Digital is a massive opportunity for PR but…

We all have our favorite way of getting a point of view across.  This includes the structure of our arguments and the channels we prefer.  Yet if the digital revolution has taught us anything it’s that people want to consume content and conversations through their favorite channels, not the ones we may prefer.  So it concerns me that so many social media gurus are almost exclusively using Facebook and Twitter to help drive interaction with customers.  My fear isn’t that these are the wrong channels but rather that we are in danger of simply replacing an old set of channels (traditional media) with a new and arguably narrow set (social media).  In other words we are moving from people that were good at getting news media to get our news out, to people that are good at tweeting.  There is surely a lot more to digital than this?  Done right digital is about creating channel agnostic content and by engaging with the customer through their preferred channel (rather than ours).  By driving people to Facebook and Twitter we are being sensible in that a lot of people are hanging out in these places BUT we are missing a huge opportunity that digital creates and that is to be where the customer wants to have a dialog, rather than insisting they play on our pitch.  Some will argue that brands have simply followed customers to these places.  That is only partly true.  Much of the growth of Facebook and Twitter is because brands have adopted these sites.  My message to you is not that you abandon Facebook et al but rather that you shouldn’t assume that these channels are the starting point.  Digital is without doubt the biggest opportunity our industry has seen in decades. Let’s not waste it.

Is your client ‘world leading’? – 10 other words/phrases brands should avoid

There used to a blog called World Leading that poked fun at the PR industry.  Its title was of course a reminder of how stupid it is to make false statements about a client’s products or business.  Yet a quick scan of the latest press releases shows that all too many companies think they are the world’s leading something or other.  In the era of social media such statements seem silly and counter productive.  Customers can easily find out if a product or company is a world leader, or if it is in fact a laggard.  Yet, as I say, companies still do it.  Here’s a recent example by Ford: “Ford Motor Company, the police vehicle market leader for 15 years, has done it again.”  Sadly companies use all sorts of other rubbish in their materials.  Here are some words and expressions large companies have in their materials right now, that I would love to see them eliminate:

  1. Synergy – I don’t need to explain why this word should not be used do I?
  2. Platform – this is rapidly becomming an overused term in technology with just about every company creating a platform for other technologies
  3. Open – again this is a word that is over used by technology companies and is often untrue in its application
  4. “Enduring commitment” – phrases like these makes my blood boil.  Either you are committed or you are not.  The ‘Enduring’ part simply makes no sense.
  5. Convergence – there just has to be a better word or phrase.
  6. “Integrated applications” – the use of phrases that sound intelligent but tell you nothing about what is actually going on, drives me nuts.
  7. “Go to market” – marketing speak… do real people use such expressions?
  8. “all new” – this implies that the other versions you announced weren’t really new at all.
  9. “active dialog” – I think I know what they meant to say… sadly they didn’t
  10. Revolutionary – really?  The product really is revolutionary?  Would customers call it revolutionary?  I doubt it.

Now I genuinely took these words and expressions from press releases issued by large companies in the last 30 days.  These are brands you would definitely have heard of.  Despite their prominence they still feel it necessary to use language that is at best confusing and at worst obvious exaggeration.  PR PROs, please do your part to make materials an honest and sensible reflection of the brands you represent.  Blatant over statement stands out like a sore thumb and makes us all look stupid.


Is BlackBerry about to die?

Research in Motion (RIM), makers of the BlackBerry, the smartphone category leader for most of the recent past seems in danger of going the way of Palm, who created the category, did.  In recent weeks there has been a steady flow of negative news and commentary form the media, ranging form today’s piece on Bloomberg that said “more companies opting for rival devices such as Apple Inc.’s iPhone.  Of 200 companies in the U.S. and U.K. surveyed, 74 percent now let their employees use devices other than BlackBerrys,” to news that various governments have raised questions about its security.  On the surface it appears RIM is suffering from bad PR and government relations.  My question is: Is this a marketing problem or a product problem?

It does appear that RIM has a significant PR challenge. Blackberry 6 has rolled out via a TV ad campaign but with little attention in the editorial side of the media.  What attention it has got has tended to focus on this being “RIM’s last roll of the dice.”  Of course RIM has also been berated for having a relatively weak product line up and for also having opted for a software application model that gave customers a few really good apps versus the thousands and thousands open to iPhone and Android users.  It would thus appear to be a perfect storm.  A weak product line up, a software strategy error and less than effective PR.  In other words it’s not just a marketing problem.

Can marketing save RIM? I for one believe the BlackBerry brand could still do well.  The iPhone, though beautiful, isn’t without its flaws: dropped calls, touch screen keyboard that can lead to horrendous typos, AT&T coverage in markets like San Francisco, the list goes on.  The iPhone is also becoming a target for people who like to exploit security holes.   I was recently told of a major investment bank that wanted to trial the iPhone for staff.  To make it secure they had to disable the camera, iPod functionality and the ability to download apps.  In other words it became a phone and email device.  Given these are actually two of its weaker functions (see list of weaknesses above) that should make the BlackBerry a very good alternative.  This is where marketing needs to step in and hammer the iPhone for all it’s worth.  For people who like to email or text message the BlackBerry s still the best device going.  But they need to do more than that. RIM needs to get aggressive and invest in a real content and applications model that people see as a real alternative to iTunes.  This could easily be done via a comprehensive agreement with Amazon (who also has an interest in unseating Apple).  Now of course we hear that RIM is readying an iPad rival.  This makes it a rival to Amazon also given the Kindle.  Bad, bad idea in my mind.  I think there is far more to be gained by having Amazon on its side than having them as a rival.  Amazon, after all, offers the only real alternative to Apple’s content strategy.

I could go on and on about how RIM needs to ‘re-win’ the smartphone battle and how this requires them to win over both consumers AND the IT community.  It’s achievable with some well executed PR provided they also look at their content/application strategy AND roll out a product line that rethinks their current look.  RIM is where the American carmakers were when the Japanese arrived.  They were focused on the wrong things and just couldn’t see how tastes had changed.  It’s going to be a tough battle for RIM but as of today they have the resources to win if they are willing to take some bold steps and admit some of their mistakes.

Companies walk the fine line on Haiti with PR

As the terrible news unfolds about the earthquake in Haiti, companies are trying to figure out how they can help but also how they can get credit for helping.  I’ve talked to several clients on this subject and they all raise the same challenge:  how do we get credit for the help we give without it coming across as though we are only helping so that we get some positive press.  The reality is of course that good companies won’t try and exploit a disaster to get attention.  Good companies will do the right thing and if in doing the right thing people notice, then all well and good.  I know that many PROs will be encouraged to try and get people to notice the good things being done to help the people of Haiti but I for one would prefer to all the effort go in to helping people rather than into publicity.  Now if publicity in turn helps people by making more people give money or time then go get that publicity.  In other words make your relief efforts genuine and not a thinly veiled advert for the company.

When Katrina struck, a poster child for good action was WalMart.  They loaded trucks with basic goods and drove to the region.  They didn’t send out a press release telling people.  Truly good acts don’t go unnoticed.  Sometimes it takes time for people to notice but notice they will and word of mouth will eventually make sure people find out.  I’ve already noticed that major online brands such as Google, Amazon and eBay have links on their homepages so you can help the people in Haiti. Interestingly though I can’t find a major offline brand that has a similar link.  There’s no good reason I can see for that. Follow Google’s link for example and it tells you how you can donate.  It doesn’t tell you what Google is doing itself.  There’s no reason why Ford, Bank Of America, Coca Cola, Next Fifteen or anyone else couldn’t do the same…

At the end of the day, good corporate social responsibility boils down to:  Doing what’s right and doing what you can.

Why should companies use PR agencies?

Why should companies use PR agencies?

This may seem an obvious question, yet I’m amazed how often I hear it being asked.  For as long as I can remember, which is sadly quite a long time, the main arguments have been (here come the bullet points):

  • Agencies can provide external counsel – they will give you a perspective that you can’t see from within the company.  How often clients are prepared to take this counsel varies and is a measure of a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ client.
  • Agencies act for many clients and thus unearth opportunities that in-house staff wouldn’t.  For example while talking to a reporter about a news story they can sell in another client who may offer another angle.  Reporters like this as it saves them time and that’s why reporters often also like agencies.
  • Agencies offer clients flexibility in terms of resources.  This flexibility is not limited simply to the amount of people who can be thrown at a task but also the skill set.  For example, clients don’t necessarily need certain areas of senior counsel every day, or even every week.  Agencies give them access to the talent they need when they need it.
  • Agencies bring new thinking to the mix.  Agencies see the new ways PR is being practiced by virtue of the fact that they act for multiple clients.  So when a new approach or idea gets tried for one client, others quickly benefit.  Now of course some clients may not like to think their ideas are being used elsewhere but we all know even when an idea is re-used in PR it takes on a whole different look and feel.
  • Agencies actually cost less.  Well not always but they are rarely more expensive when compared to say having a large internal team at a big company.  That said few companies seem to really make a sensible comparison here.  The total cost of an agency needs to be compared with not only the salaries of staff you hire but all the other ancillary costs that come with having an in-house team such as the office space, HR and IT support, training etc etc.

Now of course there are advantages to being in-house also which is why the most successful PR campaigns tend to bring together a strong internal team with a good agency.  Of course that’s not always an option, especially for a smaller company.  At that level having a hungry, aggressive agency is always the way to go.  Especially if you can find one that will fill your slides with bullet points ;).

Apple stumbles in China?

Thanks to a tweet by Joe Kingsbury I picked up on a news story on Street Insider which claims that in the first four days since the iPhonebroken-iphone went on sale in China a mere 5,000 have been sold.  If that’s true it suggests that Apple’s largest potential market isn’t as in love with the device as western markets.  Now if someone else were to market a smart phone that did become a hit in China, such as Nokia or Motorola, then perhaps Apple would start to feel the pressure in western markets before long.

What ever happened to….

I was struck this morning how quickly brands come and go and how easily brands get forgotten. I noticed a new type of search engine, thanks to David McCulloch who had tweeted about Kosmix. This reminded me about all the hype and then not so positive press that was generated around the launch of Cuil. Cuil was going to be the next big thing in search. It clearly isn’t/wasn’t. I struggled to remember its name and ended up on wikipedia trying to find out what it was called (it’s hard to search for something that you don’t remember the name of).

Kosmix has, rather sensibly, not tried to claim it will topple Google. This is good for two reason:

1. It would be a foolish claim for such a young product that is still in beta.
2. It seems to rely on Google for most of its searches. Indeed Kosmix would seem to aggregate a series of Google searches and organize them by media type etc. So if they were to kill Google, they’d end up killing themselves.

More seriously, I’m glad to see brands being launched with more realism at a time like this. The people that launched Cuil were ill advised and should have set more realistic goals. We all know that Google is less than perfect and that at some point someone will figure out a better way to deliver search but for now it is the leader by a mile. So if you intend to overtake it, you had better be pretty certain you have what it takes to do so before you start telling people that’s your intention.

Who does it worst?

I have a theory that people don’t remember the average but instead recall the very good and the very bad. This means that a great deal of marketing work is often not remembered as it is not best in class. This doesn’t mean it has no value but it does reduce its value. Of course marketing departments don’t aim to be average. Instead they aim to do stand out work. So why is most work so average? If I look at the programs I have worked on that were just OK (and there were a few), then in many cases it boiled down to a few simple things:

1. Dummed down – all too often a great creative idea has the edge taken out of it in order to reduce the potential risks that idea creates. Sadly by removing the edge it becomes a less then memorable campaign.

2. Under resourced – I don’t just mean here that companies spend too little. Instead I mean that all to often great work is sandwiched in alongside large pieces of average work being done by the same company. If the resources of the average were reapplied to the great just imagine the difference it would make.

3. Trying to do too much – good campaigns will often be hijacked by all sorts of areas of a business. As a result the original focus of the campaign is lost. If other parts of a business want to jump on board a marketing campaign it is them that should adapt (within reason) and not the other way around.

4. Failure to learn from mistakes – too many companies ignore the mistakes they’ve made in the past. Even companies that bother to hold a post mortem after a campaign, will all to often ignore the lessons learned when creating a new campaign. Why?

5. Logic beats emotion – great marketing campaigns often have something that is illogical in the mix. Or at least an element that appears illogical or pointless. Take the recent Microsoft ads with Gates and Seinfeld. They are quirky and silly and have generated a lot of opinion both good and bad. Logic would have killed these ads a lot sooner than Microsoft did (apparently they are no more now). If they had made Seinfeld talk product features it is unlikely people would have talked about them. By avoiding talking about Microsoft for almost all of the advert and instead focusing on trying to connect with an audience, Microsoft made an honest attempt to connect with its audience. You can argue whether they succeeded or failed in this instance. To me they succeeded.

My concern with this issue is that I’d love to see more memorable PR work being done. As it stands I’m convinced people can easily recall bad PR and can recall, albeit to a lesser degree, great PR. That leaves a lot of work that probably penetrates the subconscious or affects a small community but goes largely unnoticed. Perhaps the best way to get people to do great PR though is to make them fear doing truly bad PR (See my poll on the right). Put another way, I think people should always ask “what do we need to do to do a better job this time?” They need to ask this at every step in the process.

Outsourced Agencies – Good or Bad?

One of the major tech companies is currently looking to put all of its marketing with one agency. It has currently asked two of the large agency groups to create an agency that will be dedicated to its business and handle all aspects of marketing from online advertising to research to PR. On paper the tech firm stands to do well out of this as the two agency giants tussle to offer the best value and brains. But to my way of thinking there are several issues that should concern a firm when they go down this path:

1. When you outsource all your marketing to one firm you are effectively signing them up for a VERY long time as switching is going to be even harder. So you had better be really sure you like the key people involved AND that that they will stay around.
2. The savings on the bigger pieces of the pie like advertising will likely be substantial but for the smaller pieces of the puzzle, lower cost will only mean lesser talent.
3. It will be tough to get people to work at this dedicated firm without throwing a lot of money at them (which seems to defeat the aim of the exercise). People who want to work at agencies typically do so because they want broad experience not to effectively work in house by having only one client.
4. One of the advantages of having an agency is that they work on other clients and are continually coming up with new thinking and new opportunities. These would likely dry up in a one agency scenario.
5. Integrated marketing has been around for ages and yet hardly anyone does it. Even those that do tend to have big areas where they make exceptions on the agency front. There has to be a reason why this approach hasn’t been adopted by all the major corporations around the world…

Now I know there are some who will say that I’m in no position to talk given we have a business that offer a global solution for clients. I’d argue that we only offer them PR and relevant research. We don’t try and offer them the entire solution.

When this tech firm makes its decision there will likely be a lot of speculation that others will follow. My suspicion is that some will watch to see how it works but I doubt many will immediately copy it.