Posts Tagged ‘Communication Theories’

3 new research items that move PR forward

Thursday, April 21st, 2016

ResearchBlockThe research at the International PR Research Conference in March includes several items from Dr. Ansgar Zerfaß of the University of Leipzig, who, as has become usual, is at the vanguard of public relations research. These three papers are leading our practice – and deserve much more notice among those of us who do the work. They join several others that I covered previously.

I’ve written before about the need for practitioners to embrace the academic professionals who are researching our field. Zerfaß brought with him Ph.D. student Sophia Charlotte Volk, who shared two papers co-authored with him (and won a heap of research awards at the conference, including this one) that I’ll briefly describe in successive posts. Talking with Ansgar and Sophia was terrific, and I learned a lot from them.

The Communication Value Circle — Introducing a multi-disciplinary framework for aligning communication with corporate strategy. (Zerfaß & Dr. Christine Viertmann) This research project explores the theories and concepts that explain communication value in the context of business, and identifies and arranges in a system communication goals, and links them to corporate goals. This latter portion of the project establishes that communication contributes to overall business objectives in four ways:

  • Enabling operations through publicity, customer preferences and employee commitment;
  • Building intangibles through reputation, brand and corporate culture;
  • Ensuring flexibility of a corporation through establishing and maintaining relationships with stakeholders, and building trust and legitimacy, and
  • Adjusting strategy through thought leadership, innovation potential and crisis resilience.

Implications:

This work begins to codify, clearly, not only how to describe the impact and value of organizational communication, but to build measurement strategies to demonstrate it.

  • “Enabling operations” speaks to organizational effectiveness, productivity, and sales leadership and the measurement of each.
  • “Building intangibles” can give input to balanced scorecard figures on nonfinancial indicators.
  • The point on building and maintaining relationships suggests measuring the strengths of those relationships.
  • The most important, to me, is “adjusting strategy.” Measurement isn’t only about proving value, it’s about actionable intelligence that allows organizations to course-correct.

Stay tuned for other posts on the IPRRC 2016 research.

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5 facts that independent schools should take to heart about marketing

Monday, October 27th, 2014

462996881Independent schools (boarding and private schools) are bastions of wealth and privilege, packed to the ancient rafters with the sons and daughters of titans of industry, government and commerce, with long waiting lists of the 1 percent clamoring for entry. And the admission directors’ main job is to say, “no.”  Well, not exactly. This is 2014, and even alumni (many of whom have moved away from the old school) no longer “always” send their kids back. It’s a new world, and independent schools need to wake up about marketing.

What’s happened now is a massive demographic shift, from north and east to south and west, mirroring the wider trends in societies. For example, the state of Ohio, home to four boarding schools and countless private day schools, lost 150,000 households with children under 18 between 2001 and 2010. Who were those people? Young families from the state’s main metro areas, Toledo, Cleveland, Dayton, Columbus, Youngstown and Cincinnati.

In Massachusetts, nearly 31 percent of households had children under 18 in 2000. That figure dropped to 28 percent in 2010, and just 8.6 percent had children under 14… Connecticut:  20 percent of households had children under 14 in 2000. 17.7 percent in 2010. On the surface, these are changes of just a few percentage points, but given the continued trends, and the lower birth rates associated with modern American life, they’re sobering. SSATB’s recent survey noted a 33% decline in domestic boarding students since 2001, and a precipitous decline in inquiries.

How do independent schools need to respond to the shift?

1. Realize you are battling with your peers over a declining market. Differentiating your product is essential — the traditional New England boarding school experience can be had many places, and the cost to value calculation is being conducted more often than you think.  Your brand must differentiate you.

2.  People outside of the I-95 corridor don’t understand boarding schools. That’s why the highest proportion of boarding school attendees come from just six states, according to The Association of Boarding Schools.  Creating new boarding school families is critical, but it’s an expensive proposition that independent schools haven’t budgeted for. By one calculus, a prospect needs to be exposed to messaging 30 times before the product or service has a shot at entering the consideration set, and that’s assuming your targeting is precise enough to find the most likely people to be prospects.

3.  People have good choices other than independent schools. Many cities with challenging public schools not only have great private options, they have charter schools and parochial schools that compete with your school. Even in cities that are struggling, there are people who believe in public schools and want to support them, or who want a religious education, (or who just want to be five minutes closer to school), rather than send their kids to yours.

4.  For boarding schools and private high schools, the kids are driving the decision process, and they aren’t reading your viewbooks and brochures, or your letters. They’re using Instagram and Facebook to find your current students and evaluate your school from that angle. They hit your website looking for multimedia content that’s real, open, honest and focused on them. They find your followers on Twitter and engage on Snapchat. They don’t care about your marketing messages, they care about discovering the real story of your school.  They don’t read long articles. They are harsh judges.

5. Digital marketing is more targeted, more effective and more measurable than analog marketing. It can be efficient, too (ask me for details), but it still takes budget and expertise. It’s more than search engine optimization or buying Google Adwords (which can get spendy very quickly), it’s managing your digital strategy from objectives to creative in concert with your other communications. Public relations, social media, internal communication, parent communications and alumni communications all play crucial roles in the marketing mix. You need experience and talent to manage all of that.

It’s doable. But your school has to let go of the ego-centric conceit that it doesn’t NEED marketing because of its history, its venerable buildings, its location or its alumni base. The world is changing fast, and only the adaptable will survive.

Data retrieved from http://factfinder2.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml , 2013 State of the Independent School Admission Industry (SSATB)  This post also appeared on LinkedIn. 

 

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The perils of pricing

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

I don’t know about you other #solopr folks, but trying to figure out pricing is tough. When I started Communication AMMO five years ago (holy mackerel!), I set pricing based on the agency SVP/Partner model. Some friends at a couple of agencies reviewed my CV and said that would be where they would bill me, were I working there.

The squishy thing was, a) there was a wicked huge recession on, and b) the whole “hourly” billing didn’t really apply to the initial project work. I did some math (one day planning session and $X, plus Y hours of writing the plan and Z hours of back-and-forth) and realized to make anything close to a living, I’d need a lot of planning sessions.

So I started thinking about value, the value of more than just the time, but of the years of experience. I looked back at when I’d worked for Joe Williams and what he billed for my time, and billed accordingly.  Then, when I started teaching, I learned my value was about $0.30 an hour (but I love it and am grateful for it!)

Ha-HA!

So, now there’s a chance I’ll be teaching a couple of days of master classes, and trying to figure out that billing has twisted my little grey cells into a knot. I want to do it, it’s a not for profit sponsoring it…

Thoughts? Thanks!

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Join our conversation on PRConversations

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

Over on the sine qua non of public relations blogs, PRConversations, I’ve inveighed against the provincialism of the idea that we PRs are engaged in some sort of war with marketing over turf and assets. Sure, I still believe that all marketing is communication, but not all communication is marketing, and certainly the measurement challenges are more on our side than on that of our marketing cousins, but that’s no cause to think it’s a binary choice for organizations.  Have a gander — especially at the comment stream — and weigh in.

Many thanks to Judy Gombita and Heather Yaxley for their offer of space for my screed…

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Skills for PR need revision, research finds

Friday, March 28th, 2014
Prof. Michele Ewing presents as Dr. Dean Krueckeberg (R) and Dr. Vince Hazelton (L) listen.

Prof. Michele Ewing presents as Dr. Dean Krueckeberg (R) and Dr. Vince Hazelton (L) and others listen.

Public relations educators might need to re-examine the core curriculum to keep newly minuted pros relevant in the current market, according to research by Kent State University’s Prof. Michele Ewing.  A qualitative study of the required skills and knowledge for entry-level advertising and PR majors finds that planning, writing, multimedia and business knowledge are among the most urgently needed competencies.

Professor Ewing conducted interviews with 31 pros ranging from CEOs to mid-level professionals across agency, corporate and not-for-profit organizations, and the results were presented at the 17th International PR Research Conference, March 6-10, 2014.

The findings:

Strategic communications planning: Understanding of research and comms strategy is the foundation of PR education. Students must have critical thinking skills and grasp the basics of planning and measurement.

Writing across multiple platforms: Telling stories appropriately for the medium, including content intended to go directly from organization to stakeholder. Yes, we do need people who know the difference between writing a post-length piece versus a feature versus an objective piece.

Multimedia storytelling: Social, mobile, online — they all depend on imagery, audio, video, text, infographics… Visual storytelling is a great phrase, and knowing the power of graphics and imagery and how to lever them appropriately is essential. So is knowing your Adobe suite.

Interpersonal communication: You’ve got to be able to speak, present, engage, persuade, face to face, online and in print.

Digital: Social media and data analytics, including the strategic understanding of engaging audiences through these new tools, but that engagement is only the beginning. Community management, multimedia for social, online and mobile, and the ability to use data analytics to both develop strategy and measure its effect.  More important, it’s the ability to make sense of the data as applied to business issues and problems to facilitate decision-making.

Converged media: Owned, earned and paid work together, and pros need to know how to apply each in service to wider goals. Paid or sponsored social content was an area of emphasis noted.

Business knowledge: Understanding how businesses work, including entrepreneurship, business development, profit margin and bottom line, distribution and purchasing, basic economics… Yes, we still need to address our aversion to numbers as a profession and be business people who happen to lever communication skills.

Exposure to key practice areas: Internal communications, media relations, public affairs, issues and reputation management — but also industry sectors, B2B, healthcare, crisis, energy and technology communications are growth areas in our practice.  But, specializing as an expert in one or more of these is seen as preferable to the generalist approach.

Congrats to Michele on a terrific presentation of a very important topic.  What would you add in the way of advice to improve the curriculum?

 

 

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Feeding mind & soul at PR research conference

Monday, March 10th, 2014
Dr. Vincent Hazleton, Prof. Michele Ewing & Dr. Dean Kruckeberg

Dr. Vincent Hazleton, Prof. Michele Ewing & Dr. Dean Kruckeberg

Many of my colleagues in public relations quail when I tell them I make a habit of attending the International PR Research Conference.  It’s an academic conference that features scholars presenting papers they have written (or soon will write) in 15 minute blocks. Half the time they explain the main points of the research, and the other half we listeners get to ask questions and make suggestions. That works great for me, and beginning in 2014, I’m now a member of the IPRRC Research Advisory Board, so will have a chance to be more involved.

For a lot of these papers/presentations — which are requirements for Ph.D.s and doctoral students — there isn’t a direct connection to practice. That doesn’t mean discussing them is not useful, and I admit readily to being enough of a geek that I appreciate the deep mental stretching that the more esoteric topics bring forth. Among the more usual questions I ask: “So what?” Most of the time not quite so bluntly (though one longtime friend of the conference, a practitioner who passed away last year, Jack Felton, felt no such reticence), and always with the desire only to understand the research’s impact on our practice.  We need more of the usual PRs to delve into this stuff, because the academics need our feedback, and we need to be there to give it!

One of my favorites was among the most academic. Denmark-based professors Finn Frandsen and Winni Johansen of Aarhus University are exploring a general theory of intermediaries in PR. That’s trade unions, trade associations, the news media and others as stakeholders on their own account. Finn and Winni pose that there’s a trifecta of reputations at stake — the industry represented, the members of the intermediary organization, and the organization itself might be sharing reputation in a commons of sorts. Made my head hurt a little, but in a good way.

There were several other presentations that made a strong impression. Here’s the first few I took note of. 

Place

Dr. Shannon Bowen listens to Dr. Katie Place

Dr. Katie Place of Saint Louis University, presented on ethical decision-making in public relations. She is seeking to understand how professionals evaluate or reflect on their decisions. Dr. Place has started a qualitative study on the topic, and finds that there are few constants in process, with relying on one’s “gut” one of the few.  It’s a highly personal and rather eclectic mix, she finds, and that matches with much I’ve read on the topic.  We need more research on this, especially as PR Ethics is so often considered an oxymoron.

Doctoral student Arunima Krishna of Purdue University explored a “big 4” accounting firm’s unauthorized Facebook “Confessions” page, exploring whether the passion, vigor and dedication associated with highly engaged publics (groups of people) who are negative toward their organizations present particular challenges to our practice.  She posits that engagement — frequently assumed to be positive and desirable — might have a dark side. Stay tuned, and look for your organization’s Facebook Confessions page ASAP.

 

Holley Reeves, doctoral student

Holley Reeves, doctoral student

Holley Reeves, a doc student at University of Georgia, looked at corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs as contributors to organization public relations activities. She conducted interviews with PR pros to determine what they thought of their org’s CSR, and sought to determine whether the CSR was primarily used to accomplish PR goals. It’s early, but the preliminary findings are encouraging for those who a) believe CSR is the right thing to do regardless of its business or PR value, and b) that CSR is no replacement for confronting and solving organizational problems and issues. 

There are more to review — look for another 3-4 in the next post, including the offering from my Kent State University colleague, Prof. Michele Ewing!

 

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A communicator’s manifesto for 2014

Friday, January 3rd, 2014

no_year_in_reviewNo predictions, no year-in-review. Instead, how about a statement of first principles? Can you dig it?

Resolved: Whether in internal communication, PR measurement or strategic communications, we will be fearless, ruled by the right thing to do rather than the facile, easy or merely expedient. Therefore:

  • As the internal experts in communication, we will have facts and data at our disposal to support our strategies and tactics. We will do research, ongoing measurement and evaluation to ensure that our activities are having the desired impact on business results. Because we care most about that, we won’t allow ourselves to be wedded to our tools — social, electronic, print, whatever. Instead, we will do as every other department in our organization must do: be judged by our impact and value. We will measure at the output, communication outcome and business results levels (output, outtake, outcome), and if we don’t know how to do so, we’ll educate ourselves.
  • We will not cede the public relations field to marketing, embracing the credo that while all marketing is communication, not all communication is marketing! Neither shall we use marketing metrics for non-marketing activities out of inertia, expediency or lack of interest. Nor will we by word, deed or omission allow social media to be subsumed solely into the “marketing mix,” advocating instead for a truly strategic approach to the use of social tools as well as all the other tools in our cabinet.
  • We will insist on transparency from our vendors, never settling for “black box” methods. We recognize the unique value our vendors may bring to the table, but we will need to understand how their many miracles in return on investment, value of Facebook likes, financial values in nonfinancial situations, etc., actually work in practice. We will compare notes and seek metrics beyond anecdotes.
  • We will develop SMART objectives — specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound — because performance against objectives is the most basic and appreciated mode of measurement for any communicator. It is these objectives — and the process of setting them — that lead us to our strategies and tactics. They give us purpose, drive, ambition and business life, a reason for being.
  • We will embrace the simple fact that we are business people — regardless of industry, specialty or education, we are business people first, using communication skills, tactics and strategies in support of business objectives. We therefore will be more than merely conversant in the language of business; we will employ it when we talk of what we do, who we are and the roles we play in our organizations.

These are weighty responsibilities, my friends. Are you up to the challenge?

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What I learned at Fusion 13 – the IT conference

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

iStock_000027047431LargeFish out of water doesn’t begin to describe the experience.  The itSMF and HDI — two professional services organizations focusing on information technology people — held their annual conference this week, Fusion 13, and I presented the AMMO method to about 50 attendees.

The speaking part went very well from my perspective — the people in my session were great — upbeat, positive, involved — and they really seemed to get a lot out of putting the Audience-Message-Method-Objective method to work.  With just an hour to work with, it was a crash course, but judging from the visible reactions and the comments, they found it valuable.

The trick for them now is to put AMMO to work — that’s always the conference imperative, right?

I attended some sessions as well as two of the keynotes, and confirmed my earlier assessment that every staff function — IT, Marketing, PR, HR, whatever — has the same strategic issues. Namely, how do we increase our perceived value in the strategic sense?

Change management was a hot topic, and Paul Wilkinson of  the Dutch company GamingWorks and Sharon Taylor of Canada’s Aspect Group evangelized on the need to articulate the value to the business, the desired business outcomes, the costs and risks of a change initiative in order to have any shot at success.  These are the four key words that describe a service. Wilkinson mentioned that he’d asked about 6,000 IT professionals, 90% of whom had completed their ITIL coursework (the framework for service management), what those four key words were. A large majority got them wrong.

One participant mentioned that this had been the case in IT for 30 years — if we asked the question of communicators “what are the keys to getting budget and people in your department?” what would they say?  I hope they’d say that success depended on articulating value, cost, risks and business outcomes!

Barb Dombrowski of Progressive shared a case study of their knowledge management program. This KM stuff involves creating specific content that the service desk (including multiple levels of support) uses in the course of working with callers. The goal is “production readiness,” and adopting a standardized template for the “articles” enforced search criteria and ensured the right material got to the right support people for the right issues.   Progressive went from 3,000 KM articles just three years ago to more than 19,000.  Now, Dombrowski and team are working on the quality of those articles, seeking to measure extent of use and weed out the weak items

We communication folks think we’re the resident experts in communication in the organization. Maybe reaching out to the IT people, in particular those in KM, will make us smarter.

I’ll also mention the terrific keynotes I caught – Cindy Solomon burned up the stage with a high-energy, often hilarious talk about the four types of courage — blind courage (just leap!), crisis courage (expressing calm when the world is blowing up around us), role courage (the confidence of knowing your authority in a given role) and core courage (the courage that comes from servant leadership, being unafraid of admitting you don’t know something, etc.)

Josh Linkner talked of creativity — of being willing to let go of the past and look to the future, to fail well and often and learn from the experience. He says we can learn from jazz — how to be creative and a great teammate.   He’s the founder of ePrize, which he sold for a boat load of cash, and now a venture capitalist based in Detroit. He, too, was an entertaining speaker who’d have been at home at a marketing, PR or HR conference.

I had client meetings to run home to, so I missed the Tuesday night party, but the Monday receptions and jam-packed Gaylord Opryland Hotel (vast, huge, capacious) made for a fun environment.  If they are interested in having me back, I’d gladly go!

 

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The simple pleasure of ‘Attenzi’

Tuesday, July 9th, 2013

http://www.attenzi.com/If Philip Sheldrake‘s eBook, Attenzi — A Social Business Story, were a paperback novel, it would be a slender tome, perhaps similar to Who Moved My Cheese.  Like the legendary Spencer Johnson fable on change, Attenzi uses a fictional story to make a factual point. In this case, that social business (not just social media) is a revolution that should change how businesses sell, operate and succeed.

Sheldrake constructs the book almost as a diary, with Attenzi CEO Eli Appel as the narrator. Appel talks about taking the reins as leader, about the team and its strengths and weaknesses, and about his own fears and misgivings as he embraces social business. Attenzi is a kitchen appliance maker, a brand once dominant in the high-end sector that had started to slip.  Social represents an opportunity not to merely sell through a new channel, but to recast the relationships between Attenzi and its customers and other constituents.

In the process, Appel and his team learn what’s right and wrong with the company, how it stayed on its path in the face of a changing marketplace, and how a lack of innovation was threatening the firm.  Readers follow a set of appealing characters through the story, and arrive at a happy ending (albeit predictably) .

Aside from a couple of preachy, awkward discussions as the shades fall from the characters’ eyes, it’s a solid work that has a lot to say about perception of change, resistance to it, and the experimental nature of  innovation when it embraces the transparent, social, customer-up style of modern business.

It’s really hard to write dialogue for a business context. I’ve written two short plays for a client, and it’s a real challenge to include the insider language (whilst avoiding jargon where possible) and drive toward the points you’re trying to make. Sheldrake succeeds substantially; as I say, there are a couple of times where the two-person dialogue stretches credibility as natural speech, but that’s a miniature cavil for certain.

Appel (the Attenzi CEO) strikes a good balance between pushing for change and evaluating what has and hasn’t worked.  The leadership team doesn’t reflexively dismiss him (apparently not even privately; that would make for a good subplot in an expanded edition of the book).  Attenzi doesn’t have to deal with a crippling crisis in the midst of the renaissance.

I enjoyed the book because of its simple and even idealistic view that business can change by being less closed, less secretive. I liked that social wasn’t just media, just another extension of the marketing mix, beholden to the world of increasing impressions and required conversion.  Social for me is broader than that, the embodiment of what’s become my axiom and watchcry: “All marketing is communication, but not all communication is marketing.”

Attenzi makes that point, creatively, succinctly.  Kudos, Mr. Sheldrake.

Now, go read the book and tell me what you think.

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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 Ragan.com, 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.

 

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