Thursday, December 1, 2011

Misspelling... on purpose

Graphic from Carey's presentation

This morning, Carey Gatz, Online Marketing Supervisor at online pharmacy, gave first-year Creative Communications students a valuable primer in search engine optimization ("SEO").

As an online pharmacy,'s business success relies heavily on its customers' ability to find it on the web -- so Carey Gatz and his team always need to stay on top of evolutions in search engine technology. They need to understand what the search engines are looking for, and how they look for what they're looking for, so's site can be set up to earn the best possible search rankings.

Advising students to misspell?

In CreComm, misspellings can be very expensive -- because professional communicators just have to be able to spell. It's pretty tough to make a career of communications without that key skill.

But as Carey pointed out this morning, if you're hoping to help your customers find you online, it's a good idea to include common misspellings of your keywords in your site's tags (where no-one can see them). 

The sad fact is that typos happen, and sometimes spelling isn't your customers' strongest suit. But that doesn't mean you don't want to serve them!

I'm guessing's hidden tags might include "words" like perscription and prescriptin. They might also include slang terms for commonly-used medications, which the companies don't want to strengthen by giving them credibility on their sites…. but which customers might use to search for them.

The key is to help your customers find you in an ocean of competition.

Again, as always, know your audience

Along with his point about intentional misspelling, Carey pointed out that since many of the company's customers are American, uses American spelling. So while the company's headquarters is located in a Winnipeg neighbourhood, the site might talk about a customer's neighborhood.

Think these things don't matter? Think again. 

If you want your publics to be able to find your site using search engines, you have to start by using their language.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The PR value of being nice

I had to call a company this morning whose employees almost invariably treat me like I'm an idiot.

It's not that there's one cranky employee, or that I happened to catch one normally friendly employee on an off day: every single interaction I have with the (multiple) staff in this business is unpleasant -- and has been over the course of a few years. And it's not just me: friends have reported the same experience. These staff talk down to their customers in a way that leaves a bitter taste... and a lasting, unfavourable impression.

Customer service issue, or PR?

In some organizations, the PR department is charged with managing relationships with certain key stakeholders and the media, and customer service is left to the "customer service" experts.

And while there are plenty of aspects of good customer service delivery that require the attention of the customer service experts, your stakeholders' experiences in dealing with front-line employees have a huge impact on your organization's public relations.

In PR, our responsibility is to build and nurture healthy relationships with people and groups who are affected by what our organization does: customers, employees, community neighbours, donors, beneficiaries, government, interest groups, investors, mainstream and new media influencers, just to name a few.

We work in a wide range of environments, for a wide range of causes, to deliver on a wide range of objectives. But fundamentally, it comes down to this: our job is to give people reasons to want to do business with our employer/client in some way.

What makes you want a relationship?

It's not beautifully-written and designed annual reports, it's not flawlessly-executed special events, and it's not entertaining and informative speeches -- though, for some audiences, those can help.

At their core, good relationships are built on respect -- whether they're between two people, or between a person and an organization of some kind. So if your company's various audiences don't feel respected, anything else your PR department does will fall short.

How do you recognize respect when you see it, hear it, or feel it? It looks, sounds and feels like consideration.

And how do you show consideration?

You listen, and you respond based on what you've heard in a way that shows the other person their experience matters.

When someone listens to you and responds in a way that aims to improve your experience, you feel respected.

In companies, good PR starts on the front lines

Front-line staff (store clerks, helpline operators, volunteers - anyone who interacts with your publics day-to-day) have the ability to affect your audiences' impression of your organization every minute of every work day. Their handling of your audiences' concerns/business/issues/opportunities will have far more impact on how people feel about your organization than many of the corporate communications materials you produce.

For the PR department, that makes front-line managers and staff key partners in the organization's public relations function. You want to know what they're hearing from your audiences, and you want to ensure they're equipped to deal with issues and opportunities alike. You want to know what their personal job-related issues and ideas are, and you want them to know their issues and ideas matter.


Well, first of all, because it's nice. But secondly, because it's good for business. Your front-line folks are an audience too: and they need to be respected if they're going to want to contribute to positive relationships -- with the company and with its customers.

Sour employees = sour customer experience

It so happens that I'm stuck with the company that motivated this post, for the time being, at least: they provide a particular product I've become accustomed to and don't want to give up. But my behaviour as a customer has changed as a result of the poor treatment I get at their head office: I access the product in a different way, which cuts into the share of my spend the company gets.

The difference between the company getting all my investment and getting only part of my investment is literally the cranky attitude of the employees who answer the phones.

That's a clear bottom-line impact of customer service on my relationship with the company, and that company's bottom line.

If I were in that company's PR department, I'd want to get on that. One cranky employee is one cranky employee; but a whole staff of them, to me, suggests an organizational problem.

Bitterness doesn't just turn up overnight, and it isn't dispelled overnight, either: but as anyone who has had relationship troubles can tell you, the best place to start repairing an injured relationship is to listen.


Thursday, October 27, 2011


The Winnipeg Free Press has been reporting this week on a "ground-breaking" event that happened today in Halifax, at the third of seven national Truth and Reconciliation Commission events: University of Manitoba President David Barnard apologized for his university's role in educating perpetrators of the abuse aboriginal children, families and communities suffered under the Indian Residential School System.

Photo and caption from the
University of Manitoba website
Barnard's full statement is published on the university's website, here.

The apology follows others from churches and governments, including an apology on behalf of the federal government from Prime Minister Stephen Harper; but this is the first time a university has stood up and apologized for the indirect role it played. As it is explained in a story in this morning's National Post, "The university itself was not a perpetrator of the tragedy, and its mea culpa stems from having educated the clergy, teachers, and politicians who perpetuated the system."

An apology, or an attempt to profit from the suffering of others?

The National Post story, entitled "University's residential school apology raises eyebrows," questions whether the U of M's apology will be taken in the spirit in which it's meant. In it, Michael Davis, of Vancouver reputation management firm Reputations, suggests the university might be seen to be taking advantage of the tragedy for a gain in its public image.

The National Post story quotes Mr. Davis as saying the university’s connection to the residential school system “seems very tenuous,” and that by making an apology "the school runs the risk of appearing to 'use what was a very serious and tragic history for some sort of gain'.” 

In a separate story in the Winnipeg Free Press this morning, however, Truth and Reconciliation Commission member Marie Wilson says the apology "will be tremendously encouraging to survivors."

How can you know whether your apology will help or hurt?

When an organization has acted badly or in some way hurt people, an apology is the first step in repairing damaged relationships.

When the organization's role in hurting people is indirect, as Mr. Davis points out in the National Post story, there's the potential for motivations to be judged (and possibly, misjudged). 

Regardless of how pure the organization's motives, it's important to do research that will help predict whether audiences are likely to take it in the way it's meant... because, PR issues aside, your objective is not to have your apology inflict further disrespect to a group that's already suffering.

Mr. Barnard provided some background on how the university decided to make the apology, noting in a Winnipeg Free Press story that he "consulted widely on campus among deans, senior administrators, the board of governors and the senate. He has also discussed the university’s plan with Manitoba aboriginal leaders." 

That's good PR.

If you can't know, ask.

You can't ever predict with perfect accuracy how people will react to something; but asking a wide range of opinions from within your stakeholder publics will always help. While there will invariably be people "out there" who will disagree with your actions or question your motives, what matters most is how most of your audiences will view them. 

Statements like Mr. Davis' illustrate the risk in taking a public stand. But if the U of M has done its homework and knows its own audiences will see the apology as the sincere gesture it's meant to be, the apology will (hopefully) be able to help its community take a step toward healing.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

RIM: how long should a response wait?

There have been plenty of articles and blog posts blasting Research in Motion (RIM)'s decision to wait before talking to its customers (and investors, and the watching world) about the major outage its BlackBerry service experienced last week. An October 12th article in PR News summed up what many were saying with a quote from Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's former head of communications:
 "Explain while you fix. Apologize when you have. Recompense after. Handling so far woeful," he tweeted. 
If you Google "BlackBerry crisis communications" you'll have a wide choice of links, many of which pointing out how RIM ignored one of the basic principles of crisis communications: talk to your audiences and stakeholders and give them the facts (or whatever facts you can) before others shape the story for you.

It sounds easier than it is.

Having spent more than a decade in a telecom corporate communications department, I have to say I had some sympathy for the folks at RIM. It's easy for us to sit back and say "you should be out there telling your customers what's going on," but sometimes it's not that simple. Sometimes, even the experts aren't exactly sure what the problem is - and no-one wants to go out and make it sound better or worse than it actually is. I remember getting briefed on network outages that initially looked like they were going to take hours to fix, but were actually repaired in minutes. Hindsight is 20/20, and your in-the-thick-of-it statements will live on long after the crisis does; natural instinct is to want to be sure you have it right before you say anything at all.

There's also the problem of explaining what the issue is when the audience can't possibly understand it. The communicator needs to be accurate, but can't use the technical language the engineers use: our customers aren't engineers. That translation process takes time, too (and, often, debate).

The communicators have their hands full: even if the higher-ups are on board with the idea that the company should communicate publicly about the problem (and this isn't a given in every company), they have to find out what the issue is; get agreement from all the experts on what the problem is, its scope, and what will be required to fix it; and translate it all into their audiences' language. It's not something you can do within a few minutes.

But it is something that needs to be done, and as quickly as possible -- because as the RIM example shows, the story will build with or without you.

A quote that caught my eye

A story in The Globe and Mail Monday about the RIM issue attributed the following statement to RIM co-CEO, Jim Balsillie:
Mr. Balsillie defended how RIM communicated the outage to the public, saying every minute doing public relation is time not spent fixing the problem.
Unless its communicators do double-duty as engineers, I think RIM could likely have communicated without jeopardizing the repair time by too much. The communicators would need access a tech expert to formulate and help with "translating" the message, but any time lost by techies would, I'd argue, be well-invested in showing your customers you're working to fix it.

Customers don't really expect everything to work perfectly all the time, though it may sound like they do when they're complaining online. But they do expect the company to show that it "gets" their frustration and is doing everything it can to fix it. 

On Thursday, RIM uploaded a video to YouTube featuring Mr. Balsillie's co-CEO, Mike Lazaridis, talking to its customers about the outage.

A message like this one (which still doesn't tell us much about the nature of the problem) could have taken down the temperature on the criticism of RIM, had it come out a few days earlier. 

Every crisis is also an opportunity

Your audiences are listening... you might as well say something you want them to hear.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Why get accredited in PR?

This year, I've taken on the role of Accreditation Director for the Manitoba chapter of the Canadian Public Relations Society ("CPRS"), after having been grading APR work samples and exams for the better part of a decade.

Here's how CPRS describes its accreditation on its website:

CPRS Accreditation (APR) is a respected measure of professional experience in the field of public relations. This program recognizes the dedication, energy, perseverance and competence of successful public relations professionals. To pursue the accreditation process you must satisfy the following eligibility requirements:
  • You are a member in good standing of the Canadian Public Relations Society.
  • You have been employed full-time in a public relations position for at least five years; and
  • You spend at least half of your professional time involved in specific public relations activities.
Candidates must complete an Accreditation application (due December 1st) which is available through the National Office. The examinations, offered in French and English, consist of three parts: a review of a work sample (due April 1st), a written examination and an oral examination (October). 
The exams are designed to test the breadth and depth of a candidate's public relations experience and ability. The goals of CPRS National Council on Accreditation are to assure professional competence; establish standards for professional practice; increase recognition for the profession within business organizations and the community, and influence the future direction of the profession.
The APR is designed to tell employers and colleagues that you have an in-depth understanding of how public relations works; that you are able to provide sound, ethical advice and create effective communications plans and materials; and that you have proven success in public relations work. But you don't need an APR to practice PR -- or even to practice PR at a senior level.
If you don't need it, why do it?
While accreditation isn't a requirement for public relations practice the way it is for other professionals like accountants and engineers, it is a valuable professional development activity which -- if you take advantage of the opportunities it offers -- can help you improve your skills and keep you current for decades after you've achieved the APR.
I can't honestly say that my APR has ever gotten me a job or a consulting contract, directly. If it was ever a factor in my getting hired, no-one ever mentioned it to me. But I have used it on my website, my business card, in my email signature, on LinkedIn, on this blog... I am proud of it. My APR certificate hangs on the wall of my office beside my university degrees.
But while it may not have directly led to a job, my APR has been valuable from a professional development perspective -- and that has without a doubt made me a more attractive job candidate.
First of all, the knowledge required to pass the written and oral exams forced me to study the foundations (history and theory) of PR, which I'd never had the need/motivation to study before. Until my accreditation process, I had learned about PR by watching, listening and doing, and working with bosses/mentors who literally paid me to be educated by them (thanks again for my entire career, if you're reading!). 
Studying the material required to pass the APR helped me understand why we do things the way we do, and gave me a far greater appreciation for how public opinion and persuasion work.
But the professional development I gained in earning my APR in 2002 was just the beginning of the benefit my accreditation has given me. 
In the years since, I have volunteered as an APR grader, helping evaluate candidates' work samples and exams. While this might just sound like "work" (and, especially for a teacher, "marking"), it's actually an excellent opportunity to see what other communicators are doing in their roles, to deal with issues their organizations face and the opportunities they leverage, across the country.
APR work samples and exams are evaluated outside the province in which they're created -- which both helps remove the potential for favouritism among friends and colleagues, and gives graders the opportunity to be exposed to great work they wouldn't normally hear about at their local chapter networking events.
And not only do I get the chance to read in-depth case studies presented by the communicators who led them, I also get to discuss their relative merits with other seasoned practitioners (i.e. APRs) on the grading panel.  Each member of the panel grades the submissions individually, and then we have a conference call to come to agreement on the scores each candidate will receive. The discussions involved in this consensus-building are fantastic PD opportunities, twice a year.
Interested? Application deadline is December 1.
For me, the APR has been a great way to keep current, to learn from my peers, and to have the opportunity to debate PR issues with colleagues I wouldn't normally have the occasion to meet with. It's not just a sign of where I was, professionally, in 2002 -- it's been a big part of how I've developed my skills since then.
If you're in Manitoba and would like to discuss undertaking your APR in 2012, please email me at lockstep [at]; if you're elsewhere in Canada, contact CPRS. In the U.S., you can contact the Public Relations Society of America.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Alton Brown's "Fanifesto"

Photo from
This week, ahead of a planned publicity tour promoting a new book, Food Network star Alton Brown issued "My Fanifesto" on his website: a list of rules of comportment when meeting him in person.

Before you decide whether this is a bad idea from a PR perspective, give it a read.

Reaction I've seen online so far has been mixed; notably, the Huffington Post considers it evidence that he is "struggling with his celebrity status;" the blog "Comfort me with Offal," written by James Beard Foundation Award for Humor winner, Ruth Bourdain, calls it "a bit douchey."

Is it bad for Brown's PR?

The answer to that depends on Brown's audiences, and how much they expect a cooking show host to give up reasonable courtesies the rest of us are entitled to.

It could also depend on how they react to the Fanifesto's smart-alecky tone, as my Mum would call it, but that's consistent with his television persona. A bit smart-alecky, but in a friendly way. If they like him on TV, I'm thinking its tone shouldn't be a problem.

Should it be bad for Brown's PR? 

I really don't think so... but of course, I'm not necessarily the target audience. We'll have to watch what happens.

There's a temptation to assume every move a client makes that will disappoint some corner of the audience base means "bad PR." But realistically, everything you do is likely to annoy somebody. It's impossible to only do things that are universally accepted and appreciated.

Any move you make could cause someone to grouch, and might even get some unflattering media attention. But that only really matters in the long run if it's going to harm your reputation/relationship with a significant portion of the target audience.

Your turn 

What do you think of Alton Brown's Fanifesto? Reasonable, or "a bit douchey?" And do you think it will negatively affect his image? Comments are open!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Using Twitter... professionally

There's a fair bit of conversation online around how to grow one's Twitter "followers" number. One answer: become a college instructor, and assign your students to join Twitter and follow you!

By the end of this week, Red River College's first-year Creative Communications students will all be on Twitter. Interestingly, for the first time this year (in my classes at least), more first-year students were already using Twitter on entering the college than not.

But while most students are already on Twitter, many haven't been using it as a professional tool. Twitter isn't about what you did last night or what you're having for lunch, if you're using it to help establish and nurture your professional career in communications: it's about sharing useful information with communities of interest.

We're covering the topic of tweeting appropriately in class; but generally, my advice is "if you wouldn't want to have to explain it during a job interview, don't say it on Twitter." The fact is, if you say anything on Twitter you wouldn't want to have to explain in a job interview, chances are very high you won't get the job interview in the first place.

Employers will look for you on Twitter, and will judge your professionalism based on what they see.

Below, I've provided a roundup of useful online resources that give Twitter newbies some advice on how best to use it to reach their professional objectives.

Why are you on Twitter? A 'Twitter 101' lesson - First in a series of three really helpful Twitter lessons for beginners by Mike Johansson (@mikefixs) on Social Media Today.

Twitter 101 Day 2: How will you use Twitter? - Johansson's part 2

Twitter 101 Day 3: Who will you be on Twitter? - Johansson's part 3

Twitter 101: What to Tweet? Twitter and Your Personal Brand - good advice from Neal Schaffer (@NealSchaffer) on what to tweet to help position yourself professionally. Not sure I agree with "Tweet, and they will come" as an absolute, but that's OK.

PR Conversations - The angle of this article by Heather Yaxley (@greenbanana) is how to use Twitter for PR events, but the advice is valuable for many other organizational uses of Twitter, too.

Finally, if you're looking for background and specific how-tos about Twitter, check out Mashable's Twitter Guide Book - a good starting-point for the basics from @Mashable.

Happy tweeting!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Of mountains and molehills in election campaigns

In my first-year PR classes this week, we've been introducing the whole concept of PR, and specifically, the fundamental importance of understanding your audiences.

As is normal in my classes, we began on Tuesday with a few minutes of "PR in the news," in which we look at a story that's getting attention in the mainstream media and discuss what it might mean for the parties involved.  The topic of the day in my Section 2 class was last week's CBC news story about Manitoba Tory leader Hugh McFadyen's campaign launch event -- and more specifically, the campaign's choice of LMFAO's "Party Rock Anthem" as the song playing for McFadyen's grand entrance.

The CBC story, as you would expect, had clips from Manitobans surprised the Tories would choose a song with such racy lyrics by a band with such a naughty name.

But is this the kind of news that changes the way people vote?

The incident reminded me of another local campaign-time embarrassment, last fall when incumbent Mayor Sam Katz accidentally kicked a young player in a soccer game. People laughed at the Mayor's expense, the video went viral, and then he won the election handily.

Don't lose sight of your audiences

While schadenfreude wins the contest of do-we-or-don't-we-want-to-hear-about-political-embarrassments just about every time, that doesn't mean it's crisis mode for the PR folks. While the candidate and the campaign will be embarrassed, either by some oversight or fluke of bad luck, the communicators have to remember to keep their eyes on the prize.

Are people less likely to vote for a candidate whose policies and integrity they believe in, because of a poorly-chosen campaign song? I haven't done the research, but I'm thinking likely not.

But... the campaign could undermine the candidate's integrity if it doesn't respond appropriately. While most voters are able to recognize that everyone makes mistakes and forgive the occasional innocent blunder, a response that betrays disrespect for those offended, or arrogance, or any other personal or organizational characteristic that's out of line with what the voters would want to see in their leaders, could cost votes.

Don't make mountains out of molehills

The moral of stories like these: when your client goofs up (or when you goof up on your client's behalf), handle it respectfully but without giving it more prominence or weight than it properly deserves. While the media will likely have fun with it, because their audiences love this stuff, that doesn't mean your support will be driven away by it.

If the offence isn't likely to have a significant impact on your audiences' opinions, don't treat it as though it would. Address your error respectfully, and then take the opportunity to talk about the issues that should matter to your audiences.  And a little self-deprecating humour never hurts.

Friday, August 26, 2011

PR cover letter advice part 2: describing your experience

A Creative Communications grad recently asked me to look over a cover letter he'd written to apply for a job in PR, and it raised a topic I hadn't thought to include in my previous post on writing a good cover letter: how to position work you did as a volunteer or as a student.

When you're applying for a job, you want to put your best foot forward. You want the potential employer to know about all the things you can do that are relevant to what (s)he is looking for.

If you're a student or a recent graduate of a hands-on program like CreComm, much of your "evidence" is in the form of assignments completed in class, or on internships, or as a volunteer -- and you need to ensure you make it clear what was volunteer work what was paid.

What difference does it make?

A hiring manager reads more into the work experience you describe in your cover letter (and which you share in your portfolio) than the quality of the work: (s)he also makes inferences about how other professional communicators may value your work.

For example, if you say you created a media kit for a Red River College corporate announcement (which you did, for a fictional scenario in an assignment), you are technically telling the truth. But the statement is misleading: you are inadvertently suggesting that Red River College actually used your media kit, which implies that it met Red River College's corporate communications standards. It may have been of a high enough quality for the college to have used it -- but the college didn't use it. You don't want your cover letter to inadvertently imply that it did, and take credit that isn't due.

Similarly, work you do as a volunteer for an organization is much appreciated -- but it isn't paid for. Your hiring employer won't think your work any less valuable upon seeing that it was done as a volunteer (in fact, (s)he might think more of you for offering your skills and energy to a deserving client free of charge), but it's important (s)he doesn't think you did the work as a paid consultant. Again, that could lead to assumptions about how the client valued the work -- which, again, could be true, but you don't know it to be. So you shouldn't leave the door open for the employer to assume it.

What to say

A hiring manager looking at your resume will (or should, if you've written it well) know exactly how much professional experience you have or haven't had. If the organization is looking to hire someone right out of school, it's expecting candidates to have work samples that originated in school assignments or volunteer work -- there's no reason not to confirm it.

Further, if you do have work samples representing paid work you've done, either as an employee or on a freelance basis, make sure you point that out too. All that information comes together to give the hiring manager a complete picture of what you bring to the table.

In being clear and up-front about the nature of your work samples, you signal to the employer that you are open and honest, and proud of your work... and those attractive personal qualities will shine through your cover letter, along with your skills and experience.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

When should a charity refuse a donation?

One of my students in this fall’s PR Major tweeted me last week with a suggestion for a blog topic.

Her link led me to Lindor Reynolds’ column in last Wednesday’s Winnipeg Free Press, “Hooters, cancer drive a bad business combo.”

In a nutshell (this is my summary, but click the link for the full story), Reynolds feels the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation shouldn’t accept donations from Hooters, and that doing so will turn supporters against it.

Monique Levesque-Pharoah, Development Officer for the CBCF’s Prairies/NWT Region and a friend of mine, clarified a number of points in Reynolds’ story for me. For example, while Reynolds' column suggests the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation approached Hooters looking to “team up,” in reality, Levesque-Pharoah says Hooters simply entered a team in the upcoming CIBC Run for the Cure, which benefits CBCF. The Hooters fundraising activities Reynolds discusses in her column are in support of the Hooters Run for the Cure team.

At any rate, regardless of how casual CBCF's involvement with Hooters actually is, this post is about Pamela’s question, and whether accepting a donation from Hooters (even if it’s just money raised by their team in the CIBC Run for the Cure) is “bad business” for CBCF.

My opinion

I dislike Hooters. I agree with Reynolds that Hooters encourages the objectification of women, and that that objectification does a disservice to women in general, not only breast cancer survivors and patients.  I hear Hooters serves excellent chicken wings, but I won’t eat there – it’s my personal choice.

I am also fortunate enough not to have suffered from or lost anyone close to me to breast cancer (yet). But that doesn’t stop me from being terrified of the disease, or appreciating any fundraising done to support the fight against it and all other fatal illnesses. I've been lucky, but millions of others haven't. And every penny counts.

Do I personally like Hooters? No. But if Hooters is going to be in business anyway, am I just as happy for some of its energies and resources to be spent fighting a disease that kills people every day? I don’t even have to think about it: of course.

But that’s just my opinion.

Whose opinion matters?

Lindor Reynolds predicts that “many” CBCF donors will feel “ill will” toward CBCF as a result of the Hooters donation. While some may find it distasteful that an organization that promotes such positive things for women accepts money from Hooters, I hope many would feel the way I do: we may not like Hooters, but we’ll take the money to fight breast cancer, thank you. I assume this is how CBCF predicted its donors would feel, too.

OK, this is still my opinion. Time will tell who's right, I suppose.

Know your audiences

In fundraising, like in all other areas of PR, there's always the chance someone will be unhappy with what you do. Sometimes that person will be a columnist whose opinion gets wide distribution, sometimes not. 

What matters most is how your audiences will see the issue.

Reynolds’ column accurately points out that fundraising professionals “walk a tightrope without a net.”  

In everything they do, they have to be creative enough to break through the noise of all the competing messages out there, and persuade us to give our donation money to their cause. 

While we don't think of charities being "in competition" with one another, in a way, they are. We only have so much money to give, and there are endless worthy causes. So the question of where "the line" between aggressive and offensive lies is important: they need to raise as much money as they can, but without doing anything that could risk donor support in the long term.

And it isn't just about whose donations to accept: everything charities do goes under the donor microscope. Is this the right celebrity spokesperson? Can we be sure he/she won't be involved in some embarrassing scandal next month? Is this marketing campaign too edgy? Will we draw the wrong kind of attention? These questions are discussed and debated in non-profits every day, as they try to find a way to capture our attention, and be compelling, and do the best fundraising job they can, without offending badly enough to lose our donation. 

To do that well, they need to know their audiences: both what makes them tick and what ticks them off.

I hope Lindor Reynolds is wrong, and that most current and potential CBCF donors see the organization’s efforts to raise money for what they are: an aggressive fight against an even more aggressive disease.

And that they open their wallets.

If you would like to make a donation to the CBCF, please click here.

Friday, July 29, 2011

With social media, companies should go all-in

I recently caught up with a communicator friend I hadn’t seen in a long time, and as will inevitably happen, we started talking about PR.

Specifically, we were talking about how important it is for businesses whose audiences are using social media to participate in social media – and the challenge that remains, especially in larger corporations, in persuading upper management that engaging with audiences online is worth the inherent risk.

“Even if they just opened a Twitter account and used it to blast out their news releases, it would be a start…” she said.

Social media requires two-way communication

I completely understand my friend’s frustration. She feels her client’s continued absence from Twitter and Facebook works against it, and she’s right. Her client is discussed openly on both platforms – customers talk about both good and bad experiences.

Some call the company out when they’re unhappy with their service, hoping it will respond to the public embarrassment and give them what they want. It’s what [some] people do on social media… it’s part of the deal.

But because my friend’s client isn’t there, it doesn’t respond. Occasionally an employee will catch something and try to address it from their personal account, but it isn’t anyone’s job to do so (that my friend is aware of, at any rate). There is no corporate account, so it’s just unaddressed ranting for the time being.

Unaddressed ranting voiced into the wilderness isn’t good for your brand. Unaddressed ranting to your face is worse.

Today, customers flaming a company on Twitter and Facebook potentially get the attention of any of their followers/friends who happen to be reading that post. It’s not great for the company, but unless the content of the post is egregious/embarrassing enough to go viral or get mainstream media attention, the damage is relatively limited. The complainer may add complaints about not getting any attention from the company, but the complaint can potentially do what the company wants it to do – just die.

It’s just one complaint, and people understand that even the best companies can’t satisfy everyone all the time. But when your customers’ Facebook feeds and Twitter timelines contain multiple “everyman” complaints about your company, and no-one seems to be getting any satisfaction, it can affect your brand.

While my friend saw it as a first step, I think a “placeholder” account that only blasts out corporate messages for the sake of being there, without engaging with customers, could be even worse for the brand.

Whether you mean it that way or not, a corporate account represents the company on a platform built for two-way communication.

Customers expect companies to engage in two-way conversations on Facebook and Twitter – that’s what those tools are for. You wouldn’t open a customer service desk and restrict the staff to providing pre-written advertising and corporate messages, because you know your customers would be offended by that. One-on-one communication should be a give-and-take.

Of course, some of the C-suite reluctance to green-light corporate social media accounts is because this isn’t really one-on-one: while it feels like one-on-one to the customer, it happens in front of an audience of (potentially) millions. It's risky.

We’re at a strange crossroads, where tweets and status updates from the corporation are expected to have all the background and credibility of its other corporate communications – but often need to be produced on-the-fly, around the clock, by the hundreds. It’s no small feat for a large company to begin using social media.

Eventually all companies will have to come on board

Social media isn’t a fad. The way we communicate and consume information has fundamentally changed in the last 10 years, and mobile technology is only advancing that evolution further.

Eventually, unless are they are without competition or stakeholders of any kind, even the largest, most risk-averse companies will have to get with the program… as uncomfortable as it may be.

There was a time not that long ago when communicators were working this hard to persuade their clients to build websites, using many of the same arguments we’re using now for social media.

“Online is where our customers are going to be! We need to be there!”

“Online is where our competitors are going to be! We need to be there!”

“Yes it will cost money, but it’ll cost more to leave our competitors and our customers alone there!”

Gradually, they got it.

It’s now standard for a company with a large customer base to have:

  • a website offering some kind of customer care (even if it's just a "contact us" email), and
  • a call/contact centre of some kind, and
  • a communications (PR/Corporate Communications) function.

Within a couple of years, tops, customer-focused companies won’t be able to get away with leaving social media off that list… for all the reasons we argued in favour of a website, above. Of course, there’s a new argument from the C-suite we need to address, now, too:

“Yes, our customers could use our social media sites to publicize their dissatisfaction with our services. But as it is, they're just using their own to do the same thing… and we have no way to respond.”

Ignoring the fact that people are complaining about you doesn’t change the fact that they’re complaining about you - or that others are hearing it. It just leaves your hands tied to address misinformation they may be spreading with their complaints, not to mention dealing with the issues they raise. And worst of all, it sends the message that you’re not interested in helping them.

Companies: if you have customers who are using social media, get on social media and communicate with them... before your competitors do it for you.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A great opportunity!

In PR, you'll get lots of great opportunities for great opportunities.

Our skills are "soft" -- most of the value of what we sell comes from inside our brains. We sell ideas and approaches, words and images. They're not hard goods with a wholesale cost and a mark-up.

We do things others value, but to which others don't always assign a dollar value.

If you ran a candy shop, people would likely expect to have to pay for the candy they bought in it. After all, you had to buy the candy from your distributor, you had to pay rent on the candy shop, it makes sense.

But when your inventory is in your mind, you're just walking around with it. As others sometimes see it, it's something you can just donate.

The Coordinator of the Creative Communications program at Red River College receives hundreds of requests for CreComm student volunteer work every year; individual instructors receive even more on top of that, and I'm certain the students themselves field even more. Each organization asking for help has a project that legitimately needs the work of a skilled communicator, and CreComm students are that, for sure.

But there are only so many hours in a day. The workload is heavy in our program, and some have to manage part-time jobs, too, not to mention trying to see their family and friends on occasion. While they might love a great "portfolio builder," they're short on time, and they unfortunately can't do it all.

We have a board at the College where we post volunteer opportunities that come in, and some of them do attract student volunteers. Given that the requests easily outnumber the students, though, many don't.

Not just a student problem

Professional communicators, and especially freelancers ("you have so much free time!") are often asked to do pro bono work -- and many (if not most) of us do.  I've done writing, project coordination, strategy development and social media work for non-profits at Lockstep, and have enjoyed both the experience of working with the organizations, and knowing I was helping out.

I've also had to decline some requests for volunteer work; when it comes down to it, I can't allow pro-bono work to interfere with my commitments to the College or to paying clients. It's always hard to say no: I've never been approached by an organization I didn't think could use the help. But it's a reality of business.

Choosing pro-bono work

Most of us would like to be able to help just about anyone (anyone with positive motives, that is); unfortunately, pro-bono work won't pay the mortgage. So we have to choose.

Everyone has different priorities, personally and professionally -- and those should guide you as you decide whether to do free work. But here are some questions you might ask yourself as you consider an opportunity.

1. Could this organization afford to pay someone to do this work? There are two angles here: making sure you're helping an organization that really needs the help, and not taking paying work away from yourself or a colleague by doing it for free.

2. Is this an organization I personally want to help? Choose organizations that do work you believe in; you'll do better work for them, and feel good about doing it. You'll also be prouder to showcase your work in your portfolio.

3. What exactly is expected of me? Get everything out on the table, and be specific about your deliverables and their deliverables. Make it clear up-front what's expected from everyone involved, so you know exactly (well, at least approximately) how much time this work will take. This isn't always the easiest part of the process, especially when you're dealing with volunteer boards who may have sketchy ideas about what they want from a communications perspective, but it's worth doing... for peace of mind on both sides of the table.

4. Will doing work for this organization help me network? Non-profits are full of smart, energetic, committed people who are well-connected to other similar people in the community. Look at who's involved with the organization and determine whether there's an opportunity for you to work with people who might be able to help you professionally down the road. After all, doing great pro-bono work for a cause they care about is a great way to show your skills and what kind of person you are.

5. Is there some way I can leverage the relationship to help my career? Some organizations have member newsletters, websites, social media properties etc. that can be used to help position you as a supporter and contributor to the cause, and to showcase your work. Don't be afraid to ask: an organization looking for free help should be willing to help you back, in return.

6. Will I have fun? Before taking on a volunteer gig, think about whether you'll enjoy it. If you don't, it'll be too tempting not to give it your best -- and that won't serve the organization or your reputation well.

Volunteer opportunities are fantastic ways to stretch your skill sets, build your portfolio, meet new people, try new things, and find new opportunities for down the line.

To make the most of them, treat your volunteer work as though you were being paid for it: be professional in every respect, from attitude to quality to timelines. You'll be happy you did.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Tire-kicking on Google+

Late last week, I succumbed to the temptation and joined Google+, the latest shiny new thing social media has to offer.

A word of warning before I begin: I am a beginner on this platform. I haven't spent more than a few hours on Google+, and so am no expert. If I get anything wrong in this post, please do me and my readers the favour of correcting me in the comments, below - thanks! has provided an overview of Google+ and what it offers compared to other social media networks like Facebook and Twitter; a more detailed review is posted here

My early impressions

I think Google+ has huge potential, if -- and it's a big if -- Google can get people to adopt it. 

Here's what I can already see being huge selling features.
  • Easy grouping of friends/followers/people. This is one of the big ones, for me. As an instructor in a college, I have a large number of students who are active in social media, many of whom follow me on Twitter for the benefit of the links I share, and many of whom also send friend requests on Facebook. To keep things fair and ensure no-one thinks any classmates have any "inside track" information others don't, I've declined current student Facebook requests (with an explanation as to why). If they still want to be Facebook friends after they graduate, I'm happy to add them - but not before then.  With Google+, I can easily categorize people according to the kinds of information I intend to share with them. I can create a circle for current students - and once they graduate, can move them out into my custom "Communicators" circle if I want to. WIth drag-and-drop functionality, it couldn't really be easier.
  • Easy selectiveness when posting to different groups of friends/followers/people. Related to my last point, if I want to post about something personal or family-related (I'm under no illusion that students who connect with me on social media for the PR-related links also want to know about all the cute things my kid says, cute as they may be), I can choose to only send it to my "Family" and "Friends" circles.  Some of my "Family" and "Friends" also qualify as "Communicators," who'd likely receive most of the links I currently send out on Twitter to PR-related content of interest, so they can be in both circles. At the other end, I have to think it would also make the experience more enjoyable for all my connections, because they're receiving less content from me that doesn't interest them.  Some of my Twitter followers would likely welcome my creation of a "Tennis" circle, saving them from having to read my cheers and rants during Grand Slam tournaments. And I could target administrative messages related to the Creative Communications program to students currently in it. Twitter's hashtag allows people to opt in to such messages today -- but it doesn't have a way for other followers to opt out, without unfollowing altogether (at least, to my knowledge).
  • Potential, down the road, to streamline the number of social networks you're on (i.e. saving time). Just think: if everyone was using Google+, you could check and post to one site, and reach all the people you want to reach with the content you feel they would be interested in. This wouldn't just translate into time saved toggling back and forth between platforms -- it could also reduce time spent trying to refer back to something. "Where did I read that? On Twitter? Facebook? LinkedIn?"
  • Group video chat. I watched my students this past winter tweet back and forth about school projects they were furiously working on, to deadline. I can only imagine a Google+ enabled class would have an even easier time of getting together to discuss ideas, issues, and what constitutes a typo late at night once everyone's left campus. Same goes, of course, for collaborators in the professional world, and anyone wanting to chat with others in different locations. Video chats involving parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles will be easier to manage here than getting everyone on Skype (at least, in my experience). Not having used the new Facebook video chat service yet, I can't speak to whether it's equivalent.
  • Integration between social and the rest of the content Google has access to. I haven't used it enough to really experience this yet, but if I'm reading Mashable correctly, Google+ will make it easier for you to find content that interests you, from both within and outside your social networks. If it's done right, this has the potential to make a social network even more useful, as we now won't be bound by the limitations of our networks.

But here's why I'm not calling the game for Google+ quite yet.

On top of Google's successful execution of this whole thing, it still relies on people to leave where they are and come to this new place -- not an easy sell.

Ask any marketer about the difference in the cost of keeping an existing customer vs. winning a new one, and you'll find out that getting people to leave things they know to try things they don't isn't easy. Add to that the "stickiness" factor inherent in Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn's existing networks, and it's even tougher.

Without the people you want to interact with on Google+, it really won't offer the value for you; it'll just be one more login to add to your social media cycle. 

With more than 750 million users worldwide, Facebook has a pretty good lock on us, at least in the short term. Here's a screen shot I grabbed earlier today from Facebook (you can find these and other stats here) that gives you a sense of the leg up Facebook currently enjoys over the new game in town (which, Mashable is reporting, at least one observer is estimating at almost 10 million users in a couple of weeks, which is nothing to sneeze at either!).

Facebook's recent launch of video chat powered by Skype is, I'm sure, meant to address the new competition, showing Facebook doesn't plan to give Google+ much slack.

But to my mind, Twitter has more to worry about than Facebook. Mathew Ingram writes a good article on looking at Twitter vs. Google+ (I was alerted to this article on Google+ this afternoon by blogger ChrisD) and I have to think Twitter has more to fear than Facebook because of the way we use it.

  • While Snooki may be using Twitter, your grandmother is likely on Facebook. 
  • I (mostly) use Twitter to share information of interest with people who share interests with me (public relations, tennis, Red River College); I (mostly) use Facebook to connect with family and friends about other stuff.

Why do I raise these points?

Your grandma, and many of my non-office-dwelling family and friends, aren't looking for all the functionality Google+ brings. They want news, and community, and photos, and Scrabble, and Farmville (yeesh). Right now, there's no reason for them to move over there.

Snooki and celebrity tweeters, on the other hand, want whatever platform will give them access to their fans. Office dwellers and digital road warriors want whatever will be most effective and efficient. Twitter's real-time, un-gated news feed has offered that until now -- and given everything else the new kid on the block is offering, I think Twitter may see the biggest migration to Google+.

It's back to experimenting for me. If you have observations to share or any corrections to make, please comment!


Tuesday, June 28, 2011

But for the apostrophe, it was a perfect lunch

Any student in the Creative Communications program at Red River College, where I teach PR, will tell you we're a little bit nuts about accuracy and grammar in writing. Whether you're majoring in journalism, advertising or public relations, it's pretty tough to build a successful career if you can't write properly.

Misspell a proper name in our program and your assignment gets an "F," no matter how brilliant it is otherwise. Sound harsh? Maybe... but not if you're a working communications professional. I've thrown more than one resume/cover letter into the recycling bin after seeing the company name misrepresented: if you can't spell the name of the company correctly in that high-stakes document, I'm guessing you're not that careful on the job, either.

In the PR major, every typo or glaring grammatical error costs you 10%. Guess how long it takes PR majors to dramatically cut down on the number of grammatical errors in their assignments in my class. [Answer: not long.]

Why does it matter so much?

In our business, credibility is vital, and clean writing contributes to credibility. Whether you realize it or not, errors in grammar and spelling send a message to your audiences, and that message is "I'm not really polished, and maybe not as professional as I should be."  A journalist who commits grammatical errors will raise the ire of his/her editor (if the editor is worth his/her salt, that is); a newspaper or news site containing more than the occasional error will be harder to believe than one offering accurate, polished writing.

In PR, our employers often count on us to write and to be the last set of eyes on organizational documents before they're released to the public; if our writing is strewn with errors, the company's image takes a hit.

Today's lunch

Today, I was treated to a delicious lunch at one of Winnipeg's finer restaurants. I had only been there once before, years ago, shortly after it opened: it's a high-end steakhouse, and as I remember it, featured a staff member at dinnertime offering guests "le tour du boeuf," a platter displaying the impressive cuts of beef on offer that evening, complete with a full explanation of their exceptional quality. It was pretentious, but then, pretentious can be fun (especially if you're in what Oprah calls a chi-chi-poo-poo restaurant with a gift certificate). 

It was a lovely environment, and my husband and I were both very much enjoying our little taste of the high life for an evening.

But then, it happened.

As I read the menu, I noticed glaring errors in the French, and the spell was instantly broken. As I remember it, it was like the needle being dragged across a vinyl LP mid-song: what had moments ago felt like a special evening in a special environment now had the feel of little kids playing dress-up in their parents' formal clothes.

Fast forward a decade or so, to today, at lunch.

I had recounted this story to my friend when we made the date, and we'd laughed together about it (she's a PR guy too, and an excellent writer). Today, we sat on the beautiful terrace on a gorgeous day, and enjoyed a delicious lunch together. A duck and her ducklings waddled along the grass past the terrace. And the menu didn't contain a single error (that I noticed, anyway). I greatly enjoyed my lunch, and vowed not to wait so long before coming back the next time.

Shortly before we left, I walked to the ladies' room laughing at myself for having been so anal about the typos in the French.

And then, having reached my destination, I stopped and stared at the engraved brass sign on the door.


Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Are PR and marketing the same thing?

I've been hearing some debate on Twitter about what PR is and isn't.

A few years ago, The Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS) brought some of its leaders together to produce a definition of PR. Here's what they said:

Public relations is the strategic management of relationships between an organization and its diverse publics, through the use of communication, to achieve mutual understanding, realize organizational goals, and serve the public interest.

(Flynn, Gregory & Valin, 2008)
Some of the conversations I catch online revolve around the notion that PR and marketing are the same thing. As many industry "outsiders" seem to see it, PR is about getting attention for a company or its product, or apologizing for problems, to facilitate sales.

And it is that -- but not only that.

The "PR is a function of marketing" definition only addresses the "realize organizational goals" part of our professional objective and commitment, where the organizational goal we're talking about is generating sales. While marketing may achieve mutual understanding between a company and its audiences in the pursuit of that, marketing isn't focused on the public interest: its job is to create and promote products people will want to buy. 
So PR isn't about money, it's about the public interest?
It's not a one-or-the-other situation.

It's a fact: companies exist to make money. And PR functions in for-profit companies play a major role in supporting marketing (through publicity, customer advocacy, employee communications, etc.). But our focus is a bit different: in PR, it's not primarily about selling the benefits of the product, it's about creating and nurturing relationships that will make customers want to buy from the company. That's why mutual understanding and the public interest are central to the practice of PR: people prefer to do business with companies that treat them with respect.
For example, I'm aware of a business that sells what many consider an excellent product, but whose founder and CEO is widely reputed to be a terrible person.
Let's call this company Bob's Danishes, and the founder/CEO, Mr. Bob. Bob's Danishes produces what many people consider excellent danishes: they are tasty, they are appealing-looking, and they are made of high-quality ingredients. Mr. Bob's marketing folks work hard to get the message out about Bob's Danishes, and talk all about their high quality and appetizing characteristics. They create great advertising, promotional and merchandising campaigns, which target the audiences most likely to enjoy Bob's Danishes with exactly the right messaging to draw them to Bob's Danishes stores.

But while they have been very successful, there's also a significant segment of their ideal target market that won't go near a Bob's Danish store, and will tell anyone who'll listen why not: because from what they understand from media reports and the grapevine, Mr. Bob is a first-class jerk, who treats employees and anyone he feels "beneath" him like garbage.
Marketing can pound that hold-out segment of the target population with brilliant product advertising and deep discounts all it likes: this public won't budge, because they don't want to support Mr. Bob.
That's where PR comes in.
PR's role in the for-profit environment does support the ultimate goal of achieving sales, but not by flogging the product: our role is to give the customer reasons to want to do business with us.
Now, if Mr. Bob is actually the jerk he is reputed to be, the PR challenge is huge. PR practitioners who practice professionally and who adhere to codes of standards like those of The Canadian Public Relations Society and the International Association of Business Communicators won't lie about him, and (if they're willing to work for him at all) will have to focus on creating goodwill in the community through initiatives like a generous community relations program, hoping that the good done in the community will help people look beyond their boss' personal failings.
If Mr. Bob is misunderstood, the PR person has the opportunity to change that, so the company's publics feel good about buying from Bob's Danishes.
Even in for-profit companies, PR is about relationships before sales.
More than once in my career, I intervened in organizational activities that I felt could damage the company's goodwill in the community.  To be clear, these planned activities were never dishonest or dangerous or anything like that -- but they were geared at generating sales with one segment of the customer base in a way I felt would damage the company's relationship with another.
PR practitioners in for-profit companies do this all the time. Sometimes it's simply a matter of killing an initiative that is too potentially damaging; others, it's about getting together with the publics we think might have a problem with the initiative, to seek and address their input before moving forward.  
I don't want to make it sound like I'm saying PR is altruistic and not economically-motivated: in for-profit companies, it is about making money. If we don't make sales, we don't exist, period. But if our customers don't want to buy from us because they think our company does bad things for the community or the environment or its employees, no marketing campaign will make the sale.
The PR function is about creating and maintaining healthy, two-way relationships with a company's publics; we work toward mutual understanding and the public interest, because doing that will help us meet our organizational goals, whatever they may be -- including sales.