Monday, October 04, 2010

Can you get caught by success? Announcements that exceed expectations

Go ahead and drop this post on the desk of that person who keeps saying, "Any publicity is good publicity." Sometimes, success is a problem. One of the easiest ways to get caught in communications is by failing to plan for success. You know what I'm talking about: You put out releases or pitch stories, post things to your website, offer discounts, throw events and extend invitations.  And because you're good at what you do, you lower expectations and caution everyone not to expect much, to balance out all those people who think you need only phone up the New York Times in order to get on the front page, or that Oprah's just waiting for you to arrive in Chicago.

Most of the time, this is a fine approach, healthier for one's blood pressure and for avoiding the "boy who cried wolf" reputation one can get from overpromising results.  But it falls flat when the unthinkable thing--success--happens. Suddenly, your announcement is trending on Twitter or jamming the phone lines or crashing your server.  The first rule of don't get caught, after all, is to avoid getting caught unprepared.

36 words to a crashed server

In "We Got a Mention! Now Let's Panic," the New York Times looks at how a start-up candymaker was caught by surprise, with a brief mention in Oprah's magazine:
The mention was tiny — just 36 words in a wee stripe on the bottom of a page. Nevertheless, things went haywire.  “Our server crashed,” says [company founder] Mr. LaCava, recalling how their orders quintupled overnight. “The phone was ringing round the clock. We’d thought, ‘Oh, we’re going to be in Oprah! We’re going to be making so many more bars!’ We didn’t think: ‘People are going to be calling us every second of the day.’”
You don't need to be a start-up to have this happen--I've seen it occur at small nonprofits and big universities, companies and hospitals.

Line up your partners so you can dance faster
The best antidote I know is to line up your internal partners, from IT to the folks who answer phones to the rest of your senior management--and to do that not once, before one announcement, but routinely.  They should know that you'll be coming to them periodically with announcements with ramifications for their units, along with time to strategize and, where needed, help with what to say and how to handle it.  I've been well-known for establishing cross-department coordination meetings, either in the months leading up to a major event or monthly, for more routine announcement. Everyone learns far more than they would otherwise about what's next in the life of the organization, and it leads to better, more informed work all around.  And in a world where no one wants more meetings, no one's complained about coming to these coordinating meetings in my experience--they're too valuable.
Assign particular viewpoints on your team
In this interview, Paul Moritz talks about having a champion for the customer on your team, noting, " it’s important to have somebody who empathizes and understands how customers will see it. I’ve seen many endeavors fail because people weren’t able to connect the strategy to the way the customers would see the issue."

For any public activity, you'd do well to assign at least one person to think through the customer view...as well as the service view (how the phones get answered and queries handled), the technology view (what might crash or need to work differently) and the goalpost view, or where do we want to end up when this is all over?  Make sure they have time to do the research they need, and make sure their input gets reflected in the planning. 

And what if, after all that, nothing happens and crickets chirp? Consider yourself ready for what comes next. You'll want to follow a similar process every time, even in small, to avoid getting caught--and to make sure you're taking advantage of success when it shows up.

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