“I love it when a plan comes together.” – John “Hannibal” Smith (George Peppard), The A-Team
“I love it more when it falls apart.” – Yours Truly.
The poor Washington NFL Team. Yesterday, someone at the Washington NFL team’s public relations office apparently decided that rallying the team’s fans against Senator Harry Reid and the U.S. Senate was a good idea. For those of you who aren’t aware, many people consider the Washington NFL team’s nickname to be a tad… racially insensitive.
The “Perception Hole” or “Perception Gap” occurs when your organization begins developing a negative reputation about an issue and refusing to take the time to respond to the incoming attacks. This is a situation that many organizations, large and small, will have to deal with in the future if they haven’t already. Especially in an online world where anyone with a Chromebook and a Smartphone can logically argue that they are a part of “The Media.”
Community relations needs to be a large part of any overall communication campaign, whether you’re working in politics, corporate PR, nonprofit or association communications.
If you’re going to be serious about community relations, you have to be involved in your community (online or offline) long before you actually need them. You’re working to build up community capital that you can cash in later when you need your community to back your proposal. If you’re a local civic leader, you can even beat back the threat of being fired with enough community support.
But like anything worth doing it takes time and hard work.
Community relations isn’t like a spigot – you can’t just turn it on and have goodwill come flooding out. It takes time – venturing out to meet with members of your community, and not just your immediate community, but across a geographical and demographic layer beyond your comfort zone. You have to go to their local summer BBQ’s, shaking hands and kissing babies, much like the best politicians.
You have to be involved in local governmental affairs. You can’t imagine the importance of good relations with local officials when you are trying to work on your university’s master plan, or building support for a Bond Campaign.
If you work at a school, college or university, your job is supposed to be easier. You should have departments dedicated to building bridges to communities. Parent Associations. Alumni Departments. PTAs for K-12. School Spirit Organizations. They are out there. You have to give them reasons to support you. Involving yourself with them matters.
Recently I’ve been talking with my friends about an idea that business guru Guy Kawasaki has been at the forefront of for many years, the idea of “product evangelism” or utilizing your biggest supporters to positively promote a product or organization (i.e. Apple’s iCabal).
Following up on this thought, you should look at how to develop your company’s/industry’s supporters into a cohesive “pack” (for lack of a better word) that is willing to support and defend your company. Non-profit coalitions have been doing this for quite a while, and businesses can learn quite a bit from these organizations. Many non-profits, if not almost all of them, have spent decades doing more with less when it comes to communications and coalition-building. What these groups lacked in financial strength, they made up for in passion, perseverance, strategy and volunteerism.
What social media tools then did was lower the bar for strong content creation by these groups. Once the bar was lowered these groups were able to produce their message cheaper and for a potentially larger audience. This content creation then works hand-in-hand with social networking to build a larger base of volunteers, or as they tend to be called in a business setting, “evangelists.”
I call this idea “Darwin’s Bulldog 2.0″. (but I didn’t create this idea, it’s been out there for a while, but I wanted to look at how to use evangelists to passionately support and bolster your organization.) A quick history lesson for y’all:
Thomas Huxley was a 19th century biologist from England. He was a fierce proponent of this burgeoning scientific theory called “evolution” at a time when evolution was still being derided by many intellectual elites in England. It was because of this devotion to his cause that he became known as “Darwin’s Bulldog.”
Huxley was groomed by Darwin and for a time became the face of public debate in favor of evolution. He was known for his spirited debate about evolution with Samuel Wilberforce in 1860. After this debate he served notice to the forces of traditional orthodoxy that evolution would not be easily pushed aside. He stood in the face of this adversity for much of his career after the Wilberforce debate, giving as good as he got.
What does this have to do with public relations in the Web 2.0 world? Quite a bit actually, especially when you advocate for your position or organization.
You can see much of the same kind of fervor online today, usually in political partisans (see Hugh Hewitt, Michelle Malkin, Daily Kos, Eschaton, etc.) since blogging entered the political realm back in the wee early 2000s.
While not all organizations or industries would need someone to vigorously defend them, as your organization moves into the social media realm, or develops a social network of allies (on Facebook or Ning, which I recommend) you can start to “feel out” if there are any of your online evangelists that could/would serve as your fervent supporters or defenders.
Trying to put together a “viral” social media campaign will not be successful without some level of separate, independent evangelism from your supporters. (see “Walmarting Across America” or the definition of “greenwashing.”) This is where working with Ning, Awareness Inc., a site like My Barack Obama, or Facebook can help with creating a community for your supporters. Giving them a chance to interact with each other, sharing and improving on ideas for your organization or product.
Suffice it to say, you will need to monitor and nurture this potentially burgeoning community. As your community grows, you’ll get opponents signing on to keep track of what your organization is doing, and potentially flaming your community and sabotaging your efforts in growing the community. You need to have a member of your social media team, probably one of your bloggers (if you have the luxury of hiring more than one person to take care of your social media creation needs) also oversee the community and interact with your evangelists in it. Check out Dell’s IdeaStorm site for ideas to build on.
It’s important that these people be organically independent of your business. You don’t want to be caught in the position of “paying” for support,” and the following blogstorm that will ensue. (see “Walmarting Across America” for an example of what not to do)
If your evangelists do work for your organization, they have to be up front about it – and then go the extra steps to prove that they mean what they advocate, and aren’t just cashing a paycheck. As long as they own up to working for the company, they aren’t disqualified for representing their company with passion.
To my PR readers out there, what do you think? Should your organization have a “bulldog,” someone who is out there passionately defending your brand? What do you think the downside is? Can they be seen as a “loose cannon” who can do more damage to your brand? Should you let one of your internal defenders speak out for you, or do you think that will cause more damage to your organization’s brand?
Social media is more about social interaction and being online as another means of message distribution than it is about “blogger relations.”
The more I think about this, the more I am convinced that we in public relations should not be focused as much on blogger relations in our social media planning and usage, we should instead be focused on creating cool content and building relationships with other bloggers/podcasters/etc. It involves being engaged with people on a smaller level, much the same way as the mainstream outlets are fragmenting more and more. But interpersonal relationships are like that, you can’t be best buds with thousands of people.
It’s the argument of the “cool kids” vs. the “popular kids.” The “cool kids” are too busy creating content to worry about whether or not you are hanging out with the “popular kids.” If you have to choose, you should pick the road less traveled – the one of creating content to attract an audience of interested people who want to listen to what you have to say, and then developing your online connections.
Take Twitter (please! Just kidding) for instance. You can have tens of thousands of followers on Twitter, but is that anything more than just a status symbol? It’s especially telling for people like Ashton Kutcher, or other celebs on Twitter – those people with millions of followers, but are only connected to a couple of dozen themselves. In cases like this, these accounts are used as purely broadcast platforms for people who want to “see a part of the life” or “catch of a slice of AK.”
This is not a bad model, in and of itself, and it leverages the popularity of these celebrities quite well. But for average companies or people, it’s not really a model that works. Remember, people are interested in connecting with people, not with companies. It’s the uncommon company that can get away with having a fierce group who just want to be part of the brand (i.e. sports teams, Apple, etc)
In the meantime, it might be better for people to focus more on developing the content that will interest and attract people to their “brand” and produce enough content to keep them interested in returning. Believe it or not, the content might not be directly related to their work or product. If the people keep coming to check it out, your personal brand might achieve that “top of mind awareness,” or to put it another way, might stick in their mind.
When I spoke a little bit about this on the video linked above, I didn’t realize that tof the heavy hitters in social media, Chris Brogan had given a different take at his site. This is just my humble two-cents.
Political season is well upon us in the United States (for my International readers, both of you, you might find this interesting as well) and one of the tried-and-true keys to developing a message in a political/issues campaign quickly is to use a message matrix.
A message matrix lets you set up a grid and take a look at your situation and helps you answer the following questions:
1. What can your opponents/activists/competition say about your organization/product/etc?
2. What can your opponents/activists/competition say about themselves?
3. What can your organization say about itself/product/etc.?
4. What can your organization say about your opponents/activists/competition?
When you take the time to sit down and look at your matrix, this is the time you need to take a critical look at your organization and your competition. Be honest with your organization’s strengths and weakness, and develop your potential messages accordingly. As a part of the message box, you might want to conduct a SWOT and/or PESTLE analysis, depending on your time.
If you look at your competition or activist groups in advance, a message matrix can help you organize your thoughts as you prepare questions, responses and talking points before you need them. It’s always good to show the executive leadership you’re prepared in advance for any media problems they might run into. It can also help you determine those messages, talking points, and possible responses on the fly if you need to.
This is just an overview of the message box, we’ll get into closer detail soon enough. But keep in mind, these messages will probably need to be vetted by your legal department, executive leadership, etc.
(We’re taking a break from our usual lovable business advice column to bring you the following message)
Public Relations has a PR problem.
I know, a lot of people have heard that very lead over the years. But we really have a problem, and it’s getting worse, not better. In the past few years we’ve seen things from prominent PR firms astroturfing online campaigns to loosely-termed “PR Reality TV” shows provide an unrealistic view of public relations, an ABC show that portrays us all with a fine veneer of “we’ll do anything to save our clients” BS, and some of our worst representatives getting the most attention from the press. (Lizzie Grubman ring any bells?)
And what do we in PR do about it?
I remember when I finally received my degree in PR and advertising. Not more than thirty minutes after commencement I was talking with my dad, who congratulated me on finally getting the degree and then dropped a verbal pipe bomb of his own on me.
“Congratulations. You’re now a professional bullshit artist.”
Ladies and gentlemen, we have to step up and take back what it is public relations professionals do for a living. We have allowed this to happen. Years of not pointing out the weak actions of public relations professionals have allowed the media, and those activists who love to attack us as corporate liars, to frame us as unethical, lying bastards.
But these same people never want to be held up to the same standard of professionalism. The irony in this is that the same members of the media and activists (right or left, anti-corporate or not) who decry public relations as craven “spin masters” and liars who are busy “telling people what to think” use many of the same tactics created by public relations practitioners throughout the years on their own supporters. If we’re going to hold PR people up to a predisposed view, then these detractors need to be held to the same standard.
(It’s called the “Agenda Setting Theory” and we’ll get into a soon enough. But let me say with the increase in digital media, PR people have many new means to hold the media up to our own standards.)
It is because of public relations’ poor image that those professionals whose work is exemplary, people who should be held up as examples of ethical practitioners with a strong work ethic are immediately under suspicion of being “just another flack.” It’s true that there are poor PR professionals, those who haven’t been trained in PR (yes, a successful PR pro is trained beyond just the regular view of “I’m a writer” or “I’m a people person”), just like there are unethical journalists, or bad teachers, or misleading activist groups.
“If we’re not running offense, we’re running defense. And if we’re not playing defense… there’s some clever sports analogy that explains what happens then.”
Allison Janney as “C.J. Cregg”
“The West Wing”
Our default view as communications professionals appears to be one of “we’re writers. We communicate. We’re ‘people’ people.” What we don’t promote enough, or study enough, is the importance of strategy in communications and in business. (which involves quite a bit of research (which you’ll learn when you start to study for your APR or a business degree)
We are rarely brought into the upper echelon decision making, because we’re not only seen as, but want to promote ourselves as, just “writers.” According to a 1999 white paper by crisis management expert Jim Lukaszewski, a management consultant explained to public relations professionals why they would rarely be able to address the concerns of the C-Suite. And it was a shock to many of the PR professionals in the audience. For all of our talk about the importance of communicating and writing in public relations, few professionals are able to show the C-Suite the impact that we have on those numbers that are important to them. Finances, sales, increase in profits.
(And don’t give me the “advertising equivalent” argument – that’s the biggest load of BS that public relations has ever come up with)
I give PRSA some credit for trying to improve the professionalism of practitioners around the country, with the APR program and now the organization’s new MBA initiative, tying public relations closer to business schools (where it needs to be). This is only the start of the necessary push to improve public relations’ image. It took us a long time to dig into this hole, it’s going to take us a long time to get out of it.
Why should PR professionals stick up for what we do? I’ll let Ron Silver’s character from “The West Wing” respond for me. (please ignore the politics if it’s not your thing, but the underlying sentiment is solid.)