instinct, or “industry experience” alone.

Colds make us miserable grouches, and when you’ve got one, you’re usually desperate for a quick solution. Everyone from your mom to your taxi driver will give you advice on how to beat a cold, perhaps with echinacea.

Business challenges – particularly poor sales or market position – have much in common with the common cold. Like a cold, we are so desperate for a solution that we may listen to any advice that promises relief. Like echinacea, the lure of a quick “shoot-from-the-hip” advertising campaign can be quite tempting.

Unlike the common cold, strategic business problems won’t just “run their course” and disappear with the empty Kleenex boxes in your trash.

Strategic challenges may actually have more in common with cancer than with the common cold. They can kill a company if left untreated. Mention the “C” word in a doctor’s examination room, and the patient is likely to drop their echinacea like a hot potato and immediately seek the best treatment science has to offer.

While many leaders gravitate to the seductive Siren song of quick fixes – such as tactical advertising or public relations – consultants are guilty of over selling this marketing echinacea to their clients.

So how can you know the difference between the strategic marketing consultant and the tactical marketing herbalist?

  1. No kissing on the first date: Beware the firm that pitches a marketing, advertising, branding or public relations solution on their first or second visit. It is highly unlikely that your strategic problem can be accurately diagnosed that quickly.
  2. Beware the strategy that relies excessively on qualitative research, intuition and “industry experience” alone. Look for solid numbers that quantify your market position as well as that of your competitors.
  3. Demand strategies that have sound goals and measurable objectives.
  4. Don’t be seduced by a consultant’s portfolio of slick and creative advertising. Ask what quantifiable results their clients have achieved. If you like art, go to the museum or symphony. If you want results, you will need great creative; but it must be obsessively driven by research-based strategy.
  5. Expect to pay for sound research and analysis as the first step and foundation for an effective strategic marketing solution. The alternative is to pay a marketing echinacea salesman a 15 percent mark-up on every dose of the herb they sell you, then pray your marketing head cold goes away.

This blog was originally published by Inside Indiana Business in 2005.


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Grab the power drill, we’ve got a marketing problem

PalmercarpenterAIn the early years of my marriage, I felt it was my manly obligation to handle all home repairs. There was no project too big for me and my favorite tools: a hammer, pliers, and power drill.

Fortunately, my marriage survived those early years, and I learned some important lessons.

  • A power drill is not appropriate for all home fixes.
  • Real men can read the instructions.
  • Planning saves time, reduces frustration, and improves quality.
  • Sometimes you have to hire an expert, then get out of the way.

Among business leaders, there is the same sort of bravado that challenged my early years of home repair. When it comes to problems impacting the bottom line, we are often tempted to call on some favorite tools such as advertising or news releases.

This temptation is arrived at honestly. Boards and shareholders often prefer to see quick, tactical action to address problems rather than giving corporate leadership the extra minutes it may take to develop a strategic solution.

A flotilla of artsy, creative billboards and television commercials can offer the harried executive a high-profile method to demonstrate take-charge action regarding a faltering product. But when the magic doesn’t work, everyone looks bad.

A firm for which I consulted some years ago faced just such temptations. A reliable, cash-generating product that had been a market leader for years experienced a dramatic loss of sales volume in the face of growing competition. Under pressure from the board, the CEO ordered a tactical advertising campaign touting product features.

Months later, the product was continuing a downhill slide that would have to be explained to a board of directors. That’s when the CEO brought me in to lead a strategic approach founded on solid market and product research.

We had to work fast, but strategically. Our research-based assessment was not limited to public relations or marketing tactics. We took a comprehensive look at all aspects of the product and the market. We talked to line staff, and we learned from consumers. We crunched numbers and mapped processes.

The result was a strategic approach that included some favorite tools (marketing and public relations), and several product and process improvements. With a better product and more effective promotion, this company was able to:

  • Turn a 25 percent market loss into a four percent gain.
  • Generate $8 in revenue for every marketing dollar expended.
  • Create a 16 percent increase in customers.
  • Produce a 21 percent increase in revenue.

Does every strategic approach generate spectacular results? No. But, a strategic method is far more likely to help a product or company achieve its potential. And, strategic research can identify and quantify a genuinely hopeless situation before significant sums are spent attempting to revive a brain-dead product.

So, what do you need to know to implement a strategic fix for your biggest headache?

Research: Forget the quick fix. Focus on clearly identifying the problem and its root cause. Learn everything you can about the market. Identify an overall strategy with realistic objectives.

Plan: Based on your research and objectives, outline step-by-step tactics, timelines, budgets and responsible persons. This probably will not include your favorite power drill or band saw.

Do: Initiate your tactical plan, step-by-step, on time and within budget.

Check: Continuously monitor and evaluate the results as you implement the plan.

Act: Are the results what you expected? Have new opportunities developed? Minor course corrections are likely. Major adjustments may indicate your strategy was unrealistic, or your research was incomplete or not accurate.

Most importantly, don’t forget to ask for help.  And, when seeking outside help, know the difference between the gifted tactical advisor, and the experienced strategy expert who can research and plan a realistic approach for your firm, using the right tools, not just the fun ones.

The original version of this article was published in 2004 by Inside Indiana Business.


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Dominant Coalitions: The Power to Succeed (or Fail)

This is a revision of a column that was first published by Inside Indiana Business several years ago. Perhaps it continues to be relevant. — JH

There is something heady and a bit intoxicating for those involved with a corporation’s executive management team. And, yet there’s also a great deal that is extremely difficult, especially for those struggling from the after shocks of the Great Recession.

With all the isolation, stress and headaches, why is there no shortage of individuals with executive management career ambitions? The answer is not salaries. Even smaller organizations with less than premium executive pay find many people eager for a slot on a senior management team.

Perhaps one answer is power. A 1979 Harvard Business Review article identified two forms of power:

1. Access to resources, information, and support.

2. The ability to get cooperation in doing what is necessary.

There certainly is nothing wrong with possessing or wanting to possess power. It often takes power to accomplish great things in business or humanitarian causes. Generals without power cannot win battles. And humanitarian causes without power can achieve little for society.

But, with power comes the threat of dysfunctional behavior, especially if possessing the power becomes more important than using it to accomplish great things.

Dysfunctional executive management teams – dominant coalitions – provide one explanation as to why one organization may thrive, while another with similar resources and market situations seems to be crisis laden.

In addition, there is no guarantee that all members of an executive management team can are among the often-shadowy dominant coalition. When resources become scarce, powerful coalitions may allocate resources to maintain the relative positions of those within the coalition. This may even create warfare within an executive management team among those who are truly within the inner circle of power, and those pushed to powerless positions with large job titles.

For an outside consultant, awareness of the dominant coalition is an essential component to the development of effective strategies and action plans. An incredible strategic plan, officially endorsed at the highest levels, has little chance of success if a shadowy dominant coalition – the real power brokers in an organization – is not involved in the planning effort and fully behind the finished product.

Often the consultant is called in because an organization has failed to thrive while similar firms with comparable resource challenges have enjoyed consistent success. While there may be many explanations for this failure, identifying the dominant coalition and its relationship within an organization is essential.

However, addressing dysfunctions within a dominant coalition can be highly risky for a consultant. As with any performance review, it is not enough to identify a general problem. You’ll need to give specific examples, but in a manner that allows members of the coalition to save face. Often this means allowing coalition members a significant role in developing process-oriented solutions, while not forcing a “whose fault is it” discussion of the problems.

Ultimately, dysfunctional dominant coalitions are like bad marriages. Counseling may help if all parties are committed to a solution. But there are no guarantees.

To review a case study on this issue, presented to the Public Relations Society of America Educator’s Academy in 2003, see The Impact of Public Relations Roles and Dominant Coalitions on Crisis Communications.

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