From hierarchies to networks

Four words I’ve ruthlessly hijacked from a pamphlet I read this week. Four words which neatly explain a significant part of why the way in which organisations operate and communicate is so drastically different now compared to just a few years ago.

How? Power, influence and impact are not necessarily derived from how far up the proverbial food chain you are, but increasingly by how good your network is. The two are often aligned, but often not; someone can build and influence a network without having climbed too far up the traditional ladder. Meaning that the blogger who builds up a huge readership can be as relevant as a mainstream publication; or that the smart lowly employee who engages with the right people online can have as much of an impact on perceptions of his employer as the CEO.

What does this mean for organisations? It’s both a threat and an opportunity. A threat in that it’s harder to keep control if everyone has a megaphone. At the same time, it’s a stunning opportunity. An organisation’s combined talents are far more likely to be shared and harnessed in a world of networks; while an individual’s talent is far more likely to be exposed. Result? Potentially, a more creative, innovative and ultimately successful organisation.

And for the people tasked with communicating on behalf of organisations? Gone are the days of rigid messaging and press conferences. Added to the mix is harnessing the best of what the internal networks have to offer by handing them the mic. Don’t just use your CEO or Comms Director to represent you: use the intern, the engineer, or (even better) the guy who doesn’t actually work for you but loves what you do. Whoever has the best story to tell, frankly. But for communicators, networks go much farther than that. Whatever your sector or issue is, there’ll be a network of people engaging about it online in some way, and you’ll need to make sure you’re listening to what they’re saying and responding to it. That’s how you keep on the ball and avoid communicating in a void; and it’s how you try to make sure you’re engaging with the people who matter even if they’re not in the higher echelons of some hierarchy.


Eurobloggers are not the Brussels press corp

This entry is prompted by a recent post by Julien on his mistrust of Brussels PA/PR agencies and their attempts to connect with him; and an even more recent conversation I had with a consultant who asked how to best “harness” Eurobloggers (p.s. I told him to not hold his breath.) Yes, Brussels communicators are trying to engage with Eurobloggers to push their stories. Will it work? No. Eurobloggers aren’t journalists. They blog because they’re into politics. If pitching journalists is hard, pitching bloggers is much harder because they usually only have a personal, not a professional stake.

Lost opportunity? No, blogging is important, but for Brussels communicators, it shouldn’t be about the Eurobloggers, at least when it comes to a blogger relations strategy. It should be about getting clients to dip their toes into blogging etc. themselves and then trying to tentatively build relationships with people who write about their issue, not those most likely to be read by MEPs. As a consultant or communications adviser, your role should be guidance, not doing the blogging yourself.

Here’s an extract of the comment I wrote in reply to Julien’s post in which I describe in brief how best practice blogger relations should be carried out (and in turn how it should mean Brussels agencies won’t be pestering him for much longer!)

I work on social media strategies for clients… I can honestly say that my approach to blogging, Twitter et al (and ZN’s too) centres on how I can best help clients use the tools themselves… Why? Frankly, it works better… you’re far better off helping clients build constructive relationships themselves, and generally not with eurobloggers but preferably with issue or sector experts…(.)

Although some agencies no doubt make the mistake of simply transferring media relations to the web and seeking out people most likely to be read by legislators, I suspect this practice will fizzle out. Why? Because an article in the FT is undoubtedly worth more in “PR dollars” than a far better article in a relevant trade publication, whereas online, impact can be determined more by quality than by reach because of search, hyperlinking and aggregation.

To spell it out, here’s two (very simplified!) scenarios I could propose to clients (no prizes for which one I think is most likely to work.)

1) We’ll write a post on our blog saying you’re great. We’ve hooked up with Julien Frisch and the other 30 popular eurobloggers – maybe one of them will pick up your story (but don’t hold your breath, none of them have ever written about your issue.)

2) Your 3 experts could blog or tweet (assuming they want to.) We’ll help them out with the dos and don’ts, but they have to do the writing and it has to be honest. We’ll do some research to identify other people (academics, scientists, companies, pressure groups, students etc.) writing good content on your issue (whether for or against) and run them by your experts. In due time, we can add them to our blogroll, your experts could link to them in posts or comment on their blogs, and maybe we can build relationships with them if they’re interested, and hyperlink to their content or maybe even get them to be guest bloggers.

The difference is obviously that it’s the organisation’s experts and not the agency that is telling the story, and you’re promoting good quality content and interaction rather than throwing a story at someone who happens to have MEPs amongst his/her readers and hoping that it will stick… (.)

The web in the hands of nutjobs: dangerous?

I heard today that the Internet is dangerous because it’s accessible to anyone, including “crazy demagogues who can manipulate naive people” (I quote) while TV and radio are hard to get onto and are thus safer.

What a load of tosh. Surely the opposite is true? Hitler used radio pretty darn well. However, no one could respond, no one could question, comment or start a counter-campaign. On the other hand, the web is accessible to anyone, meaning that for every nutjob, you get a thousand others countering.

So are we not better off in the Internet Age? Or am I missing something? Is the web indeed a threat?

Blogging as literature

Short post. I was in a meeting recently talking about blogging. The client, a literature buff, digressed a little and said he thought blogging was all well but a blog could never be truly “great” because the nature of the medium is such that the writing is fragmented, or lacks structure and flow.

I agreed with him. Not that it’s an issue of concern of course – the nature of the medium might not be suited to fine works of literature – but it’s extremely well suited to much else.

However, my colleague Jesus last week told me of a project called Cómo cazar un dragón which he’s working on with a Spanish writer. It’s a work of literature written as a blog, with the writer posting a chapter a week. Here’s the really interesting bit. Each new entry is influenced by readers’ comments following the previous post: people who leave comments can even subsequently become characters in the story. Brilliant concept, I think, and one that will soon result in a masterpiece no doubt!

Relating to customers: Belgium vs. the UK


This isn’t a diatribe, just a quick observation. I recently arrived in Brussels from the UK and noticed this sticker in my taxi from the airport. The fact that it refers to the customer’s convenience as well as the cab firm’s own security is key. An equivalent UK sticker would have said “for your convenience” only. They’d never dream of adding the latter bit, because frankly, what’s the point – you’re trying to demonstrate to customers that you’re looking out for them. Do they really care that you feel more secure? 

A reflection of a far more egalitarian relationship between customer and service provider in Belgium than in the UK: it’s not about sucking up to the customer, but from the off, a tit-for-tat relationship. More honest I suppose.

Fussy consumers

I was in Paris over the weekend. While there, I went to a nice-looking bar for a pre-dinner drink. The drink was good, they had a cool concept for serving snacks, the place looked fresh and upmarket. And yet something wasn’t quite right. I looked around and eventually (quietly in my own head) realised it was two things: 1) the bar staff was scruffy (not cool scruffy, but I can’t be bothered to be here scruffy) and the tables really didn’t fit the decor. Was it a big deal? No. I enjoyed the hour spent there, sure. However, I probably won’t go back and I won’t recommend it to others. With trendy (and pleasant) bar-staff and snazzy tables I might have.

Moral of the story?

  1. I’m a frightful snob.
  2. As consumers we have so much choice that we’ve become incredibly discerning (more so than most of realise, I suspect).
  3. Given point 2 and that taste is subjective, getting whatever you sell to consumers just right is impossible (I’m sure others thought the tables were just fine). Nonetheless, you should get the basics right (trying to set up a cool and upmarket bar? Make sure your bar-staff look the part). Same goes if you’re selling a gadget, car, holiday, meal or whatever.

Redefining pharma: GlaxoSmithKline take the lead

GlaxoSmithKline have pledged to cut prices of their pharmaceutical products in poor countries, to pump profits back into medical care, and to share details of patented products. This is an amazing development, but frankly, it’s bizarre that no pharma company has done anything like this before.

So why have GSK done it?

  1. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and acknowledge that maybe they’ve done it in part because it’s the right thing to do.
  2. In the long-run, it might very well be commercially rewarding. When most people think pharma, they think profit-driven behemoths. What a waste, given that it would be so easy for pharma to develop a positive image of itself. After all, it has played a large part in developing the standard of life we all take for granted; it’s an industry that cures diseases, prolongs life expectancy and saves lives. Who else can claim that? By being the first to make this sort of pledge in their industry, GSK are carving out a position for themselves as the “nice guy” of pharma that may very well stick for decades, even once the others have caught up. In an age where people expect companies to be ethical and to give something back, this will mean that plenty of people will pick GSK over their competitors when purchasing a product or making an investment.
  3. As mentioned in the Guardian article linked to above, the open-source approach would likely improve R&D by allowing the best minds to work on products simultaneously no matter where they work, rather than keeping everything in-house. It’s worked in the software industry, why couldn’t it do so elsewhere? So others might have access to GSK’s trade secrets, but GSK will improve their products and as the “nice guy” of pharma will be most consumers’ brand of choice.

Hats off to GSK, and let’s hope other pharma companies follow suit immediately rather than trying to fight it off for as long as possible. They’d only be postponing the inevitable.

Why I like Nespresso (not just the coffee)

I made a coffee using an old Philips Senseo machine this morning.  The coffee was OK, but I know Senseo will be obsolete in a few years, as the machine looked dated and the experience of making the coffee was not especially memorable (should it be, some might say?) Others have tried to produce coffeemakers with the aim of becoming the standard-bearer (Lavazza, Saeco) but I’m guessing they’ll fail too. Nestlé, with their Nespresso brand, have however been spectacularly successful. What have they done right?

  • Quality. No question, the coffee tastes awesome. It could perhaps be a little stronger, but it’s better than or as good as anything else on the market.
  • Variety. Not only is it good, it caters to all tastes. It’s dead easy to make an espresso, but just as easy to make a bigger coffee, and hey presto, get yourself an accessory and you can bang up a cappuccino in a minute.
  • An affordable luxury. It looks better and more expensive than other machines, but the pricing approach is clever (for the machines, not the capsules the coffee comes in). They’re priced just about high enough to be deemed a luxury good, but not quite high enough to be too expensive for most middle-class buyers (and there are ways to get money off when buying one).
  • Most of all, the story: the branding effort has been really clever. Not necessarily the ads featuring George Clooney, but the rest of it (although the self-deprecating, yet effortlessly cool and urban Clooney is a good choice). What is the story? Basically, that drinking Nespresso is about as unique an experience you can have drinking coffee, and that you’re part of an elite group if you drink Nespresso. Why? Most of all, the gorgeous little capsules. Having scores of dinky looking, brightly coloured capsules with classy Italian names is clever, because it makes a coffee so much more than just a coffee. Each coffee is an experience in itself, you get to know the colours and names, establish your favourites, and can share your stories with other Nespresso drinkers. What’s more, most people join the Nespresso Club after buying a machine, which makes it really easy to buy capsules and allows members to get freebies at the Nespresso shops dotted about most major cities. What this all does is make Nespresso drinkers feel a bit special.

Moral of the story? Very basic and repeated by scores of marketers every day: if you’re the purveyor of a good or service in a competitive market, make your product as good as it can be, and be sure to build a story around it so as to differentiate it from your competitors.

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