Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Social media and criticism

Photo from politicspa.com 
It's election day in the United States, which means the campaigning that has taken over American (and some Canadian) media discourse is almost at an end. 

In the last couple of weeks, we've noticed a theme of campaign fatigue working its way into news stories, pundit commentary and "everyday folk" opinions; we're ready for this thing to be over. 

While I know Americans have reached this point at the end of most presidential campaigns of the 24/7 media era, it seems (to me, anyway) worse this time around. 

And I think it's at least in part because of social media.  

Social media is a great democratizer... mostly

Don't get me wrong: I love following Facebook and Twitter on debate nights -- quite honestly, to watch a political debate (or the Oscars, or a Bomber game) without social media now feels like only half an experience. Social media gives us access to far more voices and information than we've ever had before, to provide context and dissenting opinions to help us interpret the things we see and hear.

This enriches the experience for me; for the kind of person who always reads footnotes, social media turns every one of these experiences into an annotated text. Or, maybe more accurately, a Pop Up Video.

I'll admit that I have enjoyed the snark, too. But when lighthearted teasing becomes ridicule, and mocking turns of phrase takes over for discussion of substantive issues, I think we turn a corner -- and I think that's contributing to the campaign fatigue.

"He said something that came out wrong" is not the same as "he is an idiot and unfit for public service," but sometimes we react as though it is.

It's not just politics 

I recently had a discussion with a PR colleague about how it seems we're all just a little quick to jump to criticism these days. 

Social media makes it easy. Even for those of us using our real names online, we can hide behind the sheer numbers; we are lulled into feeling it's safe to criticize without really understanding the story behind the story, because it seems everyone is doing it.

But maybe everyone shouldn't be.

B.C. teenager Amanda Todd's tragic suicide earlier this fall was a wake-up call to teens, parents, educators and anyone who cares about kids. Shortly after her death, mainstream media and social media sites were filled with stories about the bullying problem, and particularly, the issue of cyber-bullying.

In my Facebook timeline, which is fed by friends tending to be closer to middle-age, the posts shared outrage and sadness that this girl could have been tormented to this degree.

But I discovered in a conversation with someone much younger that her Facebook timeline (fed by friends in their teens) contained posts suggesting Amanda Todd had gotten what she deserved. 

Is our growing culture of ridicule part of the problem?

It appears the "grown-ups" can easily recognize what's wrong when a teenager is bullied to suicide (and point fingers at those we feel should have done something about it before it was too late). 

But maybe we need to consider whether there's a link between that and our own behaviour. 

Do we think a politician would be at risk of committing suicide because a bunch of faceless tweeters made fun of him/her? No. But where is the line? At what level of celebrity must a person accept that the rest of us are allowed to ridicule him/her, with or without cause, and with or without any experience to validate our opinions?

We rush to judge people -- celebrities, politicians, business leaders -- and organizations for their missteps. We call anything in any way negative a "PR disaster" or a "crisis." Politicians feign outrage every day, calling for one another's resignation, and we either jump on board or we yawn. Outrage and mocking have become entertainment -- and that can't be good.

Questioning and challenging are important. 

It's important for journalists to question leaders and organizations influencing our lives, and to expose hypocrisy where they find it.

It's also important for students of public relations (in school and in the working world) to examine issues and crises experienced by people and organizations in the public eye, and learn from how they dealt with them.

But let's keep it productive. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Ethics: your career is more important than your job

From lancearmstrong.com 

In the PR Major this week, Laina Hughes gave a thought-provoking presentation on Lance Armstrong's recent announcement that he would give up the fight against doping charges (without admitting to the charges).

It was natural, given the topic, that our discussion should turn to ethics -- and in particular, the ethics of communicating for a client who isn't telling the truth.

To be clear: I am not suggesting (nor was anyone in the class suggesting) Mr. Armstrong has been lying about his innocence on the doping charges. If he is innocent, he is likely the only person on the planet who can say he knows this for certain -- and he's in the impossible position of trying to prove something didn't happen.

The topic, however, raised the question: would you work to help a client deceive its publics, no matter how admirable the end goal (e.g. raising millions to cure a terrible disease)?

Tough questions

Our personal values inform our sense of what's "right" -- objectively, what's "right" isn't always obvious.

Most of us wouldn't consider accepting a job to help Charles Manson clear his name... even if he still claimed innocence.

But it's not always that black-and-white: some of us are perfectly comfortable working to further the business objectives of a tobacco company, or a cattle producer, or a casino, or a logging company... others not.

A PR professional has every right to draw her/his own line, and decide which clients (s)he is willing to take on. Your job is just your job; your beliefs and morals are part of who you are. You shouldn't feel you have to contradict them in the interests of a paycheque (there's always another opportunity for a paycheque).

Easier questions

The question of whether we should be willing to lie on behalf of a client because we believe some greater good would be served by doing so isn't quite so tough.

The Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS)'s Code of Ethics spells it out clearly:

A member shall practice the highest standards of honesty, accuracy, integrity and truth, and shall not knowingly disseminate false or misleading information

If I know my client is lying, I shouldn't help him/her/it do so.

If the client is unwilling to be honest about the issue and insists that dishonesty is the only option, decline the role. If that means quitting, quit -- but don't let a client's ethics supplant your own.

Our profession has come a long way in the last century or so... 

Public relations has become a management function in large organizations; our access to our publics has improved dramatically; the ways we work with influencers, journalists (in mainstream media and on blogs) and other stakeholder groups are evolving quickly with advances in technology and business practices.

... but there's still a long way to go.

Despite PR's continuing evolution, there are still journalists who refer to our profession as "the dark side," and people who think PR is about fooling the public into thinking certain things and in certain ways. And every time someone using the tools of PR helps a client to deceive its publics, they're proven right.

Reputation is everything in PR

Professional PR associations like the CPRS, Public Relations Society of America, International Association of Business Communicators, International Public Relations Association and others around the world work to combat this by developing and promoting professional codes of ethics for PR practitioners. Each of these organizations' ethics codes requires members to promise to communicate honestly and with integrity in all their dealings.

It's the only way our profession will survive.

If journalists and our stakeholders at large can't expect us to tell the truth, there's no reason for them to believe anything we say. And if they don't believe what we say, frankly, we can't add much value.

Your career is more important than your job

If a client wants you to disseminate information you know to be false, decline.

If it means you have to leave the job and find another one, so be it. It'll be uncomfortable in the short term... but you'll be happier working for someone different, who doesn't put you in that position.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Blogging: who decides what's interesting?

This week, 78 new Creative Communications students at Red River College will launch blogs -- many of them for the first time. (They'll be posted on the CreComm Blog Network by the end of the week.)

Blogs, blogs everywhere

NM Incite, a McKinsey/Nielsen company, tracked more than 181 million blogs by the end of 2011.  There is a blog on just about any topic you can imagine -- from the view from the White House to cooking in a kitchen the size of a closet to unnecessary (and inappropriate) quotation marks in signage.

What makes a blog successful?

For a budding professional communicator, a successful blog attracts readers beyond your circle of friends and family, and specifically, within the public you're hoping to reach. If your blog attracts readers for reasons other than that they like you personally, you've likely hit on something: your blog provides content that is interesting.

Of course, determining what's "interesting" is never really objective -- what's interesting to me might not be interesting to you. But in professional communications, employers look for people who understand how to create communications that appeal to the specific publics they want to reach.

How do you do that? Logically, to be able to appeal to a certain group, you need to:
  • recognize the make-up of the group;
  • understand what interests that group;
  • be able to create communications that attract and retain their interest, and motivate them to share them with others with common interests.
This calls for more than simply creating an online diary in which you report on your own observations of the world around you, unless your observations of the world around you are very compelling to your intended public. For example, are they entertaining? Are they unusual? Do you see the world from an uncommon perspective, which could be interesting to your readers?

Choosing the right topic

The best blog topic is targeted to a particular interest group, and serves up regular helpings of information that group is interested in. 

That group doesn't have to be huge, and it doesn't have to include a single person you already know (nor do its members need to know each other). But if you can write a blog these people with a common interest come to find interesting -- and they begin to return regularly and bring others along with them -- your blog can build a loyal following. 

If you can achieve that, you have a measurable (and therefore provable) accomplishment you can take to a communications job interview for a step ahead of your competition.

It's not rocket science... but it's not easy.

To attract people to something, you have to give it characteristics they find attractive. To motivate people to do something (e.g. read your blog), you have to give them a reason to do it.

Writing a successful blog takes a great deal of careful thought -- both about your publics' needs/desires and about your ability to generate a regular stream of content that'll keep them coming back. It has to be informative, or entertaining, or both.

So, who decides whether your blog is interesting?

Whomever you write it for, of course. If it interests them, they'll read and they may return; if it's not, they won't.

Happy blogging!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Your social media presence and your PR job hunt

Image from www.wycliffecollege.ca
Ask (almost) anyone in PR these days whether you should have an active presence on social media if you're looking for a job in the industry, and they'll say "yes."

While not every PR job uses social media at this point, most employers want to hire people who keep up with advances in the ways people communicate. After all, if and when their audiences "get there," they want to be ready.

So, get online -- that's the message.

But how much does it matter what you say?

More than you might think.

I've had a couple of interesting conversations recently with people who've discussed this topic with other people, whose position is that they should be able to say whatever's on their mind on social media.

"I shouldn't have to edit myself -- social media is for expressing yourself."

"An employer has no right to hold my opinions against me if I'm otherwise qualified for a job."

Strictly speaking, that's true (within reason). But it's important to remember the importance of context.

It's a fact that we all have the right to free speech (as long as it isn't hate speech). But it's also a fact that most hiring managers do online searches of job candidates -- and that they make judgments based on what they find.

Just as an employer may decide you're not cut out for her corporate office if you show up for your interview dressed for a nightclub, she may make assumptions about your professionalism based on what she finds in your social media footprint.

The online search doesn't take much time -- and if the employer finds you posting things she feels reflect poor personal judgment (e.g. trash-talking current or former employers or clients; expressing discriminatory opinions; appearing to prioritize drinking/drug use over professionalism, etc.), she might just save herself the effort of going any further with the application.

This doesn't usually extend to expressing yourself politically: most employers (unless they are political parties or affiliated organizations) are unlikely to decide against hiring the right person because of their leanings to the right or to the left. (And if they are, you might want to consider carefully whether you want to work for them anyway.)

But if your social media "brand" communicates "I'm a loose cannon" or "I value partying over anything else" or "I discriminate against people for [insert reason here]," that says something to an employer.

It says "I'm going to be difficult to manage, and I may create problems for the organization both internally and externally."

Think before you post

Just remember: anything you post to social media is "out there" and can be found by a potential employer.

Do you have a right to express yourself? Yes, you do.

Does the employer have the right to choose job candidates based on her own judgement? You bet she does.

If you're looking for work (in PR or anywhere), what the employer perceives trumps everything else. It won't matter what the circumstances were behind that series of tweets or Facebook messages or blog posts -- you may never be given the opportunity to explain the context for a posting that casts you in an undesirable professional light.

You might send joking tweets which your friends know to be sarcastic -- but if a potential employer sees those tweets without knowing the context, they could lead to incorrect conclusions about your values and professionalism.

Those incorrect conclusions could cost you a job interview... and you might never know what put you out of the running for a job you wanted.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Blog as I say, not as I do

Image from allneonsigns.com
Lately, I have not been a good blogger.

My blog has been a bit like a local restaurant my husband and I like: we occasionally arrive at the door during "normal" business hours, only to find it closed.

We like the food, but over time, we've stopped even bothering to go -- it's a hassle to go there and find out we have to find someplace else to eat.

That's not good for business.

After a couple of months' hiatus, my blog is finally open again. Thank you for your patronage!

Your online activity says more about you than you might think

In the Creative Communications program at Red River College, where I teach public relations, our students learn about the importance of their personal online brand; in the program, we teach them to use the tools of social media to build and maintain it.

Employers tell us the first thing they do when they are seriously considering a job candidate is to Google him/her. So an emerging PR practitioner who wants to make a good impression on an employer will do well to have an active online profile that shows the employer what a fine, smart communicator he/she is.

Our students tweet, have profiles on LinkedIn, and use Facebook pages; some use Google+ and Pinterest.

And on top of all that, they blog. A good blog shows a prospective employer a number of important things, including:

1) the candidate has solid writing skills
2) the candidate has interests, opinions and observations
3) the candidate is able to manage time well
4) the candidate understands how to appeal to an audience

We require our students to blog every single week of the school year, because that kind of sustained effort helps keep readers coming back (which is a communicator's objective, after all) and because it shows an employer the candidate can sustain a project requiring new, generated content longer than a few weeks. An organization of any kind hiring someone to blog on its behalf wants to know a candidate has the attention span for the job.

It's a good thing I'm not applying for a job in PR anytime soon.

The work is worth it

Now that the school year has ended, our students don't have any marks tied to their blogs. But I hope many of them will continue their blogs throughout the summer... and for our new grads, beyond. A good blog that continues when others have dried up can only be a competitive advantage in the job market.

To read what our students and students are blogging about, check out the CreComm Blog Network.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Talk when your publics are listening (and listen when your publics are talking)

First-year Creative Communications students are building their first publicity campaigns; in class, we're talking a lot about how to plan publicity activities to have the best shot at earning our publics' attention. We think about our audiences' preferences and habits when we choose tools, when we choose locations, when we choose messages... and when we choose timing.

We know more people tend to read newspapers on the weekend, and more people tend to listen to radio newscasts during commuter drive-times than in the middle of the afternoon. More people tend to be in shopping malls at mid-day than first thing in the morning or last thing at night. More people tend to be shopping for flowers and chocolates today than most other days of the year.

Knowing these things helps us plan how and where to reach the publics we hope to reach -- and if we plan to use them in our communication plans, it's important to realize there are behaviour trends on social media, too.

Last week, Argyle Social tweeted a link to its "Social Timing Insights Infographic," which illustrates the importance of knowing your publics' habits related to social media. (Follow the link to check it out on Argyle's website -- my screenshots below are a bit tough to read.)

Which social media are your publics using? And when are they using them? It matters, if you want to attract their attention.

Argyle Social compares social media activity for businesses reaching out to business customers (B2B) -- for example, providers of business computer systems -- with activity for businesses reaching out to consumer customers (B2C) -- for example, grocery stores.

This is great information to get us thinking... but it isn't definitive (and doesn't claim to be). If you want to reach your publics using social media, you need to research which platforms they're using and when they're using them.

They may align with the overall trends Argyle Social found, but they may not. For example, in the B2C market:

  • It's possible parents of newborns are using social media at different times from parents the same age, socio-economic status etc. whose children are older (and sleep through the night). 
  • It's possible high school students are using social media at different times than college and university students just a few years their senior. 
  • It's possible a shiftworker's "weekend" falls during what the rest of us call the work week. If it's shiftworkers I'm hoping to reach, I should consider that in planning my social media timing.

As in all things PR, the better you tailor your approach to your publics' habits and preferences, the better job you'll do reaching them.

And the better you measure your effectiveness this time, the better-positioned you'll be to improve next time.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Speeches: when to call an audible

This past weekend, tennis fans were treated to an extraordinary match in the final of the Australian Open in Melbourne, in which world #1 Novak Djokovic beat world #2 Rafael Nadal 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7(5), 7-5. 

The match lasted almost six hours; as the Telegraph put it, it "was certainly the longest, surely the hardest and arguably the greatest Grand Slam final in history.

The players were both physically spent by the time it was over, having covered miles of court (I can't find the stat, but it must have been miles!) and hit the ball incomprehensibly hard over and over again, for hours. When it was finally over, these fine competitors were understandably in pretty rough physical shape.

And that's when I started thinking about PR.

Enter the tournament sponsor

The Australian Open's main sponsor was Kia Motors. As part of its sponsorship, a Kia executive had the opportunity to open the trophy presentation ceremony.

His prepared remarks were appropriate for the occasion, content-wise... but the circumstances of the match might have called for a bit of a last-minute re-write.

As both players' bodies began to cool down after the match had finally ended (six hours!), they began to cramp. The Kia spokesman, who had his back to the players, couldn't see their discomfort from where he stood: but judging by the booing that eventually came from the crowd, everyone else likely did. (The feed I was watching on TSN actually kept the camera on the players almost the entire time, like this YouTube clip -- so the players' worsening pain was all the audience could think about.) 

Those poor guys... and the poor guy from Kia. Oblivious to the pain his speech was literally inflicting on the players, he kept going.

When the moment is right, call an audible

Without corporate sponsors, tournaments like this wouldn't happen; it's entirely appropriate for the main sponsor to have the opportunity to speak with the tennis world listening.

But imagine the great impact this opportunity could have had, if the Kia rep had simply stepped up to the mike, thanked the players for what may well become the match of a lifetime, shared how honoured Kia was to have been a part of it, acknowledged not wanting to make them wait a minute longer than necessary, and turned the presentation over to the emcee.

If he had, I think fans in Rod Laver Arena and around the world might have felt a connection with the sponsor, rather than willing him to just stop talking... and his appearance could have earned Kia more than polite applause (and saved him the "boos").

Always be aware of your audiences' circumstances when you step up to speak; if they might be better-served by a different speech than the one you've prepared, consider making changes on-the-fly.

Doing so well could turn your routine speaking engagement into a memorable moment shared with your audiences.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Tim's re-names its coffee cup sizes: PR or not PR?

I love Tim Hortons coffee, and since there's a Tim's here at The Roblin Centre, I buy at least 5 cups a week.

Until last week, the cups I bought were usually "large;" now, the very same cup is "medium." To make room for a new 24 oz size (bigger than what was formerly called "extra large"), the company has re-named all its existing coffee cup sizes and added a new "extra small."

Source: www.timhortons.com

A news release on the Tim Hortons website says the company tested the names of its new cup sizes, "and the response has been overwhelmingly positive." It added that "[b]y shifting the sizes, we're able to provide coffee lovers with a full range of five size options: from extra small, all the way up to the new extra large."

Testing, testing

In Creative Communications first-year PR, we look at how organizations use research to help them make business decisions -- and we examine how carefully questions need to be worded to yield an accurate view of public opinion. 

We also look at examples of the different ways one set of research results can be interpreted, depending on how questions are worded.

In this case, I'd love to know whether the "overwhelmingly positive" response in the research was to the idea of actually re-naming all the familiar cup sizes with the names of other equally familiar cup sizes (except one)... or whether it was to the names themselves. 

I would expect overwhelming support for names like extra-small, small, medium, large, extra-large from customers who were already used to ordering small, medium, large and extra large. I might expect the response to be a bit less enthusiastic if the question was about using all those same names to denote new sizes... but I could be wrong. That's why we do research!

Is this a PR issue?

No, it isn't -- it's a marketing issue.

But it could become a PR issue if it caused a customer backlash (of which I haven't seen any evidence, in this case). If you don't think a change in marketing can cause customer backlash, though, go back and check out what happened when The Gap tried to update its logo in 2010. 

Could this be a publicity stunt?

A friend of mine suggested it might be, in the interests of getting everyone blogging and tweeting about the new sizes. (If that's the case, you're welcome, Tim's!)

I'd question whether Tim Hortons would take that risk unnecessarily, since there was the possibility customers would find the whole thing confusing and annoying until they got the hang of it. 

I'm not going to say it's impossible, but I wouldn't have recommended potentially confusing and annoying customers intentionally, in the hopes that their reactions would generate "buzz." That might generate publicity, but I don't think it would help the company's PR. 

The bottom line

Even if people find the re-naming annoying, I can't see it being a reason for anyone to stop buying coffee at Tim Hortons if that's the coffee they like. The company has a great reputation and brand -- this is at most a blip.

And even if Tim's has turned my old large into a medium, it still beats calling it a "venti."

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

What constitutes a PR problem?

A tweet this afternoon led me to a story on the O'Dwyer's PR site entitled "Google, Starbucks Take First PR Blows of 2012."

The O'Dwyer's article linked to a piece in the New York Times, which quoted a retired NYPD bomb squad member on how Starbucks' Frappuccino bottle makes a suitable container for a Molotov cocktail, after an arsonist used the bottles in a series of firebomb attacks in Queens, NY over the weekend (thankfully, no-one was hurt).

Is this actually a PR problem for Starbucks?

Embarrassing, yes, but I don't think it's really a PR problem for Starbucks. Actual PR blows, to my mind, de-value an organization in the eyes of its publics; for instance, it would be a PR blow if this story revealed that Starbucks' product or behaviour didn't deliver on its brand promise, and/or that it operated in some way irresponsibly.

While I'm sure any reputable company would be aghast that its bottles were being used to help people hurt other people, and might even decide to change its packaging to reduce that potential, I don't see this as a reason for anyone to think less of Starbucks as a company... or to be any less likely to want to do business with it.

The fact is that bottled drinks come in bottles; and while we're at it, people intent on hurting others will find a way to do it, no matter what kind of bottle Starbucks uses for its Frappuccino.

Unflattering headlines aren't necessarily bad PR

This story reminded me of a smart post I read by Judy Gombita on the Windmill Networking blog late last year, about what constitutes an online crisis.

Thanks to social media, there are many, many voices out there -- and because of their interconnectedness, an observation or opinion from a small group can quickly start to look like a PR problem.

But I think it's important to recognize that embarrassing or unflattering coverage doesn't necessarily mean bad PR, if by PR we mean the relationships our organizations maintain with their publics.

If we deal in good faith, and a by-product of our good-faith dealings has a negative impact, we have the opportunity to consider making changes (if they're warranted) to reduce that negative impact -- and I don't think our publics would be likely to think any less of us for it. I don't have any research on hand to back that up, but it's what my years as a PR practitioner and even more years as a consumer tell me.

How should Starbucks respond?

I'm going to ask my classes about this tomorrow. If you have opinions to share, please do!