Messaging Tough Topics with Marc Gutman | CWA Survive and Thrive Virtual Summit

This is a presentation by Marc Gutman, founder of Colorado Branding Firm, Wildstory, on messaging tough topics. This was originally presented to the Survive and Thrive Summit from the Climbing Wall Association to gym operators and employees around the world.


Kristin Horowitz 0:00

Take my slides.

Marc Gutman 0:02

Oh, thank you so much. Let me get going here, I'm going to go ahead and share my screen. And you know, I'm not going to spend a lot. I don't have a lot of time today. And so I'm not going to spend a ton of time introducing myself. Can you see that just fine? Yeah, great.

I'm not gonna spend a ton of time introducing myself, but I am, you know, I got my very first job was in the frozen yogurt industry with TCBY many years ago. And I parlayed that into a stint as a screenwriter for a while. And now I am a brand strategist at our company, Wildstory. And we work with brands just like yours. We've worked with the Climbing Wall Association, as well as some other large climbing gym operators, outdoor brands, things like that. So we we see this space quite a bit. And I'm going to talk today about messaging tough topics. And so what I want to ask you today is how is your 2020 so far?

Guessing you're doing a little bit with the pandemic, we're seeing some social unrest constantly with protests, we have racial inequality, unfortunately. Fortunately, it's coming to the forefront. Our economy is so volatile, it's high, it's low, we have record unemployment, the stock market's booming, like, it's very confusing. We have an election on the horizon. And then we have personal things, right?

We have our kids who are working, doing school from home, we're working from home, our lives are completely upside down. And so for me, this meme resonates right that I am feeling a little bit crazy right now. And I imagine you are too on top of it all, you are managing businesses. And the thing about these businesses is a lot of your staff are young or inexperienced employees who are awesome climbers and athletes, and that's what they want to be. And that's and they're awesome people as well. But what they're probably not are experts in communication. And so we're also experiencing this amazingly odd phenomenon right now.

Where stakeholders, your investors, your clients, your customers, your employees, they're looking to brands to comment on the state of the world. We're actually getting our news from brands, right. So we're looking to brands for our news information, policy, how are we going to comment on race and other matters? I mean, it's a really crazy time.

And so even layering more on top of that, you know, we're all entering these topics and conversations with different amounts of learning, knowledge, perspective, experiences, we all have this different lens are all coming to these very complicated topics with a lot of different background and experience. So we're asked to communicate on topics in new and challenging ways, we're dealing with communications that travel at the speed of light, you know, social media is instant, we can't really take back a misstep or an error. If we've done something wrong, someone is gonna throw that in our face at some point. And we don't always have something to say, even though everyone is asking us to comment, or we don't even know what we want to say, we don't know where we stand on issues. This is not, you know, very clear all the time. There's a lot of complexity. And so here is the good news.

You're going to screw up. I'm here to tell you that. And why is that good news, because I'm also here to tell you to let yourself off the hook. We're going to make mistakes there is-this is so, so challenging. And what I keep hearing from people out there is look, we have never seen this before. We don't have a playbook for anything like this. And you know, what I'll say is yes, we don't have a playbook for everything that's exactly going on right now. But this is not the first time businesses and industries have faced a crisis or tough markets.

And I want you to think back to 1982. And if you were in 1982, and you were living in the Chicago area, you might have been scared to death to go to the drugstore and buy Tylenol because somebody was lacing Tylenol with cyanide.

And it was a huge panic. They didn't know who was doing it. They didn't know which bottles were infected. They couldn't trace this. It was super, super scary. And this was James Burke, the CEO at the time and he didn't know what to do, and the government was advising him just don't do anything. It's gonna create a panic. But he didn't feel right about this. And this was like probably the toughest communication and business decision he had to make at the time. And he and his team, they didn't have any professional PR people they didn't have an agency was just a small group of business professionals.

They didn't know what to do. And so they went back to the Johnson and Johnson credo, which is written by Robert Wood Johnson back in 1943. You can look it up online, it is just a one-page credo. It's not very dense.

And the first line of that credo is we believe our first responsibility is to doctors, nurses, and patients, to mothers and fathers and to all others who use our products and instantly, by leaning back into this foundational document, James Burke and his team knew exactly what to do and that was to recall all the bottles of Tylenol, which at the time was a crazy thing to do.

That was not common. And everyone was predicting the death of j&j and Tylenol. 31 million pills and 100 million dollars in recall costs. They didn't know what to do. But you know, as we can expect, two months later, they came out with tamper-proof packaging, and the company rebounded. And it's a success story to this day on how to message and handle a crisis.

And so here's the truth, your actions and words, force people to choose. To choose you or to not choose you. And so if that's the case, I want you to look within and I want you to sharpen your actions and words, and you can look at your core values, your credo, your Manifesto, your belief statement. You don't have to have all of these, just whatever it is, what's that one thing that's your Northstar, that you're going to come back to, and remember how to communicate and how to message and I want you to get really real with yourself.

I want you to think about what you really believe in. I want you to—what do you really stand for? You know, really think about, you know, what is your mission with your business. If you're looking for a litmus test, I love this quote, it says a manifesto but it could be your core values, it can be your belief statement, it could be your Manifesto, inner, switch out that word for manifesto here, but a manifesto is your brand's Magna Carta, your Rosetta Stone and Declaration of Independence, all rolled into one. It is the halftime locker room speech given by the CEO, the words the founder heard on the mountaintop before bringing down the stone tablets.

Reading a great brand manifesto should make you want to run out and try the product. You should feel the brand fire in your bones. And so that is my call-to-action. My challenge to you, I want your core values, I want your Manifesto, I want your credo to have the brand fire in your bones. And if you have that you won't have any missteps in communication, especially on these tough topics.

And really the thing that we're trying to protect thing we're trying to protect and build is trust. Look, we know it is easy to lose and hard to earn. Everybody wants it. Not everybody can get it. But I have a formula for you. And trust equals r plus d. Trust equals reliability plus delight. Reliability is do what you say you're going to do have a gym, be clean, be safe, follow COVID guidelines, have good looking ropes, have safety devices, have a friendly team.

That is reliability, but delight, how do we delight our customers? And I think an exercise for you to find the delight is you need to ask, why should I care? But not like why should you care? You're asking this on behalf of your customer. Why should I care? Why should your customers care about you? And that is a great way to start finding delight thinking about what they want.

Two days ago, I got an email from United. Now, I'm a frequent traveler before the pandemic with United I do it reluctantly. I don't have a lot of great things to say about United. Two years ago, they were dragging people off the seats. And I always used to use in a presentation this joke about how they talked about flying the friendly skies. But yeah, they're dragging people off planes. Two days ago, I get this email saying we're getting rid of change fees for good. And you want to talk about delight, you want to talk about feeling understood.

Now there's probably other reasons why they did this or business answers. But I felt like they delight me as a customer because it was for good and great way for Scott Kirby to announce becoming the new CEO. I think there's also ways to lose trust and to get into that debit that trust from the bank.

Also, the other day, I got an email from Oats Overnight. And it was this really cute kind of cheeky thing that looked like they accidentally sent me an internal communication. And it was really confusing. And so as a marketer, I'm like, yeah, that was kind of cheeky and cute. But you know what, it also just felt kind of like, sneaky and smarmy and tricky. And so instantly, I checked in with my little trust meter. And I was like, that's a trust debit. So be careful when you're trying to build trust.

Hey, I want you to remember, this is a big challenge. And we all enter these topics and conversations with different amounts of learning, knowledge, perspective, and experiences. And one trick that you can use when messaging, especially like when you're getting hostile communication or questioning or things that feel threatening. Danny Meyer, famous New York City restauranteur and an expert on hospitality, has this book setting the table. And he talks a lot about the charitable assumption. And the charitable assumption is simply believing that everybody has is has the best intentions, when they're coming to you with either a complaint or a problem. That's it. And if you can start to practice the charitable assumption, you're going to be able to see the other side a lot better.

So when messaging tough topics here are some don'ts. Don't just give the communication responsibilities to just anyone. It used to be like hey you handle that, whatever. Not anymore. They need to be experienced and trusted employees and business people. This is a skilled job. So what you really need to do is start assigning this to people who have training or go seek out some messaging training, filter it through one person. Don't ever do anything against your core values, your credo and your beliefs. Thanks. Think of James Burke, and how they messaged that you don't want to make decisions in a vacuum all by yourself. You don't want to react instantly or emotionally, let it breathe. I've never had an instance where I slept on something and came back. And it wasn't okay to wait a day or so.

Tips. Do: practice the charitable assumption. I want you to be a teacher and an advocate versus a combatant and remember, we're all coming at this from different angles, different lenses. We might not know that a word is offensive, we might not know about something that we expect to be commonplace knowledge. I challenge you and I want you to work to understand non-inclusive language, it's changing all the time I personally am in this I make mistakes all the time.

We're always learning. Acknowledge when you make a mistake, and go ahead into learning, run your communications pass a DEI committee that is actually diverse, bring diversity into your organization. Doesn't have to be employees, you can go get, you know, form an unofficial Board of DEI committee members that that are that are interested in helping you out. Doesn't have to be a big thing.

And I want you to educate yourself on others perspectives and feelings really understand what's going on in the world in the audience, I do want you to realize that none of us are perfect. Some real quick takeaways on starting points for conversations on race. If and how you want to take a stand. This is really tricky. I'm not here to tell you you should or shouldn't, you really need to make that decision for yourself. But you need to listen to your stakeholders, your investors, your employees, your customers, got to go back and inspect those core values. And then start to examine touchpoints and really start to put on the shoes of different personalities, different perspectives and examine the touchpoints.

I want you to remember this is not a this is a marathon, not a sprint. Messaging tough topics is not a one and done. If you get hit in the face because you made a misstep, get back up, do it again. The hunger for community still exists and people still want that in your gym. So I'm really going to challenge you. And I know we're going to talk about this, but what value are you offering beyond your products and services?

How do you answer that key customer question? Why should I care? and Kristin talked about this, but don't stress about being professional. When you're communicating grassroots is authentic and performs better and builds trust, shoot it on your iPhone, shoot it from your home. I think we've all seen that this whole work from home movement is like when you see you know someone's home office or their house. It all like all of a sudden you're like oh, like that's what their house looks like? Cool. Like it builds trust.

As I leave you here today and stop my presentation, I want to leave you with a little story for my friend Dandapani. Dandapani is a monk, as you can see here. And when Dandapani was a young monk, he was in charge of watching the children in the monastery and one day, he comes down into the main monk area, whatever you call it, and his Master says "Dandapani, how's it going with the children?" And Dandapani says, "It is awful. It's terrible. The kids are loud, they're unruly, and they slam the doors, slam the door here, slam the door there, there's always slamming doors, I can't take it anymore."

And his master looks at him and nods and says "Dandapani, what I want you to do is I want to go back tomorrow. And I want you to teach them how to close the door." Dandapani looks at him and says "But Master, it's closing doors. Of course, they know how to close the door. It's like they're slamming it on purpose. They're being unruly, they're doing this to drive me crazy." And the Master says "Dandapani. Just do me one favor, and teach them how to close the door."

So the next day Dandapani goes back and he walks there, he says, "Children, gather nearby." And he shows him how to close the door. He says "You open a door like this, you close the door like that. You turn the handle, you open it, you close it. Slamming is not good," right? And from that day on, the children never slammed the door. And so what that always taught me and that I take away from that story is that we have all these expectations and assumptions of what people know and what we do and don't need to teach. And so next time someone doesn't perform or respond or message in the way you want to take that as an opportunity to teach them how to close the door.

Thank you. That's my time. I'm going to stop sharing and go ahead and bring it back over to Kristin.

Kristin Horowitz 14:46

Oh, that was awesome work. Thank you. I hope everybody else thinks so too.

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