Archive | April, 2008

Happy Thoughts

30 Apr

I think today marks the longest I’ve gone without posting since I started this blog, which I’ll take as a positive sign that a) I usually have lots to say, and b) I’ve been busy. 

What’s been gratifying over the past couple weeks is that I’ve been busy with the “storytelling” part of my job.  I’m working with three very different clients each challenged to struggling to tell a complicated story, getting people to take that story to heart, and do something positive with it.

The challenge of getting that story right — and getting people to listen — can be frustrating.  It’s far easier to focus in on what’s going wrong.  As Harry Chapin sang of an aspiring singer, “He did not know how well he sang…he only heard the flaws.” The singer quit.

These are times when any organization — or individual — can benefit from a little ‘happy talk’.  As the rabbi might have said, if you don’t toot your own horn once in awhile, no one is going to toot it for you. 

This doesn’t mean lying, or even “spinning.”  It means laying aside the details of how the sausage gets made, or about how the new product launch wasn’t as successful as you thought it would be, or all the debates, arguments and knock-down, drag out battles over key decisions didn’t turn out to anyone’s entire satisfaction.  It means setting aside the messy history of half measures, missed opportunities and all-out failures that litter nearly every path to success.

It means taking a step back to tell the good stories. The ones about the successful customers, the teammates who went above and beyond. The stories about how you made the sale and about the ideas that worked.  The positive feedback amid the scathing critique.  It means realizing that despite that fact that it seems like no organization can possibly be as disfunctional as yours, it’s been a remarkably successful organization.

So here’s my happy talk: Today, I heard that a letter I helped a client write was “lovely and elegantly written.”  Another client told me my words will help them open doors.  Wow.  I’m over my annual spring cold.  After weeks of struggle, I finished writing the core of a client’s brand story – and no matter what they think of it, I’m damn proud of the work.  Oh, and my kids are getting piano trophies this weekend. 

And you know, the work I’m doing now is just want what I wanted to do when I started this independent communications consultant thing, and I’m looking forward to more.

The Best Media Strategy – Luck?

25 Apr

My kids are on school break this week, so my wife and a friend combined efforts and toured six boys about the Minnesota Zoo.  They came at an opportune time:  mere minutes after the outdoors birth of a rare baby takin.  An amazing site for all assembled.  Interesting day for the PR folks, though — they were busy promoting the debut of the zoo’s new baby camel — born last week, but now out for the public to see.  My wife noticed some KARE-11 camera people lounging in a golf cart by the camels and said to them, “You know, this takin over there was born, like, 10 minutes ago!”  Without another word, they sped off, and no doubt she can take a little bit of credit, at least, for this story and video.  

Her experience reminded me of a former client from a number of years ago who created an open-source technology cooperative.  The founders, a couple of Minnesota CIOs, were at a conference in San Francisco and ran into Wall Street Journal columnist Lee Gomes in a bar.  A few weeks later, there’s an article in Gomes’ Portals column (it’s old or I’d put in a link to the actual story), and I’m working with them to manage follow-on media interest for the next few months.

What is the lesson here? That the best stories often happen by surprise, when the media find you rather than when you find them.  Does that mean you wait around for something to happen? Tempting, but no.

Luck happens in PR when:

  • You have a great story to tell, and are always ready to tell it.  If you have less than a minute to tell someone what you do, and what’s great about your business, can you?  What’s you’re “brand” all about? Are your ready?
  • The media can find you.  You’re website is easy to find, informative, and welcoming to the media.  They can find your contact information, and reach you when they’re interested.  You’re prominent on key words and have a distinct message.
  • You’re out there being successful.  You shouldn’t expect much attention from media — new or old — until you’ve have something to show off and some people who’ve tried it out.  A little success and a good story can go a long way. 
  • You’ve been telling you story and selling your story.  You’re at conferences.  You’re talking to consultants and analysts.  You’re meeting with customers, prospects and partners.  You’re story is so strong, it gets them talking. You’re sharing news and ideas with media and bloggers who care about the types of things you’re doing. You’re keeping people up the date via your website, blog, newsletters, news releases.

You never know what’s going to happen — there you are talking about a plain ‘ol camel, and who knows — you may just give birth to a takin…

New Media Tool Corner: Ning

23 Apr

I thought I’d start a new feature on the blog, one that will continue if it proves popular. What I’ll do is check out a new media tool that has enough hype that it’s reached me, and tell you what I think.  Then we can discuss.

First, a bit of background:  On the contiuum of PR people — from, say, traditional media strategists who think blogs are something you call a plumber fix to social media types blissfully unaware that there are large majorities with little time yet for collaborating, socializing, twittering or otherwise generating content online — my position is simply that a) I love cool new online things; b) I’m usually disappointed by their ability to change my life; and c) some of this stuff works for business and some stuff doesn’t. I also come at this from a more “business” focus than many — getting masses of consumers to get excited about your brand is nice; incorporating collaborative technology to improve business performance or customer relationships in a B2B environment is a whole different challenge.

So I thought I’d provide a mini review of some of the latest tools that I’ve come across… and their potential value to communications professionals and marketrs.

Today’s topic:  Ning.

Ning is basically MySpace or Facebook in a box…without the box.  They tout themselves as giving you the ability to build your own social network for anything.  If you want to create and brand your own social network, you go to Ning and in about 10 minutes, you have a profile on the web under a self-branded URL.  Then you can go out and get people to sign on and everyone can know what everyone else in your network is doing.  You can make your network private or public as you wish. It’s all free.

The platform is insanely simple.  Easy as setting up a blog on Blogger or WordPress.  I just set up a network in about 10 minutes.  Check it out at

What I like about this is that if I’m at a small business, or even a large one, I can quickly form a network for a team or extended network of vendor partners that will help us keep informed on what we’re doing and share ideas quickly.  Or, if I’m a small business, I’ve quickly got a networking platform for my most ardent customers, supporters and fans.  How about a private school who want to set up a private network for parents and families?  Advanced features for busineses that want to retain data on site or use their own URLs are there for extremely reasonable fees.

Why not just Facebook or MySpace?  My take is that this is easier, more customizable and simpler to make your own with a certain amount of privacy control.  But I’m willing to be argued on the point.

Check it out.  Or let me know — is there something better out there? Heck, join my network and tell me what you think.


Pentagon Conducts…PR. Yikes!

21 Apr

Just managed to make my way through the New York Times story on the Pentagon’s efforts to manage the message around the Iraq war.  Great stuff and a bit chilling.  But more than that, very … familiar.

As I read, I found myself thinking about what we PR folks would advise clients.  With technology companies we advise them to engage industry analysts and experts. The bigger companies — and even some of the smaller ones — might have regular “analyst summits” to get an inside view of the company’s future plans.  We’d do the same with the trade media, as well as key bloggers, consultants and pundits. 

Ideally, if the resources are there, we’d give out embargoed previews of upcoming news and interviews with key executives.

This is public relations … influence the influencers, get legitimate, credible experts to tell your story for you — whether it’s reporters, experts, analysts or customers.  It is usually the right thing to do.  You put your story out there for people who can credibly retell that story…and usually, they do.  It works especially well when you have a good story. 

Most of my clients have been underdogs who need to be tenacious to build their credibility with analysts.  One client was big enough to hold analyst summits and have the top people in the industry make the time to be there.  But even then, we — the client and the agency — insisted on openness.  We laid out the plans, showed off the product, made our case, gave them a classy but not ostentatious dinner and sent them on their way… and from there, they wrote what they wanted.  Most of it was good, but the company took its share of criticism as well.

But if we’re honest, there’s a game being played in high tech, too, and the real question is not how it serves the public.  The whole industry analyst field is a conflict of interest minefield.  The big firms still take briefings with non-clients, but more and more, you’ll find a sales meeting part of the deal.  It’s a lot easier to be a client — that way, you can be sure you have access when you have something to say … and heck, you may need their advice, too.  It’s easy to pay $40K+ to sponsor a whitepaper by a well-known analyst firm, and there’s little chance your company will be handled critically their market analysis.  You’ll rarely see a disclaimer with an industry analyst media quote to advise readers about their relationship with the subjects of their reports and comments.

It’s only human nature for a corporate executive to not want large contracts going to analysts who are tearing them apart in the media. 

So where’s the line? The Pentagon is the only game in town for the military analysts and their arms manufacturers, lobbyists and consultants.  They have a civic obligation to inform the public and working with military pundits is, in theory, the right thing to do.  In practice though, the conflict of interest here cannot possibly be managed. If your livelihood depends utterly on access to the Pentagon, and the Pentagon — our government — tells you to “say this or you lose access,” that’s wrong for the government and the public. 

Corporations in a position to wield this kind of influence should take note, because the next scandal could belong to them.  The world today is far to open and credibility far too diffuse for any organization to command the message for very long. 

PR 2.0 and the Shifting Sands of Credibility

18 Apr

I’ve gotten myself into a conversation with a thoughtful guy named Joel York at his Chaotic Flow blog about the ethical challenges PR firms face in this new world of uncontrolled media.   Check it out here.

His point:  your requirements for credibilty have to shift if you’re relying on bloggers forum posters and just plain folks to spread your message and build community.  The people spreading the message just don’t have the same filters at the traditional media.  As a PR rep or marketer, what is the standard? Is it OK to facilitate this kind of conversation? I might add — what is your responsibility for how and where they take your message?

The more I think about it, simpler the answer gets:

You own your message.  You create content and use various platforms to communicate it. 

You own your reputation.  You use your message and various platforms to protect it. 

And if you find that your message is eroded by media that are less and less credible, it puts the burden on you — as your own ‘media outlet’ — to set an even higher standard.  

Advice for “The Web Guy”

17 Apr

I don’t know Adam Singer at Future Buzz,  but he seems to get it … his post today offers for advice for folks like him labeled “The Web Guy” at their firm or agency on the challenges they face communicating in the sometimes arcane language of the Internet.  He notes:

“It’s hard, sometimes nearly impossible, to describe things on the Internet without using other terms from, well, the Internet. And it’s even harder to catch people up on basic concepts that most of us active on the web already understand, and then go into the more complex ideas of what we’d actually like to do. You can’t tell someone to Google something face to face.”

Singer advises web guys to take the time to explain when they need to, use relevant examples, respect the talents of traditional media relations folks, and “communicate efficiently”–without, I’m assuming, all the technical detail not so relevant to telling a story.   

It’s good advice.  My humble talent is turning complex stories into compelling words — whether that’s a letter, a media pitch, messaging or brand positioning — and coming up with a strategy to engage people with those words.  Web guys say “look what you can do” on the web … story guys say, “here’s the story — let’s get it out there.” And somewhere in the middle, we come to the realization that it’s not about stories, and it’s not about what you can do — it’s about turning those stories into conversations that drive sales, make people think, change minds, breed loyalty. 

The only thing I’d add to Singer’s list is for web guys to remember that as transformative as the web is, it’s not the only game in town…and it’s still transforming.  Some day, of course, there won’t be “web guys”, just like today PR folks don’t need “phone guys” or “TV guys” to explain to clients how those technologies work. But today, we need people exploring how these technologies can help or hurt, how they can help organizations build, enhance and maintain relationships in an media environment that encompasses the web…and so much more.  

Boys Like Notebooks, Girls Like Phones, Everyone’s Mobile

16 Apr

Last summer, just after my 40th birthday, I took a road trip from Minneapolis to a comic Chicago convention in an old Subaru with three recent art school grads.  I’d steeled myself to 8 hours of feeling completely out of touch listening to people 20-years younger riff on a pop culture that I hadn’t been seriously in tune with in a good seven years, if not more.  I mean, these kids were weaned on 100+ cable channels and infinite online entertainment, where when I was a kid, we had a remote that hooked up to the VCR by a cord. 

What struck me though, was how completely in tune they were to commercial TV and radio from 70s and 80s.  I didn’t see a single text message sent and the only thing that made me feel really old was the couple in the back seat playing Nintendo games against each other on wireless handhelds. 

So maybe youth isn’t such a foreign country, but kudos to the fine folks with my old agency’s  Next Great Thing team to offer insight into youth and youth culture — and particularly how mobile technology has become integral to their social lives.  Their global panel of “young adults” between 14 and 29 in Europe, Asia and North America came up with some interesting nuggets:

  • “68% of survey respondents say that their mobile device is their most essential personal device (followed by Laptop/PC at 40%).”
  • “But 65% of females picked their mobile as top device compared to 45% of males, who would rather reach of their laptop or PC.” 
  • “On average, respondents interact digitally for 2.9 hours per day, but it strongly varies by region.”
  • “While respondents in the US spend 2.2 hours, Malaysians spend 4.5 hours a day online and only 3 hours on real-life interactions.”

What does it all mean? It certainly gives credence to the idea that mobile marketing is indeed the “next great thing”.  More good stuff from the NGT team in their new youth trend report, here.

At the same time, I always have trouble reconciling research with my real-life interactions with 20-somethings.  When I was in the office with lots of them, they’d say thing like, “yeah, I text a little, but mostly I just use the phone and email.” Back in my own 20s and 30s, I was the office internet expert and expected that the next generation of PR people would just know this stuff cold — they’d get how the web worked, be involved in multiple social networks…and more.  But most just had Facebook sites that weren’t so interesting now that they were working full time.

My lesson:  keep an eye on this stuff, but don’t get too caught up in the hype.  There is the “highly mobile, super engaged, network savvy youth market”, and then there are just plain youth … and there’s something to be said for recognizing the reality that lies somewhere in the middle. 

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