Friday, August 12

Creating Controversy: Sometimes PR Makes Its Own

Public RelationsLike many public relations firms, Kentucky-based Guthrie/Mayes seemed to have sound advice. If your county board of education had suffered a soap operatic firing of a superintendent and less than stellar hiring of a new one, you might consider doing something to manage your public image.

Unfortunately, the public relations firm didn't anticipate that their hiring — at $215 an hour, or up to $20,000 for three months' work — would cause equal friction for the Jefferson County Board of Education, which already staffs communication and public relations professionals with a collective salary of almost $1 million per year, according to WLKY.

So far, the advice — speak with a singular message or not at all — isn't working. WLKY took exception to only one board member answering their call (only to say she wouldn't talk about the issue and hung up). The PIO for the board did try to answer the question. She claimed that the school district communication team has a conflict, working for the board and the district.

The chairman of the board, however, refuted the claim. They work together with the communication department all the time.

This time the public has a point. They needn't fund public relations for elected officials.

The Courier-Journal called it right. Elected board members are obligated to be responsive to the voters and are not entitled to public image makeovers simply to look better for re-election.

What they seem to need is more internal communication among each other, more honesty in the decisions they make, and more appreciation for the people who elect them without fear of "confusing them." At minimum, if they want to have a more unified voice, then they ought to be deferring calls to their chairman unless the issue has individual viewpoints. And if he's not up to the challenge, find someone who is.

In fact, that is what the public relations firm correctly advised. But where the public relations firm was wrong was in advising them to hush up over an issue that area residents seem impassioned about. And considering at least one board member or staff member is leaking the firm's advice to the media, it clearly seems they aren't improving relations as much as they are becoming fodder for controversy.

Some solutions for a fractured board, much more valuable than a muzzle.

Having done considerable work for various public entities as an outside consultant, there are times when overburdened combination staffs need assistance or advice on special projects or in specific situations. However, massaging the messages from the Jefferson County Board of Education doesn't seem to be one of them although the board members might seek independent coaching. As individuals, they obviously know how to undermine their own efforts.

Here's some free advice. Sit down and talk about the issues. When the board decisions are unanimous, let the media know and defer to the chairman. When they are not, meet both obligations by talking to the media about what the board has decided, and why (although in the minority) you felt differently without the rhetoric. Such action might not always result in a quiet and complacent public, but at least you'll be able to sleep at night, knowing that you're being honest.

This is probably the advice the district's communication team could have provided. But given the answer, it seems they could have used that advice themselves. Now, about how much that district ought to be spending on public relations ...

Wednesday, August 10

Studying Psychology: Aversion Training For Kids?

ClockworkAs crazy as it sounds, some psychologists are jumping on the fright makes right band wagon. According to a study published in Health Psychology (as highlighted in a weight loss article), showing kids photos of obese people and arterial diseases for 30 minutes helps reduce the urge to eat sweets and foods that are fattening.

Are you kidding me?

Looking at arterial diseases for 30 minutes will suppress anyone's appetite to eat anything. Besides, some of us saw the movie version of this study. A Clockwork Orange was produced in 1971, starring Malcolm McDowell as a protagonist who is "programmed" to detest violence by being subjected to graphically violent films, eventually conditioning him to suffer crippling bouts of nausea at the mere thought of violence. (The book came out in 1962.)

The study hints at the same thing, except the villain in this case isn't violence as much as it might be a Hostess cupcake.

Teach Reason Over Aversion.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, David Wessel had some harsh words about where America is today, saying the "deeper issue and root cause of our malaise is the broken U.S. educational model that is producing bloated people with bloated egos and senses of entitlement, broken values, a broken work ethic and an intellectual incompetence with which to think and innovate."

I'm not sharing Wessel's words to give more attention to the blight within his premise, even if some of it touches on truth. I'm including it because it represents the polar opposite of the study. Whereas the study suggests America's woes might be handled though aversion programming, Wessel is taking a (albeit heavy handed) approach that we might teach deductive reasoning, critical thinking skills, and personal responsibility. One looks to curb a symptom; the other looks toward fixing the cause.

Of course, our society doesn't always want reason. Ask any marketer today that is hell-bent on deciphering "influence." They don't want people to make the best decisions; they want go head to head with competitors and let the best "influencer" win. Never mind the facts.

In some cases, it goes well beyond marketers. There are plenty of political parties and institutions and organizations that want to do the same. They don't want people to make educated choices but rather to be comfortable in the leadership's ability to influence its way out of everything. So much so, some people are studying how do it, regardless of the consequence.

What's The Difference?

Aversion programming and fear marketing teach children rote memorization that may lead to equally harmful eating disorders. To avoid those, you have to teach your children to make proper choices about what to eat using reason and responsibility.

cherriesPersonally, I never worry about what my kids eat or don't eat. I guide them toward making healthier choices that will eventually turn into making better choices as adults (I hope). That means before they can have the pudding, they have to eat their meat. Or more specifically, despite how fun it is to drop in a Pink Floyd reference, fruit before some other snack.

By asking them to eat fruit first, they often find the apple or orange or peach or plum satisfies their craving for something sweet or fills the small empty feeling they might have in the late afternoon (without spoiling dinner). This indirectly reminds them that fruit is good, tasty, filling, healthy, and makes you feel good without feeling guilty. At the same time, it does't discourage them from looking at a cookie and feeling guilty or as the inspiring study suggests — aversion.

Nowadays, my kids have even passed on offers of candy in favor of fruit if it's available, not because they have to but because they want to. Imagine that. And I never had to show them pictures of diseases and unhealthy people.

Marketing might learn a lesson here too. If you win the influence game, you win a customer for a day. If you truly have the better product and can deliver on your brand promise, you will win a customer for life. People don't have to be frightened. Let the politicos keep that one to themselves.

Monday, August 8

Recharging: How Self-Engagement Helps

Don't WorryWorry Is Like Interest Paid In Advance On A Debt That Never Comes Due. — The Spanish Prisoner

While also attributed to Will Rogers, the quote was reintroduced in the 1997 suspense film The Spanish Prisoner. We might even go one step further by saying it is interest paid on money you never borrowed. And even so, it's also an increasingly common prognosis for Americans.

The only thing bigger than the American debt is the amount of worry that has been levied on its people by politicians, news media, propaganda shills, and everyone else who wants to attract attention. Fear marketing has become the singular biggest influencer of all time.

Looking at the most popular stories parlayed into major news headlines — child abductions, governmental collapse, pandemics, debt default, stock shocks, climate change, health care crisis, economic ruin — it's a wonder more people aren't depressed. By comparison, the children of the 1950s and 1960s felt safer clamoring under desks in preparation for a nuclear war.

That's not to say all these other issues aren't important. Remaining vigilant against such threats can be prudent. But being paralyzed by them is not. Most of the worries people embrace are issues they can do nothing about on the grand scale.

Sure, they can take steps on a small scale: safeguarding children, living within their means, encouraging companies to be green in practice and not public relations, and so on. But beyond what can be done on the small scale, none of these issues are worth the worry. Most are well beyond our control, with the zombie apocalypse outstripping Y2K in eventual likeness.

One small study that reaches further than its intent.

Last week David H. Rosmarin of the Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital released a study that suggested people who trust in a benevolent God tend to worry less and are more tolerant than those who mistrust an indifferent or punishing God.

At a glance the sampling sizes seemed rather small, but there is something to take away from it regardless. While Rosmarin suggests several applications for his findings, it might be worthwhile to consider something else too. Those people who are more tolerant and less prone to worry are also more comfortable letting the world run and then adapting the best they can.

Whether you accomplish that by placing faith in God or a god or simply recognizing that as individuals we are pretty small specks on a planet hurling itself around a sun that is hurling itself around a galaxy that is hurling itself around a universe, it works out the same. Don't take on worries that you have no control over. Stick to what you can do. Take action, not worrisome non-action.

"What would you do if you weren't afraid?"

For all the emphasis by the media and other interested parties peddling fear, take some time to turn it off and do something you can do. Or, to illustrate with an old proverb Chinese farmers used to say — forget about the emperor and get down to milking cows. You might be surprised to discover how much cooking a challenging dinner, painting miniature figures, working out, or choosing some other engaging activity can do for your head.

For even that brief period of time, as long as you can focus on whatever task you've picked up without distractions from social networks or the outside world, chances are that all those worries — most of which you can only do a little about — will slip away. And, even better, there is no risk of a hangover (although I understand some people pour on to supplant this intent too).

It's especially critical for creative types to unplug or become otherwise self-engaged for a few hours a day. If you allow too many voices and worries and calls for alarm in your head, you won't hear those sparks of inspiration. So let those who took on the debt worry about how to pay it back for awhile. It's their job for as long as we let them keep it.

The comments are yours. If you have any tips and tricks you use to tune out and then tune back into things closer to home, I'd love to know. They might make a worthwhile post all on their own.

Friday, August 5

Minimizing Test Variables: For Better Marketing

marketing testsWhile larger marketing campaigns might include varied offers (e.g., A, B, C) relatively few marketers attempt to use scientific models to conduct marketing research. If they did, they would have clearer picture of consumers, especially online consumer groups or communities.

So why don't they? The most common reason is time, as any effective study group only tests for one variable at a time. Since most marketers do not have patience for true scientific models, they tend to test for multiple measures at one time or split variables (A, B, C) among demographics that they hypothesize are more likely to respond favorably to each variable.

An historic case study regarding mixed variables.

Unfortunately, mixing variables can have adverse or disastrous results. Probably one of the most famous accounts is tied to a 1996 McDonald's campaign, which became one of the most expensive marketing flops in history. You can find some background about the campaign on Wikipedia or a reference to it at The New York Times. But it's not the whole story.

Prior to the launch of the Arch Deluxe, McDonald's had simultaneously launched various deluxe versions of its burger across the United States — including one I was directly involved with. Out West, there was no Arch Deluxe (at least, not before the national rollout of the Arch). McDonald's had marketed the California Deluxe, which was also an adult burger with different ingredients.

California DeluxeThere were other regions with variations too. If memory serves me right, there were six regions (but I could be wrong here). And as much as the Arch Deluxe was test marketed in the Northeast, the California Deluxe was test marketed in primarily the West Coast.

Each test area also had localized campaigns, created by regional advertising agencies to market the burger. And the winner, determined by total sales, would be the one McDonald's would pick for a national rollout. The Arch Deluxe won, and none of the others were even mentioned again.

On the surface, it seemed to someone that the test market idea was a solid marketing approach. Until, of course, you consider the variables: different products, marketed to different test markets with different concentrations of population, using different messages (within McDonad's mandatories). Add it all up and the marketing study they created measured nothing, even though it had convinced McDonad's to invest $200 million into the campaign.

As a point of interest, the California Deluxe rivaled Big Mac sales in its test markets. But the smaller sampling size predetermined that the better burger was doomed out of the starting block.

A quick take on developing a better test market model, using the historic case study.

McDonald's could have created a different test model, but the timing to execute the campaign would have taken significantly longer. It could have introduced three burgers in one test market with a singular campaign asking people to choose. It could have rolled out one burger at a time in several areas across the United States. Or, well, any number of ways with an emphasis on minimizing variables.

It's one of the lessons marketers (and bloggers for that matter) would be well served to apply. In science, medicine, or psychology, for example, researchers generally create an experimental group (one receiving an independent variable) and a control group (one receiving a similar experimental situation, but without the variable), with the participants randomly assigned.

applesProvided there is no other tampering, the variable could be anything. It could be two products, one with an "improved feature." It could be the same product, with different creative campaigns. It could be a specific incitement offer. It could be the same everything, but tested in two or more different test markets. Or maybe two different price points. And so on and so forth.

In terms of social media, for example, narrowing the variable can help marketers determine what content different social networks respond to or the style of communication. (Managing several social programs, we've seen differences in each network community emerge over several months.)

The point is to narrow the measurable variables, which increases the reliability (the ability to get the same results in successive studies) and validity (the ability to measure what you want to measure). The benefit is increasing the return on investment by running continuous tests until patterns emerge.

In the case of the Deluxe debacle, for example, they might have found that people in the Northeast also preferred the California Deluxe (or one of the others) over the Arch Deluxe too. But ironically, no one will ever know. Instead, all they learned was the Arch Deluxe could not support itself nationwide.

Wednesday, August 3

Trusting Strangers: The Influential Collective

Barfly AdviceWhile the findings won't send shockwaves through social media, Skyscanner recently released a study that says 34 percent of all travelers have made a decision to visit a destination suggested by someone they only 'know' online. The study frames up the finding as evidence that 'virtual strangers' are growing increasingly influential.

While we might argue that people you become familiar with online are no more strangers than the people next door (number 10), Skyscanner says that the survey goes one step further — people are placing their trust in the anonymous nature of many travel sites and online review forums rather than their friends, who they don't want to hold accountable for bad decisions. (This finding also alludes to knowing "influencers" as not as important as anonymous reviewers.)

"We are increasingly adventurous as a nation, but part of us always wants reassurance that we have made the right choices," said Sam Baldwin, editor for Skyscanner Travel. " Social media helps people to extend their research and have more confidence in the decisions they make."

According to Bladwin, more than 13 percent of people are most worried about whether or not they have made the best decision online. Reviews, even anonymous, help increase their confidence. In fact, online travel recommendations are important to 8 of 10 people surveyed from a pool of 800 travelers.

Along with what people say about a place, attraction, or designation, the survey also found that photos are even more influential than recommendations. More than 21 percent of respondents claim to have made the decision to visit a location based on a picture seen on the photo-sharing site alone. This falls in line with another survey conducted by Skycanner that found more than 50 percent of travelers have made a decision based on Facebook photos posted by friends.

Travelers are also very likely to "like" or "follow" a place they will visit or have visited on a social network (56 percent) and smart phones are a leading tool (41 percent) to help them make restaurant, bar, and beach decisions after they arrive. No matter how you frame it, the survey demonstrates how important social media has become to consumers, especially when it comes travel, even if it is only a tool to help them find peace of mind.

Monday, August 1

Turning 20: Copywrite, Ink.

Copywrite, Ink.Copywrite, Ink. turns 20 in August. To put that in perspective, the creative computer of choice was a monochrome Mac Classic, preferably one with a flying toasters screen saver installed. Nirvana's Nevermind, led by the hit single "Smells Like Teen Spirit," became the most popular U.S. album of the year. And Tim Berners-Less had just announced the World Wide Web project.

The Cold War was over. The United States liberated Kuwait, and we entered a recession. Generation Xers were mostly pissed off.

I had already earned some agency experience. I worked at an agency and public utility while in college and living in Los Angeles and Reno. But even before I knew there was a communication field, I had done some freelance work right out of high school.

Ten Things You Might Learn After 20 Years With A Communication Firm.

1. People Are People. In working with, talking to, and interviewing some of the most prominent, influential, and wealthy individuals in the world and having the distinct pleasure of interviewing people whom others would consider nobodies, you eventually learn there is no difference between them. Both have invaluable insights and near-debilitating insecurities. The only time class, wealth, and status make a difference is when people allow their own sense of proportion to overshadow who they are, and that is a different problem all together. Treat people equally.

2. Own Every Mistake. Inevitability, you will meet business owners who have been taken advantage of or otherwise harmed by investors, clients, contractors, and employees. The truth is that every mistake directly links to the top, either in the decisions they make or the people they delegate those decisions to. More importantly, business isn't a science, which means there will be mistakes. Make them, own them, learn from them, and forgive them. You can't learn from mistakes you don't own.

3. Talk Is Cheap. Until it is written in a contract or cashed at the bank, promises are as tangible as the wind. Clients who promise the moon and the stars in exchange for breaks on the front end are disingenuous or delusional. The lesson here is simple enough. Treat those promises for what they are — an investment in someone else's business, budget, or career if they are a marketing manager — as much as your own exploration into an opportunity. Anything else is talk.

4. Everything Is Temporary. Companies grow, shrink, and change all the time. They will win, lose, rise, decline, and rise again. Never place too much emphasis on chasing after or catering to choice accounts at the expense of all other clients. The average account will stay with a good firm for four years (our average is significantly longer). Firms that feel secure are generally one change away from losing the account. It pays to value the time you have with an account, but not worship it.

5. Everyone Is Valuable. Everyone on your team is valuable. It doesn't matter who they are or what they do: volunteer, freelance, part time, full time. The person who cleans the office is just as important as the person who lands the account. Likewise, employees are valuable but they are hardly invaluable. Much like most accounts do not stay with one firm forever, neither do employees. Make the most of the time you have them aboard.

6. Offices Are Overrated. While some professionals excel in offices and it's worthwhile to maintain them from time to time, they aren't necessary for the success of a communication firm and can sometimes be a liability in terms of overhead. For anyone working out of a home office, recognize the only people who frown on it don't have enough experience to know that many journalists, musicians, producers, radio talk show hosts, business people, investors, executives, and like-minded professionals do most of their work from home offices. Do what works for you for now.

7. Planning Is Critical. Persistence and perseverance alone won't ensure survivability. After a firm becomes solvent, look to create contingency plans. Most agencies and firms fail, specifically, because their operations are based exclusively on accounts, which requires them to hire and lay off based on those accounts. Several agencies shuttered up in the last few years because of it, especially those tied to specific industries. Diversify industries, locations, and revenue strategies. Keep the faith for the best while planning for the worst.

8. Give Back, Not In. One of the smartest things any firm can do is align with nonprofits, giving them the opportunity to make new connections as well as support their community. On the flip side, giving back does not mean giving in or fooling yourself into believing you have ownership. Recognize when any commitment begins to take a negative turn and then walk away. Politics is a sure indicator. Business owners don't have time for it, whether it's a nonprofit or professional organization and participation can adversely affect all those connections when board leaders or executives split the group.

9. Politics Is Baloney. Firms need to be vigilant in keeping pace with politics to prevent unneeded regulations, but never let politics dictate the company's mission, vision, or values. Politics is largely a different world in that success has everything to with electability and almost nothing to do with accountability. Besides, any wagon you hitch your star to is only as good as the next election. Other than making a few contributions, it's best to stay as far away from it as possible and keep most opinions close to the vest. The person you insult over political differences could have been your client.

10. Social Media Is Social. When you make connections online, they are just as valuable as any you make offline. And because of this, they deserve the same reverence. Some communication professionals try to separate the two, but only because they have yet to learn that some of the best and brightest connections you make will never be tied to geography. They're not. It ties directly back into #1 above — if class, wealth, and status are meaningless, how you meet someone is even more so.

There are dozens more than those I've listed here, but they came to mind. So what's next? Nobody really knows the lessons they might learn along the way except for the ones they need to learn. For right now, we're satisfied working with two startups on their near-term launches, developing our alternative review site, and nurturing relationships with select clients, colleagues, and friends (maybe you too). And then, of course, there are a few personal projects always simmering. Other than that, we're grateful (and I'm grateful) that Copywrite, Ink. has crossed the 20-year mark.

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