Thursday, March 7

Reinventing The Wheel: How To Think Forward

The expression is so common in communication, software development and some engineering segments that many people recognize it as cliche. And yet, there are those who still love to lean on it.

"Let's not reinvent the wheel."

The concept behind it feels right. The idiomatic metaphor warns people away from duplicating a basic method that has already been created and optimized by others. Thus, a wheel is a wheel is a wheel.

But is a wheel just a wheel? If you take some time to think about it, the real brilliance wasn't the wheel in 3,500 B.C. It was the fixed axle. Right on. It didn't take any talent to conceive the rolling cylinder, which has been reinvented a few thousand times to accommodate different applications. (One of my ancestors, in fact, very literally reinvented the wheel with the introduction of pneumatic tires.)

Anyway, the real scientific advancement was figuring out how to connect a stable stationary platform to the cylinder. Without the axle, the wheel is mostly useless. But I'm not suggesting we turn a more accurate phrase by saying "let's not reinvent the fixed axle." After all, even an axle can be reinvented.

"Let's reinvent everything."

The truth is that had automobile manufacturers took a bigger interest in hovercraft technology, wheels might feel as passé as cassette tapes today (except for specific applications). But automobile manufacturers didn't do it, begging the question: what has not reinventing land transportation cost us?

And this is something that business executives and communicators might start asking themselves more often. What is the cost of not reinventing something? And, if not cost, how about missed opportunities?

When you look at some of the most successful companies in history, almost all of them were in the reinvention business. Steve Jobs reinvented computers and phones. Henry Ford reinvented car manufacturing. Edwin Land reinvented photography. And the list continues, with history tending to remember those who invented or reinvented something over those who borrow against invention.

The same holds true for best practices too. In communication (and social media in particular), there are far too few developing best practices and far too many searching for them. In some cases, it has led to what some people call a follow the leader mentality in social media and communication. I'm not as generous. I call it follow the follower, which is what spawns marketing myths and strands communicators anytime a social network reminds them that best practices are short term.

Best practices are inspiration points, not shortcuts. 

The best communication plans for any organization rely on three concepts: temporal communication, adaptable contrasts, and best practice analysis for process adoption. The latter places a greater emphasis on evaluating best practices for possible adoption, but only after they are reinvented to fit.

It's somewhere in between the Not Invented Here (NIH) culture of some organizations and Not Anything New (NAN) culture of some organizations, with NIH assuming everything ought to be invented and NAN assuming everything that exists today is good enough. The people who subscribe to NIH frequently fool themselves into believing their ideas are new at great cost. And the people who subscribe to NAN were likely trying to find faster horses instead of building automobiles in the 1900s.

But what organizations really need are people who can research all the best practices and either reinvent them to fit or discover what no one else has done before. In the process, it usually results in something unique in its construction or an innovation that can change everything. In many cases, this is how some of the best and brightest companies started. And the same can be said for the best campaigns too.

Tuesday, March 5

Smoking Guns: Why Anti-Smoking Campaigns Fail

The best guess by Gallup in determining the number of people who smoke in the United States is 20-22 percent. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), this estimate fits. The CDC frequently cites that one in five people smokes cigarettes.

The number has mostly plateaued since 2000; slightly down depending on how it is sliced. But tracking the percentage can be a bit misleading as the population has grown too. In other words, the number of smokers in the U.S. is relatively constant (or may be increasing), which means it's time to face facts.

The four-decade long barrage of anti-smoking campaigns is no longer effective. 

The reason seems pretty clear. Most anti-smoking campaigns do not target smokers. They target non-smokers in an attempt to vilify people who smoke instead. And that's fine, as long as policymakers and nonprofit organizations want to spend millions or more on ineffective advertising campaigns or pass anti-smoking legislation and sin taxes to make themselves look like heroes.

I think we can do better, but it will take better campaigns. They have to be targeted and they can't all be negative. After all, there is psychological evidence that suggests negative messages produce negative results. That might be especially true for smoking — the ages most exposed to anti-smoking campaigns are overwhelming under the age of 18. Coincidentally, the majority of smokers start before they turn 18.

For many of them, it was never about smoking being cool as advertising censors claimed. It is about being defiant to authority, demonstrating a foolhardy sense of immortality, tempting fate by flirting with something potentially addictive, or being accepted by peers and adults (e.g., parents who smoke) like it was a private club. The campaigns all play into this notion.

Afterward, once someone becomes a smoker, anti-smoking campaigns take on a different feel. They either make smokers feel bad about smoking or convince them to light up in defiance. The messages aren't much different from individual abuse smokers receive on a daily basis — which is impossibly ironic, given how many states are passing anti-smoking laws but legalizing marijuana.

Creating a better anti-smoking campaign means a bigger focus on benefits. 

Many campaigns that are designed to help people quit aren't properly constructed. Most of them reinforce negative messages — how hard it will be to quit smoking, the impossibly low success rate (and significantly high relapse rate), and additional consequences commonly associated with quitting cold turkey or attempting to step down using gum, patches, e-smokes, or other nicotine replacements.

If you are are a non-smoker, think of any habit you have. If someone told you half of what they tell smokers, would you want to try to kick the habit? Probably not, especially if stress is a trigger.

A much more effective campaign would have a two-fold approach. First, it would help smokers stop smoking as opposed to quitting outright. Second, it would focus on the benefits and not the curse.

Don't quit. Just stop. 

Stopping could mean any number of things, all of which would eventually help any smoker stop completely. It could mean they stop smoking in certain locations (cars, houses, etc.), at certain times (immediately after meals, while drinking, etc.), in front of certain people (co-workers, clients, kids), etc.

With each successful 'stop,' smokers tend to become vigilant in controlling the addiction. Each 'stop' leads to another until the act of smoking becomes more annoying than pleasurable. Some people might be surprised how often they might put off smoking if it feels like a chore. At minimum, it will make them more aware of how often they smoke and what triggers (prompt to smoke) they might have.

Along with these 'stops,' many smokers have an easier time stopping after they switch to a natural/organic cigarette. While natural/organic cigarettes are not considered healthier alternatives, there may be truth to the idea that commercial cigarettes have more addictive ingredients. They most certainly have more additives, as many as 600. Nicotine is hard enough to give up. Don't risk other additive addictions.

The benefits of stopping.

The benefits of not smoking are easily undersold. When most campaigns talk about the benefits, they talk about long-term ailments (e.g., cancer) or use them to paint all smokers as an unhealthy, smelly group of vile people. That doesn't help smokers stop. What might are the immediate short-term benefits.

Stopping for even 20 minutes can lower your pulse rate and blood pressure. Stopping for eight hours will remove more than 90 percent of the nicotine from your body. Stopping for 12 hours will drop carbon monoxide levels to normal and raise blood oxygen to normal.

It only takes two days for smell and taste receptors to begin to heal. It only takes three days for the lungs to begin to heal. It only takes ten days before teeth and gums to begin to heal. Within a few weeks, the circulatory system and heart begin to heal. Even insulin returns to normal in about two months. Eventually, most damage can be reversed until even some risks return to non-smoker or even never-smoker levels.

The changes and benefits are dramatic. And while such benefits timetable lists vary (a few are paired with disturbing images), talking about them could significantly help a smoker find a short-term health benefit that means something to them — from their teeth and gums to shortness of breath after exercise.

The two times I stopped smoking. 

Even when I smoked, most people didn't know it. I seldom smoked in public and would mostly hide myself away if I did. Conversely, despite the habit, I exercised regularly, ate well, and established an aggressive teeth maintenance program. I never smoked in my house, car or in my office — always outside, rain or shine.

I stopped smoking last month. And unlike the other time I tried to stop, this time was relatively easy.

The difference was all in the approach. The first time, maybe eight years ago, I did it the way campaigns tell you to do it. I tossed out everything related to smoking. And much like they warned, I was irritable and miserable. And then I felt even worse, like I was letting everyone down. I lost.

This time was different because I had already stopped smoking 90 percent of the time. Then one day last January, I caught a cold and just stopped. I didn't tell anybody. I didn't throw anything away. I still have seven packs in the cupboard. They empower me more than tempt me. It's my choice to not smoke.

I initially made a choice that going outside in the cold was less desirable than just going to bed. When I woke in the morning, I decided to see how long I could wait. That wait never ended. Sure, there were some cravings here and there, but I already had a list of things that always made me not want to smoke — carrots, apples, cashews, sugar-free Jelly Bellies, gum, etc. (everyone has their own things). So, I would have one or two of those things instead. I was never irritable either. It felt easy.

While I would never suggest anyone take as long as I did to stop outright, I had to develop a plan that didn't exist — one that worked for me. Sure, seven years is too long, but my future self wasn't around to create a better campaign. A better campaign could have helped me stop sooner and possibly helped me avoid having surgery this year.

Unfortunately, I don't see many effective campaigns in the cards. Very few people in the medical profession want to embrace a step-down program without relying on prescription medication (all of which have higher relapse rates). Most anti-smoking advocates stress lifelong victimhood over willpower (because it helps funding). Most advertising agencies would rather have 80 percent of the population notice an ad than a fraction of 20 percent (because awareness is more valued than results). And the general negativity toward smokers is ingrained by a majority; it's as depressing as it is hypocritical (considering obesity rates and the recent legalization of marijuana).

Even some of the communication from trusted sources is off. The CDC, for example, estimates that 1 in 5 Americans dies from cigarette-related causes. Since they also say only 1 in 5 Americans smoke, the figure is either fudged or the government is suggesting that all people who smoke die from cigarette-related causes. Meanwhile, many cancer rates continue to rise anyway. Let smokers stop, guilt free.

Wednesday, February 27

Marketing Myths: Frequency Is Not Familiarity

The Nielsen Global Survey recently released a study that suggests 60 percent of global consumers would prefer to buy new products from a familiar brand rather than a new one. According to organizations like Brafton News, this means marketers with established brands need content to cultivate continued loyalty while emerging businesses need trust and awareness through lead generation efforts.

But do they really?

Marketers thought they learned something valuable during the last Super Bowl, with many of them dazzled by the perfectly-timed Oreo advertisement insertion during the event blackout. The impact of that one advertisement primed the creative pumps of many marketers who went on to help turn the Academy Awards into a real-time marketing fiasco.

They weren't the only ones who learned that over insertion can be a bad thing. Michelle Obama drew unexpected but fair criticism that the White House and the Academy Awards jumped the shark by having her read the best picture winner a few nights ago. It illustrates how everything has an ad maximum and then it becomes ad nauseum. The First Family doesn't need to insert itself into everything.

And this is where the Brafton assessment and the original Nielsen assessment of the same survey are so different. Nielsen didn't suggest that the answer was more content and communication. The company suggested that companies need to uncover unmet consumer needs and clearly communicate those distinct product innovations with an optimal marketing strategy.

In other words, frequency really can be wasted and many brands did that at the Academy Awards when they attempted to hijack social network conversations and make the message about them instead of, well, the movies. It's like most of them forgot, all at once, that overloading communication again and again and again can lead to negative impressions as much as positive ones.

So why do they forget? Because most marketers are stuck on studies that prove the opposite. And they are partly right to believe those studies because they are true. Repetition has an impact. Attracting attention counts. Frequency is important. But let's forget that familiarity can also breed contempt.

Brand familiarity works. Identity familiarity does not. 

Part of the problem is that marketers, social media marketers specifically but public relations and traditional marketers included, are confusing identity insertion with brand relevance and content marketing with trending topic chatter.

What's the difference? One focuses all communication on the relationship between the brand and the consumer, reinforcing the qualities that count and the emotions that shore up loyalty. The other attempts to insert the company name or logo or product into every conversation.

To put the difference into another perspective — identity insertion is like the kid who always raised his hand in class because he knew every answer, the little brother or sister who was always chased from the room, the stalker who would cast long and unwelcome glances at the back of your neck until every stray hair stood up on end. They are the attention hogs, interruptive pests, and creepy people.

Brand driven organizations are those that develop such a strong relationship with the consumer that when the generic term or experience has some relevance in their lives — e.g., cola, soup, tissues — the consumer immediately thinks Coke, Campbell's, and Kleenex. Or, in other words, Kleenex doesn't need you to have the brand on your mind every minute of every day. They only need you to think about them when you sneeze or, bonus, anytime you feel the need to prepare for seasonal colds.

They don't achieve this kind of top-of-mind awareness by hijacking current events. They achieve it by manufacturing a quality product that is a little softer on your nose but strong enough to get the job done. And then, once they've met this need, they communicate the distinction with advertising as an introduction. That is how powerful branding works. Familiarity through relevance over frequency.

Thursday, February 21

Reacting Badly: Crisis Communication Is No Carnival

There comes a point in every crisis when a company must decide whether remediation will cost more early or later. Early is almost always better, but the crisis has to end before anything can be remediated.

Carnival Cruise Lines learned this lesson the hard way. Rather than end the crisis aboard the disabled cruise liner Triumph early, someone made the decision that it would be safer (and cheaper) to tow Triumph to port. And, following what some might call standard crisis communication protocols, Carnival immediately took responsibility and offered full refunds to the inconvenienced passengers.

There was one problem. The crisis wasn't over.

For approximately 3,100 passengers and 1,000 crew members, the crisis wouldn't end for almost a week. And for every day they remained trapped on board, the unsanitary and unsafe conditions were increasingly compounded along with the crisis.

As various services failed onboard the crippled cruise liner, passengers took to sleeping outside or in the hallways to avoid hot, stinky rooms; were forced to wait as long as three hours to use a handful of bathrooms (or use bags, which led to more unsanitary conditions); and resorted to survival-like tactics as food became scarce, power outlets scarcer, and showers mostly impossible.

Sure, some passengers will insist that the Carnival hell cruise wasn't so hellish. A few passengers will be thrilled with the mediation offered: a refund, cruise credit, and $500 in compensation. (One of them, according to the Washington Times story, even laughed when their rescue bus broke down too.)

But unfortunately for Carnival, crisis case studies aren't defined by lighthearted souls. They are ultimately defined by the ones who suffered the worst, especially because the Carnival crisis made the 2007 JetBlue ordeal look like a day at Disneyland. That one didn't end until Neeleman was pushed out.

Carnival might have greater consequences. It faces a class action suit that will draw out its negative publicity well beyond the crisis. Expect that the ugly is only getting started. Not only did the company made the wrong call in allowing the drama to unfold over nearly a week, it's their third cruise line disaster since October 2012.

Crisis communication is 10 percent action and 90 precent reaction. 

There is some truth to the notion that public relations professionals have little business in risk management, remediation, and crisis response. Not all public relations pros are trained in crisis management as well as crisis communication (and too many rely on tired tenets). However, this is once case where the crisis communication team could have stated the obvious. End the crisis first.

Because Carnival did not end the crisis quickly, bad luck stretched what ought to have been a half-day rescue into almost a week. And as the crisis progressed, Carnival was forced to make additional concessions as part of its remediation package. Partial refunds became full refunds. Full refunds became future discounts. Future discounts became cash offers. And ultimately, although almost unbelievable, Carnival told passengers they could keep their soiled bathrobes.

With each new event and concession during the crisis, Carnival opened up the opinion that remediation might not be enough. Every time something went wrong, Carnival opened up a round of possible negligence as passengers were put at risk of physical injury for days — particularly the way it handled human sewage issues. It had all the makings of a public health disaster.

It gets worse for Carnival. While the company has already issued a statement about compensation, it really hasn't made a display of empathy. The early remediation feels more like hush money, especially because Carnival's public relations spokespeople were forced to refute onboard passenger claims, continually reinforcing that the conditions were not as bad as some passengers said.

To be clear, the more Carnival attempts to defend its position (even in court), the harder it will be for the company to shake off a long-term stigma. Specifically, doing so will only reinforce that the crisis was not a harrowing experience for the company and its customers, but an "us" vs. "them" scenario with ample photographic evidence and potential investigative evidence that the company not only was responsible for the initial disaster, but also for every reactive measure afterwards — even decisions that were made after the passengers arrived in Mobile, Alabama.

Currently, the company has decided to remain mostly silent pending litigation. The last statement made was Feb. 15. The only other communication is marketing. You can save up to 20 percent on a cruise. The advertisement is probably most conspicuous at the top of the Google news search feed.

Tuesday, February 19

Reconciling Definitions: PR Is Not A Communication Process

It didn't hit me until I tried to teach it, but the most recent definition of public relations offered by the Public Relations Society of America is wrong. It isn't a little bit wrong. It's a whole lot wrong.

It's wrong because public relations is not a strategic communication process. There is much more to it than that. Even my students crinkled their brows when the full force of comparison was offered for consideration. And then I gave them a working definition I've been crafting  for some time.

Why The PRSA definition feels different from the First World Assembly. 

The public relations definition works to streamline and simplify what eventually becomes a determent. Specifically, it pigeonholes public relations into precisely what many executives criticize it for — public relations is a whole lot of talk as if talk alone creates mutually beneficial relationships. I don't think so.

"Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics." — PRSA, 2012

By taking even a portion of what was decided at the First World Assembly of Public Relations in 1978,  we find something more tangible. Specifically, the First World Assembly model did not rely on communication alone. It hinted at something else practitioners could do — take real action. 

"Public relations is the art and science of analyzing trends, predicting their consequence, counseling organizational leaders, and implementing programs of action which will serve both the organization and public interest." — First World Assembly, 1978

Whether you like this definition or not (there are dozens of definitions out there), what I submit is that it is much more tangible than a communication process. It hints at programs instead of processes. 

In considering the full scope of what I will be teaching this semester, it seems to fit. You can see for yourself by taking a look at the deck. It includes the definition I have been working on, but I want to break that definition into its very own section as a concluding thought. 

As you might have noticed, the definition I have been working on from time to time is included. And whether or not you like the definition, it's the thinking behind it that I submit for consideration. 

"Public relations is the art and science of developing and managing immediate to long-term programs that strengthen the relationships between the organization and various publics; researching trends within the environment where the organization or those publics exist; determining the impact that those trends or other events may have on the organization and those publics; and providing for an open communication exchange that ensures mutually beneficial and measurable outcomes for the organization and those publics." — Richard Becker, 2013 

Yes, I know. I receive "no votes" for making it too long to print on a lapel pen, a travesty given I take pride in writing tight as a copywriter. But then again, this is tight. Even if someone argues I hardly need to keep mentioning "the organization and/or those publics" again and again, it's so incredibly important. 

Why? I'm happy to share with you. I consider it the fun part. 

Public relations is really about taking groups that might consider themselves "us" and "them" and turning the whole thing into a "we" that can get something useful done. The job requires much more than persuasion. It requires much more than manipulation. It's requires much more than lies and spin. 

The most successful public relations campaigns in history have always hinged on whether the organization and publics are willing to work together, and the extent to which they work together. If they don't work together, the campaign fails. If they do work together, the campaign succeeds. 

Years ago, one of the very first public relations campaigns I worked on did exactly that (and we didn't even call it a public relations campaign). The agency I was working with had to develop a plan to manage an open exchange of communication for a program that was in everyone's best interest. 

Specifically, houses would sometimes float away every time Southern Nevada flooded (a trend). So this project (simplified) consisted of seven primary groups, three organizations and four primary publics that wanted to stop houses from floating away during floods. 

It might sound like a no brainer, but there are always consequences when prevailing thought to stop houses from possibly floating away might impact the environment, change property values, disrupt views, cause inconveniences during construction, cost taxpayer money, etc. This is the kind of stuff that can transform a "we" problem into an "us" vs. "them" vs. "them" vs. "them" overnight. 

While I won't go into the specifics of the plan from start to finish today, we can suffice to say that everything we did — from hosting open, two-way communication town halls to recapping everything into a customized residential newsletter — was designed to ensure all seven groups shared a common mission to protect the public from flood waters literally washing their homes away. 

We accomplished this not by jamming the ideas of lead organizations down the throats of residents impacted. We did this by nurturing open communication that had direct impacts and influences on the actual construction of a solution. Public relations didn't talk about it. We effectively transformed how everything would be done and what the flood control detention basins would look like while ensuring that the entire program maintained a "we" against dangerous flood waters vibe. That's public relations.

Wednesday, February 13

Communicating Big: The Art Of Nonverbal Power

When colleague Kelli Matthews, instructor at the University of Oregon, shared a recent talk by American social psychologist Amy Cuddy, I was immediately curious and excited to see it. Cuddy's TED talk rubs up against some of my individual work related image development, with mine approaching it from different disciplines. I had seen her study two years ago, but not the talk.

I also thought this would be useful for one of my upcoming classes. Several former students have encouraged me to include a larger spokesperson session as part of Writing For Public Relations. In this case, the topic stems from Cuddy's work in nonverbal communication with Dana Carney and Andy Yap.

The crux of the research is simple enough. They note that humans and other animals express power through open, expansive postures, and they express powerlessness through closed, contractive postures. And then the researchers ask a riveting question. Can posing in these open postures create power?

The power of nonverbal communication is remarkable, even potent. 

What was so fascinating about the study was that it confirmed that posting in high-power nonverbal displays (as opposed to low-power nonverbal displays) would cause neuroendocrine and behavioral changes for both male and female participants. Let me be clear here, because it's especially cool.

What they found was that the high-power poses could elevate testosterone and decrease cortisol, which was accompanied by increased feelings of power and tolerance for risk. Meanwhile, low-power poses exhibited the opposite. Any person, they suggest, could instantly make themselves more powerful by assuming simple one-minute poses.

While I find the subject fascinating, it is not the end of the story for me. While the research is spot on in terms of being interesting, Cuddy overreaches with her anectodal application. Specifically, like many personal branders have suggested, you can fake it until you make it.

Her own story suggests this is possible because she used to "fake it until you make it" in order to feel comfortable teaching at Princeton. In other words, if you pretend to be powerful, you will actually act more powerful (and be more powerful). There is some truth to this, but "faking it" is still flawed.

You don't have to fake it to increase your sense of power.

While the body can shape the mind, just as Cuddy suggests, it's more important to change reality rather the perception. In other words, you don't have to fake it to make it. You can simply make it by putting yourself in related experiences that will help you adopt and learn new leadership skills.

Why is that important? Because in one of the studies conducted by the researchers, they had the mock interviewers convey no emotional response. They had good reasons to do it, but what was missed was that setting might not account for real-life scenarios where one or more of the interviewers may be dominant.

In such scenarios, when people feel uncomfortable because there is no room to capture an "alpha position," they tend to respond using subconscious cues. And what happens? People who are prone to low-power postures surrender and those prone to inappropriate high-power poses can be agitated.

It is much more effective to give people empowering experiences. In fact, this is why so many motivational trainers ask students to climb poles, walk over coals, break boards, or any number of tasks that they have never done (but can do with some instruction). Doing something that one would ordinarily assume is extraordinary creates a mental impression that anything is possible while delivering the same chemical reaction that Cubby mentioned in her speech. And the more you do it, the more you believe it.

In fact, it's not all that different than what I teach interns and students. I encourage them to become involved with at least one nonprofit and one professional association because both types of organizations will open leadership opportunities for them. In addition, it will not only teach them that leadership isn't reliant on dominance like animals, but also emotional intelligence to adapt to a group.

The proverbial wise man on a mountain doesn't need a dominant posture to convey power. His perceptive size is the mountain. Or, if you prefer a different example, search for images of Mahatma Gandhi. Most of them convey low-power and even submissive postures despite his depth of power.

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