Monday, June 20

Playing Well: General Mills Pulls Yoplait Ad

YoplaitIf anyone is wondering (and some people are) why there won't be the same level of ridicule lobbed at General Mills over a Yoplait yogurt commercial as there was lobbed at Motrin over a back pain medicine commercial three years ago, it is because of precisely why the Motrin ad failed.

The Motrin ad made poked snarky fun at "baby-wearing" customers. General Mills simply understood dieters, maybe too well.

General Mills promptly pulled the commercial after some women and the National Eating Disorders Association said the spot promotes disordered thinking about food. So General Mills, with no defense (other than mentioning most people didn't see it that way) thought it best to take it down. The event was handled near perfectly, making it a non-event.

The commercial, which featured a woman attempting to justify her decision to have a piece of cheesecake, does almost flawlessly capture how some dieters consider food decisions (with one or two lines becoming a bit more playful). And then offers a solution — cheesecake flavored yogurt.


Overall, the advertisement is pretty harmless. And some people have questioned whether General Mills needed to pull the ad.

Technically, General Mills probably didn't need to pull it (unless we now fault commercials for capturing truisms), but it was smart that they did. The complaints were originally raised by people within a target audience. And that's the point, even if the complaint seems somewhat contrived.

What General Mills did right.

• It thoughtfully listened to the complaints, in particular the National Eating Disorders Association.

• It didn't elevate the issue by arguing the point, becoming overtly apologetic, or downplaying any concerns.

• It removed the commercial, being careful to note that it may take longer to pull the ad in some markets.

Unlike the Motrin ad three years ago, it seems much more plausible that General Mills would have never seen this one coming. It is patently clear they are not attempting to make fun of the woman who ultimately chooses yogurt as a solution. They also handled the potential crisis with a clear head, and the National Eating Disorders Association is now asking its members to write letters of appreciation. (They even have a sample letter.)

Since the ad was pulled, there has been some sliver of push back because some consumers feel it is ludicrous for companies to pull ads targeted by special interest groups. Specifically, some have said people need to take responsibility for their weight issues. While it's good these people appreciate that marketing is not to blame for eating problems, it's equally good that General Mills appreciates its customers. And that's what it is all about.

Nobody really wants to run a commercial that makes some of its customers uncomfortable, especially with a longstanding customer-conscious reputation like the one established by General Mills. It's an especially smart move by the company, given it just recently acquired a 51 percent controlling interest in Yoplait S.A.S. Original Yoplait, by the way, has two times the calcium of the leading yogurt and 50 percent of the daily value in every cup. Its cheesecake flavor has 170 calories, with 15 from fat.

Related reactions from around the Web.

Does this commercial encourage eating disorders? by Lylah M. Alphonse.
Concerns over ED triggers cause Yoplait to pull their latest ad by Bree.
•  Yoplait Pulls Ad Accused Of Promoting Eating Disorders by Margaret Hartmann.

Friday, June 17

Clicking For Leadership: Illusionary Democracies

social mediaAs influence ranks and scoring systems continue to creep into social networks, there is an interesting shift in how people are defining online leadership. In some cases, the same people who sought to tear down authoritarian styles are erecting a similar model based on varied sets of algorithms.

While I've often considered the definition more complex than the organizational leadership model developed by psychologist Kurt Lewin in the 1930s, his model works well enough to illustrate the shift. In order to better explain management, Lewin broke out leadership styles into three primary categories: authoritarian, democratic, and laissez-faire.

What early social media entrants aimed to do with blogs and social networks.

Initially, the early adopters who wanted to create a more social net, frequently pointed to and even took aim at what they considered an authoritarian role of various fields. Specifically, many saw big companies, widely-read journalists, and educators as disconnected from the masses they served (or lorded over, as some suggested).

In the Lewin models, he saw autocratic leaders set clear expectations for what needed to be done. These leaders would make decisions with very little input and expected their sphere of influence to follow their lead. From the perspective of early social media entrants, they were controlling and even abusive.

Since the authoritative types were among the last to enter social media (and some still have no desire to do so), it was relatively easy for entrants to call for a revolution. Specifically, they wanted to develop a social model more accustomed to how they viewed government (at least in the United States) — participative like a democratic society.

In a democratic model, new leaders could offer guidance to their group members with each individual member deciding how much they wanted to support their "thought leadership." Ideally, this allowed for new voices to be elevated for their perceived contributions to other early entrants. It worked too, for awhile.

Many even advise adopting this model for businesses today. The general concept is to create environments where customers feel engaged in the process and are more motived, sometimes even promoting the group or organization for the relationship.

What early social media entrants aimed to do with blogs and social networks.

A few years ago, as social networks helped move social media into the mainstream, scalability forced the early social media entrants toward a delegation style of leadership, which Lewin called laissez-faire leadership. The new entrants en masse didn't know what to do.

So they tended to latch onto perceived leaders and were satisfied promoting them without making other contributions (much like a tribe) or perhaps building networks of their own. This was an immediate boon for some of the early entrants because as teachers, they were able to position one-person consultancies as the leaders of online environments.

Perhaps ironically however, laissez-faire leadership isn't as productive and eventually the followers learn on their own. In some cases, longtime leaders in one space were either being left behind or continually threatened for two reasons. First, democratic models do not always ensure you will remain at the top. And second, laissez-faire leadership may be loved by novices but begins to look more authoritative over time.

How algorithms create the illusion of democracies, with a new authoritative construct.

social empireMost algorithms that measure authority or perceived influence on the Web are based on a combination of three components: activity, popularity, and perceived authority (as a byproduct of the first two). In lieu of education, experience, or expertise, it's based on network size and mention frequency.

Some companies (and social network consultants) won't even respond to people who do not have a specific score, thereby creating a new authoritative anomaly that's largely invented. In one experiment, for example, I created a separate social network account and drove its "influence" score beyond my personal account in the matter of a week. High volume alone spiked the score, but once it hit a certain rank then people blindly followed the account.

While that can become an issue, it seems to me the greater challenge is two-fold. Publics, online or off, have a tendency to erect authoritative structures. And second, those who achieve such status are inclined to protect it, even if they were the ones who were outspoken about the last authoritative structure. It's a cycle of sorts, and frequently occurs even within the most valued democracies.

Wednesday, June 15

Marketing Integration: More Than A To Do List

To DoSometimes I read something and it makes my head hurt. (Not really, I only wrote that for effect.) Eric Brown nearly did that with his post on un-integrating marketing.

"As of late I have found myself trying to be closer to the center, saying such things as you need an integrated marketing approach," he wrote on Social Media Explorer. "I think that is a mistake."

And then he goes on to suggest that we ought to all be asking: “What marketing venue or platform are you going to stop doing, before you start doing social media marketing?" And there's the problem. Integrated communication or integrated marketing has absolutely nothing to do with how many things a marketing department (and other departments) does.

It has more to do with developing a fluid plan on how to best achieve the strategic intent of the organization, usually with a set of priorities and then making sure the messages fit within some sort of context. Does anyone appreciate the difference?

The Un-Integrated Approach To Marketing And Public Relations.

I've sat in countless marketing meetings. The traditional approach — non-integrated — is simple enough. Everyone gathers around the table and reports on what they are doing.

"We're running a contest to get more Facebook friends," says the social media expert.

"We've successfully placed a story on how our CEO likes horses," says the public relations representative.

"We put together our projections for the next quarter to boost share prices," says investor relations.

"We're asking employees to donate canned goods for the local shelter," says community relations.

"We just finished the latest creative campaign and are making media buys. It's cool, wait until you see the fish," says the ad guy.

"We just mailed out 100,000 letters with coupons and anticipate a 1.2 percent return," exclaims the direct response ninja.

"Okay, I get direct response. But what does any of the rest of it have to do with sales?" grumbles the marketing guy. "We need a bigger sales force and a big tent sale."

And the list goes on, without anybody considering what is really happening. Multiple departments, in house or not, are running multiple objectives, almost none of which line up with what the organization does or differentiates itself in the market.

Social media is gathering fans. Public relations is placing stories. Investor relations is keeping people happy. Community relations makes people feel good. The creative department is driving awareness. Direct response is playing the odds. And marketing is trying to increase conversation rates (or whatever). That's a lot of objectives. Too many. And all of them have to do with disciplines, not what the company actually does.

The Integrated Approach To Communication Is Different.

Instead of playing round robin, various departments come together to discuss their top ideas on how to best communicate the objectives of the organization. It could be a product launch or perhaps something more generalized like becoming the subject matter expert in the space (hint: possibly because that's part of the company's mission).

Whatever. Let's say it's a product launch (to keep things simple).

The advertising department creates a campaign to launch the product, one that reinforces the unique selling proposition developed by marketing out of customer focus groups and other research. Social media says they will share the campaign (and any media mentions) across various networks and offer a product sample to select fans and friends.

integrationPublic relations sends the product out to various reviewers, but also sees an opportunity to partner with related organizations as stakeholders. Community relations supports the idea, suggesting 1 percent of sales could even benefit a nonprofit with which the organization is strategically aligned.

Direct response, rather than sending coupons, suggests that they vet their database after the initial campaign launch, targeting customers who would be interested but don't take action on the campaign. Marketing suggests that all these ideas are solid enough; the marketing department will brief all the salespeople so they can answer any questions online and off.

Investor relations agrees that it all sounds great, and is already working on a separate announcement that ties the campaign to beating analyst projections in the next quarter. That makes everyone happy, especially because they all have shares in the company.

You don't even have to ask what this approach might do for sales. Assuming the product isn't a flop, it would drive sales.

That's integrated communication. That's integrated marketing. And if the communication teams are doing anything but that, then they are wasting the marketing budget.

If more organizations did this, then fewer would ever have to consider the Stop Doing List that excited Brown. You don't need a "stop doing list" because the most expedient way to prevent useless tasks from getting on the to do list is to always make sure they line up with the strategic goals of the organization in the first place. That requires integration.

Even more importantly, integrated communication (or integrated marketing if you prefer) keeps everyone moving in the same direction with specific (but flexible) messages. Given that people are already exposed to enough messages every day to fill one or two novels, the chance they will remember more than one or two messages about your organization is miniscule. And for many organizations, if they even remember one it is an accomplishment.

None of this is designed to take away from Brown's considerable insights; it's only meant to elevate the discussion. And perhaps that discussion needs to be that there is only one consistency in communication. Most people define terms so differently that they don't always mean what they are saying in social media even when they think they do.

Monday, June 13

Branding Reversals: Just Call It Something Else?

applesAccording to a University of South Carolina study in the Journal of Consumer Research, marketers have an easier time misleading dieters with product names. Dieters, the study concludes, rate food items with healthy names such as "salad" as being healthier than those with less healthy names such as "pasta" even when the foods are identical.

"The fact that people's perceptions of healthfulness vary with the name of the food item isn't surprising," Dr. Caglar Irmak, an assistant professor of marketing at the Darla Moore School of Business, said. "What is interesting is that dieters, who try to eat healthy and care about what they eat, fell into these 'naming traps' more than non-dieters who really don't care about healthy eating."

For example, when study participants were given a choice between the same candy labeled "fruit chew" and "candy chew," dieters perceived the candy named fruit chew as more healthful than the one named candy chew. They also ate more candies when the items were called fruit chews (versus candy chews).

Dieters avoid forbidden foods based on product names.

Where marketers take advantage of dieters is in the naming of foods. Specifically, researchers said a salad may include items that dieters typically would avoid (meat, cheese, bread or pasta); milkshakes listed as "smoothies;" potato chips called "veggie chips;" and sugary drinks labeled "flavored water."

"These results should give dieters pause. The study shows that dieters base their food decisions on the name of the food item instead of the ingredients of the item," Irmak said. "As a result, they may eat more than what their dieting goals prescribe."

He said non-dieters are equally prone to make bad choices. They tend to miss cues that imply healthfulness, including names, because of their lack of focus on healthy eating.

Heightened awareness opens the doors for double-sided branding.

While not included in the study, the article that will be published in the August issue of the Journal of Consumer Research hits a home run in better understanding the nature of branding and why consumers are sometimes duped into choosing the exact opposite of what they are seeking.

For example, prior to the Gulf Coast oil spill, consumers considered BP one of the top energy providers in renewable energy. Johnson & Johnson secured a position as placing medical safety first until recent actions eroded the brand. Susan G. Komen for the Cure was a frontrunner in reputation until bad decisions undermined its credibility.

brand erosionHowever, prior to brand erosion, the brands benefited from word associations whether or not they were delivering on the brand promise. Consumers with a heightened sense of need (clean energy, safe medicine, breast cancer) seldom vet their purchasing decisions, referrals, or recommendations. Instead, they rely on prevailing word associations — much like dieters assume salads are healthy — in order to make purchasing decisions.

Conversely, consumers without a heightened area of interest are less likely to be swayed by such word associations attached to brands and brand names. In fact, it's very likely the increased information overload could be forcing people to rely less on evidence and more on simple and sometimes erroneous word associations that are conditioned by friends and self-selected information streams. Ant that is some real food for thought.

Friday, June 10

Failing At Mitigation: Johnson & Johnson

Johnson & JohnsonJohnson & Johnson is embroiled in what may be the crisis communication dilemma of the year. You would never know it from their Website. Instead, you'll see a huge section that details how much they care about people.

At the same time, Johnson & Johnson has made a dramatic shift in its communication strategy since the days it delivered a best practice in crisis management for Tylenol in 1982. Instead of being at the forefront of product safety, it is patently less aggressive about product safety related to its other assets.

Specifically, although Johnson & Johnson lends its legal team to assist the court cases being lobbied at Motrin, its once stellar reputation for communication doesn't seem to cover McNeil Consumer Healthcare, which markets the Motrin brand. The Motrin brand is in a communication firestorm. Its Fort Washington plant was suspended in connection with the recall of infants’ and children’s liquid over-the-counter (OTC) products manufactured there. There are other problems with the Motrin brand.

Can a company wear a black and white hat in medicine?

Even more current, Johnson & Johnson is reveling in praise for new labeling on acetaminophen products while simultaneously poised to fight a settlement and labeling related to another tragic story mentioned last week.

SJSThe company's argument seems to be that the Stevens-Johnson Syndrome and Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis (SJS/Tens) experienced by several children in the last few years after taking Motrin doesn't warrant warnings let alone responsibility. They contend it is too isolated. Ironically, it also flies in the face of their 1982 best practice in crisis management.

Back then, Johnson & Johnson revised medication safety because of an isolated incident that affected nine people in Chicago. The company didn't even have any responsibility for that atrocity and it stepped up. But now, when it seems to be responsible, it is willing to invest considerable funds to fight.

Likewise, in the unrelated phantom recall of Motrin products two years ago, McNeil Consumer Healthcare apparently tried to cover up the recall by repurchasing product but not calling for a recall. The result could have led to dangerous products being left out in the marketplace. Johnson & Johnson is fighting that lawsuit too.

Crisis management in the world of multi-brands.

Johnson & Johnson is hardly alone in creating massive companies with multiple brands that most consumers miss on the surface. The question crisis management teams need to start asking themselves is, despite the various degrees of separation, can a corporate parent really afford to play two sides against the middle anymore?

Isn't this the same argument that BP attempted to make during the Gulf Coast oil spill with the incessant blame game? That the lead company was somehow exempt from responsibility if the contractors under its watch were about to make a historic environmental catastrophe.

Like it or not, consumers are connecting the dots with more and more frequency. Companies are held accountable for employee actions. Companies are held accountable for contractor actions. So doesn't it stand to reason that subsidiaries are also accountable?

Ergo, don't consumers deserve to hear better words from attorneys representing a Johnson & Johnson company that “McNeil complied with every federal regulation and that’s what the proof is.”

Mitigation is the single most important aspect of crisis communication.

Under normal circumstances, maybe not. But given Johnson & Johnson has invested billions of shareholder dollars to appear like it is the absolute leader in pharmaceutical customer safety, Johnson & Johnson is risking one of its greatest assets, a brand name that managed to escape increased scrutiny after the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics two years ago.

disaster planningIn considering the four basic tenets of disaster planning, Johnson & Johnson is continuing to fall short in the area where it was always the strongest. Mitigation focuses on long-term measures to reduce or eliminate risk. It considers more than whether a company "can" win a case. It considers what is lost when a company does win a case.

In this situation, when you add up the court cases, future court cases, immediate public relations damage, and long-term brand damage versus a few settlements, relabeling costs (for a product not even on the market right now), and a physician education campaign, it seems to me Johnson & Johnson is reacting instead of taking the kind of proactive safety measures it used to be known for at great cost. Much more than $10 million. Much more than $1 billion. Much more than $10 billion.

The inherent weakness in the decisions being made at Johnson & Johnson regarding Motrin may even reinforce why a toothless public relations division is not necessarily the best division to handle crisis management. They all too often focus on minimizing publicity damage instead of considering the big picture of brand position. Likewise, lawyers aren't always the best crisis management leaders either. Some of them are too busy framing up crisis management cases in terms of whether it is winnable or not.

To make it work, companies need balanced crisis management teams that can objectivity assess the problems before them. And, if public relations is placed in charge of more than a crisis communication team, then they need to be (at least) empowered and given equal consideration as the legal team. Of course, this also assumes the PR team has enough crisis training. Most of them do not.

At Johnson & Johnson, the growing crisis ought be to handled much like an employee incident. Johnson & Johnson needs to scrub McNeil Consumer Healthcare of executives who allow the worst to happen. And, if they cannot manage themselves as a division, the company might consider folding the Motrin brand into its Johnson & Johnson brand. Of course, all this assumes Johnson & Johnson wants to maintain its reputation as a leader in consumer safety, an asset it once spent billions to create.

One wonders what Robert Wood Johnson might think. He was the former chairman (1932-1963) who crafted the company's credo before anybody ever heard the terms corporate social responsibility and a moral compass. What happened?

Wednesday, June 8

Branding: Personal Brand Meets Lifestyle Brand

PirateFor the failures of the personal brand concept, there are enough people who believe that marketers want to help them out. The new CMO buzz word being bandied about with increased frequency is lifestyle branding.

Specifically, that means brands give up on any functional attributes and focus their marketing on lifestyle choices. You might even consider it business marketing in reverse — marketers trying to make their products a badge identifier for certain lifestyles as opposed to developing products to meet the needs of an existing lifestyle.

Why is lifestyle branding becoming popular?

One of the most brilliant marketing strategists (even though by all accounts, including his own, he was a bastard) was Charles Revson, who started a nail polish company after the cosmetics company he worked for passed him over for promotion. Of course, his tenacity alone didn't take his tiny company, Revlon Cosmetics, to the top. It was his marketing.

In our factory, we make lipstick. In our advertising, we sell hope. — Charles Revson

But that isn't lifestyle branding, not really. Lifestyle branding is more akin to what came next. Lifestyle branding doesn't sell help as much as it creates the illusion that you, as a consumer, actually arrive at some destination. The Prius is a great example.

While there are a percentage of people who buy the Prius as eco-freindly consumers, the majority of Prius buyers today only want to buy the illusion that they are intelligent and practical enough to purchase the vehicle. In other words, it has less to do with the consumer's demographics and more to do with proving that they belong to those demographics, whether they do or not. As Rob Lyons once put it, it's part ego-trip.

The Prius isn't alone among brands that became adopted by posers. There have been dozens to win and lose in their attempts to make a statement. Before Coors became a national brewer, it represented an elite in-ness. So did Perrier water for a spell. And you can easily add Starbucks to the list. It has always sold the Seattle culturally-savvy image more than it sold coffee.

To be fair, not all lifestyle brands are intentional. Toyota didn't necessarily set out to create a lifestyle brand with the Prius as much as a second wave of consumers did. Perrier water, on the other hand, did. And until a benzene mishap, it once captured 80 percent of the bottled water industry in North America.

Creating a lifestyle brand is a marketing crapshoot.

The point to consider here is that there are two paths toward a lifestyle brand. One is less intentional because consumers create it on their own. That isn't a gamble as much as it is recognizing that the real strength of a brand lies in the relationship between the consumer and the product.

Intentionally attempting to create a lifestyle brand is much more of a gamble, like Puma is reportedly trying to do now. It's dumping the longstanding battle with Nike and Adidas and trying to embrace the "after hours" athlete crowd market. And Alex Chernev, who wrote the article mentioned above, did a fine job pointing out that Nike and Adidas will be the real winners.

Where Puma might win, according to Chernev, is if they can appeal to the consumers' need for self-expression and convince them that this brand is representative of their arrival. However, short of Puma redesigning their shoes (which they are), the whole thing is nothing more than a brand attempting to out-pose the posers.



Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. One of my favorite case studies revolves around the ad campaign launched by Miller to cut into the coolness market of microbreweries. Nobody who identified with the microbewery scene believed the campaign. But to make matters worse for Miller, the blue-collar customer did believe it, didn't identify with it, and swapped out Miller for Bud.

In a sense, creating a lifestyle brand out of a marketing campaign is nothing more than a sleight-of-hand trick. The best a brand can hope for is that posers "think" it represents the lifestyle they want to mimic (authentic consumers are almost never fooled).

Minimizing the gamble for a lifestyle brand.

The only way to minimize the gamble is to recognize that the consumer has an equal stake in product positioning (unless you're a start-up developing a product for a specific group). The point being that if you are lucky enough to get a core group of consumers who identify with a specific lifestyle for a certain reason, you can adjust your marketing to reinforce it.

This approach was one of the ways we helped a car dealer become a regional leader despite facing off against a 20-year established incumbent competitor. While the incumbent attempted to bring in a broad "sales" driven consumer into their dealership, we developed a campaign around the market segment that already identified with the national brand. There was more to it than that, but that is a simplified explanation for the success.

On the other hand, if I was a marketing director for Puma, for example, I might even be a bit concerned with the new campaign because it's attempting to target a non-existent lifestyle by combining too many lifestyles that don't identify with each other. Of course, Puma might already feel confident in attracting a certain segment and their campaign just doesn't prove it. Time will tell.

What is especially interesting to me is the allure of lifestyle brands anyway. They seem most suited to the poser crowd, which tend to be the same ones who embrace personal branding. The general concept for personal branding is that, somehow, how you present yourself is what you are (or, more specifically, what you buy). Many people believe it too.

But doesn't that really make the entire exercise feel like some brands are starting to pretend to be something they are not, in the hopes that consumers buy it so they can pretend they are something they're not? Huh. Maybe they're made for each other.

Monday, June 6

Teaching Tech: iPads Pop Up In Classrooms

Solar SystemAccording to the Irish Times, one secondary school is getting rid of school books and replacing them with iPads. The iPads will be phased into use starting September, when all 90 first-year students at the college will be given the option of using the Apple machine instead of a bag full of school books.

“We received huge support from the teachers and parents for the idea – we had 96 percent support – but in no way is this obligatory," school principal Jimmy Finn told the publication. “Parents have the choice to go with the iPad or school books like it was always done.”

The story could mark a dramatic step in education, not only in Ireland but in the United States. One of the cost-containment ideas being employed by the school is to spread the cost over three years and including it in the tuition. They estimate the full package will cost 700 pounds (inclusive). In the States, costs might be as little as $200 more per year and save money.

In the United States, the average cost of school books per semester is $400 to $900 and up or $2,400 to $3,200 or more (depending on degree). Textbook savings wouldn't be the only benefit. Publishers that ordinarily charge $100 or more per book to make up the high cost of color printing, durable covers, and modest distribution could save significantly and possibly even generate more money for textbook authors by making the material more public than school book stores.

Textbook replacement is only the beginning of tablets in education.

Tablets could, in effect, allow professors to automatically share handouts, documents, reading lists, and even presentations immediately following class. In some cases, certain programs actually deliver better context, allowing teachers to supplement it.

This isn't the only place education could change. In China, students are replacing notepads with tablets. They are the perfect tool for musical instruments, design tools, and artistic inspiration. Personally, I see the potential as much more significant, giving teachers and students immersive education.

For example, students could record a lecture and/or take notes. A teacher could then allow students to download Romeo & Juliet, take home the movie (normally played in class), and some supplements depending on the subject being covered. The student could even complete an assignment using the same tool, and then email it to the teacher.

Having all the assignments in hand could help the teacher frame additional discussion points, and possibly, even open up connected subjects such as the historical relevance of the play. Or whatever they like. And so on and so forth.

There are iPad and tablet pilot programs in the U.S. as well as some push back.

Even Vineet Madan, vice president of McGraw-Hill Higher Education eLabs, says U.S. schools are tablet ready. And, believe it or not, teachers' unions might be the biggest road block to integrating tablets. Why? Tablets may provide greater scrutiny over class material. Some are concerned about the cost (even if it will save dollars), the training some teachers will need, and what age to introduce the technology.

However, despite setbacks in some areas, some schools in the United States are moving ahead. The Trinity Academy for the Performing Arts in South Providence, for example, has been adding iPads. There is also a pilot program in Missouri. And another in Andover. And other in Boston. And another on the California side of Tahoe. And Burlington. And Maine.

Why I'm a proponent of iPads and tablets in the classrooms.

I already have firsthand experience. After giving my 4-year-old daughter an old iPhone (calling is not active) and seeing her play games like Super Why! and, even though she is a year or two off, Stack The States, she is even more enthralled with starting kindergarten this fall. I've also walked her through programs on my iPad, like Solar System For iPad or thumbing through a collection of art at the Louvre. Those, of course, are only a few.

The point is that children are never too young to supplement their education. Sure, there was a time that my daughter reminded me she was 4 and bit the phone for no apparent reason (maybe she was mad at the pigs on Angry Birds). But other than one incident, she has been responsible with it, enough so that I'm considering iPads (with the stipulation of non-gaming) for both children regardless of next year's classrooms. The learning curve is very low; the interest is very high. What's not to like? We might not be all that far off from A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer.

Friday, June 3

Failing As The Fifth Estate: Public Relations

Two people sent me keen observations yesterday: one in a comment, another in an email. The observations are worth sharing. Maybe it will even wake up a few public relations and social media professionals who claim to cover their industry. More and more of them have all but fallen asleep at the wheel.

Motrin is currently embroiled in one of its most pressing public relations challenges and blowing it badly. And yet, nobody in the public relations or social media spheres seem to be covering it. Instead, public relations and social media pros are too busy writing about love me tools, mea culpas about failed panels, and (unbelievably) the 2008 Motrin ad campaign.

Perhaps worse, all the overwriting about the 2008 snarky ad campaign overshadows the current crisis on search engines (unless you are specific).

A Brief About Motrin's New Crisis Communication Battle.

If the snarky ad campaign didn't convince some people that Motrin can be insensitive to consumers, then perhaps the pair of new crisis communication scenarios will make them think twice. The first revolves around 3-year-old Brianna Maya, who was given Motrin in 2000.

ABC reports a "fine rash on her body and mild redness around her eyes morphed into something insidious." The reaction to the medicine, Stevens-Johnson Syndrome and Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis (SJS/Tens), is rare but extremely painful and potentially fatal.

For Maya, it burned and blistered her body inside and out, blinded her in one eye, required her to be sent to a burn unit, and left her reproductive organs destroyed. She also suffered partial brain damage during the acute phase of the reaction.

SJSAccording to the new ruling, the SJS/Tens reaction was triggered by Children's Motrin, which is marketed by McNeil Consumer Products, a division of Johnson & Johnson. A jury recently ordered the drug manufacturer to pay $10 million for her injuries after they determined that McNeil Consumer Products, a division of Johnson & Johnson, was negligent in warning consumers about such a risk. Children's Motrin is currently unavailable on the Motrin website.

Its unavailability comes with the second crisis communication under covered by public relations and social media. It relates to a phantom recall conducted by the company in 2009. The most hideous example of all communication was included in the State of Oregon's complaint. Contractors were advised of the following by the company:

“Do not communicate to store personnel any information about this product. Just purchase all available product. If you are questioned by store personnel, simply advise that you have been asked to perform an audit.”

McNeil Consumer Products and Johnson & Johnson are defending themselves against the lawsuits.

According to The Consumerist, Johnson & Johnson maintains that the labeling was adequate and the condition is "extremely rare" in the Maya case. And other than initially disagreeing with the verdict, most media outlets report Johnson & Johnson is not responding to requests for comment.

As a crisis communication case study, this isn't a quick fix nor can it be cured with the five steps to crisis communication. I started outlining it earlier this week for next, but opted to provide some backgrounder notes after receiving two separate inquiries about PR taking a pass on this one. This fact also makes me amend my review of Welcome To The Fifth Estate from yesterday. It seems more people need to read the book than I initially said.

Rethinking The Fifth Estate With Shrink Wrap.

As mentioned, one of the primary components of Geoff Livingston's book is that communicators must become participants in a larger world to deliver effective communication. And while he doesn't necessarily say it verbatim, therein lies an interesting point for professionals to ponder...

As communicators who claim to be active participants looking out for the greater public, isn't there an unwritten obligation to cover the uncomfortable along with the slapstick sideshows? Or is something else causing PR to be silent about Motrin?

Is it that professional communicators have taken the advice of Shel Holtz to not be a PR ambulance chaser to heart? Is it that most public relations professionals aren't impressed with the numbers this story may or not draw compared to "three steps to develop a social strategy" or some such nonsense? Is it that public relations has moved so far up the 'expert' perception ladder that it has turned in its fluffy bubble for shrink wrap, tightening the plastic until nobody can see anything beyond their own antics?

After all, the two stories mentioned above, combined with the recent discovery that Johnson & Johnson knew its antibiotic Levaquin increased the risk of tendon damage and equally relevant Baby Shampoo debacle, could make Johnson & Johnson the public relations story of the year. And yet, even self-proclained communication leaders at Ragan are more interested in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's food plate.

It's a curious thing, this dramatic shift in content. Over the last year, a field that used to pile on crisis events ad nauseum is now too busy for them. Who knows? It may be that for all the empowerment that came with becoming The Fifth Estate so did the risk of becoming too important to be bothered with the rest of the world.

Johnson & Johnson case study ahead, sometime next week. Of course, I'm sure it won't be more fun than a balloon popping post.

Wednesday, June 1

Reading Livingston: Welcome To The Fifth Estate

Welcome To The Fifth EstateIf you conduct a rudimentary search for social media on Amazon, you'll pull up more than 150,000 titles. And so many of them, quite frankly, aren't much more than anecdotal paperweights or maybe fire starters.

Yes, even those that drip with praise from their fellow colleagues. The way I see it, if I'm ever to be accused of doing any favors for any colleagues in social media, let it be said the favor is not reviewing their books. I read them and sigh. It's the same reason I've passed on two invitations to write one.

There are some exceptions. Social Media ROI by Olivier Blanchard is probably one of them. I've only put off reading it because I know Blanchard and he and I see so closely on the subject it feels like volunteering to be the choir. And then there's Welcome To The Fifth Estate by Geoff Livingston.

A Review (of sorts) of Welcome To The Fifth Estate by Geoff Livingston.

One of the reasons I've been looking forward to Livingston's book beyond our longtime friendship, is the subject he chose to tackle. The premise seemed one off from social media. Pulling from history, Livingston notes that if the media might be considered the Fourth Estate then social media has helped give rise to the Fifth Estate (the masses), individuals who use technology to provide their own news, or more than likely, vet the news that is coming at them.

I've had an interest in this subject, citizen journalism, for years. I'm often torn between the those who see it is as good and those who see it as bad — watching firsthand some valiant or obscure individuals attempt to restore objectivity to the news even while so many lazier journalists long for reinstating yellow journalism.

But that isn't really what Welcome To The Fifth State is about. It's really an organizational primer that would help public relations and marketing professionals demonstrate the difference between an organization's traditional marketing efforts and communicating with the various social structures of online communities and social networks.

It’s an important lesson for any organization, even more so when you consider the online medium isn’t mass media as much as it is a media by the masses.

Livingston does a fine job with this, opening up with a warning to companies that advocacy consumers with journalism-like followings are on alert and waiting for them. And, in doing so, he helps recast how organizations might view this environment — especially using a significant number of case studies and references that sort our halo stories or horns — before they dive right in.

Welcome To The Fifth EstateThe best of the book is the call for companies to move away from silos to hives. I might call such a move integrated communication, but the analogy is strong. Designating different non-communicative budget-competative departments (silos) is no longer functional. All of the various communication-related roles need to work together. (Ergo, it doesn't make sense to have a Twitter account offering to assist with customer service problems if they have no direct tie to customer service solutions.)

I'm also happy to give props to Livingston for always being smart in helping organizations move away from thinking of everything in terms of tools and tactical counters. Instead, he rightly tees up considering the organizational strategy as opposed to the piles of tactics they have become.

However, he then drifts into providing tips on developing a social media strategy, which will help organizations refine their programs, but ruffles me up a bit because it's not really strategic communication. It's broader conceptual tactical thinking, which is a step up from what most companies do but still a rung down from strategic communication.

Why Welcome To The Fifth Estates Works As A Primer.

I don't mean to dismiss his central theme. (It might even be a case of semantics.) Contrary, what Livingston is attempting to drive home is that you cannot interrupt a conversation about a baseball with a message to sell someone a baseball bat. Doing so is asking for trouble and dilutes or destroys the brand.

Instead, he advocates for participating with the community on their terms. And that's smart. In other words, by talking about the game with the people talking about it, you might just sell a few bats too. Really, it's not unlike the difference between people you chat with at a professional luncheon and those who are too busy pumping their business cards in your hand.

All in all, Livingston does deliver a book several steps above the books littering online shelves. It seems to me the people it would best serve fall into three categories: People who are taking an interest in social media (or being thrust into it), executives who won't be doing it but want their team to start doing it, and a whole lot of "tool strategists" that count how many followers they have.

At the same time, you also expect Livingston to simplify some complex organizational concepts in an increasingly conversational way that anyone can relate to. It's a super fast read and presents several case studies that aren't talked about as often. You can finish it in a weekend afternoon and feel smarter for it on Monday. (And that doesn't even mention the introduction by Adam Ostrow, which I'll save for another day.)

That is not to say there aren't some "devil in the details" issues to watch out for. There are typos, too many. And on occasion, you might want to recheck some references because the stories don't mesh well with how events played out. (The one that stands out the most is JetBlue, but only because I covered it. Their blog only went silent as Neeleman was pushed aside.)

Who Might Be Best Served By A Visit To The Fifth Estate.

Welcome to the Fifth Estate is even stronger for Livingston than Now Is Gone. And it will open up more speaking opportunities for him as a professional who adds more quality to the field than people who "seem" to be more popular.

I can easily recommend it for executives who have less interest in social media but know their company needs to adopt it. There is no doubt it will help them avoid being sold snake oil. I also think it's a very worthwhile read for anyone who isn't up to speed on strategic communication but operating in social media. Livingston will take you half to three-quarters of the way there. And lastly, I appreciate the opportunity to have read an advanced electronic version because it provides a great snapshot of where we are on the path to wherever we might end up.

Monday, May 30

Reflecting On: Memorial Day

Unkown SoldierThe brave die never, though they sleep in dust: Their courage nerves a thousand living men. — Minot J. Savage

How easy it is at times for a nation to forget the significance of Memorial Day amidst the banner of a long weekend and start of summer. And yet, it is for the very losses of these fallen heroes, the men and women of the U.S. military, that we can fan the flames of our barbecues, host backyard parties, and relax in lazy wonderment by the sides of our pools.

"Sometimes she alone ensures our sacrifices, so others may live free, will never be forgotten." — Richard Becker for American War Mothers

There is a band that hails from the United Kingdom that recently wrote a song that captures the awe (and regret) that a soldier who runs away from a battle might feel about his fallen comrades. The song is The Cowardly Soldier's Lament, from a West country folk band Rocketeer. Enjoy and then remember.



If nothing else, at 3 p.m. today, please pause for a few minutes during the National Moment of Remembrance. Or perhaps, if you can find the time, listen to Taps, which was reworked as we know it today after the Seven Days battles at Harrison's Landing (near Richmond). It revised an order ceremony, which called for the signal to extinguish lights.

But again, such suggestions are only the least that one can do. There are dozens of organizations that rely on everyday citizens for funding and support. Just a few of them include America's Fallen Heroes Fund, American Fallen Soldiers Project, American Gold Star Mothers, Fallen Heroes Project, and Flowers For Heroes. Please take a minute to visit them as well as consider the meaning behind the original day.

Memorial Day was first enacted as Decoration Day by formerly enslaved African-Americans to honor Union soldiers of the American Civil War. Later, Southern states held their own Memorial Days, helping rebind the common cause of this country. And in 1866 in Mississippi, Decoration Day commemorated both the Union and Confederate casualties buried in its cemeteries.

After World War I, it was expanded to honor Americans who have died in all wars and military conflicts. And it wasn't until the National Holiday Act of 1971 that it became attached to a three-day weekend. Over the years, I've lent other posts to Memorial Day, including some words of President Abraham Lincoln, a speech written for the American War Mothers, and several historic photos when there was nothing left to say. Good night and good luck.

Friday, May 27

Asking Questions: If Websites Could Talk

About Me StrategyYou never really know how people interpret information until they apply it elsewhere. Nowadays, some people truly believe that social media will eventually supplant websites entirely.

Even a post by Jeremiah Owyang about integrating social functions into websites was attributed to Altimeter and reframed as another call for the death of business websites all together. (The spin itself demonstrated the venerability of social media.) However, all of the calls for the demise of websites miss the point.

Websites won't die. But their functionality will have to change.

All that really means is, somewhat to Owyang's point, social media tools and networks will be built into websites, changing the functionality from the 5-page content template into something, hopefully, that makes sense for the people who visit the site.

That has nothing to do with social media per se. It is, however, one of several reasons some people mistake why the "social media revolution" happened. It's also why news organizations continue to grapple in the new world. And it's why some social media intellects want you to believe that you and your company and your communication are powerless (unless you hire them).

Maybe a better word for the revolution is push back. For all the advances made in the early 1990s in regard to mass media communication, there was one major setback. Mass media, and its advertising and publicity bedfellows, dominated information. Even if someone was unhappy with anything, an individual voice didn't have any value compared to the conglomerate.

In fact, the only information out there was for awhile was decided on by the people with the largest audiences — agencies publishing brochures, public relations firms pitching stories, and new media setting the agenda. There was no other choice.

Social media is the revolution as much as the revolution is choice.

choicesIn other words, if people are visiting a corporate website less, it probably has less to do with the noun "website" and more to do with the descriptor "corporate." Or, even more simply put, the reasons people don't visit or stay on a corporate website is because whatever they are looking for just isn't there.

What is there? Generally, most corporate websites are little more than an "I love me" wall, adorned with trophies, awards, and sales pitches. Sure, some sites toss in some SEO-crooked copy, maybe some runaway advertainment, and whatever website builders can sell.

If your company website could talk, what would it say?

The whole thing is rather preposterous when you think about it. A person visits a site with an expressed interest, i.e., Who can I talk to about a product defect or service problem?

To which the site responds, i.e., Would you like to play a game?

Increasingly unhappy, the person turns to Google. Who can I talk to about a product defect or service problem?

And Google answers, i.e., I really don't know, but I can tell you where all the other people experiencing product defects or service problems are going. Would you like to go? Heck yeah!

Social networks did add another choice. Who can I talk to about a product defect or service problem?

To which the site responds, i.e., Try the live representative on Facebook or Twitter.

So, the person follows the advice to find stacks of unanswered complaints, representatives who only know what the daily deal is, or an endless stream of content that might as be labeled "see more about me on my 'I love me' wall."

Two tips for more effective online content and communication.

First, erase any notion that social media and websites are somehow different and can cannibalize each other. Saying that social media cannibalizes a website is akin to thinking that in-store salespeople somehow steal sales from an advertisement in the Sunday paper. This stuff works together. (*One caveat, duplicate social media content can cannibalize each other.)

Along with erasing the notion of separation, kill the widely adopted prospect that social media and networks are feeders to the varied 200 "about me" pages on websites. (Let's be honest, every single page of a website might as well be labeled "about me.")

questionsSecond, start thinking about why people are coming to your website. Ninety-nine percent of the time, they are not coming to read "about me" pages, play games, or be diverted to a social network (unless the social network can answer their question).

They ask different questions. So if you want to build a more effective website, start thinking about the questions your customers and prospects ask most often. Then start thinking about what they might ask if they even knew to ask it. And then start considering the best methods to deliver the answers, which may or may not include Facebook, Twitter, etc.

Still unconvinced? Take some cues from some of the top websites in world. All of them answer very specific questions. Here are the top five most visited, recognizing that even networks are really websites with more functionality.

Where can I find some information online? Google.
What are my friends and family doing right now? Facebook.
Where can I find some video of >fill in the blankWhere can I find some information if I hate Google? Yahoo.
What if I need information and I'm Chinese? Baidu.

And so on and so forth. More to the point: If consumers are turning to social networks with increased frequency, doesn't it stand to reason that they do it because your website isn't answering their questions? Maybe that's something worth thinking about.

Wednesday, May 25

Testing For Confusion: Crowdsource

crowdsourcingA few months ago, Danny Brown asked a very good question. Is social media crowdsourcing making us lazy? While he was writing from an individual perspective — suggesting we search, research, and seek relevant resources on our own — some businesses might be getting flabby in how they quantify, qualify, and analyze research.

It was one of the points I alluded to while presenting an adapted version of Thomas Sowell's concept by applying it to social media intellectuals. Some people took exception to the post, claiming it was divisive without solutions for certain prattle. (Think about it.)

The lesson doesn't come from social media. It comes from marketing and community relations.

Years ago, I worked on the front end of Clark County Regional Flood Control District for an agency client. The project included one of the first flood control detention basin projects in the greater Las Vegas area. Specifically, we developed one of the community relations prototypes for neighborhoods that might be impacted (temporarily and permanently) by the necessary construction.

People who live in the area might know the name of the project. Mission Hills Detention Basin Dam is on a tributary of the Las Vegas Wash located in the City of Henderson. Its function is to redirect flood waters to prevent houses from being washed away.

Even when the initial design was being considered, it was important for the city, county, agency, architect, and construction company to receive residents' input throughout the project — ranging from which streets would provide the safest routes for construction trucks to what the 26-foot high berm might look like upon completion (since many residents would lose valued views).

What was very interesting about this prototype community relations plan was it involved several methods of gathering data from area residents so the team would benefit from a better perspective of research. One stream of input was not enough.

low pricesFrom the communication perspective, we developed numerous ways to gather input: one-on-one interviews, private suggestions ballots, selective focus groups, open forums, and surveys. Why? Because the method and the medium can sometimes turn uninformed opinion into undesirable outcomes. And I mean undesirable for anyone.

Of course, I don't suspect too many people can relate to the finer points of flood control detention basin communication. So, I've transposed some of the notes into a more consumer-friendly model.

Transforming Marketing Surveys Into Market Testing.

• Individual Trial Response. Ask preselected customers to try a product for free or at a reduced cost and then solicit their input. Often, the intent is to find issues from the consumer's perspective. Don't direct them to find problems (because they'll make some up if so directed). And never videotape the response (because people tend to provide affirmative responses on camera).

• Focus Groups. Present the product to a select group of consumers or qualified experts to try the product and discuss it. Two cautions. Watch to make sure that one or two or three people don't eventually lead the group in a specific direction. And, always host more than one session, especially if one group fixates on a specific issue. (This is also why we had private suggestion ballots; some people clam up in public.)

• Open Forums. While similar to focus groups, open forums go beyond gathering input and create an opportunity for dialogue between stakeholders and consumers. For example, if the focus group on its own concludes the product would look best in blue, then designers and manufacturers can offer that the color might have consequences — like adding $10 in price.

• Controlled Tests. One classic marketing test model is taking advantage of stores that will carry some new products for a price. While the product will generally not benefit from any advertising assistance, it could provide its first test against competitors. One caution. Controlled tests aren't really product tests on the front end. They are more likely to be considered packaging tests.

• Test Markets. Clearly, test markets are always the most beneficial but sometimes cost-prohibitive tests, which is why large companies try while medium and small companies sometimes do not. Online, it's the essence of alpha and beta testing to some degree. You do what you want to do, just on a limited scale. Then check for results.

Then, of course, there are all the rest... surveys, interviews, etc. I know most people know these methods, but the rehash sets up the point.

The more methods in play, the greater your chance is to refine the product and move it away from what's become the biggest source of confusion caused by online crowdsourcing — conversations turned over to the crowd while letting the chips fall where they may with all sorts of influences you cannot begin to guess at. It's worse than the exhibition of being a flabby business. It very likely can put your company on the wrong path.

Consider several market testing methods instead and look for similar outcomes. It's the easiest way to begin transforming intellectual thinking into tangible experience. But even then, always be cautious anyway.

Sometimes doing it right works, as it did with the Regional Flood Control District, teaching the developers that the most vocal in the community were a minority. And sometimes doing it right doesn't work, which is why there was an Arch Deluxe.

Related Posts From Around The Web.

Memo to Crowdsourcing: Grow Up by Geoff Livingston
Five Ways Social Media Will Change Journalism by Ike Pigott
Could Crowdsourcing Help Pass The Turning Test? by Brendan Cooper

Monday, May 23

Moving Toward Social Media: Now What?

now whatAccording to a recap by Smart Company, Nielsen reports that three-quarters of Australian companies fully embrace social media with as much as 10 percent of their marketing budgets slated to social media. There is some discrepancy between large and medium businesses.

The Nielsen-Community Engine 2011 Social Media Business Benchmarking Study finds that 35 percent of large companies have a stronger presence than medium-sized companies. Although smaller businesses could benefit the most, many of them do not have the time or funding to outsource labor intensive work.

At the same time, companies that are engaging in social media are social network focused. More than 21 percent are advertising on Facebook, 15 percent have a company blog, and 16 percent are using paid monitoring services. The study also showed that 43 percent of companies see social media as a way to communicate to customers, 25 percent see it as an opportunity to respond to customers, and 23 percent see it as a tool for research and insight.

Nielsen helps tie social media to the tablet e-reader market.

Part of the most recent surge in social media is clearly in the tablet market. Mobile owners use their tablets and smart phones to browse for immediate topic points, during commercials, and to make social connections to the programming they watch (friends who are watching the programs somewhere else in the country). Some highlights from the study:

• 70 percent of tablet owners and 68 percent of smart phone owners use their devices while watching television.
• 57 percent of tablet owners and 51 percent of smart phone owners take their devices to bed.

Nielsen StudyWhen cross referenced with another study by Google's AdMob, a picture starts to develop. According to the survey, 84 percent of people use their tablets for gaming (which has become increasingly social), 78 percent use it for research (searching), 61 percent use it to read news online (portable news), and (from a different study) about 52 percent use it to check social network accounts.

The study that hasn't been done yet is more qualitative, but the anecdotal evidence exists — how are people prompted to take any number of actions that lead them to a destination. It's the one more businesses would certainly appreciate.

The anecdotal evidence exists in that people search for news on their tablets when specific topics are being discussed like a new item or a new release from a band. They might follow a link of a news story from a friend on their social network (the propensity increases with every friend mention too). Or, conversely, they might ask their friends what they think of a particular news item.

The challenge that many businesses face in social media.

Businesses that take the time to have a better understanding of social media will win, but not in ways that are always directly measurable (short of benchmarking). This explains some of the results pulled from a recent Forrester and GSI Commerce study that, on the surface, takes social media to task.

Specifically, the study concluded that social media has almost no influence on online purchasing behavior. Some people mistook this study as Forrester becoming a social media contrarian. But that is not exactly what people ought to have pulled from the study.

To fully understand what is happening with consumers, businesses have to start seeing everything from their point of view. Take a fictional (but based on real life) composite of a consumer watching television with their tablet in hand. The news program flashes that a major terrorist has been killed.

Almost immediately, discontent with the linear timeline of network news, they start searching other news streams for content. And, once they have enough, they might share or see what their friends are saying on the social network.

During all of this, your company is talking about its underwear sale. What do you think about your chances to make a sale now?

sale?Exactly right. To develop a successful social media program companies have to either know when to shut up, adjust to current events, or position themselves as part of the greater community they belong to.

Ergo, just because you represent a company with 10,000 employees doesn't mean much because your company is probably only one account. And just because it is the bigger underwear sale in the history of the company doesn't mean it's the biggest news of the day. It probably isn't. But even if it is, people are more likely to visit the store next week than immediately click and buy.

The point being that investing 10 percent of a marketing budget or more into social media is smart, especially if you want a presence where people are spending more and more time. But investing 10 percent in social media isn't so smart if the underlying strategy is because you think consumers are waiting to celebrate your brand. All they really want to do is connect.

Friday, May 20

Operating Budget: How To Lose A Customer

Budget
When we returned the rental car to Tucson International Airport, we were feeling pretty bullish about Budget Rent A Car. The attendant who checked us in had even adjusted our contract because we brought the car back with a full tank, even though we had prepaid for the gas. As I mentioned before, that never happens.

Had Budget had its way, however, any savings could have been erased. Budget Rent A Car spoiled customer satisfaction by claiming we damaged the car three weeks later. You can read all the ugly details about what happened right here: It's why Budget sucks. Worse, we now loathe them and their company, with our resolve being to forgive and forget them permanently. Well, sort of.

Today, I'd rather talk about what might have happened. There are solutions on top of solutions.

Scenario 1: Assume Fault. Budget Rent A Car would have never lost a customer for life had it never sent us a claim letter. Please don't misunderstand me. Had we damaged the car, I would have paid for the repair. But we did not.

Had the car been damaged while it was in our possession, the attendant (per Budget policy) would have notified us at check in.

It is just as likely that any damage, which Budget later defined as "minimal" to the rear door, could have been done by the people who pulled up to us once the car was checked in. Or, maybe it was the attendant who had left the doors open. Or, maybe is was whomever is responsible for washing it. Or, maybe, who knows?

It's a sorry story to think that same attendant who wanted to "save" us money also tried to "stick" us with their mistake. But the solution here is obvious. Budget Rent A Car should have assumed their company, not the customer, damaged the car.

Scenario 2: Ask, Don't Tell. Conversely, maybe Budget Rent A Car wants to be operationally thorough. And upon discovering "minimal" damage to the rear door, wants to know if their customer might have noticed something.

Instead of sending an unsigned impersonal accusation form, they could have sent a letter. They could have included photos. They could have included a detailed description of the damage and asked had we noticed anything when we checked in the car.

Customer inquiries as opposed to accusations can go a long way. I practice the same resolve at my company. If an invoice comes due without being paid, we don't automatically demand copies of their bank statements. We find out if the check was lost in the mail. Of course, in this case, we wouldn't have been able to help because there was no damage when we left.

A phone call might have worked too. Paper is expensive and not always very responsible.

Scenario 3: Expedite Service. Even if the ineffective operational policy and procedure did not work, it would be prudent for Budget Rent A Car to provide a phone number that could be reached at their customer's convenience and not their own.

At minimum, even if nobody wants to work weekends at the Budget Investigation Unit and portions of their customer service department, at least give the working people enough information to answer basic questions. You know, like "What the flip are you talking about?"

The customer service crash was the worst display of general ineptitude that I've ever had the misfortune to experience. Even the customer representative who took ownership didn't keep his promise to call by noon. According to him, it took all morning to get any information from the Budget Vehicle Damage Control Department.

Seriously? I can't fathom how long it would have taken me. Is damage running so rampant at Budget that not only do they have an entire division dedicated to bilking customers, but they also have special divisional "units" to handle all of the details? Are they so busy that it takes half the day to respond to someone in their own company?

Scenario 4: Suck It Up. Budget Rent A Car accepted that they broke their own policy, admitted the customer service was shabby, and ultimately "waived the claim." Two representatives have promised to send formal letters of apology. And one offered a customer service certificate for the lies and runarounds we experienced with their staff. (I'm satisfied with the apologies.)

However, never once did the company acknowledge one of their employees or another customer damaged the vehicle. It's a small consolation, but one their customer service representative couldn't even grasp. He thought I would be appreciative that the claim was dropped.

And that's the rub. Budget Rent A Car maintains we were at fault and they are being gracious in all of their benevolence.

It's not about me anymore. It's about possible fraudulent insurance claims practices.

Since Monday, I have had several productive phone conversations. It seems that state legislators may be very interested in drafting consumer advocacy legislation for the State of Nevada.

At minimum, the legislation will require car rental companies to perform a walkaround with any customer before accepting the rental vehicle to prevent pass-on damage liability. Among other ideas, it may also include a non-insurance attribution process to ensure the abundance of car rental insurance claims do not drive insurance rates up, which impacts people who rent cars or not.

While my personal experience originated in Arizona, consumer advocacy laws also have a tendency to be passed from one state to the next. As soon as we can get a bill up in Nevada, the draft will be forwarded to legislators in Arizona and surrounding states.

As the bill passes, Budget and its parent company, Avis, will likely have to staff more personnel to accommodate, cutting into their recent profit surges. It may also help curb the recent consolidation of the car rental industry. Currently, Avis is attempting to work around anti-trust laws to acquire remaining competitors. There are only four national companies left.

Personally, I'm not very keen about regulatory oversight. But when companies "try harder" to screw customers, they earn it.

Wednesday, May 18

Sharing Passion: Patch Adams And BloggersUnite

Patch Adams
If passion can be defined as a deep, overwhelming and powerful emotion one possesses for someone or something, then compassion might be defined as the ability to impart the best of it with someone else. The feeling they experience might even be different, leaving those touched mesmerized by their passion even if they don't adopt the same fervor. But the results are the same.

It's something not all communicators consider — and yet it is the foundation that sets so many campaigns and causes apart from one another. We rally around certain brands not so much because we're soda pop loyalists, airlines aficionados, or whatnot, but because the people behind the product have an uncanny passion for it that we can't quite understand, especially so if it is something as simple as three-ply toilet paper.

Of course, this particular post has nothing to do with something as commonplace as wipes. It's about a man who became a doctor, not so much for the profit his generation assumed it would bring but with an intense passion for the people who needed his help.

Dr. Patch Adams and his uncanny ability to transform passion into compassion.

I co-wrote an article about the International Day Of Compassion this weekend, but held off on adding something here because I thought the topic deserved a different angle. Instead of being informative, the life work of Dr. Patch Adams might be used as a teaching tool for a purpose one-off from medicine and more closely aligned with humanitarianism.

Since 1991 (and before), I've been honored to have donated my time to more than 60 different nonprofit organizations at one time or another. Some still leave me with a sense of pride today and others left me disenchanted, distressed or even disenfranchised. The difference, which can easily be applied to the private sector, is where people place their passion.

Those that make me smile for the honor of service, always managed to keep their focus on whatever cause they generally supported — teaching someone to read for the first time, rehabilitating homeless veterans, helping an orphan smile, or ensuring a parent could stay in the city where their child received medical attention. There are hundreds of examples.

And then there are those that slowly drift away from the cause or sense of purpose, pouring their passion into internal or even state politics, executive and staff paycheck protection, or just wanting to be right more often than they ever do the right thing. There are a few dozens of those, thankfully not as many as the former.

ClownsDr. Adams is an exemplary model. Even when his expectations were proven wrong, he ignored any setbacks and persisted in sharing his passion, changing the world in sometimes small and sometimes extraordinary ways. And what makes his successes so uncanny is that he seldom asks for donations or volunteers but gets them anyway — even if it takes longer than he sometimes hopes.

He doesn't have to make direct asks or sales pitches or follow policies. Instead, he asks people who cross his path to share his passion — spreading humor and compassion whenever and wherever possible. He does it in a unique way too, making people want to support his dream and pursue some dreams of their own. You can see it firsthand by learning more about the Gesundheit! Institute.

But even more than that, Adams does something that few people ever do. Even if they don't make a donation, volunteer, or help him in another way, he still has made the world a better place by sharing his passion for compassion. And it still spreads.

Passion and compassion apply to communicators in the private sector.

It's the fundamental difference between social media programs that work and don't work (traditional campaigns too). Profit-driven (or deadline-driven or volume-driven) programs tend to deliver flatter campaigns, even if the short-term ROI is high.

Have you ever wondered why? The great unequalizer is often underpinned by passion for the product and compassion for the people who might buy it or have an experience. Or, in other words, I've never met someone who is successful peddling products they consider "boring" (passion) or unconcerned with each individual customer's experience (compassion). At least, no one successful in the long run.

Or, in yet other words, if you cannot communicate with passion and have the intent of compassion, then don't. People can tell. Sooner or later.
 

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