Wednesday, December 23, 2009

no comparison? think again

You're an apple. They're an orange. End of story? If you or your leadership find yourselves saying, "they can't compare us to that sector," or "we have no competition," think again. In the New York Times this week, cancer centers found themselves being compared to pharmaceutical companies -- at first glance, an odd comparison. Many of the centers are nonprofit or university-based, and far from commercial, as their communicators would tell you.

But the article takes ads and marketing claims made by the cancer centers and analyzes them based on Federal Trade Commission rules for advertising claims made by pharmaceutical companies. The conclusion: the claims would, in many cases, not meet FTC restrictions and could be considered misleading to consumers. Never mind that the cancer centers aren't subject to the restrictions.

That happened to me in smaller form when I got caught by surprise while directing communications for a major nonprofit in Washington. Our building sat next to two other major nonprofits, a trade union and another professional group. The union was being questioned by members of Congress about whether it should be paying local real estate taxes, which it owed due to its tax status. As charitable organizations, the two other organizations nearby didn't face such a tax--but that didn't stop the trade union's spokesperson from telling the Washington Post that the union wasn't getting away with anything we weren't. After all, he noted, we were all nonprofits. By making it seem as if we should be doing so, the union shifted the focus and took heat off its position. The reporter gave short shrift to the research that would've poked a hole in his stance. And there we were, with the questions in our court.

While these episodes can feel, in the moment like they're coming out of left field, you can, in fact, do a lot to prevent them from blindsiding your organization or company. Here's how:
  • Move quickly from handwringing to solutions: Late in this article on celebrities spreading misinformation about health issues, heart surgeon Dr. Mehmet Oz, host of The Dr. Oz Show, cuts past the "isn't this terrible?" commentary and moves to the place where communicators should put themselves: "If someone has a heartfelt belief that something ought to be on the radar screen of America, they ought to put it out there, because believe me, other people are saying it anyway...I'd rather have it come up publicly and have Larry King have a debate about it." At Johns Hopkins University, my clients at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center public affairs team have taken an active, visible approach to disputing myths -- often the subject of email campaigns -- suggesting that standard cancer therapies like radiation and surgery don't work and that dietary changes are best. Check out their updated FAQ on the topic, just one part of a strategy that includes a publicized willingness to counter the charges and make experts available to reporters whenever the topic comes up--as it does perennially. When the debate comes, be ready to say, "Bring it on!" and say it loudly.
  • Understand and be understood through relationships: Keeping your ear to the ground on social-media networks is one way to do this, but don't underestimate building and maintaining a face-to-face network with your communications counterparts at a wide range of institutions, and with your competitors as well as those in other sectors with some relation to your own. That includes your near neighbors at your location, even if they don't work in your sector or topic; after the union incident, I started lunching my counterparts at nearby organizations, on principle. You may not sway them from using such a tactic, but you'll know more about where they're headed. By the way, this goes for building relationships internally. Your chief financial officer, human resources director, security chief and facilities manager all should be your best friends when it comes to understanding where "left field" lies for your organization.
  • Put on a new set of lenses: You may be a corporation with a great corporate responsibility program--but what will an upstart nonprofit say you've ignored in your charitable work? Or, if you're at an academic institution, how does your president's compensation compare with, say, those unpopular Wall Street bankers' bonuses? Take the time to engage your senior leadership in a wide-ranging brainstorm on what others might say in the wildest combinations and points-of-view you can think of...then come up with your answers. (Communications directors, if you haven't done this, try it. Your leadership will tell you more with this approach than any other, and you'll be better prepared.) Read my thinking on why you shouldn't get caught without the questions you want, expect and fear--and how to come up with the answers.
  • Use what you learn to shift your messages: Armed with what might come out of left field from your external contacts and what might bubble up from within, you can rethink your messaging so your organization or company won't get caught by those situations. Remember: it's the questions you want that can trip you up as much as those you expect or fear, if you're not ready for them--or how they can be used against you. Use the time-honored Tim Russert test from 'Meet the Press' to evaluate your own talking points and how they might be thrown back at you.


Bob Finn said...

Whenever I hear the old cliche about comparing apples and oranges, I think about this New Yorker cartoon:

Turns out that apples and oranges have more similarities than most people realize. And that, of course, is the theme of your post!

Bob Finn

Denise Graveline said...

LOL, Bob! A great find and underscores the point perfectly...