Was The Beer Summit A Teachable Moment?

What is it about beer? Former President George Bush was elected partly because he was a guy most Americans could imagine sitting down and having a beer with…ironic, given the fact that he doesn’t touch the stuff.

This week, knocking back a cold one became the symbol for a “cooling off” event involving President Obama, Harvard’s Professor Henry Gates, and Sgt. James Crowley, the Cambridge police officer who arrested Gates at his home recently. I think the beer detente (or beerastroika) was a decent move to effect damage control by the White House.  It’s clear from their efforts to lower expectations that they didn’t welcome the outpouring of media attention, however.  But, once opened,  you can’t put the cap back on the bottle. The photo op that summarized what one blogger called “Cold Beer Diplomacy” is now international news.

The roughly 30 seconds of video has been scrutinized by scores of reporters, bloggers, and even body-language experts.  Most entertaining was the on-air pun-ditry.  ABC served up a segment headlined “The Audacity of Hops,” while MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow went with the more classic “From Beer to Eternity.” Of course, I was interested in the branding sidebar, so I tapped into the coverage of each participant’s choice of drink.  There was a potential brou-haha at first.  Some Summit-watchers were in a lather because three of the beers originally mentioned –Bud Lite, Blue Moon, and Red Stripe – are not American brands.

Craft brewers protested, and, as recounted in a front-page story in The Wall Street Journal, Massachussetts congressman Richard Neal lobbied for a more patriotic choice.  In the end, Professor Gates traded his Red Stripe for a Sam Adams, a great beer and a hometown favorite.  (And what could be more fitting than a beer named for a Founding Father?)  Blue Moon, which is brewed in Canada, is a product of Molson Coors, so I give it half-credit.  And, though the President’s choice of Bud Lite is an Anheuser Busch beer now owned by Belgian conglomerate InBev, it’s still an iconic American brand.  (Later, Vice President Joe Biden crashed the party with the choice of a “near beer,” the low-alcohol Buckler brand, owned by Heineken.  Meh.)

My first thought was that the White House planner should have had the guys in shirtsleeves, sharing a pitcher of the same beer; after all, it’s better symbolism.  But, perhaps in a celebration of their diversity, each ordered his own favorite.  And, they did it, we hope, while sharing views and building bridges, which would be the best and most ideally “American” outcome of all.
I’ll drink to that.

It’s No Contest, The Netflix Prize Is A Winner

Partly because I gave four stars to Woody Allen’s Manhattan, Netflix is recommending the dark and brooding East German indie The Lives of Others. Hmmm.

I don’t know about you, but for me, recommendation engines that try to predict our likes and dislikes in books and movies usually miss the mark. I’m talking about the collaborative filtering tools you find on sites like Netflix and Amazon.com.  I’ve always chalked it up to the quirks of personal taste, however. Normally I hate violent movies, yet Kill Bill 2 is on my Top 5 favorites list. Who knows why…I defy an algorithm to figure out that one.

Which is why I was interested in the attention around the Netflix Prize. That’s the global competition that promises to award $1 million to the person or team who can improve on Netflix’s current algorithm for predicting member preferences by at least 10 percent.

Although some have dismissed it as a PR stunt, it’s designed as a real research project, which seems to have generated lots of positive PR for the brand. And there are a couple of counterintuitive aspects to the Prize that make it worth watching.

First, it’s an admission by Netflix that its internal efforts to improve the preference engine simply haven’t worked. It needs help. Normally that might reflect badly on the brand, the service, and its technology capabilities, but it hasn’t. Netflix seems to have tapped into the crowdsourcing thing at just the right moment.

I also like the packaging of the event, down to its grandiose label.  No cheesy “contest” here. It’s a “prize,” as in “Nobel.” This isn’t just another Ben and Jerry ice cream flavor, folks!  We’re talking innovation.

Finally, it has real drama. The competition culminated in an exciting, horserace-style photo finish at Sunday’s deadline. Though the actual winner won’t be announced until September, you’re able to follow the rankings on a leaderboard, which showed a last-minute surge by an upstart team, complete with cheers, jeers, and impressive participation by over 44,000 valid entrants. The blogosphere has covered it heavily as well.

In its longevity and substance, the Prize conveys a true commitment by Netflix to both technology innovation, or at least enhancement, and customer service.  And there are real learnings here. Today’s New York Times story about the value of teamwork to an undertaking like this actually positions the Prize as precedent-setting for predictive modeling.

It’s an impressive case history on how to run a contest…oops, global competition. I’m curious to see how the winning entry will be conveyed to everyday, non-techie Netflix members like me. But, the real proof, of course, will be in how it performs in picking winners for movie night.

By the way, I did see The Lives of Others.  Rent it now. Amazing movie.


Zappos And The Social Media Myth

It’s a common perception that Zappos, which was just acquired by Amazon.com, was able to build its brand, and even its business, on the strength of social media.  After all, CEO Tony Hsieh is a Twitter celebrity with over a million followers.  Zappos encourages its employees to Twitter, and more than 400 do. A model of transparency, it aggregates public mentions on a page on its website.  No wonder it’s been hailed by traditional and social media as the one company that does it right.  One writer even opined that Amazon was motivated to acquire Zappos to get a little of its “social media stardust.”

That’s nonsense. The soul of Zappos, and the open secret of its success, has nothing to do with Twitter. It bears remembering that long before Hsieh tweeted his first update, Zappos had taken the lead in the online shoe market. Hsieh’s really big idea wasn’t showing his personal side on Twitter.  It was making returns a competitive advantage. It was, in essence, beating Amazon at its own game. It was focusing, really focusing, on the customer.  And, to Zappos, customers are not only shoppers, but employees and vendors, too.

If you search for articles and posts about Hsieh and Zappos long prior to 2008, when he opened his celebrated Twitter account, your eyes will glaze over at the numbing repetition of its customer service mantra. Hsieh describes the employee recruiting and training program, including the counter-intuitive “quitting bonus,” as shaping a customer service culture. He philosophizes about transparency, openness, and authenticity – all in service of the customer, of course.  He, and the partners who back him, take the long view on the company’s ultra-liberal returns policy, betting that no investment is too great if it supports customer retention.

Basically, Hsieh did two things very, very well. He articulated a customer-obsessed culture. Then, he walked the talk. Social media came naturally for Zappos later because the company never looked at it as a marketing channel, but as another way of building customer relationships and adding service.  In essence, the shoe fit.

Jeff Bezos doesn’t give a rap about Zappos’ social media profile. As Bezos himself said in describing its customer service obsession, “It is the place where Zappos begins and ends.”  I’m hoping that, for Zappos, this is a new beginning, and not an end.

Cola Rivals Engage…With Each Other

It took me a while to get the Coke-Pepsi social media handshake thing.

I’m referring to that moment of Twitter diplomacy a couple of weeks ago.  The brand rivals agreed to make nice and follow one another, through a notably civil but tepid public exchange of  updates.  The detente was a response to a challenge by Australian marketing firm Amnesia Razorfish. It was a brilliant PR stunt on their part.

@CocaCola was the first to answer the call, tweeting a “gracious (but competitive) hello.”  Later @Pepsi responded with the slightly Zen-like musing, “Can followers and tweeps co-exist? We’re willing to find out.:)”

And that was that.  No swipes, insults, or even tortured cola puns.  No one was bubbling over, foaming at the mouth, or icy cold.  The exchange itself was sweet, cautious and a little, well, flat.
But, here’s the interesting part.  This “new” cola challenge was fueled by a cascade of retweets by Twitter users urging the brands to make nice.  And, the result was an outpouring of attention, including an AdAge profile, a Reuters piece, a hilarious Jimmy Fallon blog spoof, and countless other blog mentions.

Not exactly marketing history, and I doubt any soda was sold. But, it’s interesting from a brand engagement perspective.  And, it spurred me to look back at the heritage of the battle between the two soft drinks. Only two such iconic brands with such a legendary marketing rivalry could have the social world watching its Twitter moment. To look back over the history of the Coke-Pepsi marketing wars is to marvel at the moves and counter-moves that shaped each brand’s image over decades.  Things first heated up in the 1940s, when then-President Walter Mack made history by marketing Pepsi to African-Americans….this, while Jim Crow laws still stood.  It’s a remarkable, iconic rivalry that is precedent-setting to this day.

So, what’s next…McD’s and Burger King? Can world peace be far behind?

Cronkite, Media, and The Way It Was…

Just as there will never be another pop star like the late Michael Jackson, there can never be another journalist like Walter Cronkite. In ways that partly parallel the music industry, traditional broadcast journalism has changed dramatically since those quaint days of of the three-channel, black-and-white TV universe. In both industries, changing technology, demographics, and economic conditions have had a large – and largely negative – impact on the industry’s economic model and its influence.

But, there’s another important reason why Cronkite’s passing symbolizes the end of an era. Traditional media – once the ultimate authority, embodied by the television anchor – has steadily lost credibility over the past decade.  According to the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, in a 1998 survey, 42% of people gave CNN the highest rating for credibility on a scale of one to four. In the most recent survey, only 30% gave it the highest rating. Other television networks suffered a similar deterioration, as have key print outlets.  No matter how you read the data, it’s clear that the public feels a deep skepticism about what we read, see, and hear in the press.

Blame it on the ubiquity of “infotainment,” the blurry line between reporting and commentary, the rise of “shouting heads” TV, plagiarism scandals, or budget-cutting. Chalk it up to our ever-more-skeptical national character. The fact is that no journalist – in fact, no individual – is likely to inspire the trust that the most trusted man in America enjoyed. As Howard Kurtz suggests, maybe that’s a good thing. But, it’s also a bittersweet reminder of just how much has changed.

Can United Fix Its Broken Reputation?

After musician Dave Carroll’s pricey guitar was damaged following a United Airlines trip to Nebraska back in 2008, the guitar wasn’t the only thing that that took a beating. Now, United is grappling with a battered reputation, and Carroll has become a poster child for frustrated consumers.

If you somehow missed the story, here’s the summary. After nine months of failed appeals through United’s customer service channels, Carroll used his musical talents, with a little help from social media, to send a powerful message about corporate indifference.  His music video, “United Breaks Guitars” has received over 3 million downloads on YouTube and been covered by CNN, Fox, USA Today, and major consumer sites all over the Web.

But, here’s the thing. Technically, United’s not wrong. Their website makes it clear they’re not liable for fragile items, and they warn against checking musical instruments, advising that passengers call the airline first. More importantly, Carroll says he was alerted by a fellow passenger who could see the ground workers seriously manhandling his guitar. But, he didn’t open the case to check on it when he retrieved it from baggage claim. It was only later, he says, that he opened the case, discovered the damage, and complained.

Given those facts, it’s a little more understandable that United wasn’t particularly impressed with Carroll’s claim.

Social media is a powerful platform

But no matter, because the damage is done.  After the first few hundred thousand video downloads, the airline woke up and publicly changed its tune.  United spokesperson Robin Urbanski gamely admitted the video “struck a chord” at the airline, calling it “a unique learning opportunity.” She asked permission to use it for United’s customer service training. Later, United announced via Twitter that it had made a $3,000 donation to the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, as requested by Carroll. (In a brilliant follow, Bob Taylor of Taylor Guitars appeared in a video just days later plugging the Taylor website and suggesting ways to prevent damage to guitars when traveling.)

The challenge United faces is that Carroll’s video really did strike a chord – among most of us watching. The match-to-kerosene aspect of its viral explosion is the nearly universal resentment of the airline industry, and the deterioration of of quality, customer service, and reputation as many airlines have struggled against heavy economic weather.  While many of the businesses we love to hate have used social media to enhance their customer service (i.e., Comcast) most airlines, with the exception of the socially savvy JetBlue, are behind the curve. Complain, and you meet a brick wall of indifference.

At this point, United must take some pretty bold steps to drive down Carroll’s video in Web searches.  It needs to show sincerity, empathy, and a real desire to do better in the future. (It might even consider a musical video response of its own….. Brian Adams’ “Please Forgive Me” and Brenda Lee’s classic “I’m Sorry” come to mind.)

The point is that United’s probably not even at fault here. But the situation shows again that the best reputation PR plan is a preemptive one – one designed to fix it before it breaks. Years of poor customer service, haphazard communications, and inattention to corporate reputation have taken their toll and will make the job harder.

The Art Of Saying Nothing

Since Samuel Alito’s famous confirmation hearings where he hedged even the question of whether he liked Bruce Springsteen, the art of saying nothing has gained favor in high-stakes Washington proceedings. The latest case is Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor.  Her carefully scripted answers, calm demeanor and physical composure throughout two days of hearings have been remarkable.

Michael Wolff implied that either Sotomayor had been overly media-trained for the hearings…”or she’s been skillfully medicated.” Daily Show host Jon Stewart joked that she “sat so still…after a while she activated her body’s screen-saver.”

Avoiding risk when your team is winning is a good strategy, so we’ll probably see more of these non-hearings, at least when confirmation is likely. And after public performances like South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s long-winded “apology” for his indiscretions and Sarah Palin‘s, um.. improvisational media briefings, it’s refreshing to watch someone so thoroughly self-possessed.

But, non-answers aren’t always a winning play. I personally don’t ever want clients to be overprepared for media interviews, for several reasons. First, people aren’t dumb. They know when someone’s obfuscating or avoiding, and it can reflect badly on candor, credibility, and even intelligence. Media also tend to become frustrated with bland language and double-speak, as witnessed in some sharp exchanges in the White House press room and on the political campaign trail. It’s more helpful to think of an interview as a business exchange, where each party gets something they want.

Most importantly, offering nothing forces the press and blogosphere to focus on what little they do have, even if it’s misleading, out-of-context, or damaging. We’ve seen this with Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” quote that seems to grow larger as she says less. In the corporate world, where my experience resides, there’s usually an opportunity cost to giving an interview in order to say very little.  An executive under pressure can often gain control of the conversation by giving – offering fresh facts, a point of view, or even just a new way of saying what he’s said before.

Finally, it can help to show emotion – as Domino’s president Patrick Doyle did when visibly angry over the rogue employee video that threatened to bring down the company.  Regardless of media platform or messaging, making a connection is what good communications is all about. To achieve that, you need to come across as a human being, not a media robot.

Citizen Advertising, 2.0

My Twitter account was recently suspended.  It was an accidental move apparently caused by an attempt to control spam, and it was rectified within 24 hours or so.  But for a short time, I was one of hundreds of legitimate users left out in the cold, vainly posting messages asking assistance. As one fellow complainer posted to the Twitter help desk, “You’re messing with my reputation.”

My thoughts exactly. That’s why I was interested to read about Izea‘s plan to unveil a new platform that enables Twitter users to post updates that are openly sponsored by brands and products. Izea, of course, is the company that brought us sponsored blog posts.  Those have already generated controversy and conversation (including by me.)  Just today, the New York Times reported that the FTC may soon require online media to comply with disclosure rules under its truth-in-advertising guidelines.  But, compared to blogs, personal updates like Facebook status and Twitter posts are an even grayer area. Are micro-updates actually monetizable?

Izea thinks so.  And though it says the platform is intended for “grassroots” bloggers who have only a few hundred readers, I find it hard to imagine it would be limited to those with small followings. But, in fairness, two things might separate it from the sketchy image generated by other sponsored coversation companies like Magpie.  First, Izea requires full disclosure of the sponsored tweet through use of a #spon hashtag. Second, it will deal directly with advertisers rather than through affiliate companies that tend to mask the commercial relationship.

Sponsored tweeting strikes most Twitter users as a terrible idea.  After all, there’s already too much spamming, multilevel and affiliate marketing, and those annoying attempts to game the Twitter system by making certain terms more searchable. Most importantly, social media tools like Twitter are supposed to be about an authentic conversation.

But, as I’ve posted, Twitter hasn’t really achieved that two-way exchange status, and its follower model lends itself to different forms of experimentation, particularly among those with legitimately large followings. It’ll be interesting to see if any celebrities or other power users will sign onto a pay-per-tweet kind of arrangement. It’s hard to imagine Shaquille O’Neal or Ashton Kutcher as “twitter pimps.”   Yet, we don’t object to celebrity endorsements in other media.  Is there really a difference between Kutcher appearing in a clever Coolpix ad and @aplusk tweeting about it on behalf of Canon?

For all the fuss, I’m choosing to wait and see how the sponsored tweeting turns out. It’s clear that traditional advertising must reinvent itself, and who knows – those who use originality and humor just might be part of a cool new wave in creative content.

But, the most interesting thing about this experimental monetization model is that it makes money for all involved – the platform, the Twitter user, and presumably the sponsor.  Everyone, that is, except Twitter.

Michael Jackson Makes Internet History

It’s ironic that Michael Jackson had planned a series of “comeback” concerts scheduled to begin shortly before his death, since no comeback could have matched the media storm surrounding his passing and subsequent memorial service. The service, which was televised, live-streamed, and followed closely by millions on social networking sites in real time, has been called the largest Web event in history.  This is an exaggeration – Barack Obama’s inauguration takes that title.

Yet, the memorial was an unprecedented multimedia event.  According to Nielsen, it was the third most discussed topic among social networking sites, accounting for more than 3 percent of all online conversation. For me, it was a slightly weird immersion into what we used to call media convergence, live and unfiltered.

I didn’t tune in until shortly before the end. This was a good thing, because it was overwhelming.  Sad, yes. But the real overwhelm was trying to follow the jerky live web video of the Staples Center memorial on CNN, while taking in the other live events set up at additional locations.  Then there was the Facebook comment stream on the right-hand side of my screen. (I’m not even going to start with the Twitter feed.)

The service itself lacked a consistent tone, which is not unusual, given the occasion  And any event where the Rev. Al Sharpton, Brooke Shields, and Usher share a stage is bound to be a study in contrasts. But it was the integration – or attempts at integration – of social media that made this experience different from other heavily covered events. The Facebook comments came at a lightning pace – over 6000 per minute on the CNN feed alone. The tenor of the conversation – if you could call it that – was fragmented, mercurial, and oddly exhausting. Many were grieving, others were cynical, a few were comic, most were banal. The overall effect was a little jarring for a memorial service, even one for the most eccentric of performers.

Nielsen’s Charles Buchwalter comments, “Even as recently as five years ago, the only choice for community was to gather around the TV screen with co-workers or friends for major events. Now, there are three screens to choose from and, as our research shows, online activity actually reinforces TV viewing. So when outlets like CNN integrate their coverage with Facebook or MSNBC leans heavily on Twitter it demonstrates the public’s growing integrated use of TV, the web, and mobile for getting, and at times reporting, the news.”

It’s true that any media outlet that didn’t incorporate social media in their coverage of the day seemed…well, out of touch. But, it also highlights the flipside of the social Web, its high noise-to-signal ratio, and the need to calibrate that social component to achieve real, seamless integration of it into the overall mix.  We’ve come a long way, but we’re not there yet. 

Is A “Whisper Campaign” Good PR?

This Sunday I was among many PR professionals who read a lengthy New York Times piece titled “Spinning the Web: P.R. in Silicon Valley.” It recounted the launch of a tech start-up by a youngish publicist using her social and business connections to generate positive buzz through “whispering” to influential non-journalists. One point of the piece is that traditional PR strategies are giving way to those favoring social media channels that bypass traditional press. The story generated some lively discussion among PR pros, a fairly negative post on TechCrunch, and a debate about whether investors should influence communications strategy (as happens in the article)

But, here’s the thing.  Influencer relations isn’t new. Outreach to bloggers, analysts, “power users” and other influential figures has been a part of sound public relations strategy for many many years. What’s more interesting – the possibly diminishing role of traditional journalists and “cynical” tech blogs and reviewers – was not fully covered. What could have been an exploration of public relations in the age of Web 2.0 and the disintermediation of mainstream media ended up being a puffy feature about one individual and the Web-famous names she has on speed-dial.

To me, the story suggests a few things, namely that PR has a…um, PR problem. Also not news, but it bears repeating that smart public relations is typically a great deal more than leveraging contacts, or “smiling and dialing.” Access matters. But so does the right strategy, messaging, sales pitch, and, oh, yes, it helps to have a superior product and something relevant and interesting to say.

The story also brought to mind a West-Coast-based client who complained that no one in the Valley knows how to think creatively. While this is untrue, what is true is that the typical Silicon Valley launch is usually all about getting the next round of funding. So, it’s critical to focus on the so-called “whisper campaign,” among other tactics.  Outside the Valley, we also focus on strategic positioning in a hypercompetitive marketplace, but we’re more likely to be supporting a brand with a broader group of end-users in mind….and, one hopes, a more realistic and long-lived vision from the client than a VC with a serious case of Google-envy.

The irony of the story, of course, is that what’s caught industry attention for the company that’s chasing the Silicon Valley dream wasn’t the endorsement of Kevin Rose or Larry Ellison, or the successful avoidance of TechCrunch, but a feature in the dead-trees broadsheet that epitomizes mainstream media – the good old The New York Times.