Thursday, October 7

Whitewashing Oil Spills: Control The Crisis Not The Communication

OilHow much did the government whitewash the Gulf Coast oil spill? It almost doesn't matter. When trust relies on reputation, even little lies take their toll during a crisis and during the post-crisis analysis.

In this case, the administration seems poised to defend itself, regardless. After the presidential commission released its largely neutral preliminary report, the rebuttal by the administration has been to criticize any criticisms. The approach was exemplified by the initial response to the report.

"The federal government response was full force and immediate, and the response focused on state and local plans and evolved when needed. As directed by the President, the response was based on science, even when that pitted us against BP or state and local officials, and the response pushed BP every step of the way," — White House Office of Management and Budget

Three Most Critical Areas Where Communication Broke Down.

1. Inconsistent definitions of the relationship between the government and BP. The government attempted to make the case it was deferring to, in charge of, and a partner with BP. Clearly, the government could not be all three simultaneously.

In most circumstances, the definitions of a relationship will only change erratically when the organization is incompetent, or, more likely, is attempting to position the itself to grab any credit but push off any criticism. In this case, more emphasis seems to have been placed on attempting to control public perception instead of the oil spill.

2. Fear of negative public perception. Perhaps one of the most troubling aspects of the report was that it revealed how the White House was directly involved in controlling information (but not the operation) from the start. According to the Associated Press, the White House budget office even denied a request from NOAA to make public the worst-case scenario estimates.

In most circumstances, the most likely reason any organization would withhold such information, which in this case was actualized, would be because they believed that the denial of these facts would delay public outrage. Specific in this crisis, it seems clear the Unified Command also had worst-case estimates, but did not release them in a timely manner. Some Coast Guard responders are on record as saying that much of the initial effort was slow and unfocused.

3. Too many messengers with conflicting information. In an effort to show more "transparency" and that the government was in control of the crisis, numerous agency heads became involved in a public decision making process rather than deferring to qualified people in the field. This dramatically politicized the crisis.

In most circumstances, organizations that continually shift spokespeople or cater to dozens of spokespeople to make a show of involvement while minimizing accountability for the entire organization. Ergo, if any singular spokesperson misspeaks or if a statement is later proven false, the other spokespeople can refute or denounce what was said.

Crisis Communication Must Be Clear, Accurate, And Human.

Communication is the single most powerful tool in effective governance. However, it can also be the greatest liability unless communication it is clear, accurate, and human.

For this administration, there seems to have been too much emphasis on public perception damage and not enough on environmental damage. Specifically, the administration idealized what public perception it wanted to actualize: The administration was fully vested in minimizing the crisis despite everyone working against them for personal gain.

The reality was very different, enough so that no amount of spin could be believed. Imagine how differently this crisis might have played out if the focus remained on the crisis as opposed to the crisis communication.

Then, the administration would have invested full resources in the initial response and had one spokesperson deliver a consistently honest and accurate accounting of what was being done. Other agency heads could then reinforce the message and their confidence in the spokesperson as well as the decisions being made. In the best case scenario, the administration would have overcommitted and contained the spill. In the worst case scenario, the public would have accepted the damage.

There are only two possible explanations for the way the administration handled the crisis response. Either the administration was overconfident and therefore negligent and incompetent in its handling of the crisis on the front end. Or, it purposely attempted to manipulate public perception to downplay the severity of the crisis or their inability to deal with it.

If you are interested, we've chronicled a great deal of the communication as part of a living case study. Perhaps the most likely explanation can be found there. Or perhaps the better lesson is that effective communication follows action and not our preferred fantasies. Case study closed. Maybe.

Wednesday, October 6

Losing Contacts: The Open Network

A couple years ago, I considered moving out of the Las Vegas market after being approached by a Fortune 500 company. The offer was nearly perfect until they tossed one question that was a deal breaker in my book. It was about my "book" or what was once called a Rolodex.

"How many media contacts do you have in your Rolodex?

Seriously? A tech company even using the term seemed suspect enough, Fortune 500 or not. But the real rub was that it just doesn't matter how many business cards you've filed away. Social networking has created an open network, where the value of industry connections and media relationships are based on quality, not quantity. I tried to explain, but they just didn't get it.

"It just doesn't matter what the industry is, any seasoned public relations professional can create a fistful of media contacts overnight and the quality of the relationships will be established almost immediately based on the initial interaction."

That was the power and promise of the social network. Even if you didn't have certain contacts, doors could be opened easily enough. Almost everyone on the planet is one or two or three degrees removed from the contacts you have today (assuming they are real relationships).

And then I read Fear and Loathing on LinkedIn this morning and realized the opposite is true too. If everyone's doors are open to you, then your doors are likely to be open to everyone else too. As HR technology writer Steve Boese pointed out, everyone has access to your network.

It used to be, you'd only have to worry about competing recruiters luring your best talent away to what is usually seen as an uncertain path, now it looks like soon your friends at LinkedIn may help guide the way a little more clearly," wrote Boese. "But don't be afraid, if you lose that top marketing manager you can probably find another one soon enough."

The same can be said for small shops, consultants, and, well, any business really. Online networks are open books. And if you don't think that someone isn't interested in stealing away your employees, clients, customers, and maybe your spouse, then you might be as naive as new snow.

While the value of quantity connections used to carry value on the supply and demand side, it just doesn't scale. One thousand exclusive connections only mean something when they are exclusive. Today, those 1,000 connections are an open book. Of course, it's nothing to panic about, as Boese suggests. It's the best thing that happened for everybody.

"Fear melts when you take action towards a goal you really want." — Robert G. Allen

The remedy is never fear or attempting to lock down those precious connections. It's very much the opposite. Make them precious. Make them count. Because in the new economy, the quality of the relationship isn't secured by keeping your connections hidden or bombarding them with frequency. It's based on something else, which is closer to friendship.

I have many friends, but only a few close ones. Those I could consider close (and I don't necessarily mean "secret keeping" close) are the kind of friends that I could reach out to once every ten years and we would pick up where we left off, as if the last time we connected was a week ago. I have many acquaintances that are very much the same (former students included).

It's the only kind of relationship that has real value, and you can even make them with first-time connections if you are adept enough, value them enough, and keep them off the agenda. Anything less isn't a connection, it's only a contact. If you focus more on the former as opposed to the latter, you can almost guarantee that your employees will be unrecruitable, your client unstealable, and your future connections unwavering (even if you never met them beyond a post, email, or tweet).

And if you don't believe it? Well, then keep doing what you're doing. You'll figure it out in your own time, probably when you grow weary of the revolving door. And that's something you can count on.

Tuesday, October 5

Advertising Laughs: Kraft Lightens Up

Years ago, before video had become a mainstream component for social media, we considered advertainment would eventually become a key ingredient for online campaigns. There have been several attempts, including the failed Bud TV concept.

But the one who might have the right just under-the-radar mix is Kraft. It recently tapped stay-at-home mom turned comedian Anita Renfroe to weave Kraft products into her routine for a series called You Gotta LOL. And although this brand of product insertion is blatant, the comedy remains authentic, relatable, embedable, and shareable.

It's also on target with the brand. When Renfroe talks about the dreamy, creamy center of an Oreo cookie, she calls it "sweet, dependable, like the perfect boyfriend." But at the same time, Kraft allows her to have fun with the creamy center as she admits to having no idea what the "stuff is."

Oreo isn't the only product. Each segment ties into a different offering from Kraft, but most aren't overt. For example, the Kraft 100 calorie packs segment never mentions the product. Renfroe just talks about her battle with weight, offering that if you are what you eat, she might eat a super model.

Why Does The Kraft Concept Work So Well?

Kraft finds the perfect balance giving people a reason to visit its Web site, but allows people to share segments anywhere they want. There is no need to control the distribution or keep people on the site longer than they want.

They succeed in framing the segments with just enough about Renfroe, product ads, and useful information, including Kraft Mobile, Kraft recipes by email, and ample connection points for a variety of products on Facebook (including one built exclusively for the comedy series). And unlike Old Spice, the campaign concept might need to be refreshed, but it is sustainable without the gimmick of interaction. We relate to the content, not the flash in the pan.

The sustainability works well because some of the bits could be played 20 years from now and still make sense (assuming the specific product is around). But more importantly, all of it sticks well within the Kraft brand, perhaps best described as iconic products that celebrate the inner child in most people.

According to Brandweek, Kraft worked with Meredith Corp.’s integrated marketing department to create 18 videos. The company has been launching one mini-episode a week with dozens of distribution points, allowing people to connect any way they want.

On that last point, Kraft also shows a level of maturity that most companies experimenting with social media do not. The embedded video above won't help its total views on YouTube, where they are also airing. Instead, Kraft chose the best video applications based on what will work with each platform.

While this strips away some social media experts' ability to claim a success story based on a singular view alone (ho hum), Kraft's measurement is better weighed by looking at the total composite of the campaign rather than a single slice like some people try to measure. And that, well, it's just smart. About the only thing that Kraft missed was tying everything together in traditional media too (but I won't count that out yet).

Monday, October 4

Looking For Quality: Consumers Shed Frugality

A new study from the latest from The Futures Company notes a new shift in consumer attitudes. The priority placed on price during the global recession is weakening.

"While these changes are small, they are nevertheless notable, for they signal the start of a long awaited reversal in attitudes," says J. Walker Smith, executive chairman of The Futures Company. "It's easy to lose sight of the fact that just because consumers are still tightening their belts doesn't mean they don't want name brand quality."

The drop is slight, with 53 percent saying that "price is more important to me than brand names," which is down from 57 percent in 2009. According to the futures company, consumers look to well-known brand names because they represent a mark of tried and tested quality. Almost 40 percent of consumers believe that famous brands can be relied on for quality.

The challenge price-slashing companies may face is finding ways to justify returning prices to their old normal. Once prices are set, it is often difficult to demonstrate a higher product price-to-value ratio prior to the price cut, unless the company can find a new way to add value.

Price increases are also especially difficult to accept when customers are just beginning to feel economic pressures ease. Their response to price increases tends to be more volatile, especially on fixed monthly costs. For example, a consumer finally feeling confident enough to plan a vacation might balk at higher than anticipated room rates, especially if it kills their travel plans.

Smith is right in noting that consumers are practicing prioritization over frugality, which reinforces other research that seemed to suggest that consumers were splurging. They weren't. Any lavish purchases were self-rewards, tending to gravitate toward toward one-time purchases with heftier price tags but higher perceived quality.

"Frugality is a coping mechanism not an aspiration," added Smith. We tend to agree. In fact, even in B2B settings, price breaks tend to devalue services more than they create an allure for that service. The net result is price breaks increase demand and expectation as customers feel that they might have lost something after receiving the discount.

Sunday, October 3

Knowing Zip: Fresh Content Project

Fresh ContentThere is an old saying that the more you know, the more you realize you really know nothing at all. If you want a great communicator or marketer or social media expert, pay careful attention to those who ascend beyond that point. They tend to be more modest, but not for lack of confidence. They know that they don't know.

Because communication tends to overlap psychology and sociology, and we know very little about those fields, most marketers know nothing at all. They base their understanding of the world on experiences that may or may not exist in any new situation or circumstance. However, the truth of communication suggests the opposite is true and these five posts share some insights that illustrate this fact.

Best Fresh Content In Review, Week of September 20

10 Simple Steps To Increase Your Digital Influence.
While I'm not big on worrying about digital influence, there is no denying that the right person can get a little lift from following the ten tactical points presented by Jeff Bullas. Hang out with people in your audience, develop a niche so people can identify with you, and invest in strategy that integrates all communication (and not just online communication) round out the first three. It makes sense because these tactics are just like real life. The more you treat online behavior as your offline behavior, the more likely you are to succeed (assuming you excel offline too).

• Social Media Experts, Marketers Quake at #NewTwitter.
In a post with a title that originally played on the word "egoists," Louis Gray writes up some of the hangups on the new Twitter. The harshest criticism he pulls from the stack reads succinctly enough: "And yet it's common behavior, @stop. Twitter embraced the @ symbol, hashtags, and RT from its users. Why do you suddenly know best." Sometimes this is the problem with social networks. Once they become popular, they forget that the public made them so. However, no matter how you feel about the changes, it also serves up a great reminder that tactics used today won't work tomorrow.

Some Truths About Crowdsourcing.
Geoff Livingston presents four solid truths to crowdsourcing online: crowds have to care, they need structure, rules need to be understood, and managers need to invest a significant amount of time. You can read the explanations on his post, but I'd like to add an additional caveat to the crowdsourcing conversation. Never forget the quiet majority. Most people don't say anything when they leave a brand behind. They just leave. So do be careful listening to the loudest folks all the time. Sometimes they are a niche unto themselves.

• No-Attention Branding.
Roger Dooley notes that if perception is the marketer's playground, then the goal of the marketer must always be to get in front of the people and engage them, right? Maybe not. At least that might be the lesson learned from the impossible reality of blindsight. No matter how many people will tell you otherwise, people process brand information without being consciously aware of it. What this means is that it is sometimes important to be there without asking for attention or engaging people. Exactly right.

10 Things To Put In Your SEO Proposal.
Ian Lurie provides a simple, but effective list of everything you might need to include in an effective SEO sales pitch. One of my favorite points, however, had nothing to do with what to include. It tells you what not to include. He says there is no need to promise to put clients at the top of the heap because anyone with half a brain will know you are full of crap. Unfortunately, there are plenty of both — people with less than half a brain and people who are full of crap. That is why they are made for each other.

Friday, October 1

Drinking Kool-Aid: Palms Resort Guzzles Klout

The Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas had set itself out to be the party place in Las Vegas when most resort owners were overly concerned with themes. It has always been that way, even back in 2002 when developer George Maloof Jr. opened the property.

"If anything, Las Vegas is a party place and it will always be a party place. We (The Palms) will strive to be party central," Maloof told me a few days before he opened the property.

Making good on his promise, Maloof set out to build a trendsetting property. And by most measures, he did. If any property sparked the party-club atmosphere that Las Vegas has become, it's easy enough to make the case that it was The Palms.

The Palms' Kool-Aid Is Klout.

By becoming celebrity central, it only makes sense that The Palms would eventually embrace social media. It made a move rather late in the trendsetting scheme (Vegas lags behind in social media with programs run by people fresh out of three-day workshops) and the program is largely broadcast oriented. However, they are doing a fine job, overall, in a meandering sort of way. At least I thought so, until I read just how much Kool-Aid the property had drunk with Klout.

David Teicher wrote an interesting article about The Palms for AdAge. The chief marketing officer, Jason Gastwirth, is building a "Klout Klub." Specifically, people with higher Klout scores will receive access to more amenities than people who do not.

Unfortunately, what Gastwirth doesn't know is that Klout, as interesting and fun and silly as it can be, doesn't measure influence. It only pretends it does much in the same way star-bellied sneetches believed they were better than sneetches without stars.

Right. Like all Twitter "influence" algorithms, it tracks RTs and mentions as some sort of indicator of influence. They are not.

In fact, Klout is largely static and makes more mistakes than most. For example, unless you manually update the score and are extremely active on Twitter, your score will stay the same as the time you first stumbled upon it. And, for someone like me, as an example, I have an ultra low influence score because I only use Twitter to keep up with and have conversations with about 2,900 people in the field (generally people with very high Klout scores).

I could change that, if I wanted to. Gaming Klout is relatively simple. If you participate in chat sessions or run one, your "influence" measure will skyrocket because Twitter chat sessions are indicative of generating heavy RTs and mentions. (You can also create a dummy account and have them chat you up, if you want to.) And, of course, you can gin it all up with auto follows and searches for people who automatically follow back. That's just for starters.

What Klout Doesn't Count.

However, even more daunting than that is what Klout doesn't consider. It doesn't consider the 3,500 subscribers here. It doesn't consider a multitude of other social networks. It doesn't consider thousands of people who recently discovered one of our side projects. And it doesn't consider any of the other social media programs we help manage. It really doesn't measure anything.

In fact, it is equally interesting that Klout scores a fledgling Twitter account for our side project (usually manned by volunteer Justin) with 28, 20 points higher than mine, despite having only 120+ connections. That is fine with me, especially because it claims I have "influence" over one person whom I haven't chatted with in six months and another person in more than one year. It even says I influence my wife, who posts once every three months on Twitter.

So, the bottom line is that by Klout standards, I almost have anti-influence. That is fine with me because I've never thought to chase influence anyway. But what that means for properties and companies and organizations like The Palms, as they brand their bellies with stars, is that they are very likely catering to the wrong people — people who have "influence" in the most illusionary way possible.

You cannot cheat and hope to find influencers.

Personally, I get bogged down by the whole influencer game. Sure, I write about it now and again and make it a point to share other articles that debunk it, like Ian Lurie, who continually shows that most algorithms cannot see what social media pros really need to see.

But all in all, the influencer model is largely based on perception and faux popularity within a single environment. If you want to understand what kind of a mistake that might be, consider your local DMV. If someone with oodles of influence at an organization or within the community has to go to the DMV (without someone doing it for them), they will be waiting in line just like everybody else.

Does this mean they don't have influence anymore? Or does it mean that influence has nothing to do with social networks and everything to do with anything those algorithms cannot measure? Or, perhaps, the better questions is: Are star-bellied sneetches the best?

Whatever your answers, if I were the one in charge of The Palms social media program, I would flip the whole concept on its head. I would find people with real influence and invite them to join a "Palms" social media club instead of something based on Klout. Or, I would allow people with an interest in The Palms the opportunity to have the velvet rope lifted because they already plug it, day in and day out.

You know ... I would reward customers instead of catering to numbers. But that's from someone who is apparently as anti-influential as they come, at least, according to Klout. Have a nice weekend.

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