Friday Night Lights.

A new school year often brings about new level of excitement and energy. No where is this more evident than on the school’s athletic fields for Friday Night Football where the community can come together to celebrate the hard work of student athletes.

Recently, our school system experienced a panic at a high school football game which put our communication protocols to the test. The result was reviewing our process, gathering input, and announcing new procedures to better ensure the safety of our student athletes and spectators who are there are watch the game:

One week after the events outlined above, another school system in Alabama was in the news for an incident with a different outcome.

It is expected that your school/district have a crisis plan and one that guides your communication responses in the ensuing aftermath.

But what about real-time communication during an athletic event crisis?

As the a school PR practitioner, have you ever seen the plan for an athletic event crisis? Is it as strong it could be from your professional opinion? Being at the table as part of a leadership team tasked with addressing these challenges has been a thought-provoking experience:

  • What role/responsibility does the public address announcer in providing directions in real-time?
  • How would your PA announcer get the information to communicate possible life-saving instructions in real-time?
  • If your PA announcer is not a school/district employee, what is your process for looping them into that aspect of the crisis plan?
  • What does your visiting team know about your crisis protocols (e.g. would they know where to shelter if there is severe weather?)

These days, safety is a key concern for every school/district. The time to consider the answer to these questions is long before you turn on the Friday Night Lights.

Reflections of Reality

You know the good work being done inside the walls of your school, but do your stakeholders know it? Better yet, how would they know it? As a building leader, spend a few moments in the coming days to review your school’s website, social media profile (if applicable) and even your school marquee to see if the story it’s telling is reflective of the reality you see daily? (This is a great practice to start as you begin a new school year.)

As you spend time clicking around, consider how those who are prospective families would interpret what they see in this digital reality. Is it accurate? Can you get a vibe that your school is an engaging place for students to learn? Is the information up-to-date? 

Confirm this for yourself and put structures in place that not only set high expectations from building leadership, but follow up to see that it’s happening and thank those responsible for it. This feedback is vital to those doing the work that you are interested in the story your school is telling and that it is a reflection of reality.

Growth & Gratitude

How is it possible to grow so much in the course of one week? That’s the lesson I learned at spending time at the 2019 National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA) annual seminar.

The content learned in the sessions I attended is as important and invaluable as connecting with old friends and making new ones in pursuit of advancing the profession.

That’s why I spent the morning penning a stack of thank you notes.

The most important lesson I learned was one of gratitude:

  • For a husband who handled things at home while I was away investing in my professional self;
  • For the investment my district made in me as a School PR practitioner;
  • For a superintendent who is not only supportive, but truly understands the value of strategic communication;
  • For a talented staff who was more than capable of handling things at work while I disconnected to learn;
  • For the wise counsel offered by mentors in NSPRA;
  • For the time to mentor others at NSPRA;
  • For the learning gained from colleagues;
  • For the opportunity to share what I have learned with others;
  • For applauding the success of others;
  • For friendships fostered and forged;
  • For memories made;
  • For hospitality shown;
  • And for the chance to serve.

Leadership is a humbling experience–one that requires you to ask others to follow you. One cannot do it alone and certainly, no one stays there without others standing behind you.

Leadership isn’t about who’s out front; it’s about who’s got your back.

This past week, I was proud and excited to be affirmed as the president-elect of this organization, with a term that starts October 1.

The author speaking at the 2019 NSPRA seminar.

It’s a concept I will hold onto this year as I serve with a very talented NSPRA board, under the leadership of incoming president Kelly Avants, APR.

But most of all, I’m grateful to be home having grown so much and ready to take on a brand new school year.

Who’s Got Next?

Last week, the school PR family lost a stalwart in Gary Marx, the former long-time associate executive director for communications for AASA, the School Superintendents Association. As we consider the legacy he left for our profession, I am left wondering who’s got next?

As a profession, we must encourage folks to make their mark in this era. School PR needs more than just tweeters: we need more thought leaders.

Increasingly, more school leaders are turning to social media to communicate with their stakeholders. Social media is a great avenue for connection, but it is not the only way.

A strategic approach to public relations incorporates multiple channels of communication in order to reach key audiences. It is no longer enough to raise awareness about our schools; we must seek engagement on behalf of positive outcomes for students. For me, that’s what gets missed in the advice to “tweet more.”

There are some concerned with the outputs of social success: followers, clicks, and likes. I am, too: I wonder if they are pursuing outcomes like building relationships in order to make a difference for students. If so, tweet that! Show the connection between your social activity and the substantive impact it had for students in your community.

Others are watching your example; use your platform as a school communicator to demonstrate this key leadership skill.

Tweets are fleeting. We need people challenging us to stay true to our strategic roots in a digital age.

So, I’ll ask it again: who’s got next?

The Shift.

As a school public relations practitioner who entered the field through television journalism, I faced an uphill challenge. It started with my own sister, a public relations practitioner through her undergraduate work, who is Accredited in Public Relations.

She famously told me over and over again: “It’s not all about media relations.” As much as I hate to admit it, she was right. That’s been an evolutionary lesson for me–from bosses who wanted news coverage to my reliance on media contacts to draw out reporters.

Ten years later, I now sound like my sister: “It’s not all about social media.”

The longer I stayed in the field, the more I determined that my work could be more than just Facebook, fancy parties and fliers. I begin preparing to earn my APR and in 2013, I did.

One of my APR panelists made a comment that she appreciated how I was able to learn and understand the profession instead of viewing it through the lens of a former TV journalist.

That one statement means so much to me now.

The effective practice of strategic communication is what drives my work and the standard I set for myself. That’s why I have been disheartened to see others emulate the strategic work of the profession through the use of tactics as opposed to strategy.

The difference is task vs. tool.

Whereas a decade ago, it was news coverage some relied upon to get the message out, now it’s social media. Increasingly, we are seeing those use social media to communicate and mark their engagement as “done”.  Social media is a powerful tool, but chances are for school systems it is not the only avenue to connect with school stakeholders. It can; however, be a tool in your toolbox.

True engagement is the hard, messy work of relationship building on behalf of students in your community. That’s the work of the profession.

Early in my school PR career, I focused on the tool of media relations–getting coverage in and of itself. What I found was that even the best-placed story didn’t overcome root issues that led me to seek coverage in the first place. Once I made the shift, I started asking a different set of questions:

  • What goals do we need to advance?
  • What messages do we need to communicate?
  • What data are we using to base our decisions?
  • What specific group do we need to communicate?
  • What is the best channel of communication that we should use?

The biggest question of all, with a H/T to my colleague Kristin Magette, APR, is: “What motivates these people to change perspective and/or act?” The answer to that question should guide your work.

For as much as content matters in strategic communication, so does context. As a school leader, I challenge you to think beyond a tweet or video post and consider how will this particular tweet or video be part of advancing a larger goal. Strategic communication is as much about the receiver as it is the sender.

That’s when you know you’ve made the shift.

 

Citizen Journalists: Authors of the First Rough Draft of History?

As public relations’ practitioners, we must be prepared not only present information on behalf of an organization to our stakeholders, but also for them to reply with their side of the story. Increasingly, practitioners are seeing stakeholders challenge the narrative through the publication of blogs and microblogging (e.g. Twitter). It is important to consider how these technologies impact the work of professional communicators.

The role of the citizen journalist has an important place in society, and professional practitioners would be wise to recognize this. Citizen journalism can often be the leading edge of sparking a conversation about important topics to raise awareness and possibly, bring about change.

However, the ease with which anyone can start a blog, it can be difficult to determine what is noise and what is not.

According to Statistica.com, there are nearly 392 million blogs which have been published, including this one! In reviewing the data on blog, that number only increases year after year. But unfortunately, for the reader not all of them have quality and/or relevant content. However, for those writers for whom have something important to say, in the ability for a single person to speak out from darkness to shine a light on key issues, there is power.

In this week’s post, we review the impact of the published writings of everyday people and how they can lead to greater awareness.

Modern: A Diary by “Gul Makai,” a BBC Blog

In 2009, a 14-year-old girl began blogging for the BBC after she and other girls were banned from schools because of their gender. She blogged under the name of Gul Makai, a pen name. For Malala Yousafzai, the blog became an outlet to the world to speak out on the Taliban limiting of a generation of girls achieving their full potential.

Her series of blog posts share in vivid detail what life was like for at the time in Swat, Pakistan. The isolation from an education she loved and her fear for an uncertain future.

“I am upset because the schools are still closed here in Swat. Our school was supposed to open today. On waking up I realised the school was still closed and that was very upsetting.” – Malala Yousafzai

Yousafzai, an international education advocate, became the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize at age 17, and has since started a foundation to continue her work.

Read more of Yousafzai’s blog posts.

Retro: Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl

I was in ninth grade when I read Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl. I know this because I remember being about the same age as her when she wrote in captivating detail about her life as a Jewish person hiding inside the Secret Annex during 1940s’ Amsterdam. From behind a rotating bookshelf, Frank detailed what life was like for her and seven others living in silence. Her diary was the one place she could use the full power of her voice to tell the story of how Nazi occupation affected her life. Wise beyond her years, she had much to say.

“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.” –Anne Frank

This young woman wrote of love, hope, maturing and more through of one history’s darkest moments. She shone a light on making the world a better place, even if it is in your own little corner of the world.

Frank’s dream of becoming a book author was realized when her father published her diary in 1947, which has since been translated into more than 70 languages worldwide.

Learn more about Frank’s life.

Final Thoughts

Blogs seem to be the great equalizer—giving everyone a voice. However, the role of the citizen journalist done effectively can be a chronicler in real time of events on the ground. Oftentimes, these citizen journalists provide a perspective that a traditionally-trained journalist just can’t match: the raw emotion of a story told in first person by the one living it. The ability to share from the human condition in a raw emotion is served best by being uncensored.

Frank described it like this in her diary: “Because paper has more patience than people.”

The writings of both Yousafzai and Frank highlighted what life was like during the occupation of their respective communities. Amid the isolation of the situation, both looked to moments of normality as a sign of better days to come. Tragically, for Frank, that day never came, but her words are immortal.

Both journalists and citizen journalists have the ability and the responsibility for shaping the narrative on a given topic for generations to come. It is from these accounts that historians can add layers of color to the geo-political issues affecting the world around us.

Many journalists give former Washington Post President and Publisher Philip L. Graham credit for being the first to describe journalism as “the first rough draft of history.” – Jack Shafer, Slate.com

Certainly, this is the role Yousafzai and Frank played in telling their own story.

In the March 2014 edition of Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, the article, Citizen Journalism: Valuable, Useless or Dangerous, points to citizen journalism as being a double-edged sword. For the awareness that citizen journalists can bring to a topic, the information presented may not be told from an objective point of view:

Citizen journalists have provided real-time descriptions of events and subcultures seldom if ever covered adequately by traditional media. However, the absence of journalistic background, editing, and quality control have often led to biased, inaccurate, low-quality pieces.

Something that can lead to more confusion for the reader is something that may lead them there in the first place: good design. According to Julia McCoy of Expresswriters.com, a highly-polished blog equates to credibility to the reader who may assume the blog has more credibility than it should.  This is may contribute to the reason people have trouble discerning fact from fake when information is presented in a blog format as compared to its more traditional news media sources.

All the more reason for professional communicators to understand this as they are preparing a strategic response.

Measuring the Call to Service

By now, you have probably figured out something about me: I like learning about history. I’ve always enjoyed looking back in time to better understand the context surrounding events. The Bible states that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9, New International Version). That’s true in public relations, too. For as much as we communicators believe we are doing something no one has ever seen or done before, history tells us that’s not true. We can be inspired by examples from the past! That’s why Modern Retro PR has been such a treasure to me over the first few entries.

As I think about my profession, I believe school public relations is a way for me to serve my community. There are never enough people who serve. From teachers to nurses to those in the military, many times those working to serve others have to take the time to find the next generation of public servants.

The test of the work in these instances is drawing others into service. That’s where evaluation comes in. There is a difference between outputs and outcomes, both of which can be measured. Outputs are the tactics taken to achieve a campaign’s goal, i.e. number of posters printed or clicks to a website. Outcomes should be our bread and butter as public relations practitioners–did we motivate someone to take action? In this week’s Modern Retro PR, find out why measuring your work can help you determine what’s a win.

Retro: Creel Commission

You’ve seen the “I Want YOU” poster many times in your life, but chances are, you may not know how it came to exist. Uncle Sam’s piercing blue eyes, his stern look, and pointed finger called a nation to action in a time of war.

James Montgomery Flagg's illustration

James Montgomery Flagg’s illustration Source: Library of Congress

James Montgomery Flagg’s illustration first appeared in Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly in 1916 as cover art above the caption “What Are You Doing for Preparedness?”.  A year later, it was the centerpiece of a United States Army recruitment poster–the image you’ve seen time and time again.

Flagg’s artwork, along with that of other noted artists of the day, was part of George Creel’s Commission on Public Information (CPI). The sole charge of the CPI was to gain public support for World War I, work that incorporated the use of speechmakers, known as the Four Minute Men, and an  “army of artists” (Creel, 1972, p. 134).  From a public relations standpoint, this marked an early moment in the history of the profession where the trends of the day used patriotism as part of its publicity efforts.

According to Christopher Capozzola’s Uncle Sam Wants You World War I and the Making of the Modern American Citizen, more than four million posters were printed (2008, p. 4). A huge output considering the era and available technologies!

Even Creel noted the success of an overall strategy featuring posters, such as the iconic one with Uncle Sam in his autobiography, How We Advertised America: “Posters were effective and we used them freely. Care was taken to phrase them tersely and simply” (1972, p. 312).

This is significant when you consider that in this era, not all people could read English. A key factor in developing an effective campaign: know your audience!

Modern: Johnson & Johnson’s Campaign for Nursing’s Future

In 2002, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released a 22-page report outlining a projected shortage of nurses that would only grow in the following two decades. One line stood out:

“If not addressed, and if current trends continue, the shortage is projected to grow to 29 percent by 2020.”

Shortly afterward Johnson & Johnson, maker of first aid products like Band-Aids, launched the Campaign for Nursing’s Future. In the company’s campaign highlights, Johnson & Johnson noted its “leadership position” in addressing the issue:

The Campaign is a multi-year, $50 million national initiative designed to enhance the image of the nursing profession, recruit new nurses and nurse faculty, and help retain nurses currently in the profession.

Using a multi-faceted approach, the health and beauty aid giant implemented strategies jnjto connect with audiences largely grouped as prospective nurses, current nurses, and customers to rebrand a profession . Further, a comprehensive website was developed encouraging each of these audiences to Discover Nursing.

As the campaign evolved and new technologies emerged, the company branched out into social media. The Campaign for Nursing’s Future has a Facebook page, Twitter account,  Pinterest account and a YouTube Channel.

More than five years after this video was first uploaded to YouTube, it has racked up more than a half million views–and that doesn’t begin to count the number of times it’s aired on television.

It’s not enough to simply produce a large number of outputs, especially when clear goals have been established. Converting people to action is what was necessary here to address the deficit of nurses. With videos like this, it’s easy to see why the campaign could be successful. Johnson & Johnson claims:

“Campaign television commercials have successfully motivated more young people to think about nursing as a career option, including 24 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds (Source: 2002 Harris poll).”

Final Thoughts.

In school administration circles, there is the saying: what gets measured, gets treasured. That’s true in PR, too.  In short, how do you know if your work, worked? Rice & Atkin detailed three functions of evaluation in Public Communication Campaigns (2013):

  1. Determine expected impacts and outcomes of a program
  2. Determine why a particular program did or didn’t work
  3. Provide information for planning of future activities

Something that stood out to me as I studied for the Accreditation in Public Relations was the idea that “behavior change is usually considered the ultimate sign of public relations effectiveness” (Study Guide, 2016, p. 24).

In both cases, the behavior sought was a call to service. Regardless of the era in which a campaign was produced, the evidence of a solid and effective campaign should still be visible to this day. Those of us who work in governmental public relations understand the accountability required as part of our work. Creel detailed all of the committee’s work in the Complete report of the chairman of the Committee on public information:

creel

As a for the outcomes of  CPI’s work? “More than 1.3 million men and more than twenty thousand women volunteered to serve in the armed forces abroad.” (Capozzola, 2008, p. 7).

That work shaped the future of America and the outcome of the war. However, the effort to draft enough nurses to care for the nation’s citizens continues today.

A campaign overview published by Johnson & Johnson highlighted the successes of the campaign’s efforts since 2002, including outputs and outcomes. Despite the 32 million pieces of recruitment/retention materials in both English and Spanish and other outputs, the company cites the American Academy of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) in saying the campaign has led “more than 750,000 people into the profession.”

Ensuring the strength and the health of our nation is certainly something to treasure.

References

Capozzola, C. J. N. (2008). Uncle Sam wants you : World War I and the making of the modern American citizen. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Creel, G. (1972). How we advertised America (International propaganda and communications; International propaganda and communications). New York: Arno Press.

Rice, Ronald E., and Charles K. Atkin, eds. Public Communication Campaigns. 4th ed. N.p.: Sage Publications, 2013. Print.

Study Guide for the Examination for Accreditation in Public Relations.  (2016). http://new.praccreditation.org/resources/documents/apr-study-guide.pdf

Sounding the Alarm

Crisis planning in the middle of a crisis is not a plan. As strategic communicators, we have not only the opportunity but the obligation, to be prepared in the event of a crisis. But that’s the amazing thing about a crisis: you never know where or when it will hit and if your plan is sufficient until you need it.

In the past week, my community experienced a tornado watch. I live in a community where a deadly tornado touched down more than five years ago, but the concerns are still real for residents here, especially children, like my own.

I remember when the tornado hit in 2011, I was nine months pregnant with my second child. That afternoon, I gave instructions to my then-three-year-old that if something were to happen to us and ended up outside, to call my name loudly, instead of calling for “Mommy.”

Whew. She still remembers that (and I do too).

The experience with my child tells me that it isn’t just what you tell your audience after the crisis that counts when it comes to strategic communication, it’s the messages you communicate beforehand. While it may be tempting to examine just the crisis response, in this week’s Modern Retro PR we’ll explore systems enacted by leaders as part of their crisis communication response in the event of an emergency and why it is important.

Retro: CONELRAD

In 1951, the United States government established (Control of Electromagnetic Radiation), known as CONELRAD. The purpose of this initiative was to warn the American public of an impending Cold War enemy attack via the nation’s radio and television stations as part of a civil defense response.

conelrad

Poster telling citizens how to find information in the event of an emergency.

Upon activation of CONELRAD, all radio and television stations would cease broadcast save for two designated radio frequencies, 640 or 1240 kHz. Those two frequencies would provide instructions to citizens during the crisis. CONELRAD’s implementation requested that the broadcasts would be operated by a succession of radio stations for a set amount of time in an effort to confuse the enemy regarding the broadcast’s origin. Think of it as a radio daisy chain.

In fact, radios were manufactured with small triangles marking the location of the two frequencies on the dial.

However, the plan was not without its detractors. In a 1960 article published in Time, the author argued that “a civil-defense warning system should be capable of warning 90% of the population within 30 seconds.” That would be difficult for CONELRAD to do considering that citizens had to have their radios or televisions “on” to hear these messages.

Additionally, the article cited “weak reception” and switching delays among the stations as reasons to abandon the system (Time, 1960).

Thankfully, CONELRAD was never officially activated, only tested, before the government transitioned to the Emergency Broadcast System in 1961 and later the Emergency Alert System in 1997.

Modern: Education Organizational Use of Automated Messaging Systems

In recent years, the trend has been for schools and school systems to provide alerts via automated messaging systems which utilize phone calls, text messages, emails and social media. In its early adoption, educational organizations would use these features to communicate emergency and non-emergency information alike.

Remember that tornado I was telling you about earlier in this blog? My school system used an automatic messaging system to cancel school on that fateful day in 2011.

The evolutionary use of this technology has seen recent regulatory updates as some alleged this was a form of telemarketing, especially when people did not provide “express consent” (Federal Communications Commission, 2016). This summer, the Federal Communications Commission issued a declaratory statement indicating such automated messaging systems could be used for both emergency and non-emergency purposes.

As someone who works in educational public relations, I find this to be a good thing. In fact, just last week a series of text alerts warned students on The Ohio State University (OSU) campus of eminent danger.  The information was also communicated through social media by the university’s emergency management and fire prevention department:

During the crisis, an 18-year old student drove his car into a crowd and began to attack 11 people with a knife before being killed by authorities.

In this day and age, when school campuses can be accessed by anyone at any given time, it can be a communications challenge ensure students, parents,  and staff members have the information they need to stay safe.

According to Pew Research, 72% of adults own a smartphone; but among the demographic most frequently found on college campuses (18-35), that number is 20 points higher (2016). This statistic underscores the adoption of automated messaging system as part of a larger strategic decision to communicate crisis events at schools.

Final Thoughts.

The first of five phases of crisis identified by crisis management researchers signal detection.  It is in this phase that leaders “sense early warning signals that announce the possibility of a crisis” (Wooten & James, 2008, p. 5).

It is not enough to just sound the alarm, the key messages must be clearly communicated.

“The role of any communicator in any crisis is to provide good information accurately, and in a timely fashion,” said Neil Chapman in a British cable broadcast now available online. Chapman was BP crisis communication director during the Deepwater Horizon crisis in 2010 who has since left the company.

Both CONELRAD and automated messaging system had the same intended result: to alert people of a crisis event and provide emergency instructions. The ambiguity in the CONELRAD system could lead to confusion if one couldn’t access the information in a timely fashion. Further, the delays in the system could lead to not everyone getting the same information at the same time.

Meanwhile, in the example from OSU, all stakeholders received the same clear and specific instructions at the same time–even people far from the campus in Columbus, Ohio. A quick analysis of new coverage of this event doesn’t yield questions about the timeliness of the message from university officials, but rather many serve as a primer to explaining what “Run. Hide. Fight.” means.  The speed with which OSU communicated and their transparency play to their favor.  Because the university worked to meet stakeholder’s expectations during the crisis event, they will likely maintain trust(Kim, 2015, p. 69).

The latter is clearly more effective than the former.

Effective, ethical implementation of strategic communication systems can benefit organizations not only during the crisis event but also in the aftermath. As part of W. Timothy Coombs Situational Crisis Communication Theory, crisis managers can “benefit from understanding how crisis communication can be used to protect reputational assets during a crisis” (Kim, 2015, p. 63).  However, it should be noted that organization’s reputation is not the priority. Priority one remains those directly impacted by the crisis.

By ensuring organizations have strong, effective and redundant communication systems in times of crisis means that amid the chaos, communication professionals and crisis managers may have a better chance of message penetration.

Finally, it would be a missed opportunity for me to say as communicators we cannot just be satisfied that the crisis is over; however, we must find time in the aftermath to reflect on our actions, determine how we could have responded differently, incorporate those findings into our crisis plan and improve it.

References

Buzzers Mean Bombs.(National Affairs; CIVIL DEFENSE). (1960). Time, 76(20), 26.

[CIPRtv] (2011, March 3). Crisis communication in conversation with Neil Chapman. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yjb196dB0VY

Federal Communications Commission. (2016). Declaratory Ruling FCC 16-88.  Washington, D.C.: Marlene H. Dortch.

Kim, Y. (2015). Toward an Ethical Model of Effective Crisis Communication. Business & Society Review (00453609), 120(1).

“Smartphone Ownership and Internet Usage Continues to Climb in Emerging Economies.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (February 22, 2016). http://www.pewglobal.org/2016/02/22/smartphone-ownership-and-internet-usage-continues-to-climb-in-emerging-economies/

The Mother of Invention

“Necessity is the mother of invention” – Unknown

Truer words were never uttered; especially for companies termed “Built to Last” by authors James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras. Eighteen companies made the list including 3M, American Express, Boeing, Citicorp (now Citigroup), Disney, Ford, General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Marriott, Merck, Motorola, Nordstrom, Philip Morris (now Altria), Procter & Gamble, Sony, and Wal-Mart.

Collins and Porras contend “visionary companies prosper over long periods of time, through multiple product life cycles and multiple generations of active leaders” (1994, p.2). It’s evident that each of the 18 companies has staying power, but equally important is how they communicate a new life cycle to a new generation of consumers (audience).

In this week’s Modern Retro PR, we’ll examine the leadership General Electric (GE) needed to make to continually tell its story of past and future.

Retro: GE’s Live Better Electrically/Medallion Homes Campaign (1950s)

For a family of the 1950s, new advances in technology were becoming available for the modern home. The spot showcased a variety of products available for purchase including, a dishwasher, range and refrigerator/freezer combo, among others. The concept that GE was really selling was time and improved quality of life. Imagine no longer having to actively perform routine tasks manually. That would be a time-saver in itself!

In the 1950s, GE, in partnership with Westinghouse, would “co-sponsor a multi-million dollar nationwide campaign to promote the sales of electric appliances and the benefits of electric power. The campaign, called “Live Better Electrically,” was also endorsed by electric manufacturers and utility companies. The ultimate marker of having these features was to be called a “Gold Medallion Home.”

According to an article published by the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, certain characteristics were required for the designation:

“To earn a gold medallion, a house had to be solely sourced with electricity for heat, light, and power; have full 150-ampere service with a specified number of outlets

Homes meeting the criteria received the designation and were usually found near the front door or garage.

Homes meeting the criteria received the designation and were usually found near the front door or garage.

and switches per linear foot; and include specific appliances like an electric range, refrigerator, and even air conditioner—customary now, but revolutionary then” (Walsh, 2016, p. 9).

The visual of the Medallion Home was found on house keys, sign posts, doorbells and even embedded in the concrete sidewalk surrounding the home. One sign of the success of the effort: entire planned communities sprang up touting Gold Medallion Homes for sale. If ever there were an opportunity to keep up with the Joneses, this was it.

For a home to have the Gold Medallion was a symbol of modernity of the times. In an article published by the Los Angeles Times, the campaign was deemed successful: “By some estimates, the nationwide goal of about 1 million all-electric homes was achieved, according to the Edison Electric Institute, although data on the actual number built is unavailable” (2001).

Modern: “What’s the Matter with Owen?” Campaign (2015)

In the future, the United States will need “nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs over the next decade and 2 million of those jobs are likely to go unfilled due a “skills gap,'” according to a 2015 study by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute. Making it more difficult for companies like GE was the idea that millennials with skills in tech-related fields didn’t see a place for themselves in a legacy brand like GE.

Sensing an opportunity, GE embarked on a rebranding effort to lead the way in attracting a new generation of talent. With these 17 words in a tweet, GE ushered in the dawn of a new era for the company:

“Hammer”  is one of a series of “What’s the Matter with Owen?” commercials which has seen heavy rotation. Through the campaign, the company positioned itself as “GE. The digital company. That’s also an industrial company.” The emphasis was no longer on industrial products, but rather digital ones.

This clever campaign was developed in 2015 as a way to recruit the next generation of big thinkers to the company. In order to compete, GE needed programmers and lots of them. The campaign sought to shift public opinion, but as evidenced by the ad, the fictitious character “Owen” struggled to convince his own parents of the company’s transformation.

However, the ingenuity of this spot resonated with job-seekers in a new economy, particularly those with technology-based backgrounds. This campaign showed how a developer could be connected to something larger than him or herself: it was a connection to a storied history.

It should come as no surprise that the effort paid off for GE as company officials told Business Insider visits to GE’s online recruitment site 66% month over month.” Now other companies are forced to play catch up.

Final Thoughts.

The key to being built to last appears to be staying relevant as GE has done with the examples outlined above. According to Forbes, GE held the spot of the world’s 10th most valuable brand of 2016.

Leadership success always starts with vision,” according to John Ryan, president of the Center for Creative Leadership. Oftentimes, it is a vision which no one else sees. The housewife in the first GE commercial couldn’t see it over budget concerns; the fictitious parents in the “Owen” commercial were dubious because GE was known for making things one could see and use.

The idea of change can be a difficult one to accept. That’s why in each of the two advertisements, one can see GE trying to ease the cognitive dissonance between the present state and the future state by providing a reasoned explanation of how change can come about. In the Retro example, it is done by the announcer advising the housewife to buy what her budget will afford bit by bit. In the Modern example, it is with “Owen’s” explanation to his parents of how programmers can help with the manufacturing process.

Leadership means selling others on an idea of not just seeing what no one else can, but also creating it and having others adopt the new innovation.

References:

Collins, J. C., & Porras, J. I. (1994). Built to last : Successful habits of visionary companies(1st ed.). New York, NY: HarperBuss.

Walsh, P. (2016). Gold medallion homes bespeak decades of energy efficiency. ei, the magazine of the electroindustry, 21 (3), 8-9.