Sunday, February 22, 2015

"Think Dirty. If you don't, they will."

One of my more memorable lessons from journalism school didn’t come from a book.  It was just seven words, uttered as a tip from one of my professors.

“Think dirty.  If you don’t, they will,” she advised.  The “they” in the tip were the readers, of course.

My professor provided this advice in the context of word choice and phrasing in our writing.  Her point was that it doesn’t matter whether the words we choose are the right ones, the accurate ones, if someone can make an obscene inference out of it, it was the wrong word choice.

That was then.  Today, any professional communicator has to be mindful of much more than newspaper readers taking words out of context, making them seem obscene, either seriously or as a joke.  Today, perceived obscenity is just the beginning.

“KKK Wednesdays” 

Just over a week ago, Krispy Kreme U.K. found itself in a bit of a Facebook jam when its store in Hull, England, posted to its Facebook page a promotion entitled, "KKK Wednesdays." 

In this case, the “KKK” was meant to stand for “Krispy Kreme Klub,”a sales promotion designed to recognize loyal customers at a group event.  Keep in mind, the people who came up with this “KKK” idea for a Wednesday, also came up with, “Colouring Tuesday,” and “Face Painting Thursday.”  Clearly, the American connotations of “KKK” were lost on them.

Still, you can imagine what came next.  The company felt the immediate backlash on social media, the post was taken down, but only after it gained wide notoriety on The Huffington Post and USA Today among other sites.

Time for a corporate apology: “We are aware of the Hull store’s unfortunate naming choice for its Club program, and we are truly sorry for any inconvenience or offense this misstep may have caused our fans,” said company PR manager Lafeea Watson.

In PR and marketing circles where this story was discussed some have argued that “KKK” does not carry the same resonance in the U.K. as it does in the U.S.   This may be true, but the Internet has changed that.  Because digital communications happen broadly and instantaneously around the globe, geographic ignorance has become less of an excuse.  The same is true on matters of intent.  Even in the absence of malicious intent, any organization or brand can find itself in a mess over word choice or graphics selection.  Just because you don’t mean to insult, doesn’t mean a number of people won’t use social media to say you offended them.

Papa John’s Does Not Deliver for Iggy Azalea 

Another recent example of not thinking before posting involves pizza chain Papa John’s and pop idol Iggy Azalea.  The key thing about this situation is that it did not involve specific word choice, or offending a group based on vulgarity, race, gender, sexual preference or social issue sensitivities.  Rather, the issue at the core of this one was privacy and a seeming inability on the part of Papa John’s social media team to anticipate consequences for its tone.

Ironically, when the pop singer wanted to raise her concerns over a perceived violation of her privacy, she took it publicly to Twitter.

Here is what is reported to have happened.  A Papa John’s pizza delivery person must have dropped off a pizza to Iggy Azalea.  In the course of that, the pizza shop and the driver must have required Azalea’s cell phone number.

A little while later, Azalea got a text message from a stranger, claiming to be a relative of the pizza delivery driver, and also claiming to be Azalea’s “number one fan,” and then requested a callback.

Rather than call that fan back, or reporting the incident to the local pizza shop, the company, or even local police, Azalea opted to post the text message to Twitter for her 4.2 million Twitter followers to see.

To make matters worse, the social media team at Papa John’s decided to acknowledge Azalea’s tweet with a little tongue-in-cheek humor.

Said @PapaJohns: “@iggyazalea #We should have known better.  Customer and employee privacy is important to us.  Please don’t #bounce us!”

The #bounce reference was to one of Azalea’s songs.

Here are a couple of excerpts from Azalea’s response.

“When an employee steels information it’s called a data breach….” and, “I want answers @papjohns why is customer confidentiality a joke to your company?”

The company ended up issuing a more serious response to ABC News later, saying, “Privacy of our customers and employees is extremely important to us.  Papa John’s has taken appropriate disciplinary action with regard to the employee involved.  We are reaching out directly to Ms. Azalea and hope to resolve this incident and make it right.”

The lesson after all of this is simply to think before you tweet or post.  You can’t expect a company, particularly a pizza chain, to have full control over the judgment of every delivery driver.  But you should expect much more from a social media function charged with managing the organization’s online reputation.

Keep in mind, there were no clear boundaries crossed by the Papa John’s social media team. They did not cross into the use of offensive language. They weren’t combative or defensive. What they were, however, was unserious when the topic had quickly turned serious.

There are no guidebooks for this.  The subject matter on social media and on the Internet changes minute to minute for any organization.  It’s important to think seriously about the implications of every statement, comment, tweet and post, even if the nature of that post in the end will be designed to be lighthearted and fun.  It’s all part of a professional process.

If my professor were here today, I can hear how she might update her advice. “Think offensive.  If you don’t, they will.”

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Presentations: When to Lead with the Financials

A few years back when working with a publicly traded company, I learned something about presentations which had everything to do with the order of things.  Or more to the point, when to present financial information.

Conventional thinking in corporate communications is almost always to put financial information at the end. When we submit PR proposals, the budget page is at the back. When we conduct sales presentations, the numbers come at the end.  And when companies tell their story to analysts and investors, the financials are often at the end of the investor relations presentation.

The notion that financials should always come at the end changed for me when I was involved in a series of analyst meetings that featured a CEO and CFO.  We started to notice that when the CFO got up to speak and gave a brief overview of the financial performance and data, we detected a noticeable shift in the mood in the room.  Analysts leaned forward, and sometimes literally, sat on the edge of their seats.  Their mobile devices, computers and note pads were less of a distraction.  Questions from them were more focused and purposeful.

This had as much to do with how good those numbers were as anything, but it also told me as a corporate communicator that the corporate communications tradition of closing with financial information may not always be the most effective way to do it.

The company had a sophisticated technological story to tell, and its customers were deep in the infrastructure of a highly technical industry.   So, it made sense that the CEO would speak first, draw the audience in, educate it on the company’s technology and industry, and then set up the CFO who would go through the financials.

The CEO was a very talented speaker who could convey highly complex information in a way that was relatable and interesting.  The CFO was not known for his speaking talents, but that should take nothing away from his role in these sorts of investor relations presentations.  He was very good at plainly, directly and candidly delivering very detailed information on the financial condition and performance of the company.

Still, it was when the CFO spoke that we noticed that shift.  After noticing a pattern in the audiences, we decided to try leading with the financials.  This helped all the way around.  Not only were we satisfying the analysts’ natural curiosity in financial information, but we were setting up the CEO to tell the company’s story in ways the investor audience could relate.  We were providing better context.

The change in our presentation format meant starting with an attention-grabbing “what,” and then following with details that addressed the “why, how, when,” and “where.”

The reaction from the next few analyst audiences confirmed our instincts.  More routinely, analysts had a much quicker better and better grasp of the company’s technology, markets and prospects.  Our conclusion was that by giving them the financials first – subject matter with which the analysts were already comfortable – they were much better prepared to connect the dots and absorb the new information about the company.

This, of course, is not a cookie-cutter or one-size-fits-all approach to financial presentations.  There are many times it is wise to save the financials for the end.  So at best the decision on where to insert the financials into the company presentation is best handled case by case.  But the lesson here is not to automatically assume the financials belong at the end because that is what is always done.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Disruption Means Nothing without Leadership

It’s not uncommon to come across a blog post, column or article that laments the status quo or the notion of being stuck in the old way of doing things in public relations.  The article usually makes the case for disruption, equating it with forward-thinking leadership.  But it’s a mistake to assume that with disruption automatically comes leadership.

Or put more plainly, and as the cliché goes, anyone kick the bucket over but does that require vision, and most importantly, is that real leadership?

Quite often PR is about disruption. When there is a need for change there is a need for effective communication.  Not uncommonly, part of the change is in the way in which we communicate.  With this in mind, PR and disruption often go together.

When you work as a PR consultant or in a PR firm, you get to see all types of leadership styles, and you start to see which ones work best for the individual leader.  Many leaders may at first need to shake things up, to disrupt, if you will.  But there are still others who disrupt without leading.  These are the ones that aren’t all that specific about what they will do once they’ve attacked the status quo.

I once worked with a firm that had one young manager who considered himself a rebel.  To him that was a pretty cool moniker, and one easily embraced by both manager and staff.

But a true rebel can be very hard to follow.  Rebels, almost by definition, need a foe. Usually that foe is management and sometimes, painfully, a client.

So when this rebel became management, he didn’t know what to do.  His rebel tendencies led him to create imaginary foes to perpetuate whatever cult of personality he had built.

But the problem was, the organization’s goals and priorities got lost and the organization suffered. Those who still remember him, describe him as a shooting star at the company, one who fizzled out quickly.

True Leaders can be Disruptive 

True leaders may in fact be very disruptive, but they usually never introduce change without a clear and specific vision for the future.  They understand that solving problems and coming up with breakthrough ideas is just the beginning.  To get a team to accomplish organizational goals, they know they must get individual team members to achieve their personal bests and to contribute to the team. 

They know they must invest the time and energy to nurture and encourage staff development.  This requires the leader to have a broader skillset than the one-dimensional disruptor.  The leader must be willing to spend a lot of time on the little things, the day-to-day, the individualized follow-up with each employee on each project.

This can come off as micro-managing at first, but once expectations are understood, the good leader knows when to back away and become less of a micro-manager.  The leader has patience, and provides guidance and counsel as needed.  And above all, the good leader is in it for the long term, and that means perseverance.

Disruption can be a very good thing for any organization, but it can only be effective when a leader delivers it with a vision, a plan, and a commitment to seeing it through.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

“Authentic Advocacy” Report from Arthur W. Page Society is the Real Deal

Last Fall, the Arthur W. Page Society published a report that struck to the core of what chief communications officers are charged with doing at their organizations.  Namely to engage various stakeholders in such a "way to achieve corporate objectives.”

Over two years, the Society conducted in-depth research that also involved focused interviews with the heads of communications at five companies: Cargill, Chevron, Lundbeck, Southwest Airlines and USAA.

In the end they came up with nine findings and seven recommendations for chief communicators.  Overall, it found that in a world where the individual has access to the masses in real time thanks to social and other digital media, there is much more pressure on companies to perform than to simply look and sound like the company it wants to be.  In other words, ‘walk the walk.’

Of the nine findings, I think there are two worth analyzing in some detail. 

Communications needs scope of control – While the first finding pointed to the whole corporate character issue, a given in reputation management, the second one explored the whole notion of how broad the scope the communications function should have in an organization.  The finding was that a “broader span of control aligns culture and intensifies engagement.”

Essentially this means that instead of limiting or pigeon-holing the public relations function within Marketing or even HR, it should be given parity with the major management functions and be structured to ensure that “public affairs, government relations, internal and external communications, corporate social responsibility efforts and marketing are aligned with corporate character.” This, the report, finds is a major factor in achieving stronger stakeholder engagement.

I can attest to this.  I’ve seen it every which way, and consistently, when communications is brought in late, or forced to work within, let’s say for example Marketing, it’s structurally forced to ignore all of the non-marketing dynamics that may shape the situation.  So, if a human resources issue contributes to poor customer relations and ends up hurting sales, internal protocols can get in the way of results.  A Marketing chief can be prone to avoid tension with HR and treat any drop in sales as only a marketing and sales issue.  Communicators are trained to think and work across corporate silos. 

Technology Improves Measurement – The other major finding of note for this discussion is where the Society found that, “stakeholder engagement today is a rigorous disciplined and data-driven process.”

This means that thanks to technology, it is much easier to identify, categorize, sub-categorize and target a wide range of stakeholders.  It’s easier to communicate to highly targeted audiences, and it’s now easier to measure and evaluate the effectiveness of communications.

Algorithms and analytics can be used to judge social and digital media engagement.  Companies can collect instant data that tells where and how a press release was distributed, who read it.  Newsletters distributed digitally ping back data that tells communicators which articles or graphics were visited most and by whom.  This all serves for enhanced measurement and gives public relations the ability to fine-tune future corporate communications efforts.

On the recommendation side of the coin, while all seven are important, the one recommendation I think stands out for me is one that can easily get lost in the larger discussion. 

The Power of One – The Society’s sixth recommendation is to, “recognize that scale varies depending on the nature of the stakeholder and the scope of the issue.”  What this means is that because everyone is empowered through social media and ubiquitous access to it, the ‘power of one’ can be huge.

No longer can we assume that only mass communication is the most powerful form of PR.  One tweet can go viral.

Or to put it in more pragmatic terms, one tweet about a poor customer service experience, complete with a YouTube video taken on a smart phone can be enough to mobilize the communications team at Code Red.

The same dynamics that can lead to that sort of crisis are also at play when it comes to positive engagement.  The report says it best when it recommends that communications chiefs “build shared belief and advocacy one stakeholder at a time, concentrating on those whose support is most critical.”