• 30Aug

    I ran across an interesting factoid last week, complements of Marketing Pilgrim – nearly half of all marketers are willing to pay for posts on blogs, web sites, and social media. As blogger Cynthia Boris notes:

    Now, paying for posts, Tweets, Facebook shoutouts or video mentions is not only acceptable, it’s good business.

    According to new numbers from eMarketer, 48.8% of marketers have used a sponsored blog post. 39.4% have sponsored Tweets and 50.2% said they were open to using some kind of social media sponsorship.

    Paid-for-Post programs run the gamut from sketchy clearinghouses pushing articles on windows blinds and times shares, to well-funded, creative properties that pay people for posts they would have written anyway for free.

    As a marketing professional, my reaction was, “Cool, a new way to promote clients and maybe make some money.” I was particularly impressed with the amount of coin that sponsors are willing to pay for content – as much as $100 for a blog post. Not bad wages for freelance writers.

    imageThen I thought about the flip side of this coin. If there is a market for paid posts, that means that any number of web sites, Facebook fan pages, Twitter feeds, and more are willing to pay for contributors to generate content. This seems counter to the spirit of social media. Do paid posts undermine the power of social media campaigns and online marketing?

    If you are paying for content from third party contributors, does that undermine the value of your social media outlets? How do these social media channels reflect your brand if you are taking paid contributions from a host of contributors?

    It also reminded me that blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds can’t be confused with conventional, or dare I say “legitimate”media outlets. When you see a byline in a publication like Forbes or BusinessWeek, you know that it was either a paid contribution by a staff writer or freelancer, or it is a contributed article by a guest expert. The publication makes it clear, and you can read the article using the appropriate filter and adjust your skepticism accordingly.

    The rules for web contributions aren’t so well defined. Content providers come from all corners of the web. Some have a story they want to share to add to the conversation. Others have a product to sell. And still others are apparently now using a pay-for-placement strategy which looks a lot like advertising to me.

    What separates the web, and specifically the blogosphere, from traditional print journalism is transparency. Journalists have a code of ethics and specific rules they must abide by, and when they fail to abide by those rules by misrepresenting the truth, manufacturing a source, or selling their influence in print, they are publicly censured and usually lose their position. The same is not true of the web. The code of ethics is different, and you can’t be clear about the objectivity of motives of the party on the other end of a post.

    So while social media is great for building buzz and can be good for business, we all still need to view what we read on the web with a grain of salt (if not the entire shaker). Web sites masquerading as news sources are potentially dangerous, and can undermine the entire concept of legitimate journalism.

    As a PR professional, I now have to ask myself, do I pitch or do I pay?

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  • 27Jul

    We seem to be up to our ears in media scandals these days. From the News of the World hacking scandal to the latest bad-boy behavior in Washington, D.C., the market seems ripe for experts in crisis communications.

    Which is why I was heartened to read in Entrepreneur magazine’s “Daily Dose” this week profiling the proactive action that Blake Mycoskie, founder and “Chief Shoe Giver” of TOMS Shoes, took to deal with his own communications crisis. Blake Mycoskie of TOMS Shoes

    It seems that following a successful presentation at this year’s SXSW Interactive Conference, Mycoskie was asked to speak to a Christian organization called Focus on the Family. During his SXSW speech, Mycoskie talked about launching TOMS shoes as a socially responsible company that has been providing free footwear to impoverished children around the globe. After speaking to Focus on the Family, Christianity Today wrote an article suggesting that TOMS Shoes had forged an alliance with the Christian group, which had a firm stance against abortion and same-sex marriage; positions that were in direct opposition to Mycoskie’s equality message, and the foundation message for TOMS Shoes.

    Here’s where Mycoskie demonstrates that he and his PR team are on the ball.

    Rather than trying to sweep the accusations under the carpet or point fingers at Christianity Today, Mycoskie took to the web to issue an apology and get the attention, and ultimately support, of his critics.

    He turned to Facebook and Twitter to listen to outraged customers and hear their complaints, and respond.

    He worked with Ms.Magazine to launch a petition to Change.org in favor of , coincidentally on the eve of passage of same-sex  marriage law in New York (a large market for TOMS). Mycoskie was quick to issue his own apology to set the record straight.

    He issued a written heart-felt apology on his own blog, stating:

    When I accept an invitation for a public speaking engagement, my purpose is to share the TOMS story and our giving mission. In no way do I believe that this means I endorse every single aspect of the organization I am speaking to. That may be naïve, and you may disagree, but it is my sincere belief.

    TOMS and I have made mistakes internally and externally over the past several weeks, and I am deeply sorry for letting you down. We have learned a lot and are taking steps so that they do not happen again. I regret that I, and many of you, have been pulled into this issues debate as a result – which was never our intention. However, my biggest regret is that the controversy has disrupted our effort to convene people of good will around our similarities rather than our differences, so that we can join together in serving those in the greatest need while inspiring others to do the same.

    Once he inadvertently put his foot in it by speaking before an audience with a contrary political agenda, Mycoskie did everything right in extricating himself from the mess:

    • He immediately started talking to his followers and his customers to gather information and get feedback. Social media has become a terrific forum to establish immediate customer dialogue.
    • He was proactive in taking charge of the crisis, admitting his error in judgment, and setting the record straight, without laying blame or finger-pointing.
    • He took personal responsibility, stepping forward to face the music and accept responsibility without hiding behind corporate mouthpieces or minions.
    • He was sincere and empathetic in his apology to his followers.

    The result has been positive to Mycoskie and TOMS Shoes. The executive comes across as a straight-shooter and a mensch who made an error in judgment. The response was cogent, rational, and appropriately apologetic and sincere. If anything, this crisis has strengthened TOMS Shoes’ brand image and brought in even more customers while restoring the faith of his followers.

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  • 20Jul

    I have been running into a lot of discussion about competitors lately. I have a client who is assessing white papers and industry analyses for potential marketing applications, but, of course, the competition is mentioned in each of these reports. That’s balanced and responsible reporting. If you want to commission your own white paper that expounds the glories of your product or technology, then you can commission your own, but it wont’ have the weight of a true competitive overview.

    It amazes me how many of my clients over the past 20 years have been obsessed with their competitors. I have had clientsOscarGrouch approach me to do news releases about competitive face-offs in trade magazines and exp0lain why we had to outline, in detail, how their speeds and feeds are faster than the competition, and provide specific names and metrics. In the last few months, I have even seen a competitor of one of my clients go to the extreme of issuing an unapproved press release explaining how a Fortune 500 company (and a customer of my client) was using their technology – a bold-faced lie.

    The sprit of economic Darwinism has always been a motivator in business. Today it is driving innovating on all fronts. Toyota has demonstrated the economical viability and popularity of hybrid cars, and there are dozens of copy cats entering the market. Facebook has proven such a success that the social media space continues to boom with new competitors, the latest entry in the social media race being Google+. Competition is healthy because it promotes innovation.

    However, in marketing and PR, the rule is to learn from your competition, but never mention them. As Machiavelli once wrote, “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer,” so you need to keep a close eye on where the competition are appearing, what they are saying, and who is following them. That task has become much easier in the era of the web and social media, so follow their followers and keep your eyes and ears open. But whatever you do don’t mention them by name in your own press or marketing material – why give them the free publicity? And why undermine your own authority and assumed leadership by pointing to the other guy and saying, in essence, “But we’re better than they are…”

    Another popular phrase talks about mud slinging, and when you sling mud, some of that mud will land on you. This is especially true in marketing. Even if you are the CEO of Microsoft, dissing the competition is a bad idea.

    So what can you do to effectively combat the competition without looking like a bully, a whiner, or a fool? Outmnarket then!

    1. Take the high ground, and hold it! Be the authority. Instruct without being demeaning and show the market you know your stuff.

    2. Lead by example. Show that you have, indeed, built a better mousetrap by offering data on return on investment, proof of value, and why your customers love you and mice fear you.

    3. Enlist evangelists. Get customers and others to sing your praises. Third-party validation is always more powerful than comparison shopping.

    4. Let the truth set you free. If you trash the competition or, worse, tell lies to make your point, the truth will find its way to your customers and prospects and the trash talk will only sully your reputation. You never win by lying.

    Keep your campaign positive, forthright, and real, and forget about the competition. Win by playing your own game and listening to customers and the market. If you see your competition winning business where you can’t, change the rules and promote your strengths to gain market share back. And if the competitor starts pointing fingers and shouting “J’accuse!, let them. Keep to your high ground and they will slide back down the hill in their own mud. But don’t engage because when you get into a name-calling contest, everyone loses.

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  • 14Jul

    As PR people and marketers, we are in the idea and information business. We help clients formulate and package new ideas that, in turn, help them solidify and promote their unique brand value. But can you own an idea or the process that leads to an idea? If you come up with a new concept for a client, can you then use that same idea or concept for another client? How much of what you deliver is their intellectual property and how far do you have to go to protect your own intellectual property?

    What prompted this chain of thought was a situation that arose with a client recently. One of their senior managers was using information gathered for the company to feed his personal blog about a semi-related topic. Was this theft of IP? Was this individual stealing IP from the company even though he wasn’t using it for competitive purposes or to make money from the data?

    First, let’s consider what, exactly, is intellectual property. According to CSO magazine, IP can be broken down into four basic categories: patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets. These are fairly straightforward concepts and the notion of protecting them is well-defined. But what about protecting an idea? As the CSO article states, “But IP can also be something broader and less tangible than these four protected classes: it can simply be an idea. If the head of your R&D department has a eureka moment during his morning shower and then applies his new idea at work, that’s intellectual property too.”

    Intellectual property (IP) can be anything from a particular manufacturing process to plans for a product launch, a trade secret like a chemical formula, or a list of the countries in which your patents are registered. It may help to think of it as intangible proprietary information. The formal definition, according to the World Intellectual Property Organization is creations of the mind — inventions, literary and artistic works, symbols, names, images, and designs used in commerce. IP includes but is not limited to proprietary formulas and ideas, inventions (products and processes), industrial designs, and geographic indications of source, as well as literary and artistic works such as novels, films, music, architectural designs and web pages.

      

    So how far do you go to protect ideas as well as other creative products? Consider the case of the Winklevoss twins, who accused Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg of stealing their idea when he created Facebook. They took their case to court and the outcome was never really satisfactorily decided. Did they lose a potential billions of dollars because Zuckerberg violated their intellectual property rights by stealing an idea? Who’s to say.

    However, the concept of IP can place those of us who create material for clients in a quandary from time to time. For example, if I use proprietary information to help a client develop a new brand strategy, can I then take that same information and use it elsewhere for a similar project? If it creates a conflict of interest by helping a competitor, then ethically the answer is clearly “of course not,” but if you are using the same intellectual process or concepts to develop a non-competing brands…?

    And consider the challenges of copyright infringement. When I write an article for publication on behalf of a client, the work belongs to the publication. In fact, I routinely ghostwrite magazine article for clients, and as part of the process we usually have to surrender the rights to the work to the magazine that prints it (or at least surrender first time serial rights). I often get questioned by my clients about this practice, since they want to use the article for other purposes as well. The publication certainly can copyright the article but they can’t copyright the ideas in the article. If the content is original (i.e. not plagiarized) then you can always rewrite it using the same ideas to create a new work.

    And what about IP and blogging? It has become common practice to “borrow” content from other blogs and articles posted on the web and repost them to your blog with a fresh viewpoint. In the blogosphere, giving an acknowledgment to the original source and essentially saying “this is my take on someone else’s good idea” seems to be fair game. But what if you repurpose someone else’s blog content for your for-profit blog, essentially using someone else’s freely posted ideas to make money?

    I think the question of abusing IP largely boils down to who profits? Who benefits from someone else’s intellectual property is the litmus test as to whether or not there is an IP infringement. If IP is tied to a specific brand, product, of process that is tied to profits, then it has real value and as property should be protected. That doesn’t mean there aren’t gray areas. Consider the case of a piece of software code that finds its way into a competing software product. The patent attorneys spend a lot of time and money trying to ascertain if a piece of code is unique and therefore intellectual property, or if it is a more generic expression of a machine instruction that can’t be legally protected.

    As a consultant, I apply a simpler criteria. Clients own the end product but I own the process to create the product. If I create an article or a press release or even a brand strategy for a client, they own that material as a deliverable for which they contracted. However, the templates I use and the process behind the deliverable are my intellectual property, and I get to reuse it as part of my service and brand. if I deliver a crisis plan to a client, for example, the specifics and protocols in that plan are theirs. However, the format, templates, and process I use to generate that plan remain my IP. Their IP – the plan, or article, or white paper, or brand strategy – is a tangible asset that promotes profit for their company. The process to create the IP deliverable remains the secret sauce that allows us to provide value as communications professionals.

    I’d love to hear your stories from the field on your struggles with IP. Please comment or drop me an email.

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  • 06Jul

    The Gates of Hell by Auguste RodinOne of the biggest challenges of working with clients is helping them achieve their objectives without investing too much of your ego in the process. Over the years I have worked with clients of all shapes and sizes, both as a consultant and as part of an agency team. Public relations and marketing communications services need to fall somewhere short of “the customer is always right”; perhaps it’s safer to say “the customer is never completely wrong.”

    While there are some who argue that to be a successful executive, you need to have psychopathic tendencies, I do know that successful senior managers have very healthy egos, don’t often take criticism well, and are very wedded to their own ideas. I can’t recall how many times I have had a client come to me with a project already mapped out in his or her head, complete with impossible targets and unrealistic deadlines and the mandate, “Make it so!” Your job is to assess the situation and determine if you can pull the rabbit out of the hat, or reset the scope and expectations of the project so you can pull off a lesser miracle, make the client happy and help him or her achieve his goals, and still look like a hero.

    Of course, agency executives and consultants have egos too. I have been in a number of meetings where the senior executive on the account clashes with the client in a battle of wills over who is right and who has the best approach or idea. I have worked with consultants with the same challenge. Their argument is “you are paying me all this money for my opinion, why won’t you listen to me?” (Of course, one of the reasons consultants become consultants is that they don’t play well with others, especially authority figures, so consulting is preferable to unemployment. But I digress.)

    Trying to win an argument with your client may be good for your ego but it’s bad for business.

    As with most interpersonal relations, you need to learn how to pick you battles. There are so many small things that you can let go, despite the fact it may hurt your professional pride, if it doesn’t’ compromise your professional integrity. Let’s look at some specifics.

    Writing has become a battleground where I am prepared to give ground on a regular basis. One of the biggest complaints within the PR community is that the latest crop of PR professionals are such atrocious writers (note: the age group varies depending on how long you have been in the profession). You can argue about grammar, usage, the use of the serial comma, and whether AP Style is dead. At the end of the day, you want to make sure you made your point, and there are no glaring spelling or grammatical errors. A common problem I see among PR professionals is writing and rewriting a press release or other copy, not because it’s wrong but because the text needs polishing or doesn’t conform to house style. While this may chew up a lot of billable time, in many cases it’s wasted effort. Early in my career, I had a client who referred to this as the “happy/glad” syndrome; there are different ways to express the same idea, so at the end of the day what does it matter? In cases where a client has an emotional commitment to the way a press release or article is written, there is no reason to argue.

    Then there are the ethical issues. I have had clients ask, no tell me to lie to a reporter. Of course, I refused. There also have been instances when a client has lied to me and I, in turn, lied to a reporter. In such cases, it’s my reputation at stake and I will resign the client in a heartbeat. As I explain to all my clients, my integrity with journalists is my bread and butter, despite the fact they write the checks, so if they ask me to do something unscrupulous or dishonest, it’s a deal-breaker.

    And then there’s everything in between. The smart PR professional doesn’t let his ego get in the way of his judgment. If you adopt that as a cardinal rule, you can navigate most client situations to a happy outcome for all, even if they don’t do things your way. Maintain your professionalism and always give your best counsel, but be prepared to compromise when the need arises. The best public relations professionals are excellent diplomats, and in the end, you have to remember that you are just the messenger. What’s the point in getting shot?

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  • 22Jun

    spin-cycleLast week, I spotted a blog by MG Siegler on TechCrunch that took Facebook’s PR machine to task for trying to cover up, or rather divert attention from a developer story they didn’t’ like. In his blog, “Facebook PR: Tonight We Dine in Hell!,” Siegler notes that the journalists are at war with the PR industry, and although there are many battles, the one he wants to tackle has to do with spin.

    I question the validity of his hyperbole, and his overdramatized position, starting with the controversial headline that sucked me in to read the blog in the first place, demonstrates that spin sells, at least to an extent. His presentation of the lengths that Facebook PR team goes to in order to discredit his story seems a little extreme, and whether he chooses to believe it or not, Siegler is spinning his tale to make his point. Maybe he should go into PR.

    In any case, he raises some valid concerns about the state of PR and some of the questionable practices of PR professionals. As he state it:

    The fact of the matter is that the entire PR industry is like a weed growing out of control. Current estimates have PR people now outnumbering journalists 3 to 1. Think about that for a second. And one of the industries in which this infectious growth is most apparent is the tech industry, where it’s boom time. My email inbox is a testament to this. As is my voicemail inbox. I’d bet that at least 75 percent of the messages I get in the day are from PR people. Their campaign strategy in this war is shock and awe.

    Now, I don’t mean to suggest that all PR people are evil or have the wrong intentions. Many are very nice people. And some are even very good at what they do. But increasingly what they do is nothing more than attempt to spin or grossly misrepresent what it is we do. For many of them, helping journalists/bloggers/writers get access to accurate information is secondary. It’s all about controlling a narrative — by any means necessary. And that has to stop.

    That last statement is one I agree with. Our job is not to control the narrative. Naturally, we present our clients and their wares in as positive a light as possible. We point out the benefits that are derived from the features. We make a case for competitive positioning, and that could be called “spin” if you wish. However, the facts will out, and like a rotten egg you can’t cover up the stench of a bad story.

    I make it my policy to work with analysts and editors in as frank and open a manner as I can, without compromising my client. As I have told clients in the past, my value to them hinges on my credibility with the press. If I can be helpful to a reporter or editor, they will remember that service. If I lie or mislead a reporter, they will never forget the disservice and I will have lost an editorial ally forever. I tell clients that the editors are as much my clients as the people who pay me, because I will have to call on that editor Lipstickonapigagain, long after the client has gone.

    So the Facebook PR disinformation campaign that Seigler describes in his blog post is bad PR practice, although I understand where it comes from. When bad news hits, the downhill slide starts and PR is at the bottom of the hill, trying to clean up the mess. Rather than trying to put the lipstick on the pig, it’s better to admit the error or embrace the bad story and neutralize it then and there. If you deny it, or try to adopt a non-denial denial, then the evasion becomes the story and compounds the embarrassment.

    Especially in PR, it’s time we left the spin cycle to the washing machine and adopted honesty as the best policy.

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  • 07Jun

    YouTube Preview ImageI have been tracking a discussion on one of my PR groups on LinkedIn about ageism and employment. The complaint, which is not new, is that those of us “of a certain age” are being bypassed for choice agency and marcomm jobs as the hiring demographic skews younger. As Randy Block, one of the career coaches who works with my client, NETSHARE, notes, no one wants to hire mom or dad. It’s no wonder that those of use who have the experience and years are being passed over. We are too expensive, and there is the misperception that we don’t “get it” when it comes to newer tactical programs like social media.

    So the grumbling oldsters like me are making noises about forming a new Graying Communications type agency to show we still got it, and we still get it. I continue to adopt a different strategy, consulting. One of the other things that Randy says is that while the younger generation of managers are interested in hiring mom or dad, they will pay them for their advice. One of the more interesting things to come to light from the discussion thread on ageism was an column by Karen E. Klein from Bloomberg/BusinessWeek on “Why Self-Employed Consultants Fail.” Having been a serial consultant for more than 20 years, I found the insights right-on and very useful, since I still violate a few of them now and again. Here are some insights from Karen’s column for those of you looking for an alternative to downsizing or early retirement.

    First, according to Alan Weiss, author of Million Dollar Consulting:

    There are about 400,000 people in the U.S. calling themselves consultants. My estimate is that only half of them are actually working as consultants. Most enter the profession as a second career or after they’re retired.

    What all these people have in common, and few realize, is that consulting is a marketing business, period. It doesn’t matter what your area of expertise is or if you are the best in your industry, unless you have the skills to sell your consulting services, you don’t have a consulting business.

    What are the most common mistakes that consultants make? Here’s a list that should look familiar to those who have been there/done that, especially if you have any PR agency experience:

    • You bill by the hour. The rule of thumb in the agency world is you bill your time. The problem, of course, is that time is finite; there are only so many hours in the day. And while billable time may work for an economic (read cheap)) client, it doesn’t help you build your consulting business. Better to bill on value. If you can offer a service that saves a company $1 million, then paying $100,000 for that service seems a small prices to pay, whether the task takes 1,000 hours or one hour.
    • Dealing with middlemen. I always try to deal with C-level executives. If you deal with the middlemen, they you are subject to their MBOs, and their political problems, and if a project goes awry as the consultant you will be the first one thrown under the bus. You also can’t show your value to those lower down. Better to approach the C-suite and show them what you offer before you start working with the less senior staff.
    • You don’t see yourself as peers with the clients. You are working for the client, but you are not an employee.You are providing a service that they value on your terms. That makes you buyer and seller on equal footing. Never forget that. The problem with most consultants is a lack of self-esteem and the confidence to stand behind the value of their service. It may be from working alone or constantly selling yourself and the fact there is no “boss” to front for you, but you can’t be a subordinate. You can’t show up with your hat in your hand; you have to sell your value.
    • You don’t offer lasting value. If you can create intellectual property, such as systems or intelligence you can package for reuse, then you become an expert and your value increases exponentially. Better to sell IP than expertise.

    Remember, if you can fix the client’s problem, you have value. The amount of pain the client is suffering because of that problem should dictate your fee. If you help them achieve their objectives and build their profits, they will be happy and the price tag doesn’t matter.

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  • 14May

    Once again, it seems we are getting flacks for being flacks, and rightfully so. You have no doubt seen this week’s news that two PR executives at Burson-Marsteller were engaged in a whisper campaign to undermine Google over privacy issues. The so-called “Googlegate” scandal has given one of the biggest PR firms in the business a real black eye, and it doesn’t reflect well on client Facebook either. The media pundits are once again pointing at the PR profession as a whole, noting that we engage in questionable practices in pursuit of the billable hour. While misdeeds and questionable ethics plague most professions, this one baffles me on a number of levels so I want to see if we can break this down to see how one of the biggest names in PR venture so far off the ethical reservation.

    Mercurio and Goldman of Burson-MarstellerFirst, let’s look at the two instigators of the smear campaign, former CNBC reporter Jim Goldman and political reporter John Mercurio. Both of these guys are seasoned journalists who know the ropes, and understand the rules. They have been pitched by other PR professionals over the years and they should understand the ethics of both the journalism and PR professions. Just because you have gone “to the Dark Side” by switching from journalism to PR doesn’t mean your ethics should change, and they both must of known that. I suspect that they were under some pressure from their Burson bosses to take on this assignment and make it shine for high-profile client Facebook. What’s astonishing is that they lied and distorted the facts to achieve their objectives. It’s too easy to check up on the truth in the age of the Internet and that conduct is inexcusable.

    (Note that I have some empathy here. During my days as a journalist I once was told to run a smear story for my publisher who had a grudge against one of his competitors. Although I argued that the story had no place in our magazine, served no real purpose, and could land us in hot water, I was told in no uncertain terms to run the story or look for another job. I ran the story, but I made damn sure it was airtight and my facts were sound. To this day I resent having been put in that position.)

    Now let’s look at how the media handled this. The USA Today reporter, Christopher Soghoian, who received the initial pitch knew that something wasn’t right so he decided to make the PR firm the story. When he asked who was paying for the project they said that they couldn’t reveal their client and that’s when he smelled a rat. Kudos to Soghoian for calling out these Burson boobs. He even posted the email exchange online. All Soghoian had to do was call the so-called PR pros on their request, reveal the communications thread, and he had his story. There was no need to skew the facts. This also highlights the power and value of the web – there is no need to wait for declassification of documents a la the Pentagon Papers, just post the material for all to see.

    Now what about Facebook’s involvement? Early on, speculation was that the mystery client was either Microsoft or Apple, but Facebook finally stepped forward and admitted it was their project, but that it had not commissioned a smear campaign, but rather had engaged Burson-Marsteller to highlighting a problem with using Facebook information for Google Social Circles. This from Forbes quoting a Facebook spokesperson:

    “Instead, we wanted third parties to verify that people did not approve of the collection and use of information from their accounts on Facebook and other services for inclusion in Google Social Circles—just as Facebook did not approve of use or collection for this purpose. We engaged Burson-Marsteller to focus attention on this issue, using publicly available information that could be independently verified by any media organization or analyst,” says the spokesperson. “The issues are serious and we should have presented them in a serious and transparent way.”

    So in the words of “All the President’s Men,” this is a “non-denial denial.” Facebook gave Burson-Marsteller the assignment but didn’t call it a smear campaign. I can imagine the meeting for this assignment where the client makes an unreasonable request and basically says, “I don’t care how you do it.” No culpability here, but Facebook doesn’t come out smelling too good, either.

    Now let’s look at the aftermath.This from the Atlantic Wire:

    The two Burson executives responsible for the much criticized campaign, former CNBC reporter Jim Goldman and former political reporter John Mercurio, will be reprimanded, a company representative told PRWeek today. The punishment? Not a punishment at all: more training on company guidelines. Evidently, the two one-time journalists who switched to the other side of the press release fairly recently believed it was a bit darker than it actually is.

    Facebook has yet to announce any major retributions or staff shuffles in the wake of the scandal. However, Burson confirmed that they will no longer work with Facebook on the smear campaign against Google. (Good idea!) It’s unclear how damaged the relationship between the PR giant and the tech giant might be, but this most certainly compromises Burson’s recent announcement of their new specialty in tech PR.

    So reading between the lines, I suspect what we are seeing here is a combination of the agency trying to keep a big-named client satisfied, being unwilling to say no to the client when that was clearly appropriate, and not providing enough adult supervision to two senior managers who clearly should know better.

    What lessons does this offer to us as a profession?

    • All PR professionals need to understand the ethical rules of engagement. As a profession, we need to make a stronger commitment to ethical training, and apply more common sense to PR work.
    • Transparency is important. You have to be forthright about the assignment and who hired you. I have always been a firm believer that our role is to help the reporter as much as we help our clients. Whenever I have a client ask me to do something stupid, unethical, or deceitful to media sources, I explain to them that my media contacts are my bread-and-butter and long after that client is gone, I will have to call on that reporter again so why would I risk that relationship?
    • More collaboration and watching each others’ backs is called for. One of the great things about working as a team is that you can draw from the experience and knowledge of the group. If someone suggests a questionable tactic for a campaign, it’s up to the others in the group to challenge it. All too often I see in agency settings where the junior team members blindly follows the wishes of the clients and their superiors, without question. We need to nurture more independent thinking and open dialogue to keep us all honest.
    • More adult supervision. Even the most senior PR professionals can make mistakes in judgment or tactical errors. If someone had been keeping tabs on Goldman and Mercurio, they might have been able to head off this disaster.
    • PR agencies need to be prepared to say “no” to the client. Just because they pay you doesn’t mean they are right. Sometimes you should say “no” to an assignment, especially if the task is unreasonable or unethical.

    What will be the long-term implications for Burson-Marsteller? This firm has made ethical faux pas in the past, and will probably make similar mistakes in the future. Whether they will be able to redeem their reputation or whether they will continue to be an agency you can turn to for a questionable campaign has yet to be seen, and probably doesn’t matter. However, this kind of scandal does lasting damage to everyone in the PR profession. It’s up to all of us to show the world that ours is an honorable profession, despite the few flacksters who make the rest of us look bad.

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  • 12Apr

    Flying Solo Caution SignPublic relations is a creative job. You have to be able to look at a client’s product or service, assess market needs and news angles, and find a way to build market awareness with his target audience. It’s not always an easy task and it requires innovative thinking, solid storytelling – creativity! Good PR and marketing also require solid teamwork. You need to be able to engage with your clients to agree on market objectives, key messages, market differentiators, everything. You need to work together with senior decision-makers to agree on strategy, execution, deliverables, and ways to measure success.

    Creativity and teamwork are not good bedfellows.

    I have the privilege or working with some very smart and dedicated people. And that means we have some very heated discussions on how to do things to achieve an end result, right or wrong. One of the challenges in being smart and creative is that you can see multiple ways to solve a problem or achieve an objective. However, your ideas may not jibe with someone who is equally intelligent and brings a different perspective. So good PR also requires good diplomacy and a willingness to compromise, even when you are convinced you are right. There is little room for ego if you run a service business.

    So I was interested to spot a blog post by Kimberley Weisul on BNET today, “Why Smart People Make Lousy Teams.” Citing a recent study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon, and Union College, the findings demonstrate that smart people don’t necessarily play well with others. For example:

    Intelligence does not affect team performance. There is no connection between smarts and teamwork, so throwing smart people at a team-driven problem isn’t going to help you.

    EQ is more important than IQ. Good communications, good coordination, and stronger emotional intelligence (EQ) tend to promote good teamwork. If you have people who are good at reading and responding to other’s emotional needs, your team will deliver better performance. Even a single contributor with a high EQ can make a big difference.

    Strong personalities hurt team performance. Groups where a single strong personality or decision-maker dominates the conversation don’t do as well as groups where team members take turns. Strong leaders are less effective in group decision-making.

    According to the research, the easiest way to create more emotionally intelligent teams is to include women:

    Women are often perceived to be more socially sensitive, and more communally-minded, than men. To the extent that’s true, it’s easy to see how it could be helpful in a team context. And in the experiments, the researchers found that teams that included women were more socially-sensitive, and better performing, than then all-male teams. (No word on the performance of all-female teams. I’ve reached out to the researchers about that, and will update if I hear back.)

    Without revising any additional scientific research, I think I can safely say that the male ego plays a role here. Working with male CEOs and executives, particularly at start-up companies, has taught me that even though they are paying for your counsel and expertise, you have to tread lightly and be judicious with your opinion. (I find women executives are, indeed, more open to new ideas. I also think that’s why women gravitate to public relations.) To be a successful CEO requires a certain amount of hutzpah, and the conviction to stand your ground when everyone else tells you that you are wrong. Sometimes such egos get in the way of success and sometimes they fuel that success; it depends on the situation. But whenever you are dealing with a strong, charismatic leader, the concept of teamwork changes dramatically and the work becomes more of a parade than a huddle. If you can’t follow the leader, then you should bow out.

    And that’s where a different kind of creativity comes into play. You need to find new ways to deliver through compromise. No matter how good your approach or ideas, if the client says no, then you have to achieve the goal within whatever restrictions you have to deal with. Being in a service business means you have to fulfill the wishes of the client as well as the requirements of the project. And when the two seem at odds, it’s time to set aside you IQ, crank up your EQ, and deliver the goods.

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  • 06Apr
    From today’s CNBC TV feed

     

    Yesterday I posted a blog about GoDaddy’s current communications crisis. Today, I received an email from CNBC asking me to comment. This story continues to escalate, and clearly it’s time for GoDaddy’s management to step forward and say something positive and proactive to restore some of the company’s lost reputation.

    In his recent CBS interview, CEO Bob Parsons said”

    “I couldn’t be any better,” he told CBSNews.com in an interview. “The blowback – you’ve got to look at who it’s coming from: a small but very, very vocal group that moves in unison, inspired by PETA. Very few of them are our customers.”

    Due to the viral nature of the web, this story is indeed touching GoDaddy customers and they are abandoning the domain registry in droves. The blowback is turning into a firestorm as this kind of ongoing coverage demonstrates. Clearly it’s time for the communications team at GoDaddy to step forward, muzzle their CEO, and start rebuilding their reputation. It’s not enough for Parsons to commit to no longer hunt big game. He has to apologize and make amends to the people he has offended, especially his customers.

    And if they don’t act soon, GoDaddy is going to lose much of its business to aggressive competitors that are willing to kick Parsons when he is down. Consider the launch of the NoDaddy promotion from Venovix. It’s time GoDaddy gave up this fight before all their customers switch.

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