The Shamrock Effect: 3 Ways to Go Green for St. Patrick’s Day

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St. Patrick’s Day is a grand occasion, and one of my personal favorites. It’s a day when everyone in America can adopt the Irish heritage. Of course green is the signature color for a holiday that celebrates the Emerald Isle, so thinking green for the day makes even more sense! With March 17th around the corner, here are some tips to help you live a little greener on St. Patrick’s Day, as well as the rest of the year.

Go Green by Saving Blue

It may rain a lot in Ireland, but that’s not so elsewhere, and whether inspired by a water shortage or a soaring water bill, saving water does a lot o’good. Fortunately, there are plenty of quick and easy ways to cut back on water:

– Install a low flow shower head (prices start around $13) and stem the tide of water waste.

– Fill the sink and turn off the faucet—and if you’re lucky enough to have a dishwasher, wait till it’s full to run it—both the environment and your bank account will thank you.

– This may shamrock your world, but if you’re using a conventional toilet, you’re probably flushing 12,500 gallons of water per year! Retrofit and save the blue with these easy steps.

Help Your Car—and the Air

Ring in the spring with a once-over on your wheels.  Not only can regular maintenance and tune-ups such as changing the oil and checking tire inflation improve gas mileage and reduce traffic congestion caused by preventable breakdowns—they can cut your car’s emissions in half! If you recall our blog from November, AAA is an excellent resource for seasonal maintenance tips.

Choose a Different Kind of Greenhouse

If you crave corned beef & cabbage, soda bread and a pint next Thursday, buy local or regionally-produced goods for your St. Pat’s spread. You’ll be supporting the local economy and enjoying the freshest products—but you’ll also help reduce the need for long-distance food distribution that now accounts for up 17 times more greenhouse gas than local or regionally produced food.

Going green does not have to be as challenging as finding gold at the end of a rainbow, a few small tweaks and you are well on your way to a healthy, cleaner lifestyle – Sláinte!

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ASC + AMC = CRM

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There is only one sure way to deliver first-rate communications support for a client: Find the best professionals available in the marketplace of talent—and hire them! It’s the ultimate “best practice.” ASC Senior Project Manager, Anne Marie Corbalis aka AMC, is a case in point. Anne Marie recently celebrated her ninth anniversary with ASC. Her ASC career includes helping spur the growth of the firm (an increase of 60% in gross income and 50% more employees since her hire date) and amassing a long list of appreciative State and Federal agency customers. Behind AMC’s personal best is her commitment to turning her understanding of her clients’ needs and preferences into action plans for excellence in the customer experience.

Anne Marie has more than 20 years of experience in the front lines of the industry—and the practical wisdom to show for it. She sliced her nine-year anniversary cake into nine tips that can help us all up our game:

1) Customer service is never a back-office function. When it comes to client contact, don’t delegate. Make yourself available 24/7.

2) Appoint yourself to ask “Dumb Questions.” Others in the room or on the call will be grateful, and you’ll make yourself invaluable.

3) Don’t be just an extra pair of hands. Share your insight—especially when it doesn’t align with your client’s. That’s when your value shows through.

4) My patron saint of client relations is former NYC Mayor Ed Koch, whose signature question to the public “How’m I doin’?” should be adopted by everyone in the business. Ask and they’ll tell you—and then act on it.

5) Don’t be the second to know. If there’s something in the news about your client, be sure you know it – real time.

6) Tell them how the dominoes fall. When a client asks for a change, tell them up front how that may impact the budget, the deadline, and the deliverable—and let them decide how to proceed. No one wants to learn that information in an invoice.

7) Use email to share facts and news. Use your phone to build relationships.

8) Small talk can lead to big business. Even the busiest clients appreciate the personal touch. It builds trust and can lead to meaningful new business development.

9) Proof before you press “Send.” The last thing you want to hear yourself say after you’ve pulsed off an email is, “Oops!”

Before signing on with ASC, Anne Marie served as the Director of Public Affairs for the Westchester County District Attorney’s Office; she was also the Communications Director for a statewide political campaign. When not positioning news stories to garner coverage in national media, AMC uses her kayak to navigate the waterways of the Hudson Valley.

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The Many Advantages of Commuter Benefit Programs

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This year, there’s big news for employers who offer—and employees who receive—pre-tax commuter benefits. On December 18, 2015, President Obama signed into law a year-end transportation package that included a provision to increase commute benefits. The maximum pre-tax benefit allowance rose to $255 per month in 2016—a modest increase from $250 for parking but a substantial increase for transit, up from $130! Can you say cha-ching?

An estimated 2.7 million employees nationwide currently receive pre-tax commuter benefits, and that number is expected to jump in 2016 as major cities hop on the mandated commuter benefit program train.

As of January 1, 2016, employers located in New York City and Washington, D.C., with 20 employees or more, are required to offer a commuter benefit program. This mandate follows in the footsteps of San Francisco, which began its program in 2009 and expanded in 2014 to include Bay Area employers.

To comply, employers must offer at least one of the following transportation benefits, with requirements varying by city:

   Employee-paid pre-tax transit benefit: Employees use pre-tax funds for transit fares (NYC, DC, San Francisco, and Bay Area)

•   Employer-paid direct benefit: Employers subsidize transit and vanpool fares for commuting (DC, San Francisco, and Bay Area)

   Employer-provided transit: Provide complimentary shuttle or vanpool services to employees (DC, San Francisco, and Bay Area)

•   Combination of options above or equally effective employer provided benefit (San Francisco and Bay Area)

 Employees Benefit

Robust commuter benefit programs impact employees’ daily travel decisions by making alternative transportation options, such as public transit, carpool, vanpool, bicycling, easy and affordable. With the money employees save on commuting costs, employees see an increase in disposable income.

Utilizing alternative commute modes is physically and mentally healthy. Individuals who commute via alternative modes are typically more active and less stressed than those who travel in single-occupancy vehicles.

 Employers Benefit

According to a study by the TransitCenter, a non-profit mass transit advocacy group, employers who have implemented commuter programs have experienced an increase in employee job satisfaction, employee retention, and recruiting success.

The pre-tax commuter benefit saves the employer money because they don’t have to outlay payroll taxes of 7.65% on every dollar set aside by employees pre-tax. With decreases in payroll taxes, employers may see up to 9% savings for each employee participating in the program.

 Mother Earth Benefits

Mandated commuter benefit programs encourage employees to ditch their car and take transit, bike, walk, or join a car/van pool to get to work, helping to reduce rush hour demands on congested roadways and harmful emissions.

Approximately 90,000 commuters participated in San Francisco’s commuter benefits program in 2013.  The program resulted in a reduction of CO2 emissions by an estimated 290,000 metric tons, with an average of 123,538 gallons of gas saved, and a daily average vehicle miles traveled (VMT) reduction of 2,903,136 miles. You can find out your company’s reduced VMT the free calculator offered by Commuter Connections, a regional network of transportation organizations coordinated by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

At ASC, however we go, we like to go green and save green. With more than half of our staff utilizing alternative commute modes, we know first-hand how beneficial it can be. How do you travel to and from the office?

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Where Are You Going?

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I’ve been thinking a lot about the Cheshire Cat lately, and something he said to AliceIf you don’t know where you’re going, any road’ll do—not an exact quote, but it’s a close enough rendition of his wise advice to inform our countdown to 2016.

The grinning feline’s message: you need to know where you’re going in order to find the best path forward. Ideas are good starts, but without a goal, they are just ideas. In our work with clients, the path is clear because we know the goal: help them advance programs that make the air cleaner, roads safer, energy more efficient, and communities more sustainable through communications and outreach decidedly focused on measurable outcomes.

ASC has a continuous evaluation process to promote changes that make our work shamelessly client focused, our processes streamlined, workplace healthier, our team smarter, and our collective voice more impactful, and in 2016, we’re again raising the bar, not with resolutions, which seem to dissipate nearly as soon as they are expressed—as evidenced by the treadmill-turned-clothes-hanger in many a bedroom corner—but by knowing where we’re headed next:

Simplify.

We’ll spend energy where it counts next year. There’s great value in conversations and face-to-face meetings to clarify ideas and strengthen connections. We’ll make more time for in-person moments next year by implementing new technologies to reduce time, cost, and waste for ASC and our clients.

Ask for feedback.

It’s already ASC policy to ask for a “how’d we do” meeting after a major deliverable. We’re taking it a step further this year and adding customer satisfaction interviews to learn what we could do more, or less, or differently, to improve our services.

Find balance.

At the end of any given day, we often find we’ve hardly looked up from work—and that isn’t good for creativity or health. This year, we’re introducing a program to encourage all of us to take a break, take a walk, take a breath.

Learn something new.

We’re celebrating learning in 2016. Everyone at ASC will start the year by identifying something new to learn or do, and we’ll pause in June to check in with each other.

Pay it forward.

As a women-owned business since our first day 23 years ago, in 2016, we’ll add speaking up for women in business to the ways we grow. Keep an eye out for our blog and social posts on how we are supporting women in business.

There’s a big Cheshire-like grin floating over the close of 2015 now that we’ve decided where we’re going, and most importantly, why.

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Six Steps to Wrap Up Smart Client Relations

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The December holidays are upon us. And when it comes to spreading good cheer, this season offers the perfect opportunity  to give the gift that keeps on giving—client contact. Whether you’re a fast-growing, women-owned small business like ours or a large firm with generations of history behind you, a solid plan for client relations is your lifeline—and turning the social good will of the holidays into smart customer outreach can put you and your firm top of mind.

Here are six steps to turn your annual “Ho Ho Ho” e-card into the foundation of a relationship-boosting customer communication strategy.

Let’s get started—pull out your contact list, check it twice, and be sure to send greetings before people start traveling for the holidays.  Then launch your new approach with these six steps:

1. Learn to like and share. Endorse your customers’ online content—everyone appreciates the support, and they are likely to return the favor. Use LinkedIn, corporate Facebook pages, and Twitter to engage with your customers.

2. Join the conversation. Do they blog?  Do you?  Be sure you read your customers’ blogs, leave a comment, and share the content.  And when you post your own material, send your customers an email letting them know the new content is up—with a link to the content to make it easy to find—and why they may want to give it a look.

3. Be inclusive. When you blog, tweet, or post, don’t be shy about tagging a client or linking to their web page.

4. Celebrate success. If you hear about a client success story, award, recognition, or new business win, send congratulations fast and with fanfare. Then: re-read steps 1, 2, and 3.

5. Share your news. When it’s your turn to share an accomplishment, spread the word! This not only creates buzz, it will notify clients and prospects about capabilities or practice areas they were not aware you had.

6. Make it personal. Happy life events your clients have mentioned are excellent reasons to reach out, but only if you follow the golden rule of online communication: be selective (you want to over-deliver on value, not volume); considerate (taking it personal will flop if you seem like a stalker); and genuine (if it’s not straight from the heart, it goes straight in the trash).

Start putting these evergreen tips to use today—and use them to ring in a new customer relations plan for 2016—be sure to check back December 31 for ASC’s new year’s resolutions for business success!

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Carve Out A Slice of Your CO2 Holiday Footprint

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Holidays = Lots of travel—Black Friday mall trips, grocery runs, vacation getaways, and cross-country trips to visit family. People are motivated by different reasons to choose their mode of transportation, especially for the holidays. And as we all know, climate change has been top-of-mind for some years now. With nearly 47 million travelers taking to the roads, rails, and airways this Thanksgiving, we can all do our part to reduce our CO2 travel emissions as we head out for turkey and stuffing this year.

Follow these six easy steps, and you can start your holidays off greener:

1 – Travel off peak.

Traveling at off-peak hours can prevent sitting in traffic on congested highways. According to a publication from the U.S. Department of Transportation, the average commuter who drives to work in urban regions loses the equivalent of five vacation days each year because of delayed traffic. Don’t give up your well-earned time off to traffic slowdowns!

2 – Pack light.

Extra weight causes cars to lose efficiency and use more fuel to travel. Leave the kitchen sink at home.

3 – Maintain your car.

Prior to driving, perform seasonal vehicle maintenance. Changing your oil and properly inflating your tires can improve gas mileage and reduce traffic congestion due to preventable breakdowns. Proper maintenance can reduce your car’s emissions by more than half. Many drivers put vehicle upkeep on auto pilot, waiting for a “ping” from the car’s onboard reminder or by following decades-old habits. Keep your automobile in peak condition all year by following AAA’s seasonal advice.

4 – Trip chain.

It’s easy! This is when you combine errands into one trip. Not only do you cut down on drive time, you also use your car more efficiently. Starting a car after the engine has been turned off for more than an hour pollutes up to five times more than when the engine’s warm.

5 – Utilize transportation resources.

Get travel updates with online tools such as NY511 before you leave home, and you are less likely to get stuck in a jam.

6 – Spread the word.

Encourage friends and family members to be conscious of the environment during the holidays. If everyone took just a few of these simple, easy steps, it could make a big difference, because—It All Adds Up to Cleaner Air. This Federal Highway Administration air quality awareness initiative keeps Americans focused on the small steps they can take to improve the quality of the air we breathe.

ASC wishes all a safe and CO2-smart Thanksgiving!

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Keeping in Style with New York State’s Brand Guidelines

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Brand (or style) guidelines have become a standard in the design industry, and since a brand is, essentially, what people think of when they hear or see your name, guidelines are pretty important. However, all brand guidelines are not equal in complexity or flexibility—in fact, each guideline presents its own set of opportunities and challenges.

Brand guidelines exist for a reason.
Brand guidelines serve an important role in the visual and often written language of a government or corporate entity. Their purpose essentially is to maintain a brand’s integrity across all mediums and help deliver the brand message in a recognizable and effective manner.

The best brand guidelines have common characteristics.
Successful brand guidelines have a common set of principles about delivering a brand’s visual message for design and content creators. These include:

• Detailed guidance for design and editorial personnel

• Justification for design decisions

• Strict rules that allow flexibility in how it is implemented across mediums

• Clear and concise examples of usage

• Thorough set of options and variables important to the execution and propagation of the brand’s visual language

New York State branding guidelines serve an important function.
Government agencies are no different than corporations when it comes to brand guidelines. In fact, it may be even more imperative that a government agency employs strict and effective brand guidelines, since multiple departments, divisions, and other agencies may be implementing the agency’s communications. New York State recently rebranded with the purpose of building a cohesive and consistent message. The spearhead to this was the release of the New York State Brand Guidelines and the re-launch of ny.gov in 2014.

For companies like ASC, that work daily with New York State agencies, becoming fluent and skilled in applying the new guidelines required an investment of creative time to become adept at guiding clients in how to give their projects and initiatives an identity within the framework of the guidelines. Our team took on the challenge and dug deep into the brand’s identity to find creative solutions.
How we approached the task, and what we learned, offer some ideas we think others will find helpful.

Designing for a brand leads to creative solutions.
The rules within the New York State Brand Guidelines provide direction, and although some may view rules as limiting, we don’t see them as inhibiting effective design. In fact, when used properly, guidelines don’t hinder creativity at all; they enhance it and push designers to find creative solutions within a predetermined framework.

Recent New York State design products can demonstrate how guidelines can expand design. A good example is the 2015 New York State Energy Plan, which leverages the guidelines to advance public understanding of the State’s roadmap to a clean, resilient, and affordable energy system. Energy-theme icons within the framework offered by the State guidelines further ideas and initiatives, and communicate a sense of forward movement to the reader.

ASC took a practical approach to examining the guidelines that included the following steps:

• Quick overview of the guideline and noted points of interest or concern followed by a thorough analysis for full understanding

• Identify patterns and points of consistency within the copy and examples that can help with design and problem-solving

• Examine the recommended usage of typography, making sure that we legally acquired copies of fonts used

• Identify access to photographic images that follow the guidelines which include client-submitted, contracted photography, and online stock resources

• Understand how color is used to communicate the brand’s message faithfully

• Ensure brand assets such as logos or icon systems in the guidelines are readily available (following brand guidelines without addressing key assets can lead to inconsistencies and risk diluting the brand)

• Research how the new guidelines are applied to existing products

Design decisions should always have sound reasoning behind them, and the State guidelines help support that reasoning when questions occur. With this in mind, keeping the channels of communications open about guideline implementations allows for transparency, understanding of proposed solutions, and helps the client understand how their message can be successfully – and consistently – executed for the public.

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Scares of Event Planning

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With Halloween just around the corner, we thought the time was right to talk about the public outreach tactic that can send chills up the spine of many a communications pro: staging and managing events. As mediums of communication, events are unlike print, web, or video. There are no edits, no revisions, no do-overs. Events are more like theatrical productions. When the curtain goes up, the show goes on—no matter what. And that can be a scary thing.

We’ll unmask a few trade secrets to help you make sure events don’t send you—or your attendees—screaming for the exit.

Start early

Seems simple, but the most important part of an event happens days, weeks, and months in advance. Here’s the one thing we know about events: the unexpected will happen—it always does—and the only way to be prepared is to have everything else locked down so you’re free to troubleshoot and problem solve on the fly.

Do your research

You’d be surprised how much time and money is wasted by event planning that’s rushed without time set aside to step back and give every aspect a good long think:

Event purpose: Why are you doing this event, and what do you want attendees to
walk away with? What should everyone know after the event that they didn’t know
before? Is this a high tech moment or a feel-good grassroots gathering?

Conflicts: What other events are currently scheduled? Does your event coincide with
any holidays (religious or otherwise)? Are there lessons to be learned from similar,
previous events?

Stakeholders: Who are they? Are there underserved populations? What do they care
about? How do they receive information? Who are their influencers? What media
outlets are applicable?

Venue: Is there on-site parking? Enough restrooms? Accessible by public transit?
Handicap accessible? Allows food and drink? Provides AV, podium, projector,
tables/chairs, and easels? Will they provide event staff? Do you need insurance?

Subcontractors: Do you need catering, AV, equipment, presenters, translators,
stenographers, or security? Who are the best, closest, and most cost effective?
Are there past reviews or references you can contact?

Get the word out

Here’s the nightmare on Event Street: giving an event no one shows up for.  Plan your promotion strategy carefully, with different kinds of reminders and mediums to keep people interested. Remember that research you did on preferred communication channels?  This is the time to make sure you connect with your potential attendees wherever you can.

Earned media: Press releases, interviews, media alerts, and calendar listings.

Paid media: Advertisements, commercials, direct mail, and billboards.

Owned media: Website, save the date, e-invitations, flyer, poster, and social media.

Word of mouth: Advocates, people or groups of influence, organizations, companies, schools, and community groups.

One more walk through

Even though you have (hopefully) done multiple site visits to your venue, make sure you arrive well ahead of time the day of the event or even the night before for a final on-site review.

Set up: Check equipment, arrange the room, organize materials, and hang posters and directional signs.

Dress rehearsal: Review the agenda with event staff, subcontractors, and presenters—make sure you have cell phone numbers for all support staff. Practice transitions and memorize the sequence of activities.

If you have done your due diligence prior to the event, when the day comes you will be able to address the unexpected—here are a few of our real-world favorites:

A panhandler started soliciting attendees—we slipped him some cash to leave the premises.

The caterer neglected to make a vegetarian lunch for our client—ran to a nearby deli to grab a backup falafel.

We arrived to find the venue ceiling gutted for repairs—headed to a nearby marina and rented sailboat sails and fish nets for a quickly devised aquatic theme.

The keynote speaker cleared his throat, and a rock band started thumping drums—we’d befriended every custodian of course, who unplugged the offending noise.

From All Hallows’ Eve to corporate launches, good planning will bag a great event every time.  It’s the trick that gets the treat.

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What’s a communications audit, and why do you need one?

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Hardly anyone welcomes an audit with outstretched arms, but if you want to know the return on your public relations and marketing dollars, a communications audit is the best way to uncover what’s working well, and what needs to  be strengthened—and that will go a long way in getting the right messages to your markets.

Here’s what to expect from an audit, and tips on how to keep the process streamlined and effective:

Step 1: Collect and analyze your current communications materials.

Pull together the materials—internal and external—used to inform people about your business, from mission statement and annual report to newsletters, press releases, brochures, and social media posts. Review them for effectiveness:

  Is the message on target?

  Does it anticipate and answer questions?

  Is the brand consistent?

  Is there a clear call to action?

  What was the goal of the communication, and was it met?

  Are there missed opportunities?

  What are the metrics?

Step 2: Collect and analyze input from your internal audience.

Interview senior management, and conduct focus groups and surveys of employees at all levels of your organization. Learn leadership’s vision for internal and external communication and determine:

•  Does your messaging reflect the vision?

•  Does it match employees’ vision and understanding of messages?

Step 3: Collect and analyze information from your external audience.

Conduct in-depth interviews (IDIs) with current and prospective customers, conduct a survey, and review material that competes for the attention of your audience.  Take a look at media coverage on your organization and your sector—how does the market view you and your business? Keep these questions in mind:

•  How do your markets view your organization?

•  Is your message reaching them?

Step 4: Complete a SWOT analysis.

Organize all the data you just collected into four categories: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (SWOT). SWOTs provide the basis for an informed analysis that will help clarify what’s worth keeping, what’s worth enhancing, and where to take your communications.

Once these four steps are complete, you’ll have a clear direction for how to optimize your communication strategy to ensure your investment pays.

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The Inside Story

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At ASC, we’ve learned that the difference between a good communications campaign and a great one starts with what we call the Inside-Out approach.  Inside-Out is a step by step approach that builds employees into a team of knowledgeable ambassadors who embrace and enthusiastically carry key messages to external audiences.

Here’s why building communications programs Inside-Out works, while simply distributing beautifully designed toolkits often produces limited and disappointing gains.

Inside-Out starts by finding out what employees—often the organization’s first contact with external stakeholders—understand about the new strategy or program.  By building outreach around what employees know and how they perceive the change will affect them, a skilled communications strategist can help identify a process that takes everyone in the organization from awareness to understanding and ultimately ownership of the communications effort—before it ever reaches an external audience.  That too often skipped step results in a unified and cohesive campaign that is amplified exponentially by employees who are engaged in the process.

This “success begins at home” philosophy has many benefits.

According to research from Gallup, employee engagement is strongly connected to business outcomes that are essential to an organization’s success, such as higher productivity, higher profits, and better customer engagement. Engaged employees drive the innovation, growth, and revenue that their companies need. And they become engaged by a company culture that embraces the values of the Inside-Out communications strategy.

“To build a strong corporate brand, you need brand ambassadors—employees who are thoroughly engaged, connected, and committed,” says Forbes contributor William Arruda. Citing a survey that ranks employees higher in public trust than a firm’s PR department, CEO, or Founder, Mr. Arruda says, “If you’re not inspiring your talent to be brand ambassadors, you’re missing out.”

And so is your communications campaign.

Inside-Out is a process that builds trust because it starts with trust.  “Engaging employees in the development of a communications and outreach strategy can catapult a campaign to remarkable levels of success,” says ASC President Nora Madonick.  “Asking employees what they think may sound simple, but doing so demonstrates the importance of their role in informing strategies, messaging, and tactics.  It empowers them to become ambassadors of change—a formula that wins time and again.”

The Inside-Out process is never a one-way street. It circles back to cause a dynamic spiral of success that just keeps on spinning—in the right direction.

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