Thursday, February 11

Crafting Reality: Proficiency or Deficiency?

Michael Josephson, president of the Josephson Institute, cited an interesting study that came out of the University of Toronto and the University of California, San Diego, late last year. The study found that while parents say that honesty is the best policy, they lie to their children in order to influence behavior and emotions.

The researchers said they were surprised by how often what they call "parenting by lying" takes place, especially among those who most strongly promote the importance of honesty. I'm not surprised.

In 1996, Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Virginia, asked 147 people between the ages of 18 and 71 keep a diary of all the falsehoods they told over the course of a week. They found most people lie as much as twice a day. This did not include mindless pleasantries or polite equivocations such as saying "you're fine" when you're obviously not.

DePaulo's study is consistent with another study on lying conducted around 2004. They asked 30 students to keep track of their social communications for seven days, and those students admitted to lying about 1.6 times per day. The study also concluded people are more likely to lie on the phone, but only marginally so.

And yet, another study on lying from the University of Arizona marked increases in children ages 6-8 and 9-11. The study breaks lying down into four categories: pro-social (protecting someone), self-enhancement (avoid embarrassment), selfish (conceal misdeeds at expense of others), and anti-social (hurting someone intentionally). Other studies, by the way, pinpoint that lying begins around three years of age.

You get the point. People lie all the time. And they are obviously well practiced.

So what can we do about it?

What stood out to me in the post from the Josephson Institute, which develops services and materials to increase ethical competence, were three points (paraphrased below) I found useful as a future teaching model.

• Risk Assessment. Is the benefit worth the risk, especially when the risk includes trust?
• Alternative Action. Can you accomplish a goal another way, knowing that necessity isn’t fact but interpretation?
• Long-term Consequences. Have you fully considered the consequences, especially if it puts others at risk or if it is exposed several months or years later.

The reason this list is such an excellent teaching tool is that communicators are sometimes asked to lie for the organizations they serve. My advice, consistently, is not to do it. However, that sometimes leaves students at a loss of how to approach the subject.

The first step in confronting a lie.

Ethics suggest that when communicators become privy to mistruths, they address it with the responsible party first. This allows the responsible party an opportunity to correct it before turning to a higher authority. The imperative becomes helping the responsible party consider several points, much like those laid out by the Josephson Institute.

Long-term consequences tend to be the most overlooked. Cutting corners to meet production demands at the expense of safety might not be noticeable until someone is injured. Padding departmental budget expenses over the course of several years can result in layoffs when the organization faces hard times. Attempting to be noble by padding scores in an awards contest may reinforce the winner's belief that inferior work is acceptable.

Whatever the case, long-term consequences are not always known when people attempt to change perception.

Interestingly enough, fear and narcissism tend to be the driving justifiers for lies. People who lie are afraid of the truth or, in some cases, believe that their direct manipulation of facts are necessary to produce a specific outcome. When you think about it, those traits are also why parents who place a honesty in high regard still lie to their children in order to change behavior.

In closing, I might add that objective assessment and effective communication on the front end is a remedy as well.

For instance, Gail Heyman, professor of psychology at UC San Diego, said telling a 2-year-old that you don't like their drawing is cruel. Therefore, such a pro-social lie is seen as somewhat justifiable.

However, it seems to me that in such a case the error isn't the drawing as much as it assessment of the drawing (considering the artist is two years old) or the inability to communicate effectively, such as offering ways to improve the picture. This way, the parent won't hurt the child's self-esteem but won't enable them either. In other words, choose your words carefully.

Bookmark and Share

Passing For Creative: Butterfinger

There are three ways to look at a brand new Butterfinger television commercial, which will begin to air nationally on Feb. 15 and continue through the third quarter: the celebration of consumer generated creative; the hyperbole of hype and hopeful publicity; or the gradual decline of advertising as we know it.

The celebration of consumer generated creative.

For the cost of $28, David Markus, a graduate of the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts, won $25,000 and a one-year supply of Butterfinger candy bars. His spot is a mostly well-framed, cute, mildly funny iPhone app cliche. We don't want to take away from his win whatsoever. Congratulations.

Customers can be creative. And sometimes they might surprise you, like fans of the television show Jericho, who out-marketed the CBS marketing team. Butterfinger was surprised too. It received 600 entries. Some, like this one or this one, aren't bad. Some are, but you can find those on your own.

The hyperbole of hype and hopeful publicity.

A few decent spots aside, the Butterfinger contest doesn't seem to be the success the company thought it would be.

Of those 600 entries, Markus racked up 11,000 views on YouTube, which is far away ahead of the pack, including the contest promo. Most videos averaged about 100 views. On the Facebook/Yahoo video, views are higher with about 3,000 views as the average, which still seems low given the page has about 480,000 fans.

Yet, to read the release, you would think the contest was entered by everyone on the planet. It's loaded with buzz words, such as allowing "fans to take control of the brand and express themselves in a very real way." Six hundred, anyway.

"This approach essentially allowed consumers to talk to each other about the brand they love," said Daniel Jhung, Butterfinger marketing manager. "As a result, we got hundreds of new ideas with a wide range of creative interpretation and depth. The content laboratory is getting bigger and bigger." Maybe.

The gradual decline of advertising as we know it.

Again, this isn't meant to detract from any of Butterfinger's consumer generated marketing. I tend to be a fan of the general concept, and have managed a few in one form or another. But in reviewing the ads, even the decent ones, it seems to strike at the perception of what the general public thinks advertising is as opposed to what it can be.

Sure, there are plenty of creative spots produced by agencies every year (we saw a handful during the Super Bowl), the concept of what makes advertising great is in steady decline. Even at some top ad shops, divergent thinking has somehow morphed into tossing spaghetti and hoping it sticks to the wall.

Great advertising is hardly coming up with something witty or mildly funny or bizarre and tagging a three-second product shot at the end. It's hard work.

It requires someone who can maximize creativity within the least creative of confines and still manage to produce something that connects with people in such a way that not only do they identify with the communication, recognize it as a conversation about what they were thinking anyway, and feel motivated enough to think about it, find out more about it, and maybe even go out and buy it.

And therein might be why the Butterfinger contest seems one off from a real success story. A limited pool of people picked an advertisement they liked best. But what people "like" and what actually works outside of the context of a consumer contest is something else.

And for students hoping to someday pursue the profession as a career, they might keep that in mind before adding to the pile of spots that leave people saying "I could write that ad" as opposed to "I wish I wrote that ad."

Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, February 10

Managing Crisis: Silence vs. Social

"We are not eliminating any medical benefits," Rob Stillwell, spokesman for NV Energy, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "That's all I can say on the record."

There is a reason NV Energy cannot discuss its decision to place a cap on contributions to employees' retiree medical plans: textbook public relations. Regulated companies are almost always silent in the midst of union contract negotiations.

Unions are not.

Some 200 union workers rallied in the rain yesterday to protest planned reduced health care benefits for NV Energy retirees and cutbacks in the utility company's work force. But the traditional pickets are only one piece of the union's communication program. IBEW Local 1245 has launched a Web site and a Facebook page, aptly titled Shame On NV Energy.

Paid advertisements help drive traffic to the site. Banners were placed on the The New York Times several days ago. It seems the communication is aimed at would-be investors considering the company after it reported a profit, credited to a 6.1 percent increase in Southern Nevada's general rates. Even without the rate hike, NV Energy was already delivering the most expensive energy in the mountain states.

The union also seems especially irritated by the changes in retiree compensation plans because it was hopeful that NV Energy would be investing in a new transmission line and receiving $138 million in stimulus funds, which Senator Harry Reid claims as a feather in his cap. Instead, the union was surprised by a planned cut in retiree health benefits and the closure of offices in Las Vegas, Elko, Yerington and Carson City.

The cuts are likely a consequence of NV Energy's planned move into renewable energy. In its most recent Integrated Resource Plan approved by the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada, NV Energy will be spending approximately $2 billion to purchase and invest in new renewable energy by 2015. The emphasis is on solar, wind, and geothermal.

Recent announcements in its moves toward renewable energy all but drown out the union protest. However, that does not mean the complaints are falling on deaf ears. Since Monday, the Facebook account has tripled as consumers, concerned about energy prices, join the retirees. Like many utilities, the answer is never to reduce rates but to reduce consumption, they say.

There is also speculation over the resignation of the company’s chief financial officer and treasurer just days before what would otherwise be good news. Speculation is commonplace, given the timing and lack of any specific reason.

The story raises several interesting questions about social media and the current state of media. One of the most pressing has less to do with message management and more to do with message control, which social media is often credited in rectifying. However, in this case study, it seems social media makes communication a crapshoot.

The success of IBEW communication relies on nothing more than drawing attention to the topic. The success of NV Energy communication seems much more to do with talking more about everything else, as there is no mention of cuts on its Web site or toe test on Twitter.

Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, February 9

Moving Sideways: Toyota

"You're always hearing these very silly PR people when a crisis hits dive in front of the camera and dish out this ridiculous cliche that if you just fessed up, the problem would go away." — Eric Dezenhall, CEO of Dezenhall Resources.

Two days after investing $3 million on a Super Bowl recall advertisement that flatlined with viewers who were using an online dial testing system to determine their level of interest, Toyota announced the recall of 437,000 Prius and other hybrid vehicles worldwide. It is yet another bump in a series of what the company has called a lapse in safety standards.

High Points Of The Toyota Recall

Overall, Toyota has done a fine job managing most elements of its recall communication, including the development of a recall page on its Web site. One of the best elements includes videos that identify three problem areas that led to the recall and a detailed stopping procedure to minimize driver risk while they return their vehicles to the shop.

Another bright spot is the Toyota recall plan. Within days, Toyota introduced a recall plan to notify owners, schedule an appointment with some dealers offering extended hours of operation, and reinforcement that some trained technicians are making repairs.

The recall communication effectively focuses on what is important: identifying the problems, offering immediate solutions, outlining what owners need to do, stopping production until the problem is fixed, and providing updates on the repair status.

This had led Eric Dezenhall, CEO of Dezenhall Resources, to conclude that the situation is manageable, even if the company didn't start well out of the gate. The problem many companies face, in part, he says, is that they communicate too fast.

Low Points of Toyota Recall

In an effort to respond rapidly, Toyota catered to the American appetite for an apology, with Jim Lentz, president and chief operating officer, Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc. While there is nothing really wrong with an apology (despite being confusing in exactly what the apology is for), branding the recall a "sticky pedal situation" was probably not the best choice of words. (His appearances on news programs are smart.)

Another low point is the decision to cash in on the reputation of the company too early. Much like the Super Bowl ad, Toyota is delivering a message that claims for more than 50 years safety has been the highest priority. The advertisement then reveals that "in recent days" the company hasn't been living up to those standards.

This recall communication focuses on accepting responsibility, admitting guilt, and promising to never let it happen again. Unfortunately, Toyota had not yet identified the extent of its recall. So as these messages move forward, additional recalls seems to contradict the message. This is the third time in recent months that Toyota has contradicted itself.

This had led Gene Grabowski, chair of crisis and litigation practice at Levick Strategic Communications, to dub this recall as the worst handled in history because consumer anxiety persists and the messages have been mixed. The problem, in part, he says, is that Toyota was too slow in taking action.

Initial Outcomes Of The Recall

Like many recalls, the Toyota crisis plan has been a mixed bag. The truth is somewhere in between the assessments by Grabowski and Dezenhall. Dezenhall is right in that recalls are not all public relations. There are mechanical and operational considerations. Grabowski is right in that Toyota was too slow to take action with what is shaping up to be a slew of problems.

The real damage to Toyota is impossible to assess at the moment. The number of recalls, especially those unrelated to the original problem, further erodes the company's credibility. And with every new apology Toyota issues now, each subsequent apology means less and less.

In this situation, Toyota would have been better served confining its initial communication to the recall at hand before accepting what seemed to be an across-the-board lapse in safety on one issue. Had they delayed an initial apology that isolated the problem to a single flaw, the company may have discovered there were several more recalls ahead and used the initial recall as a catalyst for investigating every detail.

Specifically, Toyota could have used the "sticky pedal situation" as a catalyst for an investigation, and then breaking the news (as the result of that investigation) that safety standards were not being met across the board, including accelerator pedals, brake pedals, steering columns, and who knows what else.

Meanwhile, instead of producing commercials attempting to cash in on the company's credibility bank, the crisis communication team ought to have been investigating exactly who knew what when so new stories do not undermine current efforts. For instance, breaking today, State Farm says it warned Toyota about an accelerator defect in 2007.

We'll provide some crisis communication points as it pertains to this situation in days ahead, including on how this plan would differ from the introduction to crisis communication boiler plate. Otherwise, there seem to be only two factors saving Toyota at the moment.

First, the problems did not result in an epic number of fatalities. Second, all automakers generate some negativity nowadays.

How negative? Of all the manufacturers with ads that aired during the Super Bowl, only two vehicles weren't dialed down when the brand was first revealed in the commercial. Those two brands: Volkswagen and Kia. See for yourself.

Bookmark and Share

Monday, February 8

Winning Ads: Why Some Super Bowl Ads Work

HCD Research released the results of a national study designed to determine which Super Bowl commercials had the highest sustained levels of interest. The survey included 110 commercials, which were also tested for breakthrough creative, emotion, memorability, and involvement.

You can find the advertisements on a dedicated Super Bowl Ad Test. Most of the commercials include direct responses about the advertisements. (Even advertisements that held interest or ranked high received some negative feedback.)

Top Five Super Bowl Ads For 2010

1. Budweiser "Bull," score 72.78 HCD | 4th by USA Today*
2. Snickers "Betty White," score 70.95 HCD | 1st by USA Today*
3. Denny's "Free Grand Slam," score 67.12 HCD | 27th by USA Today*
4. Doritos "Hands Off," score 66.82 HCD | 11th by USA Today*
5. FLO TV "Generation," score 66.03 HCD | 36th by USA Today*

*The USA Today ad comparison only included 63 as opposed to 110 commercials. Its ad meter is smaller.

Budweiser "Bridge Out," E*Trade "Baby in Airplane," Intel "Smart Computing," Google "Search On," and E*Trade "Wolf Style" rounded out the HCD top ten. The biggest losers of the evening, at up to $3 million per miss, included CBS, Go Daddy, U.S. Census Bureau, Boost Mobile, MetroPCS, Acur, Toyota, Chevy, and Sun Life Financial. Go Daddy missed twice. CBS missed three times.

Writing Effective Television Commercials

The biggest winner from the study, Budweiser "Bull," placed second in interest, first in emotion, and second in the likelihood it would be mentioned around the water cooler today. On the surface, one might ask what's not to love about any past Budweiser spots that paint an analogy using cute farm animals. Dig deeper, when combined with its other top ten Super Bowl counterparts, and you'll find something else.

1. Positive. All of the top advertisements, with the possible exception of Denny's, have positive messages. The lowest rated commercials evoked no emotion as push communication or produced negative emotions for the use of stereotypes, which sum up the MetroPCS and Go Daddy spots.

2. Pull Messages. All of the top advertisements pull the viewers into the spot by setting a scene that eventually ties into the product. The bottom rated commercials tend to push communication, positioning the brand too early in the spot or having exceptionally weak ties between the creative and product or service such as Boost Mobile.

3. Engagement. All of the top advertisements are inclusive, with the possible exception of Denny's, in their aim to create a bridge between the public and the product. The bottom rated ads make statements about themselves. The CBS Survivor advertisement, which was the lowest rated ad, epitomized the grossest display of self-indulgence. Hyundai wasn't far ahead.

4. Creative. All of the top advertisements are creative, but rely on cleverness to achieve a human connection. As creative relies more heavily on special effects, cool techniques, or creative that celebrates itself, they tend to drop off the radar much like the navel-gazing copywriter's monologue that doubled as a Chevy selling point.

5. Nostalgia. All of the top advertisements lean toward some element of nostalgia, which paints an interesting picture of where Americans are today. They want the America they used to know as opposed to the one painted by the current administration.

In fact, some Americans might also be wondering why the U.S. Census Bureau blew $3 million of their tax dollars on one of the least effective advertisements to air. The ad tries to make an American company look stupid, and the government smart. The advertisement, media buy, and messages prove only the opposite is true.

Or maybe, they are thinking about how everyone who says Toyota is doing a good job with its crisis communication was proven wrong by an ill-advised Super Bowl advertisement. More about that tomorrow.

Bookmark and Share

Sunday, February 7

Experimenting With Social: Fresh Content Project

Toward the end of last year, I became increasingly interested in the affect of popularity on the content people choose to read. Specifically, I began to wonder what would happen if popularity was removed from the equation.

Would it change our perspective?

So, I set up an experiment of sorts. I began building a capped Twitter list of 300 communication-related professionals (currently at 230) and then worked with our communication manager to establish a baseline of blogs either authored by or referred to by members of the list. Today, it consists of more than 100. More will be added. There may or may not be a cap.

From those blogs, we narrow all the "Fresh Content" to choosing a single standout every weekday (with weekend posts spilling into Monday). There is no algorithm. And our approach is objective, though some might feel it is subjective. Whatever.

The pick process is simple enough. If we could only refer one post a day, what would it be? And, over time, will our list match some of those supported by popularity-based algorithms? Or would we find the best content really is the primary driver?

Originally, we were considering building another blog to support the "Fresh Content Project," but settled on a simpler approach. New picks appear in the footer of this blog; old picks will be summed up in a weekend recap as they fall off. At some point, we'll do something with the data. Worse case, we only end up cataloging a few good ideas from great people.

Best Fresh Content In Review, January 24-31

What PR Writers Really Need To Know About AP Style, Revisited.
Barbara Nixon makes a great case for public relations specialists to use the Associated Press Stylebook. She pinpointed five critical components that every student might start with before digging deeper into the one book most journalists and editors turn to when they have questions about writing.

No More Websites. Only Publishers.
Some people might think that Mitch Joel is only stating the obvious when he wrote that Websites are not Websites anymore, but his presentation of the facts cuts through the clutter. Producing online content makes your company a publisher, and consumers are much more interested in reading content that engages and evolves rather than traditional sites designed to be not much more than online brochures.

There's No Money In Content Creation.
The always insightful Valeria Maltoni wrote a post that provides insight on why great content matters. One of several gems that really stand out in the post is how she reminds writers that readers can tell when you aren't passionate about a post. She's right. More than that, she also shares how great content can help the writer as much as the audience they hope to reach.

Why Customers Will Fan Your Facebook Page.
Jay Ehret pinpointed an observation (with data) that we have been kicking around the office for some time — online consumers do not represent a single public. For evidence, take a look at the research, which suggests different Facebook fans become fans for very different reasons. It begs the question: Are you delivering enough to meet all their needs?

Social Media Boundaries.
The topic has been covered in posts and workshops before, but Gini Dietrich shared her personal approach to setting boundaries online, which serves as a great example for people who are new to social networks and might feel overwhelmed. I have boundaries too. Most people who are engaged do, for one reason or another. That is how we find more time.

Scott Brown Tops Coakley in Massachusetts Election.
Larry Kim provides insight on why social media polling matters in the political arena. The post includes some compelling data that reveals Scott Brown was gaining as much momentum online as he was on the ground. For additional insight, the post breaks down search volume by each city using Google trends.

Bookmark and Share

Blog Archive

by Richard R Becker Copyright and Trademark, Copywrite, Ink. © 2021; Theme designed by Bie Blogger Template