Getting Naked for (Long-Term) Success

Honest, Open and Transparent Communications (HOTcomms) are fundamental to long-term success.

As I entered my office (aka The Sparrows) today, I noticed a cooler right next to the Jones Soda cooler labeled Naked, a brand of fruit juices. It reminded me of a blog post I wrote a few years ago on Getting Naked.  I thought I’d revisit that topic here.

At the time, I was preparing for a WOMMA conference at which I was speaking on managing online corporate reputations. It’s a theme I’ve tried to carry through on my site and business cards and in my practice of public relations: Honest, Open, Transparent communications (HOTcomms). 

If HOTcomms were practiced by all companies and organizations, the public relations profession itself wouldn’t have its own reputation issues.  When organizations use their “PR” function to obfuscate or “spin” or perform some other sleight of hand to distract their audiences from the plain, bare truth, the public simply loses trust in the organizations AND anything labeled “PR.”

When will CEOs, political candidates and others realize that eventually their disingenuous communications will come back to bite them in the butt?  There may have been a time in the past when you could get away with tricking your audiences, but today there are millions of people online ready to correct the record or shed light on a topic they feel is being “spun.”  Candidates espousing a particular position are reminded of previous statements or actions indicating a different viewpoint in the past. Companies hiding information related to their financials are usually discovered these days. Ask Enron or any of the hundreds of companies listed online that have tried to get away with unethical practices.

Social media — a vast online conversation surrounding just about every topic — has nearly ensured that the truth will eventually come out on just about any topic.  If more than one person knows a secret, eventually they’ll talk.  And that secret will quickly spread throughout the online universe, because that’s what happens with secrets. The more you try to hide something, the bigger the “aha” moment when it’s discovered.

Robert Scoble and Shel Israel wrote about being open in Naked Conversations, and Don Tapscott and David Ticoll covered similar territory in The Naked Corporation.  In April 2007, Wired Magazine had a series of articles themed “Get Naked and Rule the World.” All of them pointed out that, increasingly, there are no secrets. Information “wants to be free” and quickly becomes so online.

With this new reality, businesses and organizations that will advance to the next level are those committed to transparency, adapting to consumer needs as expressed by the consumers themselves, and providing a level of unprecedented participation. There are many examples of brands that have succeeded in creating productive, engaged conversations around their brands. Those conversations are not always positive, but the willingness to allow critique results in a “double positive.” The honest, open and transparent brands get good marks for what is already positive about their brands, and they get good marks for openly discussing what’s not completely positive (provided that consumers see movement in the right direction on those negatives).

People don’t always expect perfection. But they expect not to be lied to. They can forgive a company when things don’t always go right. But they don’t forgive attempts to spin or cover up or outright lie about what hasn’t gone right.  My advice always is to “out yourself before you’re outed by others.” If you allow someone else to tell your bad news before you, you’re already digging yourself out of a hole. By presenting the not-s0-great information yourself, you’re able to also tell your key audiences what you’re doing about the situation.

So, my advice back in 2007 and for 2010 is to “get naked.”  While HOTcomms may not always be the way to quick success, it is fundamental to long-term success.

Tear jerkers, empathy and PR

Crying at movies = empathy = public relations?

I’ve mentioned before that sometimes I cry at movies. I’m reminded of that last night as I watch “Bridge to Terabithia” with my kids. We saw it in the theater a few years ago and my kids thought it was funny that I cried during the movie. SPOILER ALERT … Read no further if you still want to watch this movie!

OK? Alright. Well, the movie is about a boy who is a bit of an outcast because his family is poor.  Then, a new girl moves in next door and she’s a bit of an outcast too because she’s different. The two become friends and, after school, spend time creating their own imaginary kingdom in a nearby woods called Terabithia. They also join forces at school to deal with a few of the bullies that make their lives miserable. So far so good. As far as family movies go, it was imaginative and interesting. Then, out of nowhere, the girl dies!  The boy took a special trip with a teacher and wasn’t around when the girl visited “Terabithia” and accidentally drowned in the engorged stream running through the woods. The boy was devastated … his only friend had just died and he felt somewhat responsible.

Just a movie? I guess. But I love good stories and my problem(?) is that I empathize with the characters. There are lots of movies that have pulled me in that way.  Like in “Forrest Gump,” when Forrest (Tom Hanks) asks Jenny (Robin Wright Penn) if his son is “like him,” meaning mentally challenged …  like after George (John Travolta) has died in Lace’s (Kyra Sedgewick) arms in “Phenomenon” and then she is alone, on the porch, overcome with grief … or when Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) breaks down toward the end of “Schindler’s List,” wondering how many more Jews he could have bought with his car, his ring, his watch.  I can remember each scene and why it brings tears to my eyes … feeling the anguish of the characters and placing myself in their situations.

Good acting, yes. Great stories, certainly. They made me empathize with these characters. They made me feel their emotions, even though they were just acted out. Of course, that empathy extends to the real people I meet and know. There is the grief I have personally felt … but also the heart pangs for others’ losses.  The love I’ve experienced … and recognizing it in the way others might hold hands or look at each other.  There are the distressing moments I’ve lived … and knowing that look in another’s eyes.

The ability to empathize with others is, in my opinion, one of the most important skills required of PR professionals. It’s not just the ability to write well or know how to use the communication tools of the trade. Turning a good phrase and knowing which side looks better on camera and having an idea which editor will lend an ear to your spiel are all good to have in your PR toolbox.  But knowing people and what they need and what they feel and why … that’s what defines true PR pros.

When you understand and empathize with people in their situations, you better understand how they will receive information and respond.  Not only that, you have a better sense of what your organization needs to do to make them happy. PR’s role is to know its audience. Not just who they are and where they are, but why they are and how they are.  To truly know why and how, you need the ability to empathize.

Why is the disgruntled person that way? It requires understanding of their experience and then imagining how you would feel in the same situation.  When I was with Amway, I met a number of the online “critics” of the company. Few of them were truly against the Amway business; most felt there were some flaws with how the business was being conducted and felt the need to inform or warn others. Simply disagreeing doesn’t help. Acknowledging their experiences and explaining what you’re really doing to change the situation might. 

Empathizing with key audiences requires a lot of work. It’s not merely found in a white paper. It requires living and breathing, it requires experience, it requires wading through the lives of others.  

The kids are on Christmas break, so today I took Dillon and Jack to see “Where the Wild Things Are.” You guessed it. I got all misty eyed again at a movie made from a kids book.

Joy to the World!

What Christmas means to me.

So, the day has arrived. Christmas is here and all the commercial frenzy surrounding it has peaked and is now sliding back, with a quick weekend of returns and exchanges to be expected.  That frenzy of spending, of course, makes lots of business sorts happy, since this past month was when they all achieved profitability for the year. Many of them, anyway.  The others might not be around for the next Christmas spendfest.

I’m always conflicted this time of year. On the one hand, I’ve operated in the business world and it’s been in my best interest to tell the stories that sell people on a product or a business concept. I’m thankful, however, that over my 20-year career I haven’t had to use Christmas too much as a selling hook. Because, you see, I also believe that Christmas is the day when we celebrate the Savior of the world coming down to earth, God taking the form of man, His plan to redeem us from our sins becoming tangible — in the form of a baby — to us.  That baby, growing up to a sin-less man who gave himself up as a sacrifice so that all of us who believe in Him will have our sins removed.

Yesterday I attended the funeral for a friend from my church, Terry.  She died after struggling with cancer for more than two years. It was quite emotional, of course, as we gathered around Terry’s husband and four sons. We’re all sad that these young men and this wonderful husband must move on without their wonderful mother and wife. At the same time, however, we celebrated because Terry — a wonderful Christian woman who truly lived her faith — is in a much better place with that same Savior whose birth we now celebrate.

When you think of Christmas as the time God revealed his plan of redemption to us in the form of a Savior, new electronics and sweaters and power tools really seem a little pale by comparison. I’m not against the present-sharing, by the way.  I think it’s a wonderful way to express the joy that’s in your heart. I think it can be very symbolic of the greater gift we have received.  Even for non-Christians, it is a nice way to express love and care for others. The traditions of coming together and celebrating are fun and can be a wonderful time of sharing.

As the “finish line” approaches tonight, and the rush to Christmas is complete, I’m happy that THIS year I’ve had more contemplative time to reflect on what this season really means to me. I hope you are able to sit back and do the same, if not this year, maybe next. To help you, here’s a classic couple of Christmas minutes from Peanuts.  I’ve always respected the fact that Charles Schultz was able to bring Christmas back to its roots through a fun little cartoon that we all came to love.

To all of you, Merry Christmas, for He has come to earth for us all!  I hope you get what you want this year, but even moreso I hope you get what you need!

Brave New World

When it comes to social media, PR is in charge. Now let’s get to work.

I was reading a Miami Herald article about the Ad and PR industries both scrambling to master social media. As budgets shrink, both the ad men and their PR cousins are scrambling to master social media. At Amway I oversaw advertising, sponsorships and public relations.

Advertising has a big role to play in the online space. Indeed, advertising online provides many benefits, including lower costs and  higher measurability than traditional media outlets. Not as broad a reach, but not all campaigns require that.  Meanwhile, search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) efforts ensure what you’re saying online will be seen by those interested in what you have to say, whether they know who you are or not.   

But when it comes to the dialog fostered by platforms like Facebook, Twitter and even YouTube, there is no profession equipped to represent clients effectively other than Public Relations. PR always has been the function that handles dialog for a company, whether that be through speeches, media interviews, press materials, or FAQs.  Advertising has mastered the art of telling a story in a way that elicits a response, but has not traditionally been there to answer the follow-up questions.

Social media, meanwhile, is about the entire dialog, not just the 30-second ad or the 10-word tagline. It’s about listening as much as it is about talking.  In fact, it’s about listening far more than you talk.  It’s about sharing the messages from your organization to your key audiences, but it’s also about taking their responses back to the organization and recommending responses.  Not just spoken or written responses … but responses in the form of actions. 

An example? Your product has been tampered with and people are getting sick.  At this point, it’s not just what you say that matters.  It’s what you do.  A recall is a start.  An investigation and sharing the results of that with the public is another.  Providing your customers with some incentive to stick with you even though they may have lost some trust in you is another.  These are not just words.  They’re actions and they might cost the company in the short run (but in the long run it might not only save their business, but earn them even greater support).

Integrated marketing, by the way, is more necessary than ever. What you say in advertising needs to be reflected in the dialog your public relations group is supporting.  It should be reflected in the types of sponsorships in which you engage. All of these marketing services are more effective for the company when they work together.

As long as there are internal battles and squabbles about who does what, however, there is little chance for integrated messages. The silos need to come down inside large organizations.  Strategies need to be shared.  Broader plans need to be fleshed out together and not in separate conference rooms. 

That’s my vision for what integrated marketing should involve.  I don’t think many marketers are well-equipped yet to work across all the media, and as long as they continue to favor one discipline over another, they will not achieve the full benefits of a truly integrated marketing plan that involves advertising, sponsorships, public relations AND the correspondingly appropriate uses of the digital space.

PRSA: Professionalism, Character, Leadership

PRSA helps build PR professionalism, character, and leadership.

This month I start my term as president of the WMPRSA — West Michigan chapter of Public Relations Society of America.  I know, it’s a mouthful. Not only is it a lot to say quickly, I also get the distinct impression that when I say this to most non-PR people they’re thinking, “Huh?” If a lawyer says they’re a member of the Bar Association, most people would get it (except for the few who would think they have a drinking problem). There’s an old saying about the cobbler’s kids having the worst shoes — PR people are too busy communicating about others and suffer from their own reputation/awareness problems.

I started my PR career 18 years and 6 days ago, leaving journalism for the world of corporate PR at Amway. Since then, I have been on a path of constant learning about what the public relations profession is all about.  PRSA has played no small part in my education and professional development and for that I am incredibly thankful.

WMPRSA created a list of reasons that West Michigan PR professionals should join the local chapter. I can honestly say that I have personally benefitted in all 10 ways that are described. And in ways that have not been mentioned.  It was several years after I had started my PR career that I joined WMPRSA, thanks to my enlightened management.  They knew that what I learned through my PRSA involvement would benefit the quality of my work on their behalf.

My PRSA involvement included an educational process that led to Accreditation in Public Relations — a distinction that is not often enought sought out by prospective clients. Accreditation in Public Relations (as indicated by APR behind a professional’s name) means the PR practitioner has gone through a rigorous testing process to ensure professionalism, ethics, experience, and best practices. Through the APR process, the practitioner learns about the history of PR and why it even exists. Many of the ills of the PR profession are caused by those who don’t fully know what the PR profession is really about.

Another benefit of my involvement has been leadership development.  Several years after joining PRSA and after going through the APR process I joined the WMPRSA board. A few years later, in 2003, I was elected president of the chapter. That’s right … 2010 is my second time around as WMPRSA president. I think that’s only happened once before. I just can’t say no!  I loved working with a strong group of professionals seven years ago and learned so much from them.  I’m learning just as much from the incredible group who are serving on the board this time around, too!

When I first became involved in PRSA, I didn’t think I’d need to worry about networking for the sake of a job or prospective clients. Well, here I am, starting off my own independent practice and thankful for all of the connections I’ve made over the years. Those connections have already led to a couple of clients and I have no doubt that more of my business will result from my PRSA involvement.

My primary goal for 2010 WMPRSA, which I shared with the board a few weeks ago, is to provide ways for more PRSA members to become involved in the chapter’s operations, by helping on a committee, by helping judge awards, by attending programs, by becoming a mentor to a PR student, by studying for the APR exam, by writing for the newsletter, by serving on the board. Being a member is only the start; you only get out of PRSA what you put into it.

I’m looking forward to a great year leading WMPRSA’s efforts and helping more people get involved in promoting and building the PR profession for the benefit of all.

January Series at Calvin College

Calvin College’s “January Series” is bringing an eclectic mix of excellent speakers to the West Michigan community.

As a Calvin College graduate, I’ve always been proud of the school’s wonderful January Series of lectures. Now in its 23rd year, the award-winning lecture series always brings an eclectic mix of incredible speakers to the campus with one lecture per day, free to the public. This year’s lineup once again promises to inspire and educate.

Opening speaker T.R. Reid, global affairs correspondent for The Washington Post and NPR, will talk abut the “Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper and Fairer Health Care.”  The closing speaker, Archbishop Elias Chacour of Galilee, will talk about “Unity Within Diversity: Myth or Reality.”  In between, there are 13 other speakers addressing topics ranging from the theological to cultural to political.

Of particular interest to me are three of those speakers. The topic for CBS News Correspondent and best-selling author Kimberly Dozier is “Breathing the Fire: Reflections of a Foreign News Correspondent.” You’ll remember that, while covering a story in Baghdad in 2006, Dozier was seriously injured in a car bombing that killed her camera crew, an army captain and their Iraqi translator. And now Dozier reports from the White House on President Obama’s administration and new foreign policy developments. To me, that sounds like a strong basis for many intriguing stories.

Next on my list of top three is Rich DeVos, co-founder of Amway and a former Calvin student. He will speak on the “ten phrases” that were the basis for his most recent book encouraging others to live with a positive attitude that can change lives, communities, and the world. I’ve heard Rich speak numerous times and have read his books, of course, and I always appreciate his grasp of basic human nature and how what we say and do affects those around us. He’s a master salesman and, when you hear him speak, you begin to understand why.

Finally, Wikipedia-founder Jimmy Wales will speak about “Democracy and the Internet.”  I use Wikipedia all the time as a quick research tool.  It embodies the idea that, through the inputs of many, we will arrive at the truth. It’s not always completely accurate, because it truly requires inputs from all sides of an issue or idea, and there are times that some parties won’t or can’t participate. But it is fascinating all the same and is probably the one session I’d go to — if I only went to one! 

If you’re interested in going, check out www.Calvin.edu/January for more information about speakers and dates. The Fine Arts Center at Calvin is going through an expansion/renovation, so they’re conducting the series out of the Calvin College Chapel. The talks begin at 12:30 p.m. on weekdays from Wednesday, Jan. 6 through Tuesday, Jan. 26.  But you better get there early, especially for the more noted speakers, because it’s usually a full house.

Fortunately, Calvin has created remote web cast sites so that more people can benefit from these lectures, including several around West Michigan.  Included among the 28 webcast sites across the country are the Ladies Literary Club in downtown Grand Rapids, Western Michigan Christian High School in Muskegon, Christ Memorial Church in Holland, Second Christian Reformed Church in Grand Haven, and the Dogwood Center for the Performing Arts in Fremont.

Work and personal schedules allowing, I hope to hit my top three and perhaps a few more!

Thanks Mom and Dad!

What I learned from my parents led to what I love to do today. Thanks mom and dad!

My mom and dad taught me well.  Not intentionally, really, because in many ways they were hands off when it came to me and school work.  My older brothers and I all excelled in school, so they never really felt the need to hover over our homework. I’m not sure it would have done much good anyway since both were immigrants and had limited grasp of English.  Growing up in the depression and WWII Europe, my dad only finished the equivalent of 9th grade.

My mom was an avid reader and encouraged us by taking us to the library each week.  By the time I was in 6th grade I was reading at college level.  I read everything she had on her own bookshelves too, including authors like James Michener and Leon Uris.  Given my appetite for historical fiction, it’s no wonder I became an English major and History minor in college.

My dad, meanwhile, loved to tell stories.  About everything.  About growing up in the Netherlands during the war, about the construction projects he led, about his early years in Canada. He was the kind of story teller who also told the sidebar stories. In some ways I am shy; I’m not the best at walking up to a person I don’t know and starting a conversation. However, I am very receptive to being approached by others and, once engaged, I launch into stories depending on the other person’s interests. And finding out their stories, of course. It’s no fair to dominate the conversation that way.

When you combine the reading/writing trait with story telling, it naturally led to journalism and public relations and, in more recent years, blogging.  Thanks mom and dad. This is a lot more fun than math.

Tiger “Double Downed”

Tiger “doubled down” on his mistakes by lying in his statement. He’s going to have to earn back a lot of people’s trust.

My friend Bill Salvin of Signal Bridge Communications wrote a great piece on Tiger’s flawed approach to his PR problem this past week. I know that I earlier said it was probably a good thing Tiger was seeking privacy and supporting his wife and not sharing more information. Of course, at the time I didn’t know there was going to be texts and voice messages produced as proof of his infidelity. Maybe Tiger didn’t think so either.  And, as Bill points out, in his brief statement on November 19, Tiger lied. He called the rumors “false, unfounded and malicious.” Some of them, at least, were true! That’s “doubling down” on a mistake, which should never happen.

I believed he probably did have an affair, and I believed his wife may very well have have chased him around with a club and maybe even got a few licks in on him before taking out the back window of his SUV (was it before or after he crashed the vehicle?). But I didn’t think sharing all the details was going to help him, his wife, or any of us, for that matter.  The fact is, however, the dogs would not let this bone lie still.  And if there was any way to tell the story without Tiger “outing himself” first, it was going to happen.  Despite other financial problems traditional media may have, there are no shortages of budgets to reward any person willing to share photos, videos, or text/voice messages helping to show Tiger cheating on his wife.

I’ve always stated that it’s better for an organization (or person) to out themselves on issues rather than wait for someone else to do it. At that point, you’ve lost the ability to frame the story in any way. I don’t think there is any way for Tiger to share this story in a way that earns sympathy.  Even if he was a victim of spousal abuse as a result of his infidelity, many would think it was justified. Not only that, potentially getting his beautiful, cheated-upon wife put in jail for said abuse would have created a media circus.  It’s a mess.

Does Tiger owe us explanations? I’ve thought about that for a couple days now. If his sole source of income was winnings from golf, I’d say he doesn’t.  BUT, because Tiger makes the majority of his income from product endorsements — selling us on the stuff his face sells — then he does have an obligation to talk to us about what’s going on, provide explanations (if there are any) and, most importantly, apologize.  Apologize for the bad example he was for our kids.  Apologize to his wife for abusing her trust. Apologize to all of us for lying in his statement.  There are times we don’t need the full story. But we never deserve to be lied to.

Tiger has a lot of work to do to earn back people’s trust. Without that, his endorsement deals will evaporate and he will have to get used to living off his winnings alone.  :-)

Decisions, Consequences & PR

Consequences for decisions and PR’s role

We all make choices–good and bad.  Often there are consequences for those choices. Fortunately, for most of us, those consequences aren’t played out in the tabloids (print, web or TV variety) as they are for Tiger Woods right now.

Choices Tiger made throughout his life yielded tremendous success in golf. Apparently, although the full truth is not known and is probably none of our business, his personal relationship choices may have placed him in a difficult position.

His accident this past weekend and the resulting scrutiny — fair or not — may have knocked some of the lustre off his sterling reputation and possibly nicked his bankability as an endorser.  The brand of Tiger has been hurt. Tiger’s response to all of this is critical. So far, seeking privacy and defending his wife against rumors have probably been wise choices.

Companies and individuals make bad decisions all the time and have to pay the consequences. How one responds to the negative consequence, however, is just as important.     

Too often corporate decision makers don’t pause to consider all potential consequences before pushing the button, whatever that button might be.  Too often they don’t bring in the right people to talk about possible consequences for any business action. Considering all of your stakeholders is important when making a business call, and too often a single decision maker within a large organization doesn’t know enough about all of the stakeholders. A quick review by a PR counselor can ensure that all of the important questions have been answered before proceeding.

Bad decisions happen and they can lead to problems for an organization. But what happens next is really important. Do you double down on your bad decision? The worst consequence might not be a drop in next month’s sales when you consider a damaged reputation can affect sales for years.

Bad decisions can lead to bankruptcies and even government bailouts, damaging reputation. A decision to then grant executive bonuses probably isn’t involving good PR counsel.

Major business decisions should involve some PR counsel, just as they require legal review. That holds especially when the decision is a response to a problem resulting from an earlier bad decision. Not someone who can help “spin” the story positive.  Rather, someone who will tell the decision makers what they really need to hear to make the right choices for their organization — choices that will serve the organization well for years to come.