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I read a headline in my local newspaper today about the list of 2010′s top lies according to the website Politifact.com – a national fact-checking website. The winner was the oft-repeated claim that President Obama’s health care overhaul was a “government takeover”. According to the Politifact researchers, this loaded phrase has no basis in fact and is, at best, a gross exaggeration. According to the reports, the messaging was developed by a political consultant and designed to foster opposition to the legislation.

Sadly, the loaded, misleading phrase apparently played an important role in shaping public opinion – and fostering widespread misunderstanding – about the health care plan. Republican leaders and pundits repeated the phrasing with almost obsessive regularity – following the old adage that if you say something often enough, people will eventually believe it. A number of public opinion polls suggest the attacks got traction with the public, and most observers believe the losses by Democrats in the November elections can be attributed primarily to negative views on the healthcare reforms. (FYI: Factcheck.org has also repeatedly debunked the government takeover claim.)

No matter their political convictions or opinions on healthcare reform, communication professionals should be disappointed by the apparent success of this dubious messaging. Yes, it was effective – at least in the short-term – as a provocative and simplistic sound-bite. And it certainly helped shape public opinion against the healthcare reforms – at least so far. But it also reinforced all the negative stereotypes of public relations as spin, fluff and disingenuous hype. I’ll allow that politics is a more polarized environment where truth is often vulnerable to simplistic political slogans, but the dramatic impact of the healthcare attacks is still cause for concern. Has truth actually become irrelevant in public discourse?

As communication professionals, we’re often required to help our clients or companies to influence public debate and garner positive media coverage – and ultimately help drive a strategic agenda. And we certainly do our best to present information through messaging that is resonant and palatable with the target audience. We even advocate the message repetition I mentioned in the previous paragraph. But that doesn’t mean we should lose sight of the fundamental principles of public relations – such as commitment to transparency, honesty and respect for your audience. That’s what drives long-term credibility and trust, and helps build positive brand or personal reputation. We see clues of the Pyrrhic healthcare victory in the political arena; though public opinion is firmly against the healthcare overhaul, Americans have very low levels of trust in their elected officials – including those who so harshly criticized the healthcare reforms. So the messengers pushing the government overhaul canard seem to have a credibility problem of their own.

Ultimately, as professionals we need to ask ourselves what we would do to win an election, promote a stock or help sell a product. I suggest that sticking close to the facts is a good place to start. With no ethical compass, we deserve all the criticism the industry gets.

Many discussions about social media inevitably turn to the issue of ROI – or how you can measure impact and, more specifically, if there is empirical evidence (or reliable projections) that social media can boost hard business metrics like productivity, revenue and profits. While I’ve heard of a few isolated success stories (like Dell’s profits through Twitter promotions) I haven’t seen much consensus on a measurable, widespread impact – particularly related to consumer activities. In fact, there are still pockets of skeptics who deny social media can add directly to the bottom line. (Conversely, some social media fans/users suggest focusing on finding a bullet-proof ROI link is missing the point, since social media is more about conversation and engagement than short-term returns.)

Well, the folks at McKinsey – who could never be accused of using fuzzy math – recently came out with a study that suggests companies who make extensive use of the Web 2.0 technology have higher returns and margins than their peers. [FYI: you may have to subscribe to McKinsey to view the full report.] What’s telling about the findings is that McKinsey found that organizations that were highly networked – meaning they leveraged collaborative technology inside the enterprise as well as with external partners – were most likely to be market leaders (and gainers) and benefit from higher margins. There is plenty of room for progress, however; only 3 percent of survey respondents were defined as fully networked enterprises – with robust social media engagement across audiences. McKinsey also details the trend towards increasing use of social media inside the enterprise, and the shift beyond the more established business-to-consumer activities. The authors suggest this trend will exacerbate a gap between the forward-thinking organizations (who are gaining measurable benefits) and those reluctant to fully engage the collaborative technology.

A closer look at the findings shows that respondents to the global survey defined a wide range of “measurable benefits” – which confirms that most organizations are looking well beyond core metrics like profit-and-loss for evidence of ROI. But the purported benefits are by no means soft, in corporate parlance. Take a look at the top 4 benefits – based on percentage of respondents whose companies achieved benefits from use of Web 2.0 technologies – across the main categories:

Internal Purposes

  • Increase speed of access to knowledge (77% of respondents)
  • Reduce communication costs (60%)
  • Increase speed of access to internal experts (52%)
  • Decrease travel costs (44%)

Consumer Purposes

  • Increase effectiveness of marketing (awareness, consideration, conversion & loyalty) (63%)
  • Increase customer satisfaction (50%)
  • Reduce marketing costs (45%)
  • Reduce support costs (35%)

External Partners/Suppliers

  • Increase speed of access to knowledge (57%)
  • Reduce communication costs (53%)
  • Increase satisfaction of partners (45%)
  • Increase speed of access to external experts (40%)

How can companies join the networked high flyers described in this survey? Here are suggestions from the McKinsey study:

  • Integrate the use of Web 2.0 into employees’ day-to-day work activities. What’s in the work flow is what gets used by employees and what leads to benefits.
  • Continue to drive adoption and usage. Benefits appear to be limited without a base level of adoption and usage.
  • Break down the barriers to organizational change. Fully networked organizations appear to have more fluid information flows, deploy talent more flexibly to deal with problems, and allow employees lower in the corporate hierarchy to make decisions.
  • Apply Web 2.0 technologies to interactions with customers, business partners, and employees. Fully networked organizations can achieve the highest levels of self-reported benefits in all types of interactions

As someone who spends a great deal of my time working with companies on internal issues, I’m glad to get this additional ammunition to help convince companies their greatest potential to leverage social media may be inside the organization. McKinsey’s describes these progressive internally networked organizations as cultures where “information is shared more readily and less hierarchically, collaboration across organizational silos is more common, and tasks are more often tackled in a project-based fashion.” Buried in this description is the root of the problem; the reality is that some companies are still not willing to foster this type of decentralized, fluid communication environment. To some, information is still power…and they don’t want to give it up.

One of the challenges of communication planning is coming up with relevant, realistic strategies to communicate with/to a specific audience. Whether the strategic purpose is marketing, reputation management or employment branding, the discussion inevitably reaches the question of delivery and media channels. (One example that comes up frequently in my work is if/how blue-collar employees access the internet from their homes or phones.) Often, in the absence of usage audits or anecdotal evidence, we make assumptions about internet access, hardware and popularity of specific media platforms. A new report on global media trends by AdAge provides some useful context for this discussion.

There are several interesting findings in the study:

  • Facebook (with a user base of 517 million) dominates all other platforms in terms of time spent on site;
  • Media habits in the United States (e.g. the decline popularity of newspapers) are different from other global regions;
  • Television has tremendous reach and popularity in many areas of the world – including many poor markets;
  • Internet access continues to expand, fueled in emerging markets by cheap cyber cafes;
  • Video use is booming in developing markets (like the BRIC countries);
  • Mobile phone growth and penetration is driving most internet usage (due to lower cost compared to desktop or laptop access); and,
  • Digital data content continues to explode – with the latest boost powered by video and movies.

I saw evidence of many of these trends during a visit to Tanzania – where locals could visit internet cafes and guides on Kilimanjaro used phones (all the way up to the summit) to communicate with each other.

These global trends, of course, lack the detail and depth required to adequately plan and execute communications aimed at specific audiences – or communities. Communication and marketing professionals still need to do their homework to confirm the best media recipe to reach a particular group – whether internal or external. The ultimate lesson might be to avoid making too many assumptions; media habits and technology are both evolving at a rapid pace and stereotypes are often based on dubious or outdated data.

If there’s one phrase that makes me wince when I’m talking to peers or clients, it’s can you help us make a viral video? Believe it or not, I hear it quite frequently. Not surprisingly, many corporate executives are now true believers in the power of social media and want to leverage the tremendous profile and marketing clout of YouTube. Unfortunately, you can’t make a viral video. You can make a video and try to help it become viral – meaning viewers will drive others to see it, share it, comment and eventually make it a media sensation well beyond YouTube. Ultimately, viewers decide what becomes viral through their actions and comments.

Though consumers have the power, there are things you can do to increase your chances of encouraging uploads and buzz. Look at the recent Old Spice YouTube campaign as a good example of a successful viral program. This hilarious campaign – which piggy-backed on a popular television ad – has become a new paradigm of how to drive positive word-of-mouth through a viral video campaign. According to media reports, the campaign has generated hundreds of millions of views and publicity across media channels, and there’s also evidence it has boosted sales. The true genius of this campaign was the timely, interactive nature of the conversation – with the Old Spice shirtless man responding to individual tweets, reaching out to influential celebrities and pundits and even making a marriage proposal on behalf of a Twitter fan.

So why did the Old Spice campaign work so well? Here’s my short-list:

- Though the campaign left plenty of room for spontaneity, there was a marketing plan underneath the whimsy designed to maximize reach and impact across networks and sites;

- The videos were genuinely funny, smart and original – the original ads were a great starting point;

- It was responsive – not only in general terms via comments on YouTube but via individual Tweets responses/posts and video content;

- It was designed as an integrated program that went beyond YouTube;

- It downplayed the Old Spice brand (I didn’t find any mention of the products outside the original TV ads);

- The campaign was human and touching – including one video of the Old Spice actor sending a personal message to his son – reinforcing that social media is about real people;

- The campaign knew enough to end on a high, and called it quits before the joke wore thin.

Another important lesson is that the Old Spice guy generated plenty of spoof videos. Video parodies created by viewers are among the most popular on the internet and often widely surpass the original ads in popularity – so be careful what you wish for. (Two recent examples are the hundreds of video parodies of the Tiger Woods and LeBron James Nike commercials.) Further evidence that what goes viral is not decided by marketers but by consumers. (FYI: check out this article for recent stats on the top viral videos on YouTube.)

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