06.25.2010

I’ve had many conversations about PR and its use of social media.  It’s been discussed in various chats on Twitter as well as at conferences.  On a few occasions now I’ve heard people talk about the PR work that they do managing a client’s social media account. I do believe wholeheartedly that managing a social media account for an organization should be under the direction of the public relations discipline. 

The social media engagement, however, should not constitute an organization’s complete PR program.  Perhaps there are a few organizations out there that can get away with that, but to create a mutually beneficial experience for an organization and its target publics, more than tweeting will be necessary. Meanwhile, people who haven’t been trained in public relations and really don’t fully comprehend what PR is shouldn’t claim to fulfill an organization’s PR needs simply because they track friends and fans and followers in Facebook and Twitter.

Some of this was part of what Jenny Luth and I talked about at the Grand Rapids Social Media (GRSM) lunch event yesterday. A good group joined us for the excellent dialog about roles and responsibilities in social media and what constitutes effective PR for an organization.

When surveying the social media scene, it’s disheartening to see so many “experts” preaching ways to get more followers (with the end goal, I presume, of increasing the value of each individual’s “brand” and “reach”). Marketers are looking for ways to “use” social media to get their messages out and the easiest way for them to do that is to simply have a lot of followers.

What I don’t see a lot of them doing, however, is providing added value that would make them worth following. Sure, they promise a few lucky winners a free iPod or iTouch or iPad or iTunes gift card (why not a free Blackberry?), but the result of that is a lot of dropped followers once the contest is over. I would love to see a good campaign where people follow a brand because of the value of their content alone.

I know that there are many local examples, such as the famed “cookies are out of the oven” or “here’s our special brew of the day” tweets, but I’m not sure a BIG brand has yet found a way to be a “must-follow” tweeter because of their “must-have” content. Sure, that’s more expensive then a free iPod every month.

But maybe it’s OK to not have 10,000 followers.  Maybe it’s alright to just have a couple hundred key followers who will spread your content far and wide when you do have something sensational to share.  It is social *networking* after all. I appreciate viral campaigns that people spread because they’re just so cool or because the informations is just so vital. There are benefits to the brand marketer when their message spreads through the network rather than having the message arrive on the audiences’ virtual doorstep via their own direct tweets.

People listen to other people they know and trust and respect.  They do not value as much the marketing messages that come directly from the brands themselves. It’s advertising, after all, and Yankelovich studies have shown that 60% of American consumers don’t believe companies tell the truth in advertising. On the other hand, Nielsen reports that 78% of social media users find consumer recommendations credible, and MarketingSherpa says 84% trust user reviews more than “expert” reviews.  

When something arrives in my Twitter stream or Facebook homepage or via another social media platform from someone I know saying “this is cool,” I check it out. When it comes from a brand I am likely to skip over it, knowing that the brand itself is not an unbiased party when talking about its own products.  

When a brand selling coffee, provides lots of useful information about brewing and beans and baristas to coffee aficionados, they are providing a service. When said aficionados ask questions and the coffee brand responds with useful answers, they’re being good social media citizens. This earns them the right with their audience to slip in a marketing message now and again. This strategy might not get them ALL coffee drinkers as a direct audience (i.e., they won’t have a million coffee drinkers as “followers,” although they might have 1,000 aficionados).  However, when the aficionados re-tweet or forward information from the brand to *their* followers, the brand now has earned the benefits that come with third party endorsements, which are much more powerful.

That said, I do enter some of the contests now and again.  I doubt I’ll win an iPad as a result. But maybe. I do know that the brand that made me follow them in order to be eligible to win is unlikely to get a long-term follower out of me as a result. I haven’t seen one of the contest tweeters yet provide enough content to keep me interested.

I’m much more interested in the real people having a real dialog about what they (and I) love (even if that means I have to follow some of their silly foursquare meanderings). So, I follow people who love GR (because I do). I follow people who love PR (because I do). I might even follow some people who love hockey (because I do).  I don’t follow people who cram the same message into my feed day after day, because they’re not honoring the social agreement — this is a two-way dialog, after all!

12.19.2009

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.

11.20.2009

Yesterday was the 1st Annual aimWest Social Media ConFab, featuring keynote Laura Fitton, aka @Pistachio in Twitter, who co-authored Twitter for Dummies. Like many, Laura thought Twitter was kind of dumb when it first came out.  I know I also blogged about it a few years ago, questioning its value. Laura gave it a chance (as did I, eventually) and immediately saw her leads increase.

There’s a great Grand Rapids Press story about the conference today, and #aimWest was a top-1o trending topic yesterday as conference attendees twitted their thumbs away. Congratulations to aimWest for pulling together such a great event!

I was a panelist for a morning session on social media boosting productivity and collaboration in the workplace.  With me on the panel were Melissa Chiaramonti of Meijer (@mgenta on twitter) and Harrison Withers of Media 1. 

I talked a little about my experience within Amway and use of sharepoint sites and the like.  For teams, sharepoints and wikis can be great, but it requires full participation in order to be truly successful.  Key voices missing from the conversation might result in a flawed collaboration.  My “Beatles Social Media” example was that, if that four-person team had made collaborative decisions via social media, the outcomes resulting from dialog that only involved George and Ringo probably wouldn’t have made the band the success it became.  John and Paul’s inputs were necessary for the true success they eventually achieved, not to mention the voices of others such as their manager and their producer.

My main point, I think, was that organizations need to get intentional about their use of social media internally, just as many already are for external audiences. Within the company, people already are using social media tools but there’s little measurement occurring to determine if it’s effective — largely because most companies don’t even know it’s happening to the extent that it is.  Rather than having social media “just happen,” I think an organization will reap more benefits by planning and supporting the social media tools internally.

Melissa and Harrison — both of whom are true experts on this topic — really brought great ideas of what to do and how to do it to the audience.  While they were talking, I was scanning the #aimWest tweets on my laptop. It was almost like I could see thought bubbles rising above the heads of people in the audience, and it led to some of the questions we addressed as a panel.

I went to the social media “slam” session after that, where attendees shared experiences and questions “open mic” style. I’d been to a Social Media Slam conducted in a similar way this summer, which led to a YouTube video about my experience at Amway and how my 80-year-old dad met his wife online.  This one was much bigger and people did their little talks from where they sat, which gave it a different feel, in my opinion.

There was a great panel on Power Networking, but most of that session really focused on Facebook, since one of the panelists was Tom Chisholm, a Director at Facebook. The most excitement was generated over the question from the audience about when Facebook would add a “dislike” feature to go along with its “like” button. Tom started to say the “hide” feature was sort of the same thing, which aroused a Joe Wilson-like response from the audience (thanks @Maniactive).

Late in the afternoon, I was very proud of the great presentation by Cindy Droog of Amway, who was part of the panel discussing social media measurement.  She did a great job and received a lot of twitter love from the live tweeters. 

Between the Wednesday evening Tweet Up and the all-Thursday conference and the necessary follow up on emails and tweets today, the ConFab really chewed a big hole into this week. BUT, that hole was filled with gooey, chocolaty social media goodness, and area companies that didn’t send their PR/Social Media/Marketing staff to participate and learn really missed out!

I have to admit to a bit of a man crush developed over lunch today.  Our speaker at the monthly lunch meeting of the West Michigan chapter of Public Relations Society of America was Steve Crescenzo, a large, bald, hilarious consultant who shared brilliant insights into the state of corporate communications today. For starters, he thinks “corporate” should be yanked from the title and replaced with “creative.”

After he was done speaking, I professed publicly that he had earned a little piece of my heart.  Literally.  I had to close the meeting with some WMPRSA info and, in thanking him, I let it slip. I’m sure he hears it all the time.

First of all, Steve introduced his company to us — himself, his wife, his son and two cats.  His cats, he said, are his IT department.  Why not, he explained, they don’t come right when you call them, they’re moody, they’re self-absorbed, and they like to lick themselves.  There was more, I’m sure, but that was the gist of it.  Within the first minute of his presentation he had the attention of the University Club crowd.

His main message to corporate communicators, and employee communications specialists in particular, was to stop putting crap out there and expecting audiences to actually read it.  It takes a lot to cut through the clutter these days, and formulaic, cliched newsletters are not going to get readers’ attention. He sympathized, however, acknowledging that corporate cultures today call for review of communications pieces by committee, with CEOs, Legal, Finance, and numerous middle management layers all weighing in with opinions and edits.

When’s the last time a PR person went down to Finance and asked to take a crack at the books this month?  How about we write up the next set of vendor contracts?  And while we’re at it, we’ll whip together the 2010 Strategic Plan for the whole company.  Why should non-communications experts attempt to do the jobs of the true experts they’ve hired to do the job?  Partially, Crescenzo asserts, it’s because we let them.  No longer should it be referred to as “approvals’” he said. Rather, routing of communications should be viewed as “fact checking” where accuracy is ensured but the tone and style is determined by the comms experts.

Crescenzo talked about just how busy everyone is nowadays.  When it comes to the communications pieces coming at them, their order of prioritization is 1) what they’re personally passionate about, 2) what they absolutely need to know to do their job, 3) what is done so well that it pulls them in, and 4) all the other stuff being asked of corporate communicators.  You’re lucky if your intended audience has the time to reach #3, so if you’re communicating changes to the benefits policy or recognition of a long-term employee, it had better be pretty darned creative.

From headline to graphics to the lead paragraph, communicators need to push the boundaries of “how we’ve always done it” or “what legal will approve.”  (My heart was really warming up to Crescenzo at this point!)   And with Facebook and the New York Times online and so much rich content competing for attention, it’s still hard to get audiences to read your nicely presented, well-written copy.

That’s when Steve showed some creative ways corp comm’ers are reaching their audiences these days.  Rather than the “lady with a stethoscope” billboard ad approach used so frequently to promote healthcare services, he shared an online campaign for a hospital that utilizes a mix of blogs, podcasts and videos — with healthcare staff sharing their compelling stories in their own words in ways a single billboard or flyer never could. He showed just a video of a nurse sharing a story about her work in a neonatal intensive care unit that, frankly, very nearly brought tears to my eyes.

OK, as my wife and kids will tell you, I have been known to tear up at the movies. They won’t let me forget that one time watching Bridge to Terabithia or that final goodbye scene from Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.  Yes, that one is embarassing. The point is, a billboard will not get that kind of reaction. A video might. My wife works at the NICU at Spectrum’s DeVos Women and Children’s Hospital, so I know the commitment they demonstrate each and every day. That doesn’t translate well to copy or an image. Crescenzo said that social media is a powerful tool that corporate communicators need to use to allow people to share their own stories in compelling ways.

So, as I said earlier, Mr. Crescenzo was earning little pieces of my heart with each passing minute.  He spoke frankly.  He was super funny.  He showed great examples of good and bad communications.  And then he started talking about using Facebook as your employee communications site because IT will roll their collective set of eyes at you when you ask them for a highly interactive employee communications intranet site.  “It’ll take nine months and half a million dollars,” they’ll say (based on experience, that would be a conservative estimate for time and budget).  And then Crescenzo started talking about how easy it is to use Flip Cams, and how communicators need to carry them around at all times “just in case.” Now he had my undying affection.

So much of what he said is exactly what I’ve experienced and come to believe about communications over the years. I’m proud to say that at Amway we did fight the internal battles to trim down approval routes and we did use creative new approaches to better share our stories with various audiences. Not always successfully, but we won some of the fights. That’s how Opportunity Zone came into existence.  That’s why I traveled to Baltimore and Seattle this summer to conduct interviews of Amway Independent Business Owners with an easy-to-use Flip Cam (although I don’t think IT has yet launched the site where those videos were to be used). That’s also why today there are Facebook pages for various Amway brands, sharing video content and photos.

I’m excited to take that experience, empowered with the affirmations of experts like Steve Crescenzo, and apply it to the communication needs of Luymes PR clients!  Who’s next!?

10.27.2009

Much has been made within public relations circles about using social media to bypass traditional media to reach their target audiences.  There’s much to be said for this, as the web provides ways to interact with audiences that just aren’t possible through “earned media placements” within newspapers, magazines, TV news media and radio.

Even for PR professionals focusing on traditional media, however, social media cannot be overlooked. Too many of the journalists they work with are now seeking story ideas, interview sources and supporting facts from blogs, news sites and social media platforms like Twitter and YouTube.

According to a new study conducted by Bulldog Reporter and TEKgroup International, Inc., usage of social media by journalists continues to increase. According to the 2009 Journalist Survey on Media Relations Practices, nearly half of all journalists report visiting a corporate website or newsroom more often than once a week. Some 23% of journalists use RSS feeds to monitor five or more blogs on topics relevant to their news coverage.  Also, more than 82% of journalists use social media sites like Facebook and YouTube, up from 75% last year. About 25% of journalists are now using Twitter, using the site once a week or more.

The survey of 2,354 respondents, of which about 46% were editors and 35% were reporters or writers, isn’t entirely surprising. As an active Twitter and Facebook user with ever-broadening circles of “friends” and “followers,” local and national journalists are surfacing with increasing regularity. And some of them are doing a good job being part of a community and using it as a means to obtain story ideas or find sources. Like the rest of America, the numbers will only go up. It’s like years ago, when the question was “should we send that in the mail or should we send it to you via email?”  OR, better yet, “Do you have email?”  Today, those answers are obvious.

Some West Michigan journalists of note who are tweeting are @Kcorner, @GRgonzo and @jbauer5800 (Chris Knape, John Gonzalez and Julia Bauer of GR Press), @emilyrichett (Emily Richett of Fox 17), @PeterRoss13 (Peter Ross of WZZM 13), and numerous others. Some do a good job of blending personal and professional and keeping promos of the stories they’re about to air to a minimum.  I am always amazed at Emily’s online efforts.  That girl is always tweeting, facebooking, youtubing, and twitpic’ing.  I don’t know how she has time to do her job!  OR, is this all part of her job now?  Because, if people just *love* Emily Richett because they’re following her online, maybe that’s part of the new deal for journalists.  Creating a following beyond the confines of their particular media outlet.

A few weeks ago, several independent PR practitioners, myself included, had lunch at the Press Club with Paul Keep, Editor of the Grand Rapids Press. One of the discussions was the future of newspapers with the rise of online news. Finding the perfect blend of the traditional news media approach leveraged by new media’s reach and capabilities appears to be the solution, but creating a business model for that is going to be tricky.  But not impossible.  The Wall Street Journal seems to be doing a good job offering creative ad packages for its off- and online editions.  And, apparently, it’s leading to a potential tussle with USA Today regarding bragging rights for #1 circulation.  WSJ is counting online subscribers in addition to print, while USA Today only declares its print results.  Who will win that battle? Better yet, who will win the longer term battle of profitability.

In any case, social media is a great tool to talk directly to your target audiences. It also is an increasingly important tool to reach your target editors. No matter how you slice it, PR professionals have to master the art of social media.