Today's blog is written by Carrie O'Neil, a senior account executive with Beaupre.
We’ve been thinking a lot about the pink ribbon lately. Like everyone else, we’re seeing it everywhere during this Breast Cancer Awareness month – on T-shirts, yogurt containers, umbrellas, golf clubs, even Monday Night Football. With the pink ribbon marketing machine in motion, however, it’s easy to lose sight of what it really means.
The pink ribbon has a face this year. Stay strong, Darby. We are with you, and look forward to our walk in your name on Oct. 17.
But true public relations practice isn’t publicity. It’s much broader, taking into account every stakeholder (or “public”) with which an organization interacts:
Strategically practiced, PR takes on a wide-ranging role, focused on earning a trusted reputation by acting in the best interests of these publics – not the organization’s own myopic agenda.
Social media is the latest expression of relationship building (a two-way model that’s far more inclusive and participative); other exciting new iterations will follow. Solis and Breakenridge were right, we’re the industry in the best position to “put the public back in public relations” and keep it there by never staying put.
Why is standing out so difficult? Putting aside (major) issues like inferior products or insufficient market demand, most companies repeat the same common mistakes:
- They look inward, not outward – Differentiation isn’t about “making up” your company’s difference, it’s finding what objectively, authentically sets it apart. Understand what your customers/consumers want and discover how your product/service fulfills them (or not).
- They refuse to focus on one thing – As companies attempt to zero-in on their customer-centric benefits, they compile lists of attributes cutting across multiple vertical industries and product offerings. But they fail to whittle them down to a believable, sustainable advantage. Less is more – standing for one thing creates remembrance.
- Their messaging is neutral – Most B2B companies sound remarkably alike. They rely on an impersonal second-person voice; focus mainly on capabilities and product attributes; and share too much detail. What happens? They convey a competent, but neutral, persona.
- They aren’t bold - This philosophy of brand neutrality pays homage to the God of Safe. Don’t challenge (Yikes!). Don’t speak colorfully (what if it turns someone off?). Never take risks (lest you offend). Don’t reveal human emotion (we’re a company!) Avoid expressing visually vs. textually (it’s so much work!) Recite facts vs. telling stories (safe!). Always be business-like, never lighthearted (they’ll think we’re not serious!).
- They shy away from the competition – This one always surprises me because at the C-level – and in the sales trenches – B2B companies constantly sweat the challenges of competition, winning and losing deals. But instead of acknowledging the existence of competition, most companies shy away, acting like theirs is the only candy in the shop. Facing up to the competition doesn’t mean companies have to name names – they can also successfully communicate differences indirectly.
- They don’t prove it – it’s one thing to convey competence; it’s another thing to offer up proof. Getting customers to talk about your company/service in first person language has a profound impact: it makes prospects and customers relate because it’s through their lens, not yours.
If you want to become a celebrity like Steven Slater, listen up and follow these five perhaps not too tongue- in-cheek rules of the new world media:
Take your frustration public - If you’re fed up and can’t take it anymore, don’t sulk, don’t get depressed … don’t kidnap or shoot. Instead shout to the rafters and make your voice heard using social media. Slater tweeted, Slater Facebooked. Give birth to your own community.
Don’t be afraid to tell it like it is - Be colorful, be bold. Authenticity rules! Slater said, “To the f---ing a-hole who told me to f—k off, it’s been a good 28 years. I’ve had it. That’s it.” Indirectness sucks!
Tie into a grassroots theme - People latched onto Slater because he personified what many feel every day in the workplace: loss of control and power. By losing his cool, he actually restored his reputation and gained new levels of power he never had. Become a modern day folk hero.
Go for the extra flair - Slater could have just grabbed the microphone, shouted his message and waited for the armed guards. But no, he added special touches that helped shape a more memorable persona. He grabbed two beers and maneuvered his own exit, sliding down an inflatable ramp. Do it in style!
Become one with the peacock - After the initial dust settles, don’t let second thoughts enter your head and never regret the action you took. After the incident, Slater didn’t look fed up, angry or berserk, he looked, well, mildly freaky, but content. So flash your colors and embrace your inner peacock!
One of the best and worst things about social media is that anyone can make up the rules, i.e. the conventions, protocols and etiquette by which we collectively conduct ourselves. For instance, someone once made up a rule that PR people shouldn’t blog on behalf of clients. Like sheep, we all nodded and went along for a while murmuring slogans like “Must be authentic.” Someone else finally questioned “Why?” Debate ensued, logic prevailed, and blogging services (with the proper disclosure) have become a standard PR offering these days.
Social media norms tend to be self-regulating. We now all agree that censoring blog comments is bad (except for trolls and incendiary words). Writing in upper-case sentences = SHOUTING = impolite. And our Farmville-playing Facebook friends got the hint and stopped annoying us with their barnyard updates.
Twitter, on the other hand, remains largely un-self-regulated. Despite the wealth of tools available for filtering and finding good information, Twitter’s poor noise-to-signal ratio remains the #1 obstacle to adoption cited by our clients. So in the spirit of self-regulation, I want to direct you to Mathew Inman’s witty 10 things you need to stop tweeting about from the popular The Oatmeal site, even though it may suck 80% of the oxygen out of the Twittersphere if the rules are embraced.
Even the ultra-cool sometimes just don’t get it.
It’s been six months since the 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti, killing more than 230,000 people and leaving 1.5 million homeless. There are still few jobs to be had and no permanent shelter. Only two percent of promised reconstruction aid has been released. And according to a report issued this week by the US Center for Strategic and International Studies, only nine percent of pledges by governments (about $50 million) has actually been delivered.
Sean Penn has been a vocal activist for Haiti since the quake, remaining in the country with his daughter to help over the past six months. He brought up an interesting point yesterday in speaking with Harry Smith of CBS News’ Early Show: "I think that the media has played an enormous part in the failures that are still going on today and the recovery here and the relief operations."
Smith then said: "People would be curious why you went in the first place. And then, why you stayed. What's the best answer for that?" Penn answered: "...if they're wondering that, then that would be an indictment of the American and the international press that came here in the immediate aftermath of this devastating earthquake."
Penn elaborated: "The United States sent its military, that did an extraordinary job in immediate relief....And then when they went on with other deployments, when the amputations en masse stopped, the media left."
I ran a Factiva search to prove or disprove Penn’s theory. If you’re not familiar with Factiva, it’s an advanced search tool from Dow Jones that enables you to analyze media coverage. Factiva’s database includes more than 28,000+ leading media sources from 157 countries in 23 languages, including regional and industry publications, Web and blog content.
Using Google, I found the two most popular (and relevant) search topics:
1. Haiti earthquake
2. Haiti news
Using these key words, Factiva revealed the following levels of media coverage over the six-month period:
While Factiva isn’t a be-all-end-all and doesn’t include every publication or blog in the world, it’s comprehensive.
This data suggests Sean Penn may be onto something.
1. It's a dated form of PR – media relations used to be one-way. We’d craft our “pitches” and try to sell them to busy reporters. Please Walt Mossberg, notice me, listen to what I have to say, and I hope (and pray) you write something. Those days are increasingly over. The world of top-down media dominance has been replaced with a never ending grassroots conversation that’s lively, engaging, empowering and direct to consumer/customer.
2. It de-positions the PR industry – most of us have worked hard adapting to - and adopting – many historic communications transformations. We’re not there yet… (may never be), but we’re in a better place. We’re taking the PR industry to a new position where authenticity and transparency shape our practice – not hype and selling. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to go back.
3. It damages our reputation – pitch and pitching sound old-school – pre-social media, pre-community – and they are. When we say these words, they immediately date us, forcing astute listeners to categorize us as “hit and clip,” “press kit” era PR dinosaurs.
4. It’s one-way – pitching epitomizes the old-world model of one way communications. Shut up and listen, I've got something to say. I'm the pitcher, here's the pitch … I'll wait and see if you catch what I've got to say … or not. Yes, the great “pitchers” of the past weren’t this crass … they’d initiate a conversation. But lots of people continue to push out their packaged ideas via Twitter, e-mail, Facebook, etc., never inviting or urging a conversation.
5. It’s arrogant – I don’t like it when a car salesman makes assumptions about me when we’ve never met. I don’t like it when a telemarketer reaches me at home to sell me something I’m not interested in. I don’t like it when people try to convince me to support an idea I’m not familiar with or don’t believe in. Pitching has all these attributes, and more.
6. It’s a turn-off – this approach helped give PR a negative reputation, a perception often shaped by aggressive, fake, single-minded people trying to get their way vs. earning respect and building rapport.