Friday, March 30

Playing Shell Games: Communication Experts


All you need to play a shell game (or Thimblerig according to Wikipedia), is three shells and a pea. Sometimes it is portrayed as gambling, but it is often an illegal confidence trick used to perpetrate fraud.

Now, I am not saying that most people in communication (marketing, advertising, public relations, and related fields) mean to do it (oh, a few of them do), but social media has accidentally unmasked the communication shell game with industry buzz terms and gibberish.

For example, and I cannot be clear enough, social media cannot replace reputation management. Reputation management is a strategy. Social media is a tactic. For the most part, strategies are not measured. Tactics are measured. But the tactical measurement can influence the strategic direction. Confused yet? It gets better when shell gamers get hold of it.

You see, there are plenty of firms who agree that social media is a tactic, but then they try to sell social media "strategies" complete with analytics (the fancy name for Web tracking), saying "never mind the reputation management, because everybody knows reputation management cannot be measured by click-throughs."

Oh gosh. So now it's all about click-throughs? Stop. You're killing me. What about those folks who don't click-through? I see those people all the time who mysteriously find their way to the exact page they want on my blog because those sly little Internet savvy voyeurs don't click ... they re-input the Web address. Darn you. You know who you are (and I'm joking ... come here any way you like).

Or how about those experts who damn traditional media, er, mainstream media, er, MSM, er, whatever, because blogging, er, social media, er, SM, is so powerful that businesses just don't need traditional media anymore. (By the way, they say, did we mention that we are so right about this ... that we're being interviewed by a major print publisher? Egad! I thought you said it didn't matter so why brag!?!)

Or maybe, if you're very lucky, they'll invent a whole new term to explain what other people are already doing, just so they can look like experts. It works like this ... today, I'll call social media, um, a social computing network. Then, when competing firms come knocking, I'll say "Naw, they are no good, I bet they don't even know what the social computing network is." (I don't do that ... as I have said before, I'm happy to speak any variation of English, having already learned if the client wants to call a brochure "chicken soup," then I'm all in for chicken soup. Why split hairs?)

Recently, a self-described student of social media (I love his humility, considering he's more an expert than some experts), Amitai Givertz unmasked one of them on a slide show at Blogversity Blog. At first, it gave him pause.

There's nothing wrong with that. And then, when I hinted that the entire slide was baloney, he was all in to be more specific in what he was thinking. And, not surprisingly, we agreed.

The presentation said things like this (no order):

"Blogging changes the writer’s behaviour more than it changes the readers’ behaviour."

"If your brand is going to blog you need to understand what you want to change about it."

"Social media demand that you trade control for influence."

"Brands only have a role if they can make the conversation more interesting."

"We have to get comfortable with managing the immeasurable."

"Maybe media agnostic would be a better term."

Media agnostic? Remember what I said about inventing terms. Yeah, now you're seeing it.

This is all utter nonsense. Twenty-six slides that smack of a shell game. For instance, if your blog controls your brand and affects your behavior more than than the consumer, you've got real problems.

However, as I pointed out at Blogversity, there is an erroneous assumption that brands can be controlled. It only takes … one tanker spill in Alaska … one tire recall … one bad bunch of spinach … to see how fragile brands can really be.

Givertz goes on to point out some of the flaws in the slide (there are too many to correct in a single post; each slide could be a post in fact). One of my favorite slide rebuts from him reminds us that the brand and its message to communicate and stimulate emotional attachment and identification of the subject with its consumers must somehow correlate with the medium, when in fact, whether the medium is a billboard, blog, or urinal splash-mat ... it is nothing more than a means to an end.

Yep. The medium is the messenger for your brand, but not necessarily the message. Or, in other words, your brand and message should dictate how you use any number of tools at your disposal, including blogs or social media or whatever the term du jour is.

Hey, I'm coming dangerously close to touching on the validity of strategic communication, something I know a lot about. But I don't want to do that today so here is a nutshell version...

Strategic communication is the best method of thinking to align strategies like reputation management, mission statements, corporate values (and whatnot) AND integrate marketing, advertising, and public relations to deliver a core message (not key messages) interwoven in multiple mediums like blogs, ads, direct mail (and whatnot) to change the behavior of consumers, specifically to get them to buy your product as opposed to someone else's product and, at the same time, make them feel good about their purchasing decision so they'll tell other people to do it too.

Wow! That's an awfully long sentence and here is the rub: anything can influence strategic communication at any level, but the control is best preserved by the executive management team with consult from your lead communication expert (provided they know what they are doing).

Ironically and unfortunately, a good number of communication experts know that strategic communication (meaning all communication within an organization) can be influenced by any department or subcategory or tool to such a degree that it places a stranglehold on the entire organization and forces them to move in a direction that does not make sense for the company (Ah ha! That IS what Julie Roehm tried to do to Wal-Mart!). And THAT is also the communication industry's shell game.

No wonder recruiters and executive employers always seem miffed when every interviewee is using terms that are alien. Worse, recruiters and employers become so entrenched in buzz words perpetrated by the last "expert," they begin to perplex the next interviewee with useless questions like how big is your Rolodex. Frankly, it gives the industry a bad name.

Here is the bottom line: If you're a recruiter or executive, don't be fooled by all this nonsense. At the end of the day, there is only one measurement. It's called SALES.

Sales and cost savings are the ultimate ROIs (not to take anything away from market penetration or market dominance). So if your communication is driving sales or at least helping your salespeople make sales — or some new communication tools are saving you money — then your communication is working, provided your company is reaching its full sales potential.

So the next time you meet with a communication expert (marketing, advertising, public relations, social media), ask them what are the quantitative and qualitative (measurable) results of their work. If they cannot tell you, keep your eye on the pea ... 'cause they might start talking about click-throughs and being comfortable with non-measurements.


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3 comments:

Rich on 3/30/07, 11:52 AM said...

Famous First Words:

I really meant to include a very smart post from Julian Seery Gude at EXCELER8ion, but I exceeded my quota on logic leaps and it just didn't fit. So check it out at and I'll revisit it another time. You see, Julian seems to be all about thinking it through too. I respect that.

Here is the .

Rich on 3/31/07, 8:52 AM said...

More Words:

Additional discussion on this topic occurs at Recruiting Bloggers.com.

Rich on 3/31/07, 9:15 AM said...

Even More Words:

"I avoid using the term 'social media.' I don't like it, and I don't even want to know what it means. I may talk about blogging and podcasting and syndication and tagging and stuff like that. But I never think about any of those things as 'media' and rarely visit their "social" nature (though I am sure they have one)." — Doc Searls

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