Archive for September, 2010

The Top 5 Smart Communications Practices Companies Need To Implement Right Now

standard business photo

This topic initially stumped me.

Specifically, what exactly is a “practice?”

I finally settled on this definition:

The act of repeatedly engaging in an activity for the purpose of improving or mastering it.

So what are the five things that today’s communication practitioners should be doing again and again with an aim to master?

1) Know Thy Audience

I decided to go biblical out of the gate.

How can you create a communications campaign if you don’t know what’s in the mind of the target audience(s)?

Yet, this often happens.

The thing is, information and even research typically exists with the product management team. We just need to proactively push for access. 

Another type of information that never fails to enlighten are the field reports generated when someone from the HQ hits the road for a customer or partner visit. Unfortunately, these reports don’t naturally make their way to the communications function, so again, you’ve got to ask. 

And there’s no rule that says you can’t do your own research. Even without the rigor of a proper market research firm, it can still deliver insights. 

One quick example - 

Every 12 months or so, we conduct interviews with the salespeople from a cross-section of consumer electronics retailers like Best Buy, Fry’s, etc. The last litmus test showed major changes in the perception of user-generated content, which triggered some fresh thinking in our programming. 

2) Embrace the “One-to-one” Mantra 

We still haven’t gotten this right. 

That’s why the Jason Mendelsons of the world rant about PR spamming and why digital royalty like Robert Scoble chastise the mass pitching of bloggers. 

Before going further, I appreciate the pressures to generate visible results.  

For consultancies, I also recognize that tight budgets can mean the appropriate time might not be allocated to a given activity. 

But unless you travel in the Microsoft/IBM/Intel pack where you can get away with “Major news … Do you prefer 10 a.m. or 1 p.m. on Thursday?,” tailor the dialog to the individual.  

Between long-form writing, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, LinkedIn, personal blogs, etc., the information is there to achieve personal relevance. 

3) Establish Content Bureaus

During the glory days of publishing, you weren’t a “media hombre” unless your news bureaus spanned Istanbul to Sao Paulo to Tokyo. 

Playing off this concept, corporations should establish content bureaus. 

Forget the adage “content is king.” 

Not true. 

Compelling content is king.

By centralizing content in one place with a genuine strategy and tapping your strongest storytellers, you increase the likelihood of reaching the compelling threshold. 

4) Start Experimenting with Bottom-up Communications 

Consider management’s ever-increasing expectations of communications in spite of flat budgets and lower headcounts. 

The trajectory of many comms efforts simply isn’t sustainable. 

Fortunately, your cavalry is sitting down a few cubes from you or perhaps in your Shanghai outpost. 

With the right training and definition of roles, your employee base can become the human version of the multiplier effect. 

I touched on this a couple weeks ago highlighting “lose control” as one key to comms staying relevant. 

As shared with Steve Farnsworth, if the Department of Defense can turn its “employees” loose on social media, one would think a CRM company could accept a product manager sharing perspectives with the outside world in 140-character chunks. 

5) Change the Reporting Structure of Global Comms to Squeeze Out the Politics 

This doesn’t qualify as a practice but as Otter whispered in the background during Bluto’s soliloquy at the frat house, “he’s on a roll” (Animal House circa 1978).

The standard reporting structures of today actually prevent a company from executing a cohesive communications program across the globe. 

Here’s the crux. 

Most companies hire a global comms head who sits at the HQ. As the company grows, it hires PR professionals to focus on the priority countries. Unless huge in size, they don’t invest in regional PR leaders. 

As a result, these local PR folks end up reporting to the country managers who are really glorified sales managers focused on the quarterly numbers, not exactly a recipe for global communications alignment. 

This creates a Bermuda Triangle of politics between HQ PR, country PR and the country manager. 

Sure, the global PR head will periodically parachute in to get everyone on the same page. Unfortunately when he or she steps back on the plane, the situation reverts back to the status quo with the country manager reminding the locals that location is nine-tenths of the law. 

If the country PR people reported into the global HQ function and the global PR function took ownership for supporting the needs of each country – isn’t that what a global PR head should do? – you’d have the best of both worlds: a global PR effort with everyone rowing in unison and politics significantly dialed down. 

This concludes the 4/4/4 series.  

I want give shout outs to the folks in the Agency who shared their perspective for this post: Susan Baldwin, Sarah Lafferty, Lydia Lau, Judy Radlinksy and Lori Shen. 

I enjoyed sharing the digital stage with Steve Farnsworth, Todd Defren and Paul Roberts. I encourage you to click on their names for their insights on this final topic.

And special thanks to Steve for coming up with the idea and making it happen.



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I Think They Missed The Picture … Literally

Avery Dennison dominates the market for mailing labels and the like.

The company rung up roughly $6B in sales last year.

With that said, I think it’s fair to say that the sticky label space fits into the commodity quadrant.

I’m also guessing that the margins on those “Hello My Name Is __________” tags aren’t great.

Now, Avery Dennison is determined to expand its product portfolio with products that bring greater meaning to the customer, no easy task when we’re talking labels. (I can hear Allen Iverson’s rant “we’re talking practice” echoing in my ear.)

Toward this end, the company announced earlier this month what it calls “Shanghai’s first personalized car wrapping service.” (a shout out to colleague Kathleen DesRosiers, a senior PR practitioner in China who brought this to my attention).

I’m not sure about the phrase “wrapping service,” but they’ve essentially taken the concept used with model cars and invented big-boy decals for real cars.

An Avery rep points out in the news release:

“Many of China’s more than 30 million private car owners would like to customize their vehicle with a new look.”

So far so good.

But check out the two photos that run with the news release:

bad press release photo

bad release photo

Do you notice anything missing?

Like an actual car showing off the new look?

Geez, the story is not about Rudy Widjaja, Nita Riady, James Hartono, and the rest of the local execs. It’s about dressing up cars.

Ironically, when I discussed the power of visual storytelling in the post “The New York Times Shows Three Pictures Are Worth 3,000 Words (or so)” the photos came from China.

Given the internal staff cutbacks at publications, there’s even more opportunity for companies like Avery to use photography to make a case for their stories landing in the media.

But it requires compelling photography, not the big cheeses cutting ribbons or digging holes in the ground.



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What Role Should A Communications Agency Play In A Client’s Social Media Effort?: 4 Perspectives On 4 Communication Issues

social media image

After tackling the topics of ghost blogging and how PR can stay relevant, 4 Perspectives on 4 Communication Issues enters week three pondering what role a communications agency should play in a client’s social media effort?

This question delves into one of the great debates of our time, right up there with the meaning of life and why Pop-Tarts sales keep increasing in spite of an aging demographic.

Looking at this question from the client side, it depends on who’s buying social media services.

Webmasters lean toward website developers, particularly in B2B companies with scarce internal MARCOM resources. Advertising looks to ad agencies and the pure digital plays. And PR typically turns to PR agencies as a starting point.

All three disciplines buy social media services. If anyone has data that breaks down the buying power of social media by corporate discipline, please post a comment or e-mail it to me (lhoffman@hoffman.com) and I’ll insert the information into this post with proper attribution.

This who’s-in-charge issue – just had a flashback to Alexander Haig – relates to the question at hand.

I think today’s communications/PR agency should be taking a holistic approach to communications which calls for bringing social media into the fold. Of course, such a holistic approach means connecting at the CMO or VP of marketing level.

I suspect my 4/4/4 brethren Todd Defren, Steve Farnsworth and Paul Roberts will make the point that implementing a social media strategy requires nailing down the overall communications objectives.

I agree.

But again, being plugged into the overall communications objectives requires an audience with the person leading the marketing charge.

If that describes a particular engagement, you’re in the right position to counsel the client on applying social media in the context of other communication activities with the collective effort designed to achieve the macro objectives … just like they draw it up on the chalkboard during new-biz 101 school.

If that doesn’t describe your engagements, don’t despair.

There are still ample opportunities for a communications agency to guide clients in the social media realm. Just make the time to understand the big picture so your recommendations come packaged with this context.

Here, I’m reminded of that great line from Clint Eastwood in Magnum Force: “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

In other words, counsel in the social media areas that you know stone-cold and defer to others when your expertise degrades to parroting back the latest Solis post still in CRAM (cranium random access memory).

For communications agencies, I think it’s logical to focus on those social media elements that depend on content as the primary driver.

We’re the content guys (and gals).

We’re the storytellers who bring depth to the table, not the jingle makers and the masters of the double entendre.

What about the technology piece?

Jason Fall’s Social Media Explorer ran a post on Monday titled, “Why PR May Not Win the Social Media Agency Wars,” pointing out that technical expertise isn’t necessarily one of PR’s strengths:

Increasingly, social is a technology play. From Facebook applications to integration with Shopkick, brands are using new technologies to reach and engage with their communities, on the web and on mobile. And while I have great respect for my PR colleagues – I’ve worked with a lot of really smart people – I’ve just got to say: they are, on the whole, not the most tech-savvy group I know … So how is this group going to be able to embrace, sell in, and deliver on technologies that will create or enhance social opportunities?

Fair point.

But sticking with the Social Media Explorer headline metaphor, this is more about a zillion battles – each with its own unique characteristics and needs – than an epic war.

So pick the battles that don’t require a bunch of Ajax coders.

We often frame the opportunity by scrutinizing the technical complexity against the depth of content as you can see from the chart below that includes a sampling of social media elements.

social media complexity

The greater the depth of content for a given element, the more it makes sense for us to invest in the technical side and support this part of our clients’ social media campaigns.

That’s why we took the time to come up the curve with WordPress as well as cultivate Drupal resources. The ROI on corporate blogging is tough to beat – thought leadership, face on the company, link acceleration for SEO, etc. – and falls right into the sweet spot of content development.

Circling back to the Social Media Explorer post and comment that “they [PR] are, on the whole, not the most tech-savvy group I know.” While I might take issue with the sentence structure, she’s right.

Regardless of how you come down on the 4/4/4 question, this lack of tech savvy needs to change.

As shared in Todd Defren’s post last week, areas like SEO, SEM, Google Analytics, etc. often strike fear in the hearts of PR professionals as “too technical” and even intimidating. While there is a technical dimension to these areas, they can be learned the old-fashion way; i.e., with study and putting them into practice.

There’s no getting around that a baseline of technical knowledge enhances how an agency guides a client’s social media effort.

I’m sure the rest of the 4/4/4 gang will offer enlightening perspectives which you can find by clicking on their names, Steve Farnsworth, Todd Defren and Paul Roberts.



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Storytelling Grab Bag: Yom Kippur Prayer Book And The New York Knicks

Certain storytelling topics catch my attention, but don’t carry enough substance to warrant a standalone post.

I’ve finally figured out how to weigh in on these topics.

Introducing the “Storytelling Grab Bag,” a forum for discussing two to three topics in the same post.

Storytelling Techniques at Yom Kippur Services

All religions depend on storytelling.

Whether the orator is a rabbi, minister or priest, the storytelling goes a long way in determining the resonance of a sermon.

But I didn’t expect to see storytelling techniques applied to the Yom Kippur prayer book.

One quick example -

The service was addressing the concept of each individual tapping his/her own potential when these words appeared:

“Not that You expect the impossible. You don’t ask me to replicate the greatness of Moses.”

First, I liked the conversational tone, a technique that eludes most prayer books.

Two, I’ve got to believe most of the congregation like myself immediately conjured an image of Charlton Heston in “The Ten Commandments” with the reminder that it’s not about keeping up with the Joneses or the Hestons (thankfully).

Promoting the New York Knicks

After discussing how PR needs to evolve to stay relevant last week, I came across a supporting point of view from Howard Jacobs who heads marketing for the MSG Sports unit of the Madison Square Garden.

In an interview with The New York Times, Jacobs shared:

“… how do you reignite the deeply passionate relationship that existed between the City of New York and the Knicks?” — is “so clearly not an ‘advertising exercise’” but rather requires “a multidisciplinary approach, part strategy, part storytelling, part brand creation, part technology, part design.”

Naturally, I gravitated toward two words, multidisciplinary and storytelling.



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10 Ways Communicators Must Evolve: 4 Perspectives on 4 Communication Issues

After addressing the topic of ghost blogging, 4 Perspectives on 4 Communication Issues enters week two.

This week’s question: How should communication professionals evolve to stay relevant?

It’s been almost a year since Steve Farnsworth hosted my guest post, “A Mass Comms Curriculum Alone Short-Sheets Tomrrow’s PR Pro,” which tackled the question from the perspective of an aspiring communicator.

My premise -

A communications curriculum should straddle business and science as well as the arts because success increasingly depends on interdisciplinary skills.

That’s a good segue into my top 10 ways for communicators to evolve and remain relevant:

1) Keep learning

The acceleration of change in today’s world defies belief.

Apple owns the music industry.

Henry Blodget parlayed media, not finance, to rehab his rep.

Facebook enjoys the clout of a sovereign state.

Shrek is a has-been.

If you don’t make a conscious effort to keep learning, you will be left behind.

It’s that’s simple.

Most of us come out of a mass comms education, which isn’t enough today and definitely won’t be enough tomorrow.

Author Malcolm Gladwell in a TIME magazine interview discussed how Jonathan Weil, at the time with The Wall Street Journal, broke the Enron story. Sure, he was an excellent journalist, but so are thousands of others. It was Weil’s ability to analyze a balance sheet that hung Enron by the toes.

The same concept holds true for communications, even at the tactical level.

For example, quality writing will always be valued.

But combine writing expertise with an understanding of WordPress and SEO, and all of a sudden you’re in a position to develop owned-media campaigns that play at a strategic level.

Try doing this with a news release.

teach2) Teach

This is one of the best ways to learn.

There’s nothing like a tough audience to “tune one’s senses” to borrow from Robert Duval in Apocalypse Now.

By the way, I’m not only talking about the over-30 crowd.

Young professionals have plenty to share. Developing the finesse to teach the older folks without “bruising” only enhances the process.

3) Build new relationships outside your circle(s)

As a closet introvert, I personally find this one to be tough.

Yet, this is a key component to evolving and staying relevant.

It’s great to command a rolodex of reporters and industry analysts.

Now take this core expertise in relationship-building and connect with people outside your typical circle … with no agenda other than expanding one’s horizon.

Quick vignette in this regard -

I met David Nordfors, a professor at Stanford who created the InJo (Innovation Journalism) movement. The dialog has given me a fresh window into communications. It wasn’t until years later that the relationship connected to a client.

I figure I better save my second example in case I’m challenged by a posted comment.

4) Don’t embrace social media

Before the Lou-Hoffman-is-a-heretic tweets descend on Chris Brogan, hear me out on this one.

Social media provides a means, not an end.

As just touched on, embrace expanding your relationships.

Embrace fortifying your organization’s online presence.

Embrace helping your organization cultivate a sense of community.

Social media represents one of many ways to achieve this.

5) Tell stories

No top-10 list for evolving PR’s game would be complete without hoisting storytelling on the stage.

Whether you’re hawking cupcakes, phones or field programmable gate arrays, the people you’re trying to reach are pummeled by facts, figures and other sundry data.

And it’s only going to get worse.

Building an entertainment dimension into your communications helps rise above the noise.

But it goes deeper than this.

People gravitate toward companies with a personality and a “face,” where it feels like a real human sits on the other side.

That’s exactly what storytelling facilitates.

6) Lose control

I don’t mean rush the stage at a Lady Gaga concert.

I’m talking about giving up the old-fashion quest to control the message.

In spite of all the blather about “engagement,” many practitioners still adhere to a control and command mentality.

And it’s not just about the message.

It’s time to let go in transforming employees into communicators.

Geez, if you can’t trust your employees to post a comment on a blog without divine intervention, I’m not sure the Six Sigma police can solve the issue.

experiment7) Experiment

I recognize if you reside at a mega corporation, going off the grid can be career limiting.

So do it on your dime during evenings or over weekends.

Just playing with the ever-growing pool of tools – I’m currently kicking the tires of OpenSite Explorer – represents a form of experimentation.

Here’s another example.

When the Toyota recall hit the fan, we decided to build out a digital property on the PR crisis to experiment with different SEO dials. Within two weeks, the site was showing up on Google page one for most long-tail searches on the Toyota PR crisis. Keep in mind this was achieved with content already in the public domain. We learned a ton that has been applied to client campaigns.

The marriage between art and science in communications is only going to become more pronounced in the future. Experimentation will help you come up the curve.

8) Understand the sales process

Marketers are from Mars.

Sales people are from Venus.

To bridge the two, it behooves PR practitioners to understand what goes into morphing a prospect into a customer.

Picking up the lunch tab for salespeople and folks from your distribution channel results in a positive double whammy: insights on the sales process and an expansion of your relationships.

9) Remember the end game

Our work should build brands, expand public profiles and deliver air cover for sales.

That’s how we stay relevant.

Measuring our contribution to these grand objectives has been a challenge in the past. After all, while cranking out a report that shows 3,232,394 impressions might indeed indicate a job well done, it doesn’t answer the question of how the effort influenced the beliefs of the target audience.

Thankfully, as our role increasingly moves online, there’s more science to measuring how we move the needle. If you’ve never looked under the hood of a Google Analytics console, there’s a good starting point.

Stepping on my digital soapbox for a moment -

It kills me that the logo jockeys continue to dominate branding assignments. As transparency of business operations and depth of content move center stage in building brands, there’s a tremendous opportunity for PR to grab the reins.

Our consultancy has created a methodology for what we call content-driven branding. The phrase might need some work, but the point is content, not looks, should lead the branding charge.

PR is the discipline of choice for content.

smelling the flowers10) Smell the carnations

Or java or whatever suits your fancy.

This is a tough business.

It can be a grind.

This final suggestion is as much a reminder to myself as it is for you.

My grandmother on my mom’s side was a practical gardener with a preference for root vegetables. For whatever reason, she made an exception for carnations which became my favorite because they were her favorite.

I’m thinking it would be a good idea to make a regular trek to the flower shop for carnations.

That’s a wrap.

I’m as interested as you to read the perspectives of my colleagues which you can find by clicking on their names, Steve Farnsworth, Todd Defren and Paul Roberts.

I’m sure their perspectives will enrich the dialog.



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