What’s so different about a one-person shop?

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Business woman covered in post-it notes

Most organizations have a communications function for similar reasons, though size varies widely based on how big the company is, and what the communications department is expected to do. The good news–and the bad news–is that even in small and one-person communications departments, you’re still expected to produce results on par with those that have dozens of communications staff.

How could this possibly be good news? In a word: experience. You’ll have to do everything (or at least manage the outsourcing, if you’re lucky enough to have a budget). So, instead of updating media lists and fetching coffee early in your career, as an in-house staffer in a small org, you’ll do it all. As a result, you’ll be better prepared for the next step, whether it’s another job or striking out on your own. Lucky for you, you likely already have an entrepreneurial mindset as a one-person shop.

How one-person shops are different:

1. There is no one else. Obvious, yes, but with a host of implications. You need more than a little fortitude to thrive in such a position. You must be a self-starter, and provide your own sanity checks. Your co-workers are probably great, but if they don’t know much about communications except how to use “the Facebook,” you need to find trusted advisors elsewhere. Confidence in your own skills and judgment is a must; you don’t have to know how to do everything, but you have to know how to learn. You also have to think creatively (emphasis on think), since you’ll host brainstorming parties of one.

2. Your boss doesn’t know how to do your job. Or she doesn’t want to. (Smart bosses hire people who are good at things they aren’t.) You have to figure things out on your own. Even if you ask your boss, be prepared for “I don’t know.” Be prepared to explain your job, or parts of it, repeatedly (AKA “the press release talk”). Google is your friend. And so are we, the one-person shoppers. Find a few others in your boat, and start rowing together.

3. You have to be comfortable managing yourself. Your boss will still give you stuff to do, of course, but the how will be up to you. For example, you might be tasked to “help us sell stuff on social media.” You’ll need to figure out how to build an audience (and their trust), and still meet your organization’s goals (hint: be helpful–not pushy–and be patient). Much of communications is a marathon, not a sprint. Give yourself time to succeed.

Starting my career–and continuing most of it–as a one-person shop has helped me in more ways than I can count. It’s helped me understand what I’m good at, and what I’m not, which helps answer “what’s next?”. When I was able to hire, I knew what skills to look for–those that would complement my own, rather than duplicate them.

How have you found life different in a one-person shop?

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Internal Communications: A Quick Survival Guide

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Red Swingline stapler

Bonus points if you know why I photographed my stapler for this post.

Every good communicator does one thing: thinks about what the audience needs to know. Not what you want the audience to know, but what’s important from the other side. Master this, and people will pay attention.

This is as important for internal communications as it is for marketing. Like everyone else, employees are overloaded with information. To get their attention, you have to give them useful information, and only useful information. How? A few rules I follow:

Rule #1: Don’t assume everyone is like you. Most people are not content creators, and they don’t want to be. You think nothing of writing a blog post, tweeting some events and editing a video before lunch. Must employees stop at reading company news, and you’re lucky if they bother to do that. Even commenting on blog posts (at least at work) is beyond many employees’ comfort zones. (If participation is lagging on your new intranet, this is why.)

Rule #2: People don’t read your carefully crafted emails/fliers/intranet posts. They skim them (again, if you’re lucky). Get their attention, and fast. Think in bullets. Put the why first. (“If you don’t comply with this new time card policy, you will not receive a paycheck.”) Actions and deadlines must be absolutely clear. No matter how simple a task, include screenshots if it’s technical (preferably in a link, rather than embedded, for brevity). Put optional background information in links as well, so those few employees who want to read more can, without overwhelming those who don’t.

Rule #3: Talk to employees. Ask them what they want to read about, what they have questions about. Do a survey, but don’t expect everyone to respond, and don’t rely on this as your only source of information. Consider an email marketing system for internal communications, so you’ll know exactly what gets read and clicked, or use URL shorteners like bit.ly so you can track clicks on embedded links sent from your own email system. If a message or link is particularly popular, look at what you did differently, and repeat it next time.

Rule #4: Be an optimist. Assume people want to follow the rules, and that they’ll read useful information. Make your messages engaging. Corporate newsletters don’t have to be “grip and grin” photos and overly cheerful executive notes. They don’t even have to be totally about your company. Consider covering industry trends, news and conferences. If one person goes to a conference, ask him for highlights to share with those who couldn’t be there. Have silly contests. The executives won’t participate, but a small percentage of your employees will really engage with these (and it’s usually not executives who need motivation to stay engaged anyway).

Do you have any rules for internal communication? Would love to hear what works for you.

Making Stuff Up 101

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Light bulb drawn on a chalkboard

It’s happened again. The next issue of your newsletter is due next week. You’ve been scanning for content so you’ve got industry news and events, but your planned feature fell through. What now?

You have  a few options.  Number 5 is probably your best bet at the last minute, but you can only use it once (or maybe once a year, though I would avoid the predictable rush of December/January news highlights).

  1. Read. Keep a running list of ideas from your daily news “download.” Subscribe to industry news, customer or partner newsletters, and updates from industry associations. Government reports are a great source, especially in the health field. Check CDC, NIH and FDA for starters.
  2. Borrow. (But don’t steal.) Everyone is overloaded with news. Curate others’ content (with attribution/links, of course). Do this well, and you’ll stand out. Get ideas from internal meetings, conference presentations, technical publications–but be sure anything you’ve gleaned from these sources is OK to share. Linking to source files is always a good option.
  3. Beg. Ask your staff for news (for the 47th time). Ask your Twitter followers, Facebook friends or LinkedIn connections what they want to know more about. Do a survey of your engaged readers; any email marketing platform should let you create a segment of readers who opened your last message, or you can put a link in the next edition. Check your web analytics. Look at popular searches on your site, and create content around those.
  4. Record. Interview your colleagues about their areas of expertise or frequently asked questions, and videotape it. Edit the interviews down to short segments to make a series. Post them on your website and YouTube channel, and select one to highlight in each newsletter. If people aren’t reading your FAQs page, maybe they’ll watch a quick video. Worth a shot, right?
  5. Rerun. Have web pages with great content but so-so traffic? Repurpose them as newsletter features, or put a teaser in your newsletter linking to the page. Do a “best of” edition. List links and features that were your most-liked or most-clicked in the last year. If you get regular web hits on this content, people are still looking for it. Put it out there again.

If you happen to see a “best of” feature in my next newsletter, you’ll know I take my own advice.

The Rules of Modern Business Communication

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Wet floor signs, in a fountain

Some things should be obvious.

Get Stuff Done Tuesday will be back next week. Today I’d like to share some notes I made for a presentation. I spoke to a small but enthusiastic group at the Frederick Chamber EXPO (always a fantastic event!) this morning about modern business communication.

When I signed on to give this presentation, I thought I would talk more about things like grammar and tone, but as I started creating the slides, a different theme emerged. In the 15 years I’ve been a communications professional, and even the last 8 in my current job, what I do day-to-day has changed. The reason for my job hasn’t, but the ways I accomplish it are vastly different.

The rules below are a collection of things that stuck with me as I read various books and posts, and that I’ve tried to implement in my own work. They represent trends and advice from a lot of smart people, including Frederick’s own social media trend-spotter Beth Schillaci of VillageWorks Communications, event-planner and communicator extraordinaire Jessica Hibbard (if you’re near Frederick, Maryland, don’t miss her Spectra Show!), and authors including Scott Stratten, Phil Simon and Amber Naslund.

The rules, as I see them:

Be a real person.

Don’t hide who you are. People root for small businesses, and they expect transparency, especially for online-only businesses. Personality encouraged.

Don’t forget the obvious.

Common courtesy is still required. Please, thank you and excuse me go a long way. Customer service is still critical. People still judge by appearance, including your writing and website.

Don’t just broadcast.

Communication is—more than ever—a two-way street. If you only broadcast (that is, talk about “me me me”), you get tuned out. Engage. Ask questions. Get to know your audience.

Be helpful.

Skip the hard sell. Offer useful information. Help people, and when they need your product or service, they’ll remember you.

Don’t take shortcuts.

Building relationships—even virtual ones—takes time. Services that claim to net you thousands of social media fans or followers are most likely scams. Offer helpful content, and earn them instead.

Automate with caution.

Tailor your message to the platform. Never send automated direct messages on Twitter. If you automate posts to help with time management, remember to check comments/replies.

Don’t steal. Or spam.

If it’s on the Internet, assume it’s copyrighted. If they didn’t sign up for your email newsletter, it’s spam. And it’s illegal. $16K per violation illegal.

Do the right thing.

Make your website accessible, even if you aren’t required to by law.

Ask for help.

You (probably) wouldn’t try to fix a major electrical issue yourself. Consider your website a digital extension of your building. Work with professionals to make it your best possible window to the world.

Make your own rules.

One size does not fit all in the digital economy. Figure out what you want to accomplish, set a strategy and get started. Mistakes happen. Learn from them, and move on.

What are your rules?

Frederick Chamber EXPO materials:

Presentation (PDF): Modern Communication: Professional Writing for Your Business, and Why it Matters

Handout (PDF): The Rules of Modern Business Communication

Content Wrangling: How to Write a Newsletter When No One Contributes

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Writer's hands typing on laptop, with notepad and discarded drafts nearby

Just about everyone in your office thinks it would be super-fantastic to have a company newsletter. Except you… the person who has to write it. Sound familiar?

I am all for communication. But employees don’t want to be talked at. They never did, of course, but now that we have better ways for two-way and real-time communication, what’s the point of a newsletter that’s outdated before it’s even published?

But, newsletters (of the digital variety) can be especially useful for your external marketing, if you focus on providing useful information instead of sales pitches. (Hint: it’s not all about you, or your company. Would you subscribe to a newsletter that was nothing but a sales pitch?)

In either case, you’re the person who’s going to be stuck writing the newsletter. And even its most enthusiastic proponents are conspicuously silent when it comes to providing content. Why? They’re not like us. We–the communicators–create content almost as naturally as breathing. But we’re a minority. Only about 23% of social media users create blog posts or other content, and that number is dropping. (And remember, it’s unlikely that all your employees even use social media.)

But, you don’t have to be stuck for content. Here’s what works for me:

  1. Find a way to measure readership. Tracking clicks is a good way. Provide small snippets, and link to the full content elsewhere. (Tip: Use bit.ly links for internal newsletters to measure clicks, if you’re using a regular email program like Outlook to send.) After 4 to 6 issues, look at readership trends. If people aren’t reading the newsletter, you have a valid reason to stop writing it. Also, track how much time you spend writing each edition, so you can provide examples of more effective things you could be doing with your time, if you need to. [Note: for external newsletters, give it more time–you have to provide a reason for people outside your organization to care about your content.]
  2. Keep a running log of possible content for every issue. I create a Word document for each edition I need to write, and create section headings. Then I make a shortcut to it from my desktop. As I sort through industry email and RSS feeds each day, I put interesting content or events in my newsletter file, with links to the source. I always have to prune the content before publishing, but it’s much easier to cut from too much than find more at the eleventh hour. This process is easier for industry news-driven newsletters, but you can use the same method for internal newsletters by keeping running notes on intranet postings, email announcements and so on, with a focus on processes that are changing (people always need reminding about those).
  3. Look at what people are reading. (Again, measure clicks.) Add more of that type of content the next time. Don’t be afraid to switch your format around to focus on what your readers find most interesting. Feature that type of content in your subject line, to improve your open rate. (And please, PLEASE, don’t use the subject line “Company ABC Monthly Newsletter” alone.)
  4. Do a survey, especially for internal newsletters. What kind of information do people need? Want? How often do they want to receive it? Would they like to write a regular feature? (Don’t laugh–I actually had a volunteer when I tried this! You never know where you might find aspiring writers within your organization.) Be wary of surveying external newsletter recipients. For this audience, try a subset of people who clicked something in your last newsletter–those who are engaging with your content. You don’t want to prompt others to unsubscribe, and a survey request might do it. Think about it: how many survey invitations do you receive vs. how many you take?

This isn’t the only way, of course–just things I’ve found so far that make wrangling content a little easier. Maybe you already have really engaged employees who love to contribute news and features (lucky you!). Do you have other tips to share? I’d love to hear them.

“Can we issue a press release?”

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Carpentry tools on wooden bench

“Can we issue a press release?” This phrase strikes dread in me. Yes, I work in public relations. But here’s the thing: probably 90% of the time, there’s a better way to get your message across.

Those of us who remember life before the Internet are more likely to ask this question, because press releases used to be a good way to reach reporters. Just about every organization posts its “news” releases online now, which has led to way too many releases. And too many PR people spam reporters with unwanted releases. (Yes, unless they asked for it, it’s spam. And it’s illegal if you don’t allow them to opt out.) Press releases have become noise. You don’t want to create more noise.

Next time someone asks you “can we issue a press release?”, don’t just do it. (If it hasn’t happened yet, it will.) Think about why they want a press release. They might ask for a press release, because that’s the only way they know to reach the press or public. Remember, in an organization where you are a one-person communications shop: no one else knows how to do your job.

A big part of your job is helping your boss or board reach their communication goals. The first step–and one that likely isn’t in your job description–might be educating them why a press release isn’t the best tool. If you’re talking to your operations guy, pretend you’re at Home Depot, and he wants to buy a screwdriver for a job that clearly requires a power drill. Using a press release to announce that your (not famous) vice president, Mr. X, is speaking at a conference is like trying to build a fence with a saw: counterproductive. All this type of press release does is make reporters ignore your real news.

What is news? Bad news. My news writing professors were fond of the saying “If it bleeds, it leads.” You don’t want to be in that story. Ever. (In business terms, think layoffs, scandals, stock plummets.)

What else is really news? Think about what people who read your hometown newspaper view as news. New business*, which brings dollars and jobs to the local economy, is a great positive news story. New venture funding, especially in this economy (this is one case where you should issue the release when the board asks for it). New products. Not an addition to your line of car wash options–important new products that impact the way we live, work, eat, play. Think smart phones, malaria vaccines, prosthetic limb technologies. You’re not likely to have this kind of ground-breaking, real news every month. Don’t force a schedule of regular press releases–you’ll end up issuing non-news. (But do figure out what real news you’ve got coming, so you can write the releases in advance, and get the necessary approvals.)

Your company is proud of every accomplishment or charity fundraiser. I get that. And if it’s really news, go ahead and write that press release. If you’re scared to push back, try some alternatives before you do the release, and let your boss (or the asker) know the results. For example, announce whatever it is on your company blog, and post links to it from your Twitter or Facebook account. Make a short video about it and post it on YouTube. Create a Tumblr blog to showcase your company culture (props to @jesshibb for that idea). Count the views, likes, comments; maybe that’s the goal your asker really had in mind. If you’re not really trying to reach reporters, try some different tools first.

And remember, you can always post press releases on your website and not send them to reporters, if you are forced to issue that non-news release after all.

*Note: Public companies are required by the SEC to announce certain things. If your company is listed on the NYSE it’s highly unlikely you’re a one-person shop (thanks for reading anyway!), but just in case, wanted you to be aware.

Getting Away

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Everyone needs time away from the office. Some argue that an office isn’t necessary at all, but let’s assume you have to go to one. When you’re the only communications person, truly taking a vacation presents some challenges.

Hopefully there’s someone who can handle a few of the things that might happen while you’re away:

  • Media calls – What if TIME magazine calls while you’re out? “___ was not immediately available for comment” does not make you look good. Leave an alternate contact on your voice mail (with that person’s permission), and be sure she knows what to do if this happens, even if it is just to take the reporter’s contact information and text you right away.  You could put your cell phone number on your voice mail for reporters only, if you have no choice. Just be prepared for the non-urgent calls that may come as well.
  • Website inquiries – Direct these to someone else, and send that person your cheat sheet for responding to popular inquiries. (If you don’t have a cheat sheet, save yourself some time, and make one. Better yet, make the responses into a frequently asked questions page on your website, and link to it from the contact page.) If you promise a response time on your website, such as two business days, be sure your back-up knows this. If you can’t find a back-up, put a note on the contact form telling people when they can expect a response (that is, when you return). I would suggest this only as a last resort, assuming customer relations are a priority at your company.
  • Events – Hopefully you haven’t scheduled a vacation during any major work events. But if you work for a nonprofit or association, you may have regular events that must happen in your absence. If you’re usually the lead, make a list of all of the things you do for each, including what needs to happen before, during and after the event. Do as much of the prep-work as you can in advance, to help your colleagues help you.
  • Social media – Pre-schedule tweets and posts with extreme caution. People will expect you to be available to respond to questions about your posts. Before you leave, consider posting a note on each account that you’ll be on vacation for a few days, so it may take longer than usual to respond. If you don’t have someone you trust at work to check your social media accounts and respond to inquiries daily in your absence, do it yourself, wherever you are. The five minutes it takes per day will be worth it to ensure that the relationships you so carefully maintain through social media will be intact when you return.

Consider taking a small notebook with you on vacation, to jot down the great ideas that may come to you as you recharge. And relax — the work will still be there when you get back. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the beach!