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Work With Me, People – Part 1

23 Oct

Kadet Communications helps clients move people through communications strategy, brand positioning and storytelling.  It also is a one-man-show, which means that when I want to have an all-employee meeting on strategic communications, it helps to have a vivid imagination…

President: Alright, let’s call this meeting of the Kadet Communications team to order.  At the last meeting, we wanted to see how we’re doing, so we asked the Chief Strategist to get some feedback from clients and colleagues.  Tell me what you found.

Chief Strategist: Let’s step back for a minute.  What we agreed is that we should treat Kadet Communications like we would a client, review our positioning and make adjustments where necessary. If we’re going to talk about this, we need start with objectives.

President: Hmmph.  OK, the main objective is the same as that of our clients: “sell more stuff.” Or in our case, get more clients. I’d also add that we want more opportunities to earn in-depth projects and long-term relationships.

Happy now?

Chief Strategist: Quite! So, as you noted, I was sent off to get some feedback on how we’re doing. I talked to clients and colleagues because our Strategic Communications process always begins with reflection on the inside and input from the outside. You see, it’s only by…

President: Yes, yes, we understand. Get on with it.

Chief Strategist: Right then.  We talked to about a half dozen people. Let me put them up on the screen:

You’re always getting us to think differently…to consider more than just this one project.

When I think of you, I think of technology. You have big time technology experience that translates from big companies to small ones.

You’re strategy really comes from experience. Strategy comes easy because you’ve been there before, but you always considered not just what we should do, but what would work for our company.

You get to the heart of the story—understand clients’ needs and goals, and communicate them perfectly… the balance of classical marketing and PR to online social networks.

President: I love it.  That sounds great!

Chief Strategist: Well, yes, but there’s a gap.

President: A gap? What gap? I see no gaps…

Chief Strategist: Here’s the thing: When you ask people to describe you, and each one responds with a different answer, you may have a brand positioning problem.

President: Maybe you’re over-thinking it.  Each of these responses fits into our core message of Strategy. Positioning. Storytelling.

Chief Strategist: But ideally, we’d hear that back from people. Let’s ask the team…how do we describe ourselves?

PR Manager: Smart PR and marketing strategies that work!

Writer/Storyteller: Compelling writing that moves people!

President: I tell people that we do communications that moves people depending on what they want.

Chief Strategist: See?

President: Hmmph. Don’t we have work to do?

Chief Strategist: Of course. But positioning and storytelling are critical — this is what we tell our clients — everything starts with the story. What is our story?

President: You know, my favorite story since we set up shop two years ago is our client where we did the whole thing. When we started, they had two businesses — one in data storage, the other in business process optimization — and they could talk about one, or the other, but never together. No one knew what they did, they were losing cross sales opportunities right and left. The employees were all over the map.  Their prospects heard a lot about technology, but little about what it would do for them.

Chief Strategist: Right. So we interviewed their people… executives, sales… consultants.  And we interviewed and surveyed customers. We analyzed competitors’ positioning….

President: And we found gaps!

Chief Strategist: Indeed we did. So we showed them the responses. We found out that customers indeed didn’t know about the two sides of the business. And the customers viewed them as tech experts with deep knowledge of whatever our client did for them.

President: So if they wanted to be a strategic partner who could solve an array of problems, the customers didn’t see it. We  held a  workshop to get everyone together on this…

Writer: If I might move this along a bit…we repositioned them as making critical business processes like the stuff they do work better and smarter…so that their customers would have high performance solutions. We laid out a brand promise around delivering high performance solutions and the confidence that they’d be right for the customer.

Chief Strategist: And it worked — now their marketing and sales are coherent, their message is consistent, and they get more chances to cross-sell to existing customers.

President: Then we worked with them on a new website, new marketing materials, new whitepapers, and a communications strategy.  I love that story.

Chief Strategist: So what have we learned from this?

President: We’re pretty good at this stuff!  But…that was a long story.

Chief  Strategist: Right.  And what makes us the best?

President: Well, we have the experience to handle just about anything in public relations.

PR Manager: And we do smart strategy based on what works, not the media of the moment. And, our goals are the business goals, not PR goals.

Writer: And write good…heh…I mean, well. And we really shine when we bring deep client insight into our client stories.

Chief Strategist: So what we really need to do is bring all of this together…

President: Hmmm.

PR Manager: I’ll get the coffee.

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Measurable Social Strategies for Corporate Communications – Part 1

3 Aug

The question at hand is this:  In corporate environments — primarily B2B — where the only new communications and marketing investments are those that deliver a return, what opportunities are corporate communications departments missing when they don’t engage with online networks?

As I’ve noted in the past, even B2B companies where there is little online conversation about their producuts or issues need to recognize at minimum that the ways people want to interact with businesses are changing.  Which means that “getting the basics done” in corporate communications requires a new look at activities that once seemed like unnecessary distractions — like monitoring and participating in online social networks, managing company blogs and making use of RSS feeds and mobile features — are now part of “the basics” that need day-t0-day consideration by internal resources.

What are some initiatives that deliver a measurable return — either in advancing the corporate reputation or protecting it? I’m going to post some ideas each day this week.  As always, I’m available to meet, discuss and deliver excellent counsel and support to help you make these initiatives happen in your organization.

Today’s idea #1:  Doing a Better Job at PR and Media Relations.

Do the reporters and editors that follow your company post on Twitter? Do they have blogs? Are they using RSS?  Are you outsourcing all of this to the agency?

You may be missing out for a couple reasons. First, reporters and editors appreciate having direct relationships with representatives of the company. Next, tools like Twitter and blogs make it possible to reach certain reporters in ways that you never could through email — commenting on what they do, sharing ideas and more.

But what is more interesting to a reporter — a Tweet or blog comment from the director of marketing at COMPANY, or one from an agency representing…who knows? Use the agency for strategy, ideas and formal pitching…in between, if you’re not connected with them, you may be missing opportunities.

Measure by clicks to your website, search ranking on key topics and sales.

Tomorrow:  Getting in front of…or catching up to…your competitors.

6 Ways to Drive Communications

12 May
If I were running your communications program, I would: 
1. Sync up the message. If everyone in your company is out there with their own message, they might as well be working for themselves.  When the core message is synched up across all communications and everyone knows it, those individuals become a team, and magnify the power of each interaction. 
2. Act like media. The company has people and communities to meet, reach and influence, every day. How will we do that? Where? When? In many cases, the website can be a central hub for communications that engage the market through site features, blogs, newsletters, video/audio, and RSS.  
3. Listen…and share.  When I was a young intern at a Fortune 500 company, the PR department did a daily news roundup on paper that went across the executive ranks. There are more media and conversations to watch, but tracking it is easier than ever — but the task is being left to individuals.  Mix up news alerts, RSS feeds, email and website, and you’re there — or pay a modest fee for a media/social media tracking service.
4. Listen…and share part 2 — web analytics. While SEO is front and center in the mind of marketing, web analytics seems to be far less so — at least in the B2B world where I spend most of my time.  I’d want to know what’s being seen on the website, who’s using it, and how marketing and communications tactics impact web traffic and, where possible, leads. And I’d share the data. 
5. Audit and adapt. What’s working? What’s not? What does everyone say “we really should be doing” but we’re not? If strategies and tactics are working, we keep them strong. If they aren’t, they should be phased out, and replaced with what we really should be doing.  
6. Measure, but don’t be ruled by measurement. Anecdotes can be effective. The press release that generated a lead that led to a big sale may never have generated single clip or pushed more than a dozen people to the website, but it worked. The article linked on an obscure blog that caught the eye of the guy the VP sat next to on the airplane and turned into marketing partnership was a blip on the radar…but it worked. Listen to the people on the front lines — in sales, business development, and service.  Collect statistics and anecdotes. 

As a communications consultant, I often talk to clients about strategy, but don’t often have the chance to help them “start fresh”.  So I thought I’d share this — six principles that I would advocate when running the communications function. 

1. Sync up the message. If everyone in your company is out there with their own message, they might as well be working for themselves.  When the core message is synced up across all communications and everyone knows it, those individuals become a team, and magnify the power of each interaction. 

2. Act like media. The company has people and communities to meet, reach and influence, every day. How will we do that? Where? When? In many cases, the website can be a central hub for communications that engage the market through site features, blogs, newsletters, video/audio, and RSS.  

3. Listen…and share.  When I was a young intern at a Fortune 500 company, the PR department did a daily news roundup on paper that went across the executive ranks. There are more media and conversations to watch, but tracking it is easier than ever — but the task is being left to individuals.  Mix up news alerts, RSS feeds, email and website, and you’re there — or pay a modest fee for a media/social media tracking service.

4. Listen…and share part 2 — web analytics. While SEO is front and center in the mind of marketing, web analytics seems to be far less so — at least in the B2B world where I spend most of my time.  I’d want to know what’s being seen on the website, who’s using it, and how marketing and communications tactics impact web traffic and, where possible, leads. And I’d share the data. 

5. Audit and adapt. What’s working? What’s not? What does everyone say “we really should be doing” but we’re not? If strategies and tactics are working, we keep them strong. If they aren’t, they should be phased out, and replaced with what we really should be doing.  

6. Measure, but don’t be ruled by measurement. Anecdotes can be effective. The press release that generated a lead that led to a big sale may never have generated single clip or pushed more than a dozen people to the website, but it worked. The article linked on an obscure blog that caught the eye of the guy the VP sat next to on the airplane and turned into marketing partnership was a blip on the radar…but it worked. Listen to the people on the front lines — in sales, business development, and service.  Collect statistics and anecdotes. 

Not every thing you do leads directly to sales, but it all should drive the business forward.

11 Essential PR Skills

25 Mar

I’m preparing a “PR 101” course for a client this week. I’m glad to do it — the client is a non-profit that has never done much in the way of deliberate communications and marketing, and will need to rely on volunteers to keep any kind of communications program moving.

The exercise has me thinking about what it takes to do PR these days. In a lot of ways, PR is easier.  For example, when I started work at a big agency in 1992, typical assistant account executive duties included stuffing press kits, sending out faxes, poring through the Bacon’s directories to build media lists and doing daily newspaper scan-and-clips.  Doing media relations could be expensive.  If you wanted to generate media attention for a national consumer campaign, you’d be prepared to spend thousands of dollars on Nexis or Dialog databases, or you were cold-calling big national media lists (it didn’t make sense, but happened more often than you’d believe today).   Needless to say, every bit of that is now digital, searchable or automated.

As has been noted here and elsewhere, what is essential about public relations has not changed: moving people to action by creating credible, meaningful relationships between an organization, and the people and groups important to its success.

What’s changed?  The media, the available, the audience and their expectations of organizations.  There are more media, they move faster, and expectations are high from organizations, influencers, clients and the audience.  The risks and opportunities are higher than ever.

What are the essential skills for today’s public relations practitioner?  Some are tangible skills you can learn and practice; others are more of a “state of mind”.  I’d start here — I’d welcome your comments — what would you add?

  1. Sweat the small stuff. PR people are problem solvers. We’re i-dotters and t-crossers. We make sure the reporter has the background, and the VP has the right numbers.  If the event requires a microphone, mariachi band or glockenspiel, we find it and get it there.  We listen — and make sure the message comes across, and make sure it isn’t misunderstood. My dad liked to tell us kids, “don’t sweat the small stuff” when we’d get too riled up on the details and lose sight of the big picture.   A core PR skill is to do just that — so others don’t have to sweat it.
  2. Know your audience. Who do you want to hear your story? What do you want them to do?  You’d be surprised at how many communicators and marketers have trouble answering this simple question.
  3. Know the media. PR people need to be experts on who’s wielding influence for that audience.  Otherwise, how do you know what stories will work and won’t?  There are too many PR people read the paper, but they don’t follow news online.  Or, they get their news online, but don’t read the paper.  They don’t read blogs, or they only read blogs. They’ve never set up an RSS feed, tried out Twitter and Facebook — or think they can get all their news that way.  They’ve never seen the evening news or watched Oprah and Ellen, because no one they know is watching.  The point is to get to know the media.  Love the media. Get to know who’s doing what and writing what and saying what. Note bylines and blog profiles, followers, audience measures and ‘authority’.   Know where the conversations are happening.  And where you and your organization can and must get involved.
  4. Be the media. Another “these days” thing. PR needs to think less like a facilitator and more like a producer.  What are we going to communicate today?  How will our audience get our story?   How will we meet them where we are?  How will we “move” them today?
  5. Think outside your organization. Be objective. Sometimes, you have to be the voice of your audience with management.  What stories will fly and what won’t?  AIG needed someone to do this — to tell them how the public would react to their actions and force them to reconsider their decisions.
  6. Research…and synthesize. The ability to gather and synthesize information is vital to just about everything we do — from understanding the audience and market environment to getting background on reporters or bloggers before an interview. The ability to help your organization better understand their environment — and connect that understanding to their ability to achieve objectives — is vital.
  7. Understand measurement. The web promises measurement and analytics never before available to the public relations profession. It is vital for PR people to gain a better understanding of web analytics and to build a greater degree of feedback and measurement into programs.  In my time at big agencies, our measurement offerings were too expensive for most clients. This is unacceptable.  We need to do a better job with understanding and building in measurement and feedback loops into our programs, and that starts with building a basic understanding of how websites work and web analytics.
  8. Understand objectives. This is a simple one:  We don’t do PR to generate clips or website hits or blog posts or links or viral action.  We don’t even do it to raise ‘awareness’ or generate ‘word of mouth’.  We do it to increase sales, maintain and build customer loyalty, muster support, gain votes or influence public opinion.  We do it to change behavior. While  all of the traditional PR measures may well influence behavior, they are not an end in and of themselves.  This is why the Skittles experiment is, in my view, doomed to fail. There is no clear benefit beyond generating marketing buzz, which benefits marketers and agencies far more that it drives sales and brand loyalty.
  9. Write. Storytelling is essential to communications.  Nothing has replaced good writing.  Not 140 character limits. Not video. Not the web. It all starts with good writing.  But it doesn’t end there.
  10. Communicate in multiple media. The big change in the media world is the primacy of multiple media. Get to know them.  Where can podcasts augment press releases?  Where can video be more effective?  Where can a game, animation or image communicate what the written word cannot?    PR people don’t need to be expert in every form of media, but they need to understand the uses and appeal of each.
  11. Be smart. Reporters constantly complain about bad PR pitches. Bloggers do, too.  There’s no excuse for a cold call. It’s too easy to do the research. They know it, and you know it, too.

That’s just my list, and it’s just a start. What’s yours?

Public Relations in the Extreme

3 Jun

Politics is public relations in the extreme.  It magnifies and amplifies the best and worst of PR practice.  We’ll often use politicians as examples for media training — they consistently stay ‘on message’.  We appreciate spokespeople who get out there and take the heat from the press corps — the ones like John Wodele, who had to explain Jesse Ventura for four years and did it with — at least from this outside perspective — his honesty and dignity intact. 

Then there’s Scott McClellan.  As President Bush’s assistant and then lead press secretary, McClellan was a cog in the execution of a major public affairs campaign to marshal public opinion in support of the Iraq invasion.  A campaign, he now says, was misled the public. This is PR in the extreme – facilitating public discussion and decision-making with the public’s blood and treasure on the line.

Most of us don’t have to deal with this day-to-day.  In my work, I’m helping tech companies find new ways to stay in the public eye. I’m helping another communicate its brand to employees and partners.  I’m working with a private school to remind its community that there are good stories amid tough financial times.  I’m helping a startup with its message and developing online and offline communication strategy for its launch. 

It’s fun.  It’s great work, and, I’d argue, important work.  But for all of that, we can be a bit thin-skinned as a profession.  Last year’s kerfuffle over Wired Editor Chris Anderson’s PR blacklist is on example; Sunday’s rant and response by CBS legal analyst Andrew Cohen is another.  Cohen’s points about the core dishonesty of public relations practice were flip, ignorant and over the top.  But, as he points out, there is a reason why PR has such a poor reputation. 

Here’s my take on why:  Public Relations calls itself a “profession” — like Law or even Journalism.  It’s not. And this core identity crisis leaves us challenged to even define public relations, let alone defend it.

Lawyers are accountable to their clients, but they’re also accountable to state and federal regulations and their state bar association.  Even the role of the news media is made plain in the Constitution and their ideals and standards are part of our civic education. They can hold themselves as upholding ideas beyond the narrow interests of their clients and bosses.

Public relations people, whether we’re at an agency or an organization, are hired to help sell something. Our clients want people to choose their brand of soup, support their technology platform, build new stadiums, specify their brand, donate time and money to their cause, work with us in a crisis, vote for their legislation, and invest in their stock.  Public relations is a core part of the business of convincing people to take the action an organization wants them to take.  Our responsibility is to our organization, bound by ethics, honesty, civic duty and common sense.  We sell.

Now, our preferred methodology is to facilitate public discussion — to help our clients make their most compelling case through the news media and influential institutions, organizations, social networks and forums.  This distinguishes our practice from direct “sales”.  

But our practice is inherently self-interested on behalf of our organizations.  We speak with bias.  We focus on the story our organization wants to tell, toward our organization’s goals. We have no responsibility to tell another party’s story, but in my experience, the best, most credible and convincing stories are the ones that that are rich discussions that give clarity to complex issues — so sometimes, we’ll help make that happen, too.

As I said, it’s great work, fun and sometimes exciting.  And it’s necessary.  Contrary to popular belief, the truth doesn’t write itself — someone has to choose the right words.  Some stories are too complicated for simple headlines and pretty pictures.  Not every marketer is a great writer. Not every executive is a student of the increasingly complex news and social media environment. 

PR people are.  We’re good at words.  We’re students of the media and the Internet. We talk about what’s in the news, share stories, and argue about strategy.  We engage with journalists, bloggers, friends and others in online networks.  And we help our organizations and our clients do the same. 

So, no, Mr. Cohen, our profession is not full of liars and dissemblers. We’re advocates for the success of our organizations, and we know that our organizations’ successes hinge upon being believed, credible and convincing.  It means we’re biased and self-interested, but it means, as a practice, as a career, and as, well, professionals,  we’re on the side of the truth.  You can sort it out form there.

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