Saturday, January 31

Breaking Pride: Peanut Corporation Of America

The day before federal health officials began a criminal investigation into the actions of the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), Beth Falwell, daughter of PCA founder Hugh Parnell, in an ill-advised exclusive interview spoke to a local station, asking for understanding and the benefit of the doubt.

Federal investigators says PCA shipped out peanut products that had tested positive for salmonella at least 12 times during the past two years. The FDA says PCA shipped each out after retesting with a different laboratory. The interview reveals two messages from Falwell. One is a distraught family member, obviously concerned for the family company that is not likely to survive the crisis. The other is more defiant, claiming that the FDA investigation is exaggerated.

“Right now it’s not a law, maybe it should be. But he didn’t break any laws,“ Falwell said.

On Thursday, we revealed how the PCA had emphasized safety, quality, and freshness of product. However, even Falwell could not deny any allegation of cockroaches in the plant, a leaky roof, or the presence of mold. "I'm not saying there weren't," she said.

Based on the interview alone, it's extremely clear that the Peanut Corporation of America doesn't have a crisis communication team in place. While we pointed to a breakdown of the first step — situation analysis — in the crisis communication process, it seems the communication matches the operations, with extreme negligence. Not once, that we are aware of, had the company expressed any empathy or remorse for those afflicted until the criminal investigation was launched (see the newest statement).

In addition, we recently stumbled onto evidence that this is not the first time the plant has had to recall product due to improper and unsafe operations at its plant in Gorman, Texas, which is now closed. Although the report dates back to the 1990s, the Peanut Corporation of America recalled thousands of pounds of product because they exceeded the FDA's established tolerance level for aflatoxin. Aflatoxins, a fungus, are toxic and among the most carcinogenic substances known.

While manufacturers and processors have recalls from time to time for any number of reasons, the report stands out because mold was one of the many problems that the FDA noted during this inspection and, for years, the company has claimed "providing a quality product at a fair cost has been the credence our business has grown up with for the past 28 years." Incidentally, the family did not own the company between 1995 and 2000 (they sold the company, and bought it back).

Friday, January 30

Developing Networks: The Hierarchy Of Need

For as long as there have been social networks, there have been tip sheets on why you need them and how to make them. But do social networks really work this way? Are there tips, tactics, techniques, and secrets to Digg, Linkedin, Twitter, Facebook, BlogCatalog, and countless others? Enough so that you need an entrance strategy? Maybe.

Or maybe it's much simpler than that. Abraham Maslow, who published A Theory of Human Motivation and the hierarchy of human needs, suggested that people tend to prioritize basic needs before personal growth before achieving self-actualization. Maybe they do online too.

Scaling The Maslow Slope In Social Networks

• The Need for Hope. When people first join a social network, most of them are looking to fulfill a hope: personal interaction, professional development, community involvement, or some combination of the three. Their initial focus tends to be concentrated on learning the culture of the social network. (Equivalent to physiological needs.) "Maybe this is the next big thing!?"

•Security. As they begin to engage individuals and develop relationships, they start to feel more secure within the network. Their focus shifts to engaging others in conversation, especially people they have met in person or people who support them. (Safety and security.) "Everyone is so nice!"

• Acceptance. As their confidence grows, they begin to feel accepted as part of the group and stand on their own. They are more likely to initiate conversations, even among strangers, because they belong. (Belongingness.) "We belong here!"

• Achievement. As their network grows around them, they receive more recognition and respect. They are more likely to set topic agendas, lead conversations, and earn the respect of others. (Self-esteem.) "Wow! They think I'm brilliant!"

• Change The World. As their perceived influence reaches a peak, they feel empowered to problem solve and perceive social networks as a means to change the world. They take more chances. They originate more ideas. (Self-actualization.) "We can change the world!"

Reversing The Curve In Social Networks

• Insecurity. If self-actualizers distance themselves from people or promote ideas that do not resonate, they become more likely to seek out support from their friends. They are also more likely to leverage relationships for validation. (Self-esteem.) "Maybe I need to look at other people's ideas."

• Reputation. As they leverage relationships, they become more concerned about their reputation and image. They look for ways to recapture their sense of belongingness instead of indebtedness. (Belongingness.) "I was here first."

• Fear. As their individual networks shrink, they become less focused on presenting ideas and more focused on why they are losing followers. Their focus shifts toward attempting to please others. (Safety and security.) "Why am I losing followers?"

• Despair. As the content they share diminishes, they eventually claim network fatigue and abandon the network or reduce their presence. Some will look for other networks; others will claim social media failed to meet their expectations. (Equivalent to physiological needs.) "This network isn't what it used to be."

Staying In A Place Of Self-Actualization.

This might even be why so many people advise that you be yourself. That you don't confuse yourself with a product. And you never mistake authority for popularity. People are people. Maybe you can be too.

"What a man can be, he must be. This need we call self-actualization." — Abraham Maslow

Thursday, January 29

Clashing Communication: Peanut Corporation of America

The Web site of the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has named the source of the salmonella typhimurium epidemic, is radically changed.

A few weeks ago, the PCA site read much like any site. Although dated, top news items included the opening of a new peanut blanching and granulating facility in Plainview, Texas; a message from Stewart Parnell, president, who expressed that quality and freshness of product are what bring our customers back; and a 2004 “Superior” rating from the A.I.B. (American Institute of Baking) audit at a balancing facility that praised the quality control manager for taking food safety seriously.

At Peanut Corporation of America, we know we need to shine so that you and your customers can be assured of consistent quality, safety, and dependability when you allow us to process your peanuts.

Unfortunately, just as the site experienced its largest and only traffic spike for the wrong reasons, all of that information has been replaced by the Peanut Corporation of America Media Page (illustrated above). The oldest item, entitled "Peanut Corporation of America Announces Voluntary Nationwide Recall of Peanut Butter," ends with: The company prides itself on the quality and freshness of its products and strives constantly to maintain an environment in compliance with federal, state and local regulations and guidelines to provide a clean, safe product.

The newest item, as of Jan. 28, includes a "Statement by the Parnell Family and Peanut Corporation of America (PCA)." The heavy-handed response "categorically denies any allegations that the Company sought favorable results from any lab in order to ship its products."

The statement comes after a flurry of condemning news stories based on the release of a document that lists observations made by FDA representatives. The report details that some lots of peanut butter had tested positive for various salmonella strains. The firm then retested the lots and received a negative status. This occurred several times since as far back as June 2007.

According to the FDA report, the possible cause is that the company had "not established the effectiveness temperature, volume, or belt speed specific to this roster to assure it is adequate as a kill step for pathogenic bacteria." Additional observations included: failure to maintain equipment to protect against contamination, failure to store food under conditions to protect against contamination, and environmental swabs at the facility revealed several areas tested positive for salmonella strains.

Why The Crisis Communication Process Of The PCA Places The Company In Jeopardy.

Since the beginning, the PCA has embraced the classic step-by-step response to the crisis when a step-by-step crisis communication plan did not meet the situation. The result is that the PCA is in a much more critical position that may not be recoverable even upon the insistence that the FD-483 documents “… do not represent a final Agency determination regarding [your] compliance." As soon as that statement was posted, the only analogy that fit was "runaway train."

While the PCA branding efforts had already placed it at considerable risk under the rules of our fragile brand theory, the real breakdown seems to have occurred at the very beginning, during the situation analysis portion of the crisis communication process. Situation analysis requires an unsympathetic internal review of the facts to determine the communication.

A seasoned crisis communicator might have asked the right questions. In this case, they seem all too apparent.

• What happened? A quick assessment of what seems to be occurring on the forefront establishes the context of the communication. At the PCA, the context, simply put, is that they seemed to be the source of salmonella typhimurium epidemic.

• What is the truth? Asking what happened is not enough. Having been part of several crisis communication situations, the very next question is "what is the truth?" Or, in the case of the PCA, it might have been asked differently. Someone needed to ask "were we negligent in our operations and did we do everything we could do to avoid this as we have continually pledged to our customers?"

• What evidence will support or distract from this truth? While it seems unlikely the PCA could have beat the FDA inspectors in discovering every observation, several items in the report could have been discovered first. While the crisis communication team was drafting non-committed but empathetic recall statement, an investigation could have already been underway.

• Despite personal feelings, what do these findings mean? Often times in crisis communication, perception will overshadow any facts. Simply put, it doesn't matter what the FDA concludes. Observations made by the FDA have concluded a severe breach of safety standards that the company had committed to and reinforced in virtually every piece of communication, including the first recall statement. The perception of evidence needed to be determined, and perhaps isolated to specific events, in the situation analysis phase.

• Never hazard a guess. Considering most crisis communication processes have to be executed within hours if not minutes, it is not feasible to assume that all the facts will be gathered. Under any circumstances, do not guess. When Parnell included that the safety of consumers is a priority in his first statement, it was possibly a guess. While it does not excuse the plant from wrongdoing, the question he needed to ask was "were my people ensuring safety as a priority?" And if not, why not?

It is never easy to see companies self-destruct under the weight of a crisis. But as communicators, whether internal or external, it is our job to be even tougher on our clients or customers during a crisis. Had the PCA crisis team been tough on the onset, it may not have saved the company, but it would have made the crisis much more manageable.

More on this crisis next Tuesday or possibly as events occur, including highlights on how other companies handled a crisis that may not have originated with them, but impacted them and their customers nonetheless. It's important because most people have never heard of the PCA. Customers only know products.

Wednesday, January 28

Poisoning PR: Peanut Corporation of America

Almost 20 full days have passed since the Minnesota Department of Health suggested King Nut brand creamy peanut butter as a likely source of salmonella typhimurium, and was quickly linked to Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), which provides ingredients to more than 180 peanut butter products.

In the days following, company after company began recalling peanut butter products: Snacks, cake mixes, candies, cookies, crackers, ice creams, pet foods, pre-packaged products, etc. Jarred peanut butter is not part of the recall.

Kellogg Company was one of the first, placing on hold on certain Austin® and Keebler® branded Peanut Butter Sandwich Crackers immediately following the news that the PCA was the source on Jan. 14. It recalled those products two days later, and has expanded its recall since. Jenny Craig, Inc. was one of the last. It issued a voluntary recall of select Anytime Peanut Butter Flavor Nutritional Bars on Jan. 27. It is important to note that involvement in the recall may be precautionary.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is also publishing a long list of company recalls issued by company here. Although most of the recall releases follow the FDA recommended guidelines, the subtle variations suggest vast differences in corporate cultures, crisis experience, and customer relations.

Some companies offered refunds. Some offered replacements. Some offered nothing.

Some companies offered direct contact lines. Some companies offered the CDC hotline. Some offered no contact.

Some companies included quotes. Some companies quoted the FDA, CDC, or even the president of PCA. Some did not.

Highlights of recall release notes from several companies.

“Landies Candies apologizes for any inconvenience to our customers,” said Lawrence R. Szrama, president. “Landies Candies’ product quality and consumer safety have been our top priority for over 23 years and our decision today reflects that tradition.”

"The health and safety of our clients are our number one concern,” said Amy Armish, Director of Food Technology and Quality Assurance, Jenny Craig, Inc. “We are communicating directly with our clients and consultants and are urging all clients who have purchased or are in possession of this product to immediately destroy them. Clients seeking a replacement bar are being asked to visit their Jenny Craig centre or call their Jenny Craig consultant and a replacement bar will be issued in its place or an adjustment made to their next order."

"We are in full cooperation with the FDA during this recall process as we only want to provide the best, and safest product to our customers. Thankfully no illnesses have been reported in conjunction with any of our products," said Jay Littmann, CEO and President of Chef Jay's Food Products.

Mark Tarner, President of The South Bend Chocolate Company, said: “we are taking these steps out of concern for our customers”.

"We regret the need to take this action, but the complete safety of our customers and consumers is our highest priority," said Chris Geist, Chief Operating Officer, Premier Nutrition.

"The safety of our customers is our highest priority, and in keeping with the recommendations by the FDA, we are urging all consumers who have purchased or are in possession of this product to immediately destroy them," said Sharon Tate, Vice President of Quality Assurance, NutriSystem, Inc. "Customers seeking a replacement bar are being asked to call a NutriSystem representative at 1-866-491-6425 or e-mail and a replacement bar will be issued in its place."

"With an abundance of caution and given the FDA's ongoing investigation of PCA, we're doing all we can to ensure consumer safety and trust," said Gary Erickson, owner and founder of Clif Bar & Company.

"The safety of our customers has always been our number one priority," said Stacie Behler, vice president of public affairs for Meijer. "Meijer has taken these precautionary steps to help protect our customers and will return this product to our stores only once it is safe for our shoppers."

"Product quality and consumer safety have been our top priority for over 90 years and our decision today reflects that tradition,” said Robert Denning, president and CEO, Perry’s Ice Cream. “We apologize for any inconvenience to our customers."

"The actions we are taking today are in keeping with our more than 100-year commitment to providing consumers with safe, high-quality products," said David Mackay, president and CEO, Kellogg Company. "We apologize for this unfortunate situation."

When compared side by side, the differences between the communication becomes the communication. It reveals where the company places concern, who they feel is best suited to deliver the message, and to some degree, which have a crisis communication plan in place and which might not. We recommend all companies have a crisis communication plan.

We also recommend all communicators and public relations professionals buy an AP Stylebook. Titles need to be lower case when they follow a name (except CEO when used as an acronym). Yes, this includes "president," except President of the U.S.

The most telling recall releases of all are from the PCA.

The Exert on Jan. 10: PCA's facility and products are frequently and rigorously tested for salmonella and other microbiological contamination, including hourly sampling during processing and subsequent analysis by an outside, independent laboratory. No salmonella has ever been found in any of PCA's product.

The Quote on Jan. 13: “We deeply regret that this has happened,” said Stewart Parnell, owner and president of PCA. “Out of an abundance of caution, we are voluntarily withdrawing this product and contacting our customers. We are taking these actions with the safety of our consumers as our first priority.”

The Quote on Jan. 16: "We deeply regret that this product recall is expanding and our first priority is to protect the health of our customers. Our company has worked around the clock for the last week with federal regulators to help identify any potential problems. Our Blakely facility is currently not operating as we continue to work with federal food safety investigators," Parnell said.

The Truth on Jan. 28: Officials say the Peanut Corp. of America plant had repeatedly shipped products that the company's own initial tests found to be positive for salmonella. They say the company also failed to take standard steps to prevent contamination within the plant.

As of 9 p.m. on Jan. 25, more than 501 persons infected with the outbreak strain of salmonella typhimurium have been reported from 43 states. The infection may have contributed to eight deaths. Our heartfelt sympathies are with the families.

There are too many companies and too many conclusions to be drawn from such a sweeping epidemic in a single post. We are opening living case study, which will consist of a series of posts strung together by the label "PCA", beginning tomorrow with what seems to be a severe breach of public trust by that company. The posts will not be daily, but frequent.

It is our continued hope that communicators will learn how to better prepare for crisis communication by blending proven processes and a deeper appreciation for situational communication. Crisis communication is more than a list of bullet points and boilerplates. And every company, sooner or later, will face one.

Tuesday, January 27

Balancing Acts: Real-Time Communication

An interesting, spontaneous, and live debate occurred between Shel Israel, co-author of Naked Conversations, and Scott Monty, a new media communications executive at Ford Motor Company, on Twitter, the popular real-time short messaging service, today.

The discussion began shortly after Israel pointed to a New York Times article. It provides an engaging look at real-time social media in action.

Here is a portion of it, minus background noise and side discussions.

Monty: Shel, the issue is a little more complex than you're making it.
Israel: Issues are always complicated until a solution simply emerges.
Monty: A single, nationalized standard is what's needed, not state-specific standards.
Israel: Ca welcomes other states to join our standard. The Ca standards 1st offered 12 yrs ago. What progress has Detroit made towae=rd compliance during that time? During that time what has Detroit spent to block or delay the standards during that time?
Monty: The entire auto industry - not just *Detroit* - is behind a single, national standard. You should familiarize yourself with what Ford is already doing (and plans to do) to meet fuel econ & emissions standards.
Israel: So then, you should have no problem with selling Fords everywhere that comply with the new Calif, emissions standard, right? Now ask that question of your customers.
Monty: This is just me speaking (not Ford): I think a single, high standard would be preferable to multiple standards. We're raising the fuel economy standard across every single vehicle we make - to best-in-class or among best-in-class.
Israel: How much $$ was spent by Detroit to oppose tougher emission standards. What would have happened if you had invested in R&D.
Monty: It's not just R&D Shel. It's the associated $ to retool entire plants.
Israel: You know, I've been sympathetic to Detroit, but if given a choice between sustaining Earth & Sustaining Ford Motors--sayonara.
Monty: Just goes to show me that you know next to nothing about our sustainability efforts. You should research before you tweet. (To others: Please check out some of our efforts in the green area. There's lots here
Israel: Golly, Scott. You don't sound like that when I take Ford's side. Why is it that I'm considered knowledgeable then & stupid now?
Monty: Because you did your research then.
Israel: My position requires little research Calif chooses strict emission standards. Ford can choose to comply or not. I do not argue that Ford is working on sustainability. But you are unwise to say that the Feds should prevent CAlif. standards.
Monty: I don't think the CA should be denied (again, Scott talking). If we use that as the single standard, great. Not multiple states
Israel: When Calif acted out of frustration, Detroit went to DC to stop us. There's been a recent change in policy.
Monty: If CA wants to spend its money to fight global warming, good luck. There are other important priorities at stake in the economy.
Israel (hours later): [Scott Monty] wants to point out the good efforts Ford has made and in fact, I believe that's true. But Detroit doesn't get to set the pace.
Monty: You're absolutely right. There's a new pace being set - but at the same time we need to operate within what's realistic now.
Israel: With all due respect, that's precisely what Detroit said to CA in 1997, when hearing were held in this state. CA is throwing down a Green Gauntlet. It's an easier challenge than Kennedy saying man would walk on the moon in 8 yrs. It's time to take the issue seriously for the sake of your kids & my grand children.
Monty: With all due respect, Shel - when did you become an automotive analyst? We've got no problem taking it seriously. We're moving faster than you know. ... But real business decisions need to be made for today as well as for tomorrow. It's a balance.
Israel (hours later): With all due respect, no expert on automotive but I do see an entrepreneurial opportunity when I see one. I'll be happy with any company that complies w/standards. I'll be at the Ford showroom the day you meet that standard. I'll even tweet your virtues.

What wasn't communicated that could have added value to the conversation?

California took the lead in setting the strictest auto emissions because it began taking steps to regulate emissions well before federal standards were set. In fact, California has been at this much longer than Israel gives the state credit. The California Legislature passed the Mulford-Carrell Act, which combined two Department of Health bureaus — the Bureau of Air Sanitation and the Motor Vehicle Pollution Control Board — to establish the Air Resources Board (ARB) in 1967. The ARB wasn't even California's first emission reduction effort.

However, California is also the leading polluter in the United States. In 2008, the American Lung Association's 2008 State of Air Report, California metropolitan areas account for five of the top ten most long-term particle polluted metros (with seven cities received a failing grade) and five of the top ten most ozone polluted metros (with twelve cities receiving a failing grade) in the U.S. The cause isn't automotive as much as it is lifestyle.

Of course, much like California, the automotive industry has a mixed record on environmental issues too. You can find an extensive, and reasonably brand neutral, account of the automobile and the environment by Martin V. Melosi right here. It doesn't take an automotive industry expert to deduce that fuel prices more than any other factor dictate what consumers will purchase.

When gas prices are high, like they were in the 1970s, consumers buy fuel-efficient cars. When gas prices are low, they buy SUVs. The American automotive industry tends to compete better in the latter market, although Ford does have 13 U.S. models that achieve 30 miles per gallon or better. The Ford Focus was named one of the top ten greenest cars in 2008.

The American automotive industry has made significant contributions in the development of green vehicles, sometimes at the expense of their own viability (and sometimes for the benefit of competitors). And sure, they've made mistakes too. But blaming the automotive industry for attempting one of the trickiest balancing acts in history seems disingenuous.

You see, I drove one of the earliest electric cars in the 1990s. The public didn't want them. The infrastructure wasn't in place to support them. They were creepy quiet to drive. And, while researching them, nobody could tell me what they planned to do with all the spent batteries. In fact, almost 20 years later, there is no real indication that any of this has changed en masse.

The bottom line is that we need solutions. However, considering we all contribute to the problem every day, those solutions will only come from shared accountability and consensus building. We need discussion over diatribe, the kind that has helped us realize substantial reductions since the 1960s.

Do real-time online conversations add value to communication or cause confusion?

It depends on the conversation and the participants. This one today, despite praise from observers, doesn't add much value.

To his credit, Monty delivered more communication than non-communication during the discussion, better than 2-to-1. In comparison, Israel delivered more non-communication than communication, almost 3-to-1. But this wasn't a boxing match.

Nobody wins, especially those who were listening.

Even with what little truth was alluded to, it's difficult to walk away with a real appreciation of this complex issue beyond polarized content. Simply put, Twitter was not a suitable platform for this discussion. Beyond that, maybe you can tell me.

Monday, January 26

Measuring Communication: Intent, Part 1 (ROC)

Many executives lose interest in them. Some communicators dismiss them. And a few people have called for their death.

Considering the backlash, we might even ask: What did the mission statement ever do to deserve such dissent and disinterest? Or maybe the question ought to be: What didn't it do? Or even better: What did we do to it?

What is a mission statement?

Simply defined, a mission statement and its various counterparts — purpose, vision, core values — provides a brief description of a company’s purpose and answers why the organization exists for the publics it strives to serve.

"We have chosen to specialise within the hospitality industry, by offering only experiences of exceptional quality." — Four Seasons

It also needs to be in the forefront of every communicator's mind, regardless whether the focus is advertising, internal communication, marketing, public relations, social media, etc. Why? Because if a company and its employees cannot consistently define why an organization exists, then one day it might not exist at all. Seriously? Seriously.

Best Buy: Our business strategy is to bring technology and consumers together in a retail environment that focuses on educating consumers on the features and benefits of technology and entertainment products, while maximizing overall profitability.

Circuit City: ? (One of the most looked for, but never found.)

Why don't some mission statements work?

Internet searches reveal hundreds of different reasons why mission statements don't work, ranging from underdefined and overcomplicated to underutilized and overreaching. Take your pick. But in reality, the only reason mission statements fail is the people behind them.

Either people placed too much effort into defining what a mission statement "should" do and not so much effort in what the company does do or they abandoned it all together in favor of the flavor du jour. As a result, some mission statements become overloaded with statements about diversity, empty marketing promises, and ego-driven prose. Others become dusty while the company moves on without them.

Do strong mission statements have common denominators?

Having been part of several strategic planning sessions for various companies since the early 1990s, it seems to me that "should" only consists of four letters when applied to a strategic planning process. It's a dirty word. However, despite various opinions and schools of thought, there are generally four common denominators that the strong mission statements share.

• It defines what the company does.
• It defines what the objectives are.
• It considers various publics.
• It differentiates the company.

"We will provide branded products and services of superior quality and value that improve the lives of the world's consumers, now and for generations to come." — Procter & Gamble

Why is a mission statement important to communication?

Regardless of how a communicator feels about the mission statement, it remains as part of the presentation for communication development, brand management, and measurement. Just as a mission statement and its various counterparts provide an underlying direction for the company, it provides direction for communication.

"To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world. If you have a body, you are an athlete." — Nike

It is also one of three components to consider in defining the intent of communication. As Philip Kotler once put it, the mission statement acts as an invisible hand that guides employees to work independently and yet collectively toward the same goals. It also provides a baseline of expectations that various publics will use to define their impression of the company.

While we could delve into the methods and differentiate product-oriented models vs. market-oriented models, the purpose of this post is simply to reestablish its importance in defining intent. After all, if an organization cannot communicate or reinforce why it exists, then it leaves its purpose open to interpretation and the risk of brand erosion or failure.

This doesn't mean the mission statement has to appear verbatim in all communication. Far from it. Since mission statements are measured by the experiences of customers, they can be reinforced in different forms across advertising, marketing, public relations, and social media.

For example, Four Seasons communication frequently reinforces exceptional experiences. Nike's "Just do it" campaign almost always captures inspiration. And Procter & Gamble, even though it markets multiple branded products, is still reinforced by "Touching lives, improving life" and "Everyday solutions" All three have public relations efforts that tend to follow suit. So do their community relations programs. And so does their internal communication.

In sum, the mission statement (or other definition of company purpose) is an ever-present part of communication, even as it is influenced by SWOT and other strategic planning methods (presented next week) or as specific communication tactics are developed to meet objectives. It is the presentation behind the presentation.

We help agencies, companies, organizations, and communities produce the most effective communication possible by composing powerful messages across all media. — Copywrite, Ink.

Download The Abstract: Measure: I | O = ROC

The ROC is an abstract method of measuring the value of business communication by recognizing that the return on communication — advertising, marketing, public relations, internal communication, and social media — is related to the intent of the communication and the outcome it produces. Every Monday, the ROC series explores portions of the abstract.

Friday, January 23

Moving Forward: How To Manage Criticism

Lauren Vargas, principal of 12Comm Public Relations, calls them killer bees or "jackals feeding off the blood and weakness of others." Valeria Maltoni, who writes the Conversation Agent (among other things), calls them seagulls — those who fly in, make a mess, and fly out again. And Umesh Sharma, clinical psychologist, includes not being a critic among his secrets for a stress-free life. Critics are like needles in a balloon factory, he said.

There is certainly some wisdom in their words. Seagulls and bees or needles and jackals don't make the most pleasant company. However, as Vargas points out and Maltoni has too, constructive criticism is not only welcomed, it's needed.

That leaves some communicators in a quandary. How do you tell the bees from butterflies and seagulls from eagles?

After all, very few people really like criticism, but everyone offers it from time to time. In fact, our aversion to it tends to be a prominent social media discussion point any time I speak with business people. "What if someone says something bad about us?" they ask.

I generally muse that people probably are already saying something bad about them, they just don't know it.

After all, the most common question after a dinner, show, movie, book, product, new car, etc. is "How did (or do) you like it?" or "What did you think?" One of the benefits — or setbacks — of social media is that it amplifies these criticisms from private conversations to public discourse. In some cases, it can even cause a crisis.

Personally, I consider it a benefit, but not all people do. So regardless of how you feel, what's a communicator to do?

1. Recognize the difference between critics and cynics. Critics strive to be open, objective, and offer suggestions for improvement or make an effort to understand various points of view. Cynics generally are closed, biased, and reject that any merit exists or tend to promote their point of view while dismissing the validity of any other. They deserve different approaches.

2. Distinguish criticism about something and criticism about someone. Valid criticism, even if you do not agree with it, tends to focus on the situation, work, or action. The worst criticism presents judgements about specific people. Care what people think, but don't care so much about what they think about you.

3. Consider the intent of constructive criticism and negative feedback. The intent of negative feedback, even if it appears offensive, or constructive criticism, which is generally non-confrontational, is to provide guidance. Even when comments seem inappropriate, focus more on the message and not the delivery.

4. Distinguish the difference between communication and diatribe. Someone opening up a conversation that makes us feel uncomfortable might even be an asset. Diatribe, on the other hand, does not promote conversation or communication. It aims to shout the other person down (sometimes by encouraging others to do it).

5. Recognize that cynicism communicates more about them than you. While criticism can sting if it is well presented, cynicism says more about them than it does you. Even when real time situations seem to favor emotional aggressors, post- event analysis tends to favor a steady hand. How you respond will always overshadow what is being critiqued.

If you don't manage the message, the message will manage you.

Communicators have to accept that we cannot control what other people say or do. We can only manage what we say or do, even when we are responding to what others have said. Planned action is always better than unplanned reaction. In fact, in preparing for such instances, the first person we need to consider is ourself. Are we oversensitive to criticism?

While I'm not a fan of psychological self-tests, I did vet one at Psychology Today for this post. It asks: Are you sensitive to criticism? Can you handle negative feedback or do you find you have to resist the urge to bite your critic's head off? Try it out. (The summary is free; the full analysis, which didn't seem necessary, carries a fee.) The exercise itself might be eye-opening.

Once you do, then consider the closing quote from author William Arthur Ward. Because if he were alive today, he might artfully remind people that how one receives and interprets criticism or cynicism is the key to being an effective communicator. He might also note that even the most practiced communicators, when confronted with criticism, tend to respond (or encourage others to respond on their behalf) much like the critics they profess to dislike.

"In the face of unjust criticism, we can become bitter or better; upset or understanding; hostile or humble; furious or forgiving." — William Arthur Ward

Thursday, January 22

Endorsing Content: Mayo Clinic

Nowadays, blog launches are hardly news. But when the organization is the Mayo Clinic, it piques our interest.

Sure, blogs aren't new for the Mayo Clinic. It has several, covering topics that range from Alzheimer's and Depression to Genetics and Safe Sex. It also has social media initiatives on YouTube and FaceBook.

The newest blog, however, presents something else entirely. Sharing Mayo Clinic "provides an online site for patients and employees to share their stories about what makes Mayo Clinic unique."

While the concept is grounded in the theory that organizations should give social media message control over to consumers (which may or may not be prudent), those few words of intent place the blog somewhere in the middle of virtue and vice. Is the blog about patients sharing their experiences or is it a media rich endorsement page? The mixed intent comes across in a statement as well.

"Rather than our patients just being able to talk with the people they see every day, these platforms allow them to share their experiences with people all over the world -- some of whom they know personally, and many they do not," says Lee Aase, Mayo Clinic's manager of social media and syndication. "We also see Sharing Mayo Clinic as an opportunity to provide glimpses into the lives and motivations of Mayo employees who are dedicated to working together in teams to provide the best care to every patient, every day."

The first half of the quote is intuitive and empathetic. The second half of the quote is marketing.

There isn't anything wrong with that; and I'm a fan of everything the Mayo Clinic is attempting to do in terms of bridging the communication gap between medical professionals and people. (Check out Aase's sincere interview on YouTube. It's solid.)

However, if it wasn't for the brand equity of the Mayo Clinic, it seems to me that this new venture might be mistaken for astroturf — a series of endorsements leveraged by miracles of modern medicine (e.g. If UCLA Medical asked me to do the same after our daughter's visit, you can bet the personal review would be glowing.)

That's not to say this first step doesn't have potential. If Mayo Clinic employees and patients are willing to share their stories (perhaps in real time on occasion) and the Mayo Clinic cross references those stories with its other social media initiatives in support, Sharing Mayo Clinic might be a real breakthrough in social media as well as medicine.

You see, there is difference between telling people some time and showing people something. Rather than place the emphasis on stories that make Mayo Clinic unique, the Mayo Clinic only needs to share stories that make its patients and employees unique. With a simple shift in intent, the benefits become self-evident.

Wednesday, January 21

Wearing Verbs: The Future Of PR

When Bill Sledzik, associate professor for the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at Kent State University (Kent State), first posted how his school hopes to raise the bar for public relations, I flagged his post. (I flag many of his posts, enough so I'm glad he doesn't post daily.) At the moment, I only have one more bullet to add to his already excellent post.

How Do You Raise The Bar In Public Relations Education? 10. Teach public relations students to think.

Public relations is changing. And with each passing year, it's changing at an accelerated pace.

In 2005, I could sum up what it might take to be a good public relations professional with just three bullet points.

• Think like a journalist
• Act like a business professional
• Write with the passion of a novelist

In 2007, I added three more.

• Dig deeper than a lead investigator
• Speak with the conviction of a communicator
• Exhibit empathy like a public service advocate

This year, I've added a seventh.

• Demonstrate authenticity like a social media evangelist

Next year, I'm planning to add number eight. All I need to do is settle in on a professional comparison for adaptability, which will require tomorrow's public relations professionals to think. They will have to know how to think, because as the velocity of communication accelerates and the tactics we employ to do so change, public relations professionals and other communicators will no longer be able to rely on "how to" hot lists that become obsolete the day after publishing.

Communication is situational. Adapt or die.

Two student questions reminded me just how much emphasis needs to be placed on thinking. One question, which came after class in an e-mail, asked me how I expected students to complete the assignment when I hadn't given them "how to" instructions.

The assignment is to write their own obituary (10-60 years from now) as a journalist. (While there are several objectives, one is to pay homage to journalists who used to start with assignments just like that.)

My response was simple enough. I can no more endorse a "how to write an obit" for an undefined subject than I could outline "how to write an advertisement" for an undefined product. There are too many variables. So I reiterated what I said in class. Read some real obits: Ricardo Montalban, Heath Ledger, Gerald Ford, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, etc. Then, think it through.

The other question, asked in class, wondered how I could wear both the public relations hat and the journalism hat from time to time (everybody wears lots of hats nowadays; just search "wearing many hats" and you'll see). What might have been a better answer, however, would have gone much further in emphasizing adaptability for future public relations professionals.

When defining hats, it's best to think in terms of verbs instead of nouns.

Tuesday, January 20

Doubling Features: Veronica Mars, Jericho

It took two years, but the entertainment industry is taking action. When audiences are engaged, ratings alone don't measure. Backed by two loyal and impassioned fan bases, two television shows are setting sights on the big screen.

Passive viewers are active consumers.

Rob Thomas, creator of Veronica Mars, recently confirmed rumors: there will be a Veronica Mars movie. He said it will pick up a few days before Veronica Mars' graduation from Hearst College. Kristen Bell is confirmed; Thomas says he has spoken with Jason Dohring and Enrico Colantoni. Why? Fans.

Jon Turteltaub, executive producer of Jericho, broke the news: there will be a big screen treatment for Jericho. While the movie will go beyond the small town setting in Kansas, Turteltaub said that the original cast is all in, including Skeet Ulrich and Ashley Scott. Why? Fans.

The Internet has changed entertainment. Expect surprises.

At a presentation held at the Sundance Film Festival, panelists — Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, YouTube CEO Chad Hurley, and Hulu CEO Jason Kilar — may have shared slightly different visions for the future of entertainment, but all of them agreed on one thing. Fans are in control.

It only makes sense. Ask the next generation when their favorite television shows air, and many of them don't know. The shows are available whenever and wherever they want. It doesn't even matter when they were produced.

New shows benefit from the acceleration of online content delivery and old shows are resurrected as if they were produced last week. Many of them benefit from consumer marketing efforts created by brand evangelists.

Not only do these fans want to see the story lines continue, but they want the depth of material expanded as well. Even if that means picking up where networks and film studios leave off, many of them are more than ready to do it.

Monday, January 19

Measuring Communication: ROI Meets ROC

There has been considerable time and effort invested by hundreds of people in attempting to demonstrate a return on investment for communication — advertising, marketing, public relations, and social media. It began as far back as, well, since someone first realized it might be measurable. In fact, any search on the subject will turn up any number of efforts, with some providing better explanations than others.

For my own part, I've been working, on and off, to refine a measurement formula for the better part of two years. My hypothesis is simple: the return on investment is related to the intent of the communication and the outcome it produces.

I | O = ROI

However, since last year, there have been several people who have noted that ROI means something different to business. In finance, for example, ROI means the ratio of money gained or lost (realized or unrealized) on an investment relative to the amount of money invested. When considering that definition, it becomes reasonably clear that ROI might be the wrong term for communication measurement, especially because not all communication produces outcomes that yield direct returns.

While this doesn't change the hypothesis, it does place a greater emphasis on establishing the connection between direct and indirect results because if we narrow the definition to only recognize direct returns, the greater portion of any communication plan will be diminished and working professionals will continue to misidentify incidentals such as conversations outcomes. Instead, I propose the real measure of communication is exactly that — the return on communication or ROC.

[(B • I) (m+s • r)/d] / [O/(b + t + e)] = ROC

For the next several Mondays, I will be writing a series about the above formula as illustrated within a free 5-page abstract, Measure: I | O = ROC a.k.a. The ROC, which defines a revised formula for communication measurement across advertising, marketing, public relations, internal communication, and social media. It has already been proven effective in measuring individual communication and ongoing campaigns.

Friday, January 16

Polarizing Futures: Apple, Facebook, Everyone

When Amazon first launched Kindle, it seemed to me that no matter how anyone felt about the product, the technology behind it represented crossroads with potentially polarizing effects.

It represented an opportunity to educate everyone on the planet (once there was a price point drop), giving them access to the best books ever written. And, it also represented an opportunity to enslave humankind by filtering future content and killing the last refuge of reader privacy at the same time. Some responses were expected...

"Enslave humankind"? I can imagine a few scenarios, but what did you have in mind?

Facebook Sacrifices Burger King

Burger King posted a Facebook application in early January that promised users a free Whopper if they publicly sacrificed 10 friends. Facebook disabled the campaign after 233,906 friendships were sacrificed, claiming the application did not meet users' expectations and the campaign was singling out users for ridicule.

Crispin Porter & Bogusky has since move to its third attempt to force feed a viral campaign in the last couple months. You can now send someone an Angry-Gram.

Apple Becomes Editor-In-Chief

Tom Krazit, a staff writer for CNET, recently outlined the details between the e-book author David Carnoy and Apple. Apparently, Apple rejected Carnoy's e-book for containing "objectionable content," which appeared to be a couple of uses of that four-letter word that starts with F.

Carnoy succumbed, saying the changes didn't impact the book. Apple has since approved the e-book now that the author removed the words that Apple considered objectionable.

Mack Collier Questions Listenership

Mack Collier, a social media purist for whom I have ample respect, questioned my interest in the 'Real-Time Communications Conference' because it was led by Pfizer Vice President Ray Kerins, someone who is virtually unknown in social media circles. Pfizer has been using social media internally.

Collier made the case that listening to people who were outside the circle might not be worth listening to. I'll be sharing some notes from the conference, which was broadcast live in real time, next week. There is ample content that is useful for businesses, students, and social media consultants alike.

Some of the discussion goes a long way in bridging the gap between business marketing and social media enthusiasts. Bringing very different ideas from different people, companies, and industries is a passion of mine.

Stanford University Was Right

While I might be an instructor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, I still have a passion for learning. And since I am geographically challenged in pursuing my education, I make ample use of multiple sources, including the content rich Stanford University section of iTunes.

I'll be writing more in-depth about these programs soon, but for now there is a thought that seems especially appropriate. As much as the Internet and social media have contributed to making more information and commentary from a greater number of sources available, it also allows participants to pick and choose their own content to such a degree that each participant can effectively select their own set of facts and create their own reality.

In other words, it might even be said we run the risk of self-isolating ourselves from knowledge that makes us feel uncomfortable. So I wonder, no matter if it is the smallest examples of gatekeeper censorship such as Facebook and Apple or even self-selected, what are people doing to ensure they continue to challenge themselves — even if it means listening to opposing viewpoints or taking the risk of being offended — in order to grow? What are your thoughts? I'd love to know.

Thursday, January 15

Saying Nothing: Why Leadership Needs To Engage

Although a recent survey from Weber Shandwick has a small sampling with only 514 respondents, it mirrors several other studies that suggest the same — company leadership is still too quiet about the current economic crisis.

More than half (54 percent) of those surveyed said their employers are not talking about how the financial crisis is impacting the company and the majority (71 percent) said their company's leadership should be communicating about it more. The study also pinpoints that while company leadership is perceived to be not talking about the recession, 74 percent of their colleagues and co-workers are talking about it, with 26 percent expecting layoffs.

Last December, Watson Wyatt released a study that conveys the opposite. Overall, it found 77 percent of employers have already sent out or are planning communication on the impact of the financial crisis. More than two-thirds (69 percent) of these employers cited easing employee anxiety as one of the top two goals of their crisis-related internal communication, while nearly one-third (32 percent) cited earning employees’ trust.

Are more employers talking, but fewer employees hearing?

When the intent of communication no longer produces the desired outcomes (such as alleviating employee anxiety), it's time to reevaluate the communication.

In this case, communication managers and executives might consider that addressing the financial crisis is not the same as typical or motivational internal communication — it's crisis communication, even if the company is not directly impacted by the crisis occurring around it. And while not every crisis communication step needs to be followed, there are several very important questions that leadership needs to ask:

Are we acknowledging something is wrong? While instilling internal confidence is critical, employers cannot outright dismiss the recession. It has to be acknowledged, even if the company is unique, or the message may not be believed.

Are we satisfying employee interest? Employees are talking about the financial crisis. Government is talking about the financial crisis. The media is talking about the financial crisis. The sheer frequency of all this communication suggests company leadership needs to consistently communicate its position and direction. For companies wondering how many times they might reinforce job security to their employees, there is one answer: as many times as employees need to hear it.

Are we communicating empathy? Internal communication is not exclusively internal. Internal communication influences front-line communication and is influenced by outside factors. Even if company is one of several viewing the recession as an opportunity as opposed to a setback, the communication needs to express empathy. Employee spouses, colleagues, and point-of-contact customers may have very different experiences.

Have we included positive steps being taken to address the situation? During a crisis, even if the crisis is external, every message needs to be reinforced by provable data and a positive direction, regardless of what that data might communicate. People are always more receptive to a clear direction, even if it includes some bad news.

If these questions remain unanswered, any communication may be rendered ineffective. Ineffective communication is non-communication and may not even register with employees. Given that internal communication is permeable, non-communication can contribute to external public sentiment. It may even be why the RBC CASH (Consumer Attitudes and Spending by Household) Index reported consumer sentiment is at a six-year low.

"At a time when working Americans are concerned about their personal finances, their jobs and the overall economy, employees are looking for credible, candid information, and right now too few business leaders are filling the information void that exists,” said Harris Diamond, CEO of Weber Shandwick. “Employers have a great opportunity to communicate with their workforce about the impact of the economic situation on their companies as well as on employees."

Isn't it obvious? Employees are not just employees. They are also consumers and shareholders. And right now, they are looking to the private sector, as much as government, to stabilize the economy. At minimum, they need reassurance that their company isn't waiting for someone else to come up with a solution.

Related posts:

Ragan: Survey: Leaders Fail To Communicate With Employees

British Association Of Communicators In Business: Recession Demands More Emphasis On Internal Communication Not Less

Jenna Boiler: The Importance Of Internal Marketing

Geneva Communicators Network: Employee Communication Spending To Rise In 2009

Copywrite, Ink: Thinking Internal: Watson Wyatt Study

Wednesday, January 14

Saving Lives: Communication Matters

Yesterday afternoon, a 1-year-old boy drowned and a 3-year-old boy nearly drown at a home-based North Las Vegas day care. According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, authorities ordered a North Las Vegas day care to temporarily cease operations.

While this atrocity occurred earlier in the year than usual, it's not uncommon. Drowning is the leading cause of death among children ages 14 and under in Nevada.

In 2004-5, working with the Las Vegas Advertising Federation as director of public service, we were able to do something about it. Since child drowning was the number one under-served community awareness issue at the time, we used it to lead a year-long, three-topic public service campaign redefining accidents as negligence as a form of child abuse.

While the tone was hard, awareness matters. When people know it only takes 15 seconds for a child to drown, less time than it takes to answer the phone, or that drowning is also 14 times more likely to kill a child than a car accident, it makes an impact. It save lives.

The image attached to this post is the rendering of the print portion of the short-term communication campaign (print, outdoor, and radio). Copywrite, Ink. donated the creative and message. One of our clients, The Idea Factory, donated the first design. Publishing companies were invited to remove our mark from the advertisement and include our own.

Given how early the first drowning occurred in Nevada this year, it seems appropriate to share that this campaign served the community for two years. It is my hope someone might pick up where the Las Vegas Advertising Federation left off. While local media is always responsible in reminding parents of the dangers of pool safety, it tends to react after the first causality.

The same can be said about leaving children unattended in cars during the summer months, which was the second portion of what became an award-winning public service campaign. Again, it usually takes one casualty before the public begins talking about it, which is a great reminder why proactive communication still matters in an increasingly reactive communication world.

Tuesday, January 13

Commercializing The President: Everybody

First it was Ben and Jerry's "Yes Pecan,” and then it was Pepsi. And now, according to Brandweek, Ikea is jumping on the Obama brand wagon too.

Ikea's newest campaign includes out-of-home billboards featuring the "Embrace Change ‘09" slogan on local buses and trains. Ikea is also holding a "mock motorcade," touring the D.C. area Jan. 15-16, which includes strapping "furniture fit for a president" on top of vehicles. From Ikea's point of view, it's simply a good branding opportunity.

"We have never had an opportunity to do anything surrounding the message of change from a national standpoint," Marty Marston, public relations manager for Ikea told Brandweek. "[Obama's] notion of change and his commitment to fiscal responsibility match the Ikea philosophy of practical and affordable home furnishings for all."

But is it really a good branding strategy? Marvel Comics seems to think it's smart for Spiderman. And although BlackBerry didn't ask for an endorsement, it sure did appreciate it. But is it really a good thing? If you consider the fragile brand theory, then only if the original brand holds.

Monday, January 12

Thinking Global: Branding Local

For all the talk of a shrinking world, Nigel Hollis, chief global analyst at the market research firm Millward Brown and author of The Global Brand, has noticed a shift in the other direction.

"There are some underlying decisions people make when they decide to go global," Hollis told the International Herald Tribune. "One is that the world will become more and more homogeneous. That is just not happening. There's a lot of evidence that despite the spread of globalization we still live in a very localized world."

While the article recognizes some global campaigns, especially consumer electronics such as Apple's silhouetted dancers introducing iPods, can work; most brands, from food to personal-care products, make small adaptations in order to capture local appeal. In fact, even the on Web, communities tend to develop over time, creating a feeling of proximity that is based less on geographies and more on topics of interest.

Some companies seem to be catching up on the localization curve on the Web, even if they don't call it that. For example, Adweek noted that among the hundreds of journalists at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, popular bloggers were being tapped by large companies with the hope of capitalizing on these localities. (Seth Godin might call them tribes.)

Prevailing thought, as reiterated by Chas Edwards, chief revenue officer at Federated Media Publishing, is that companies need to give up on the notion of control over their brands. The concept is not new. Companies never had control. And, when you step back and think about it, Hollis is saying something very similar — global branding is customized and localized.

Of course it is. As Phil Dusenberry, chairman of BBDO Worldwide, noted years ago: “Brand is the relationship between a product and its customer.” And that means branding, like all communication, works best when communicators and copywriters think in terms of reaching, or writing to, one person at a time. There is nothing more local than that.

Friday, January 9

Defining Communication: Real-Time Over Social

If anyone needs more evidence that 2009 will be the Year of Communication, consider the upcoming 'Real-Time Communications Conference' will lead with a keynote presentation about embracing social media and online community building by Pfizer Vice President Ray Kerins.

Following Kerins will be a panel discussion moderated by Sarah Milstein, author, Twitter and the Micro-Messaging Revolution. The panel will include: Paul Gennaro, senior vice president & chief communications officer, AECOM Technology Corp and David Sacks, founder and CEO, Yammer, Dave Armon, president, PR Newswire, and Morgan Johnston, Corporate Communications manager, JetBlue. There are also two roundtable sessions.

The conference will be held on Jan. 14 at the Graduate Center of The City University of New York, but portions of it will be broadcast live via a PR Newswire/MultiVu Webcast. So what's on the agenda for business besides positioning "social media" as a subset of real-time communications?

• Case studies of leading organizations that embrace real-time communications.
• Real-time communications to build communities with customers and prospects.
• Analysis of leading organizations on how they can manage and defend brand reputation.
• Maintaining core values and principles while maximizing flexibility for unforeseen events.
• Integrating crisis communication when challenged by real-time events online.
• An overview of the tools and technologies that today's communicators need to know.

Lewis Green, L and G Business Solutions; Francois Gossieaux, Emergence Marketing; and Valeria Maltoni, Conversation Agent (to some extent); have all expressed concerns that the social media expert crowd might be disconnecting themselves from business.

We also mentioned the trend several times last year, first following up on some comments made by Ted McConnell, general manager-interactive marketing and innovation at Procter & Gamble Co., and again in response to the overemphasis of conversations even knowing that neither might be popular. Right. For all the fun of following what is hot and what is not, businesses are moving right along without those who profess to know.

Does that mean businesses will make mistakes? You bet they will. But even if the tone of the new Wells Fargo-Wachovia blog (hat tip: Shel Holtz) seems a bit off, the social media crowd might have to accept that most customers don't care what comes first or last as long as companies move in the right direction.

Thursday, January 8

Accepting Temporary: Complacency Is Circular

Last night, I noticed something unusual at my gym. Typically, Gold's Gym is packed with "resolution members," people who made fitness resolutions for the New Year. After two weeks, most of them conclude that it isn't working and slowly fade away into whatever daily routines seem more comfortable. Not this year.

When I shared the observation that my gym was void of resolution members this year, PJ Perez suggested "overweight Americans have accepted their designations."

He's right, but I'm not so sure we're talking about fitness. Eighty-five percent of people voting on a news poll believe that the economy will get worse before it gets better, and only 33 percent have faith that President-elect Barack Obama's administration will be able to turn the economy around.

When the question had been asked during the election cycle, those numbers were considerably higher. It's one of the reasons he won. So what changed? People aren't certain the Obama administration can turn the economy around because Obama has yet to change campaign criticism into a confident challenge. Consider the following …

"I don't believe it's too late to change course, but it will be if we don't take dramatic action as soon as possible," Obama said in a speech set to be delivered at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., outside Washington.

Most speechwriters know that "but" cancels out everything that precedes it. Then again, I'm not talking about politics. I'm talking about the acceptance of what seems to be and complacency as opposed to acknowledging what is and moving forward.

You see, complacency is circular in that it occurs in companies, countries, and people at two ends of the spectrum — when things are too good or when things are too bad. In either case, complacency is the general acceptance of a temporary situation or state of being as if it is permanent (or who we are). So if you haven't already, right now might be a good time to kick around the concept of complacency as a conversation in your office.

Are you making decisions based on (or complaining about) temporary situations? And if so, what happens if and when those temporary situations change? Will those decisions put you in a position to win or ensure you remain in the same place — at the bottom of the complacency circle (which might be where your company started anyway)?

Or in other words, if your company is waiting it out, you might rethink that. After all, times will change. They always do. It's the only certainty.

Wednesday, January 7

Surfing For Survival: The Fourth Estate

"But what if the old media dies much more quickly? What if a hurricane comes along and obliterates the dunes entirely? Specifically, what if The New York Times goes out of business—like, this May?" — Michael Hirschorn, The Atlantic

When The New York Times released an October earnings report that revealed drastic measures must be taken or the paper would be forced to default on $400 million debt, some people, including journalists like Hirschorn, woke up wondering what if what once seemed like a slow a painful death for print might be hastened before they could develop a viable online business migration model. And what would that mean for journalism? And what would that mean for public relations?

The New York Times is not alone. Any time I spoke about social media last year, I carried some disappointing circulation statistics with me — most papers were down double digits: Boston Globe, down 10.1 percent; Philadelphia Inquirer, down 11.0 percent; the Miami Herald, down 11.8 percent; the Detroit News, down 10 percent; the Houston Chronicle, down 11.6 percent. And that says nothing about the Tribune Co. bankruptcy.

A few weeks ago, Thomas Mitchell, editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, noted "Information wants to be free, reporters want to be paid" in a column that reminds readers that newspapers survive to provide substance. He's right. Anyone can offer up opinion. Anyone can cater to the masses for link love and pats on the back. But not everyone will "sit through the council meeting and sift through the volumes of bureaucratic paperwork" or be able to disassemble and reassemble it in order to objectively educate the public as to what it means to them.

True enough, as that was the same point Paul Mulshine, opinion columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger, made in the The Wall Street Journal. And I heard similar comments while sitting on a panel with Bruce Spotleson, group publisher at Greenspun Media; Jon Ralston, columnist and commentator on state politics, and Flo Rogers, general manager of Southern Nevada's KNPR. Increasingly, the public seems more interested in news that supports their worldview than the last remnants of objective journalism.

Sure, the old model must change. But what newspapers need to remember is they can't wait for someone else to invent it. Most models will be different. Some might shrink print content while driving more readers online for additional content. Some might create online communities for the strongest sections. Some might place a greater emphasis on another medium like video. Some will attempt to give up the one-way new stream and encourage journalists to engage the public, something BusinessWeek seems to be experimenting with, but with mixed reception. And some, well, some will surely just lay down and die. But what if they all did?

Ethics & The Fourth Estate

It's a question I ask myself every year while I prepare to teach public relations skill sets that seem a little less valued today than they were last year or the year before that. Do they even know that the burden of business ethics might fall all the more on their shoulders? That's one question Bill Sledzik, associate professor in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at Kent State University, has on his mind as well.

"I worry that too many PR types will place client interest ahead of public interest, expediency ahead of ethics," he writes. "They have in the past, and social media makes it that much easier today."

He might be right to worry. Even where there aren't ethical lapses, the slips seem more frequent (even among those who profess transparency). There are a few who already seem all too comfortable walking right up to the ethical line (if not crossing it) or redefining it to fit their needs. Even more don't really understand ethics all that well. When I share ethical challenges in a class, for example, the informal fail rate has been as high as 90 percent.

It may get worse before it gets better. A survey recently conducted by the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics (SCCE) and the Health Care Compliance Association (HCCA) reveals that the declining economy might increase the risk of legal and ethics violations in business. In fact, more than 85 percent of 600 compliance and business ethics professionals felt that the current economy greatly or somewhat increases the risk of compliance and ethics failures with only one percent offering a contrarian opinion. (The complete survey results can be downloaded here).

"There's good and bad news here," observed Roy Snell, the CEO of SCCE and HCCA. "We're finding that companies are increasingly seeing compliance and ethics as an integral part of their business and not a luxury to be discarded during an economic downturn. But, at the same time, we're seeing stagnant budgets or potential declines in resources at a time of increased risk for failures. That's creating a gap that could prove to be a dangerous chasm for business to cross."

And what if they do cross it? Without a viable Fourth Estate, there may be less risk and consequence. Yesterday, it used to be a suitable ethical review sum up to end with a single quip — unless you would be proud to see what you say or do on the front page of The Wall Street Journal or New York Times, then don't say or do it. Today, you can buy space on the front page instead. And tomorrow, there might not be one to care.

Tuesday, January 6

Saving Sony: Social Media?

In June 2008, Sony presented several initiatives designed to build on its previous three-year revitalization plan. Six months later, reaching even some of these goals seems further way than ever.

• Expand PC, Blu-ray-related products and component/semiconductor businesses while joining the LCD TVs, digital imaging, and mobile phone markets; which all seems contrary to rumors that Sony will abolish "several major divisions."
• Ensure 90 percent of its electronics product categories are network-enabled and wireless-capable by the fiscal year ending March 2011, which seems to be born out of necessity over innovation.
• Roll out video services across key Sony products by 2010-11, which started with the launch of the PlayStation Network despite some obvious trouble.
• Double annual revenue from BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) countries by 2010-11, which is another goal that seems dampened by Microsoft.

Since, Sony cut 16,000 permanent and temporary jobs worldwide, simultaneously expecting profits to be down 50 percent compared to last year. And even while Sony announced it did not plan to introduce additional restructuring measures, the writing keeps popping up on the digital wall.

Can Social Media Help Save Sony?

In an effort to directly connect and converse the public (and perhaps regain control over its apparently errant communication), Sony Electronics is placing its faith in social media. Today, it launched a new social site — housing the company's blog, videos, photos, polls, and consumer profiles. The rushed launch coincides with the Consumer Electronics Show.

"The Sony blog has enabled us to speak frankly and directly with our customer base and the public at large, not only in the U.S. but around the world," said blog host Rick Clancy, senior vice president of corporate communications, Sony Electronics Inc., before the site was truly live. "Now we're looking to make the blog the cornerstone of a more interactive community site that provides people with the opportunity to talk to us and to each other about their opinions, experiences and observations with respect to Sony, our products, the industry and even our competitors."

But does it really? While it looks great, there is just something missing from a pre-launch post written by "Sony Admin," who purchased DSC-W130 in pink to tame his precocious daughter. Transparency, which probably isn't needed at Sony as much as authenticity, is only believable when it comes from a person with a real name.

Sure, sure, Sony is still in beta. But it really is difficult to relate to an ambiguous "Admin" handle who shares personal stories. "Admin" posts are better left to generic content whereas, if the author really is Clancy, he might as well use his real name. After that, he can get his company to pitch in on products so he doesn't have to "buy" them for those future cameo posts.

Much sharper than the blog is the community hub section. Backstage 101 is dedicated to helping people learn how to use products; The Digital Darkroom is a photo gallery site to share photos with others; Frontline is an online research community where you can provide feedback to Sony through online surveys, panels, polls and focus groups; and Voice your Opinion promises to allow consumers to do exactly that about Sony products.

Yes, the categories are a bit awkward, but I expect they'll shift quite a bit while the site remains in beta. Eventually, I imagine that the company's classifications will be replaced by the way consumers think, which will place product sections — eg. I have a camera — front and center. Frontline and Voice Your Opinion can be consolidated to make room for such a move.

In addition to its on-site efforts, Sony is also promoting itself with several other social media accounts, including: a push PR Twitter account, Facebook page, Flickr account, and YouTube.

The Flickr and YouTube accounts appear to be the most promising of the bunch. They deliver the best of what you might expect from Sony whereas the Twitter account reinforces that the company behind this social media move has never been known for being upfront in its communication. That fact alone might even make a few mistakes along the way forgivable.

Sony Social Promises To Mix Slick And Silly

Mistakes? Yep. Expect them. For instance, in an effort to initiate engagement, Sony is asking for help in naming the new community site and encouraging consumers to submit their ideas. According to Clancy, his favorite name so far is "Sony No Baloney." Um, right.

If authenticity is going to be part of any social media arrangement, you cannot force it. Most would agree that this blog has a better chance of being renamed "The Sausage House" than Sony would picking "Sony No Baloney" for the banner of its new social media effort. Then again, it's the silly stuff like this that makes Sony our first living case study of 2009.

While there is plenty of potential, it's also painfully apparent Sony intends to struggle through social media all in beta. And considering we had the new release in hand several hours before "Sony Admin" had a "Sony's New Community Site Goes Live" post up, we anticipate some oddness now and again in the year ahead. Let's just hope in what seems to be a sincere effort to adopt some of the so-called "new rules of social media" that Sony doesn't break its own brand in the process.

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