Strategic Communications

Organizations often fall into the trap of not asking the right questions before they take action that affects their reputation. Another trap is asking the right questions but providing the wrong answer, then acting on it.

Take the recent case of a private school that announced it was acquiring a nearby property so it could consolidate its two campuses. The school is also connected with a religious movement known for compassion and simplicity.

So far so good, right? But the announcement appeared in the town’s daily paper. That in itself wasn’t remarkable. But the problem for the school was that it didn’t make the announcement. The newspaper did and in the form of a problematic story reporting that the property was occupied by a long-term care facility and hospice. Residents were the sick, the old, and perhaps the dying.

The future headlines could be imagined: “School for Kids Boots out Grandmas and Grandpas;” “School Known for Compassion Evicts the Elderly;” “Junior Gets the Best of Seniors;” “Granny’s Room to Become Homeroom;” “School Tells the Sick: ‘Don’t Die Before Leaving.’”

School officials seemed taken by surprise, and the story noted that “they were not immediately available for comment.”  That’s a nice way of saying, “No one in charge would talk to us, and it’s a shame, because they missed the opportunity to defend themselves.”

That window of opportunity may have closed.

When officials did respond, they sounded defensive and lawyerly. They pointed out, correctly, that the school was buying private property adjacent to the school’s property, and that the current owner was responsible for the residents. But even the facts smacked of the black-caped cartoon character Snidely Whiplash, twisting his mustache. Meanwhile, the story quoted a resident saying he was blindsided by the announcement and doesn’t know where he’ll end up living.

Public reaction was understandably negative with critics accusing the school—and by inference parents and students—of being heartless and elitist. A follow-up story featured school alumni criticizing school administrators for being tone deaf. The uproar died down, but has flared up again as neighbors weigh in on traffic and parking issues that will impact them. With each new flare up the school’s reputation is taking a hit, which could later include fewer alumni donations and prospective families looking elsewhere for their kids’ education.

How could it be avoided?

The first priority is to begin with the end in mind. Yes, the ultimate goal is to acquire property at an affordable price so separate campuses can be consolidated. But other important goals are to do the right thing for everyone touched by the purchase, and to avoid a furor that damages your organization’s carefully molded reputation. List the principles to operate by, which in this case required looking no further than the school’s admirable mission statement.

Write potential headlines

Avoiding some negative reactions may have been impossible because moving the sick and elderly is not like moving or closing a dry cleaner or gas station. But the first concern of the school administration after concern for the residents, family members and employees is to anticipate how this might affect the community. Remember that the press often serves the role of town ombudsman, and people call the news desk when they don’t know where else to turn, want to stop something from happening, or punish alleged wrong-doers. Part of planning is to assume someone will contact the press, that the press will be interested, and the focus of the press may not be what a smart business person you are. Imagine how the story will be told and in the most unflattering way. Try writing some headlines like the ones above.

After this exercise, you should sense the potential for an unhappy outcome. You’ll also realize that even if the future welfare of the residents is up to the residents and their families, the right and smart thing to do is to show that you understand how difficult the closing and moving will be, then offer to help smooth the transition in any way feasible and reasonable. That could mean hiring a consultant to work with residents and families on finding new placements, counseling residents, offering to pay for transportation and moving expenses across town, and extending the date the school takes ownership if some residents haven’t yet found appropriate living situations.

“This is the responsibility of the property owners,” you might say. Technically correct, but they also appeared asleep at the switch and seemed to do nothing to prepare for the announcement and eventual move. Press reports indicated residents heard indirectly that the place was closing. Cue Snidely. So if you have leverage over a partner—and the school did in this case—use it. Coordinating with the property owner in advance could have helped avoid problems that were aired in the press. Everyone has a reputation in need of protecting.

Make a list

A second useful and perhaps necessary task is to make a list of all of the stakeholders. Once you consider all those that are impacted by the move and those that can be influential in achieving your desired outcome, you will likely have a list that is longer than the one you originally compiled. In the school’s case stakeholders include the board, students, teachers, parents, alumni; prospective families; the owners of the property to be purchased, and as important, the residents, their families, and staff. Then there are the press and elected officials, and neighbors who will be affected by increased traffic.

With a plan in place, you can get ahead of the negative story by making the announcement yourself, and better yet, in conjunction with the property owner. If that’s not possible, you’ve met with residents and neighbors to answer their questions and address their concerns, explained the support to be provided and steps to mitigate the impact on neighbors, and are ready if and when the press calls come. With a plan, you won’t likely face the “Oh god, what can we tell them” moment which leads to at least two undesirable results:  You delay returning a reporter’s call and are quoted as the “no one was immediately available for comment,” (which translates as, “We were taken by surprise and don’t know what the hell to do”); or you do return the call and sound defensively discombobulated, resorting to legalisms and referring reporters to the property owner who will be equally unprepared because you neglected to get agreement with them in advance about the best way to conduct the purchase and how to treat everyone right.

And don’t forget to brief everyone on your team about the plan, underlying principles (do what’s right even if it costs more than anticipated), and what will be done to assist people adversely affected.

No matter how smart and decent, we all operate in bubbles with blinders. That’s why it’s important, in matters large and small, to take time individually and as part of a group to examine assumptions and role play possible internal and external audience reactions to your decisions before you make them.

When you make mistakes, learn from them. After the initial rumpus in the press, a senior school official was overheard saying that certain people in the community were always ready to pounce and repeat the charge that the school is elitist and unfeeling. If this is the lens through which leadership continues to view itself, more self-inflicted damage is as inevitable as the arrival of the next semester.

Engaging stakeholders early in the process with open and trustworthy communication will help a project succeed.

Over our four part Building Consensus blog series, we will explore the unique requirements of consensus building in initial project planning, siting, permitting, and construction phases of a project.

In this post, we reiterate the importance communicating with your stakeholders in the planning and siting phase, if not earlier.

A project requiring public permits is by definition going to be public, and without talking to the public, it is impossible to anticipate all of the concerns of the community that will “host” the project. By seeking and obtaining stakeholder input early in the planning process, project developers will gain an understanding of community questions, concerns and suggestions and help avoid surprises and major opposition during the permitting phase. True stakeholder involvement at the outset also helps build a positive, transparent and mutually respectful working relationship.

Consensus Building 2


  1. Ask, “Who are the stakeholders?”

The stakeholders are the people who are invested or impacted by the project. Reach out to and engage in two-way communication with a diverse group of interested parties to understand anti-development concerns and to educate stakeholders about the benefits.

If unfamiliar with the city or town in which the proposed project would be sited, reach out to the leaders, influencers and others that work and live in the community, including:

  • Town officials
  • Local law firms
  • Engineering firm
  • Business and civic organizations
  • Community leaders
  1. Listen up

Giving stakeholders everything they ask for may very well not be possible, but actively listening to them is of vital importance. Respect and acknowledge their concerns, even if you disagree, and when appropriate, go back and study the situation further. Provide stakeholders with information that helps them understand your decisions, especially when they are contrary to the wishes of our stakeholders. Acknowledge where the project will or may have negative impacts and when possible, make an adjustment or accommodation to the plan. It’s human nature to focus on the negatives more than the positives, so be ready to address them head on and offer the community tangible benefits that they will value.

  1. Use available tools for two-way communication and education

A dedicated website, web-based applications and social media presence can help project planners and managers communicate important information about the benefits of proposed project (e.g., jobs and taxes) and, equally important, the negative impacts (e.g., construction noise and traffic). Remember, information flows two-ways. Educate stakeholders, learn from them and post the information in places that are convenient to your stakeholders.

  1. Meet with working groups

Regular meetings with representatives from your stakeholder groups will give you consistent and effective updates through the planning, siting, permitting and building phases. They can act as a sounding board and help the developers learn about each constituency’s issues.

  1. Gain trust

Transparency and openness build trust. Developers must engage the community early and often, and have the patience when neighbors need to vent about previous negative experiences with your company or other developers before moving forward with the project at hand. A bad process not only detracts from the project, but once accused of a lack of transparency, the opposition circles and getting that first shovel in the ground becomes much more difficult.


Read further examples on these steps in  Building Consensus for Your Project, Part 2.


Lately, I have been fascinated by the way that new technology is taking us full circle in the evolution of mass communication. We are essentially becoming modern-day cavemen and cavewomen.

If you think back to how early humans first began to “mass communicate”, it was through pictures and grunting sounds. In fact, humans were telling stories with pictures as far back as 40,000 years ago when rock walls were the communication medium of choice rather than something you climb at the gym on your lunch hour. I wonder who the first prehistoric human was to use a handheld mobile device by drawing a picture on a smaller rock that he or she could carry around rather than having to wait for everyone to come look at the static message on the cave wall?

While images have always been a powerful way to communicate, it has never been easier than it is today to communicate visual messages. The ability to capture and create visual images with incredibly powerful handheld technology and the growth of social media sites and apps for sharing them has created a visual messaging Renaissance at the expense of the written word.

There is no doubt that we are using fewer words and more visuals—photos, videos, infographics, wordclouds, memes, etc.—to communicate our messages today than compared to a few years ago. We don’t always communicate in complete sentences or even use complete words. We grunt with our thumbs in an odd new language of text abbreviations, auto-correct gobbledygook and emoticons.

While this is a troubling development to those who believe we are losing the ability to communicate effectively through the written word, is it really a bad thing? What is the right amount of visuals versus text? Is there such a thing as too many pictures? And just because we have all these new visual tools, are we really any good at using them to communicate clearly and effectively?

Here are a few examples of the balance between the visual and written content as we ponder these questions:

Example 1: Print

The French newspaper, Libération, published their November 14th article with no photographs to showcase the importance of visual communication.

Photograph from British Journal of Photography

Would you buy a paper or magazine with absolutely no photographs?

Example 2: Social Media

Social media has exploded with pictures and videos to pull the reader into reading more. Recently, even Twitter has adopted the ability to display photos and video. The following two examples help demonstrate the visual power of social media. 

Example A: A tweet from the Wall Street Journal uses a snapshot of the front page to attract visitors on Twitter.


You are able to instantly see some of the day’s major headlines. Does this attract you to click through see the full details?

Check out the second example from Facebook.

Example B: A Facebook post from Safeway using Pinterest images to get readers interested in learning new Thanksgiving sides recipes (and of course, buy those food items courtesy of Safeway).


The truly interesting part of this post is that it blends two social media channels together. Images on Safeway’s Pinterest are used to pull the audience from Facebook. Did it work? Starting to feel hungry?

Example 3: Infographics

Infographics are a popular way to translate more complex issues. These are a true test between the written and visual communication. How much text can actually fit on that map? Is text even necessary on the chart? Check out a couple examples that demonstrate the options.

Example A: The New York Time is regularly praised for their infographics. Not only do people find them visually pleasing and informative, they are often interactive. Below is an infographic done in February to display how President Obama might write the 2013 budget proposal.

Image 1

obama budget1

Image 2

obama budget 2

Very few words are apparent in regards to the graph itself. Text has been provided on the sides to provide context. However when you scroll over the graph, a text box pops up providing the details relevant to that point. If this information were inside the bubbles themselves, it would make a busy graphic.

Example B: Using of a map is another popular technique for an infograph. Below is an example from the Washington Post using color to display population change by country.


There are only 6 words and the color bar with associated percentages to explain what this graph means.

Of these two infographic examples, which did you find more interesting, informative, and visually pleasing? We might not all agree.

The important thing to remember is that there is no magic formula with regards to the right combination of visuals and text. While visual aesthetic is important; the main criterion is audience comprehension.

I think this is something our prehistoric ancestors understood instinctively as the painted cave walls with messages that we are still receiving today. I wonder if 40,000 years from now, internet archeologists will unearth the infographic I tweeted last week and understand the meaning.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on the ways you are using visuals in your work and what you see as the next steps in the evolution of how we use visuals to inform, educate, entertain and persuade audiences.

31st March 2014        Strategic Communications     No comments yet

On March 30, 1984, our Founder, Heather Conover, started a communications consulting firm with the goal of fostering collaborative relationships with clients throughout the US and abroad who shared in the belief that integrating social responsibility with strategic goals and business operations has the power to build better, more sustainable companies and communities.

Thirty years later, this belief upon which our company was founded, remains a powerful and proven formula for the success of our company and our clients. Along the way, we’ve worked on some incredibly interesting and challenging communications assignments related to energy and the environment, healthcare policy, siting and permitting for public infrastructure projects, education and social policy. And we’ve loved every minute of it.

Today, Conover + Gould is an award-winning, independent firm with offices in Washington, DC and the Boston area, and a growing network of staff and consultants with subject matter expertise and knowledge of geographic markets to meet our clients’ needs on a regional, national and international basis.

Our team members have decades of experience and are passionate about their work.

Stay tuned!

This blog will serve as an outlet for our thoughts on industry related topics, issues of the day and our approach to helping clients succeed. Also, we take our own corporate social responsibility seriously and will be using this blog to spotlight non-profit organizations we respect, admire and support for their good work.

Expect to see Heather writing about consensus building, the struggles of sustainability, stakeholder engagement and look forward to Kevin’s thoughts on corporate communications, particularly with regards to brand and reputation management.

Check back here, or subscribe to get all our latest posts in your inbox or RSS reader of choice as they are published.