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.