Saturday, February 6

Writing For Public Relations: Introduction

As hard as it is for me to imagine, I've been teaching "Writing for Public Relations" at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), for ten years. And while I rarely teach the same class twice, this year's program has been significantly altered to keep pace with the increasing demands on public relations professionals to understand social media and social networks.

The presentation below is one of the changes. Along with some course content, I've changed the format so students can access and reference some course material online. The decks will be posted on the weekend following each class as available. Enjoy.

I've also added the course overview handout. You can find it here.

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Friday, February 5

Depressing Readers: Accuracy Matters

Dr. John Grohol, CEO of Psych Central, wrote a noteworthy post for communicators and journalists — accuracy can mean the difference between the Internet causing depression or the Internet attracting depressed people.

After Leeds University released a study that found people who spend a lot of time browsing the net are more likely to show depressive symptoms, Grohol wrote that mainstream media did surprisingly well in covering the story. Of seven publications cited, only three did not sensationalize the headline, leading people to believe that the Internet caused depression.

However, there is something remotely troubling in the statistical samplings. Rather than use randomized, controlled groups, the study was conducted using an online questionnaire. According to Grohol's analysis, only 18 of 1,319 self-selected people online meet the criteria for "Internet addiction," which was a key element in some conclusions drawn by the researchers.

The test only included one validation study and the researchers helped give the story life with subjective comments that suggest such a link could be negative. In his post, Grohol points out that subsequent studies could possibly reveal the Internet might even be good for depressed people in that it provides some outlet for social connections where no outlet might exist.

What conclusions can you draw from communication research?

How many surveys and polls do communicators, journalists, and educators rely on despite questionable data or subjective conclusions? What about your organization? Are you creating a perception bubble and preaching to the choir? Or is your organization catering too much to its squeaky wheels? How much do you really know about what you know?

One Dow Jones post recently took note of how different social networks might lead you to have very different impressions of Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code. Specifically, it suggests there is primarily praise from his 97,000 Facebook fans. There is more criticism from several groups of writers, who are unlikely to be avid Dan Brown readers (hat tip: Sara Springmeyer).

But what does that mean? And does it account for the cultures of these communities? Evidence suggests that when people comment using their own social media identities, they are concerned about two things: their own appearance and group acceptance. As a result, such influences do not always amount to reliable crowd-sourced data.

There are other examples too. David Fleet recently questioned a survey that suggested journalists prefer bulk emails. Tamara Lytle included the idea in an article that warns companies away from cliche crisis communication plans. American physicist Richard Feynman frequently spoke and wrote about the need to continually rethink scientific models of the past to ensure future theories were not built on flawed studies.

So what can a communicator do? The most obvious answer is to continually re-verify data. The less obvious answer is to approach research from an objective perspective as opposed to pursuing a hypothesis that leads to validation and not verification. After all, the difference between two words is as large as the Internet causing depression or attracting depressed people.

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Thursday, February 4

Attracting Attention: Public Relations Specialists

"A good advertisement is one which sells the product without drawing attention to itself." — David Ogilvy

I included a slide in my visual presentation for Writing for Public Relations tonight that not all public relations professionals will appreciate. It defines a public relations specialist as "an online celebrity for a company" and attributed it to prevailing thought.

I don't really believe that is what a public relations specialist is, mind you. But the concept seems to be clouding some industry thinking.

It has been a little less than a year since Geoff Livingston launched an Anti-Fan Movement, which addressed much of the same. While he believes like I do, that every company has stars, the "personal brand" can come with a cost to an organization. And, if public relations embraces the concept full on, it may come at a cost to the profession.

If popularity is a primary measure of professional prowess, then what makes Kim Kardashian different than David Armano, who Arik Hanson used as an example against my caution that public relations firms might think twice about what Lee Odden called "brandividual."

Personally, I think anyone who has read Armano for any length of time knows that popularity played very little into Edelman Digital's decision to hire him. It's Armano's work that stands out. And he has long maintained a "we" approach to social media.

From "me" to "we" and back again.

Don't misunderstand me. Hanson raised an interesting question: is it more beneficial for a public relations firm to have a "firm" blog or "individual" blogs? Of course, it also struck me as very similar to a conversation I've been having with Karthik S, who is head of digital strategy, Edelman India (coincidently).

However, when I think back to early prevailing social media concepts as it relates to public relations over the years, part of the initial concept was to move from "me" to "we" thinking — collaboration, consensus, and teamwork with everyone, colleagues and clients included (some of it was even spooky). Brandividual seems to move too much in the opposite direction for mainstream adoption.

The answer is found in balance. The question starts with intent.

For public relations firms, the discussion to have a blog or not, whether or not that blog belongs to the firm or individuals, whether or not that blog is authored by teams or individuals, and what content to include, is really a question of communication intent.

If you can determine the intent of the communication, then you'll likely answer all those other questions. And many different firms will find many different answers. As for the rest, the work will stand on its own as long you don't make your ideas a slave to popularity.

“I'm sick of just liking people. I wish to God I could meet somebody I could respect.” — J.D. Salinger

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Wednesday, February 3

Integrating Communication: Advertising-Driven Social Media

As mentioned before, there are many ways to integrate social media into organizational communication. And every model has a number of variables unique to an organization. The key component in every model, however, is integration.

Two weeks ago, we proposed what a public relations-driven social media program might look like. But what about advertising?

In social media circles, there tends to be a misconception that all advertising has to be interruption based. It's not really true. Advertising covers a broad spectrum of communication materials. And good advertising delineates itself into any number of purposes, including introduction, education, entertainment, and branding.

The best of it doesn't interrupt as much as it entices readers or viewers to enjoy the context of paid message as much as the editorial or entertainment content. It's the reason Super Bowl advertisements generate so much interest every year. And it's the reason good copywriters are able to develop skill sets to write messages for a large audience and yet, those audience members feel like the message is uniquely written for them.

An Advertising-Driven Social Media Model

The above illustration represents what an advertising-driven communication plan might look like with social media. In this model, advertising manages advertising functions and supports social media functions, with some crossover. For simplicity, we've broken it down into primary functions and then reinforced some shared functions.


• Managing traditional mass communication, which includes collateral, print, and broadcast. As long as there is mass media, even if it continues to serve increasingly smaller niches, the functions remain the same. What is different is that all of this communication has the additional role of helping consumers find two-way communication portals.

• Promotions, which include direct response campaigns, guerilla marketing, and special events (sometimes managed by public relations), post-purchase communication is managed by the team. Sure, some is interruption-based. But interruption-based communication is likely to continue as long as people respond to it.

• While Web sites were lumped into an online mass media category, the online environment has changed. One-dimensional, one-way static communication can only exist as an option for the most passive visitors. It's the primary reason people like Mitch Joel recently reminded communicators that Web sites are Web sites no more. Social media can help make them consumer functional.

Social Media.

• Maintain, manage, and promote the organization's blog or similar Web site function. This may include market intelligence (which is shared with the advertising team), but primarily consists of content development and content distribution that adds value for customers. While blogs are presentation oriented, they do provide for two-way communication.

• Maintain, manage, and develop the organization's social networks. This includes online programs and information sharing that nurtures true engagement and two-way communication in real time. Where advertising plays a role is that most social networks provide vehicles for advertising. If someone doesn't think online ads work, they are either delusional or have bad ads.

• Blogger outreach occurs directly and indirectly as bloggers may source content from the organization's blog or develop relationships with the social media team via any number of social networks. Where advertising can support this effort is in including some blogs (or group purchases) on media buys based on recommendations form the social media team.

Shared functions.

• Regardless of which team takes the lead, message development and branding become a shared function. Social media programs generally have a tone, much like any other communication. While some copywriters could cross-write mass media and social media content, not all copywriters can. It's a different style, one that borrows from journalism as much as advertising. Likewise, agencies can remain responsible for design, but only while working in tandem with social media teams.

• Research is also a shared function of both teams. Advertising (and marketing) have had a lead position in conducting consumer focus groups and demographic research for a long time. It's beneficial in message development. Where social media gives the entire component lift is in providing real-time snapshots of sentiment and analyzing trends.

• Even when a communication plan is primarily advertising-driven, modern companies still benefit from public relations. In this model, public relations works best when it supports paid placement and in support of blogger outreach (because journalists work online too).

Model Summation.

This model represents an approach to communication that emphasizes one-way communication, but is supported by two-way communication. It makes advertising more effective because instead of attempting to drive consumers to a point of sale or push an identity, it helps consumers find two-way communication points.

Why is that important? Specifically, advertising helps create demand and directs consumers to areas of optional engagement, which then directs people to demand fulfillment. And, depending on the company, social media can either support customers or serve as front line soft sales.

All that aside, the primary reason an integrated advertising-social media approach is much more powerful than traditional models is because, nowadays, most consumers look up products and companies online after seeing an advertisement (or editorial, for that matter). Social media represents the first opportunity to validate the product or service. Or, in other words, advertising introduces an identity while social media nurtures a brand relationship.

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Tuesday, February 2

Writing News Releases: CBS vs. Visa

Yesterday, the first high-definition 3-D projection display was unveiled in New York City's Grand Central Station, allowing consumers who accept 3-D glasses from "brand ambassadors" to view 3-D commercials.

The idea alone, attempting to stop some 70,000 consumers to watch commercials as they pass by the display every day, is oddly interesting because it requires consumers to volunteer to watch 3-D commercials that are only shown between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. with regular broadcast commercials being shown the rest of the time. (The display is supported with 3-D dioramas and other elements, which do not require glasses.)

However, determining whether the 3-D concept is remotely effective requires placing it on our watch list. On the other hand, no waiting is needed to appreciate how CBS Outdoor, which owns the 8 x 14-foot 3-D display, and Visa, which is the primary media buyer, essentially released the same news very differently.

1. Format. Short vs. Long-Format News Releases.

CBS issued its release primarily via PR Newswire and PR Web. It is a short-format release, with just under 400 words, excluding the boilerplate. Visa, which issued its release via Businesswire, sent out a long-format release, with more than 1,200 words, which includes a list but excludes the boilerplate.

Conventional public relations instruction suggests that news releases ought to be confined to one page (roughly 400 words) as followed by CBS. Visa broke from this conventional wisdom, providing richer content and substantive details about the 3-D outdoor and how it ties into its Go World Olympic campaign.

While Visa might have broken the story into two releases, its release is the better read. They are much more in line with the non-conventional wisdom I teach, which reinforces writing tight but without any constraints or rules. Simply put, the best releases share the story in the amount of words required to tell it. Nothing more. Nothing less. Visa, point. CBS, zero.

2. Content. Exclusive vs. Inclusive Content.

The CBS news release is exclusive to CBS Outdoor. It contains two quotes, one from CBS and another from N4D.

While the release does give a nod to its client, Visa, and N4D (which creates and converts video/film content into a 3-D format), the message is confined to a singular story. Even the headline suggests what it ought to be: "CBS Outdoor Brings 3-D Outdoor Advertising to New York's Grand Central Station."

The Visa release is inclusive, covering multiple topics such as the 3-D display, the Go World campaign, the Olympic-related content, the exact times street teams will pass out glasses, and the Team Visa Olympic members to be featured. It includes two quotes, one from Visa and another from CBS.

The headline underscores the nature of the release: "Visa Uses 3-D Video to Bring Go World Ad Campaign to Life in Grand Central Terminal."

Without question, the Visa release is inclusive, with a headline that suggests why we might care. Point, Visa. CBS, zero.

3. Quotes. Expected vs. Interesting.

The CBS quotes, in both the CBS and Visa releases, talk about CBS, its outdoor technology, and the location of that technology. In the CBS release specifically, both quotes read as the expected response, with sentences that include tried and tired nails-on-chalkboard fodder from CBS and N4D.

"CBS Outdoor is very proud..." and "And we're thrilled to be doing so with Visa..." and "Working with CBS Outdoor is a tremendous opportunity for N4D..." Yawn.

The Visa release quote emphasizes the Olympic Games, the campaign, the technology, social media, and how they intend to tie everything together. Antonio Lucio, chief marketing officer, tells us exactly what they are attempting to do.

"With the help of innovative 3-D technology and popular social media sites, we're able to strengthen our connection to the Olympic Games and drive transactions during the Games with a breakthrough promotional offer – a trip to the Olympic Winter Games for life.” (The CBS quote in the Visa release is better too, but still smacks of a pitch.)

Quotes are important to the release. They are best served up with supportive content and interesting perspectives. Anything that begins "We're pleased," "thrilled" or "proud" ought to be added to the cliche list. It's boring. Visa, point. CBS, zero.

4. Expansiveness. Standalone vs. Find More Here.

While PR Newswire and PR Web have social media features, the CBS release doesn't really include in-content links beyond the internal ticker symbol tracking provided by PR Newswire. There is another generic link to the CBS Web site, but no link to CBS Outdoor or any online location with more information or visuals. What you read is what you get.

The Visa release includes two in-content links. The first is to its Go World YouTube channel. The second is to its Go World Facebook fan page (link omitted because the fan page had not launched by post time). Within the boilerplate content, it included five links, two of which store downloadable Visa Olympic images, videos and assets. It also included a link to the Visa Web site.

While the amount of content is almost overwhelming, it clearly supports anyone who has an interest in any portion of the story. Point, Visa. CBS, zero.

5. Modernization. One-Way Broadcast vs. Social Connections.

Again, while PR Newswire and PR Web both have social media sharing functions, the CBS release only includes "blog it," "e-mail it" sharing options. There is nothing to comment on, or connect with beyond a singular media contact.

The Visa release, as mentioned, provides links to several sites, including two social media outlets: YouTube and Facebook. It also includes 12 sharing options and two points of contact for the media. In many ways, YouTube is limited as a two-way communication channel and Visa had not launched the Facebook page prior to the release.

Clearly, it would have been more effective to launch the fan page two weeks ago, with a different release. This would have provided Visa the opportunity to promote its NYC campaign to its members. As an additional option, it could have purchased Facebook advertisements, with an emphasis on a proximity purchase in New York.

Not perfect, but Visa has a fine start. Half point, Visa. CBS, zero.

Conclusions and Outcomes.

If you were keeping score, it isn't hard to deduce that the Visa release wins 4 1/2 points to 0. But what about where it really matters?

To be fair, we might mention that Visa had a head start with its release being sent out yesterday. CBS issued its release this morning. However, from strictly a total exposure standpoint, CBS captured about 25 media/quasi media mentions and one blog post. The Visa release captured at least 200+ media/quasi media mentions and five blog posts, plus inclusion on the Team USA site.

In addition to total exposure, almost all of the CBS releases are release reruns, essentially filler for online and offline publications with no time or nothing better to report. The Visa mentions performed slightly better, with approximately 40 percent of the stories focused on specific angles within the release, especially its contest. The Visa release also went further with sports niche publications, which is precisely what it wanted to do.

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Monday, February 1

Accounting For Recovery: Chief Financial Officers

According to a fourth quarter survey conducted by Financial Executives International (FEI) and Baruch College's Zicklin School of Business, optimism in the economy is coming from what many would consider the least likely source: chief financial officers.

"CFOs overall closed 2009 with a much improved sense of optimism than when it began, but they are realistic about the challenges that still lay ahead," said John Elliott, dean of the Zicklin School of Business at Baruch College. "CFOs are indicating that they have learned lessons from the downturn and can face the coming year looking forward to the opportunities at hand."

Highlights From The FEI/Baruch Survey.

• Net earnings expected to rise by 22 percent by the third quarter.
• Gross revenue anticipated to grow by 10 percent this year.
• Technology spending anticipated to increase by 6.1 percent.
• Inventory anticipated to increase by 2.5 percent, reversing reductions.
• Prices are expected to increase by 1.13 percent this year.

Where CFOs are more reserved is on employment. Nearly nine out of ten CFOs reported they are looking for efficiencies over new employees. Two-thirds said they would invest in technology; one-third said they planned additional restructuring.

Companies seem hesitant to hire new employes for several reasons, including cost containment (uncertainty of future costs associated with new employees); an increased emphasis on public perception (slower, more manageable growth); a shift from growth-orientation toward leadership-orientation (restructuring to serve a smaller, affluent base); and concerns over the current government administration. Sixty-four percent said the U.S. economic outlook has weakened since Obama took office.

What It Might Mean For Communication.

Another study, conducted by integrated marketing services provider Alterian, found more than 66 percent of marketing professionals would be shifting more than 20 percent of their direct marketing budgets toward social media. However, the same survey reveals most companies are still unsure of how to implement a social media program, with only 7 percent of companies making a significant effort toward multichannel customer engagement.

“2010 marks the start of the digital decade for marketing," said Alterian CEO David Eldridge. "Untargeted and irrelevant marketing techniques are now redundant and the results of this survey show many in the industry recognize this."

There are two takeaways from this post today. First, communication professionals at larger companies might invest more time expanding a dialogue with their CFOs to develop communication points that may boost employee morale. Second, while most marketing trends point to social media, it produces fewer results unless those efforts are integrated in traditional marketing and executed with customer engagement.

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