Experience is the Best Teacher

A Series of Inquiry

What to Do Right Now

Be transparent. Talk to Your Customers.

Communications, Crisis and Coronavirus: 

Be sensitive. Be clear. Don't be shy.

March 26, 2020

Every business is getting a glimpse of how good their business continuity plan is right now. Unfortunately.

For those of us who have worked in community health, we have more experience than we would like in crisis planning for continued operations, customer service and quality communications.

Right now, we're experiencing a health crisis because of the COVID–19 pandemic. Some communities have already survived Hurricane Katrina, earthquakes, wildfires and terrorism.

What if, as a result of other natural or human-caused disasters, you had to operate your business without electricity for a week or more? What if you couldn't access your employees' names and phone numbers via your cell phone or office software? What if a violent crime occurred in your workplace?

What would you do?

It happens. One summer, a previous employer of mine went without electricity for more than a week due to devastating storms. The power company couldn't keep up with restoring the city. We even lacked our primary office telephone line, but we discovered that the separate fax line we had installed under a different phone number for my department continued to operate. It was our lifeline to the outside world to continue official communications.

I found this website by the federal government about crisis communications particularly thorough. You can find information on business continuity planning and other topics, as well.

Speed Counts.

In crisis communications, preparation is key. Deciding who are the stakeholders and influencers and having their contact information backed up somewhere other than your office network may speed your reaction time. Unless you are a hospital, law enforcement, the government or a top-level company, you may not be the highest priority of the online provider or other company backing up your files. How long can you wait for them to restore your data?

What Should I Do Right Now?

Communicate Briefly and Frequently.

Be sensitive and authentic in your communications, but be brief. In times of crisis, your readers face distractions. Studies show people don't read. They scan online content in the best of times. Remember the following:

  • Give people the essential information in each communication.
  • Tell them what they want and need to know early in the message. At least, allude to it.
  • Don't attempt to answer all their questions in one communique.
  • Update your website with new information as it develops.

Delays in communications leave gaps. Gaps filled by your competitors. Your detractors. And by the anxious minds of your customers or clients.

Sadly, there will be some questions you cannot answer for legal or privacy reasons. Be prepared to say you cannot answer at this time. 

Don't "ghost" your stakeholders. Don't ignore them.

Be Transparent.

Be as transparent as you can. If you don't know an answer, say so. Vow to respond as soon as possible. Tell people what you can: What you are doing. In this communication from Harbor Freight to my husband, a customer on their email list, they explained what procedures they were taking to keep their facilities sanitized. The message: "It's safe to shop here." That was early in pandemic communications locally.

Harbor Freight was also smart to express concern for everyone – victims, the communities where they operate, and their associates. I'm not particularly connected to my Harbor Freight retail staff, yet I am to the staff at the library, grocery and YMCA. I want to know you are paying them if they can't work for health or operational reasons. I want to know your company is putting personal profits aside and trying to help the people I see every day.

Want to know my one criticism of the Harbor Freight communications? Contact me for that information. I'm not criticizing them or anyone publicly right now. You shouldn't either. Everyone is doing their best.

This article published in the Institute for Public Relations has more about crisis communications so you can prepare your plan. 

Need help? I'm here.

Experience is the Best Teacher

A Series of Inquiry

Missing Meetings? Conferences?

Will People Still Meet In Person?

I Can't Stop Touching My Face!

Which Economic Sector May Suffer Most from the COVID-19 Pandemic?

March 10, 2020

With the latest news about COVID-19, or coronavirus, more of us with elderly relatives are questioning how much we should be in large groups right now, which means missing meetings and conferences we’d planned to attend. When you can find 1,000+ problem-solving articles and videos on the internet, why take the risk of interacting in person?

Membership and professional associations are already struggling and have been for a few years. As president of Browning Business Strategies LLC, I contributed a blog post this week to the Public Relations Society of America's Hoosier chapter about the value of membership. It's a personal post with examples from my experiences., and written before the current situation became a pandemic.

Is the Personal Touch Doomed?

Germs or no, there's nothing like meeting a person face-to-face to help you decide if it's someone you can trust. Someone who has to respond to your questions in person, when you can watch body language, can reveal a lot about how much you might trust the person. Will the other person come through for you? It's business, of course, and contracts matter, but that kind of trust is often built only after an initial project you've worked on together.

Meeting someone in person can often tell you if they are someone you want to work with. I'm not the only one cautioning others. Read what this communications pro said on the topic.

Finding business partners I can trust is challenging. I often rely on referrals. Do you? How do you find business partners and contractors you can trust?

Shoot me an email, and I'll write a follow-up post with your strategies.

Communicating During a Crisis

Right now, there’s plenty of guidance online - and no shortage of fear-based tactics - about the importance of public health. If you need help communicating with employees, business partners or your customers, there are great tools and resources available. Here’s a helpful article from PRSA’s national office. Don’t be a poor example.  

Contact me or another communications professional if you need assistance.

Experience is the Best Teacher

A Series of Inquiry

Need Aid or Advice?

Consultant Aiding Business Owner

What's a Consultant Cost?

February 20, 2020

A consultant will help you determine the scope, expertise, research and time required to make your project succeed.

If you wanted a bridge built, an engineer would ask about materials, weight capacity, length, and width, etc.

Are you building the Golden Gate Bridge or a platform over your backyard creek?

Like many professional service firms, it’s tough to give a prospective client a figure until we define the scope-of-work.

A marketing or communications professional will drill down with you to define the problem you are trying to solve, particularly if you don’t approach them with a pre-formed, articulate idea. Often, communications pros find people ask us for a press release because they want to announce something new, yet when you drill down on what the product or service is, who the audience is, and what they want to achieve, you find out it’s a niche audience the product appeals to and a press release may not be the right tool. Or a press release may be fine as one step in a larger campaign to successfully launch your new product or service.

A consultant will help you determine the scope, expertise, research and time required to make your project succeed.

We understand that money is tight. Business owners have a good deal of responsibility and competing demands. Consulting with a marketing professional brings professional expertise to your marketing and communications challenge. Be honest about your budget and let the consultant help you define specific expectations. Otherwise, it’s a waste of your time.

Here are the considerations when we use to price projects with clients.

Define the Scope of Work.

After meeting with you and defining the project, I’m going to itemize the scope of work and confirm that with you. By being specific about expectations, we both understand my role and yours. You’ll sign an agreement for a specific amount with payment terms and a not-to-exceed amount. Some of the costs in that scope will depend on who is doing what. Are you implementing the plan, or am I? If you are, that can limit the scope, but it will also possibly limit your results.

Do you have time to implement the plan and stick with it? If not, reconsider whether it is wise to do the implementation in-house.

Conduct Audience and Product Research.

How recent and detailed is the research available to plan your project’s goals? 

Do you have research directly related to the audiences you want to influence? Are you adapting a campaign designed by a parent division to your audiences? Does it speak to your audiences or you? If it’s already working in Illinois, why wouldn’t it work in Indiana?

An external consultant is going to ask the tough questions and look at your problem with a fresh set of eyes and experience built by serving other clients and industries. What appeals to you about that campaign may not appeal to the audience you want to influence. Do you have blinders on about your product, your competition or the marketplace?

You could spend too much money and lose critical time if you don’t test your assumptions first.

When is research not a good idea?

It’s your money. If you choose to make your marketing and communications decisions based on your gut, it’s your decision. It will be tougher to set realistic metrics for the results.

Do You Have the Expertise?

When I was in-house and hired advertising or PR agencies, I hired them to do the tasks I lacked the time, talent or resources to do. I was pulled in too many directions to achieve certain fundamental tasks that drove business.

Anyone can design social media posts, right? Can they design effective ones? Can they post consistently, and target them to the appropriate audiences? The question is do the posts create traffic for your website? Calls? Bookings? Sales?

Particularly when wording with independent practitioners or smaller firms, you are often working with highly experience professionals at a fraction of the cost of hiring them in-house.

Make certain your marketing and public relations are building an audience for your brand and influencing the action you want the target audience. Be specific.

What’s Your Time Worth?

Your time is important, so how much time can you dedicate to marketing your product or service well? Is there time to plan and deliver a consistent, compelling message to the right audiences via the right spokespeople?

Make the time to research, create and define the work in a way that will build a successful campaign. It doesn’t take months to do so when you use a consultant. You will have measurable goals defined to evaluate and re-define for the next phase too. You’ll have the facts behind you to base the results on.

Is an urgent response needed? Are you in a crisis and need to act now?

If you are in a crisis because someone has been hurt, stolen money or committed another crime that costs your business money or reputation, then time is fleeting to get your message – your side of the story – communicated. That urgency is going to cost more. Your business and your customers need attention pronto!

You’ll get more done with an extra set of hands and a fresh set of eyes on the problems you need to solve. Communications is an art, but the principles and knowledge skilled professionals bring to it will serve you well.

Contact Browning Business Strategies LLC for more on this topic.

Experience is the Best Teacher

A Series of Inquiry

Moonshine Magic

Every Picture Tells a Story

North Carolina Has the Best Tourism Story

Great Storytelling Starts with Authenticity

January 31, 2020

By Cindy Dashnaw, guest blogger

No state tells its tourism story better than North Carolina. Because it doesn’t tell its story at all.

Visitors do. And the story they tell is personal and authentic.

Every state has a tourism department and/or organization charged with getting people to visit, and the approaches they take are as varied as the states themselves.

Most of these sites are organized by categories: Family Fun, Music, Nature, etc. One site looks just about like another. They don’t tell a story so much as present a brochure on a screen.

The goal of everything at visitnc.com is to make you feel as physically close to being there as possible, experiencing other people’s “firsts” – their first mountain waterfall, sheep trek, swim in the ocean, etc. And it works.

Snippets Put You in the Center of the Action

Rolling video snippets on the home page position you in the center of the action. In one, a young couple and I were in touching distance of a rooster – I felt that I could reach out and get pecked, making those friends of mine burst into unsympathetic laughter. In another, I was shoulder-deep in undulating water with my neighbor, in danger of getting my face wet. Next, I was running on the warm sand shouting to a little girl to look up and see the kite soaring in the sunshine.

Once hooked by the stories implied in these warm, active images, the “Find Your First” button in the middle of the screen became irresistible. It took me to a choice: First Time Seeing a Waterfall, First Time Seeing the Ocean, First Time Tasting Moonshine. Below these images I could click on real social media posts by real people (honest, they link to their profiles!).

I chose “First Time Seeing the Ocean,” and got to an interactive map of things I could do when seeing the ocean in North Carolina … along with a short paragraph about that little girl with the kite and an “Insider Tip” to make me feel special.

People’s Firsts Featured

Everything in this site works together to present a story of real people doing actual things for the first time (vicarious excitement built-in). When I was done, I felt as though a friend had told me about their latest visit to North Carolina.

A message with that kind of impact is going to stick with me. In fact … I’ve seen a waterfall and the ocean. Let’s get back to that moonshine! visitnc.com

(For comparisons, check out Alaska, North Dakota and Tennessee.)

Cindy Dashnaw is an award-winning copywriter and storyteller for nonprofits. Get her to tell your story at cindydashnaw.com

Experience is the Best Teacher

A Series of Inquiry

Starting Successfully

Steps to Success: Planning

3 Tips for Marketing Your Business

January .20, 2020

   1. Know who your target market is.

   2. Invest resources in a marketing plan and budget.

   3. Hire professional graphic design help.

Marketing involves the P’s: product (or service), price, place, promotion, and if you are a smart marketer, the people or customers. In my experience when CEOs and business owners speak about marketing, what they are often referring to is promotion: press releases, ads, social media, etc.

Assuming you have a business plan, know who your competition is and what they are doing, and know where the gaps in the market are (Your product or services fills those gaps, right?), your small businesses can succeed.

Know Your Target Market.

Identify your primary, secondary and tertiary markets for your product or service. Focus your communications, marketing and sales on primary markets if your budget is tight. Don’t try to reach “everyone,” unless of course, you have the marketing budget of Coca-Cola or Anheuser-Busch.

Who are the gatekeepers to and influencers of those primary markets? What drives them? How do they benefit from your product or service? Does it save them time? Money? Headaches?

Be honest with yourself. “Everyone” doesn’t need your product or service. Specific people, trades, or ventures do. Start narrowly for maximum results. Yes, it takes time to build a market, particularly if your budget is small. Online tactics today help you be seen by more people with similar interests more quickly. Yet, that can be money wasted if you aren’t smart about who your market is.

Invest in a Marketing Plan and Budget.

A self-serving recommendation a skeptic might say. Yet you are obviously a gifted widget-maker. You make the best widgets for 50 miles around, or so you said. So how are you going to let your potential customers know your widgets are the best? Especially if you put all your funds into making the widgets!

There was an ad agency that once promoted their services by saying “Because word of mouth takes too long.” (I’m paraphrasing.) Depending upon your product or service, you need a way for people to know why they should do business with you over your competition. Are you tapping into your market consistently and strategically?

A plan helps you do that and document it. It’s a gut-check when you get an offer from your sister’s best friend to sponsor her daughter's pee-wee soccer team jerseys for only $500. (FYI: That usually not marketing. It's philanthropy! Sponsor that team to help a kid out,  not to earn your business sales leads.)

Getting your ideas on paper will give you the tools to evaluate what part of your plan is working and generating new business, retaining current customers and upgrading others. It will allow you to reallocate your time and money as you proceed. There will be more opportunities to spend your money with associations, media, sponsorships, and online tools than you can dream of. They will all sound like good ideas. Some are.

Do they measure up? Generate the leads?

Need help getting your ideas itemized, documented, organized and with benchmarks set? That’s where an outside consultant can help you.

Hire Professional Graphic Design Help.

We all have gifts.

Professional graphic design isn’t one of them.

Know your limits and strengths. You can spend hours (or worse, days and weeks) designing something in Microsoft Publisher, Canva, or one of the 100 graphic design programs available and find out it’s not compatible with the printer you are using or the images aren’t the best resolution to reproduce well. Worse, if you take an illustration, image or graphic from someone else’s website, and don’t get permission to use it, you risk being sued for copyright violations. “Free stock photography” means you better read the Terms and Conditions fine print carefully.

I have always found that professional graphic design pays off. The finished product emphasizes the right components to draw the eye in, and, more importantly, makes the impression that makes your brand stand out.

Know your gifts. Use them wisely. Use your time meeting new customers and retaining current ones. Pay someone to design your logo, postcard or packaging. In the long run, that division of labor and talent is going to serve your interests for the better.

Your goals. Your results. That’s what matters.

Contact Browning Business Strategies LLC for more on this topic.

Experience is the Best Teacher

A Series of Inquiry

Living in Color

Red Flowers in Winter

Making a Living and Making a Life!

January 2, 2020

I’ve met many interesting characters in my past life. What about you?

I’m not referring to reincarnation but my career trajectory. The crises, projects, challenges, critics and characters who made me the experienced professional I am today.

One said: “Why would you let others determine your income potential?”

The gentleman was in sales and self-employed. That wisdom struck me as so hopeful and positive for someone self-employed. We didn’t have many entrepreneurs in my family, so I never understood how business owners earned money, paid others, and paid themselves.

Oddly, money never served as my primary motivator. I wanted work that mattered. I wanted to grow, learn and serve. I’m a good problem solver. I am good at under-promising and over-delivering.

How do I turn that into a business?

Serving You!

I use my skill set to help you. Your business may not need a full-time, experienced marketing and communications staffer with 25+ years-experience on-staff.

You might only need project help. A gifted writer. Someone to think through the pros and cons of a situation or problem and suggest solutions.

A new way of looking at your product or service. A strategy.

Need help getting that project off your desk and out the door so you don’t wake up every morning knowing it’s still not completed?

Let’s talk.

Contact Browning Business Strategies LLC for more on this topic.

Experience is the Best Teacher

A Series of Inquiry

One in a Million

Find the Pearl

Stand Out in a Crowded Marketplace

December 11, 2019

I hate crowds.

Pushy, smelly masses of humanity. I used to see it as a challenge, navigating my way through them at events, concerts, and groceries. I don’t have that kind of time now.

When you are a business owner in a crowded industry, you might hate crowds too. They cost you money you often don’t want to spend. Let me help you determine how to spend it wisely.

Have you’ve defined your product or service benefits? Are you capitalizing on them? Are you consistent in your communications about them?

Swiss Vinedressers?

When I worked in the wine industry, someone I met shared with me what they knew: that the Swiss had started Indiana’s vineyards in the 1800s. I was astounded that a message I’d been sharing for seven years was now spoken by a total stranger trying to impress me with his knowledge! That’s when I knew framing and repetition were allies for breaking through a jaundiced, crowded marketplace with a message.

You have to admit the image of Swiss grape growers is visually striking to your imagination.

Do you describe your services or products in a customer-friendly manner?


What are the key benefits of your products or service? Will it save your customer time, money or space? Solve a problem? Scratch an itch? 

The mouthwash brands don't just sell you an alcohol-based product, they tell you your breath is bad, a turn-off to that new guy in the office, and offer their liquid solution. They tell you that on every online ad after you have searched "cures for bad breath." They tell you that in coupons that arrive in the mail. They tell you that in the grocery store aisle and the beauty ads.

Need help defining your message or benefits to your customers? That's what we're here for! Your goals.  Your results. That's what matters!

Contact Browning Business Strategies LLC for more on this topic.

Experience is the Best Teacher

A Series of Inquiry

What's the Point?

Your Need. Our Solution.

What's the Big Idea?

December 6, 2019

Why would you leave it to others to determine your message?

Don’t Think of an Elephant, the 2004 book, profoundly affected my work in public relations. Working for an advocacy organization, I used the premise to train field staff and leadership to speak to the media and the public. It helped as we positioned issues and shifted individual and public opinion on topics. It explained persuasive communications in a manner no other educational experience did.

Your Brain Feeds on Visual, Emotional Cues 

Lakoff's premise is to frame your message with an emotional and/or visual reference point. As soon as you tell someone, “don’t think of an elephant,” that’s the visual cue in their mind for all ideas or concepts of your subject. 

The brain has imprinted that visual cue. It becomes the reference point.

In communications, fundraising, advocacy or sales, I used it this way:

“Do you care about “justice?” Justice is an emotionally significant concept for attorneys. The concept was a significant one when marketing to the legal profession.

“Educating teens” and “prevention” were resoundingly effective messages when marketing a health care provider to baby boomers worried about the health and safety of their own children.

Education, in fact, connects many of us to the causes and services we seek. If your business has any educational component to it, I strongly urge you to consider how you can incorporate this term.

Consistency Gains Traction

I hear many business owners, membership associations, and charities say “no one knows what we do”! Often those organizations haven’t invested in strategic communications to address their big ideas and map out their communications strategies to convey them consistently to their stakeholders. Rarely have they invested in proactive communications to address “what we do.”

Think seriously about framing your business, its customer benefits and services, and how you can use your “frame” to create the image of your business that customers are seeking. What are the benefits to your customers? How does that translate into those big ideas that speak to them by solving their problems?

Your brand depends on these tools. More on that in a future post.

Contact Browning Business Strategies LLC for more on this topic.

Experience is the Best Teacher

A Series of Inquiry

No hurdles!

No limits.

What do Customers Want?

November 22, 2019

How does a small business owner compete with larger players?

Offer better service? Lower prices? Yes. No. Maybe?

Ask yourself: what do my customers want? Then ask your customers. How do the answers compare?

Don’t assume. Ask!

  1. Market research: Whether in survey form or through one-on-one feedback, research is one way to test your assumptions. If you assume you know your customers’ needs, you may be indulging your blind spots.
  2. Sales analysis: What are you selling more of? Less of? What has the highest margins? Does your business model rely on lower margins but higher volume? If so, your research should also test how quickly you respond to customer inquiries.
  3. Service analysis: How effectively do you deliver on the goods or services? Do you exceed expectations? Have you asked?

Business owners I’ve met started their businesses because they enjoy a specific trade, product or service. They enjoy making products or solving problems. Analyzing business metrics may not be their strong suit. Marketing frequently isn’t either.

CEOs don’t want to ask their customers for feedback. They are fixers and fear that because they cannot immediately fix a negative, they shouldn’t even ask. 

Can You Handle the Truth?

Letting a customer share their criticisms yields more information about them. Their priorities. Their challenges. I admit, in many cases, it’s the premium customers I’m asking. After all, those who do the most business, mean more business!

Thorough research and analysis can help you find answers and better inform your path.

Can’t get it done?

That’s what I’m here for.