Friday, December 11, 2009

What's the Real Impact of Social Media

Michael Coppola, a professional acquaintance and the owner of the search-marketing firm Path Interactive posed an interesting question during a recent blog entry. Basically, he asks, is social media more hype than substance.

The basic thesis of Coppola's post was that if social media had an extensive quantifiable impact to businesses of all types, then most every business would be rapidly embracing it. Yet, social media still tends to dominate discussions among likely industries, including marketing and technology.

Another issue Coppola raises is that, unlike banners, pay-per-click ads and other familiar vehicles, it's much harder to quantify the value of spending time on LinkedIn. While that's true to a degree, I think it's important to bring this back to what marketing can and can't do. At its core, marketing is designed to give potential consumers of a product or service more information that they can use to make an informed decision. While you can incentivize people to "pull the trigger" and buy your product or service, they have to actually be a big enough believer to become a consumer. In that sense, there's not much difference from banners and pay-per-click ads than social media or traditional PR. For example, in a typical ad campaign, you can only really expect people visit your Web site, store, etc. If people weren't converted into buyers, there's a whole host of other reasons that were responsible.

The reason most haven't found success with social media is they're thinking of it as too much like a traditional marketing venue and not enough as a unique venue where the sharing of information is key. If you don't establish yourself as a trusted source and take the time that it takes to do that, then you'll likely see lukewarm success at best.

I'd welcome the thoughts of others and any relevant experience individuals would like to share.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Media Bloodletting Continues

While the layoffs at major print publications may not carry the same economic impact as those on Wall Street that carried high-value bonuses, and by extension high tax revenues, but they nonetheless signal a trend that has to have news enthusiasts concerned.

As I've chronicled before, I'm one of many who made the switch from journalism to public relations. And although I haven't really regretted the decision that much, I always tried to carry forward the principles and tactics I learned during my decade in the field. I've always practiced solid journalistic principles when I put together something written for clients and have worked hard to get clients to avoid jargon that has no meaning. Also, my years in that field gave me a big appreciation for less is more when it comes to describing clients, what they do and what makes them unique. One of the big problems in our field is most people take 100 words to do that when you really should be able to do it in about a dozen.

So it's with sadness that I'm reading a veritable sea of news about layoffs at well-respected publications, ranging from The New York Times and Forbes to the closing of publications like Fortune Small Business. However, the news isn't really catching anyone by surprise. Journalism has always been a relatively low paying field and was always very dependent on advertising. Thus, when times got tough and advertisers fled, it's tough to make cuts because there's not that much fat there. Instead, many publications are finding it necessary to make widespread changes to their structure, or in other cases, to shut down entirely.

And contrary to what most people think, circulation revenue is basically designed just to cover the production costs of a publication; it's never really made much of a contribution to the overall operating costs. Thus, when circulation declines, over time it gets more and more difficult to cover the costs to just produce the publication, much less the content that's in it. While the recession has undoubtedly had a lot to do with the havoc, publishers have never been at the forefront when it comes to embracing technology. Most were initially scared of the Web because they though it was going to kill their business models. Unfortunately for them, they didn't realize that the Web was one of the few things that could save their businesses if they invested time to figure that out.

One example that has always been held up as a success when it comes to the Web is The Wall Street Journal. Their unique mix of content, combined with a reputation for excellent reporting and a high level of readership among the top players in the world of business and finance, means they didn't have to panic when everyone else was going free on the Web. While Rupert Murdoch initially made mentions of making free when the News Corp. purchase of Dow Jones was completed, he later backed off those plans, in part because of the turmoil in the ad market.

Unfortunately, most other outlets weren't as lucky and they had no "backup plan" to rescue their business models. We may not realize the value of what we're losing now, but over the long term, we'll all come to recognize the societal value that news organizations provide. Let's hope that by then someone's figured out a way to make the financials work.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Economic Downturn Ushers in Continual Career Maintenance

By now, unless you've been living under a rock, most readers here know that we're in the midst of the worst economic downturn in some 30 years – at least from an employment standpoint. While much attention is being paid to new signs that point to recovery, it's important that we all take away lessons from this period that will serve us well for years, and perhaps decades to come. Because I frequently get e-mails from college students and other early-career professionals due to writing I do on other venues, I thought I'd give my take on the current environment, as it relates to the PR profession.

Certainly this downturn was very pronounced in the fact that more jobs have been lost in the last two years than any period in the last 30 years. At the same time, many people saw their cost of living increase, which reduced the power of the wages they were earning. However, what many don't think about is the fact that this loss of wage power is actually a trend that's been in motion some time and may necessitate everyone to think differently about work and their careers.

We all know that the days when you work for one employer for most of your career are nonexistent now and have been for quite some time. Even with that commonplace knowledge, however, most people don't think of a career as something that has to be maintained. In other words, you need to set long-term goals and a number of short-term goals designed to get you from “point A” to “point B.” Realize that establishing yourself in your career is a marathon and not a sprint. You'll also likely suffer setbacks, due to the changing nature of the economy and/or your industry, among other reasons. The most important thing to remember in all this is that if you properly maintain your career, you'll be better prepared for these shifts when they happen.

What does that mean exactly? For starters, keep abreast of changes in your industry. For PR pros, that means continually staying on top of not only media trends, but developments in the social media world. The latter is rapidly changing; for example, MySpace was once considered to be the top dog, but has now become mostly an also-ran unless you're an entertainment specialist. Likewise, knowing how to properly integrate various social-media tools into a cohesive campaign is vitally important as well. I continually tell clients to never assume you know how someone will find you. Some days it might be Google, other days it might be LinkedIn. But if you've got all your social-media elements working in tandem, it really doesn't matter. I regularly use Twitter to drive users to published content online, I post news of all new client developments via both Twitter and LinkedIn and make sure that my LinkedIn profile is up-to-date.

Also, even relatively new professionals need to start thinking about making a name for yourselves. We all know that, in this day and age, a prospective employer will conduct an extensive Web search to see what you've done online – including anything that you've written. Given that, you need to actively manage your information to ensure that a selection of it is available online for employers or prospective clients to easily peruse. Do simple things like including URLs to your online profiles in your e-mail signature. This approach takes all the guess work out of knowing how people will find you online, as that strategy will work as well for people coming in from a search engine as it will going to your Web site or a social-networking site profile directly.

Finally, once you've established a high level of comfort with the basic tactics of the PR business, look to begin specializing in a few industries. The most important thing to remember about career maintenance is you don't want to be like everyone else. Instead, you want to become known for a few things that remain marketable throughout your career. These may change over time, and we'll all have to freshen up on things, but it's a big help if you've become known as a “go to” person within a few industries.

To increase your reputation within an industry, carefully select one or two industry associations to join and become active in them. Personally, I make sure at least one of these are outside the PR/marketing world. I've got nothing against my fellow PR and marketing pros, but in my opinion, networking extensively outside those industries pays bigger dividends, since everyone in the room's not a competitor and you're raising your reputation within an industry from which you hope to draw clients.

Finally, even for those of you who aren't solo practitioners, practice and refine your “elevator pitch.” These days, it's vitally important for people to be able to give a cohesive 30-second answer when someone asks “What do you do?” It's especially important for people in public relations, because very few people know what the heck we do. You never know who you're going to meet or where, so being able to give a clear, concise answer to this question could pay big dividends down the road.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Companies Excited About Social Media's Promise, Wary of Its Perils

Businesses of all sizes and types are excited about the potential that social media poses for their businesses. However, at the same time, a recent survey indicates they're entering into the area with a bit of trepidation at the same time.

The survey, conducted by Minneapolis-based brand consultancy Russell Herder and Ethos Business Law, found that 40 percent of businesses surveyed are holding back on implementing a social-media plan because of security and confidentiality concerns. Other top issues that were impacting the implementation of social-media efforts included employee productivity and a general lack of understanding regarding social media.

Those who have begun to embrace social media still have a lot of work to do from a planning perspective, according to the survey. In fact, only one third have established any social-media policy and a mere 10 percent have conducted any kind of social-media training.

I've written in this space and elsewhere that social media won't necessarily be the elixir that every company hopes. However, it's a very cost effective way to maintain and increase brand awareness and keep current and prospective clients and customers engaged with your brand. But before companies can capitalize on its business potential, they first need to take steps within their organizations to establish policies and procedures that will guide and govern its use.

Failing to do so not only raises the potential that a company will miss a big opportunity when it comes to social media, but it also exposes that company to many potential liabilities, legal and otherwise. Now that we're entering the fourth quarter of the year and many people have their eyes on 2010 hoping for a sustained economic turnaround, the time to begin planning for the future -- social media and otherwise -- is now.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

PR Firm, Former Client Embroiled in Spat

Unfortunately, in public relations and other professional-service environments, the client/advisor relationship doesn't always go smoothly. Most often, this results in a calm parting of ways, but occasionally things can get bitter and sometimes even go public. With the widespread proliferation of social media, going public is happening quicker than ever.

The battle started on Aug. 20 when Rafat Ali, the leader of ContentNext Media, a company that operates several Web sites providing news about the world of digital media, announced on The Business Insider that he was firing his agency, Brainerd Communications following a pitch the agency sent out with the aim of getting him interviewed as a source on the future of music startups.

A high-level Brainerd official took issue with the coverage on the site, which the agency called a "mischaracterization." Brainerd was thought to be referring to a characterization issued by Ali himself -- and not The Business Insider -- which referred to them as "morons."

Obviously it's impossible for anyone but the two parties who signed the contractual agreement governing Brainerd's representation to be able to say much with certainty about what was promised, how the relationship was supposed to work and other key elements that go into making a PR firm's counsel worthwhile.

However, the typical firestorm that each of these complaints unleashes across the Web damages not only the firm itself but the industry as a whole, pointing again to the need for a cohesive industry voice to respond. Yes, Brainerd probably should have let the issue go and allowed the public at large to decide who was right in the spat, but the fact that there were many posting comments following the issue questioning the value of PR show the industry has a lot of work to do in terms of explaining what PR is and its value.

In all honesty, the reason there's so much anger when these relationships go south is because an impossible situation was set up from the beginning. This could be because there wasn't a good personality fit between the PR firm and its client, because the client expected more than was in any way realistic and the firm didn't temper those expectations or a whole host of other reasons.

While many in the PR industry probably regard the "dot-com boom" as a shining moment, at least in terms of industry revenue, it was also a time when lots of agencies took companies with business models that would never work and that had no real innovation to speak of and tried to turn that situation into something newsworthy through some form of "spin." Fact is, most any reputable journalist decides in under a minute whether something is worthy and most of the companies that were brief stars in that era didn't qualify. Had they qualified, they would have gone on to be unparalleled successes and obviously that didn't happen.

In closing, it's important to keep in mind that there will always be unhappy clients, even when an undisputably good job is done. Focusing on clients that are a fit and explaining in realistic terms what can be expected is the best anecdote to keep this kind of venomous situation at bay.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Twitter, Facebook Attacks Show Vulnerabilities of Platform Reliance

Online and printed media outlets, as well as blogs and other social networks, were abuzz last week with news over the apparent cyber-hijacking of Twitter as part of what a blogger claims was an act of orchestrated retaliation.

While the details of the specific attacks have been well chronicled by numerous other outlets, what wasn't written about extensively was how these attacks illustrate perfectly the need to consider not only the demographics and audience that you can reach via social media, but also the technology ramifications of any campaign you launch.

With the increasing reliance on social networks, the Web has made a migration of sorts away from a collection of properties based on uniform standards ratified by international bodies to a few, select properties that, when taken offline by technical issues or some other circumstance, can cause widespread disruption. That's not to say that using Twitter or Facebook for social-media campaigns is a bad thing; however, just as you want your important computer files residing in several places including one site that's remotely managed, you want your social media presence to be planned similarly as well to avoid widespread disruption in the event of outages.

The best way to get around these attacks is to rely on platforms that you exclusively control, but are remotely maintained. Examples can include everything from Web sites to blogs. While one of your hosts may go down at any one time, if you host the different elements of your overall Web presence at different locales/services, the odds of a widespread disruption are lower.

Even if another widespread attack doesn't occur in the future, it will likely pay dividends in the event an Internet backbone provider has a widespread disruption or something similar happens. We sometimes forget that for all the redundancies that were built into the Internet, occasionally all it takes is for an errant backhoe operator to take down a big chunk of the Internet, as has happened in the past.

Just as you plan for conventional disasters at the office, planning for them in your online activity can avoid costly and time-consuming disruptions

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

WSJ Story Finds Twitter Brings Few Benefits to Financial Pros

According to a new story in The Wall Street Journal examining the impact that Twitter has had on financial advisors who've tried to use the service to build their business, the micro-blogging platform has yet to deliver any major results.

The story is just the latest in a series of articles questioning Twitter's value, its overall strategy and whether it will ever actually be able to deliver the goods when it comes to business development. And it's important to note that while the story mentions that Twitter isn't responsible for bringing the advisors who use it scads of new revenue or clients, it is having tangible benefits for many.

One advisor mentioned in the story, who focuses on individuals with particular interests and successes in charitable giving, has found Twitter to be a valuable way to form relationships with influential figures in the field, such as the heads of well-known foundations.

Another advisor has effectively used Twitter to form relationships with women entrepreneurs, a nice parallel to her goal of developing a financial practice specifically targeted to providing advice to women.

This story is yet another reason that I advise clients that while building their business through Twitter is probably something that would take a long time and might yield relatively few results, Twitter shows great promise when it comes to continually engaging with clients. The main reasons clients leave firms with whom they do business is because they feel the firm doesn't take the relationship seriously enough and is not communicative enough. This is one area where Twitter gives individuals a very easy way to continually work on this thorny issue.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Twitter Increasingly Used to Promote Contests

Much has been made about Twitter and the various uses for the service, ranging from sending out droll updates to friends to businesses using the microblogging service to get a better handle on customer-service issues. Now, a new trend is emerging on the platform, which could play into efforts to develop a business model.

As reported in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal, the "buzz-generating" value of Twitter is increasingly being pared with the proven benefits of contests to increase brand awareness. As an example, Moonfruit, a London-based Web-design firm, added 47,000 followers and increased its Web site traffic by 1300 percent by using Twitter to promote a 10th-anniversary contest. The contest used "tweets" as its entry method, with entrants only required to place the #Moonfruit "hashtag" somewhere in the tweet.

As a result of the campaign, Moonfruit says its paying customers have increased by 20 percent and the number of trial users has grown more than three fold. One important thing companies using Twitter to promote contests have found is that while they're great at initially luring people as followers, companies must make a concerted and continual effort to keep them engaged or traffic will fall off precipitously once the promotional period has ended.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Intern's Widely-Read Report Offers Blunt Analysis of Teens' Media Habits

A report authored by a 15-year-old UK intern is getting a lot of attention this week for a blunt analysis of one of the most popular social-networking tools around.

Matthew Robson, who is working this summer for Morgan Stanley's UK offices, authored a candid report detailing the media consumption habits of typical 15-year-olds. The report included information on their favorite television programs, as well as where they spent most of their time online.

Surprisingly, Twitter received very little praise in the report, with Robson saying not only do most teens not read newspapers and dislike ads, but they also have very little use for the popular micro-blogging service.

Robson says teens shy away from Twitter because most use it from cell phones and, unlike e-mail messages, every text message costs money. Robson said teens would rather send texts between friends than use them for updates "that no one is viewing."

He goes on to say that teens have no interest in physical newspapers and would rather consume their news online. He calls banner ads "annoying and pointless" and says that teens prefer to download or stream their music using free sites/services rather than pay for them.

While Robson's report may seem harsh, I think it's one of the best assessments of the media transition I've read. Everyone talks about the popularity of Twitter and iTunes and fails to mention the fact that banner ads remain a relatively ineffective way to finance content. Unfortunately, this has resulted in a delay in finding new, effective forms of financing online content.

Hopefully Robson's report will not only result in watercooler conversation, but some honest analysis of business models across the media and entertainment industry.

Morgan Stanley executives in the UK were so impressed with Robson's report that they immediately circulated it throughout the C suite, which prompted a number of high-level client inquiries.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Promise of "Citizen Journalism"

The New York Times ran a story over the weekend that looked at the rise in importance that tech-oriented social media sites were having on the industry and on the impact that rise was having on the way Silicon Valley companies now looked at marketing for their products. However, as is the case with many stories about social media, there was some big gaps in coverage that should be part of any social-media discussion.

The story profiled Brooke Hammerling and her involvement with Silicon Valley and the area's social-media scene. The story goes on to say that tech companies now have to consider influential bloggers such as Om Malik and sites like Tech Crunch and All Things Digital. The story goes on to say that conventional media are circumvented through the ability of "new media publicists" to whisper in the ear of influential CEOs and pundits, which it claimed would in effect have the conventional media outlets seeking out the principals of the story, rather than the other way around.

Hammerling's thesis is that, at its core, PR is all about relationships and that the PR firm or practitioner who has the most solid relationships will be the most successful. While that sounds great in theory, I really question whether there's substantial truth behind the notion.

For starters, many of the influential business leaders cited in the story are influential today because they have a hot-startup; forget for the moment that many of those start-ups don't have a viable business model and wouldn't be surviving right now were it not for venture capital. This is in a business context pretty much the same as a consumer living off a continual stream of income from home-equity loans; it's great as long as there's something to backup the value of the money coming in, but when that's not there, the ships starts to sink.

Social media and citizen journalism are both concepts that show a lot of promise, but let us not forget that the only form of journalism right now that has a business model that's ever shown to be a success is traditional print and broadcast. Yes, their business models are under attack like never before, but at least they've shown they have a viable business model that works. No one's really figured out how to get anyone to pay for original content on the Web, which is the one dirty secret of citizen journalism that no one mentions.

The story also revives the notion that buzz equals long-term benefits. Yet over and over, we've seen a host of companies that generated a ton of buzz -- some of which were mentioned in the article -- that mostly never made it out of the startup phase.

A successful public relations strategy is one that doesn't involve broad generalizations and instead relies on a customized approach for an individual company. We seem to often forget that most of the products and services that are the most profitable offerings for companies aren't often that exciting. Generally, I prefer "benefits" over "buzz" because buzz will eventually die, whereas a company that brings the most benefits to the table for their current and prospective clients or customers will go on to be household names.

While buzz isn't always bad, in many cases, it's better to leave the buzzing to bees.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

When It Comes to Social Networking, Pay Attention to the Essentials

Anyone reading any technology news over the last week probably saw countless articles on Facebook's "vanity URL" registrations. While the move might have generated lots of ink for Facebook, in the context of newsworthy social-media events, I'd call it a yawner.

Sure, I realize that anything the hottest social-networking site besides Twitter does nowdays is going to get covered. However, just because something's newsworthy in the overall context of a single social-media platform or social media as a whole, that doesn't make it something that will help drive one's business.

As many of you may know, LinkedIn has offered the same vanity URL concept for almost a year now. Judging from the profiles I see there, relatively few have taken the few extra steps to register their name. While that may sound negative, I'd actually go as far as to say LinkedIn is probably the best social network for actual business out there.

Social media success comes through participating in the right platform for your business in the right way. For many knowledge-based professionals, for example, that's proving your expertise in the "Answers" forum and writing a clear, concise profile giving people more information about what you can do for your clients or customers.

Realize too that effective use of social media results in an increase in viewership for all your marketing tools. For example, I get a lot of visits to my Web site from my LinkedIn profile and vice versa. Leveraging all the content you create to work together for the benefit of your brand is the best way to ensure you're maximizing the benefit of social media.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Deciding Where to Put Your PR Emphasis Is Tougher Than Ever

Public relations was once a fairly straightforward discipline when it came to establishing appropriate media targets. However, a variety of events over the last two years have upended old rules and have many searching for the new world order.

When it comes to media relations, and specifically which media a client should target, the best advice is still to try and get your message in front of the largest number of potential customers or clients as possible. Figuring out where those people are these days is anything but simple, however.

Establishing targets is still very much dependent on where your potential customers spend most of their time. For a business-to-business company, that might very well be trade magazines; however, for a consumer-oriented company, especially one targeting a younger demographic, the answer could be entirely different. In the case of the latter, it could just as easily be MySpace as it is any type of printed publication, or even an online component of a major media company.

These online venues are becoming increasingly important because consumer-driven companies are realizing that their customers now prefer having an ongoing dialog with their brands. Rather than putting marketing messages in one-way ads designed to drive home a message to the point that a buying behavior is triggered, social media marketing seeks to involve the customer in the process of defining and refining the end product or service.

However, as mentioned above, not all social-media venues are alike. One that has from the beginning perplexed me and continues to do so is Twitter. Oh, I get the attractiveness of being able to send out short, witty messages to all of those who choose to follow you and to have instantaneous conversations with them. But at the heart of it, Twitter just took traditional short-message service functionality that works on every cell phone today, and put a much more attractive interface around it. In fact, Twitter itself was a service that mostly controlled using your mobile phone and not the Web.

Twitter's been in the news a lot of late for not having a business model. Despite promises that a path to ongoing revenues was forthcoming and hints that it would most likely involve a variation of the service that targeted corporate customers, nothing has emerged thus far – not even any reliable hints of what's to come. One of the things that has amused me during Twitter's emergence and the subsequent trials and tribulations of print media is that while everyone's predicting the demise of print media because of troubles with its business model, very few are questioning Twitter's future despite its complete lack of a business model. We've seen what happens when companies that lack a solid business model enter with a stratospheric launch but never get the business side of things nailed down, and it's never pretty.

For professional-service practitioners and many smaller companies that don't have a large marketing budget, LinkedIn can also provide an effective way to spread awareness of your company and its offerings. However, it's especially important that participants on LinkedIn avoid the temptation to engage in overt sales and promotion. LinkedIn users take pride in having a community that's more of a “peer-sharing venue” where users can exchange information on problems and solutions. That's not to say that business can't be won on LinkedIn – in fact, I'm proud to say that I've done it on more than one occasion – but it's important to note that winning business can't be the main reason you participate in forums and other interactive elements.

Finally, it's important to point out that in many cases, the appropriate social media venue could be as simple as the traditional blog. A blog allows you to have an ongoing dialog with current and potential customers and get valuable feedback regarding your current product or service and any proposed changes. Better still, a blog is an environment that the company itself can completely control. Blogs are attractive because you can integrate them completely into your Web site to offer one seamless online presence. When paired together with a statistics program like Google Analytics, a company can take a look at its overall Web presence and determine where visitors are spending most of their time and let those statistics guide their efforts.

In closing, I want to mention that I remain a big fan of conventional media outlets. For starters, the news and information featured on them is still top notch and isn't something that can be easily duplicated by an entrepreneurial venue. Secondly, the demographics of major print media readers remains very high, making them a good place for companies with a high-margin product or service or something aimed primarily at corporate buyers.

It's hard to say how any of the media shakeout will finally resolve itself, but one thing's for sure: a diversified media strategy is the best way to ensure success.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

When It Comes to Social Media, Pick Battlegrounds Carefully

As the "social-media revolution" continues to be chronicled in many major business and technology publications, most of the stories make little distinction between the various players involved, nor to they attempt to make any kind of judgement in regard to which are more likely to have a quantifiable business impact. According to the results of a new study, they should.

A study issued yesterday by A.C. Nielsen & Co. indicates 60 percent of Twitter users leave the service after the first month. Nielsen didn't make full copies of the study available yesterday, but regardless of the reasons for the quick defection, it doesn't pose promise for the social-media darling, which has yet to figure out a business model -- or even debut a viable revenue model.

The euphoria over Twitter isn't really surprising. In most any wave of change that involves a new way to communicate or a new tech-based movement, there's a rush to crown everyone winners rather than worry about things like viable business models. We saw this in the dot-com boom years when it came to e-commerce platforms. Back then, everyone was predicting how no one would go to "brick and mortar" stores and everyone from consumers to businesses would shift the vast majority of their commerce online.

Obviously, there will be some changes that are a result of this period that will stick and become a part of business life. However, the Twitter study shows how important it is to individually evaluate every player involved in a new trend and make separate judgements on their value. So, for example, while Twitter may go on to establish partnerships with a number of consumer-driven companies who like the ability to instantly communicate with their audience, it might not end up having much of an application for companies who are predominantly B2B focused.

As communications consultants, it's our job to help clients sort through the field and make value judgements based on what's suitable for our clients rather than just jumping on the latest bandwagon. Not only is it good for our clients, but it's good for the PR business as a whole as well; in short, everyone benefits from picking a winner.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

New Venues Can't Escape Old Business Rules

It seems every day, there's a new story on Twitter or some other new communications tool and their likely impact on the future of marketing and public relations. Pundits and prognosticators writing about what will happen with Twitter should look no further than one of the last new media darlings.

In a report issued this week, Credit Suisse projects that YouTube will lose $470 million this year, while raking in only $240 million in revenue. Since Google ponied up $1.65 billion for YouTube more than two years ago, YouTube doesn't face the same financial pressures of a typical technology company, as long as Google's willing to underwrite YouTube's losses. Still, their progress does speak volumes about what happens when you put a platform ahead of a business model.

PR pros and other communications professionals looking for help in deciding where to place their marketing money and effort would be wise to remember that the notion that you can build an audience first and worry about your business model later generally hasn't worked out too well historically. Just because Twitter's a media darling today doesn't mean it won't be gone at some point in the future.

I was surprised to finally see a negative -- or realistic, depending on your take -- column on Twitter that ran this week on CNET's penned by Charles Cooper. Basically, Cooper said while the rest of the media world may continue to fawn over Twitter, he's going to take a vacation and wait for Twitter's co-founders to finally cement a business model before joining the crowd singing their praises.

Like Cooper, I'm generally advising all my clients to put their time and effort into social media platforms and tools that are based around a solid, quantifiable business model. Quite simply, if the platform you're banking on hasn't figured out how they're going to put money in the bank over the long term, it's not worth the majority of your time and effort at this point.

Twitter may indeed go on to become a true sensation that changes the way we communicate, but it's important to remember it may also become another WebTV; there's $425 million Microsoft would likely love to have back.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Defining (or Defying) Conventional Wisdom

During times of economic tumult, there's a natural tendency for everyone to look at historical precedence in an effort to get a handle on how the future may play out. The reason for this is simply because things often play out that way. While that may be true in this instance, we've got an opportunity to make some important changes this time that may have a long-lasting, positive impact.

One of the things that naturally occurs during a downturn is businesses struggle to get where they were before the downturn occurred. Most often, they embark on this journey using the same tactics and practices that have historically been used, without asking whether or not things can be done better.

Unfortunately, it's this lack of innovation that actually is a big reason that downturns themselves are cyclical; in other words, you can't predict much about them with certainty, except that they will occur again. Changing tactics or philosophy will likely not eliminate downturns, but it certainly could reduce their lifespan and/or severity.

It's my sincere hope that the public relations industry comes out of this downturn with true ideas on how to successfully innovate. The biggest thing we need to realize is innovation doesn't simply mean ways to make more money, but rather a long-term change that will result in one or more positive impacts.

I challenge my fellow practitioners to help me bring about innovation in public relations by having PR practitioners seen as valued counselors rather than merely hired hands that perform a tactical service. This perception is one of the reasons that PR pros often find they're not able to get clients to take their strategic advice. Instead, the client often ends up telling the agency what to do, and the agency works to deliver it -- regardless of whether it's a good idea, or even possible, in the first place.

This symptom results in public relations and the firms who practice it losing some of their value. In economic downturns, value becomes crucial because the first things to get cut are often services or products that are perceived to not deliver value. This certainly won't be an easy journey, but if we can join forces to bring it about, it will bring a seismic shift to the PR industry and all who practice it.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Need a Perfect Example of a Bad PR Move? This Is It

New York City landlord Rockrose Development, which is a well-known manager and marketer of luxury rental apartments in Manhattan, can trace much of its success to efforts it has undertaken to attract a young, hip audience to its pricey downtown rentals. While they've definitely figured out a lot of things when it comes to marketing, they've got much to learn in terms of crisis communications.

A story in Monday's New York Times chronicles the story of a young couple who claim they were forced to move from a Rockrose-managed facility because they lodged repeated complaints on an in-house, online tenant forum hosted by Google Groups but monitored by Rockrose.

David and Katy Griffiths were told by Rockrose that their lease wouldn't renewed because they had posted critical comments on the online forum. For their part, the Griffiths say while they did engage in spirited conversations on a number of issues, ranging from gym hours to additional fees for grilling on terraces, that none of their comments should be considered abusive.

They also say the whole issue smacks of 1984, particularly since Rockrose officials admit they have employees whose responsibilities include monitoring online forums, such as the ones the Griffiths participated in.

From a PR standpoint, the most interesting part of this whole affair is that Rockrose officials remain completely unapologetic.

“In these times, I try to renew everybody — unless somebody’s a real hothead and a troublemaker," Sofia Estevez, the company’s senior vice president for marketing, told The Times. Yet, the story also says "On perusing his file, the only evidence Ms. Estevez could cite of 'troublemaking' was his refusal to pay fees for the gym and other amenities early in his tenancy, when the gym was not yet open. She said that she could not recall whether online postings were a factor, but that a Rockrose employee does monitor tenant complaints on the Web."

Needless to say, there are some big risks being taken here. For starters, admitting that you monitor postings on an in-house forum as much to determine who the gripers are as much as actually fixing their complaints would rile many people. Secondly, it appears the Griffiths did have some legitimate issues, including the fact that some building amenities that were supposed to be provided as part of a mandatory fee were not yet available.

Even in the crazy world that is New York City real estate, it seems an especially bold move to be taken in a city whose unemployment ranks are swelling with each passing day and likely won't eclipse until late 2009. Most companies would be well advised to avoid anything that remotely resembles this kind of approach to complaints because almost nobody has a monopoly on a product or service. Just as word of the complaints reached Rockrose executives thanks to an employee who carefully monitored forums, you can bet several hundred thousand people -- many of whom may have never even heard of Rockrose until now, much less rented from them -- not only know who they are, but have a negative connotation attached to that name.

Anybody in public relations or crisis communications who is worth their salt will always counsel a client not to get involved in a conflict, whether it's verbal or on a virtual forum, with any current or perspective customer or client. The fact of the matter is, once something goes public, you have very little control over perception, even if you respond in the right way, or the best way possible. Unfortunately for Rockrose, they didn't really pick what most will view as the right way to respond, which will likely mean the memories of their aggressive action will linger longer than they otherwise would.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Yet Another Illustration of Social Media's Perils

Practically since the Web's beginnings, many irate customers have often used it to criticize companies with whom they've done business. In an "updated" version of the tale that emerged last week, a similar event occurred on one of the hottest Web 2.0 platforms -- only this time, it was a PR agency that was left with some explaining to do.

A Ketchum Inc. vice president based in Atlanta was in Memphis last week for a meeting with FedEx executives. The next part of the story gets all the more interesting, given that part of his mission related to training on social media. James Andrews, a Ketchum VP, apparently issued the Tweet "True confession but I’m in one of those towns where I scratch my head and say 'I would die if I had to live here!"

Obviously, FedEx wasn't too pleased with the Tweet, saying it exhibited poor judgement on the part of Andrews. However, the company said it was grateful for the apology and was moving past the incident.

For his part, Andrews said the moment followed an irate exchange with "an intolerant individual," and wasn't aimed at Memphis or its residents.

"Everyone knows that at 140 characters Twitter does not allow for context and therefore my comments were misunderstood," he wrote on his blog.

True enough. And, obviously these kinds of situations have snared many individuals and companies in the past. But it does seem amazing in 2009 that we still have to be reminded that online communications don't only give the poster a chance at instant expression, but they also pose the risk of instant feedback. Sometimes that's a good thing, but there are others where the situation could pose a big risk.

Bottom line: Don't assume anything you're writing online, whether it's a Tweet, a blog post, a Usenet posting or on any exploding number of private forums and social networks out there, will be either private or will shortly die. When I was a daily newspaper reporter, one of the solaces we took was that a mistake only lived in print for a single day and that you got a chance to instantly get up to bat the next day in an effort to start a new streak. Certainly these kinds of mistakes won't often have eternal consequences, but it's definitely not as easy for them to disappear from the public's view.

Monday, January 12, 2009

PR Students Worry About Reinvention of Industry

Perhaps no other economic downturn in the last 20 years is causing the same level of reverberations through the nation's economy as the recession we're now in the midst of. While everyone's concerned about their future in one degree or another, perhaps no group is as concerned as recent college graduates or those about to enter the work force.

Students about to enter the work force or recent graduates are most certainly encountering a challenging environment. While the current economic turmoil has a lot to do with it, the situation is complicated by the fact that the overall marketing and media landscape, with which PR will be forever linked, is literally in the profess of reinventing itself.

This reinvention is due chiefly to the emergence of blogs and other social media, as well as the decline of conventional media. Hardly a day goes by that a story predicting the newspaper industry's imminent death isn't published. In fact, several stories have made the rounds recently predicting that The New York Times may end the printed version of its flagship publication as early as May.

Certainly the business model around both publishing and advertising is going through a turmoil like never seen before. That said, anyone who claims to be able to chart exactly how any replacement vehicle(s) and their accompanying business model will be structured doesn't really know what they're talking about because the business model behind the replacements is still very much a work in progress.

I'm certainly not criticizing social media here; in fact, I'm in the midst of launching a social media practice at Astoria Communications. Yet, in contrast to many who have "pie in the sky" notions of what it will do, I believe we should have a much more concrete approach that focuses on knowing how to use social-media tools for business development. Even as new schools of thought are emerging that say expanding one's view of what a social circle is when it comes to social-networking platforms, it's still as important as ever to realize that these are communication platforms and capitalizing on them will require individuals to know how to do that successfully.

While I certainly won't slam a journalism or PR degree, I'd counsel current students and recent graduates to try and broaden their educational experience as much as possible. The classes you think are boring in school, such as economics or other business-oriented classes, will be what sets you apart from a hungry pack in the future.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Celebrity PR Doesn't Speak For Industry

I'll be the first one to admit that public relations has an image problem and have chronicled that fact in several posts since this blog's inception. However, the latest critique that's making the rounds has me baffled.

In the most recent "bookshelf" column appearing in The Wall Street Journal, Toby Young slams public relations as a "hype machine" and takes issue with the book's attempt to refute PR's imagine as the "unsavory business of exaggerating the value of their clients or their clients’ products."

The column, which is actually a review of the book Where's My Fifteen Minutes by Howard Bragman. After reading columns elsewhere about the review, I was expecting it to be a complete hatchet job, but if the book is characterized correctly, I actually agree with a good number of the criticisms.

One thing the column quickly shows is that there continues to be a widespread belief that "Hollywood style PR" is what most public relations pros are engaged in on a daily basis. I've written about this many times and have said this is why I personally hate when publicity and public relations are used interchangeably.

Many of the stories relate to personalities or celebrities and aren't really relevant for the majority of the industry that's involved in helping reputable companies of various types.

It's no surprise that someone with show-biz insights was able to sell someone on writing a PR-oriented book. What's unfortunate is that all these years after public relations became a mainstream professional service, most people don't know what the heck public relations is. Anybody who's actually out selling PR knows this all too well and is why I've continually called for industry practitioners and/or groups to ban together to try and stop this and actually illustrate the positive business impact of what is a widely-used professional service.

Here's To A Better 2009!

It seems 2008 was a year mostly filled of headlines chronicling one type of doom or another and, unfortunately, it won't go down as a banner year for public relations either. While the recovery may not take hold until mid-2009, there's still a lot we in the public relations profession can do to "raise the boat" for everyone.

Public relations has a unique opportunity, perhaps like never before, to articulate its value proposition. The changing media and entertainment landscape may be giving consumers more and more choice, but it's also posing many challenges on the advertising front. One of my professional colleagues is a long-time advertising executive who several years ago sold his company to one of the international conglomerates. If you were to ask him, he'd be the first to tell you that the ad industry has a lot of "discovery" to do, chiefly because there's a disconnect between the areas where opportunities are growing and viable business models.

In other words, the world may be moving online when it comes to news and content, but the online world is, at least for now, not nearly as profitable as the print and broadcast landscapes have traditionally been. Most consider PR and ad folks staunch competitors since they're generally trying to pull dollars from the same "marketing pie." However, this ad exec is refreshingly upfront and honest when it comes to speaking to business executives and owners in regard to what type of marketing works best for a given business. One of the things he says most often is that unless you're able to deal in relatively large budgets, advertising is generally not a good fit. That's chiefly because ad agencies are compensated based on a percentage of the overall advertising expenditure; thus, small budgets aren't really viable in the ad world. Conversely, public relations, which has very little outside costs other than staff time to create and execute a program, can offer options to a much broader range of business sizes and types.

Sadly, however, few people know of this distinction. That's not really surprising, however, given how few actually know what PR people actually do. While I'm not trying to appear as someone who is looking through rose-colored glasses, I do believe now is an opportunity like none before for PR firms and consultants to approach solid companies and tell them the current economic environment gives them a great opportunity to set themselves apart from their competition. Quite simply, success stories have gotten to the point that they're almost "contrarian indicators" in the current economic environment. Given that, there are many good reasons for successful companies to undertake and/or expand their public relations programs in an effort to gain market share.

Hopefully these thoughts will inspire others in the PR field to go out and educate business owners and managers about what we do and what PR offers. Happy 2009!