The End of Garden-Variety Conferences Is Nigh (or Should Be)

I was watching a New York Knicks game recently when Carmelo Anthony sank a three-point bucket to tie the game. Melo jumped for joy, as the Madison Square Garden crowd roared with approval.

A guy sitting courtside (probably in his late 30s or early 40s) leaped out of his seat to revel in the moment, pumping his fists in the air. But the boy sitting next to him (probably 10 or 12 years old) was oblivious to the live action surrounding him. He looked like he couldn’t care less about all the excitement on the basketball floor. His eyes were glued to his smartphone.

If you thought holding people’s attention during events and conferences was tough now, just wait until that young fellow gets into the workforce.

Good luck getting your message through to him. That’s why PR managers have to take the lead in figuring out how to reimagine their company’s events and conferences. And fast. Otherwise, funding live meetings might turn into a profound case of throwing good money after bad.

Despite the dramatic changes in consumer behavior wrought by the Web, most business conferences/events/meetings remain painting by numbers.

You know the drill: The work session starts off with an anecdote or two, which goes into the heart of the presentation, accompanied by bullet points and visuals to help illustrate the spiel. A Q&A usually follows and then the speaker wraps things up before assuring the audience that he or she is available for follow-ups.

Remarkably, the model has changed very little, just as more and more people who attend conferences consider them a mere trifle to their computer screens.

Communicators may not want to blow up their events and conferences altogether, which is understandable from a budgetary standpoint. But they certainly need to shake things up and create more compelling ways to hold their audiences’ attention.

Here are a few suggestions:

> Make your meetings much more participatory. And we’re not talking about asking attendees at the beginning of a work session how many of them heard of (the latest product making a splash in your industry). Put on your disruptive hats. You need to engage attendees in ways that go beyond having them nod in response to a question or simply raise their hands. And it can’t be a one-shot deal. The participatory aspects should thread throughout the entire presentation.

> Create a playlet; insert strategically. Make it challenging for attendees to stay glued to their smartphones. Instead of starting a presentation with a talking head, produce a very short play (with characters) that can goose people’s attention and help drive the overall message. Surely, you have some frustrated actors, directors and comedians in-house. Harness their talents to make a more creative presentation—and one that is rooted in storytelling (as opposed to lecturing, which makes younger folks run for the hills).

> Rethink the Q&A. We may be committing heresy by suggesting this, but don’t end work sessions with a Q&A. By making presentations more freewheeling in nature, attendees won’t be conditioned into thinking that they can tune out the bulk of the presentation because there will be a Q&A at the end. You need to close your presentations with a sharp and resounding message, and one that the brand owns.

What are we missing?

Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1

The Epic List of Useless PR Tactics

A while back I compiled a list of annoying phrases and words we utter as communicators (and human beings), from “at the end of the day” to “guru” and “epic”. The list, via my blog post, grew as you added your own phrases that annoy (“I don’t hate that” and “synergy,” to name a few).

When the other day I heard someone complain about not being able to take a campaign viral, I knew it was time to create The Epic List of Useless PR Tactics. To make this epic, you will need to add to it, shamelessly and without hesitation.  Every profession has tactics that consistently don’t work because the very premise of them is flawed.

I should preface by stating that most PR people I know, and whom we cover in PR News, are hard-working, intelligent and effective.  But we all know colleagues who subscribe to one of the tactics below that only serves to set PR back as a profession:

Creating a viral campaign as goal #1: it’s gratifying when a campaign goes viral like the Oreo blackout tweet or the ice bucket challenge and social media has accelerated our ability to spread our messages (for better or worse). But understanding the motivations and psychologies of your stakeholders rather than making the medium (Twitter, Facebook, etc) the central focus will more likely result in spreadable content.

Using ad value equivalencies as a metric: While public relations is still struggling to agree on a standard metric, it has come a long way with the Barcelona Principles and matrices to better measure the value of PR in general and a campaign in particular. Applying AVEs to PR is the best route to going backwards.

Spraying and praying: you need media coverage, so the best way to get that is to send the same email and press release to thousands of journalists, most of whom do not cover your industry. Wrong! Even with updated and accurate databases at our disposal to target the appropriate journalist or influencer, telling a story to the right audience is still elusive to many.

Baiting and switching: there’s nothing a client hates more than thinking they’ve just hired a seasoned PR counselor only to be met the next week by someone a few years out of college who’s the lead on the account.  After nearly 20 years in the PR space, I can say that there’s more transparency in agency-client relations and less bait-and-switch; the minority cases drown out the advancements.

Forgetting you have a voice: Email is an excellent communication tool but nothing beats talking to someone in person or by phone. Go retro and phone an industry friend, meet with a reporter or client and meet up with stakeholders on their turf (industry conferences, for example)

Forgetting you have ears: as with most disciplines, PR suffers from hearing loss. Listen to what your stakeholders are saying and be present in the places they are saying it.  Listening is a workout: you have to discipline yourself to do it regularly but the rewards are noticeable.

Working in a silo: if you want to limit what your organization can achieve, then it’s important you stay neatly tucked into your department. But if you see that the lines have blurred and that it takes a village to raise the bar, then you know that aligning with your marketing peers (see my last blog on this), and even those in IR, IT, HR and other two and three letter departments will be the way forward for effective communications.

I want to hear from you. You’re on the front lines. What are some PR tactics we need to put an end to, stat? Please add to my list.

Diane Schwartz

On twitter: @dianeschwartz

 

 

 

 

Shattering a Few Myths About How to Find the Influencers

William Goldman, the author and screenwriter (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men), famously said, “In Hollywood, no one knows anything.”

You might say the same thing about the PR field, at least when it comes to so-called influencers.

In his book “Everything is Obvious* Once You Know the Answers,”  (2011,Crown Business), Duncan J. Watts, a principal researcher at Microsoft, discusses influencers and the ability of a person (or a blogger) to magnify a message to help raise brand awareness and boost visibility.

Watts gave a presentation last week at the PR Council’s Critical Issues Forum.

Whether they care to admit or not, for many companies and organizations locating influencers is often a nonstarter.

“One of the most confusing aspects of the influencer debate, in fact, is that no one can really agree on who the influencers are in the first place,” Watts writes.

In that vein, Watts shatters three myths about influencers and provides a dose of reality for each:

Myth #1: Social epidemics can be engineered by targeting influencers.

The Reality: Social epidemics are brought about in largely unpredictable ways, just like forest fires, Watts said. “You wouldn’t see a large forest fire and think that there was anything special about the spark that started it,” he said. “Yet for some reason when we observe dramatic social change, we assume it required some special person to start it. In reality, social change depends on some complicated combination of context and environment and interactions between many people. Boiling it down after the fact to the influence of a handful of special people makes for a good story but has little predictive power.”

Myth #2: There is some class of “influencers” who are both extraordinarily influential and also accessible like ordinary people.

The Reality: People are either accessible or influential, but seldom both. “At one extreme there are ordinary people who are reasonably accessible but who exert ordinary influence. And at the other extreme there are powerful figures like celebrities who have extraordinary influence, or gatekeepers who control access to influence, but in either case they are hard or expensive to influence,” Watts said. “Given some budget, it ought to be possible to find some optimal tradeoff between targeting a smaller number of more influential individuals and a larger number of less influential individuals. But there’s no free lunch.”

Myth #3: You can find the influencers just by using your intuition.

The Reality: Every campaign is only effective or ineffective compared with something else that you could have done with the same budget.  “Just because you create some influencer map and use to target some influencers and something good happens doesn’t mean your campaign ‘worked,’” Watts said. “It would be like running a drug trial without a control group and claiming your drug worked because some people got better. To get FDA approval you have to show that the drug worked better than whatever the control group received. The same test should be required for all claims about influencer marketing.”

Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1

 

 

Will PR and Marketing Get Married One Day?

Inevitably the question arises when you’re in a room full of communicators: how do we break down the silos between PR and Marketing? I recently moderated a panel with Andrew Bowins of Mastercard and Jay Bartlett of Pitney Bowes on the topic of marketing-PR collaboration, or lack thereof in many organizations. We agreed that a path toward “togetherness” – as we’re all in this together – could mean better performance for your organization.

Both Jay and Andrew agreed that the departments need to not only talk to one another more often, but force collaboration into the culture until it becomes the culture. A few audience members shared how their organizations are literally breaking down the cubicles and re-engineering work spaces so that marketing and PR colleagues are sitting side by side.

There are a few elephants in the room when it comes to PR-Marketing collaboration and these animals are filling the space: budget and org chart.  Most organizations have separate PR and marketing budgets and there’s an inherent competition between the two to get a larger slice of a smaller pie. Then there’s the organization chart which is dusted off every now and then and tweaked, not transformed. Who reports to whom and who ultimately has the CEO’s ear is inextricably linked to budget, performance and outcomes. Understanding the new skills needed to accelerate growth may mean rethinking job titles, responsibilities and organizational structure.

At PR News’ Social Media Summit last week there was a consensus that marketing and PR need to partner more regularly and in particular when it comes to the rapid pace of social media communications. Who owns social media is not so much the question when both departments agree that their audience owns it.

PR and Marketing may get married one day – perhaps by necessity. But for the marriage to last it needs to do what most successful couples do: spend a lot of time together, move in and get to know how each other lives (my mother would disagree on this) and then get engaged. Work out the money issues and day to day responsibilities. Stick together in sickness and in health. You’re going to need each other.

– Diane Schwartz

@dianeschwartz

Don’t Let Your Social Channels Stifle Opinion

How much do you listen to your constituents via social channels? Be honest.

A recently released Pew report should worry communicators who are tasked with cultivating a dialogue with, customers, prospects and other stakeholders, particularly via social channels.

Pegged to Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations of widespread government surveillance of Americans’ phone and email records, the survey asked 1,801 adults about their willingness to talk about the revelations in various in-person and online settings.

According to the study, 86 percent of Americans were willing to have an in-person conversation about the surveillance program, but just 42 percent of Facebook and Twitter users were willing to post about it on those platforms. Of the 14% of Americans unwilling to discuss the Snowden-NSA story in person with others, only 0.3% were willing to post about it on social media.

Is social media having a chilling effect on conversation that in any way deviates from the mundane and the celebratory?

If you think back about some of the positive moves you have made in your life, some of them were probably sparked by comments by your friends, family, spouses, that you initially deemed negative.

Indeed, the Pew study raises larger questions for PR pros about consumers’ readiness (or lack thereof) to discuss sensitive issues on social channels.

Of course, when social channels started to flourish they were supposed to herald an era of open communication, where consumers need not feel cowed by expressing unpopular (yet valid) opinions.

However, follow this trend uncovered by Pew to a logical conclusion and it won’t be just matters of national security that people aren’t willing to discuss on social channels, but any issue deemed sensitive or, worse, benign.

A globalized (and shrinking) economy demands that PR managers engage in conversations about their products and services that are going to point out their flaws and provide recommendations on how to build a better mousetrap.

If all the comments on your social channels speak to how wonderful your brand is then something is probably not right. And that’s a recipe for resting on your laurels, which is no recipe at all.

With that in mind, here are three ways to encourage warts-and-all conversation on your social platforms—and generate the kind of market intelligence that’s going to build your brand and find new audiences, rather than play it safe.

> Insert some language on your social accounts that will assuage people who may think that their comments about a particular subject may be off base. You want to maintain respect for the process and not let things get too personal, but not at the expense of stifling opinion.

> Try and start off a conversation on social platforms by taking a skeptical yet inquisitive approach about some challenges your company or agency may be experiencing. This gets so-called influencers to take your brand communications more seriously and demonstrates that your company won’t shrink from criticism.

> If you do get comments via social channels that, at first blush, seem to besmirch your brand, don’t be so quick to nuke them. Sure, the comment may be vituperative in nature, but it may also include insights about your company that you hadn’t considered and, with a closer look, helps to solve a problem.

What would you add to the list?

Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1

 

Measure Twice, Cut Once? How About We Just Measure!

Measurement is one of those irrefutable initiatives in the PR and marketing world.  You cannot argue with the idea that what can’t be measured can’t be managed. Nor can you dispute the reality that many practitioners do not take measurement seriously.

Is PR Measurement like hand washing at the restroom? Let’s face it: there are those who always wash their hands, those who sometimes do, and others who pretend they do. Unlike washing your hands in the bathroom, measurement is not mindless, and it can’t be done in a minute. Some would even say it’s a bit messy.  Communicators still do not have a standard by which to measure communications practices, though it is finally agreeing that ad value equivalencies are ineffective in moving the needle.

This week marks the first annual AMEC Measurement Week,  a global “event” sponsored by the International Association for the Measurement and Evaluation of Communication.  PR firms and communicators at organizations worldwide are hosting meetings, events and social media discussions to tout the benefits of both measurement and evaluation.  Check out PR News’s web site, newsletter and social media (#prmeasure) for interviews with measurement leaders and practical ideas on measurement.  This week shines a spotlight on an area of our practice that is less shiny and new. Now is a perfect time to reflect on your personal philosophy about measurement and your commitment to the daily practice of measurement.

In countless conversations with communicators, and on the stage at PR News’s Measurement Conferences in DC (and coming on Nov. 20 in Chicago), experts on the topic are heated and singularly passionate about measurement. Attendees take copious notes and nod in agreement. These are clearly the people who care about measurement and carry the torch.

It is beholden on every communicator to understand The Barcelona Principles (66% of communicators in a recent PR News survey said they never heard of the Principles), to set measurable goals and to be willing to acknowledge when a campaign or idea didn’t hit the mark. The latter takes time, courage and teamwork.

Please share your measurement thoughts with us at PR News, and contribute to this important conversation.

– Diane Schwartz

On Twitter; @dianeschwartz

 

The NFL, the Ravens, and Ray Rice: Does it Really All Come Down to a Video?

nfl_a_rice_d1_600x400Today, the Baltimore Ravens cut Ray Rice, the running back who was involved in an ugly altercation in February with his then fiancé, and now wife, Janay Palmer.

The NFL followed the Ravens’ action by suspending Rice indefinitely.

What a difference a video makes. The contract cancellation and the suspension come just a month and a half after NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell imposed a two-game suspension on Rice to start the season—a move that was widely criticized as a meaningless slap on the wrist.

Just over a week ago, Goodell got a do-over, and announced a much tougher domestic abuse policy for the league.

And that August 28 policy came down just three days before the San Francisco 49ers defensive end Ray McDonald was arrested on felony charges in connection with a domestic violence incident involving him and his fiancée.

But all this was before the video came out on TMZ.com showing Rice in an Atlantic City elevator knocking out his fiancé with a withering punch to the face.

Have you ever looked at Rice’s arms? It had to have been a horribly powerful punch.

With the NFL, it’s only a matter of time before the next act of criminal behavior. But the league is hyper-popular, and fans just want to see great athletes play—they care less, seemingly, about what kind of people those players are.

This creates a major communications dilemma for the league. With so many players in so much trouble, what’s the league to do? And many of these players are not just not nice guys, but some are really bad. Two words: Aaron Hernandez.

So far, the NFL’s handling of its terrible publicity has been terribly poor.

Consider what Christine Brennan said today in USA Today:

“Ray Rice is gone from the Baltimore Ravens and suspended indefinitely by the NFL. That’s a very good ending to an absolutely horrible situation.”

(One thing sort of bothers me reading Brennan’s item and others today: The media tends to pile on: Rice was considered a decent guy for a long time. He was personable, accessible, a humble guy from New Rochelle feted on the local sports radio station, WFAN. Now he’s a monster.)

Anyway, Brennan’s point is that now that Ray Rice is gone, what about Ray McDonald? Or Greg Hardy of the Carolina Panthers, who was found guilty of assaulting his former girlfriend and is still playing? Or Ravens teammate Terrell Suggs, whose longtime girlfriend described repeated assaults on her by Suggs.

Why are these people and others still playing? Does it really all come down to a video? Why has the Ravens management—until today—been absolutely supportive of Rice? Well, we all know the answer—yes, it all really does come down to shocking video evidence. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good communications strategy, or the right thing.

—Tony Silber
@tonysilber

‘Meet the Team,’ Ferguson and PR’s Diversity Problem

Take a look at your “Meet the Team” and “About Us” pages on your web site. Do these pages reflect a multifaceted workforce? Do the photos of your team and their bios underscore an understanding of your many stakeholders? In other words, can visitors relate to you? You might not think these questions are worth asking until a reporter clicks on Meet the Team and asks just that.

That’s what happened late last month when Common Ground Public Relations was hired by the City of Ferguson, MO, to handle calls from the media following the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer in the St Louis suburb. As if the media didn’t have enough angles with which to cover the Ferguson story, it was handed one on a white porcelain platter. The PR firm that was hired to take all media calls following the crisis, as Talking Points Media noted, “appears to be staffed entirely by white people.” Noted Daily Kos in its headline about the firm’s hiring: “City of Ferguson PR Firm Has Something In Common with Its Police Force.”

Ouch.

The PR industry has been slowly working on its diversity problem, recognizing that less than 15% of PR professionals in the US are of African-American, Asian or Hispanic/Latino descent (per the Bureau of Labor Statistics). It is a real problem that needs a more aggressive push by our industry associations, PR leaders and hiring managers in communications departments and at PR firms. PRSA’s Diversity Tool Kit is a nice-to-have resource, along with its Diversity Committee, but is it enough?  Ironically, the press hasn’t mentioned that Common Ground’s team supposedly includes just one male among the seven pictured.  Diversity comes in all colors, races and genders.

I agree with Denise Bentele, president and CEO of Common Ground Public Relations, when she told Odwyer’s  that “the color of our skin reflected nothing of our concern to help our broader community respond to the watchful world.” It appears the firm is doing a decent job helping the City of Ferguson communicate not only to its residents but to a world that’s watching the investigation and public unrest.

There was nothing Common Ground could have done in the time that it was solicited by the City of Ferguson and the hours that it took for the media to click on Meet the Team and see a sea of white faces. To have quickly added some diversity to that page would surely have been snuffed out and would have positioned the firm as disingenuous. (That doesn’t stop Common Ground, however, from exploring diversity in its hiring practices.)

The knock on the City of Ferguson for hiring an “all white” firm amid a race-infused crisis is fair, and such obvious bait for reporters that it’s already a non-story.  For the PR industry, the bigger problem is why more people with diverse backgrounds do not want to make PR their career.  Here’s to a future where Meet the Team is not met with scrutiny.

-       Diane Schwartz

Let’s connect on Twitter: @dianeschwartz

 

 

 

 

 

3 PR Lessons from the Ice Bucket Challenge

Nearly four weeks into the phenomenon, the Ice Bucket Challenge shows no signs of letting up.

The idea of dumping cold water on one’s head to raise money for charity may be a watershed for both brands and nonprofits alike when it comes to how to raise money for charitable causes and get the word out.

The major beneficiary of the challenge has been the ALS Association. (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord.)

Participants are expected to donate $10 if they have poured the water over their head and donate $100 if they have not.

People who take the challenge then challenge others to hop on board.

A veritable who’s who from the worlds of business, celebrity, and sports have joined the fray, including Jeff Bezos, Kobe Bryant, Bill Gates, LeBron James and Martha Stewart, as well as John and Jane Q. Public and kids galore.

From late July through August, the association has seen donation soar to $31.5 million, from $1.9 million during the same period last year, according to the ALS Association.

The genesis of the phenomenon is unclear, with attribution to multiple sources.

But there’s little debate that Massachusetts resident and former Boston College baseball player Pete Frates, who suffers from ALS, put the challenge on the U.S. map.

Frates, who for years has advocated on behalf of ALS, started posting about the challenge on Twitter a few weeks ago. Now it seems as if every other Facebook page on the planet features video of a person dumping cold water on his head.

A phenomenon like the Ice Bucket Challenge doesn’t come along very often. For PR managers who are closely following the campaign, it’s hard to catch lightning a bottle.

Perhaps the most salient lesson is that you can’t hatch a viral campaign in a boardroom or a series of marketing meetings in which executives are implored to think differently. Any content that takes off like wildfire is likely to be organic in nature.

Still, there are a few takeaways for communicators, with a hat tip to Michelle Mulkey, partner and corporate social responsibility practice chair at FleishmanHillard.

>  When people are raising awareness and/or funding on your organization’s behalf en masse, try and harness the interest by engaging participants at the local level. Return myriad favors by increasing engagement with community members. Throw a house party (or two) for people who have been major players in the campaign. Use those gatherings as an opportunity to spread the message and better educate the public about your mission.

> Leverage the campaign to shift people’s attention to the ongoing needs of the organization or charitable cause, whether that’s lobbying at the governmental level or communicating what else people can do to assist in the effort (beyond funding), which plays into the third tip.

> Serve as a conduit to people who want to help the cause at a granular level. Regarding the Ice Bucket Challenge, there are most likely people who met the challenge and now want to further help people and families grappling with ALS. Use all communications channels to coordinate such efforts.

What else would you add to the list?

Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1

Ferguson, Missouri: When You’ve Lost Control of the Story, and the Situation Itself

ap969996949662I’ve been riveted by the fast-moving situation in Ferguson, Missouri. It seems like an event from the sixties, a dark reflection of an ugly period long past, when cities burned and communities writhed in confrontations with law enforcement. I paid oblique attention for the first few days, but was shocked this morning (Thursday, August 14) to see that the situation hadn’t merely continued, but escalated dramatically. The footage was staggering—police firing tear gas, accosting journalists, knocking down TV cameras, advancing with military equipment on peaceful protestors.

The whole militarization of police is a story for another day, though it’s getting a lot of attention now, in many media outlets, including Vox.com and Time Magazine.

What struck me today was that in five days now, it seems like hardly anyone is moving to regain control of the situation, or the narrative.

The Ferguson police chief gave a press conference yesterday, which was something, but I had to ask: Does Ferguson even have a mayor? Does the Missouri governor care as one of his towns is in anarchy and a militarized police force is exacerbating the situation, not calming it down?

Well. There is a mayor. His name is James Knowles. I looked it up on Google. He was even on MSNBC this morning to defend the police.

But other than essentially defending the near complete absence of information, Knowles didn’t say very much. He might have answered any of these questions with some precision and with actual facts, but he didn’t.

• Who’s in charge of the police in this ongoing crisis?
• Why is basic information about the incident that precipitated this confrontation (the shooting by a police officer of an unarmed 18-year-old) being withheld?
• Is it legal to withhold the name of the police officer who did the shooting?
• Which of the several law enforcement agencies on the scene is in charge?
• Who’s the media point person?
• On whose authority are law-enforcement officers pointing machine guns at unarmed citizens?
• Does the militarized police reaction really reflect whatever threat exists?

The governor, Jay Nixon, was scheduled to make a statement later today. Which is good, I guess, but about five days late. In the meantime, Anonymous, the online hacking collective, claimed to have penetrated the Ferguson municipal computer system and gotten the name of the officer, as well as other information.

In the meantime, in the midst of the worst crisis imaginable for a small municipality (and a significant one for the state of Missouri) it’s clear there is no effective crisis management plan, and certainly no crisis communications plan, and social media is lighting up with negative reaction.

—Tony Silber
@tonysilber

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