Posts Tagged ‘communication methods’

Giving marketers – and marketing – a bad name

Monday, August 27th, 2012

The 26 August edition of the New York Times carries a long story about Todd Rutherford, an Oklahoma entrepreneur who in 2010 started a company that solicited authors to buy online reviews of their work.  Rutherford paid freelancers to write the reviews, and for a little while, was making $28,000 per month. The piece quotes him saying, “These were marketing reviews, not editorial reviews.”  Yeah, well, once upon a time there was a difference.

They have a term for when you buy space to trumpet your products and services: Advertising. A review in a publication or a broadcast is editorial content — by definition, it cannot be paid for. That division ensures that the reader/viewer is getting a third party view of the material, not one colored by someone with a vested interest in it.  If you made the rash conclusion that “user” reviews on Amazon are written by real users, I guess pity the fool. I often thought the reviews were too fawning and too “professional” to be done by real people, but I figured, “hey, if someone styles themselves a critic and wants to write 500 words on this book, movie, whatever, go for it.” It never occurred to me that someone was out there paying for reviews. Jeepers, no wonder so many Amazon books get five stars.

The Times spends 70 paragraphs exploring this issue. We hear from eBook authors who paid for reviews, freelance writers who wrote them (nearly always without reading the publication in question) and Rutherford himself now “regrets his venture into what he called, ‘artificially embellished reviews.'”

As much as I am a committed free marketeer, I still have quite a lot of heartburn about this. Rutherford says the market will take care of the issue, with true negative reviews overcoming the false positives. I’m not so sure about that.  I wrote earlier about bloggers taking either direct payments or junkets in exchange for talking about a product or company. This seems clearly to be in the realm of deception –under the law, the relationship between advertiser (the authors) and the editorial source (the  publication) has to be disclosed. Only then is the consumer of the review equipped to judge its veracity and its utility.

Rutherford’s firm was engaged in deliberate deception — the authors got the ratings and reviews that helped with sales (though some of the more successful ones didn’t give credit), Rutherford and the freelancers made money.  This doesn’t work for me. It’s fraud.



Getting attention with internal communication

Monday, January 16th, 2012

It’s become a cliche, you know. Overworked employees who can’t keep up with all the information they need to consume to be effective, despite (or because of) e-mail, voicemail, Facebook, Twitter, Yammer, Sharepoint…  But why blame the tools? It’s the strategy that needs work.

I recall 17 years ago when “we want employees to manage their own information” became a watchcry.

The idea was to create a repository of news and information and get people to seek it out.  This change from “push” to “pull” was supposed to take the heat off of communicators and bring about a knowledge revolution. Instead, employees voted with their feet, ignoring most all the news we pushed out, especially the stuff that supposedly was “important” — the company strategy, leadership messages and  human resources materials.  We were repurposing news releases in those days, not really originating stories from the employee perspective. We were passive, and we waited for our internal clients to come up with stuff.

Well, that’s not altogether true. We called them and asked, “Got any news?” What we should have done is treated employees as our clients and looked for reasons to do a piece, not expect our leaders and managers to come up with stuff on their own.

All through the years, our best-read materials at Key, Goodyear, National City and other places were stories, not news. They had people and drama and conflict and tension, or at least a compelling new angle on our business, told through example and demonstration, not mere recitation of fact.

At Goodyear, we had our interns do a ton of writing for our intranet, GO.  During their yearlong assignment, they’d cover plenty of news, such as events, quarterly earnings, significant announcements and industry doings, of course. But they also had to originate stories, particularly in the last couple of months of the assignment.

They wrote country profiles, talking with leaders and others about the business situation. They did stories on different parts of the business and people. And they did a multipart series focusing on one regional business, or on the fastest-growing geographies in the company.

These stories got read because they helped employees make sense of the information instead of merely leaving everything up to them.

We began to attract news from all the major business units, increasing our annual story count into the range of 1,200 – 1,500 stories per year.  Over a two-year period, we tripled our monthly GO traffic (visits and pages viewed) and saw a 10% increase in understanding of our company strategy.

How do you get attention, cut through the clutter? Write (produce) stories that matter to your employees, balancing the need for leadership to transmit information with the need for employees to have relevant content available to them.  Do research among employees and leaders to discover what those stories should be, and do it often.

All you’ve got to lose is your irrelevancy.


Verdict on American Airlines’ Bankruptcy Comms – Good So Far

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

Courtesy AA.comDuring my putative lunch today (29 Nov) the erstwhile Roula Amire of asked if I’d write a quick post on the bankruptcy communications coming out of AMR Corp., the parent company of American Airlines.  At first I said no, too busy, but as my home office was still captive to contractors, I quickly reconsidered and wrote something (thank you, Panera wi-fi!).

Bop over to read my piece. I’ll tell you this much — given the requirements of lawyers and the, I don’t know, 12 different constituencies they needed to satisfy, I think they did a good job.  I like the Facebook video from AMR’s CEO, and the customer service Twitter stream pointing people to FAQs.

This is another case of “Dirt-sandwich-and-everybody-has-to-take-a-bite.” There’s not much we can do but smile and chew.




PR as sales support: EZ 2 Measure, but…

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

Our ongoing conundrum in public relations measurement is how best to move our practice from simple output measures to more substantive matters. Mostly, we struggle to connect our outputs to business outcomes – results. This puzzle has led to thinking of ourselves as extensions of marketing, looking to conduct activities that have a more direct impact on sales. Certainly a fair number of people are having a fair amount of success in that respect.

There are a few things that worry me about this type of focus. Among them, Whither internal communications?  Subject matter that targets employee engagement often has little direct effect on revenue. Even attempts to get employees to “think like owners” and “spend each dollar like it was your own” have to have only the most tangential effect on savings. Does that mean we shouldn’t attempt to help employees identify with the company? Avoid communicating the benefits of working there? Forget about generating employee ambassadors?  I hope not.

What about corporate social responsibility? Helping to create the environment where the organization can thrive is critical, but doesn’t turn up consistently on a balance sheet. There’s research that says people want to do business with companies that match their own ethical priorities, but that’s not the same direct connection as conducting a product PR campaign focused on sales.

Investor relations and government relations have different impact than direct sales – it’s part of the public affairs world that, like CSR, has a roundabout relationship to sales. Do we stop doing that? (BTW, I’m aware that these are usually separate departments, but stick with me, please.)

As apocryphal as these cases might sound, there’s a real danger in thinking of PR only in the direct-sales case. Our profession is wider than that.  When we seek to measure only in ROI terms (a financial term with a financial result), we unnecessarily limit ourselves and start to think that if one sees everything as a nail, every tool looks like a hammer.

Reputation and issues management should be critical to strategy development. Third-party endorsement and the two-step flow to influencers are still relevant.  Sales-related PR isn’t wrong or bad — it’s just not the only relevant game in town.  We have other tools in the toolbox that serve different purposes…All marketing is communication, but not all communication is marketing.



Collaboration – 3rd “C” Toward Integration

Thursday, August 11th, 2011
Copyright, Creative Commons

The essence of collaboration

We think of integration as logical for organizational communication. But there’s resistance to integration as well, from budget jealousy to outright turf wars preventing even the low-hanging fruit from being plucked.   As I wrote earlier, we can realize a lot of the benefits of integration by adopting a step-by-step process, starting with communication, proceeding to coordination and finally to collaboration. These are the 3 C’s.

Collaboration is working jointly with others or together, especially in an intellectual endeavor (adapted from Merriam-Webster). The key difference between coordination and collaboration in our context is discrete effort: when we collaborate, we decide to combine our efforts toward completion of an activity. Here are two examples from my own history.

The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company operates a decentralized communication team, with the geographic business units in Asia, Europe/Middle East/Africa, Latin America and North America each operating its own communication team.  The heads of comms for each have a dotted line back to the chief communication officer, but budgets and functional reporting is to the business unit, usually to the unit president.

Goodyear moved along the 3 C’s spectrum slowly. It used to be that sharing strategy and plans was strictly ad-hoc; some units would forward a couple of pages to the CCO, some would give only the broadest outline. That made it very difficult to represent for the function with any sort of context, let alone establish common processes.  Best practices among units didn’t circulate well, and even budget visibility was limited.

By establishing an HQ position dedicated to increasing both communication and coordination, Goodyear was eventually able to establish a common planning process, combination bottom-up and top down.  With the intranet circulating best practices (often just a short story detailing what PR event had occurred and the results), in short order teams within units began to collaborate, borrowing event strategies and communication content from one another and working on cross-functional projects. Members of the corporate communication team were even invited to speak at regional communication meetings.

At National City Corporation following a determined effort to increase communication and collaboration across the communication function (see my posts Use 3 C’s to Work Together and The 3 C’s Toward Integration: Coordination), Marketing reached out to the retail communication group for assistance with a new campaign.

Corporate Communications worked with other units on materials development, retail asked for Corporate Comm help for a retail investing project, and Corporate Communications, Legal and Investor Relations formed a cross-functional team to work on financial PR releases. Even the measurement program benefited from collaboration, with marketing asking Corporate Communications to research the impact of news media coverage on a direct mail campaign, and corporate comms working with marketing to include unpaid media in its regular brand research (See “Measuring Company A”), and the Risk group asking for Corporate Comms help in understanding the impact of media on reputation.

Both of these cases marched steadily from communication to collaboration.  At both companies, there also were situations where they got stuck — a business process optimization team struggled to get past the communication stage, for example, and never made it to collaboration. But even in that case, the visibility of budget spend and the decision to coordinate several business unit and function-specific process improvements still demonstrated value.

It’s hard to truly integrate departments for a lot of reasons — the desire of executives to control their expense profiles top-to-bottom, among them.  The financial folks will want to add a fourth C — consolidation — which often seems like a synonym for integration. No leader wants to give up either headcount or budget willingly, regardless of the benefits — alignment, consistency and efficiency among the most frequently noted.

However, if we apply the 3 C’s effectively, we can gain all the benefits of integration except the financial ones.  For a lot of organizations, that’ll work just fine.






The ‘3 C’s’ toward integration: Coordination

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

On 9 August I introduced the “3 C’s” — as a pathway toward integrating communications, or at least realizing the benefits of integration.  The first “C” is communication, where we reach out to one another to share information about our activities and solicit some feedback. The second C is coordination.

The definition of coordination is bringing into a common action, movement, or condition (slightly adapted from Merriam-Webster). I expand that definition like this: Coordination means mutual sharing of information that leads the parties to alter in some way that information, or its planned distribution.  You and I discuss our respective goals and what we’re doing to fulfill them, and we alter our plans as a result of that discussion.

For example, back to National City in 2008 — financial crisis, etc. We’d started communicating across our business unit silos, and realized that one of the units was planning a communication at the same time another unit had a major management announcement.  In our discussion, the latter unit asked if the former could wait a couple of days to avoid conflict. That used to be a recipe for a turf war, but because we’d discussed the need to coordinate and agreed, the two units came to an agreement in short order.

That sequence got replayed a lot — the units would make a few changes to messages, timeline, even audience to accommodate each other.  It made for a much more harmonious team, but also made it easier on the audiences, who didn’t have to try and absorb multiple messages and priorities. It also had the ancillary effect of sharpening and making more consistent the business unit and corporate messages.

There were a couple of times when corporate needed to insist on changes, but prior to the onset of our communication meetings, we might not have even known something was coming from the business units, let alone have the chance to offer suggestions to focus the messages.  We also made our own adjustments from time to time — in particular, stepping in when a unit’s distribution got moved up and conflicted with our own activity. That generated trust and credibility and permitted us to gain valuable visibility to an important business unit priority.

Coordination is a logical follower to communication, and it sets the stage for the next of our 3 C’s — collaboration.



Use 3 C’s to Work Together

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

There’s been an animated discussion over at following a post from the always interesting @GiniDietrich on whether public relations needs mostly to be about driving sales.  Gini says,

You see, I believe a few things:

  1. Public relations (not publicity) can and should be measured to sales results;
  2. Public relations professionals need to gain some basic marketing skills or our industry will become defunct;
  3. Public relations is the very best place for content development because we are, after all, writers; and
  4. Really good content does more than attract Web site visitors or increase brand awareness – it generates inbound leads for the sales team.

Reading the comments, it’s evident that she’s got a lot of support for these notions, and while I don’t disagree that PR can drive sales, I don’t see that as the only role we PRs should play. There’s a bunch of stuff that we can do — issues management, employee communications, reputation management — that could be claimed by other departments but are mainly within our primary skill sets and usual responsibilities. The comment stream debates the point more than adequately (and entertainingly.)

But the reason I’m taking up your valuable time now is about how to set aside our provincialism and play well with others.

There’s substantial scholarship in the area of integrated communications, both against it in concept and for it. The thrust of the argument is whether all communication functions are aiming toward an eventual marketing outcome — driving sales. My colleague at Kent State University, Bob Batchelor, is solidly in that camp, as are communicators like @BethHarte and Gini.  I’ve frequently said that all marketing is communication but not all communication is marketing, but that could be a style preference: for too many marketers, all stakeholders look like customers, and all channels look like megaphones — I don’t want to “sell” to employees, community leaders, governmental officials, et. al.

I fully recognize the elegance of a unified approach to communication strategy. There are many benefits to integrating communications, but actually pulling everyone into the same department can be challenging, and we have to guard against efficiency getting the best of tailoring messages and methods. So how do we realize the benefits of integration without necessarily integrating?

I’ve got a process: The 3 C’s — Communication, Coordination and Collaboration.  I want to give each of these appropriate due, especially regarding how you measure, so I’ll tackle the first in the this post, then write some more on the others.

Communication seems so easy and basic, but it isn’t.  I’m aware of two organizations – large, global, complex — where you learn very quickly that the various communication functions aren’t talking to each other very much at all.  In particular, matters of budget, strategy and tactics take place in isolation, siloed-off from the beady eyes at “corporate.”

In short order, that leads to inconsistency in go-to-market (we can be consistent and still have appropriate tailoring), and lack of appropriate visibility and strategic alignment. At National City Corporation, a regional bank, we were in the thick of the financial crisis.  The communication team was distributed — a relatively small corporate department, with the business units (Private Bank, Corporate Bank, Retail and Operations) hosting their own departments.

Given the crisis circumstances (anyone remember 2008? Me too.), we needed to speak with one voice, to provide leadership and strategic understanding, to know what employees and customers were talking about.  So, we instituted a daily conference call for communication leads across the company. We started discussing these matters — not with an eye to seize the conversation and dictate strategy, but to better understand the situation and provide guidance.

Within five meetings, our working relationships improved. Within a month, we agreed to meet in person and work through a strategic process to better align our groups. Three months in, we were able to cut the meetings to weekly, because we’d started cooperating on many communication opportunities.

Communication opens doors — but only when it’s done with a heart for authentic improvement and understanding, not power grabs and dictates.

More on this coming up.





Bloggers – Got Paid? It’s Commercial Speech

Thursday, June 2nd, 2011

Earlier this year, I did some research on the U.S. Federal Trade Commission guidelines on endorsements and testimonials for a class. As I dug into it, I wrote a post promising to share the paper, so here it is. I thought I’d share the results in hopes that anyone in social media would understand that pay means business, and that means disclosure.  The style is academic, which means there are a lot of endnotes and a sizable bibliography, but it shouldn’t kill you.

The short version: If you get stuff from a company to write about (even if they don’t demand it be positive), you are expected to tell your readers. If what you say is deceptive or misleading, you could be blogging from the Hotel GrayBar — or at least be a little lighter in the cash department.

But wait a second, what about free speech?  Journalists don’t need to disclose if they get free stuff!  Well, let’s just say that the Government — and the Courts — have ruled that your free speech is secondary to the rights of consumers.

I don’t think I can argue. But you can — just read the paper first.


PR Learnings from Mobile Marketing

Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

Michael Schwabe, thunder::tech

For the marketing folks, the advent of sophisticated handheld devices like iPhones, Blackberrys and tablet PCs is an irresistible draw to push messages out. Michael Schwabe of thunder::tech, an integrated marketing agency, made that abundantly clear at the May 12 meeting of the Cleveland Chapter of IABC.

Schwabe covered a high-level set of interesting uses for smart phones and always-on Internet geegaws — provided your main goal is to sell stuff, one way or another.  This is no knock on Mike, he did a great job — the title of the talk , after all, was “mobile marketing.” Applications for your iPhone to facilitate ordering.  Websites optimized to look good on a Blackberry screen, QR and AR codes that make it easy to snap information off a flyer or add content to some kind of arrangement that isn’t there beforehand.

Perhaps most fascinating (and a bit disturbing) were the applications that use GPS to tailor sales appeals — you’re at the mall, and American Eagle texts you, saying: “Hey, Sean, check out the sale on jeans we’re having at the AE store?”  Holy Phillip K. Dick!

Amid all of this talk about relevancy, situational marketing, search optimization, SMS, Web display ads, and in-application advertising, I just had to ask about application to public relations (broadly defined.) Mike’s response was a good one, albeit a little limited. He talked about reaching media members where they want to be reached — pitching via text or email, etc.  He’s right, but my follow-up questions are more targeted. Here’s what he said in an interview by email.

Sean: I get the mobile applications when it comes to media relations – but what of reputation management, or issues management?  What about using these tools for building stronger relationships among our stakeholders?

Mike: It’s a very interesting and complicated question and I’m glad we have this chance to discuss it more. Reputation and issues management in a mobile world really translates to PR practitioners being available 24/7/365. Because so many people have their mobile device by their side both day and night, it’s seemingly expected that we are open to communicating at any time. There’s positives and negatives to that.

Positively, a perception of always being available is a great client relationship point. It moves PR practitioners from being vendors to trusted advisers. The other side is that PR professionals need to find a personal and professional balance in their lives (as I believe every professional does). We need to ask ourselves when “accessible” becomes too accessible.

Right now, the effect of mobile on the core concept of media relations is that it speeds it up – accessibility, surveying, RSS reading, etc. Also, the 24/7 nature of the job that mobile technology allows us really plays into the true nature of crisis communications.

However, I can easily see more dynamic impacts in the future – dedicated applications and websites for pushing information and taking inquiries, for example – imagine if we could easily mass email a news release from our phones. The problem isn’t so much that the technology doesn’t make all of these things possible; it’s that no one has blended them together to make an ideal tool set.

S: The entire “integrated marketing communications” universe puts public relations into a box beneath marketing, with all our activity required to offer sales support. How does the mobile explosion affect all of the things that aren’t direct sale support?

M: I would respectfully disagree that “integrated” means PR must support sales. If PR departments allow themselves to be put into that box, then they need stronger leadership. However, aside from that possible tangent, it’s really the same comparison offline as it is online – which I think gets lost much of the time when you start to think about tackling an online campaign. Consider the reputation of the company or the products and services you are promoting. Each company or client has plenty to offer in traditional media relations, mobile just accelerates the access to the information.

To make these efforts effective, consideration must be given to how you are found online. If you want to rely on mobile to drive conversation, you have to have a mobile-ready website that’s easy to navigate with easy to find contact information. Further, the proliferation of social media and it’s accessibility on mobile devices mean you have real-time access to your consumers. Find out what they want and use that informal method of research to drive immediate messaging reactions or possibly multivariate testing opportunities. For some fun reading, I think the list presented here is interesting, and while it may not provide “must-use” tools as the title says, it does a good job illustrating how PR pros can use mobile technology and apps to get things done quicker and on-the-fly.

S: What sort of interest in internal communications applications have you seen? (and if not, why not? )

M: The best examples have been the mobile-enabling of company calendars and sales and support materials. Where there’s been a shortcoming is in mobile-enabling branding and media documents.

As your employees travel or are on the road for a day, the flow of information is still going – the media cycle does not stop – something your readers are no doubt aware of. With mobile networks getting faster (3G and 4G technologies), there’s no reason to limit anything you would get on a desktop plugged into your company’s network to just that desktop. Make it mobile, but do it intelligently. Make sure files are easy to download and content is easily findable. The best examples I’ve seen are executed on a tablet like the iPad where companies will develop a tablet- ready website and password protect it to give only internal groups access to as much of the same information that their intranet or local server does. Another way to Web-enable and protect a lot of the needed information is through cloud computing, which is a subject in and of itself.

There is hesitance to Web and mobile enabling much of this information and that hesitance usually comes from IT departments – we love them because they keep us running, but we turn and stomp out of their offices when they throw around their weight with arguments like, “It won’t be secure so we can’t put it online or give you access to it outside of the office.”

While that is a valid point, it’s also frustrating. All we want to do is serve our customers or not have to worry about coming into the office to get that file we forgot, but the security risk is sometimes too great. What if you could access all of your company’s financial and trade-secret information on your phone and then you lost your phone or it was stolen? There are numerous reports of it happening with laptops and mobile devices can be an even easier target. While I can’t disagree, I think there has to be a happy medium to give PR pros on-the-go access and still keeping the information secure.

S: Thanks Mike – I appreciate you taking the time!

What I surmise is that if we see PR only in the media relations or sales support view, we’re going to lose, not just our credibility, but also our jobs. We’ve seen lately more evidence that building relationships across our constituencies is more important to our organizations than simply increasing the volume of opportunities to see our messages.  Regardless of relevancy, message fatigue and competition are going to put a lot of stress on the traditional marketing environment.

I can see how exploiting the two-way (or multi-way) capabilities of mobile could lead to discussion between our clients and us — as well as between end-users and organizations. All of that gets not only to sales opportunities, but also to brand-wide communication. The ability to put such a powerful tool in employee hands alone means much for the cause of collaboration, at lower cost and more efficiently overall. Bringing customers, prospects and employees together by the palms of their hands is a very intriguing prospect.

This week on #icchat, we’ll tackle video in internal communications — still relevant or old hat? Join us Thursday, May 19 at 10 a.m. North American Eastern Time on Twitter. Just search for #icchat (though using TweetDeck or TweetChat makes Twitter chats much easier to handle…)


When they’re not buying what you’re selling…

Thursday, April 21st, 2011

Creative Commons

One harsh reality of social media is that you find out pretty quickly where you stand.  One fairly obvious reality is that the Twitter chat I’ve been working on for a while now — #icchat on internal communications – isn’t exactly setting the world on fire.

This is a little depressing for me, personally. But I shouldn’t be surprised. The truth is, the dearth of participation is traceable to a central problem. Me.

You have to shepherd these things – the most popular and vigorous get a ton of promotional support, and the topic of communication within the enterprise isn’t a social media hotbed.  Nonetheless, we’ve had some great discussions, peaking last fall with about 20 participants and more than 200 tweets. Even the smaller chats have been good, including Thursday’s intimate affair (five of us) where we talked about internal communication outcomes.  (Summary post coming, probably on Friday.)

I am conflicted, however, about whether to continue #icchat.  As I have mentioned, for the past (nearly) two years, I’ve considered social media an experiment, particularly Twitter and blogging. Facebook’s become merely a communication medium, but Twitter’s chat function represents my favorite part of the miniblogging tool.  I like the quick pace, the forced brevity. I like the diversity — #PR20Chat, #KaizenBlog, #MeasurePR, #SoloPR.

But I have to tell you – when one gets paying work, it’s bloody hard to market the chat.  I’ve been fortunate to have pretty steady gigs over the past eight months – both academic and professional. I’ve looked at different days and times to try and hit the best, but it’s been most difficult to get people interested.  I’m disappointed that the organizations – PRSA, IABC – and the commercial groups – Ragan, Melcrum – show not the slightest inclination to participate. I’ve also approached a couple of luminaries in the internal comms space about guesting, but after four or five straight scheduling conflicts, I’d better take the hint.

It is remarkably similar to building a business – it takes a while and takes a lot of effort to market.

To that end, I can’t help but wonder whether to pull the plug on #icchat.  I seem to be doing well at building my business (thanks to some terrific colleagues), am considered a worthy professor and still have a healthy marriage, so perhaps #icchat is odd man out. Gotta think about it some more.  So far, I’m planning to hit it one more time, at least, 19 May at 10 a.m. Eastern Time.

I’m interested in your perspectives.