Wednesday, September 30

Encouraging For Nonprofits: Lee Aase & Mayo Clinic

The Mayo Clinic is a nonprofit organization and internationally renowned group medical practice headquartered in Rochester, Minnesota. And, according to U.S. News & World Report, it is ranked second only to Johns Hopkins.

As a leader in the medical community, it's no surprise that the Mayo Clinic has become a leader in social media. We even used its program as an example for hospitals in southern Nevada to consider, given Las Vegas-area hospitals' lack of presence online.

The Mayo Clinic is a fine example, especially since Lee Aase, manager of syndication and social media for Mayo Clinic, has accepted several interviews to share the benefits of developing social media programs for hospitals and nonprofit organizations. In addition to video, you can learn more about their program here and here.

According to Aase, the comparatively low cost and ease-of-use make social media an important communication component for every nonprofit communication plan. It is a sentiment recently shared by Seth Godin, who noted nonprofit organizations have been too slow to adopt social media and criticized them for placing too much emphasis on the "non" portion of nonprofit.

While Godin raises some good points, his logic is flawed. The lack of being among the top 100 anything online (Twitter or otherwise) is not an indication whether or not nonprofit organizations have effective social media programs. It only means that the potential target audience is less than everyone whereas Ashton Kutcher, Ellen DeGeneres, and Britney Spears have a larger slice of the potential to reach everyone.

Several nonprofit organizations do have fledgling social media programs in the works, including the March of Dimes, which will be partnering with this November for Bloggers Unite: Fight For Preemies. There is also an independent filmmaker that we will be working with over the next three months to support several important causes related to veterans. (Details on both of these efforts will be released next week.) They won't show in the lists, but they will meet objectives.

What I Learned Speaking At NANO

Still, the March of Dimes and the filmmakers seem to be the exception. After taking a cursory look at the online presence of the top 20 nonprofit organizations (by funding) in southern Nevada in preparation for speaking to a handful of nonprofit executives at the Nevada Association Of Nonprofit Organizations (NANO), we discovered that with exception to the Nevada Cancer Institute, most nonprofit organizations here are largely nonexistent online.

They either have no social media program or have what can best be described as small pond social media efforts. A small pond social media effort usually consists of 100 to 200 people on a popular social media platform (regardless of where their supporters are engaged). The organization has a dialogue with its small group. There is nothing wrong with that (although some greatly diminish their ROI).

The United Way of Southern Nevada, for example, has several social media accounts consisting of a relatively small collection of advocates on each. They engage participants on these accounts, but none of these participants seem to have become advocates or evangelists who actively share United Way content beyond the small pond. And, when measuring online presence, it creates the illusion that they have a non-existent program.

In contrast, the Mayo Clinic excels in maximizing the adaptive nature of social media. For example, one of the many proven points that Aase shares in the Ragan video is how the Mayo Clinic employs social media as a media relations outreach tool and/or uses it to refocus media exposure that the clinic receives. The concept is one of several excellent communication tactics that have opened up via social media.

This touches on something else I learned from NANO members. Many nonprofit organizations may not be ready to engage in social media. The reasons may be varied, but the reality is that many do not know how to develop or manage a communication plan let alone a social media program. Most are best served only when they have the help of a communication champion.

Specifically, the communication learning curve for someone like Aase and the learning curve for a nonprofit administrator or executive director are not the same. And what seems easy to me, Aase, or Valeria Maltoni, is a completely new skill set to non-communicators. The same holds true for businesses.

For me, it has changed the way I present social media content threefold. First, social media is best viewed as an environment where people congregate as opposed to a medium unto itself. Second, the experiences people have with individual communication online are significantly different from organizational communication. Third, "dive in" advice tends to leave organizations with the "now what?" dilemma, especially for non-communicators.

Tuesday, September 29

Forgetting A Public: Public Relations

Earlier this year, published the 2008/2009 Employee Satisfaction and Retention Survey that revealed 65 percent of employees were passively or actively looking for new jobs.

What made the survey stand out is that employers only estimated that number at 37 percent. In fact, while employers had a good sense of overall employee satisfaction, they often overestimated the degree of satisfaction by nearly 2 to 1.

Lori Rosenwasser, writing for Forbes, used it to once again remind employers that there may be some fall out for companies that are "not actively recruiting" but are also unconcerned with retention. The most misguided assume employees are holding on to their jobs for dear life.

As evidence, consider The New York Times article that points out employers are too uncertain to hire employees despite an upturn in the economy. With job seekers currently outnumbering openings six to one, the worst ratio since the government began tracking open positions in 2000, continued uncertainty could become self-fulfilling.

While there is some prudence in waiting to fully understand the financial consequences of health care reform, increasing likelihood of potential tax increases and regulations, and rising cost of labor; being overly cautious could further hinder growth, aggravate employee loyalty, and diminish customer service as employees who already feel like they have made sacrifices are asked to do more for less despite signs of a turnaround.

The Public Behind Multiple Publics

Very few employees exist as a singular public anymore. Many of them, especially in larger companies, are also direct or indirect shareholders, customers, industry influencers, regulars, activists, and marketers. Specifically, they don't come to work every day to receive a salary.

They come to work because they might believe in the product or service. They might come to work because they appreciate their 401k may be tied to the company's performance. They may serve on commissions or in associations that either self-police the industry or interconnect with government. They might be fans or friends of the company via an online group. They may vest or fund organizations that lobby government against the industry in which they work. And the list goes on.

Can public relations really afford to consider a news release limited in its scope to the media? Can investor communication claim the economy is the cause when employee-investors might know better? If a company decides to save dollars on the assembly line, do employee-customers decide to purchase another product? Do employees feel forced to join online communities and support the company, granting it even more access to their semi-public communications? Are companies inveterately funding organizations that will press for their next tax increase or sweeping industry changes?

The challenges in meeting the needs of the most neglected public are exponential, well beyond the questions posed by Mary Ellen Slayter at SmartBlog on Workforce. While she rightly suggests that companies operate with integrity, leadership, and responsibility, maybe it's time that public relations professionals consider companies are much more transparent than they ever imagined.

Where Employees Are The Message

To that extent, it may even be the story-beyond-the-story that has Domino's, Ford Motor Co. and Kellogg Co. turning employees into marketing talent. While the story talks about a move to cut marketing costs while creating a bond with audiences, it also creates an opportunity to share multiple messages with multiple publics, especially those that consist of one public with multiple roles.

While not always confined to executives, one of several examples includes GM Chairman Edward Whitacre Jr. attempting to build rapport with viewers before urging them to try GM's vehicles.

"Before I started this job, I admit I had some doubts. Probably a lot like you," Whitacre says as he strides down the halls of GM's Design Center in Warren. "But I like what I've found. I think you will, too."

Is this a message to customers? Or employees? Or investors? Or all of the above? Is it advertising? marketing? public relations? social media (once it is placed on YouTube or a blog)? Or all of the above? Is it a cost-cutting measure? Exercise in transparency? High touch message? Or all of the above?

The move really isn't only about messaging in the current market nor does it necessarily require employees. As advertisers and public relations professionals work toward message integration, it becomes more apparent that communication needs to touch multiple publics for different reasons, especially when those multiple publics can be traced back to the one most responsive to high touch messages.

Right on. It's a bit more complicated than sending a news release, but someone needs to advise executives that the modern employee isn't the same employee that they knew two or three decades ago. Without their support, it's all upstream.

Monday, September 28

Searching Over Socializing: People Online

Chitika, an online ad network, broke down more than 123 million impressions across a 60,000+ publisher network to determine that search engines remain the primary method for people to find information online. The study is signifiant given predictions that social networks — driven by friend referrals — would eventually replace search engines.

Search engines currently provide 97.82 percent of all referrals while social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and Digg accounted for only .55 percent of all referrals. Of those, StumbleUpon (and not the more commonly talked about sites) captured more than half of those referrals.

Top Search Engine Referrals

Google — 76.13 percent
Yahoo — 7.34 percent
Bing — 5.2 percent
AOL — 1.24 percent
Ask — .84 percent

Top Social Network Referrals

StumbleUpon — (#6) .27 percent
Facebook — (#17) .06 percent
Digg — (#27) .04 percent
Bukisa — (#31) .04 percent
LuyenChong — (#39) .03 percent
Twitter — (#44) .02 percent

What It Means For Communication

Currently, most new entrants, especially public relations professionals, tend to favor recommending social networks for their clients' entrance into social media. Many of them do so because it is relatively easy to build a network of hundreds or thousands on these networks (assuming they know what they are doing).

Unfortunately, for many companies (not all companies), relying on social networks does not help the company increase its reach. Instead, social networks tend to build groups with varied degrees of engagement — weak when managed by anyone and stronger when managed by professionals or personalities that have an affinity for real time communication.

As it turns out, the expense is often at the consideration of a blog, which is much better suited for developing subject matter expertise and search engine dominance (especially over Web sites). Or, as often is the case, public relations professionals may be recommending the wrong social networks, making decisions based on media popularity as opposed to actual customer presence.

Social Media Development Consideration

Companies that are deciding how to develop social media programs are always better advised to be conducting research (quantified and qualified over Google alerts alone), determining what potential communication assets they may have, and setting clearly defined and measurable objectives. Not considering these steps could potentially derail a program or cause a company to invest resources in the wrong areas first.

For example, I have to give the Frontier Girl Scouts in-house marketing team props for discovering their scouts were much more inclined to engage on MySpace before launching any program. Facebook, where many would assume the girls participated, was much more used by volunteer leaders and funders. (Many experts I know would have assumed Facebook and Twitter were the best networks to engage.)

While the organization doesn't benefit from a blog (to capture secondary search terms and establish a better Web presence) that could help increase member recruitment, the objective is confined to sharing news for funders and leadership skills for volunteers. It's a better than average start.

Social Media Program Conclusion

While all social media programs are situational with no single solution being a catch all for all organizations, the Chitika study goes a long way in demonstrating why social media programs can benefit from blogs, which are best suited for search engines.

Social networks, on the other hand, cannot be dismissed. They tend to be best suited for community development driven by willing advocates (assuming the professionals handling the accounts aren't out friending everyone), unless there is another objective all together.

For example, my own purpose for Twitter is simply to stay connected with and communicate with colleagues within the communication field. Facebook is mostly personal. Linkedin is mostly professional. And so on. How about you?

Friday, September 25

Finding Fearlessness: How To Do It

Dr. Stephen Covey calls it the circle of concern: an outer circle that consists of several factors that people cannot influence such as the economy, security, and inconveniences. And yet, with increasing regularity, more people seem fixated on them at the expense of factors they can directly influence.

In September, eMarketer presented a study that shared why executives love or fear social media. Not surprisingly, almost every executive who valued social media listed qualities related to what they could directly influence: customer relationships, brand enhancement, customer service, employee morale.

Those who feared social media listed things they could not directly influence, such as the unknown, confidentiality, security, and employee productivity among those reasons they fear it. Those fears still remain today.

In every occasion, solutions land in the inner circle while fears fall to the outside.

Yesterday, Jeremy Meyers wrote a post asking how do we address fear? His solution was to offer love and compassion.

While there is truth to the concept, the application isn't always welcome. It isn't always welcome because people who are focused on the outer circle are more likely to consider such gestures with reservation and, well, concern. Sometimes those reservations are warranted. Other times they are not.

Although being overly concerned about the weaknesses of others falls well outside an inner circle (until it expands our own), fearless folks can still help others find fearlessness with clear communication, flexibility, and empathy.

For example, at our company, not every social media or communication program begins with the "ideal" program. We find ways to help companies take baby steps toward "ideal" programs. Simply put, we look for a potential win-win or we move on.

There are no hard feelings if we do. If people aren't willing to meet us halfway, then it's very likely their fears of outsourcing, job security, budgets, results, economic conditions, brand control (whatever that is), customers, etc. are too large for them to take control of their own destiny at that time. There is nothing wrong with that. We don't fault them for it.

How about you? How many fears do you focus on that reside outside your direct influence? The economy? Health concerns? Job security? And what would you do if you weren't afraid?

Thursday, September 24

Reaching Customers: How Media Stacks Up

According to a new study from Opinion Research Corporation and sponsored by ARAnet, consumers are turning to online and radio sources for news and information and relying less on daily newspapers and television. This is the second year that Opinion Research Corporation has conducted the study.

Media Rankings by Opinion Research Corporation

• Television: 31.1 percent, down from 34.7 percent
• Daily newspapers: 19.4 percent, down from 23.5 percent
• Radio: 19.4 percent, up from 16.5 percent
• Online: 14.6 percent, up from 12.7 percent
• Weekly community papers: 4.4 percent, down from 5.1 percent
• Free shopper newspapers: 2.9 percent,up from 2.2 percent
• Magazines: 2.1 percent, up from 1.6 percent

Additional Research Highlights

• Respondents with household incomes of $100,000 or more receive considerably more news and information from online sources (23.1 percent versus 14.6 percent for the general population)
• College graduates reported using online sources more frequently (20.0 percent)
• People 18-to-34 reported the highest reliance on online sources (22.2 percent)
• Hispanic respondents were more likely to prefer online sources (21.0 percent)

What The Shift Means

"The survey results — especially that high earners and college graduates are continuing to move toward online sources of news and information and that the credibility of those sources is on the rise — reinforce that Americans are continuing to change the way they consume media," said Dave Fleet, senior consultant for Thornley Fallis Communications, in a release.

Beyond finding new ways to reach consumers, companies and organizations that have virtually no online presence or a Web site only presence may want to rethink their current communication strategy.

With increased frequency, consumers often search for companies and opinions about those companies online after they see news stories or advertisements about that company on radio, television, or in newspapers. So in many cases, paid and earned exposure across traditional media can increase competitor sales when customers follow up online.

Wednesday, September 23

Catering To Labels: PR Executives

Most public relations executives, especially those looking for a position, would be happy being featured as the lead in an interview for a Forbes article. Not Judith Lederman.

The 50-year-old divorcee who lives in Scarsdale, N.Y. who has yet to replace her former $120,000 salary as a publicity manager at Lord & Taylor took exception to the way the article portrayed her. Calling the reporter out on her blog, she wrote "Instead of painting me as someone seeking an appropriate salary so she could support herself, it portrays me as someone who is torn between the prospect of being employed and being eligible for tax breaks, college scholarships and other incentives."

Except, as Steven Spenser, principal of Praxis Communication in Seattle, commented in response to her post: "I must have read a different article, because I didn't find any text that indicated you want entitlements or handouts." Spenser is right. The perception Lederman had about the story is not the perception that most people will draw from the story. And that's too bad.

Given her uncomfortable position, I don't want to berate Lederman. Rather, I want to focus on the lesson to be learned for new public relations practitioners, especially those who are entering an era where publicly responding to the media is all too easy to do. And based on the lead in to the post, Lederman knew it too.

"I'm going to go out on a limb here - because I know that in the business of public relations, which is my business - and has been for many years - calling a journalist on the carpet for misrepresenting your point of view, can cost a PR person valuable contacts," she began before sharing an e-mail to the reporter to express her post-interview, pre-article sentiments.

What Went Wrong?

The e-mail she wrote (and posted) to the reporter seems to provide a glimpse. Lederman finished the interview and concluded that she was pretty far off from her personal message in a story — one that questions a tax structure which provides incentive for underperformance and disincentives for working harder — she would have preferred not to be featured. It happens. At one point, she even says that she told the reporter to find another person to profile.

It doesn't work that way. While reporters sometimes consider post-interview jitters correspondence, especially in feature pieces, there is considerable risk in writing them out of desperation. In this case, if anything, Janet Novack seems to have listened to Lederman's pleas and restructured the story so that it sticks to the facts. And the facts are the facts.

Regardless of how Lederman feels about the conclusions being drawn, Novack is right. Not finding a job or taking a job for half the salary might be the better bet for Lederman and her daughter. That doesn't mean Lederman, who is inclined to work harder for less of everything in order to feel self-sufficient, wants handouts. It only means that the country's current direction caps success because once someone reaches a certain financial step, they may make less than they did at the step before and, sometimes, two or three steps before.

So, unfortunately, in the Forbes piece, Lederman is a champion against a flawed system. In her post, she presents the very image she wanted to avoid. She comes across as a victim.

Perception Is Powerful.

PRNewser framed up the conversation asking whether Lederman made the prudent move to correct the reporter, if her protest will raise doubts about her abilities, and whether she should have accepted the interview given the context. Lederman addresses some of these questions in the comments that follow, but the initial questions seemed like the wrong ones.

Ergo, while there is nothing wrong with correcting a reporter who misrepresents facts, there is something wrong with being overly concerned about how journalists "present" us beyond the facts, especially when the concern seems to be confined to labels. Most people don't read labels — hard-working professionals looking for comparable work even if it means sacrificing benefits for her daughter's education vs. a whiney 50-year-old single mom looking to cheat the system (as Lederman framed it up) — as much as they saw Lederman, or in this case, a metaphor for dozens of middle-class families.

Sure, there were some commenters who scoffed at her former salary, but most of those could be dismissed for ignorance. When you consider the cost of living is significantly higher in New York compared to other areas, $120,000 suddenly becomes a low-to-mid middle income with a position that probably meant long hours and family sacrifice. Besides, she doesn't make that now and her home is a risk so what does it matter?

Aside from the mistaken follow-ups with the reporter, the real miss here wasn't the story as much as it was a post-story opportunity. Lederman could be grateful for being included because it might had led to job offers. She could have pointed to the article, which sums her resume up nicely enough. And, she could have expounded on her personal views about this subject in a positive manner, picking up on any details that she felt were important but left out. All of this could have been done for a net gain.

Instead, the lessons to be learned here are threefold: manage the message or the message will manage you; measure the facts and not necessarily mistaken inferences made by anonymous commenters; never place too much emphasis on labels, especially those that no one will remember.

Had she left it alone or expounded with the positive, all anyone would remember is that she was featured in Forbes. Instead, all they will remember is ... well ... ho hum.

Tuesday, September 22

Refocusing PR: What It Could Be

In Las Vegas, former public relations representative Lenora Kaplan called it mostly right during an interview with the Las Vegas Business Press as other area professionals lamented the condition of the market.

"The roll of PR is very different from those of us who come from other markets. Basically, it is just media relations, which is only a very small part of the profession," she said. "That's why I'm only working out of market, although I still live in Las Vegas."

I say "mostly" because public relations has taken this turn in other markets too, not only Las Vegas. The challenged status with public relations nationwide is deep enough that people like Geoff Livingston feel rankled anytime someone tries to give him a public relations moniker.

Sure, there are exceptions. Our company knows which handful of public relations firms are capable of more than lackluster writing that passes as a press release in Las Vegas and around the country. We've worked with many as consultants, contractors, and sometimes as a member of the media.

However, most of the rest wouldn't fair well if their client took a 20-question quiz released by Scott Baradell with The Idea Grove. Although skewed toward media relations, the questions he poses mirror many of the complaints about public relations that we hear about everyday.

20 Questions To Ask Your PR Firm By Scott Baradell.

1. Do you routinely catch careless typos and factual inaccuracies in agency-drafted news releases?

2. Do agency-drafted news releases typically exhibit only a superficial understanding of your business?

3. Do agency-drafted news releases too often miss the point, burying important information?

4. Does the agency ask you for ideas more often than it provides you with ideas?

5. Does the agency seem to think PR stands for "press release," churning out releases but not offering other, more creative ways to build your brand?

6. Do agency representatives get the names or titles of your company's senior executives wrong in correspondence and/or conversation?

7. Examine the media list your PR firm uses when distributing your news releases. Are there more than a few inappropriate publications or out-of-date contacts on the list?

8. Do the agency representatives who pitch your company to media on the phone have only a superficial understanding of what your company does?

9. Has the agency ever arranged a meeting with a reporter and your company's executives that didn't seem to have a well-thought-out objective?

10. Has your primary agency contact person changed more than once in the past 12 months?

11. Does your primary contact person seem inexperienced or immature?

12. When you have a problem or concern, must your primary contact generally talk with a supervisor before responding to you?

13. Does the agency send a senior executive to meet with you every couple of months to smooth over complaints about the firm's performance?

14. Does the agency miss deadlines or seem to always be scrambling at the last minute to meet them?

15. Has a journalist ever complained to you about your PR agency?

16. Are the agency's billing statements confusing, so that you're not sure exactly what you're paying for?

17. Does the agency hem and haw when asked the hourly rates of various personnel on your account?

18. Do the agency's billing statements show that more time is spent on client relations (e.g., meetings and correspondence with you) than on actual client service?

19. Does the agency boast about delivering measurable results, but then only give you a list of press mentions that mean nothing to your company's executives?

20. Does it seem like the agency's heart isn't really in it - that it's simply working to get a fee?

A Working Definition of What Public Relations Could Be.

In 2007, Bill Sledzik, associate professor in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at Kent State University, provided a run down of some classic public relations definitions, including the one I tend to provide students who take Writing for Public Relations at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. In later conversations, he challenged me to write one.

As a strategic communicator who happens to teach a public relations class because of my background in advertising and journalism, I wasn't so sure it was a challenge I wanted to take. However, knowing the public relations industry is in transformation (and I don't mean the desperate grab at social media), I'll need a new one next year. And this is where I am:

Public relations is the art and science of developing and managing immediate and long-term measurable programs that strengthen relationships between the organization and various publics by researching trends within the organization and the environments in which it or its publics exist; determining the impact those trends may have to an organization and those publics; and fostering, facilitating, and providing counsel on the exchange of mutually beneficial communication between the organization and those publics.

It's still clunky, and borrows enough from the classics enough to be unoriginal. But the way I see it, there isn't a need to reinvent public relations; there is only a need to realign it to what it could be, which would allow it to work in tandem with other communication disciplines.

Had public relations been doing this all along in places like Las Vegas, these firms would have predicted the challenges and developed programs that would have softened the damage to their clients on the front end of the economic downturn. They did not. Most of them raised their rates instead. Others claimed added social media service despite continuing to struggle with their own industry. And some, well, they're still busy churning out releases.

Monday, September 21

Managing Upturns: Reactionary Expectations

"Those who succeed will be ones that focused on fundamental issues as the financial crisis and the recession intensified. If competitors are cutting back advertising or cutting their sales force, now is the time to increase or maintain them." — Yoram (Jerry) Wind, a professor of marketing at Wharton University of Pennsylvania

Two weeks ago, I met with an executive who had decided a little bit of publicity could go a long way for her struggling business. A well-placed feature release, she concluded, would make all the difference.

Could it really?

In evaluating the business there seemed to be more nostalgia than newsworthy forward motion. So while a feature release on the company's past position and links to history might have made an interesting story to someone, it seemed far enough off from the company's business objectives that we made a different recommendation for approximately the same investment, but with an ongoing communication program.

While she thought the program was perfect, she passed. Perhaps when the economy shows more signs of an economic upturn, she said. We'll wait until we see increases in revenue. Right now, she said, our expectations are low.

“The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.” — Michelangelo

While some companies are already noting that the best six-month run on Wall Street might be revealing an increase in consumer confidence, there are an equal number of companies and organizations that have tied their success to outside forces, especially the economy. A recent article featured by Knowledge@Wharton seems to suggest that even with an economic upturn, low expectations are the way to go.

It's a message that seems to resonate with employees. Watson Wyatt released a study today that reveals cost-cutting actions that employers have been making to deal with the economic crisis have contributed to a sharp decline in the morale and commitment of their workers, especially top performers. And, according to some key findings, everyone's expectations are already low:

• While organizations have been making major changes, employee engagement has dropped 9 percent since last year for all employees and close to 25 percent for top-performing employees.

• Top-performing employees are 20 percent less likely to agree that they understand the link between their own goals and the company’s goals than in 2008.

• Forty-one percent of employees indicate that changes have had an adverse impact on quality and customer service, while only 17 percent of employers believe this is the case.

“There is no scarcity of opportunity to make a living at what you love; there's only scarcity of resolve to make it happen.” — Wayne Dyer

There are two ways to view economic indicators and the environments in which businesses operate. The first is to view a company as reliant on the economic climate. The second is to discover opportunities within those environments.

The former group of companies are operating on the pretense that they need to protect what they have. The latter group of companies appreciates that they never had anything except what they innovated and earned.

The former group saw revenues decline, as their strategists predicted. The latter saw revenues increase, despite the recession.

What's the difference? Operating from a viewpoint of scarcity usually creates more of the same, with longer term consequences. Or, in other words, the executive I met with two weeks ago will not likely see an increase in revenue any time in the near future. The best she can hope for is that her competitors feel the same way.

Sure, it would have been easier to rehash her company's history in a feature release with no outcomes (or none that aligned with her business objectives) and then send an invoice for the effort. But sometimes accepting the wrong work for the sake of accepting it seems to me to be a different kind of scarcity that sends the wrong message to our team. After all, we're in the business of helping companies grow. We're not in the business of helping them decline. How about you?

Thursday, September 17

Unselling Sex And Other Stuff: Buyology

With 25 percent of all search results for the world's top brands linked to blogs, forums, and tweets, is it any wonder communication is being challenged? But just as fast as social media professionals are chatting about the tools they use on a daily basis, neuroscience is also opening up doors and changing convictions that were long thought to be held true.

Sex Doesn't Sell

Sex doesn't sell, at least not according to research conducted by Martin Lindstrom, whose book, Buyology: Truth and Lies about Why We Buy. Lindstrom's case is simple enough: it detracts from the intended message and seems to hold true based on brainwaves.

It's also one of the many sound bites that most reviewers picked up on because, unlike sex, controversy sells (or so says the author). It helped sell the reviews; and it helped sell the book. (The down side is controversy is not sustainable.)

So how can that be about sex? Because what the author doesn't reveal is that most communicators knew sex never sold. It simply captured people's attention. After that, the ability to sell the product relies on the ability to move the reader into something else. Unless, of course, you are selling sex. And that is a different subject all together.

But It Tried To Sell Buyology

Buyology certainly has some high points, given I had recently read What Would Google Do? by Jeff Jarvis (which I have no desire to review) and was reminded by Lindstrom that Ford Motor Company had asked consumers to build their own car well before Jarvis was shouting that companies ought to do the same. The model flopped.

Sometimes people don't really want what they say they want. And sometimes, they certainly don't always want what they want for the price it takes to deliver.

Lindstrom does a great job demonstrating exactly that, using brain scans to confirm what people say and how they really feel (whether they know it or not) are not often the same. In the book, study participants said they liked one television show better than two others, but their brain scans revealed a different outcome. And these actual outcomes, when the shows aired, mirror their success.

Unfortunately, the few high points in the book are too few and far between. For anyone studying or working in the field of studying neuroscience and advertising, the book mostly presents a recap of studies and experiences that are all too familiar, including my personal favorite, Coca-Cola.

For example, dedicating an entire chapter to fragrance and sound experiments conducted by large companies might be new to some. But for anyone who has ever worked with a home builder, adding some ambient music and the scent of freshly baked cookies has been proven effective for as long as I can remember (and for much less than grander experiments).

Another example is Lindstrom's assessment that says infusing fear into a message can work for the short term, but sometimes scares people away from a product. The better communicators already know that. In much the same manner, fear can immobilize people from giving to nonprofit organizations if the organization makes the challenge seem insurmountable.

And finally, the section on subliminal advertising didn't really belong. It's a subject frequently covered, generally conclusive, and relatively understood. I saw it work first hand in 2008 when it was used against a political candidate we were working with. The opposition ran television ads that included a fractional clip of a gun pointing at his head.

However, I won't go as far as some detractors and say the book is worthless. There are certain people who would benefit from the book — especially novice communicators who do not have the benefit of experience or familiarity with some classic studies that Lindstrom cites and social media professionals who want to take some edge off the ask-the-consumer-everything "Kool Aid" or appreciate that social media by-in had initially hindered its own adoption rate with too much fear messaging.

But even for these professionals, the book faces some hurdles with too much memoir writing, the promise of neuromarketing science (which is basically applying neuroscience to marketing) with too little science, and not enough focus on the studies Lindstrom conducted. There is also an overemphasis on the idea that people never make rational purchases, which is only partly true.

If you can get past these problems, it's a quick read that might may you rethink a few popular ideas out there right now, assuming you can draw up your own solutions. If you cannot get past those problems, then you might find it to be another business card book that presents an argument and ties it together loosely with a few cherry picked examples to prove the position but no real solutions (which is why I can't even review the title by Jeff Jarvis). Or, you can always visit Lindstrom's site.

From Others Who Bought Or Didn't Buy Buyology

• Buyology by Martin Lindstrom is a compulsively readable account at FutureLab

• Book Mashup: Saving the World at Work and Buy-ology by Bobbie Carlton

Book Review: Buyology by Martin Lindstrom by Nicholas Kinports

Buyology: Sound Science or Wishful Thinking? at ResearchTalk

• "Buyology" Illuminates Unlikely Marriage of Science and Consumerism at Fast Company

Defining People: How Marketing And Advertising Sees The World

On Tuesday, we shared how publicity, public relations, and social media see their audiences or publics. They are not alone. Marketing and advertising see the world in varied degrees too. In fact, marketing and advertising have so many world views and variations that we had to settle on four favorites.

An oversimplified perspective of how professionals see the world.

• World View: Branders see the world as the audience, with every person on the planet having an innate obligation to be able to define the company as the company wants to be defined.
• Method: Run mass media advertisements to gain as much exposure for the company's controlled message as possible, regardless of any other factor. Demographics may play a role in selecting the media and some branding efforts include additional tactical elements. The more impressions, the better, just like brainwashing.
• Why It Works: Companies do need to define themselves. When it's done right, non-customers will adopt the brand too.
• Why It Doesn't Always Work: Sometimes the branding effort is so far from reality that it's doomed to fail because customers aren't as stupid as creative folks like to think. Other times, agencies spend more time branding the work than the company in an effort to gain attention, much like publicity. Abused, some agencies sacrifice measurement in favor of impressing peers at various award shows.

• World View: With the exception of mass media media branding campaigns, advertising sees the world as various target audiences as defined by their demographics. Deliver the right message to the right audience and big things happen.
• Method: Plan a media campaign around media that best matches the demographic, and create clever, pretty, or direct messages that are presumed to appeal to those audiences. Sometimes they will even include a call to action.
• Why It Works: It's planned, semi-measurable, controllable, and can change behavior and public opinion. At its best, consumers will relate to the advertising because it will feel like one-on-one communication.
• Why It Doesn't Always Work: Marketers and advertisers don't always look hard enough to find an adequate unique selling point so they attempt to sell the advertisement instead. If anyone is going to ignore public relations, it's advertising. (Who else would buy media time for automakers on a local news program, playing opposite the daily traffic accident tally?) They have a mistaken belief that consumers love to be interrupted online and off. There are an abundance of rules that some people think actually work (they do not).

• World View: Direct marketing sees the world made up of demographical data with a certain percentage of each group ready to respond to anything.
• Method: Buy the list and blitz.
• Why It Works: No one really knows why it works, but enough consumers continue to respond to their least favorite form of marketing. As long as direct marketers can meet a 2 percent mark, companies see it as a guaranteed return, which excites them more than branding and advertising.
• Why It Doesn't Always Work: Beyond the possibility of a bad list or maligned message that sounds conspicuously the same as everyone else, direct has the potential to turn people off even if they gave permission. Two percent might be the industry average, but it is a low water mark that requires a sizable investment to pay off. People are nothing more than numbers.

• World View: Anyone who hears the pitch will become putty.
• Pitch as many people as possible as often as possible and those people will be compelled to buy, even if it is only to convince the salesperson to shut up. Once they buy, they'll tell their friends.
• Why It Works: Sometimes products really are that good. Some people are really, really good at it. It's so easy, you can hire a room full of people with scripts and telephones to get the job done.
• Why It Doesn't Always Work: Most people are not as good at it as they might think. At its worst, it creates an adversarial relationship that frames up every transaction as open warfare on the consumer: the salesperson's goal to get the consumer to buy as much as possible, and the consumer's goal to make excuses why they cannot buy. Butt kissing is only optional.

Just like publicity, public relations, and social media, all of these views can benefit companies, with an integrated approach and minus abuses. In fact, some might notice the world view of sales and social media is very similar despite very different methods (nothing could be further from the truth).

Unfortunately, most marketing firms and advertising agencies seem to have an aversion to two-way communication, especially if it interferes with the "creative process." And while direct and sales are generally more malleable and accountable, they forever remain misunderstood as long as some salespeople resort to being that guy.

Wednesday, September 16

Spooking Stephen King: Convergence

If someone asked Stephen King "what scares you" a few years ago, he might say never being able to write again (or perhaps lament that he might be asked that same cliche question in every interview). Nowadays, there seems to be something else weighing on King's mind.

"When crap drives out class, our tastes grow coarser and the life of the imagination grows smaller. ... It ain't coming back, son. That's what I'm really afraid of." — Stephen King

Writing for Entertainment Weekly, King questioned convergence, noting that the changes taking place in the entertainment industry are accelerating. The very media the article appears in is facing rapid change. Although faring better than most publications, the graph tells the story.

Entertainment Weekly's print circulation is flattening, enough so that that an arrow had to be added to create the illusion of consistent growth. With a circulation of approximately 1.8 million and a hopeful pass-on readership of 6.7, Entertainment Weekly doesn't pull as much as it once did (its online site tracks well, especially with younger audiences).

So what are King's concerns?

• If great publishers fail to e-books, what will happen to the quality? Who will pay advances?
• If radio stations succumb to all talk and air, what happens to the music industry?
• What is happening to the movie industry and why are quality movies being squashed?
• Will network television drop entertainment for talk shows and reality television?

"Why should we care? Simple: Because right now there are no replacements for the quality that looks to be on the way out — for entertainment that really moves us." — Stephen King

Answering questions for Stephen King.

While predicting the future is always fraught with disappointment, King's concerns represent a possibility in that there probably is already a parallel universe where Mike Judge's Idiocracy isn't fiction. The other possibility, of course, seems a bit brighter in that as crap becomes overwhelming, new vetting processes emerge to help guide the public toward quality.

However, it's a two-way street. It requires innovators and consumers working toward a middle as opposed to against each other.

• Publishers need to return to the business of finding and marketing quality talents as opposed to searching for talents that may market them because over the long term, e-book price points will increase and printed books will eventually be considered a delicacy. What have publishers done to engage, educate, and entertain readers online?

Penguin is working it, but has a lot more to learn about the online space.

• Radio stations need to remember that music formats don't make them great. It's the portability of the experience they produce that makes them great. More than 86 percent of listeners want stations to guide them toward new music in addition to playing their favorites and 36 percent listen while they are online. Why not employ social media to reinstate passionate people who know about the music?

We have a PowerPoint specific to radio stations, which we augment with specific station and area research upon request.

• Movie producers want to make great films for a public that has always seemed to wax and wane between escapism and timelessness. While that might not explain the industry's pass on Creation reportedly over content, limiting theatrical distribution will be the likely trend until the people calling those shots are proven wrong by consumer post purchases.

The film industry is still learning social media; it will represent a dramatic positive change, especially among independents.

• As long as networks chase ratings without appreciating their online prospects, quality programming will continue to slip under the mainstream radar. There are enough choices out there right now that dominating viewership just isn't the right model. It hasn't been for some time. Jericho, Veronica Mars, Black Donnellys, Journeyman, and more recently, Kings (for the exact opposite reason Creation cannot find a distributor), all could have had longer runs if it wasn't for mishandled marketing and being slaves to a ratings system they know is broken.

Nothing will save them unless they can save themselves. The big three will continue to slip and slide along until they realize that Hulu and iTunes only work if you have assets to put on them.

So no, Mr. King, the crap won't drive out the class. It will only make it harder to find in the short term. Or not.

"Boring damned people. All over the earth. Propagating more boring damned people. What a horror show. The earth swarmed with them.” —  Charles Bukowski

Tuesday, September 15

Defining People: How Publicity, PR, And SM View The World

The Buzz Bin's Geoff Livingston wrote an open letter to PR execs entering social media that caused a stir among various communication professionals. It's an interesting piece that helps to pinpoint various emerging views on social media.

At the core of the letter, Livingston suggests everyone wants better outcomes, but the methods are different. But for anyone not immersed in communication, the question that remains unanswered is why are the methods so different?

It may have something to do with how publicity, public relations, and social media see the world. Or, more specifically, it might be better to say how they see their audiences or publics, which is not always the customer.

An oversimplified perspective of how professionals see the world.

• World View: Publicity sees the world as its oyster, with every person on the planet as a potential customer or, more correctly, if you reach more people, then you are more likely to reach your customer.
• Method: Do something, anything, that will be covered by as much mainstream media as possible to maximize the exposure. There are bound to be potential customers who see it, somewhere.
• Why It Works: Reach is a powerful, often overemphasized, part of any communication equation.
• Why It Doesn't Always Work: Maximizing exposure for the sake of maximizing exposure is often at odds with branding. It tends to see people as mindless masses whose only purpose in life is to be spammed to death, along with the medium that has readership/viewership.

Public Relations.
• World View: Public relations sees the world as a collection of publics, which the organization attempts to develop a relationship with through various programs.
• Method: Plan immediate and long-term communication programs that strengthen the relationship between various groups and the organization. Bonus if the professional can do it in a mutually beneficial way.
• Why It Works: It's planned, measurable, and can change behavior and public opinion.
• Why It Doesn't Always Work: All too often, the people practicing public relations are really practicing publicity as if they are the same thing. Another common problem is some public relations professionals forget their publics are fluid, which means any message that reaches one public may not be isolated to that public. The result is that some messages work with one public (like consumers), but alienate other publics (like shareholders and employees). (I once even had one pro tell me that shareholders are never considered a public because that's an investor relations function ... as if.)

Social Media.
• World View: People are individuals looking for personal relationships; and customers are kings.
• Method: Make friends with as many people as possible and those people will do things for you like tell all their friends too.
• Why It Works: It creates relationships, sometimes on a scale of one-to-one and develops a deeper sense of trust between the organization's representative and those individuals.
• Why It Doesn't Always Work: It's not easily measured (it is, but many experts claim it isn't or measure the wrong stuff); personalities attract people beyond customers; the organization becomes secondary to the rock stars they fund; lack of leadership (management) leaves brands open for interpretation; and individual blunders reflect on the organization. Too often, some PR pros who really practice publicity attempt to push market people to death in this space. If it can be gamed, it will be gamed.

All three world views can benefit companies, with an integrated approach and minus abuses. Marketing and advertising fit into the equation as well, but there are an equal number of world views in that communication sector as well. (We'll save those for Thursday.)

Unfortunately, an integrated methodology seems to remain in the far off future for most firms as they attempt to transplant their view in an environment where it doesn't belong (or worse, claiming ownership), with publicity crunching numbers, public relations mistaking the Internet as a single public, and social media kissing more BFF butt than Jordon Dizon, according to Eric Cartman. And with this understood, is it any wonder why some executives have a hard time taking communication seriously?

Monday, September 14

Losing Leadership: Where Collectives Begin

Sangeeth Varghese re-raised an interesting question at Forbes, one that was also raised by Harris Collingwood in the Atlantic last June. Collingwood seems to draw a conclusion. Varghese leaves the answer open ended.

Of the two, the original is the stronger piece, better explaining the cornerstone of a study conducted by sociologists Stanley Lieberson and James O'Connor and published in the American Sociological Review in 1972. They argued that leadership accounts for a mere 14.5 percent, with the balance accounting for the marketplace and historical place in the corporate pecking order.

Varghese then goes on to cite Leo Tolstoy, who seemed to make the case that Napoleon Bonaparte, one of the greatest great men of all time, wasn't really the cause of all the momentous things that happened under his name and banner. Collingwood offers J. Richard Hackman, a psychologist at Harvard, who has done extensive work on leadership within small teams, and he has found that leaders do exert measurable influence on their team’s success or failure.

So which is it? And why are these questions surfacing now?

“None of us will ever accomplish anything excellent or commanding except when he listens to this whisper which is heard by him alone.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

The why may simply be a sign of the times, much like the anti-authority sentiment of the 1970s when Lieberson and O'Connor conducted their studies. This time around, the sentiment is different, sometimes framed up as collaboration trumps individual thought in social media or the collective public good supersedes individual choice regarding choice in health care.

While perhaps unintended, both trends tend to diminish leadership, and with it responsibility. It's easier to defend the position of customers than it is an original idea just as it's easier to raise the banner for the public good against freedom of choice at a time when most people are willing to make and impose sacrifices for a false sense of security.

If there is any irony, it is that neither path is purely right.

"The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark." - Michelangelo

What Lieberson and O'Connor might have missed in their original number crunching is considering how many of the 167 companies they studied helmed leaders at the time. A good number might have held the position of CEO willing to set the aim too low, but only a handful were true leaders, setting the bar much higher. Or, in other words, the majority was inclined to do little more than allow markets and pecking orders to dictate their fate.

The minority, those who reshape the world like Steve Jobs, J.W. Marriott, Henry Ford, Ray Kroc, Estee Lauder, or Jack Welch, tend to account for much more than 14.5 percent. It is their very ability to move forward despite environmental conditions that leads to success (e.g., while some companies suffer through the economy, Apple posted its best non-holiday quarter revenue and earnings in history).

Sure, there are times that the crowd demonstrates wisdom, but there are an equal number of times that those crowds will never produce any clarity of thought like an Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, or any business leader mentioned above. So where do crowds come into play? Generally, the wisdom of crowds is most likely to prevail when there isn't any leader available.

The symptoms are easy enough to spot. When authority figures begin selling security and charging individual sacrifice in exchange, they are no longer leading but simply attempting to herd the mass. Leadership, on the other hand, requires something different, beginning with individual thought.

Friday, September 11

Remembering 9-11: Retrospective

In remembrance of 9-11, we thought it fitting to republish an experimental cover story about the atrocity from the perspective of concierges in Las Vegas, New York, and Washington D.C. The piece ran in a global hospitality executive and concierge trade publication the month following the attacks.

It was considered experimental in that some of the story telling was intentionally chaotic, weaving back and forth between people and locations, as a metaphor to the events that took place. What struck me about digging up the piece was that most of the communication we could employ today — message services, social networks, blogs, and front line e-mail access — didn't exist.


Just before 9 a.m. (EST), Michael McCleary, chef concierge at the Willard Inter-Continental Hotel in Washington D.C., was told a plane had hit the World Trade Center in New York.

Had it been any other day, the report could have ben dismissed as a bad joke from the bell captain. It was not any other day.

"We didn't believe it," said McCleary. "So we looked on the Web and turned on CNN just in time to learn a second plane had hit the World Trade Center."

At the Four Seasons Hotel in New York, located on 57th Street between Park Avenue and Madison Avenue, concierges tried to retain their composure and calm guests.

In Las Vegas, concierges getting ready for work fixated on the atrocity as it unfolded.

"Having worked in hospitality for 17 years, I knew I had to get to work immediately," said Lorley Musiol, chef concierge at the Four Season Hotel in Las Vegas. "Details don't matter right away. Anytime there is a disaster, guests will immediately turn to concierges for reassurance and information."

As Musiol made her way to work, the details became self-evident: America was under attack.

Judith Becker called Copywrite, Ink. president and then Key News * Las Vegas editor Richard Becker, who had learned about the attack minutes before, to tell him his father had just called: McCarran International Airport has just been locked down, no one in or out.

Back in Washington D.C., the bell captain came running back into the hotel to report "The Pentagon's been hit!"

"There was a genuine concern because planes had been seen overhead," said McCleary, noting the hotel is half a block away from the White House and less than two miles from the Pentagon. "Guests were worried and confused. We remained calm under stress, got as much information as possible, and took turns running to the telephone."

Jaci Zweig, corporate concierge for The Howard Hughes Corporation, called her mom in Indiana before leaving for Las Vegas' major financial district.

Concierge Sunny Marsicano walked through the front doors of the Stratosphere, the tallest free-standing structure west of the Mississippi.

Margo Tully, who works on McCleary's team in Washington, tried to get a phone line out of the hotel.

Leslie Lefkowitz, director of public relations for the Four Seasons in New York, said her concierges did what everyone in Manhattan tried to do — comfort each other as one disaster led to the next.

Another crisis was in the works. Transportation was quickly grinding to a halt. Millions of people were suddenly stranded. And the front line for many hotels and resorts quickly became the concierge desk.

In Washington D.C., Willard Inter-Continental management made a decision to temporarily move more than 200 guests into the ballroom where they had set up a big screen television and message boards. Concierges remained at the desk, fielding as many incoming calls as possible.

"The phone lines were jammed with people trying to call and see if loved ones were okay," said McCleary. "We took calls and posted all the messages."

Outside, the Secret Service closed all vehicular access because of the Willard Inter-Continental's proximity to the White House. The hotel had implemented security measures, including guest-only access. As concierges, Tully said "Our priority was making sure our guests were accommodated by trying to keep some semblance of 'business as usual.'"

But business was not as usual.

In New York, concierges worked round the clock as dinner and theater reservations shifted to transportation inquiries. It would be days before concierges could help stranded guests leave, so they tried to help them make the most of it.

"One guest wanted to leave Manhattan as soon as possible," said Lefkowitz. "It wasn't easy, but the concierges somehow found a car that could take him to a luxury inn in Connecticut and then drive him to Atlanta the next day."

In Las Vegas, Musiol made the decision to provide as much information to guests as possible. A television was immediately brought over to the concierge desk and a flip chart with containing all pertinent information was posted as it happened. Within hours, management delivered a letter to every room advising guests to stay and turn to concierges as a primary resource.

"We had a guest receive a call right after the attacks to find out his son had been in a go-cart accident and could lose his hand," said Musiol. "We found him a car and helped guide him across the country. As soon as the first flights resumed, we helped him find an airport so he could fly the rest of the way."

Without air travel or Amtrak (there is no station in Las Vegas) and only limited Greyhound routes, car rentals became rare and then impossible: most companies imposed a Nevada resident-only and no one-way travel restrictions on the few remaining vehicles. It would be days before such restrictions relaxed. When they did, the Four Seasons and Bellagio Las Vegas teamed together, proving guests an opportunity to drive home with someone. Similarly, when Stratosphere guests had family from other cities arrive to pick them up, extra seats were extended to others headed toward the same destination.

"At first, everyone was in disbelief," said Marsicano. "We didn't have time for anything except caring for guests; some needed prescriptions, everyone needed information. We had to get it."

As Southern Nevada Hotel Concierge Association (SNHCA) members established a phone tree, Becker suspended all commercial assignments in favor of developing a centralized crisis communication center for concierges, with blast faxes released every two hours.

The information included reports from inside sources, unreported wire news, sales associate-turned-reporter updates, and most importantly, SNHCA members news: the Hyatt Regency reduced rates before the citywide hotline was established; Bellagio Las Vegas became a consistent and reliable source for show updates; Stratosphere and Northwest Airlines became the first to offer specific flight information; and dozens of members contributed something anytime they could.

"I have never met a more dedicated group willing to make personal sacrifices to help others ... hundreds of thousands of visitors," said Becker. "The ability to establish a week-long communication network linking more than 30 properties with shared information in less than one hour is a confirmation that this profession works for Las Vegas. I can only hope that properties recognize the value and that properties without concierges reconsider their importance ... not only as professionals dedicated to serving guests but also as an important component in any strategic communication plan. These professionals are the best suited to serve on the front line of any crisis, regardless of the size, scope, or circumstance."

Since September 11, concierges have continued to show resolve, assisting in everything from fundraisers to grassroots letter writing campaigns to encourage travel to Las Vegas. Zweig has even taken to selling patriotic buttons made by acting head of security Jerry St. Vincent. All proceeds are donated to the American Red Cross.

"We sold 20 or 30 the day after and have since raised more than $750," says Zweig, who serves tenants that include companies that suffered the greatest losses on September 11. "It is not a lot, but it seems to lift spirits."

It is everything. It is another ray of light shining out of the darkness; one of many efforts Zweig has supported. And for every person touched by similar seemingly simple acts that truly represent courage, hope, and clarity by concierges, more will benefit. In service through friendship.


Never forget, not only for those lost but for all those who showed resolve for a brief moment in history when the country, and the world, was unified. Remember it, because we haven't seen such much unification on any issue since. And many fail to remember the simplest details, such as that 9-11 wasn't a tragedy, it was an atrocity. Good night and good luck.

Thursday, September 10

Creating Crisis: Consumer Experience

Last month, Maytag faced some fallout when it recalled about 46,000 refrigerators under the Maytag, Magic Chef, Performa by Maytag and Crosley brand names, due to a fire hazard. The recall comes on the heels of about 1.6 million similar refrigerators being recalled in March, according to one Associated Press story.

In the wake of the latest recall, Heather B. Armstrong was having a problem with another Maytag product, as she described in her colorful post about life in general. For the most part, and this is not a criticism, it was the kind of post many social media experts or public relations professionals operating in social media would have dismissed (at a glance, unless they have had some experience with mommy bloggers, especially influential ones).

It might have remained dismissed despite Armstong being a popular author and one of the most influential women in the media, but then Armstrong took her complaint to Twitter after a customer service provider shrugged off the warning. On Twitter, she has 1.2 million followers. And on Twitter, Maytag listens.

Every customer service issue is a potential public relations nightmare.

While there are many ways to view the story, ranging from how customer service yields better results or never underestimate who might be on the other end of the phone line or even the concept of "blogger blackmail," the broad based lesson has very little to do with any of that and much more to do with communication integration.

While it used to be companies could assume that customer service calls were private and celebrity/media push back was recoverable by knowing who was placing the call, information is seldom isolated to a single experience. On the contrary, any experience can be shared in real time with hundreds or thousands or millions of other consumers.

Right. That person standing in a long line as two clerks chat up the weekend? There is a near equal chance that they could be tweeting or posting the experience as they wait. Sometimes they do it to kill time. Sometimes they do it to be heard. And sometimes they do it to lead a charge against companies for no reason at all.

This isn't a new challenge as some people claim (investigative news used to do all this for us), but it is growing with frequency and ferocity, even when some claims are unfounded.

Take the recent Feedburner outcry. A small computing error resulted in hundreds of bloggers speculating that Google was no longer counting Friendfeed subscribers because Friendfeed is now owned by Facebook. Or the hype from social media and media coverage about a "massive" boycott against Whole Foods. It's safe to call it hype given that the group has long since puttered out. If anything, it's helped Whole Foods find new customers.

The real questions to be considered are threefold.

Companies might consider that customer service and frontline communication is bumping up against public relations more and more often. Public relations professionals might rethink cheering this direction on because as it will eventually make their service a mere commodity (if everyone is responsible for social media/public relations, then what value will professionals bring to the table as opposed to the call center/online teams that are being developed at some companies). And, long term, consumers might eventually lose as the credibility of orchestrated mass movements occur with enough frequency that tweeting "bad service" becomes as mundane as fire drills at public schools.

None of this is meant to suggest that Armstrong wasn't justified in sharing her experience. (She was, though it might have seemed more genuine had she not warned the company that its lack of action would result in an action.) But just as post-Jericho and -Veronica Mars show cancellation protests lost steam, there may be a day when customer complaints and public outcry become so commonplace, they just don't resonate.

Who knows? That might already be becoming the case, given the outcry over Ikea fonts.

Wednesday, September 9

Flailing Buzzwords: Accountemps Survey

A few weeks ago, Accountemps released the results of a telephone survey that asked senior executives "What is the most annoying or overused phrase or buzzword in the workplace today?" The winners are all those you might expect, with eight of the eleven most frequently employed by social media advocates.

• Leverage
• Reach out
• It is what it is
• Viral
• Game changer
• Disconnect
• Value-add
• Circle back
• Socialize
• Interface
• Cutting edge

How does buzzword fatigue come about anyway?

The two most common culprits are innocent adoption and lazy communication. Clients, ad agencies, public relations firms, etc. read or hear someone use a buzzword (sometimes correctly) and misapply it so they can "sound" equally important or begin to adopt it, unknowingly, into their own language until so many people use it that our ears get tired.

While general adoption is harmless and unavoidable (the result of a living language), communication duplication is costly. For example, once upon a time, being a leading company used to mean something. Unfortunately, after every company in every industry included it in their definitions by qualifying it (one of the leading companies), narrowing the definition (a leading company in Acme City, west side), or downright lying about it (a leading company ... based on floor space, heh). Those folks undercut our ability to use "leading" even when a company really is the leader.

After all, some company, somewhere, really is the leader. Some people really do practice strategic communication. And Apple, for example, really did apply cutting-edge technology to produce an iPhone (whereas Palm Pre really did not, at least not its own.) And so on.

In general, there is a simple enough solution. If you notice everyone in an industry is using a particular word, unless it's a recognized definition, just drop it early. Chances are if it isn't compromised as a buzzword when you adopt it, it will be in a few months.

Any guesses on what might be next? I have a few ideas, but I am always looking for new ones too.

Tuesday, September 8

Recognizing Literacy: A Student Success Story

As seen through the eyes of people who can read.

In 1990, Tommy Gray could not fill out a job application, draw money out of his bank account, or purchase groceries without easily identifiable pictures. Today, he can accomplish all these tasks that most take for granted. In fact, Tommy not only reads and writes, but actively supports the program that continues to teach him how to read — Computer Assisted Literacy in Libraries (C.A.L.L.).

“When you learn one word, it’s like someone giving you a hundred dollars and saying you don’t have to pay it back,” Tommy said. “It makes you that happy.”

A recent recipient of the Nevada Literacy Coalition’s “Outstanding Student Award,” Tommy has appeared in newspaper articles promoting the program, regularly attends C.A.L.L. support network meetings, and frequently teaches others how reading will not only help them secure a job but change their lives. He is one of several hundred students benefited by Southern Nevada Literacy Coalition member programs.

As seen through the eyes of those who cannot.*

In 1990, Ypzzu Htay, Las Vegas, vpilf mpy goaa out a kpn sqqaovayopm, ftse zpmru piy pg jod nsml svvpimy, pt qitvjsdr htpvrtord eoyjpiy rsdoau ofrmyogsnar qovittrd. Ypfsu, jr vsm svvqzqaqsa saa tatst tssas tast zqst tsat aqt atsmtta. In asvt, Tqzzy mqt qmay ttsas sma wtqtts, mut svtqvtay suqqqtts tat qtqatsz tast vqmtqmuts tq ttsva aqz aqw tq ttsa — Vqzquttt Sssqstta Aqtttsvy qm Aqmtstqts (C.A.L.L.).

“Watm yqu atstm qmt wqta, qt’s aqat sqztqmt aqvqma yqu s aumatta aqaasts sma ssyqma yqu aqm’t asvt tq qsy qt msva,” Tqzzy ssqa. “Qt zsats yqu tast asqqy.”

A ttvtmt ttvqqqtmt qa tat Nevada Aqtttsvy Vqsaqtqqm’s “Qutstsmaqma Stuatmt Swsta,” Tqzzy ass sqqtstta in mtwsqsqtt sttqvats qtqzqtqma tat qtqatsz, ttauastay stttmas C.A.L.L.suqqqtt mttwqta ztttqmas, sma attqutmtay ttsvats qtatts aqw ttsaqma wqaa mqt qmay ataq tatz stvutt s aqm mut vasmat tatqt aqvts. At qs qmt qa stvttsa aumatta stuatmts mtmtaqtta my Squtattm Nevada Aqtttsvy Vqsaqtqqm ztzmtt qtqatszs.

*Based upon readers tested at CASA Skill Level A or ESL 2, as presented in the Southern Nevada Literacy Day Dinner by Copywrite, Ink., circa 1999

As seen through the eyes of those who want to make a difference.

Please visit and read a few posts from the hundreds being submitted by bloggers at or search for more than 250,000 posts that have already been published today. A special thanks to the Price Group, Great Advertising, Clever Ads, APPLE Partnership, the City of Henderson, and other sponsors for their early support.

Monday, September 7

Diagnosing Medical: Where Las Vegas Hospitals Miss

With more than 80 percent of all patients looking for medical advice online, up 31 percent from two years ago, one might conclude the medical community would be among the most likely and best suited to provide medical information online. But based on a cursory study commissioned last July, we found the majority of hospitals in the Las Vegas metropolitan area are absent.

Instead, area hospitals seem to be mostly reliant on traditional push marketing, with an emphasis on proximity. In fact, only one of 11 hospitals is experimenting with social media, and that one hospital has a program than can best be described as confused. They launched it, but don't know what to do with it.

From a broad perspective, the apparent absence of the Las Vegas medical community online is creating a deficit against any ROI on traditional communication. Specifically, they cannot spend enough offline or benefit from enough earned media to offset the growing negative impressions related to each hospital nor the Las Vegas metropolitan area as a whole.

Five Specific Consequences For Online Absenteeism

• It drives the general public to consult other medical opinions that primarily consist of two types: moderated forums, which provide opinions from medial experts (guest authors with widely varying degrees of vetted and unvetted experience); and unmoderated forums and bulletin boards where visitors share their experiences and provide patient-to-patient support and consult.

• It creates a disproportionate amount of negative impressions online, resulting in long-term brand damage. Specifically, one hospital earned 10 negative reviews and no positive reviews in a 90-day period, and all hospitals received more negative than positive reviews.

• It impacts the entire medical community, with jokes being made by neighboring markets. In one case, a medical professional in a neighboring market joked that they place bets on how many Las Vegas residents would fly in for second opinions and/or primary consult because of their general distrust of area expertise.

• It hinders the community's ability to recruit quality nurses and attract medical practitioners as potential employees are more likely to find negative reviews, commentary, and conversations that place a consistent emphasis on staff shortages, unfriendly medical staff, long waits in emergency rooms, and lack of medical expertise.

• It hinders the ability to find area hospital Web sites, which are most often designed as unsearchable modulated sites with an emphasis on the wrong messages. Specifically, area hospitals talk more about their vision, values, associations, accreditations, and awards than they do about the care they provide or any medical expertise. In sum, they address issues that customers are least likely to search for when they are considering a hospital.

Current Traffic And Traditional/New Media

As part of the report, we ranked area hospitals in terms of total Web traffic (provided below), but even more interesting, research revealed that most site visitation lasted between 1.8 and 4.4 minutes (2.5 minutes was the medium) and many missed their primary demographics.

In addition, most were not frequently mentioned by mainstream media or social media, with exception to recruitment (e.g., openings), standard news (e.g., promotions), event news (e.g., union disputes), and negative patient reviews. None of those mentions linked back to the hospital's Web site, leaving each hospital with a neutral to negative public sentiment.

1. St. Rose Dominican, ranked 6th in social media/media mentions
2. Sunrise Hospital & Medical Center, not ranked in social media/media mentions
3. University Medical Center, ranked 5th in social media/media mentions
4. MountainView Hospital, ranked 7th in social media/media mentions
5. Desert Springs Hospital, ranked 1st in social media/media mentions
6. Summerlin Hospital Medical Center, ranked 4th in social media/media mentions
7. Valley Hospital Medical Center, ranked 2nd in social media/media mentions
8. Spring Valley Hospital Medical Center, not ranked in social media/media mentions
9. North Vista Hospital, not ranked in social media/media mentions
10. Southern Hills Hospital & Medical Center, not ranked in social media/media mentions
11. Centennial Hills Hospital Medical Center, ranked 3rd in social media/media mentions

A Solution That Moves Beyond Hospitals In Las Vegas Market

Whether hospitals are unwilling or unable to implement online communication programs (or benefit from effective public relations) is less important than what it might mean for the area medical community. Currently, area hospitals tend to set the pace for perception. However, any number of professionals could shift online conversations and information away from the hospitals and toward their areas of specialty.

Quick care centers, medical specialists, and other practitioners could implement social media programs that help fill the growing need for medical information online while minimizing the apparent communication deficit being created by hospitals. Over time, even without the support of area hospitals, the market could begin to reverse its medical reputation, assuming the best professionals pursue the opportunity.

Beyond the medical community, such cursory research reaffirms how social media still has an impact even if companies within a sector or industry do not develop a program. As long as the general public seeks out information online, it determines who they receive information from, what type of information they receive, and the quality of the opinions they formulate.

The cursory report is available upon request. Breakdowns of each area hospital are also available with lead time.

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