The Conversation is the Strategy

Conference photo
Creative Company Conference 2011

“Strategic communications” is a fabulous buzzword.  But what is communications strategy, anyway?  In sports, strategy is a means of overcoming competition.  In politics, it’s the way you get votes for your legislation or election. In business, strategy is the way you achieve certain defined objections (and thus, overcome competition).

In communications we are competing for attention – for “mindshare” – so we need a strategy too.  But ultimately, we are aiming for more: we want those minds involved, caring and believing.  We want them to act on what they hear, in a way that will advance our purpose.

We’ve begun to see that nothing gets attention like a good conversation.  This is what has driven social media, talk radio, reality TV and Internet video to the forefront of marketing and communications.  Corporations of all kinds are struggling to find ways to join or generate online conversations, because simply pushing messages out on traditional platforms like print and television won’t have the same impact.

Where the conversation happens is what counts

When conversation happened around the family dinner table, in the beauty parlor or shopping aisles, companies couldn’t effectively listen in.  The same goes for the old “water-cooler conversation” – company managers rarely heard what employees were really talking about.

That’s changed radically.  Online conversations about employers, brands, products and even salaries and policies are rampant.  For corporate communications professionals it often seems there’s only one choice:  join in, or be ignored.  But there is another:  create the conversation you want.

This is where great strategies kick in:  where will your conversation take place?  Does it start face-to-face, and spread from there?  Does it get traction in a close-knit community, or do you need to provoke viral dialog?

Authentic dialog makes the difference

Conversations can spin out of control, no question.  But a careful communication strategy avoids that by staking out higher ground.  Shutting down a conversation is a sure way to cut off support and limit your effectiveness, whereas a well-crafted response can prompt positive responses and build consensus around your goals.

Developing an authentic leadership voice isn’t easy.  A fair amount of self-examination, both on the part of organizations and their executives, is required.  One good way to begin is to work on a live presentation, and ask “How can we turn this into a conversation?”

Get the conversation going

Here’s one simple way:  let me know what you think of this!

EV Charging rolls on

Back in 2008, when I wrote the business plan for a renewable-based electric car charging network, gasoline prices were edging towards $4./gallon and the economics looked good.  The financial world, however, was in collapse, and investors were not taking a lot of risks.

In today’s NY Times I read about a similar venture .  Clearly, this is not a path for the faint of heart.  The business model I was thinking of was fraught with assumptions and misunderstandings – chiefly about the complexity of delivering electricity in an urban environment.  Add to that the politics of renewable generation or transportation policy, and I really have to  admire Hevo Power for persevering.

In the meantime, I’ve learned a lot about how US electric power systems, infrastructure and utilities work.  Hmm… maybe Hevo Power needs an evangelist?

All Charged Up Again

The Governor’s ready to drive a plug-in hybrid.

Today’s REVI Forum in Hartford, CT (for Regional Electric Vehicle Infrastructure) provided inspiration and fodder for several blog entries, so I’m feeling a burst of energy.  Panelists representing utilities, regulators and policy makers discussed an “EV readiness roadmap” which aims to support car charging for vehicles rolling out within the next couple of years.  Six auto manufacturers also gave presentations – Nissan, BMW, GM , Ford, Mitsubishi and Toyota – and some brought vehicles along.

This Mini’s connector is not the current J1772 standard (but I’d still like to drive it).

Connecticut Governor M. Jodi Rell got a ride and photo op (challenging the CA. Governator for EV supremacy, perhaps?).

For charging services, however, everyone’s looking to the home garage to provide “early adopters” with electron fuel.  Where does this leave enthusiasts living in condo complexes and apartment buildings?  Hmm… will see see extension cords dropping from 3rd story windows?  Drivers pulling juice from street light poles?  Perhaps I overestimate the pent-up market here, but the auto companies seem poised to ramp up volume, and with unknown barrels of potential gasoline spewing into the Gulf, it seems to me that consumer demand could quickly outstrip utility readiness.  So much credit goes to REVI chair Watson Collins, of Northeast Utilities, for putting the forum together and drawing attention to issues.

Driven to Distraction

Good intentions are truly the road to hell – and that’s my excuse for not posting here for months. A complete site redesign is in the works, if that’s any consolation.

Projects for Tyco and VeriSign have also my consumed attention, but tonight the British-American Business Council held an event in Cambridge that charged me up again. Phil Guidice, Commissioner of MA DOER came to encourage regional cleantech entrepreneurs. He offered some intriguing charts comparing the Massachusetts business environment to California’s, but another attendee raised the question: are our local VCs on board? Who will really back Massachusetts’ bid to become a cleantech leader?

This writer posed a question about smart grid investment, but was too timid to ask the real question: will our Senator-elect support legislation that will further DOER objectives?

Back to the Future

Coming back from a recent MCAN meeting, we stumbled upon the legendary car chargers of Alewife MBTA parking (2nd floor, right as you exit). Most of these are wrapped in black plastic, but someone is making an effort to expose them.

Alewife station sign
Signage at Alewife

The charger itself is an ICS-200 (“Intelligent Charging Station”) a 240V,40amp unit. The manufacturer’s website look like it hasn’t been touched since 1999 – and neither have these chargers, I’ll bet. But they meant well, I’m sure.

Cars, Colbert and Chutzpah

Shai Agassi, CEO of Better Place just put in an appearance on The Colbert Report, and I have to applaud him for playing a role to the hilt. Who else is trying to make electric cars hip and sexy? Colbert’s first remark noted Shai’s casual outfit. In jeans & black t-shirt with white wind-turbine graphics, Shai looked the antithesis of an automotive industry exec.

Most of the interview centered on comparing cars to cellphones (swappable, disposable, etc.) but Colbert pointed out that hefty cars have traditionally played a role in courtship. Hmm. Agassi shrugged that off, giving the impression that he believes that cool, new environment products can provide the cachet that cars (traditionally) and phones (currently) offer young consumers.

So my question is: can we wait for them? Or do we need to promote electric cars to drivers of all ages, right now, to get real traction in this market? Given that Colbert’s audience probably skews to youth, I’ll credit Better Place with effective use of their charismatic leader on this show. But I still think we need to persuade a larger market, faster, to switch to electric drive. Can Shai reach those boring, suburban seniors who put on so many miles, or must he simply outlive them?

Fearless Flying

After twice getting tangled up trying to navigate Logan Airport yesterday (practically my home town!)and twice paying tunnel tolls, the electric podcars planned for Abu Dhabi look really enticing – sort of combination ski-lift and theme park ride. This rendering is a concept for Gotgaten, Sweden – but I can see them hanging from Boston’s Zakim Bridge.

Rendering by visulogik
Rendering of Podcars by visulogik