Friday, July 13

Keeping Secrets: Penn State Officials Feared Publicity

As the story was breaking last year, I joined a handful of public relations professionals who pointed out that the Penn State scandal was not a public relations case study. The remedy was early ethics.

What has become more clear, however, is that public relations is easily brought into the discussion because of its influence over behavior. A fear of bad publicity prompted the Penn State coverup.

In doing so, Joe Paterno and top Penn State officials hushed up child sex abuse allegations against Jerry Sandusky, allowing the former assistant football coach to prey on other youngsters for another decade, according to a scathing report issued Thursday on the scandal. They wanted to protect Penn State.

Public relations is not the art of spin, secrets, or cover-ups. 

While some practitioners think public relations can do those things (those who mistake public relations for propaganda), the ethical practice is obliged to do the opposite. It seeks the truth and then communicates any findings in a responsible, forthright, and empathetic way fosters understanding (why it happened) and addresses mitigation (what will happen now). That is all that can be done.

Some people call it common sense. But sometimes professionals, executives, and officials seem to be in short supply of common sense. If it was in abundance, they would appreciate that proper public relations seeks a mutually beneficial relationship between organizations and their publics, even when the organization or individuals in the organization have violated trust.

Ergo, truth rectifies or otherwise minimizes maleficence. More malfeasance only exacerbates it, even if it postpones the inevitable. All the while, victims and future victims suffer for it in silence. And all the while, more and more people are directly and indirectly harmed as the lie spreads like a virus.

Proper public relations is different. Rather than sweep organizational shame under the rug, it brings the truth to light. Sure, there will be consequences. Over the long term, any organization that is able to uncover a problem, isolate its cause, and establish preventative measures to ensure it will not happen again, will minimize the damage and (sometimes) earn the trust and respect of those involved.

The analogy might be trivial, but the error in judgement is not.

You know you are an idiot public relations practitioner (in title or practice) when you could have learned this lesson watching a single episode of The Brady Bunch. And one of them fits here.

In the episode called "Goodbye, Alice, Hello," Peter and Greg were playing Frisbee in the house. Like many children have learned over the years, something always gets broken eventually. In this case, an antique lamp. Greg and Peter vow to fix the lamp and ask Alice to keep their secret.

Alice eventually has to break her vow because she refuses to lie to her boss, Carol, and the kids learn that cover-ups carry additional costs. Although they later chastise Alice for being "a snitch" and she quits, even that turns out to be problematic. People who become part of an extended family are not so easily replaced and Alice becomes the hero of the episode.

The officials who covered up the Penn State scandal could have been heroes too. But they must have missed this particular episode. And everything they thought they gained during the cover-up is now diminished or lost outright. You can read the Penn State response here. But more importantly, try to remember that public relations, much like human decency, begins and ends with truth and trust, not cover-ups.

Wednesday, July 11

Teaching Applied: What We Knew In 1895

A friend of mine recently shared some exam questions, reportedly used as a final exam in Salina, Kansas, circa 1895. The purpose of sharing the exam is meant to surprise people at how much more difficult an eighth grade education was in 1895 compared to, perhaps, a high school education today.

Two things struck me in reading over the exam. The first was that I wasn't taught all of it in school. The second was that the teachers in 1895 were doing something that not all schools do today.

While there is a certain amount of rote memorization, many of the questions suggest the instruction was tied to the real world. Right. The students weren't only being taught material in preparation for the next class but also how they might use the instruction in their lives if there wasn't going to be a next class.

The Questions From An Eighth Grade Final Exam: Salina, Kansas (1895)

Grammar (Time, one hour) 
1. Give nine rules for the use of capital letters.
2. Name the parts of speech and define those that have no modifications.
3. Define verse, stanza and paragraph.
4. What are the principal parts of a verb? Give principal parts of 'lie,''play,' and 'run.'
5. Define case; illustrate each case.
6 What is punctuation? Give rules for principal marks of punctuation.
7 - 10. Write a composition of about 150 words and show therein that you understand the practical use of the rules of grammar.

Arithmetic (Time,1 hour 15 minutes) 
1. Name and define the Fundamental Rules of Arithmetic.
2. A wagon box is 2 ft. deep, 10 feet long, and 3 ft. wide. How many bushels of wheat will it hold?
3. If a load of wheat weighs 3,942 lbs., what is it worth at 50cts/bushel, deducting 1,050 lbs. for tare?
4. District No 33 has a valuation of $35,000. What is the necessary levy to carry on a school seven months at $50 per month, and have $104 for incidentals?
5. Find the cost of 6,720 lbs. coal at $6.00 per ton.
6. Find the interest of $512.60 for 8 months and 18 days at 7 percent.
7. What is the cost of 40 boards 12 inches wide and 16 ft. long at $20 per metro?
8. Find the bank discount on $300 for 90 days (no grace) at 10 percent.
9. What is the cost of a square farm at $15 per acre, the distance of which is 640 rods?
10. Write a bank check, a promissory note, and a receipt.

U.S. History (Time, 45 minutes) 
1. Give the epochs into which U.S. history is divided.
2. Give an account of the discovery of America by Columbus.
3. Relate the causes and results of the Revolutionary War.
4. Show the territorial growth of the United States.
5. Tell what you can of the history of Kansas.
6. Describe three of the most prominent battles of the Rebellion.
7. Who were the following: Morse, Whitney, Fulton , Bell , Lincoln , Penn, and Howe?
8. Name events connected with the following dates: 1607, 1620, 1800, 1849, 1865.

Orthography (Time, one hour) 
1. What is meant by the following: alphabet, phonetic, orthography, etymology, syllabication?
2. What are elementary sounds? How classified?
3. What are the following, and give examples of each: trigraph, subvocals, diphthong, cognate letters, linguals.
4. Give four substitutes for รป.
5. Give two rules for spelling words with final 'e.' Name two exceptions under each rule.
6. Give two uses of silent letters in spelling. Illustrate each.
7. Define the following prefixes and use in connection with a word: bi, dis-mis, pre, semi, post, non, inter, mono, sup.
8. Mark diacritically and divide into syllables the following, and name the sign that indicates the sound: card, ball, mercy, sir, odd, cell, rise, blood, fare, last.
9. Use the following correctly in sentences: cite, site, sight, fane, fain, feign, vane , vain, vein, raze, raise, rays.
10. Write 10 words frequently mispronounced and indicate pronunciation by use of diacritical marks and by syllabication.

Geography (Time, one hour) 
1. What is climate? Upon what does climate depend?
2. How do you account for the extremes of climate in Kansas ?
3. Of what use are rivers? Of what use is the ocean?
4. Describe the mountains of North America.
5. Name and describe the following: Monrovia, Odessa, Denver, Manitoba, Hecla, Yukon, St. Helena, Juan Fernandez, Aspinwall and Orinoco.
6. Name and locate the principal trade centers of the U.S.
7. Name all the republics of Europe and give the capital of each.
8. Why is the Atlantic Coast colder than the Pacific in the same latitude?
9. Describe the process by which the water of the ocean returns to the sources of rivers.
10. Describe the movements of the earth. Give the inclination of the earth.

The Difference Between Educational Success Is Set By Expectation.  

There was something else that struck me about these questions. My son just graduated from the seventh grade but he wasn't expected to know most of it or any modern equivalent. There were only two possibilities why he wasn't expected to learn it, we surmised.

The first assumption was that it's just not considered important anymore because new material has supplanted the need. The second was that this instruction would come later in his education, which made wonder. There are dozens of people who want to delay education for one reason or another.

While I understand the reasoning, delayed education is one of the key ingredients that has caused many educational structures to underperform in the United States. Instead of fearing a child might be "left behind," we might be better off instilling a cultural model where no child is "held back."

And no, I don't mean pass students who are not ready. What I mean is that we ought to expect all children can excel by setting a higher standard and never holding back any child who is ready to excel. Ergo, if we want to create an environment where children can learn at their own pace, then there is no reason to hold back those who are ready to excel. And those who need extra help can always find it.

As the 1895 test might illustrate, it's not about the grade level. It's about what you learn and apply.

Monday, July 9

Marketing Affiliates: Are They Worth The Time?

Rakuten LinkShare released the results of its June 2012 Forrester Consulting study. The study was commissioned to determine the direct and indirect value of affiliate marketing, but its importance reveals compelling data for social media and online advertising as well.

Specially, the report demonstrates why social media and similar marketing efforts cannot be measured like direct response, with definitive paths to product purchases. This is especially interesting because affiliate marketing pays publishers based on direct clicks to the point of purchase.

Key findings about affiliate marketing from Forrester.

• Affiliate marketing spending is on the rise and will keep pace with digital marketing through 2016. Total marketing spending will increase from about $2.5 billion to $4.5 billion in four years.

• Affiliate making channels produce more new-to-file customers and generates incremental customer acquisition. Some brands report 50 percent of the traffic received by affiliate marketers are new buyers.

• Affiliate marketing channels attract consumers that spend more than the average online shopper. The difference is approximately $500 more per year, with average shoppers spending about $1,300 per year. 

• Affiliate marketing channels trigger brand recognition and can close the sale for online shoppers. Online shoppers typically visit four sites before making a purchasing decision. 

• Affiliate promotions have a positive impact on an advertiser's brand reputation and loyalty. Almost half of all consumers report a positive feeling when they see special offers on multi-brand sites and blogs.

"The study reflects how the affiliate marketing industry is strongly aligned with today's value-driven, always connected consumer who typically visits multiple sites before making a purchase," said Scott Allan, senior vice president of global marketing, Rakuten LinkShare. "As interactive marketing budgets grow and evolve, affiliate marketing will continue to be a key, measurable tactic for brands and retailers to attract and acquire new customers."

Considering the crossover as it relates to social media. 

• Investments in digital advertising, online marketing, and social media are continuing to rise whereas other mediums have flattened or demonstrated a loss in the last ten years.

• Third-party introductions and endorsements have become increasingly important to prospects before they consider new products and services as opposed to direct path purchases. 

• Shoppers may visit multiple sources to learn about products and services, even when they already have a connection to the brand, which makes outreach as important as direct communication. 

• Shoppers who visit more than one source for promotions, coupons, and reviews online are much more likely to make a purchase and spend more than people who are dedicated to a channel. 

• While some people question third-party endorsements and agendas, the majority of consumers are unconcerned because they are visiting more than one source of information.  

One of the more interesting aspects of the study is that consumers have a general presumption that brands will offer better deals on multi-brand sites and blogs than they will on their own sites. The study also hints at the influence of review sites frequently visited by consumers. They are nearly four times more likely than average buyers to try a new brand after seeing and receiving a new offer.

The study has been made available online. If you would like to read the study, find it here. The download does require several content fields, including an email address and phone number. 

Friday, July 6

Branding Online: Do We Need People To Act?

Anytime I read an article with a steep promise it never delivers — How To Be Unforgettable Online — it makes me wonder. Do we want to make every interaction emotional? Is that really the end goal?

The premise isn't new. Advertisers have long maintained that consumers act on emotion more than logic. When the ideology is confined to advertising, it makes sense. An advertisement either generates an impression about a brand or makes the case for a specific call to action.

After repetition (assuming it reaches a viable prospect), the general idea is that you will eventually adopt some notion about the brand (doubly quick if others say the same thing) and test the presumption with a purchase. The point of purchase is also the moment that the brand will sink or swim.

So when I read the article that conveyed branding works much the same way, it made me wonder.

Can branding be boiled down into a series of emotional responses too?

If it can be boiled down in that way, then I think the relationship must be shockingly shallow. In fact, you might equate it to some of those acquaintances you follow on Facebook or Twitter or even offline.

You know the folks — the people you really don't know but are connected with them for any number of reasons. Maybe you met them in a conversation. Maybe you accepted a friend request because of their relation to someone you know. Maybe you thought they were a possible prospect. Maybe you liked their profile or something they did that someone shared. Whatever. They're trial connections.

Does that connection have anything to do with branding? Not really. The brand relationship between you and the connection will likely occur in the days and weeks that follow. It will not be based on your emotional reaction to each interaction, but their overall ability to prove there could be a relationship.

If they don't, you'll likely server the connection in time, doubly fast if they spam you, have polarizing opinions, or don't offer any particular value. It doesn't hurt to do it. There are no tears. You move on.

But now think of the people you do know. Maybe they are family or long-time friends. And maybe they don't always live up to your expectations either: soliciting an argument, sharing something inappropriate, or even spamming you with all sorts of nonsense that you never expected.

Even so, it might not be as easy to sever the ties. Why? Because unlike the other folks who solicited an action from you, you have a relationship with them that transcends any action. The sum of that relationship generally trumps the emotion they might generate with any statement or share.

Brands need to stop thinking short term and start thinking long term. 

Did you ever visit the Aol front page? Most of its news stories are teased in a way to generate an emotional response and action much like the authors of How To Be Unforgettable Online subscribe.

The one-line quips promise you something important, shocking, surprising, unbelievable, dangerous, and fantastic. Spend some time there and you will eventually find one article that will tug at you to click the link. When you do, there is an 80 percent chance that the tease doesn't match the draw.

So the question becomes ... how many times will you click those links for less than was promised?

If you are like most people, you will dump the page for a better source of news. And therein lies the takeaway. Branding is much more than generating high exposure and an emotional tug to get people to act. It's about developing a relationship strong enough to survive the hiccups, bumps, and other stuff that happens along the way. It's not all that different than a real relationship. Don't get dumped.

Wednesday, July 4

Hanging Shingles: Public Relations As A Practice

You can define it, but it doesn't mean you can regulate the practice. That is what the public relations industry is learning the hard way. The industry doubts its credibility, but the problem is credulity.

Anybody can start a public relations firm tomorrow. There is no license. There is no mandatory accreditation. There is no oversight. In my city, some politicians have adopted the title in the past (a few who later served jail time) in order to make it all the more murky on why exactly someone paid them consultation fees. And when bad things like that happen, most will quickly turn a blind eye.

In fact, even when firms attempt to police their own, other public relations vets will fret that negative public relations stories hurt the industry as a whole. They say the bad apples don't change, but everyone remembers the industry stories. And then beyond that, there are some bad apples that the industry exempts because of their size, contracts, or connections.

The public relations industry is at the heart of its own calamities. 

The root of the problem is simple. The practice calls for generalists, but fills itself with specialists.

Right. In attempting to own media relations, social media, strategic communication, publicity campaigns (an offshoot of advertising), event planing, and so on, the industry has forced itself to gobble up tactical work instead of promoting more strategic tenets.

Never mind that it is easy to tell who is who. It's all the objectives they set. Ergo, how many column inches or blog posts that a company earns in a month is a publicity measure. What is the public perception of the company in relation to its competition among specific publics, on the other hand, is strategic.

Recognize the difference? One might impact sales like direct marketing (maybe). The other acts as a bolster or booster for anything else done. It's also significantly harder to measure, which is a thorn in the side of specialists who act like generalists in order to grab up more of the monthly marketing budget.

No wonder so many firms are focused on pushing stories. It's tactical. It's immediate. It's sort of measurable, even if most measures seldom consider the path to fulfillment. And since social media is frequently treated the same way, many will say it fits right in with likes, comments, and whatnots.

How public relations could heal itself if it were up to the challenge. 

I'm not very big on the idea of government intervention or regulation or degrees or mandatory accreditations. Those have to remain elective. Besides, government involvement would brush up against the First Amendment in the United States and comparable government contracts elsewhere.

So that means it is up to the industry, which must go beyond whatever short and punchy definition it is peddling. It has to outline precisely how any adopted definition applies to the practice. And then it has to have a majority of firms agree to it all.

If that can be done, and I doubt it can, it has to pressure all those who don't adopt the practice to stop stealing the public relations moniker and start embracing the endless number of specializations like social media, publicity, media relations, guru, etc.

If they don't on their own, then the remedy is publicity designed to shake off the pretenders. There is no other way around it. The industry has to out the bad and elevate the good (even if good examples of public relations are often invisible).

And for those who fear too many posts, articles, and finger points might damage the industry? They miss the point. After all, call outs ought not be public relations, but rather those firms that aren't in public relations. Get it? It's not about good public relations vs. bad public relations. It's about public relations vs. something other than public relations, including bad behavior or ignorance.

It would have to happen. Somebody would need to tell those firms (and maybe their clients) that while they might think what they do is public relations, what they really do is practice media relations and publicity or irresponsible and criminal behavior (however the shoe may fit).

Do you think that will ever happen? Probably not in my lifetime or yours, if ever. Public relations doesn't want it. There isn't even enough rope; but I do think we're due for more enlightenment.

Monday, July 2

Getting Twitter: Now What?

There are hundreds of articles that describe how to use Twitter right and thousands that tell people how to do it wrong. One of the newest ways from Buddy Media, statistically, is both right and wrong.

It's right if your company fits the paradigm. It's wrong if your company doesn't. Most companies don't.

That doesn't mean that new study, which tracked 320 top Twitter handles for two months, isn't worthwhile. It can be, but not in the way most people think. It can help you ask better questions.

Reading the takeaways from the Buddy Media study.

• Tweet on the days heaviest for your industry.
• Use Twitter between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m., Facebook between 8 p.m. and 7 a.m.
• Tweet four times per day or less; traction tends to drop off with more tweets.
• Type less than 100 character per Tweet, making it more likely to be shared.
• Links and photos tend to receive more Tweets than straight connect.
• Include hashtags, but never more than two hashtags at a time.
• Use "Retweet" or "RT" as a prompt for retweets. Spell out retweet for increased retweets. 

Asking the right takeaways from the Buddy Media study. 

• Do you know when your followers are online? 
• Do you know what social networks they use?
• What is the optimal number of tweets for you? What are the exceptions (e.g., chat sessions)?
• Are you leaving enough room for people to share your tweets with a comment?
• Are your links to high value content or are they all promotional in nature? What about pictures?
• Are your hashtags well thought out? Did you remember to drop them during one-on-one chats?
• Have you prioritized comments you hope are retweeted? Each degree means something different.

There are hundreds more questions to consider, one in particular. 

What are you trying to do on Twitter? Most small business people usually have one or two answers. They want followers (but don't know why). They want more "awareness" about their brand (but don't know who). 

Most of the time, they want these things because it looks good to gather followers, retweets, etc. But that isn't enough, not really. Every aspect of social media is an opportunity to forward your company's mission or another objective revolving around the mission of your company.

More than anything else, that is what the best brands do online. Southwest Airlines tries to be friendly. Nike tries to tie everything outdoors to your feet. Coca-Cola tries to spread connectivity and happiness. Wal-Mart likes to talk about sales. Ford likes to promote automative technology as an industry leader.

As long as your brand is working toward its mission on social networks, with a healthy respect about adding value, the rest will almost take care of itself. But once you start seeing some traction with your campaign, you can start to refine it — picking the time of day or days when it seems to work its best.

Eventually, unless your mission is out of whack with your message, people will follow, share, engage, and (yes) possibly buy things from you too. Just don't put those things first. People can see through it.
 

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