Monday, April 23, 2012

The Corporate Blog Becoming More Scarce

The pace of change in the communications technology sector is now so rapid that if you’re a brand new college graduate, chances are pretty good that the way you communicated in your freshman year was significantly less technologically sophisticated than today’s freshman.

In less than four years, Facebook has become social media on steroids.  People of all demographics have jumped into the social media pool, from parents, and aunts and uncles, to the HR departments that screen potential employees online, and companies using the full range of business and marketing applications.  Twitter, Pinterest and other social media have filled niches.

Against this backdrop, the mere mention of a blog is to sound so old school you could be accused of being a luddite.  In the tech world, that’s akin to being called illiterate.

No shortage of irony that here we are on a blog of all things, talking about the corporate blog.  There’s a difference.  Blogs like this one are what individuals use for any number of reasons.  Corporate blogs are those published under the corporate brand, not particularly associated with any single author.

It appears to me that the space for blogs maintained by individuals, be they for professional or personal reasons, continues to hold its own.  Blogs provide much content for social media and give their authors a chance to expand on concepts, developments or ideas. 

Corporate blogs on the other hand, are often low priorities at companies. They are not kept up to date the way their originators had planned, and when they are updated, it’s usually little more than a place to find the latest news release or an occasional guest column from a company subject matter expert.  Creating original content is a challenge in terms of time and resource availability.

What many companies have found in the past few years is that they can be much more current and relevant if they skip the blog process and post directly to Facebook or Twitter.

The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth recently conducted a survey on this topic.  It found that the number of companies that maintain blogs decreased from 50 percent in 2010 to 37 percent in 2011.  The project surveyed the 500 fast-growing companies ranked by Inc. magazine. 

In addition to the investment required into maintaining a blog, the other issues at play here is interactivity and location.  Retailers who actively engage consumers on social sites like Facebook have found that they can get more mileage out of their existing marketing content, and through “comments” add a level of interactivity that keeps it current and relevant.  And by being on the popular social media sites, they have a greater presence in the Internet marktplace.

When USA Today asked why his company dropped its corporate blog, Bank of America spokesman, T.J. Crawford may have said it best: "We want to be where our customers are."

For consultants, commentators, pundits and news organizations who have the time to invest in the process, blogs will continue to serve as major sources of content for their larger communications and social media efforts.  But for many larger corporations, their online focus is now on social media.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Business Pages are Changing

I once had a meeting with a senior editor of Forbes magazine where he described the purpose of the business press.  He said, “The business press is about helping people make money or save money.  If you’re not doing that, you’re not covering business.”

He assumed the engine for helping people make or save money was private industry, since other than operating the printing presses the government doesn’t create wealth.

The Forbes editor said that good business coverage included everything from investing topics, to business growth, strategies and hard news.  Of course on the saving side, personal finance or investigative reports on risky investments or consumer purchases were all fair game.

One of the reasons I liked the simplicity of this description of purpose was how it paralleled the other sections of the newspaper.  People have always read the paper with their personal self-interest in mind.  What will the weather be like for my picnic today?  Do I know anyone in the obituaries?  Will my football poll bear fruit in today’s game?  Is there a good recipe for my family dinner in the Food Section? And, will my retirement accounts grow a little today?

To provide the kind of business coverage these readers had expected, newspaper editors knew that they had to place the highest priority on giving the reader “news you can use.” 

Times have changed.  Newspapers are a dying breed and now have to compete with an explosion of information sources, from cable television to Web sites, blogs and social media.  People in their 20s more than likely have never gotten into the habit of reading a daily newspaper.  Instead they pick and choose the information they receive.  The rest of us are now no different.

We browse the Internet, read the magazines and newspapers selectively, and we skip over what we don’t want.  Regardless of our habits, we all recognize we are no longer dependent on a newspaper daily as our window to the world.

In response, newspapers have had to change to draw attention or to retain as many readers as possible.  Analysis is a big part of this, which oftentimes reflects a value system the news organization believes best relates or identifies with its targeted base.  When newspaper editors today insert a thousand words of analysis into a hard news story, that’s their way of interpreting a news development as they see it or perhaps think the readers are predisposed to see it.  Story selection is an equal part of this approach.

In preparation for this blog post, I did a quick analysis of my own.  I made a list of business stories from two competing newspapers on the same day and then repeated this a few times.  The difference in their editorial approach was stark.

One newspaper clearly had decided to take a populist approach and only in a few rare cases, featured news about companies, products or actual business developments.  Instead, it focused on socio-economic issues facing people who are out of work, in transition, members of labor unions or government agencies.  I didn’t do a count, but the word “plight” is a very common one on this business page.

The other newspaper focused its business coverage almost entirely on economic issues as they affect the business operating environment, and features on businesses with new products.  Again, I didn’t do a count, but the word “opportunity” did appear on this page quite often.  It came as no surprise to me that this newspaper is the one of the two that is still holding onto and somewhat growing its readership.

Missing from both publications were features for organizational leaders on how to better manage, hire or create sound business strategy.

Perhaps the editors feel their readers can get that sort of information elsewhere, but in an industry that receives its share of bad news about its own sector every day, it would seem to me that filling newspaper pages with information readers can use to make or save money would be a good start.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Petrino Story Shows the Power of "Investigative Social Media"

In PR and in journalistic circles, we used to think that in order for secrets or scandals to become news, you needed a trained journalist with dogged persistence and good contacts.  Still the case, but the Washington Posts of the world no longer have a monopoly on uncovering stories some would prefer never came to light.

Not too long ago, the tabloids took up the investigative mantle, pursuing outrageous stories some of which happened to be true.  The cycle for a time was, the traditional media would let the tabloids chase down leads and dead ends, and when a story every now and then gained traction, the mainstream media would pick it up a few weeks or months later. 

The best example of this was when the National Enquirer took ownership of the story about former presidential candidate John Edwards and his affair with a staffer.  Apparently there were plenty of signs and talk about the possible affair in the news media ranks, but no one wanted to take the lead and do the story until the Enquirer did.

Just a few years later, all of this print media muckraking seems so dated it may as well be the stuff of Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack. 

Enter social media and smart phone technology.  Now, scandals can be uncovered by someone  as innocuous as a football fan with an iPhone.  The process is simple: shoot and post.  Or if you don’t have a photo but some juicy info, the process is even simpler: post.   Depending on the nature of the content and where you post it, the world will know in minutes. 

Bobby Petrino

So here’s what happened.  The married head coach of the University of Arkansas Razorbacks was out for a spin on his motorcycle.  He crashed.  The police were called, a report was filed.  Petrino did what any highly visible coach would do - he told the university’s athletic director what happened.  However, he left out one important detail.  His passenger on the motorcycle was a former female volley ball player at the school, a new hire of his, and their relationship was more than professional.

This put the school in a bad position.  It had put out a statement based on the incomplete information the coach had originally provided, and then only learned the full story when the official police report was about to be filed and made public.

Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long had to make the tough decisions.  To appreciate just how tough, you might have to spend some time in Arkansas, but in short, they have no professional athletic teams to call their own.  They have one major university, and football is king.  Petrino has built a football program in the most elite college conference in the nation that is now a prime contender for a national championship.  Winning a national championship for Arkansas is a matter of state pride that runs so deep the issue is one of regional identity.

You may not like football, but Petrino’s importance is not about football.  What he’s done for the school, the state and the Razorback brand is hard to fathom here in Pennsylvania.  And he’s done it all just by winning most of his football games. 

For some in Arkansas, the firing of Petrino is a modern day tragedy.  For others it’s sweet justice.  And it all started with a social media posting.

The Web site was, the “unofficial site for fans of the Arkansas Razorbacks.”  The “investigative” correspondent in this case is a fan who uses the handle Hoggrad.  Hoggrad was the one to first reveal on that site that the story of the motorcycle accident may have more to it than a few bumps and bruises from the crash.

That post set off a frenzy of social media debate that put pressure on the university to respond and take decisive action.  At the end, Petrino is out of work, the future of the football program is in limbo, and Arkansas pride has taken a blow.

With the dawn of social media, investigative journalism may have recently morphed into something entirely new, “investigative social media,” where everyone’s a reporter, and like the clock at a Razorback football game, time is primarily measured in seconds.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Helping College Students with their Homework

One of the most common and valuable assignments communications professors give their college students is to have them reach out to working professionals to interview them on what life is like in the PR business.  The professors are doing their students a favor in more ways than one.

First, the students get to practice their interviewing skills, and then get to turn their notes from the interviews into written pieces.  This is the basic template for what PR professionals do.  There is a reason PR often falls under the umbrella of journalism in college curricula.  We are oftentimes internal journalists, working to make sense of events, developments and information so that it can more effectively be provided to working journalists and other targeted audiences.

The second reason this is a good exercise is that it helps current students start to build a network of contacts within the profession.  By making such contacts, students could end up with helpful mentors, contacts for internships and even a resource for their first job hunt.

With so much good that can come out of such an assignment the grade, as important as it always is in college, is secondary in terms of the big picture.

Because we are now predominantly an electronic communications culture, rather than pick up a telephone and call working PR professionals, most students today initiate contact via email.  Quite a few are also making first contact on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.  This may be expedient as students work to fulfill an obligation to a professor, but by removing the human interaction from this part of the process, they are missing a major opportunity to create a good first impression.

Over the years, I have received many of these kinds of inquiries from college students.  I’ve gotten used to the introductory email, and then the electronic Q&A process.  I try not to do their homework for them by only answering the questions they provide and not presuming what they should know or ask.  I don't preemptively answer questions they never mention.

That, however, is not the expectation of most students who now contact me.  The current attitude among most is, “I have this class assignment, I need to talk to someone, I found you, now answer this open-ended question via email.  What do you do?”

If I send them two or three paragraphs they seem happy.  I’m not sure what kind of grades these students get because they never follow up, and usually don’t say ‘thank you.’

Because this is the communications business, and how we go about interacting with important stakeholders is everything, I am always disappointed with these encounters.  I always hope that a student will come forward and actually call me, do an interview, and let me know what the finished product looked like and how it all turned out.  That never happens. 

Perhaps this would change if the professors would ask each student to provide contact information for the professional they contacted so the professor could contact us to get an assessment from our side of the equation.  Otherwise, we’re just doing kids’ homework for them.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Oreo's 100th: An Anniversary Campaign with Taste

I like Oreo cookies.  If I believed it’s possible to actually love a food item, I might be in that extreme fringe of Oreo cookie enthusiasts.  We rarely have them in the house because they wouldn’t last very long.  

I’m not one with a preference, creamy middle or crunchy cookie.  It’s all good.  And, yes, I would agree with the brand’s slogan that Oreo cookies are “Milk’s favorite cookie.”

But what I’m really kind of psyched about is how Nabisco has decided to celebrate the 100th Birthday of the Oreo.  Just about any PR person will tell you, it’s never good when an executive walks into a conference room and asks the communications team to come up with ideas for celebrating any kind of anniversary.

The truth is, when it comes to the news media, no one really cares about the anniversary.  A number’s a number and journalists tend to hate press releases and PR activities all centered on the numerical benchmark, which really only means something to the founder or the founding family.

But what the media does care about, and everyone else does too, is what the company is doing to mark the anniversary.  The events and activities surrounding the anniversary are the stories that in the end come to define the successful use of an anniversary as the centerpiece of a PR campaign.  And the more creative the company is in implementing such an event, the more buzz the PR effort can generate.

Here are some of the things Oreo did to celebrate its 100th: a special Web site with lots of interactivity; tons of social media tie-ins on Facebook and Twitter; special events and music concerts by hot country music bands; consumer tie-ins that invited their own customers to be a part of the celebration through contests, social media and live special events (including localized “flash mobs”); and even a “birthday cake” Oreo cookie that had a special cream filling that was created to taste like icing on a birthday cake.

That campaign has many facets, targeting demographics from kids to nostalgic adults who have had a special relationship with the cookie since childhood.    All of the activities worked well, but equally important, somehow the brand managed not to overdo it or cross into the lines of questionable taste.  It seems that such feats are now more difficult than ever.

Doing PR around an anniversary is never easy, but Oreo has proven that with the right amount of creativity, and a certain commitment to spending, it can be done right.