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