Archive for January, 2013

How Communications from The Sunday Times Hijacked the Lance Armstrong Story

It must be a weird quandary for media properties.

On one hand, their journalistic mission can result in contentious interactions with PR professionals.

On the other hand, like any company they invest in the PR function in hopes of “swaying” their journalistic brethren to write about them in a positive light.

As a stand-alone journalist, Julian Assange showed PR savvy and moxie when Wikileaks first hit the fan even if his Don Quixotic quest eventually ran aground.

But you don’t often see clever communications from a major media property and genuine aggressiveness.

That’s why The Sunday Times communications strike to capitalize on the Oprah interview of Lance Armstrong caught my attention.

It offers a good example of blending earned and paid media.

The strategy started with provocative content.

In this case, The Sunday Times chief sports writer, David Walsh, put together a list of 10 questions that Oprah could “borrow” in her interview with Lance.

The Sunday Times, Lance Armstrong, The Hoffman Agency, Oprah, PR, PR Storytelling, Storytelling, Business Communication

At this point, the conventional approach would find the PR team reaching out to heavyweight media targets with the letter and an offer to talk with Walsh. Instead, The Sunday Times placed a full page ad in the Chicago Tribune – kind of cheeky to hit Oprah in her backyard – with the 10 questions.

The ad triggered a spike of coverage that included mass media plays like the Huffington Post and MSN News.

Social channels worked their magic as well. You can see the multiplier effect in action from just one tweet from Richard Deitsch, a writer for Sports Illustrated with almost 70K followers, which prompted 177 retweets.

The Sunday Times, Lance Armstrong, The Hoffman Agency, Oprah, PR, PR Storytelling, Storytelling, Business Communication

And again, this is just one person in the social cavalcade supporting The Sunday Times campaign.

I put a note into Jessica Carsen, director of editorial communications at The Times (sounds so much better than PR) asking about quantifying the reach of the campaign, but didn’t hear back from her. Perhaps the paper isn’t keen to share this story.

Even without the hard numbers, it seems safe to conclude mission accomplished.

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Social Media Numbers That Don’t Mean Jack

As social media and other digital means increasingly blend into traditional PR, the macro goals remain the same:

Generate share-of-mind with the target audience(s), and if we’re living right, brand preference.

In the old days – say the 1980s after Nixon resigned, but before the Gulf war – correlating a story in a magazine like BusinessWeek to share-of-mind was relatively easy. Because readers paid for the BusinessWeek subscription, we figured most subscribers actually read the magazine, so we counted the number of subscribers as media impressions. The more media impressions generated, the greater the share-of-mind for the client.

Fast forward to today, everyone including myself evangelizes the virtues of social media, but the dots don’t always connect. Just because your content is tweeted, liked and linked doesn’t necessarily mean it’s being read – much less absorbed – in a meaningful way.

Here’s an example.

I noted last year that Forbes straddles earned and owned media offering a low bar for company types to land blogging gigs. You gain the cachet of being on a branded media property, and Forbes gains free content which it monetizes through advertising.

It stands to reason that if companies promote this content through social channels, more readers will find the content which in turn builds share-of-mind.

It’s all so logical.

Yet, the reality often deviates from the story line.

Look at this Forbes post from Jennifer Leggio who heads corporate marketing for Sourcefire. Shortly after publishing the post, the views number 194 even with the “shares” from Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter reaching 119.

social media, storytelling, business storytelling, business communications, PR, PR storytelling, The Hoffman Agency, Forbes, Jennifer Leggio, Sourcefire

Knowing there can be a lag between the share and when people take action, look at the same post a day later.

social media, storytelling, business storytelling, business communications, PR, PR storytelling, The Hoffman Agency, Forbes, Jennifer Leggio, Sourcefire

The ratio looks better with 250 shares among the big three and 702 views of the post, but the number of views – back to the concept that share-of-mind requires that people read the piece – are still modest.

Consider the 143 tweets by day 2. Assuming each person reaches an audience of 1,000 (to make the math easy), that’s a total audience of 143,000. Without accounting for the other social shares, this means .0049% of the audience reached by Twitter read the story.

I’d call that a sobering statistic.

Even checking the numbers this morning, four days after publishing, the ratio of social shares to page views is 941:275.

This has nothing to do with Leggio – a talented marketer – or the content.

The point is, it’s easy to be seduced by numbers that in reality don’t advance share-of-mind, much less the brand.


Guns and Public Health: A Cigarette Connection

You’re probably thinking, “What does this headline have to do with the intersection of storytelling, PR and social media?”

Bear with me as I share the context –

While I don’t consider myself political much less an activist, the behavior from the NRA and its recent communications troubled me. How can any reasonable person or organization look at events over the past years and not conclude we have a major problem?

That’s what prompted my satirical post on the NRA and its version of crisis communications.

Then last week, Ray Schuster, who worked for The Hoffman Agency in the ’90s – in fact, Ray was the executive who parachuted into Singapore in 1996 to launch our Asia Pacific operation – pointed me to his op-ed in the Sonoma News on gun control.

It’s exactly what an op-ed should be: a definitive point of view, the art of persuasion and call for action underpinned by a narrative that pulls the reader in. As I’ve shared before, the op-ed in the right hands offers a platform for storytelling.

Here’s Ray’s op-ed in its entirety:

Sonoma Magazine, The Hoffman Agency, Business Communications, storytelling, corporate storytelling, PR, PR storytelling, guns and public health

Guns and public health: A cigarette connection


By Ray Schuster

Jan 10, 2013 – 05:18 PM

Guns and cigarettes: let’s think about a connection.

Start with the news that next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Surgeon General’s report on the health hazards of cigarette smoking. The 1964 report told us that, yes, serious health problems are caused by cigarettes. A new public health issue was formally acknowledged. Action followed, and continues.

We should use that as a precedent and establish guns as a public health problem – and treat them that way. That would mean a national commitment to address the proliferation, use and devastating public health and mortality effects of guns. That’s one version of “going big” on the problem, which seems appropriate in view of the gun boosters’ “go big” solution, which would put even more guns out there.

Today, as we nibble around the edges of new policies in the wake of still another gun tragedy (while memories and impacts fade), the problem hangs out there as a national menace. It will not get any better, even with token legislation that controls assault weapons and toughens gun-buyer checks. And that’s assuming that even these mild controls can pass the Washington and NRA barricades. (Hints that the Obama administration may seek broader gun controls than expected are encouraging – but nothing more.)?

Types of weapons and qualifications of buyers are important points of focus, but not enough. Sandy Hook got our attention and energized many seeking good and permanent answers. It should also provoke us to consider that the weapons problem is broad, deep and endemic.

Every day, 85 Americans die from guns, including suicides. Consider that the U.S. Center for Disease Control predicts that in two years – by 2015 – deaths from firearms in our nation will likely exceed those of auto-related deaths. That translates to 33,000 dead from firearms and 32,000 deaths in car accidents.

Part of the reason for this change is the emphasis on preventing drunk driving and laws requiring seat belts. Yes, we have treated cigarettes and car accidents as public health issues. Guns belong in the same category: get rid of them.

How? First, we would need an announcement – at the same volume, strength and reach as the smoking and health warning – that guns are clearly a national public health hazard, requiring strong and sustained measures. The justification would be our national health and welfare.

The announcement could come from Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin, with the smoking issue as logical precedent, or better yet, from President Barack Obama. Whoever does it, the message should bluntly set out the goal of eliminating firearms from the American landscape.

And this new national priority would have the same urgency as the anti-cigarette campaign: it will take time, probably decades, but the declaration of intent now will support the effort over future years. Adults today may never see the goal of a gun-free America achieved, but we would know that we were here at the start, and claim ownership on behalf of future generations. Just like the anti-smokers did 50 years ago.

Can it work? Take a look at smoking history in California, one of the states leading the anti-smoking movement. California Department of Health data shows that in 2010 the state’s adult smoking rate fell to 11.9 percent, from 13.1 percent just a year earlier, and from 26 percent in 1984. Education, laws restricting smoking and growing health awareness contributed. Does that sound like a formula for getting guns out of our lives? Seems logical, with perseverance and involvement from the grass roots backed by national leadership. 2062 isn’t that far off, given the gravity of the issue.

To be effective, the movement must have broad and tough goals. Within that, we can chip away at the gun problem in small, cumulative steps. Beginning by banning assault weapons, more background checks and other moderate measures is fine, but we build from there.

Push national control legislation that evens out the state differentials, which now allow gun buyers to step across state lines to buy weapons of choice, regardless of their local limitations.

Mount education programs that make guns undesirable to current and future generations. Again, think of the smoking campaign.

A few dramatic moves are also called for: perhaps a national gun turn-in and meltdown program backed by Washington and implemented by states. And how about a “million children march” on Washington supporting a gun-free culture? Effective tactics are many. Resolve comes first.

And let’s not let hunters off the hook. If guns are bad, so are theirs. Is it possible they can transfer the thrill of putting bullets into innocent animals into something constructive? The choices are many. It would be a new and positive ethic to hand down to generations rather than the thrill of sighting and firing on that elegant buck.

At the very least, our law-enforcement officials need to be released from the pressure of constantly upgrading their weapons systems to keep up with the street. And in the long run, as we approach a gun-free future, these officials will also be able to reduce their armaments. A gun-free American is an idealistic reach. But there are idealists out there who believe, so let’s begin. We are better than this, and there has never been a better time.

Here’s a little more background on Ray:

  • Retired journalist and public relations professional
  • Eight years with the Agency and as noted earlier, launched our Asia Pacific operation in 1996
  • To get closer to the wine, moved with wife, Judy, to Sonoma, Calif., in 2010
  • Volunteers in middle school programs and works on a variety of causes and political campaigns

One final tidbit -

Ray “loaned” (don’t believe I ever returned it) me the book “Positively Fifth Street” which delivers some of the best non-fiction storytelling I’ve ever come across.

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The Return of Storytelling vs. Corporate Speak

Our infographic that contrasted storytelling with corporate speak seemed to resonate with the outside world.

People recognize that gluing together facts and figures makes for dull information.

Since publishing the infographic, we’ve seen talk – and chatter in social media channels – evangelizing the value of storytelling in business accelerate. Dare I say, storytelling has become the “new black” in communications.

Building on the infographic, this SlideShare captures some of the science and anecdotal evidence on why storytelling works.

The Return of Storytelling vs. Corporate Speak from The Hoffman Agency

I think it’s our best deck on storytelling yet.

Hopefully, it serves as a reminder that storytelling wins over corporate speak virtually every time, with the quarterly earnings release being one exception (probably better to keep storytelling out of the hands of the CFO anyway).

As the deck concludes:

Just say NO to corporate speak.

Note: You might want to check out our first Slideshare on storytelling, “Aligning PR with Storytelling for the Happily Ever After


The Future of Storytelling Techniques

I’m always interested in the science behind storytelling.

What makes it such an effective part of our social being and communications?

This video by Paul Zak is a good watch. It shares his study on the topic, which revealed a change in a person’s blood chemistry before and after hearing a story. The storytelling caused the participants in the study to produce two chemicals, cortisol (focuses our attention) and oxytocin (prompts care, connection and empathy).

Zak has spent the better part of his professional life trying to figure out why people make the decisions they do, again coming at the topic from a scientific bent. In fact, he heads the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University.

I’m still debating whether the fact that DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is funding studies on storytelling is a good thing or not.

P.S. I watched Zak’s TED talk which explains why women are typically nicer than men. At the risk of giving away the punch line, they produce more oxytocin. He doesn’t say whether this is a byproduct of women listening to more stories.

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