Thursday, October 24, 2013

For a Digital Age Why Are We Still Using the Telegraph?

One thing that has struck me the past few years is not how many companies are unable to keep up with new and emerging communications but how many just want to apply old methods similar.  The fundamental change in information distribution has changed and some people choose not to see it.  The old model of controlled information distribution, the preacher model, is becoming more and more archaic.  Information is now being shared between stakeholders as well as with them.  You’re being evaluated, measured and judged by a wide number of audiences.

Still many organizations see the emergence of social media and its various children is completely changing the dynamic of customer communications.  Now the customer has the floor and is able to completely bypass the company or shame them into making changes to improve customer service or simply end an annoying process. This is being more and more understood within consumer facing organizations.  Once again we are seeing the savviest innovations coming from startups and companies with niche customer basis.  A particular favorite of mine is Moxie a beverage with a cult following here in New England.  They engage customers, share news and market events and products.  This is a rare example of a company that has a strong strategy and powerful execution to engage via social media.

However many companies truly do not appreciate the value of social media.  A study last year by Aite group unveiled a number of interesting findings regarding mobile payments and banking but the most compelling to me was the adoption of mobile by younger demographics and those in emerging markets.  In other words, those who you will be doing more-and-more business with in the future will expect to be approached in a method you may not be using today.

Still in the halls of most organizations we hear, direct mail, e-mail, pretty web site and more.  None of these are bad ideas but they remind me of that old restaurant who never changes their menu and then can’t figure out why they have no customers.  The old lectern approach of delivering an exact message to your customer based on what you want them to hear and how you want them to respond is rapidly changing.  Yes, it is true, it will never go away but you’re sending messages via a medium that fewer and fewer people are turning to.

So what can be done?  Well first is to find out how your customers are learning about their industry.  This is quite easy yet no one seems to do it.  Do they pay attention to e-mails?  Are they visiting the web site? Heck research firms do this stuff all the time.  Then develop a strategy to evolve your communications to meet the changing expectations of customers.  The wrong approach is to jump in like a hungry person at a buffet.  Communications requires thought and planning not presumption and shots in the dark.  No company can succeed any more without communications planning and discipline than can succeed without fiscal and budgetary planning.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Lessions from the BP Disaster. One year later.

Well we sit here today on the first anniversary of the the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. I believe future PR generations will be well served by paying close attention to what took place and what lessons we can learn from this unmitigated disaster. While we all know that BP was not solely responsible for this disaster, for better or for worse the blame fell onto their shoulders.

One thing emerged from this event and that it was that BP did about as bad a job at crisis management as an organization can do. It was obvious from day one that they did not have an appreciation of the extent of the problem and some of the initial comments by BP senior executions, like the CEO wishing to 'have his life back', really put the effort into disrepute from the beginning. BP seemed stuck to the plan when they should have realized that the first rule of crisis communications is that the plan goes out the window almost immediately.

There are so many lessons that can be learned from the BP explosion one year on that an entire book could be written and barely begin to scratch the surface. I think one thing that because obvious to future planners is when people are hurting as a result of something your company shares responsibility for, NEVER complain about how tough it is on you. Somehow a millionaire CEO is not going to find much sympathy from a group of people whose very lives may be ruined.

Also, realize that your plan, no matter how great you think it is and no matter how many times you may have rehearsed it, is totally useless. Look it over one last time and then toss it aside and be ready to move with the ever changing conditions that exist. Only a foolish captain would let waves better his boat.

Lastly, ignore the advice of the lawyers. Lawyers will tell you to shut up, say nothing, admit no wrong and show no empathy. This is wrong. This is always wrong and all it does is to stir resentment and anger and makes a bad problem worse. The model today is Southwest who when faced with a problem took a financial hit and made progressive steps to addressing and resolving the matter. Take a look at how quickly that issue has receded from the headlines. They get it! It is a shame most companies don't.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Crisis Communications in Action: One Good, One Bad

I noticed this week that there are some people out there who are getting public relations and more specifically crisis communications and there are some groups out there who just don't get it. First of all, for those who read my blog you know that public relations is not a reactive tool. Just like you don't wait for market trends to develop to begin research on new products, you should not be waiting for events to develop before you start burning up the e-mails and phone lines.

First, the good news is that all is not lost when it comes to good crisis communications and public relations. We all saw on the news last week the Southwest flight which had to make an emergency landing due to a structural failure in one of its planes. The financially prudent move would have been to keep as many planes in the air and check them as they came in for regular maintenance. Instead what Southwest did was pull all the flights from the Boeing 737 flight which matched the one with the cracks. This caused a lot of flight cancellations but surprisingly very little passenger upset. Most people would prefer to fly safe and by doing this Southwest should come out much stronger than it might have when he went in.

The opposite happened when the United States began its bombing offensive against Libya. The political and moral issues are one thing but the President seriously dropped the ball when he did not address the reason behind it for a solid week. During both wars in the Gulf the two President Bushs' were on television that night explaining that the action was underway and why the action, in their view, was necessary. During times of crisis, it is important to be out and in front of the issue and shaping the dialogue. By bunkering down you let the events take a life of their own and you lose control of the situation.

Communications professionals have been fortunate to see two distinctly different examples of crisis communications, one of which clearly proves the model that in order to come out of a crisis alive and, stronger than what you went into it, you need to take affirmative action. The best course of action works in all areas of communications but especially during crisis. Stay on top of things, stay in front of the situation and be open and as honest as possible to your target audience. If done well, the crisis will quickly pass, if not, it will fester and grow worse and inflict a great degree of harm. As your mother once said, take your medicine, even if it doesn't taste good, it will make you feel better!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Why does HR have so much say when it comes to communications.

The best way to get a good candidate is to have a well written job description. Yet very few organizations are in fact using the hiring process as a time to solicit good candidates and are posting poorly written job descriptions with a byzantine hiring process that it becomes virtually impossible to find good candidates and the few good ones who do respond are lost in the combination of technology and human disinterest.

I was at a luncheon and sat at a table with a sales rep from a mid-sized company who helps in the hiring process. She told those of us at the table that her company is proud of the fact that her company can scan resume and eliminate candidates based on words in their resume and thus send on to HR only candidates who supposedly match the job description. One person at the table, OK it was me, asked if they ever ran checks to make sure that the rejects deserved to be rejected. I could tell I hit a nerve and was told that for the HR people the results were negligible. A nice way of being told to shut up.

I asked another HR person I know who writes the job description in her organization. She told me that HR has to write them with some input from the hiring manager. Some input means that they write them and the hiring manager later tells them to change this and change that. Very little input basically. Another one told me that screening candidates is the worst part of her job and she would give it up in a second.

So that beggars the question of why are they even in the field of communicating with external audiences? For one thing, most HR people when asked will tell you they are there to keep the wrong people out, not to find the best possible people. I can also tell from most job descriptions that very little care goes into what is being put into them. It is not uncommon now to see a laundry list of skills and experience an organization wishes to see and then they claim they only want 2 years or so of experience. A nice code for wanting the $5 Fillet Mignon.

Some may argue that the current job market means that there is no need to be civil or offer any words of encouragement to candidates. Others may believe that the pool is so deep that any treatment of potential is fine and cite that everyone is overworked, understaffed and so on.

Let me make it perfectly clear. This logic is insanity pure and simple. If one of your key public facing arms is handling a potential client base and source of revenue for the organization rudely and abruptly there should be zero tolerance for that. Why not hold them to the same standards sales is held too? Would you ever not return a sales customers call after a meeting? Would you be brusk and rude to a sales customer? Would you treat a sales lead as a waste of time? Of course not!

But the same thing goes on within a number of organizations nearly every day. Individuals who can help bring the organization to the next level of success are treated as necessary evils. As the great unwashed masses. It is hardly news that no one likes to deliver bad news but shirking the duty and hoping the issue will go away does not lead to a resolution to the problem. There is an old military term called an attitude correction. In this case the HR arm of many organizations need what I will term a communication correction. Hopefully they will get it before they lose out on hiring some very talented people.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Why do so many companies not get social media?

A curious question was posed to me recently by an organization who was asking for my help regarding their social media marketing and communications programs. I was asked if I used Facebook to which I replied yes. The next question surprised me, I was asked how many friends I had on there and while I knew the answer, it was about 180 or so at the time, I could see a deep frown on the interviewers face and was asked, "how come you have so few?"

I think that mentality sums up many organizations approach to marketing via social media. They believe it's best to plunge in without knowing the depth or temperature of the water. The important thing is to not miss out on getting wet. Forgive me for using more swimming analogies but they run the huge risks of jumping into shallow water , freezing water or water full of sharks.

Social media marketing can only succeed if we proceed with the due diligence we would in other marketing or public relations forums. We can't use some shotgun style approach while blindfolded and hope we hit the target. We need to use social media strategically and with a mental image of the beginning middle and end of the social media program.

The great risk we run here is that organizations may use the same approach to social media that was used to the web when that first emerged in the mid-to-late 1990's. That was a time of instant experts and throwing money at a problem and the immediate assumption that the old rules no longer apply. Hard lessons taught organizations that was not so but here we are facing one more time the assumption that the old rules no longer apply.

Let me close out with what I told the person I was meeting with. When asked why I had so few friends on Facebook, their interpretation not mine, I responded very simply. I asked about their client base and asked how intimately they knew them. I didn't really want an answer but could see I hit a nerve because they didn't know their client base that well. I then threw down the gauntlet and after bringing up my friend list offered them the chance to pick any one at random and I would tell them 3 things about them. The point being social media should help you broaden and strengthen you presence in the market and should not be just some fast and easy way to help yourself sleep better at night.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Step back when examining your Marketing & PR programs

I have had several conversations with customers during the past few years and I often hear a common refrain, it can vary but it is basically, gee we had this great hit in The New York Times, (fill in pub name here) and we only saw a slight up tick in sales. Well first, if you saw any upward movement in your sales that is a good thing is it not? But more importantly, you missed the point entirely on what PR can accomplish for you.

Public Relations is an incredibly valuable tool and helps in ways that are too many to count. But it has the same weakness of any marketing tool. It is not designed to function as a sole agent for driving change. Quite the opposite, it can offer a slight up tick like mentioned above but the chances for long term success are virtually non-existent. In a discussion I once participated in, I likened a PR program to going out running after a long lay off. You will feel terrible and probably feel like you're going to die. Now you can assume running failed to get you healthy, or you can keep forcing yourself out there day after day and before long, you're amazed at how your body responds and how great you feel.

The same holds true for marketing and communications. You can not simply sit back and cherry pick a success and say that it's not working or this worked and that didn't. In fact evaluation needs to be taking place in an ongoing fashion and needs to examine not just the marketing mix but how other elements in the organization such as sales are helping. A complete and exhaustive examination may show that other elements in the organization are hindering the development and execution of both the brand as well as the communications program.

We live in a world that tells us we should expect instantaneous results and that we should act in an instantaneous fashion. The down side to this idea is that we are surrendering the ideas of perspective and focusing on evaluation and adjustment. It is much better to do it right once and invest a little more time in a program than rush it and be disappointed in the results.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Protecting marketing from those who think they can help!

One of the most interesting facets of marketing and communications of late is when a weak or even a failing organization decides to hitch all of its growth potential to MarCom. This is somewhat ironic because it represents a variation on the theme I last spoke about where MarCom is seen as simply a foot soldier, expected to do nothing more than carry out orders and do as told. But let me be clear that this represents just a different variation of the same, terrible mix I spoke about last time.

In some organizations, senior managers are in love with marketing and communications. Of course, while we would love to have that happen, it is not always what it's cracked up to be. While I am a tireless and relentless advocate that marketing is the best way to build brand, it can not be the sole part of the organization out there delivering the organizations message. Also, marketing needs to be used in such a way so that the return on investment it can provide can be maximized.

One trap which needs to be avoided at all costs is the temptation to use marketing and communications as vanity tools. There is an old builder's maxim that says one should know the soil before laying the foundation. That is very true when it comes to marketing and communications. In my own experience I have told many managers that PR does not stand for press release.

So the point here in summary is that as marketing and communications professional we need to do all we can to build and protect the brand. If you look around the organization, there is very no one else who is really equipped or capable to do so. While the risk of having nothing done is both real and great, the risk of having harm come to the brand by individuals who think they know how to manage it, but really don't, is even greater. Marketing and communications people need to be that person who is there to build, render aid but also defend the brand, all depending on what the situation calls for.