Friday, November 30

Boring People: I Tend Not To See Them

It might sound cynical, but many of conversations about communication are cyclular. They reincarnate themselves again and again.

Danny Brown knows it too. He recently noted the reincarnation of Kumbaya communication culture best described as the chronic urge to be nice-nice and non-critical.

Skip on having an opinion and play it all safe. As he points out in his piece on the subject, everybody is afraid that having an opinion that will drive away readers (and even advertisers) from their blogs or extended networks. Fear is a powerful motivator for most people, especially when they think they have something.

He takes a different tact. Boring isn't in ... it's invisible.

Brown makes a good point. There are around 200 million blogs being published (and I'm not sure this counts online newspapers and magazines). All of them are competing for some scrap of attention.

This isn't 2005 when there were only half that amount. Back then, publishing a blog felt like enough, especially in neglected niches (like communication was then). Everyone was pretty even back then, with everyone scrutinizing each other for giving bad advice (or good advice). There were even foils in the crowd, hellbent on criticizing everything. Some people hated it. I thought the industry needed it.

But then things took a turn. The various communication industries (public relations, advertising, emerging social media, etc.) developed a healthy dose of fear. The people who staked a claim were worried about image, stuff I used to liken to the borg or, better yet, pirates. I wasn't the only one.

Ironically, the people who promoted the idea of landing somewhere between neutral and nice had the most to gain. When all things are equal, people tend to gravitate to the most popular people and not the most popular content.

It's no surprise. This is the same phenomenon that occurs in media circles. Big brands can do almost nothing and get media attention. If a little brand does that same thing, nobody cares. Ergo, when Gen. Petraeus has an affair, expect headlines. When it is your neighbor, nobody cares — not even you (unless your spouse is involved).

It's the way the world works. If you only write to rubrics and rules, you're boring.

To compensate for the rebirth of vanilla, Brown suggests more bloggers play the part of a contrarian. And, for the most part, he's right. If you see something wrong, don't be afraid to point it out.

It doesn't matter who the author is or how big their following or how many times it's been shared. If someone doesn't vet the industry now and again, all sorts of oddball standards begin to take hold.

While you might earn some pushback or an occasional mob-like reaction from their loyalists, it won't stick. Any rub ups over opinions usually last no more than a few days or a week a worst. In a month or so, you'll barely remember it happened (whether it pops up in Google searches or not).

Well, some people might remember. But that requires a different tack all together. You have to be able to accept criticism before you offer some of your own. For example, I received all sorts of flack for criticizing and calling the demise of Utterz. But that all ended in a few months, after it folded.

Wednesday, November 28

Killing Media Advisories: For Immediate Release

A recent Ragan extra more or less declared the term "media advisory" dead, along with "for immediate release" as good measure. In fact, the eight reasons why public relations professionals ought to stop using these phrases was not only good for a laugh, but also shareable in some circles. Maybe so.

Number 5 was especially funny: "Just because a college professor or some PR agency taught you to write 'media advisory' or 'for immediate release' doesn't make it meaningful or right. (sic)" Keith Yaskin, who wrote the piece, is somewhat right. Those reasons alone don't make using the terms right or meaningful. But then again, neither does taking advice from a random hack.

Have news release headers lost their luster?

Maybe, but not for the comical reasons that Yaskin provides. If news release headers and instructive phrases have lost their meaning, it's because many public relations professionals never learned what it all meant from the beginning. Something was missed during their transition from copy editor to reporter or administrative assistant to public relations practitioner.

Let's start with the obvious. Headers are simply meant to tell journalists and television reporters what the content might be. A new release was supposed to contain news. A press release was supposed to contain information that may or may not be news (although some old school television reporters used to tell me they hated the term, given the association with printing). A feature release might contain soft news. A media statement was commentary from someone with an opinion or comment on something.

And a media advisory? Contrary to the chortle that media advisories are an attempt to masquerade as the U.S. Coast Guard, the header used to have real meaning. Media advisories were a heads up to media that something was going to happen — such as an event, opening, tour, press conference, public statement, etc. — that might be worth dispatching a news crew or photographer to cover it.

A media advisory wasn't meant to earn column inches or publicity pixels. All it was supposed to do was let the media know that something was going to happen that could constitute news —from the mundane (like an opening) to the bizarre (a new world record for the biggest hoagie). It was predictive. And as such, it wasn't necessarily ready for print or broadcast because it hadn't happened yet.

Why "for immediate release" lost its meaning in the hands of flacks. 

Much like news release headers were meant to be instructive, so was the cutline "for immediate release." It was never meant to be a standalone. Like headers, there were other options until some agencies (and now most agencies) started to use the phrase ad nauseum, causing people like Yaskin to toss up their hands and chuckle.

Joining "for immediate release" was "for release at will," "for releases before or after [date],*" "for release by [date]," and so on and so forth. It worked, until public relations firms and in-house organizations thought that "for immediate release" carried a greater sense of urgency.

They were guided by the mistaken belief that everything they sent required immediate attention and immediate coverage because that is what they taught their clients to expect. Never mind that journalists used to hang onto "for release at will" content a little longer in case the news of the day dictated that the story might fit (and hadn't gone stale).

Sure, it's less likely they would keep it today because content is cheap and there is a steady stream of it, every single day. As I pointed out in one of my presentations, there are approximately 1.4 million news stories put out every day and 4.3 million news releases. Of those, only about 140,000 news stories are inspired by news releases, making the odds of coverage rather slim beyond a blurb or passing mention.

Those figures, by the way, are two years old. There is a good chance we've doubled the content overload in the last two years, without even counting all those posts, white papers and whatnot.

Don't blow things up until you have a backup plan. 

If there is one thing I've learned after a few decades in business (as well as community advocacy), it is that ignorant people are quick to cut anything they don't understand. It's especially easy when they don't have any industry knowledge, insight or history.

Right. All those meaningless little things might actually mean something, but you have to take the time to know what they are and why they are perceived to be important. If the answer is useless — such as "we do it this way because we've always done it this way" — then it makes sense to let it go. But if there is a meaning behind the apparent madness, then it might be worth preserving.

But then again, I'm not making a case to preserve "media advisory" or "for immediate release." If neither the journalists and broadcaster nor public relations practitioners know the meaning of these headers and instructional phrases, then they might as well be dropped. Or maybe not.

The choice is really up to each professional or quasi practitioner. Use it or don't use it, but at least you won't be ignorant as to why it was used in the past. As for me, personally, I'll include whatever clearly communicates to the intended audience whether others want to muddle the meaning or not.

*As a side note, it might be helpful to know that "for release after [date]" is different than an embargo. 

Monday, November 26

Chasing Content: B2B Doubles Down On Ineffective

According to the Content Marketing Institute, B2B marketers are bullish on content marketing. Almost 90 percent of B2B businesses (88 percent) will retain or increase (54 percent) their content marketing budgets in 2013. Ten percent aren't sure if their budgets will be increased/decreased, leaving only 2 percent expecting to cut their content marketing budgets.

While all this data suggests that content marketing — articles, blogs, infographics, email newsletters, and social networks — works, it's not working for most. Only one-third of these marketers believes their content marketing is effective. So why invest more?

B2B doubles down on quantity, not quality. 

With the majority of B2B marketers developing large in-house teams to manage all their content marketing efforts, many think that their greatest challenge will be producing enough content. That means more posts, more email, more social network updates, and more [fill in the blank] will be the new measure of success.

What many don't realize, however, is that they are contributing to the largest marketing arms race in history. It's the outcome of a strategy, if we can call it a strategy, that suggests whoever produces more content wins. Yes. Over saturation alone, literally drowning the audience in communication, will somehow lead to greater market share.

When some marketers ask why they don't believe their content marketing is effective, few think it is quality, purpose, or value of the content. Most seem to think they either need more content or bigger advertising budgets for their tactical campaigns. (Tactical is an important word here, given that the majority of companies employ 18 content tactics on average.)

It makes sense that they think this way. Seventy-nine percent consider brand awareness the number one priority for their content marketing efforts. Almost half believe that sharing content is an important measurement. More than half believe that website traffic is a leading measurement criteria for success.

It's also unfortunate that they are mostly wrong. Sound strategies that produce tangible outcomes produce success. The rest of it is magic, with maybe a little smoke and mirrors.

On any given day, I can increase my site traffic by several thousand percent. It doesn't take much effort. A few ad buys here and there can make the least valuable content ever published look popular. The real question is whether or not the content is effective, which is directly dependent on strategic goals and not shares or likes or the usual measures.

Setting goals to sales isn't a suitable measure either. All marketing efforts directly or indirectly support sales. If they didn't, why would a company chose to do them? It doesn't really make sense.

Setting the right objective is a simple concept that eludes many marketers. 

There are dozens of ways to slice strategic communication, but let's start with one — the most obvious. Marketers ought to be less concerned with brand awareness and more concerned with brand integrity.

Brand integrity means that not only do people know who you are, but also what you do and, ideally, that you do it well. Awareness alone is futile. Ergo, Gen. Pertraeus has more brand awareness now than at any time in his career. The scandal ought to be a footnote in his career and not the other way around. It might have been a footnote too, but awareness has eclipsed any previous integrity that reached a smaller audience.

The point is what we communicate is ten times as important as how much we communicate. And what we communicate ought to be based solely on the objectives of the company.

Sure, there are a few baselines that ought to be considered minimums for certain media (e.g., writing a blog post once a month is not necessarily better than none), but marketers might start thinking smarter than simply trying to outproduce and outspend their competitors. If you don't think your content marketing is effective, it probably isn't. And if it isn't, it ought to be fixed before you toss in more dollars.

Friday, November 23

Building Spaces: Environments Impact Minds

Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi
Fast Company recently covered a story in the Pacific Standard that explores how certain types of spaces affect our behaviors and ultimately our brains. Designers and programmers might take note of it.

Architecture isn't the only design that ties into neuroscience. When people click on a link and land on a page, design and organizational function create a cascade of immediate reactions, sometimes before anyone has the chance to read the first word. It dictates how we feel when we visit a platform.

The reason is simple. Our brains can't always distinguish the difference between stories, pictures, programs, and real-life experiences. This is the reason horror flicks can trigger our "fight or flee" mechanism. It's also why some photos, like the Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi, have an immediate calming affect on our mood. In at least one case, as Fast Company noted, it inspires clarity.

Thinking spatially, contextually and visually will become a dominant design driver. 

In fact, neuroscience studies in this fascinating field use virtual renderings of architectural models to test their theories. One of their many findings concluded that design is often responsible for making people feel lost or providing enough guidance to create a confident, intuitive sense of where they are going.



There is a dual edge to this kind of design theory, both architecturally and online. While our brains may have some design preferences that may be universal (something along the lines of feng shui), some of our preferences are built upon other environmental factors that help set our expectations.

Ergo, there is a reason that architectural movements tend to occur in waves or that Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ all create similar streams of content. Advertising design sometimes does the same (the dark and edgy advertisements that dominated much of the 1990s have fallen off, for example). But that doesn't mean designers and programmers ought to be concerned with trends alone.

There do seem to be universal design elements and structures that touch our subconscious, which is why certain natural and classical architecture immediately appeal to our senses and feel timeless. Such consideration could make the design-build stage of everything — advertisements, websites and social networks — much more effective in delivering a memorable, automatically comfortable experience.

Perhaps there is a Pinterest connection to intuitive design.

This could even be why Pinterest took off as its own unique niche network. While there were several sites that were launched (and relaunched) around the same time, Pinterest propelled itself forward because it stumbled upon an interesting, universally appealing platform design that felt natural.

Sure, some people believe that Pinterest took off because it was all about visuals. But it seems to me to be much more than that. While the structural layout wasn't necessarily original or new, it did take advantage of a more universally appealing design — one that "feels" cleaner than other networks but not overtly sparse as Google+ looked when it was originally rolled out.

In other words, it seems a few answers to why some platforms succeed and others do not might be more linked to design and neuroscience than we think. And if it is, better design-program integration will eventually become a priority.

Wednesday, November 21

Socializing Monkeys: SMAC! Takes Thanksgiving

If you have never head of Leslie Lehrman or Jennifer Windrum, the day before Thanksgiving is the ideal day for an introduction. Leslie Lehrman is dying of cancer. Jennifer Windrum is her daughter.

And yet, despite the direness of their situation — that this may be their last Thanksgiving together — they and their family are grateful. For the past seven years, Windrum has used social media to chronicle her mother's fight against lung cancer. Today, more people are aware that lung cancer research is being neglected for all the wrong reasons because of their efforts and awareness always leads to action.

A social media campaign becomes a catalyst for action.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to ask Windrum a few questions about WTF? For Lung Cancer and SMAC! Sock Monkeys Against Cancer as her story became a good will pick on Liquid [Hip]. There, you will find some of the back story. Here, I want to ask for your help.

SMAC! Sock Monkeys Against Cancer only has a few days left to raise $35,000. While Windrum will meet her minimum $29,000 funding requirement, she really needs $35,000. She has until Nov. 30 to raise it, but she needs some additional help because her mom took a turn for the worse this month.

Windrum has been where she is needed most, bedside with her mom. Tomorrow, even as their family gets together for Thanksgiving, she will be there too. Ten years ago, this inconvenient truth would have canceled any fundraising effort. But social media is different. For every minute Windrum cannot be online, she has a network of friends who are willing to step up. She has raised more than $20,000.

The funding is to launch a new sock monkey product line with two very interesting twists. The sock monkeys are always sold in pairs so any time someone purchases a SMAC! sock monkey, another will be sent to someone with cancer. And any time someone purchases a pair, it will raise funds for the National Coalition of Oncology Nurse Navigators (NCONN) and Liz’s Legacy at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Eppley Cancer Center.

The first directly benefits cancer patients because NCONN provides advocates who help cancer patients with appointments, phone calls and treatment regimens. The second directly funds cancer research.

Why sock monkeys? 

On one of the many occasions that Lehrman traveled to various medical centers around the United States, Windrum gave her two sock monkeys — a Mother's Day gift from her twin daughters. Those two sock monkeys helped to remind her mom that no matter what happened she would never be alone. She had people who loved her, their hugs were tucked inside for whenever she needed them most.

They worked. And personally, I am not surprised.

Having lost many family members to cancer, including my two grandparents who raised me until I was 10, the smallest symbols of our affection always become the greatest catalysts for them to face whatever comes next. And because of Lehrman and Windrum, these little guys carry with them not only our love but also a gesture that sweeps across hundreds and thousands of cancer patients and survivors just like them.

I am especially touched by the Lehrman-Windrum story because Windrum gave up everything her career might have become in favor of a career tied to a cause that most people don't understand. It was especially noble given there is virtually no funding for lung cancer research because it has become associated with the stigma of smoking.

But perhaps that makes the story all the more compelling. Although Lehrman never smoked, she has become the victim of this stigma. The lack of lung cancer research is as responsible as the disease.

While they both know any cancer research funding will come too late to help Lehrman, it might one day save the life of someone else who has lung cancer. It currently accounts for 30 percent of all cancer deaths and 80 percent of the people who are afflicted have never smoked or gave up smoking decades ago.

You can join me and help change this. While every $10 donation is an amazing show of support, $50 or more will include your choice of the first two sock monkeys designed specifically to help cancer patients and cancer research. Larger pledges include sending dozens of monkeys to cancer patients too.

You can learn more by visiting the pledge form at StartSomeGood. If you cannot help with a donation, then perhaps sharing this story or passing along this ask will help it find someone who can help. Or maybe you could even can save a little time at the Thanksgiving table tomorrow and smile at everything you have to be grateful for. Just ask Lehrman and Windrum. They are grateful for any and all support.

Monday, November 19

Being Everything: PR Won't Find Answers For Petraeus

The most recent sex scandal to shake up government was General David Petraeus. And this story, like many that have come before it, has some public relations professionals asking questions. Specifically, they wonder if the time has come to rewrite the public relations rules for sex scandals.

Not everyone thinks so. Some people are starting to wonder whether public relations professionals are biting off more than they can chew to become de facto organizational ethics coaches. As James Savage points out in his guest post on Communication Ammo, reputation management might not even be within the purvue of public relations.

As Savage quotes risk management expert Dr. Thomas Kaiser: "The role of PR department is essential for 'clean-up' operations following a reputational risk (sic) event, but they should not be key in its active management. Reputational risk is not a PR exercise — the underlying problems of any event need to be solved rather than actively managed after the event."

Kaiser is mostly right. Public relations professionals might face certain risks associated with their field, but they aren't in the business of risk management. However, I do think it is within the purview of public relations to predict consequences, thereby providing counsel to organizational leaders and implementing a plan to serve the organization and public interest.

As noted before, there is a very clear difference between disaster planning and managing public relations related to disaster planning. While some public relations professionals might be knowledgeable enough to address ethics, reputation and disaster management, the doing is different than the talking. When it comes to Petraeus specifically, there is another question that needs to be asked.

Who does the public relations professional serve again?

If public relations is serving the organization and public interest, there isn't much to be done about Gen. Petraeus. To date, in fact, I have never read a definition of public relations that suggested they serve the organization, public interest, and anyone within the organization that has a lapse of good judgement or character flaw.

Other than ensuring the public that there was no breach in security or mitigating any damage because there was a breach in security, the CIA (while perhaps embarrassed) doesn't owe anything to their former head. He obviously wasn't representing the agency when he engaged in the private affair.

In other words, Gen. Petraeus, not public relations, will have to mitigate his own wrongdoings. And even if he did hire a public relations practitioner to communicate this mitigation, they might offer insight into how the public might respond to any specific actions. Otherwise, that's about it.

Sure, there are times when a public relations professional might be called in some time after a mess has occurred but before it is broken to the public. But the ethical viewpoint is pretty clear, especially because public relations professionals do not have attorney-client privilege.

Ethics isn't confined to a single profession. It's for everyone.

When someone brings something wrong to your attention, you tell them it is wrong, refuse to participate or aid in covering up the wrongdoing, and demand immediate correction. Unless public safety is at risk, it is usually advised that the wrongdoer is given the opportunity to correct it on their own, with the understanding that the person they have attempted to being into their confidence will move to correct the problem if the wrongdoer does not. That's not public relations. It's ethics.

I might add that Brad Phillips is right about one thing. The pat crisis plan for sex scandals has worn thin. The public is growing weary of the "admit it, apologize for it, demonstrate remorse, and promise to never do it again" battle plan. That only works for the individual.

As Phillips points out, Newt Gingrich had a better answer. I don't mean it's something to duplicate. I only mean it was true for Gingrich. So maybe that is the best lesson at all. You have to be true to yourself before you can be true to others.

 

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