The Two Most Powerful Words in Strategic Communications?

(Other than “Payment Received” ;) )

Many, many moons ago, when I was svelter around the waist and with less gray in my beard, I wanted to be an EMT. (emergency medical technician… you know, a dude in an ambulance) My interest developed after taking a first responder class in college, and I wanted to carry on my studies, possibly even working my way through school as an EMT.

(Thankfully, I passed the class but didn’t go on with becoming an EMT. It was fascinating and fun, but not for me.)

One of the first, and most important lessons I learned as an EMT were that the two most important words to an EMT were “It Depends.”

As my instructors drilled into my brain repeatedly throughout class, it was difficult understanding with certainty what was happening to a patient, because symptoms for a problem (i.e. a stroke) could manifest one way in one person, and a slightly different way in another person. Just enough to leave you wondering for sure what the problem was.

(There you go, you’ve just spared yourself 6 months of EMT classwork. You’re welcome. ;-) )

So what does this have to do with business, communications and social media?

I’m glad you asked.

Businesses, like people, are multifaceted. Large or small, Fortune 100 or Mom-and-Pop shops, they are all different entities mostly looking for the same goal – profit. Some consultants want to tell you that all businesses should act like the small, family-owned business, listening attentively to each customer. While that works for the small business, it’s harder to change the culture ingrained into larger companies into acting like a small business.

That doesn’t mean that larger businesses shouldn’t engage in social media. Hell, many large companies have great social programs. It does mean that each company has a different way to achieve social media nirvana, locating what works for them. It means that cookie cutter social media programs won’t necessarily work. You don’t just add water, mix and cook at 400 degrees for a successful program or strategy.

Each company, large or small, single people (athletes and celebrities?) or Japanese Zaibatsu conglomerates, needs to sit down and assess their communications and interaction goals, work on a pre-program audit – looking at their needs, the audiences they want to reach, how best to interact with those audiences. Developing lists of Twitter handles to engage with that make sense (why would a college need to interact with a 30-something professional, non-alumni with no kids? Is there a reason? There might be. What would it be? NOTE: I work at a university, and this is just an example that popped in my head and is not indicative of anything in that university’s strategy)

In short, you need to do your research. Do your homework! Conduct your communications, social media and other audits, ask questions. Make sure any social media company you work with knows how to do this, ask for definable and measurable goals.

Will the same social media strategy that works so well for Dell work for you? Remember…

“It Depends”

The Death Of “Death Of …” Posts

Just a quick post to get this off of my chest.

Public Relations... not dead

Advertising… not dead

RSS Technology… not dead

Newspapers… not dead, just evolving (the smart ones are)

OK, these things are not dead. Let’s all get over the fact that despite everyone’s best bet, they aren’t dead.

What might qualify as “dead”

  • Friendster
  • MySpace
  • Kirk Cameron as some kind of religious leader

Before we all jump on the easy linkbait stories about the death of RSS, or Public Relations, or JR Ewing, or whatever, let’s all take a step back and think about what ever is being touted as dead and if it’s really useless to business needs, instead of our needs.

That’s what should be an overarching theme in social media, business and public relations for 2011. Is there going to be a shift back from the “social media” expert to an incorporation of social media into your communications plan?

"Disney-fying" Your Story

Walt Disney World and Disneyland parks are often called “The Happiest Places on Earth,” however if you ask many of Disney’s detractors they’d say that Disney’s marketing just tells a good story. Regardless of how you view Disney (I personally am a huge fan), you should grab your Moleskein or netbook and take a trip to either park for a couple of days to take notes and learn how to “Disney-fy” how you tell stories.

When I talk about “Disney-fying” your story, I’m not talking about making a simple story, I mean think about how to create a more immersive story, using multiple media, online and offline, community development and more.

I was watching a special on Disney World when I started writing this piece. The show was describing the Disney Animal Kingdom’s Everest Ride, and how the “story” behind the ride started long before you arrived at the ride – it started as soon as you entered the “village” area for the ride, with posters about the yeti being shown on screen, and how the little shops, food areas, etc around the ride had elements about the yeti and the Nepalese mentality of “forbidden areas” around mountains that are believed to have yeti. These elements gave more of an “asian flavor” to the ride, giving it more background and depth than just another basic rollercoaster ride. (Think of your messages in this way, what can you do to provide more information or depth to your message – going beyond just having another message to tell.)

When you visit one of the Disney theme parks there are a myriad of stories being told beyond the obvious “Walt Disney” story. Far too often people are rushing around to really let the stories sink in with them, and if your communication efforts aren’t ready to meet the challenge of connecting people, they’ll rush away before your message resonates with them. (regardless of if it’s a sales message, a communication message, or a community building message)

This also goes to show you that you the importance of having people knowledgeable about storytelling and the elements of your organization, people who can’t fake this interest and knowledge, engaging with your audience in these multiple media. How do these elements work together, how do you play on their various strengths to tell your story?

Play to Your Strengths

Some of the online discussion has recently asked who is the best to represent your organization in social media. Your PR or marketing agency? Or your in-house experts and communicators?

I’m going to go with your in house people. Having your social media team (which needs to be made up of people in your company from many disciplines – marketing, PR, sales, operations, development, programming, etc) spearheaded by your own employees allows your company to tap into a much deeper knowledge of the products, services, issues, etc. Much more in depth than your PR firm working 40 hours a month on your account.

This isn’t to denigrate the work that firms do for a client – it actually promotes a firewall separating the strengths of a firm and the company in question.  The primary social media content and creation needs should come from your company’s evangelists while your firm can bring the team important insights about your company or a new idea for social media tools (for example). Sometimes that outside viewpoint can give your firm the great ideas to move your organization into a new communications phase.

When you start a communications team/Firm partnership, you need to establish the ground rules for what each side of the equation will do. Be careful to not let the line blur too much, each team will work to their strengths, and the people on each team can hold the other team accountable to working to those strengths.

PR is not a four-letter word – A Discussion

Note: This is an edited transcript of a Google Wave exchange between Will Reichard of CrossCut Communications ( and Benson Hendrix, author of Net News 54 (, a blog about new media. It is being cross-posted on both sites.

Several times in the last couple of years, we’ve been asked to present to budding communications students to give them an overview of the world of public relations. We have both been struck that their perception seems to be that public relations as an industry is equivalent to “spin.” We’re not naive. We know there’s a reason that PR people have been called “flaks,” and we know there’s a reason that shows like “Mad Men” continue to capture the popular imagination. Still, we thought we were past all that. We’re both huge fans of PRSA’s code of ethics, and in our experience, the PR industry is conscientious about doing the right thing. We’re both former passionate journalists who believe that PR has a vital role to play in modern organizations. Here’s part of the conversation we’ve been having on the subject.

Will: My theory is that PR is like legal representation–we’re all entitled to a vigorous defense within ethical bounds. That’s our system. But many of the people I talk with seem to feel the world exists in black and white, as though each situation has one “right” and one “wrong” answer. When I try to explain that situations are intricate and that the best PR people work to ensure that organizations are communicating everything they should be to their multiple publics, I see blank faces. I try to point out that all of us, every one, makes choices about how to present him or herself each day. We choose our words, our clothes, what to post on our Facebook pages, how to sit in a class or walk down the street. We are constantly choosing what to communicate. People seem to have a very hard time separating conscious communication from malicious manipulation. They tend to forget we’re all using these techniques every day.

Benson: One of my greatest concerns about public relations is that we as PR professionals are all too often seen as “spinners” by members of the C-Suite. This is a view that has been perpetuated on the profession not only by members of the media, including some memorable rants from Rachel Maddow – comparing one PR firm to “The PR Firm Hell Would Hire” – but also by a minority of public relations professionals who are beyond willing to please their bosses. There are firms willing to do what is necessary, and usually those same firms specialize in taking on clients whose public personas are seen as less than positive (see Wal-Mart, oil industry, nuclear industry, etc.). (And now to contradict myself, this isn’t exactly a bad thing. These companies can stand behind a record of providing jobs, bringing in money, etc., to a local community–if it’s true. When they get into problems is when they say these things without actually doing it, in the hope that the PR team can “spin the facts.”)

One of the main tenets of Edward Bernays’ book “Propaganda” is to not sell a product, but to sell the need for a product. Following up on that idea, good public relations professionals try to sell causes, ideas and concepts that might impact a person’s beliefs, instead of selling a group, or just a cause, etc.

Will: Perhaps it’s that our society is gravitating as a whole toward polarizing platforms. A world of “American Idol,” a world communicated in 140-character bursts, doesn’t have a lot of room for acknowledging that nuance is essential, that the “truth” is an intersection of multiple viewpoints, each of which must be clear and critical.

Or maybe it’s that we’re all so conscious of the controlled and mediated nature of communications that we want to dislike anyone who acknowledges it and calls attention to the fact. Maybe PR–as, ironically, one of the most upfront institutions when it comes to its motivations–occupies an important space as something we can point to and say, “We are not that.” We’re not so hyperattentive to our personas that almost any image we can project is by definition manufactured and, thus, largely impersonal.

Benson: Another reason could be that most people don’t realize the impact that public relations efforts have had in their day-to-day lives. Have you ever signed a petition for a politician? What about called in to a talk radio show on behalf of a cause? These are but two tactics that PR pros helped craft into the effective tools you see today. Many non-profits, especially non-profits that advocate, have taken cues and clues for effective communications strategy from public relations efforts of the past. In fact, later this month there will be a big communications conference for progressive non-profits (some of which don’t really realize how PR has impacted their groups).

How the public personally views each of these industries should be less of a concern for PR people (because for every person opposing a site like WIPP, there’s another in favor of the jobs it brings to the area). What should be a bigger concern for PR professionals is the ongoing view that we are nothing more than cleanup. Perhaps a future role for PR professionals is to go beyond PR and into Corporate Social Management, looking at the best moves for a company to make before they make them.

Will: Great points, Benson. In the executive MBA program at UNM, we spent a fair part of the program studying corporate social responsibility, which is heartening. Cultures change very slowly, but at least things are changing. Communications as a management objective is creeping closer to the C-suite. And fortunately, part of what managers are learning now is to look for a certain level of professionalism when they’re hiring public and community relations staff. I know you had mentioned recently that we’re seeing a lot of unskilled agents creeping onto the scene.

Benson: That really is another problem we in PR have been dealing with–the tendency for anyone to say “I’m a publicist” after watching 4 episodes of Entourage or Arliss, and the unwillingness of people who represent PR (either in PRSA or “stand-up guy” PR practitioners) to call out these faux-publicists when they do something wrong. I’ve heard stories about PRSA wanting to institute a “licensure” test for people to conduct PR professionally, but I don’t see that happening. Because unlike practicing law or medicine, you can’t stop people from getting in front of a camera and talking, regardless of how they sound.

Conclusion: What do you think of when you think of public relations? What does the industry do well, and what could it do better? Thank you for reading.