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The Internal Communication function is changing dramatically, largely by necessity. And that’s a good thing. Much like peers in other communication disciplines (as well as more distant professionals cousins in marketing and advertising) IC pros are reinventing themselves in the face of tectonic shifts in technology, communications and consumer behavior.

The trends driving these changes are powerful and inexorable: pervasive social communications; ubiquitous mobility; popularity of digital (and immersive) content; 24/7 data analytics; and the growing influence of consumer advocates, citizen journalists and user-generated content, among others. With regard to the workplace itself, communicators face additional developments and challenges – including chronically low engagement, generational clashes and seemingly endless transformation and downsizing. Collectively these trends are causing deep soul-searching about the relevance and value of traditional HR strategies (i.e. performance management, reward and recognition, training programs.)

Given these dramatic changes, internal communicators need to play a very different role than a few years ago to remain relevant, credible and effective. Here are the key components of this new communication role…call it Internal Communications 2.0:

Integrator – By virtue of their unique position at the nexus of internal and external communications, leadership outreach and internal support functions (e.g. IT and HR), IC pros are in the best position to facilitate coordination across teams and regions to ensure goals, activities and messages are aligned and coordinated. This is particularly true with major cross-company programs like internal branding or M&A outreach that lack an obvious leader. This critical integration role is more than being an enabler – which is more passive – and assumes the IC pro will stretch beyond his/her functional mandate to fill a role that often isn’t well defined or staffed. Without this integration, however, most company programs will probably fail.

Data Analyst – It’s become a truism we are drowning in a sea of data. Big data. Small data. Consumer data. Even employee data. All communicators need to become educated, if not resident experts, in the gathering, analysis and communication of this information. This area is particularly ripe for leadership inside organizations, where many HR teams (traditionally the keepers of workforce data) lack the expertise of marketing/PR teams and are struggling just to update their surveying models. And relegating this role to IT teams, who often manage intranet and platform statistics, isn’t good enough, since those teams usually lack the skills the review the raw numbers for analysis and insights. IC pros should lead the process of collecting, aggregating, assessing and responding to the rich data available on their employees.

Content Curator – IC professionals use to be the primary authors of content in their companies. That role is still important, but it’s become even more important to act as curators of content, helping to blend and share news and information from leaders, external sources and the employees themselves. Some of the best stories and ideas come from employees, so IC pros must ensure there are channels to collect and post this content. There is still an important role to provide editorial guardrails to ensure all shared content is ‘brand safe’, but that’s where communicators need to be more curators than gatekeepers. There is also an important role to play in acting as interpreter for leaders, who are sometimes well intentioned but ineffective and reluctant communicators. Whatever the source of content, the emphasis on authentic, transparent and timely information has made the traditional one-way communication model irrelevant and ineffective.

Listener – One of the most valuable roles IC pros can play is simply to listen to their internal stakeholders; to uncover, understand and respond to the concerns and preferences of employees. Though many inside the typical organization are responsible in some way for listening and responding to employees – notably front-line managers – most usually focus on sporadic, face-to-face interactions and don’t strive to pull the input together into a coherent, actionable narrative. Internal Communication pros can and should play this role, and also steer the company’s response to the input (perhaps through new policies or programs.) This listening role can be formal (gathering data through internal surveys and audits), part of the daily role (community manager for internal social platforms) or mostly informal (lunch meetings with staff or local in-house reporters.) Whatever the approach the IC professional becomes the most accurate and current advocate for the employee community.

Innovator – In many companies no department has the formal responsibility to foster innovation inside the organization, save perhaps a small strategic planning function. Often, the marketing or PR function take on the mantle, but their efforts are usually narrow and may not consider issues like workplace technology and business or entertainment trends. Conversely, most HR and IT teams lack the desire and/or bandwidth to drive innovation inside their organizations. This innovation gap is an opportunity for IC professionals, who have visibility and impact across the organization. Even small innovations like new social platforms or communication content (interactive infographic) can send a strong message and spark more ambitious planning across departments. Two examples of how IC teams can drive innovation across the enterprise is through employee advocacy programs and virtual employee ‘jams’, which often spur the adoption of social technology across the company.

Expert Counselor – Many IC pros have garnered reputations inside their organizations as ‘go to’ experts on not just communication, but a range of related issues like employee engagement, corporate reputation and emerging technology. Given that IC staff frequently brief, interview and/or counsel leaders as part of their work, they are perfectly positioned to share their insights and counsel. The role of wise counselor is not easy to gain or keep, but it’s well worth the effort. Leaders today are looking for smart analysis and cogent guidance, particularly on emerging business trends, and those who provide that will gain in profile and credibility. A caveat: this counsel should be strategic, not just focused on tactical execution – a shortcoming which has eroded the credibility and standing of the IC function in the past.

Trainer – IC pros that gain expertise in new technology and current workplace trends can train leaders and peers to raise the acumen and strategic agility of the organization. Much of this work typically involves working with senior leaders to help them communicate and lead more effectively, but the mandate need not be so limited. Many leaders yearn for guidance in areas as disparate as blog writing, social interaction and cultural events – all areas where IC staff can lead. Companies with social platforms often rely on IC staff to facilitate the training on relevant policies and platform use. The training itself should be as contemporary and dynamic as the information (think e-learning and gamification rather than traditional face-to-face sessions or death by Webinar.)

Multi-Media Storyteller – It’s well documented that often the best way to share information is through a compelling, episodic narrative shared across media formats. Internal Communication teams are ideally positioned to drive this process internally, pulling together capabilities like writing, design, promotion, video, social technology and executive outreach. As noted previously, communication staff should be the ones who uncover, shape and help share the internal stories. IC teams also usually manage their company’s intranet, which can be a powerful multi-media delivery channel if used effectively – the Swiss Army knife of internal tools. Conversely, teams that stick to outdated communication channels (email) and styles (formal text) are missing an opportunity to break through the clutter and truly engage their audience.

Culture Ambassador – Though HR has historically taken the reins to promote culture inside organizations, IC pros are probably better positioned to help define, celebrate and promote a company’s distinctive culture. IC teams often have strong capabilities in marketing, messaging, social dialogue, digital content and even collateral – which together can pack a powerful, convincing punch. Furthermore, IC pros often take on the role of employee advocate inside their organizations, ensuring that the needs and aspirations of employees are heard and considered in decision-making. The purpose is not just altruistic, but an effort to ensure communication is relevant and credible. The emergence of employee advocacy, virtual meetings and crowd-sourcing programs only reinforces the role of internal communicators as keepers of the culture.

It’s true that taking on these new roles likely entails more work – or at minimum very different work – and certainly more risk and responsibility. And it assumes a great deal of research, networking, learning and adapting – and that never stops. But inertia is not really an option. Failure to proactively take on these critical roles – which too often go unfilled – will limit the function’s value inside an organization, and probably erode the team’s reputation and credibility. It’s taken years of effort for IC pros to get a place at the proverbial leadership table and gain the reputation of strategists, not just order-takers or tacticians. Now IC pros have the opportunity to not only secure their place at the decision-making table, but to expand their traditional role and enhance their reputation. It won’t be easy, but the effort is well worth it.

This recent post in Huffington Post on Hillary Clinton’s authenticity (or lack thereof) got me thinking about the evolution of authenticity as a paragon of communication. In recent years, the immediacy and transparency of social media has increased the premium on authenticity – being true to your identity or person and avoiding artifice, hype or self-serving promotion. Over the years I have worked with numerous leaders and politicians striving to identify and promote their identity and genuine brand attributes – to be authentic. The premise is that an informed and empowered consumer (or voter) will not accept a disingenuous or fabricated persona, or marketing message. I still believe that striving for an honest, credible portrayal of oneself (or a company or culture) is critical, but is it enough? I’ve concluded that being authentic, in of itself, is not enough to foster lasting relationships with your audience(s).

Let’s take Donald Trump as a prominent example. Trump is unapologetic about being himself – for better or for worse, whether he contravenes political correctness or not. He ignores political conventions and etiquette, he blusters (apparently without script) about any topic, and he liberally throws around vitriolic insults at anyone who dares criticize him or his persona. Throughout this process, Trump seems to relish in being Donald Trump – or the persona he has crafted and become in the public consciousness.

At least for now, Trump’s recipe seems to be working. In fact, Trump’s very popularity seems largely based on his unscripted, honest and blunt commentaries and policy positions – which often contravene GOP orthodoxy. He is the consummate outsider (at least in political terms) and the opposite of the typical poll-driven, predictable and deliberate candidate. Other candidates seem to be either trying to ignore him – with varying degrees of success – or to emulate his dogmatic, no-holds-barred style. (On the democratic side, one could argue Bernie Sanders is benefiting from a similar wave of support for his direct style – albeit a more polite and humble version. Other pundits suggest Joe Biden, who has not declared his candidacy, would have the most equity on the authenticity meter.)

While Trump has garnered the headlines and the support, the cautious, reactive campaigns of other GOP candidates have generated more credibility problems than excitement with the public. Politicians like Scott Walker and Jeb Bush, along with Hillary, are the anti-thesis of Trump. In fact, all three of these candidates have suffered due to their lack of candor, sincerity and accessibility on contentious issues. Based on polls I’ve seen, most Americans seem to question the authenticity – or trustworthiness – of these candidates. Their outreach seems designed not to share candid personal views or insights, but to sell a proactive electoral platform and carefully crafted persona. These candidates may at their core have real beliefs and policy ideas, but we’d be hard pressed to judge which ones are entrenched and which are promoted for political expediency or to avoid controversy. In other words, they are having difficulty making the case they are authentic.

But there is another side to Trump’s transparent “deal with it” persona. Yes, he certainly appears to be a distinctive personality and has carved out his own unique style. He is, in short, authentic and entirely original. But what of the view that he is also a bigot and misogynist? Or woefully ignorant of political minutiae and world affairs? Or laughably egotistical, thin-skinned and petty? All of the those criticisms have some strong proof-points and cogent advocates. In other words, he may be real, but is he a positive, effective candidate to be president of the country or is he a self-promoting clown?

I would posit that by itself authenticity isn’t enough if the person or brand being featured doesn’t align with the values, beliefs and aspirations of his/her supporters (or consumers.) In other words, you also have to be relevant, credible and yes, even likeable. What is the true value in an authentic narcissist or bully?

I would also argue that beyond an authentic personality, there needs to be authenticity for the actual ideas being promoted by candidates like Trump. Indeed, there is likely value in having passionate, consistent and convincing ideas (and content) rather than chasing polls or simply tossing out bumper-sticker slogans with little intellectual or empirical heft.

The focus on authenticity has also obscured the reality that politicians (and companies) need to do more than talk about themselves – they have to listen. And respond. And presumably also accept the ideas and criticisms of their followers or consumers. One could argue the implicit contract with fans or consumers – on social platforms but also through traditional media channels and political settings – is that the discussion should be civilized, with a measure of decorum, fairness and balance – like any reasonable conversation. That’s the basis of code of conducts for public communication in many organizations, and what keeps discourse on the web from becoming a troll free-for-all.

I’m not certain Trump is willing or able to show this level of civility, humility and empathy. Being elected, or selling a product, is not a one-way conversation or license to be obnoxious under the guise of being honest and unfiltered. Even if you are an authentic original. For these reasons I think Trump’s wave of popularity is not sustainable. Will he actually be the GOP presidential candidate? The jury is out, but my guess would be no.

For the past few months there seems to be growing buzz in social media (and communication) circles about employee advocacy. Companies like IBM, Target, Dell and Starbucks are sharing positive updates about their programs. Employee advocacy is clearly being pitched as the next big thing, and with good reason – as you can see later in this post. But despite the huge potential benefits to companies (and employees), staff advocacy programs are not a magic bullet, and not for every company. Like any other social media program, you need to be smart, realistic and deliberate about your approach. So I’ve developed a checklist of issues communication pros should carefully consider before they embark on an advocacy program.

Before I get to the checklist, let’s review a quick definition and look at the rationale for employee advocacy.

Employee advocacy is mobilizing trained employees to share company-approved content through employee-owned social channels to engage consumers, peers and family. (Italics are intentional, underlining critical elements of an advocacy program.) Advocates typically do not have social outreach as a formal part of their jobs (like subject matter experts who blog on the company’s behalf.) In essence, advocacy programs allow your employees to tell your company story.

As for the potential benefits of employee advocacy, they have been well documented and are backed by robust research and results. At its core employee advocacy helps amplify your marketing efforts, increasing the credibility, reach, audience and engagement well beyond levels for typical corporate outreach. This can translate into a boost in online profile, reputation and fan base. But the bigger payoff is through the potential for an increase in sales leads, revenue and profits. Enlisting your employees in an advocacy program can also help drive staff engagement, and given the stubbornly low engagement levels, that’s a very good thing.

Beyond the profile boost for your branded content – the explicit messages you are sharing – advocacy programs send powerful symbolic messages to both consumers and employees. For employees it says: your ideas matter, we trust you, we believe in our company and we support your personal brand. For customers it says: we’re part of the conversation, we live our values, we’re proud to tell our story, we trust and value our employees and we’re a leader.

So with all this promise, why shouldn’t companies start an employee advocacy right now…if they haven’t already? The short answer is they may not be ready. The list below provides a good template for readiness for an advocacy program.

  • Can you be authentic? – To be effective long-term, employee advocacy programs must authentically align with their culture, brand and employee interests. Authenticity is a central ethos of social media, with a premium on transparency and responsiveness. That means no hype, no fluff, no dishonesty and no hiding. Does your companies’ marketing and PR content truly align with these values?
  • Is your culture toxic? – Very low employee morale or engagement is not a good foundation for an employee advocacy program. Ask yourself if your employees are likely to be positive and supportive as online ambassadors? If you’re not sure, you need to fix your culture before you think about advocacy. It’s true that many companies start with small pilot programs, but author/pundit Jay Baer said it best: “If your employees aren’t your biggest fans, you’ve got bigger problems than social media.”
  • Do you have social infrastructure? – Though there are good technology platforms that companies can easily adopt to manage their advocacy programs, companies with limited or no social capability and/or cultural acceptance will have a much steeper learning curve and a tougher time driving adoption. It’s also important to have internal systems that allow (even foster) multi-directional dialogue and content sharing.
  • Is your social media policy overly complex or restrictive? – No matter how well you design and execute your advocacy program, it will lag if your social media policies confuse or inhibit your employees.
  • Is your content compelling? – Perhaps the biggest barrier to a successful advocacy program is stale, self-serving content. Boring is bad. Leading companies use a formula that emphasizes industry and employee-generated content (multi-media of course) over typical marketing content. In other words, treat this as a conversation and not a pushy hard sell – which is anathema in social media.
  • Do you recognize and value your employees? – Good advocacy programs do a great job of recognizing and rewarding participants. (IBM even ranks the most prolific and popular advocates.) Do you already have credible programs in place to recognize your staff? Are you willing to make your employees the stars of the program?
  • Will you be social in good times and bad? – Any social media program requires sustained commitment to be credible and relevant, and advocacy programs are no exception. Shutting down during a crisis will create a backlash and erode your credibility. Furthermore, your staff will likely want to have their voice heard in tough times.
  • Are you good at listening? – Beyond the marketing boost, a big advantage of employee advocacy programs is the acquisition of content-related data and insights on your customers and employees. If you are not already in the mode of listen-learn-adapt, however, these benefits will be lost on you.
  • Do you trust your employees? – The most important litmus test of any advocacy program is whether you trust your employees. The best programs assume their employees have good intentions, and give their staff plenty of leeway – including choosing the role and content that fits their skills and interest. Programs that are dictatorial or stifle creativity will not be successful. Monitoring and discipline should be a last resort, not a default out of the gate.

It’s likely true that a good advocacy program can actually help fix many of the issues listed above. But I would suggest you start with a strong foundation. Walk before you go social, as it were.

As communication pros we’ve always had a tough challenge, but drafting and communicating a message these days is more difficult than ever. Beyond the long-standing requirements of clarity, relevance and credibility we now must address the emerging demands for trans-media content, real-time conversation (and adjustment) and targeted delivery across social platforms; all in a context of decreasing trust for leaders and corporations. It turns out that even if we satisfy all these best practices, we still face a major hurdle. Indeed, new research suggests that even the strongest factual messages may not be enough to change minds. Chalk it up to confirmation bias.

If you’ve ever wondered why even the strongest arguments don’t seem to resonate with a particular audience – even when supported with cogent evidence and presented by credible sources – this research by IPR has the explanation. In a recent study IPR author Christopher Graves found that when people are shown evidence they may be wrong, they not only discount that evidence, they become even more extreme in their original belief. […] While it may not have been particularly surprising that people cling to their beliefs to the degree that they filter out any evidence that challenges their beliefs, an unexpected finding of the experiment was a backfire. The study goes into interesting details about the physiology and neuroscience behind this phenomenon. One particularly interesting finding suggests the messenger of information is critical, since outsiders will automatically elicit skepticism: To avoid being rejected from the get-go, you must choose representatives with whom each group feels comfortable, messengers or narrators who send the proper cues that identify them as in-group members. 

Though I’ve long known people initially discount information that doesn’t suit their particular viewpoint or narrative, I was surprised by the lack of importance (or power) that facts have if they go against the prevailing views of the target audience. Furthermore, it appears the more you try the wrong approach, the more you polarize the audience and diminish the resonance of your argument. I suppose this information bias helps explain how seemingly smart, curious individuals can have such different opinions on major public issues (notably climate change) and are not swayed by evidentiary facts that contradict their position.

So what are PR pros to do with this information? I suppose the first decision is whether to throw in the towel and abandon probity and factual evidence as tenets of content. After all, if the facts don’t really make a difference with many people, why even bother? Let’s just jump on the hype bandwagon and sell snake-oil. Assuming we want to maintain our ethical stance and remain committed to telling the truth – in whatever format and channel is most effective – there is a potential path to success.

The IPR research itself suggests that the answer to overcoming strong confirmation bias can be overcome with the following strategy:

  • Affirm/recognize the audience’s core values
  • Argue the position through an emotional narrative
  • Choose an in-house messenger to reinforce, if not carry your message

It’s interesting to note that this roadmap in many ways echoes the increasing focus on influentials and storytelling in successful social media programs. It also suggests that it’s easier to change minds through conversation (and intellectual compromise) than just turning up the volume or frequency of your message.

I look forward to additional findings and guidance from this IPR study. For now, the lesson is that using facts and logic to convince a skeptical audience – no matter the underlying value of the evidence – will not only fail without the right strategy, but will likely backfire and permanently discredit your argument. Another good reminder to think before we act.

In recent weeks I’ve witnessed several instances of public figures using talking points, or planned messages, in ways that should make every PR professional cringe.

Perhaps the most visible example was the brouhaha surrounding Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, when Governor Pence appeared on talk shows to defend the proposed legislation – which was widely criticized for allowing, perhaps even encouraging, discrimination against the LGBT community. In one widely publicized interview, Pence methodically repeated his key talking points – including the widely debunked argument the Indiana RFRA was identical to a law passed by other states – even as the host provided detailed evidence to the contrary. To make matters worse, Pence repeatedly avoided answering a direct question about whether the law allowed discrimination against LGBT consumers, reverting back to stock messages that were not relevant. By most assessments, Pence did not fare well in the interview, yet his discredited talking points lived on even as the legislation was amended (despite Pence’s earlier claims to the contrary) to reflect the widespread criticism.

In fairness, this stubborn adherence to irrelevant or misleading talking points isn’t limited to one side of the political spectrum. Last week US Senator Bob Menendez was indicted on criminal charges of bribery and corruption. The surprise wasn’t that Menendez pleaded not guilty, but that in his remarks he defiantly pronounced his innocence and defended his actions with arguments (and messages) that strained credulity given the scope and detail of the accusations. Undoubtedly, we will hear his script repeatedly as we wait for the legal process to unfold.

Like many communication professionals, I believe there is great value in proactively planning speaking points to position your argument (or product or policy) in the best possible light. I’ve trained my share of leaders on this practice. But there are several critical requirements to ensure this is done effectively, meaning the messages are relevant (in some way relate to the question and circumstance), supported by proof points and perceived as credible, or at least plausible and appropriate. It’s also important the messages be adaptable and evolve to reflect their resonance, or lack thereof, with observers. Worse case scenario, the audience or interviewer could disagree with your position, but not call into question your bona fides or integrity.

Unfortunately, the practice of talking points has become pervasive and perverted in recent years. Now it’s common practice for politicians, for example, to align on a set of partisan messages and repeat them with numbing frequency, notwithstanding the occasion or even the question. In the worse cases, these talking points are often misleading, if not outright fabrications; more slogans or aspirational headlines than information. What used to be shared as opinion or suggestion is now peddled as fact. The thinking appears to be that if you repeat something often enough – even if it’s not accurate or relevant – people will start to believe it.

Maybe the most surprising aspect of this is that the speakers appear oblivious to the fact their statements do not pass the sniff test. Witness the recent announcement by Senator Ted Cruz he was running for President. Cruz’ stump speech (ironically headlined with the theme of truth) is littered with sweeping, provocative claims that have been widely debunked, and not just by the obvious suspects on the other side of the partisan divide. Yet, Cruz appears happy to continue repeating his punch lines, presumably content that his target audience (conservative Republicans) is quite happy to believe in his worldview. My issue here isn’t with Cruz’s arguments or politics, but that he appears totally unconcerned about the widespread, repeated questions about the veracity of his statements. What me worry?

Like other industry observers, I suspect this neo-propaganda model of talking points owes something to the most infamous examples of intentional misinformation: the tobacco industry’s decades-long denial of health hazards from smoking. Other industries – notably the oil and gas sector – have followed a similar model of incessant lobbying fueled by massive advertising and marketing, all scripted by carefully written narratives and slogans with a tenuous relationship to truth or public interest. Now politics seems to have fully embraced this campaign model, designed more to shape public policy and sway voters than to educate or foster dialogue.

The problem with this paradigm, I would argue, is that the cumulative impact of this disputed, polarized messaging is the eroding credibility and relevance of the process and the messages themselves. Does anybody really believe what the politicians are saying? Or does having evidence to back your messages even matter anymore? A number of recent surveys on low levels of trust for a wide range of sources – notably politicians, journalists and corporate leaders – suggests there is a serious credibility gap in public discourse.

The result of all this, I fear, is collateral damage for the reputation of the PR profession, already struggling with accusations of spin and ethical lapses. All communication pros should carefully consider their own actions in these situations. What are the values and principles that guide our counsel and behavior? I believe our profession needs to take a stronger stand with our clients or company leaders, and promote a more authentic, relevant and cogent messaging strategy that can stand up to objective scrutiny. In short, stand up for the truth.

Over the past few years, I’ve often questioned why so many communication professionals – both in-house and in PR agencies – were slow and hesitant to adapt to the dramatic industry changes sparked by social technology. There are many logical explanations for this lag: caution about legal issues, concern about a public misstep, fears about rogue employees, a distaste for real (and potentially negative) interaction with consumers…the list goes on. But based on recent research I’ve seen the explanation may be more basic: most PR professionals simply don’t have the social media skills and expertise to be effective (or confident) advocates for change.

This excellent post by friend and former colleague Richard Binhammer provides a good summary of the skills gap in marketing and across the general US employee population. Indeed, the problem is not limited to communication professionals. However, this is where the problem is most acute and noteworthy, since our jobs dictate that we provide cogent, informed counsel and support on digital engagement with both external and internal audiences. By some estimates in these studies, only about 10 percent of workers truly understand digital technology well enough to incorporate that knowledge into their work and planning. For more background on the PR skill gap see this article and this study.

Even millennials, who tend to be much more tech-savvy than older workers and use most major social platforms every day, have their blind spots. Though younger workers have grown up with the mobile Internet and have likely posted most of their lives online, they lack the strategic savvy and broader perspective required to use their knowledge in a business context. Put another way, they understand the technology, but not the PR business. This article in Fortune provides a good snapshot of the millennial strengths and weaknesses.

All of this evidence reflects what I’ve seen over the past 10 or so years as both a communication executive and consultant. We are falling behind in a digital world. Badly. Events like SXSW, the tip of the spear in digital innovation, suggest that everybody is fully immersed in digital media and driving cutting-edge social media strategies in marketing, advertising and communications. But I don’t think the folks at SXSW reflect the average PR professional, or company – particularly outside the tech havens of Silicon Valley, Portland and similar global outposts.

Leaders who are socially savvy and proactive are extremely rare, the proverbial unicorn. A surprising number of communication teams seem to rely on one or two in-house digital gurus – typically social media managers, digital designers or marketing experts – who are often over-taxed and overwhelmed. Lacking adequate depth and breadth of critical social skills, many communication teams rely on a range of outside experts ranging across digital disciplines to cobble together programs: web design, platform vendor/technology, visual/video content, editorial content, social community management, research and analytics, and so forth. I’ve rarely seen all this requisite expertise housed within a PR agency or team, much less inside the same organization. Though the outsourced virtual “best team” approach may be effective in the short-term, it doesn’t support the efficient, dedicated work required to plan and execute a robust digital strategy.

There is urgent need to address this social skill gap; the credibility, relevance and effectiveness of the communication/PR business are at stake. The solutions are obvious, if not easy or inexpensive: training in social media history and skills; built-in time to participate in relevant seminars and meetings; progressive BYOD and social media policies; reverse mentorship programs; recruitment of tech-savvy professionals; mandatory boot-camps on digital metrics; and, alignment with related disciplines (i.e. digital design, intranet technology, social analytics, CRM.) Smart communication leaders will take steps to ensure they – and their teams – become the social media experts their clients expect and need to be successful in the digital age. Without making progress in the social skill gap, I fear PR may simply be pushed out by smart marketing or technology firms (and teams) who pull together the requisite social capabilities.

During SXSW a few weeks ago I had the good fortune of meeting a number of my former colleagues from Dell, where I worked from 2002 to 2006. During my stint there I had the incredible good fortune of working on the team that would design, develop and manage Dell’s then new – and since much lauded – social media program.

But our conversation didn’t dwell so much on the good old days as the realization that years later many companies are still hesitant to embrace, or even explore, the full potential of social media technology. This despite the dramatic increase in cheap, user-friendly technology to support everything from targeting to analytics to collaboration. In fact, outside of some perennial leaders – many of them in the technology industry – many organizations are still grappling with the same questions and fears we saw almost ten years ago. And this is particularly true of companies exploring a social strategy inside the enterprise. (As just one example of this slow going, the folks at Prescient Digital estimate that only 4% of companies have a truly social intranet system.) After comparing notes about our respective clients and consulting gigs, we concluded many of the original arguments, tools and basic social media models we developed in those early days were still relevant, and very much in demand.

So why the uneven, reluctant adoption of new approaches and technology?  While many have focused on potential fixes for PR teams and their clients (check out this excellent blog post by my former Dell colleague Richard Binhammer) I am more curious – and perplexed – about the barriers to progress in PR. Why is a business filled with smart , accomplished consultants so slow to adapt? Based on my perspective the past few years, I offer a few suggestions:

  • Bunker Mentality – There’s no way to escape the dramatic tectonic shifts in new technology and the related impact on entire industries, including news media, advertising, retail, music, and not least communications and PR. The dizzying pace of new products and functionality makes it even harder to keep up with change. While some organizations seem invigorated by these shifts and flood of new opportunities, many have reacted with grudging, superficial tactics without changing their strategy or business model. In many ways, they are still in denial.
  • Inertia – The sad reality in any corporate setting (indeed, perhaps even in human nature itself) is that there is very strong momentum for doing things the way they’ve always been done, particularly in times where staffs are lean and driven by short-term objectives. And despite all the hype around innovation and risk, very few organizations have cultures that encourage, or even allow activity outside the norm. Often, companies need a major event like a new strategy or leader to encourage a shift in direction. Without that, it’s difficult to change old habits.
  • Functional Insularity – Functional departments that would typically help spark and support innovation and change – or at least be the sources of new ideas and information – are often the most insular, reactive ones of the bunch. HR and IT, for example, are in many cases reluctant bystanders to progress and sometimes surprisingly uninformed about new technology or trends. (In some of my social media projects, in-house IT departments are either reluctant partners or standing on the sideline.) The one department that seems to have embraced change, albeit sometimes reluctantly, is marketing. PR is often caught in the middle of this dynamic and too often unwilling or unable to drive its own momentum.
  • Boomers Dominate Leadership – Though statistics suggest boomers are among the fastest growing users of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, many older workers are less familiar and comfortable with new technology, social or otherwise. This helps explain anachronisms like the CEO who refuses to use email or others who shun any type of digital discourse. The grizzled leadership in many PR companies has the same generational anxiety about trying new tools and approaches. This trend should change as younger, much more tech-savvy workers gain leadership roles.
  • Tyranny of Today – Many communication professionals operate at a hyper pace and in a routine that leaves little room for introspection or learning. In that context, it’s easy to simply continue focusing on immediate projects and put off professional development – both formal and otherwise. Add to this the reality that many clients and peers are also focusing on their daily priorities, and paying little attention to broader issues outside their immediate tasks. Perhaps the most common refrain I’ve heard from peers struggling to understand and incorporate new technology is “I just don’t have time.”
  • Knowledge Gap – Save perhaps for a few precocious millenials, very few of us in the PR industry start with a deep base of knowledge in social media or related technology. What we know is what we’ve learned in the past decade or so as social media has become more prevalent in our lives. So it takes effort and commitment to remain in learning mode and stay current on major trends and new platforms. Unfortunately, it seems too many PR pros are counting on a few resident tech nerds or outside experts rather than upgrading their own knowledge base.

Taken together, these factors help explain the myopic outlook and slow adoption of social media in PR. And I’ve experienced every one of these barriers, so I have some understanding for the challenges in our business. But they shouldn’t be an excuse for inaction. I don’t want to be having this same discussion in 5 years.

Like many of my peers, I look forward to Mary Meeker’s annual report on internet and technology trends. Though I always tell clients they need to focus on their own situation and custom solutions, it’s also true that a PR program devoid of context and detached from prevailing technology trends is likely to fail. With that caveat, here’s my take on the highlights of Meeker’s report:

  • Internet becoming ubiquitous: Internet growth around the world continues, with 2.4 billion people now online, and there’s plenty of room for that to continue with huge untapped populations in developing countries. For example, internet reach is only at 42% in China and 45% in Brazil.
  • Digital content booming: The growth of digital information that is created and shared – including documents, pictures, video, music and tweets – has multiplied 9 times in the last five years. And this content is increasingly findable due to being tagged and searchable through numerous platforms. Incidentally, emerging platforms like Vine or Snap are two examples of new options for creating and sharing content.
  • Social Media popularity growing: The use of social media platforms continues to increase. Though Facebook still dominates the global scene, it saw a slight decrease in percentage of users. Newer platforms like Instagram and Tumblr experienced the biggest growth, while YouTube is now firmly established as the second most popular platform (by percentage.)
  • Mobility becoming more common: About 15% of internet traffic is now mobile (up from less than 1% in 2009), and growth of at least 1.5 X per year is likely to continue, if not accelerate.
  • Emergence of “alwaysonglobal citizens: The result of growing mobility options, digital content and transparency is giving rise to more people who are essentially always connected to the internet – no matter where they are or what they are doing.
  • New devices fueling boom: Though smartphones continue to grow in popularity, other devices like tablets (growing 3 times faster than phones) and so-called wearables (e.g. sensor-enabled Google glasses) and drivables (connected cars) are likely to turbo-charge the mobility trend, expand functionality and make everywhere computing the norm.

What does this all mean for the PR/communication industry? It suggests that companies that are already lagging in their understanding and adoption of new technology – whether via social media platforms, mobile delivery or multi-media content – will risk irrelevance and even obsolescence if they don’t adapt quickly. And those that are still using traditional models of marketing, customer service or news management are clearly swimming against the current. New technology has changed how people access information, create content, make decisions, purchase products and even communicate with their peers. There is no longer a safe harbor for companies who believe they are outside the reach of these trends, since their employees, and customers, are increasingly immersed in the always-on environment described by Meeker and others.  Sitting on the sidelines is no longer an option.

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?

In the wake of their unequivocal electoral defeat in November, the GOP party has been doing some chaotic soul-searching to figure out what went wrong, and how they can get back in the White House.

Well, it appears the brighter Republican minds have determined that they had a “messaging” problem in the election, rather than any demographic or policy dissonance between the American electorate and the Republican platform. More specifically, some argued it was who delivers the message and how it’s delivered that matters most; the underlying GOP messages themselves retain their probity and relevance. To use the words of one attendant at the RNC debrief: “we don’t need a new pair of shoes, we just need to shine our shoes.”  More recently, following the inauguration of President Obama, Paul Ryan and other GOP leaders reaffirmed this assessment, saying their party needed to change the way it communicates, not its ideas, to win back the White House.

As a communication professional, I would be the last person to deny that language and messaging can make a difference in public perception, attitudes and behavior. And I support the theory that the GOP election campaign was littered with examples of messaging (scripted and unintentional) that influenced the polls and ultimately fueled their electoral defeat. But the GOP post-mortem analysis seems far too simplistic and self-serving. In fact, it reflects a particular obsession in politics with adjusting words and labels to be more palatable and resonant – packaging which often comes with limited connection to, or impact on, the underlying policy reality. This game of focus-group window-dressing and euphemisms has become so common and predictable in Washington it’s something of a bad cliché. “Hey, we need a user-friendly label for this new tax law that plays well in the middle-class….”

In PR we often run into clients or prospects that ask us to “message” them out of a crisis or bad reputation. And just as often I tell them that communication alone can’t fix a bad decision or policy. But they still try.

I’ll leave it to others to determine whether American voters really buy into the GOP platform – the actual policies, values and laws that they promote and implement. But I would argue the Republican messages were only one part of a broader construct that shaped their public profile – which includes their actions and ideas, not just their words. And though brands and labels do matter, they can’t exist (or be changed) in a vacuum. Messaging without supporting evidence and ongoing corroboration – particular in a political context – is little more than dubious propaganda.  I also believe that most American consumers/voters are smarter than political leaders (and their armies of consultants and lobbyists) give them credit for, and will see through the most blatant messaging overhauls.

As luck would have it, I’ve been reading the results of Edelman’s excellent annual survey on trust. The survey suggests that trust of leaders and organizations is critical to influencing audience opinions and behavior (whether it be purchase, engagement or advocacy.) I think most of us would agree with that basic premise. But the study further argues that to build and sustain trust companies/leaders must focus on five key areas:

  • Stakeholders want to see ENGAGEMENT behaviors like frequent, transparent communications and obvious care for employees and customers.  There’s great faith built on the back of dialogue and interaction.
  • They expect clear exhibition of INTEGRITY of business practices and responsible actions about issues. Again, transparency is key, since it’s inadvisable to go around bragging how high your integrity is.
  • Quality PRODUCTS AND SERVICES seem like cost-of-entry, but this is a powerful way to build trust, especially with your innovation in evidence.
  • Once upon a time, brands could truly differentiate themselves by addressing a greater PURPOSE than mere profit and valuation results. Purpose initiatives are more powerful than ever for bonding and setting oneself apart… but now it’s expected, if not demanded, that businesses work to protect the environment, address societal needs and impact their community.
  • The fundamentals of the enterprise – OPERATIONS – are an important basis for trust; these include having highly regarded leadership, ranking among top companies and posting strong financial returns. And while you’re not likely to generate great increases in trust with these, if you fail, trust will plummet, and you’ll have much bigger issues to address.

I recognize the Edelman study focuses on companies and executives, rather than politicians or political parties. (On a side note, the survey shows that government lags business, media and NGOs in trust ratings, with the gap between government and business growing.) But I think the findings are quite relevant to this issue. It suggests that some of the old chestnuts of PR like “walk the talk” and “show me don’t just tell me” are still valid. In order to drive and sustain tangible changes in public attitudes and behavior, words (spoken or written) aren’t enough. It’s time politicians and executives commit to a more mature, comprehensive approach – where their actions, ideas and messages are real and aligned – to build credibility and support. I’ll be watching with interest how the GOP does with its “words first” approach.


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