Friday, October 31, 2008

Social Media's Slow Roll in Government

"Social media outlets are catching on slowly (among federal government IT decision-makers). Yet, this will change as the government workforce turns over and gets younger."

Lisa Dezzutti, President and CEO
Market Connections

This was perhaps the most relevant point I picked up this morning at an event to introduce a new market research study entitled “"2008 Federal Media and Marketing Survey.” Research shop Market Connections and Sara Leiman of Sage Communications queried 2,500 federal employees – both civilian and DoD/intelligence -- to gain an understanding of the sources they rely on for industry information and best practices. (Image: Lisa Dezzutti, Market Connections)

Here are a couple of highlights from their presentation:

1. The most widely read trade publications

-Government Executive (50%)
-Federal Computer Week (43%)
-Federal Times (38%)
-Government Computer News (36%)
-Defense News (27%)

2. The most frequently visited Web sites (41%) (37%) (36%) (27%)

3. Social media engagement

-Reading blogs (13%)
-Participating in social networks (4%)
-Writing a blog (4%)

Admittedly, I find the current level of social media participation among federal decision-makers to be disappointing. It’s consistent though with what we are experiencing with our public sector focused clients and validates the importance of implementing a mix of public relations, marketing and business development programs.

I also agree completely with Market Connections’ Dezzutti assertion that social media adoption in government will continue to accelerate. Yes, it will occur as many federal employees retire and a younger workforce takes shape.

However, there is also a clearer understanding in government that citizens now expect to engage via social networks, online communities and electronic correspondence. The continued success Strategic Communications Group (Strategic) client GovDelivery has experienced with the adoption of their Email and digital subscription management platform is evidence of this trend.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Journalists Speak

With the buzz about social media and its applications for brand building, thought leadership, employee relations and (yes!) lead generation, the tried-and-true practice of media relations often gets overlooked. At Strategic Communications Group (Strategic), cultivating relationships with influential journalists continues to be a staple of our integrated communications work on behalf of clients.

This past week my colleague Karen Miller participated in a teleseminar titled “How to Pitch Reporters.” It featured writers from the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and the Associated Press who shared best practices, as well as cautionary tales.

Beyond the typical gripes about PR practitioners (i.e. please read the publication before pitching us), the journalists shared some good insights about how they are also tapping into social media to identify stories and manage the reporting process.

With Karen’s permission, I have included below her notes from the teleseminar.


-Lisa Belkin, Contributing Writer for the New York Times Magazine, and author of "Life's Work, Confessions of an Unbalanced Mom"

-Shelly Banjo, personal finance reporter for The Wall Street Journal Sunday. She also writes two columns related to Gen-Y, called "Starting Out" and the Journal Women's "Fast Track."

-Abby Ellin, Former NYT columnist, frequent NYT contributor, author of "Teenage Waistland: A Former Fat Kid Weighs in on Living Large, Losing Weight and How Parents Can (and Can't) Help."

-Megan Scott, Reporter for the Associated Press

-Good to send email with no pitch and just list clients you have that may be on interest to them at some point as a way to establish a relationship

-Don’t want to be contacted via Facebook or Twitter

-Facebook is creepy, don’t want to be your friend on Facebook, it’s a business relationship, difficult to respond to Facebook messages from a Blackberry

-Right to the point in pitches in the first sentence is best

-From a pitch want to know something they don’t already know

-Point out if others are doing what you’re pitching, need multiple sources

-Recent profiles in competitors make most reporters not want to talk to you for awhile (“I want virgins”)

-Contacting multiple reporters at one time: prefer to get exclusive offers, if ccing the world make sure not to include everyone’s name in the TO: field

-Subject line best practices: idea – put reporter’s name in subject line or at least topic of email

-Best pitches: specificity of how it could be a story

-They do check Junk Folder, if don’t respond means it is not a good pitch, bugging a reporter with follow-up is not good

-If don’t hear back in a week, move on

-AP & NYT: only go to event if covering them, wining and dining doesn’t work, not allowed to let publicists by a cup of coffee or dinner

-Physical press kits: electronic is preferred

-Pdf or in body of email: either is fine, some wanted both, a lot is being read on Blackberrys or iPhones

-Don’t send pictures unless requested

-Press releases don’t work well for these reporters, can’t remember last time they did a story based on a press release

-Don’t like cheesy mailers, waste of money is painful

-Get a lot of ideas from blogs

-SEO is money well spent, first thing reporters do is a Google search, important to come up high on the page

-Blogs are very important right now, the reporters are big fish eating the small fish, but over time reporters will become the bloggers

-Reporters do pass pitches to other reporters when they think it’s relevant, but get irritated when you just pitch everyone within one paper

Monday, October 27, 2008

Impact of Economic Uncertainty on Work/Life Balance

Even though Strategic Communications Group's (Strategic) senior team has been together for more than four years, I wish I knew my colleagues better.

That's because a challenging economic environment demands exceptional management for a company to thrive or, in some instances, merely survive.

I picked up a lot of lessons learned during the post-dot com downturn in late 2001. We made several painful decisions that required us to scale back the business, such as cutting our creative department and several rounds of additional employee layoffs.

As a result of the focus, attention and discipline of our senior team the agency survived and we emerged on the other side in a position well set for growth. In fact, the most profitable year in our company's history was the direct result of business decisions made during the depth of the recession.

The last downturn also helped me grow as an entrepreneur and president/CEO. I discovered that hard work only gets you so far. To call on a cliché: success is about working smarter.

A CEO's most important responsibilities are to put the team in a position in which they are set up for success and establish clear (and realistic) performance expectations. That's it...although (admittedly) it sure can be hard to deliver on.

In 2004, Strategic went through a management transition. Our four most senior client executives joined the agency at that time and we promoted finance and marketing/sales personnel to executive positions.

I was also in transition in my personal life. My wife and I started a family and we now have two wonderful boys under the age of five. I often tell people that with children the days may seem long, yet the years fly by.

For that reason, I made the decision to scale back my work time from the 80 plus hours I was routinely putting in a week. I do my best to be home for the kids' bed and bath each night, and I simply won't miss weekend time with the family.

Strategic made dramatic shifts in our corporate culture, employee management and hiring practices. We instituted a completely flexible work environment in which staff members can work where they want and when they want, being measured on delivery of service and performance.

Our utilization is also based on a 40 hour work week to send a clear message internally: work/life balance is a priority at Strategic.

As a result, our team now skews old for a public relations consultancy. Our model is not to cowboy up a group of 20 somethings and work them more than 60 hours a week. We have families, children, community involvement and outside interests. I believe it makes us better PR professionals and healthier individuals.

Yet, all of this flexibility and work/life balance means we simply don't spend as much time together. I try to connect with each member of Strategic's senior team weekly, lunch with each on a monthly basis and we get together in-person every six weeks for a management meeting.

Is it enough though? Do we have the brutally candid relationships often required to make decisions during a period of economic uncertainty?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Protecting Valuation

I just read an excellent interview by ExecutiveBiz’s JD Kathuria with Ted Leonsis, vice chairman emeritus of AOL and owner of the Washington Capitals.

Titled “6 Tips for Companies to Weather the Financial Crisis,” Leonsis provides sage advice on how to align business strategy, sales projections and cash conservation to ensure the ongoing viability of an emerging growth company. As someone who managed a business during the dot com collapse in 2001, much of Leonsis’ advice is right in line with my past experiences.

A point where I disagree though is on Leonsis’ counsel to entrepreneurs in the middle of fundraising to “take the money and don’t worry about the valuation.” That’s spoken like a true angel investor.

Yes…it’s a challenging market and companies need to be realistic about corporate valuation. Yet, that doesn’t mean to simply roll over to the first investor or VC who is willing to write a check. Investors represent the interests of their limited partners, not those of the entrepreneur. Their objective is to buy the largest percentage of the company at the lowest possible valuation.

At Strategic Communications Group (Strategic), a fair amount of our integrated public relations and social media work is designed to enhance a client’s corporate and product positioning to contribute to valuation. It’s a great example of how some entrepreneurs are taking proactive steps to protect their ownership.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Booz Allen's Story of Resilience

Booz Allen Hamilton’s Dr. Ralph Shrader has the CEO look.

Neatly coiffed silver hair. Check. Well tailored dark suit, pressed shirt and bold tie. Check…check…check. Cufflinks embossed with the corporate logo. You got it…check.

Dr. Shrader is no mere figure head though. As chairman and CEO of Booz Allen Hamilton, he leads a professional services firm with $4 billion in annual revenue, more than 100 partners and 20,000 employees. The company provides program management, technology, strategy and operations consulting services to Federal civilian, defense, intelligence and homeland security government agencies.

Times are good for Dr. Shrader and Booz Allen Hamilton. The company’s top-line revenue will grow organically 20 percent this year and the firm sports a contract backlog of $2B.

Yet, the past few years have been anything but easy. In fact, during his recent presentation to the National Capital Chapter of the Association for Corporate Growth (ACG) Dr. Shrader dropped the word “resilience” about a dozen times.

This story of perseverance dates back to 1940 when the Secretary of the Navy asked the Booz Allen Hamilton to help the service prepare for the coming war. The firm’s government business prodded along for the next 60 years as a nice complement to its commercial consulting work.

That is until the terrorist attacks of September 11th led to a flood of funding for homeland security and defense programs. Booz Allen Hamilton’s government business exploded and grew to nearly 75 percent of total firm revenue.

Government work wasn’t the only thing exploding at Booz Allen Hamilton. Everything was different in public sector consulting. The length of contracts…the margins…the number of employees required to deliver service.

Booz Allen Hamilton had effectively morphed into two firms (commercial and government), each with its own distinct business model. Partners and line employees began to clash.

Dr. Shrader championed a “One Firm Evolution” reorganization in 2006 to try to bring the warring factions together. No dice. It’s safe to say that Booz Allen Hamilton was akin to a dysfunctional marriage bound together only by institutional history.

It was agreed the best path was to break the firm into two, yet a financial partner was required to fund the transaction. In stepped global private equity powerhouse Carlyle Group and the transaction came together with more than 99 percent of shares voting in favor.

Today, Booz Allen Hamilton and Booz & Company exist as separate firms that collaborate when appropriate. Dr. Shrader is now free to plot corporate strategy and manage growth, while fondly telling the firm’s story of resilience.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Colleges Fail on Social Media

Are the journalism and communications programs at US colleges preparing students for a business environment shaped by social media and Web 2.0 technologies?

That is the question I pondered as I walked across American University’s campus last week. On the invitation of former Forbes senior writer Matt Swibel, I had just spoken to a class of about 40 sophomore and junior communications majors. The experience had me worried.

The source of my concern was not the quality of students in the class. Far from it. By and large they were an outstanding group. Smart, energetic, inquisitive and focused on how to best prepare to competitively enter the workforce.

Rather, it was the students shocking lack of knowledge of social media. Perhaps I had unrealistic expectations as I was under the impression that the generation now making their way through higher education were raised on IM, blogs, virtual worlds and online communities.

With the exception of an intimate knowledge of the features and functionality of Facebook, this group came up short on even the basic tools of social media.

-Who in the class writes a blog? No one raised their hand.
-Who in the group reads blogs on a regular basis? All quiet.
-OK…how about social networks other than Facebook? Does anyone in this group have a LinkedIn profile? Blank stares.
-Has anyone heard of Twitter or Plurk or Pownce? Those are Disney characters, right?

I spent the better part of the next 90 minutes walking the class through blog publishing platforms like WordPress and Blogger. We explored LinkedIn and its group functionality. We looked at Twitter and talked about the business applications of micro-blogging.

Woven into the discussion were examples of social media programs Strategic Communications Group (Strategic) currently has in place and their related writing requirements.

All in all, my guest slot at American University was fulfilling. I have a passion for social media and enjoy speaking on the topic. The students were engage and (I hope) came away with a better understanding of the skills they need to develop prior to entering the work force.

However, my unease about their lack of social media engagement lingers. Are college journalism and communications programs building this into their curriculum? If not, we sure are doing this generation a disservice.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Positioning Follows Environment

During the past 24 hours my world has been consumed by discussions of corporate positioning and to-market strategy.

Yesterday, I joined several Strategic Communications Group (Strategic) colleagues for a public relations/social media plan review meeting with an emerging growth client in the e-commerce space. In talking through the company’s market situation, competitive environment and corporate goals, it was agreed that our launch campaign will feature a bold leadership statement which differentiates the company from successful offerings currently available to customers.

It’s a strategy designed to put the company on the map more quickly with customers and investors, even though there are a number of risks associated with its execution.

This morning I was reminded that product or service differentiation isn’t always required to achieve a desirable competitive positioning. An article in today’s New York Times discusses video site Joost’s relaunch as a Hulu clone, the well received video service from Fox and NBC.

Joost’s management is counting on concern among media companies such as CBS, Time Warner and the CW Network of the growing momentum of Hulu.

“If you are a principal content owner aside from NBC and Fox, do you really want one Web site that controls all professional TV?” asks Mike Volpi, Joost’s CEO. “Everybody who is not NBC and Fox is encouraging us to do a good job and be a player in the market.”

My view is that it’s ultimately a company’s market environment that should have the most significant influence on the setting of corporate goals, as well as related positioning and messaging. While Joost’s me-too approach may lack differentiation, it’s the right play at this time.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Pour Me Another, Says Mail Goggles

The most significant professional and personal mistakes I've made have been when I reacted to a situation soley based on emotion.

For instance, I once told a newly hired marketing VP at a client that if he went through with the PR agency change he was pondering it would be the dumbest @#$$@!! mistake he ever made. Needless to say, we didn't retain that business.

While I still have to keep my emotions in check, I can apparently start putting away the drinks without fear of sending out an inappropriate Email. That's because Google just introduced a new feature to Gmail called Mail Goggles.

Jon Perlow, Google's lead engineer on the project, cited personal experience as his inspiration:

"Sometimes I send messages I shouldn't send. Like the time I told that girl I had a crush on her over text message. Or the time I sent that late-night email to my ex-girlfriend that we should get back together."

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

FDA's PR Shop Scandal

The flap over the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s (FDA) contract award to PR shop Qorvis Communications has got me steamed. And not for the reasons you might think.

Here is a quick rundown of the facts as reported by the Washington Post:

-The FDA hires Mildred Cooper as a temporary PR consultant to advise the agency’s commissioner and other senior officials. Cooper then recommends the agency undertake a public relations campaign to help create a more positive image with the American public and on Capitol Hill

-Prior to her FDA gig, Cooper worked for a company called Luna Innovations, a Qorvis client. She picks up the phone and calls her contacts at Qorvis to discuss the FDA’s PR challenges. Together, Cooper and Qorvis develop a scope of work and budget for a PR campaign.

-With a desire to award the contract to Qorvis, the FDA then side-steps normal procedures and awards the contract to an Alaska Native corporation that qualifies for special set-asides. It’s understood by all parties that Qorvis will do the work as a subcontractor.

-After being made aware of the circumstances surrounding this award, FDA deputy commissioner John Dyer suspends the contract and initiates an independent investigation.

While the back room dealings by the FDA and Qorvis reek of suspicion and scandal, the truth is that no one involved did anything illegal. Alaska Native-owned companies do qualify for set aside contracts and typically rely on subcontractors to handle all of the work. Everyone involved in government contracting knows this.

As for the FDA’s Mildred Cooper, she merely called on a firm she had a relationship with and believed could perform the task at a high level. Guess what? That exact same thing happens in business each and every day. People hire vendors they know and trust. It’s called relationship sales.

The Washington Post cited this situation as an example of “how contract competition requirements designed to get the best deals for taxpayers have often been subverted in recent years for the sake of convenience or to serve narrow interests…”

Yet, the best deal for taxpayers in this case may have very well been for Qorvis to represent the interests of the FDA. Mildred Cooper sure thought so and that’s why she was hired.

In the interest of full disclosure, I do know a few of the Qorvis executives fairly well. My firm competes against their technology practice and I’d like to think there is a healthy respect between our companies. Yet, I have no love for Qorvis. They’re a competitor.

In this case though I do believe they’re going to get a lot of undeserved knocks in the business and trade media. That’s because the world works on relationships…except apparently in government.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

A Question of Unwritten Rules

There is a scene in the movie PCU in which the lead character Droz played by Jeremy Piven says to a friend bound for a concert, “What’s this? You’re wearing the shirt of the band you’re going to see? Don’t be that guy.”

We live in a world of unwritten rules. Organizations and social groups have them. Companies have them. Even institutions are defined by them.

Consider our national pastime, baseball. The game is more than balls and strikes. For instance, if one team’s pitcher hits a batter (on purpose or by accident) then a pitcher for the other team is obligated to do the same. Ironically, the sport has so many meaningful unwritten rules that Baseball Digest actually researched and published a book on the subject.

The practice of media relations – a cornerstone of most PR campaigns – is also defined by its unwritten rules. How (and when) to contact a journalist? What publications should only be pitched an exclusive? Why to never say your company has no competitors? An understanding of the guidelines to engage with journalists is what separates true professionals from the also-rans.

Now we come to social media and the shadowy rules that guide interaction in the blogosphere, through social networks and in other online forums. Again, there’s a lot at stake as failure to abide will result in an individual being ostracized, as well as damage to their company’s brand.

There are a couple of guidelines which are universal:

1. Participate in the discussion before trying to shape it
2. Identify who you are and any affiliations that color your opinion
3. Always provide content of value or risk being tagged a spammer

Yet, there are other possible unwritten rules which have yet to be uniformly adopted. Here are a few examples:

-If someone follows me on Twitter, is it an insult to not follow them?
-If I exchange messages with a contact in LinkedIn or Facebook, is it appropriate for me to then phone them at their office?
-When writing content for a social network managed by a publication like Fast Company or Business Week, can I reference an article from a competitive magazine?

What do you think? Also, are there other unwritten rules that are now accepted as gospel?