Communication is Powerful; Ethics Are Required

Communication is Powerful; Ethics Are Required

1. April, 2016|Blog, Featured Blog Post|Comments Off on Communication is Powerful; Ethics Are Required

I remember clearly the shock I felt in college when one of our campus newspaper staffers was fired for plagiarism, and the whole story ran in glaring, painful detail in the paper that week.

As a fledgling reporter just learning the ropes, I felt it was harsh and humiliating that her mistake had to be made so public.

It took a few years to fully understand two things: 1) that her mistake was already highly visible because she copied a column from a regional newspaper and claimed it as her own; and 2) that our professors were giving us all a warning and reminder – communicating ethically is the only way to gain and keep the public’s trust.

Today, communication occurs through so many new channels – very rapidly – and the individual managing the messaging through those channels has a high-pressure job.

In 140 characters or just a few sentences, communicators – often with little experience – must accurately represent their companies or organizations, appropriately respond to criticism, keep their cool if people say ugly things about the company, share the right type of news, “like” the right kind of stories, avoid following the wrong people…. It’s a tough job.

To make it more complex, communicators must consider ethical issues on a daily basis:

  • Should I use this photo from Google images without finding out who shot it?
  • How do I attribute this quote I found online if there’s no source?
  • Do I send this release I know is misleading if my boss orders me to?

And the list goes on.

One way to avoid some potential ethical challenges is to take an extra minute to ask yourself a few key questions:

  • Is the communication truthful and accurate?
  • Have I confirmed my facts?
  • If information is left out intentionally, does it change the meaning of the message?
  • If I have ethical qualms about the message, have I expressed them?
  • Will releasing or withholding the information cause harm? Break laws or professional codes of conduct?
  • Would I readily claim personal credit for crafting the message?

Whether writing official company news or writing about your weekend – recognize your words may be read by executives in the corporate office, your neighbor down the street and strangers around the world.

If you write in the public arena, there is no privacy. None.

Therefore, if you have ethical qualms about a tweet, press release, report or posting, ask more questions and pause to evaluate the situation. Seek advice from a more experienced colleague or review the standards set by your professional association. Check your conscience. And if the situation is very serious, get some legal advice – and be prepared to take it.

Words have power. Proceed with caution.


Post by Dr. Michelle Morris, CEO & Managing Partner, GideonStone, LLC, a Houston-based strategic planning and integrated communication firm. Copyright April 2016.

Ethical Communication is Individual, Not Corporate

Ethical Communication is Individual, Not Corporate

25. March, 2016|Blog, Featured Blog Post|Comments Off on Ethical Communication is Individual, Not Corporate

I spoke to a group of college students last week about ethics in communication, and I stressed this point: ethical choices are made by individuals.

When false or misleading information is released by a company or nonprofit, people often talk about the unethical organization.

While meetings may occur among a group of leaders – and while a statement may come out on company letterhead – ultimately, the decision for what and how to communicate comes down to a person. A single individual.

One person types the information onto the page – the speech, the statement, the talking points – or one person stands at the microphone and speaks the lie or the slightly off-kilter information that leads the public away from the truth.

This is important to note because often many people are involved in developing the strategy or the words – therefore no single individual feels responsible.

The CEO makes a decision and tells the vice president or chief communications officer to figure out how to communicate it.

The VP passes the communication challenge on to a spokeperson or perhaps to a director of communication or a department head.

The director or spokesperson may get help from a staff wordsmith to craft the carefully worded statement.

All this activity may occur within a single hour or over days. Regardless, at any step along the way – any one of these individuals can say, “Stop! That’s wrong!” or “I refuse to say this” or “Let’s reconsider our approach.”

So when three leaders at a university all choose to release a statement saying there is no sign of foul play when a student is obviously murdered, you wonder why no one said, “We can’t say this. It puts students at risk.”

Or when a national nonprofit consistently releases faulty statements about the organization’s finances, you wonder, “Where was the ethical leader?”

It just takes one person to ask why. To check the facts. To reconsider the tweet. To ask, “Will this hurt anyone?”

Ethical communication flows from ethical people who have the courage to speak up, to stand up – and perhaps – to walk out. Organizations aren’t ethical or unethical. People are.

Post by Dr. Michelle Morris, GideonStone, LLC, CEO and Managing Partner

People Notice the Little Things

People Notice the Little Things

26. February, 2016|Blog, Featured Blog Post|Comments Off on People Notice the Little Things

Every morning for weeks, I drove past a chain coffee shop that had opened near my neighborhood. And every morning, my frustration grew.

The landscaping near the building was lovely and well kept – but the weeds bordering the property were dense and 5 feet tall.

People driving by each day noticed the landscaping blight. They spoke about it in neighborhood meetings, and complained to the city.

The failure to respect the neighborhood by simply mowing the grass damaged community relationships, cost some business sales – and also tarnished the brand’s national reputation by association.

People don’t just experience your brand in the ways you choose for them to do so. They notice the misspelled word “busses” on the sign as they drive past. They see the dust on your shelves. They notice the trash in the ditch.

They also notice when you do things right – an unexpected kindness, an added-value service for free, a project completed well before the deadline….

Every experience, every day, determines the success and strength of your brand – and you’re competing with companies and organizations that offer people magical experiences. Think Disney and its meticulous attention to details….

Start simple.

Mow your grass. Smile and say thank you. Spell correctly. Make someone’s day.


Dr. Michelle Morris is CEO and managing partner for GideonStone, LLC.

Your Brand: Every Experience, Every Day

Your Brand: Every Experience, Every Day

18. February, 2016|Blog|Comments Off on Your Brand: Every Experience, Every Day

Your brand is redefined every day through every interaction clients and customers have with your organization.

When things go well, your brand perception grows stronger. When things go poorly, the brand takes a hit – and people share their negative experiences and, worse, often choose not to buy your product or service.

If you fix a customer service problem quickly and well, people share that story, too – and their loyalty grows.

Your brand is not built primarily through one-way communication – what you “push” out to customers and clients. It is built – or damaged – through the way you answer phones, the way you respond to ordering problems, the ease with which people can return items, the way you greet visitors in your lobby….

While you need to consistently communicate your values and your brand promise, the perception of your brand constantly evolves in the minds of every person who engages with you. Your goal is to make them fall in love with your brand all over again, every single day.

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Part 2: Building a Strategic Integrated Marketing Program

Part 2: Building a Strategic Integrated Marketing Program

12. February, 2016|Blog, Featured Blog Post|Comments Off on Part 2: Building a Strategic Integrated Marketing Program

In part 1 of this series, we discussed the first five steps to building an effective strategic integrated marketing program: craft your vision, build your marketing team, discover your strengths, create your brand promise and set strategic goals.

Here are the next five steps to helping an organization accomplish true strategic integration – and market itself effectively.

6) Invest in Distinctives. First, review to see if your organization has some key programs, services or products that are good, but not great. Maybe the facility needs upgrading, the technology is dated or the staff needs some professional development to be top-notch at what they do. If these distinctives could potentially set you apart from your competitors and help you win – students, clients, customers, donors – then prioritize a few and invest to make them exceptional. Remember, a distinctive about your organization may be the unique way you put several strengths together. Second, review the marketplace to see what you’re missing that would make you stand out (or keep you from falling behind). This could be a physical improvement, a customer-service “wow” opportunity or some niche program that aligns with your brand promise. Think creatively here because you’re not just competing with organizations just like you; you’re competing with the entire universe of entities that regularly impress your potential clients, customers or students – including brand-experience champions like Amazon, Google, Disney and Southwest Airlines.

7) Determine Your Targets. Once you polish your distinctives and are ready to tell the world, focus your efforts on clarifying your target markets. Unless you have an unlimited budget, you’ll want to define your targets narrowly and by their likelihood of helping you achieve your desired results. Within one organization, you might have several different target audiences, depending on what you’re trying to achieve. Here are some questions your team can use to determine appropriate target audiences:

  • Who needs or desires our unique program, service or product?
  • Who can afford our unique program, service or product?
  • Where are these people located?
  • Are there people I’m reaching now who are similar to this target group – and can I leverage those relationships to reach more of them?
  • Do I already have a way to reach this target group directly (email, phone, subscription list, etc.) or do I need to reach them indirectly (through media channels they are likely to view)?
  • Does this audience already connect with us in some other way that can be transferred for this purpose?
  • Do I have a database of people (or does one exist elsewhere in my organization) that could be sifted for excellent prospects?
  • What does our data tell us about our most successful customer relationships – and can we profile our best potential customers based on that understanding?

8) Develop Key Messages. Words have power, and getting everyone in your organization using the same words for your strengths, your promise, etc., will help you begin to brand from the inside out. Craft short, creative descriptions of your distinctives. Don’t include too many because when you brag on everything, people remember nothing. Instead, focus on 3-5 distinctives, write them in crisp, clean language with powerful verbs, then use them again and again and again – in speeches, ads, on your homepage, in videos, in staff meetings, on the intranet, etc. Share them with your board, and ask them to begin to talk about you using your brand promise and key messages. Train your staff on the messages through large group meetings and through weekly, monthly or quarterly team meetings. Don’t worry that some areas where you shine are not highlighted; a rising tide lifts all ships – and if you become well known for a few great things, your overall reputation (and results) will rise.

 9) Create Targeted Campaigns. Using your short list of critical target audiences, think carefully about how you can best reach each one. Can you write a guest column for or advertise in a specialty publication or email newsletter that reaches that audience? Is there a conference where you could speak or serve as a visible sponsor? Could you target that audience on Facebook to promote a blog or web feature they might be interested in? Use all your free cross-promotion opportunities – your own website, business Facebook page, LinkedIn page (personal and/or business), LinkedIn group postings, direct emails, announcements at meetings you attend, etc. Create a written plan that includes the various methods you’ll use to communicate with the audience, and build a calendar outlining the timing and types of communication. Track results immediately and over a few weeks, and keep a record of which communication methods worked best.

10) Measure and Adjust. Spend time figuring out the best methods of tracking results for each type of communication channel you use. Many have built-in tracking – i.e., Facebook Insights, Twitter Analytics, Google Analytics, Hootsuite, Constant Contact – and these can be supplemented with Google alerts you set for key words, media clipping services, personal tracking of call responses and email replies, referrals received – and the ultimate result – new business gained, new students enrolled, new clients contracted, new donors and gifts. Don’t get so caught up in counting new Twitter impressions or new Facebook likes that you fail to notice that none of the efforts actually produced results leading to success in your business goals. The three R’s are a short way to remember what to do on this step: results (track them!), rethink (adjust your strategy as needed) and repeat (people have to see your messages many times before they pay attention).

Building, implementing and tracking results of an effective strategic integrated marketing program can produce tremendous results and dramatically increase your visibility over time. The process can be daunting, and the secret to success is this: Start with step 1. And start today.

Michelle Morris, Ed.D., GideonStone CEO & Managing Partner

To talk to our team about assisting with your strategic integrated marketing program, email or call 713-570-6618.

Part 1: Building a Strategic Integrated Marketing Program

Part 1: Building a Strategic Integrated Marketing Program

5. February, 2016|Blog, Featured Blog Post|Comments Off on Part 1: Building a Strategic Integrated Marketing Program

It’s a joy when we have the opportunity to watch client organizations begin to soar because everyone is pulling in the same direction, telling the same story and living the brand values.

Unfortunately, we regularly see quality organizations operate – and communicate – well below their potential because they have not spent the time to engage in a meaningful process to develop an effective strategic integrated marketing program. Many people today use the term “integrated marketing” to simply mean using all the tools available to tell their story in a coordinated way – simply sharing a consistent message across social media, websites, publications, events, signage, etc.

While it is important to integrate messaging across media, that is merely a surface description of integrated marketing – much like describing a logo as a brand is simply the top-level representation of something much deeper and more significant.

Helping an organization accomplish true strategic integration – then marketing itself effectively – is a systemic, collaborative, disruptive and critical process.

Here are the first five steps to building your own program.

1) Craft Your Vision. You should have a clear mission and core values that drive everything you do; these rarely change. In addition, you need to periodically cast a vision clearly describing where you want to go – by when – and what your organization will look like when you arrive. While not everyone agrees, we have found that the most effective vision statements are longer-range, time-bound and specific.


  • By 2020, ABC University will become a top-20 national research university best known for programs in business and physics
  • By 2025, XYZ Nonprofit will operate at least two neighborhood food pantries in every city in the tri-county BestTown region
  • “We will put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.” – President Kennedy

The vision is typically established and approved by the board of an organization, in partnership with the executive leadership team.

2) Build Your Marketing Team. Once the vision is in place, designate a champion to spearhead the effort to communicate it, to get organization-wide buy-in for it and to track progress toward achieving it. In many institutions, the highest-level marketing leader plays this strategic role. Form a marketing team comprised of energetic, collaborative people who represent key areas that impact every touchpoint of your brand (i.e., athletics, security, special events, customer service, alumni relations, campus store, etc.). The top executive should invite the members to join this important team to give it added credibility and weight.

3) Discover Your Strengths. Through your marketing team, and with input from your organizational community, determine areas where you shine – particular where you shine brighter than your competition. Your strengths may not be single-activity/program strengths – but perhaps are based on your organization’s unique way of putting them together. For example, one of our education clients realized that, across the school and throughout all grade levels, it offered a unique combination of experiences. The school branded the experience and has changed its marketing messaging, campus tours, teacher engagement, staff meetings and even personnel, school activities and some curriculum – all to build on the identified strengths and better delivery on its brand promise.

 4) Create Your Brand Promise. Your brand promise is a succinct, memorable description of what you promise to deliver to your customers or clients. Examples: Nike: To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world; Marriott: Quiet luxury. Crafted experiences. Intuitive service.; the NFL: To be the premier sports and entertainment brand that brings people together, connecting them socially and emotionally like no other.

The brand promise should be founded on your mission, vision, values and distinctive strengths and have an aspirational quality that inspires. Nike has probably not yet brought its inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world, for example, but it aspires to do so.

5) Set Strategic Goals. Your mission, vision, values and brand promise should provide the inspiration and direction for your institution’s goals – and the organization’s goals should drive your marketing goals. This seems simplistic, but it is rarely done. Many organizations focus on task-based, incremental annual goals not thoughtfully and consistently connected to the vision and promise. To improve results, require every department and individual to show how their goals directly tie back to larger vision goals. These goals should be SMART: strategic, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. The marketing team should develop the marketing goals together, and assign champions to each goal. Use the marketing team to brainstorm ways to collaborate across departments, to share resources and to stay on point with the vision, brand promise and institutional goals. The marketing communication goals should focus both internally (how can you use your internal communication channels and marketing team champions to connect every person to the vision and promise?) and externally (how can you achieve your organizational results through your targeted marketing efforts?).

Michelle Morris, Ed.D., GideonStone CEO & Managing Partner

Coming next week: Part 2: Building a Strategic Integrated Marketing Program

Video Blog: Building a Strategic Integrated Marketing Program

30. January, 2016|Blog, Featured Blog Post|Comments Off on Video Blog: Building a Strategic Integrated Marketing Program

So, your organization is ready to focus its marketing efforts and get everyone pulling in the same direction. Check out our quick overview of the 10 steps to building an effective strategic integrated marketing program. More details to come next week!

Brand Divide: Bridging the Gap Between Faculty and Marketing

Brand Divide: Bridging the Gap Between Faculty and Marketing

23. January, 2016|Blog|Comments Off on Brand Divide: Bridging the Gap Between Faculty and Marketing

Historically, universities have been “a house divided” when the topics of marketing and branding are discussed.

This challenge became highly visible last week when the University of Oregon’s president, after a strong reaction by the faculty, canceled the remainder of a $20 million contract to market the university. The initial Nike-esque ad based on the theme “If” was called “too generic” and “inane and insulting” by faculty leaders, but others praised the fast-paced, enrollment-focused video.

In canceling the contract, university administrators said the same marketing work could be easily handled in-house if they could just overcome silos and share resources. Faculty leaders were thrilled with the decision because they said the university’s leaders could now focus on “addressing the university’s real problems.”

This delicate, politically charged situation highlights some key issues universities must address to successfully engage the entire campus – including the faculty – in building a stronger brand and marketing the campus effectively.

Start with the brand. Every institution has a brand – good or bad, strong or weak. Think Harvard… University of Texas… Florida State… Notre Dame… UC-Berkeley. Each school brings to mind a different set of images, words and feelings – or perhaps, none at all. The brand can be damaged by scandal, built up by success – and strengthened over time.

But first of all, it must be understood across the institution. Ask the board, donors, faculty, staff, alumni, students and the community, “What are we known for? How do people see us? Why do they feel that way?”

An institution’s brand impacts everything, from the ability to garner research funding and philanthropic contributions to student enrollment, awards and honors, and faculty recruiting. This grounding in the reality of the current brand can help everyone gain a sense of urgency about working together to strengthen it.

Engage thought leaders and influencers. A university’s marketing efforts will ultimately fail if handled by the marketing team alone. Invite two or three influential, engaging faculty members to join a cross-functional marketing team that includes reps from athletics, the campus store, alumni relations, special centers, etc. This group becomes the sounding board, the advisors and the advocates for the brand and for marketing. Select team members based on their ability to collaborate, connect, listen and contribute rather than for their official titles.

Explain the realities. Faculty members are often distant from the operational realities of running a university or trying to recruit students. Transparently discussing how much marketing impacts the number of students who show up for classes or the impact of marketing on donations can help faculty connect the dots – and help them feel more positive (in those agonizing budget meetings) about voting to increase marketing support over adding technology or other important items on their own departmental wish list.

Invest in programmatic distinctives. A brand is strengthened when a university becomes known for a few things it does well, and a rising tide lifts all ships. Engage faculty to determine which programs offer distinctive quality, and invest in making good programs great. Build the brand from the inside out – then invest time, energy and resources to ensure prospective students, donors and the community know about these distinguished programs.

Build an integrated marketing strategy. An exceptional marketing campaign fires on all cylinders at once. Bring brand messaging to life through distinctive programs, faculty engagement, consistent communication, events, guest speakers, campus signage, alumni networks, social media, websites, publications…. Effective marketing requires investment of financial resources, but perhaps more importantly, it requires a coordinated, disciplined program that builds on the real strengths of the institution.

Share success stories. When marketing works well – and it results in a bump in reputation rankings, a large donation or a boost in enrollment for a particular program – share that good news far and wide on the campus. These success stories (preferably shared by happy faculty members) can go a long way toward maintaining institutional support for campus marketing efforts.

Next week: University branding part 2 – Building an integrated marketing program



Strategic Planning Part 3: 7 Tips for Successful Strategic Plan Implementation

Strategic Planning Part 3: 7 Tips for Successful Strategic Plan Implementation

6. January, 2016|Blog, Featured Blog Post|Comments Off on Strategic Planning Part 3: 7 Tips for Successful Strategic Plan Implementation

In our first two strategic planning posts, we talked about the common pitfalls of strategic planning and how to create a realistic plan that brings actual results.

But what about the day-to-day execution?

Here are seven practical tips for successful strategic plan implementation.

  1. Assign a Planning Champion

Once the excitement of a having a new strategic plan wears off, it’s easy for the team and leaders to get caught up in the normal chaos of work – and lose track of how the work connects back to the plan. Assign a champion the role of keeping the entire organization focused on strategic plan goals. Be sure to give the planning champion the responsibility and authority to keep a running account of progress on the goals.

  1. Use Annual Goals to Drive Progress

While you may have multi-year, massive goals included in your overall strategic plan, break goals down into smaller, bite-size annual goals to keep things moving forward. Ensure each individual staffer, manager and executive is accountable for specific annual, measurable, time-bound goals that tie directly to the strategic plan. Create a dashboard of key goals in Excel, GoogleDrive or a dedicated dashboard program that the planning champion – and ultimately the board and/or administration – can use to track progress. Have the planning champion use this goals dashboard to prepare monthly and quarterly update reports – and discuss these reports in management and executive leadership meetings, in addition to board meetings.

  1. Set Clear Priorities

Multi-year strategic plans can fill a notebook, and getting the implementation side rolling is a daunting process for any team – especially a small one. Once the leadership team prioritizes the goals for the year, every action, meeting, budget dollar and discussion should focus on those priority goals. Once those priorities are set, executives need to stick to those core goals to avoid confusing the team, sidetracking progress and drowning the staff with unnecessary urgencies.

  1. Create Action Teams

Although an individual will own each goal, most goals will not be accomplished by one person or even by a single department. Create small, goals-focused action teams to tackle specific goals. The owner of that goal should be tasked to keep the action team on track. Ensure the action teams understand their timelines, and ensure they are allowed the time and resources to successfully achieve their assigned goals. If the staff is small, consider including volunteers, alumni or board members on the action teams.

  1. Hold People Accountable

Connect annual goals and action-team reports to a system of accountability that rolls up through the organization and ends with the president/CEO – and eventually, the board. Remind the executives and managers they will be held accountable at year’s end for accomplishing the specific goals in the plan and for reporting progress to the planning champion. Evaluate people at every level – through the CEO – on accomplishment of the priority goals.

  1. Measure Results Regularly

Each goal should be assigned a success outcome up front, preferably with some interim “wins” that can motivate the team along the way. Don’t skimp on this step. The goals owner must regularly and effectively track results. Without results data, the leaders and the action teams have no way to know if their efforts were successful – and the executives don’t know when and how to adjust their goals. Make the measures realistic and be sure to assign resources to measurements that require funding – such as surveys or tracking systems.

  1. Make Adjustments – but Don’t Wander Off Track

With the big picture strategic planning goals in mind, the leadership team may need to periodically (annually) adjust goal timeframes, budgets, action team responsibilities, etc. Some goals may be discontinued; new ones may need to be written and assigned. The most important thing to remember is that all new or revised goals should still point to the ultimate vision and high-level outcomes of the strategic plan. If the new goals are non-essential and irrelevant to accomplishing the vision, they will distract the team, thin out resources available to actually move the organization forward – and discourage the staff and leaders. This point is especially important for creative boards or executive leaders who have “a new idea every day.”


Bottom line: Celebrate short-term wins. Track and report and discuss – again and again. Keep the big picture in mind – where are you going? And have fun with your team!

We hope this planning series offers you a good starting point for your strategy. Be sure to check out Part One and Part Two. Happy planning in 2016!


If you have questions about strategic planning or would like to talk to the GideonStone, LLC, team about a future engagement, please contact us at or by phone at 713-570-6618.

Job Opening: Strategic Writer/Public Relations-Marketing Specialist

2. January, 2016|Blog|Comments Off on Job Opening: Strategic Writer/Public Relations-Marketing Specialist

Our Houston-based strategic communication, planning and management consulting firm is seeking an exceptional strategic writer/public relations-marketing specialist to join our dynamic team. This position is salaried. Start date is Feb. 1, 2016, or as soon as an appropriate candidate is found. To apply, email a cover letter, resume, link to an online portfolio and/or examples of work and references with contact information to: Ric Morris, Partner/Chief Operating Officer,

JOB DESCRIPTION: The ideal candidate for the strategic writer/public relations-marketing specialist role is a thinker and a doer who can craft crisp language that moves people to action; who can thoughtfully and persistently pitch a story to reporters; who can convert strategic concepts into communication plans and key messages; and who can develop and implement PR/marketing plans that effectively include traditional media, social media and broader internal/external communication.

The strategic writer/PR-marketing specialist will join a team that’s passionate about using language strategically to help organizations and businesses achieve results, solve problems and gain visibility.

The role requires extraordinarily strong writing skills; strong verbal skills; a bachelor’s degree in journalism, public relations, marketing, English or other relevant field; a strong desire to learn; a warm personality; self-motivation; organizational skills; strong computer skills and familiarity with various social media platforms; detail and task orientation; mature judgment; high work ethic; ability to handle a fast-paced, rapidly changing work environment and flex scheduling; and a collaborative, servant-hearted nature. Master’s degree, basic design experience and/or web publishing experience – nice to have but not required.

Responsibilities include:

  • Write, edit, and distribute press releases, blog posts and social posts
  • Research and craft high-level thought-leadership pieces including white papers and positioning papers
  • Research and craft fundraising case statements, proposals and letters
  • Rapidly research topics and condense findings into useful insights
  • Develop creative storylines/pitches for various clients
  • Write/update website content using content management system
  • Develop and implement PR/marketing plans
  • Craft marketing/advertising copy
  • Proofread/edit copy of all types to ensure consistent voice, style, correct grammar, etc.
  • Track social media and traditional media results and create summary reports
  • Manage complex projects, often with overlapping deadlines
  • Write executive communication, including sensitive correspondence
  • Other duties as assigned



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