If you say it’s dead, it’s probably not.

As Jim Diamond sang in the 80s, I should have known better. 

And I did. 

When I heard about Robert Phillips’ plans for a book titled: Trust Me, PR is Dead, I knew I’d disagree with the central premise. 

Social media’s overuse of the word ‘dead’ to describe a profession or service has always annoyed me.  It betrays poor judgment and a lack of realism. The reality is never that simple.  Not in the real world.

However, I also believe that a healthy mind, is a challenged mind, and perhaps Mr. Phillips would impart some radically new thinking that would make me question my beliefs.

So, not only did I buy his book, I supported the fund raising* for it and signed up months before the book was even finished.

I was planning to review the book here.  (30,000 foot summary: there’s some mildly interesting content, I actually agree that businesses (and PR firms) need to change their behavior. However, much of the thinking in the book is flawed in the extreme.)

But then I listened to Shel Holtz’s review and realized there was no need.  Shel has done a great job addressing the book’s flaws – and not to ruin the ending he recommends not buying the book.

You can listen to Shel’s review here.

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*One small comment on this crowd funding thing.  I have to say that I found the whole process annoying in the extreme.  To pay for something up front is one thing, but to be constantly bombarded with emails promoting progress on the book and also asking you to support other book projects is another.  Next time I’ll wait for the publication.

Book Review: It’s an issue Jim, but not as we know it

Last October I read an interview with Eric Dezenhall on the changing dynamics of issues management that piqued my attention.

Dezenhall, who was promoting his new book: “Glass Jaw: A Manifesto for Defending Fragile Reputations in an Age of Instant Scandal”, was incredibly pragmatic about how the combination of technological and social trends have changed the nature of a crisis.  Furthermore, he believes that the idea that there is a magic PR potion that can solve any reputational issue is nonsense:

"Most crises are not resolved through rhetoric. They are resolved through operations. What’s more ethical, doing what Exxon did and recognize after Valdez that the PR war was over—and then they spent 25 years investing in double-hulled ships and radically overhauling their safety procedures, and they’ve never had a major incident since—or do you do what BP did and spend half a billion dollars saying you’re a wind and solar company?"

I finally got to read Glass Jaw over the break and I’d recommend it.

In a world where the physical and virtual book shelves are filled with Harry Potter-esque tales of social media hocus pocus, Dezenhall provides a pragmatic, real-world view of how the world has changed and reputational risk has changed along with it.

 

For me, a good business book combines opinion, insight and knowledge that ultimately combine to provoke the reader to think. That doesn’t necessarily mean I agree with the author throughout – and there are some elements of his thesis that merit future discussion – but on the whole it’s a recommended read, if only to challenge you to think harder about how you approach issues management.

As you would expect, Glass Jaw presents a pretty grim picture for people responsible for the positive image and reputation of their employer or client. The emergence of social media and the associated culture of overreaction, coupled with the changes we’re seeing more broadly in society are combining to create a difficult issues environment.

It’s interesting to note that PR people aren’t exactly helping themselves or their colleagues either. I completely echo the author’s sentiment that you can’t work in issues management and not have a ‘deep empathy’ for people fighting a reputational issue.

This makes it all the more surprising to see the rise of the ‘self-invented pundit class that declares the controversy to have been mismanaged’.

He acknowledges that ‘in most crises, there are things that could have been done better, and reflection is constructive. Most high stakes situations include experimental actions – some effective, some not – and we do our best to make more good decisions than bad ones’.

Let me digress from the book for a moment. Having spent a lot of time dealing with a wide array of issues – large and small – I really don’t have any time for the ill-informed armchair pontification that accompanies a reputational issue. Anyone who has been embroiled in a real issue knows that it’s complex, challenging and often surprising. To think that someone sitting comfortably in their pajamas with no knowledge beyond what they’re reading on Twitter – and often not even that level of knowledge – can judge someone’s work is just wrong. In my opinion these ‘pundits’ are the PR profession’s equivalent of ambulance chasers.

Back to the book.

While the author does paint a great picture of the changes taking place that impact how effectively you can manage an issue, there are some things I don’t agree with.

For example, Dezenhall believes that ‘social media is of marginal value and often a disaster’ in crisis management. I both agree and disagree with him. I think it’s becoming increasingly difficult to decide when and more importantly when not to engage in social media, but I don’t agree it’s not a tool or channel that can help in the right circumstance – of course correctly identifying that timing and circumstance is the key.

He also believes there is no ‘trust bank’ and that commitments like Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) while worthwhile, do not inoculate against controversy. I agree that operating responsibly doesn’t give you a ‘get out of jail free’ card, but I’d also point out that if a company is committed to shared value, operating responsibly and meeting its commitments, it inherently reduces risk through more responsible decision making which in turn will aid organizational recovery.

There is always a risk when you’re reading a book about how the world of crisis communications is changing that you’ll finish it having lost all hope.

But there is hope. The world has changed. We deal with more issues today than ever before. Every issue is different, every issue has different dynamics,  we no longer have the luxury of a simple cookie cutter approach to successfully addressing an issue. Instead we must evaluate each issue on its own merits and act accordingly – in the knowledge that success is not guaranteed.

Glass Jaw is a welcome addition to this discussion. Just don’t be too depressed reading it. It’s not that bad :).

Sometimes it’s better to not share your views..

Last week a friend passed along a post from a PR firm’s blog that had me rolling my eyes so hard and fast that I strained them.

You see, in the rush to publish a critique in a timely manner, the author didn’t allow ignorance or even the most rudimentary research get in the way of their opinion. It was like they had a pre-canned post and they were looking for an example they could use.  It resulted in a piece that was was not just inaccurate, it was ill conceived and simply untrue.

After reading this critique I did something that the author clearly had not done, namely a little bit of research.  The blog is from a firm that claims to provide ‘strategic counsel’ -  though in fairness the website didn’t specify what they provide strategic counsel on.  Reading the blog post, I’ll wager it isn’t strategic counsel on public relations.

There’s been a rise in this quick reflex PR ‘analysis’ – and in fairness it’s not something unique to PR -  you see it everywhere. People don’t stop to let facts get in the way of their published opinion.

But they should.

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Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with reasoned criticism or opinion. But that’s not what this was.  This was a post in search of a meme.

It’s a kind of professional trolling and while it’s not new it is on the increase.

When I see a crisis unfolding I feel empathy for the PR team involved. 

Having been on the inside of many issues, I know that the communications team will be working through tough decisions and there’s not always an easy or simple resolution.  In fact, the growth of social media has meant that issues today have far more phases, twists and turns than ever before.

Regrettably these days communicators are often not only dealing with the issue in question, but they’re dealing with the hurlers on the ditch who often pass judgment without any insight (or interest) into many of the complexities involved.

I have no problem with fair, reasoned criticism but the rush to jump on the bandwagon without any insight or rudimentary research isn’t something that should be encouraged.

Is the quality of our (PR) work judged by our standards?

I have always been a big believer in the important role that professional bodies play in the world of Public Relations.  Promoting a common set of standards across this reputation-challenged profession is a good thing. 

However, with no common enforced regulations, perhaps the quality of our work can by judged by the standards we set for ourselves?

There was recently a great guest post by Jean Valin and Daniel Tisch on the PR Conversations blog discussing the Melbourne Mandate (and this week For Immediate Release posted an interview with Jean and Daniel on the Mandate), which aims to define a set of roles, responsibilities and principles for PR practitioners.

From the website:

Today, unprecedented public access to communication presents new challenges and opportunities for organisations – and for global society. This presents a new mandate for public relations and communication management: a set of roles, responsibilities and principles hereby endorsed by delegates to the 2012 World Public Relations Forum in Melbourne, Australia.

The new mandate

Public relations and communication professionals have a mandate to:

  • define and maintain an organisation’s character and values;
  • build a culture of listening and engagement; and
  • instill responsible behaviours by individuals and organisations.

 

I’d strongly recommend you to take some time to review the Melbourne Mandate and see how it applies to the work you’re doing.

The Global Alliance for PR and Communication Management is behind the Melbourne Mandate. It’s an organization that represents many of the world’s largest PR professional bodies and is also involved in the Barcelona Declaration of Measurement Principles, a set of proposed standards for measuring Public Relations.

Given the changes taking place in the world of communications this is a good thing.  As I’ve said before, as long as PR agencies are using proprietary measurement as a competitive differentiator we’re in trouble.

Bonus: Read Andy West of Hotwire PR on the importance of supporting the measurement debate

Great communications is built on the basics..

I recently had the opportunity to review a ‘report’ by a social media guru analyzing the ‘social strategies’ of a number of household brands. The report had some lovely visuals, some interesting examples of tactical executions, but overall it was a great example of what is too often missing from discussions on social media and often PR.

The report had many opinions but was light – read non-existent – on how these programs were tied to clear business objectives and more importantly how well the campaigns actually performed against those objectives.

In other words, in the real world, where a marketing or communications professional is building programs to drive against business objectives, it was value-less.

This is often where I find the industry of social media punditry fails.

Of course, social media is important, but before you get to the interesting, execution, you have to stop, understand your business, your industry, your  objectives, your competitive challenges, your internal challenges, your audience, your resources, and when you have a clear understanding of those elements, then you start planning.

If this is obvious to you, that’s great. If you’re not taking this approach, then there’s a real opportunity for you to significantly increase the impact of your work.

Let’s extend Mr. Ogilivy’s thesis – 50% of advertising is useless but you never know which 50%- to the world of social media and Public Relations. If we’re looking for what’s useless, I’d be willing to start with programs that aren’t tied into a set of defined business objectives.

Measurement can be a thorny subject – though at least there’s beginning to be some consensus – but executing campaigns not tied to business outcomes is at best madness and at worst negligent. Communications requires a balanced scorecard that encompasses a range of measurements from the basic inputs, outputs and results, to qualitative measures over time. And this work all starts with the business objectives.

These processes don’t mean you can’t experiment or move quickly – or indulge in ‘real-time marketing’.  Actually it’s the complete opposite.  If you know your business, are clear on what you need to achieve and are actively measuring outcomes then you’re in a better position to experiment and in a better position to learn and evolve your execution.

We may live in a troll producing always-on, always-connected world, but engaging with people, building relationships and trust takes time.  There isn’t a shortcut. In fact, as people become more sophisticated in how they use media and struggle to manage the ever increasing volume of information they come across every day, the process takes longer and is indeed more difficult.

There isn’t a silver bullet, but there are some tried and tested things that help us frame communications campaigns and put us in the best possible position to not only have impact, but to demonstrate that impact.

On a related topic, I strongly recommend you read Alastair Campbell’s speech at the Center for Corporate Public Affairs Annual Oration in Melbourne. In my opinion he does a great job explaining why objectives, strategies, and a commitment to long term thinking are so essential in the changing world of communications:

But you do it (communication) within a clear strategic framework, you engage the public in a much more sustained way, and you run co-ordination systems that work, so that over time your messages get through, over time your changes are understood and they deliver, and over time people become much more reasonable in their analysis. What you do is more important than what you say, but how you say what you do will help you if you are doing the right thing. Every time you say or you do, you land a dot.

While social media may appear immediate and tactical, successful social media, like the rest of communications, requires planning, insight, strategy, measurement and commitment.

That’s the starting point for great communications.

PR needs Jacks and Jills of all trades

One of the wonders of the English language is that it’s always evolving. For example, according to Wikipedia (disclaimer: it is Wikipedia so the following information may have no basis in fact and could actually have been made up by a seventeen year old sitting in his bedroom, but because it serves my purpose I’m going with it) the figure of speech “Jack of all trades, master of none” actually started out as “Jack (or Jill) of all trades” and was meant in a positive way about someone who was a master of integration.

I believe being a ‘Jill of all trades’ in PR is something to be embraced and encouraged.

One of the challenges and great characteristics of Public Relations is change. While many of the core tenets of good Public Relations practice remain, the actual day-to-day work of a PR professional today is a sea change from when I started working in PR just over twenty years ago. We’ve new tools, new challenges, new demands, new opportunities.

A PR professional today must have the ability to build compelling, long term strategies, understand their (and client’s or employer’s) business and the broader business environment, be conversant in new tools and approaches, be pragmatic about choosing the right tools for the right job, and be creative.

Having a broad set of experiences is a benefit not a disadvantage. Great PR people can integrate and use traditional and social tools, they are comfortable analyzing data, good writers, great connectors, have the ability to scenario plan, to think quickly and clearly. The list goes on and on. But ultimately you need a broad set of knowledge, skills and experiences to succeed in the profession today.

There are of course people who operate as ‘specialists’, but the vast majority of successful practitioners have developed a broad set of skills and continue to drive themselves to broaden their knowledge whether its new tools, new ways of engaging audiences, new ways to measure impact or the lack thereof.

For today’s PR professional, being a Jill or Jack of all trades, and master of none is often both an advantage and a compliment.

Do you get bad grammar off people?

I blame my grandmother. She loved providing real-time feedback on my grammar and her favorite was the difference between ‘off’ and ‘from’.

If I innocently reported to her that I had received something off someone, she would immediately respond that “you get fleas off people, but you get things from them”.

Indeed.

While I am a huge fan of Eats, Shoots & Leaves (and have a well thumbed copy on my bookshelf), I am also sympathetic to Stephen Fry’s tirade on language purists.

However, there is a happy medium.

Today well written, simple, plain English is the exception. Too often we descend to the lowest common denominator where we all proactively leverage robust, strategic solutions to global world-leading paradigm shifts.

Worse, in a deluge of meetings and conference calls we are routinely subjected to a verbal assault of meaningless phrases and buzzwords. This unscientific blog survey captured a few of the more common ones, although some of my personal favorites like ‘grok’ and ‘running it up the flagpole’ didn’t make the list.

Dan Pallotta put this very well in a post he published on the Harvard Business Review in December:

I’d say that in about half of my business conversations, I have almost no idea what other people are saying to me. The language of internet business models has made the problem even worse. When I was younger, if I didn’t understand what people were saying, I thought I was stupid. Now I realize that if it’s to people’s benefit that I understand them but I don’t, then they’re the ones who are stupid.

So, what is the point of this post?

I want to promote a balanced approach to language.  Let’s encourage each other to speak and write in plain, simple English and avoid the buzz word madness.

In that spirit here are two bonus links:

When you’re communicating be true to yourself

Shakespeare wrote that when words are scarce they are seldom spent in vain.

It’s not a problem we typically encounter these days. In fact verbal flatulence is everywhere.


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Back in olden times (early and mid 1990s) one of the favorite journalist tricks was the pregnant pause. Sit and look at your interviewee. Peer over your spectacles. Say nothing. Watch them squirm at the uncomfortable silence, until hopefully they break and in a vain attempt at appearing interesting and relevant they fill the silence with some nice juicy morsel of previously unreleased information. Having seen this trick work at first hand, I now think its time may have passed. Today the likelihood of a pregnant pause is unlikely.

Silence may indeed be a virtue, but it’s a seldom used virtue. Instead we try our very best to inject noise and volume into everything.

I speak in general terms here, no specifics, just an observation.

It appears the marketing response to the increasing noise of our always-on world is, ironically, more noise.

Shout louder.

Shout more often.

That’s not to say frequency isn’t important. It is. But the big question is the frequency of what. Not to over indulge my Shakespearian theme, but 400 years ago he wrote:

Where every something, being blent together turns to a wild of nothing.

That could be a motto for communications today.

Too often we just decide we need a blog post, with little thought about what we’re trying to achieve, what we’re trying to communicate and how we’ll make the information relevant, interesting, or memorable.

Too often we just write, proof, hit publish and move on.

It’s not just a social media phenomenon. Going back to olden times there were many proponents of getting a press release out regardless of whether there was any actual news. I imagine they’re still asking for press releases and now their poor downtrodden communicators will try and palm them off with a blog post or a tweet. Something that will be dispatched into the cloud -  more in hope than expectation – never to be seen, read or thought of again.

So, the alternative is to take a strategic approach to communications. Get an understanding of your audience, where they are, what they’re reading and sharing and invest the time and energy into creating something memorable. Not once a year for a special occasion or the one time you have some real news, but as part of your daily routine.

So next time you’re asked to ‘create’ a blog post about something no one cares about, remember:

This above all; to thine own self be true.

The intersection of marketing, PR and CSR

I’ve been reading a variety of stories (links below) recently about Marketing, PR and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and the one thing that became very apparent is that there’s a lot of disagreement and perhaps no little confusion about the intersection of Marketing/PR and CSR. In fact I found myself agreeing and disagreeing in equal measure with many of the opinions voiced in these stories.

This post isn’t an attempt to provide a complete view of these issues but I hope it outlines a number of things to consider when you’re thinking about CSR and how it fits with Marketing and PR.

CSR is a strategic business commitment

First off, let’s be really clear. CSR is not a marketing program or a campaign. CSR is a strategic commitment a company makes recognizing its role and responsibilities. You could think of this commitment in two major buckets – and this taxonomy is influenced by my employer’s view of CSR but is no less relevant because of that.

1) Working responsibly – a commitment by an organization to operate within the legal and social regulations as an integrated part of doing business. This encompasses adhering to legal requirements, being a great employer, enforcing strong corporate governance, and taking responsibility for working towards creating a sustainable enterprise.

2) Serving communities – a recognition that companies are made of up real people who live in local communities and that corporations can bring their resources to bear for positive social impact. This includes but is not limited to philanthropy and employee giving.

A CSR commitment requires resources, commitment and transparency. It must permeate the business and it must be both encouraged and enforced. It’s a long term commitment. Don’t make the mistake of dressing up a cause marketing campaign (see below) as “CSR”. It’s a sure fire way to damage your brand, your business and your goodwill.

PR is not CSR and vice versa

I am frankly alarmed when I see people increasingly equating PR and CSR as one. This is a fallacy. PR is about how a company reaches, communicates and informs its audiences from staff, to media, to customers, partners, stockholders and communities. That’s not to say that PR people can’t bring value to CSR. They can. The PR function has an inherent understanding of the perception challenges facing an organization, they can advise and support. When appropriate PR can help organizations communicate to their stakeholders about CSR. But the two aren’t the same. If CSR is done solely for the purpose of PR, it’s not CSR.

Cause marketing is not CSR

Cause marketing is a form of marketing where for profit and nonprofit organizations come together for mutual benefit. For example a company provides a donation to a nonprofit for each order made by a customer. The key thing to remember here is that it’s a type of marketing. It’s not CSR. It can be part of a CSR program, but not the whole.

Philanthropy is not CSR

Presenting a large cardboard check (or cheque) to a local nonprofit is not CSR. It’s philanthropy. As per my outline above, when it’s done effectively it’s part of CSR, but that doesn’t make it CSR. The most effective philanthropy is strategic. It ties back to the organization’s core business strategy. It is focused on creating positive, real, sustained change over time. It’s not a quick, one off check to the local animal refuge.

Organizations should promote their CSR commitment

Many organizations remain reticent about promoting their CSR efforts. Many worry about the potential negative backlash. I don’t agree. Increasingly customers and stakeholders will demand more information about how organizations are being responsible, not less. As long as CSR is a strategic, real, long-term commitment, then organizations shouldn’t be concerned about appropriate communication of that work. If you’re interested in a great introduction to this subject, I’d recommend Kellie McElhaney’s book Just Good Business.

Read on…

PR reading for the weekend – July 15, 2011

David Reich has a post about a Ragan.com survey that asked what PR people don’t like about PR. Topping the list is ‘cold calling’.  OK I can understand that.  But what was second on the list? What was the second greatest thing that PR people don’t like about PR?  Apparently it’s having their press releases heavily edited. Seriously? We PR folks are precious creatures aren’t we? My first press release was so heavily edited that you actually couldn’t see the original words.  The funny thing is that it was such a disgrace I actually kept it.  When I moved to Seattle I found it when I was packing up my home office.  I scanned it, but nearly twenty years on I still won’t share it, I’d be mortified.

 

Judy Gombita has an interesting interview with Arthur Yann, vice president of Public Relations for the PRSA. When asked about what he finds professionally frustrating he answered:

I recently wrote about one of my biggest frustrations for the PRBreakfastClub blog. And that is, the number of self-proclaimed experts on Twitter and other social media platforms.  I mean who or what qualifies so many opinions? On what basis in fact are many statements made? Do these industry “observers” actually know anything about what it is they’re commenting about? Have they read and do they understand what they’re re-tweeting, given the third-party perception is that they’re endorsing the content?

Now there’s a man after my own heart. Amen.

 

Heather Yaxley has a post that suggests that journalists and PR practitioners should never be friends. I don’t agree. I’ve worked in this business for nearly twenty years and I’m lucky to count a number of journalists – both in Europe and the United States – as friends – all of whom I’ve met through my work. I don’t buy the Tiger analogy (read the post). As a professional there’s a church and state relationship. If there’s mutual respect and professionalism there’s rarely a problem, if you don’t have either then I’d suggest you’re not friends.

On the PR Conversations site, Heather has an interview with the wonderful Richard Bailey who describes the current state of Public Relations as:

It’s exciting. Public relations is universally needed but widely misunderstood and derided. It’s needed more than ever because of the disruptive power of digital communications, yet is also under threat because of the convergence of communications disciplines.

 

 

You may have seen this already, but via the Lois Paul & Partners Beyond the Hype blog the fantastic Jon Stewart take on the News of the World scandal (not sure if this is available outside the U.S.)…. and personally I think Hugh Grant deserves a lot of credit.

 

 

Finally, I enjoyed reading The Atlantic’s “14 Biggest Ideas of the Year” – hat tip to Piaras Kelly.

 

Have a nice weekend…