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I was pretty happy to read the dual press statements from Yahoo and Tumblr when they announced their partnership this week. I have to admit in recent months I’ve pretty well given up on press releases – a sterile, decaying art form that is seemingly impervious to innovation and improvement. It’s true that some companies have made their releases more social in recent years, even entertaining, but too often releases are formulaic, devoid of personality and cloaked in vague and trite legal jargon. In other words, they are usually boring, generic and lacking credibility.

In this sorry context come the above mentioned releases. First Yahoo. Right off the bat, you’ve got to give the Yahoo team kudos for featuring the elephant in the room right in their bylinewe promise we won’t screw it up. Marisa Mayer’s comments about Tumblr and its CEO David Karp seem genuine and conversational – as if (lo and behold) the quote is actually real. She also acknowledges the obvious – that the two companies couldn’t be more different – but also makes a good case for how they can complement each other. A few other nice touches – the word awesome and an ironic exclamation point  – help make the release not just credible, but worth reading. And though the release has some typical verbiage on opportunity and assets, the business case is presented in a way that makes sense.

The Tumblr statement is even more refreshing, and totally in keeping with the company’s smart, rebellious image. David Karp’s blog post is funny, sarcastic and ends with a disarming “F… yeah!” It’s also concise and hits the obvious concerns of his team right at the top. All this and not a legal term or ten-dollar word in sight.

Beyond the initial statements, both teams used their arsenal of social media platforms to get the word out and provide ongoing elaboration and commentary. In the process, they haven’t shied from some of the controversial aspects of the deal (notably Tumblr’s not so secret reputation as a hotbed of porn.)

The lesson here is not that companies need to make their press releases irreverent or informal, but they should remember their identity and their target audiences – which include employees and consumers, not just Wall Street heavies. In this case the tone of the statements seemed entirely appropriate. It helps that this transaction seems to fit with the strategy of the respective companies – Yahoo gets a new potential audience, a boost in buzz and some much-needed hip factor; while Tumblr keeps its independence while benefiting from the huge audience and finances of a large partner. Another point I’ve argued many times with peers and clients is that information that is important – notably in formal announcements like press releases that must be carefully crafted – doesn’t have to be serious or boring. Compelling content that is aligned with readers’ interests, lexicon and media habits is much more likely to be read and believed. Isn’t that the point of releases in the first place?

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.

I wasn’t surprised at all by the results of the US presidential election. Despite Republican conspiracy theories about the polls, I believed most were an accurate reflection of the mood of the electorate – or as accurate as polling can be. And I expected a majority of Americans would gravitate to a moderate position on key issues, and be scared off by some of the extreme, simplistic positions promoted by Republican candidates. What did really surprise me, however, was that Romney and his ardent supporters on Fox News seemed genuinely shocked, even flabbergasted, that Obama had won – and decisively at that.

I suggest the main cause of this surprise was the insular, persistent echo chamber constructed by conservative media pundits, the powerful PACs and the Romney campaign that promoted its own narrative at any cost. As a detached observer (I’m Canadian and therefore cannot vote in U.S. elections) it struck me that the conservative media machine was doing a great job telling their own supporters what they wanted to hear, but in the process they built a parallel universe that filtered out or discounted information that didn’t fit their narrative. They appeared to lose touch with the concerns, doubts and opinions of many voters. Witness the histrionic focus on conspiracy theories around the Benghazi attack in the days prior to the vote while most of the country, rightly, seemed far more concerned about the Sandy disaster.

Perhaps more surprising is that the Romney team went along for the ride. In short, they guzzled their own delusional cool-aid. In the process of pushing their message – again and again – and listening primarily to their fans (and billionaire supporters) while avoiding critics, the Romney team seemed to lose the pulse of the broader electorate. They forgot that the essence of a productive communication process is a dialogue, where listening is a key ingredient in delivering a relevant and credible message.

I’ve seen this same insularity and hubris in corporate settings. Some CEOs forcefully promote and execute their agenda with little care or understanding for their employees’ concerns and questions. They pay limited attention to employee feedback, and rely more on informal sources – often senior staff reluctant to share bad news – which fosters an artificial decision-making cocoon that becomes detached from the reality on the front-lines. As a CEO, losing touch with your audience increases the chance your outreach and policies will be duds, and that your employees will ignore, or worse reject, the top-down dictums.

The lesson here for communication professionals is that it’s fine to have an agenda and narrative you want to promote – even a partisan one – but doing so without careful, constant consideration for your audience and a realistic, open perspective is a recipe for disaster. In this case, electoral disaster. Despite the propensity to rely increasingly on partisan hype – a wall-of-sound of repetitive, shrill advertising and commentary – all the wishing and punditry in the world can’t change the reality on the ground. It’s understandable the Romney team didn’t want to show their true hand, but they certainly should have known their realistic prospects, and spent more time listening to the voters rather than their own hype.

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.

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.

I’ve long ago stopped telling people I work in the PR industry. One reason is it can be a tough thing to explain PR to people outside the communication field – particularly if the discussion starts with a sarcastic question about being a “publicist” – but my primary rationale is I don’t want to be associated with an industry that often requires its own image overhaul (irony duly noted.) The latest black eye comes from Burson Marsteller – who was caught in a so-called whisper campaign trying to pitch privacy fears about Google. According to news reports, senior Burson staff approached tech reporters and bloggers to seed unfounded allegations about privacy gaps in Google’s Social Service application. A blogger broke the story by posting the email exchanges.

After predictable (though belated) mea culpa, both Facebook and Burson came under heavy criticism – though the latter was a favorite target on social platforms for initially censoring its Facebook page. Strangely enough, both Facebook and Burson argued in their defence they were merely helping to publicize “publicly available” information – which raises the question why they would have to brief reporters in the first place. Burson eventually admitted it erred in taking on the project, and said the campaign went against its standard operating procedures. Apparently, the agency has decided not to fire the two consultants at the center of the storm, though they will go through training on ethics.

The bigger culprit here, in my mind, is Burson…and any other PR firm that takes on a project with a dubious purpose that contravenes basic rules of transparency and probity. Too often, agencies take on lucrative clients for projects that should send alarms to any self-respecting communication professional. If there is a litmus test, it’s not easily apparent. Every PR agency – and communication professional – needs to confirm the ethical guidelines and values that will determine what projects it takes on, and how the PR programs are implemented. There are companies I won’t take on as clients, and there are definitely some things I won’t do or say under the guise of public relations.

Whether this latest Burson smear campaign was done by rogues or hints at a larger systemic rot, I can’t say. But it only the latest in a long list of industry scandals that erodes the credibility of every communication professional. It may be a coincidence, but the IABC’s latest edition of Communication World focuses on the topic of ethics in the PR industry. Is anybody listening?

Another week, another interesting corporate response to a crisis. This past week we have Taco Bell defending its honor against a lawsuit accusing it of misleading customers on claims of beef content in various taco products.

The official Taco Bell response – centralized on a page within their corporate website – typifies a “good offense is the best defense” approach. The company quickly raised the profile of the issue with sarcastic, defiant full-page ads in major U.S. newspapers. The response also features a video from the CEO Greg Creed (and taped interviews of the CEO with major networks), various fact sheets and a stern statement warning they will vigorously defend their integrity against the “bogus” lawsuit. The company also wisely leveraged its various social media platforms, including Twitter and Facebook – which showcased messages of support from hundreds of fans, and even a spoof on the lawsuit response. To their credit, Taco Bell management didn’t seem to filter the comments on either platform to skew a positive response.

Not surprisingly, there is a range of opinions from PR pundits on whether Taco Bell is using the right approach. Check out these comments in a USA Today article. One writer on the Huffington Post argues Taco Bell may have permanently hurt its reputation by bluntly admitting its beef is bland and needs to be augmented with flavor and fillers.

From my perspective, the company did many things right:

  • They jumped right on the issue clearly stating their case to ensure consumers heard their side of the story;
  • The CEO has been very visible and is definitely – for better or for worse – the public face of the company;
  • The company leveraged various communication channels – ranging from traditional media to social media properties – and formats to get its message out;
  • Taco Bell has shown some creativity and bluster despite tackling a serious topic, which is consistent with their young, hip advertising image (think barking Chihuahuas);
  • Messaging from Taco Bell has been consistent and concise, if somewhat shrill.

The problem with Taco Bell’s strident response is that it leaves no room for error – after loudly proclaiming its “beef” is 88% meat (and not 35% as argued in the lawsuit) the company has little leeway for compromise or back-tracking if the facts are proven otherwise.

It’s too early to tell if their aggressive response is working in the PR arena (and the lawsuit will likely take time to be resolved) but judging by the hundreds of comments I’ve seen Taco Bell has plenty of dedicated fans who don’t believe – or don’t care – that their beef may not be 100% beef. Taco Bell may be gambling that many consumers aren’t expecting high quality beef for tacos that cost a dollar or two. Ironically, maybe Taco Bell is still suffering from previous PR fiascos (like widely publicized videos of rats running around one restaurant), so expectations may be so low their brand will rebound from this latest attack. Let’s check in a few months time to see if there is any obvious impact on their sales or brand equity. In the meantime, keep reading those Twitter and Facebook comments.

I read a headline in my local newspaper today about the list of 2010’s top lies according to the website – 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: 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.

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.

I hesitate to wade into the political waters in the wake of the U.S. election, but I keep on asking myself if there are valid lessons for communicators in this post-mortem. A cynical person might be tempted to conclude the following from the mid-term election:

  • Negative advertising – despite being shrill, dubious and laughably formulaic – actually might work.
  • Facts may ultimately be irrelevant in shaping opinion or discourse.
  • Influence and credibility are not necessarily related to knowledge, intelligence or probity.
  • Repeating statements – even outrageous, simplistic arguments – will ultimately result in public acceptance.
  • Personal attacks are acceptable – even expected – under the guise of political discourse.
  • National media have given way to self-important, biased blowhards disguising as reporters.

The context for my soul-searching is that much of the dialogue during the campaign seemed to be about emotion, hype, polarized opinion and vitriol than about policy, statistics or integrity. And there was no consensus on the most trustworthy, reliable sources of information – in fact, it was like a gigantic buffet with pundits and sources for every partisan flavor. Plenty of screaming, media noise and anger…but very little intelligent conversation. During the election, I was asked pointed questions by peers and clients – including whether “truth still mattered?” and “is experience now a negative?” Ultimately, what does this all mean – if anything – for communication professionals?

My answer is yes…truth and behavior do still matter and there are basic communication rules that are still relevant. I think part of the answer is that elections are a special occasion where – for better or for worse – normal rules of conduct and communication are suspended. Passion, hyperbole and hype trump civility, dialogue and facts. Still, there are a few notable lessons from this election:

Communication means listening not just talking. Perhaps the most valuable lesson from this election is know your customer. By all accounts, the Democrats totally underestimated the angst and frustration among the electorate – including their own party – and stubbornly continued to push their agenda despite strong evidence it lacked resonance and popularity. It’s no surprise, therefore, that many appeared to tune out the White House and Democrat candidates during the election period.

-Long-term relevance and credibility is about relationships. Wild accusations and demagoguery by self-appointed pundits may shift opinion during a campaign, but they are not the basis for long-term credibility. Sources that have a track record of solid, objective reporting and commentary have a better chance of a sustained profile and relationship with listeners. This has nothing to do with formal credentials or experience, and everything to do with integrity and responsibility. Beyond the media, voters will also remember the conduct and promises of the candidates, and they will also likely favor those that acted with consistency and honesty over time.

-Tell your story. One of the primary criticisms of the Democrats during this election is that they failed to convincingly tell their story – whether it be explaining their agenda or detailing their achievements. It’s hard to argue with that assessment when a majority of Americans have incorrect notions on a wide number of government policies and issues (most notably that the TARP effort was a failure.) Facts do matter, but not if they are buried or delivered in the wrong format, context or channel. Opponents of the President were only too happy to fill this vacuum with their own story.

-Choose your media platforms carefully. One of the striking lessons from this campaign is that the media landscape is increasingly fragmented and diverse. Americans appear to increasingly seek out media sources that are aligned with their political leanings or cultural preferences, and that includes social networks that allow for communication within narrow interest groups. Nothing wrong with that I suppose, but it does create communication challenges for those seeking to reach across a broad segment of the population, rather than smaller communities or interest groups, or to gain the informal stamp of approval – the proverbial media hit – from a widely respected, influential outlet. It also raises serious questions about the accuracy of the information being shared, which ultimately harms the quality of the public discourse. On the positive side, this trend may drive organizations to find new, better ways to communicate directly with their constituents (or customers) rather than through third-parties.

Advertising still works…or it may not. It’s hard to uncover any immediate clues from the impact of the $2 billion in campaign advertising during the election, but clearly some of the biggest ad campaigns (hello Meg Whitman) didn’t work as intended. Hard to say if that was the candidate, message or medium, but clearly just repeating something ad nauseam does not change people’s mind or make them do something they don’t want to. There’s also evidence that ads or calls that were relevant or targeted were better received that spam or robo-call campaigns.

-A bad story (or statement) can live forever. The ravenous 24-hour media cycle can spark and spread global coverage quickly – which is great when it’s a good story but terrible when it’s about a scandal, controversial statement or debate flub. Several volatile candidates likely suffered from their ill advised actions or claims. Even without the election glare and related “gotcha” mentality, leaders need to be keenly aware of the potential impact of their statements – whether written or spoken – and conduct. You can’t avoid honest mistakes, but preparation and crisis planning can help avert a bigger PR disaster.

-Stick to your values & principles. The election environment is full of temptations around communication – attack your opponent, stretch the truth, cherry-pick your interviews, drill your message, make grand promises – but I still believe (naively perhaps) that corporate and political leaders should be guided as much by their values as their communication playbook. There’s nothing wrong with a communication strategy, of course, but building it on a framework without credibility is a mistake. What may seem like an expedient solution – whether during an election or corporate crisis – may permanently tarnish a reputation or brand, and ultimately is a disservice to loyal customers (or voters.)


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