“It’s a small world, after all.”
– Robert and Richard Sherman

We knew it all along

In business, “Thinking Big” is an imperative.  We celebrate “big thinkers” and avoid “small minds” like last year’s fruitcake.  But the “size = quality” equation doesn’t always work in public relations where it’s often more effective – cost-wise and results-wise – to narrow one’s focus.

From newspapers, magazines and newsletters to blogs, e-zines, Twitter and satellite radio, the potential ways to reach stakeholders are multiplying almost as fast as the spam choking your Inbox.  But as the number of channel choices goes up, the effectiveness of any single channel goes down – and fast.

Fact is, the days of a monolithic culture are gone.  Don’t believe it?  Ask a 10-year-old to identify any two of the following:  the Fonz, Uncle Miltie, Johnny Carson or Walter Cronkite.  Without a case of DVDs or TV Land, the chance of that kid knowing these towering icons is less than K-Fed’s chance of winning the Nobel Peace Prize.  While still influential, mass media channels are growing less powerful as singular communications tools every day.

To connect with stakeholders today, think small.  In a fragmented world brimming with communications clutter, eschew shotguns scattering data (and money…) in favor of rifles that hit targets with laser-like precision.  Need to reach medical specialists?  Skip the national news release and order a generous helping of targeted journal articles with a side order of professional association newsletters.  Need to talk with neighbors?  Hold a coffee klatch instead of a news conference.  Want to get input from teens on a new product?  Implement a mobile market research program and leave the Facebook posts, e-mail blasts and magazine contests to the dustbin of history.

Choose the right tool for the job.  Remember:  a bigger hammer does not make a better house.

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“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.

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.

“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 . . .

“Well now see, C.C. Rider
Well, now see, see what you have done.”

– Ma Rainey

James Gregory, CEO, CoreBrand

James Gregory, CEO, CoreBrand

In a July 21, 2008 article in Advertising Age, branding guru James Gregory predicts that Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs) will begin to inherit CEO slots with growing regularity. Gregory, CEO of CoreBrand, believes this trend will be fueled by the flawed accounting practice that ignored the impact of brands on corporate balance sheets and “held marketing communications in its grip of second-tier rank within the corporate hierarchy.”

There is no question that CMOs can and should sit in the big chairs. The short- and long-term value of managing the corporate brand as a strategic financial asset is, without question, a BGO. My quarrel is with Gregory limiting his crystal ball to Chief Marketing Officers. Chief Communications Officers (CCOs), who are schooled in managing a company’s overall reputation and internal/external relationships, deserve a mention here, as well.

In fact, one could argue today’s typical CCO is as or more qualified to lead the organization than virtually any other member of the C-suite. Check out this definition: “The CCO of a company is the corporate officer primarily responsible for managing the communications risks and opportunities of a business, both internally and externally. This executive is typically responsible for communications to a wide range of stakeholders, including but not limited to employees, shareholders, media, business influentials, the press, the community and the public.”

CCOs help their organizations manage the most daunting challenge of all: change. And they do that by learning to act as “boundary spanners,” professionals who can see the organization – the whole of the organization – as others do from inside and outside the company’s walls. They serve as early warning specialists who look past the trees and the forests to see the storm clouds on the horizon that could threaten a company’s ability to succeed. They counsel senior executives on how to create and strengthen relationships on both individual and enterprise-wide levels. By helping manage the corporate reputation (read: the sum of perceptions about the organization), CCOs help establish the favorable conditions in which powerful brands can thrive and confidence in the company grows.

Sounds like a pretty good training ground for future CEOs to me.

In “Leveraging the Corporate Brand,” Gregory accurately predicted the rise of the Chief Communications Officer position, which he writes now “inevitably gave way to the title Chief Marketing Officer.” Setting aside the question of that “inevitability” for the moment, here’s hoping Mr. Gregory returns to his roots and sees the CCO as worthy of not just riding on the corporate bus but driving it, too.