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Each year at this time the gigantic Consumer Electronics Show occurs in Las Vegas. This is like the Super Bowl of the technology industry with equal parts hype, illusion, innovation and debauchery in the program. What strikes me every year, however, is not necessarily the news or products coming out of CES – here’s one summary of the key trends at CES – but that the event is virtually ignored by the PR industry.
As I read article after article in the business, marketing and technology media outlets, there is nary a mention in PR industry publications. (PRWeek US does have one article, but it focuses on how brands are adapting their promotions to drive buzz at the event rather than the actual technology.) There’s a similar trend on popular PR blogs and discussion groups, with those leaning on communication (or broader, related topics like engagement and dialogue) virtually ignoring the event and related discussions.
This lack of interest, and coverage, reflects a dangerous blind spot for the PR industry, which still focuses on churning out content and traditional techniques and tools and lacks interest and expertise in emerging technologies. I’ve witnessed the same “leading from behind” trend with the industry’s uneven, tentative reaction to the social media revolution, which has resulted in sporadic deployment and glaring knowledge gaps across the industry. It’s as if the technology side of the equation has been outsourced to digital agencies or even IT teams (though the latter also lag badly in some organizations.)
I recognize CES is about consumer technology and products, but I believe the concept of marketing to consumers carries some relevance to marketing – or communicating – to other audiences, including employees. At minimum, should professional communicators not track what new technologies are impacting various products and industries – particularly those directly grounded in communication areas like digital content and collaboration?
This is one area where marketing and advertising firms seem to have the upper hand. They realize, it seems, that they risk irrelevance and oblivion if they don’t seek to understand and implement new technology to inform and engage customers. I like the approach of the Starcom/Publicis agency team, which hosted hundreds of clients at CES to expose them to emerging trends and partner in discussions on the implications for marketing. Their message on the event is perceptive and telling:
“CES is about more than just technology. The agency views it instead at the Consumer Experience Show. […] One of the underlying messages from CES is that technology is a major contributor to a culture and business climate that is evolving at warp speed. Ultimately, creating a compelling experience is what we’re all struggling to do.”
I keep hoping that the PR industry will stop playing catch up on these major trends. Maybe I’ll see more interest and participation at SXSW in Austin, which is ostensibly more relevant to PR professionals. Getting informed and engaged is in the interests of our industry, and our clients.
A recent war of words – played out on the Web between Gawker and Reddit – was only the latest example of the argument surrounding the right approach for screening comments on the Intranet. In this case, the folks at Gawker helped to out one of the most notorious trolls on Reddit, which is a popular hangout for anonymous users who like to push the envelope on what is appropriate content. The discussion surrounding this issue raised important questions about privacy, conduct rules and the quality and scope of free expression. I have to admit I’m glad Gawker “outed” the troll in question – since I found his work toxic – but I wish Reddit would have more taken proactive steps to purge their site of the most egregious abuses.
This online polemic brought to light an unfortunate truth about the Web; the sad state of commentary of many sites and platforms. Several years ago, when new social platforms greatly expanded and facilitated the process of online commentary, I was optimistic that communities (both large and specific to sites and authors) would generate a fairly useful and candid exchange of ideas. There would always be outliers and pesky critics who seem to spend all their waking hours on sites, of course, but on balance the community would self-regulate and provide a range of reasonable ideas and arguments.
Unfortunately, based on what I’m seeing online lately I have to admit that is often not the case. Many comment sections – even for websites and platforms where you would expect good self-regulation and informed users – are a wasteland of trolls, spammers and perverts. Some of the worst offenders are political hacks that don’t even bother with original content, re-posting their canned message numerous times with little logic. If there are rules of conduct and filters for inappropriate language, they are not immediately apparent. I suspect many of the sites are rarely if ever moderated or edited. I realize that some topics invite strong opinions – notably news and political sites – but the noise has spread well beyond the expected sites and platforms. Take a look at this recent example on CNN, where a seemingly innocuous (and positive) news post about Drake getting his high-school diploma sparked a nasty, racist diatribe of abuse.
Most communication professionals would agree the ideal is to foster robust dialogue on the Web – and to allow questions, comments and suggestions that help extend and enrich the discussion (or related products and services.) But that choice is no longer automatic given the bottom-feeder trash on many comment sections. The key question for many has become – is it even worth it to try to manage the comment sections? More pointedly, how do you encourage and filter comments without coming down too hard on either censorship or chaos? This question is a critical issue not just for individuals and organizations on the web, but also for companies striving to engage their employees through internal platforms behind the firewall.
My take is that allowing anonymous comments – particularly inside a secure, corporate platform – opens the door to the worst abuses. Even without formal identification or registration requirements, the quality of dialogue would greatly improve with more diligent moderation. Set common-sense rules and enforce them. Where abuses do occur – whether based on a site’s conduct guidelines or broader legal restrictions – site managers should take responsibility and remove and/or punish the offenders, rather than taking a hands-off approach with a blanket defense of freedom of speech. Whatever the response, something has to change or I fear many comment sections will be left to a vocal, vitriolic minority that erodes the credibility and relevance of the conversation, as well as the sponsoring sites and organizations.
I’ve been in the communication business a long time; now well into my second decade. Though I’ve witnessed many changes as the profession has evolved – most of them positive – there are also several industry characteristics that seem to stubbornly resist progress, almost like anachronisms. These aren’t so positive. Granted, this is just an unscientific tally from my personal perspective, but here is a list of communication quirks, or habits, that I’m surprised to still be seeing in the workplace:
- I’m amazed at the prominence of much-maligned PowerPoint as a communication tool. Even harsh critics seem to use the tool – with minor variations and embellishments – even as they attack the platform. Despite the introduction of plenty of new technology and platforms over the years – including more dynamic PP tools like Prezi and new visual options – the tried-and-true model remains ubiquitous.
- Interactive, digital 3-D environments like Second Life have a very low profile, and usage, despite the early hype and promise. A few cutting-edge firms use the platforms for a wide range of communication activities (including secure, enterprise versions for internal use) but many pros seem to have little awareness or interest in this technology.
- Corporate communications content is almost devoid of humor, which is so prominent in our digital lives and a key ingredient in the best marketing and entertainment campaigns. I understand some topics are serious, but the PR industry seems to have a deathly fear of humor that fuels work that is needlessly boring and forgettable.
- I still see much more “push” communication – or talking to/at our audiences – than “pull” activities, where users can access information they want, when and where they want to. Genuine conversation – which can be fostered through a range of new social media tools – is even more rare.
- Many companies still have no social media strategy. And I’m not talking about a proactive, intervention plan. Many don’t even have a defensive, passive social media program – with a basic employee policy and/or rudimentary monitoring.
- While the internet is truly global – a virtual community where distance and borders are irrelevant – many companies are still surprisingly insular and lack basic knowledge of global communication trends and differences. (One example: no awareness or recognition of the dominance of languages other than English on the Internet.)
- With apologies to my friends in IT… most IT departments in organizations remain a reluctant partner and barrier to progress, rather than a technology leader or facilitator. Yes, they have to consider costs and risks. But IT’s lack of attention to new technology and thin excuses (we can’t support that third-party platform) has made the function less relevant in many organizations.
- Finally, perhaps the most surprising…too many professionals still lead with a tactic at the expense of strategy. It’s the old shoot, fire, aim adage…with a checklist mentality focused on deliverables and activity and not on driving impactful, relevant objectives. The new version – “can you set us up with a Facebook page” – is simply an updated variation of pushing out the old employee newsletter (without clear purpose or metrics.)
Like in any industry, it can be hard to change entrenched habits. And our bosses or clients – senior executives – are often the ones pushing back on untested, new approaches. But if we hope to position ourselves as smart, agile consultants we can’t fall back on excuses and inertia.
I have to admit to a morbid fascination with the hyper-partisan and highly ritualistic wall of noise that serves as communication during this election season in the United States. You know the playbook: deploying an army of “surrogates” to amplify the daily message platform; vacuous appearances in friendly, choreographed media interviews; carpet-bombing of shrill, bombastic advertising (much of it devoid of nuance or credibility); and, commentary by a motley crew of journalists, polarized media personalities and self-appointed expert pundits.
The premise behind this political playbook seems to be that saying something loud and often – no matter how tenuous the relationship with objectivity or truth - will eventually get people to believe it . It suggests that subtlety and creativity have no place in bare-knuckle political advertising (which would explain the highly formulaic production that mimics low-rent infomercials.) It also seems based on the assumption that most of us rely, almost exclusively, on media sources that are already aligned with our beliefs – almost like talking to ourselves. In other words, we access news and information from our side of the political divide; the rest is likely rotten and misleading anyway, so why bother. Perhaps the worst aspect of the political toolkit is the intense personal attacks; the debate is often framed not by disagreement about policy or vision, but by dubious personal attacks questioning the character and integrity of the candidates. Beyond the merit of these specific tactics, which seem almost anachronistic in this age of empowering technological progress and social media, this whole approach seems perched on the belief that most people are simply not very smart.
In spite of my personal distaste for this carnival, it does raise two important questions for me and other communication professionals. Does any of this really work? And is there something valuable here communication professionals can learn from?
Does any of this really work? There’s been plenty of discourse and disagreement on the question of whether the political communication model actually works. Maybe I’m an idealist, but I like to believe that most informed observers, – who are willing to look beyond the most predictable, partisan media outlets – have the judgment and intellectual curiosity to make up their own minds on the issues. Those who are most partisan happily return to their favored sources to hear what they want to hear, but many others will take advantage of the rich, diverse array of information sources, formal and otherwise, to shape their opinion. In terms of the loudest winning the argument (or election), history is littered with those who mistakenly thought their money, and advertising clout, could buy them victory (Meg Whitman is one recent example.) Furthermore, I’m not sold on the logic that hearing a message repeated by 10 people, all obviously towing the party line, will make us more likely to believe it than if we heard it only from the candidate. There are also many examples of voters contradicting the polls, and experts, predicting one outcome or another based on their campaign acumen. So my verdict on whether this model works is: the evidence is mixed, and I don’t see enough reason to throw my values and professional integrity out the window.
Is there something valuable here communication professionals can learn from?
This second question is one that comes up often with peers, particularly younger professionals new to the PR/communication industry. My answer to them is that politics is the last place I would go to pick up valuable best practices. Yes, there are certainly some lessons we can learn from the political process – notably the sophisticated use of research in message development, enlisting of third parties and local volunteers, and efficient use of “war room” monitoring and response teams. There are also important media trends we can learn from, such as the shift to more blatant, unapologetic political alignment. But overall the extreme (some would say perverse) communication approach favored in political campaigns is a good model of what to avoid if you want to foster a credible, lasting relationship with your audiences. Hype and propaganda may win you a few temporary victories (including some elections) but facts, balance and transparency are more important if you want long-term relevance and respect as a source, or professional counsel.
Ultimately, I have faith in the capacity of well-intentioned people to sift through the noise, do their homework and make up their own minds. Banking on the ignorance and gullibility of people is not in the best interest of voters, or the PR profession.
I recently attended a conference in Austin that focused on social media best practices, and more specifically the merit of word-of-mouth in driving brand reputation and preference.
Wordofmouth.org’s Andy Sernovitz makes a compelling and deceptively simple argument that love – or making your customers happy – is the fuel for positive, robust word-of-mouth conversation. This positive buzz, in turn, provides the essential element for a lasting, mutually beneficial relationship between customer and company that typically translates into customer advocacy and, ideally, purchase.
In short, companies need to give their customers a good reason to like them, and talk about their products or services. Making customers happy – best done by doing things big and small that are remarkable, or special – helps spark and spread the conversation, and also ensures the buzz remains positive – which is critical since we all know that a lover scorned can make a great deal of bad noise. Sernovitz has a funny line in his presentation that advertising is the price for not having good word-of-mouth; companies without a robust, active fan base need to pay to broadcast their message to generate the same awareness and interest. Another key point here is that this goes well beyond the actual product or service the company offers, it’s also about how they treat their customers.
In an era when personal recommendations carry considerable weight in consumer consideration and purchase, the relevance, emotional heft and organic credibility of word-of-mouth is critical. This observation intuitively makes plenty of sense to me. I’ve experience first-hand how simple steps taken by companies – both good and bad – have dramatically impacted my impression, commentary and likelihood to recommend them to others.
So here’s the question I asked myself walking out of this conference: does this same logic, or model of loving your target audience, apply to a corporate context? More specifically, could it help to make employee communications more relevant and compelling, and help to address the malaise and detachment that seems widespread in so many organizations?
My answer is…a qualified yes.
On the one hand, I can see how this model isn’t a perfect fit for the corporate world.
- First, information like quarterly earnings, strategic priorities or leadership changes does not exactly fit the mold of content that can delight and surprise the audience. Corporate news can tend to be dry and formal.
- It’s also important to remember that content must match the situation and audience, so a more informal, conversational and/or humorous approach may not be appropriate for all companies or employee segments.
- While companies can reach and engage new fans and customers every day, they typically have a much more limited and stable internal audience. Dealing with employees, therefore, doesn’t allow the same experimentation or re-invention you can have with consumers.
- Finally, love must be earned through both deeds and words. In an era rife with company layoffs and cost-cutting, an approach that appears contrived or disingenuous may foster cynicism and even anger rather than love.
Still, I think there are important lessons here for communication professionals:
- Never think of employees as a captive audience that have no choice but to absorb and use the information you share. The more you think of employees as internal customers – with their own preferences, habits, concerns and, yes, distractions – the more you can customize your outreach to increase relevance and impact. A good mindset is to remember you are competing for eyeballs just as you would in a marketing context.
- Though corporate information and news can be dry and technical, there is plenty of opportunity to make communication more original, smart and…yes, more remarkable. There are many internal campaigns and messages that use the best elements of marketing – including sarcasm and humor – to break through the clutter and start positive conversations. Maybe the best opportunity is the element of surprise – doing something (positive) your employees don’t expect.
- Don’t underestimate the small touches – whether informal manager recognition or a CEO responding quickly to an employee email. Employee opinions are shaped by these small, daily interactions as much as the formal HR policies and benefits.
- Listen to your employees. Really listen. That means not just the usual annual surveys – which often have a dubious reputation – but addressing questions and concerns through all available channels. Even better, try to fix issues that need fixing.
- Remember that this is a conversation, not a monologue. By its very nature, word-of-mouth must be allowed to flow freely with minimal restriction. If you want to start some good buzz, don’t strangle it with onerous legal hurdles or by stifling legitimate criticism.
- Remember that line about “advertising is the price of not having good word-of-mouth”? Use that same logic to calibrate your communication output to focus more on how your employees are reacting to your activities, and how you can improve that response, than simply increasing the volume of your outreach. Better to do less communication that works.
- Identify and nurture your influential supporters. Much like on the web, the comments and opinions of employee peers will play a big role in the water cooler discussions.
Perhaps the biggest lesson here is that your communication approach must consider both the head and the heart. It’s almost a professional cliché, but despite that too many organizations emphasize fact over emotion and productivity over opinion. Think of your employees as individuals that will be more engaged and supportive if they feel appreciated and relevant. Maybe you do need more than love in the business world, but you probably won’t be successful without it.
Through my career as a communication professional, one mantra that’s provided me with sustained inspiration and direction is the need to consider all five senses while communicating. In other words, though we tend to spend most of our time in written words (only using sight) there is benefit in using other senses as appropriate – particularly sight and sound – to try to reach and affect our target audiences. As it happens, I got a great reminder the past few weeks of the impact and effectiveness of compelling visuals.
First, I finally joined the Pinterest bandwagon. I’d heard the increasing buzz about the booming site (or app?) from peers and friends alike, and now use it regularly to “pin” and share a wide range of images. I’m still not sure if it’s a fad or adds any lasting value to the on-line conversation, but from my perspective the images (most of them photographs or posters) are as compelling and informative as the best blog posts or Twitter comments – though it’s true the format limits the detail and nuance the images can convey. Still, I’ve discovered several stories and campaigns – including the much-hyped KONY story – through their Pinterest “windows.” And for what it’s worth my peers and friends have a much richer understanding of my personality and preferences from my selection of images.
The past few months some of the best blog posts I’ve read – or seen – involved info-graphics on a wide range of topics – ranging from the growth of the Internet to the DNA of social media. And by the way, they are much more compelling, memorable and user-friendly than equivalent white papers on similar topics. Check out this one as an example. I’ve also noticed a strong trend towards peers and friends sending me (or posting) photos and videos – often with little or no text.
My best personal anecdote of the power of visuals is about a simple photograph. While working several years ago in a global organization undergoing a massive transformation (both cultural and structural) we convinced the CEO to focus on several stark, bold photographs to convey the key themes behind the change. Over time these photos became widely recognized and even used as unofficial brands for the various facets of the program. One photo in particular – a fish jumping from a safe, small bowl of water into a larger one – came to symbolize the essence of the company’s revolution and was prominently displayed in the CEO’s office as a reminder. Of course, there was content behind the photo – without meaning using photos can easily invite sarcasm and even parody.
I’m not the only one thinking about this visual trend; this blog post in AdAge argues the shift to visual is part of a greater cultural trend sparked by technology: Smarter devices are prompting more occasions for people to create and consume visual content, while social media is encouraging that content to be shared on multiple platforms.
While the use of strong visuals and design has long been a best practice in advertising and entertainment (which could be described as both a form of marketing and communication), it remains nascent and uneven in the PR industry. For many organizations, the focus on visuals (and related emphasis on graphic design) is limited to primitive PowerPoint slides and esoteric debates about fonts. Even simple internal branding or program collateral is rare in many corporate settings. Where visuals exist, they are too often functional and lacking attention to creative, original design. (When is the last time you’ve seen content on bulletin boards with any hint of imagination and visual originality?) Video also seems limited in many companies – at least in terms of internal use – despite the fact new technology makes shooting and editing content ridiculously easy and inexpensive. Even photography seems to be an after-thought in communication platforms and plans. Years ago this might be explained by the cost of design and printing, but in this digital age there is no excuse for the paucity of pictures.
While one could argue the external world bombards us with too much visual stimulus – think a Blade Runner dystopia where imagery overload drowns out even compelling ideas – many organizations are stuck too far in the other direction. In a commendable effort to avoid hype and be direct, they have become too serious and formulaic, even boring. Another possible factor behind this visual gap is the lingering firewalls between related disciplines like marketing, IT, design and PR. While it seems like a no-brainer to walk down the hall to your marketing team to leverage them in an internal promotion – one of many examples of potential cross-pollination – it seems to be a rare occurrence.
The result of this lack of visual imagination is predictable: many internal communication programs have limited resonance and impact on employee awareness and engagement. While our focus as communication professionals should always remain the message, we need to expand our thinking about how we communicate with our audiences. The power of images is too potent to ignore.
I recently returned from what, on paper, was an expensive adventure debacle. Despite a “fail” in my original quest – reaching the summit of one of the world’s seven summits – I learned a much more important lesson on the value of friendship and compassion, as well as the importance of good old face-to-face conversation. For the first time in years, my laptop, iPhone and all things wi-fi and social media were totally useless and irrelevant.
Here’s my travel story. This past December I was on a climbing expedition to Aconcagua, Argentina’s mammoth mountain, which was highlighted by an almost comical series of physical misadventures, travel snafus and unexpected twists. At the heart of my story is the small problem of getting altitude sickness (I’m totally fine now) and having to get off the mountain, pronto, from Camp 3…located at 18,200 feet elevation. My quest to get off the mountain and back to civilization (Santiago airport) was similar in detours and frustration to the John Hughes classic “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” (FYI – in the interest of brevity I will omit details regarding the 24-hour flight delay from my home to start my voyage, caused by a plane malfunction, causing me to arrive in Mendoza, Argentina one day late and having to scramble by mini-bus and then foot, assisted by pack mules, to join my expedition mates.)
Getting back to Base Camp, or Plaza Argentina, went well enough considering my wobbly legs and altitude-induced exhaustion. That’s where the real problems started. The camp doctor confirmed what my guides and I knew – I would quickly feel much better at a relative “low” elevation of 14,500 feet – but should get off the mountain as quickly as possible. That made sense, but it quickly became clear that would be as difficult to get off Aconcagua as it was to get to and up the mountain.
Here were my choices:
- Book a flight on the Aconcagua Park helicopters. The advantage here is speed (15 minutes flight time to logistics center and hotel at base of mountain) with negatives being high cost (don’t ask) and total unpredictability of timing due to the notorious mountain winds.
- Book a “carry” mule to take you back to park entrance. Advantage is you don’t have to hike, or carry your massive pack, but negatives are timing; 3-4 days delay to get a carry mule up to Base Camp and then 2 days or so to hike/ride back down. Also not cheap.
- Book a mule to carry our packs to park entrance. Advantage is we can guarantee departure in 1-2 days, but cost is mixed (need to pay for mule and time spent in Base Camp) and this would require my guide to return to Camp 3 to retrieve his gear, and then hike back down to accompany me to the park entrance. Did I mention this is a grueling 12-hour hike, even accounting for the lighter daypacks and downhill grade.
- Stay at Base Camp for perpetuity drinking $20 dollar beers and avoiding showers.
I chose the helicopter option. But not so fast…things happen on their own time on the mountain. The timing of the helicopter flights is totally unpredictable; the notorious, screaming winds on Aconcagua often make it too dangerous to fly. As it happens I was on stand-by, fully packed and ready to go, for about 30 hours. That delay was costly, since Plaza Argentina is like most mountain base camps – a global village where costs for limited services are often astronomical (e.g. $40 cash for a meal, $10 for a Pepsi.) Finally, the weather broke and I was able to leave Base Camp with a park helicopter almost 32 hours after I arrived. I was too happy to realize I was petrified during the ride, but let me say I now know what it feels like to fly a helicopter in bumpy, fierce cross-winds mere feet from mountain peaks. (I can take that one off my bucket list.) Finally, back to civilization…sort of.
The helicopter and a quick car ride by a local support team got me as far as a small hamlet of hiker hotels and restaurants on the main highway, roughly halfway between Santiago and Mendoza. Though this area is a staging area for many expeditions, it’s a desolate and isolated place. Thankfully, I found a hotel that served as unofficial home to climbers – and a great place for a hot meal and shower. My challenge, despite the new comforts, was to try to get a bus ride to Santiago to catch my flight home – a seemingly simple proposition since I was on a the main highway crossing between Argentina and Chile. But things are not so simple in Argentina. Due to the Christmas holiday timing, nothing moved (and no phones were answered) for roughly 24 hours. Then the hotel staff discovered that very few of the bus lines stop at this particular spot on the highway.
Well, thanks to the help of the friendly staff at my hotel, I eventually booked a seat on a small, stuffy mini-bus and made my way to Santiago. I thought I was in business when I noted the very loud, very old video players booming old Guns & Roses videos in the bus. But then the smoking started. And little did I know the route would actually go right over the spine of the Andes. Let me say that I have never, that I recall, been more afraid for my life than during the roller-coaster drive through the steep, sinewy ravines they consider a highway. The area around Portillo (a ski resort for hard-core skiers wanting snow during the North American summer) was something like a scene out of Lord of the Rings, with gigantic, jagged peaks looming (precariously) over the highway road. Local drivers shifted lanes with abandon, apparently not concerned about either gravity or the hundreds of rickety trucks coming from the opposite direction. Other passengers informed me calmly that this stretch was notorious for rock falls and traffic fatalities.
After my white knuckle ride, I found myself in a Santiago bus depot about 20 miles from the airport…and with a very tight window to catch my flight back to the U.S. Thankfully, a Chilean version of a guardian angel – an honest taxi driver who claimed to be a former auto racer – helped me get my luggage and got me to the airport in 15 minutes. Many rules of the road were ignored and broken during this harrowing drive, but I made it safely. Once at the airport, things began to fall back into place: check-in, security, coffee, boarding and the relative security and comfort of a flight home.
As noted, the best part of this story is not that I eventually got home safely – though not in the time or fashion that I expected – but that every step of the way was due to the effort, ingenuity and support of people along the way. My tools of the trade were conversation – often in broken Spanish or variations on tourist mime – and reliance on the incredible friendship and assistance of strangers along the way. I did use technology a couple of times – notably a fax/phone at the hotel – but that’s about it in terms of my usual communication tools. And I think it was good for me. The lesson: communication is about people, not the technology or tool.
Here’s a list of those I need to thank for helping me get home:
- Tom and Jonathan – my excellent guides – and the rest of the staff at Mountain Guides International
- The rest of the “Happy Endings” expedition team
- Veronica and others (including Base Camp cooks) at Grajales Expeditions
- Steve, Julie and staff of the Ayelen Hotel de Montana in Penitentes
- My Russian helicopter pilot (too scared to remember his name)
- My Santiago taxi driver (never got his name)
Well, another one bites the dust. Add one more name to the long list of organizations undone by poor decisions and even worse crisis management. In the space of one week the Susan G. Komen Foundation – famous for being the brand behind the ubiquitous pink campaign against Breast Cancer – has done serious, perhaps irreparable damage, to its reputation and brand. Check out this article in Fast Company for a good summary of the imbroglio.
The Komen leadership team did so many things wrong it’s difficult to know where to start. Let me try…
- Think before you act – First and foremost, if you are going to make a policy decision that will have a big impact on your operations, make sure there is a solid rationale behind the change. The argument used by Komen for the suspension of payments to Planned Parenthood – that changes were dictated by a new policy prohibiting organizations under investigation from funding – appeared disingenuous. Buried in the policy legalese – our desire was to fulfill our fiduciary duty to our donors by not funding grant applications made by organizations under investigation – is the reality that the “investigation” in question was seen by most as a partisan witch-hunt by one anti-abortion member of Congress. Observers were further led to believe the dramatic impact of this policy on Planned Parenthood was a mere coincidence.
- Don’t try to bury the story – The story of the policy change broke with an article by Associated Press, and quickly picked up steam on Twitter and Facebook before becoming a top story for traditional media outlets. The Komen team didn’t announce the policy broadly – presumably trying a stealth approach – preferring to inform it’s various affiliates directly. (By all accounts Planned Parenthood was not informed in advance of the change.) When the story broke Komen leaders were slow to react, and their initial responses were brief, formal and defensive. Some PR observers suggest the battle was lost in those initial 24-hours, when Planned Parenthood mobilized its fans and led a smart, vocal PR counter-offensive.
- Don’t ignore social media – The failure of the Komen team to acknowledge, and adequately respond to, the uproar on social networks is seen by many as the biggest failure in their crisis management strategy. The outrage was swift, viral and overwhelmingly negative. Many of my female “friends” on Facebook, some big supporters of Komen over the years, expressed their disappointment and disavowal. The Komen team did use Twitter for updates (largely repeating their canned messages) but anchored their response through more traditional “push” channels like written statements and YouTube videos. To make matters worse, they were accused of scrubbing the most negative responses from their branded Facebook pages and websites.
- Remember who you are – Somewhere along the way it appears the Komen team forgot they were a charity whose stated purpose was promoting the health of women – including poor women – and that they are a non-profit dependent on their supporters and fans for revenue. Their funding decision – at best an awkward decision based on dubious legal reasons – and their subsequent response seemed totally at odds with the feel-good, compassionate image of their brand. Whatever the merit of their decision, the impact of cutting off thousands of women from low-cost access to breast screening was anathema to their stated mission.
- Listen to others, not your own story – One lesson that Karen Brinker and team may still not have learned is that stubbornly repeating an argument that few believe is not courageous, it’s counter-productive. In fact, the Komen team continued their defensive, almost defiant stance even as several officials resigned in protest – surely not a good sign. Even after reversing it’s decision, Komen tweets and comments stubbornly continued to defend their original decision and argue politics was never a factor. The battle had been lost, but the lesson was not learned.
- Back what you say – The Komen team never provided solid evidence to counter the strong circumstantial evidence, supported by claims from former staffers, that the reason for their policy change was political. It didn’t help that previous statements and recent tweets by new policy VP Karen Handel made it clear she was an ardent critic of Planned Parenthood.
- Don’t treat people as idiots – Perhaps the most egregious error by the Komen team in this crisis is their attempt to position the response to the policy change as positive, even as any casual observer could see the overwhelmingly negative social media reaction and related media coverage. This blatant attempt at spin was as misguided and incredulous as it was ineffective.
- Build and protect your goodwill – Another potential factor in the quick fall from grace for the Komen organization was that its goodwill may have eroded over the past few years due to some very uncharitable behavior – including its hard-ball legal stance against any hint of copyright infringement. The brittle, arrogant demeanor of Komen founder – and main spokesperson – Karen Brinker probably didn’t help their cause.
Of course, Komen did have the wisdom to change their decision – albeit belatedly and without totally letting go of their delusional narrative. In fact, they continue to be defensive about the “incorrect presumption” behind their ill-advised policy, and pointedly did not promise to renew the cancelled grants to Planned Parenthood.
Every year, I pay close attention to Mary Meeker’s annual presentation on internet trends. Meeker, one-time analyst at Morgan Stanley and now partner at Kleiner Perkins, has become famous (some would say infamous) for her internet analysis and market projections. Her presentation and commentary is always worthwhile for any PR professional – particularly given the critical and growing impact of the Web and technology on communications and advertising.
Once again, my reaction to Meeker’s analysis is focused not so much on her conclusions, which are cogent and important, but in the apparent gap between technology trends and the state of corporate communications. Allowing the caveat that my perspective is totally subjective and anecdotal (based on recent first-hand experience with perhaps twenty organizations largely based in North America) I see some notable gaps.
Let me start with a snapshot of relevant trends from Meeker’s presentation:
- Globalization – More than 80% of users of the world’s top internet properties (including Facebook and Google) live outside the United States. In 3 years, China added more internet users than exist in the U.S.
- The Web is social – Social networkers around the world now outnumber internet users.
- Mobility – Mobile technology (led by 3G Smartphones and the unprecedented adoption of tablets) continues to grow at historic rates. Mobile search and access to social networks is growing rapidly. Mary suggests the mega-trend of the 21st Century is the empowerment of people via mobile, connected devices.
- Digital content – User interfaces and digital content is moving from text and icons to a new combination of sound/touch/video. Content is now accessed, moved and altered through a simple touch on the screen.
- Content aggregation – Content is increasingly being packaged, and accessed, though sites that aggregate rather than create original content.
Now let’s compare each of these trends to what I typically see in my communication work:
- Globalization - Most companies struggle with truly global communications, and rarely make a concerted effort to ensure their content is representative and relevant across their international locations. Call it the HQ syndrome. Many don’t bother to address the most obvious challenge of foreign language in their corporate outreach; English is the default language, even in organizations with a majority of staff outside North America.
- The Web is social - Despite the tremendous growth and opportunity of social technology, many organizations still hesitate to introduce even the most basic social platforms (such as internal blogs) despite the fact most intranet platforms now come with built-in social capabilities. Even fewer encourage and train their staff to be online ambassadors or interact with customers. Some organizations have yet to introduce employee Web policies.
- Mobility - Despite the proliferation of mobile devices, only a hand-full of companies I’ve worked for/with use company-supplied or personal devices for communication purposes, and that is often limited to text digests. Even organizations with many remote staff and/or manufacturing environments where workers don’t have access to computers, mobile outreach is limited. Many companies still ban use of iPhones or other Smartphones that aren’t officially supplied.
- Digital content - Text pushed out via email is still king in corporate communications, with a surprising paucity of original video content, and even less packaged audio (though I’ve seen…or heard…some innovative programs that leverage podcasting and DVDs to train or inform staff.) The ubiquitous Powerpoint slides, which can now feature interesting visuals and compelling design, are often limited to busy, generic text. Photos are becoming more common, but there is rarely a proactive program designed to help create and share original photography. In terms of interfaces, I’ve yet to see an intranet (or many external websites) that’s anything close to the iconic, visualized interface used by many technology providers.
- Content aggregation – Too many companies still believe in the build-it-and-they-will-come come mantra, limiting their online presence to official corporate sites with dubious prospects. (The obvious exception is companies that market and sell online.) Most content on corporate sites is usually produced by the organization, and often self-serving. On the internal side the same trend applies, but with even less access to external content or feeds. Usually, a fairly rigid hierarchy of approved authors prevents staff from being active content contributors.
Even allowing for aversion to risk and cultural differences across workplaces, I’m surprised our profession appears so out of step with emerging trends. From personal experience, I know it’s difficult to go against corporate inertia, but we risk losing our credibility and relevance if we don’t counsel our clients/leaders to consider these trends and look for opportunities to innovate and improve.
It’s rare a day goes by without another example of an employee getting fired or reprimanded for posting something inappropriate on their Twitter account, or a company being forced into damage control due to an off-color comment or tone-deaf message. I read this example of Congressional staffers and their ill-advised Twitter chatter this morning. There are countless other blunders that have generated heated coverage – ranging from political scandals (hello Tony Weiner) to marketing snafus. All this noise usually creates two concerns, or conclusions, with many of my clients:
- Social media is very risky for organizations…probably too risky
- It’s very difficult to regulate and monitor social media interaction
As I’ve written before in this blog over the years, I think the fears of social media are overblown and misdirected. Yes, social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook allow content and commentary to spread globally quickly – whether it’s positive or critical. But a cursory review of the most celebrated social media snafus (including the one referenced above) reveals that in most cases the controversy could easily have been avoided with basic common sense: Don’t lie. Don’t use inappropriate language or content. Be nice. Play fair. I would argue these are the same guidelines employees would use with any other workplace forum or channel (including company email.) In fact, I am often amazed at how ridiculous and ill-advised these controversial posts are…causing me to ask rhetorically what were they thinking?
The issue of monitoring and managing social media outreach is also surrounded by misconceptions. Companies can use a wide range of user-friendly tools to monitor the Web and track posts, triage comments or questions and identify emerging trends. With regard to organization, many of recognized social media leaders use a small, dedicated team and simple planning process to direct their social media efforts. In other words, this doesn’t have to be that overly costly or complicated. The barriers to entry for social media are very low for individual and institutional users alike.
Rather than blaming social media channels – which are inherently neutral and provide incredible platforms for robust, real-time conversation with millions of users – company leaders should spend more time selecting and training their staff, and determining the strategic purpose of their social media activities (even if they are mostly passive and reactive.) These steps don’t have to be onerous. Many of the most successful companies actively using social media – notably Dell, IBM, Best Buy and Starbucks – have clear and simple policies and objectives. And determining if and how you want to get involved can (and should) be shaped by due diligence and strategic planning.
The fact that some have made mistakes using social media platforms is an indictment of the culprits, not the technology.