Friday, November 26, 2010

When a newsman sounds like a PR guy

I caught a great interview marketing 2.0 expert Brian Solis did with Dan Farber, Editor-in-Chief of, about how news organizations have to evolve their approach to their business given the rise of social media.

Here it is, from Solis' (R)evolution series which, in Solis' own words, "connects you to the people, trends, and ideas defining the future of business, marketing, and media."

I shared this link with my colleague, journalism instructor Duncan McMonagle, saying "this newsman sounds a lot to me like a PR guy."

Duncan's reaction: "Uh oh!"

Smart strategy is smart strategy, no matter who's doing it.

"Dark side" jokes aside, Farber makes a lot of statements about what news organizations should be doing in the face of growing competition from Web-based media, which my PR students here at Red River College will tell you are basic tenets of good public relations.

For example, he says CBS News works to ensure its content can be found "where people are congregating." This requires research to determine where your audience is, what its preferences are, and how best to reach it.

PR people have been doing this for decades: understanding the principles of persuasion, we know we need to position our messages such that they offer something our audiences will value, and in ways that make it easy for our audiences to access them.

Sounding even more like a PR guy, Farber also says his business is "all about building relationships now, and trying to engage people."

There was a time when "newsmen" created the news, put it out there, and their audiences simply consumed it. They didn't have much choice: as Farber himself points out, there weren't nearly as many sources for news back then.

But as we all know, the same isn't true today: news comes at us from all angles. It isn't all credible, and it isn't all accurate, but it's there, and it's competing for our attention. The challenge for professional news organizations like is to break through the noise and protect their audiences from their hundreds of online competitors.

Selling the news isn't much different from selling anything else.

Whether you're selling dog food, a political candidate, a non-profit as a good cause, or your news organization, the best way to build support and loyalty is to build relationships.

Our audiences in 2010 live in a world of unending messages -- coming at them from all sides, at all hours, in every format.

How to break through it all?

First of all, put your messages where your audiences are (for example, Farber knows his audiences use Facebook and Twitter, so his organization maintains profiles on both, with more than a million and a half followers). Don't make them hunt around to find you - they won't. They don't have time. And there are millions of other messages out there, ready to distract them if they try.

Secondly, engage with them. "Engage" is quickly becoming one of those throwaway words that lose their meaning in marketing blather - but its fundamental message is key. (It's also the title of Solis' most recent book.) Loyalty is built on give-and-take, two-way relationships. Give your customers the opportunity to get involved in what you're doing rather than simply watching you do it, and they're far more likely to stick with you.

Mainstream media outlets have a big job ahead of them, as our attention spans grow ever shorter and the media landscape fractures further.

In the long run, I'm betting on journalists like's Dan Farber.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Deadlines matter

Here's the headline on a story in today's Winnipeg Free Press:


The story says that, under a new provincial policy effective February 1, 2011, [high school, I assume] teachers in Manitoba "will be allowed to dock students marks for late or missing work."

Congratulations (better late than never!)

In the Creative Communications program here at Red River College, where I teach PR, many instructors have a zero tolerance policy on late assignments. If it's due by 9:00 and you hand it in at 9:01, it's late, and you get an F -- even if the work is brilliant.

Harsh? Maybe. Do we need to do this to instil professional attitudes towards work? For some students, you bet we do. (The others are well-organized, and would hand in their work on time whether there was a strict deadline policy or not.) Either way, we're generally the last stop between these students and the professional workplace; it's a far less painful lesson to learn here than out there, where it counts.

There's a bit of a learning curve on this one with some people, and I don't blame them: I blame the system that has raised them to think deadlines are optional. I can't tell you how many students who've entered our program with undergraduate degrees in hand, have told me they've never been penalized for late assignments.

What's the big deal?

The big deal is that, once you get into the working world (in PR, but I'm sure in many if not most other professions), deadlines matter immensely. And if you haven't had to train yourself to organize your work and manage your time, you're going to have a tough go of it (and potentially lose some great opportunities) because you're unreliable.

The 6:00 news can't start at 6:02.

A proposal due at 2:00 won't be accepted at 2:01.

A job interview may well be cancelled if the interviewer enters the lobby to greet you and finds you're not there on time.

As it happens, I was writing this post as the "Solo PR" chat (a forum for freelance PR folks) was happening on Twitter. Here's one tweet that turned up on my desktop as I was writing:

Even when your deadline doesn't involve a timed broadcast, or an acceptance deadline for a proposal, or an important interview, in PR you have to be on time for everything.

Why? It's not just about showing that you have your act together and are reliable: it's also about showing that you recognize the value of other people's time.

Want to be taken seriously and have credibility as a professional? The first step is to be on time. Always, with everything. Being late for a professional commitment can be humiliating, I've learned (the hard way).

It's never too early

I could never quite believe our educational system had a policy against penalties for late submissions, but now that it's been overturned, all I can say is "phew." I realize that high school is not college or university - but it is where we're supposed to learn all the foundational lessons we'll need to be productive adults (besides the lessons we need to learn at home, that is).

While I'm not a science or math guy particularly, I fully appreciate the value of forcing students to get a well-rounded education before choosing a specialty to build on.

But if you want to know which topics I think are most vital to professional success, time management would be near the top of the list.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Maybe Twitter's "favorite" function needs a new name

Sarah Palin has been taking some heat this week for an offensive tweet which she appeared to have marked as a "favorite" on her Twitter account.

On Twitter, you have the option to mark a tweet in your timeline as a "favorite," making it easier to find again later -- much like a bookmark would for a website.

Here's Twitter's explanation, from its online "Help Center":

"Favoriting" a tweet can be really handy; I regularly mark tweets I want to come back to later on, usually because they contain information or links I think would be interesting for my students.

It does not, however, mean these tweets actually are my favourites. I might just as easily mark a tweet I disagree with as one I agree with, if I think it illustrates something interesting.

So for me, tweets marked as "favorites" are not to be interpreted as the ones I like most, or the ones I most agree with. Rather, they're tweets I happened to see when it was inconvenient to follow links or to note them in my book for later, and to which I want to return later. That's it -- there's nothing more to be read into it.

In Sarah Palin's case, she is reported to have explained, it wasn't even that: she wasn't aware of the "favorite" function at all, and the tweet was marked by accident. In an email to ABC News' Jake Tapper, which is quoted in The Washington Post's Politics and Policy blog, she said:
"Jake [Tapper], I've never purposefully 'favorited' any Tweet. I had to go back to my BlackBerry to even see if such a function was possible. I was traveling to Alaska that was an obvious accidental 'favoriting,' but no one can mistake that Ann Coulter was obviously being tongue in cheek with that Tweet..."
This explanation sounds reasonable to me - especially since the "favorite" button only appears when you roll over the tweet with your cursor. Even Rachel Maddow, who I don't think anyone would consider a blind supporter of Sarah Palin, agrees.

While Maddow is talking to media who are jumping all over Palin for this, I do think there's a disconnect between what Twitter planned for "favorites" to be and what they have actually become. Tweets we want to save for later might or might not be tweets we particularly like or agree with.

My advice?

Keep the function, but re-name it "bookmark." Same convenience, less opportunity for mis-reading intentions!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

On Twitter, building it won't make them come

I've had a few conversations with communicators lately about communication strategies they've built or are building (around specific issues, to publicize events, to attract attention for an announcement), and in which they're identifying Twitter as a tactic.

When I ask how they're planning to use Twitter, they often say something like "Well, we'll set up a Twitter account, and then we'll send out our messages."

It's not as easy as that.

I wrote a post last month called What Twitter isn't, in which I talked about how best to approach tweeting (if your intention is to use Twitter for PR).

What I didn't discuss in that post, though, was when to set up your Twitter account, and how to use it.

When's the best time? A year ago. When's the next best time: now.

If you have any intention of using Twitter to communicate with your audiences (that is, once you've determined that your audiences are or will soon be using Twitter), establish your presence there now.

The day you have a message to share with your audiences is not the day to set up your Twitter account. Why? Because on Twitter, you need people to have chosen to "follow" you to get your messages.

On day one, there's a relatively limited number of people you can email to say "Hey, come follow me on Twitter, here's my @username" -- and frankly, you could just as easily share your messages with those people by email. Will those people follow you immediately? Who knows... and you're too busy getting your announcement out to really think about it too much.

If you set up your account in advance, you have the time to begin building your audience before you need it.

Because Twitter makes it so easy for users to share interesting tweets with their own followers through "re-tweeting," your "followers" list can grow quickly... but only if you're tweeting things others want to hear. If you tweet something I think my followers would value, I'll re-tweet it; then, they may check out your profile and decide to follow you themselves.

Followers follow for a reason.

People are busy. There may be some who follow you because they feel they should (because they have some more personal connection to you), but most will only choose to follow your tweets if your tweets offer them something they value.

Have a quick look at the small portion of my Twitter timeline from this afternoon, shown above.

Notice anything?

Each of those tweeters has provided a link to something they felt might interest their respective audiences.

You sometimes hear people say all you get on Twitter is "I had a nice sandwich for lunch" or "I need to change the oil in my car," and that it's a waste of time. My answer to that is that if you're following people who offer nothing more than daily inanities, it likely is a waste of your time.

But my next suggestion would be to stop following those people, and follow others who tweet information that has some value for you. It's not as though every tweet needs a link to something else; personal perspectives and observations can be valuable, too!

Just make sure yours offer something your audiences will want before you send them.

Think of your Twitter feed like a storefront.

Building a store on a busy street isn't enough to guarantee sales. If you want people to come in and buy something, you need to put something in the window that'll entice them.

Our PR and Ad majors did a short customer behaviour research project in a local shopping mall last week, and saw evidence of exactly what I'm talking about: retail customers respond to displays that promise something they want (whether it's a particular product, or a sale, or an experience).  Put something in the window they'll think is interesting, and they're far more likely to come in.

What does retail consumer behaviour have to do with Twitter?

Everything! Because retail consumers are people.

We need to stop thinking as though human nature is somehow left at the door of the office (or wherever you're not using your mobile device). People respond to what interests them, whether it's in a store or online. They will volunteer to hear a sales pitch (i.e. walk into a store or follow your Twitter account) if they think there is something valuable to be gained there.

So, give them something valuable.

As soon as you realize Twitter is going to be part of your strategy, get on it and start using it. If you've determined that Twitter is right for your plan, you've obviously been thinking about your audiences -- so start finding and sharing information those audiences might find interesting. Follow audience members you know, as well as others who influence them -- odds are, they'll look at your profile to see who you are. If they like what they see (i.e., they see some value in your tweets), they'll likely follow back: and presto, your network is building.

If you tweet and no-one is there to hear it, you haven't gotten any closer to achieving your communication objectives.

But if you build a Twitter feed that provides value to the audiences you want to reach, they'll be there when you need them.

Friday, October 15, 2010

In which I predict the future

This week, we read in the Winnipeg Free Press about a telecom company error that had reportedly caused automatic calls made by the re-election campaign of Winnipeg's incumbent Mayor, Sam Katz, to show up on Call Display as having come from the home of an everyday Winnipegger.

Embarrassing mix-up, sure. (And to the former telco spokesperson in me, particularly interesting, since the reporter never mentions which telecom provider was being blamed, or gives that telecom company the opportunity to comment. Must remember to ask the Journalism instructors about that.) But it happens.

A discussion about the incident with my first-year PR class, though, got me thinking about the future of "robocalls," as folks around here were calling them.

Personally, I've always disliked them.

I haven't received any of the calls in question in this mayoral campaign, but I have received automatically-dialed, pre-recorded calls from federal candidates, credit card companies and long-distance providers, and what I can only guess are scams (telling me I've won a cruise).

As soon as I hear there's a pre-recorded message at the other end, I hang up. And if the caller has been (smart?) enough to tell me who's calling in the first few seconds of the call, I also think about how little I appreciate that caller's decision to interrupt whatever I was doing to listen to his/her message.

Interestingly, pre-recorded messages don't bother me at work -- but then, "mass voicemail" messages sent in the workplace are generally related to work, and are picked up at the receiver's convenience, so don't seem like such an interruption.

In class, we discussed why this might be: students called the pre-recorded message calls "shady" and "cheap" -- and "falsely personal," which I think is the bottom line for me. Despite the ever-widening range of mass media available to us today, the home phone remains (for now, anyway) a device for personal communication.

Who listens to these messages?

Well, political/PR junkies and journalism students, for one. After all, this stuff is all great ammo.

But otherwise, I'd love to see some actual research on who 1) listens to and 2) is persuaded by pre-recorded messages "pushed" at audiences through the phone.

I'd assume the target audience is people who aren't going online and "pulling" messaging from candidates' websites, Facebook and Twitter feeds (such as they may be, in the case of this particular contest), listening to candidates' debates posted on radio station websites, etc.

In the Lockstep crystal ball...

As demographics shift and the majority of voters move into "information pull" mode, I see "robocalls" going the way of the dodo bird as a campaign tool,

That's not to say campaigners won't look to "push" any messaging -- but I'll bet they'll be doing it through means that are less intrusive on voters' time, and in ways that allow more efficient dialogue between candidate and voter: I'll push this information out, but you can read it when it's next convenient for you. And if you have any questions or want to engage, I'll be ready and waiting -- when it's convenient for you.

The credit card companies and the fly-by-night long distance providers and the scammy cruise vendors may find it worth the risk to annoy customers who wouldn't have bought in anyway, for the chance at catching those who might.  But politicians seeking election won't, I don't think, have that luxury forever.

Social media have spoiled us a bit, in that we now have pretty much anytime access to pretty much everything. The more audiences come to expect to be able to receive information on their own time, the more anyone wanting their attention will have to adapt.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Why would a PR guy love teaching so much?

I love my job(s).

By day (during the academic year), I teach Public Relations to 100 or so bright, enthusiastic, committed students at Red River College. By night (during the academic year) and during the summer, I do freelance communications consulting. Before coming to Red River, and launching my consulting business, and having my daughter, I worked in corporate PR for more than a decade - and never once, for a minute, was bored.

I love every aspect of PR work: the diversity of people, the issues, the brain puzzles, the gratification that comes with success - even the parts that are sometimes uncomfortable and rarely but occasionally terrifying.

But I love teaching here at the college, too. On a recent drive home, I started to wonder whether it was unusual that someone who was so in love with PR as a career would so quickly fall in love with teaching.

Am I fickle?  I don't think so. I worked in retail in school, and I didn't love that.

So what do teaching and PR have in common?

A lot, I think.

To me, teaching and PR both:

  1. require you to read your audiences, and challenge you to tailor your "pitch" to their interests and needs if you're going to be successful. 
  2. require you to employ persuasion -- whether it's to influence public opinion or to encourage a student to recognize the value in the curriculum.
  3. present you with challenges and puzzles every single day.
  4. provide the opportunity to meet new people and learn about their perspectives. 
  5. encourage you to take calculated risks.
  6. force you to become a more efficient communicator, and a comfortable public speaker.
  7. help you develop leadership skills.
  8. demand that you be credible.
  9. reward empathy, initiative, and extra effort.
  10. allow you to be a life-long learner.
What's not to love?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Netflix both teaches and learns a lesson

In my first-year classes this week, we've been discussing professionalism and ethics in PR, and how fundamental they are to any kind of long-term credibility (and, therefore, success).

In PR, we're in the business of building and nurturing relationships with a wide range of internal and external audiences. As is the case in our personal relationships, if the "other" doesn't have reason to feel we're dealing fairly and honestly, there's little chance of any positive relationship at all.

So ethics are, really, the bedrock of any successful public relations operation or career.

Just this morning, as my class discussed the elements of the Canadian Public Relations Society's Code of Professional Standards and what they mean for professional communicators, a real-life case study appeared to be playing out on a Toronto street, at the Canadian launch of Netflix.

The first impression wasn't good.

The first I heard about the launch was on Twitter later this afternoon, when I followed a link to a story in The Globe and Mail about video-streaming provider Netflix's Canadian launch... and the revelation that some of the enthusiastic "everyday Torontonians" who had been on-hand at the launch event and sharing their enthusiasm with the media were actually actors paid by the company to attend.

It looked as though Netflix had stacked the deck, so to speak, with people paid to express company-directed opinions about the Canadian launch.

The problem with this, as my first-year students will tell you, is that the ethical practice of PR would preclude trying to fool reporters with paid spokespeople masquerading as unbiased observers; in fact, such a practice would contravene articles 1, 2, 3 and 4 of the CPRS's Code of Professional Standards.

Why is it such a big deal?  Well, if journalists (and their audiences) can't trust that a company will deal honestly with them, they naturally have a harder time believing what it says. And that's going to have an impact on a company's ability to share its messages with its audiences in the long run. 

Then, it got a bit better.

In the story in The Globe and Mail, Netflix's Vice-President of Corporate Communications, Steve Swasey, sounded as though he'd completely agree. Explaining that the extras had been hired but that their talking to the media "was not supposed to happen,” Swasey said, “some people got carried away and it's embarrassing to Netflix.”

But then, it got a bit worse. 

An article on Cnet quoted Swasey as saying "We did not pay [the actors] to attend the press event. We didn't need to. The event was very well attended...somebody there said it was better attended than some press events for [Canada's] prime minister."

And an article on the CTV website further quoted him as saying "I was unaware that a script was handed out to extras and that was not supposed to happen... Extras were not supposed to talk to reporters or convey that they were anything other than promotional people."
But if you read the actual instruction sheet reportedly handed out to extras, it seems to suggest whoever wrote it did intend for them to talk to reporters: "Extras are to look really excited, particularly if asked by media to do any interviews about the prospect of Netflix in Canada."

So... what's really going on here?

Of course, I don't know; I wasn't there. But it wouldn't surprise me at all if someone at a lower level than Mr. Swasey had set this thing up, and fully intended for the media to unwittingly quote actors (let's say because he/she didn't know any better), and Mr. Swasey's responses were inconsistent because the company was truly caught off-guard by the turn of events.

Netflix isn't a beginner in the PR game - I think part of the reason this fumble got so much attention was that we collectively expect the company to be above this kind of thing.

Regardless, though, Netflix is going to have some making-up to do.

Lesson review 1: what did we learn from Netflix today?

Today, we got to witness in real-time what happens when public relations people don't deal honestly with journalists. As Swasey himself is quoted as having put it, this should have been a "perfect day" for Netflix; instead, he spent the day putting out fires on an embarrassing story.

Lesson review 2: what did Netflix learn from Netflix today?

As for Netflix, I suspect they may have learned that they have some tightening to do in the way they manage their events. Whether or not the company executives were aware that someone in their organization (whether internally or at their PR agency) was planning to try to dupe reporters, they paid the price in negative coverage.

I'm willing to bet that next time around, Netflix PR and agency staffers can expect to deal with a significantly stricter signoff process on the plans for company events.

UPDATE: Thursday morning

There's an update on the story this morning from the Canadian Press, in which Mr. Swasey apologizes for the incident in a blog post entitled "We Blew It," saying the extras were given "improper direction" and that they weren't supposed to have been talking to the media. "Swasey says the company didn't intend to mislead the media or public and he understands why questions were raised... 'This was a mistake and was not intended to be part of our launch plan. Simply put: we blew it,' Swasey writes in the blog post. 'We're sorry that our misfire has given Canadians any reasons to doubt our authenticity or our sincerity.'"

Given the circumstances, I don't think Netflix could have done anything more/better. Admit to the mistake, apologize, and move on.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Actually, it IS about what you know.

Oh never mind, 
I'll just go to the next mixer.

I read a good piece on the CPRS Calgary blog this morning about the value of having a strong professional network in public relations.

The writer, recent University of Calgary Communications Studies grad Tammy Schwass, is absolutely right: any PR pro (and especially one just starting out) deciding not to take advantage of professional networking opportunities does him/herself a disservice. If a hiring manager can associate a face (and a positive impression) with the name on one of 200 resumes, that name is far more likely to stick.

Even more importantly, if the hiring manager can see you've actively participated in the local communications community (by volunteering on the local CPRS or IABC or PRSA board, for example, or helping out with special events, or organizing a local tweet-up), that says some things about you:
  • "I'm active in my professional community."
  • "I have energy and am willing to use it for my own professional development. (Additional subtext: I'm not lazy.)"
  • "I may have connections that could help you meet your objectives... if you hire me!"

And, as we know because it just makes sense, a recommendation from a trusted colleague trust can carry far more weight than an "unknown's" resume alone.

But it's not ALL about whom you know.

Ms. Schwass opens her post by saying: "It’s not about what you know, but who you know. These were words that I heard many times over the course of my university career."

I, too, have heard this expression many, many times; usually, the people who say it understand that it's a bit of an exaggeration. (Ms. Schwass' degree tells us she gets it.)

It is, of course, what you know. And, in the longer term, even more so than whom you know.

I've been privy to some conversations online and in person lately involving people who still somehow believe that success in PR is less about learning how to create effective strategies and use a wide range of tools to execute them, than about whom you know and being able to sell yourself.

That may have been the case 20 years ago; but 20 years ago, employers simply didn't have access to nearly as many job candidates who had been trained to do what we do. Twenty years ago, you might have been able to get by with the right friends, good common sense, and good writing skills. Not anymore.

Today's successful entrant into the PR profession needs far more than the right connections and a basic understanding of the structure of a news release. (Also, on a side note, (s)he needs to know not to call it a press release, but maybe that's a topic for another post.)

If you want to give yourself the best possible odds of landing a job in PR, you should absolutely network.

But there are a few other things you should absolutely do.

1. Get some foundational knowledge in the practice, whether that's through a formal program like Red River College's Creative Communications program, or by taking a part-time certificate program at a college or university, or even by going through your professional association's accreditation process (for example, the Canadian Public Relations Society's APR). In 2010/2011, you're competing against hundreds of other candidates who have done just that; good luck to you if you think that won't matter to a potential employer.

2. Build a portfolio of work that shows you can actually do the things you've learned about. Make your portfolio reflect your own versatility and flexibility; an employer wants to be able to see, through your work samples, what you might be able to do to help meet his/her organizational objectives.

3. Wherever you can, show the impact of your communication work. If you developed and executed a strategy to get a new city councillor elected, show how your work translated into votes. If you wrote a news release for an organization, show the coverage it earned. If you built and ran a blog, show how many readers/subscribers it earned, and how much discussion it generated among the client's audiences.

Whom you know will open the door; what you know will get you invited in.

Unless a hiring manager is an idiot, quite frankly, he/she isn't going to hire based solely on someone else's word. (And if he/she is an idiot, plan not to be working there too long, even if you do get the job...) A hiring manager is looking for someone who can make a positive contribution toward achieving the organization's objectives; what you know (and how you can show it works) is key.

So, do get out there and network. All other things between you and a competitor being equal, who you know may make the difference in getting you hired.

But it's what you know that will keep you hired.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

What Twitter isn't

By now, just about anyone who's likely to be reading a PR blog is aware of what Twitter is, and (in general terms, at least) how it's used.

In a nutshell: it's an online platform that enables the sharing of short thoughts, information and links among people around the world. On Twitter, you "follow" people to receive the messages they send out (called "tweets"), and your "followers" opt in to receive yours.

Twitter can be a hugely effective tool for PR, because it gives us the opportunity to engage with people who share interests; for more on that, please read this post from this blog, last year.

If you're using Twitter as just another way to connect with friends and colleagues, or as a way of gathering information, or as a way of providing information in case someone comes looking for it, this post isn't about you (Twitter is a great way to do all of those things). But if you intend to use Twitter as part of a strategic social media plan aimed at enhancing your relationships with your (or your employer's, or your client's) audiences, you might want to consider the points below.

New-fangled communication tools are still about people

Here's the thing. Online media like Twitter give us the opportunity to reach audiences well beyond the bounds of geography and even mass media markets. But people aren't just sitting around waiting with bated breath for our next pronouncement (well, not for most of us, at least).

Common sense (offline and online) would dictate that:

If we want people to listen to what we have to say, we have to say something worth listening to; that is, provide something our audiences will value.

If we want people to want to listen to us, we have to respect their time.

If we want to build relationships, we have to listen at least as much as we talk.

I've recently un-followed a number of Twitter users I'd been following because their tweets have, quite frankly, annoyed me for having ignored one or all of these basic truths about how people relate to one another. It's not that we shouldn't ever tweet personal thoughts or ideas - we absolutely should. But we have to remember we're interacting with other individual human beings using online media - human beings who have tastes, preferences, and demands on their time, and are going to want to see some benefit from having engaged in the conversation.

The examples I'm providing below come from my own observations of Twitter accounts belonging to people or organizations who could and should be using Twitter to build/enhance really valuable relationships, but are missing the mark.

What Twitter isn't

1. Twitter isn't a soapbox and a megaphone... or a fax machine.

Twitter is about engagement. It's said so often now that it's become cliche -- but it's true. Unless you are someone with Very Important Pronouncements to make (and even then, really), you are not going to get the maximum benefit from a Twitter presence if all you do is talk about yourself.

Good PR, regardless of the shiny new medium, will always be about relationship-building, not just about talking about yourself. So a politician is smart to set up a Twitter account for an election campaign, but should use it to listen to voters and have exchanges and conversations about the issues that matter to them. If the account sends out tweets but doesn't follow anyone, the message is "I am going to say what I have to say, but I'm not interested in listening to you." Not great PR.

2. Twitter isn't the online equivalent of ribbon-cutting events.

I follow a number of politicians whose tweets are largely "Am in beautiful Komarno, Manitoba enjoying delicious perogies!," and "Am in beautiful Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, enjoying delicious lobster rolls!" with the occasional "My opponent is a bad Canadian" message thrown in. Twitter users (that is, "people") are generally intelligent enough not to confuse name-dropping with actual engagement.

3. Twitter isn't a means to spew marketing messages for your clients, disguised as independent thoughts or opinions.

This is one I've noticed among fellow PR folks. I'm not at all saying that PR, advertising and marketing professionals shouldn't use Twitter to share messages about their clients -- but that shouldn't be all they offer, unless that's the understood purpose of the account. If your account is "@MLLdeals" and all your tweets are advertising for MLL products, that's fine. People can choose to follow the account because they want MLL ads.

But if you're in the PR business, you don't want your Twitter feed to become the online equivalent of an ad flyer for your various clients; people will simply choose not to read it. Again, it's always about what your audience wants. MLL's audience wants MLL's deals; but your audience wants insights from and interaction with you.

4.  Twitter isn't a collector of people who have nothing better to do than to read your every thought.

The people who follow you on Twitter have chosen to do so because they think they will learn something, or be entertained, or receive information they want by doing so. They are also likely to want to know about you as a person, not just a "source," so by all means share (appropriate) information about yourself. But don't over-share, either in terms of content (i.e. information that is too personal) or in terms of volume (i.e. too many tweets).

I recently un-followed a community leader who published 17 separate tweets in under 24 hours on the same topic (hyping a product he was really pleased with). I don't know whether he works for the company behind the product or not, but it was just too much. He may tweet things I'd like to hear tomorrow, but I won't read them. I'm fickle, I know... but so may your audiences be. So tweet wisely.

So, how should we use Twitter to build relationships?

The same way we build relationships in real life: listen, and talk, and listen. Respond. Share things of value, and respect others' time.

On Twitter, as it is in so many other facets of life -- and as it will be on the "next big thing" to come along in social media -- good PR comes down to treating people the way they want to be treated.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Persuasion, apps and PR: part 2

Note: If you missed part 1, you can read it here.

Before we look at a second kind of apps, let’s remind ourselves why PR exists: to create and nurture two-way relationships with an organization’s audiences.

Why? Well, because it's the nice thing to do, of course; but also because people are more likely to do business with organizations that know them, care about them, and work to respond to their needs.

In PR, as in life, long-term relationships are based on listening and mutual benefit. Organizations that succeed in PR understand what their audiences want, and do their best to give it to them.

Relationship-building strategy: give your audience something you know they want (even if they don't know it yet).

At left is the cover of a little recipe book my Mum gave me from her collection – it contains the recipe for one of our family’s traditional Christmas cookies (just look for the page with splatters on it!). She picked it up (for free) in the baking aisle of the Beacon Hill North A&P store sometime in the 80s, and it became an integral part of our Christmas tradition.

Every Christmas she baked the refrigerator cookies from page 6, and every Christmas she (and her little baking assistants) saw the Robin Hood logo on the front.

While I can’t guarantee she always used Robin Hood flour, or that if she did, she wouldn’t have anyway, when I think of baking with her, it’s the big yellow Robin Hood bag I see. Coincidence? Maybe. Related? Maybe!

The point is, the good folks in Robin Hood’s marketing department gave us a reason to want to be exposed to its logo, frequently, and in association with something positive (Mum’s cookies!).

Principles of persuasion employed in persuading Mum to add Robin Hood advertising to her go-to recipe collection:
  • identification – free recipes for cookies my kids will like!
  • action – it’s right here in the baking aisle – I don’t have to mail anything away to get it! And it’s small and easy to read, so it’ll be convenient to use.
  • clarity – I recognize the Robin Hood logo, and the baked goods on the front cover show me what I’ll get if I try these recipes.
  • familiarity and trust – My own mother used Robin Hood flour; they’ve been in the flour business for 75 years (hence the “anniversary edition” recipe booklet), so they ought to know good baking recipes.
Sold! (at no charge)… and Robin Hood’s branding was forever associated with our Christmas memories. Aww!

So… the apps?

Many smart companies and organizations are today using apps to do the same job that little recipe booklet did in the 80s for Robin Hood flour.

Rather than simply giving the customer another platform on which to do business with the company, they’re giving the customer something the customer (or potential customer) will want to use, for free – because they know that with repeated exposures to the company’s brand and expertise, the customer will come to regard that company as a trusted source for whatever they sell.

Example 1: NikeWomen Training Club

This free app allows users to set up a personalized training program (on the Nike website) and then access it on their wireless device: “…simply create your Mini, customize your workout, and invite your friends for a little healthy competition.” The app interfaces with Facebook, allowing friends to track their progress against one another’s, encourage each other, etc., and provides workout advice and videos.

There’s no request for a Nike product proof of purchase or a fee of any kind; just an app that will bring one of Nike’s key target audiences (younger women who are interested in fitness) to interact with its brand in a positive way.

Example 2: My Baby Registry by Pampers

This free app allows users to get around the problem of store- or brand-specific baby gift registries, by making it easy to list all the things the family needs in one place. The user can either type in the name of the product, or use the camera on the mobile phone to scan the barcode, with the associated product name automatically being added to the list. The list is then made available online (and again, on Facebook) for anyone who wants suggestions on what to buy for the new family. Not only that: it promises to help with thank-you notes!

Again, no cost, no limitations related to brands – an app that solves problems for its target audience, new parents. And it helps that, since new parents tend to spend time with other new parents (who else would hang out with exhausted people with suspicious-looking stains on the shoulders of all their shirts?), the branding reaches out beyond the actual user to all his/her Facebook friends and anyone else who accesses the list.

Example 3: Petcentric Places by Purina

This free app is, unfortunately, only available in the U.S. for the time being, but I think it’s brilliant. It offers information about the nearest animal shelters, veterinarians, dog parks, groomers, kennels, pet stores, etc… as well as pet-friendly restaurants, hotels, bars, and a range of other businesses, and instant Google Maps to show where they are in relation to where the user is.

Regardless what brand of pet food & products they buy today, pet owners are bound to see the benefits of this free app, and be persuaded to use it. So the Purina brand will become part of that pet family, positioning it for potential sales down the road.

Apps: the new PR frontier

Companies that understand the principles of persuasion are increasingly going to see the benefits custom apps can yield in terms of building strong customer relationships. Apps can:
  • offer something with value to the customer (“identification” or “What’s in it for me”)
  • make it easy for the customer to interact with the brand (“action”), especially by virtue of the convenience of the wireless platform
  • cause repeated customer exposure to the brand (“clarity”)
  • position the brand’s expertise and credibility in the area of its own products (“familiarity and trust”)
As wireless data devices like the iPod Touch, iPhone, and BlackBerry become ubiquitous and apps become a mainstream way of connecting with organizations, good PR practitioners will be looking for ways to use apps to enhance customer engagement and position their client as “the” resource for whatever they sell.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Persuasion, apps and PR: part 1

In first-year PR, we spend a lot of time discussing the principles of persuasion – because persuasion is, in many ways, fundamental to the practice.

We work to persuade customers to buy our clients’ products, we work to persuade journalists to tell our clients’ stories, we work to persuade employees to do their best at their jobs every day, we work to persuade audiences to see issues from our clients’ points of view... and the list goes on.

In their simplest terms, the principles of persuasion hold that people are most apt to be persuaded to do/think/feel/believe something if:
  • they see a benefit to themselves in doing so (the “identification” or “what’s in it for me” principle),
  • you make it easy for them (the “action” principle),
  • you make your argument as clear as possible and easily understood (the “clarity” principle), and/or
  • your argument is made by someone they recognize as an authority (the principle of “familiarity and trust”).
Good PR people build their persuasive communication strategies around these principles; they create communication tools and opportunities that employ them, in the hopes of persuading their target audiences to see things as the client wants them to.

Right. So what does this have to do with my iPod or BlackBerry?

Over the last couple of years wireless data applications or “apps” have been playing an increasing role in helping companies, governments and organizations engage with their customers, constituents and other stakeholders.

As Jeff Bullas details in this post and WIRED magazine explains in this article, consumer adoption of apps is growing at an incredible rate.

Simply put: people like apps, because they provide a wealth of information and services literally at the user's fingertips, any time of day or night.

If you want to connect with your audiences, you need to go where your audiences are. Increasingly, with many (though not all) groups in the Canadian and U.S. markets, "where your audiences are" is on their mobile communication devices, using apps.

If you choose not to go where your audiences are, and your competitors do, you're in trouble.

Transactional apps

Transactional apps allow customers to conduct their business using nothing but the app and their wireless device – essentially opening a new channel for customer interaction, with some added PR benefits.

For example, check out the TD Bank app; while you might think of it as simply a transaction tool, it’s also employing the principles of persuasion.

The message the bank wants you to receive is: “Bank with us. It’s easy, it’s secure, and we’ll keep working to give you an even better experience.” Principles of persuasion behind TD’s app:
  • identification – it’s convenient for me: I can bank anywhere, any time!
  • action – it’s easy: no need to find a computer or internet access or any specific URL – I just pick up my wireless device and I’m banking!
  • clarity – I know it instantly: logo icons and familiar navigation schemes make it easy for me to recognize the app and know how to use it!
  • familiarity and trust – I can trust it: the app comes from the bank itself, I don’t have to worry about security with some third party.
Apps like these are a competitive must these days because they increase customer “stickiness,” a marketing term used to describe the customer’s likelihood to stay with a service provider because its products/services are tied in to his/her lifestyle, habits, other services etc. Increased “stickiness” equals fewer customers lost to the competition.

So whether you think about it in those terms or not, many business apps are devices of persuasion for the organizations that create them. They’re developed specifically with the objectives of attracting new customers and of increasing the stickiness of the customers a business already has.

And they employ the principles of persuasion to do both.

Next up: apps as tools for PR

Friday, August 27, 2010

Why I don't endorse students on LinkedIn

Over the last couple of years, I've had a number of former students send requests for my endorsement on their LinkedIn profiles.

I'm one of the instructors who's advised them to join the site, and to be active on it and other social media platforms -- which makes it seem odd when I decline their requests. (I must point out off the top that all the students with whom I've had this conversation to date have been very understanding about it.)

LinkedIn: "Facebook for professionals"

I've heard LinkedIn referred to in this way many, many times -- and in some ways it's a fair comparison. LinkedIn provides the platform for online networking between people who call themselves professionals the way Facebook does it between, well, people who may or may not call themselves professionals.

Both sites encourage their members to share information about themselves (whereas most people use Facebook for personal information, most use LinkedIn for professional information), to provide updates and links to things of common interest with the people with whom they're "linked," and to engage in conversations that take place within groups of people on the site with common professional interests.

In addition to those and many other features, LinkedIn also invites its members to provide public recommendations for each other's professional work, called "endorsements." These endorsements become part of the endorsed person's LinkedIn profile, and help to characterize that person's professional aptitudes/skills/advantages for potential employers or clients or partners to see.

It's great, unless you don't necessarily want your endorsements to be available for the world to see.

Hence my problem.

As a college instructor on LinkedIn, I feel like I'm in a bit of a difficult spot when it comes to endorsements.

In the Creative Communications program at Red River College, we work with a great many outstanding students, who we know will be outstanding professional communicators; accordingly, I have written a significant number of glowing reference letters for graduates and for continuing students looking for summer work.

As any student for whom I've written one of these letters will tell you, I personalize each letter to the student and the position being sought -- I spend time on them, because I know how important they can be. I take a great number of reference calls for students, and prepare for them the same way. So the problem isn't that I'm unwilling to take the time.

Issue #1: Hurt feelings (maybe)

We all have strengths and weaknesses. Some students are stars, some are excellent, some capable, some solid... and not all in the same areas of what we teach. Any meaningful endorsement will speak to that student's particular strengths, and will use descriptive language appropriate to how the endorser (in this case, I) saw the student's work and potential. But while that makes it a meaningful endorsement... it also makes it a potential feelings-trampler.

Put simply: I don't want former and current students to be able to see the endorsements I've given their classmates.

Not every student puts in an excellent effort and produces excellent results, so it follows that not every student will get an excellent reference. It may sound harsh, but it's true, and it's what gives professional references value.

So I don't want classmates reading into what I did say about one person and didn't say about another, or the adjectives used to describe one but not another, or even the fact that I agreed to endorse one but not another. I think that's between me, the student, and the employer, if the student chooses to provide my name as a reference.

Issue #2: Lack of context

I always prefer to recommend based on a candidate's aptitudes for a particular position. I don't want a potential employer who is considering more than one of my former students to compare my short, context-less LinkedIn endorsements and make assumptions about how their performance in college might translate into their workplace. I'd want the opportunity to tailor my recommendation to the position; then, I'd know I'm addressing the attributes that will be most relevant for the employer.

Any student for whom I provide a recommendation can be assured that I will take the time to provide an honest appraisal of their skills as they relate to the type of work they're looking for -- and as some of my former students will tell you, I'll keep re-tailoring letters until they find the job that's right for them.

I just won't be doing so in public, on LinkedIn.

Do I worry about such things too much?

Probably; but that's me.

If you are a former student of mine and are asked by a potential employer why I haven't endorsed you on LinkedIn, and you want them to hear my perspectives on your performance in CreComm, please give them a link to this post... and my email address.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Tennis Canada's new website: it's love.

(And I mean that in a good way.)

It's a generally-accepted truth in PR that new organizational websites don't automatically become news anymore. By "anymore," I mean new websites were news back in the days when websites were a big deal... but nowadays they're table stakes for any large-scale organization seeking any public credibility.

As a result, unless the launch has a strong, audience-focused communication strategy behind it, a "new and improved website" usually goes into the same news category as a "new payroll system." It may be a big deal to the people involved, but the rest of the world pretty much yawns.

Recognizing this, Tennis Canada executed a great PR strategy over the last few weeks to make its new website news -- and from what I can see, at least, it looks like it worked.

Lesson from Tennis Canada: how to make your new website news

1. First, make sure the changes you're making truly are noteworthy; a new font ain't gonna cut it.

Tennis Canada's old website was, let's say, not great. In fact, it was so not great that in last year's PR major class, it was one of the examples I used to show what an ineffective website looks like. In the words of Tennis Canada's own director of communications and media relations last week in an interview with Marketing Magazine,
"Our old site was an online binder... It was more for putting up our annual reports and strategy plans and there was no opportunity for dialogue."
The new site is far more than that, offering a great mix of static and interactive content geared to the organization's audience (people who enjoy and play tennis in Canada). As Liz Atkins from the communications agency Smith Roberts put it in the same Marketing article, the new site's objective is to "talk less about Tennis Canada, and more about tennis in Canada."

It's a key distinction that will make all the difference to Tennis Canada's audiences.

In addition to all the regular stuff you'd expect like live streaming of major events (e.g. Tennis Canada's annual Rogers Cup) and live scoring, the site offers discussion forums and chats surrounding special events (e.g. last Friday's live draw for the men's Rogers Cup in Toronto); blogs from a range of perspectives (pro tour observers, a member of the Rogers Cup ball crew, a Canadian junior player); and opportunities to submit questions about your game to a pro coach, who will reportedly deal with submitted questions in video lessons on the site.

There's a good mix of content related to both pro and amateur tennis, reflecting exactly what Tennis Canada's audiences are likely looking for: ways to get more information about the sport they love, and to connect with others who do.

2. Give your new site an interesting angle that'll get people talking.

Despite its olden-days image as a stuffy, country-club sport, tennis is fun to play and follow. Tennis fans want their tennis experience -- including their relationship with their national tennis organization -- to be fun.

Old URL: [predictable, professional... not so much fun]

New URL: [wha?? fun!]

People love to feel like insiders, and a good campaign targeted at a group that has common "insider" language will draw on it to make that audience want to get involved.

In tennis, "love" is the term used to signify a score in a game, set or match (but not a tie-breaker!) of zero. If you have two games and I have none, the score is "two - love." So in tennis, love really does mean nothing... and makes for a great "insider rewards" URL that will grab tennis fans' attention.

It also sends a signal that this site isn't going to be the stuffy old "binder" of information it used to be.

3. Then, tie your launch to something big.

As far as pro tennis goes in Canada, there's no bigger event than the Rogers Cup, when the top-ranked male and female players in the world come to Toronto and Montreal to play. So if your objective is to get some attention for your new Tennis Canada website, you're not likely to find a time when Canadian tennis fans are talking more about tennis in Canada than during the Rogers Cup.

Tennis Canada set its new website to launch with a live feed of world number one player Rafael Nadal at the announcement of the men's Rogers Cup draw last Friday afternoon -- and in so doing, gave fans a reason to want to come check out the new site. In addition to re-directing to the placeholder page above, it did some proactive publicity work in advance, which resulted in stories like this one on the Toronto Star sports blog, and used the Rogers Cup Toronto Twitter feed to drive fans to the site launch.

I don't know how many visitors the site attracted Friday afternoon, but I'd bet it numbered in the thousands; the chat room running alongside the draw alone had 700 members at one point.

4. And if you can, tie it to someone big.

[Photo courtesy Beth Wilson]

Nadal is the number one men's tennis player in the world and, it must be said, an all-around great guy. Fans love him, players love him, the media love him. If you want to attract tennis fans' attention, having Rafa involved is a great way to do it.

So that's what Tennis Canada did. It live-streamed Nadal's participation in the announcement of the men's Rogers Cup draw on Friday afternoon, and at the event, had him answer questions from fans submitted through the new site (all of which had figured prominently in the advance publicity).

I'm from a tennis family. Dad, siblings and I have all played and coached; my sister and I were "ballboys" at the Canadian nationals a zillion years ago; we download and use Grand Slam apps; we don't miss a major tournament; and we've attended the Rogers Cup. But with all that said, I have never taken the time to watch a "live draw" event.

That is, I hadn't... until last Friday.

5. Then, make your audience feel like they own it.

As I mentioned above, Tennis Canada has woven a number of great community-building features into the new site, all of which I think will keep people coming back post-Nadal (a few early bugs like broken links notwithstanding).

But the organization has also taken it a step further, and is letting the site's users write its headlines. The form you fill out to join the site includes a field that asks what "love" means to you; fans' quotes now rotate on the site's masthead.

How could a tennis fan not love it?

Or not want to contribute and be part of it?

Or not keep coming back to see new fan-generated quotes about the sport they love... and maybe even their own?

Kudos, Tennis Canada.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

PR, kitsch, and big bananas

I noticed an exciting piece of news on CBC’s Manitoba site this morning: the southern Manitoba town of Melita will be unveiling its new roadside attraction this Saturday.

(Image from CBC, courtesy of the Melita and Area Tourism Committee)

“On Aug. 7, the community will unveil a nine-metre-tall banana holding a blue jay in its hand and wearing a championship wrestling-style belt.

The giant yellow fruit represents Melita's location in southwestern Manitoba's so-called Banana Belt, so named because of the comparatively moderate weather.

The blue jay symbolizes Melita's status as a key site for bird conservation in the province.

Melita will henceforth not only be known as the grasslands birds capital of Manitoba, "it is also a town with a-peel," the Melita and area tourism website states.”

Banana? Check! Belt? Check! Bird? Check!

The story reports that everyone in attendance at the unveiling will be given a banana split.


Manitoba loves its roadside attractions

If you’re not from around here, allow me to reassure you: Melita’s Big Banana is far from alone when it comes to roadside attractions in this province. From Saint-Claude's "World's (second) longest smoking pipe" (left, photo credit: Saint-Claude Tourism website) to Komarno’s giant mosquito (below, photo credit: Gerry Fox), roadside attractions in communities across the province distinguish many small towns from many other small towns.

They're kitschy. They're tacky. But do they help our PR?

You bet!

Roadside attractions began growing in popularity in Canada and the U.S. in the late 1930s, when long-distance road travel became more accessible to families. Towns along major highways erected large sculptures or structures, usually related to the characteristics, industry, or history of the place to attract tourist eyes... and dollars. I mean, if you need to stop for fuel and lunch, why not stop for fuel and lunch... and a picture of Sally with a giant artichoke?

If you Google “roadside attraction,” your search results will show there's still significant interest in roadside attractions among travelers (for example, articles on, and; so roadside attractions can help with a small town’s marketing for tourism. Simply put: they attract attention.

Just last summer, Canada Post issued a series of stamps commemorating popular Canadian roadside attractions. The artist who designed them, Fraser Ross, said: “They’re like historical landmarks in both a literal and figurative way... They literally mark a location, but they also mark a time and place. On family vacations, we all stop; we stare; and we rarely leave without a picture. Over time, we may forget the details of a vacation, sometimes even the destinations themselves, but somehow the roadside attractions we meet along the way find a permanent place in our memories and photo albums.”

Or, in terms a marketer might like: that little town we visited might not ever have lured us back... but now, we want a picture of our kids in front of the same attraction that enthralled us decades ago.

Further, roadside attractions become part of a small town’s brand. Which of the little towns north of Winnipeg is Komarno? Oh, right! The one with the giant mosquito! And while some may cringe at the giant structures’ gaudiness, many community members get in on the joke, accepting and taking pride in the kitschy profile of the attraction as both a highway signpost and a public declaration of the town's collective sense of humour. If you’re not sure what I mean, see the note in the CBC article above about Melita’s self-described new “a-peel.” What's not to like?

Finally, some free PR advice for the Melita and Area Tourism Committee

In a review of photographer John Margolies’ book Roadside Attractions for NPR earlier this year, Claire O’Neill lamented the “decline of kitsch” – specifically mentioning “jumbo bananas” – and begged her readers to prove her fears unfounded with photos of new roadside attractions.

The folks at the “town with a-peel” might just want to follow up.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Doctored photo "crisis": BP just can't catch a break

We've been reading in the last couple of days about a new front that's opened up in BP's oil spill PR crisis: an altered photo of its crisis command centre.

Photos from

The original photo was altered so as to show images from actual BP cameras on all the crisis centre screens, rather than having two of them blank (I read somewhere that the blanks were feeds from equipment that was undergoing maintenance when the shot was taken). A BP spokesperson is quoted as having admitted that the photo was altered, and having shared the original photo when the alteration was pointed out.

Was this an attempt to deceive the public about BP's crisis response?

I doubt it. Whoever did the editing likely just thought the photo would (objectively) look better with all screens showing images -- which of course it does (again, objectively). That person's job is to produce quality images; he/she isn't necessarily a PR person, and isn't necessarily thinking about the potential perceived implications of altering an image in this way.

I once had a designer Photoshop the open eyes of a woman over the closed eyes of a man, for an annual report. The male subject was a member of the company's Board of Directors, with a very full schedule: the designer just figured it'd be easier to Photoshop in some open blue eyes (hey, who's gonna notice? Blue eyes are blue eyes!) than to try to get on the guy's calendar, replicate the lighting, etc. etc. in the short timeframe we had available before going to print. Of course, this gentleman was now wearing a thick layer of mascara, but still...

Fortunately, I noticed it before the report went to print, and we found an alternate solution (also involving Photoshop: we put the previous year's open-eyed picture on the current year's background). But if I hadn't noticed, it would've gone to print that way, and I'm sure I'd have had a little PR crisis of my own as a result, even though no harm was meant by the photo edit.

(I also learned an important lesson, and from then on, wrote a clause into all agreements with designers that no changes were to be made to any images or text without our express agreement.)

Did the photo editor have bad intentions when he/she made the change?

I doubt that too.

As in the case of my well-meaning if judgmentally-impaired designer, I suspect this photo editor just wanted a better image. He likely didn't see the alteration as material to the message communicated by the photo, and probably thought he was doing his client a favour.

Does the incident exacerbate BP's already enormous PR problem?

You bet it does.

I've already seen a number of posts from online commenters equating the doctored photo with dishonesty in BP's crisis response in general -- the overall theme being "if we can't even trust that their photos are real, after all this time, why should be we believe anything they say?" The story linked above quotes Americablog reporter John Aravosis as having said "I guess if you're doing fake crisis response, you might as well fake a photo of the crisis response center."


BP is taking it on all fronts. Its crisis response has been condemned at all levels (both in terms of its actions to stop the leak and its communications), and what may be well-intended actions of people on its own team are making it worse.

I have to admit, a part of me is feeling sorry for BP's corporate communicators.

Can you anticipate the bad decisions your team members are going to make? Sometimes yes, but usually, no.

All you can do is to keep everyone involved in your crisis communications response as tightly-knit as you can, do what you can to ensure everyone understands the stakes and is plugged in to the existing and changing perceptions "out there," and communicate openly both within and outside the organization.

And keep your fingers crossed. And if it's what you do, pray.

If you're lucky, no-one on your team will do anything that'll make a very bad situation even less flattering to your client.

If you're not lucky, at least now you'll know that, once upon a time at BP, someone likely had it worse.

Monday, July 19, 2010

You can't hide from your own typos in cyberspace... proofread well.

Note: this is a post about typos and Twitter, not what should or shouldn't be built at Ground Zero.

Mediaite ran a piece yesterday about a message Sarah Palin had tweeted earlier in the day.

The story says it appears someone inside Palin's camp recognized the vocabulary error (i.e., that "refudiate" is not a word), and the tweet was quickly replaced on Palin's Twitter account with the following:

While deleting the original tweet was the best thing Palin could have done under the circumstances, the quick action didn't stop many, many people (like comedian Andy Borowitz, below) from having fun with the error.
If it was deleted quickly, how did so many people see it?

Programs like TweetDeck download tweets in close to real-time, meaning that once you've tweeted something, it's likely been downloaded somewhere.

Once it's been downloaded, the TweetDeck user can save the tweet indefinitely -- and can post a screenshot that will last long after you've deleted the original from your Twitter account.

I've experienced this myself: I recently published a tweet containing an error, recognized it immediately, logged in to, deleted it and published a new one... but not before one of my followers had re-tweeted the original to all of her followers.

Luckily for me, there are fewer people in the business of catching and ridiculing my mistakes than Sarah Palin's.

Proofread, proofread, proofread.

The moral of this story, of course, is to make sure your message is correct before you hit "send."

To do that effectively, you need to be able to spot your own error as such; so I'm not sure that even extra-careful proofreading would have helped Sarah Palin this time around (see video below, about 1 minute in).

But still.

Proofread. It's good for you.

And if you have a tendency to invent words, have a friend proofread for you, too.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

How PR can return Mel Gibson to his former glory

That's a trick title. It can't*.

*Even in the seemingly unlikely event that the latest Mel Gibson violent tirade recording doesn't turn out to be authentic.

[Photo from]

A recently-released recording, purported to be of movie star Mel Gibson spewing hateful, violent, racist vitriol at an ex-girlfriend over the phone earlier this year, has renewed interest in the Mel-Gibson-is-a-hateful-jerk storyline, both online and in the mainstream media.

The AP story I linked to above (and again here) says that Radar Online, which broke the story, claims to have confirmed the authenticity of the recording, and says that Gibson has (so far) refused to comment on it.

A sequel even more action-packed than the original

In 2006, Gibson was reported to have gone on an anti-semitic tirade while being arrested on suspicion of drunk driving (an aside: if you Google "Mel Gibson anti-semitic tirade" today, you'll get 1.9 billion results).

Gibson may have recognized after the 2006 incident that his career could be in peril as a result. He apologized publicly, issuing statements including the following:

"I acted like a person completely out of control when I was arrested, and said things that I do not believe to be true and which are despicable. I am deeply ashamed of everything I said."

While I agree that reports of the incident portrayed what seemed to be a person "completely out of control," and that what he said was despicable, I never buy apologies in which people claim to have said things when drunk which they don't actually believe when sober. From what I've observed, people are more honest when they're drunk, not less.

To my ears at least, that statement sounded like Gibson was lying even as he sought to be forgiven for his racist remarks. In fancy PR terminology, we call that "not good."

Gibson's image has carried the stink of that incident ever since. Kim Masters, editor at large for The Hollywood Reporter, says that in "the mainstream Hollywood community" Gibson is "a pariah."

What will movie fans think this time around?

As bad as Gibson's 2006 statements were, his reported 2010 performance, which denigrates more groups in repugnant terms, is even more offensive (the recording is now available from a number of sources online, but do yourself a favour and take my word for it).

With that said, some people will still want to go see his movies because they like his movies, and don't care what kind of a person he is.

Yet others are racist and/or misogynist, and may be more likely to consider seeing his movies because they'll respect him for having expressed views similar to their own.

But if this recording is authentic, I suspect Gibson will have a much tougher time getting the rest of us to forget about this (now) pattern of hateful outbursts, and to want to support him by seeing his movies.

Is there anything he can do to improve his PR?

Of course; there are always things you can do.

  • He can get some help -- if not for continued alcohol abuse issues, then at least for anger management and sensitivity training -- and then come out the other side and be open about it. He doesn't have to (nor should he) go on at length and share every gory detail, but he should honestly admit to having been wrong, apologize publicly, and encourage others who share his problems to get help.
  • He can use his wealth, influence and profile to do good things; for example, contributing to the fight against racism and domestic violence.
  • And of course, he can change his ways and make good movies, in the hopes that, with time, people will gradually put their disgust on the back burner (Americans are, on the whole, a pretty forgiving lot).

But PR can't fix everything.

While some people may be able to excuse one racist/violent outburst, I suspect many more won't be able to ignore two. Mel Gibson now appears to have shown that his reported 2006 tirade wasn't an isolated incident; it's an alleged pattern of behaviour which would seem to reflect the way he really sees the world.

If he does get help, admit to/apologize for his hateful speech, and make some attempt to atone by helping combat the kind of thinking he reportedly espoused, I suspect a fair number of his former fans will admire his guts, even if they aren't ever able to entirely like him again.

Good, honest PR, reflecting an earnest effort to deal with his issues and to change, could do Mel Gibson's image a lot of good, and could help mitigate the damage at the box office.

But if this latest recording really is what it appears to be (and, frankly, even if it isn't), Gibson won't ever be able to fully restore the good-guy, family-man image of his Lethal Weapon days. His name will always have an asterisk next to it, which I don't think any amount of PR will be able to completely erase.