August 2008

But is this song so different?
Am I doing it all again?
It may have been done before.
But then music’s an open door.

– Pete Townshend

Lancelot and Mata are here to save the day

Lancelot and Mata are here to save the day

Some folks in the office this past Friday were YouTubing it with an episode of “Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp.” In this installment, our hero, Lancelot, and his bikini-baring associate, Mata Hairi foiled the evil plans of the monocle-wearing villain Baron von Butcher yet again by breaking up international smuggling ring. Our fearless heroes, Lance and Mata, surfed to safety afterwards as Butcher wiped out in the waves and ended up dazed and confused on a piece of driftwood laying on the beach.

Wanting to share this “rediscovered gem” with my 15-year-old daughter, I invited her to watch the episode with me this morning. We inevitably clicked on some of the related links, and I soon was chagrined to find myself reliving my childhood with “The Banana Splits” and “H.R. Puffenstuff.”

As I tried to explain to my very-puzzled daughter that “Lancelot Link” was a take-off for kids on “Get Smart,” which was a take-off for American TV viewers on James Bond movies, and that “The Banana Splits” was a take-off for kids on “The Monkees,” which was a take-off on The Beatles (Richard Lester’s direction of “A Hard Day’s Night,” to be specific, which was a take-off on The Marx Brothers . . .), I was struck by the number of take-offs, adaptations and otherwise direct and indirect copies of shows, ideas and programs we see, hear and read every day.

Like Jung’s archetypes, there are storylines, characters, fables, melodies and the like that catch human fancy. Good vs. evil, a flawed hero, love gone awry, the I-IV-V progression of blues – all of these have been with us in one form or fashion for millennia.

And the same is true in other disciplines. Take technology, for instance. Is Facebook all that different from the first telephones that allowed friends from great distances to keep in touch more effectively and immediately? Is an iPod all that distinct from a transistor radio (or a gramophone, for that matter) that put the power of musical choice in people’s hands?

Following this line of thinking, so too are public relations and marketing strategies not all that different from one another. That is, there’s really not much new under the sun. JFK used television to promote his vision and persona to the masses; Obama uses text messaging to announce his pick for vice president. In the Nineteenth Century, companies used vivid stories and advertisements in newspapers to entice settlers to the West; today, companies attract buyers for new products and services via tweets and blogs.

Hence the reason public relations (and marketing, for that matter) is as much a science as an art. There are underlying psychological, social and communication constructs that help define and direct human thought and action. While we’re not all simply black boxes devoid of independent decision-making abilities nor Pavlovian hounds waiting on the next biscuit, we are, to some degree, cloth woven from a common thread with enough similarity in attitude and behavior to make possible (and profitable) educated predictions about how we as individuals and groups will respond to communication stimuli.

Simply put, all other things being equal there are certain communication strategies and tactics that ought to – and very often do – work. A well-crafted community relations program built on time-tested, fundamental public relations principles ought to help a company build and foster relationships with external stakeholders. An honest, open and proactive investor relations program that provides accurate, timely and pertinent data to current and potential investors should help a public company build value within the financial community.

It’s up to communications professionals to study history, psychology, political science, sociology, theology and the full realm of the humanities to learn those a priori principles and understand how to put them to work for our companies and clients.

“Long may you run.
Although these changes have come.”
– Neil Young
Sustainable communications -- for the long haul

Sustainable public relations-- for the long haul

This essay briefly summarizes an idea of mine about how public relations should be practiced.

Sustainable Development: A Foundation on Which to Build

First proposed in the early 1970s, the term “sustainable development” (sometimes called “sustainable industry” and/or “sustainable economy”) became popular with the United Nations Conference for Environment and Development (the Earth Summit) in 1992. A Google search for the term “sustainable development” yields more than 23 million hits and there are innumerable local, state, national and international organizations – both public and private – that promote the concept (e.g., the U.N. Division for Sustainable Development, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Center of Excellence for Sustainable Development,, the International Institute for Sustainable Development, etc.).

Many organizations (such as the Novo Group) now adhere to a “Triple-Bottom Line” philosophy that balances financial, social, environmental and ethical concerns. Sustainable development integrates corporate responsibility into business to secure long-term sustainable growth. We do this by balancing financial, social, environmental and ethical concerns. Some companies publish audited environmental and social responsibility reports alongside their annual financial reports. And a growing number of investment groups and industry analysts praise “sustainable development companies” for their success at achieving financial targets while mitigating the risks associated with questionable environmental or social practices. Companies regularly highlighted as models include: Novozymes, Toyota, Unilver, 3M, Proctor & Gamble, Intel, DSM and Volkswagen.

The financial world has taken note, as well. Launched in 1999, the Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes are the first global indexes tracking the financial performance of the leading sustainability-driven companies worldwide. Based on the cooperation of Dow Jones Indexes, STOXX Limited and SAM, they provide asset managers with reliable and objective benchmarks to manage sustainability portfolios.

While there are a number of definitions, some of the more popular ones are:

  • Development that meets the needs and aspirations of the current generation without compromising the ability to meet those of future generations.
  • Development that ensures that the use of resources and the environment today does not restrict their use by future generations.
  • Development that meets the needs of the present without sacrificing the ability to meet future needs.
  • Development that can be maintained in the long term, that is, without consuming or destroying finite resources.
  • A real increase in well-being and standard of life for the average person that can be maintained over the long-term without degrading the environment or compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy,

“Sustainable development is a strategy by which communities seek economic development approaches that also benefit the local environment and quality of life. It has become an important guide to many communities that have discovered that traditional approaches to planning and development are creating, rather than solving, societal and environmental problems. . . . Sustainable development provides a framework under which communities can use resources efficiently, create efficient infrastructures, protect and enhance quality of life, and create new businesses to strengthen their economies. It can help us create healthy communities that can sustain our generation, as well as those that follow ours.”

Sustainable Public Relations: A Proposed Model and Approach

How might one define “sustainable public relations”? According to Long and Hazelton’s model of public relations, organizations use communication to adapt to, alter or maintain their environments to achieve organizational goals. Sustainable public relations then is about helping organizations decide how best to use communication strategies and tactics to help them not only survive, but to thrive in the midst of change. Sustainable public relations draws upon a cross-section of disciplines – research, psychology, public relations, marketing, advertising, design, organizational theory, leadership – to build a communications program that can be sustained over time and contribute to improving organizational effectiveness. By managing effectively an organization’s reputation and resources (economic, human, symbolic, etc.) and relationships with stakeholders, a sustainable public relations program helps ensure the organization’s continued health, growth and success.

For an organization’s communications program to be sustainable, it must be founded upon principles and practices that contribute to nurturing the organization’s long-term survival within the broader community – e.g., an adherence to the highest ethical standards, a sensitivity to different perspectives and global cultures, a grounding in research and critical analysis, an understanding and application of communications theory and human psychology, and a recognition of the organization’s responsibility to its stakeholders and the broader community at-large.

As with sustainable development, sustainable public relations requires measurement. A baseline is established and progress against clearly defined objectives is carefully gauged over time.

Sustainable public relations practices comprise the full range of communications disciplines:

  • Investor relations
  • Marketing
  • Branding
  • Research
  • Advertising
  • Design
  • Interactive communications
  • Leadership
  • Employee communications
  • Media relations
  • Community relations
  • Crisis communications
  • Issues management
  • Organizational theory
  • Human resources
  • Fundraising/development

In short, sustainable public relations means:

  • Sustaining growth . . .
  • Sustaining reputation . . .
  • Sustaining investment . . .
  • Sustaining confidence . . .
  • Sustaining a vision . . .
  • Sustaining momentum . . .
  • Sustaining profitability . . .
  • Sustaining quality . . .
  • Sustaining satisfaction . . .
  • Sustaining trust . . .

. . . for the long-term.

“Take your protein pills and put your helmet on.”
– David Bowie

The Man Who Fell to Earth

The Man Who Fell to Earth

And now from the “Oh my gosh, the 70s actually did happen” file, here’s an astonishing little sequence from “The Cher Show” featuring a post-Sonny, pre-diva Cher canoodling with none other than Major Tom himself, David Bowie, through a mash-up of 60s and 70s hits. 

BGO’s trying to find words to describe this puppy, but I think we’ll just let the footage speak for itself. 

Oh my . . .

“Laugh and say I’m green,
I’ve seen things you’ve never seen.”
– The Who
Talk about refreshing

Talk about refreshing

Kudos to Coca-Cola that announced plans last week to deploy a fleet of 142 hybrid delivery trucks on the road in the coming months. The trucks, which cost an extra $35,000 on top of the usual $50,000 price tag, lower fuel consumption by about 37 percent and emissions by about 32 percent. The first green delivery trucks are hitting the road now.

While incurring extra costs during a recession can be a questionable business strategy, this investment is a BGO for Coke. Even if some consumers may be getting a little green around the gills about corporate America “going green,” the fact is: (1) this is the right thing to do, and (2) many consumers in Coke’s current and emerging markets — especially Gen Ys and their younger siblings — factor a company’s environmental actions into their buying decisions. So this is really a no-brainer for the company and its shareholders. Sustainable business practices that speak to customers are smart public relations and smart marketing, indeed.

So raise your glass, can or bottle in salute to Coca-Cola — and let’s hope Pepsi and the rest of the beverage industry follows suit soon.

Now if they would just do something about the high-fructose corn syrup . . .

“Communication breakdown,
It’s always the same,
I’m having a nervous breakdown,
Drive me insane!

– Led Zeppelin

We're all drowning

We're all drowning

A day or two after posting the piece on the Xobni e-mail plug-in, I happened to run across this story from The Los Angeles Times about the coming backlash against e-mail (or “e-fail” as one observer dubbed it).  Check out this passages and see if you don’t have a strong sense of déjà vu:

Timothy Ferriss, author of “The 4-Hour Workweek,” says that what’s wrong with e-mail is that it simulates forward motion but doesn’t necessarily mean action.

“E-mail is used as a self-validation tool by people to procrastinate and to re-create activity versus productivity,” he says. Ferriss, who says he used to receive “close to 300 e-mails per hour,” is now checking his personal account only twice a day.

“Less than half a day goes by and you’ll get an e-mail saying, ‘Why haven’t you responded to my e-mail?'” she says. “The expectation, because you’ve sent it, is the other person is looking at his screen all the time and his job is to look at his screen waiting for e-mails.”

It’s also one of the worst culprits in a growing global lack of focus, says Maggie Jackson, author of the recently published book “Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age.”  According to Jackson, information overload is not just making life at the dinner table less pleasant as Mom checks her BlackBerry, but it’s also undermining civilization itself.

“We’re so overloaded by information bites that we’re less and less able to go deeply, to create knowledge or wisdom out of all the information,” she says. “This is one reason why I say we’re on the cusp of a dark age.”

Elsewhere in the article, Basex, a New York-based research firm estimates that interruptions from e-mail eat up as many as 2.1 hours per worker per day.  Multiplied by the 56 million knowledge workers in the U.S., and the annual cost is $650 billion in lost productivity.

The answer?  Well, plug-ins like Xobni can help, but it really will come down to a decision by organizations and individuals to use this still relatively new communication channel more wisely.  For example, this month one of my clients is implementing program that will teach its 28,000 employees how to use e-mail more efficiently.  The guidelines are pretty much of a BGO when you think about ‘em:  don’t hit “Reply to All” unless everyone on the list really, really needs to see the message; don’t send unnecessary “thank you’s” that just clog up Inboxes; use e-mail rules to sort your incoming messages automatically; refrain from checking your Inbox every five minutes; don’t use e-mail when a phone call would do; and so on.

Problem is, most of us don’t think consciously about e-mail.  It’s become an addiction that, like coffee or cigarettes, will take some effort and commitment to break.

So let’s all do our part and learn how to trim e-mail usage.  Because it’s true:  if any of us want to get good e-mail, we really should know how to give good e-mail.  It’s only fair.