Archive for the ‘Media Relations’ Category

Summing up: IABC Heritage Conference a Winner

Thursday, October 17th, 2013

Conf_BrochureI’ve given serious thought in recent months to letting my IABC membership lapse. With all the drama earlier this year, it crossed my mind more than once. But then, I attended the Heritage Region Conference, Oct. 13-15 in Indianapolis.

The IABC International is huge — 1,500 isn’t out of the question — and its venues, large hotels in big cities (New York, Toronto, etc.) makes for a spendy trip for the likes of a sole proprietor. But the regional conferences are more compact, are in smaller cities, and yet offer terrific programming.

This year was no exception.

I’m a little biased, as I had the chance to speak once again, but the quality was wonderful — Jim Lukaszewski held court for three hours, evangelizing on the concept that communicators need to be much more business-centric than communication-centric, particularly in times of crisis.  We know that we get more popular when it’s time to sweep up after some sort of conflagration, but too often, Jim averred, we see communication as the solution to every problem.

Case in point at my own expense:  Jim asked why the CEO of BP — Tony Hayward, of “I’d like my life back” fame — lost his job in the wake of the oil platform explosion that killed people and brought the US gulf coast to its economic knees.  I piped up instantly — blame-shifting, insensitivities, cluelessness

Jim said I was wrong – it’s just how things are done. The disaster happened on his watch, and so he paid the price. He’ll be OK, Jim added, because these guys get paid no matter what. But he’ll never lead as large or important a company as BP.  Jim’s point: we communicators need to better understand how business operates, not just the role that communicators play in it. There’s more, of course, including Jim’s gentle good humor, phenomenal stories and exceptional insight that comes from doing this work for 40-odd years.

Tim McCleary of The Involvement Practice keynoted Monday morning, offering not only a valuable speech, but a couple of fun exercises demonstrating how we can move from informing to involving people.  Establishing the central objective, then helping people understand it through real dialogue, then immersing them in the world of the new so that they own that objective and finally activating the power of the internal network (the What, Why and How of communicating change), was clear, intuitive and actionable.

Kent Lewis of Anvil Media, and serial entrepreneur, talked social media analytics — but not in a dry, statistical way. He shared stories of how to measure effectively — key performance indicators, metrics and goals for each platform, content strategies, etc. — that resonated well with attendees. Two big reminders for me — YouTube is the world’s second largest search engine, so having content on that platform is critical; and that SlideShare adds immeasurably to both search performance and sharing content effectively. One more from Kent — LinkedIn is essential in B2B, and one’s company page needs to be robust, clear and urgent.  I need to get on that right away!

That’s just a couple of examples.

The point is that about 150 attendees really got the chance to network. I met at least five people I’d not met before, and I reacquainted myself with dozens more.  The seven-person dinner Monday night at the Dine-Around was terrific, even if Harry and Izzy’s shrimp cocktail blasted my head (and everyone else’s) into a tear-streaked paroxysm of anguish and bliss.

IABC might be struggling to right itself, but they might have kept me in the fold thanks the Heritage Region team’s great work.  Check out the Twitter stream at #iabchrconf.


What’s the matter with IABC?

Thursday, June 6th, 2013

It’s happened to a lot of organizations.  Business shifting under their feet, departure of key exec, search for new leader, struggle to change without losing customer base, new leader leaves sooner than expected after difficult tenure.

It shouldn’t, however, happen to a membership organization comprised of professional communicators.

The drama over Chris Sorek’s departure after less than a year at the helm of the International Association of Business Communicators has to have been avoidable.  We counsel our execs and clients about this. Books are written, conference presentations, academic papers all say the same thing: “Tell the truth, tell it first and tell it all,” according to Bruce Hennes of Hennes/Paynter, the crisis management firm based in Cleveland.

The tragicomic saga opens when Sorek takes over, succeeding Julie Freeman.  Julie, who held the post for 10 years, communicated quite effectively, in my book. She was visible, involved, supportive. Sorek was a little invisible, a little remote, seemingly more comfortable out of the spotlight in his 11 months. That’s fine; not every leader is an ENFP.

But as the changes began, including massive staff layoffs and restructuring, I believe the numbers were 15 of the 32 employees, Sorek still hung in the background. The always excellent David Murray had a good summary and analysis, as did, all without a word from the executive director.  In corporate life, we often call that, “insulating the CEO” from delivering bad news. But hey, this ain’t a corporation, its our bloody (and bloodied) association.

On IABC’s web feature, “IABC in the news” Sorek hasn’t been present since an interview in August 2012.  Freeman often took to the IABC Cafe, the blog platform. Sorek never did.

Who was that masked man?

Meanwhile, IABC’s LinkedIn group is full of members and nonmembers asking about what was happening at our association (I’ve been a member near continuously since, well, a long time ago). The International Executive Board (IEB), a volunteer leadership group, did its best to fill the void, but the paid head of our association was strangely reticent, leaving the spokes duties to our IEB chair.

I am wondering whether I need IABC anymore. I’m active in other groups — PRSA’s Employee Communication Section for one, the Institute for PR Commission on Research, Measurement and Evaluation, for another, and have a strong community of outreach via social media.  Add to that the desire to speak and write less for my communication family and more for senior execs in industries that might need my professional help, and we’re coming to an inflection point.

In the end, I’ve opted to stay in IABC, at least for 2013. I have a few personal frustrations — despite a long history of chapter leadership and good experiences with the Heritage Region Conference, the International has been a tough speaking nut to crack. As a small business guy, I need to make good decisions about how I spend my time and money.

This latest imbroglio, including a request from our IEB chair to “stick to the speaking points” was a real tale of the cobbler’s children. Seriously?  IABC tried to tell it first, but the technology didn’t cooperate. It didn’t tell it all because of privacy concerns (and a desire to avoid feeding voyeurism, according to one comment).  That made it seem like IABC wasn’t telling the truth — the failure to explain reasons behind decisions makes people believe they’re being deceived, as Joe Williams teaches.

Now, the search for an executive director begins all over again. The question is, who wants that job?  It better be someone who knows how to connect with membership from the very start, who will do a good job of listening to membership and who can exude confidence about the plans for the future.



My name’s Sean and I’m a Media Junkie.

Thursday, November 4th, 2010

I wrote a piece for my Theory of Mass Comm class that I thought might be interesting for you, dear reader. Especially because my Lost October gobsmacked my blogging and Tweeting, I feel guilty about this — is MINE, and I’ve (gratefully) passed the torch this 35 days.  And, I feel guilty about feeling relieved. Did I mention guilt? Please read, comment, and whine.

From the time I was 10, I’ve been a media junkie. The summer of 1968…watching the gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Democratic National Convention from Chicago. Dan Rather punched by goons, Chicago PD pummeling “Yippies” and Gene McCarthy’s delegates locked out of the convention by Mayor Daley’s machine. The last of the smoky back room method of choosing a nominee.

Last week, I read my usual newspapers (in print), the blogs I frequent, Twitter, watched the NBC Nightly News for the first time in years; I also caught CNBC, The Weather Channel and watched most of two baseball games.

I read the Cleveland Plain Dealer for local and state news (especially political news, given the season), and for the quick overview of the rest of the world. The Wall Street Journal gets me caught up on international news, national politics, and news about companies and the economy in detail. A hotel visit left me with the USA Today. That paper’s a bit like white bread – it fills the belly but doesn’t amount to much nutrition.

The Nightly news happened to be on prior to a baseball game, and in moments I determined I didn’t care what Brian Williams thought was important that day — I chatted with other denizens of the restaurant about unrelated things and generally ignored what I saw as the valueless drivel the airbrushed talking heads were discussing.

The blogs gave me a few interesting perspectives on marketing and communications — from people I don’t know but whom I’ve found cogent of thought in the past (I found them on recommendation from people I know and trust).

Twitter is audience participation — forwarding and responding to what others said, making me feel connected to a wider team, something, as a sole proprietor, I miss. It’s almost conversation (the delay makes it a bit different, but with enough similarity to make it seem valuable to me.)

Why do I continue consuming these media? I remain a news junkie.

A couple of weeks ago, I was too busy to do my usual routine. There I was in two of the best newspaper markets in the U.S. (Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.), and I didn’t once read either newspaper. Sigh.

I don’t feel right not knowing. I don’t feel good being ignorant. I’ve got to have that fix.


Some Crises Are ‘No-Win’

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

In a balanced article in the 22 August New York Times, writer Peter S. Goodman talks to a heap of PR folks about the Goldman Sachs, Toyota and BP communication nightmares. It’s a good piece, especially one graf:

“Which raises a question: Are some crises so dire that public relationship victory is simply not on the menu? And, if so, what’s an embattled company to do?”

After living through the financial crisis with a regional bank, I can tell you that we did wonder whether there was anything we could do differently to try and make our sow’s ear into a silk purse. Or even just a paper bag, anything except what we were getting.

The question of visceral hatred that we see for Goldman Sachs and BP isn’t equaled for Toyota. Of course, the corporate reputations of both Goldman and BP weren’t near as positive prior to their crises as Toyota’s. In the Goldman case, was public opinion merely scapegoating a convenient target? We didn’t much like the idea that this company was busy racking up big profits whilst the average Joe saw 401 (k) collapses, layoffs and strife. BP had held itself out as a new breed (Beyond Petroleum). Meanwhile, Toyota had become the largest auto company in the world on the strength of perceived exceptionally high quality. There was more goodwill built up around Toyota, and although they had a few bumps, they seem to be returning to their lofty status.

One expert quoted in the article said when the facts are horrible, “the best PR fix may simply be to absorb the pounding and get back to business, while eschewing the sort of foolish communication gimmicks that can make things worse.”

We see, however, how heavy the pounding can get when companies decide to stonewall or be overly parsimonious in their statements. But I agree that sometimes, the news is just so bad, so damaging, that there’s no way to win. So, the question becomes, just how much crisis medicine are you willing to take?


Mainstream Thinks it ‘Gets’ Social Media

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010

Two mainstream media stories 1 June tackle social media. The Wall Street Journal ($) offers perspectives on the ultimate measurement of social media effectiveness, direct sales through social channels; Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer looks at the risks of permitting social media use at work, quoting security consulting companies, lawyers and interactive marketing expert Dominic Litten (@DJLitten).

The Plain Dealer story is fairly predictable — “corporate challenges” presented by social media, together with tales of employees fired, foolish companies and an emphasis on the need for strong policies.  The central message is “CONTROL.” This disappoints me, especially because the story dwells so much on blocking social media. Katie Herbst (@katieherbst), who manages social marketing for an insurance company, offers a good counter to the blocking argument, pointing out that time-wasting won’t necessarily be limited by the lack of social media.

The Journal piece talks about apps that can turn social media platforms into sales generators — unmentioned is the time-honored technique of pointing people to a URL.  A couple of strange notes — a marketing professor is quoted saying that businesses must advertise to make people aware of their Facebook fan page, and that large numbers of fans are needed to “sway” buyers. This is a very traditionalist approach that ignores the relationship-building that’s at the heart of social media’s appeal.

Also, the story includes the requisite warning that social media could make for customer service challenges — another professor recommends an even higher level of service to support a Facebook page than other channels.  A Houston sports retailer added a Facebook app to its Facebook Fan page in 2008, but has sold only 50 products through it. Again, a narrow view of success, because unmentioned is the impact of Facebook relationships on other sales channels.

In both of these stories, the reporting is surface-only. The frames in which they operate are very much rooted in mainstream marketing, and little in either story (apart from @DJLitten’s good perspectives on technology and productivity) reflect the reputational and relational opportunities that social media is really all about.

Of course, many marketers are guilty of similar biases — they see the “captive” audience of Facebook fans and want to broadcast to them. Learning to see these tools in their proper context is a challenge all its own.

Present company definitely included.


Big Banks Get Whipped: 2008 News Coverage

Monday, April 26th, 2010

Think back two years. The financial crisis hit its gallop around this time in 2008, when the U.S. government sold Bear Stearns to JP Morgan Chase before its wrecked hull could breach and take the global economy down to Davy Jones’ Locker.  But that was just the beginning of a wicked huge bear market brought on by inflated real estate prices, preposterous mortgage loans, complicated and unregulated investment vehicles, and a collapse in confidence by everyone from global investors to your local school custodian.

Those of us who watched from a courtside seat (and wished we were in the bleachers, one bank CEO said) remember it all too well.

That’s why I thought twice about hearing University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s David Remund, a doctoral student, present his paper, “Crisis of Confidence: News Coverage of America’s Largest Banks During the 2008 Financial Crisis” at the 13th Annual International PR Research Conference.

Remund did a content analysis of news releases and national and local newspaper coverage of the 10 largest American banks for the second half of 2008, looking for some kind of systemic understanding about how these banks used crisis communication techniques to spray some pain-killer on the daily parade of negative information marching down Main Street.

Two crisis communication theories applied: Image Restoration Theory, which holds that if you’re at fault, you admit it and share the steps you’re taking to address the situation and prevent it from recurring. Situational Crisis Communications Theory says that you need to show concern for people who’ve been hurt by your crisis. Remund’s hypotheses offered that banks that acknowledged the financial crisis and showed concern for consumers in their media relations efforts would enjoy a higher proportion of confidence-building news coverage as a results.

Whoops. Remund’s findings were the exact opposite, with neither hypothesis supported.

Instead, the media pretty much held that banks’ actions contributed to the financial crisis, and the quietest banks got the greater proportion of positive coverage.  So, what happened?

As I wrote in my own research covering one company, the crisis had so many contributing factors, was so broad and so extensive that we got to the point where facts and data simply didn’t matter. It was a mob, running headlong down the street screaming, “Run! Run!” Everybody had to run, even as they asked what what happening. Secondly, Remund’s research drew from a rather small batch of news outlets and from only the largest banks.

Finally, by the third quarter of 2008, the news media wasn’t about to trust pretty much anything that banks had to say. Washington Mutual raised capital and swore up and down that it was solvent, even as its capital dwindled away toward federal seizure. Lehman Brothers didn’t think it had any problems in the summer and was dead by September. IndyMac, Countrywide, Wachovia, National City… all positioned themselves as in good shape — but what else could they say?

We PR people are always recommending the most transparent approach — the article of crisis communication faith seems to be , “Tell it first, tell it fast and tell it all.” Aside from a recent study, all the literature calls for that type of approach.  I believe it’s far more situational — once you’re in a systemic crisis that reaches past you and your world, your ability to affect its course gets a lot more difficult. Sometimes, you just have to wait it out.

The Remund study reveals more about the limits of crisis communication, than about bank public relations in a crisis.


Why Vitrue’s Facebook Fan Value is Poppycock

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

Vitrue, a social media marketing firm founded in 2006, snagged an AdWeek article this week when it announced that it had caculated the value of Facebook fans. It’s $3.60 per fan.  What’s behind the valuation? A rash of assumptions, according to a piece on the company’s Web site.

Why do I think this is wrong? Let me count the ways:

  1. Their data is proprietary. The company says it manages 45 million fans and drew the data from a sampling across industries, but they don’t specify the amount of the sample, the specific firms involved or any other information that might provide clarity as to the methodology. No one can cross-check the data.
  2. They make several assumptions: They say they looked at the ratio between wall posts and number of fans — asking how many fans have the potential to see a post. This is similar to using circulation in a print pub. Fine. But unlike circulation (audited) or even Nielsen Ratings, we’re assuming that all fans have an equal opportunity to see, and we’re assuming that a wall post is equivalent to an ad. Then, they say that multiple posts have equivalent impressions — two per day totals 60 million impressions on a one million fan page.
  3. They then say that these impressions are free, “similar to earned media.” But we know earned media is not free — someone had to do some work to make it happen. This is one of the insidious problems with ad value equivalency — there certainly are costs associated with generating earned media, and they must be accounted for.
  4. Next assumption, cost per thousand impressions. They settle on $5 CPM, based on nothing — wouldn’t this number depend on the specific outlet?  How about some science instead of conjecture? Multiply it out using their figures and it totals $300,000 in monthly value for the two post-a-day million fan page.  They show it like this:

1M impressions x 2 posts x 30 days = 60M impressions >>> 60M impressions / 1000 x $5 CPM = $300,000

But what I believe is most egregious is the idea that engagement on Facebook is really just a game of increasing advertising impressions. This is totally contrary to how social media is designed to work. It’s push-focused instead of relationship-focused. It’s shouting from the rooftops instead of talking to your neighbors.

Look, everyone has to make a living — advertisers are pretty comfortable in their “metrics every marketer is familiar with,” as Vitrue’s article says.  But marketers need to wake up — measure something meaningful!  I don’t know, but perhaps the fans are actually doing something that increases their intent to purchase? That improves their understanding of the product? That makes them have a more favorable attitude toward the company? That they bought something?

Surely any of those is a better metric than one based on made-up numbers, bad methodology, weak assumptions and false equivalencies.



Merger Communications Don’t Have to Be Hard

Monday, April 5th, 2010

There’s something about mergers and acquisitions that seems to bring out the hand-wringers.  So much potential disaster, so little real guidance. Why is that?

On the surface, the communication challenge is pretty straightforward: you’re bringing two organizations together, typically competitors. That creates a raft of issues that need management. But it’s just that — management!  Competent project managers know that repeatable processes are critical, but so are simple rules to govern all of the situations that don’t fall exactly into the neat buckets on one’s Gantt Chart.

Here are five simple rules to help any communicator be more effective when it’s time to put on the merger comms hat.

  1. Remember that employees are people. At the very outset, employee concerns are going to be the top of mind for them. They don’t much care about impact on customers, they care about whether their jobs, benefits, pay, taxes, etc., are changing. And, of course, you don’t know any of that early on. Plus, they don’t believe that you don’t know. Trust is broken almost immediately for the target organization, and it’s going to take time to rebuild it. The tendency (in publicly traded companies) is to use the merger press release as the template for employee communications. DON’T DO IT. Yes, a high proportion of employees will be stockholders, but that’s not how most see themselves. They’re employees, and right now they’re scared.
  2. Open channels quickly. Go ahead and let employees ask the same questions repeatedly. Tell people how many times you’ve been asked the question (e.g., “we received this question 11 times in our merger email, and four times on the merger voicemail line. Here’s what we know now…”), and keep repeating the answer. Open every incoming vehicle you can muster — discussion boards, email, voicemail, face to face meetings with leaders — and publish the questions and answers. Respect this process, even though it’s tedious. Acknowledging the questions that are being asked is critical to demonstrating that the new organization is listening. Social media should get a close look — it’s a vehicle for discussion, which is what we want early.
  3. Tell what you know, and why. There’s an uncomfortable place at which nearly all mergers start — the deal is announced, but is subject to various approvals before closing.  Neither customers nor employees are likely to know the difference between the two.  In many cases, the acquirer isn’t permitted to write or speak directly to the target’s employees, they have to work through the target’s communication team. We need to push to be open. Say why we’re going into a quiet period. Say why it’s the way it is. Say why it’s taking “so long” to complete. Just give people regular updates and a schedule for critical decisions.
  4. Send leadership out to meet people. When PNC Bank announced its purchase of National City Corporation in October of 2008, PNC CEO Jim Rohr was in Cleveland that morning for an informal meeting and conference call with managers. He certainly didn’t have answers to most of the questions uppermost in people’s minds, but his arrival put a human face on the acquiring company.
  5. Remember that you’re doing business today. Your employees need to know that they are still accountable for their work – mergers are a terrible distraction, and they often lead to organizations becoming “internally focused” rather than attending to their customers. Reinforcing that customers are depending on them appeals to employees’ sense of purpose.  Besides, being known as someone who kept his or her focus on the business is a good way to keep your job.

More on this topic later in the week.


Amazon’s Recovery from Kindle Content Deletion Crisis Evaluated

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

In the middle of 2009, owners of e-reader Kindle got a nasty surprise when Amazon snatched back e-books that it turned out were supplied illegally. Amazon’s supplier didn’t have the rights to distribute the content, so Amazon accessed Kindles and deleted it.

Seems like no problem to me, but then, I don’t have a Kindle. Amazon got to enjoy seven days of flame and shouting for its trouble.

Drs. W. Timothy Coombs and Sherry J. Holladay of Eastern Illinois University (kind of a hotbed of pithy PR scholarship), presented a paper about Amazon’s week from hell at the 13th International PR Research Conference.  Dr. Coombs is a preeminent theorist on crisis communication, the author of several books and papers about it, and a good presenter who carries a quick wit with his slide rule.  He a smart dude.

Apparently, the “Kindle Community” was pretty angry about having “their” stuff unceremoniouslyyanked. Amazon’s notification statement lacked complete information, or ordinary human compassion, according to those who read it:

“The Kindle edition books Animal Farm by George Orwell, published by MobileReference (mobi) and 1984 by George Orwell, published by MobileReference (mobi) were removed from the Kindle store and are no longer available for purchase. When this occurred, your purchases were automatically refunded. you can still locate the books in the Kindle store, but each has a status of not yet available. Although are rarity, publishers can decide to pull their content from the Kindle store.”

Commenters went ballistic, and before you could blink, there were boycotts threatened. So Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos posted an abject apology, saying in part: “Our ‘solution’ to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles.” He beat on his company pretty hard.

Coombs and Holladay found that the florid, nearly over-the-top apology worked very well. 71 percent accepted the apology, nearly 16 percent accepted it conditionally, and just 13 percent rejected it.  More important, more than 21 percent indicated they were more likely to buy from Amazon versus 10.5 percent said they were less likely to buy.

So what’s that mean? It means that Coombs’ main theories of crisis communication are holding steady in the online world — the process of admitting you’ve done wrong, taking steps to rectify the situation and ensure it won’t happen again, and beating yourself up a bit in the process result in restoring positive feelings among your stakeholders.

There surely are crises where this won’t happen — some things are just too bad — but this study gives additional support to the basis for advice during crisis times.

Watch for the complete paper in May when the IPRRC proceedings are released.


AVE is Dead. But Ad Cost Improves Correlations

Sunday, January 17th, 2010

The debate over how best to measure the effectiveness of media relations has encompassed multiple streams of thought, moving from saying “it’s impossible,” all the way to saying, “it’s quantifiable.” Unfortunately, advertising value equivalency (AVE) became a popular means of applying dollar figures to unpaid media. You take the number of column inches in print, time of mention in broadcast, or space on a Web page occupied by the mention of the company or organization in question, and ask, “How much would we have had to pay to take out an ad of equivalent size/time?”

The AVE practice has been under attack by some of us, poorly understood by others, but more widely used in PR agencies than many would like to think. It even was formally condemned by the Institute for PR Measurement Commission this fall.

AVE has major flaws — measurement experts (including one notable, even famous one) have decried the practice and detailed why frequently. I’ll not repeat the argument here. This paper provides those details in part. Instead, I’ll merely say that even with substantial adjustments to methodology, it never represented a business outcome, was based on an assumption of equivalent understanding on the part of the receiver, and was wholly unsuited to describing success in social media. That alone was a huge problem for me.

The thing is, there is substantive research that supports the idea that editorial content about a product and an ad are perceived similarly by receivers.  A paper by Dr. Don Stacks and Dr. David Michaelson (albeit based on one experiment) found ads and editorial to be equally effective in generating interest in a new product. If that’s so, evaluating the PR placement in comparison to ad cost makes sense. PR costs orders of magnitude less than advertising.

Two papers by Angela Jeffrey, Dr. Stacks and Dr. Michaelson explored the linkages between volume of media coverage and share of media coverage and business outcomes (such as unit sales, tickets sold, etc.) and included media cost data in calculations.  This set the stage for a controversial finding: Media costs improved correlations, significantly.

Now, Jeffrey, vice president of research for VMS, and Dr. Brad Rawlins, Brigham Young University, and Bruce Jeffries-Fox of Jeffries-Fox Associates, have written a brilliant paper further detailing the relationship between cost and outcomes, with four case studies.  The “Weighted Media Cost” has a strong effect.  From the paper:

…if we’re getting better results with costs for purchasing media space and time data, should we…set new parameters for its proper use?”

Emphatically, yes. The paper, written in a very approachable and intuitive style, makes a compelling case.

Read the paper if you care at all about measurement in our profession.