Crenshaw Named To New York Women In Communications Board

Crenshaw Communications CEO Dorothy Crenshaw has been named to the Board of New York Women In Communications, Inc., the premier organization for female communications professionals. NYWICI’s mission is to empower women in the communications field and navigate the ever-changing landscape of communications, in fields as diverse as journalism, broadcasting, corporate communications, digital, publishing, advertising, integrated marketing, photography, public relations, graphic design and more. The not-for-profit association has more than 2,000 members. Crenshaw is a longtime and active member of the organization.

PR Means Having To Say You’re Sorry

The sad and sudden demise of pop superstar Michael Jackson may have knocked Governor Mark Sanford off the front pages for a weekend, but it didn’t let him off the hook. Governor Sanford’s may have been the most ill-conceived and badly delivered apology of the decade. And, that’s saying something.

I was one of several PR professionals who commented on the Sanford press briefing for PR Newser, but given its timeliness I wanted to share some general guidelines for “apology communications” based on recent events.

Have a goal.  As with an ordinary public relations program, a public apology should be developed with an end in mind. Though they might all be desirable, keeping one’s job, saving one’s reputation, and staying out of jail could call for different messaging and communications strategies. Prioritizing for the best outcome is essential.

Keep it short. Resist the temptation to drag it out, justify, explain, excuse, or embroider. TMI is a lose-lose strategy. Stick to what’s relevant.

Make it other-centered.  Going on about one’s failings (as John Edwards did in some detail) or rambling about your love for the Appalachian trail (where Governor Sanford wasn’t hiking) is counterproductive, and it will be seen as self-involved.

Take responsibility. Lawyers will disagree on this if there’s a legal infraction involved, but an apology without a specific mea culpa is pretty toothless.  It’s human nature to want someone to own up to their actions rather than avoiding or placing blame, and it’s also character-building for the one delivering the apology.

Focus on the public consequences, not the private ones.  Like former Governor Eliot Spitzer, those caught in a sex scandal often use their media time to apologize to their families, since they figure voters will identify with the spouse and kids. But, the offender needs to grapple with the impact on his staff and constituents/supporters, which is often more significant.  I’d argue that Sanford’s disappearing act, out of range of his staff or security detail, and his clumsy attempts to lie his way out of it, superseded his extramarital activities.

Don’t drag in the innocent bystanders. The days of needing to see the wronged spouse in a show of marital solidarity are largely over.  (Who can forget Dina McGreevey’s odd smile, or Silda Spitzer’s haunted eyes?) And, singling out the children by name – as Governor Sanford did – is just thoughtless.

Be measured in expressing emotion. I’m a big fan of showing appropriate fighting spirit where justified, but in a public apology, a little goes a long way. It’s best to signal your intentions for subsequent statements (“I’ll fight to regain the respect of my constituents”) but weeping and anger deserve a more private venue. Move on.

Why Are They Saying Those Things About You?

A while back, I was shocked to see some harsh criticism of me on an IT Internet forum. Strangers were calling Dorothy Crenshaw incompetent and even demanding that I be fired…which I thought was pretty unfair considering I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about.

I quickly realized it wasn’t about me.  It turned out that I share a name with an information officer for a public school system in the Midwest, and an IT security breach prompted an online brawl in which the other Dorothy was briefly targeted by irate residents.

Given our different geographies and professions, my online reputation risk from that incident was minimal.  But, it was an unpleasant taste of what it must feel like to experience a malicious or mistaken usurpation of one’s personal or business identity online.

This week, a story in our industry provided another, better example, which is both entertaining and disturbing. Earlier this year, Michigan PR firm Tanner Friedman discovered that someone had squatted on its Twitter handle and was impersonating the firm by tweeting nasty and unflattering updates. Tanner was forced to sue an unknown “John Doe” who was this week revealed to be – surprise! – a rival agency.

Anyone in the PR or reputation business should know that online reputation damage – deserved or not – is the underbelly of our exploding social media and blog culture.  But social media is touted so strongly as an easy way to build a brand online, that some small business and individuals might not fully realize there’s a flip side to it. It’s been said that Google, after all, is not just a search engine, it’s a reputation engine, as anyone who’s checked out a prospective blind date knows. And for individuals, the rise of social media has made online reputation a more challenging issue. It’s one reason that Facebook registered 500,000 usernames in only 15 minutes a couple of weeks ago after it changed its policy to grant users custom URLs. And, it’s given rise to services that in some cases charge stiff fees to “erase” online slander and protect Web identity, and in other cases are outright bogus.  (There are plenty of free tools for basic monitoring, starting with Google Alerts.)

Finally, the major social media sites need to step up to protect users, which they’ve done only in fits and starts, behind highly publicized identity poachings like the Tony La Russa case.  Facebook has said it will resolve disputes on a case-by-case basis, which isn’t very reassuring for those usurped in a URL land-grab.  Twitter moved recently to authenticate celebrity accounts, but there’s more to identify verification and customer service than just serving the needs of the famous, and Twitter has a deservedly spotty reputation for both.

Until more sophisticated measures are in place, even a casual social media user has to exercise common sense, and a little vigilance, to protect their good name.

Investing In The Recovery: Why PR?

Although the economic recovery is still far from certain, some in our business are preparing for it in plans for new new hiring, deal-making and restructuring, as reported in today’s New York Times. This is smart thinking, and it gives me hope that the outdated “conventional wisdom” of cutting discretionary marketing spending during a recession has finally died.  In our firm, clients have largely looked at PR as a tool to help them succeed during the recession; consumers are spending less, so their value proposition has to be that much more powerful.

But, not all companies think that way. PR is still poorly understood by some, and the very things that make it powerful – the impact on brand reputation, the versatility, the trade-off of control for credibility –  can also make it opaque. I suggest that, instead of talking about PR and marketing spending, businesses should look at the PR budget as an investment – in their business, their brand, and the economic recovery. Here, then is a list of reasons not to curb that PR investment during an economic downturn:

 

Consumers are spending less. It should be obvious, but it bears repeating that when things are tight, brand marketing support is more valuable than ever. And, when the news is full of retrenchment and retreat, positive stories tend to stand out more. This is particularly true for smaller businesses and brands, since the media love a challenger.

Competitors may be weaker. If so, now’s the time to press your advantage. If not, you risk falling behind. 

Bad news needs skillful communicationBouncing back from bad news starts with proper disclosure and management.  PR isn’t a fix for bad or dishonest corporate behavior, but an experienced PR professional or team can help put potentially damaging news into perspective, limit the downside, and get a brand or business image back on track.

Position for the recovery.  Businesses that invest now will be ahead of competitors when things turn around, which can greatly affect their ability to attract customers, partners, and employees.  Brands with a commitment to marketing during downturns tend to do well when the economy improves, according to Buyology’s 2008 Neuromarketing study

 

Results lag investment. Naturally. But, many don’t realize the amount of lead time required  to plan, execute and see the benefits of a strong media relations program, and the opportunity cost of stopping and starting again.  Who wants to spend a year searching, hiring, and directing a PR team when they could be creating or taking advantage of opportunities as they happen? 

 

Reputation matters A lot. Maybe even more in a downturn. Investment in one’s brand or corporate standing doesn’t lend itself to an on-again, off-again commitment in any environment, let alone today. Skepticism among consumers and stakeholders is at a high-water mark.  Proper communication of brand attributes and corporate social values has an incalculable, but very real, value.

  

A Thumbs Up For “Old” Ideas

In any creative business, there’s a funny tendency for people to become attached to favorite concepts and tactics…especially those oh-so-inspired program ideas that no client ever actually bought. Then there’s the reverse of that, which is the “been there, done that” stigma that kills ideas thought to be too obvious, or “not differentiated.” I’ve been there, too.

Which is why I was interested to read AdAge‘s slightly snarky piece titled “PR Gimmick Is All Thumbs But A Big Win.” It’s about the “surprising” success of LG Electronics’ national competition to find the fastest text messager. It’s apparently become a “major branded entertainment property” attracting 250,000 entrants and co-sponsors MTV, the NY Mets, and CitiField. (Most reader comments dealt with the use of the word “gimmick.” True, calling it that marginalizes PR by limiting it to events and stunts. But, let’s not get too bothered by a headline.)

What’s more interesting is that it’s about a third-year execution of an idea that could be described as….tired?  dated? me-too? Yes, all of those.  There’s probably not a PR person alive who hasn’t proposed a text messaging contest, given relevant clients. I seem to recall writing it into a few proposals, and stopping the idea’s gestation in utero several times because – well, been there, done that.

But, have I been there?  Not really. My point is that the campaign’s success is a big win for LG and a useful reminder for the rest of us of a few principles of PR programming.

First, the best programs – and the best stunts – rest on simple ideas, where the link between brand and creative tactic is intuitive.  Second, execution is critical – from the tiniest event details to the electrics we call packaging. That in itself can be a differentiator. We all know this, of course.

Finally, longevity can breed credibility. Okay, the LG program was first launched in 2007, and three years may not seem like such a long time. But, by today’s standards, it is. For whatever reasons, the brand stuck with the idea, a modestly success “gimmick” at first, enhancing the execution and building ownership.

I don’t know much about this particular campaign, and I’m as big an advocate of new thinking as anyone. We should always push ourselves to break the mold. But, in our rush to show  extraordinary creative ability, it’s worth remembering that extraordinary planning, execution, packaging, and commitment also count. On the client side, far too many brands, under pressure to deliver quarterly ROI in an ugly environment, will dismiss an idea, a strategy, a staff, and an agency, in search of the next new thing when a concept doesn’t measure up. And, too many agency professionals will reject a “done” idea, without stopping to think who has actually “done” it, and whether it can be done better.

The Social Media Revolution That Wasn’t

In the wake of controversial election results in Iran, there’s been much discussion about the role of social media in communicating popular sentiment among the rank and file there. Mashable reports “mindblowing” statistics on Twitter, claiming evidence that social media has been at the nexus of the Iranian unrest.

But, does Tiananmen Square + Twitter = Tehran? It’s very cool to think that #Cnnfail – the protests of the Twitterverse about what it viewed as insufficient coverage of the election and its aftermath on CNN – might have accelerated the traditional media’s reporting on the events in Iran. But, social media’s being credited with much more. Some have hailed “the end of totalitarianism.”  The Vancouver Sun describes #TwitterIran as “the central battlefield for the early stages of what looks like a revolution in Iran.” That’s exhilarating stuff.

Yet, it’s not true, at least not in the way we would wish. Social and digital media have sharpened the focus of the world outside Iran on the massive post-election demonstrations, and the pictures and text messages that have emerged are very moving.  The fact is, however, that the overwhelming majority of those living in Iran lack access to those reports, and it’s naïve to think they’re fomenting protest.
For Iranians, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Friendfeed, and other social networks remain blocked.

Transmission of SMS text messaging through mobile phone networks is impossible. Internet access via satellite is shut down. Some within Iran have been able to get messages out through proxies, and the real heroes may be the hackers.  But, it’s a narrow slice at best. There’s also the fact that, even in ordinary times, social media is used by the young, urban, and privileged…not the masses.  The tweets and texts that have emerged from Tehran represent a very narrow slice of the Iranian population.

So, where’s CNN in all this?  It’s there, of course. But, since its journalists are forbidden to leave their bureau, it had to make do with Christiane Amanpour’s stand-ups, re-runs of her last interview with Ahmadinejad, and assorted talking heads. (Many don’t realize that the protests 20 years ago at Tiananmen Square were captured by CNN because it had permission from the Chinese government to report on a schedule visit by Mikhail Gorbachev. It was a lucky break – if you can call it that – that the cameras were rolling as the tanks rolled in.)

No such luck in Iran. And while the CNN-watching Twitterers demonstrated its ability to harness and focus media criticism, it also proved that the real credibility still rests with “traditional” media – yep, the journalists who actually travel to the site of the action, often at considerable risk and expense, to try to get their story.

 

 

Zen And The Art of Mindful Multitasking

Do I have your attention? I didn’t think so.

In a world of hyperlinked blogs, pop-up emails, and 140-character updates, it’s natural to wonder about attention span, and whether ours is stretched to the limit. In the agency business, “attention-shifting” is a professional hazard and practically a pre-requisite for success.  I blame the business, and my mentors, for my own attention deficit. One was a very talented man with whom every business conversation detoured into off-color jokes, office gossip, or dating advice. His fractured focus, along with my multiple-client load, seemed to chip away at the steely mental discipline that had helped me so much as a student. At least, that was my excuse.

My other excuse is nearly six years old.  I can’t be the only mom who thinks the phrase “continuous partial attention” was coined for her. And, who hasn’t watched their child toggle among PC games, Wii, TV, music, and email without wondering if it will cripple her ability to focus?

That’s why the New York Magazine May 28 cover story on the “attention crisis” caught my notice. Its point is that distraction might even be good for us, given the brain’s ability, more than any other organ, to adapt to experience. For kids, at least, this is significant.  Some research indicates that those “digital natives” who grow up acclimated to multiple conversations and tasks might stretch the brain’s attention capacity to greater levels than ever before.  It’s a little like Buddhist monks whose daily meditation alters mental processes and enables them to engage in “mindful” multitasking.

There are benefits to our distracted state. Digression among co-workers helps us feel comfortable, build relationships, and tap different parts of the mind. It also enhances the ability to link and synthesize things that aren’t necessarily related.  In other words, it fosters creative thinking.

Come to think of it, my attention-impaired ex-boss is among the most creative people I’ve ever worked with – no small thing in a business that markets new ideas. And my daughter seems able to tune out any distraction when engaged in her favorite pastimes.  Even while writing this, I’ve ignored emails, filtered out calls and content feeds, and shifted my attention for two calls and a meeting, where the conversation seemed linked to these very topics. Synthesis, or selective consciousness?  Who knows, but I’m sure it’s not too late for my neural pathways to adapt.  Next up, maybe even “mindful Twittering.” On that, I’ll have to get back to you.

Twitter: Is Anyone Listening?

During the months I’ve spent reading about and using Twitter, I’ve analogized it to many things, depending on my mood and its usefulness. At various times, I compare it to: a cocktail party; a real-time search engine; email for exhibitionists; a high-school popularity contest; and heroin. Personally, I find it both frustrating and fascinating. But, as a social media brand communications tool, it has many shortcomings.

The media obsession with Twitter, most recently demonstrated in a Time Magazine cover story, keeps pushing expectations higher, which only threatens to turn it into a poster child for social media hype.

Dell proves Twitter can sell products

Finally, however, there’s at least one unqualified marketing success that can be chalked up to Twitter. @DellOutlet, established in June 2007 to promote Twitter-exclusive deals on Dell products, reports that it’s sold $3 million worth of products, solely through Twitter.  What’s more, half that amount was generated in only the past six months, indicating a steep growth curve.  @DellOutlet’s progress in building both a following and a profitable sales division is impressive, though, as pointed out today in mashable.com, the sales volume is miniscule compared to Dell’s $61 billion in sales last year.

But, can Twitter do more than tweet sales and customer service communications? Can it help market brands? For my money, the results just aren’t there. For large, relatively hip brands like Starbucks and Jetblue, it’s a cool new platform to connect with existing customers.  And for a few niche players, it’s served as a hyperlocal direct marketing tool.

But Twitter and its users face serious challenges

And they grow grow worse over time. The major ones:

User churn. The “Twitter Quitter” phenomenon has been widely noted. A Nielsen study reports that 60 percent of new Twitter users drop out within a month of using it. There’s a problem with the Nielsen numbers – the study overlooks the Twitter activity that happens outside of the site itself, through mobile platforms like iPhones, or apps like Tweetdeck or Twhirl, but the report clearly show a huge retention issue.

It’s a time suck. Transforming it from a chaotic, one-way channel into a real conversation platform requires planning, content creation and selection, constant pruning and curating of friends and followers; real-time participation in conversations; and continual monitoring, for starters.  After a few hundred followers, nurturing connections becomes a full-time job for one or more people.

Its tech fails regularly. At times, using Twitter is like the early days of dial-up Internet. Devotees must put up with regular “fail whales,” template problems, and DM glitches. I’m not as bothered by Twitter’s obvious capacity issues as, say, Forbes columnist Mike Schaffner, because I assume the problems will be fixed, but if its growth continues, that may be a naive assumption.

All this is irrelevant, however, compared to the most nagging question around the Twitter phenomenon. How many are paying attention? Who’s engaged?  A new Harvard Business Journal study reports that the top ten percent of users are responsible for 90 percent of all tweets, and most disconcerting – fully half of Twitter users tweet only once every 74 days. It might as well be once a year. The implication is that Twitter is a kind of micro-broadcasting medium, rather than one that enables a true conversation. Maybe no one’s really listening.

Since conversation with customers and others is the holy grail of Web 2.0 communications, this is a major failing.  And, no other platform or mass community really enables that conversation. I’d argue that on a typical Facebook brand page, users and fans are talking to one another, hopefully about the brand in question, rather than interacting with the brand itself.  If that’s the case, those who invest in Twitter are getting not a brand communications medium, or even a tool for building relationships, but a quirky direct-marketing tool, and the illusion of influence.

 

Has Twitter Jumped The Shark?

It’s a running joke among people in communications that, today, everyone’s a social media expert. Those who aren’t experts are usually self-proclaimed evangelists, mavens, gurus, specialists, advocates, or at the very least, enthusiasts. It’s striking, isn’t it, how quickly so many have become so adept at using new networks, platforms, strategies, and tools?

My point is, while there are plenty of skilled and talented professionals around,  the buzz around social media has become a little too noisy, with the result that we in the public relations profession might be accused of running after every shiny new tool or platform. Some of this is understandable, even natural. In the midst of the downturn, we’re scrambling for budgets, along with our advertising, digital marketing, and sales promotion colleagues.  And, even more than the dollars, we want ownership.

Public relations, the longtime marketing stepchild, has always craved respect. And it’s true that social media plays to PR’s traditional strengths.  The PR focus on content creation, the flexibility of the message, and its ability to open not just a one-way communications channel, but a two-way dialogue with end users, are just a few of the reasons why many social media programs are closer to PR than to advertising.  (For more, check out the excellent post by PRSA Chair Michael Cherenson here.)

The problem is that, in our zeal for ownership, we’ve lost some of the objectivity that clients value. There’s even a tendency to confuse social media tools and platforms with actual communications strategies.

Take Twitter, for example. It’s a powerful research and communications tool, and a vibrant social media platform.  And, yes, still a media magnet. In fact, whenever I’ve thought the Twitter media craze was about to die down, it seemed to grow, as with the Time magazine cover story last week.  And, Twitter-based marketing campaigns, or even just stunts, are still catnip for the trade press. But, Twitter’s a tool, for heaven’s sake. Putting a corporate or consumer brand on Twitter doesn’t a campaign make. Not even close.

Which leads to my next point. There are unmistakable signs that Twitter requires more time, energy, and strategic resources than many corporate users can give it. The user churn that’s been documented by recent research is also problematic. And then, there’s the ubiquity of the “fail whale.” So, has the bird (or whale) jumped the shark?  Is it done? Over the next few blog posts, I’ll be exploring the social media wave, with an emphasis on Twitter, to try to determine how much is hype, and how much is here to stay.

I can’t predict the future, but a thorough analysis of the user data and PR/marketing best practices is a decent starting point.  Stay tuned.

Is Innovation A Victim of Its Own PR?

I was startled to read  Michael Mandel’s provocative BusinessWeek article describing the failed promise of American innovation over the past ten years.  It makes a pretty persuasive case, documenting our innovation shortfall in key industries and linking it to the US trade deficit, our debt load (taken on under false expectations of compensation increases) and even the current financial crisis. 

It seems counter-intuitive that, in the age of the iPhone, Google Wave, and green technology, there could be a dearth of innovative products and technologies. But, while there are stunning examples of iterative improvements to existing products or models, massive, disruptive breakthroughs are relatively rare. More importantly, the key word here is “expectations.”  The commercialization of so many products – in biotech, fuel cell development, satellite technology, and more — simply haven’t lived up to the hype of ten years ago.

Is the hype around some products to blame?

So, could the hype be partly to blame? Could the innovation gap be, in part, a result of poor PR strategy? We’ve all worked for companies under pressure to announce new products and technologies far in advance of their commercial viability.  And, we have every incentive to work to position any positive news as a game-changing advance when the real picture may be less certain.

More broadly, PR and public education create long-term expectations about things far outside our own sphere, for better or worse. I feel a (possibly) misplaced confidence about any number of things, based partly on published reports and predictions. I believe my daughter won’t ever have to worry about cancer, since it’ll be cured or prevented during her lifetime. I’m confident we’ll solve our climate problems through solar and other alternative fuel technologies.  And I assume voice recognition technology will one day actually work (yes, just like those climate-controlled, domed cities I read about as a sixth-grader.)

When you consider the breadth of U.S. innovation, and its promotion as a cure-all, it’s practically in the air we breathe.  It’s as American as optimism, and the two generally work together to set expectations for groundbreaking advances, as well as steady, continuous improvements to existing products and services. So, I’m going to let the public relations profession off the hook on this one, in the hope that our work can strike a balance between responsible positioning and the buzz and excitement of a true breakthrough.