July 12, 2012

When Silence is Not Golden

If you are a professional, you have had tough ethical decisions to make in your career. This is an inescapable aspect of being in the business world.

If this has not happened to you, you are new to your profession. And if it has, you are doing well because you are thinking through tough issues and you know them when you see them.

There are times in the life of every communications professional that we must make very tough recommendations to our internal clients. There are times in the life of every professional that we must make decisions that could have a downside to reputation and bottom line. There are times in the life of every executive that someone in your organization will bring you bad news and you will not want to hear it.

But you must hear it. And consider what to do about it.

In the world of crisis communications, sometimes our clients disagree with us and sometimes they agree, but regardless we advise them on the risks and benefits in handling very difficult matters and situations. There are times when the reputation of an institution or a business will in fact be hurt more badly by NOT saying what is.

Many executives cringe at bad news. This in turn causes those within an organization or business to avoid telling it.

But bad news is important to confront and report. We have seen the impact to reputation when bad news is hidden and we are not open with our publics. This generally backfires. We have also seen examples of businesses and organizations that confronted bad news, dealt with it openly and became stronger.

What I am talking about here is the courage to say what is, when the news is bad, both internally and externally.

There are times when silence is not golden. So if you are in leadership and you want a functional organization, tell your constituencies that you want to hear bad news. Tell them that silence is not golden. When bad news happens, go public with it in a way that proves to the world that you are in fact an ethical, healthy organization that does the right thing when that is the right thing to do.

March 7, 2012

What Words Say ... About Us?

Recent interesting reading in the Harvard Business Review supports the sound advice -- choose your words carefully -- if you can. Say what?

In computer-assisted research over the past couple of decades, Professor James Pennebacker, author of the The Secret Life of Pronouns, What Our Words Say About Us, has determined that words like pronouns say big things about a person's stability and honesty, among other things. In fact, his research reveals that these words actually say more than "content words." That means words we usually throw around to connect what we are trying to express -- such as pronouns and prepositions really say a great deal about us.

Professor Pennebacker explains his research quite powerfully. He says "function" words are more socially bound than other content words. And he says that we really cannot control the way we use these words, they just happen and are difficult to track without the use of computer analytics.

One example given is a simple sentence with lots of pronouns. " 'I don't think I buy it' " reveals a focus on self, but " 'That's ridiculous' " doesn't. The Professor also explains what happens when a person lies. Perhaps these words are a way to couch their real feelings? So that use of the word "we" is used more often than "I." And when we are being more honest, we use words such as "but" and "without."

The Professor also notes that in researching the use of words, he did not anticipate this result. He says " 'In study after study, we kept finding the same thing ... it was the pronouns, articles, conjunctions, and other function words that made a difference, not the content words.' "

Not only does the research reveal that our brains react differently to function words, but they are more tied to emotional state and other revealing factors such as social standing and personality. These subtleties are not easy to discern without applying computer analysis to language. Who knew that we reveal so much in the little connectors "we" used to think weren't so important.

Choosing pronouns carefully, "I" commend the HBR piece as good, interesting and unexpected reading.

January 31, 2012

The Big Reveal -- Strongest American Law Firm Brands

Interesting results posted recently in The Strongest Law Firm Brands in the Land which delineates a study on law firm brand recognition by brand research company, Acritas? The question mark is intended because the most mentioned firms in telephone interviews with high-revenue clients, of at least $1 billion, are not surprising. The results included Skadden, Jones Day, Kirkland & Ellis, Sidley Austin, and Wachtell.

Various questions were asked, including which firm the GC and AGC respondents would hire for bet-the-company matters, which the respondents' have more favorable attitude towards and which they would hire for large M&A matters. The rankings apparently changed slightly on favorability as opposed to which were best known.

Place Still Counts.
One of the interesting things about the study results is that brand awareness for law firms is still somewhat tied to geographical area. The western mainstays, Gibson, Latham & Watkins and Morrison Foerster were top of mind for western interviewees and southern strong-holds remain Baker Botts, Fulbright & Jaworski, and Vinson & Elkins.

A Difference That Matters.
Apparently, as a profession we don't seem to make the connection between brand recognition and winning business. According to various marketing and branding experts interviewed about the study results, as a profession we do not focus on differentiation. I have spoken with many law firm marketers and managing partners who are quite dismissive when questioned on this point. "Of course our clients and potential clients know our strengths and what makes us different." Really? Have you asked them lately?

Many lawyers assume that their markets understand their points of value. But that is often not the case. As a partner in a firm, you know what you do. You must assume that others do not. Assume that the rest of the buying world would not be able to articulate the differences between your practice and the firm down the elevator. You have to make this clear to win the business. And the clarity of this message must be authentic, interesting and memorable.

Brand Works.
There are lots of great lawyers around the country that aren't as well known, but have the talent and resources to represent major clients successfully. Some great high-quality law firms that have been around for a very long time, do not make this list. Some law firms that have big internal problems with management and culture are sitting on this list.

In my opinion, GC's and AGC's have a bit of a fear factor hiring lesser known firms and lawyers. Although many GC's have told me over the years that they "hire lawyers, not firms," strong law firm brands do factor into the hiring decision. Lesser known firms can suffer from the reluctance of law departments to hire great lawyers in not-as-well-known firms.

A client might be concerned that the hiring decision could be second-guessed later depending on the results. Hiring a lesser known firm could be perceived as carrying greater risk, because if the outcome isn't favorable heads might roll on the hiring decision. That means just being a great lawyer with the expertise to win a case might not be accepted as compelling. This is true even though the well known counsel and firm competing for the hire have lost and lost badly in other matters.

It is a fact of business life that clients can also be concerned about the power of public perception of the lawyers lined up on either side -- even if the lesser known lawyer or law firm actually has greater ability. What if a client could see to the end of a case and the lesser known choice would actually secure a better outcome? We all know what the hiring decision would be in that case.

The skill and ability of the lawyer and the depth of the firm, not just its ranking and brand strength, should compel the hire. But in our world, perception can quickly become reality. This is what firms are up against in creating a place for themselves to win business.

Looking objectively and benchmarking your brand can be enlightening and humbling. Inherent in this process is developing clarity on your firm's differentiators and communicating this to potential clients in cohesive and powerful brand development and management.

Given the legal market and competition for clients, brand becomes more, not less important in winning the business.

November 7, 2011

Frantic Rush to Social Media -- Five Top Do's and Don'ts

It's a done deal. If you are in law practice and want new clients or a way to maintain your reputation and expertise in the world at large, you need to be using social media. However, as with all marketing or reputation management tools, it is necessary and important to have a social media strategy.

One. Do Plan. It is essential to plan your social media communications. Remember that getting out there in social media is essential, but if you want your efforts to be effective, you must plan. Just like you would a case or trial strategy. Social media is like any other communications or media vehicle, it needs to be controlled. Don't let a frantic push to get into the social media conversation, keep you from planning your road to relevancy and value.

Two. Related to One above, Don't Just Sign Up. Do not sign up for every service out there that will allow you to connect with your potential market. Research the way each social media community works. Make sure that the content you post is relevant to the community and that your time gaining visibility is not wasted.

Three. Do Say Something That Matters. Say something meaningful and provide good content. The focus and use of each site is different and if you just throw your blog posts or Twitter updates up on these sites for example, you could find yourself ostracized from the community fairly quickly. Many lawyers use these sites for self-promotion, but the best way to promote yourself or your practice is to provide content that is valuable and meaningful. Heard this before? Great. Check your content dispassionately from time to time.

Four. Do Not Be Fearful of Ghosts. I ghostwrite many blogs for lawyers and law firms. This is because the lawyers that hire me simply do not have the time to blog for themselves. As long as the blog that is ghosted is substantive and meaningful and provides value to your clients and potential clients, fear not. Hire a professional writer, perhaps a lawyer and with your guidance, all will be well.

Five. Do Review Your Social Media Strategy. Once you have a social media strategy in place and you know where you want to focus your presence, keep evaluating. It is really important to maintain the standards that correlate to your firm brand and differentiators. Last year Google analytics changed for blog sites. If you did not adjust your content in your professional blog, you could drop your SEO status and relinquish your position to others that are competing for attention.

Your social media efforts should not be a "throw the pasta on the wall and see what sticks" sort of thing. Your Facebook page and Twitter feeds, for example, could end up being more valuable than your website. Take the time to manage your on-line presence with some basic initial steps.

October 6, 2011

Don't Abandon Your Network

We all know by now that networks are critical to our business success and that the web has made our networking more dynamic. But the basics still apply, even as we are experiencing instant gratification -- like when we reach out to contacts on LinkedIn and we are instantly linked to former colleagues and new contacts when they accept our request to connect.

What are the basics? One of them is, don't abandon your network. If you are on a site like LinkedIn for example, it's unwise to assume that just because you have a hefty roster in your network, it means much.

Networks need to be nurtured. So just like the things that hopefully we learned as kids, we need to be gracious and communicative or our networks can languish.

So, let your network know your news that matters. Fill them in on what you are doing, but not just in the self-serving ways, in the human ways.

Recently, a friend in communications mentioned that she had helped several young professionals in their job searches. That's great, but she also commented that some of these wonderful young professionals have not come back to post her when they have secured their jobs. That's unwise.

Humans are social beings. And human nature being what it is, the next time any one of these folks is in need of professional advice or support, they are less likely to get it from the folks in their network that they abandoned when things were going well.

It is also unwise to use your network only to get what you need or to boast about your accomplishments. Tell the folks in your network that you appreciate their efforts on your behalf, so they will be there for you the next time you really need them. And, you will really need them at some point in your professional path.

Don't abandon your network ... it is your safety net for the good and bad times and needs to be nurtured.

September 16, 2011

Reflection -- Doing Strategy Better

582334_rain_falling_in_the_water.jpgI am intrigued by Josh Erlich's recent piece in the HBR Blog Network, For Great Leadership, Clear Your Head. It is well worth considering his rationale for what he calls "mindshifting" -- in which he persuasively advocates that in order for senior executives to best do their jobs, thinking time is key.

WIthout having done a scientific study, I would bet that many good ideas are formulated when we put down the devices. Why? Because at times our minds need a break from the onslaught of incoming information to get to the big ideas.

"Mindshifting" is purposeful reflection that has a methodology and includes, among others, some common sense steps that most executives, managers and busy professionals in leadership positions likely do not think is value-time. And replicating that reflective time is essential for the first step for the successful mind shift ... which is key, Erlich says, for strategy to percolate.

Erlich suggests we must first "[r]emove the obstacles" which will mean different things to different people. In one case, that meant he says creating a strong enough team so that leadership can delegate and free-up time to work on the "big picture." Another step in this process is to "[q]uiet the noise" and create time to breathe and practice "mindfulness" which is akin to a meditative state in which greater focus is achieved.

Other specific ways to reach a state of mind in which the big ideas and strategy will develop are to: "[p]ercolate" which requires effective reflection using valued networks such as mentors and peers to cross-check what appear to be your good ideas; "[c]larify your message" which should be at the top of leaderships' list of communications must-do's; and "[k]eep reflecting and adjusting" which is similar to a rebalancing system in your investment portfolio, to ensure the strategy you have set for your business is working and when it isn't, be strong enough and honest enough to alter your course.

WIthout leadership at the top of any organization that is clearly working through and communicating objectives, it is much more difficult to ensure that strategies will be implemented correctly and will be successful. In my opinion, what Mr. Erlich is advocating for leadership is business-critical and applies to professional services, as well as other organizations. Put the Blackberry down and go to the reflecting pool, you might just come back with your best strategic plan ever.

June 29, 2011

Smart Network Must-Haves


Networks have a mind of their own. When they work as they should, they can enhance our business lives in very big ways. But they can also pull focus and time away from other important business development efforts.

Networks are not created overnight and then need attention. Left neglected, they can languish and fall away.

Recently, I came across a fine piece in the Harvard Business Review about people with really successful networks and why and how they work. In their piece Managing Yourself: A Smarter Way to Network, the authors describe the key attributes of really good networks and the people who use them wisely and well.

Good networks don't have to be big, but they do need to be effective. They need to include key participants that not only actually DO something when asked, but also provide ideas and support.

I have long been a believer that being generous in your own network, is the only way one can expect generosity back. "Reciprocal relationships also tend to be more fruitful; the most successful leaders always look for ways to give more to their contacts," say the authors of Managing Yourself. And this point is noted over and over again.

One of the most effective executives interviewed for the piece described her business success managing a major tech company's business unit this way: " 'People may chalk it up to luck, but I think more often than not luck happens through networks where people give first and are authentic in all they do.' "

If you are not thinking about "giving" and "generosity" in your own network when asked, and if you are not reciprocating without hesitation, it is urgently important that you study the HBR piece for the data that will alter your approach and help you develop a better, more effective network. And, if you are a giver and find that some in your network are not, remove them from your network. But whatever you do, when someone in your networks seeks your support and has given theirs, withhold at your own peril.

May 8, 2011

Talk About It -- Democracy Needs Advocates

Full disclosure: I am the sort of person who gets off the plane in DC and heads directly to the National Archives before doing anything else. I wholeheartedly admit that I am a fan of seeing these documents up close and personal and have been asked by security to "move along" as I stand mesmerized by their enormity.

Apparently, not many young Americans would likely beg their parents to head to the Archives. But they probably all should go there before stopping elsewhere in our beautiful capital city.

This year, the ABA is focusing its educational effort on civics education for young Americans. The ABA has noted that many of us are not as well-versed as we should be in the documents that are at the core of our Democracy.

On a recent trip to Philadelphia, I stopped by the National Constitution Center. I walked through the Balance of Powers section and much to my amazement there was a student sitting poised on a board, a real live person that is, to demonstrate the balance of powers and to tell visitors what it means. The student was reluctant to spend time explaining this to me once I revealed my profession. "You already know about this," she said, "I am supposed to explain this to kids who don't know about what this means." I was thrilled to see the display and the student volunteer and happy to move on, just like in the Archives, sort of.

Several years ago, former ABA president Mike Greco asked members to wear gavels on our lapels and explain the Separation of Powers to anyone who asked. An intelligent 30-something friend of mine did ask and when I responded "the gavel stands for Separation of Powers -- would you like to talk about this?" She responded graciously, "No, I am not interested in politics." When young intelligent Americans of voting age believe that Separation of Powers is a political issue, you know we are in trouble.

It takes time to become an expert on the Constitution, but being an American doesn't require that much expertise. Basic knowledge is better than none. And although I applaud the efforts of those who mention the Constitution for their own purposes, one wonders whether they have actually read it. (You all might recall recently when one Senate candidate who disclaimed being a witch, also claimed she was a constitutional expert because she went to a graduate school program for a week. Need I say more?)

Go to Twitter, tell your kids, tell your friends' kids, share your knowledge. Blog about it on your marketing blogs just once -- it won't be a problem for your SEO I promise.

If you have a chance to educate just one person about American Democracy, please do. It's the only way we have a prayer of keeping it viable for the long term.

April 10, 2011

Tell Your Story. Why Storytelling Matters in Professional Communications


Last week, McElhaney on Litigation posted a piece in the ABA Journal about effective trial lawyers and their ability to tell a story. He makes the point that "lawyers who want to become effective communicators must understand that stories are at the heart of how people think, learn, exchange ideas and struggle to understand the world around them."


Professional Stories Are Compelling, Facts are Just That

I totally agree with this premise and want to extrapolate out to the importance of storytelling in effective marketing communications for both lawyers and law firms.

In my opinion, many law firms and lawyers do not tell a clear, refined and compelling story about themselves or their law practice in their communications, particularly on the web. Just take a quick run through law firm websites and you will probably find this to be the case. Most law firm sites inform visitors with somewhat dry and factual copy about the specific areas of practice and personnel.

But in my view, very few tell a great story. This includes not only some context or history of the practice, but getting to the heart of who you are as a law firm and what makes your lawyers unique. One exception is the Kilpatrick Townsend site, which leads on its home page with case stories. The cases and attorneys involved are highlighted with photography, great short headlines, as well as graphics that grab interest. This draws the viewer into the story and connects it back into the firm's strengths.

McElhaney makes the fine point that good stories are about interrelationships, rather than "snapshots of isolated events." I agree and contend that those interrelationships include people, events and a combination of the two in the context of professional marketing and positioning.

Consider this point and go back to your own site and ask yourself whether there is a compelling clear story that is integrated into the higher purpose and values of your brand. You might find its time for a rewrite.

Every Picture ...

Dry, expected copy is not compelling and the same is true of photography. Most law firms do not portray their lawyers or law firm with interesting photos. I have two words to solve this problem: custom photography. And two more that are critical for compelling head shots: natural light.

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of integrating custom photographs that tell a story into your law firm website. I have advised many clients to do this and have storyboarded and directed photo shoots and sessions for law firms and lawyers when I have redone their sites.

Custom photography carries great impact in storytelling. Stock photos are more difficult to integrate into a compelling story. Finally, taking bio headshots in natural light with a feeling that does not come across as posed, is very compelling if done well.

January 21, 2011

Five Ways to Combat Social Media "Overwhelm"


Avoid the overwhelming and daunting task of establishing a business or professional social media presence with this excellent post by a seasoned marketer. This is a reasoned list of considerations that will help anyone trying to work through a social media strategy.

This valuable advice applies to many other communications efforts and is particularly helpful for marketing and communications professionals trying to make social media work for our clients, firms and businesses.

Briefly summarized, these five important recommendations include that social media users should: set goals, have realistic expectations about results, take on one social media site at a time, be consistent about attending to profiles, and schedule social media activity as a regular part of the work day.

Great advice.

January 13, 2011

Ohhhh The Places They'll Go -- DOJ Subpoena to Twitter


When the DOJ recently subpoenaed Twitter for access to the accounts related to Mr. Assange, as well as other individuals involved with WikiLeaks, we were all reminded that there are evidentiary components to our social media posts.

It wasn't that long ago that we were frantically disseminating usage policies to employees, law firm personnel and clients on the perils of the electronic age, including the new fangled electronic discovery. Once you have seen captured emails in major litigations and investigations, you ask yourself: Did these executives fail to realize that these emails exist in perpetuity?

We have migrated from what only recently was "web 2.0" to a sophisticated social media world that has quickly matured far beyond our expectations perhaps.

Twitter has a policy of notifying users that information has been requested by the government, but that is generally not possible since most government requests also preclude this step. As noted by Mashable, Twitter's spokesperson explained that "to help users protect their rights, it's our policy to notify users about law enforcement and governmental requests for their information, unless we are prevented by law from doing so."

In the WikiLeaks matter Twitter was permitted by the court to avoid the gag order usually in place and to notify users of the request. Mashable's opinion is that "Twitter's challenge to notify users when their information is being sought by a government entity is a step in the right direction in protecting users who may be exchanging sensitive information in the name of journalism."

Although most of us are not posting tweets that are of interest to governmental agencies, it is a good reminder that social media is now a mature channel of communication and that tweeting too is serious business.

December 23, 2010

Professional Services -- Kicking and Screaming into Social Media


The time has come to admit to ourselves the significance of social media and the fact that it is not going to get less important. There is a place for social media in the legal profession and lots of us know we just need to accept it and dig in.

Recently I asked a very bright young adult (24) with a social media job a at a tech giant, why she values sites like Twitter and Facebook. She said she "loves it" because it allows her to have, what I would call various "communities of interest" in all areas of her interests such as news, work and entertainment. But more than this, it allows her to see what matters to the people in her network -- and to use that as a way to know more about things she might never otherwise see or learn.

I finally got it. Social media replicates and enhances interactions within communities that are multi-dimensional. Rather than getting a link to an interesting article and seeing that in one dimension, social media allows us to see who else cares about an issue and even better, enhances our community depth and breadth. For example, not only does one of my formidable FB "friends" have a journalistic background in tech and science, he presents his research "finds" to our FB community and we enhance that by our knowledge base. In other words: we learn about cool stuff we never knew about before.

So what's wrong with that? Nothing.

As professionals we need to dispel the sense that social media is lite on substance. It doesn't have to be. Big things can be communicated through this vehicle. It's all about content and value and that will never change.

If we are not out there communicating in this spinning world of social media, we might be left out of opportunities to create communities of interest that are real and dynamic.

Many lawyers are now beginning to see the inevitable -- get in or get shut out of potential to reach broader audiences and in turn, to learn and broaden our own world and knowledge base.

Caveat: My young tech friend and I agreed that those who post only self-serving content are not interesting in the long run. Content is key. So say something of value and others will value your involvement in their community of interest.

Today, mashable business has posted a whopping list of its own resources for businesses and marketing. So, spend some time checking out the past year's guides for business and marketing as stated by one of the biggies in the social media world. In their words. 'this roundup can get you well on your way to establishing a successful business or marketing campaign."

November 19, 2010

The Legal Side of Social Media


It's getting complicated. The brandchannel.com reports that MBA programs are adding courses on digital media to ensure that their grads have the requisite knowledge base to add immediate value when they join management. Naturally, those of us who are not digital natives might well need some support in the details of social media know-how.

This of course prompts the discussion on legal issues raised in the use of digital media by businesses both internally and externally. In the piece, David Kaufman, a partner at Duane Morris cautions that " ' [c]ompliance with the rules is complicated, and mistakes are easy, and plentiful."

Kaufman has published the "Top Ten Rules to Avoid Legal Trouble in Social Media Programs and Campaigns" and they are absolutely worth a close look. He addresses everything from content to internal management of social media policy. I highly recommend a full read of his version of the ten commandments.

November 9, 2010

Look Inside

Interesting view from AdAge on using internal resources for branding and focus groups. This got me thinking, should professional firms consider going to internal audiences for brand enhancements and understanding?

The AdAge piece looks at consumer packaged goods, finance and retail brands, noting the use of employees for branding, product development and social-media evangelism. Some brands are using employees for the pitch, like Pizza Hut and Overstock.

In professional settings, we often go to very sophisticated business development experts, as well as branding and identity firms to develop and pitch business and establish brands.

We need to consider engaging internal employee audiences in ways we routinely ignore. Perhaps there is a benefit in engaging employees in our professional services settings to not only understand more of the work, but engage them to support the brand.

In the piece, Fidelity's Jim Speros notes that, " '[m]any companies forget that their employees are their ultimate brand ambassadors.' " Could this also be true for professional services? Maybe, to a degree.

Your employees are often on the front lines, answering phones and greeting your clients. They will certainly do this differently with a basic knowledge depth about the firm's differentiators and client base. Every interface with the public says something about your brand. It's worthwhile for employees to understand something about the firm's goals and areas of expertise.

You never know when an employee will be in a setting to mention the firm or to influence bringing a referral into the firm. It is probably a good bet that employees should not be ignored in branding deployment.

October 29, 2010

Holding Professional Values in a Challenging Economy

The National Law Journal reports that an alarming number of law firms have drastically cut recruiting and professional development staff over the past two years. The NLJ quotes an Altman Weil consultant saying that this is one of the first areas of cost cutting.

It's an interesting development and not surprising. It seems doubtful that hard-pressed bottom-line-driven senior associates and partners will pick up the slack on professional development.

The survey found that firms with 250 or more attorneys suffered the biggest losses in this area and placed more duties on existing staff. Unfortunately, these departments also work on other important efforts with professional staff, including mentoring and diversity, work-life balance and pro bono initiatives. Many of the most critical areas that our profession must address.

In stressful economic times, let's hope our profession doesn't lose sight of the long-term impact of ignoring such important efforts as furthering greater diversity and providing pro bono services -- some of the most important values we hold as lawyers.

We can only hope that corporate clients will continue to seek out outside counsel that are committed improving areas of deficiency in our profession, as well as providing efficiencies in client services.