Archive | Public Relations

The End of the Age of Spin

Could it be possible? Are we entering the end of the age of spin?

Spin is the bane of every PR professional. It’s what everyone outside the profession – our colleagues, competitors, friends, family, the media – believe is our job.

But what is spin? The most generous view is that it’s telling the story the way the organization wants it told. But many people see it as nothing less than lying.

I believe that excellent PR pros don’t lie, at least not intentionally. We all know that misrepresentation has harsher consequences than telling the truth – and that we’ll almost always be caught. But honesty has many faces, and the truth is rarely cut and dry. There are often several shades, and they may all be true.

It all gets more complicated when you consider that we are well into the Brand Me economy. Social media and the Web have made us all more conscious of our personal reputations. This isn’t just limited to college students worried that their job prospects will be impacted by party pictures appearing on their Facebook profile, but also CEOs. What they say in defense of their corporations actions may follow them digitally the rest of their careers.

Which is why I found Jeff Hancock’s Ted Talk to be so interesting. His premise is that the digital trail is making us all more honest. Could it be then, that we’ll see the end of the age of spin in the near future?

Great Storytellers: Abraham Lincoln

We went to see the movie, Lincoln, last week. I think it has “Oscar” written all over it, but I’m no movie critic.

When I was a kid, I was a huge fan of Lincoln, and I read numerous books about him. I definitely enjoyed social studies more around President’s Day, when we created cutouts of Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Washington out of black construction paper.

From a communications and influencer perspective, I have an even greater respect for the man. He quite effectively used words and stories to get his way. Stories and humor helped him deal with stress and depression, interject humor when things got dark, illuminate his meaning and make a point clearer.

Good stories work because they put abstract ideas into a concrete framework, allowing the people you need to persuade to visualize outcomes and get a sense of the emotional impact. It’s not always easy to do. Most storytellers have a well from which they draw, often using the same parables again and again (we see a lot of this on the campaign trail).

This is common among storytellers. We practice and we hone, until we have precisely the right story that can have the impact that we intended. With each telling, we refine the plot, embellish the characters, become clearer about what it all means and how it relates to the issue at hand.

The movie illustrates Lincoln’s ability to sway opinion by using stories, something that Louis P. Masur described in the New York Times several months ago:

Lincoln shrewdly used stories and parables in more complex ways as well. They would disarm opponents, or offer an easily digestible truism that seemed to support whatever position he might be taking.

What I also learned from the movie was that he was a shrewd politician, willing to compromise his own values for a larger good. In doing so, he saved a nation.

Go see Lincoln. I highly recommend.

What a Jersey Girl Thinks About Sandy

Photo: Nick Harris

Simply Talk Media is a New Jersey company, so of course we were affected by Hurricane Sandy. We were rather lucky that we lost power for just a few days. Actually, it was a good excuse to clean our refrigerators, though I’m convinced that my wine fridge is now not working properly.

Thus, I’ve been able to focus on the coverage of the storm and its lasting impact. I grew up on the Jersey shore, so the devastation is very personal. I’ve been impressed with what people are doing to help out those who’ve lost their homes. There have been numerous food and clothing drives, and many have volunteered time to help clean up. In fact, I’m proud to say that my own son is giving up his Thanksgiving break from college to help with Hurricane relief.

Here are a few of my observations of the storm coverage and conversation:

The role of the public library. I wrote a guest post for the New Jersey State Library (also a client) about how social media was critical for staying informed during the storm and how public libraries became refuges.

Best digital and social practices. Over at Biznology, where I’m a regular contributor, I looked at how digital media marketing was used during the storm by governments and the utilities.

Regional dialect differences, even within the state: One internet meme included a photo with this statement overlaid: “We don’t ‘go to the beach,’ we ‘go down the shore.’ Like if you understand what we mean.” For a shore girl, this is the difference between feeding the seagulls and shooing them away. I lived at the beach, so I never went ‘down the shore.’ As a native, though, this meme spoke volumes about how much the Jersey shore means to anyone who has spent time there: Tourists love the shore and are willing to support and restore it. We can’t tell you how much we appreciate your help.

Misplaced blame. Now that immediate danger is past, as well as the presidential election, it has been fascinating to watch the rhetoric. The New Jersey governor is being vilified by his own party for excessively praising the president. While the hurricane was bad luck for Romney, effectively neutering his campaign just days before the election, the Christie-Obama lovefest didn’t cause a loss at the polls. It’s pretty simple: Romney’s campaign strategy was off throughout the entire campaign. He failed to attract large demographic groups that turned out to be pivotal to a win. That’s a messaging problem, not a NJ governor problem.

I’ve been lukewarm about Christie since he campaigned for governor. While I’ve always appreciated his passion for defending our oft-maligned state, I disagree with many of his positions, and initially I resented his attitude. I’m not sure if he’s learning how to direct that attitude more appropriately, or if I’ve simply become used to him. Either way, he doesn’t have that “bull in a china shop” appearance anymore, although where Obama is concerned, I’m sure the GOP would disagree.

What our nation needs now is bipartisanship. I get the feeling that Christie has recognized that earlier than the rest of the party.

By the way, if you haven’t seen Christie’s drive-by at SNL, it’s well worth the watch.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Big, Fast Info Means Clever, Fast PR & Marketing

How much information is created every day? Zettabytes. At least. I’m not sure when we’ll reach yottabytes, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened in my lifetime.

If it hasn’t happened already.

Every minute, 72 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube. So in some ways, it’s not surprising that YouTube is becoming a major platform for viewing news. A new report from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found that citizens are responsible for posting original videos of news events – more than one-third of the most-watched videos. Remember that YouTube is the #2 search engine. Talk about an opportunity for real-time PR.

But being fast isn’t enough. You need to be clever as well. Otherwise, how will you stand out among all this data?

If you just can’t visualize what that amount of data might look like, this infographic can help. Paris, here I come.

A Day in the Internet
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The Art and Science of a Viral Speech

Anyone who has ever sat down to write an executive speech understands how hard it is. It has to be: on-message, cover the relevant content (and no more), fit the exec’s personality, and be interesting. But these are just the basic requirements.

The most effective executive speeches are the ones that aspire to a higher goal: inspire the troops, motivate the line workers, compel the investors to invest.

I often read great speeches for inspiration. I keep a copy of Winston Churchill’s speeches nearby, and I rewatch Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” when I have a particularly bad case of writer’s block.

Here and there, I collect great speeches that have moved or inspired me, and I find that commencement speeches are some of my favorites because the best ones incorporate all of the essential components of a great speech.

The Art of a Viral Speech: Personal, Emotional, Funny, Unexpected

In my opinion, a great speech needs to inspire and motivate. To do this, it must evoke emotion, include a bit of humor and unexpectedness, be personal, and use story to illustrate the main points.

Here are some of my favorite commencement speeches from the Class of 2012.

Personal: Sheryl Sandberg, Harvard Business School

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg delivers an inspiring address about managing your career, using her own experiences as examples. She tells the newly minted MBAs that today’s career analogy is not a ladder, but a jungle gym. Her advice hits home because it’s illustrated with the choices she herself has made.

Emotional: Marina Keegan, Yale Daily News

Marina Keegan graduated Yale in mid-May, full of excitement and hope for the future. She decided that she could do more for the world by turning down the lucrative investment banking job and following her passion of becoming a writer. She was to start a job at the New Yorker today, but fate intervened. She died in a car accident on Memorial Day weekend.

Keegan’s commencement essay, The Opposite of Loneliness, reflects the conflicting emotions of youth. We can all relate to those feelings. Of having so much hope and fear as you stand on the precipice of your life, the one that is just – really – beginning. In it, she says: “We are so young. We are so young. We’re only 22. There’s so much time.” It’s emotional and heartfelt – and all the more poignant because of her fate.

Funny: Steve Carrell, Class Day, Princeton University

If we expect anything from funnyman Steve Carell, it’s that he will make us laugh. He does just that here, from skewering the class of 2012 for the way they communicate through technology to a series of silly pieces of advice, the best of which is the last: “Don’t take yourself too seriously.” This is good advice for speechwriters as well. The most memorable speeches are the ones that hold our attention with bit of humor.

Unexpected: David McCullough Jr., Wellesley High School, Mass.

Commencement is supposed to be a day that rewards all of the hard work that a graduate has completed. Commencement speeches, therefore, are supposed to recognize accomplishments. So, when a speaker uses the occasion to tell the graduates that they are, in fact, NOT special, that’s attention-grabbing.

David McCullough Jr.’s speech quickly spread through the Web because of its unexpected title and theme: “You are not special.” But the underlying message is that graduates should aspire to an extraordinary life and work hard to get it:

The fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life, is an achievement, not something that will fall into your lap because you’re a nice person or mommy ordered it from the caterer.

The Science of a Viral Speech

Each of these speeches went viral on the Internet.

Turning Social Media Metrics into Business Metrics

How do you measure your social media program? In the number of likes or  followers? ROI? Clicks to your website?

All of these metrics have their place – just not in the C-suite. Executives and small business owners need an understanding of how their investment in social media is going to increase their bottom line. Full stop.

Most do not understand – or care to understand – that their organization has a lot of followers. The only time this does matter is when a crisis occurs and their Facebook page explodes with criticism. Reputation, they get.

In some ways, the challenges of social media measurement are the same as those of public relations measurement. You need to evaluate your programs using business metrics, and you need to communicate your results in the language of business.

I wrote an ebook about this several years ago, based on my graduate school work. I thought I’d share it here, so that you can download it (note that I wrote it while at Dow Jones, so they are the sponsor). I’ve also included a few updated tips for social media below the ebook.

Tips for Sharing Social Media Metrics with Executives

  1. Track sales. Nothing says success faster than revenue. Unlike PR, which has an indirect impact on sales, you can establish a direct connection between social media and sales. One way to do this is to use a call to action linked to a form on a landing page.
  2. Track opinion. Mine your conversations for opinions and suggestions about your products and services. This is a form of market research, and sometimes it’s even better than that, especially if customers uncover an unknown problem.
  3. Tie social media objectives to business objectives. This one is the most important. Don’t start any social media program without understanding how it supports the broader organizational objectives. Yes, everyone must be in social media today, but there are many ways to do it. Just make sure it makes sense for your business.
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Social Media as the Court of Public Opinion


“Wow. Just wow.” Those were the leading words of Cecile Richards‘ letter to Planned Parenthood supporters about the impact of social media on her organization. This was the second example in just two weeks in which advocates using social media caused big organizations to reverse their positions.

Let’s run the numbers, shall we?

Susan G. Komen vs. Planned Parenthood:

The Entertainment Industry vs the Internet Industry (SOPA/PIPA debate):

Wow, indeed.

So what went wrong for these chastened organizations? Poor decision-making, sure. Total disregard for two-way communications? Uh-huh. Completely underestimating the wisdom of the crowd? Oh yeah.

For all people might scoff and criticize Mark Zuckerberg, this is exactly the type of open discourse that he imagines Facebook can help create. In his letter to investors, he says:

We believe building tools to help people share can bring a more honest and transparent dialogue around government that could lead to more direct empowerment of people, more accountability for officials and better solutions to some of the biggest problems of our time.

Amazing, actually, that these three events (Komen, SOPA, Facebook IPO) happened within days of each other. I’m not sure if there is some greater god trying to tell us something or if it’s mere coincidence. Whatever it is, there are some important communications lessons here:

  • Behind-closed-doors decisions are gone forever. Transparency is essential for success in today’s marketplace. Every decision you make will be tried in the court of public opinion – and that court is much larger, and its voices much more amplified, than ever before.
  • Your stakeholders expect dialogue – before a decision is made. Communications theorists have called this two-way communications. In the days of mass media (yes, they are long gone), it was one (organization) to many (stakeholders). Now, it’s many stakeholders talking to one organization, and you’d better…
  • Listen, and I mean really listen – and don’t deny. It’s one thing to stand your ground. It’s another to be blind to reality. Komen apparently scrubbed negative comments from their Facebook wall (only in rare cases should you ever do this, and then only when it violates someone’s privacy). Organizations must take what their stakeholders say to heart and incorporate these views into the organization’s decision-making. Today, it’s the only path to success.

What leaders today need to realize: We no longer have a top-down command structure. It’s bottom up. The court of public opinion rules.

Diane Thieke is trying to reinforce her control over her kitchen. But, the dialogue isn’t going well. The three kittens are not budging from the kitchen counter. Follow her on Twitter.