Let's get tactical


Kathleen Martin invited five communications experts to talk about brand inoculation—how to ready your brand and company for times when things go (sometimes publicly) wrong. The conversation ranged from crisis management to the “free puppy” of social media.

The roster included: Leo Artalejo (chief storyteller and senior consultant at National Public relations); Sammy Davis (CEO of Impact Communications); Brenda Gallant (director of marketing at Tourism PEI); Allan Gates (co-founder and partner at Bonfire Communications); and Catherine Bagnell Styles (assistant vp of communications and marketing at Dalhousie University).


Allan: You want to have some credits in the bank of public opinion—to be seen as a good company doing good things. That’s how you earn the trust of your audiences. Then, when something goes wrong, they may give you the benefit of the doubt knowing that you’re a good company. And when things do go wrong, you need to be honest and transparent about how you deal with them.


I think you have to be a good company. I don’t think it’s a matter of PR spin or marketing puffery. It’s a question of day in and day out, are you being a good company? Are you being a good corporate citizen? Are you good to your customers? Are you good to your employees? People see and respond to that.

Catherine: At the root of it, for me, is knowing the values you have as an organization. You know what you stand for. You know who your important customers are. You have spent time building equity in those areas. How Procter & Gamble handled the Tylenol disaster years ago is textbook. They went back to their values, and their creed guided their behaviour. At some point, you also talk about the tactical things you can do to manage and prepare. You have a holding statement ready. You know who has been media trained. You have processes that allow for a careful pause in how you respond; that allows you to do things in a timely but thoughtful way.

If you wait until there’s a crisis to start talking about the values that are behind your brand, it’s a little too late.


Allan: Social media has really changed the dynamic of crisis communications in the last few years. You don’t always get away with buying an hour or two with the holding statement to figure things out if someone you don’t know is putting pictures on Instagram or Facebook or is tweeting it in real time. The cycles for crisis response have been collapsed.

The speed at which the conversation changes is the thing that puts fear in your heart right now. You’ve got to have your processes ready because you need to move smarter and faster than you’ve ever had to.


: It’s important to understand that your brand lives outside your organization. It’s shaped by perceptions outside your organization.




Leo: It’s a perception fight, and you’re not going to win that battle. It’s not about a toe-to-toe rebuttal. Respond to the perception, don’t challenge it or try to justify yourself. How your customers respond when you’re in a difficult situation will tell you a lot about how your brand is living out there. If they’re rooting for you to get off the ropes, then that’s a really good indication that they trust you and value the brand. I worked at Microsoft for 12 years and learned firsthand how customer relationships are influenced by a company’s brand. When Microsoft issues a software patch for its software products, customers say, “Oh my God, why didn’t they get it right the first time? Is this going to crash my computer?” When Apple issues an app update, customers say, “Oh, what are the cool new features I’m going to get?”

I always lean toward the functional business side to inform what the brand is. At its core, the leadership has to be organized. It sounds really simple, but it’s the piece that can often escape businesses as they grow. Sometimes the leadership will become fractured as people start to hone in on their areas of interest. The leaders need to have ownership of the brand in an organized way that is felt throughout the company.

It’s also important to socialize with all of the different stakeholder groups internally while you’re doing any kind of brand-building activity.



Brenda: One of the keys to success is stimulating pride and ownership in people.



If you have employee pride, the power of that devotion to the brand is worth everything. They work harder, they care more, they reach out and solve a problem when it might not have been in their job description. They take ownership in making sure that their organization is well represented. This is invaluable.

As a business looking long term, when you create that sense of pride, you’re also contributing to employee retention. That’s a huge factor that can be a big challenge for a lot of businesses. There’s money all along that trail.



Leo: The hard work is sharing with your employees what they might say at that Saturday-afternoon barbecue. A very tactical thing we do is create a “narrative tool kit.” This is essentially a one-pager about the brand narrative, what the brand pillars are, and then proof points for all of those things. You can’t just expect that people will know what the brand means—you have to unpack that a little bit so they know what language to use. It’s not meant to be a script, but it’s some language that helps them formulate the brand essence and communicate that to other people.

Allan: It’s important to be grounded in truth. People inside the organization and outside the organization will call bullshit on fake brands. You have to really deliver on the promise that you make to your audiences. 


Brenda: It’s authentic storytelling.You’re talking about building a story or narrative for people. How can we do that?



Leo: I define brand narrative as the single powerful idea that informs and inspires the people who matter most to you. It has to communicate both information about who you are and the products you offer as well as some inspiration and emotional appeal. The art of a strong brand narrative is that it does both.


I look at it as having the brand being a hero in its own journey, and having a beginning, a middle, and an end point in mind for the brand as well.


 Sammy: Often we’ll talk about brand narratives being the stories that are combined to bring to life the functional and emotional pillars of the business. Every organization has “functional” pillars: your nitty-gritty, down-and-dirty why do I exist? But it’s the emotional expression of these that help build a brand’s story into something that appeals to and is provocative to your target audience and your internal folks. It gives them something to attach themselves to. Without an emotional underpinning, there is no connection. The risk of hanging everything on function is that you start comparing yourself to your competitors. If you’re all selling the same product, it can be hard to see the difference. That’s where brand comes in. You start to find that difference. Starbucks and Tim Hortons both sell coffee, but there are fundamental differences between them.

Brenda: We all know the days of one-way advertising are long gone. We don’t want to push things on people. It really is the age of getting others to tell our story. Be aware of what other people are saying about your organization in social media. Let part of it run on its own, but also encourage it if it fits in with your brand. 

Catherine: You want to make it simple so people can understand how to use it. How brands are delivered in the market is where they live and die. People need to understand that the customer comes first, we’re in a highly competitive market, and whatever you can do to help differentiate us and retain that customer is gold. Look at WestJet, which has a unique personality. It comes alive in its hiring. It comes alive in its training. It’s consistent in its advertising. And its employees are empowered. You are empowered to tell a crazy joke. I might not like it. You might not like it. But it’s working for WestJet.

Sammy: It’s that full combination of well said and well done.





Catherine: I’m mindful that there’s a different skill set that we need that we didn’t need five or 10 years ago to the same extent: people who understand how to mine and read data in order to move swiftly and use it appropriately.


When we were looking at CRM years ago, it was pretty simple. Now this involves trying to find that balance between respecting privacy and giving people a good experience when you’re talking to them. You get to the point where you can track every move they make on your website so you can know a bit more. But I worry a little about that protection of privacy. You want to find that balance of giving them the information they’re looking for while ensuring that you’re not infringing on their privacy.

Catherine: Somebody once said to me, “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” It’s a good thing to keep in mind when it comes to using information.



There was a study that came out a while ago that said chief marketing officers would spend more on technology by 2016 than the head of IT because of the use of data mining, CRM analytics, and all of the other tools that are now required for marketing.


Sammy: One of the big skill sets that is missing is making the data functional. You don’t want a stagnant data pool that has never been actioned.



My personal bias is toward using technology as much as possible. But it’s also important to remember that humans are behind these brands, and it’s humans you’re reaching out to influence. So you need to ask yourself, how am I cultivating that human relationship? Sometimes the most tactical non-technological channels become this way for cultivating relationships that can surprise you. Continue to think about whether a bookmark makes sense for reaching a particular audience, and don’t underestimate it. But then be flexible enough when you see something is working to be able to shift some of your marketing budget in that direction. And when something isn’t working, stop the Twitter campaign and try another campaign. It often seems as though businesses are obsessed with social media. How can they figure out what’s working and what isn’t?

It depends on what your business focus is. If I open up our website analytics and see 48 different countries viewing us, I’m not going to see that as a win. I’m not functioning in 48 different countries.


It’s important to create a dashboard. We have a high-level dashboard, and we have “let’s dig deeper into this number” type of reporting. Keeping your eye on that high-level dashboard is so important. Those are the key identifiers that you look for to say, “This is what success is to us.” These identifiers need to be constantly reviewed.


 Allan: It’s important not to get dazzled by vanity metrics that really don’t mean anything to your business. If people don’t engage based on the “like,” is there any value to having that one-off impression? Focus on the things that actually are core to your business.


 Brenda: I’d rather not see us grow as fast in number of likes but have a strong engagement rate.




One of the things that gets forgotten a lot in social media practices is choice. You have to make choices. Just because it’s the newest, greatest thing doesn’t mean anything unless that choice aligns with your brand, your target audience, and your business.





You never start from the channel and work backward. We’ll often have clients come to us and ask, “What should we have on our Facebook page? Should we have a Pinterest presence?” The first question is always, what are you trying to say about your brand and to what audience? What’s the brand narrative versus here’s a content bucket, how do I fill it?

Allan: Unless there’s some degree of emotional connection with the brand, it’s pretty tough to build an engaged following on Facebook. Maybe you should spend that energy doing content marketing or producing videos that help your customers do things better.


Catherine: It’s so easy to get distracted by the newest thing. It’s as true today as it was 10 years ago, when people used to come in raving about a trifold brochure they saw. The tactic is only valuable if it’s supporting a strategy. What is important is having the strategy in place and knowing what you want to achieve. Discipline is more important to our profession than ever before.


Leo: Sometimes I hear people talking about moving into social media, and it’s important to remember it’s a little like a free puppy. You’re excited to have a cute new puppy. You take the puppy home, and that’s when you realize that you have to feed and walk and clean up after the puppy. So when you go into social media, it’s important to realize that it is going to be some work. It is going to take some investment on your part. The content has to map back to the bigger brand strategy.

You also need to understand the consumer. You need to understand what their motivations are. There should be as much marketing-budget money in consumer research as there is in devising tactics and creating advertising.


Also, really sharpen the target audience you’re trying to reach. If you just write “consumer” or “Nova Scotians” or “general public,” it’s so broad that you can’t get your arms around a specific message. Look for clarity about whom you’re speaking to. And it is hard. What we’re talking about is not using Salesforce.com or Google Analytics. This is about strategic thinking and it can be done with a stick in the dirt. The discipline is getting your senior team together and having the conversation about who you are today, who you want to be, and how you’re reaching out to those audiences. 

And you don’t need to be a company of 2,000 to do it. In fact, it’s as important for an organization of 10 as it is for 10,000.


 Allan: If we’re smart, strategic, and creative, we can make a difference for the organizations we work with.





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