All Meaningful Communication is a Form of Storytelling

Solitary Man

Narration is “a conceptional framework for understanding human decision, discourse and action”-(Walter Fisher, 1989)

The Setup

My friend of 10 years Richard, a 45 year-old hard-working, loving father and auto mechanic from Charlestown strode across the street to his car, leaving early for a 8:00am meeting with his lawyer. This was to be their first meeting.

Once at the office Richard and his lawyer, a 27 year-old just out of law school, began to hash out an intricate legal strategy, one with the ultimate goal of receiving full custody of Richard’s two children from his alcoholic-gambling ex-wife Linda. Linda hasn’t worked in years and leaves the children, aged 10 and 12, home alone frequently while going to Foxwoods with her boyfriends to gamble away her child support check. Richard loves his children dearly and works 60 hours a week at the garage just to make ends meet and to provide for them. He does this even though he knows the money goes to liquor stores and into the casino safe instead of into his two kids’ bellies.

The Conflict

So, Richard and his lawyer meet every Tuesday at 8:00am for the next 6 months. During this time Richard gets up at 6:00am and goes to work at the garage for a hour or so before heading to his lawyer’s office in Jamaica Plains to plan out next steps. Linda stays in bed until noon, letting her kids get themselves ready for school and consequently, wait for the bus alone on the corner. While they get on the bus in the rain Linda is puffing on her third cigarette of the morning.

Linda also has a lawyer (subsidized by Richard’s child-support check) who is the typical pony-tailed, expensive-suited litigator with an office on State Street, who pulls out all the stops and plays nasty just to win. He has 25 years experience though with numerous investigators working for him. And he wins his cases.

The conflict between Richard and Linda continues, both in court and when Richard goes to pick the kids up every other weekend.

The Resolution

At the end of the 6 months, and after much hard work and scrapping together (through borrowing and pleading for overtime) money to pay his less experienced, but ethically stout lawyer, Richard wins full custody of his kids. The more experienced lawyer is beaten down and Linda is remiss for the loss of the child support check. The children love their father and are happy to finally be able to live with him full-time.

Installing new engine mounts in the Chev.

A Credible Story?

You know this little account that I just relayed to you? Well it’s pure fiction. Sorry! I have no friend named Richard who has just won a hard-fought battle for his kids. I told you this story to illustrate the power of Walter Fisher’s Narrative paradigm theory and to hopefully show you why storytelling is effective in marketing communications.  To quickly summarize, Fisher believed that

all meaningful communication is a form of storytelling or giving a reporting of events and so human beings experience and comprehend life as a series of ongoing narratives each with their own conflicts, characters, beginnings, middles, and ends.

And the way in which people explain and/or justify their behavior, whether past or future, “has more to do with telling a credible story than it does with producing evidence or constructing a logical argument.” And to believe in other people’s “stories” the same must hold true. Where credibility = a coherent narrative structure (e.g. the story tells us that Richard loves his children, and then depicts him fighting for them at great personal sacrifice), and also the story has to resonate with the listeners’ values, beliefs and experiences (e.g. ethics and morality will win over immorality and playing nasty).

Instead of mainly basing our decisions on logical, rational arguments (e.g. because Linda’s lawyer is more experienced than Richard’s, Linda will surely win the custody battle), Fisher posited that we humans make decisions based on history, culture and perceptions about the status and character of the other people involved in the narrative.

So, while reading the account above, thinking about your experiences and picturing hard-working Richard and lazy Linda with her immoral lawyer, did you happen to forsee the ending? You probably did. You’re smart like that. Plus storytelling is engrained in your DNA.

What The Heck Does This Have To Do With Marketing Communications?

Well I’ll tell you. “Audiences are interested in the real stories, experiences, dilemmas and issues confronting us in 2011. It has to feel relevant to them,” says Charlotte Moore, the commissioning editor for documentaries at the BBC. Telling true stories well, as alluded to by Moore and discussed in the book Content Rules, powerfully connects a brand to its customers/community/prospects –  in a meaningful way. And telling true brand stories well entails everything I mentioned above – including conflict, resolution and of course the hero who comes to the rescue and solves the problem(s).

For example, narrative coherence would begin with a city-based university’s message to prospective applicants and their parents that they are there to solve all concerns students and their folks may have related to moving in and living on a “campus” in the city, and that ultimately the university cares about the student. Then they would cement the narrative coherence by offering a social channel like Twitter in which to provide insights and relevant info to students/their families and provide video/pictures that vividly illustrates what the dorms look like and where incoming freshman will indeed live.

Telling true stories well also entails communicating a brand story that resonates, for example, with the students and their parent’s values and experiences. Of course to make this all jive marketers and communicators have to first hear (listening as action) the people they are attempting to connect with and then weave these insights into their communication(s) and story.

Mechanic photo credit: Edward Wingate

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Marketing Objectives, Strategy and Tactics Made Clear by the Show COPS


Throughout my collegiate career, studying both journalism and PR, I have found that the best way to learn about (and retain) complex and even not-so-complex ideas was to be provided with real-world, pragmatic examples (obviously, an even better route is actually taking part; i.e. experiential learning). But nonetheless, for our present purposes lets discuss the power and clarity of real events/life as examples when it comes to understanding and learning.
market

When we were studying heavy topics such as journalistic law and ethics, the confidentiality of sources and the federal shield law, our kind professor at U-Mass spent a good amount of time discussing Judith Miller and the leak of Valerie Plame as a CIA agent.  This real-world example/event contained vivid lessons of the importance of the freedom of the press, the fundamental role the confidentiality of sources plays in journalism’s ability to function as the “watch dog,” and it even illustrated the issues that arise from the mixing (i.e. conglomeration) of corporations and the press. I learned a lot.

A Strategic Approach to Digital Marketing Initiatives

I know from my own experience and casual reading of blogs and articles that the world of digital marketing planning and execution, specifically the steps involving the setting of objectives, strategy and tactics, is a bit murky and can become hard to order. And therefore it ends up detrimentally affecting the overall initiative/campaign.

So, how about a real-world example to shed some light on the differences between marketing objectives, strategy and tactics? This will also hopefully illustrate how these planning steps fit in and build off of each other to equal an effective initiative or program. (I do recognize that there are more steps involved, such as timescales and evaluation, but I want to concentrate here on what I see as the most misunderstood aspects of the planning and managing process).

Bad Boys, Bad Boys…

Two Of Them
As I was watching COPS recently I began to think about the major goal that the two partners had (“making it home safe at the end of the night,” as one cop said), and how they worked to achieve it. I’ll define the objective “making it home safe” as walking through their own doors at the end of their shift, having incurred no personal injury. Soon, I recognized that this specific example would perhaps make the topic of marketing objectives, strategy and tactics a little bit clearer. Lets begin with the two cops’ objective.

Objective (What do the cops want to achieve?):

  • As I mentioned above, these two cops want to make it home safe after willingly immersing themselves in danger all night.

Stakeholders/Publics (Who do they talk to/and who can affect their objective?

  • Criminals, victims, witnesses, the general public. These are all groups of people that define what the police do and can affect the two cops’ objective of making it home safe. Much analysis and research has been done and statistics are available for police brass to consider when developing the protocol (e.g. use harsher methods/communication with criminals than witnesses) that deals with these groups while on the job.

An example of how these stakeholders can affect the objective: The two police officers finally are able to enact a traffic stop after a suspected bank robber leads them on a 90mph chase over 10 miles. Then instead of listening to police commands to lie down face first, the criminal makes a beeline for the nearest bush to hide in or fence to jump over (this example will become clearer in the tactics section, I promise!). By running the criminal puts the cops’ objective at risk. As the cops chase the criminal a neighbor could mistake them for burglars, they could get hit by a car or the suspect could all of a sudden spin around and brandish a weapon etc. Therefore, the cops want to lessen the chance for this uncertainty, this lack of control to occur. Which leads us perfectly to the content of the initiative.

Content (What do our two cops say?):

  • Remember that devising the content of an initiative or program is very specific to the individual situation. For our present example the nature of the “initiative” is mainly one of information (one-way messages with little to no dialogue but that still persuades), so an example of a real message here is “For our safety we are putting you in handcuffs. You are not under arrest.” See how this may influence an individual to comply and importantly, how it’s related to the cops’ main objective? Here is a link to a pretty decent deck that covers developing simple campaign messages.

Strategy (What is the overall approach the two cops take; the rationale behind the tactics?):

  • They act proactively and ask questions only after first squashing the threat. Open communications is key. The issue is safety (even for the criminals themselves), so all actions taken should lessen, in some way, the possible danger to the two cops on their beat and to the general public. So how do the two cops implement this strategy? Tactics is how.

Tactics (What actions do the cops take that compliment each other & the objective?):

  • As I alluded to earlier in the content section, if there is any inkling of danger or uncertainty the handcuffs come out first, then the cops question and search. Questioning and searching are also tactics meant to ensure a safe environment for everyone involved (and specifically, for the two cops).
  • If the cops have information of a serious crime having taken place earlier by a suspect and/or the stop poses a significant risk to the police for any reason (e.g. a weapon is seen), our two cops will enact a “high risk” or what is termed a felony stop. This is different than a “regular” stop because of the tactics used – the cops will pull their gun before approaching, they communicate specific verbal commands and radio the dispatcher of their intent to perform the “high risk” stop (i.e. open communications).
  • The use of the radio: communicating openly and at all times where they are and what actions they are taking is a tactic that is meant to ensure the two cops get home safe. For example, the two partners run into a suspect who they can’t control. They radio dispatch who sends in reinforcements who then help the two cops subdue the criminal, hopefully without anyone getting hurt.
  • Ask everyone for identification. Its safer to know who you’re dealing with right?
  • The use of canine (K9) officers to go in and disable the threat. The use of dogs also prevents the two cops having to rush in themselves to dangerous situations and it then improves their chances of making it home safe.

Hopefully this real-world example has shed some light on the difference between objectives, strategy and tactics and has illustrated the interrelated nature of these salient steps that go into a marketing/PR initiative or program. Do you have any other real-world examples that have helped you understand and learn?

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Market Photo credit: Tiffa 130

Two cops Photo credit: Kevin Spencer

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Creating an Interactive Customer/Fan Experience Wins


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Wow, the interactive marketing space is getting cooler day-by-day. If you turn your head just for a split second, you’re bound to miss some new combination of digital media and deep community listening that spawns an awesome customer experience. I just came across a post by lostremote.com, a site dedicated to social TV coverage, that illustrates just such an example of how to go about creating an impressive and interactive customer event.

Trending Topics Powered by Facebook

All-Star Pulse, launched by NBA.com, is a Facebook-powered experience that was created for the All-Star game this past weekend. The site tracked “real-time conversations about the players, stars and brands associated with the annual event” writes Lost Remote. One interesting fact about the site is that it is powered by Facebook, not Twitter. The NBA told Mashable, according to the piece, that because the NBA is a global brand, Facebook (with its huge reach) was a natural choice. The league itself has “7.4 million Facebook fans and another 2.3 million Twitter followers,” so I would offer that this was a smart choice as it illustrates a solid grasp of its audience (and ensures copious amounts of fuel for the engine and subsequently, a better experience for all.)

Real-Time Topic Pages

The picture directly above corresponds with clicking on the “2011 NBA All-Star Game” tab, which pulls up a topic page, and gives you the total mentions of the phrase, Facebook user mentions and it even drills down to provide mentions of the game per hour and per minute. Besides this, you can watch keyword-related videos, check out pictures of the game and read the latest articles and blog posts – (categorized by each.) Pretty sweet huh?

Each page is also decked out with “social bling,” promoting cross-channel sharing/integration and therefore, furthering the branded experience that much more. For example, there are “share this” options if you want to post the Lebron James stats (e.g. mentions per hour) and video content to Twitter, as well prompts to “follow the NBA” and “like the NBA.”

I can see other organizations harnessing Facebook’s massive people-powered engine to create more of these branded experiences. How about a “pulse” for a new Victoria’s Secret product launch? Or perhaps a Facebook powered, real-time site for the Apple iPad 2 announcement?

I would also offer that besides digital marketers, journalists can get in on the action by using/visiting these sites after and during an event/campaign to pull real-time stats and get context and media for their related articles. What do you think are some future uses?

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Top photo credit: mrdrebzee

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Moving Past Twitters’ Gate-Keepers


Gatekeeper
More and more it seems that Twitter is becoming an integral part of/player in the news of the world. Whether it be breaking the news, for example, the 2009 US Airways flight ditching in the Hudson river, or actually being the news, as it has been most recently concerning the role it played in the Egyptian revolution, “Twitter” and “News” are becoming synonymous.

A recent article on Paul Sutton’s blog The Social Web, and the report by HP found below, got me thinking about the topic of media gatekeepers, Twitter, news and how digital marketers can engage with Twitter to make it (news) and get results.

First, Paul’s piece asks some great questions concerning PR and the fact that Twitter now is the news and breaks it many times even before the mainstream media sites do. He writes,

“As for PR, our job used to be to provide newspapers, magazines and broadcast media with stories; facts and comments about client projects that managed or created reputation and demand. But is our job now to feed Twitter? Do we try to create news ‘breaks’ through seeding news to Twitter sources and journalists?”

This study by HP, which collected its data through Twitter’s own search API over 40 days in the fall of 2010, states that mainstream media brands such as CNN and the NY Times drive a “disproportionate” number of Twitter trending topics – by being the source of most RT’s while a topic is trending. Therefore, taking this into consideration and attempting to answer Paul’s question, I would offer that first I am a bit disappointed that this may illustrate, quite predictably, the saliency of traditional gate-keepers like the MSM on social channels. Although, the study also reports that

“Even though mainstream media sources tend to be extremely well-represented within social media discussions, a significant percentage of trending topics do stem from non-mainstream sources.”

So, in regard to the question of should we as PR professionals and digital marketers seed news to mainstream Twitter sources and their journos, I would posit that yes we should. Going by this report, this is “one” way to create and sustain buzz. But as a guy inspired by citizen journalism and emerging media I am more hopeful that we can find equally-powerful and mutually beneficial ways of creating and sustaining “buzz” on Twitter and other channels, in effect bypassing these conventional sources.

I would love to hear your ideas! Please share below.

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Photo credit: Joshin Yamada

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Kenneth Cole and Crisis Communications 101

By now I imagine you have heard of the insensitive tweet Kenneth Cole himself graced us with yesterday. This “attempt at humor” as Cole later classified it, certainly got the twittersphere and blogosphere’s attention. After reading and commenting on this blog post by Heather Whaling concerning 2 PR lessons learned from the gaffe, I decided to cover what I believe are the salient lessons in PR/Crisis Communications and even social media best practices that can be gleaned from this strange attempt to piggy-back off of the events occurring in the Middle East.

First, I would offer that Kenneth Cole’s gaffe is a pretty big deal; mainly because of the context in which it was made. No matter your political leanings or how you look at the unrest in Egypt and the Middle East, the fact is people are dying (and therefore not the wisest source of comedic material.) With regard to long-term effects of his original tweet (pictured above), I’ve heard the phrase boy-cott mentioned a few times already, but I would offer that the damage will more likely come from Cole’s resources now being differed from ‘business as usual’ to damage control and especially from his weak apology offered on two social channels (Twitter & Facebook).

The larger lesson (and Crisis Communications 101) to be learned from this situation in my opinion has to do with this so-called apology, “We weren’t intending to…” First, sincerity is key and it doesn’t seem sincere. Cole’s tweet doesn’t come across as someone who understands the offenses’ impact and there is no mention of any corrective action (I do understand this may be difficult to communicate in 140 characters but his Facebook message doesn’t offer it either.) Second, I would argue the second tweet wasn’t voluntary. It wasn’t until after the S**# storm started that he tweeted it. Taken together, this presents a major flaw in the apology and hints that this won’t be forgiven/forgotten anytime soon.

To couch this in social media, and with regard to Cole’s responses, I do appreciate his posting of an apology on Facebook on his discussion board, and obviously responding on Twitter (where the gaffe originated) was appropriate. But the best lesson in terms of social media and best practices comes from blogger Mack Collier when he wrote in his post yesterday that brands shouldn’t attempt to leverage conversations happening in social media that they haven’t participated in. This goes back to listening first and then participating only where you or your brand can provide some value – End of story.

Thoughts?

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Social web and the evolution of PR: Guest Post for @behindthespin


I recently had the opportunity to write a guest post for the UK-based magazine, “@behindthespin,” which is a magazine for PR students and young practitioners that publishes online throughout the whole year. Though based in UK universities, the publication effectively aims to take a global perspective on issues of relevance to the above mentioned groups. I will provide a link below to the article that I recently wrote for their site, but first, through a quick recounting of how the actual opportunity came about, I will hopefully offer you an illustration of the power and utility of social media and engagement for young pros who are looking to get their names out there through great content (which is a must considering the near ubiquitousness of the “Googling” of people’s names), and to then hopefully parlay it into job opportunities.

I became aware of the opportunity to write a guest post for Behind the Spin when I came across one of their tweets, which was a re-tweet from David Clare, the PR & social media section editor for the magazine.

I choose to get involved and shot a direct message over to David and explained my interest in writing for them. After brainstorming some PR and social media related topics, we settled on the topic of why/how has social media required PR to evolve, and what in fact will be the end result for the profession?

Since the post has gone live, another interesting, powerful and social facet of this opportunity will hopefully commence. Comments and insightful conversations around the piece and traffic driven to both Behind the Spin and this blog because of it, where more interaction around this topic can take place, will surely signal a mutually beneficial and healthy undertaking – the guest post.

Here is Social web and the evolution of PR.

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Stealing Opportunity from Cracks in the Status Quo

Photo Credit: Arvind Balaraman

Although there are myriad intelligent discussions, analysis and practice occurring lately about and around social media and the power and utility of the social experience, I wanted to take a step back and inward, to explore the vivid terrain of personal experience and what it itself can mean for the agency of the individual as well as for the social experience. I attempted this traversing of the subject of power, possibility and personal experience and broke the macro task down by looking at it through the lens and the phenomenon of “the news.”

News & the Process Through Which it’s Produced Determines Public Experience

One salient postulation that got me thinking about this whole subject of personal experience, structures and therefore human agency and opportunity is a quote by the sociologists Harvey Molotch and Marilyn Lester. “News is the information which people receive second-hand about worlds which are not available to their own experience.” This means that news and the process through which it is produced determines the experiences of the public. There is a middle-man and there are those with vested interests and the unequal power to get these interests addressed.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not explicitly saying having vested interests and influence are always negative attributes, just that we, as young communicators who probably do not have built-up influence, have to be alert, versatile and dynamic to make and take advantage of opportunities when they are presented to us – because they are increasingly few and far between.

Molotch and Lester go on to write that although the news, and especially routine, promoted events such as the president making an inspection tour of a ravaged Gulf Coast, is managed, there are certain times when the status quo is breached, true power dynamics are exposed and opportunities can therefore be swiftly exploited. In all such circumstances, we must be on the ready and have the confidence to take full advantage of these cracks.

For an example related to the news, after a very public accident occurs where oil is released in large amounts into an ocean basin and direct consequences of this unplanned event are that well-loved wildlife are killed and are being killed, this cannot be easily hidden from the public’s view – no matter how powerful the actors who may have caused it and no matter how much they may want it spun. According to Molotch and Lester the media must now become truly objective and serve as the public’s ally, not the partner to the ones with the power and influence.  Here we are able to witness such information usually obscured from public consideration as the close ties and the in-step decision-making that takes place between the federal government and Big Oil.

The opportunity lies within one leader or in-tuned individual of an environmental group being aware, proactive and taking advantage of the very public and the very negative climate produced by the spill that chastens Big Oil and cries out for regulation. He/she can then internalize and utilize this event and the subsequent crack in the dominant political structure to effectively lobby for changes to offshore drilling laws etc. The social experience for many will have been affected.

For our purposes and on a related note, I think its important that we take our personal experiences for what they are and to also be cognizant of their intrinsic value. We should make the most of these events and always be on alert for possible changes and trends in the industry that can signal our opportunity.

For example, taking a job right out of college that may not be our “dream job” in PR or journalism and internalizing the experience as we keep working to find and even cause the tremor that cracks the status quo and leads to our big break. What do you think about finding and making your own personal opportunities?

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LeBron James: A Veritable PR Genius?

Some say that LeBron James is a bona fide “public relations genius.” This may or may not be true, we will explore this in a bit, but the fact remains, the basketball star and free agent has managed to dominate the news cycle and foster massive amounts of speculation and therefore buzz around the decision of which b-ball team he would choose to continue his vaunted career with. Would James stay in Cleveland where he has doggedly chased the elusive championship ring for 7 seasons and formed a relationship of sorts with the city and its fans, or would he sign with another franchise, leaving Cleveland high and dry? And if choosing another team, which one would it be?

This event certainty had all the makings of a dramatic narrative from which to create and implement a solid and responsive PR campaign from. But was it?

Not counting the rumors that have been circulating since the 2008 Olympics in Beijing where he met fellow players Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, from approximately early June to July 8th, when he finally announced at a live ESPN press conference his decision to go to the Miami Heat, “King James” has been a very popular guy. For example, as of late June his newly launched Twitter account had already acquired over 300,000 followers.

So, to get back to the bona fides that have been bestowed upon James, the real question is: Has the lead-up to the big decision and also importantly, the actual decision, been evidence of James’ (and his handlers of course) public relations genius?

Lets briefly start from the end result and go from there. According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Nielsen Co. estimated that 9.95 million people watched James announce on ESPN that he’s leaving Cleveland to play for the Miami Heat, “making it the third-most-watched program on cable television this year.” Even though he already was a big star and media draw, this deluge of viewers obviously shows the campaign did something right because a part of PR is creating awareness and buzz around a product, company or even an individual. This earned recognition has its advantages, and in this particular case, it’s money. James has deftly shown he can command great attention for himself and the league, which may translate into a bigger signing bonus, contract etc., now and down the road. Therefore this aspect of the campaign is indeed a success, but is it unique or different from any other media relations, strategic marketing or publicity campaign? No, not really.

Now, the lead-up to the “The Decision.” James has declared that all advertising revenues from the ESPN performance would be donated by James to the Boys & Girls Club of America. This is a smart PR move as it illustrates a concern for and an awareness of other people beside the proverbial pampered MVP and his big “Decision.” Also, as I mentioned above, James launched a Twitter account and a new website. Both in place to ( ideally) create a channel in which to connect with fans, reporters and the public. Although this is a great idea, it’s pretty standard for any PR campaign these days, as well as the fact he ignored a vital public relations practice: he hasn’t exploited either channel to really interact with his publics in any meaningful way (e.g. he hasn’t followed anyone on Twitter), so a genius this does not make.

On top of these points we also have to factor in the Bitterness in Cleveland and elsewhere that is running quite deep these days. James’ stubborn and increasingly stark reputation as a quitter is not a positive by-product or evidence of a masterful PR campaign. Could he somehow have handled differently this departure from a city that had adopted him as a hero? Yes, he probably shouldn’t have announced his decision on live TV without connecting with his (loyal) fans first. Therefore, I would not call LeBron James a “Veritable PR Genius.” What about you?

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Apple’s iPhone 4 Reception Problem and Subsequent Response – A Recipe for Organizational Crisis?

Iphone4 Unboxing

The dynamic and extensive history of Public Relations practice is replete with cases of organizations who have, as scholars Heath and Millar write, “lost brand equity, suffered damage to products, services, and lost issue positions because of inept handling of crisis preparation and response.” Is Apple fated to join these mismanaged cases of yore?

Apple’s now well-known iPhone 4 reception issue first surfaced hours after the phone’s release on June 24th and only recently (8 days later) has Apple seemed to acknowledge the legitimacy of the complaints and offer a murky explanation (apologia?) for the highly publicized problem in a posted open letter.

Apple claims it is not an antenna problem but instead a flawed software formula that displays the handset’s signal strength, so that in most cases the phone shows two more bars than it actually should. A software fix is due in a couple of weeks according to the company. But has the damage already been done?  Does the signal and reception issue itself constitute an organizational crisis for Apple? And if the actual product flaw doesn’t, what of Apple’s response to the issue thus far? Taking all this into account, is this then an organizational crisis?

To provide some clarity and context to these questions before we precede, here is the definition of crisis that Millar and Heath provide:

An untimely, but predictable event that has actual or potential consequences for stakeholders’ interests as well the reputation of the organization suffering the crisis.

Also, if you look at the rhetorical definition of crisis and its approach you see that the responsibility for a crisis, its magnitude and its duration are in fact contestable – by both the organization and its publics. This gives the organization, such as Apple, an opportunity to effectively manage the crisis before, during and even after the crisis event occurs. This approach stresses the role that message development, framing, people’s interpretation and information provided to publics play in organizational preparation to crises and the subsequent response. Therefore, is this indeed a crisis for Apple, and if so, has Apple appropriately regained control and managed the crisis through its communications response?

Apple’s Response to Antenna/Reception Complaints

First, I would venture to say that this is indeed a crisis for Apple. The poor reception and dropped call problem is untimely (no time is good for a crisis quite frankly) but it could have been predicted. Design flaws happen, it’s not unheard of – that’s why a specific crisis communication plan should be in place beforehand. Also, and more importantly, stakeholders (e.g. consumers who bought the phone, stockholders, vendors etc.) have been harmed and Apple’s reputation has certainly been damaged. Apple now has to spend time, money and energy on issues (such as a lawsuit) that it normally would not have to during a time of normal organizational narrative and business – this signals a crisis.

But what really has stoked the fire, and is even more unforgivable and damaging in terms of reputation, has been Apple’s dismal initial and continuing response to the firestorm. Most recently, the Letter from Apple regarding the troubled iPhone 4 and its reception was posted on their company site, but only after a poor attempt by Apple and CEO Steve Jobs to respond to the growing complaints concerning their flagship product by telling consumers to “avoid gripping it in the lower left corner in a way that covers both sides of the black strip in the metal band.” Apple also initially refused to drop the restocking fee (%10) for customers returning the phone within the 30 days after purchase. Worse still, they had offered a $29.00 “bumper” case as a solution to gripping the side of the phone and therefore causing the phone to not hold a signal and drop calls etc. It’s the end users problem. Nice.

Ethical and Effective Crisis Communications

Getting back to the questions I floated above. The manner or form of an ethical and effective crisis response is truthful, timely, sincere, and voluntary. Initially, Apple glibly responded that some loss of signal from gripping a handset is “a fact of life for every wireless phone.” Before publicly responding to this issue, did Apple in fact know that there was indeed a bigger problem involved besides this “fact of life”? Computerworld reports that in the Maryland lawsuit, mentioned above, Apple is accused of knowingly selling a defective product and breaking its warranty promise. If it comes out that Apple did know something was wrong with the phone it could be damaging and definitely doesn’t constitute a truthful response.

Also, sincerity and understanding of the customers plight seems to be lacking here. For example, many customers felt that by being told they were “holding it wrong” Apple was patronizing them, and therefore, that Apple didn’t have a true intention of making it right. This is a problem. A leaked Apple internal memo has also contributed to people’s sense that the company isn’t concerned with “appeasing” their customers.

Moving on. The content of an ethical and effective crisis response includes fully accepting responsibility, expressing regret, asking for forgiveness, fully disclose information related to the event and offering to perform an appropriate corrective action. Apple thus far has done a poor job on all counts. But among other things, please consider the offering of appropriate corrective action. Is making your customers buy a rubber case after spending hundreds of dollars an appropriate corrective action? Also, in the letter released on Apple’s site it fails to explain why holding the phone with your left hand even causes dropped calls. Many people have reported that they were able to replicate the terrible reception. Therefore, these specific complaints should be addressed and taken seriously for it to be an ethical response and effectively managed crisis. I would also venture to guess that this isn’t fully disclosing all that Apple knows about the issue – another strike.

In conclusion, I offer that Apple’s overall crisis communications response and proposed remedy for the iPhone 4’s obvious flaws have made its key publics even madder and the magnitude of the crisis more serious. I also predict Apple’s latest response with their “apology” letter won’t return the organizational narrative to normal anytime soon. Therefore, their ineffective crisis response will extend the duration of the crisis. What do you think?

Photo credit: denharsh

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Live Twitter Chats: A Perusal for PR Pros

Quite obviously the dark days of the old school broadcast mentality are dead and gone. Good Riddance.

And we all know social media is empowering public relations and marketing professionals to have conversations directly with the publics that define and matter most to the brands they represent. But one of the most attractive and inspiring aspects of social media is that people with common interests, professions and goals now, and with a robust sense of community, can easily share info, tips, trends, questions and solutions surrounding best practices or they can simply just listen to the collective from the comfort of their own homes – but in the age of transparency and participation this is not always recommended.

These days, it’s all about utilitarian information, conversations, niches, communities, stories and the value that each possess and can bring to someone else. A perfect example of people utilizing social media to assemble and virtually interact amongst themselves for the purposes and betterment of all of those things I just mentioned above is the live Twitter Chat.

Twitter Chats are group conversations on Twitter centered around a distinct topic or issue, for example, “financial well-being for nonprofit employes.” Chats are usually steered by a moderator or guest host and the larger ones can have general rules in place to foster seamless and polite talk. These conversations, which can include hundreds of people, are conveniently organized around and searchable by tweets with a common hashtag (e.g.#foodchat).

There are also web-based applications that can be used to track and participate in these live and spirited conversations, but what I will concentrate on here are a few of the most salient weekly Twitter Chats that are a must for those of us looking to break into public relations, learn to ethically and effectively apply the tactics and strategies used everyday to drive action and get results and harness the digital evolution which is blazing forward at incredible speeds. A caveat;  As I write this post, I myself am still learning about and exploring these Twitter Chats and will therefore be embarking on the journey with you – so look for me out there in the Twitterverse!

Live Twitter Chats for PR Pros

1. #CommsChat: This UK-based Chat is cofounded and produced by Adam Vincenziniand Emily Cagleand goes live on Mondays starting at 8:00 pm UK time, which is 3:00 pm EST for us on the east coast. These conversations are based around “all aspects relating to communications including PR, traditional & social media, journalism, blogging, marketing and more.” What makes this a must for us is that knowledgable pros, from varying communications disciplines, participate in and share their experiences and opinions with the community. Social and New Media have blurred the lines between these disciplines and have made integrated and collaborative campaigns essential, so this Chat rocks. Check it out.

2. #blogchat: This weekly conversation takes place on Sunday nights at 8:00 pm Central, which is 9:00 pm EST. The host of the Chat is Mark Collier, a social media consultant, speaker and trainer. Each week a different blogging topic is chosen, with Chats covering such topics as “how to optimize your blog for search engines” and “how a company can pick its blogging team.” The value inherent in this Chat is quite obvious – blogging, whether personally or for business is an easy and effective way to establish thought leadership. Create awesome content that also solves people’s problems or gives them value in some way and get noticed by the world – whether your goal is to get noticed by prospective employers or by consumers. It is one of the most important topics for us as young communicators.

3. #journchat: Hosted by Sara Evans, this Twitter Chat between journalists, PR professionals and bloggers goes live Monday nights from 7:00-10:00 pm CT, which is 8:00-11:00 pm EST. Concerning the ethos behind the Chat Evans writes, “I believe there is a need in this evolving world of media and public relations for some major dialogue between those who make it happen.” This is one of the best and most dynamic Chats around, and we should certainly be participating in it because the folks having the conversations comprise the very influencers, we as PR pros, should be familiar with and knowledgable about.

4. #pr20chat: Weekly Tuesday Chat about Public Relations 2.0 at 8:00-9:00 pm EST. This conversation is moderated by @PRtini and @JGoldsborough. I included this Chat on the list because its community’s focus is on “how social media influences PR professionals’ engagement with ALL publics (not just the media and bloggers).” This Chat, combined with #journchat should give some insightful ideas on the strengthening of relationships and engagement with all the stakeholders we are expected to reach and interact with, genuinely and effectively. Here’s a recent transcript of the Chat to check out for yourself.

5. #socialmedia: This Chat is serious. The guys behind this weekly Chat, live every Tuesday from 12:00-1:00 pm EST, are Jason Breed and Marc Meyer. In the interest of space their bios are here. The Chat hosts “Leaders of Fortune class companies as moderators and participants to share, moderate and challenge this group to come up with industry specific best practices, new concepts, etc. related to #socialmedia.”

What makes this Chat a must is that the topics covered on a weekly basis are among the most challenging but interesting and definitely critical for us as communicators. For example, on June 22nd the Chat featured Shel Holtz who guided conversation on The New Digital Press Release. Also, check out their site to stay up on special events and the specific hashtags to follow for them (e.g. #sm65).

Let me know in the comments section if there any other conversations that we, as young, driven communicators should know about.

Thanks.

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Public Relations Ain’t no Journalism

I’ve been in a pensive but inspired mood lately. This particular frame of mind could be attributed to the fact that I’m all set to finish up at graduate school in a few months and setting upon a new path always monopolizes space, good or bad, in a person’s thoughts. During this time I’ve begun to think quite pragmatically about the choices I’ve made academically, and more specifically, about my decision to go on to post-graduate work in public relations after receiving a B.A. in Journalism.

What I’ve been batting around lately is the old power struggle and ingrained belief that journalism and public relations are on opposite sides of the professional and even the societal spectrum. One is credible and respected and the other, supposedly, is not. Is this even true? And if so, how can I and other young professionals trained in both fields reconcile these two backgrounds and passions in our personal lives and careers? PR and journalism do not complement each other in practice or in theory and they certainly do not share the same skill sets. Or do they?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2010, “Journalism graduates have the background for work in closely related fields such as advertising and public relations or communications, and many take jobs in these fields.” So, considering this assertion, the long-held discrepancy between the two professions and my belief and experience that other young communicators are indeed in the same boat as I am, I thought this a worthy topic to explore.

Some context:

In 1961 L. Feldman conducted a study, that back then, was the first of its kind and was subsequently built upon by other researchers. His study included 746 city editors of newspapers and 88 officers of local Public Relations Society of America chapters across the country, with the ultimate goal of comparing how journalists and public relations practitioners assessed each other. This study, as well as later ones in the same vein, found discrepancies in the attitudes of the two groups on dimensions such as credibility, professionalism and occupational status. For example, journalists generally held negative attitudes toward public relations practitioners, their values and professional status, while practitioners actually looked upon journalists as credible purveyors of high news values, and to themselves as attributing to its production.

Studying journalism in school, reading the works of and looking up to iconoclast journalists I.F. Stone and H.L. Mencken, muckrakers like Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell, and especially reading such anti-PR texts and blogs as “Toxic Sludge is Good for You,” and PR Watch, in the realm of public communications and especially media relations I found, as did Feldman, that there does exist some stigma of public relations as the evil sibling, communicating messages solely with an eye toward gaining something, and journalism, the saintly one, out to serve and inform.

This has contributed greatly to the friction in my thinking mainly because I do in fact believe this description of journalism is definitively true. But is this a zero sum, either-or argument, with the negative description of PR practice inherently true if you believe journalism is the altruistic, above crass-commercialism, credible profession its practitioners, students and society believe it to be? I do not believe so.

Journalism and news are irrefutably oriented toward a public agenda and a general audience. It performs the vital functions of keeping the republic and its citizens informed, unruly and immoral corporations and governments are kept in check by accountability journalism and through adept and trained analysis, good journalism verifies and explains in understandable terms complicated events, issues and processes.

Journalists also contribute mightily to the marketplace of ideas, flooding it with worthy illustration of “how the other half lives,” disseminating and stirring up community knowledge and supplying multiple view points in their articles, all leading to much-needed choice and information for us citizens. And as the authors of the 2009 CJR report on reconstructing American Journalism write, independent journalism makes accessible “issues of race, social and economic conditions and the role of government in people’s lives.”

But is PR really the evil sibling possessing no intrinsic value and offering little worth toward our society and the marketplace of ideas? And again, can these two passions and background of mine mesh together to form an effective and ethical PR pro with an eye toward increasing exposure and access to different ideas and content, while at the same time driving action for clients? Without a doubt.

Although the PR profession is not perfect, and pro’s have sometimes hidden behind the brands they represent, pushing out impersonal messages without genuinely engaging the community they are attempting to reach, I believe that through the web, the evolution has already begun and we who are trained in the craft of journalism can make the public relations profession more effective, more cognizant of and better targeted toward the real needs and interests of myriad publics – which translates into successful and worthy PR. Good PR leads to effective communication, between practitioners and consumers, and even between practitioners and bloggers, analysts and journalists. The journalistic skills of knowing how to produce and package compelling and newsworthy content, for both traditional and digital media, along with the recognition of the special obligation we have as communications professionals toward transparency, ensures efficacious and powerful communication – both for organizations, clients and society.

Something interesting that also came out of those studies I talked about earlier on the practitioner-reporter relationship was that researchers found in their data that “For journalists, familiarity with PR practitioners apparently breeds respect.”

On a relative note, the Director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship, Dan Gilmor recently said that “If we understand that journalism education is a valuable step into any number of professions, we should not just celebrate the graduates who’ve gone on to fame (if not fortune) in journalism, but also those who’ve made marks in other fields.”

Well said Mr. Gilmor.

(Please join in on the conversation by commenting and letting me know if you agree that journalism training and its skills do indeed provide a worthy background for PR, and more controversially, is crossing over into a PR career a negative thing for journalists? Those who have completed this career switch, how do you deal with the stigma discussed above? Just Curious!)

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Passion, Engagement, Altruism = Genuine Relationships

Hyperlinks Subvert Hierarchy.”

This startling postulation, written approximately ten years ago by Cluetrain Manifesto co-author David Weinberger (@dweinberger), could not have been more prescient as it clearly describes the power, altruism and utility of horizontal connections and conversations currently taking place everyday among people and their communities. Power no longer flows from the top and that is just fine with me.

Before the hyperlink essentially altered how information was put together and shared and before it fundamentally transformed, for some progressive thinkers, how business hierarchies were imagined and practiced, the ruling mantra was as the 17th century French author La Rochefoucauld advanced: “It is not enough that I succeed. It is also necessary that my friends fail.” Thankfully, in the age of the hyperlink as well as Web 2.0, Social Media, and personalized, substantive information that knows no boundaries, this outdated way of thinking and doing business is receding into the shadows. Genuine connections between people with like-minded interests and passions are being easily formed, nurtured and are resulting in mutually beneficial relationships and rewards.

“Hyperlinks are in fact conversations”

Importantly, and quite beneficial for young communicators, in the age of  Web 2.0 and Social Media, the people of experience and authority are now willing and able to deftly share what they have found to work best in their respective industries and careers, what doesn’t work and what they themselves are most passionate about. Thought Leaders are having altruistic conversations with everyone – online and in the real world – because in the digital, social marketplace of ideas, everyone’s voices count. These new influencers understand this fact, and quite frankly, this perceptive understanding is part of the reason they are Thought Leaders in the first place.

I began to think about this fascinating topic with greater keenness after recently engaging myself, with some people on Twitter, as well as on some other social media networks. I am in essence just starting out in the communications field (I have the education and some real world experience, but I’m looking for and craving more practical, “in the trenches” experience) and I will graduate with a M.A. in PR and Advertising in December. I mention this not because I’m being immodest, but because it gives some context to my main point.

Although I do not have many years of experiential experience in the fields I’m most passionate about – Public Relations, Marketing and Journalism, I have jumped in – transparently and passionately, in reading blogs, books, professional communicator’s Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr streams, white papers and presentations. And through listening to, participating in and creating and sharing content myself, reaching out to this community that I am most ardent about has enabled me to make connections and form relationships with people, which would be virtually impossible in the days before a “hyperlinked” way of thinking and doing business –  possibly because of technology and/or because of structures and fear.

No more. For one brief example, I recently wrote a post on this blog and included some solid content from knowledgeable industry sources that would be helpful for us as young communicators. I then linked to their respective blogs etc. I tweeted about the post on Twitter, mentioning one specific sources’ contribution when I later updated the post. He soon took the time to retweet it, leave a comment on my blog and consequently the post was then retweeted by other folks who no doubt saw it in his Twitter stream (I say this because they were not yet followers of mine). Because of his effort, I’m now even more interested in and give well-deserved credence to what he writes about and the experiences he has while working in communications, public relations and marketing. And hopefully, in return I can offer him some insight into topics or issues that interest him.

In my opinion, this is one small example of how passion, engagement and altruism can engender and equal horizontal, mutually beneficial and genuine relationships in the age of social media, and quite significantly, can continue to imbue the practice of public relations with meaning and value.

*Update* For further, rich context along the same lines as the topic of the post above, see this piece by Jonathan Stray (@jonathanstray) on the value and purpose of linking out in journalistic articles. Reasons #1, & #3 for linking out that Stray includes is especially relevant and adds illustration and context to the point of my post. Good piece, check it out!

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A Reflection and Life Lessons

I traveled last night to Cambridge for a congenial reception held by the research center & think tank Political Research Associates (PRA) for the introduction of their new Executive Director, Tarso Luis Ramos. In 2008, and a junior in college, I served as the Public Relations/Editorial Intern for the progressive organization and I know Luis Ramos from my time there when he was the Research Director. So, I was appreciative and excited to be invited to attend the event. Even though I became lost on my way back to Brighton (instead of a 15 minute ride it took me 2 hours!), I was glad I went because besides seeing old friends, the evening got me critically thinking about the profession of public relations, what I have learned since an intern there and what I ultimately want out of a career in the field.

As I was sitting in our host’s spacious but increasingly humid living room, I began to think back when I was just starting the internship and what I then perceived was the practice of PR and what its true value and contribution was to the public good as well to the client, organization etc. At that time I had a picture in my mind of PR practice that could best be described by the press agentry/publicity model.

In this one-way asymmetrical model, PR serves a promotional function where the practitioner is a “conduit,” as Millar & Heath write, between an organization and a passive public. There is no strategic management of an organization’s communication function and there is no two-way dialogue between an organization and its stakeholders. Therefore, the organization does not implement any  much needed changes in behavior because they do not open themselves up to receiving relevant info from these stakeholders – for one, because there is no listening or engagement on the part of the organization and two, because the sole purpose here is to push the message out, with very little if at all, research and feedback. “All publicity is good publicity,” right? Wrong. Strong, mutually-beneficial relationships can not and do not form this way. That’s just a fact.

When I first started the internship I received their media list, among other materials, and then began to update it for new contacts that I believed would be interested in giving our authors time and our message, that PRA produces quality, important and useful progressive research and analysis, play. Right off the bat I wrote three or so press releases, back-grounders and put together a media kit.

Unfortunately and incorrectly, I then began a campaign of just blasting out emails, making calls and waiting for responses. There was very little research, genuine engagement on my part, ranking of strategic stakeholders in order of importance and listening first before contacting the media and PRA’s ally’s. Instead of finding out how these producers, journalists and analysts preferred to be contacted, as well as what they cared  and wrote about, I’m sad to say I engaged for the most part in a one-way transfer of information, concentrating on getting the organization into the media and to then achieve publicity for them.

After the first couple of weeks I did see some results (I booked a few interviews in the media for our authors and got an article excerpt placed on an ally’s website), but while I was thinking about how best to make connections and get results, I began to understand what was missing and needed to be put into place to achieve lasting brand recognition and loyalty as well as effective communication with PRA’s stakeholders, such as the media, local government, employees and influencers.

For example, there wasn’t a clear understanding of the power and utility of the iconic Cluetrain Manifesto’s assertion that “markets are conversations,” and that instead of just pushing “the facts,” with a relatively static press release template, a story must be told that connects with each of the niche communities that we are ultimately trying to reach and benefit with our products or services. There wasn’t a strong effort to elicit any response or action on the part of the public and there wasn’t transparent participation or an effort to form lasting, solid relationships. I could go on but I want to make this as succinct as possible.

Now, I can attribute this lack of knowledge and initiative to my inexperience mostly, the length of time I had at the job (about 3 months), and the small, dedicated but overworked and underfunded staff. I believe the important thing now is that I recognize my shortcomings and have been able to correct them and move forward as a stronger communicator at my present job in Suffolk University’s College of Arts & Sciences’ Communications Dept., with a much more strategic and deeper understanding of the practice of PR. Importantly, I understand that the practice of PR has always been oversimplified and that its value to society as a communication mechanism for binding society together and facilitating the “marketplace of ideas” is in fact vital. Considering these facts, the current socialization of media and the power and opportunity PR 2.o provides us, I look to the future with excitement and no regret.

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Notes on a Public Relations Career


Public Relations’ evolution is so interesting to me and its current practice squarely puts a large hole in the proselytized image that sometimes emanates from journalists (my B.A. is in Journalism and I love and respect the profession), and others, who see PR as solely publicity.

One reason I say this is as @briansolis & @dbreakenridge write in their 2009 book “Putting the Public Back in Public Relations,”

“Social media is changing PR outreach from pitching to personalized & genuine engagement.”

After years of hearing how PR practitioners were just “shills” for publicity and are squarely in the employment and camp of large, powerful corporations and will with-hold the “truth” to the very detriment of the public good, I am now excited and actually proud to be embarking on a career of public relations and the unprecedented opportunities stemming from PR 2.0 inspire me.

PR 2.0, according to SolisBreakenridge, was born “through the analysis of how the web and multimedia were redefining PR and marketing communications, while also creating a new tool kit to reinvent how companies communicate” with the people and stakeholders important to them.

I believe strongly this evolution has changed the profession and industry in such a way that while it still calls for the traditional skills of succinct & effective writing, critical thinking and speaking, but it also now calls for a different set of skills that in my opinion, I excel at. And at the same time, I enjoy employing and exploring. For example, these skills that I’m talking about include empathy for and skillful understanding of other people, transparent and genuine participation in social networks instead of marketing at folks and also understanding the importance of dialogue vs. monologue especially in terms of seeing markets as two-way conversations, “not message throwing.”

In terms of “planting seeds” first before jumping right in to these social communities as a marketer, Solis & Breakenridge write, and I whole-hartedly agree with, that we should form and nurture altruistic relationships and understand the community’s sociology so we can be sure to contribute in a meaningful way. If this is not further evidence of the true value of PR I do not know what is. Any thoughts?

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