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You may know the expression, "it's like a car crash," to describe a fascinatingly bad situation. (You know you shouldn't stare, but you just can't look away.) In a somewhat grim and literal example, Toyota recently had a bad brush with a series of recalls and a blow to its reputation. The upside, however, is that this provides an excellent case study about how a communication failure in the workplace should be managed.

The Facts on the Toyota Recall

In 2002, Toyota began warning dealerships of an electrical issue in Camry models. Between 2007 and 2009, millions of Camrys faced recalls, but the reason given was for problems created by stuck floor mats. The company later admitted that stuck floor mats were only incidental to the problems in the vehicles. Soon the company faced widespread consumer outrage, censure from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), and a congressional hearing. Things had gone dramatically bad.

The Communication Failure

If this was an electrical issue, how was it also a communication failure in the workplace? Easy. In 2002, the marketplace didn't have to account for the degree of consumer engagement that services such as Twitter and Facebook bring. But over the next decade, the marketplace responded to these new media by becoming a place where transparency, accountability, and clear communication had more social heft than established authority. Toyota failed these new criteria in a couple major ways:

  • It changed its story from an electrical issue to stuck floor mats, failing to realize that in an era of leaks, Internet archives, and rapid spread of awareness through media such as Twitter and Facebook, inconsistencies could be widely exposed.
  • When it had to admit fault, its spokespeople were evasive rather than upfront, even when the CEO testified before Congress.

In this marketplace, communication is king. Most consumers understand that mistakes happen, and they look for companies that can acknowledge and correct mistakes. 

Note: For more information about Toyota and its communication practices, see the following Bovee and Thill textbooks: Business Communication Today, pp. 2-3, 25, 202-203, 220, 293; Excellence in Business Communication, pp. 2-3, 26, 256; and Business Communication Essentials, 19, 136.

This post was written by guest contributor Pam Hurley, Hurley Write, Inc.

Image via Shutterstock.com


CorrelationWe thought we'd wrap up the school year with a look at the numerical side of communication. Sports-minded students might've seen this map, labeled "Who Is the Most Popular Athlete in Your State?"

Aside from LeBron James's universal popularity, the map shows some fairly predictable regional preferences—Tom Brady in New England, Payton Manning in Colorado, and so on.

It all looks like good, harmless fun until you read the subtitle of the map: "Average Monthly Google Search Queries." Ugh. Putting aside the not-insignificant questions of defining and measuring popularity, the only valid insight one can glean from the number of Google searches is the number of times people used Google to search for a particular name.

At best, it's a meaningless measure of anything else, and it could conceivably mean the exact opposite of what the map claims to say. Maybe fans of the Portland Trailblazers despise LeBron James, and that's why he shows up as the most-searched athlete in the state of Oregon. And one of the athletes listed was involved in a widely reported hoax involving an imaginary girlfriend, so his high ranking might not be a measure of "popularity" at all.

It's not exactly mainstream business communication, but the map is a great example to share with your students about the dangers of misusing numbers, particularly numbers that are easy to use and misuse because they are readily available. (Finding out who is really the most popular athlete in each state would, of course, require a large and expensive survey.)

In the spirit of innumeracy, the website Spurious Correlations has some really entertaining graphs that highlight the dangers of confusing correlation with causality. Did you know that the divorce rate in Maine correlates almost exactly (0.99) with the per-capita consumption of margarine in the United States?

Once students see how ludicrous some of these correlations are, they might become a little more skeptical of the numbers they see tossed around in the daily news and be a little more careful about using numbers in their own communication efforts. In our chapters on conducting research for business reports, we discuss the dangers of confusing coincidence, correlation, and causality, and these graphs would make a great presentation to enhance your class discussions.

With that, we wish you a safe, restful, and enjoyable summer, and we'll be back in touch in August.

 

Image: Spurious Correlations


Target SignBetween network security breaches and random corporate blunders, it's been a rough few months for GM, Target, Neiman Marcus, Adobe, Michaels, Lululemon, SeaWorld, US Airways, Yahoo, and about half the population of the Internet, thanks to the Heartbleed glitch.

Their grief is our good fortune, however—at least in terms of providing discussion material for business communication. CommPro.biz offers a wide range of commentary and analysis by corporate communication professionals, and the site's crisis communication section offers some great articles to discuss with your students.

The sections on internal/employee communication and corporate social responsibility also have a variety of pieces you might find useful in your classes.

photo by: Mr.TinDC

Red Ants PantsSarah Calhoun founded Red Ants Pants because she was frustrated by the lack of hard-wearing pants for hard-working women. Her passion for meeting the needs of her customers shines through in the company's communication efforts—along with her zeal for making work fun and meaningful. Not many firms could tell their founding story in goofy rhyming couplets, but Red Ants Pants pulls it off perfectly.

Bovee and Thill blog – Hall of Fame – Red Ants Pants


CDBabyCD Baby, the world’s largest retailer of independent music, uses clear, positive language to help musicians understand the process of selling their music through the company and its affiliates. By making the effort to
communicate clearly and succinctly, the company encourages a positive response from its target readers.

We've annotated two slides that point out some of the reader-friendly features of the company's website.

Bovee and Thill blog – Hall of Fame – CDBaby

 


HailoHailo is a popular taxi-hailing service operating in London, New York, and other major cities. With a quick tap on a smartphone app, passengers can hail any Hailo-registered cab in the area, without waving in the street or hunting for a place where taxis are likely to be found.

The system does have a potential downside for drivers, however. They have to spend time driving to the passenger's location and waiting up to five minutes once they arrive—time during which they aren't earning any income. If drivers suspect that a potential passenger will want only a short ride, they are more likely not to respond to the request because the short ride won't compensate for the time they have to invest.

This phenomenon can be troublesome for the system as a whole during peak hours, when more passengers are trying to use the system. To keep its app users happy, Hailo wants as many drivers as possible to participate during peak times. To encourage participation, it guarantees drivers a minimum amount of revenue for every Hailo rider they pick up.

The Hailo service in London recently raised its peak-time minimum fare and announced the increase in an email message to app users. The message is a model of how to present negative news in a positive way. It is also a great example of using the indirect approach for organizing a message.

We've included the message on a set of annotated PowerPoint slides so you can share it with your class.

Bovee and Thill blog – Hall of Fame – Hailo

 


VisuallyInfographics tend to fall into two basic categories: stylized data presentations and narratives. The former, such as this piece on customer satisfaction and loyalty, don’t necessarily convey any more information than basic charts and graphs in a conventional report or webpage would, but their communication value lies in their ability to catch the audience’s attention and the ease with which they can be distributed online.

The latter go beyond this, taking full advantage of the visual medium to tell stories or show interconnected processes. These infographics can be powerful communication tools, even to the point of replacing conventional reports. This infographic from the Sustainable America initiative, for example, uses the infographic format to explain how to compost successfully even if you live in an apartment. Narrative infographics can become quite elaborate, such as this animated piece on the story of coffee production.

For a class activity, ask students to find several narrative-style infographics online (visual.ly is a good place to start) and analyze their storytelling effectiveness. Does each infographic tell an effective story? How does it use emotional and logical elements to make its case? Does it use any suspect or oversimplified information (failing to differentiate correlation and causation seems to be a common sin among infographic designers)?

Creating professional-quality infographics is beyond the reach of the average business communicator, but if you'd like to have students give infographic design a try, they can draw sketches by hand or use the simple graphical tools in word processing or presentation software.


EdisonThe timeline feature in Facebook is a great tool for visual narration, particularly if a company has a rich library of compelling photos and other visuals to use. And as GE demonstrates, if you're telling a story of innovation, it helps if you can start the story with an image of one of the most famous inventors in history!

This PowerPoint slide shows the beginning of the GE timeline story.

Bovee and Thill blog – Hall of Fame – GE on Facebook


DeloitteOne of the more intriguing challenges/opportunities created by the array of new media choices is the concept of the multi-stage or multi-platform message, in which the delivery of a message starts on one platform and moves to additional platforms in order to give readers the complete message. For example, you can use Twitter to grab readers' attention, then link to a blog post for an in-depth narrative on the topic, then link to a database-driven webpage with reference material, then link to YouTube or SlideShare for a presentation.

The ability to transport readers across multiple platforms offers some significant benefits:

  • Casting a wider net by using multiple media to capture more target readers
  • Staging a complex message in a way that keeps readers intrigued without overwhelming them
  • Weaving in multiple media types along the way (such as embedded videos or infographics)
  • Giving readers the flexibility to navigate their own paths through the information as they discover how it applies to them

In the old days of print-heavy communication, a complex message was usually communicated via a lengthy printed report, working from the title page through the introduction, body, supporting graphics, and appendices. While such reports suffered from the usual drawbacks of printed media, they had the huge advantage of being closed systems in the sense that everything was there in one place, within a single, unified message structure. Readers didn't need to click around to get additional information, and writers didn't need to worry that readers would get distracted by a more entertaining YouTube video halfway through the document.

Crafting a successful multi-stage message requires all the skills needs for every business message, including using several of the compositional modes for electronic media, plus the ability to plot a clear path from the message's beginning to intended conclusion (or conclusions, as various readers might want to take different paths). It can be a big challenge to move readers from stage to stage without losing them to the multitude of distractions online while balancing the need to guide them while also offering the flexibility to choose their own paths if appropriate.

The accounting and consulting firm Deloitte offers some great examples of multi-stage messages to share with your students. Deloitte frequently uses Twitter (https://twitter.com/Deloitte) as the first stage, such as sharing a startling statistic or a provocative forecast, then linking to one or more other platforms where readers can get the rest of the story. In some cases, the message delivery system is more or less closed, such as a tweet that links to a special landing page for a new research report or an upcoming webcast, making it easy to keep information delivery on track. In other cases, though, a tweet might link to one of the company's regional homepages, where the reader is then tempted by a dozen or more other interesting graphics and headlines, all competing for attention.

You can use this concept of multi-stage messages to demonstrate for students (a) the importance of being able to write in the various modes, from compelling teasers on Twitter to engaging narratives in a blog post or webcast, and (b) the need to plan carefully before crafting multi-stage messages so readers don't fall off the bus before the tour is over, so to speak.

You might also create a "treasure hunt" exercise for students, asking them to start with a single tweet from a company such as Deloitte, follow that message through as many links as they can find, and describe the structure of the overall message they uncover.


GamesRadarOne of the most effective business uses of Twitter is as a "headline-announcement service," alerting readers to new blog posts, new pieces in online magazines, and other fresh content. However, writing effective Twitter teasers for any given target audience is a bit of an artform. The videogame review site GamesRadar.com does a good job of this, enticing game fans with cheeky and provocative prompts.

Here's an annotated snapshot of the company's Twitter account with several examples: Bovee and Thill blog – Hall of Fame – GamesRadar on Twitter

This post offers an overview of teasers and the other compositional modes that students should be comfortable with when writing for electronic media. The post also includes a link to a new video on the Bovée-Thill YouTube Channel that explores these modes.