Monday, May 31

Remembering Those Who Lived: Memorial Day


"It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived." — General George S. Patton

The death of Marine Cpl. Jacob C. Leicht from Texas marked a grim reminder for most Americans that freedom comes at a price that is often paid by others. He was the 1,000th soldier killed in Afghanistan. In Iraq, the number of deaths reached 1,000 in October 2004. The Washington Post chronicles the fallen whereas the words of President Abraham Lincoln, written before the first Memorial Day (originally Decoration Day), remain among the most quoted for all those who came before them. I leave them for you today.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
— President Abraham Lincoln

What else can be said, except to ask ourselves daily whether we still hold such resolve in high regard, that those men and women who have laid down their lives have done so in the name of freedom. We may hope.

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Sunday, May 30

Considering Content: Fresh Content Project


Over the last five years, dozens of bloggers have pinpointed four of the most critical elements — content, engagement, participation, community — for a "successful" and sustainable social media program. And yet, only a few of them understand that none of these elements exists in a bubble. They have to work together, plus one more.

Three out of five of these posts touch on what can easily be considered the fifth element, best defined as a mix of innovation and leadership. Listening to some social media experts, you might miss it as they tend to drone on about being submissive to consumers. These authors, on the other hand, get it right. At some point, you have to lead.

The other two posts are perfect examples, as they take the lead in dispelling two common social media myths: that extensions like blogspot, wordpress, and typepad are always bad and affiliate marketing does not always have to be considered evil. At the same time, you might also take away that content, engagement, participation, community, and leadership/innovation trump whether or not you have a blog extension or participate in an affiliate marketing program.

Best Fresh Content In Review, Week of May 17

Don't Just Show Up (Participation), Step It Up (Innovation).
Christina Kerley calls it right when she writes that communicators ought not to be overly dazzled by the various platforms that serve up content on the Web. They are innovation, but the creation, content, and communities applied to the space can be equally innovative. Participation is always an excellent first step to understand an existing online community, but it requires more than participation from marketers to shine.

Affiliate Marketing And Its Bad Reputation.
"Affiliate marketing had a bad reputation, the history of which seems to echo forward," writes Chris Brogan. "A lot of the blogging crowd, especially those with a PR background strongly dislike the use of affiliate marketing." The conversation stems in part from the age-old argument of just how much editorial needs to be separated from advertising, with Brogan falling on the pro-affiliate marketing side with proper disclosure. Public relations hates it sometimes because they like to get ink free.

• A First-Ever Look At The Top Blogger.com Wordpress.com & Typepad.com Blogs.
Jason Falls provides an in-depth review of various subdomains, blogs which have an extension attributed to the online software that powers them. (This blog did for years, until a few weeks ago). In reviewing the various top blogs that still retain their extensions, it seems extensions have little bearing on cumulative Postrank engagement scores as opposed to the size of the audiences that authors reach.

• 10 Ways To Be Referential.
Referential means containing a reference or pointing to and involving a referent. And Adam Singer provides 10 ways to become a referent, including being consistent within a topic field, taking a lead position in conversations, and sharing little known ideas or accepting an unpopular view. His tenth point is the best for bloggers: analyze and contextualize the information from your unique vantage point. The next fresh pick provides the example.

10 Things Julius Caesar Could Have Taught Us About Business, Marketing, Leadership.
By blending his own views and history with an emphasis on quotes and concepts from Julius Caesar, Olivier Blanchard delivers an entertaining and engaging piece of prose that still makes sense of the average business person or blogger today. The second point, that people want to be led and not controlled, is especially timely. There are plenty of people — business owners, executives, and even parents — who have a difficult time understanding the difference between the two. Blanchard and Caesar help put it into perspective.

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Friday, May 28

Shifting Communication: Transocean Acts Under Siege


Much like Halliburton, the Transocean Web site remains unchanged by the Gulf Coast oil spill.

The most haunting page of all falls under the tab of responsibility. "At Transocean, we firmly believe that the safety of people underpins our success. Our safety vision above covers all our drilling units and shore-based facilities worldwide." And then there is the promise in big bold letters splash across the page as the header.

"Our operations will be conducted in an incident-free workplace, all the time, everywhere."

It's not just a headline by Transocean. It's also the company's vision statement.

Just off the front page, the only section mentioning drilling rig Deepwater Horizon is under news releases. All of its communication there has been a steady stream of releases, with an emphasis on the event from April 21 to April 26. April 26 marks the day that Transocean communication decisively changes.

The Communication Snap At Transocean.

What changed? Transocean shifts from crisis communication to increasingly defensive protectionism. After sending a message to investors that the total insured value of the rig is $560 million on April 26, releases shift to a limitation of liability petition for approximately $26 million as a necessary step to protect the interests of its employees, its shareholders and the company.

After that decisive turn, most communication becomes reactionary to rumors and the news reporting on those rumors, including the alleged distribution of any incident response forms that promised cash for cooperation. Four days later, Cheryl D. Richard, senior vice president of human resources and IT, announces her pending retirement.

The next and last communication, on May 25, responds to what it calls erroneous reports relating to its "shareholders' approval of a dividend and its intent to avoid liability arising from the Deepwater Horizon incident or to profit from such incident." The release goes on to say that "Transocean will honor all of its legal obligations arising from the Deepwater Horizon accident."

A statement seems to contradict its limitation of liability petition. Meanwhile, the company's online newsletter Beacon, appears frozen in winter 2010, filled with letters of praise. It's biannual employee publication is frozen even earlier; the last available issue published in 2008.

Coincidently, perhaps, 2008 also seems to represent a shift in company behavior. Between 2008 and 2009, Transocean went from a hot stock pick to a company that seemed to move away from the aforementioned safety-laced vision. The company had five management appointments, two vice president appointments, and a change in the nation where it is incorporated. It moved from the Cayman Islands to Switzerland.

The Transocean Connection To The Spill.

For those who might not know, Transocean was the owner and operator of Deepwater Horizon. As such, Lamar McKay, the president and chairman of BP, has alluded that the blame belongs there (despite BP accepting responsibility for the cleanup). Transocean CEO Steve Newman responded by saying it was not the time for finger pointing ... before attempting to shift blame away from his own embattled company.

If there is any truth to some of the stories surfacing in papers today, the Deep Horizon incident plays out like many construction contractor-subcontractor relationships.

Subcontractors sometimes drag their feet, which places pressure on the supervising contractor to exert influence. In one summary offered up by the Huffington Post, which criticizes the absence of two key testimony witness, it seems to be the most logical scenario, with "Donald Vidrine, BP's 'company man,' overruled the rig's chief mechanic and driller and pushed to speed up the process by remove the drilling mud faster to save BP money on the day of the tragic explosion."

It would make sense, given many of the initial delays were related to the Halliburton slowdown. However, there is one write-up that smacks of perception. If oil rigs are anything like ships, BP could probably not overrule a chief mechanic and put Transocean at risk unless the owner-operator was predisposed or ordered to follow contractual obligations and ignore the company's eroding vision to allow safety to lead to success.

The Psychology Of Influence And Erosion Of Communication.

If you worked as a pizza delivery driver and the boss told you to drive 20 miles per hour over the speed limit to shave 15 minutes off the delivery time, you might be inclined to say no. Some people might even say hell no. On Deepwater Horizon, Transocean said yes.

Once again, it seems Milgram was right. The question that ought to be asked is what convinced a chief mechanic and driller to change his mind? Was it mounting pressure from BP? Was it the lack of communication or a direct order from his company? Or was it the authorization to proceed from the regulatory agency's approval to proceed?

Answer that question andprimary party responsibility seems to land squarely. However, that is not to say the balance of participants are to be exonerated. Guilt doesn't wash off as well as oil.

From the perspective of communication alone, Transocean seems to have the most to lose. It's clearly the most defensive, sometimes flailing about. There must be a reason. Sometimes those actions are the sign of inexperienced communicators or crisis counsel. Other times, it's merely an admission that the company hasn't been observing its vision for the better part of two years.

We'll pick up on our crisis communication evaluation next Tuesday. Mostly, we're just thrilled the real priority, plugging the leak, seems to be working. In the interim, consider some other worthwhile perspectives.

• Geoff Livingston pinpoints where BP communication becomes muddled. It's an excellent point-by-point resource primer.

• Patrick Kinney of Gaffney Bennet Public Relations talks to Lynn Neary about BP's public response to the Gulf oil spill. Kinney worked for Ogilvy Public Relations when it helped BP rebrand itself as "Beyond Petroleum."

• Chris Maloney pens one post that pinpoints what BP seems to be doing right since taking full responsibility for the spill. His writeup is a bit more tempered than those who gave BP a B on crisis communication. (A "B," really? Not in my class.)

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Thursday, May 27

Communicating Zip: Why Halliburton Is Quiet


When you visit the Halliburton Web site, one of the world’s largest providers of products and services to the energy industry, business continues as usual.

The board declared a 2010 second quarter dividend of nine cents ($0.09) a share on the company’s common stock, the Gulf of Mexico remains "one of the world's most prolific producing areas," the company was busy presenting at the 2010 UBS Global Oil and Gas Conference, and the deep water drilling section of the site concludes "our experience speaks for itself."

Mostly, with exception to the prepared statement (one release away from being bumped off the home page) that was delivered by Tim Probert, president, Global Business Lines and chief Health, Safety and Environmental officer, Halliburton, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico already reads like a memory rather than a current event. It's not.

The Halliburton Connection To The Spill.

Halliburton connection to the crisis is that it was responsible for sealing the well. The casing to seal the well was installed several days before the explosion. (CNN provides one of the better investigation time lines for April 20, if you are interested.)

What makes the casing significant is most accounts point to gas leaking through the casing just hours before the explosion. This seems to be supported by BP briefs as rig workers tried to close valves on the blowout preventer at least twice.

However, there are four points to consider related to the casing. Only one point falls squarely on Halliburton.

1. BP's decision to install a single barrier option made the best economic case.
2. There are some contentions that the Halliburton work was taking longer than usual and possibly improperly constructed .
3. BP seems to have made a decision to perform some tasks related to the last plug in reverse order, something that would require MMS approval.
4. BP officials had made a decision to run only six of 21 tests to ensure the drill pipe was properly centered; an uneven drill pipe could have contributed to the instability of the installation.

The Halliburton Postion And Communication Strategy.

The Halliburton position is that it was following Transocean’s orders (as dictated by BP) and is "contractually bound to comply with the well owner’s instructions on all matters relating to the performance of all work-related activities." It has simultaneously defended its work while also claiming it is premature and irresponsible to speculate on any specific causal issues.

In terms of ongoing communication, other than saying it is cooperating with investigations and releasing its investigation statement, the company is silent. While Halliburton is providing some intervention support to help secure the damaged well and planning and services associated with drilling relief well operations, details are absent.

Public relations professionals and crisis communicators generally hate this communication approach. The reality is that such little communication from Halliburton is indicative of a subcontractor role. Crisis communicators don't generally teach it, but subcontractors generally attempt to position themselves as subordinates.

The benefit for the subcontractor is limited responsibility for the communication. The benefit for the contractor is greater message control. In this case, Halliburton has mostly used its communication to send a message to BP and Transocean. That message is clear: it's your show unless you try to toss us under the bus.

Halliburton Communication Overview.

• Of the three companies, Halliburton is in the best possible position to escape the bulk of the backlash. It seems to know it, because even if the investigation shows its work may be the primary cause, the primary cause on its own did not result in a disaster. Several decisions leading up to and after the installation seem to have led to significant lapses in safety.

• The subcontractor communication strategy — based on the observation that the general public is not the customer — is becoming an arcane practice. While subcontractors have been traditionally exempt from the most rules of communication, the general public has become increasingly critical of subcontractors since the advent of social media.

• There are still weaknesses in Halliburton's communication. Given prior public exposure, the public is beginning to remember its name as a controversial and untrustworthy corporate citizen. Further, the excuse, "just following orders," seems as thin as medical personnel who relied on it during another crisis we covered two years ago.

• The most challenging concept for communicators to grasp is that the greatest threat to Halliburton is not tied to public pressure. It is only tied to how future contractors perceive their communication and cooperation during the crisis.

Since the company's survival rate is mostly based on how contractors view their cooperation, it seems likely that this company will once again survive controversy while employing a situational communication strategy that most communicators would not recommend. What could it do better?

Even for a subcontractor remaining mostly silent, Halliburton could have shored up communication on four fronts. Among them: communicating policies to ensure safe working conditions despite contractor "orders," avoiding any speculation in the testimony as opposed to what can only be called selective speculation, providing BP updates to roll on their site despite their own silence, and better communicating its role in cleanup efforts as a BP partner in being part of the solution.

In 2009, Halliburton’s total cash and in-kind donations amounted to $572 million. It would only make sense to earmark some of these funds toward a cleanup effort the company is at least partly responsible for.

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Wednesday, May 26

Managing Crisis: Bad PR Is Only A Symptom


Any time a crisis involves a natural disaster, environmental catastrophe, or drawn-out tragedy, there is only one point of discussion.

When is it going to stop?

Transparency? It doesn't matter. Who is at fault? It doesn't matter. Is the federal government doing enough? It doesn't matter.

Sure, those questions are bound to be asked and asked again. Thirty-seven days is a long time to be in the midst of a crisis with multiple events. And during that time, when specific event coverage can no longer hold viewer interest, investigations start and second tier questions bubble up. But all stories always come back to that singular question. When is it going to stop?

It's the primary reason that for any communication offered up by one of the world's largest energy companies, it always circles back to live shots of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico from the ocean floor. It always ends with oil washing up on the shore. It always comes back to the impact on animals and sea life or the disruption of life for residents who live within the path.

This isn't "Obama's Katrina" as some people like to call it. Katrina was over, from the time it was upgraded to a tropical storm, in five days.

The oil spill is not an event. It's multiple events.

If there is one fatal flaw in the communication strategy by BP, the Obama administration, and dozens of other vested and guilty parties, it is that they have neglected to see the obvious. This crisis is not a singular event. It's a multiple event crisis, with each event requiring a different set of answers for first tier questions.

• Provide updates and estimates related to the time and date of the event.
• Determine the what, when, where, how, and why.
• Determine who will be involved and to what extent.
• Determine the public or environmental risk of each event.
• Determine the extent of any property damage and loss of life.
• Determine which authorities will be on the scene of each event.
• Estimate and create action plans when each specific crisis will be resolved.
• Keep providing updates, with any positive outcomes, until it is resolved.

Isolating each event related to the crisis is critical if anyone hopes to manage it. Otherwise, the culmination of unrelated events will overwhelm any singular or tag team entity much like Toyota's sometimes unrelated recalls that eventually added up into a company that lost its way.

As a visual, the greater mass of the oil crisis might be likened to a giant blob that BP is attempting to hold up on its own while other vested parties stand by hoping for the best. It's not possible. Crisis and communication blobs do not act like solid mass. They act more like oil. It slips. It drips. And eventually it will coat everyone involved. It doesn't matter who gets more soiled.

Instead, the entire crisis needs to be broken up into parts. There is the leak, which was the initial cause of the crisis. There is the oil that has already seeped into the ocean, killing wildlife, damaging fishermen, and halting tourism. There are scores of smaller events that impact specific ecosystems, local communities, and residents.

The first tier priority is to stop the leak. Until then, nothing else matters.


The second tier, which occurs simultaneously, is to contain the spread of the oil and disperse it. BP is managing this effort, but relying on support from the Coast Guard and hired local fishermen. The results to date are mixed, with some unexpected consequences to the individuals exposed to chemicals.

The third tier are the dozens of events that occur anywhere oil washes up on shore. BP is attempting to mange this aspect of the spill as well. It's clearly not working, with impacted states beginning to take the heat for not doing enough.

A reorganization of the entire process is badly needed. BP clearly needs to focus its energy on stopping the leak. The federal government needed to and still needs to step up responsibility and take action on mitigating the the impact of the oil that has already escaped instead of attempting to armchair quarterback the scene with conflicting messages. And local state governments ought to have taken the lead on individual events, with support from various environmental groups, to keep the beaches clear and clean up as the oil made landfall.

Sure, BP could still act as consultants on the second and third tier events, increasing its presence as each event is resolved. And they ought not to be acting alone. Some of the companies that have a partial responsibility are all but silent on the issue.

And the blame game? Who cares about that?

Considering the amount of oil that has spilled into the Gulf Coast, the top kill solution (if it works) is only the beginning of the environmental events to come. The blame will eventually come to light as investigations continue. What will also be the subject of great debate is why the federal government sought to look like it was in control early on, but then demonstrated only a presence.

Public relations alone cannot solve such a crisis alone. Neither can the various boycotts. If anything, boycotts could make the situation worse despite the reasons some people say to move ahead.

Healthier ways to participate in the crisis at this time include any number of efforts. One beneficiary of a satirical Twitter account BPGlobalPR is to raise funds for the Gulf Restoration Network. The boycotts, if any, can wait until after the spill.

Public relations is always reliant on the actual plan.

When any plan to deal with a crisis is bad, the symptom is improper communication. For its part, BP has attempted to keep communication channels flowing, but it is clearly holding back. They seem to be focused on a singular thought that if they fix everything and then prove themselves to be only partly to blame, then they may be able to justify the clean green logo.

However, as Geoff Livingston points out, that is not the case. He writes that the collective "crisis PR has been terrible with missteps on resolution, horrific transparency on possible solutions, false accounting of actual daily oil spill amounts, the policing of beaches to prevent media reporting, bickering between BP and the EPA, dispersants’ negative impact, a new climate bill that endorses further off-shore drilling, 19 new off-shore drilling licenses since Deep Horizon, etc., etc., on and on."

He says the crisis might be insurmountable for the company. I'm not sure yet, but only because BP is much more than BP. BP is Castrol, Arco, Aral, am/pm, and even the Wild Bean Cafe. It's also a leader in biofuel technology. It's investing in solar technology. It's investing in wind. It's investing in emerging coal conversion technologies. And the list goes on.

You won't read about many of these efforts for the time being. BP is smart enough to keep the focus where is belongs, but there is more to the company than meets the eye. Where it is less adept, obviously, is in its ability to work beyond its internal sphere. Perhaps they think they are too big to do that nowadays. But they are not the only ones.

Generally, in the past, sometimes the federal government would be slow to take charge and delegate a national disaster. But ultimately, the federal government would. This time around, the crisis plan matches the PR plan. Every stakeholder in the oil spill crisis has its own message. And while it is said in many different ways, the underlying theme is "not me."

Other voices around the Web with a focus on communication.

• The Dirty Business of BP's Corporate Reputation Clean Up by Jennifer Janviere.
Its Fake Twitter Stream Has Twice the Followers of the Real Thing by Jim Edwards
How Not To Get “Brandjacked” Like BP Global PR by Olivier Blanchard

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Tuesday, May 25

Losing Bounce: OfficeMax Customer Service


Last year, a customer service issue left me with the resolve to always visit Office Depot before OfficeMax. The issue was a small thing.

When we were loading my car with new office chairs, I noticed they were brown and not black. They were out of black, said the employee who spent 30 minutes looking for the chairs in the back room. No problem, just take them back, I said.

"It's the same model," he blinked. "I'll have to wheel them all the way back into the store."

"Seriously?"

I led the way.

Yesterday, our phone system had a meltdown. So I drove over to Office Depot. Unfortunately, they didn't have enough handsets for the system that met our needs. No problem. I didn't have time to check other stores; OfficeMax is one block away. Beside, nowadays they have rubberband balls as the symbol of customer service.

OfficeMax had the same stocking issue. And since the employee didn't offer to check other stores, I found another system that was obviously in stock and still met our needs. All in all, a better customer experience. Except, that is, for one small thing.

After the transaction was complete and the phones were carefully double bagged, the employee asked me to wait. He walked over to another register, came back, mentioned a 14-day return policy, and then stamped my receipt in red ink. For any reason, he added, pointing down to the stamp.

"15% Restocking Fee On Any OPEN Technology."

It's another small thing, but I still have to wonder. Are these the last words you want to leave with a customer?

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Monday, May 24

Establishing Reputation: A Holistic Approach To Business

Every year, Reputation Institute looks at how the general public rates 1,000 companies in over 20 industry categories in more than 25 countries, making Global Reputation Pulse the largest study of reputation in the world. Most of the work focuses on how companies perform in their home countries, but an article in Forbes today highlights 28 companies with international merit.

The Top Ten Brands By Reputation.

1. Google (United States)
2. Sony (Japan)
3. The Walt Disney Company (United States)
4. BMW (Germany)
5. Daimler (Germany)
6. Apple (United States)
7. Nokia (Finland)
8. IKEA (Sweden)
9. Volkswagen (Germany)
10. Intel (United States)

Microsoft just missed the top ten. And there are many great companies that round out the full list of the 28 most reputable companies. The study was based on several factors, including products and services, innovation, workplace, governance, citizenship, financial performance, and leadership.

Understanding What Reputation Really Means.

One of the most common mistakes in business is to use two terms — brand and reputation — interchangeably. (The same can be said for brand and identity.) The confusion has become more pronounced in recent years, in part, because some social media experts frequently combine identity, brand, and reputation. So let's dispel some of the mystery.

There isn't much reason to reinvent an answer in this case. Richard Ettenson and Jonathan Knowles clarified brand and reputation well enough in 2008.

They defined brand as a “customer-centric” concept that focuses on what a product, service, or company has promised to for its customers and what that commitment means to them. In short, it's the total net sum of all positive and negative impressions about a company based largely upon the consumer-company relationship.

Reputation, on the other hand, is a “company-centric” concept that focuses on the credibility and respect that an organization has among a broad set of constituencies. This would include everyone: employees, investors, regulators, journalists, local communities, and customers. And, it would include all those factors cited by the Reputation Institute.

If you need an example to help drive the difference home, Walmart is one of the best companies to consider. It frequently scores high as one of the best known brands, but its reputation often serves as its primary detractor. It will always be that way for Walmart until the company holds itself to a higher standard.

What It Takes To Establish A Strong Reputation.

1. Product/Service. The ability to deliver on a brand promise — products and services — is paramount to establishing legitimacy. It's one of the primary reasons Google sucked some of the air out of Yahoo as search stewards. As Yahoo bought companies and rebranded them to the central brand, it also inherited and transposed product and service issues. Sometimes it worked out okay with platforms like Flickr, but it suffered the opposite fate with platforms like MyBlogLog. Google, on the other hand, saw its reputation soar as it transformed its acquisitions into Google culture.

2. Brand & Identity. While reputation, brand, and identity are different, they work in tandem. While the products and services may have differentiation, the ability to communicate that differentiation makes all the difference. Apple is paticularly good at this by demonstrating its minimal design elements and innovation virtually with everything it does, right down to the people we expect to see behind the counters of any Apple retail outlet.

3. Advertising. While anyone can argue the finer points of whether social media has circumvented the traditional principles of advertising, it's still the primary source of message delivery. Advertising, more than any other discipline, communicates the brand promise, establishes the identity, and attracts enough attention to create sales opportunities. Sure, sometimes advertising drives sales, but mostly it focuses on everything else.

4. Public Relations. While some people might take exception to seeing public relations follow advertising, there is some truth to the idea. Public relations (and this includes but is not limited to the art of media relations) works to have other groups — ideally employees (via internal communication), investors, regulators, journalists, local communities, and customers — to adopt and believe in the brand promise. To do it, public relations professionals need to assist in creating an environment of mutual trust.

5. Corporate Citizenship. Great companies do not operate within a void. They generally consider corporate philanthropy part of their culture. Even small localized companies can learn from larger companies in that if the community isn't economically viable, healthy, vibrant, and provides a better quality of life, then it will wither. And with it, so will sales within that community.

When you add it all up and look to some of the best run companies in the world, you might sometimes come away with the feeling that those scoring highest on the reputation charts seems to have it all or, at least, very close to it. In some ways they do. But what's even more important to consider it that any company (or individual) can have it all too. It's a choice.

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Sunday, May 23

Finding Freshness: Fresh Content Project


Maybe it's because I've worked with this medium for so long, but some of my colleagues who are still learning social media basics tend to ask me for tips, tactics, and best practices so they can fake their way around the application. Sometimes I give them a few answers to address their most immediate needs. It's hard not to as an instructor, and I sincerely want them to succeed whether we're working together or not.

However, I have to confess I'm not always fond of the questions. Almost all of the them have to do with attracting more attention. They long for eyeballs and are willing to take shortcuts with lower price points to do it. I'm not surprised. If they made an investment, they'd know most of the answers to their questions already exist. If it is not among the thousand plus posts I've penned here over the last five years, then certainly among the hundreds of communicators I skim for fresh content daily.

Here are five more answers to such questions, and almost none of them have to do with attracting eyeballs. You see, when you know what you're doing with social media and understand where it fits within the context of strategic communication, "finding eyeballs" becomes the least concern.

Best Fresh Content In Review, Week of May 10

Clever Retailer Use Of Blogging
People often wonder how to attract more attention to their social media efforts. Adam Singer does a great job providing the easiest answer — do something. He doesn't mean "do something" as in find more friends on Facebook. He means do something offline and then write about it online. And the example he shares comes from a Chicago retailer, who takes pictures of people taking pictures of his dog.

Five Reasons Why This Blog Is A Failure
Julien Smith, coauthor of Trust Agents with Chris Brogan, tells Mitch Joel why Six Pixels of Separation isn't as popular as Brogan's blog. Among the reasons? Smith says Joel peers too far into the future, isn't controversial enough, writes too much content, and fails to connect to the everyday person. Not surprisingly, those are all the reasons we read Joel's blog. Ho hum. Popularity is never an anectode for developing the right audience.

• The Slow Decline of Social Media and the Rise of Common Sense
Kyle Flaherty wasn't really calling the for the death of social media. What he was recognizing was that all advents in communication eventually lose some the enthusiastic charm and become part of the overall plan. There's nothing wrong with that. In the effort to make social media a "more respected function of business," we need to sacrifice the "set of caricatures trying a little too hard to defend the practice."

The Myth Of The Viral Video
When Arik Hanson takes a hard look at viral videos, he takes a very hard look at them. Sure, nobody can resist feeling good after capturing tens of thousands or millions of eyeballs, but then what? Do companies that rack up millions of hits for producing catchy content truly capture as many customers? Probably not. There is certainly a sweet spot, somewhere in the middle, where you can be true to your brand and still resonate with key audiences.

Facebook's About Face On Conversation
There are scores of posts on the subject of Facebook, but Valeria Maltoni did the best job at succinctly capturing the essence of the developing story. Facebook is steadily building a corporate culture of unconcern in regard to how it treats its customers. Right now, it might work well enough because Facebook has captured enough mass to "feel" like it is the market. However (although not mentioned in Maltoni's post), we seem to remember another company that was once so big it could call all the shots and abuse members. That company was America Online.

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Friday, May 21

Exploring Leadership: How To Re-Energize Teams


Despite everyone hoping the economy will overcome five economic fault lines, the task of recovery will ultimately fall to the leadership of individual companies and nonprofits. The deciding factor for many organizations will be whether they will re-energize their teams or demoralize them.

Generally, immediately after an organization faces an extended period of uncertainty or adversity, team members are likely to exhibit some fatigue. It makes sense. It's not all that different from running a marathon, where a struggling runner works harder and harder to either retain their position or even advance one or two positions around the final lap.

When the race ends, marathon runners tend to take a breath, place their hands on their hips or head, and walk off some of the stress. Imagine your team members much like that. It's natural. The last thing they want to think about is the next marathon.

However, smart marathon runners and their coaches also know it isn't that simple. For example, in 2003, marathon runner Lisa Golaszewski discovered first hand that runners suffer from symptoms equivalent of postpartum depression. If the post-marathon plan was too big, she felt ill-prepared and overwhelmed. If the post-marathon plan was too lax, she felt drained of energy and inspiration.

Team members respond much in the same way. Recovery plans that are too big cause burnout. Recovery plans too small are a disincentive. And no plan whatsoever, well, that is a recipe for disaster.

Where Some Will Fail.

Over the next year, some organizations that seem like they've weathered the storm will fail to meet less visible challenges. The most likely candidates will be those with leadership that will present a plan too big for team members to immediately embrace or those who attempt to motivate with negativity but no plan.

The latter occurred at one organization were I once served. Immediately after recovering from a near financial collapse that had team members fighting for the organization's survival, leadership decided to send communication to guilt members into new action with an ultimatum. While the communication was meant to target members that leadership felt were underperforming, it only served to demoralized the entire team and earned early resignations from under and over performers alike.

What went wrong? It morphed what ought to have been an opportunity to re-energize on a win into a rehash of bitterness that they did not take action on during the crisis because they were too afraid such action would have consequences. In all my years of service, the incident ranks second among the worst leadership decisions ever made. I had advised against it.

"The last thing you want to do is force racing again if your body isn't ready," Jason Lehmkuhle, another marathon runner, said in the Runner's World article.

Where Some Will Win.

The companies mostly likely to win can easily be divided into two types. The first, my favorites, will be those that never ran a marathon during the recession. They consist of companies that decided the recession was optional.

Relatively rested, these companies are among the most likely to see continued growth built on a foundation of success established during the recession. In essence, they have been running shorter races that were stressful all along.

The second type of organization that will excel will be those firms that invested equal time into recovery as they had preparing for the worst. They already have a course of action, many of them are ready to capitalize on shorter term goals through a recovery process that will position their organizations in a positive place.

The general feeling among those organization is significantly different. They knew all along that surviving the economic crisis wasn't an "end goal," but rather an opportunity to reposition. As a result, their leadership likely has a series of short-term goals that will rebuild confidence as each one is reached in record time.

"A great benefit of planning ahead is that you're not setting yourself up for the idea that this marathon is the culminating event," Sonja Friend-Uhl, a running coach, said in the Runner's World article.

Leadership Sets The Direction.

For marathon runners, the best course of action is to provide a breath for recovery and then gradually add quality and volume so that you emerge injury-free, mentally fresh, and able to capitalize on the fitness you built during marathon training. For organizations, provide team members with a breath and then focus on short-term, less stressful goals that the team can rally around. Doing so can only energize everyone.

If there were under performers, give them an opportunity to excel in the renewed positive environment or address those concerns on an individual, private basis. The last thing you want are over performers throwing their hands up in disgust over another crisis created by people who ought to know better.

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Thursday, May 20

Producing Better Writers: Public Relations Or Advertising?


When Andrew Fowler followed my integrated communication post by asking whether advertising could replace public relations, it opened a related sub discussion worth some attention.

Does Advertising Or Public Relations Have Better Storytelling Skills?

Fowler set the stage by offering up that he thought "people in advertising are better at telling interesting stories." Ike Pigott was the first to question the idea, offering "[people in advertising] don’t have better storytelling skills, and are often much poorer writers. Often." And then David Meerman Scott added "brand journalism is a much better way to do what PR used to do so well."

There are plenty of other great comments too, folks like Jeremy Toeman, Brian Cross, Jerry Ketel, and others. I especially appreciated the comment by Bob Geller that tends to be closest to my view, which is that both are important but different.

When it comes to writing, or even creativity, we might as well be asking ourselves whether fiction writers are better than non-fiction writers or whether poets are better than journalists. They are difficult to compare because they tend to be different.

Some writers are good at one thing. Some writers are good at other things. And only a handful can dance in any medium.

However, with the exception of the handful, there are noticeable differences in education, experience, and skill sets. And so, as an instructor who also works within all disciplines, let's take an admittedly generalized look at some writers within the communication field.

Advertising. Copywriters (and some designers who think they can write) are generally creative in a divergent sort of way, well-skilled in short-format conversational writing, storytelling, and alliteration.

When the copy and content is good, these writers accomplish the impossible by convincing people to become aware of or even purchase a product even though those people know that is precisely what the writer is trying to do. How cool is that? Sometimes their work is even adopted into pop culture.

Of course, not many have heard of the Associated Press Stylebook. They're often certain they'll come up with something more interesting than any client might provide in an interview. And they tend to tune out long-format assignments.

Public Relations. Public relations writers, specifically those with a journalism background, are especially good at making the most boring content sound interesting. The best of them subscribe to the notion that there are no boring stories, just boring storytellers.

When they write someone else's story, they become as a passionate as the people they write about while writing within the tightest constraints, usually sacrificing their own style in favor of a publication, corporate voice, or audience. They can also find enough facts to bend almost anything in their direction.

Of course, ask most of them to write advertising collateral and they'll struggle with the space limitations. Many offer up cornball cliches and pages and pages of dribble so dry that it will lull you to sleep before you can get past the first paragraph. In some cases, you don't have to read further than that anyway. And, of course, public relations tends to be a safe haven for many who cannot write at all.

Social Media. Social media writers, if we call them that, stand out on their own. They can have conversations with anybody about anything and have done better than self-teach themselves in the art of delivering exactly what people want to hear.

It doesn't matter much whether they have a preference for video, social networks, or blogs. All that seems to matter is that they bring a passion to the table that sometimes eclipses the craft, attracting thousands of people for no other reason than to wonder what happens next. Clearly there is an advantage in sharing some things that traditional media have known forever as if it never existed before they arrived online.

If there is a downside, it might very well be the speed in which the content is delivered with typos and grammatical mistakes that must make their high school teachers and any college professors blush. One wonders what might happen if they didn't rely on tricks and tactics so much.

Journalists. Given journalists tend to become authors more than any other discipline, it's hard to refute their abilities as writers. Even those who turn in their press passes and migrate into public relations have better skill sets and an understanding that those editorial deadlines are very real to reporters.

One of the unique aspects of better journalists is their uncanny ability to find the right story, research it objectively, and keep it fresh enough for people to feel compelled to add it to their daily doses of elective reading. Sure, there are those who point out that 80 percent of the publications are filled with refreshed news releases, but most of us only read the remaining 20 percent anyway. You know which ones are written by solid journalists because the lead line took as long to write as the article.

Now, if only more would take the time to engage their audiences beyond serving up content. Sure, there is more engagement than a few years ago, but most still prefer to work in relative isolation, stopping just long enough to gather some facts. Otherwise, the entire process, especially those who practice it for years, can slowly kill off any creativity.

Integrated Communication Promises To Challenge All Of Them.

There seems to be little doubt that integrated communication has arrived. And with it, those writers mentioned above, along with several dozen others who specialize in niche disciplines or a specific medium, are challenged two-fold.

First, they have to admit that their brand of writing might not always be the best fit, especially when we conclude that the Internet is home to every medium not just "their" medium. Second, all of them need to make a better effort to understand writing skills beyond their core skill sets.

The bottom line? It seems simple enough to me. Most aren't nearly as good as they think they are. Even fewer will ever concede the point. And from my perspective, the best of the best tend to be those who don't think much of what they write because within a week, they're certain they could have written it better.

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Wednesday, May 19

Telling Stories: Why The WaterAid Video Works


"To understand a man, you've got to walk a mile in his shoes, whether they fit or not." — Proverb

Remember the proverb or any of its variations? The creative talents behind the WaterAid "White Collar Water Crisis" on YouTube did. Since the spot was first uploaded this morning, it gained 1,000 views in an hour. There is a better-than-average chance at viral success.

More importantly than exposure, the spot does something else. It pulls us along to learn more about the message and the international nonprofit behind it.


WaterAid's "White Collar Water Crisis" Relates To Its Audience.

The video works. It doesn't share the scores of tragic images WaterAid has collected over the years. It doesn't beat people over the head with an insurmountable challenge that leaves them feeling powerless. It doesn't rely on shock value like sex and vegetables to generate publicity. Instead, the spot simply helps us imagine a world where we don't have access to a single basic comfort that most of us take for granted.

While there are dozens of ways to communicate the WaterAid message, this spot is one of the best of them because it applies the art of metaphoric storytelling. Sure, it might make a few people uncomfortable, but it does so tastefully without laying blame or aiming to make anyone feel guilty like so many other causes attempt to do.

Right on. Sometimes guilt messages might be warranted for the short term. But if you hope to build a sustainable message, one that people will most likely share, it's critical to invite them to become part of the cause not drive them away in shame.

In the short span of 60 seconds, the WaterAid video become a great teaching tool. It demonstrates the difference between making a story fit a medium and writing a story for a medium. And when a story is made to fit a medium — whether it is a blog post, PowerPoint presentation, video, etc. — it tends to stick.

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Tuesday, May 18

Hearting Apple: Adobe Wants Some Love


What started as a tongue-in-cheek response to a letter from Steve Jobs that was arguably reminiscent of high school, the "Adobe heart Apple" campaign has taken on a more serious tone. Adobe, which originally admitted it could improve Flash to meet iPad standards, is still working hard to stir up consumers.

The first round of advertisements, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, state, “We ♥ Apple” in large, bold lettering. The second round dumps Apple in favor of "We ♥ Choice". Adobe also spells out its position on its Web site.

Adobe's Ad Gamble Worked.

The ad campaign was a gamble, given that the stakes for Adobe to retain Web video dominance is high. And there is no denying that it has paid short-term dividends in some sectors.

First, it gave Driod fans something to talk about. Second, Citi maintained a 'buy' on Adobe Systems Inc. and a Citi analyst concluded that catalysts are biased to the positive side. Third, the campaign afforded Adobe an opportunity to put itself in front of the classroom.

But about that third win. It might have worked too well.

Adobe might have had the players in place to speak, but its message was deep enough for the "lights, camera, action" sequence that followed. Sure, the company was well-prepared for first tier questions about whether Apple is stifling creativity. But it wasn't so prepared on second tier questions tied to what Adobe might do better.

Adobe's Win Becomes A PR Challenge.

It's difficult for any company to win a long-term public relations battle based on "openness" while erecting walls at the same time. And in this case, it's hard to miss that Adobe is all too comfortable saying it will stick to "its facts" while Microsoft and Apple can stick to "their facts." Let the media and consumers decide, they say.

The net result has become a debate of sorts between some writers at BNET and ZDNet and two camps of consumers. But as far facts go, Adobe is the more selective storyteller.

At the beginning of this year, only 10 percent of the video content on Web was HTML5. That figure has changed dramatically, with as much as 26 percent of online video HTML5. If change can occur that quickly, video market share dominance is moot.

Sure, Adobe can favor choice. But it might as well admit that choice is working against it. So is its message to investors. During an earnings call (hat tip: ReadWriteWeb), Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen told investors that Flash was "synonymous with the Internet and frankly, anybody who wants to browse the web and experience the web’s glory really needs Flash support."

Where is the choice in that?

It seems to me that the dvertising campaign seemed to work in that it sparked the conversation that Adobe wanted to have. But as an integrated communication strategy, Adobe is coming up short. They aren't prepared to have open conversation.

It even makes me wonder whether Narayen ever learned that oh-so-valuable lesson from first grade. When you hope to look smart by being the first to raise your hand, always keep in mind that the teacher might call on you.

Oh, if you do want to view Flash on an iPhone, there's an app for that.

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Monday, May 17

Engineering Trust: Can Toyota Do It?


According to a recent study by Consumer Reports, Toyota has lost more than sales in the first quarter. It has experienced a spiraling decline in consumer loyalty.

In April, 57 percent of current Toyota owners said they would "most likely" buy another new vehicle from Toyota, which is down from 70 percent in December, with Honda and Ford the new beneficiaries. While Toyota has lost some consumers permanently, Honda now tops consumer loyalty with 68 percent of Honda owners saying they would buy another Honda. Ford has climbed to 61 percent.

While Toyota did manage to curb sales losses with zero-interest financing and cheap leases, it could be undermining its own long-term brand value as incentives tend to be quick fixes that competitors can match. And, if continued too long, can create consumer expectations to wait for more historic sales once they are over. Toyota's defensive posture throughout its recall crisis may have long-term consequences.

"There's permanent damage there," James Bell, an analyst with Kelley Blue Book, told the Daily Finance. Though not fatal, the recalls require that "Toyota compete in a way they haven't in 25 years."

Restoring Trust Starts At The Local Level With Dealerships.

If Toyota wants to regain long-term consumer loyalty, it may need to reconsider national sales efforts and focus in on where trust really counts — with individual dealerships. While reliability may no longer be associated with the once admired auto manufacturer, dealers could make the difference with one-on-one consumer-dealer communication and outperforming on service expectation.

A recently published five-month study by Foresight Research backs up such analysis. More than 50 percent of all new car buyers surveyed reported the dealership experience as being "highly influential in the purchase process." In fact, dealership experience is the number one factor positively influencing sales during the car buying experience.

"At a time when the dealership network is under increased pressure across the industry, this data clearly supports that no single aspect of the automotive sales and marketing spectrum is more influential than what happens inside the dealership," said Steve Bruyn, president of Foresight Research. "Many buyers visit the dealer early in the shopping process, not just at the end of the process so automotive marketers have a big opportunity to win new customers and build brand equity by offering attractive dealership environments."

To capture a positive in-person experience, the burden primarily resides on the sales team. Study respondents attribute positive experiences with professionalism (90 percent), product knowledge (84 percent), and trustworthiness (66 percent). Sixty-seven percent also said that inviting, modern and well-organized showrooms makes a difference.

When you stop to think about it, the new study goes well beyond auto sales. These factors tend to be the same underlying trait associated with sales professionals, consultants, and even bloggers, online and off.

But for Toyota specifically, the national brand needs to work at non-incentive reasons to drive people into the dealership and then encourage their dealers not to blow it. And, for some dealers, that may require a culture change.

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Sunday, May 16

Framing Everything: Fresh Content Project


What makes one message resonate more than others? Who's buying whom in the United Airlines-Continental merger? Why does public relations continue to target impressions? How can social networks and advertising be influential but mistrusted? Why is the Mississippi more mighty than the Missouri?

If your communication firm doesn't understand the flow of communication and how framing makes a difference, they might scratch their heads over any one of those questions. It's all very simple, really. Sooner or later someone frames the conversation. And if it sticks, that's all there is in any story until someone comes along with a better method of measures and a better message that communicates it.

Best Fresh Content In Review, Week of May 3

The PR Hype Cycle.
Valeria Maltoni suggests three areas of improvement for public relations, including database management, improvements to press releases, and how news and information spreads online. The suggestions touch on a bigger issue for public relations, shifting away from attempting to control the message by manipulating the media and toward the original intent of developing mutually beneficial relationships with publics, online or off. It makes more sense than trading media in for online influencers.

From Chris Brogan to Andy Wibbels.
Ari Herzog considers the daily ranking of marketing listed on AdAge Power 150 and how many of the 1,097 blogs show virtually no movement, with Chris Brogan entrenched at number 1 or 2 and people like Andy Wibbles tucked in at 600. Herzog considers whether those at the top are any less insightful than the bottom, which is precisely why we started the fresh content project. Without question, AdAge is a great list with an increasingly erroneous algorithm of measurement.

Puffery in Merger Communications.
Sean Williams captures a snapshot that few people notice. When two companies merge and claim it is mutual, it usually is not. In presenting facts from the United Airlines-Continental merger, it seems increasingly clear which company is acquiring which company, making all the talk of a mutual merger not much more than an exercise in puffery. It's not the first time nor will it be the last. People like to pick on AT&T because it has been around for so long. The irony is that AT&T was bought by SBC years ago.

Social Networks Influential, Not Always Trusted.
Twenty-eight percent of Internet users ages 18-34 say they have purchased a product because of something they have seen on a social networking site, but they'll also say they don't trust anyone if you ask them. The same holds true for media. Ask a group of people how they were introduced to a product and they'll mention advertising. Ask them a few weeks later if they trust advertising and they'll say "not a shot." The same phenomenon exists right now with Facebook. Everybody is outraged over privacy issues, but few people are canceling their accounts.

The Flow of the First Mover.
The Missouri River has 200 miles on the Mississippi River, but the mighty Mississippi gets all the credit. Ike Pigott gets part of the equation right. It all comes down to big mouths that define how we frame up the world. It works that way for business too. Any company that has an opportunity to define the playing field will always have the advantage. All in all, it's a great analogy that ultimately offers up an answer for every other post included today.

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Friday, May 14

Pinning Down Gen Y: Why Millennials Feel Uncertain


For several weeks, I've been enjoying a conservation about Generation Y. First with Bill Sledzik, associate professor at Kent State University. Then Todd Defren, a founder of Shift Communications. And then Jed Hallam, who works at Wolfstar.

Go ahead and read those posts to get caught up if you like. Each of them, from three different generations (I think), offer plenty of good advice for Millennials, especially those hoping to make it through school and/or find employment. I agree with much of what they say, but this post isn't about any of that.

The Only Constant Is Change, But That Change Tends To Be Circular.

This post borrows some insights from Joel DiGirolamo. He wasn't part of the above conversation, but he might as well have been. He was tackling a similar issue from the top down as it relates to evolutionary psychology.

What's interesting is that, throughout history, tribes tend to require less leadership and more consensus during times of abundance. In some ways, this observation seems to fit well with the American Revolution.

When the founding fathers grew weary of what they perceived to be shackles, they didn't do so because they were destitute. They did it because there was seemingly endless abundance in America and they wanted more personal control over that abundance.

Flash forward to today. Millennials primarily grew up in an era of abundance, which required less competition and more consensus. But unfortunately for them, because economies ebb and flow, they finished this streak of abundance only to discover a society focused on scarcity. So, while I'm not big on labels, one could make a pretty good case that this shared experience does set Gen Y apart. And by many employer accounts, most Millennials don't start off as tough as Sledzik or Defren or even I would like.

Interestingly enough, when you look at the push back, most didn't come from Millennials. On the contrary, many Millennials like Hallam recognize that hard times are best met by effective leaders and a willingness to meet challenges with a certain tenacity. So who pushed back? Boomers, specifically those who long for their continued role as enablers; and some Gen Xers, specifically those who claim to identify more with Gen Y (which they don't, given many Gen Yers were happy to hear the message).

All in all, what this might demonstrate to me is that Gen Y does need more tough love and most are willing to accept it in exchange for a new kind of inclusive leadership. Unfortunately, from my perspective, there doesn't seem to be enough leadership out there. And why would there be? Most modern authorities surfed a wave of abundance without ever becoming prepared to lead.

Huh. This kind of atmosphere is almost too perfect for something Orwellian, unless Gen Y empowers itself (given the apparent lack of Sledziks and Defrens). So my advice is simple enough. If you want a fair shake, one my intern was convinced didn't exist out there, then you have to learn to look for people who will empower you rather than those who aim to enable you.

And as far as all those other feelings? Well, they just aren't that special. And if you don't believe me, read from Orwell.

"Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it." — George Orwell

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Thursday, May 13

Integrating Communication: No More Lines


Whether it's the Preakness with its "Get Your Preak On" advertising miss or it's the TomTom GPS ad that shares a voiceover session with Darth Vader, the lines between advertising and public relations are often blurred. As advertising campaigns sometimes become the topic of social media and social media feeds media, the best and the worst campaigns elicit public responses best left to public relations professionals.

Of course, today's communication streams don't have to be linear. The source of the original communication or reaction to an event can be initiated in any medium. Take the recent success of Liquid Mountaineering. How do you classify it?

Is it entertainment, with the participants merely sharing their new sport? Is it social media, given its home base blog and attention the it received? Is it public relations, given its exposure as a real new sport by WUSA in Washington, D.C. coverage? Is it advertising, with creative and professional long-format production quality?


As it turns out, it is an advertisement for Hi-Tec Sports that relies on social media as the medium. It has since earned as much media attention as it has its own Internet fan base, making the need for public relations as important as the original production.

The Future Of Communication Isn't Integrated. Integrated Communication Is Now.

Sure, there have been some complaints from agencies, marketing specialists, social media pros, and public relations professionals that prospective clients are confused. It's no longer uncommon for pitch lists to include some representative companies from each discipline. But while most of them look at each other's skills as competitive, the truth is that they are complementary.

Integrated communication isn't so much a point of view anymore. It's critical to successful communication. As for the future, the only firms that will survive are those that embrace it or learn to partner with companies that can round out areas where they are considerably deficient. As for the rest, saying you can do it all if you can't only lasts so long before the in-house marketing teams are brought up to speed.

The takeaway here is simple enough. A high percentage of successful and naturally occurring viral campaigns over the last year have employed integrated communication. A high percentage of failures have relied on communication well within the lines of a single discipline. Color outside the lines.

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Wednesday, May 12

Closing Out Cows: Final Lessons From A Dead Network


Once upon a time there was an increasingly popular social media network that resembled Twitter. It had a memorable name. It had a lovable mascot. And its member base seemed to have a mission to make it a "Twitter killer."

Truth be told, very few network knock-offs, even with slightly enhanced services, ever have a chance of supplanting popularity. While it may change one day, numbers attract numbers. But even so, we had placed the network on a watch list because the application did have something that Twitter didn't. It had better multimedia functionality.

But then something happened. In September 2008, Utterz changed its name to Utterli. It traded in its mascot for something resembling a Sprite logo. And its members were surprised, and then disgusted, by the lack of communication about the change. It was a disaster and I had no problem calling it as such.

"As much as you might characterize it as a 'disaster,' our customer base has grown substantially since the change - and the growth rate is rising," said Michael Bayer, CEO of Utterli. "That's GREAT! I call that a success."

Bayer went on to say that I was fishing for attention. He said I insulted him. And he insisted that despite community feelings, it was his decision to make. Besides, he implied, my round-up of member feedback wasn't enough. I wasn't a member anyway.

After that, we tracked the steady visitation decline that followed in the six months after its claimed "successful" name change. We almost followed up on the post then too. But it didn't seem worthwhile to re-engage a defensive CEO. So I promptly forgot about it. So did everyone else.

In fact, I hadn't thought about Utterli again until reading Doug Haslam's post that Utterli was dead. In truth, it had died in September 2008. And, almost sadly, a short one-and-a-half years later, Utterli didn't even have time to say goodbye.

As for all those promises that Bayer made about enhancements that would carry the service forward? According to the ByteMonkey Chronicles (which is also credited with the image accompanying today's post), it was very much the opposite. ByteMonkey says even then there was an underlying feeling among the users that the company wasn't quite doing so well.

Lessons For Networks And Participants.

Networks. While seeing what could have been a successful service come and go is never pleasant, there are a few lessons that can be taken away. For network owners, it' simple. I've said it before. Unlike product companies, you are only as successful as your members. And without them, you're nothing.

So abrupt change is bad. Sure, Twitter and Facebook can get away with it nowadays because they've reached a critical mass of sorts with no clear alternatives that support the numbers. But in the case of a brand like Utterz, improper communication with the community is a killer. Never mind what Bayer said in response to my critique on his company's rebranding roll out, the truth was that they didn't do any of it (and if they did, then they did it all wrong).

Add to that knowledge that anything done for investment capital or with the hope of being sold is generally a bad idea until you have the cash in hand. And even then, the guidelines for operating a successful venture after a sale or infusion of cash doesn't replace the community commitment. There are scores of social networks that have failed. And, there are more that will eventually fail or fade away too.

Participants. If you continue to rely on network tactics alone, one day you may find yourself with nothing. As reported by ByteMonkey and Haslam, Utterli isn't just dead. All of the member content and contributions are dead too.

So too is any need for Utterz tips and Utterz tactics that are useless because that community is no more.

In other words, don't fall in love with any network unless you can back up your content. Case study closed.

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Tuesday, May 11

Blending Content: The Next Step In Journalism


There is one simple reason you don't hear much talk about broadcast-Internet convergence anymore. While public adoption is moving forward at a steady pace, current technology and infrastructure suggest it already happened. Did you miss it?

Sure, there are a few kinks to be worked out, most notably a seamless transition between the content we already access on the computer and the television set (or smart phone) where we view it. But technically, that barrier doesn't exist either. The population as a whole just doesn't know how to make it work yet.

Blended Content In Beta.

If you have a hard time envisioning what the future will look like, there is a real life case study in the making. While it is still crude in its presentation, the future will largely consist of blended content — Web desintations with a combination of articles, blogs, photo galleries, and programming — managed by partnerships between media companies like NBC Digital Networks and major corporations like Procter & Gamble with the content provided by a mix of broadcasters, journalists, authors, experts, and social media personalities.

Can't envision it? Visit Life Goes Strong. While the name rings as weak as any picked-by-committee offering might, Life Goes Strong provides a phase one preview into targeted content. In this case, according to Procter & Gamble, baby boomers between the ages of 45 and 65 years of age. The content is organized in traditional vertical channels — family (www.familygoesstrong.com), style (www.stylegoesstrong.com) and technology (www.techgoesstrong.com) — with contributors ranging from a contributing editor at Newsweek to a former professional fashion buyer.

As mentioned, the initial foundation for the launch is rather crude. It looks very Web 2.0 with a remarkably weak organizational structure that makes fluff seem as interesting as real news content. Much of the content is short. Some of the content is as short as three graphs, leaving readers with the task of answering their own questions. (You can tell someone was convinced that short content was the way to go.) The photos are miserable. And while the release promised video content, it's difficult to find today.

All in all, it's about two steps behind from what I proposed to interested parties three years ago. It didn't move forward for lack of funding. Yet, despite the problems with Life Goes Strong (including a low opinion of its target audience), it represents a very crude glimpse of the future. And it's more likely to supplant what we think of journalism today than my friend Ike Pigott's vision of an embedded journalist.

Moving Beyond Beta.

So what would make Life Goes Strong work beyond a better name and pandering to people who recognize Robert Scoble on the watered-down tech section? Here are five critical areas that need improvement...

• Life Goes Strong has no sense of community. Its old fashioned, soft news nugget presentation is as expected from mass media. You only need to look as far as Facebook to see that people like content.

• The short article format is better suited for a mobile introduction. In general, people want their questions answered in articles over sound bites. The summaries they present as articles are best left as content introductions and not content.

• The concept of blended content requires live video streams (like traditional programming), automatically archived for later video viewing (library), and articles that can be optionally accessed for more in-depth analysis and/or factual background.

• It's obvious too much is borrowed from their original joint venture at Petside.com. While Petside.com reaches 1.5 million people per month, it also relies on the passion people have for their pets. Long tail broad content models can be built on a niche model and expect to capture the same interest.

• Like many sites, the article-blog mushup leaves little to be desired. The future of blended content will require some obvious devisions, letting readers know which content is objective news gathering and which is opinion puff. Currently, this has become one of the number one problems at industry trade pubs like Adweek and AdAge. Sometimes you click on a link and get a well-written article. Sometimes you get five graphs from someone who thinks they know something.

But again, despite where it falls short, Life Goes Strong represents something. As it moves beyond beta, it means content convergence (video, photos, articles, blogs, etc. working together) and format convergence (assuming the content works with smart phones and iPads).

More importantly, it's something for communicators to watch. Even if it doesn't get off the ground with the financial backing of several deep-pocket companies, you can expect more Web desintations like this one. Only better. And that will likely mean that all those tactics you've been developing in the last few years to bypass media will be gone, right out the window.

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