Yes, You Can Write Business Letters from the Heart

House News Facebook Page

An online media property in Hong Kong called House News called it quits last weekend.

If you go to, you’ll be greeted with a letter in Chinese from one of the publication’s founders, Tony Tsoi on the “why.”

Before turning attention to the writing in the letter, I must say that it’s disturbing to watch the slow erosion of “freedom” of the press in Hong Kong. I put “freedom” in quotes because technically, Mr. Tsoi made the editorial decisions on what appeared in his publication. And his product resonated with the local market, attracting roughly 300,000 unique monthly visitors to the site and enough passion to trigger 236,742 likes on its Facebook page.

Impressive numbers taken in the context that Hong Kong’s population tips 7 million and numbers that one would think could sustain a bootstrapped online media property.

Hong Kong Skyline

Yet, there’s something bigger going on as outlined in Mr. Tsoi’s letter that led to the publication’s demise. I’ll leave the deep analysis to the journalism scholars.

Switching gears–

Thanks to Coconuts, a local city website network in Asia, a translation of the “We’re shutting down House News” letter appears below (note line breaks are Mr Tsoi’s, not Coconuts’).

From a writing perspective, the letter delivers another proof point that when you write from the heart, even under the umbrella of business, you can’t go wrong.

He doesn’t just state the facts. The letter shares his personal story and feelings, moving from the general to anecdotal.

Raw honesty closes the narrative:

For the readers who have supported House News, at home and abroad, you have finally discovered that I am but a normal man. I have used up all my energy, and I can only walk this far.

A grassroots effort is already underway to resurrect House News. If successful, I suspect the baton will be passed to a new leader.

For those interested in reading the full letter:

To people who care about House News:

Ladies and gentlemen, House News has to close today!

The creation of House News stemmed from a simple belief: “to do something for Hong Kong” and to promote social progress. I also hoped that House News, like the American Huffington Post, would become a successful media outlet and start a new era.

‘To do something for Hong Kong’ doesn’t have some big lofty goal behind it. It only requires that an individual, within his or her own ability, care about society and do what an ordinary citizen should do.”

I was born in 1964 and I’m 50 years old this year; I caught the last baby boomer bus. I benefited from Hong Kong’s economic boom in the 80s and 90s, and I seized the opportunity to climb the social ladder, as a regular Hongkonger. When I was young I was obsessed with my career, but once I had achieved a small degree of success, I wanted to use my business experience, contacts and knowledge to contribute to society.

I fear

that Hong Kong has actually already changed. To be an ordinary citizen, to be an ordinary media company, to do something for society, is not easy, so much so that I feel scared. It’s not that I feel off; I feel dread. The current atmosphere caused by the political struggle has caused many people to feel extremely anxious, and many democrats are tracked, slandered and have their past dug up. A feeling of white terror is felt throughout society, and I also feel this stress.

Furthermore, as a businessman who  frequently travels back and forth to the mainland, I have to admit that every time I go through immigration I am scared and on the edge, but am I just being overly paranoid? It’s simply impossible to explain that feeling to others clearly.

What disturbed me the most is that my family felt this pressure, and they worried about me all day. As society gets tenser and tenser, the pressure on me has made me feel more and more disturbed.  When I’m eating at home, I insist that we do not turn on the TV as I don’t want to discuss social issues with my family. I know that it would only make them worry more. When my family worries about me, I am saddened.

I misjudged

two years ago when a few friends and I started House News. With reason as our foundation, we believed that tolerance was Hong Kong’s most important value. With blogs and news aggregation as our pillars, we created a completely new form of media.

According to the latest statistics, House News had an average of 300,000 unique visitors per day, a performance that can be considered ideal. From the beginning, we had a business plan, but because of a warped society and economic market, our advertising revenue was disproportionate to our influence. House News is a small business with a small budget (as many people who are familiar with our blog can testify), but since its launch it has not broken even a single month. The biggest problem is that in the foreseeable future, Hong Kong’s society will feel more and more tense. From a business point of view, we really don’t see hope for House News. People ask me, does House News attract advertisers? The answer is no, hardly any, how can we attract them? It’s not only Hong Kong’s core values that have been distorted; the market’s been distorted too.

I am guilty,

my fear and my misjudgment come from the fact that I had, at one point, believed that Hong Kong was a normal place. I wholeheartedly believed that I could be a citizen that cared about Hong Kong, and a businessman who had faith in the market. It is very obvious that I was wrong. It turned out that it is a false illusion to think that one can be an ordinary citizen or businessman in an abnormal society.

As for my colleagues who have fought hard for the past two years, I feel very guilty, because they have without rest and without regrets supported the beliefs of House News. To my family, and for their tolerance of my work, I feel even more guilty, as I’ve made you worry for a long time. For the readers who have supported House News, at home and abroad, you have finally discovered that I am but a normal man. I have used up all my energy, and I can only walk this far.

From this day on, House News has officially closed. Goodbye!

Tony Tsoi

July 26 2014


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The Best Storytelling Techniques Posts from the First Half of 2014 (Part II)

Wednesday’s post featured half of the list capturing my top storytelling techniques posts from the first half of 2014, including the American Chemistry Association breaking down the composition of Sriracha.

Today brings the second half.

We’ve been quietly executing campaigns that blend the principles of PR with owned media to improve a client’s organic search. I decided to use my talk at the CIPRA conference in Beijing as the forum to publicly share what we view as the game changer in the communications industry. As search engines increasingly emphasize content — not technical acuity — in organic search, PR sits in the perfect position to take this one on. Unlike search consultancies that must resort to buying links — a definite “no no” in the eyes of Google — natural link-building is part of PR’s DNA.

Backlinks & SEO strategy

Explaining the commoditization of the news release as a form of supply-demand economics misses the root cause. When distribution of the news release reached only the domain of the media, journalists enjoyed a free lunch. With little effort, they could write stories based on a news release, and those stories appeared fresh to their readers because they couldn’t find them elsewhere. This advantage disappeared around 1996 when news release distribution services started flinging out news releases to the masses via the Internet. This post includes an infographic that puts it in perspective.

The intelligence community devotes massive amounts of time in trying to decode information from the bad guys as well as advancing their own encryption technology. The communications business — and specifically the client/agency relationship — has its own code. Taking our own advice that levity has a place in business communications, we created an infographic that cracks the client/agency code.


Infographic For Decrypting the Client/PR Agency Code

Embed this Infographic on Your Site:

 <div align="center"><a href="”title=”decrypting eight code phrases in the client/pr agency relationship"><img src=" For Decrypting the Client/PR Agency Code?utm_source=infographic&utm_medium=main&utm_campaign=infographic" alt=" Hoffman infographic- decrypting the client/pr agency code" style="border:none;" /></a><br /> <small>The Hoffman Agency is a public relations firm that emphasizes storytelling in <a href="">business communication</a></small>.</div>

This is a starting point.

When I started this blog in 2008, I hoped it would serve as a resource for the communications profession in understanding the concept of storytelling. That’s still one of my objectives; hence, this post reverse-engineers why a national newspaper like The New York Times would write a feature on the City of Chattanooga (above the fold in the print version).

The Internet has commoditized the news release. The three largest news release distribution services sent out roughly 642,000 news releases last year. I’ll bet that less than 5 percent of these missives generated legitimate media coverage. Again, we brought a touch of levity with an infographic that helps one answer the question: Will anyone care about this news release?

Hoffman Agency Infographic- a “Test” To Guide the Actions and Storytelling Behind a News Release

<div align="center"><a href="…a-news-release/" title="Hoffman Agency Infographic- a Test To Guide the Actions and Storytelling Behind a News Release"><img src="" alt="Hoffman Agency Infographic- a Test To Guide the Actions and Storytelling Behind a News Release" width="467" height="1024" style="border:none;" /></a><br /><small>The Hoffman Agency is a public relations firm that emphasizes storytelling in <a href="">business communication</a></small>.</div>

With Google taking away the benefit of link building through syndicated news releases last year, you can no longer rationalize news release distribution as an SEO tactic.

If you think I left out a deserving post, that’s a debate I’d like to have.

Thanks for reading.

Side note: I also use the blog as a lab to dig into storytelling techniques. No question, the majority of experiments have focused on visual storytelling as our entire Agency looks to accelerate our learning curve in this area.

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The Best Storytelling Posts from the First Half of 2014 (Part I)

I’m tardy in capturing the best business storytelling posts during the first half of 2014.

As always, figuring out the “best” combines popularity (number of views) and what rated high on my personal amusement scale.

Here goes:

It turns out you can (and we do). Simply breaking down your coverage by news-driven vs. non-news coverage can be revealing.

With Mother’s Day as the backdrop, I peppered Ruth Hoffman with questions about the PR profession. To bastardize a Bill Cosby line, “Moms say the darndest things.” Check out the interview in this 90-second video:


I thought this headline nailed it. When the transaction was first announced, I questioned how the transaction would benefit clients. It turned out they couldn’t even figure out how to make the deal work for shareholders. This post re-enacts the squabble between the CEOs on deciding who would be the acquirer and who would be the acquiree.

I loved this example. The same folks who publish “the molecule of the week” broke down the chemical composition of Sriracha in a video that garnered mainstream media attention. Levity in storytelling does make for a potent formula.

Communication professionals can learn a ton about storytelling from their advertising brothers. When you’re shelling out $4 million and change for a single ad, it has a way of tuning one’s senses. This Budweiser ad that ran during the Super Bowl shows how the classic story arc can be teased out in 60 seconds. In short, bad stuff happens in good storytelling.

Budweiser pully ad Storytelling

On Monday, I’ll publish the rest of the list which comes with a heavy emphasis on visual storytelling.



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Bad News Should Not Come Packaged as a 1,111-word Letter to Employees

Stephen Elop  Microsoft letter to employees

Unfortunately, that’s how Stephen Elop, EVP over Microsoft’s Devices & Services business unit, communicated  the company’s decision to reduce its workforce by 12,500 people (or 18,000, depending on who we believe).

I don’t expect Mr. Elop to be a skilled communicator, much less command writing expertise. And I appreciate that a letter such as this one must go through the virtual meat grinder known as legal approval.

But c’mon, out all of those Microsoft employees who still have jobs, there must be someone who could bring a steady editing hand and common sense to the narrative.

A few areas of bad business writing that immediately jump out:

  • The start “Hello there.” I suppose he’s trying to sound folksy, but it comes off as more of a “Hello out there … anyone home?” Should have played it straight with a simple “Hello.”
  • Not only is the letter bloated, but the reader must wade through 855 words to get to real the point, that the company is eliminating 12,500 jobs.
  • Want to trigger a negative reaction from the proletariat? Use the phrase “right-size” which he does.
  • Word gamesmanship like “must be accomplished within an appropriate financial envelope” belongs in the quarterly earnings calls.
  • Cut the adjectives. Not even your employee base believes you’re selling “iconic tablets.”

No mulligans on this “golf course.”

Still, I thought it was worthy exercise in the spirit of “education” to melt down the original letter into something that reflects common sense (using much of the original language).



A decision to reduce our workforce is never an easy one.

Still, winning in the mobile phone market depends on our ability to rethink and restructure our organization on an ongoing basis.

With this in mind, we plan to eliminate roughly 12,500 jobs over the next year. I recognize it doesn’t make up for the job loss, but we’ve put together a severance package for the departing employees to help them land on their feet.

What exactly led to this decision?

In short, we need to be more focused, concentrating on the segments that play to our strengths.

It’s one thing to run a hardware business like Nokia where the end game is to sell phones and another to sell devices which play off of our portfolio of products. At the risk of stating the obvious, we also need this business to be profitable.

That’s why we’ll be concentrating on the affordable smartphone segments with the Windows Phone bringing out more lower-cost Lumia devices. Along this line, we’ll be shifting future Nokia X designs and products to Windows Phone devices. We also have some changes in mind to better attack the high end of the market.

All these changes will take place within one phone business unit responsible for all of our phone efforts led by Jo Harlow.

We will provide as much clarity and information as possible in the coming weeks. Leaders across the organization will hold town halls, host information-sharing sessions and provide more details on the intranet.

As difficult as some changes are today, this direction aligns with the cross-company efforts that Satya has described in his recent emails.

Ultimately, they put our mobile phone business in a position for future success.




290 words.

It’s a common sense approach that cuts out the fat.

It also recognizes that you can’t spin this type of communications to employees. They know.

And yes, changing the “Hello there” to “Hello” did save a word.

P.S. Others have addressed this topic. One of the better posts came from Zachary Lukasiewicz, “Microsoft lays off 18,000 with ridiculous letter.” If you’re interested in the original employee letter, I’ve included it below.

Stephen Elop’s email to employees

July 17, 2014

Hello there,

Microsoft’s strategy is focused on productivity and our desire to help people “do more.” As the Microsoft Devices Group, our role is to light up this strategy for people. We are the team creating the hardware that showcases the finest of Microsoft’s digital work and digital life experiences, and we will be the confluence of the best of Microsoft’s applications, operating systems and cloud services.

To align with Microsoft’s strategy, we plan to focus our efforts. Given the wide range of device experiences, we must concentrate on the areas where we can add the most value. The roots of this company and our future are in productivity and helping people get things done. Our fundamental focus – for phones, Surface, for meetings with devices like PPI, Xbox hardware and new areas of innovation — is to build on that strength. While our direction in the majority of our teams is largely unchanging, we have had an opportunity to plan carefully about the alignment of phones within Microsoft as the transferring Nokia team continues with its integration process.

It is particularly important to recognize that the role of phones within Microsoft is different than it was within Nokia. Whereas the hardware business of phones within Nokia was an end unto itself, within Microsoft all our devices are intended to embody the finest of Microsoft’s digital work and digital life experiences, while accruing value to Microsoft’s overall strategy. Our device strategy must reflect Microsoft’s strategy and must be accomplished within an appropriate financial envelope. Therefore, we plan to make some changes.

We will be particularly focused on making the market for Windows Phone. In the near term, we plan to drive Windows Phone volume by targeting the more affordable smartphone segments, which are the fastest growing segments of the market, with Lumia. In addition to the portfolio already planned, we plan to deliver additional lower-cost Lumia devices by shifting select future Nokia X designs and products to Windows Phone devices. We expect to make this shift immediately while continuing to sell and support existing Nokia X products.

To win in the higher price segments, we will focus on delivering great breakthrough products in alignment with major milestones ahead from both the Windows team and the Applications and Services Group. We will ensure that the very best experiences and scenarios from across the company will be showcased on our products. We plan to take advantage of innovation from the Windows team, like Universal Windows Apps, to continue to enrich the Windows application ecosystem. And in the very lowest price ranges, we plan to run our first phones business for maximum efficiency with a smaller team.

We expect these changes to have an impact to our team structure. With our focus, we plan to consolidate the former Smart Devices and Mobile Phones business units into one phone business unit that is responsible for all of our phone efforts. Under the plan, the phone business unit will be led by Jo Harlow with key members from both the Smart Devices and Mobile Phones teams in the management team. This team will be responsible for the success of our Lumia products, the transition of select future Nokia X products to Lumia and for the ongoing operation of the first phone business.

As part of the effort, we plan to select the appropriate business model approach for our sales markets while continuing to offer our products in all markets with a strong focus on maintaining business continuity. We will determine each market approach based on local market dynamics, our ability to profitably deliver local variants, current Lumia momentum and the strategic importance of the market to Microsoft. This will all be balanced with our overall capability to invest.

Our phone engineering efforts are expected to be concentrated in Salo, Finland (for future, high-end Lumia products) and Tampere, Finland (for more affordable devices). We plan to develop the supporting technologies in both locations. We plan to ramp down engineering work in Oulu. While we plan to reduce the engineering in Beijing and San Diego, both sites will continue to have supporting roles, including affordable devices in Beijing and supporting specific US requirements in San Diego. Espoo and Lund are planned to continue to be focused on application software development.

We plan to right-size our manufacturing operations to align to the new strategy and take advantage of integration opportunities. We expect to focus phone production mainly in Hanoi, with some production to continue in Beijing and Dongguan. We plan to shift other Microsoft manufacturing and repair operations to Manaus and Reynosa respectively, and start a phased exit from Komaron, Hungary.

In short, we will focus on driving Lumia volume in the areas where we are already successful today in order to make the market for Windows Phone. With more speed, we will build on our success in the affordable smartphone space with new products offering more differentiation. We’ll focus on acquiring new customers in the markets where Microsoft’s services and products are most concentrated. And, we’ll continue building momentum around applications.

We plan that this would result in an estimated reduction of 12,500 factory direct and professional employees over the next year. These decisions are difficult for the team, and we plan to support departing team members with severance benefits.

More broadly across the Devices team, we will continue our efforts to bring iconic tablets to market in ways that complement our OEM partners, power the next generation of meetings & collaboration devices and thoughtfully expand Windows with new interaction models. With a set of changes already implemented earlier this year in these teams, this means there will be limited change for the Surface, Xbox hardware, PPI/meetings or next generation teams.

We recognize these planned changes are broad and have very difficult implications for many of our team members. We will work to provide as much clarity and information as possible. Today and over the coming weeks leaders across the organization will hold town halls, host information sharing sessions and provide more details on the intranet.

The team transferring from Nokia and the teams that have been part of Microsoft have each experienced a number of remarkable changes these last few years. We operate in a competitive industry that moves rapidly, and change is necessary. As difficult as some of our changes are today, this direction deliberately aligns our work with the cross company efforts that Satya has described in his recent emails. Collectively, the clarity, focus and alignment across the company, and the opportunity to deliver the results of that work into the hands of people, will allow us to increase our success in the future.





Strong Storytelling in McDonald’s Supplier Videos … But Do They Work?

More to the point, do they fortify the McDonald’s brand?

I can understand McDonald’s quest to associate with suppliers who take a certain “hand-crafted” approach to their products. The message serves as a counterbalance to the perception that McDonald’s is all about volume production.

Stepping back for a moment, the execution of this campaign is pretty darn good.

Click on “Lettuce,” and farmer Dirk Giannini appears with the sound of sprinklers and the periodic bird chirp in the background.

McDonalds Supplier storytelling

Moving to the video, the savvy storytelling from McDonald’s puts Dirk in the hero’s boots.

Too often companies insist since they’re footing the bill, they get the hero’s billing.

And it’s not easy duty to make lettuce interesting. While no one is going to springboard from this narrative to a potential blockbuster called “Return of Iceberg Lettuce,” it’s still a high-quality video.

But back to the big picture –

Does the supplier campaign bring “goodness” to the McDonald’s brand?

As much as I like the execution, the answer is no.

Branding efforts often include an aspirational spoke, a noble cause. Yet, if the gap between the reality of the brand and the aspiration becomes too great, the work loses credibility. In short, the audience doesn’t believe it.

That’s the flaw in the McDonald’s campaign. The reality of the brand, whether it be the dollar menu or interiors that affirm the prophecy in The Graduate — “I just want to say one word to you … plastics,” is congruent with the aspiration.

When Dirk the farmer utters the phrase “field to fork” in the video, what was already strained credibility becomes nonsense.

Bad branding.

As a sanity check, when I guest lectured at the USC Annenberg School of Communications, I played the lettuce video and asked the class for their reaction. Every student thought it was BS (baloney stuff).

While not exactly scientific research, I think it’s safe to say that McDonald’s should not be channeling Alice Waters.


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