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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.)

The oil spill in the Gulf Coast is now over, but the PR debacle continues unabated for BP, the much maligned global oil company. In recent days, there’s been considerable media invective about the amount spent by BP on so-called “PR” – meaning advertising and marketing activities. While initial estimates from BP capped out at $50 million, the real number (obtained only after a request from the House Energy Committee) appears closer to $100 million, or an average of $5 million a week since April. Not surprisingly, BP claims the advertising – featuring a blizzard of full-page ads in major newspapers and heavy rotation of TV commercials – are designed to keep Gulf Coast residents informed on issues related to the oil spill and to “ensure transparency”. So why the outrage?

There are several reasons why BP is taking a hit on this issue:

  • BP is a huge global company, and the numbers surrounding this issue are commensurate in their size. For example, it’s expected the Gulf Coast spill will cost BP about $100 billion, and the company has agreed to put $20 billion in escrow for reparations and support aimed at the Gulf Coast region. (Keep in mind BP made about $16.5 billion in profit in 2009.) In that context, $100 million on marketing doesn’t like much – at first glance. But the number doesn’t look so insignificant when compared to the relatively paltry sum paid out so far in grants (according to CNN about $400 million), and seems even more inappropriate alongside the obvious economic toll – estimated at $25-30 billion dollars – for thousands of Coast residents and businesses.
  • While there is certainly merit on using paid media to keep consumers informed about the spill – particularly how impacted residents can get financial assistance or information – the reality is that the BP ads were 90% justification and 10% relevant contact information. In fact, recent TV commercials mention the contact info for financial grants almost as an afterthought, mentioning the special website and 800 number. And the fact most of the media spending has been in high-profile national media platforms – rather than local channels that are more likely to reach Gulf residents directly – casts further doubt on their claims.
  • In crisis management context matters as much as content. BP seems to believe that showcasing local staff in every single commercial is enough to guarantee credibility and goodwill. But the ad script seems jarring alongside BP miscues throughout the crisis and is such an obvious attempt to position the company as a good neighbor it fails on all fronts. In addition, the promises of support are badly lagging the reality of assistance on the ground.

The ultimate lesson here for PR professionals is that even doing everything right on paper – in many ways BP is managing this crisis according to best practices – can ring hollow if events don’t match the rhetoric and credibility has been eroded. It will interesting to see if and how this promotion campaign helps to rehabilitate the BP brand. Early reports suggest it might be working, but it’s tough to tell if what’s driving a slight increase in public approval is containment of the spill or the media campaign.

There’s been plenty of coverage and commentery over the BP oil spill crisis and subsequent public relations fiasco. One of the things I’ve found most interesting – though not surprising – is the discovery that the BP crisis management plan was riddled with errors and outdated information.

Many of the reports on this flawed plan, like this blog post, focused on the factual errors and obvious lack of due diligence in keeping the plan accurate and relevant. That is, sadly, true of many crisis plans I’ve seen over the years. They are created – sometimes at great expense – but quickly left to gather the proverbial dust and remain detached from daily planning or operations. What surprised me about the BP plan is that it failed both on the business continuity side and the more arcane reputation front. Many companies have decent plans in place to guide operational decisions and contingency steps to sustain operations and manage emergencies. But far fewer – in my experience – have thought through the more nuanced decision-making process related to reputation and media issues. (The celebrated Tylenol case, of course, demonstrated the perfect mix of core values and operational directives.) Even if BP had a better reaction to the spill itself, I suspect it still would have badly bungled the media and marketing response. In fact, in some measure CEO Tony Hayward did things by the book – be front-and-center, be candid and informal, take responsibility…and so on. Unfortunately, he was so badly off script he mostly alienated and confused viewers. And BP made so many off-key decisions in their communication response (notably stubbornly under-estimating the flow of oil) they eroded their latent credibility early in the process.

There are many lessons here for companies eager to avoid a PR disaster in the wake of a business disaster – a double-dip, if you will. One is to develop a robust, dynamic crisis plan that is fully integrated into the operations of the organization. Two is to ensure the plan addresses communication issues like values, decision-making criteria, messaging and positioning.

One of the axioms in public relations is what you share privately with your employees will – eventually – make its way to the press and other external audiences. I can remember years ago having contests featuring bets on how long it would take for a CEO’s memo or news on a job action to leak. The difference now is the leak happens in minutes, not hours or even days. In fact, some sophisticated communication teams now plan their efforts with the premise that most if not all communication activities will eventually find their way to the public domain – no matter their initial target. The recent events surrounding the SEC charges against Goldman Sachs are a case in point.

In the space of several days, Goldman was the target of a mountain of media coverage (and social media chatter). In an unhappy coincidence – or great opportunity – Goldman needed to manage a number of high-profile activities – responding to the SEC charges, testifying before Congress, announcing earnings, and releasing its annual report among  others. Communication supporting these events – formal and otherwise – all found their way into the mix, helping to shape the dialog and public reaction.

In fact, ostensibly internal messages from Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein to his global staff served as a more robust and nuanced response than the official statements – which were succinct and formal, bathed in carefully crafted legal content. (A Goldman spokesperson commented on the purpose of the internal voice messages…with language that seemed carefully scripted.) Here’s a good summary of the SEC action and Goldman’s initial formal response. This article mentions a Goldman letter to clients as another key source of information on the issue. Finally, a letter to shareholders – featured in the annual report – added to the communication stew.

Did Goldman proactively plan and coordinate all these messages and activities – assuming they would collectively form its response? If they didn’t, they should have. Communication professionals should assume that audience silos – and firewalls – have become little more than rice paper in this age of social media, real-time news and transparency. For some time companies have communicated with their employees through public channels – like advertising thanking staff for their effort and achievements – but the Goldman situation suggests proactive PR planning and cross-functional coordination is now a price of entry, rather than a special tactic.

The past few weeks have provided a fascinating example of how integrated social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have become in our communication habits. They also seem to be providing a strong boost to the profile and shelf-life of big cultural events like the Grammy Awards, Olympic Games and Super Bowl. As suggested in this article, social media tools seem to have become a magnifying complement – rather than a detriment – to major TV and film events.

This certainly rings true judging only by my own experience the past month, with many posts on my Twitter and Facebook networks providing a valuable real-time overlay of news updates, commentary and discussion on topics ranging from Avatar to the Canada-U.S. Olympic hockey game. And the Super Bowl commercials fueled content for days, ranging from clips to rankings and even mash-up spoofs. The source events provide the trigger, but the social networks provide the virtual water cooler – with the community being as large, diverse and global as your personal network allows.

There are several lessons one can pull from this development. One is that announcing the demise of network TV – or even movie theaters – was likely premature, if not totally erroneous. Another is that predicting the impact of technology remains a highly imperfect science fraught with missed calls (did video ever kill radio?) But perhaps the most important for PR professionals is how social media platforms are integrated – if not essential – in the communication habits of millions of people. Whether it be about award programs, sporting events or more serious topics like natural disasters and scandals, social media platforms have become a critical forum for information-sharing  and conversation. Is there any possible excuse left for organizations not to participate?

The recent Edelman survey on trust has plenty of interesting findings – and some surprises that seem to contradict conventional wisdom on social media. The study suggests, for example, that consumers place the most trust in expert spokespeople and information sources (such as industry analyst or stock reports) but that trust in traditional media sources continues to erode. No real surprise there, except for the related finding that trust in “peers and friends” has dropped dramatically. An AdAge article suggests this is due to the explosion (and dilution) of online “friending” coupled with increased skepticism by consumers. Based on this survey, “peer-to-peer” marketing is not the magic bullet some had thought, but just one piece of the solution. And it’s interesting to see that “expert” sources – including CEOs and other credentialed folks – are still seen as a valuable source in the midst of multi-media noise.

I agree with Steve Rubel’s take on the findings that this is good news for PR. Consumers still seek a range of expert sources they can trust, and positioning credible experts – and building their profile and bona fides – is the core of effective PR. What continues to change is how to do this, and where to place these experts. Over the past decade or so, we’ve learned it’s not enough to get the big hit in the Wall Street Journal. What the Edelman survey also suggests, however, is that generating buzz and kudos on social networks is also insufficient. Social media has become a critical platform for PR, but it’s not the only tool and it’s not fool-proof. Smart communicators should continue to pay close attention to the information needs and habits of consumers, and keep focusing on the credibility of the messenger and messages. No matter what the platform or format, that still seems to matter.

The disruption of Eurostar’s train traffic in the “Chunnel” last week holds a valuable lesson for those intent on leveraging social media to communicate with customers: the biggest risk is not in diving too deep…but not deep enough.

In the aftermath of the crisis the communication folks at Eurostar admitted that their social media programs – focused narrowly on push marketing activities – were of limited use to communicate with customers during the crisis. They are planning to totally rethink their social media approach in 2010. Apparently, Eurostar’s various platforms (notably on Facebook and Twitter) were not set up to manage a robust Q&A with customers but rather to promote its “Little break, big difference” campaign. Eurostar made the best of the situation and leveraged their existing marketing platforms, but frustrated customers had to hunt for Eurostar updates (including the CEO’s apology on the “Little Break” website.) Hard to believe, but Eurostar and Eurostar-UK Twitter handles were not formal company channels. The company eventually put an apology letter from the CEO on its corporate website. Needless to say, the vacuum of official Eurostar information and real-time updates compared unfavorably with the torrent of complaints and speculation by customers and interested observers.

There are several valuable lessons on social media engagement here for communication professionals:

  • Don’t make it hard for customers to find you…or talk to you…or ask questions. Eurostar’s platforms were either dormant, irrelevant, silent or branded with obscure marketing names the average customer would never have heard.
  • Make sure you are prepared to quickly get out your message where the conservation is occurring…not just your own platforms (even if they are excellent).  With real-time search and mobile updates its critical to quickly fill the information vacuum during a crisis.
  • Be careful to limit and/or silo your social media strategy. Having marketing as the lead manager proved disastrous for Eurostar. Ideally, any program should be fully integrated and managed by a cross-functional team. Branding, messaging and technology should be aligned and complementary.
  • Do a good inventory of all relevant pages/sites on major social networks – which typically unearths a number of rogue corporate and employee sites – and implement a strategy to inject a formal presence in the mix.
  • Remember that social media platforms by definition are about conversation – not just pushing information. So learn to listen and respond…all the time.
  • Don’t ignore the critical role – and potential reach – of traditional media channels, which can also help get key messages and updates out. Eurostar CEO comments were featured on BBC updates – but not soon enough for stranded passengers.
  • Have a clear policy for employee online behavior and commentary. Some of the comments I saw on Twitter and Facebook appear to be Eurostar employees, but it’s not clear if they are speaking as observers or in a formal role. Furthermore, their comments are decidedly mixed.

Ultimately, the biggest lesson here is that social media is too prominent in the communication (and marketing) mix to leave as an after-thought or one-shot marketing campaign. Companies that dip their toes rather than take the plunge do so at their own peril.

Technorati’s annual “State of the Blogosphere” is full of interesting findings, but the headline is that the influence of the blogosphere on everything from politics to marketing continues to grow. [Note: the survey is limited to bloggers and data from the U.S.] Here are select findings:

  • The blogosphere (in the U.S.) is doubling in size every 230 days
  • Hobbyists (who blog for fun) make up 72% of bloggers
  • Though Pros (who blog full-time for a company/organization) make up only 4% of bloggers, they are becoming more prolific and influential
  • Twitter has had a big impact on the blogosphere, fueling the dramatic rise of micro-blogging…up to 74% of bloggers now use Twitter
  • The blogosphere continues to take over turf historically owned by traditional media sources and journalists
  • Self-expression and sharing expertise continue to be the primary motivations for bloggers, and 70% of all respondents say that personal satisfaction is how they measure the success of their blog
  • For pros, the key measure of success is traffic – or unique visitors
  • Blogs cover a wide and diverse range of topics – including many niche subjects
  • Most bloggers describe themselves as “sincere”
  • Reasons for blogging range from sharing opinions and expertise (popular with hobbyists) to attracting new clients or business opportunities (more important for the pros)
  • 30% of respondents say it’s important they conceal their real identity – most for fear or harassment
  • Most bloggers are positive about the impact of their blogging on their personal and/or business lives

No real surprises for me in these findings, though the relatively small number of core professional bloggers seems disproportionate to their profile and influence. Then again, this tendency mirrors the trend of the small minority of people who contribute or comment on blogs. The one finding that seemed dissonant is the plurality of bloggers who feel compelled to conceal their identity. I’m not sure how this fits with the ethos of transparency, but they clearly feel compelled to separate their blogger persona from their personal identity.

FYI: Technorati is posting additional comments and articles, so look for updates in the days ahead. A couple of third-party comments on the report are here and here.

It’s hard to keep up with – let alone assess or interpret – the myriad statistics and reports related to social media. But a few recent studies all suggest one basic fact: Web traffic and use of social media platforms continues to boom. The discussion is no longer whether social media is a fad, but how dominant and important it has become – impacting everything from communication and purchase behavior to advertising and journalism.

One regular study of Web users by Universal McCann suggests – among other findings – that social networks are becoming the dominant platform for the creation and sharing of content for active Internet users. (By the way, McCann estimates there are now about 625 million “active” Internet users – about 1 in 3 surfers.) Other key findings: nearly 2/3 of users are managing a profile on a social network; users are moving towards the increasing rationalization of their content (across platforms); and the creation/sharing of video content is booming.

Statistics gathered by Socialnomics echo this trend. (Check out the great video embedded in this post.) There’s too many amazing stats to list here, but a few that struck me:

  • 1 out of 8 couples married in the U.S. last year met via social media
  • Facebook has added 100 million users in less than 9 months
  • 80% of companies use LinkedIn as a primary tool to find employees
  • The second biggest search engine in the world is YouTube
  • 80% of Twitter usage is on mobile devices
  • 34% of bloggers post opinions about products and brands

And the list goes on.

Want a real-life example? I just read an article in Maclean’s (yes, I try to keep up with news in my native Canada) with a great summary of how some organizations are using crowd-sourcing to find great ideas and even to save money…getting the “crowd” to do work for free, as it were. The most interesting example is Netflix’s contest to have online geeks come up with the best algorithm for improving the site’s movie recommendations. According to Maclean’s, so far there have been nearly 50,000 entries. (In this case, Netflix is offering a million dollar prize.)

The lesson here for any organization is that ignoring this seismic shift – which is cultural and economic as well as technological – has become strategic, and probably financial suicide. Organizations need to study and understand these trends – particularly how they impact their customers and employees – and develop credible strategies to engage in the on-line conversations and market their wares. Consumer habits have shifted dramatically, and the Web is playing a huge part in how they access and share information, do their work, buy products and services and even find their mates. So why do some companies continue to party like it’s 1999?

According to several on-line reports, including this one, at least one of the major insurance organizations (in this case UnitedHealth Group) is urging its employees to campaign against any public health insurance option. The program allegedly includes talking points,access to “advocacy specialists”, instructions on attending local tea party meetings and a script for personal letters to Congress. This tactic – called AstroTurf campaigns – is not new, of course, but the jarring issue here is that UnitedHealth has kept a public stance which is  much more conciliatory towards reform proposals.

This issue raises two questions for communication professionals. The first is whether this type of artificial grass-roots campaign actually works – either with members of Congress (who are doubtless used to getting thousands of form letters) or with the general public. The jury may be out on this question, though I would suggest if the central arguments (or criticisms) inherent in the campaign are weak, then no amount of noise will give them traction over the long-term. Then again, maybe I’m an eternal optimist with a belief that most people are basically moderate and logical. Beyond that, if the authenticity of the employee comments or letters is eroded, I would think they carry less weight with most politicians or pundits.

But the bigger question is whether its appropriate for companies to ask – or tell – their employees to participate in de-facto lobbying on behalf of the organization. I think its legitimate, and even smart, to share the company’s position on key public policy issues with employees, and probably even to allow them access to relevant information or materials. Where I believe they cross the line, however, is to ask them to actively get involved in the process…either by attending meetings, signing petitions or writing forms letters.  The problem: what happens if an employee disagrees with the policy? Presumably some employees of UnitedHealth or other insurance companies are sympathetic to the idea of health insurance reform, and may even disagree with the corporate line about a public option. Can they safely refuse the directives of their leaders and managers? I think the UnitedHealth directive crosses the line between education and coercion, much like when employees are gently encouraged to vote for certain officials that support corporate policies or legislation. In my book, advocacy must be organic and authentic to be credible.  I’d be interested in other thoughts.