Friday, August 31

Being Duped: From Political Outrage To Social Spoof

When my cousin shared the newest outrage from Senate challenger and Congressman Todd Akin earlier this week, I had to look twice. The Daily Currant ran a satirical news story with the headline Todd Akin Claims Breast Milk Cures Homosexuality. But the real story had nothing to do with Congressman Akin.

The real story has to do with how most people didn't look twice. People who already felt disgruntled by the politician's extreme pro life position were outraged and responded. Some ''quasi" media outlets even republished the entire story as if it was fact, forgetting that the site is satirical.

The corrections are starting to mount up — Rockford Register Star and The Celebrity Cafe among them. Others were so embarrassed that they have deleted the posts, leading search engines to empty pages. A few, for whatever reason, have let it stand as fact. And Twitter, no surprise, took the lead in spreading the satire as real news, followed by forums on the opposite extreme of ideology.

News spreads fast on the Internet. Faux news spreads even faster.

While it's no surprise that the original outrage left people susceptible to believe anything, it also reinforces how social media is a mixed blessing. Few people check sources before sharing, especially when the story affirms what they want to believe. Not everything on the net is grounded in truth.

The story that was buried in the wake of the satire might be more of a surprise. Rep. Akin is leading in some polls and the race itself is still tightly contested across most polls. The reasons are simple. His opponent is weak and the majority of Missourians are ready to forgive the misstatement in order to see her go.

The fact that he is still very much a viable candidate demonstrates something else about social media. While numbers and news stories, back links, and opinions across the whole of the Web matter, they are not always aligned with the realities of a geographical region. Missouri knows the 6-year story better.

Of course, that has nothing to do with my opinion of what Rep. Todd Akin had said. There is a better sense of that in my original piece. I thought it was a travesty, but maybe not the campaign killer that many people expected it would be. His rebound suggests the Missouri race is very much up for grabs.

Wednesday, August 29

Branding Threads: How People Connect To Brands

Author Geoff Livingston wrote a great thought piece on brand relationships that might make you think. He said customers don't care about our online brand conversations. And mostly, he is right.

Why should they? Most brand conversations are being developed for the brand, not the customer. Many brand conversations, including offline word of mouth, don't happen with the brand as a participant anyway. And brand trust needs considerable reinforcement from peers to be believed. 

His point isn't to dismiss online engagement, conversation, and activity outright. It's merely a means to remind brand managers and marketers that short-sighted social media without integration won't do much to enhance the brand relationship outside of a few online loyalists, assuming the brand has any.

What struck me as especially savvy about his piece was how much more thought needs to go into how businesses approach social media (especially if a company keeps its social media efforts isolated from the broader spectrum of marketing, advertising, and public relations). It made me wonder who really owns the customer relationship? It's not always the brand. 

How branding threads are created and who owns the relationship. 

I have an appointment this week with my dentist. About a month ago, the practice called me to reschedule my appointment because my hygienist no longer works there. I was surprised to learn it. 

I was surprised because this hygienist and I had formed a relationship. We were partners on a project; the project is my teeth and gums. But this week, she won't be the person working on the project.

Of course, this relationship didn't always exist. When I first chose this practice, I did it because I wanted the best practice available to replace a practice that had broken its brand promise (and our relationship) after 20 years.

The decision to try the new practice was made based on its communication (which is how I found them) and reputation (online and offline recommendations, reviews, and news). All of it constituted a brand promise, even statements or opinions that might not have been their own.

The practice has exceeded the brand promise over the years, including one surgery. I trust the doctor implicitly. So why is there some trepidation about the upcoming visit? Easy.

My routine visits were scheduled on Fridays and the doctor didn't work on Fridays, the brand relationship was left to migrate from the practice (and doctor) to my most engaged point of contact — the hygienist. She earned it. 

None of it was intentional. Like many good employees, she created multiple threads to strengthen the connection whereas the practice (like most brands) maintained a singular connection (the ability to deliver on its brand promise). After three years, she knew me and I knew her. Beyond a casual interest in our respective families, the real deal was that she understood my project goals and could meet them.

There are finite possibilities to strengthen a one-thread connection. 

The point is simple enough, much like I commented on Livingston's original piece. There are finite brand possibilities associated with transaction-based connections. If you want to strengthen a relationship between a customer and a brand, then more threads need to be established beyond the transaction. 

If you don't, then the relationship could become diluted or migrate as more weight is given to other relationships — like a hygienist or perhaps other customers or maybe a news report and public outcry. Sure, those things could jeopardize the strongest brand relationship too, but maybe not to the same extent if the brand relationship is reinforced from multiple communication streams and third parties.

In other words, engagement can work but that assumes it is the right kind of engagement. If it only consists of a direct response message, then the relationship isn't strengthened. And, like many online connections are made and reinforced, those relationships can migrate to the individual making them if there is no other point of contact. Interesting stuff, these fragile brands.

Monday, August 27

Dropping Confidence: Marketers Need To Adjust Expectations

One recent survey by an online coupon site doesn't see the holidays shaping up to be as strong as last year. In researching shopping attitudes and behaviors, its results revealed more than 7 in 10 consumers (71 percent) have a dismal view of the economy. One in four are worried about being able to make all the necessary purchases. Only three percent felt the economy was in "good shape."

The survey from RetailMeNot.com coincides with deeper studies, including one published by Bloomberg. The latest decline marks the longest series of declines since 2008. Part of the problem is that gasoline and grocery prices have risen, but there is no real job growth.

The first study mentioned was designed to look at how consumers plan to shop for the remainder of the year. And RetailMeNot concluded that the lackluster economy has helped to create a demand for discount shopping (namely coupons). We have another tip for marketers following study highlights.

Highlights from the RetailMeNot consumer sentiment study. 

• Women (46 percent) are more likely than men (31 percent) to start shopping earlier than November.
• Most (23 percent) will start shopping in early November; Some (12 percent) on Black Friday/Cyber Monday.
• An increasing amount of people (15 percent) plan to wait until after Cyber Monday to begin shopping.
• 54 percent of respondents will finish between Black Friday and their gift-giving holiday.
• 31 percent said that they will be done with their holiday shopping by the end of Cyber Monday.
• Women (58 percent) are more likely than men (50 percent) to finish shopping after Cyber Monday.
• Nearly a third of respondents (31 percent) intend to do their holiday shopping online.
• More than 70 percent of consumers (71 percent) think the economy is in "bad" or "terrible" shape.
• A quarter (25 percent) believe the economy is "okay;" fewer than 1 in 20 think that it is "good" (3 percent).

One of the most compelling statistics is that 4 in 10 respondents (40 percent) say that they should be able to get most of what they want, but cannot afford it all. Only about a third of respondents (36 percent) are not worried about being able to buy all the things they need in the coming months. Nearly 1 in 4 feel it will be difficult to purchase things they need over the next several months, let alone what they want.

Marketers might have to try something new if sentiment doesn't shift. 

What is most concerning about consumer confidence is that what was once called the "new normal" is beginning to erode into a self-fulfilling acceptance that things might get worse. There is little faith that the existing administration can do anything.

Marketers might be able to help consumers (and themselves) three-fold. Market first (people will be making shopping decisions earlier), market online (people are making decisions online even if they are planning to shop offline), and market fair (offer discounts that might help stretch the budget). All three might seem like common sense, which is why there are two more worth consideration.

Marketers could make a lasting impression by making purchases more experienced based. Shopping for experiences is one of the few types of purchases that hasn't slowed down (e.g., travel is up). The reason is pretty simple. People are looking for distractions that give them a chance to breathe.

Second, although this might sound like contrarian advice, is to ease up on push and plus marketing. If there has ever been a time to help consumers find exactly what they need as opposed to padding sales, this might be it. The trade off is an exchange of short-term gain for long-term loyalty.

When consumers are in a slump, customer satisfaction becomes too important in establishing long-term relationships. Given how many marketers claim they want long-term relationships online, it only makes sense that they adjust their objectives accordingly. Too much urgency or attempting to plus sell the transaction could pressure consumers into making an unexpected decision — buy nothing at all.

Friday, August 24

Being Quotable: Akin To Politics

"The interesting thing here is that this is an individual who sits on the House Committee on Science and Technology but somehow missed science class." — President Obama 

That is the most recent quotable from President Obama, shared during a fundraiser in New York City. Expect more of them. The President and his campaign team believe that running against select members of the Republican Party is easier than their opponents. It also distracts from real issues.

The outrageous quote from Senate challenger and Congressman Todd Akin won't last as long as the President would like. It's flash in the pan, especially since most members of the GOP (along with the Romney/Ryan campaign) readily denounced it and asked Akin to step aside. After Akin apologized, he says he won't step down despite his high profile quote being published everywhere.

“If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down,” Rep. Akin said.

With one poorly thought-out quote (and questionable science sourcing), Akin proved that proverbial campaign killing silver bullets may exist, provided they are self-inflicted. Rasmussen noted he dropped in the polls to 38-48 percent of the vote, down from leading 47-44 percent. The reversal is so strong that even his opponent, Claire McCaskill, has said that the Republican leadership should leave him alone and let him run. She sees a win ahead. She's not alone.

As Rasmussen pointed out: most Missouri Republicans want Akin to quit the race while most Missouri Democrats want him to stay. Without any doubt, Akin is still hurting himself while continuing his apology tour too. He might be apologizing without proper explanation, but it's for the wrong thing.

Breaking down the Akin blunder from a communication perspective. 

People really focused in on the word "legitimate" as the catalyst for the crunch. It's also the word Akin has taken to in framing an apology. There is no such thing as a "legitimate" rape, he has said.

But the real problem with his statements was something else (beyond demonstrating an almost unforgivable lack of empathy). It's this idea that women can prevent themselves from becoming pregnant. It was such an odd statement that I had to look it up.

The Los Angeles Times believes it comes from a book published in 1971. Mostly, it notes that the trauma associated with rape makes pregnancy less likely. There are other unrelated fertility studies that can be misused to bolster the concept beyond trauma. But none of it is as conscious as one could infer from Akin's quote. Likewise, even if people assume the occurrence is rape, then exceptions still exist.

The reality is that while the GOP party is seen as largely pro life, the majority of its members fall somewhere along a very broad spectrum (much like Democrats do along pro choice) of what that means. So there is no question Akin bungled it. After all, abortion is a hard enough topic to address without picking up on the even harder and more extreme issues that revolve around it.

Akin would have been better off considering former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's position, a carefully weighed opinion that separates his personal belief from what is politically manageable. Akin makes it unmanageable because before you start addressing exceptions, you have to reach an agreement on more basic principles, e.g., when does life begin. Until that question is answered in the political conscience of the U.S., it's nearly impossible to discuss fringe issues.

In a nutshell, the Akin's personal position is that life begins at conception and therefore, any new life ought to be protected regardless of circumstance. That is what he meant. It's an extreme pro life position, because it also extends the psychological and physical damage (which is horrendous enough) from a single event to a minimum 9-month ordeal.

I get that he brought it up because he wanted to paint himself as someone who doesn't run from his convictions. But he omits another fact. It's unlikely, if not impossible, to think one congressman or future senator could readily enforce such a belief. Even if he could muster enough bipartisan support to make this into a law, it would still face legal challenges from laws like Roe v. Wade.

The dilemma of dangerous issues. 

Having previously worked in politics, I know discussing pro life/pro choice issues is difficult for candidates. It forces them to take a position, even though most people haven't made up their minds across every nuance. Why would they? Most people cannot muster an authentic soul-searching response until they face the choice.

In some of the less usual circumstances that surround abortion, none of us really knows what we would do or could do. On this issue, many people also experience an opinion shift as they are confronted by those experiences. Yet, there are many voters who demand an answer (with some being single issue on this point) despite the fact it is a personal issue and always subject to change.

The law on the other hand is less subject to change. Most proposed laws are pinned to funding and time. Generally, the debate around funding is a question of whether it is fair to use taxpayer money to fund projects they are morally opposed to or whether limiting any such funds unfairly limits choice to those who cannot afford to make such a choice on their own.

All of this is important to consider before making any communication observations, especially because it underpins what Akin says he wants to do but never did. He said he wanted to have adult discussion.

Should Akin drop out of the race? It depends on who you are.

At the end of the day, Akin bungled it more than he realizes. He chose a topic that requires empathy and demonstrated none of it because empathy isn't exclusive to one party but all parties.

Does that mean he should step aside? Given the race is under 90 days away, there is time for him to recover even without party support (short of his party organizing a write-in candidate that might split the ticket). His electability is up to the people of Missouri and their priorities. Someone on the outside can only guess whether his personal position and careless comment outweighs whatever else he is running on.

If he wanted to pursue a long-shot recovery, it seems to me that he would need to demonstrate he learned something about being human (beyond semantics), demonstrate he can have adult conversations about abortion (arguing a fringe position is not a discussion), look into the science that made his argument sound so ignorant (unless it's a conscious choice, it doesn't count), and learn how to address the issue and then shift away from it toward issues that are important to the people of Missouri (which he hasn't really done) so it's not all about him.

That and, even if he has lost the support of his party, he ought not whine about it. He needs to accept their rebuke and find his funding elsewhere. Like it or not, some people share his views.

Naturally, his party would be better off without him for the short term and maybe the long term as Akin will likely remain the poster child for ... what? Politicians who confuse 'having values' with 'wanting to legislate values.' Sigh. Maybe we'll learn that no one can really legislate 'values' in either direction one day. I somehow doubt it.

At the same time, it seems that some Democrats are relishing what Akin said too much. It may or may not be a campaign killer for him, but it's still a pretty thin case to act like he's a rule and not an exception. If they keep pursuing the easy potshots, it only solidifies their overemphasis on vilification.

Wednesday, August 22

Being Steve Jobs: Where The Open Forum Got It Wrong

Barry Moltz is a pretty smart guy. But he really blew it when writing up why business owners don't want to be like Steve Jobs for the Open Forum by American Express. Sure, with a broad brush stroke, we can call Moltz right — it's one thing to be influenced by someone, it's another to mimic them.

So he's right in saying that small business owners don't need to learn how to be "just like Steve Jobs," but not for any of the reasons included on his list. The real takeaway from Jobs is that you never want to compromise being yourself. And Jobs, if he was good at anything, was being himself.

Rehashing the list: Where it's on and where it's off.

Demand More From Your Employees. Moltz took exception to the fact that Jobs frequently told employees that they could never do anything right. Some of them were even afraid to take an elevator ride with him for fear of losing their job by the time they reached their floor. Moltz says it's better to be just be blunt (but not lambasting them or embarrassing them in meetings).

But there is another dynamic here that is missing. Jobs operated from an position that no matter how good something was, it could always be better. He was right. The challenge that many small business owners have is that they are always trying to reach some place of complacency where they can just go with the flow. That place doesn't exist. Maybe Jobs was too harsh for some tastes, but people knew where they stood. Those who excelled also developed a knack for fearlessness, which is critical for creativity.

Tell Customers They Are Wrong. Jobs also had a knack for telling customers that they were wrong, sometimes firing off emails in the middle of the night saying so. Moltz says the lesson is to cool off before firing away an email. The advice is mostly right. I tell people the same thing all the time, except when they are passionate. In those cases, I tell them to draft it up exactly what they are thinking as long as they don't hit the send button until they can read it fresh in the morning.

Still, I think the bigger lesson here is that sometimes you have to tell customers they are wrong. The quickest way to lose a customer is do exactly what they want when it's the wrong way and watch it fail. Communication people, in particular, do this all the time. They think they are preserving an account by doing what customers tells them to do (even if they know its wrong). Then they lose the account anyway because the customer holds them accountable to the outcomes. The grief isn't worth it.

Claim Your Employee Ideas. Moltz relates how Jobs frequently reviewed employee ideas and presented them on as his own. Moltz says it is always better to share credit when credit is due.

Jobs was hardly the only person to do it. Andy Warhol and Charles Eames most immediately come to mind, which is why I have mixed feelings about placing idea ownership in the black and white column.

While Jobs' style is not mine own, many small business owners could use a dash of it. It isn't necessarily appropriate to steal ownership, but neither is it appropriate that small business owners undervalue themselves. They create the environment, fund the work, inspire the direction, etc.

Never Settle For Less Than You Want. Moltz sets up the lesson by showing Jobs as uncompromising on two points — both in business and smallest details. He wasn't afraid to break bad contracts and cared about the inane (even if it what kind of flowers are in a hotel room). Moltz partly agrees, saying that you ought to never stick to a contract that doesn't meet your needs and ought to push people past their limits. But he wants to negotiate resolution and leans light on the details.

I've met a few self-made millionaires and billionaires. All of them sweat detail. I know one who won't eat an orange unless it measures out to perfect circumference. I often wonder if maybe they are right. Maybe those inane details matter. Or maybe you need to decide if they matter to you.

More importantly, small business owners sometimes get mixed up anytime the word "negotiation"  comes up in a conversation. It's because many small business owners have their words mixed up. "Negotiate" and "compromise" are not the same thing. You can negotiate a win-win contract. But "negotiating resolution" smacks of compromise, which is a settlement of mutual concessions.

The last point is probably the biggest takeaway of all. Compromises are often lose-lose propositions, with both parties losing, even if one party thinks they are winning. Small business owners can't afford to play that game. If you can't negotiate a win-win with someone but you can with someone else (assuming quality, price, etc. are all equal), you have to move forward. If you compromise or force someone else to compromise, then you're likely headed in the wrong direction. Never settle, but never ask someone else to settle either.

Monday, August 20

Emerging Markets: Will Shift Social Scores

A recent study by eMarketer pinpoints something marketers may need to consider in the near future. Emerging markets lead the world in social networking growth. And these markets are very likely to eclipse North America (China already did).

This simple but important truth could change the way people look at online measurement. With the fastest growth rates in the Middle East, Africa and Asia-Pacific, places like North America will represent a smaller and smaller portion of the global audience.

Specifically, some estimates suggest 78 percent of the U.S. population is connected to the Internet, but it only represents between 10 and 11 percent of the global online population. Conversely, 38 percent of China's population already represents 22 percent of the global online population. India already represents 5 percent of the global online population, with only 10 percent of its population.

It also means marketers have to erase some of their previous preconceptions in terms of influence or importance. Looking at Alexa rankings or influence measurements might not mean what social media experts told them they meant. Some search engines will likely be impacted too.

There are several ways to think about the global population shift.

One old rule of thumb (although it was as erroneous then as is it today) was to ignore anyone who didn't meet a specific global threshold. Nowadays, it's even less true. Unless a site or social network account is attempting to cater to a global audience, it's not likely to have a global rank as high as its country, regional, or local rank.

Ranking or popularity doesn't have anything to do with content quality. It has everything to do with potential reach. If the potential readership has a smaller audience, then it likely won't perform at higher levels. It's a lesson I wish some communicators would have considered before dropping their communication blogs.

Some thought they were losing their audience, but the reality was that they were catering to an ever shrinking reach against the total population. Ergo, as online demographics diversified, a smaller percentage of people were interested in communication-related topics. Likewise, as time goes on, fewer people may be interested sites with English content or Western-style visuals or even hot topics.

Mashable scratched the surface of how global participation can shape a network. It compared participants in the U.S. and participants in the U.K. on Pinterest and discovered some very different statistics. In fact, the interests of U.K. participants looked vaguely familiar to me. They were similar to the online interests of U.S. participants five years ago (but on different networks).

What seems to be happening on the small scale is similar to what happens on a global scale. In this case, U.K. small businesses and consultancies are moving into Pinterest ahead of consumers. In the U.S., the migration patterns were flipped. Small businesses mostly stayed away until public relations and social media specialists began taking an interest, based on independent blogger traffic spikes.

It's a small example, but one worth considering. If your content or connection isn't geared for a global audience, you'll either have to accept your company's smaller global reach or begin altering the content in consideration of other cultural expectations and influences. The latter isn't necessarily the best idea. It all depends on what your companies does, who it serves, and where those people might live.

Friday, August 17

Marketing Research: Listening For You Or To Them?

Last year, American Express must have been pretty happy. It had the most dramatic increase of voice and positive sentiment across social networks among banks. This implies it was doing something right. But was it really? Maybe all the other banks were doing something wrong.

The real evidence of an outcome came later. In April 2011, the company reported a first quarter net income of $1.2 million, up 33 percent from $885 million the year prior. The baseline analysis alludes to the idea that sentiment may be predictive. In this case, maybe. American Express had just moved aggressively into online commerce.

But there were several other factors in play for the company. It had settled litigation with MasterCard and Visa. It had launched several premium products. Cardmember spending was up 17 percent.

One year later, the story was much the same but not nearly as strong. Cardmember spending was only up 12 percent and net income only grew 10 percent (without the benefit of settlement payments). And according to Digital: MR, it was still the most talked about bank on social networks.

It also carries a great introductory APR, but its regular APR is not nearly as competitive. And its stock performance, which is among the top ten, does not reflect the same exuberance as its conversation points.

Sentiment analysis can be useful, provided it is not a distraction.

Personally, I'm a big fan of sentiment analysis. It can be used as a benchmark for communication efforts. But marketers ought not mistake sentiment as the end all in marketing measurement, making decisions that upturns mean "do more of the same" or downturns mean "do less."

In fact, in digging deeper into the American Express sentiment, we found that much of the buzz comes from a smaller group of passionate advocates than, let's say, Citibank, which has considerably more reach from a broader base of people. My only point is that not everything is as it appears to be.

My second point is that if your marketing team is only using sentiment analysis as a means to track positive impressions and share of voice, then the research time is probably being wasted. There is a big difference between listening "for you" or listening "for an industry" and really hearing consumers.

In reality, only about 20 percent of research investment ought to be tracking impressions or attempting to snuff out complaints or improving positive:negative sentiment ratios. There is something much more important to consider: who are these people anyway?

The more you hear from consumers about everything else, the better your communication.

Instead of dropping every dollar on sentiment analysis, there are much more interesting things to learn about any particular segment of the population you might identify as customers or prospects. And none of it really has to do with your company.

What kind of music do they like? What were the last three movies they saw in theaters (and liked)? What were the underlying messages, if any? What kinds of books are they reading? Are they rigid in these tastes or more eclectic? Would they rather go to a fancy restaurant or buy new clothes? Is there a difference between what they buy and what they like? What kind of political leanings do they have? Are they aggressive about it or not? Do they cook? Are they struggling or secure? So on and so forth.

While you always have to keep in mind people feel this level of marketing research seems creepy, the takeaway is that marketers have a better chance of building a relationship if they hear what people are saying instead of listening for the latest mention. Or, in other words, marketing insight might be more powerful than marketing research.

It's a valuable lesson from old school copywriting — you communicate to a person, not an audience.

Wednesday, August 15

Alienating Publics: Every Message Is Public

You would think communicators would get it by now. While it always pays to tailor your message to an intended audience, there are no intended audiences anymore. Everything is subject to global opinion.

In 2008, Yahoo! became a public relations class example when it failed to consider that announcing cutbacks might have unintended consequences. The layoffs were announced to shareholders first, with smiles to suggest that the company was turning a corner. The lack of empathy impacted employees.

Flash forward four years and communicators have come full circle. President Obama is still trying to correct the misstep with his infamous "you didn't build that" speech. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney had a similar experience during the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. And CEO Dan Cathy did it when he was explaining his stance on same-sex marriage while speaking to Baptist Press.

Communication is never isolated to a single audience.

It is the easiest lesson to take away from the Chick-fil-A controversy. In considering his audience, sharing what he believed to be similar values with those who would read the Baptist Press made sense. Chick-fil-A wants to convey itself as a family-friendly restaurant chain.

Where it doesn't make sense is within the purview of a global audience. Words, even if there is no evidence of action, have consequences. But this isn't a just lesson for Cathy. It is a lesson for Chicago Alderman Joe Moreno too.

Moreno has been attempting to brush off his announcement that he will block Chick-fil-A's effort to build a second Chicago store. He has since backed down, simply saying he wanted to review their anti-discrimanation policy. At least his message is better than Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has resorted to saying that he doesn't want to say any more and inflame the situation he already inflamed.

The aforementioned stories also have the best possible quote from Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. She said to Emanuel: "You're alienating conservatives in your city. It's difficult to alienate that many people in one lump. To do it concisely and memorably is a major accomplishment."

To alienate people concisely and memorably is a major accomplishment. 

No matter who you feel it fits best, it's the most concise and memorable lesson anywhere. The art of communication is hard not because people are afraid to be straight, but because they have to communicate their mission, vision, and values in such a way that it is honest without being hurtful.

Pretense: "Honey, do I look good in this dress?"

Pick one: 1) "The other one has always been my favorite." 2) "It makes you look fatter."

While some people are remiss that I haven't come out swinging with a stance on this issue, we can learn more by appreciating the finer art of communication. Think before you speak. And if you don't, take a moment to think about who you might have hurt with that last comment. You don't need fists to be a bully.

It's a lesson that Chick-fil-A has taken to heart. Consider the statement about the "Kiss" Day protest.

"At Chick-fil-A, we appreciate all of our customers and are glad to serve them at any time. Our goal is simple: to provide great food, genuine hospitality and to have a positive influence on all who come into contact with Chick-fil-A. — Steve Robinson, executive vice president, marketing, Chick-fil-A, Inc. in response to "Kiss" Day.

Monday, August 13

Liking It Now: The Attention Generation

A recent study by Performics, a marketing firm owned by Publicis Groupe, finds that 49 percent of respondents prefer text messages over phone calls and 40 percent are more comfortable connecting with people online than in person. In other words, more people are connecting to social networks but disconnecting offline.

It seems participation also comes with expectation, with 49 percent of social network members annoyed, sad, hurt, or even angry when people do not like their status updates. In fact, 75 percent expect a response and 41 percent expect a response within the hour. Others, 21 percent, expect responses in 1-6 hours.

Social life is changing behavioral etiquette.

While it is no surprise that online on demand has become increasingly dominant, some people might be surprised just how much time is being invested in maintaining online connections. In an average week, for example, women spend 9.4 hours on their mobile phones (outside of texts, phone calls, and other connections) and men 5.8 hours. That doesn't even count other devices like tablets and desktops.

Even when people are engaged in other activities, they are likely to remain connected. Approximately 55 percent say they watch TV, movies or video on their computer at least once a week while 29 percent watch on game consoles and 28 percent watch on mobile devices. Multi-tasking has become the norm.






Naturally, the study was undertaken to assist marketers in understanding the behavioral changes in consumers. One notable finding was that individuals frequently place brands and people on equal status.
 
"These new participants are comfortable increasingly replacing real-time communications with social media interactions," said Daina Middleton, global CEO of Performics. "In this new social normal — one where people prefer online communication and maintain high expectations about two-way relationships — brands must utilize social channels to build exceptional, interactive digital experiences."

Basically, people want brands and brand representatives to interact with them like people, including reciprocal acknowledgment. However, brand managers ought to be cautious in overreaching. While online participants expect responses, other studies show interruptive marketing has negative outcomes.

Consumers, after all, are in transition. While social networking has become the new normal, it also comes with unintended consequences. As more think that social media runs the risk of making us less social, marketers have to avoid becoming part of the problem by inflating urgency for no reason.

Friday, August 10

Missing The Message: Apple Not-So-Genius Ads

When I first saw the advertising campaign rolled out by Apple for the Olympics, my stomach dropped. It was one of the biggest advertising missteps since the Tropicana Orange Juice rebranding blunder.

There were two schools of thought behind the advertisements and no champions. Either the campaign intent seemed to be an attempt to reach a broader group of consumers who are older and less tech savvy or the agency that created the ads was also thinking of the past.

They wanted to harken back to the "Get a Mac" campaign created by ad agency TBWA Media Arts Lab. On that measure, they failed too. The old "Get A Mac" campaign ads were from a different era when Apple was the underdog.

The "Get A Mac" ads also represent some of the best comparison spots in history, hard hitting but not so hard that anyone thought they were mean. The characters cast immediately disarmed any negative impressions. Other than using a person, the new campaign bears no resemblance to it.

The Apple Genius ads represent everything the company never intended.

In total, the new ad campaign consisted of a series of three spots, each focusing on the Apple Genius as a character. If you haven't seen them, I'm including one. I couldn't bring myself to share all three.



There are several reasons the ads don't work, but let's highlight the five most obvious.

1. Apple has had a tradition of showing people what's possible without any help. These advertisements turn the tables 360 degrees and tell everyone that you can't do anything on your own.

2. Apple has had a tradition of making its commercials about the customer. These advertisements are clearly about how smart Apple can be.

3. Apple has had a tradition of celebrating the product without being presumptuous; its genius is matter of fact. These advertisements sell something that doesn't really come in the box.

4. Apple always had a knack for creating a clean but edgy brand atmosphere right down to the people in its brick and mortar stores. The person cast doesn't look like any Apple Genius who helped me.

5. Apple has had a tradition of simplifying the message so it conveys one single point. This one rattles off various software and features that the only message is how much you have to buy. Nothing sticks.

It makes me wonder. Did the fine folks who worked at the agency responsible ever see this video?


If they never did, I hope Apple takes heart and makes it mandatory for anyone who wins a creative bid again. At a time when consumers are still saddened by the loss of Steve Jobs and feel uncertain about the company's direction, developing an advertising campaign that marks an end of era just reminds us.

Yes, these advertisements were something different, but not in the way Apple defined it. Broadening the base with low brow advertising isn't the answer. It's about putting possibility in the hands of everybody. You know, like ping playlists, which were still broken when I wrote this piece.

Wednesday, August 8

Being Empathetic: Objectivity In Communication

One of the most difficult lessons in public relations and communication is one that journalists used to take pride in having mastered. The lesson revolves around objectivity. It's not even what you think.

To me, the formalization of objective journalism was the cornerstone of establishing journalism as a legitimate profession. Prior to the hard work of Walter Lippmann to emphasize a journalist's role as an objective mediator or translator, journalism often had more similarity to propaganda than news.

Since then, objective journalism has taken its fair share of hits. Some people doubt the ability of human beings to be objective when faced with issues that run contrary to their personal views. Others view being objective as somehow less than human, merely applying intellect over emotion.

In some cases, journalists have at times proven this to be true, positioning themselves as the ultimate observers, unwilling to interfere with the world around them, even in the face of atrocity. In other cases, journalists have proven themselves to have hidden agendas despite an air of being objective. But \elevating such examples of human frailty does not constitute evidence that people cannot continue to strive for something better. And I believe we can do better. As communicators, we have to.

In fact, even as journalists have become more lax in being objective, public relations professionals and communicators are regularly called upon to apply it, given that their role requires they represent both organizational and public interest. And because this is the role, it makes the Chick-fil-A controversy one of the most important of our times as it underscores that there is not always one public to serve.

The issue we face is bigger than Chick-fil-A and it's not one issue. 

As a living case study, which means I intend to explore several topics directly related to and indirectly related to Chick-fil-A, I was largely undecided on which topic I wanted to tackle next. In fact, it wasn't until Saturday, after reading the comment left by a former student, that I made the decision. In order to consider the nuances of this case study, I have to write about the elephant in the room first.

The elephant isn't same-sex marriage. The elephant is our eroding ability to tackle tough issues as a nation with objectivity, empathy, and compassion. The fact that there is controversy over same-sex marriage is merely a symptom. There are dozens of issues that mirror this one, with the public being tricked into picking sides under the pretense that "unless you are with us, you are against us."

Applying objectivity and empathy to an emotionally charged topic. 

An objective view might be that the definition of marriage is not a political or state issue. It is a religious issue, with different religions observing different definitions. In other words, it may not be up to the state to define marriage or force its definition into practice as much as it is to recognize the varied definitions of a secular union (or civil union when no other secular observances apply).

However, considering history as a guide in the United States, the objective view might be wrong. Reynolds v. United States is the closest we came to defining marriage with a unanimous 1878 Supreme Court decision based on the long-standing principle that "laws are made for the government of action, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious believe and opinions, they may with practices."

Or, maybe this Supreme Court decision was wrong too. I don't know. But therein lies the conundrum of any state being given jurisdiction over personal liberties. That said, same-sex marriage does not have an easy answer. It is a question that is bigger than itself.

Some of the smaller issues are pretty obvious.

• While it is apparently clear that it would have been prudent for CEO Dan Cathy to avoid the debate, he is free to hold the belief that marriage is defined as being between a man and a woman, provided he does not discriminate against those who do not share this view, given the 6-3 Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, which reversed the 1986 Supreme Court decision in Bowers v. Hardwick.

• LGBT supporters are within their right to lobby for same-sex marriage, but it would probably serve some organizers to demonstrate empathy and realize that the motivation to define same-sex marriage is not always born out of fear or intolerance.

• Any elected officials who threatened or acted to bar Chick-fil-A based on Cathy's beliefs are wrong and only demonstrate an ineptitude for leadership and equally ignorant understanding of the U.S. Constitution. Their actions demonstrate a willfulness to exploit, incite, and limit free expression.

• Anyone who used Cathy's views to attack Christianity only showed their proclivity for ignorance and intolerance. Incidentally, Saint Augustine also saw a conflict with the definition of marriage in the Old Testament, but suggested the better example of a divine plan was plainly shown with the first union.

People sometimes make the mistake of believing that an unwillingness to promote an idea is the same thing as intolerance. Empathy doesn't require agreement or enthusiasm as much as understanding and acceptance. For public relations professionals and communicators, it starts with adhering to a code of ethics, which allows for the principles of free speech and calls for a sensitivity to cultural values.

Ergo, in this case, different people have different ideas, but the role of the communicator is best served by engaging in fair and balanced communication activities that foster and encourage mutual understanding. I'm not sure about you, but I have seen very little effort in this regard. And that's what I want to tackle.

Likewise, I called it a public relations nightmare (and not a publicity coup) because a short-term revenue spike is not the only measure of a successful communication plan. I think that will become more apparent as we work through Chick-fil-A as a living case study. As for me personally? Like the artwork (above) of my friend Ike Pigott communicates, I'd rather we all just get along.

Monday, August 6

Writing Tip: The 85 Percent For Comma Usage

Any time I teach a half-day session on Editing and Proofreading Your Work at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, I have to balance importance against retention. In other words, I have to decide what students need to know and what they are likely to remember. English is hard for people to learn.

Well, that isn't exactly true. English is relatively easy to learn when compared to some other languages, depending on your native tongue. But English is also very hard to master because there are exceptions to everything. So, teachers learn to pick and choose.

Learn three rules to cover 85 percent of comma usage.

1. Commas link two independent clauses.

2. Commas denote introductory words or phrases and prepositional phrases.

3. Commas separate interruptions.

If you can master these three rules, then comma usage is manageable. It's just enough to move beyond simple sentences without drifting too far into more complex arrangements and all those exceptions.

Link independent clauses. Basically, independent clauses are the part of any sentence that can stand by itself. They contain a subject and predicate. There are many times in the English language when there is a good reason to link two independent clauses because it strengthens the relationship of what is being said and adds more insight and clarity. Given that examples sometimes make the best teachers:

• We washed the child, and then we cleaned up the mess she had made.

• We washed the child and then cleaned up the mess.

The first sentence has two independent clauses. The second does not. But you might notice that the first sentence reveals much more than the second. Specifically, we know that the child made a mess and made a mess of herself in the process. The second sentence leaves all of this up to interpretation.

Add clarity, emphasis, or meaning. While it's an oversimplification to call introductory words and phrases, prepositions, and clauses interruptions, it does help most writers with retention. Basically, anything additional to the sentence qualifies.

• Clearly, the English language has many exceptions.

• For more information, call our customer hotline.

While we could debate the need for "clearly" to be included in the first sentence, doing so can add an emphasis to the idea that the rest of the sentence is understood. (It can also be used to qualify a sentence as I did with the introductory word "basically.")

In sentence 2, I always use this example because so many public relations professionals forget to include a comma after the prepositional phrase "for more information." Prepositional phrases are generally used to complement a noun (or subject) and provide more information. In English, anything that comes after a preposition is part of the preposition. So when we need to identify that the preposition has ended, the best way to do it is with a comma. The exception is that you do not need a comma to separate a string of prepositional phrases because they may be included within the first one.

Separate interruptions. There are many reasons to add interruptions into text. Most of the time they either add clarity or sometimes provide some breathing room for author interjection. To do it effectively,  commas help denote the original meaning of the sentence whereas the interruption introduces something new to the sentence.

• We stayed in Vancouver, not Seattle, for our vacation.

This sentence includes an interruption to add clarity. Why would they need to? Imagine someone visited both Vancouver and Seattle on a trip. If the person is a U.S. citizen, there might be an assumption that they stayed in Seattle. The interruption negates the assumption with minimal means.

In class, I provide several more examples to help it stick. But for the purposes of this educational interruption, these examples suffice. It also provides a sampling of just how much can be packed into a 3-hour class. Commas take up 11 slides from an 82-slide deck just to cover 85 percent of the usage. My next editing and proofreading class at UNLV is slated for September.

Friday, August 3

Marketing In The Round: Gini Dietrich And Geoff Livingston

The best thing about Marketing In The Round by Gini Dietrich and Geoff Livingston is it offers up a litany of questions, ideas, and thumbnail case studies. The worst thing about it is that it doesn't always know what kind of book it wants to be or for whom it is intended.

So perhaps that's the best place to begin. Who could benefit from Marketing In The Round?

Small business owners. People who need a crash course in marketing, one with an emphasis on the changes taking place in the market today. While many small business owners will find the details to be overwhelming, the book provides enough insights and ideas to help them ask the right questions.

Middle management marketers. This isn't necessarily the stuff of senior management, but it does provide enough material for middle management to check their work. It could be useful in comparing some of the concepts and constructs that Dietrich and Livingston lay out and making adjustments.

Multi-discipline communicators. Given that the central theme is really about convergence, Marketing In The Round provides a Rosetta stone approach for future advertising, marketing, public relations, and social media professionals. Along with them, it can serve specialists who are finding more and more of their work is falling outside their specialty, whether they working in any of those fields I mentioned.

Those are the people who could most benefit, along with those who find themselves communication curious and don't mind a book that attempts to bridge the gap between anecdotal and textbook. It doesn't quite do the job at finding that elusive middle, but it's a good effort to move conversations about marketing, public relations, and social media into a more mature, professional, and educational discussion.

The three strongest aspects of the book revolve around big concepts. 

As the title suggests, this book is about forming a more integrated approach to marketing. The solution is feasible in that the authors suggest finding someone to champion the construct by drawing in one person from various communication departments to make it work.

Anyone who has worked on campaigns involving a partnership among several specialized firms knows how it will work (even if it sometimes produces mixed results depending the players). It's the right way, even if there isn't enough space dedicated to the plan pitch for bigger organizations.

The other construct introduced in the book is a marketing model based partly on The Book Of The Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi. In this case, the analogy applies the five primary approaches of strategic engagement to marketing, allowing for top-down, direct, groundswell, and two flanks.

While it would be easy to quibble with the idea that advertising is a flank, the analogy isn't far off in providing a means to help various specialists to stop thinking about communication from their specialized perspectives. The goal here is to get everyone to the same table.

There is considerable strength in that Dietrich brings public relations experience to the table while Livingston has a background in marketing. There is some give and take here, rather than an attempt to pit one expertise over another. Also, they both have ample social media experience.

Because of this, they also decided to include some tactile tools into the mix: checklists, questionnaires, forms, and exercises to help move the book from a concept into something concrete. It will be appreciated, especially because the publisher has made them downloadable (negating the need to recreate the lists or scan the pages).

The weakest aspects of the book revolve around the superficial. 

The book is well-written from a technical aspect, but it's not reader friendly. The content pummels, making it impossible to read as a single serving. It's best read no more than one chapter at a sitting with time built in to reflect on how it applies.
Likewise, if you are hoping to bring the ideas into an organization or a classroom, you have to read it with a notebook nearby. While there is a reason why Marketing In The Round is organized like it is, you are precluded from starting any exercises early. For example, if you start writing out "smarter goals" at the end of chapter one, you will certainly rip them up by the time you reach chapter four.

This isn't the only way Marketing In The Round will make you work for it. The book does a great job introducing various thumbnail case studies that are always useful. However, it will require savvy communicators to search for additional resources for anyone not familiar with specific cases.

It's important, because you might draw different conclusions than the ones the authors have laid out. Sometimes they are needed and absent; other times they just feel forced. The Netflix case study is one example of the latter. It felt like affirmation mining — where the author wants to quickly prove a point and plugs in a case study as it fit, but neglecting all the blemishes and bruises that some with it.

All in all, those are relatively minor distractions. The only areas where I thought Dietrich and Livingston fell slightly short was in competitive analysis and measurement. While they succeed in delivering a solution, there just isn't enough content on these subjects. Specifically, there is a difference between knowing your competitors and providing a viable contrast, and benchmarking is always a good idea but it's only the tip of the measurement iceberg.

The net sum of all things related to Marketing In The Round. 

The kinds of people who I think would most benefit aside, Marketing In The Round is an excellent mining book, meaning that there is more here to mine than can be included within the confines of a single review. There is considerable content that can be extracted, adapted, and deployed for the classroom or an organization.

All in all, it makes you appreciate that Dietrich and Livingston wrote a textbook that could have benefited from the space that writing a Marcom textbook would have provided. This in itself is a refreshing change from the anecdotal waste that pretends to be work in the field — books that are best described as a big "business card" or professional "memoir." Instead, the authors of Marketing In The Round actually want to teach you something. You're likely to learn something too.

I received a copy of the book Marketing In The Round for the purposes of review. If you cannot tell, neither receiving a copy nor having prior contact with the authors had any influence. In fact, I am predisposed to review marketing and public relations books exceptionally hard, which is why most people are too afraid to send me marketing or business books for review. You might also like to know that prior to receiving a copy, I had already planned to write an unsolicited review of this book.

Wednesday, August 1

Becoming Political Punch: Chick-Fil-A

Several years ago, I was working as a strategic communication consultant for a pool builder and part of my job was to mediate mock media sessions. We had just finished a core message system and part of the consultation included helping them employ it.

Mock media sessions are sometimes purposefully designed to make people feel uncomfortable and elicit accidental or intentional reactions. The regional vice president being interviewed was doing surprisingly well, until I asked him a series of loaded questions, consisting of the softball set-up and rapid-fire take downs.

"What percentage of your employees are minorities?"

"The majority," he said.

"Yes, and what percentage are in upper management positions?"

The color quickly washed out of his face. He knew as well as I did that there was no easy answer. He could tell the truth, opening up a discussion about discrimination. He could lie and say he didn't know, painting himself as incompetent.

"Now, let's talk about how many of those minorities are African-Americans, specifically," I added, already knowing the answer. If I were a real reporter at the time, I could have done anything.

Dan Cathy was trapped into a public relations maelstrom of his own making.

When Dan Cathy, president and chief operating officer of Chick-fil-A, gave a speech at the University of Mobile, he set himself up to be duped after the event. Cathy, who was likely talking about dress codes and personal appearance at Chick-fil-A when he said "If a man's got an earring in his ear and applies to work at one of my restaurants, we won't even talk to him."

He might have used mohawks or face tattoos or devil horn implants or any number of lifestyle choices that don't always mesh with other lifestyle choices as an example, but he didn't. He asked the softball set-up question I might have asked in a mock media session, giving someone else the opportunity to hammer with a hardball follow up.

Would you hire gay people at your restaurant?

"It depends on the circumstances," he said. But he didn't convincingly explain that he meant circumstances based on appearance, history, and reputation (as the chain uses to hire heterosexual applicants).

Only July 16, he went further by continuing this conversation direction with the Baptist Press, saying his goal was to operate the chain "on Biblical principles." On its own, it would have been fine, but the foundation of a different context was already established. 

In fact, just to make sure it was understood what he meant, Cathy said that the company had taken a position against same-sex marriage. And that's how it goes. Executives without enough media training will dig their own holes if you let them.

I understand how and why it happens, but let's point out the obvious. Companies don't need to take a position on gay marriage. Even companies that have a Christian heritage don't need to pick a side. Companies are expected to be true to their mission statements.

"Be America's Best Quick-Service Restaurant." — Chick-fil-A mission statement

Color me crazy, but I don't see how taking a position against same-sex marriage makes chicken better. Naturally, the only answer is one the company is attempting to elevate now: "The Chick-fil-A culture and service tradition in our restaurants is to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect — regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation, or gender.

Unfortunately, it's too little too late. The debate has shifted. And while there are many ways to dissect the Chick-fil-A public relations nightmare, the most important observations have little to do with public relations and everything to do with a nation struggling to find its direction on a wildly politicized issue.

It's loaded with fear. It's loaded with emotion. It's best to stay far, far away from picking sides. Not many people can do it as successfully as Bill Marriott, especially because it's much harder today.

The tenets of separating personal/professional views are crumbling. 

From a strategic communication viewpoint, the communication mistake became a crisis as soon as some people decided there was something to win. You can say the same about any crisis today. When education surrenders to exploitation, the argument descends into diatribe. Everybody will lose.

The challenge for public relations professionals temporarily, if not permanently, is to manage the mixed messages they receive as it relates to the personal/professional rub up. While modern tenets are preaching there is plenty to gain by infusing your personal views into your professional life, few pros have the training or tools to do it right. Even if they do, someone might exploit their position. 


Chick-fil-A is a complex issue that warrants exploration as a living case study, with a little less politics and a lot more patience. At the moment, the public relations maelstrom is best described as out of control and the company is probably making a mistake to think it will go away. It might, but maybe not.

The real tragedy here is that it might have gone away, but some people on both sides of the argument want to to exploit this as a communication mistake and make it a symbol. Their actions (both sides) have consequences, even if neither side will have to suffer for it. Instead, those who suffer will be franchise owners and employees who want make a living and the customers who go there to eat chicken.

Much like I later advised the pool builder, companies have to avoid loaded questions and stick to the facts. The pool builder always promoted people based on experience and performance, without consideration of anything else. They hired the people the same way.
 

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