Friday, March 30

Branding Power: The Bank Of Apple, Part 2 of 2

On Wednesday, I shared the interesting outcome of a survey conducted by strategic and research consultancy KAE in cooperation with online pollster Toluna. The study they conducted revealed that 10 percent of the public and almost 50 percent of all Apple customers would choose the Bank of Apple over all other bank brands.

While the survey is still speculative, there is always the possibility that Apple could reinvent the banking industry much like it helped shape the music, video, telecommunications, and publishing industries. The technology already exists to do it.

But more than the news itself, we considered how powerful a properly managed brand can become, eclipsing institutions with years of experience in one sector simply because the winning brand has continually demonstrated that it can improve any industry it happens to set its eyes upon.

Even people who aren't fans of Apple sometimes ask how it could build a company as admired as Apple overall. The answer is easier to deliver than execute, but it's remarkably simple. A company that wants to develop real brand power — enough that people will trust it outside of its own niche — has to stop worrying about profits alone and nurture something less tangible like character.

The five Ps of creating a dynamic and unforgettable brand. 

Purpose. Define who you are and what you are to offer-- a mission that defines what you do, a vision that defines where you will go, and the values you will employ to get there. It establishes the voice and character of an organization, and the willingness of a company to stay true to it makes all the difference.

Product. Innovation is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. While the most successful companies innovate products and services that the world has never seen, it can be as simple as making something more accessible or delivering it faster or creating an experience around it. Whatever that contrast in the market might be, the most critical element is meeting or exceeding expectations.

Promise. All successful communication is designed to change behavior, whether it invites someone to try a new product, shop at a new store, or help redefine an industry. Marketing, advertising, public relations, and social media not only generate attention, but also set an appropriate level of expectation.

People. It's not enough that products and services operate within the mission, vision, and values of a company; the people have to adhere to those qualities too. When done correctly, each individual person-to-person contact reinforces the brand and reputation of a company just as much as the product. The goal, through international communication and operations, is to empower people to realize the vision of the company just as much as the executive team.

Public. Perhaps even more so than years prior, companies are not only judged by their customers but also by their presence within the communities in which they operate. Sometimes it is just important for a company to meet the expectation of the friends and family of customers as they must meet those of their customers.

The character-driven brand will thrive in the future. 

Apple isn't the only company that seems to have crossed this threshold. Virgin was founded on some of these same ideas. So was Google. So was Castle Rock. So was Zappos. So was The Four Seasons. On the front end, scores have been (and some even remain) committed to those companies to this day. 

At least on the front end, all of these companies and others were less concerned about profit and product (although some leveraged product price as a means to reinforce their brand) than any of these five areas. Not only did they know the obvious, but they were unafraid to execute it.

When you think about companies almost like you might think about character development, everything is a little easier to understand (even if it is a little more complicated than that). People who nurture their character tend to excel in their professions, earn more money, attract more friends, and earn more respect. And even if all things do not come right away, they are still content in being beneficial.

People who do not — those who are always looking for an edge, chase money or steal, undermine others to look better, and insist they are entitled to authority — might experience short-term gains but eventually sputter out or perhaps even build entire organizations of discontent. There are scores of those kinds of companies too, Budget Rent A Car, Netflix, NS Goldman Sachs to consider a few.

Wednesday, March 28

Branding Power: The Bank Of Apple, Part 1 of 2

Two years ago, there was a little-read post that speculated what might happen if Apple opened a banking or credit card division. Most of the speculation centered on Near-Field Contactless (NFC) technologies, which would enable payments to be made with a phone; no cards, inserts, or swipes.

This year is a little different. Strategic and research consultancy KAE in cooperation with online pollster Toluna didn't focus on whether or not Apple could open a banking division based on technology but rather the willingness of customers to bank with Apple. Ten percent of the public, almost half of all Apple customers would.

The real value of a brand is elevated trust.

Some people never go further than the latest valuation of a brand — Apple is valued at $39.3 billion — to determine its worth. But with the simplest of surveys, KAE demonstrates what brand value really means.

The reason people would bank with Apple, a field in which it has never operated before (unless you make the connection that shopping carts are close), is the high level of trust. Sixty-six percent, in fact, said that their trust in the brand would sell them alone. More than half said they expect Apple would make banking easier and more reliable. Many wouldn't expect the company to open brick and mortar banks.

"Apple would face no capital constraints in building a deposits base. With a proven ability to cross-sell additional products, along with the highest sales per square foot of any retailer and affluent customer base, it wouldn't take long for Apple to become one of the most profitable banks in recent times," said David Rankin of KAE. "Once the power of the Apple brand and its options for growth are understood, it tends to prompt one of three responses from financial institutions: accelerated invention, defensive benchmarking, or blissful avoidance."

In recent years, especially with disruptive innovations that include iTunes, phones, tablets, and even the near perfect prospect of iBooks (there are a couple more advents the company needs to kick publishing out of the ball park), Apple has consistently demonstrated it can reinvent how industries are perceived, elevate expectations within those industries, and then either meet expectations or even exceed them.

A logo alone is not what modern branding is about.

In looking at communication trends among top performing brands, there has been one standout among those brands like Apple and Google racing to the top and unseating some of those that held the reins for a long time. These companies in particular are less interested in managing their reputations and more interested in managing their character.

How can that be? For companies, character isn't merely an assignment of an individual's trait to a group. It's really a manifestation of corporate culture — the company's ability to do what it says it will do with some exceptionalism at every level of customer contact — product/service-to-person, person-to-person, public perception-to-person.

That's not to say that all things will be perfect. Apple, much like Google, has its share of detractors and sometimes questionable decisions. But mostly, it consistently delivers on every point of contact — at least as good as it says it will (which is often more important than being number one in every category). Any company can do it, assuming they choose to. We'll take a look at the steps on Friday.

Monday, March 26

Blundering Pundits: Etch-A-Sketch Candidates

Having worked on, reviewed, and analyzed hundreds of political campaigns and crisis communication scenarios, I'm among the first to admit that communication gaffes can be costly. But don't think for a moment that any loss of momentum by the Mitt Romney campaign can be tied to senior advisor Eric Fehrnstrom's ill-advised analogy that the campaign is like an Etch A Sketch. There's more to it.

Most communication gaffes don't cause people to win or lose elections. They merely become a de facto moniker or brand that best sums up the weakness that a campaign team has been struggling with all along. For Romney's campaign, Fehrnstrom accidentally summed up the greatest weakness — people are still unsure whether Romney will do what he says that he will do. It's a matter of trust.

Communication gaffes don't kill candidates. They merely articulate any weaknesses.

There is no doubt that this single well-meant misstatement will go down in history as one of the worst, joining several others: the infamous picture of Michael Dukakis in an M1 Abrams tank during the 1988 presidential campaign; the "Dean Scream" by Howard Dean during the 2008 presidential primary after losing the Iowa caucuses; and Sarah Palin's inability to explain how Alaska's proximity to Russia gave her foreign policy experience during an interview with Katie Couric.

But while all of them are memorable, it's important to consider that it was not the gaffe but how the gaffe symbolized much deeper issues that made the difference. Dukakis, Dean, and Palin's gaffes didn't cost anyone an election. They only perfectly summed up deeper campaign problems, much like this one did.



If there is a lesson to be learned, it's as simple as this: never be so articulate that you make yourself a slave to your own message. And given that everyone is jumping on the Etch A Sketch comment, including the current administration, it seems pretty clear that this is one of those moments, but only if Romney's team cannot recover. There isn't much they can do to recover from it, except one little thing that carries a risk.

The Etch A Sketch gaffe is an opportunity to be humble, human, and approachable. 

Although he didn't personally make the remark, he might as well have. To date, the campaign seems unable to seize the moment, attempting to be too serious over a message meant to appeal to conservative and moderate voters.

Instead, Romney would have been better off defusing the moment by making fun of it. He should have shown up somewhere with his own Etch A Sketch, poked fun at the comment himself, and then used it as an opportunity to reinforce his positions — not with broad boasts of conservative ideologies or elaborate explanations that sometimes require Cliff Notes but with specifics that only a human can deliver. And that, right there, is why Romney faces competition. He has yet to be human enough.

On the bright side, Etch A Sketch sales are rising. I guess nobody realized how magical they can be.

Friday, March 23

Making Decisions: Do Anything But Wait

Despite the potential for market recovery, 48 percent of American investors believe they will run out of money in their lifetime. Ten years ago, only 30 percent believed they would run out of money.

These statistics are among the findings from a survey commissioned by BNY Mellon Wealth Management. CEO Larry Hughes went as far to say that "bleak is the new black" among investors.

He could be right. The same survey, taken in February, shows that more than six in ten investors (61 percent) say Americans are pessimistic about the markets compared to the balance who are optimistic. The outcome of the anxiety has slowed investments in the private sector, with 59 percent saying they are waiting for conditions to improve before taking any real action in their investment strategy.

How psychology and external pressures play a role in communication. 

As many as four in ten investors said they are holding off on making investment decisions until after the upcoming presidential election. Their trepidation includes the potential for tax increases and interest rates. But in general, shaky employment numbers (with many people removed from the work force), fear over the growing debt, and ultra high gas and energy prices are all baring down.

Part of the problem goes beyond hard numbers. Some of it is tied to an unwillingness to accept what's temporary and resign themselves to complacency. People are more likely to wait during good times and bad times. They are less likely to wait when they are in periods of innovation or adoption.

Unless a company is innovating new products that demand attention, it is likely deciding between identifying the shrinking pool of optimists or attempting to adopt new programs or approaches designed to change the the behavior of the pessimists. Common problem-solution communication is one strategy.

For example, a car dealership might emphasize more energy efficient vehicles as an economic alternative. They might even increase the trade-in incentive for less fuel efficient vehicles. Rental companies might offer a free tank of gas, assuming it is built into the rental price. Resorts with higher drive-in traffic might create an incentive with gas vouchers. Educational institutions might be more aggressive in providing online courses that do not require students (and instructors) to commute.

Any of these programs are short term, but represent how companies need to remain responsive to environmental conditions as much as operational improvements and/or competitive pressures. Companies have to be more responsive in eliminating the pressure or increasing the product/service value to exceed the perceived cost of acquisition.

When external pressures become too high, even communication can't help. 

In terms of gas prices, some people are now predicting that they will eclipse $5 per gallon this year. If that happens, even consumers with fuel efficient cars will be impacted. But they are not alone. Businesses will be forced either to absorb high fuel costs or increase prices to compensate, leaving consumers to face both higher fuel prices and inflation.

The prospect seems daunting given that 9 percent of Americans are unemployed, more than one in five Americans are underemployed, and several million were written off from the ranks of the work force. On a macro scale, all of it is contributing to shrinking optimism and slowing down economic recovery.

In such instances, unless it is innovation driven, companies and communicators are best served looking for smaller scale successes, perhaps in regional or even local markets that are less impacted by a continued downturn. While some people might think this goes beyond the scope of a communicator, it really doesn't. Whether marketing or public relations, well-intentioned professionals ought to be able to provide keen insight from the various publics served by the company every day.

The worst thing to do, however, is resign to a wait-and-see attitude that might permeate the rest of the market. If you are merely defending what you have, then there is a good chance you might already be losing. The same can be true for some who are unemployed; waiting for the 'right opportunity' often carries more risk than seizing temporary opportunities.

Wednesday, March 21

Voting: Personal Business Becomes Public Policy

According to a new Harris Interactive/HealthDay poll released today, most Americans are ambivalent about new regulations aimed at governing lifestyle choices. In most cases, the public is happy to support regulations that they perceive have little impact on themselves, personally.

While 61 percent worried that legislation aimed at lifestyle choices might be too coercive, impeding individual freedoms, 81 percent agreed (33 percent strongly agreed) that these same laws are important to protecting safety. This creates a paradox in that Americans vote their immediate moral conscience without considering consequences.

"The public is somewhat schizophrenic about laws and policies that are intended to improve health and safety and reduce injuries and accidents," said Humphrey Taylor, chairman of The Harris Poll. "Most people favor many regulations that protect them but they worry about our becoming a 'nanny state.'"

Issues that respondents supported or strongly supported.

• 91 percent supported the ban on texting and driving.
• 86 percent supported child vaccinations.
• 86 percent supported safety belt laws.
• 82 percent supported motorcycle helmet laws.
• 80 percent supported smoking bans in enclosed public places.
• 78 percent supported requiring nutritional information on menus.
• 70 percent supported cell phone use while driving.
• 68 percent supported reducing salt in packaged goods.
• 61 percent supported mandatory HPV vaccinations for girls, ages 11-12.
• 38 percent supported a tax on high sugar soft drinks.
• 35 percent supported employers not hiring people who smoke.
• 24 percent supported employers not hiring people because of weight.

The same respondents said that people should be free to make their own decisions (81 percent) unless those laws reduce accidents, improve health, save lives, and reduce health care costs (78 percent). And it is in this paradox that the survey doesn't go far enough, one that is prime for psychologists.

Packaging and propaganda are driving Americans to make decisions for others.

When you look at many of the controversial issues today, many are packaged with an intent to reduce accidents, improve health, save lives, and reduce health care costs (on both sides of the argument). The only difference between one argument and the other is how it is framed and how directly it impacts the individuals making the decision.

This is a compelling study in that it pinpoints a growing ease for people to vote for what used to be considered lifestyle and personal choice. However, with the adoption of a national health care program, people are increasingly willing to make personal, medical, health, and lifestyle choices for other people.

The extremes tell the story. Most people support the texting and driving ban because it represents an activity considered by most to be the highest form of distracted driving, and a significantly increased risk. But the bottom of the scale tells another story. How much you weigh may become a public issue.

Monday, March 19

Forgetting Publics: Kony 2012

When the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) recently redefined the term "public relations," it was met with some criticism. Most of the criticism is aimed at three areas: the oversimplification of the definition, the sameness to past definitions, and the litany of terms (a.k.a. jargon) that need to be defined in order to understand the definition.

“Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

While there is plenty to be unimpressed about, the one word that generally draws the most disdain is "publics." It rivals the use of "audience(s)," which is used by advertising and marketing, as receiving the most scorn among all words used in communication. And yet, despite confusion, both are needed.

How the neglect of "publics" undermines the Kony 2012 campaign. 

The general argument against using "publics" in defining people is usually tied to the negative sentiment associated with the categorization of people, which is said to dilute individualism and reinforce the old model of mass communication. Ironically, the opposite might prove to be true.

Identifying and prioritizing publics recognizes individual differences, desires, and concerns that various people (employees, investors, regulators, etc.) have about different issues. Knowing how different publics might react to any well-crafted message becomes paramount in how we communicate.

In looking at the Kony 2012 social media campaign, the importance of recognizing publics is crystal clear. While the campaign succeeded in employing tried and true tactics for social media, it neglected how various publics might respond to the well-intended message.

• The Ugandan government has rejected the campaign because it says that Joseph Kony is no longer operating in the country, a criticism initially brought to light by human rights watch groups.

• The people of Uganda, including victims, have had a furious reaction to the campaign after seeing screenings of the film in their country. The screenings have since been halted.

• People who categorize the Ugandan government as repressive claim that any aid will only pop up an unjust government. It could also accidentally destabilize the region.

• Philanthropic advisors have elevated the backing organization as a cautionary tale for donors, especially after several scrutinized the organization's financials and track record for transparency.

• Not everyone is keen on U.S. military intervention: not Ugandans, not Americans. Some critics draw parallels to U.S. involvement in other areas of the world, and fear it could do more harm than good. Some argue interest in the area has as much to do with oil as humanitarian efforts.

• And, not everyone is keen on the way that social networks can propel propaganda so quickly and efficiently that people support it before they have any facts whatsoever.

The examples are starters, but listing them is not meant to criticize intent. 

On the contrary, highlighting critical response is a means to demonstrate the importance of thinking about publics instead of a singular public (e.g.,  social media). If the campaigners had thought through their communication, there would have been fewer detractors. And if the organizers would have thought through their publics, the filmmaker would have been less likely to have a mental break.

Prior to the launch of the video and subsequent social media campaign, Invisible Children would have benefited from public relations and its practice in identifying, prioritizing, and communicating to various publics. What publics? Here are few considerations for starters.

African governments. The African governments of Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan need to be unified in the decision to bring Joseph Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) to justice. The LRA exists because it is not bound to boundaries whereas these governments cannot pursue aggressors into neighboring countries.

African people. A real effort to support bringing Kony and the LRA to justice must to be supported by the victims. The filmmakers really needed to consider how they might react to the campaign. Had they educated the people before the campaign and not after, they might not have seen push back.

Human rights groups. Invisible Children could have communicated with other human rights groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and others. By informing of them of the intent, recognizing their parallel efforts, or even partnering with more groups, it would have been less likely for the lead organization to be so scrutinized.

U.S. Congress/political influencers. There is no question that American politics is partly driven by constituent correspondence. And while Invisible Children has had contact with many decision makers since it first began, it would have been prudent to have given politicians backgrounders about the campaign so they could have addressed the issue with intelligence.

Celebrities/public influencers. It's always great to have a campaign spurred on by people who are already in the public eye. But much like politicians, the early success of receiving celebrity attention could have been compounded with advanced notice of the campaign, especially among those with an expressed interest in human rights.

Special interest groups. There are several to consider, which would need to be broken out in any formal plan. But for the purposes of this post, an oversimplified list begins with pacifists (those who object to fighting violence with violence), non-interventionists (people who believe the focus needs to be at home and not abroad), and similar political action groups (opposed to what they call American imperialism or modern colonialism). It's doubtful these groups would become allies, but considering their views prior to the launch could have made the organization better prepared to address their varied concerns.

How communicating to publics in addition to the campaign could have made a difference.

While there is more to be learned from the Kony 2012 campaign, one lesson might be to stop defining a successful social media campaign as one that constructs slick and sharable messages that go viral.

A truly successful campaign is much more than that. It shapes public opinion into an actionable outcome. With Kony 2012, whether or not Invisible Children will achieve its objective is debatable (for now). What isn't debatable is that for all of its successes, the campaign has created new barriers.

What a shame it would be if the entire campaign renders itself pointless by raising awareness around the world while undermining the means to accomplish the objective at the same time. If the African people and their governments do not want support in bringing Kony or the LRA to justice, then what will have been accomplished beyond the opposite of intent and possibly detracting support from other important goals?

Friday, March 16

Being Wrong: Banco Popular Customers

When banks sell loans, you really never know what to expect. And with some banks, you never know what to expect from month to month. Popular Mortgage a.k.a. Banco Popular is much like that.

About a year ago, our small home improvement second was sold by Bank of America to Popular Mortgage, a subsidiary of Banco Popular, which is a subsidiary of Popular Inc. Ever since, the experience has been a comedy of errors, apparently ours.

The customer is always wrong with Banco Popular.

The first time it was our fault was because we received a statement two days before the due date. We sent the payment straight away. But their processing department is slow. So the payment didn't post until the day after their collection department called, two weeks after the due date (but still within their grace period).

Not wanting to take any chances with our credit rating, we made a payment over the phone (you can't pay via the Internet as they don't accept online payments). Meanwhile, the missing check posted the next day. They had it for more than a week, but didn't know it. No big deal. The extra payment was applied to the principal, and we offered remedies that they rebuffed.

The second time it was our fault started out as a mystery. The collection department called on Sunday but didn't leave a message. When we called to find out why they had called, we were greeted by a message that said their offices were closed. (They can call out, but you can't call in.)

In the interim, we checked with our bank. We had sent the check the same day that we received the payment (Feb. 21), they processed it on March 2 (the day after the due date), and it cleared our bank on March 5. This time, their collection department called even earlier within their grace period (March 11).

When they returned our call on the next day, "David" said he would open a ticket and research it. The practice is pretty standard in the banking business so I thanked him. What isn't standard is that he called back a few minutes later and told us to research it and send evidence of payment, with urgency.

We sent a copy of the check the same night, but found out it wasn't so urgent. After I didn't receive confirmation that the email was received, I called. He had the day off.

He never did confirm receipt of the email, but he did call the next day. He called to say we were wrong.

"The issue they had was because you didn't put your loan account number on it," said David, much less accommodating than in our previous conversation.

What happened was that they received the check (which carries the address of the home with the second) and statement coupon, but they were confused which account to apply it to (even though we only have one account with them). So, they cashed the check and set the money aside until someone claimed it.

I didn't know what to say. Apparently, I was wrong again. All I could do was chuckle and accept it.

You can learn a lot about investments by working with prospect companies. 

While we do business with several banks — various business and personal accounts — I have only ever invested in one. And I would never invest or willfully do business with Banco Popular. Why?

Three reasons. 

• Its operational structure is lopsided to account for the deficiencies it creates (e.g., its payment processing is overburdened or incompetent, which slows down their process and gives their overstaffed collection department more cause to be zealous, calling high credit score customers on days that they are closed even if the customers are well within grace periods).

• It violates its own stated values and creed (e.g., it claims to obtain customers' satisfaction and loyalty by adding value to each transaction but places the burden of research and evidence on the customer).

• It works too hard to prove itself right and the customer wrong (e.g., interactions frequently seem to bear it out, given the emphasis is always about discovering what the customer did wrong rather than addressing how they can fix their shortcomings).

I'm happy to admit I'm wrong with Banco Popular. But every now and again it pays for a company to work harder to make their customer right, at least as hard as the customer works to make them right.

The first time we experienced a problem, we had requested they send their statements out earlier (25 days out is relatively standard, but they said it wasn't their policy). We requested a payment book if they could not send them earlier (they refused because our account was an acquisition). And we asked about making payments online (they said they offer no such service).

They did suggest direct withdrawals from our bank account, but I don't believe in giving deficient companies that kind of access. Instead, we feel crummy every time they send a statement, paying it as quickly as possible and hoping for the best. It usually arrives between two and seven working days before the due date, which gives them a chance to prove us wrong every month. Go figure. It's their policy.

The policy seems to be working for them too. Here is an analysis of investor recommendations. Yikes.

Wednesday, March 14

Setting Agendas: Kony 2012

When most people see the Kony 2012 communication campaign, they immediately think of it as an unprecedented success. With 76 million views and counting (50 million in the first four days), the YouTube video that relaunched a greater mixed media campaign has generated more awareness about the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda than any other time in its 25-year history.

To be accurate, the campaign has had many successes and setbacks, but it has yet to be successful as there is only one measurable outcome: bring Joseph Kony to justice. Everything else is a means to an end. And that is how communication campaigns ought to be measured, regardless of other successes.

A Brief Summary Of The Kony 2102 Campaign.

Employing a communication strategy very similar to that of several early and successful campaigns used by Bloggers Unite to shape public opinion, Invisible Children has set a specific objective that has since risen to become a global agenda. How are they doing it?

• A communication campaign with a clear objective and definitive deadlines.
• A launch point that clearly articulates and humanizes its overall mission.
• A call to action to solicit partner support; benefactors, sponsors, and advocates.
• A visible level of commitment to working alongside volunteer participants.
• A wide range of tools and tactics that participants can choose from to help.

Specifically, the Kony 2012 campaign was initiated with a YouTube video as its primary introduction, which was supported by an existing presence across several social media networks. The intent was to drive visitors to a website where they found a tiered call to action: sign a pledge of support, purchase action kits that in turn can be used as marketing materials in support of the overall campaign goals, and sign up to donate to the campaign organizers, which also run several programs beyond the Kony 2012 campaign.

Some additional tactical components include asking participants to solicit/compel targeted celebrity and policy influencers to get involved, blanketing key urban centers with campaign material next month,  encouraging activists to create clubs and street teams, and continuing to introduce people to the video.

A Brief Summary Of Successes To Date.

Prior to the launch of the film, Invisible Children had succeeded in raising awareness about the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda. Its support contributed to the United States becoming involved in 2010 despite having no real interests in the area. This included sending 100 U.S. combat troops to central Africa as advisors and military trainers. The new campaign is more decisive with a clear measure of success.

Since the launch of the Kony 2012 campaign, Invisible Children has substantially increased awareness, recruited more volunteers than it can manage, obtained several new high-profile supporters, and raised more funds than it has in previous campaign years. It has also earned significant media attention, although not all of it is kind.

A Brief Summary Of The Setbacks To Date. 

What began as a few questions about the initial message — specifically the poor choice of language which calls to make Kony famous as opposed to infamous — has since spiraled out of control for the campaign organizers. Invisible Children is in the hot seat as much as it is being hailed as a hero for heightening awareness.

Criticisms over the campaign have escalated to include accusations of imperialistic meddling, government propping, misguided targeting, nonprofit profiteering, and decentralizing the area by elevating the risk of retaliation. Some of the stiffest criticism comes from other activists, even those who have similar goals. Certain media outlets have pushed the organization out of favor too, especially those with a liberal slant, claiming that the campaign is fleeting and doesn't fit their own priorities.

The World Hasn't Changed; It's Still A Crummy Place.

If criticisms of the Kony 2012 campaign begin to outweigh its success, then this campaign could become a social failing more than a social success story. Invisible Children could find itself responsible for empowering the Lord's Resistance Army (or like-minded organizations) instead of empowering those who might defeat him if any number of other political intrusions disrupt the effort.

And then, even if the campaign does succeed, its own communication (prior to the launch of this campaign) says that it will make little difference. There are many branches of the Lord's Resistance Army that operate with near autonomy. While a singular achievable objective is smart, one is right to wonder if that singular objective is the right one or to what degree foreign assistance is welcome.

But don't mistake those observations as my personal opinion. Personally, I find the campaign backlash more boorish than any mistakes the campaign organizers have made, except one. Like many awareness campaigns, they're letting all of these early brilliant marketing accolades go to their heads before the outcome is achieved and consequences of achieving that outcome are fully understood.

Living case study ahead. Win or lose, the Kony 2012 campaign is worth following for awhile. In addition to other topics, I'll revisit the campaign from time to time to create a communication composite.

Monday, March 12

Communicating Internally: Engagement Matters

According to a survey by the American Psychological Association (APA), half of all employees who say they do not feel valued at work intend to look for a new job in the next year (almost three times as likely as those who do feel valued). But this turnover statistic alone doesn't capture the most convincing arguments within the study, given many employers are happy to see unsatisfied employees go.

The real boon comes from valued employees. 

Employees who do feel valued are more likely to report better physical health, better mental health, and higher levels of engagement, satisfaction, and motivation. In fact, almost all employees who feel valued at work say they are more motivated to do their best work and 88 percent say they feel engaged.

Translating this information into tangible measures is relatively easy. Valued employees take fewer sick days, produce better quality work, and are much more likely to refer or talk about their companies.

"The business world is in the midst of a sea change," says David W. Ballard, PsyD, MBA, head of APA's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program. "Successful organizations have learned that high performance and sustainable results require attention to the relationships among employee, organization, customer and community."

The real costs associated with unvalued employees. 

More than one in five (21 percent) of working Americans said they do not feel valued by their employers. And while this number doesn't necessarily seem alarming, it can be if those employees are consecrated within a single company. 

In fact, according to the APA, one of the underlying symptoms of companies in trouble are those with an abundance of employees suffering from chronic stress, especially when it is exacerbated by low salaries (46 percent), lack of opportunities for growth or advancement (41 percent), too heavy a workload (41 percent), long hours (37 percent), and unclear job expectations (35 percent).

Like other studies outside the workforce, the leading complaints among unvalued employees isn't tied exclusively to compensation. Employees, much like consumers, are looking for something more meaningful. They want to have a sense of purpose at their place of work.

Why do employees feel undervalued or unvalued at work?

• Fewer opportunities for involvement in decision making (84 percent).
• Less satisfied with the potential for growth and advancement (70 percent).
• Less likely to say they are receiving adequate monetary compensation (69 percent). 
• Less likely to say that they are receiving adequate non-monetary rewards (65 percent). 
• Fewer opportunities to use flexible work arrangements at the job (59 percent). 

A few years ago, a Gallup study on employee engagement found that about 54 percent of employees in the United States are not engaged and 17 percent are disengaged. (Only 29 percent are engaged.)

Remedies to increase engagement included two-way communication, trust in leadership, career development, shared decision making, and the means to understand the importance every role plays within a company. (Not surprisingly, many of these descriptors also appear on social media tip sheets.)

We've included some of these remedies before in several articles, including: Forgetting A Public, Manifesting Creativity, and Thinking Big. Coincidentally, the first article (conducted by a different researcher) also found that as many as 50 percent of all employees who did not feel valued would be looking for a new job. One of the most common reasons cited by employers who do not value employees was that it was an employers' market and their employees could be readily replaced. (It would not be surprising to learn that many of these companies feel the same way about their customers.)

Interestingly enough, the benefits of developing an engaged, participatory, and valued group of individuals is not confined to the workforce. The dynamic exists within volunteer organizations, social networks, and even families. The more people feel involved — and can better understand that their contributions carry meaning — the better results businesses, organizations, communities, and groups can anticipate in return.

Friday, March 9

Crafting Character: It Precedes Reputation

Copywriter Brian Beasley recently took exception to the rapid succession of corporate clients recruiting Charlie Sheen to appear in their advertisements. Both Fiat and Direct TV jumped on the measure of eyeballs as they are attracted to one of the top five ways to get media attention.

Beasley's beef is simple enough. Both accounts are elevating the bad boy image, something that is twice as likely to cause a brand blemish than it ever will to drive sales. I dunno. Time will tell whether the aging young gun and his horse have already become too well-worn to ride.

But that doesn't mean there isn't a lesson. And Sheen isn't the only example. 

There are an increasing number of people who are crafting all their communication to catch headlines. They usually do it by wrapping themselves up in the cloak of controversy. They do outrageous things. They say outrageous things. They single out other people and call for outrage.

Most of it is designed to get attention, and sometimes it is aimed at getting a rise out of someone else.

That's what all the flap about Rush Limbaugh was, right? That's why some people are taking shots at The Lorax, right? That's why atheist activist groups put up a slavery billboard, right? That's why the Irish are up in arms about Urban Outfitters, right? And that's why there is controversy over the controversy or lack of controversy about singer Lana Del Rey. Controversy is so commonplace, it's cliche and mostly boring.

Worse than that, people who use controversy too often become so associated with controversy that nobody hears what they are saying when they do have something to say. It's just more controversy.

You can't manage your reputation like you can maintain your good character.

Character is the aggregate of features and traits that form the individual nature of some person or thing. It's the real deal. Reputation is only what people see, regardless of what is lurking behind the shadows.

Do you remember the The Dead Zone with Christopher Walken and Martin Sheen? When Johnny Smith, played by Walken, shakes hands with a U.S. Senate candidate Greg Stillson, played by Sheen, he sees that this senator will one day become president and order a nuclear strike. Later, Smith botches an assassination attempt, but Stillson shows his character by taking refuse behind a baby.

Reputation is malleable, which is why people try to manipulate it. Character isn't so malleable, unless you make a conscious effort to change it. When you think about the character of people who create controversy or the people who create controversy by claiming someone else is doing something controversial, you see something entirely different than if you focus merely on reputation.

Charlie Sheen made headlines last year by nurturing his out-of-control self-destructive reputation. Since things have slowed down, he's back to cash in on it again, along with a handful of marketers and media outlets who all want to pretend it's unexpected. It's expected. It's boring. And I can't remember the car.

Wednesday, March 7

Finding Spin: Bob Conrad Cuts Through The Spin!

Misinformation is a conversation that frequently comes up in my public relations courses, with no single source of information exempt from bias, fabrication, and blatant slant. One could easily argue that it makes up the majority of the information we are exposed to every day and the trend — driven by popularity and shareability — is increasing exponentially, with the media being especially suspect.

Where did all the objective reporting go anyway?

In his book, Spin! How The News Media Misinform And Why Consumers Misunderstand, Bob Conrad captures some of the story, leaning more toward current events than the short history of objective journalism and why it is changing (regressing) today. And missing the history of it all is probably the greatest flaw in an otherwise well-presented thesis book.

After all, one cannot fully discuss objective journalism without discussing Walter Lippman, who set the standard for it. Prior, journalism wasn't even considered a real profession. And why would it be? For all of the good people like Lippman were trying to do, other publishers like William Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer used sensationalized news to drive circulation much like media outlets do today. They did it enough so that both are readily linked to helping start the Spanish-American War.

How ironic that 100 years later, with new media on the rise and mainstream trying to drive circulation, we find ourselves relearning the same circular lesson. Unless, of course, you look at it all differently. Although yellow journalism did not get its name until the turn of the late 1800s, it was alive and well in the United States, both preceding the American Revolution (to prime independence) and immediately following it (to mutually ridicule emerging political parties after the writing of the Constitution).

But other than this omission, Spin! tells some of the modern story. 

Based on the assumption that journalists still pine away for objective journalism (they don't), Conrad captures several concerning stories in less than 90 pages. In the telling, he also catches more than one journalist tripping on his own logic.

"Our job is to tell stories, to make facts relevant, but never skew them." — David Baker, State News

Conrad takes the logic to task because he rightfully points out that interpreting and shaping the information is how it becomes biased. And, in fact, it is worse than the front end suggests. Many journalists who put pen to paper in 1960s and 1970s discovered new styles for writing the news — with the aim to set agenda or sometimes entertain with one.

From there, Conrad moves into other stories to demonstrate some of the real challenges that face journalism today: reporter bias, anointed elitism, and defensive posturing. Most of them fall into one of the six divisions of modern media, but a few go further in describing a blatant disregard for the truth, something a few journalists have used to gain attention and awards (e.g., those who make it up).

All of it makes for good reading. And yet, if the real measure of Conrad's book can be found in solutions, then it doesn't seem promising for us in this brave new world of media manipulation from outside and within. His seven solutions, some new and some old, include: creating space for more citizen journalism, reestablishing the barriers between news and opinion, adopting principles from public relations, holding journalists accountable, and raising the bar in expert selection.

Will any of these solutions work to curb misinformation? 

Not one of them is necessarily a bad idea and all of them can be starting points for consideration. But unfortunately, none of them can reach the ultimate goal. They cannot bring back objective journalism.

If we really want credible and objective news, then citizens have to support it while learning to suppress their growing appetite for affirmation news. And right now, feeling freed of inconvenient facts that run contrary to their own individual ideologies, it's virtually impossible for a major media outlet to survive and maintain objectivism.

If I had to guess, I would say that today's media needs a wide-reaching and catastrophic miss that results in massive public outcry. And if we are to avoid such a costly blunder, then we need an emerging voice within journalism like Lippman in his era.

Ergo, someone needs to shame the media into making the truth their ultimate goal once again. And if someone doesn't soon, then it will take something bigger than any of the examples cited in Conrad's book, which is a frightening thought.

I used to think, much like Conrad, that a collective voice might emerge from the ranks of citizen journalists to get the job done. But I don't see this happening anytime soon. As long as popularity and perceived influence are more cherished than the truth, then we will continue to be buffeted back and forth by polarized opinion, popularizing misinformation, and selective facts.

Where Spin! wins despite some shortcomings in research.

While it might not sound like it at times, I would recommend Spin! to anyone hoping to gain a better grasp of where the media are today. Not only does Spin! make a great catch-up primer and indispensable resource, it also sets an agenda for a conversation that needs to happen. Given you can consume it all in a few hours (and then spend weeks chasing down conclusions), all the better.

However, that doesn't mean you can afford to dismiss your own due diligence after reading it. Conrad brings in much of his arguments from what he is exposed to, which sometimes skews his own perspective. While he disclaims some of this in the preface, it's still bothersome to see someone attributed as if they coined "he said/she said" journalism  when they didn't, the omission of a historical context, and his own personal bias (which I have to point out despite agreeing with much of it).

In other words, it's a must-read book for anyone with an interest in media and citizen journalism, but only as a primer for a much bigger pool of knowledge that is out there and waiting to be assembled. Still, I will recommending it to my class. I regularly recommend his blog for good reading too.

I received a complimentary copy of Spin! How The News Media Misinform And Why Consumers Misunderstand by Bob Conrad with the understanding that the book would be reviewed.

Monday, March 5

Writing By Rubrics: Painting By Numbers

One of the growing trends in education is the rampant application of rubrics, starting around middle school. The concept behind the rubric is that it sets the criteria that students will be graded on, gives the teacher an easy way to communicate assignment expectations, and provides a fill-in-the-blank outline for students.

As an instructor, I mostly like them. As a writer, I absolutely hate them. 

If there was ever a great tool that elevates and diminishes writing at the same time, it's the rubric. It elevates boring writers because it explicitly lists everything that they need to include. It absolutely demolishes writing because it sucks passion, creativity, and critical thinking out of good ones. 

My son brought a rubric home the other day, which piqued my interest because I'm also teaching Writing For Public Relations right now. It also got my interest because he was struggling with it.

The persuasive writing rubric began with a top-down outline of fill-in-the-blanks: introduce with a hook, opinion, or thesis statement; write three paragraphs, with each paragraph focusing on one point; conclude with restatement, summary, and call to action. Then it listed other elements: at least one expert testimony, one concession, 2-3 qualifiers, one cause and effect example, one rhetorical question, and a "statistic." Check for an effective use of voice, transitions, spelling, grammar, and format. 

Do you know what the rubric reminded me of? Paint by numbers. 

Sure, I'll concede that I cannot teach people to write like I do. Some writers do. Some don't. The best of them all develop their own approaches, which tend to be as varied and interesting as individuals. 

My personal process is self-developed. I research as much as possible about a subject, develop a big picture composite of everthing, and grab a hook out of the ether of it all. And then I write, allowing its direction to carry me along, sometimes stopping to pursue a discovery, question, pattern, contrast, or something I stumble upon along the way. And when everything clicks, it virtually writes itself. 

I know when I'm in that space because even though I don't have the benefit of an old Remington typewriter, the weight of my fingers on the keys is loud enough to turn heads. Maybe that's why I consider writing a contact sport whereas rubrics feel more like fuzzy ad-libs.

It's also why my son was struggling. They gave them the blanks to fill in but not the thought process to do it. And at the rate he was waffling, the project was never going to happen. He needed a process.

How to transform a stupid rubric into the process that writing is meant to be.

I told him to forget about the rubric on the front end. And then I gave him a process that would guide him to complete his assignment. Once he had a draft, he could go back and attempt to stick all those nonsensical mandatories that the rubric instructed — at least one "statistic" and whatnot. 

1. Establish A Thesis Statement. He already knew what he wanted to write about so he was done before he started. He wanted to write about why returning to the moon is a good idea. Professional public relations practitioners might think about something else — what is the objective of the communication. 

2. Research For Facts. Then I told him to research as much as he could, writing down and organizing notes under various subject headers — education, energy, economics, etc. I suggested he shoot for ten. The same might apply to writing a news release or some other piece of communication.

3. Prioritize And Analyze. Since he was writing an essay, I told him to look over everything he found and cut out the chaff. He needed three or four support paragraphs, which meant he could prioritize the three or four strongest research areas. The same applies to writing for communication too. 

4. Flesh Out The Facts. While one might assume that his notes would make it easy, I told him not to make assumptions. If any one paragraph raised more questions than it answered, he needed to find more facts. And while he was at it, he could scan the rubric list to make sure he hit all the points. 

5. Find The Lead. Based on the content of his essay, his lead materialized. When I wrote my own piece on the subject, mine centered around the inexplainable defeatist mentality that had embraced so many who liken the idea of a moon colony to wasteful spending and science fiction.

6. Write The Conclusion. This was the one area where the rubric was sort of right. The best conclusions usually summarize, restate, and provide some semblance of a call to action. Tying in the introduction can be a good idea too, assuming it fits. Most people don't struggle with conclusions, unless their entire body of content is weak. However, I sometimes wish writers would sweat the conclusion a little more; weak conclusions are like movies that don't wrap themselves up. They leave you hanging with nothing. 

My son found the process much easier to manage than the empty ad-lib. He also learned more than his essay would teach. But even more than that, the process helped him learn what a rubric cannot teach. It will help him find his passion in his subject, much like painters find a passion in their art beyond numbers and colors or writers discover the good and bad of applying algorithms to everything

Hopefully, these six steps will help my students too. We'll see on the next assignment. At minimum, I hope it changes the only stake many public relations pros have in any assignment (in class or at work): get it done and fire it out along with the other 4.3 million news releases that are distributed every day. Of course, there is one bright side. News releases used to pile up in landfills. Now it's just the Internet.

Friday, March 2

Improving Criticisms: How To Be A Critic Without Being A Cynic

"What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing." — Oscar Wilde from Lady Windermere's Fan (often paraphrased) 

Every year when I return the first graded writing assignments to public relations students, many of them feel trepidation. They have every right to feel it. I tell them in advance that I'm critical about the work.

Some of them don't need me to tell them. Several students have told me that I have a reputation for not being easy, maybe even hard. The words "necessarily evil" are sometimes attached to the unwritten course description.

I don't mind the monikers, but most students would never guess that I feel trepidation when I hand the first assignments back too. The profession requires that instructors be critics. But not every student appreciates the difference between the critic and cynic. (And some instructors forget it too.)

Instructors are not the only ones who have to walk what is sometimes is fine line. Scores of professionals do: reviewers, journalists, bloggers, politicians, business people, etc. And some do it better than others.

How To Be A Critic Without Being A Cynic.

1. Be selfless instead of selfish. Critics lend their experience, expertise, and opinions to help improve the performance or material for the practitioner or for the benefit of others interested in the work. Cynics draw attention to their experience, expertise, and opinions, and often make fault-finding their mission in order to elevate themselves if not in the public eye than to appease their own flailing self-esteem.

2. Be humble instead of egotistical. Critics do not see themselves as the final authority, but rather challenge themselves and others to continually raise the bar and find solutions. Cynics believe they have already obtained the high water mark in observation if not performance, and expect no one else ever will.

3. Be direct instead of directed. Critics keep their judgements focused on the performance or material rather than the performer or author, allowing them to be direct in their assessment. Cynics believe that finding fault in individuals reaffirms their own virtue, and frequently attempt to pin any failings on someone or something. 

4. Be empathetic instead of aggravated. Critics are interested in the effort and the thought process that led to the performance or material because it may influence their overall opinion. Cynics are interested in comparing the performance or material to whatever template of perfection they have constructed, and are easily annoyed when others don't see it as they do.

5. Be democratic instead of dogmatic. Critics see the good with the bad, recognizing that one point of weakness doesn't necessarily invalidate the whole of the performance or material. Cynics are dogmatic, focusing in on any irrelevant imperfection in order to obscure any other merit and invalidate the whole.

You see the differences play out daily. Cynics dismiss good ideas based on nothing other than labels, whether party affiliation and family history or philosophical and ideological differences. Cynics employ diatribe to drown out differing ideas and opinions because other views are automatically invalid. Cynics work hard to make small things look big and big things look small, distorting the truth or initial intent. 

You can see it in politics, public activism, and corporate policy. The lines are usually specific and rigid. 

Critics, on the other hand, tend to be more amiable and lighthearted. And while that sometimes makes them easier to dismiss against the diatribe that surrounds them, they usually benefit over the long term — continually working toward a vision that is further ahead or attempting to pull people forward along with them.

All of it is something to think about, especially if you review the performance of others in a classroom or column, office or blog. Everything has value, and failing to recognize that usually comes with a cost far greater than any perceived price. Now go do the right thing.
 

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