Controlling the controllable

I've always liked the saying "sometimes the only thing you can control about a situation is the way you choose to react to it." That attitude has helped me get through some challenging times, both professional and personal. And that saying is definitely applicable to the current economic environment.

I've always liked the saying “sometimes the only thing you can control about a situation is the way you choose to react to it.” That attitude has helped me get through some challenging times, both professional and personal. And that saying is definitely applicable to the current economic environment.

None of us can control the havoc that the downturn is creating, so we have to figure out how to control what is controllable.

As a digital communications company, we can control our level of client service to make sure it's proactive and flawless. We can also control our internal best practices to share ideas and streamline processes, and the way we secure and communicate results for our clients.

But in the bigger picture, what can you really control about digital communications (which I'm defining loosely as the way we share and collect information online)? The beauty, as well as the beast, of digital communications is that it's constantly moving, exposing us to new audiences, shaping ideas, and swaying opinion in a very public light.

By its nature, digital communications is an organic, free-flowing entity that is not completely controllable. But we can influence it by taking control over the way we manage, organize and distribute the information we want to get out.

Focus on What's Important, Not What's Urgent
Darryl Salerno, president of Second Quadrant Solutions, was recently in our office and mentioned the quadrants introduced in “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey. The idea is that your activities are divided into four quadrants: 1) Important and Urgent, 2) Important but Not Urgent, 3) Urgent but Not Important, and 4) Not Urgent and Not Important.

Of course anything “urgent” takes priority, even if it's urgent but not important (think phone ringing, someone at your desk – you give them priority because it feels urgent, even if what they want to talk to you about isn't important). If we could focus our communications strategies on the Important but Not Urgent (#2) quadrant, we would have more room for creativity and proactivity and fewer activities that bubble up to Urgent.

To apply this theory to digital communications, recall the recent snafu from Motrin. The company ran an ad targeted toward moms, trying to empathize with them about the back pains associated with carrying a baby in a sling or carrier. The ad ran for 45 days before the mommy blogging community, many of whom were offended by the tone of the ad, got wind of it and created a social media storm criticizing the ad on blogs, Twitter, and YouTube. Motrin's response, after a few days of the online bashing, was to pull the ads and apologize.

In other words, Motrin responded to the urgency of the issue, rather than focusing on what was important. They had a very real opportunity to engage in a digital dialogue with their target audience, actively seek feedback, and openly share ideas with them. The result, had they focused on what was important rather than what seemed urgent, might have been a much stronger relationship with the mom community.

Manage Your Messages
Tracking and engaging in existing digital conversations is a critical piece of managing your messages in digital communications. The other side of that coin is owning the communications that you put out there proactively.

First, unified messaging is more important than ever. The speed with which information is distributed, especially when you throw in blogs, Twitter, Google Alerts, and the like means you have to get the message right the first time, and everyone needs to talk the same talk. When done well – with an effective corporate Web site, consistency of message, and visibility on relevant online outlets – companies can control their messages and build credibility as industry thought leaders.

There are many tools at our disposal for digital communications – corporate Web sites, blogs (run by a media outlet, an individual influencer, your company or even a personal blog), online versions of publications, online-only publications, Twitter, and social networks, to name a few.

While an online article or blog post can be a valuable way to spread your message, the comments below it are where the real time feedback is happening. The more comments, the more the topic has struck a nerve. Pay attention to them. Sometimes the opposing viewpoints can offer the best opportunity for you to engage in the dialogue. But a word of advice: always be transparent (if you have a personal stake in the matter at hand, point it out) and take the high road rather than getting into an argument.

Don't underestimate the power of producing your own articles to share thought leadership, industry commentary and company news and events. A couple of Horn Group clients are doing this very effectively. Adify is a great example of a company that has used its corporate blog very effectively. Another way to control the messages you put out there is to offer contributed articles to online publications. Pontiflex is one company that effectively uses contributed articles to stay visible as thought leaders and generate ongoing traffic to its site.

Among the chaos of the economy and the unstructured nature of digital communications, it all comes down to how you organize and distribute the messages you want to communicate. That's the best way I know how to control the controllable right now.

Corie Pierce is the New York director at Horn Group.

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