Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Are You Making These Common Mistakes in PR Management? - Part 2

Three Mistakes That Can Make Your PR Less Effective – and How to Avoid Them

In my last article, I talked about why leaving your PR firm alone – on its own, with no ongoing input and direction from you – is a common and costly mistake.

Here I talk about a second common mistake that businesses make – treating PR as an afterthought – and how to fix this mistake.

The Mistake

Great news! Your company has just signed a new partner or closed a big sale to a customer, or maybe you have a special sale or promotion you are running. Or perhaps you have tentatively agreed to be acquired. In any case, these events are important for your company and the people who do business with you, and some events may be important to the world outside your company.

Many businesses crank up the marketing machine – ads, direct-response letters and so on – but “remember” to call their PR firms only at the very last minute.

The Fix

Do yourself a favor: when you begin planning something important, let your PR firm know as soon as possible. PR can lead and almost always can amplify your other marketing activities, contributing to a highly integrated campaign that gets better results.

Good PR people can and will also tell you – honestly – how important your news is to the outside world. Good PR people also monitor your industry as part of their jobs, and they may know trends to which they can link your event to make it more newsworthy. Finally, good PR people almost always can recommend creative and effective approaches – such as using social media, bloggers and direct-to-consumer news releases to “narrowcast” your news to the people who are most interested, instead of just doing the standard dialing-for-dollars pursuit of major news outlets. In short: good PR people can almost always add a lot of value.

If you are hesitant to share confidential information with your PR firm, have them sign a non-disclosure agreement (if they haven’t already). Or ask them to document their procedures for protecting confidential information. If you still don’t trust them, then get another PR firm.

Next: why it’s a bad mistake to treat your PR firm like an adversary instead of a partner.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Are You Making These Common Mistakes in PR Management?

Three Mistakes That Can Make Your PR Less Effective - And How to Avoid Them

During my long career working in marketing and PR (as a client and an outside consultant), I have watched companies repeatedly make three common mistakes in how they manage PR.

These mistakes almost always make the PR program much less effective and therefore more expensive for the client. And they can usually be fixed easily and inexpensively.

The three mistakes are:

Leave your PR firm alone.

Treat PR as an afterthought.

Treat your PR consultant as an adversary instead of a partner.

I will address these mistakes one at a time, in this article and my next two articles.

Veteran PR people will have their own work-arounds for addressing these mistakes made by clients. But you as the client can help them by investing in small adjustments to your own behavior - and in the process, get more efficiencies and effectiveness from your PR consultants.

These common mistakes - and my suggestions for easy fixes - may be particularly important knowledge for smaller businesses that are hiring their first PR consultants.

The Mistake

The first common mistake is to leave your PR firm alone.

You've located and hired your PR firm - check. You've given them a brain-dump on your business - check. Now, it's their job to "make news." Wrong.

It's their job to increase traffic to your web site, acquire more sales leads, obtain donations, get you votes and so on - in short, help you meet your marketing and business goals. Your PR people can't do this effectively if they don't know your goals, your target audiences, and other basics about your business - and when these basics change.

The Fix

First, start with a firm foundation. Give your PR firm a thorough briefing at the beginning of the relationship. Have them prepare a plan - this can be as simple as a few PowerPoint slides - that lists your goals, target audiences, key corporate and marketing milestones for the next three to six months, the PR program(s) with intended results and roles & responsibilities (including how much time you, the client, will invest in the program), and a quick accounting of how they plan to spend your budget, with any anticipated outside expenses.

Second, work out a process for keeping your PR firm updated. This can be anything from a quick weekly call, to a customized intranet or internal social network that's run by your PR firm. It does not matter what the process is - just have a process and stick with it.

Third, working together, update the plan every quarter as necessary.

With this framework in place, you can then let your PR people do their jobs. But they will not be truly effective if you (1) do not approve the plan and (2) do not keep them apprised about what's happening with your business.

Good PR consultants have best practices and can help you set up a working relationship that meets the needs of your business - including making the best use of your limited time. Take their advice - or, if they do not have any advice or best practices, get another firm.

Next: why it's a bad mistake to treat PR as an afterthought.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Fear and Loathing in Social Media

Will the tragedy of the commons destroy social media?

In a previous article, I wrote about how certain types of antisocial behavior are harming social media. I called these characters The Blammer, the Drive-by Shooter and the Hitchhiker.

Today, I am adding one more character to my list: the Hijacker.

The Hijacker is a more intense, annoying and destructive version of the Drive-by Shooter. This person typically starts a discussion or discussion forum on a topic, then immediately hijacks it for other purposes (personal or professional).

Recently, I have seen this happen on LinkedIn, where some unqualified, marginally qualified or just plain disturbed people start Groups or join Groups then subvert them with out-of-context commercial content, off-topic discussions, and inappropriate comments - including personal attacks and romantic overtures (some alcohol-fueled, I am guessing).

For example: recently a member* of a Professional Group on LinkedIn posted what seemed to be a good question, although poorly structured and worded. Other members started responding in earnest – many with very useful, thoughtful comments, others with less-useful, off-topic comments. The discussion soon degraded into an unintelligible, off-topic mess with personal sniping between the person who posted the original question and several other members of the discussion. The discussion eventually got back on track – until it was derailed again by a long, off-topic comment and flirtatious overture to a female group member by the person who posed the original question. I left the discussion and deleted all my comments. I am now wary about participating in any discussions in this Group.

In another group, the CEO* of a large company posted a question that was naïve and confused –completely at odds with his industry stature. I read the question three times before I understood what was going on. He was overtly baiting people. Several people responded in earnest to his question. He then proceeded to excoriate and taunt those who responded for their naiveté. He dangled offers of work, asking people to respond privately; then later revealed parts of those private conversations in the discussion. This whole exercise was obviously a ham-handed attempt to promote his company’s services – products that replaced the type of people that he was trying to “hire.”

This is sad. LinkedIn is a great place for professionals to connect, collaborate and learn from each other. It is based on free-market principles. LinkedIn’s operator provides the framework, but LinkedIn members shape the content with their mutual interests. Members also shape the community by following unstated but mutually understood rules of etiquette.

Unfortunately, I fear that LinkedIn is falling victim to the tragedy of the commons. A few people are hijacking Groups and Discussions – the commons, or shared resources – and using them for their own self-interest. By putting their self-interest above the interests of the community, the hijackers are over-using and depleting the resources. The behavior of a few will eventually make the resource less valuable for all.

LinkedIn has established some basic controls and guidelines to help ensure the integrity of the community, such as the ability for Group administrators to pre-approve members and delete comments. But, at least in my recent experience, these basic controls aren’t universally applied.

As a professional, the best I can do is manage my own behavior so that I contribute constructively to LinkedIn and get the most benefit for my personal brand. This includes not participating in Groups and Discussions that have turned destructive.

My advice: If you really care about your personal brand and reputation, don’t try to fake your motives or your professional credentials/expertise. Many people do start Groups that are specific to a company or have a commercial goal, but they usually they state their objectives publicly.

If you want to participate in a Professional Group to learn the profession – admirable – do so – but listen, learn and contribute honestly. Before contributing, watch how others behave and get a feeling for the tenor of the Group or Discussion. There are a number of people on LinkedIn who do a great job of balancing self-interest (self-promotion) with the interests of the community – find some and learn from them.

Most people on LinkedIn are honest and helpful – which is what makes the service so valuable. Return the favor by not wasting people’s time and good will by injecting false motives or credentials into the system. Just because the bits are free doesn’t mean you should eat them all.

* I am avoiding real names here because lawyers have apparently identified social media as fertile ground for defamation lawsuits.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Six Words or Phrases to Ban from Marketing Writing in 2010

Resolve to set yourself apart by getting rid of the vague and the vacuous

In my many years as a marketer for technology, health care and consumer companies, I have gradually watched marketing become polluted by the vague and vacuous language popularized by politicians. As a result, much marketing writing has become white noise: everything sounds the same.

Smart marketers have an opportunity to break out of this white noise simply by using descriptive words instead of the vague and vacuous words that so many other marketers use.

As a consumer, when I see these words or phrases, I automatically write off the marketer as a poor or lazy thinker – or so uninspired by his own product that he can’t articulate its benefits more powerfully. Why in the world would I want to select this product?

Here are six of the more vague and vacuous words used in marketing today– and why you should ban them from your lexicon as a marketer.

“It’s All About”: “It” is very rarely “all about” anything, unless “it” is a work of art like a film, book or painting. “It’s all about” is not believable, except perhaps by the impulse buyer.

“Drive”: Do not use this if you aren’t talking about a motorized or animal-powered vehicle, or baseball. I am sure that this marketing gruel was cooked up by some expert: “It’s a very powerful word.” Allow me to point out that “drive” can be directionless: it can take you in reverse, off-course, or over a cliff. There is almost always a more precise and descriptive word. Here are some examples.

“Issues”: This is usually government-speak for problems that no one can define, no one wants to own or take responsibility for, and everyone has an opinion on – guaranteeing that they will never be solved and will eat up mass quantities of the federal budget. Why would you want to use this term in marketing? There is almost always a better word. Problem. Challenge. Opportunity. Controversy. Disagreement. Complication. All are stronger, more descriptive and more motivating words.

“Around, as in “our strategy around XX” where XX is anything other than “the world,” “the town,” or some other piece of geography: Often used by wimpy speakers and writers in place of more-precise words such as “for,” “about,” or “on.” It’s evasive and therefore has no place in marketing writing.

Here is an example:

In reporting about Intel’s latest technology for the home and office, an Intel blogger wrote: “Secondly, we are focusing our strategy around a primary 'hero' client brand which is Intel® Core™.” (italics added) Putting aside the concept of a primary “hero” client brand (?), if one is in fact “focusing” – a strong word that suggests directing one’s attention at a single point – how can one simultaneously be “around,” which suggests a circular or unfocused motion? The two terms conflict with each other. The use of “around” suggests confusion. Is the writer confused about his company’s “primary hero client brand?” If not, why didn’t he say “focusing our strategy on?”

Even scarier, here is “around” misused in a financial news release.

In disclosing his company’s second-quarter 2009 financial results, Citrix president and chief executive officer Mark Templeton said: “I’m pleased with our second quarter results. We are still in a tough economic climate, especially in the EMEA market, but our customers are embracing IT as an on-demand service, confirming our strategy around desktop virtualization, the next generation datacenter and SaaS.” (italics added)

Putting aside the barrage of buzzwords, I am confused. If the company really has a strategy, why not say “for” – or even better, “for taking advantage of” or “for making products to meet customer demand for” desktop virtualization, the next generation datacenter and SaaS. Desktop virtualization, the next-generation datacenter and SaaS are three fairly well-defined IT market segments or opportunities. By using “around,” the speaker makes it sound like the company’s strategy is just a pipe dream at this point.

“Smart,” when used to describe anything other than the intelligence of a person: Putting “smart” in front of the name of a mundane product does not (1) automatically make the product different/better/new or (2) make me feel better or more intelligent because I chose the product.

For example: As part of upgrading its guest bathrooms, Holiday Inn Express created a brand called Simply Smart.™ This brand applies to everything from the bathroom itself to the showerhead (ok, I might be able to believe this – fine engineering by Kohler), towels and amenities. Guests can buy Simply Smart products to take home at – where else – the Smart Mart.

One thing that isn’t very smart about these products is the labeling of its amenities: bottles prominently labeled “Wash,” “Tame,” and so on. It takes a bit of searching and very good eyesight to read the fine print that explains that “Wash” is in fact shampoo (and not bath gel or face scrub) and that “Tame” is hair conditioner (and not body lotion).

“Resonate, as in “it really resonated with our customers": What does this mean? I still don’t understand it. If it resonated with customers, perhaps this is because they are living inside an echo chamber, in which case it will be meaningless to prospects outside the echo chamber. Net result: lost sales.

By saying what you mean – with precise, descriptive words, not clichés or vague, politically correct words – you can engage, enlighten and inform people. You can dramatically distinguish your company and product from competitors, and establish yourself as a thoughtful marketer who really understands and cares about your audience.

Happy New Year.