Monday, July 30

Making Media Relations Better: A Rock Star Primer

Public relations has plenty of problems. They're always easy to find. They tend to get plenty of publicity.

The reason they do is relatively easy to understand. Nightmares make for better news than best practices. Almost all negative events meet the criteria for news because they have an impact or conflict, doubly so when someone of prominence is involved. But that's not to say best practices don't exist.

The best practices of public relations plod along unseen. 

Having worked as a journalist, editor, and publisher, I've seen best practices on a regular basis. And one of the reasons they are best practices is that they are uneventful. It makes everything super smooth and much more manageable.

As some people know, I also have a side project called Liquid [Hip], which puts me in touch with designers, musicians, authors, publishers, and other talented individuals on a regular basis. Enough so that some days it's hard to keep up with the emails. I might even neglect the inbox for days or a week.

When I do have time to dig into it, I'm exposed to people at every level and every role. Sometimes the contact comes from an artist. Sometimes it comes from the agent, publisher, or label. And sometimes it comes from a public relations firm. And, for the most part, public relations firms do a great job. 

What does the best public relations firm do that few others do? 

It's simple. They know who we are. They know what we want. And when they think they have a match, they send it along as an introduction. We probably receive around 100 inquiries every week.

1. Recognition. The best practice starts with first contact. The email and salutation is always addressed to me or a specific reviewer. For those who have worked with us before, it alludes to some connection we share or builds on a growing relationship.

2. Immediacy. Immediately following the salutation, the pitch is condensed into a couple of paragraphs or embedded in a well-written release. It introduces the artist, genre, and why the firm thought it was a good fit. Sometimes they admit it's a guess. Sometimes they ask what we think.

3. Efficiency. Given it's a review site, they always include an embed a clip or link to the work. We have to see it or hear it to consider it for review, especially because we only review things that have some shade of cool (which is a higher standard than what we like).

4. Content. If the sample passes our standards, we review everything before making a commitment. The best practices always include a link to a dedicated one-page EPK with backgrounder, album tracks, social links, videos, and photos. Everything we might need is right there, except lyric sheets.

5. Preparation. Almost any time we decide to review something outside of self-discovery, we prefer to include an interview, email or otherwise. There is a wait. They know the artist's availability, tell us up front, and manage the questions (which take more time to write than the review).

6. Patience. Once the questions are answered to our specifications (e.g., we don't accept "band" answers), there's no need for the firm to follow up. Most know that we'll either tell them when the story is slated as soon as we know or, in a worst case, send them a link once it is published.

7. Promotion. Most firms know we promote our own reviews across social networks where we've established a presence. But beyond that, reviews provide them an opportunity to promote the artist and gives the artist an opportunity to promote themselves. It keeps their social streams fresh, opens up conversation, and gives them an opportunity to engage us too. 

8. Detailed. The best practices also consider small details. For example, the best photo selections almost always include vertical and horizontal shots (staged, casual, and live). It's not only important for our purposes, but sometimes one interview set might be used to write for another publication with different specifications.

When the process is this smooth, it might not be news but it does make us more likely to consider the next submission. And for those who don't — including us on a blind pitch lists, sending everything but the kitchen sink, or having us send interview questions that are ignored — they slip by unnoticed next time. There is too much good material to cover than waste time. And, if we're on the fence, any past experience could tip the scale one way or the other.

I don't mean that in any spiteful way. It's as straightforward as math. We receive 300-400 inquiries a month. We have space for 20-plus reviews. Of those, 2-6 are picked from a pitch. Do it right.

Friday, July 27

Telling Lies: Ryan Holiday, PR, And Media Today

This isn't a book review, and I don't intend to write one. I have another book I'd rather review next week.

Even so, the topic surrounding Ryan Holiday as he promotes his new book is sending shivers across the public relations industry. Why? Because Holiday embraced what are known as the dark arts of publicity and is now being mislabeled as a public relations celebrity. He's a media manipulator.

In sum, he accomplished his objectives with lies. And now he intends to wear it all like a badge of honor, kind of like someone might take pride in a shiner after a bar fight they started. I beat you, he might smile. Other people might go to jail.

Anyway, some respected public relations professionals are rightly concerned. But they ought not be concerned with how this paints the industry. They ought to be concerned about what it could do to public relations.

The worst thing about Holiday's book is some people will treat it like permission. 

There are many companies who would like nothing better than having a propaganda agent on board. Who cares, they say, as long as it spreads. When the game is attention, they think it means gain. But really, it doesn't.

Part of Holiday's credentials include working on the first film with Tucker Max. The movie made $1.4 million and Tucker blamed the failure on the movie's marketing, despite all the pre-buzz controversy. How bad did it fail? It cost $7 million to make.

Another brand Holiday leverages is American Apparel, which also has a pretense for controversy. It is struggling to keep the doors open. The company lost $39.3 million last year; it lost $86.3 million in 2010.

It might not even matter that Holiday claims that being a media manipulator left him morally bankrupt. Some will skip over the lesson and get to work. And there may be reason to doubt that Holiday is done with the so-called skill set. His book could be easily construed as his latest game. The PR/blogging community is primed to stoke the flames and feed the beast.

Holiday's book as continuation after the confession and the joke's on you. 

As people in public relations and media continue to react, Holiday could be sitting back with a smile as he beats the same dead horse he wrote about. He laid out the foundation for controversy and everyone is lining up to ratchet it up and do all the leg work. They write about it. People buy it.

Isn't that ultimately what the book is about? The general idea is that more spin equals more attention and more attention means more money. This hypothesis has been around since the circus, even if the old adage that all publicity is good publicity is merely a hat trick. All publicity is good publicity, but only if you happen to be in a circus and nobody gets physically hurt (most of the time).

That said, Holiday isn't the first to sound the alarm on media manipulation and he won't be the last. He is the latest to be a bit cavalier about it, but that is a sign of the times. The real lesson here is that objective journalism is mostly dead and probably will be until we suffer a disaster for our lack of it.

That was pretty much the conclusion I had after reviewing Bob Conrad's book on the same topic. What a shame more PR pros didn't cover that one. Conrad's case studies hit harder and he didn't need to lie.

Suffice to say that sooner or later, people will have to realize on their own that the art of online influence is idiocy and the news you read isn't worth beans if it is driven by popular opinion.

As for Holiday, it is not my place to judge him. The only apparent tell in his actions is that he has done a fine job employing the apology clause tucked inside most pat crisis communication plans. But ultimately, he still proves himself a bit of a novice because he omits the critical component of restitution.

If he was sincere, he would donate all his book proceeds to fix it. I don't think that is going to happen.

Wednesday, July 25

Embracing Agism: The Next Gen Journal

If the only measurement in social media is buzz, then Cathryn Sloane got it right. Her post, entitled Why Every Social Media Manager Should Be Under 25, has been shared several thousand times over. The word count across the 490 comments outweighs her 550-word opinion two hundred fold.

Unfortunately, almost all of the reaction has been negative. Enough so that The Next Gen Journal, which published it, defended her while claiming she didn't represent its views. Conner Toohill went so far as to ferret out one person who said it was starting to look like adults cyber-bullying a kid.

You can't crush other people's cookies and expect to eat yours unbroken. 

While Toohill claimed many young people share Sloane's opinion, she didn't do the people she was supposedly speaking for any favors. Her article, not her age, was demonstrative of why some young adults aren't ready to lead in thought or action. And to be fair, many of the comments left by "older people" demonstrated they aren't ready either, despite some sporting titles that suggest they do.

I'm embarrassed for some of the commenters, especially those I know. Any reactionary comments that attempted to put her in her place because "in time, she'll know better" are as ridiculous as her article.

All it did was reinforce what those who identify with her expect: People who are supposed to be mentors aren't ready to listen. Someone needs to tell Sloane that age has nothing to do with it.

Maturity isn't defined by age and age doesn't dictate performance. 

Sloane wrote an immature piece, but not because of her age. It's immature because it emboldens the discrimination that she professes to fight, just in the opposite direction. It's immature because it conveys that she has confused her identity with that of her generation, something no social media manager can afford to do. And it's immature because it exemplifies what happens when someone picks up such an argument in such a way that even those who might somewhat agree cannot possibly defend it.

Where I might have defended the concept, for example, is that ageism is one of the last antiquated and discriminatory characterizations that people are still quick to embrace without consequence. But I cannot defend her because she never conveys empathy but expects it. Ageism is wrong in both directions.

I've been fortunate both in the field and in the classroom to know better. I've been influenced and inspired by people who are both younger and older than me at work. And I have found that the most talented writers to pass through my classes are neither hindered nor elevated by age or experience. They are only hindered by themselves and the labels they choose to embrace. Sloane is so hindered here.

Me? I ignore all labels. The best performances win. It's like the Olympics. Go for gold or go home.

The real crumbling point of the Sloane argument has nothing to do with age. 

If we can get past the age thing for a moment, Sloane alluded to the idea that people who have been immersed in social media at a younger age are somehow superior to those who embraced social media at an older age, despite having relatively the same amount of time on the platforms. It's not true.

It's not true for several reasons. It's not true because participating on a social network is different than working on or managing social networks. It's not true because the qualifications have less to do with the malleable platforms and more to do with understanding the social and psychological behavior of online groups. And it's not true because, as her article demonstrates, the people who populate networks are multigenerational with a propensity to take exception to those who are exclusive instead of inclusive.

Otherwise, there is one overlooked gem of an argument tucked inside her article. She more or less says that it doesn't feel fair when employers dismiss candidates based on education and experience alone. I understand the feeling because I didn't understand it when I graduated into the 1991 recession.

The no-holds-barred truth of it? They don't owe you anything. You have to earn it. 

There are four ways to earn it. You can develop a professional network while you are still attending college, planning ahead for the day you aren't earning grades but paychecks. You can get lucky and stumble into one of the very few employers who have an affinity for students and feel compelled to give them a break without abusing them. You can buck up and accept a position that is the lower rung on the ladder, whether it's an internship or entry level position, and make yourself indispensible. Or you can put up your own money by starting a company to prove your professional prowess.

I mostly belong to the latter group, which is the smallest. I'm not too proud to say that it wasn't by choice as much as necessity. It took me two years, but I leveled the playing field, erasing the perceived advantage any "older" professionals had over me. And 20 years later? You still have to earn it.

Other reactions and rebuttals (without any implied endorsement). 

Dear NextGen: A Rebuttal From The Social Media Old Folks by Mark Story

Over 25? You're Not Qualified For Social Media by Jim Kukral

In Response: Cathryn Sloane's Social Media Article by Chris Dessel

Monday, July 23

Writing Is A Process: Don't Treat It Like A Single Skill

With my half-day session, Editing and Proofreading Your Work, slated for this Saturday, July 28 at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, I've been giving considerable thought to the class and writing classes in general. We don't do enough.

I'm not the only one who thinks so. It was the topic of Jay Mathews' article in the The Washington Post.

Reading the comments didn't give me much faith. There were plenty of well-intended solutions, but most of them make an assumption. The assumption is that these students have the skill sets they need by the time they reach a particular instructor. Most students don't.

And I don't believe it's the students fault in every case, even if there are five things writing instructors cannot teach. So even for my part, I can raise most students two letter grades per assignment over ten weeks (especially if they take Editing and Proofreading Your Work first). It's not enough.

We treat writing like a discipline, but it requires multiple disciplines. 

The problem is that we treat writing like a single discipline. It isn't. It's more like six distinct and overlapping disciplines. But rather than build curriculum around those subjects, most writing instruction today is designed to circumvent some disciplines with replacements for rote memorization.

Research. As much as 40 percent of the time on any project needs to be dedicated to research, but few people are willing to put in the work (and many employers aren't willing to pay for it). According to the National Center for Education Statistics, most students spend three minutes on research.

But even if they took more time, I'm not sure they know how to do it. The illusion of information immediacy has made for lazy research. People invest more time in proving themselves right than they do looking for the truth. And this doesn't even consider how little some writers know about their readers.

Creativity. Even instructors who value research tend to overlook creativity as a separate discipline, assuming they define it correctly. It has nothing to do with the chosen words as much as it has to do with being able to foreshadow the final product.

Not only does it encompass organizational structure, but also how the material is best presented. It includes problem solving to bring in new ideas as well as how to present those that are sourced or attributed. Although it varies, about 50 percent of the students I've taught start with no sense of structure.

Writing. This is the real physical work of sitting down in front of the keys. Most instruction today places all of the emphasis on free writing, often following the cookie cutter semblance of an outline or rubric to get the job done. They are wrong.

The art of writing is all about inquiry and improvement. It's an opportunity to develop better ideas than the research collected, improve the impact of the prose, and discover area where stronger support and evidence is needed. It's also the place where the hook, whatever is being used to draw the reader into the piece, becomes developed and the flow of the piece is fleshed out in a draft.

Editing. Simply put, editing is what you do to the draft. You work through the entire document to make sure the communication is well organized, that the transitions between paragraphs are smooth, and that the evidence clearly backs the position.

It's also an opportunity to double-check the organization of the entire piece and decide whether or not the order, flow and feel of the work are right for the people who will read it, hear it, or see it. As I often tell students, the best writers are often the best rewriters. People who know it can always be better.

Proofreading. This is the final stage of the process and requires plenty of tricks, tips and tactics that each and every writer will eventually customize to suit their skills. It is the process of looking for surface errors, misspellings, bad grammar, and punctuation problems.

This used to be where education invested all of its time because it is the easiest to teach (although it takes time to cover all the rules and exceptions) and easiest to test against. But memorization has its shortcomings (especially if people remember incorrectly) so I tend to teach people how to look for what they don't know rather than recite the rules.

Publishing. The standard typewritten page and all its rules (margins, paragraph breaks, etc.) that once gave writers the freedom to press print and send is dead. How things look on the page or published screen can be just as important as the content.

Until you see it as close to the finished form, you really don't know how the prose will feel as a physical entity. As communication moves toward more visual and interactive environments, writers have to make provisions for the final product.

The tragedy of written communication today in all of its forms.

More than anything, people have to accept that writing is a lot like playing the Theremin, a musical instrument that is easy to play but difficult to master. There is an abundance of players, doubly so since social media is such a content hungry beast. There are few masters because the rewards are weak.

Still, that is hardly an excuse to cheapen the craft. Where writing differs from the Theremin is that it lands everywhere. Even when the presentation eventually lands on a screen or is spoken from a podium, someone has to write it down or rough it up somewhere. And that requires better curriculum.

Friday, July 20

Marketing Choices: Does The Customer Come First?

You can read any number of articles about it. Fast Company has three ways to put your customers first. KONE in the United Kingdom made it part of its mission. Goldman Sachs frequently said it too. Customers come first.

But do customers really come first? If you ask most companies, they are all on board. Nobody ever says they put their customers last. No one readily admits that customers are a necessary evil. Few people ever come straight and say that almost every business decision they make is all about sales and never about customers. Or maybe they do.

Ten Ways Companies Say Customers Come Last.

1. Rewriting return policies for products to include a restock fee.

2. Selling sales data to third-party marketers without oversight.

3. Employing aggressive telemarketing firms to sell.

4. Rewriting the terms of service to fit the needs of the company.

5. Delaying customers just to sell plus service with no benefit.

6. Creating hidden fees in order to advertise at a lower price.

7. Loading up websites with pop-ups and email capture forms.

8. Engaging in black hat SEO tactics to boost search engine relevancy.

9. Making promises on the front end and renegotiating on the back end.

10. Cutting staff or corners that directly improves profits while diminishing customer service.

Companies make decisions that put their customers last every day. So why do they insist on saying they put customers first? It's bad enough most companies don't care. It's worse when they lie about it daily.

If you really want to put your customers first, make sure every decision you make starts with putting the customer first. Otherwise, all you are really doing is lying to your customers on top of putting them last. And while that might work with a wink and a nod for awhile, one day they won't be your customers anymore.

Wednesday, July 18

Finding Creativity: The Path Of One, Some, And Many

Author Geoff Livingston published an interesting conversation starter yesterday. It weighs individual creativity against groupthink merit. He cites collaborative cultures repeal creativity as part of it.

His post struck a chord with me for two reasons. The most obvious reason: because I've invested the last 26 years of my career playing in the "one, some, many" field of communication despite being one of those quiet, introverted people he talks about. The least obvious reason: I'm struggling with the creative-collaborative dilemma on one of many projects I'm involved in right now. And it's a killer.

Before I share the dilemma, let's define the terms. What is "one, some, many" creativity anyway?

The Creativity Of One. 

This is the genesis that Livingston is talking about in his post. It's an individual who, regardless of what other people are doing, quietly and deliberately dreams something up. You know ones/individuals who do it too.

They are every creative person for whom history has preserved a place. Authors like Zora Neale Hurston, Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac. Photographers like W. Eugene Smith, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Diane Arbus. Artists like Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Musicians like John Lennon, Gustav Mahler, Poly Styrene. Business people like Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson.

Sure, some could argue that they weren't alone. Several of these creatives were inspired, influenced, or received input from other people too. So what? Individual creativity doesn't necessitate isolation from the world. It means you capture a unique perspective and are the master of how you present back.

Individual creativity is where I feel most at home, even if I rarely have time to explore it. It was how I wrote The Everyday Hound, produced Ten Rules Every Writer Needs To Know, and created The Last To Know (scroll down for the mention), an interactive literary piece for an art exhibition in 2000.

It's a very scary place to be until you learn to be fearless. Once you're done, people accept it or reject it. But even if they reject it, you have to remember that you are the only person who can validate it. Art doesn't need popularity to be art. It doesn't even need popularity to be "good" art. Art is art.

The Creativity Of Some. 

This is where I spend most of my time and it's a mixed bag. Mostly, creative people spend time when they cannot do (or don't have time to do) everything that needs to be done alone.

When we interview bands at Liquid [Hip], we often ask how they compose and collaborate. And while their answers are as varied as the music, most of them work just like people do in the commercial field. Somebody on the team comes in with a concept. Everyone else builds onto it, but anything that strays too far from the vision is abandoned.

When the work comes together brilliantly, it is one of the most rewarding experiences in the field. It's sometimes more rewarding than going solo because the enthusiasm for the outcome is shared. Teamwork rocks when you have the right marriage.

But that is the rub. The marriage isn't always one of your choosing. It's arranged. And as an arranged marriage, you don't always know who you will marry or how long it will last. The relationship could last a lifetime or it could be over in a few short and painful hours. It depends on the people and sometimes quantum physics. People carry a lot of baggage around, from apathy to egotism in any creative field.

All the while, someone else — whether it's a publisher or client or label — is busy taking notes and is ready to move in ideas. And that's when things become even more dicey; novices with big concepts.

The Creativity Of Many.

If you ever want to expedite the path toward groupthink, be successful without balls or be talentless with the need for a built-in excuse. While some of the most visible global social campaigns I've worked on were orchestrated on the creativity of many scale, the trumpet of togetherness hits many bad notes.

While Livingston is right, creativity needs circulation or else the artist will be missed, it doesn't mean the master is the masses. Classic works are often unpopular before they become timeless. And popular works are frequently elevated to their own eradication. Crowds are fickle beasts until they know better.

As much as many social networks and program developers have been waving around the "creativity of many" mantra as the new Kool-aid, I can't help but notice that the most successful social platforms listen the least. They have become so standard that people use them even when the networks abuse them.

Meanwhile, the graveyards of dead, buried, and long-forgotten networks that used to populate the net are attracting a steady stream of ghouls on their last breaths. The most common cause of these catastrophic illnesses is adding an abundance of crowd-sourced features someone could not live without.

It's not always the masses who do the deed either. By committee creativity is often an oxymoron when the marriage is made up of more than one partner or no definitive head of household. In a strategic setting, we might illustrate a big arrow pointing one direction with thousands of little arrows pulling in whatever direction suits them.

Trust me here. Great platforms are not crowd-sourced. They are either the work of one or the healthy marriage of a team much like a band. The audience might be invited to make requests, but the real talents know which songs not to cover. That kind of crowd participation only works in karaoke bars.

All Three Are Manageable, But Not Simultaneously.

It might seem like I'm down on the whole crowd-sourced creation thing, but that's not true. The secret is that whatever creativity path you've set out on has to have a purpose, with everyone in agreeance.

Then people have to be honest and to stick to it. You can tell who doesn't. Bands break up all the time, which has no reflection on their individual talents. Many go off to launch better solo careers or develop new relationships that elevate them to the next level. The same holds true in the commercial field.

My project dilemma is exactly that, it changes creative paths like Bartholomew Cubbins changed hats. The first three marriages were golden, but the fourth was rather rocky because the programmer was a solo artist despite saying the opposite. It tipped the entire job in an odd direction of crowd-sourcing.

And that's fine, I suppose, if you like pop karaoke with hard rock drums, and the manager taking country song requests from whatever audience happens to be in the room. It does make me wonder though. Where are the programmers who enjoy playing in a band (besides their own) without the new accountability crutch of crowd-sourcing? We need more Warhol and Basquiat collaborations.

Monday, July 16

Going Social: 2012 FedEx Ketchum Social Business Study

While some companies are still arguing about what constitutes a return on investment for social media, others are forging ahead with social business models. Never mind that there isn't a definitive definition.

What has been worked out, according to the 2012 FedEx Ketchum Social Business Study, are the elements that it will include. Everything else that a social business might be is a work in progress.

Key elements of a social business model from the study. 

• A non-linear flow of information between the organization and internal/external stakeholders.
• Input that drives the decision making, business processes, organizational structure, and innovation.
• The flexibility to listen and adapt to shifting marketplace opportunities in real time.
• Distribution of the ownership of social media tools across a broader set of internal stakeholders.

Simply put, a social business model aims to employ social media as it has been by a few companies even before social networks became prominent. The general idea is to move away from the notion that social media is merely marketing but rather an engaged dialogue that leads to transformative change in every area of operation. It presents one of the greatest opportunities and threats to business long term.

In essence, what people are calling the next wave of adoption is really what many people realized social media was meant to be. It's not merely about the amplification of what the company wants to tell people, but rather a vested interest in increasing the company's intelligence by removing silos and including the customer as an active participant as opposed to connecting with them exclusively at the point of purchase and when there are problems.

In theory, it sounds close to perfection. But there are some concerns. According to the study, companies are still concerned about employee privacy, content ownership, legal/compliance issues, and the inability to correct misinformation that appears on the web. Some of issues are more valid than others.

What are valid concerns? What are not? What's being missed?

• Employee Privacy. Social media has a tendency to both expose individuals (strangers want to "be friends" with the business contact) and tend to associate people with the company brand (even during off hours and even when they leave a company). It's a semi-valid concern because employees haven't adapted to the new environment. Mostly, people want to selectively be associated with their companies.

• Content Ownership. The general concern is that when employees generate a high level of interest and develop their own online networks, they tend to take those networks with them even though their association with the company had a hand in developing those connections. Although it's a risk, it's largely invalid because it's a risk that companies have faced long before social media. When people move, so does some intellectual property and so do some customers.

• Legal/Compliance. The legal/compliance issues are largely invalid, trumped up by some executives who never wanted to have the social media conversation. The reality is that as environments change so does the governance of legal/compliance issues. Many government agencies are even encouraging companies to communicate more, not less.

• Misinformation. While the Internet has some growing up to do in terms of understanding credibility, concerns over misinformation are largely invalid because it's not a new threat. If anything, more sources of information on places such as the net can better protect a company than the fewer sources that used to exist. More and more, people check four or more sources of information before making decisions. Ergo, they know misinformation might exist.

• Improper Vetting. This is the concern that ought to be on the radar, but generally isn't. Just because you increase the size of your input pool doesn't always mean you increase the size of its intelligence. Or, in other words, customers aren't always right and crowd-sourcing runs an equal chance of becoming done by committee. In fact, crowd-sourcing may have killed touch screens on the front end. Thank goodness companies didn't listen until people had the opportunity to change their minds.

• Shutter Clearance. Sometimes companies really don't want everything on the table. It's not for any malicious reason as some people like to argue. Judgements made on half-baked ideas don't necessarily make for better products. For example, I can't imagine what someone might have thought watching me write a first draft. Sometimes we all need some breathing room to think and fully realize something. At the organizational level, this might translate into fewer not more people having a big picture view.

The 2012 FedEx Ketchum Social Business Study is worth a look. 

All in all, the 2012 FedEx Ketchum Social Business Study makes for an excellent primer. The highlights I mentioned above only scratch of the surface of the content that can be mined there.

Sure, I think the buzz term "social business" is trumped up as if these things never existed (being a "social business" is what convinced Corning to make specialty glass for iPhones), but what might be different is that some of it is more likely to play out in public. That said, no matter what you think you know or feel about social business models, it's in your best interest to pay attention to what is being produced, created, and innovated as a result. This study, specifically, makes an excellent primer.

Friday, July 13

Keeping Secrets: Penn State Officials Feared Publicity

As the story was breaking last year, I joined a handful of public relations professionals who pointed out that the Penn State scandal was not a public relations case study. The remedy was early ethics.

What has become more clear, however, is that public relations is easily brought into the discussion because of its influence over behavior. A fear of bad publicity prompted the Penn State coverup.

In doing so, Joe Paterno and top Penn State officials hushed up child sex abuse allegations against Jerry Sandusky, allowing the former assistant football coach to prey on other youngsters for another decade, according to a scathing report issued Thursday on the scandal. They wanted to protect Penn State.

Public relations is not the art of spin, secrets, or cover-ups. 

While some practitioners think public relations can do those things (those who mistake public relations for propaganda), the ethical practice is obliged to do the opposite. It seeks the truth and then communicates any findings in a responsible, forthright, and empathetic way fosters understanding (why it happened) and addresses mitigation (what will happen now). That is all that can be done.

Some people call it common sense. But sometimes professionals, executives, and officials seem to be in short supply of common sense. If it was in abundance, they would appreciate that proper public relations seeks a mutually beneficial relationship between organizations and their publics, even when the organization or individuals in the organization have violated trust.

Ergo, truth rectifies or otherwise minimizes maleficence. More malfeasance only exacerbates it, even if it postpones the inevitable. All the while, victims and future victims suffer for it in silence. And all the while, more and more people are directly and indirectly harmed as the lie spreads like a virus.

Proper public relations is different. Rather than sweep organizational shame under the rug, it brings the truth to light. Sure, there will be consequences. Over the long term, any organization that is able to uncover a problem, isolate its cause, and establish preventative measures to ensure it will not happen again, will minimize the damage and (sometimes) earn the trust and respect of those involved.

The analogy might be trivial, but the error in judgement is not.

You know you are an idiot public relations practitioner (in title or practice) when you could have learned this lesson watching a single episode of The Brady Bunch. And one of them fits here.

In the episode called "Goodbye, Alice, Hello," Peter and Greg were playing Frisbee in the house. Like many children have learned over the years, something always gets broken eventually. In this case, an antique lamp. Greg and Peter vow to fix the lamp and ask Alice to keep their secret.

Alice eventually has to break her vow because she refuses to lie to her boss, Carol, and the kids learn that cover-ups carry additional costs. Although they later chastise Alice for being "a snitch" and she quits, even that turns out to be problematic. People who become part of an extended family are not so easily replaced and Alice becomes the hero of the episode.

The officials who covered up the Penn State scandal could have been heroes too. But they must have missed this particular episode. And everything they thought they gained during the cover-up is now diminished or lost outright. You can read the Penn State response here. But more importantly, try to remember that public relations, much like human decency, begins and ends with truth and trust, not cover-ups.

Wednesday, July 11

Teaching Applied: What We Knew In 1895

A friend of mine recently shared some exam questions, reportedly used as a final exam in Salina, Kansas, circa 1895. The purpose of sharing the exam is meant to surprise people at how much more difficult an eighth grade education was in 1895 compared to, perhaps, a high school education today.

Two things struck me in reading over the exam. The first was that I wasn't taught all of it in school. The second was that the teachers in 1895 were doing something that not all schools do today.

While there is a certain amount of rote memorization, many of the questions suggest the instruction was tied to the real world. Right. The students weren't only being taught material in preparation for the next class but also how they might use the instruction in their lives if there wasn't going to be a next class.

The Questions From An Eighth Grade Final Exam: Salina, Kansas (1895)

Grammar (Time, one hour) 
1. Give nine rules for the use of capital letters.
2. Name the parts of speech and define those that have no modifications.
3. Define verse, stanza and paragraph.
4. What are the principal parts of a verb? Give principal parts of 'lie,''play,' and 'run.'
5. Define case; illustrate each case.
6 What is punctuation? Give rules for principal marks of punctuation.
7 - 10. Write a composition of about 150 words and show therein that you understand the practical use of the rules of grammar.

Arithmetic (Time,1 hour 15 minutes) 
1. Name and define the Fundamental Rules of Arithmetic.
2. A wagon box is 2 ft. deep, 10 feet long, and 3 ft. wide. How many bushels of wheat will it hold?
3. If a load of wheat weighs 3,942 lbs., what is it worth at 50cts/bushel, deducting 1,050 lbs. for tare?
4. District No 33 has a valuation of $35,000. What is the necessary levy to carry on a school seven months at $50 per month, and have $104 for incidentals?
5. Find the cost of 6,720 lbs. coal at $6.00 per ton.
6. Find the interest of $512.60 for 8 months and 18 days at 7 percent.
7. What is the cost of 40 boards 12 inches wide and 16 ft. long at $20 per metro?
8. Find the bank discount on $300 for 90 days (no grace) at 10 percent.
9. What is the cost of a square farm at $15 per acre, the distance of which is 640 rods?
10. Write a bank check, a promissory note, and a receipt.

U.S. History (Time, 45 minutes) 
1. Give the epochs into which U.S. history is divided.
2. Give an account of the discovery of America by Columbus.
3. Relate the causes and results of the Revolutionary War.
4. Show the territorial growth of the United States.
5. Tell what you can of the history of Kansas.
6. Describe three of the most prominent battles of the Rebellion.
7. Who were the following: Morse, Whitney, Fulton , Bell , Lincoln , Penn, and Howe?
8. Name events connected with the following dates: 1607, 1620, 1800, 1849, 1865.

Orthography (Time, one hour) 
1. What is meant by the following: alphabet, phonetic, orthography, etymology, syllabication?
2. What are elementary sounds? How classified?
3. What are the following, and give examples of each: trigraph, subvocals, diphthong, cognate letters, linguals.
4. Give four substitutes for รป.
5. Give two rules for spelling words with final 'e.' Name two exceptions under each rule.
6. Give two uses of silent letters in spelling. Illustrate each.
7. Define the following prefixes and use in connection with a word: bi, dis-mis, pre, semi, post, non, inter, mono, sup.
8. Mark diacritically and divide into syllables the following, and name the sign that indicates the sound: card, ball, mercy, sir, odd, cell, rise, blood, fare, last.
9. Use the following correctly in sentences: cite, site, sight, fane, fain, feign, vane , vain, vein, raze, raise, rays.
10. Write 10 words frequently mispronounced and indicate pronunciation by use of diacritical marks and by syllabication.

Geography (Time, one hour) 
1. What is climate? Upon what does climate depend?
2. How do you account for the extremes of climate in Kansas ?
3. Of what use are rivers? Of what use is the ocean?
4. Describe the mountains of North America.
5. Name and describe the following: Monrovia, Odessa, Denver, Manitoba, Hecla, Yukon, St. Helena, Juan Fernandez, Aspinwall and Orinoco.
6. Name and locate the principal trade centers of the U.S.
7. Name all the republics of Europe and give the capital of each.
8. Why is the Atlantic Coast colder than the Pacific in the same latitude?
9. Describe the process by which the water of the ocean returns to the sources of rivers.
10. Describe the movements of the earth. Give the inclination of the earth.

The Difference Between Educational Success Is Set By Expectation.  

There was something else that struck me about these questions. My son just graduated from the seventh grade but he wasn't expected to know most of it or any modern equivalent. There were only two possibilities why he wasn't expected to learn it, we surmised.

The first assumption was that it's just not considered important anymore because new material has supplanted the need. The second was that this instruction would come later in his education, which made wonder. There are dozens of people who want to delay education for one reason or another.

While I understand the reasoning, delayed education is one of the key ingredients that has caused many educational structures to underperform in the United States. Instead of fearing a child might be "left behind," we might be better off instilling a cultural model where no child is "held back."

And no, I don't mean pass students who are not ready. What I mean is that we ought to expect all children can excel by setting a higher standard and never holding back any child who is ready to excel. Ergo, if we want to create an environment where children can learn at their own pace, then there is no reason to hold back those who are ready to excel. And those who need extra help can always find it.

As the 1895 test might illustrate, it's not about the grade level. It's about what you learn and apply.

Monday, July 9

Marketing Affiliates: Are They Worth The Time?

Rakuten LinkShare released the results of its June 2012 Forrester Consulting study. The study was commissioned to determine the direct and indirect value of affiliate marketing, but its importance reveals compelling data for social media and online advertising as well.

Specially, the report demonstrates why social media and similar marketing efforts cannot be measured like direct response, with definitive paths to product purchases. This is especially interesting because affiliate marketing pays publishers based on direct clicks to the point of purchase.

Key findings about affiliate marketing from Forrester.

• Affiliate marketing spending is on the rise and will keep pace with digital marketing through 2016. Total marketing spending will increase from about $2.5 billion to $4.5 billion in four years.

• Affiliate making channels produce more new-to-file customers and generates incremental customer acquisition. Some brands report 50 percent of the traffic received by affiliate marketers are new buyers.

• Affiliate marketing channels attract consumers that spend more than the average online shopper. The difference is approximately $500 more per year, with average shoppers spending about $1,300 per year. 

• Affiliate marketing channels trigger brand recognition and can close the sale for online shoppers. Online shoppers typically visit four sites before making a purchasing decision. 

• Affiliate promotions have a positive impact on an advertiser's brand reputation and loyalty. Almost half of all consumers report a positive feeling when they see special offers on multi-brand sites and blogs.

"The study reflects how the affiliate marketing industry is strongly aligned with today's value-driven, always connected consumer who typically visits multiple sites before making a purchase," said Scott Allan, senior vice president of global marketing, Rakuten LinkShare. "As interactive marketing budgets grow and evolve, affiliate marketing will continue to be a key, measurable tactic for brands and retailers to attract and acquire new customers."

Considering the crossover as it relates to social media. 

• Investments in digital advertising, online marketing, and social media are continuing to rise whereas other mediums have flattened or demonstrated a loss in the last ten years.

• Third-party introductions and endorsements have become increasingly important to prospects before they consider new products and services as opposed to direct path purchases. 

• Shoppers may visit multiple sources to learn about products and services, even when they already have a connection to the brand, which makes outreach as important as direct communication. 

• Shoppers who visit more than one source for promotions, coupons, and reviews online are much more likely to make a purchase and spend more than people who are dedicated to a channel. 

• While some people question third-party endorsements and agendas, the majority of consumers are unconcerned because they are visiting more than one source of information.  

One of the more interesting aspects of the study is that consumers have a general presumption that brands will offer better deals on multi-brand sites and blogs than they will on their own sites. The study also hints at the influence of review sites frequently visited by consumers. They are nearly four times more likely than average buyers to try a new brand after seeing and receiving a new offer.

The study has been made available online. If you would like to read the study, find it here. The download does require several content fields, including an email address and phone number. 

Friday, July 6

Branding Online: Do We Need People To Act?

Anytime I read an article with a steep promise it never delivers — How To Be Unforgettable Online — it makes me wonder. Do we want to make every interaction emotional? Is that really the end goal?

The premise isn't new. Advertisers have long maintained that consumers act on emotion more than logic. When the ideology is confined to advertising, it makes sense. An advertisement either generates an impression about a brand or makes the case for a specific call to action.

After repetition (assuming it reaches a viable prospect), the general idea is that you will eventually adopt some notion about the brand (doubly quick if others say the same thing) and test the presumption with a purchase. The point of purchase is also the moment that the brand will sink or swim.

So when I read the article that conveyed branding works much the same way, it made me wonder.

Can branding be boiled down into a series of emotional responses too?

If it can be boiled down in that way, then I think the relationship must be shockingly shallow. In fact, you might equate it to some of those acquaintances you follow on Facebook or Twitter or even offline.

You know the folks — the people you really don't know but are connected with them for any number of reasons. Maybe you met them in a conversation. Maybe you accepted a friend request because of their relation to someone you know. Maybe you thought they were a possible prospect. Maybe you liked their profile or something they did that someone shared. Whatever. They're trial connections.

Does that connection have anything to do with branding? Not really. The brand relationship between you and the connection will likely occur in the days and weeks that follow. It will not be based on your emotional reaction to each interaction, but their overall ability to prove there could be a relationship.

If they don't, you'll likely server the connection in time, doubly fast if they spam you, have polarizing opinions, or don't offer any particular value. It doesn't hurt to do it. There are no tears. You move on.

But now think of the people you do know. Maybe they are family or long-time friends. And maybe they don't always live up to your expectations either: soliciting an argument, sharing something inappropriate, or even spamming you with all sorts of nonsense that you never expected.

Even so, it might not be as easy to sever the ties. Why? Because unlike the other folks who solicited an action from you, you have a relationship with them that transcends any action. The sum of that relationship generally trumps the emotion they might generate with any statement or share.

Brands need to stop thinking short term and start thinking long term. 

Did you ever visit the Aol front page? Most of its news stories are teased in a way to generate an emotional response and action much like the authors of How To Be Unforgettable Online subscribe.

The one-line quips promise you something important, shocking, surprising, unbelievable, dangerous, and fantastic. Spend some time there and you will eventually find one article that will tug at you to click the link. When you do, there is an 80 percent chance that the tease doesn't match the draw.

So the question becomes ... how many times will you click those links for less than was promised?

If you are like most people, you will dump the page for a better source of news. And therein lies the takeaway. Branding is much more than generating high exposure and an emotional tug to get people to act. It's about developing a relationship strong enough to survive the hiccups, bumps, and other stuff that happens along the way. It's not all that different than a real relationship. Don't get dumped.

Wednesday, July 4

Hanging Shingles: Public Relations As A Practice

You can define it, but it doesn't mean you can regulate the practice. That is what the public relations industry is learning the hard way. The industry doubts its credibility, but the problem is credulity.

Anybody can start a public relations firm tomorrow. There is no license. There is no mandatory accreditation. There is no oversight. In my city, some politicians have adopted the title in the past (a few who later served jail time) in order to make it all the more murky on why exactly someone paid them consultation fees. And when bad things like that happen, most will quickly turn a blind eye.

In fact, even when firms attempt to police their own, other public relations vets will fret that negative public relations stories hurt the industry as a whole. They say the bad apples don't change, but everyone remembers the industry stories. And then beyond that, there are some bad apples that the industry exempts because of their size, contracts, or connections.

The public relations industry is at the heart of its own calamities. 

The root of the problem is simple. The practice calls for generalists, but fills itself with specialists.

Right. In attempting to own media relations, social media, strategic communication, publicity campaigns (an offshoot of advertising), event planing, and so on, the industry has forced itself to gobble up tactical work instead of promoting more strategic tenets.

Never mind that it is easy to tell who is who. It's all the objectives they set. Ergo, how many column inches or blog posts that a company earns in a month is a publicity measure. What is the public perception of the company in relation to its competition among specific publics, on the other hand, is strategic.

Recognize the difference? One might impact sales like direct marketing (maybe). The other acts as a bolster or booster for anything else done. It's also significantly harder to measure, which is a thorn in the side of specialists who act like generalists in order to grab up more of the monthly marketing budget.

No wonder so many firms are focused on pushing stories. It's tactical. It's immediate. It's sort of measurable, even if most measures seldom consider the path to fulfillment. And since social media is frequently treated the same way, many will say it fits right in with likes, comments, and whatnots.

How public relations could heal itself if it were up to the challenge. 

I'm not very big on the idea of government intervention or regulation or degrees or mandatory accreditations. Those have to remain elective. Besides, government involvement would brush up against the First Amendment in the United States and comparable government contracts elsewhere.

So that means it is up to the industry, which must go beyond whatever short and punchy definition it is peddling. It has to outline precisely how any adopted definition applies to the practice. And then it has to have a majority of firms agree to it all.

If that can be done, and I doubt it can, it has to pressure all those who don't adopt the practice to stop stealing the public relations moniker and start embracing the endless number of specializations like social media, publicity, media relations, guru, etc.

If they don't on their own, then the remedy is publicity designed to shake off the pretenders. There is no other way around it. The industry has to out the bad and elevate the good (even if good examples of public relations are often invisible).

And for those who fear too many posts, articles, and finger points might damage the industry? They miss the point. After all, call outs ought not be public relations, but rather those firms that aren't in public relations. Get it? It's not about good public relations vs. bad public relations. It's about public relations vs. something other than public relations, including bad behavior or ignorance.

It would have to happen. Somebody would need to tell those firms (and maybe their clients) that while they might think what they do is public relations, what they really do is practice media relations and publicity or irresponsible and criminal behavior (however the shoe may fit).

Do you think that will ever happen? Probably not in my lifetime or yours, if ever. Public relations doesn't want it. There isn't even enough rope; but I do think we're due for more enlightenment.

Monday, July 2

Getting Twitter: Now What?

There are hundreds of articles that describe how to use Twitter right and thousands that tell people how to do it wrong. One of the newest ways from Buddy Media, statistically, is both right and wrong.

It's right if your company fits the paradigm. It's wrong if your company doesn't. Most companies don't.

That doesn't mean that new study, which tracked 320 top Twitter handles for two months, isn't worthwhile. It can be, but not in the way most people think. It can help you ask better questions.

Reading the takeaways from the Buddy Media study.

• Tweet on the days heaviest for your industry.
• Use Twitter between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m., Facebook between 8 p.m. and 7 a.m.
• Tweet four times per day or less; traction tends to drop off with more tweets.
• Type less than 100 character per Tweet, making it more likely to be shared.
• Links and photos tend to receive more Tweets than straight connect.
• Include hashtags, but never more than two hashtags at a time.
• Use "Retweet" or "RT" as a prompt for retweets. Spell out retweet for increased retweets. 

Asking the right takeaways from the Buddy Media study. 

• Do you know when your followers are online? 
• Do you know what social networks they use?
• What is the optimal number of tweets for you? What are the exceptions (e.g., chat sessions)?
• Are you leaving enough room for people to share your tweets with a comment?
• Are your links to high value content or are they all promotional in nature? What about pictures?
• Are your hashtags well thought out? Did you remember to drop them during one-on-one chats?
• Have you prioritized comments you hope are retweeted? Each degree means something different.

There are hundreds more questions to consider, one in particular. 

What are you trying to do on Twitter? Most small business people usually have one or two answers. They want followers (but don't know why). They want more "awareness" about their brand (but don't know who). 

Most of the time, they want these things because it looks good to gather followers, retweets, etc. But that isn't enough, not really. Every aspect of social media is an opportunity to forward your company's mission or another objective revolving around the mission of your company.

More than anything else, that is what the best brands do online. Southwest Airlines tries to be friendly. Nike tries to tie everything outdoors to your feet. Coca-Cola tries to spread connectivity and happiness. Wal-Mart likes to talk about sales. Ford likes to promote automative technology as an industry leader.

As long as your brand is working toward its mission on social networks, with a healthy respect about adding value, the rest will almost take care of itself. But once you start seeing some traction with your campaign, you can start to refine it — picking the time of day or days when it seems to work its best.

Eventually, unless your mission is out of whack with your message, people will follow, share, engage, and (yes) possibly buy things from you too. Just don't put those things first. People can see through it.
 

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