Imagine a world where all lawyers were judged by the standards of those that defend wealthy criminals. Or doctors by anti-vaccine nut-jobs. Or journalists by cowboys distorting the truth for populist rags a la Daily Mail. It happens, but not always.

Yet communicators are continuously being collectively judged by the lowest standards of their profession. I’ve been reading Bob Hoffman’s Ad Contrarian and recently finished Robert Philips’ Trust Me, PR is Dead. Judging by their writing, you’d think all digital marketers and PR professionals respectively were snake-oil peddling incompetents. And I don’t know how many pieces I’ve read by journalists describing the ineptitude of PR professionals.

No doubt communications is flawed. We have no professional standards, which means everything from quality of output to hiring can be arbitrary. As can evaluation. A doctor’s success is largely judged by whether they are able to cure patients. It’s not quite that clear-cut in our profession given that we do not always define success and measure ROI (although we should). As a result, some poor practices seep through, unfortunately.

But all communicators I know are ethical. Most know what they’re doing and provide value to clients. Some are even very talented. However fashionable it is to deride the entire profession, I suspect most would agree.

Who are the good guys?

August 9, 2015

I had fine intentions last year. I left big agency land looking to work for organisations on the “right” side of the public debate. Most likely, I assumed, charities, NGOs and foundations, but also corporates in un-evil sectors. The logic was two-fold. First, representing good guys would mean doing more fun, grassroots type stuff. And it’d be easier to get sign off as the organisations in question would be less risk averse. Second, it’d provide more sense of purpose than representing corporate drones peddling useless and/or nasty products.

Fine thinking. But naïve: defining good vs. not good is not as easy as the Birkenstock crowd might claim.

The good guys

Some are in it for the money as much as any supposed blood-thirsty corporate, but crave public funds and donations, not revenue. They prioritise battling similar organisations for access to funds and donations over saving whales (or whatever), thus saving fewer whales in the process. Decision-making has not proven to be any faster by any stretch. Some so ardently believe in their cause that any wavering, like expecting to get paid properly or having a child, is frowned upon. No doubt plenty of non-profits are ethical and brilliant while making the world a finer place. But it’s not quite so cut and dry.

Nasty corporates

The profit motive is not in itself wicked. I have a bloody profit motive, sod off. Corporates employ shedloads of people and tend to treat them better than non-profits. And many are getting nicer. Perhaps because the market place dictates that they should, but so what? Yes CSR is mostly a load of guff but many companies are genuinely moving towards real shared value and sustainability practices. And while plenty sell crap, others do not. And all companies are not the same. And a company one person might deem evil, might be considered saintly by the next (agrochemicals?) And so forth.

The quest for purpose continues.

Social media is a bloody big deal if you’re in business. Not because cat videos get 100 million views or some pre-pubescent twit has 50 million Facebook followers. Too many communicators see social media through the prism of the cat video. They pump out endless amounts of stuff, hoping it will “go viral” or whatever. Hence why I’m bored of social media. It’s underused and abused. Social media is bigger than communications. Along with other forces it creates enormous risks and opportunities and what a business chooses to do about it will likely dictate whether it stays in business or not.social business

 

 

Communications has traditionally centred on outputs: the press release, the ad, the report, the speech, the conference – and so forth. So naturally, when social media came along, communicators were delighted by the many new outputs it could help them pump out relentlessly deliver.

We now have organisations straddled across dozens if not hundreds of social media accounts, blowing large sums on content strategies and community building that garner “shares” but in many cases fail to improve reputation, change opinion or sell stuff (or whatever).

Meanwhile, many have been blind to two key effects of social media:

  1. Heightened scrutiny and expectations by recipients of communications
  2. The ability to understand audiences better

Heightened scrutiny and expectations

Social media has swelled scrutiny and expectations of organisations. It’s nigh on impossible to sell a dud product or service if it’s being slated on review sites and no one’s buddy is recommending it on social media. Likewise, they can no longer spin their way out of trouble: bad behaviour will be exposed fast.

Two other influences reinforce this. Globalisation means we’re setting the bar for quality and behaviour globally not just locally. Also, the ever-growing need for people to feel warm and fuzzy inside by buying products from companies (or voting for politicians) that display high levels of ethical behaviour means that the naughty are admonished and the good celebrated.

In this respect, social media matters not so much because it enables more communication but because it contributes to forcing organisations to be and do better.

Understanding audiences

People used to have limited options: a dozen local shops, a couple of political parties and a handful of newspapers perhaps? The explosion in choice makes segmenting bloody complex. We can no longer assume that people within a single demographic want the same thing. Neighbours of the same sex, age and socioeconomic status might have different political preferences, listen to different music, prefer different holiday destinations and have entirely different shopping habits.

Increasingly, mapping audience preferences requires drilling down to very small (and sometimes odd) segments based on a single or two predilections (people who vote centre-left and like folk music; people who love Italy and read House and Garden!) Often, preferences are so specific that they are unique to an individual meaning micro-targeting just one person will become the norm. To understand such nuanced preferences, we must learn to analyse data sets properly, many of which will derive from social media.

What next?

No doubt this requires more than a couple of paragraphs in a blog post, but here are three thoughts:

  1. What both the above factors share is that they are not usually mentioned in a communicator’s job description. Meeting heightened scrutiny and expectations through superior quality and/or behaviour is a leadership decision. Communications is often only responsible for putting a positive spin on whatever direction the leadership has decided i.e. they’re asked to produce lots of communication material (the dreaded outputs). Instead, communications should be higher up the hierarchy. Heads of communications should sit in the C-suite (or the equivalent of it in other organisations). And ideally, leaders should themselves have a significant communications remit.
  2. Communicators probably obsess over outputs because their next promotion, raise or bonus depends on how many outputs they can produce which garner a bit of coverage (media clippings, web traffic, the irritating Like! or whatever). Hence why they tend not to team up with clever analysts who can identify and decipher data that can help them target audiences better. Communicators’ appraisals should be based on stricter, outcome-related criteria, which force them to invest in smarter targeting techniques.
  3. Be sensible and realistic about what social media can achieve. Run fewer shiny newsrooms and have fewer pointless conversations to show brand personality or whatever (I thought only people could have personalities). Use social media mainly to garner insights and provide real value through stuff like good day-to-day customer care and provision of useful information when and where people want it. There’s a place for the shiny, fun and/or whacky in social media sometimes, but not all the bloody time.

Amidst my rambling on a recent webinar for the Public Affairs Council, I was asked how PA practitioners in Brussels should handle diverse communications disciplines. The premise is that policy-making is often dictated by external events. This makes lobbying less effective than it might have been in the past as a stand-alone tactic to influence policy. In other words, good behaviour and high levels of trust, transmitted via brand and corporate communications, can play as much of a role, if not more, than lobbying.

Having thought further about it since then (and wanting to purge the memory of my rubbish answer) here are some thoughts on the matter.

Easy, in principle (not in reality): structure and access to different skill-sets. Within organisations, the public affairs function should not be in its own silo (or sit with legal). It should integrate with other communications disciplines, from internal through to corporate and marketing. All of these should apply a unified strategy and a somewhat integrated programme, with each making use of skill-sets prevalent in other teams.

I do appreciate this is unrealistic in most organisations: structures and cultures are entrenched, and individual disciplines usually do pretty OK as it is. Given this, public affairs departments that appreciate they may need a bit of the other stuff frequently attempt one of two short-cuts (or both). They hire a specialist (or two) or seek to transform PA practitioners into communications generalists.

I’ve been guilty of endorsing both in the past, but no longer do so. Hiring one or two specialists is not enough as culture and structure remain the same. Their impact will just be cosmetic at most and their hire does not represent a true statement of intent. Turning specialist practitioners into generalists is worse. It dilutes their expert knowledge when communications requires more specialisation, not less. There is room for generalists, but they should be experienced and very talented.

In short: do it properly (i.e. full scale integration with subsequent access to multiple people and skill-sets) and don’t bother with quick fixes until you can; government relations-centric public affairs done properly and in the right conditions remains effective.

Message is not strategy

June 14, 2015

Some communicators do this: think of lots of potential “messages” to communicate; have a message workshop/session/get-together/pow-wow to decide which ones they like best; test them on a focus group (sometimes); get back together for another workshop/session etc. to finalise their messages, probably ignoring the focus group findings and reverting to the messages they like best (can’t blame them in truth: most focus groups are iffy); blurt them out with a (metaphorical) megaphone over all their channels ad nauseum; sit back and wait for everyone to like them more because their message nailed it, upon which they win an election, sell more stuff, or have less regulation imposed on them (or whatever).

Except the latter does not happen because A MESSAGE IS NOT A STRATEGY. A strategy is action-oriented: it requires you to do something (or not, but only if that’s your strategy). It starts with words like position, re-position, differentiate or leverage. It is based on a thorough analysis of the convergence of three elements: what you want or need, what an audience wants or needs, and what you can really offer, and delivering on it.

Messages (if there’s even a need for them) stem from the strategy; without it, they’re hollow words.

Social purists claim that one-way corporate communications and message control are a relic of a bygone era; dinosaurs (in grey suits, no doubt) rigidly hold on to them because they know no better, or because they’re cynically defending their grip on power from the onslaught of democratised communication. In the purists’ mind, communicators should embrace open dialogue – “the conversation” – and complete transparency in all fora. By doing so, people (employees, customers, regulators – whoever!) will supposedly be happier and outcomes (product or service quality, product/service development, political momentum – whatever!) will be exponentially superior.

I do agree with the premise: embrace social or wither (at some point but probably not tomorrow). The global market place, universally accessible channels of communications, and a (gradual) shift towards warm and fuzzy values mean two things for businesses: amplified expectations of quality, service and ethics; and greater scrutiny, both internally and externally.

In practice:

  • They now compete globally with instant benchmarking just a click away, so products and services have to be excellent to in order to sell
  • Companies that demonstrate sustainable practices (themselves and their supply chain) do better than those that don’t
  • Talented employees need to be coddled or they’ll be snapped up by competitors on LinkedIn
  • Regulators will bite unless organisations are on the right side of the public debate and can prove it.

To handle this complexity and the change it entails, enhanced understanding across a variety of internal and external functions is required. Leadership, product development, talent retention, customer care, sales and marketing, public affairs, supply chain management and the actual supply chain itself are suddenly intertwined. It’s clearly a big deal and communications needs to play a central role.

This is the point at which I take issue issue with the social purists and the utter sanctity of “the conversation” as an end in itself, largely for two reasons.

It reduces social to engagement on social networks, which is not doing it justice. Yes, collaboration and/or dialogue on social networks can improve functions ranging from product development through to customer care and marketing, sometimes drastically. But the buck does not stop there: social represents more than actual dialogue. Social data can provide a mammoth, global and local, real-time market research and intelligence tool (not 1 but 3 PR buzzwords in one sentence). It can drive strategy and/or innovation more than conversation: think Apple, who don’t openly converse, but still no doubt harness social to measure reach and impact, gauge market conditions, manage risk, benchmark the competition and what-not. Moreover, digitising processes through social can improve efficiencies, reducing cost and frustration in equal measure, while potentially improving real business stuff like production, distribution and speed to market. Again, this does not entail people actually chatting, but executing run-of-the-mill activities using social channels e.g. delivering basic information and sharing knowledge through to managing the supply chain more efficiently day-to-day. It may not be as sexy as crowdsourcing, but might be more likely to improve the bottom-line.

It belies human nature. As odd as hyper-connected digiratis might find it, most people do not feel comfortable with engagement. Indeed, most people use social channels to be informed, not to share and engage (over 90% some claim -hence why content marketing is now arguably more prevalent than community management). People with certain character-traits can dominate online conversation, resulting in in people being left out, most probably the inexperienced, people on either extreme of the age gap (youngest and oldest), introverts or those from more intrinsically hierarchical cultures. If the spirit of social embraces democratisation, obsessing about open dialogue is not the only way to go about it: social should be more of a mind-set than a set of channels; it should embrace openness, transparency and freedom to opine in whatever medium a person is comfortable with, perhaps even (shudder) face-to-face conversation.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,545 other followers