January 2009

“There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done.”
– The Beatles


Brent Spiner as Brent Spiner

Brent Spiner as Brent Spiner and Commander Data

Brent Spiner as Commander Data

Yesterday, I watched on TweetDeck as Brent Spiner (who played Commander Data on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and recorded the seminal album “Ol’ Yellow Eyes is Back”) learned how to re-tweet, share replies and, in general, learn how to navigate the recently launched starship, the USS Twitter.  In one post, Spiner wrote, “It’s okay. I’m not offended by being called ignorant. In the greater scheme, I am.”

Brent, most all of us are right there with you.  This is a new communication technology so it will take some time for most all of us to: (1) learn how to use it, and (2) learn how to use it effectively.  Just like the telephone, the fax machine and papyrus, there’s always a learning curve when our species identifies a new way to connect with one another.  And that’s really all Twitter (or FaceBook or FriendFeed or countless other Web-based channels) is – a new way to connect and form communities of life-minded people (even if some in your community have positronic minds).

Is Twitter the latest trend du jour?  Sure.  So were the telegraph and the printing press.  As Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff write in one of the best books I’ve seen on harnessing the power of social technologies, Groundswell, any technology that enable people to connect more easily in more meaningful ways will succeed.  Twitter does that in spades.

Whether Twitter or FriendFeed or the next great app will expand our choice of communication channels is a pointless question – they have, they are and they will.  The question to ask is how can we best learn how to adapt and use that channel to create something of value?  For a terrific and concise look at how to use Twitter strategically, I suggest looking at this approach developed by Ogily’s 360 Degree Digital Influence group.  In one elegantly simple graphic, Ogilvy’s team lay out a coherent, concise method of how to use Twitter strategically for yourself, your organization or your clients.  (And props to Ogilvy for sharing this with the rest of us).

As Jean Luc Picard might say, “Make it so.”

“Maybe I’m amazed.”
– Paul McCartney

Not quite this, but close

Not quite this, but close

Today, I experienced a revelation.

Perhaps not on par with a parting of the clouds or the “speaking in tongues” thing, but a revelation nevertheless.  In short, I witnessed in real time the ferocious power of social media to disseminate news.  Trite as it may sound, this was a paradigm shift of monumental proportion for a public relations professional.

During an internal meeting, I had my TweetDeck open and was monitoring the posts of a couple of colleagues and Twitter gurus I follow.  At 3:48 p.m., @scobleizer posted “Tons of people are reporting a USAir plane crash in NYC.  Follow http://search.twitter.com for more.”  One minute later, also from @scobleizer:  “More info on Plane Crash is FLOWING in from people who saw the crash at:  http://www.search.twitter.com/search?q=plane.

I clicked immediately to CNN.com to confirm the story.  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  Clicked to MSNBC.com.  A home page banner about the crash, but nothing else.  I went back to TweetDeck and watched astonished as update after update appeared on my screen every few seconds.  Within a few minutes, links to photos of the plane in the Hudson River were posted by a number of Twitterers.  I visited Twitter’s search page and watched in amazement as an avalanche of tweets with reports, comments, updates and links to photos about the event scrolled across the screen.  At one point, updates were coming in at a rate of nearly 100 every 15 seconds.  Quite literally, my jaw dropped and I sat back trying to assimilate what was happening and what it meant for the public relations profession (and journalism, for that matter).  As I clicked to my Facebook page and saw prayers for the passengers’ safety posted in the status boxes of several friends, the future became much clearer.

While the impact of citizen journalism on the traditional news media is nothing new, the power of Facebook and Twitter – which allows near-instantaneous updates from virtually any mobile device – to share information within private networks more quickly and effectively than mainstream media is no longer just “emerging.”  And the need for public relations professionals to learn, adapt and master these new communication channels and languages to serve all of a client’s needs, from launching a new product to managing a crisis, is now.

You know, in retrospect, maybe this is on par with speaking in tongues.

UPDATE 1.16.09 — Eric Zeman of Information Week wrote about precisely what I was trying to get across in this post.  Read Zeman’s comments here.

“Just give me some truth,
All I want is the truth.”
– John Lennon

layoffsIn this most difficult and unsettling (to put it mildly . . .) economic time, announcements of job cuts have become all too common.  Whether called a layoff, RIF, headcount reduction, strategic restructuring or “utilization reassessment” (a personal favorite), the bottom line is the same.  It’s bad news, and no one likes to deliver it.  And most companies don’t like to have it delivered for them either.  But the bottom line is the bottom line, and companies that refuse to adapt to changes in their environment can end up as vague memories.

Often caught in the middle of these maelstroms are public relations professionals whose job it is to speak on behalf of their companies or clients.  In years past, public relations professionals have been dinged – sometimes rightfully so – for engaging in corporate-speak, back-pedaling or the ever-popular “spin control” when announcing staff cuts.  Honesty and authenticity have become all too rare.

How refreshing it was then to see this comment from the senior vice president of corporate communications for a Fortune 100 company (and a client of mine):  “The message for the last several months has been that ‘We don’t foresee any mass layoffs,'” he said in an interview Friday. “Maybe that wasn’t a good way to say it.  “Our point has been that mass layoffs were not going happen at [this company] like at some others that have cut thousands of jobs. But there are no guarantees that positions will not be eliminated and employees not be impacted.”

Talk about honesty.  Talk about humility.  Talk about straight-talk.  Talk about a BGO. That’s what all employees – and all of us, for that matter – want and deserve.

And that’s what smart public relations professionals make sure their organizations deliver.

“I can’t live if living is without you.”
– Harry Nilsson

Obama's tether to the outside world

Obama's tether to the outside world

Seeing this story in The New York Times about President-elect Obama’s desire (read: urgent need) to keep hold of his treasured Blackberry reminded me of that old joke about the differences among marketing, advertising and public relations.

You’re a woman and you see a handsome guy at a party.  You go up to him and say, “I’m fantastic in bed.”  That’s Marketing.

You’re at a party with a bunch of friends and see a handsome guy.  One of your friends goes up to him and pointing at you says, “She’s fantastic in bed.”  That’s Advertising.

You’re at a party and see a handsome guy. He walks up to you and says, “I hear you’re fantastic in bed.”  That’s Public Relations.

When the President-elect tells the world he can’t live without your product, That’s Priceless Public Relations.

1.22.09 Update:  Yet more priceless public relations and brand boost.  Obama wins argument.

The Tar Heel State's seal

The Tar Heel State's seal

“You talk about a dream,
Try to make it real.”
— Bruce Springsteen

While Latin is rarely taught in schools these days, every North Carolina student today and for the past 100 years is familiar with three Latin words:  “esse quam videri.”  Or “to be rather than to seem.”  That’s our state motto, and it’s everywhere from the floor of the State House to government agencies’ Web sites.

That adage popped back in my mind this morning as I read news reports on President-elect Obama’s appointment of Nancy Killefer to the newly created White House post of Chief Performance Officer.  As CPO, Ms. Killefer will work with federal agencies to set performance standards and hold agency managers accountable for progress.

In Obama’s words, “Change and reform can’t just be election-year slogans. They must become fundamental principles of government.”  Hailing the post as “one of the most important” appointments he will make, Obama said Killefar is charged with restoring fiscal order and reforming government.

Talk about a challenge.  Geez . . .

Killefar brings some serious street cred to the post.  She currently serves as a senior director for McKinsey & Company, one of the world’s leading management consulting firms.  Killefar also served as an assistant secretary of the treasury in the Clinton administration.

By establishing an executive-level position with responsibility for improving the overall effectiveness of our government and appointing someone with hands-on experience, Obama took an important step in helping build public confidence in his leadership style and judgment.

Whether Killefar can succeed is up for debate.  But whether Obama’s announcement was a smart public relations move is pretty darned clear.  It demonstrated two core principles of any effective public relations program, whether it be for a non-profit association, multi-national corporation or the U.S. government:  accountability begins – and ends – in the CEO’s office, and actions speak louder than words.  Note Obama’s comment about “election-year slogans” and “fundamental principles” – i.e., rather than just talking about doing something, the Obama Administration is taking concrete action.  To be rather than to seem.  Talk about a BGO.

And they say Latin is a dead language.