Friday, February 27

Asking Social Questions: Pete Cashmore

Pete Cashmore, founder of Mashable, which is a news blog dedicated to Web 2.0 and social networking news, asked an interesting question last week about human behavior. Does social media — specifically the immediacy and accessibility of information — change the way people act in an increasingly public world, and thereby make people nicer?

Diverse Reactions Suggest A Common Answer

"I think it may improve behaviour in 'public spaces' (that term deserves its own entry), and it may extend that improved behaviour to family and friends that could turn on us - I’m thinking of The Hoff’s daughter and Alec Baldwin’s daughter (yep audio alone can be embarrassing too.) - but this is a superficial change. Behaviour is about appearances. And changing behaviour does not mean changing intent (hearts and minds)." — Richard Weiser

"How you handle a differing opinion will speak volumes about you and can either enhance (or undermine) your personal credibility." — Sharlyn Lauby with online conflict tips

"It certainly can, if we use it properly - and, as the blog post suggests, the instant exposure of social media can help throttle down bad behavior. But people are people, and I think we’ll always see a mix of goodness and folly in any method of communicating." — Steve Woodruff

"The comments at the end of the article are mixed. I for one, do not think that social media makes me a better person. Maybe a person with more access to contributing my thoughts and opinions or a person with more public visibility or a person who is more careful of what I choose to throw around online, but not a better person." — Practicum Pioneers

"Social media doesn’t make us better people, but it does make us more conscious people." — Melissa at ZooLoo

"You hear too often about people getting caught in the act of committing unacceptable societal acts (i.e. most recently Michael Phelps). With people becoming more socially active on the Web, not only do you have big brother government watching, you also have millions of other people that are watching if they really wanted to. More than ever, you need to protect your reputation, because it can be tarnished in an flash." — Ismael Seguban

Common Answers Clarify Complex Questions

Two years from now (barring government restrictions), it's very unlikely we will distinguish Internet communication or social media from other forms of communication. It will become part of the whole, much like all other mediums eventually became indistinguishable as they were adopted. And, therein lies the answer to Cashmore's question.

Direct intervention, such as changing the environment as any new medium or technology does, influences behavior. However, direct intervention generally does not change a person's character. Only indirect intervention, such as nurturing specific ideas or encouraging specific choices so that people might choose to change themselves, instills a legacy of positive behavior.

In other words, while the immediacy, accessibility, and diminished privacy may influence the way we interact — knowing that any of our actions, conversations, and correspondence could be published for public consumption — it does not change human behavior or character. It only makes us temporarily more guarded.

Thursday, February 26

Rebranding Blunder: Tropicana Orange Juice

Watching Peter Arnell, founder and chief creative officer of Arnell Group, explain the rationale behind the branding change of Pepscio's Tropicana package redesign is almost painful to watch. The clip from a press conference held five weeks ago is now archived at AdvertisingAge.

"Emotionally, it was very, very difficult, and it still remains difficult, for everyone to grasp the importance of that change because it so dramatic," said Arnell. "Of course, historically, we always showed the outside of the orange. Um, what was fascinating was that we had never shown the product called the juice."

Does he mean like EVERYBODY else?

Arnell, who suffers his own brand paradox, seems to have made a fatal mistake. Perhaps swept up by the bizarre sea of change occurring at PepsiCo, the redesign scheme for Tropicana Orange Juice was doomed from the start. Why? Because the concept was driven by an introspective redesign.

As consumers pointed out to The New York Times, the new packaging was “ugly” or “stupid,” resembling “a generic bargain brand” or a “store brand.” In fact, even after hearing Arnell's explanation, it's difficult to understand the logic behind a redesign that makes the product look like everybody else because the company had never tried that before.

Change For The Sake Of Change Is Naughty.

This isn't the first time marketers and consumers have questioned agency recommendations to embrace identity redesigns that don't hinge on the five best reasons to consider change. It won't be the last either. You see, the reality is that rebranding, especially when it's built on some guy's imagination without significant consideration of the external market, is an easy way to own an organization while the rebranding occurs and squeeze out some extra billing too.

During those relatively rare occurrences when rebranding makes sense, it's important to factor in what changes have occurred in the marketplace over what the company has done before. In other words, redesigning away from existing identity doesn't make any sense whatsoever if the creative only delivers a contrast to past creative instead of a contrast to competing products.

In the case of Tropicana, PepsiCo is now bowing to public demand and scrapping the changes and sticking the straw back in the orange, an image that was smart because it stuck with the consumer. While some might argue that the publicity might pad the price tag of the redesign, I disagree. The last impression you want attached to your brand is "stupid." Ironically, Tropicana orange juice will retain the "squeeze cap" concept, which makes you work a little bit harder to enjoy the product and makes me happy that my daughter prefers apple juice.

The bottom line: when agencies "sell" rebranding concepts, make sure the rebranding is market driven and not agency "sales" driven. Otherwise, the only thing your company will be stuck with is the bill.

Wednesday, February 25

Planning Breakthroughs: Mike Ferrell

"Success is simple. Do what's right, the right way, at the right time." — Arnold H. Glasow

Simple becomes the operative word in describing Mike Ferrell's new book, Ultimate Breakthrough Planning, from Scarletta Press. It's simple enough that it risks being overlooked by varied best seller lists, but important enough that small business owners and managers would benefit to see it there.

Ferrell, president of The Pinecrest Group, has been involved with eight different start-ups, with considerable time working in the financial services arena. He has also presented to thousands of people at workshops and seminars. But that's not why management could benefit from the little red book that could.

"In 2005, 544,800 small businesses closed for a variety of reasons: lack of capital, lack of customers, poor location, bad service, or the wrong product," writes Ferrell. "How many of these could have avoided this fate if they had an easy-to-follow plan, or blueprint, that would help them succeed?"

Ultimate Breakthrough Planning defines itself as the blueprint that can help small businesses move away from thinking in terms of a traditional business plan and into an actionable business funnel approach. While I found the funnel to be similar to other models we've helped businesses adapt in the past, Ferrell puts down his approach in a much more comprehensible format and then goes a step further. He starts with the six key elements of success ...

Vision and Branding. How to determine what your business will look like and how it will function.
Leadership and Team. How to clearly communicate vision with your team to make it more effective.
Marketing Systems. How to create marketing that is done consistently across a variety of mediums.
Sales Process. How to understand your customers and develop stronger relationships with them.
• Exceptional Service. How to take good service to a higher level, and engaging your team to do it.
Strategic Alliances. How to determine what you do well and find people to do what you don't do so well.

... and then, he drives each of these critical areas through his funnel process. It seems to me that it is this process where Ferrell's ideas for an executable business process take hold. He does not force businesses into a cookie cutter model, but rather guides his readers through a process, from the macroscopic concept to the microscopic action.

What's the difference? Most business advisers define vision and branding in typical terms and then produce various statements that are sometimes mocked until they are long forgotten. Contrary, Ferrell suggests all six elements are all executable by identifying priorities, setting goals and objectives, defining strategies, determining tools, communicating and training, creating tasks and timelines, tracking results, and rewarding success. While the outcome of this process for each company would produce very different conclusions, each would benefit with an equal propensity for results.

That is the point isn't it? Personally, I have yet to find any two companies that are the same. And yet, every day, marketers and business consultants insist that all companies adopt the same models, marketing, or priorities. Why? Because that is what most businesses want to hear. Never mind what works for our employees and customers, they say, I want to do what works for someone else's customers because we want their outcomes. Ferrell spells out the problem with a sports analogy.

"When a football coach designs a game plan, he doesn't focus on the eventual outcome of the game; he focuses on the specific offense, defensive and special teams plays that need to happen to affect the eventual outcome in his favor," writes Ferrell. "Too many business owners focus on their plan and skip specific steps needed to achieve those results.

He's right. The reality of any game is this: we do not know the outcome. So while setting goals is useful, the focus needs to remain on the strategies and tactics that are required in order to achieve those goals. It's not all that different from what I've been suggesting with the ROC abstract.

It's also this kind of thinking that makes Ferrell's work immediately applicable. Every business has strengths and weaknesses, and there is ample material to help determine which areas — offense, defense, or special teams — could be brushed up for better results. More importantly, Ultimate Breakthrough Planning helps business owners think about and evaluate their businesses as if it was the first time, which far too many forget to do.

With the exception of a few minor blemishes throughout, the only soft spot in the book can be found in the Question and Exercises chapter where Ferrell suggests a self-analysis for Vision and Branding that is a bit too introspective for my taste. I believe even the smallest businesses can benefit by involving key members of the team to answer the questions he proposed. There is no need to wait until the second element before you bring them into the process. Engage them at the beginning.

Otherwise, it's easy for me to recommend this book. It's straightforward and clearly articulates what businesses ought to do if they want to make success simple. That is what we want to do, isn't it? After all, if a business isn't focused on success but only "survival" in a down economy, then it's already operating at a deficiency and heading for a loss.

Tuesday, February 24

Closing Case Studies: Peanut Corporation Of America

Two weeks ago, Peanut Corporation of America, which was the source of a national salmonella outbreak, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Virginia.

The decision to file bankruptcy is clearly stated to limit the company's ability to take any actions regarding recalled products that were shipped from its Georgia and Texas plants. It has advised that it is no longer able to communicate with customers of recalled products, and the previous instruction for customers to contact PCA is no longer applicable.

To date, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have recalled 2,100 products in 17 categories by more than 200 companies. The list continues to grow.

The FDA has released several communication materials to help consumers make sense of the outbreak, including an video of how outbreaks outbreak occurred and PDF documents that illustrate the distribution process and investigation timeline.

How Reputation Mismanagement and Bad Communication Can Kill

The FDA and several investigations seem to indicate that the PCA acted with gross negligence that is responsible for sickening over 600 in 44 states and Canada, linked to nine deaths, resulted in thousands of recalls, and caused the business failure of at least one company.

While it remains the argument of many that Stewart Parnell, owner and president of PCA, placed profits before public safety, there are still valuable lessons to learn for public relations professionals and communicators. You don't have to lie.

Show me a PR person who is "accurate" and "truthful," and I'll show you a PR person who is unemployed. — Andrew Cohen

While the public relations industry took exception to Cohen's comments last year, there is some truth to be found in his harshness. Some public relations practitioners help companies turn frowns upside down, attempting to put the very best light on the very worst situations. We might see it over, and over, and over again, but it's not the job. So what is the job?

Reinforce Core Values. A smart public relations professional or communicator could have reinforced the core values of the company, making employees aware that consistent quality, safety, and dependability was the priority not just in marketing materials but in action.

• Advise On Reputation Management. A skilled public relations professional or communicator could have outlined the considerable risk of reputation damage if the company continued to maintain substandard safety practices.

Turn Whistleblower. An ethical public relations professional or communicator could have reinforced public safety as a critical component to plant operations and communication, including their responsibility to report transgressions.

Manage The Crisis. A seasoned crisis communication professional or communicator could have outlined a proper course of action for the company, assuming the contamination was in fact an accidental occurrence and not an orchestrated event.

Prioritize Communication. An experienced public relations professional or communicator could have prioritized the communication, advising a deeper than needed stop shipment and recall. The second priority would have been to demonstrate (not state) empathy to those affected and accept responsibility as warranted, including any wrongful deaths.

Avoid Marketing Messages. A vigilant public relations professional or communicator could have ensured any statements made to the public were devoid of marketing messages until evidence concluded the contamination was an isolated incident.

Keep Communication Open. An attentive public relations professional or communicator could have kept communication open, honest, and candid throughout the crisis, even if they were not the designated spokesperson, making minute-to-minute recommendations to the executive team to avoid disaster.

So why didn't any of this happen? I've spoken to enough recruiters and public relations firms to know that most consider the skill sets necessary to perform any of these tasks secondary to the size of a person's e-mail list and perceived relationships as an extension of marketing. As long as that remains the priority, companies will continually find themselves in the kill zone when their reputation is on the line because the most common answer out of the mouths of Rolodex keepers is to spin it away.

The longer you work in communication, the more likely you will learn that it's hard enough to tell the truth and be believed. Do you know what I think? If you lie to the public, you're not in public relations. You're in the urban dictionary.

Peanut Corporation of America. Case closed. And the company too.

Three public relations related posts:

Communication Overtones: Is PR paid to lie?

Sane PR: 60.3% of Britons Believe PR Officers Lie

Silicon Alley Insider: Top ten lies PR agencies tell their clients

Monday, February 23

Measuring Communication, Realization Part 2

Last November, Motrin came under fire for a snarky advertisement that played on the idea that moms who use baby carriers and slings are making a fashion statement that "totally makes me look like an official mom." After Motrin pulled the advertisement to avoid more outcry, there was plenty of debate whether or not the ad should have been pulled.

Unfortunately, many debaters asked the wrong question. Most asked a broader audience whether or not the advertisement was offensive or if the outcry was an overreaction. No surprise, most men, single women, moms who don't use baby carriers/slings, etc. all said that moms who do carry their babies in slings overreacted, which mirrored a USA Today poll that revealed only about 31 percent of the public said that the ad went too far.

"See?" said some. "Most people were not offended."

Except, except, except, communication is not an election where companies can afford a 51 percent approval rating for the win. It didn't matter what most men, single women, moms who don't use baby carriers/slings thought of the advertisement. It only mattered what moms who do carry their babies in slings thought because they were the intended audience. Specifically, the offending advertisement had nothing to do a print campaign as USA Today reported. It had to do with one video popping up on a site that consisted of moms who do carry their babies in slings. They were the audience!

How do you realize intent in communication?

Once you have the right message, your best bet is to make it suitable for the organization, medium, and audience. This is the portion of the ROC equation where execution matters most. The right message produced the wrong way could have disastrous results.

Organizational Suitability

In 2007, Gap, Apple, Motorola, and others spent nearly $100 million on the Red campaign that raised only $18 million, drawing concern among nonprofit watchdogs, cause-marketing experts, and even executives in the ad business. The controversy was a painful reminder that cause marketing is better suited to campaigns that are a little less slick and whole lot less expensive.

But it doesn't end with nonprofits. Draft FCB locked in its loss of the Wal-Mart account after rubbing the win in the face of its peers. A single photo set the tone for the downfall of a presidential candidate. PETA seemed to struggle with the concept. YouTube even requires you confirm you are over the age of 18 to view the ad.

Medium Suitability

This is the reason that is dead. As a video and entertainment site in which the brewer infused millions of dollars to produce, the concept was right but the message as well as the execution for the medium was all wrong. And now, it's closed. It might have worked, but they forgot to focus on what they know. Um, beer.

Medium suitability is also why marketing-laced press releases don't go anywhere. In 2005, for example, Pole Position Marketing apologized for sending out a release that it later described as "less than substantial" and "lacked additional relevant information." At least they had the good sense to apologize. The release was better suited for a company blog. Um, on second thought, that one didn't even warrant a post.

There is an entire Web site dedicated to bad billboards. Esquire featured several bad television commercials. Someone posted a great example of a bad radio commercial on YouTube. Almost all of them have one thing in common. They are not suited for the medium.

Audience Suitability

When Miller beer attempted to target microbrew beer drinkers a few years ago, not only did non-customers NOT buy Miller, but the ads also alienated Miller’s core blue collar consumer. The agency won awards for the campaign, and Budweiser quickly captured the alienated Miller drinker. In sum, they gave up the girl all because of one Dick.

It made about as much sense as Chrysler giving up on its roots to spend more than $100 million on Dr. Z. Did they really expect to capture German car buyers while retaining the people who gave you a second shot because of this guy?

If you want to know who gets it right, consider McDonald's. They seem to understand this in Japan, Korea, Israel, and everywhere else. Same message, different audience.

Suitability Helps Connect

Social media isn't much different. When one of my students mentioned that my posts break some from the conventions I'm teaching them about news releases, I chuckled. Different mediums call for different presentations. I wouldn't put this post on a billboard either. Or in other words, in the right venue, the Motrin advertisement might have worked.

Download The Abstract: Measure: I | O = ROC

The ROC is an abstract method of measuring the value of business communication by recognizing that the return on communication — advertising, marketing, public relations, internal communication, and social media — is related to the intent of the communication and the outcome it produces. Every Monday, the ROC series explores portions of the abstract.

Friday, February 20

Wading Intelligence: Perceptual Pools

"In reality, there is only one flower. But inside a perceptual bubble, there may be three." — Richard Becker

While the foundation of public relations remains unchanged, the environment in which it operates is changing. In 20 years, mainstream media expanded from four channels to 4,000 channels and the Internet from a few sources to a seemingly infinite stream with an entire library of new content being added every second of the day.

Infinite Information Creates Miniature Realities.

While perception is a common theme here, it was Dan Schnur, a leading political and media strategist speaking at New Media and Political Campaigns, held in the Aurora Forum at Stanford University, who perhaps best articulated the concept that as information expands, the informational pools people draw upon shrink. For individuals, the danger becomes one of isolation, or as Schnur noted, people are drinking from completely different pools of information, which eventually creates different realities.

"As empowering as this media is, it's also isolating," said Schnur. "We have an array of not just three new programs at 6:30 at night, and not just five radio stations on our car radio, but when we have 800 cable TV, an infinite number of radio stations, and an even larger number of Web sites, blogs, and e-mail opportunities, it becomes much more easier for us to pick and choose who we talk to, what we talk about, and what we hear."

The outcome of this endless array of options affords us the opportunity to customize our information to such a degree, that we invent our own world view, which may be completely different from the world view of another person who made different choices. Schnur doesn't mean different opinions. He means different facts all together.

For example, if one person chooses Bill Maher, Daily Kos, and Media Matters, and another chooses Rush Limbaugh, Town Hall, and NewsBusters, both would develop opposing views of the new administraton, stimulus bill, and economic direction of the country. They would not just have different opinions, but an entirely different set of facts upon which to validate those opinions rather than drawing different conclusions based upon the same facts.

The outcome was made apparent last week after my post on fear communication, especially as it pertained to President Obama. In sharing the idea offline, two different people with polar political viewpoints had two different impressions of whether I was right about the communication. In fact, it took a recent affirmation from former President Clinton before that observation was even accepted by one of them.

The Danger of Validating Opinion.

The danger is two-fold. As people go to sources of information that validate what they believe instead of challenging them, the continuing transformation of media could further polarize perceptions as it aims to increase circulation by catering exclusively to that audience. Jonathan Alter, columnist and senior editor for Newsweek magazine, also at the Aurora Forum, recognized it as a troublesome trend.

"The definition of good journalism that I believe in [correct attribution: Finley Peter Dunne] comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable," said Alter. "The problem is that if the comfortable is not listening to you because you are not agreeing with them or comforting them, you get a different kind of journalism where you afflict the already afflicted and comfort the already comfortable."

The challenge becomes increasingly problematic because unpopular or even objective viewpoints become ignored, labeled as biased, or drowned out by diatribe. As individuals, and especially as communicators, it becomes especially important to drink from as diverse of information pools possible to maintain as broad of a world view as possible — accepting viewpoints that challenge us more than than validate our ideas.

The Challenge for Communication.

The challenge, especially as mainstream media struggles to adapt to a new market conditions, is that many publics may not be inclined to sample opinion outside their comfort zones. This creates an especially challenging environment for public relations because the trend is not isolated to politics.

Specifically, the challenge becomes applying a foundation that remains to some an increasingly diverse environment where two different people, living next door, could have as different realities as people living half a world away. It's at the heart of what Geoff Livingston called the "Communicators are in a perpetual losing battle for the attention of inundated minds." Except, it's not limited to advertising or communication. It applies to social media too. It only takes a click for consumers to unfollow.

Or to reframe the thought, take what Abraham Lincoln said — "Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing." — and then recognize that people find trees uncomfortable.

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