Wednesday, September 15, 2010

This Was News?

OK, I get it; Twitter's all the rage and everything they do or even think about doing gets covered with microscopic detail. However, I was a bit surprised when the whole tech news world basically stopped for a second while Twitter unveiled details that many think will pave the way to an ad-supported business model.

As most anyone who follows tech knows, how Twitter's going to make money has been one of the biggest reasons the platform has stayed in the press -- at least if you don't count Kanye West's most recent apology to Taylor Swift. We've all been waiting for many months, especially after the announcement of several new high-level executives, to see what kind of innovative platform for making money the firm was going to unveil.

This week we got our strongest hints when Twitter unveiled some changes designed to basically keep people on for much longer periods. Most know think they're leaning toward an ad-supported business model -- which leads me to my next big question. "Haven't we been there before?"

It seems Twitter thinks that it will be able to finance itself with ads despite the fact that the increasing glut of inventory has pushed down ad prices significantly. Bottom line: Advertising brings in less money all the time because there are more places to display ads and because reading patterns are becoming much more fragmented.

To be fair, Twitter did unveil several new features on its site, including the ability to include multimedia content, that many see as a move Twitter is making to directly position itself as a Facebook competitor. One big difference I see, however, is Facebook is designed as more of a "walled" garden where you can control who sees the content you distribute. In contrast, Twitter's more of a broadcast platform designed to get your message out to as many as possible. This is illustrated not only in the ability to send messages to followers, but by the fact that retweets are often the primary reason that someone's message gets wide enough distribution for mass attention.

Niall Harbison of The Next Web penned a laudatory piece on the announcement, saying that what at first appears like a Web site upgrade will emerge as something much more meaningful given the role that Twitter now plays in our every day lives.

Time will tell on that prediction, but it seems to me it's going to take more than another ad model for Twitter to reach its full potential.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Even Gifted Communicators Can Make PR Flubs

Two characteristics that are commonly linked together are the ability to manage in a crisis and gifted communications skills. We seem to assume those automatically go together in a gifted leader; however, if there's one situation that proved this isn't always the case, it's the Manhattan mosque debate.

As most reading this column have probably heard, a Manhattan developer and the leader of a mosque in the financial district teamed together to promote the idea of an Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan called Park 51. While the development cleared its final hurdle on Aug. 3 when the city's Landmark Preservation Commission approved its construction, a national battle was just getting underway.

Many Republican and conservative leaders – coincidentally all from outside New York City – pounced on the story, with Sarah Palin going as far as to call the mosque an "unnecessary provocation." New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg was the only sane voice in the conversation and the only one to consistently defend the organization's right to build at the planned site. President Obama, who is widely regarded as someone with a "gift for gab" almost instantly found himself in hot water, proving the danger that anyone communicating in a crisis faces when they let anyone "hijack" the facts.

The president did make an impassioned defense of the mosque, but almost immediately found himself attacked by everyone from Palin to some families of the victims of the September 11th attacks. What he apparently didn't realize is that often engaging in debate is something that is not only perilous, but foolhardy.

In my mind, from a communications standpoint, this issue was simple. The approval of any religious facility's construction is a local zoning issue – PERIOD. The group constructing the facility secured all of those, and as mentioned, every permit needed for approval was secured by early August. Given that the federal government was in no way ever involved in the situation, the president missed a great opportunity to stay above the fray and let others fight whatever fight they had in mind.

President Obama's gaffe – or at least that's what I perceive it as – illustrates an age-old conflict in PR about responding in a crisis. We all know that sometimes they best thing to say is very little or nothing at all. There will be many times in a crisis when you're better off letting the situation unfold to some natural conclusion, or at least the next phase, without issuing a public commentary. Yet, there will also be other times when complete silence is not the best stance to take, as it gives the appearance that a person or company is trying to avoid dealing with an obvious situation.

These conflicting situations are why crisis communications is so difficult. Simply put, we all seem to want a pre-fabricated template that we can consult following the emergence of any crisis – sort of a “cheat sheet” that says when "x" happens, do "y." It would be fabulous if such a convention could be devised, but for better or worse, life's just not that simple. Trouble is, people seem to either lack the ability to communicate effectively or they let their decision process become fogged in a moment of crisis.

Letting this "fog" sweep in generally means you'll be dealing with a crisis much longer than if a more effective approach had been taken. To go back to the mosque debate, if President Obama had simply and consistently said something to the effect of "While I understand the impassioned views of many on this issue, at its core the decision of whether or not to construct the mosque in Lower Manhattan is a local zoning issue. The group sponsoring its construction has obtained all the necessary approvals for its construction, which hopefully will bring this debate to a close."

While nothing is certain, I'd be willing to wager a pretty penny that if the president had followed this strategy, he would have been able to get a month of his political life back. Instead, he spent valuable time letting others mop the floor with him and linking the mosque's construction to all sorts of other initiatives that had nothing to do with one another. Often, the most victory one can hope for following the emergence of a crisis is to minimize time spent on dealing with it.