Want to Reach Most Older Americans? Go Offline

Most older Americans seem to be sitting out the social media revolution, something for communications/public relations/marketing professionals to keep in mind as we help our clients reach out to various audiences.

The findings of a new Pew Research Center Social & Demographic Trends survey released this week indicate that only 40% of Americans ages 65-74 use the Internet daily, compared with three-quarters of adults ages 18-30.

Think about that. Six out of 10 older adults are unlikely to read blogs, check Facebook, Tweet or read Tweets, view online videos, listen to podcasts, or even read e-mail on a daily basis.

Before you dismiss older adults as an insignificant demographic group, consider these facts from the Administration on Aging: There are nearly 38 million Americans age 65+ according to the 2007 census — an 11% increase in 10 years. One in every eight Americans is 65 or older.

It’s true that the 65+ population of the future will be quite different from the current group. Baby boomers have largely embraced technology, so in the years ahead the percentage of older adults online is likely to increase. And certainly, not every older American eschews technology. In fact, I have a few Facebook friends who are over the age of 65.

But to ignore the six out of 10 who don’t use social media is foolish. This has implications across the board. More Americans work beyond the age of 65, which means some employees haven’t gotten on board the social media bandwagon. Many organizations consider retirees an important stakeholder group, but reaching out to them through a website might not necessarily be the most effective way. Large numbers of older Americans are shareholders; what’s the best way to keep them informed and engaged? Companies that market to senior adults might want to add other media to that online campaign.

This is another reminder that we need to include online and social media as components of the overall communication mix, but to remember that they are not the only way to reach audiences today.

Not Much Has Changed About Change

With all the attention communicators give social media these days, some of our long-time antagonists get pushed to the side. Measurement? No time for it. Good grammar and writing skills? Out the door. Strategic planning? Yeah, well, never did that anyway.

One issue seems to have reared its ugly head again, though. It’s big, it’s bad and it’s back with a vengeance. It’s change and it’s coming to an organization near you.

Just in the last week, I attended two professional development programs about change, both with emphases on communication. I’ve also seen an increase in articles, blog posts and even Tweets about it. Seems reasonable, since the only constant is change — at least that’s what every business leader and their mother says when forced to talk to employees about it.

There’s just one problem. There’s nothing new about change, which seems a bit ironic. Executives act like they’re the first to ever lead a business through change. HR consultants like to pretend they have new, foolproof “systems” for navigating it. Employees feel as if it’s never happened to anyone but them. But let’s face it: change hasn’t changed.

There are, however, some truisms that bear repeating since we humans have remarkably short memories about how to manage change. Here are some of them I’ve heard in the last few weeks, some of them wrapped in new terminology:

  • Change sucks. People hate it. We are creatures of habit. Even those of us who profess to live adventurously like certain things to remain the same. When was the last time you changed brands of toilet paper or toothpaste? We resist change because when it comes right down to it, we need a certain amount of stability and predictability in our lives.
  • We respond emotionally to change. Author/columnist Dan Heath, speaking to our local chapter of the American Marketing Association, said there’s a pattern people follow when dealing with change. We see it. We feel it. Then we might change. He wisely pointed out that many business leaders focus on the seeing and not so much the feeling part. People might see and understand the logical reasons why change must happen, but unless we emotionally invest ourselves in it, we’re unlikely to change.
  • Telling stories is a great way to get people to feel change. My friend and fellow blogger Susan Cellura Williams led me to this excellent Harvard Business blog by Peter Bregman in which he advocates for storytelling as a change agent. The gist of the idea is that organizations get stuck in their ways because the stories they tell each other — or, perhaps, that management tells them — reinforce the current culture. Changing a culture requires telling new stories, recognizing people when they do things differently, giving people a clear vision of where you want to go and helping them feel it. The implications for communicators is huge.
  • Change doesn’t happen overnight. At a PRSA panel discussion on change, the vice president of public affairs for a large organization talked about a major change that took five years to complete. It’s easy to get impatient, especially leading people who are resistant. We live in a world of 24-hour news, instant communication and immediate gratification. Don’t expect organizations, especially large ones, to change that quickly. Have a plan, allow for some flexibility and stay on course. Keep talking about it and keep that vision out in front of people. Help them see what it will feel like when things change.
  • When people learn how to change, those skills are transferable. At the same PRSA panel talk, the leader of a large government organization told how her employees sprang into action to deal with a crisis efficiently and with minimal disruption to business. Their experience in dealing with changes to the organization prepared them for the crisis.
  • People don’t have to like change in order to deal with it. I’ve seen business leaders make two big mistakes of opposite extremes: forcing change to happen with the attitude that people “will just have to get over it” or trying to make sure everybody likes the changes taking place. Sometimes people will hate change, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be willing to go along with it. In the early ’90s I worked in a manufacturing facility that changed from a five-day to a seven-day work week. Management did a great job of explaining why the change was necessary and they engaged employees in dialogues about it. A survey after the dialogue sessions showed that while only 33% were satisfied with the change from a personal standpoint, 53% were satisfied with it from a business standpoint. People can understand and make changes, even those they dislike, if you keep the communication lines open.

Let’s hear from you. What other truisms about change have you observed? Don’t worry if they’re not groundbreaking. Sometimes the greatest learning comes from timeless wisdom.

When It Comes to Ethics, It’s Too Late for Jon & Kate

Allow me to stray from the usual topics I cover on this blog in order to vent about something that sickens me to the core. After all, what good is a blog if you can’t hijack it once in a while and use it as a personal soapbox?

Actually, there is some relevance to communications and public relations, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

First, let me just repeat something I posted on my Facebook status and which, as of this writing, elicited 12 comments not including my own responses to them.

Hey, Jon & Kate: Divorce isn’t an intriguing plot twist on a reality show. It’s an awful reality for the kids and a sadness that never goes away for the grown-ups.

Of course, I’m referring to Jon and Kate Gosselin of the reality show “Jon & Kate Plus 8,” which airs on the TLC network, the irony of which didn’t escape one of my Facebook friends. The show chronicles the life of this family which includes sextuplets and twins — their struggles, joys, everyday challenges and celebrations. As reality shows go, it sounds good and in fact has been pretty good. My 12-year-old son has watched it a few times because he gets a kick out of the kids.

But then reality disrupted this reality show. Jon and Kate’s marriage hit some serious bumps including allegations that each of them had cheated on the other. Jon and Kate weren’t appearing together on the show, they took separate vacations, Jon got his ears pierced and everything fell apart. All in front of a nationwide audience.

When I first heard on TV news that the marriage was in trouble (and why, by the way, am I hearing about this on the news?), my first thought was what would my 12-year-old think. He seemed genuinely hurt when he saw the unavoidable tabloids in the supermarket line declaring that Jon was fooling around with a younger woman.

Then, when The Official Breakup was announced on the show this week, concern for my son’s reaction turned into disgust with the entire social system that would allow this television show to make a mockery of marriage and, especially, of parenthood.

Who do these people think they are? And by “these people” I mean a long list of guilty parties:

  • The people who watch reality shows out of some need to live vicariously through others, to feel emotions by proxy, to be voyeurs in the privacy of their living rooms.
  • The people who create, produce, write and broadcast this crap, caring only about how cheaply they can produce “entertainment” in order to achieve greater profit margins.
  • The people who become “reality show stars,” who will do anything for money, who allow their greed to trump their dignity, their privacy and in this case the sanctity of their family.

Let me get personal for a moment. My marriage fell apart nearly seven years ago. My sons were 10 and 6 at the time. It was the most excruciatingly painful experience of my life so far. To this day, I deeply regret that I had a hand in putting my children through such an experience. And the sadness really doesn’t leave. Whether or not it was “for the best,” divorce is an ugly, awful thing for a family to go through.

It’s not entertainment.

I truly wonder how anyone connected to this show — and to the many other equally repugnant shows that trade on people’s problems, shortcomings and quirks — live with themselves. I believe there is an ethical issue here. Where should the line be drawn when it comes to broadcasting tragedies like the dissolution of a family?

And that’s where the connection to communications and public relations comes in, though I admit it is a tangential one. Thinking about the obvious ethical lapses among the guilty parties I noted earlier, I realized how proud I am that I belong to two professional associations that hold members accountable for our actions. The Public Relations Society of America and the International Association of Business Communicators each has a code of ethics that guides how we do our work. For example, there’s no room for prostituting our clients in order to make a quick buck.

Maybe the reality-show industry could use a code of ethics of its own.

Update 6/26/09: Good communication is good communication, whether in the office or at home. If your kids are asking questions about the Gosselin divorce — or even if they’re not, but you know they’re  aware of it — this article from Common Sense Media has some good tips for how to talk about it. Thanks to my friend and fellow blogger Virginia Franco for passing this along.

Communicating Change in Three Steps

The only constant, it seems, is books, articles and presentations about change.

It’s the topic that just won’t go away — and for good reason. People hate change. It requires us to leave something familiar and comfortable and to try something ambiguous, different and maybe a bit dangerous.

We slip into a routine at work and we hate it when things get shaken up. At home, we watch the same TV shows and complain when they’ve moved to a new time. We eat the same foods, buy the same brands of groceries and keep our furniture in the same place (unless you’re my dad, in which case 6 months is too long for a room to look the same).

I’ve heard a lot of people speak on the topic of change, but never anyone as effectively as Dan Heath. The Fast Company columnist and co-author of the best-seller “Made to Stick” spoke last night to the Richmond chapter of the American Marketing Association. The title of Heath’s talk, “How to Change When Change is Hard,” sounded like every other presentation on change that I’ve seen, but he told stories and offered insights that I have not heard before. It was an entertaining, enlightening hour that passed much too quickly. That’s just about the best thing you can say about a presentation.

People are naturally resistant to change, Heath said, partly because we act based on our emotions. We don’t always think logically about why change might be good. Instead, we allow our fears, desires, hurts, anger and other emotions to guide our thinking and dictate our actions.

So, in order to lead such change-resistant, emotionally driven people to change, we have to appeal to their emotions. Put this line of thought into a business context: business leaders often try to bring about change by laying out logical, data-driven, Point A-to-Point B arguments to which people pay little or no attention. Meanwhile, people are thinking, “I’m comfortable with the way things are now” and “This doesn’t feel very good!”

Heath doesn’t suggest that change must be brought about solely through emotional appeals. Logic and reason play important roles. But without giving people something to feel about the change, business leaders have no hope to bring people along.

Change is a process that people take in three steps, Heath said:

  • They see it.
  • They feel it.
  • They change.

A chill ran up my spine when I heard this. Just a few days ago, I wrote a blog post about my dad’s career as a preacher — which often involves leading people to change. He said his professors taught him to give congregations three things in every sermon:

  • Something to know.
  • Something to feel.
  • Something to do.

And I wrote about how these three points line up with what I have come to believe are the three things we communicators can and must influence among our audiences:

  • Knowledge (they see it)
  • Attitudes (they feel it)
  • Behaviors (they change)

It’s all the same stuff. This is the purpose of communication in the workplace. If we communicators aren’t trying to influence these three things in our communications, then we are useless expenses to our organizations.

A lot has been written about the role of communications in organizational change. Plenty of consultants make tons of money trying to make it a complex topic. In fact, it’s really quite simple.

  • Tell people what they need to know and let them see it through stories and examples.
  • Fill those stories with emotion and feeling so that the audience comes along with you and buys into the message you’re delivering.
  • Tell people what they need to do as a result of what they know and feel. Lead them to behavior change, if necessary, or to continue desirable behaviors.

Is it time to change your approach to communication? Striving for these three things is a good place to start.

Preaching the Communication Gospel

My dad spent his life in the communication business. No, he didn’t work in corporate communications or in the news media or in public relations. My dad is a retired Baptist pastor, so I guess you could say Joe Holland worked in spiritual relations.

Being a pastor is among the hardest work there is. As my dad practiced it, ministry is so much more than preaching on Sunday morning. It’s being on call 24 hours a day for people facing life’s most difficult circumstances. It’s being there in crises like illness and divorce and death and in celebrations like weddings and births and baptisms. It’s being an advocate, an administrator, a confidant, a teacher and sometimes a janitor.

Preaching is my dad’s favorite part of ministry. The man flat-out loves to preach. Even in retirement, churches have sought him out to fill in when their pastors are on vacation or move on to another church. Even at 76, he revels in the opportunity to research, write and deliver sermons — or, as he calls them, messages.

Last Sunday, our pastor was on vacation so he asked my dad to preach. Eleven years have passed since my dad retired as pastor (and he has preached in our church quite a few times), but he slipped back into the role seamlessly.

He began his message by sharing some inside information. When he was in seminary, he said, one of his professors said preachers should always give their congregations three things:

  • Something to know
  • Something to feel
  • Something to do

This struck me as being exactly the same things I share with my clients as a communication consultant. I phrase it a little differently, but it’s really the same thing. I’m always preaching — I mean, saying — that communication should influence audiences’ knowledge, attitudes and behaviors. Something to know, something to feel and something to do.

Suddenly I realized a lot of what I know as a communication consultant I learned from my father. I thought back on his 50+ years of preaching and how he followed that formula to immense effect:

  • Something to know. In seminary, my dad learned biblical history in great detail. He learned the Greek and Hebrew origins of the Scriptures so he could understand what the writers really meant (which is often not as they are interpreted by some of today’s evangelists who would use the Scriptures to support their political or social agendas). Along with his vast experience as a pastor (and as a son, a dad, a husband and a friend), this lifelong education informs his messages so that he shares his knowledge with people who hear him. The results are frequent “aha” moments of enlightenment and greater understanding of God and his plans for our lives. If we communicators aren’t well-versed in the information we share and if we don’t give our audiences some “aha” moments, we’re failing in one of the most basic functions of our craft.
  • Something to feel. My dad’s greatest strength as a preacher is the passion he brings to the role. He doesn’t fit the stereotype of a “fire and brimstone” preacher. But he does have a flair for the dramatic. Preaching for as long as he has, he knows just how to bring the right inflection to words. He knows how to weave powerful stories filled with real people. He knows how to use emotion without being manipulative. His communication techniques are subtle and he chooses them well. Corporate communicators sometimes shy away from using these techniques because we’ve become used to working in a stale, neutral, bland environment. Without emotion, however, our audiences get bored and don’t pay attention to our messages.
  • Something to do. My dad ends every message with a call to action. It might be something to ponder or to do in the week ahead. It might be an invitation to accept Christ as savior. People who hear his message always have something to do. Recently I wrote about my meeting with a corporate vice president who outlined her expectations of communication about her department. One of the elements she requires is a call to action. Communication must serve a purpose and the ultimate purpose is to lead people to action.

When I was a kid, little old ladies in the church often came up to me, bent down so they could pinch my cheek and asked, “So, when you grow up are you going to be a preacher just like your daddy?” I never said it out loud, but I thought to myself, “No way!”

Even then I knew I didn’t have what it takes to be a preacher. Still, I like to think that I picked up a thing or two from my dad.

Employee Communications Refresh

I’ve been thinking a lot about employee communications lately, mostly due to some work I’m doing with a client but also from things I’ve read and from attending my pal Steve Crescenzo’s excellent “Creative Communications” seminar.

The theme that keeps running through my head is that we communication professionals — and the clients we serve — need to hit the “Refresh” button on employee communications from time to time. Organizations, technology and the business environment are changing so rapidly that it’s a good use of time to just stop from time to time and do a gut-check.

Rather than try to weave the various thoughts together, let me just throw them out and get this community’s reactions:

  • It’s increasingly difficult to grab and hold the attention of employees, so it’s more essential than ever to be creative in communication. One of the most powerful moments in Steve’s seminar is when he demonstrates the huge contrast between popular media — using the cover of Cosmopolitan as a rather extreme example — and typical corporate communication. His point is valid: Cosmo is what we’re competing against. I once edited an employee publication in which our mantra was to make it “buck-worthy.” Make it so compelling that employees might be willing to pay a buck for it.
  • Headlines, teasers and leads are more important than ever. Following on the previous point, written communications must grab readers, pull them into the story and deliver the goods — quickly. One of my colleagues recently wrote an intranet story teaser so compelling that in one day it attracted 20% more unique views than the average story attracts in its online lifetime.
  • The right communication vehicles for one company might not be right for another. Back in the ’90s, everybody wanted an intranet. Why? Because “everybody” was getting one. Never mind whether or not the intranet served a useful purpose. Never mind if the organization would embrace and use it. Today the same is true of social media. It’s the employee-communication darling of the moment. I’m a big believer in social media, but I don’t believe every social medium has a place in every organization. I have a client where the use of social media as an external communications tool would be a disaster. Due to specific challenges facing this company, it cannot afford to engage external audiences in this way. However, some — but not all — social media might have a place in employee communications. Smart communicators understand social media and traditional media are all just tools and we need to be deliberate about which ones we use.
  • Jargon and corporate-speak are dying. Social media are killing them. Today’s audiences are less tolerant of corporate BS.
  • Find out what’s working and make the most of it. Especially in the social media age, we might overlook communication methods that are really working well. Every organization should do a communication audit to get valid information about what’s working and what isn’t. Yes, it’s an investment — but one that leads to greater efficiency and better decision making. I have a client whose use of face-to-face events gets off-the-charts ratings from employees. Who knew the world’s oldest communication medium still had such power?
  • The two-way genie is out of the bottle. As if there ever was any doubt that organizations must practice two-way symmetrical communication, social media have brought us to the point of no return. And remember the symmetrical part — that means employees must have ways to initiate communication upward.

Those of you who work primarily in employee communications: Do you have anything to add to the list?

Those of you who are on the receiving end of employee communications: What do you think?

Twitter on the Inside: Maybe Employees Know Best

My friend and fellow blogger Susan Williams Cellura asks whether or not Twitter or a similar tool can serve a useful purpose in internal communications. She passes along some legitimate concerns and questions that people in her organization are asking. Twitter is so new that we’re still figuring out all its implications.

As I wrote in a comment on her blog, I believe we communication strategists often over-manage the tools at our disposal. There’s nothing wrong with helping our clients figure out how tools might best be used to serve our organizations, but with social media it’s especially necessary to give our stakeholders (including employees) some freedom to figure out how best to use them.

A terrific article in last week’s Time magazine makes the point very well. It examines how Twitter users have applied the tool in ways its creators never imagined. Social media are much more organic than the more traditional communication vehicles, which means social media require a different approach by communicators.

We often lament our clients’ fears when it comes to trying new things. I’m not suggesting we completely hand over the keys to our clients’ communication programs, but maybe this is a case where we need to overcome our fears and trust employees to navigate a bit. Sure, there are security issues and other matters to address — just as there were for e-mail and intranets — but first we need to figure out whether the tool is useful and how it might be used. The answers might surprise us.

A Tapestry of Errors

One of the great joys of parenthood is that our kids often teach us as much as we teach them. I’ve learned a lot about perseverance, patience, integrity, trust, servanthood, sacrifice, love — you know, all the stuff that life is made of. But I’m always surprised when my kids teach me things that I can apply to my work as a communicator.

My 17-year-old son Max is a fledgling filmmaker. This year he took a film class where students not only studied many of the classics but also made their own movies. This week the students showcased their work in a film festival to which parents were invited. The works were impressive — not only to us parents but also to a jury of professional filmmakers who judged the finalists in the school’s version of the Oscars.

Max was involved with several of the winning films as an actor and screenplay co-writer. I’m proud of his achievements (and really have no idea where the acting gene comes from) — but I was surprised that the film he directed wasn’t a finalist in the competition. I knew he had worked hard on the film and I had seen an early cut of it. I’m admittedly biased, but I thought his film was better than at least two other finalists.

Last night Max asked if I wanted to see the final version of his film. It turns out that he had just finished working on it last week — much too late to be sent to the judges of the competition. I had seen the early cut of the film months ago, so I asked why he completed it just last week. He wanted me to watch the final version before answering my question.

The film I saw last night was very different — much better and much more thought-provoking — than the one I had seen earlier. He added a compelling musical soundtrack and other background “noise” that provided stark contrast to the beautiful visuals, which was one of the points of the film.

I was sufficiently impressed and proud of his work. Then he told me the backstory.

It turns out that adding the audio was a chore. Max had to jump through all kinds of hoops in order to add and edit the sound. It involved removing the film file from his computer and reloading it. His computer crashed four times in the process and there were times when he questioned if he’d ever succeed.

Producing the audio was also challenging. He had wanted to use music from one of his favorite bands, but his teacher informed him that doing so would violate copyright laws. So Max — who has taught himself how to play the acoustic guitar — recorded his own musical soundtrack. He also wanted to use a monotone, droning voice as background noise, so he went online and found the transcript of congressional testimony and recorded it in his own voice (which I did not recognize).

The process was agonizing. There were times he felt like giving up. But he didn’t — and he discovered something along the way. The film actually turned out better because of all the problems he had to overcome. Mistakes and setbacks contributed to the creative process. He describes the final product as “a tapestry of errors.”

Any artist or creative worker understands what this means. Things that go wrong can add to the beauty of the work. Missteps often make the final product better. It’s not simply a matter of overcoming or minimizing mistakes. It’s a matter of integrating them into the work so that they become part of it.

Communication is a creative process. I’m not just talking about the creation of a written piece, the production of collateral materials or the development of a plan. I’m talking about communication itself — the give-and-take, the conversation, the act of connecting with another person. It’s sloppy. It’s messy. It doesn’t always go as planned. It’s improvisational. Often, we want so much for communication to occur as we visualize it from the outset that we fail to see how we can work the imperfections into the final product.

Communication is often a tapestry of errors. It still can be a beautiful thing.

Social Media Are Hot, But Not For Everyone

Two conversations with two of my sisters over the last couple of weeks served to remind me of something that we 21st century communicators often forget. Social media are hot and are changing the way people and organizations communicate — but they’re not for everyone.

You don’t have to convince me of the power of social media. I use them all the time, I’ve helped clients understand how to use the tools, I’ve written and spoken about them. In fact, you might say I was an “early adopter” back in the ’90s when “news groups” and “discussion boards” were as mysterious to some folks as Twitter was six months ago. But even then, as communication technology pundits like my friend Shel Holtz were predicting the scenario that’s playing out today, I believed there would always be a place for more traditional media like print and even face-to-face. (As technologically progressive as Shel is, he has always held this belief, too.)

At a family gathering on Memorial Day, I was teasing my younger sister (who is in her early 40s) about not being on Facebook. I had reconnected with one of her high-school buddies, who asked me “what is her problem” for not joining the 200 million people in the world who are Facebook users. “I don’t have the time!” she exclaimed and I knew she was right. She has her hands full IRL (in real life) with three kids and lots of activities.

Then, over the weekend, I was talking with my oldest sister (who is in her mid 50s) about how I use Facebook not only for personal pleasure but as a business networking tool as well. “I guess it makes sense for you,” she said, “but I just don’t know where I’d find the time to keep up with it.”

I believe my sisters are not alone in their perception that Facebook is — as even some of its fans say — a “time suck.” I also believe, however, that some people haven’t jumped into new media because they prefer other communication methods. Believe it or not, there are some people who actually enjoy the tactile experience of reading a publication. Many people are energized by the human-to-human contact that only face-to-face communication can provide and they just don’t get the same experience through a computer.

We communication professionals would do well to remember this. I know some communication consultants who do nothing except speak, write and consult about social media. That’s fine — we need leaders in our profession who will help us navigate the ins and outs of the technology and who will advocate for its adoption by individuals and organizations. But social media are not the end-all and be-all of communication today. We need to balance the benefits and features of social media with those of other vehicles. We need to understand our clients’ business issues, know what communication tools are available and best-suited to address those issues and recommend solutions with clarity and purpose.

While hundreds of millions of social media users can’t be wrong, occasionally even they would like nothing more than to peruse a publication or talk with a person face to face.

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