Friday, April 30, 2010

Western expertise

Amazing statistics and case studies, expert insights, and, of course, networking.

You missed it in Palm Springs, where we just concluded the PRSA Western District Conference. Perhaps one of best short-term, cost-effective conferences for professionals. We had everything for everyone, no matter your experience level.

More to come with some postings on the site.

Perhaps the most fun we had was midday Thursday, as we were starting the media panel (with Newsweek, Wall Street Journal and Wired). Evan Hanson, the editor of, was telling me that they were about to break the story about the dude who found Apple's prototype iPhone and sold it to a tech web site.

The lost iPhone4 story was one of the biggest out there the last week. And, now, in the middle of a PR conference, the crowd had the benefit of witnessing breaking news. Wired had conducted good 'ol fashioned investigative journalism and found the mysterious person who found the lost phone. We got this story first.

OK. Perhaps not every conference will have scoops break before our eyes. But I've been going to these for a decade now and I've never been disappointed. Mark your calendars for next April in Las Vegas.

Monday, April 26, 2010

iPhone and the news coverage

Not sure what caught my attention more: The front page Wall Street Journal story about "annoying Orange" or the escalating saga of the lost iPhone4?

Lucky for folks already registered for a conference later this week in Palm Springs - they'll get some expert commentary on both. (Well, maybe not about Annoying Orange).

Perhaps the experts can sort it out for me. Like, why I'm more inclined to watch multiple episodes of Annoying Orange rather than figure out the First Amendment battle over the lost iPhone4?

The Palm Springs panel this Thursday (April 29) will have top mainstream journalists analyzing the influence of online journalism and blogs, and how we in the PR profession use social media channels to distribute news about clients, causes and organizations.
I'm moderating the panel. As it was, I had plenty of other stories and case studies to offer up to the panel for analysis. Then I came across the dynamics of "Annoying Orange" and the scandal of the lost iPhone4.

For sure, the panel will tackle topics and issues critical to how public relations professionals conduct themselves and how we recommend strategies to clients. Namely, what is the influence of social media on mainstream journalism?

The issue is one of the more pressing ones for PR pros today. As PR pros continue to use (exploit?) social media to promote clients, products and causes, there are growing risks of credibility and influence. Mainstream journalism is still considered the most credible, by most surveys. Yet, mainstream journalism has lost audience share to social media channels, blogs and specialty online-only news sites.

Public attitudes and viewing habits continue to shift, such as with product reviews. CNET, Wired and other mainstream sites are holding their own, but then Gizmodo breaks a story about Apple's latest phone and all bets are off. Are mainstream journalists changing their reporting techniques in deference to the influence of blogs?

For public relations professionals, understanding how these parts are moving and where the machine is headed are critical to our future. We need to remain relevant, on top of our game.

Do we ask: Is a Facebook buzz better than a front page story on The Wall Street Journal. Is a YouTube video with 200,000 views better than a story picked up by the Associated Press for a national run?

For PR pros, there are generally two key considerations when using social media: Where to place product or other news and how to place it. "Where" depends on what research is telling you about getting the most buzz. In many cases, PR folks will develop a strategy that suggests placing news at "XYZ" blog first , where it will soon blossom into greater and greater coverage because "XYZ" blog is so popular. "How" usually suggests either "exclusivity," a multi-faceted launch on multiple channels, a gimmick like a YouTube video (or lost phone?) or perceived "leak."

In the end, the key is to get "influencers" and "tastemakers" interested - to buy product or move the needle.

Many still consider mainstream journalism a very important channel for influencing, especially when dealing in the rapid spread of misinformation over the Internet.

So, for example, a question to the panel will be: At what point does a journalist from a mainstream news outlet start noticing fast-moving "news" on a blog and turn it into a story? It's been nearly 20 years since a "leak" about problems during a beta test of a Microsoft browser software changed the rules for online information and what constitutes "news." Since then, we've had hundreds, perhaps thousands of crisis communications fires that began on the Internet.

Do mainstream journalists feel compelled to set the record straight, even if the information is false? Does a rumor become "news" just because "it's everywhere" on the Internet? I promise we won't revisit the Domino's Pizza video.
But, I can tell you that many mainstream journalists first viewed the lost iPhone4 story on Gizmodo as a prank by Apple.

One question I may pose to the panel deals with freedom of the press and whether CA's trade secrets law trumps the 1st Amendment. Charges are likely in the missing iPhone4 story since police issued a search warrant on the reporter's house. Could this case have a chilling effect in the blogosphere? Or perhaps with mainstream journalism?

OK, you ask: What about Annoying Orange? There is no real PR consideration for Annoying Orange, other than to marvel at its popularity. And, that its fame rose to a point where it was finally noticed by one of the biggest mainstream news outlets.

I won't spoil my opening line at the panel on Thursday.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Week in review

A few notables in the PR world this week:

BIG CHANGE of the Week.
My journalist background, which included being an editor of a newspaper, meant I was a stickler for grammar, spelling and the AP Stylebook. "AP Style" settled all disputes, including difficult ones I encountered as a PR professional. ("Why can you capitalize Our Energy Program?"). One change I frequently made in copy was The Associated Press' insistence to call it a "Web site." (Capital "W" and two words.) On Friday, AP changed the phrase to lowercase and one word. So, everyone, it is now "website." You win.

SURPRISE of the Week.
The amazing lack of continued analysis of Tiger Woods' emergence. Sports writers did a fair job analyzing (attacking?) his mood after finishing 4th in The Masters. One of the best analyses was here. And, there was some attention given to the announcement of his next match (April 29 in North Carolina). But for all the attention given Tiger in advance of his return to golf, the silence after the match was unexpected. As written earlier, the Woods saga is a great case study for public relations. Perhaps Tiger is not as big as some of us predicted. For all the PR analysis dumped on us since last Thanksgiving, the post-first-game-back analysis by PR professionals was severely lacking. Often I and my colleagues will counsel clients through a crisis, saying it just will be a matter of time before the crisis is over and "yesterday's news."

Of course, this is a personal tragedy and the question is whether Tiger can be forgiven to the point that he can gain back some portion of his incredible pre-scandal popularity whereby sponsors use him again to pitch their products. Sorry, Tiger, but you are a lab rat in this study. The question now is how much longer with the science experiment - the analysis - continue?

LATE BREAKING news of the Week.
The old saying in PR is to break bad news on a Friday. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission did just that in charging Goldman Sachs with fraud. Aside from losing $12 billion in shareholder value at the end of trading Friday, Goldman Sachs - previously a Wall Street darling - now has a major public relations situation on its hands. No doubt, teams are working overtime in crafting statements, preparing for continued bad news, and developing a counter-attack. So, yes, another case study in the making.

YAWN of the week?
Water is big news in California in 2010. So, when two big groups came together to set up a series of public meetings this past week in Southern California to discuss (sell?) the $11 billion water bond on the November ballot, why was attendance so low and why did the news media not show up? Expect this attention deficit to end after the June primary, when pro-bond publicity engines fill their tanks and increase the noise level.

Social Media's biggest news
Twitter's announcement that it will, finally, make money was one of the biggest stories of the month, if not the year. Promoted tweets add a new dimension to how others already making money off of Twitter. (See a story here about an indie band earning some cash.). Twitter is rolling out slow with this one, but look for PR folks to go into overdrive on the creativity front because of this new dimension (threat?). Twitter's dramatic rise in popularity made for some very clear PR and marketing strategies to promote clients. With Twitter now offering an advertising platform, look for new strategies from the PR side to remain relevant.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Don't cut the (video) budget

The recent video campaign by Megan Fox and others to prevent major cuts in California's school budget illustrates several points that PR pros need to make when advising in favor of a video.

And, when to use celebrities.

Companies and associations are frequently advised to produce a video for a product, issue or initiative to accentuate a public relations campaign. This is only a recent opportunity with the advent of YouTube.

Yet, too often the advice is to go cheap. Cheap means low production qualities, such as a hand-held digital video camera that makes a shot jumpy along with poor lighting and sound quality. Or, worse, post a video from your Web cam. All these contribute to fewer views, no real connection with your audience and, worse, a lousy brand reputation.

Consider the Megan Fox-CA budget cut video. This was a quality production with good actors, professional lighting and sound, ideal editing and a good script. There is a director, a good location, props and more. Sure - many folks (include Megan) donated their time for this cause. Chances are, a corporate video will need to pay for actors.

The point is clear and simple - good production values result in a better image, captures the audience and delivers the message.

As public relations professionals, we must advocate for higher quality videos. There are plenty of sound reasons to argue for a $10,000 or greater video budget. The return on this investment is easy to calculate, not just by number of views. There are plenty of places to find ROI information to build a convincing budget argument. It also helps to use a video production company that will help you build your case for an adequate budget. YouTube has its own blog on this.

And, most importantly, the PR pro must do what they do best in these cases - analyze the audience and the message to make sure they line up perfectly for the client, or company. I cringe every time when a mid-level manager at a company suggests, "Let's do a YouTube video" for a project without any thought given to:

  • Is this appropriate for the overall strategy?
  • Who are we targeting with this video?
  • What do we want this video to say or do?
  • Do we know whether our audience will even connect via video?
Or, when someone says, "We need to get a celebrity" for our video or campaign.

The education script worked with Megan because she had an important message to say and they injected the right level of humor. But many times, celebrities don't work. If you need help figuring out why (or "when"), go talk with Rita Tateel at the Celebrity Source.

So, now have fun looking at Megan Fox again.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The dollar value of social media

I was not among the early adopters of social media. (Or, as some of my favorite bloggers like to more accurately define as "online social media.")

My wait-and-see approach has helped before. Well, most of the time. (Good thing I didn't place any bets on my prediction as a young reporter that USA Today would fail).

As social media blossomed, my clientele at the time - mostly public affairs and government agencies - were among the difficult bunch to convince about the value of social media. So, I could wait. Old school worked for them. And, I was good at old school stuff.

Now is different. There are plenty of case studies detailing the success of a well-designed social media effort. The "power" of social media across all sectors is well documented. In no time in our history have so many groups of people been "moved" into action for so many causes or so easily prompted to make purchases. We had a president elected in large part through the power of social media. We are connected like never before.

Yet, keep in mind that many hurdles remain when it comes to establishing the budget for social media. Many executives and senior managers don't participate on Twitter or Facebook, therefore they remain skeptical. It's a difficult thing to wrap their heads around. Just this week I sat face-to-face with a client as he was navigating a Web site from his office PC and gave me a blank stare when I asked him to "try a different URL." Hmm.

Then again, I'm not sure I set a good example. Somehow, I manage to carry out an occasional social media effort while still carrying a clunky Blackberry Pearl in my pocket. Not exactly the status symbol that defines a social media driver. But I do get approving nods for having a netbook.

So, my friends ask: What do you charge? A recent chat on #solopr asked similar questions, in part, perhaps because the economy is showing signs of recovery and the days of discounting our services are over. I think I shocked a few when I said I plan to charge more for social media efforts in Q2.

As an independent practitioner, my approach to social media billing is simple. It's not unlike how I attempt to build the case for any kind of PR budget.

First, explain the power of social media to a client. This is the shortened version of the conversation:

  • It takes a lot of energy.
  • It takes expertise.
  • It requires a comprehensive strategy.
  • It involves a larger audience. (Beyond your target ones - because social media has a built-in "growth" factor).
  • The rewards are great, but the risks are sometimes greater. (See "expertise" above)
  • It's no longer a one-way discussion, but a dialogue. (See "energy" above)
  • Don't be afraid. If it's managed correctly, it won't open the door to a flood of customer complaints.
  • The percentage of your audience using social media - as their only source of information - is rapidly growing.

Second, recognize that dollars previously set aside for advertising are now being splintered, with a portion going to social media efforts. Marketing is trying to grab these extra funds, so you must have a great case to argue why public relations needs to be guiding this ship and in charge of these dollars. One key to success here is demonstrating that social media will end up costing less than advertising, but results will be the same, if not better. Can you do charts? It helps, because the marketing department is using charts. Another point to make is that the PR departments at Fortune 500 companies are hiring in-house social media experts.

Third. If you happen to work for companies that don't advertise or have limited advertising budgets, you need to build convincing arguments about how social media is an "add-on" to your pre-existing public relations budget. All too often, public relations professionals are willing to keep budgets the same, and simply drop some traditional functions to add in social media tactics. Trading is not an option. The basic functions and skills of public relations remain constant (analyzing audiences, predicting trends, etc.). Yet, executing social media is a more intense endeavor than placing a press release on Business Wire or organizing a community forum or conducting an informational campaign. Social media campaigns live longer, they evolve and require significant attention to the audience. In many instances, the traditional items - like press releases and events - don't go away. In the end, it's extra work.

Finally. Raise your hand if you are finding yourself working longer hours with a social media effort? I imagine I'm seeing a lot of raised hands. (Which is amazing because that means you took your hand off your iPhone in the middle of a tweet). Your time is valuable, so charge for it. If you need a social media "vendor" - so you can have dinner with the kids at least once this week - then add that to a budget. Social media is overwhelming the PR profession, especially for soloists. So, find partners you can trust. Need a reasonably priced online newsroom? Try Need a great digital marketing service? Try McCue Marketing's project content group.

In budgeting social media for a client, you may need to take it in steps. It is good to have a rate chart listing general, basic functions of a social media effort. Your rate should be at the top. Don't be afraid to build in a mark-up if you bring in a service or companion provider.

The key, however, is to properly price your value. At an agency and now on my own, I've had great success is seeking a bigger budget. Clients recognize value and expertise cost more. As a solo practitioner, you bring to a client incredible expertise and experience that can't be placed on a menu. You bring passion. You bring a big-picture strategy to communications. You are a counselor beyond just the communications side of a business. You are the whole package. Don't sell yourself short.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Crisis and communication treading water?

Last night's Los Angeles City Council rejection of a rate hike for DWP customers is a prime example of why public relations is a much needed profession.

Communication was the driver in this issue. And, in the heat of the moment - when the dialogue reached "crisis" proportions - a lack of communication resulted in failure for one side.

Multiple parties had multiple agendas, viewpoints and positions. Each side was doing it's best to argue its point - either publicly or behind closed doors. There was a ton of information to share.

My political friends will say that shrewd negotiating skills - those possessed by lawyers and public affairs professionals - were the most critical factor in this process.

I disagree. All parties in this debate were out in the open on this one, they took the battle to the streets, to the news media, to any location that would give their side the advantage.

On a tactical level - a lawyer or political guru may bring tremendous resources to the table. On a political level - trades are being made. But in terms of gaining advantage, it comes down to communications and all the functions wrapped under the public relations umbrella.

This episode was about making a convincing argument. Start with the right key messages that resonate. Develop fact sheets and other materials to back up your point. Anticipate what the other sides will do and say and have "counter" statements ready. Look for other organizations to support your side. (The mayor pulled out Al Gore for this one). Figure out who will have the most credibility on the issue and place them before the public. Test the message. Rehearse because you will only get 30 seconds of TV news time and one paragraph in a story. Carry out a campaign to articulate your side. Engage the news media and other interested parties. Keep your message focused and clear - and don't waver. Anticipate course corrections.

This is public relations. It's not about "image" but about artfully and effectively communicating with the public. It's not about "spin" because in a debate like rate hikes - spin will get you crucified. It's about bringing out facts that, of course, support your side but more importantly reveal additional details that others (news media, the public, potential supporters) did not know and need to consider.

This was one very complex public relations effort because a lot was at stake and because multiple arguments were being made. A mayor who recently hired a pro-business "czar" is now proposing a rate hike that business groups said would create more layoffs and even force companies to leave town. It was a rate hike coming at a time when citizens are still eating meat loaf and baloney sandwiches and looking for work.

Slice up this classic public relations effort and you'll find the art of analyzing trends, predicting consequences, managing communications between a company/organization and the public, counseling, implementation and then moving into crisis mode.

In the final analysis, the winning side had the better public relations plan.

To its credit, the pro-hike side did try to communicate one of the more important facts - that the city is facing emission reduction mandates and there is a long lead time to achieve these requirements. But that was countered with: "well, let's see if we can postpone this until the economy improves." (Look at how this "let's defer" decision played out at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California - when its board rejected a larger water rate hike a few years ago, only to later realize it was really needed and now they are playing catch-up in a down economy). The mayor tried to emphasize new green jobs from his proposal, but that was countered by questions of whether these were simply a transfer of existing jobs.

Communicating your side. It is: creating a strategy and incorporating the functions of communications, community relations, government affairs, media relations, speech writing and more.

Public relations.