Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Experience to be Thankful

My three-year-old was ready to start his day at 5:30 AM this morning so I’ve had some time to consider what I should be most thankful for this year. The answer: experience.

Let me elaborate. When I shared with my parents the plan to launch my own public relations consultancy my father gave me this perplexed look. “You’ve only been in your field for a few years,” I recall him saying. “You don’t have any experience.”

Like many twenty-somethings I believed the value of experience was overstated. I was willing to work hard…to be aggressive…and to do whatever was needed to be successful.

Fast forward 14 years and I sure have a greater appreciation for the role experience plays to determine business achievement and, in some instances, mere survival.

Strategic Communications Group (Strategic) has been through a lot as a company. We lived the dramatic rise (and fall) of the dot com era. We’ve been led by three management teams, each of which brought a unique perspective to the business. We took several stabs at trying to create a perceived differentiation in the market, only to conclude public relations is a commoditized professional service.

And through it all we have been fortunate enough to represent nearly 200 technology, software, security, systems integration, satellite, wireless and healthcare clients - each presenting a distinct market situation and challenge.

So, as the Commerce Department now officially confirms the US economy contracted during Q3 I thought I’d share my perspective on management in a time of recession.

1. It all starts with the business model. Does the structure of the organization allow you to deliver services profitably, while staying in-step with client expectations? Can you quickly add or scale back resources? Do you recognize the difference between good business and an unhealthy client contract? All important questions to answer prior to execution of a business plan.

2. Focus on the core. Strategic continues to invest in growth, yet in a measured way. Unlike some agencies that subscribe to being “all things to all people,” we are committed to providing a specific set of services to a certain type of organization at a defined point in their maturation. Yes, it limits the size of our addressable market. However, we believe it makes Strategic very competitive.

3. Keep the goals of the business simple. We have two of them: a) great work for great clients; and b) a commitment to work/life balance for our employees.

4. Don’t fall in love with what you see in the mirror. A well known agency executive recently sent me this missive in an Email:

“So, over the past two years, we’ve positioned NAME WITHHELD in terms of resources, capabilities, talent and case histories to be able to claim that we are unique and unsurpassed in our ability to provide totally seamless integration from advertising to research to media training…crisis, grass roots, branding … name it …we’ve built the team of people who can do it…people with unbelievable credentials and personal reputations…”

Passion and belief in the business are important, yet it’s equally critical to constantly review, test and challenge your approach.

5. Keep it fun. A former employee was fond of saying that “work is a job, not summer camp.” Yet, there needs to be enjoyment and emotional reward in what you do.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

My Life as a Tool

I am not too popular at the moment in certain cliques among the social media set.

Mark Drapeau, the “Cheeky Geeky”, said my thinking is “backwards.” Social media wunderkind Geoff Livingston suggested I “lighten up.” And some guy named Shaun Farrell who works at the Library of Congress even called me a “tool.”

What’s my crime? It’s a perceived slight of their online buddy, Justin Thorp of ClearSpring.

At Strategic Communications Group (Strategic), we counsel our clients that the foundation of a successful social media or digital PR program is content that engages, educates and entertains. When it comes to blogging, this often requires an executive who is willing to share what they think and why, even it irritates segments of the blogosphere.

My colleague Chris Parente recently penned an excellent post about the importance for an industry thought leader to never shy from expressing their…well…thoughts. He is spot on. Straddling the fence on an issue or regurgitating the ideas of others is no way to establish a credible position in the market.

I have had two situations in the last few weeks in which the views expressed in this blog raised the ire of others. My chiding of ClearSpring’s Thorp for a poor presentation was one. The other incident involved my post about the failure of collegiate journalism and PR programs to incorporate social media into their curriculum.

While I was primarily blitzed in comments on my blog and in other online venues, my daily readership has jumped dramatically, as has the number of subscribers to my RSS feed. Plus, I’ve raised important issues for discussion that obviously have competing sides.

So…what to do when your ideas (however well supported) irritate others?

1. Listen…respect opinions…and, when appropriate, respond. In the case of my admonishment of colleges for their lack of social media education, it was correctly pointed out that I had made a generalization based on a single experience. I acknowledged that this was unfair and an error in my thinking.

2. Always take the high road. It’s simply not worth the time or energy to engage in an argument with someone committed to their line of thinking. Even worse, a battle of insults makes everyone involved appear childish.

3. Look for opportunities with non-believers. One passionate commenter to the “Strategic Guy” blog has an interesting creative and technical background. We may not agree on a specific issue, yet I do plan on meeting with him to determine if there are ways we can collaborate on behalf of Strategic’s clients.

4. Stay a true believer. I am going to keep writing what I think and why, even when I know a certain topic will rub some the wrong way. If that makes me a tool in the eyes of the Shaun Farrells of the world, than so be it.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Hormats' Grim Economic Portrait

At the start of his presentation today Goldman Sachs Vice Chairman Robert Hormats mentioned the last time he spoke to the National Capital Chapter of the Association for Corporate Growth (ACG) it was late 2002 and the DC-area was paralyzed by the sniper attacks. Whenever I show up for an ACG speech there’s a crisis, he joked.

Hormats and the 100 or so dark suited investment bankers, private equity types, M&A advisors, attorneys and commercial bankers in attendance all agreed the economy is in a state of crisis. In fact, Hormats painted quite a grim portrait of how the next 18 to 24 months will play out in the US. (Image courtesy of Future in Review.)

Here are a couple of relevant points from his presentation:

-The financial markets are in a “downward spiral of death.” Falling asset values lead to write downs which hurt confidence and then result in a further decline of asset values.

-Like financial institutions, consumers are now forced to rebuild their personal balance sheets by using capital to pay down debt. Ironically, what is good for the average household is bad for the economy.

-Goldman Sachs projects unemployment will increase from its current level of 6.5% to 8% by the end of 2009.

-While there is some excellent media reporting of the financial crisis, many of the “talking heads” on television are more alarmist than factual in their evaluations. This makes it hard for the consumer to determine what is really happening and to plan accordingly.

-We should all expect slow growth (if any) for the next two years.

OK…so it is no secret the economy is in a fragile state. What can we do? Hormats believes a massive fiscal stimulus to the tune of $500M is needed to prevent a further decline. Those dollars could be invested in infrastructure improvements at the federal and state/local levels with spending parceled out over the next two years.

There will be a deficit one way or the other, Hormats concluded. It’s only by the government injecting a significant amount of spend will we be able to eventually pare down that deficit in more prosperous economic times.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Confessions of a PR Ego-maniac

Public relations has the most impact when it is aligned with the sales, profitability and valuation goals of the business.

To achieve this strategic direction a company must often focus on the thought leadership of a specific executive. For instance, our corporate positioning campaign for government services firm Altron leveraged the industry reputation of their new president as a means of differentiating the company from similar providers in the public sector.

It’s never an ego-play though. I often tell clients that only your mom will be impressed with your photo in a magazine and she loves you regardless.

This is particularly true when it comes to customer case studies, a staple of most PR campaigns. The goal is to make the customer the hero, positioning the vendor as merely the resource that supported a successful program.

At Strategic Communications Group (Strategic), we’re fortunate to have an exceptional set of clients whose hard work, innovative thinking and commitment to success make them heroes to their respective companies. That’s especially true of BT Americas’ Jean Foster.

Jean has been our champion at BT since the beginning. She challenged the agency to design a social media and digital marketing program that would help drive success for several segments of BT’s business. And then she invested the time to educate us about their growth goals, sales methodology and competitive environment, while promoting our tactical accomplishments internally. Jean is tough, yet fair and supportive.

When the opportunity presented itself to promote BT’s social media program with BtoB Magazine we appropriately gave Jean the lead. She was a featured speaker at the magazine’s Net marketing breakfast in New York City which then resulted in this profile article in their current issue.

Writer Christopher Hosford was spot on his reporting. He addressed the business environment that led BT Americas to incorporate social media into its communications mix, how the program was designed and executed, and benchmarks for success. Something was missing from the article though: there’s no mention of Strategic.

I am thrilled that BtoB Magazine profiled Strategic’s work and excited for Jean. Yet, I spent some time on Friday stomping around the office bemoaning our lack of inclusion. One of my colleagues reminded me that success stories are about making the client the hero. True…yet it would have been great to show my mom the article too.

Read more about BT America’s social media and digital marketing program in this podcast with Jean Foster:

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Presentation Prep and Packaging

Clearspring’s Justin Thorp drips with passion. He loves his company and its widget platform. He loves their customers. And it’s apparent that he will do nearly anything to help Clearspring achieve success in the market.

That’s why Justin would be shocked to learn that his presentation at Erickson Barnett’s event on building online communities portrayed him and Clearspring in an unfavorable light.

Let’s look at the positive first. Justin peppered his presentation with anecdotes about how he personally engaged with Clearspring’s customers to help them overcome problems they had encountered when using the company’s products. He also hit on a number of relevant points about the value and impact of personal relationships, such as this memorable quote: “People have relationships with people, not products, services or companies.”

Yet, it was obvious Justin walked in to this panel discussion unprepared. The other speakers had carefully crafted presentations. Justin scribbled a couple of bullet points on a crumbled piece of paper he scrunched in his hand. Not surprising he rambled through his 20 minute discussion repeating the same points over and over.

Then, there was Justin’s appearance. Clearspring sells to the developer community and Justin has got the tech geek look down pat. I get works for him and it’s consistent with his role at the company. (Image courtesy of Erickson Barnett.)

However, the attendees at this particular event were corporate marketers and public relations professionals. Plus, the event was held at the ritzy Tower Club in Tysons Corner. A favorable impression results from what you say and (equally important) how the messages are delivered. Packaging counts!

Clearspring missed the mark on this one. The company had a great opportunity to get a group of prospective new customers excited about their technology. Instead, we came away wondering, “What’s the deal with Justin?”

Monday, November 10, 2008's Burning Desire to Win

I suspect each of us attends so many meetings, conferences, trade shows and networking sessions the specifics from any one particular event fade over time.

For instance, I can tell you that John Chambers from Cisco Systems and Scott McNeely of Sun are exceptional speakers each with a dramatically different style. Yet, I haven’t a clue about the messaging they delivered last year at their respective FOSE key notes.

Of course, like certain memories from childhood there are times when a speaker addresses a topic or answers a question that sticks with us.

More than eight years ago I attended a Northern Virginia Technology Council (NVTC) event that featured a presentation on corporate strategy from the CEO Of an online marketplace called Pack Expo. I can’t recall the CEO’s name or what he talked about, other than the fact that the company has just negotiated an exclusive reseller agreement which gave them access to a new market. The CEO was particularly giddy this teaming agreement effectively blocked out their primary competitor.

Hands went up for questions and a woman in back shot up. Didn’t the CEO think it was unfair for PackExpo to negotiate a relationship that derailed the prospects of another company, she asked. Wasn’t there enough business to go around for everyone to work collaboratively?

I remember the CEO responding decisively. I won’t apologize for being in business to win, he said. We provide value to our customers through our products supported by a strategy that delivers a return for our company, its shareholders and its employees.

I suspect subscribes to this view as well. In a recent InfoWorld column, Bill Snyder recounts the tussle between the software-as-a-service leader and a start-up called Zoho. The story breaks down as follows: gives the green light for Zoho to sell its products on AppExchange, even though one of the applications is a competitive CRM offering. This deal will give Zoho access to thousands of potential new customers, so they invest time and money to integrate their products with AppExchange. CEO approaches Zoho CEO about a potential acquisition of the company. Zoho says “no.” changes its mind and gives Zoho the boot off of AppExchange. Zoho cries foul to the trade press.

While comes off as untrustworthy, the company is completely within its right to alter the nature of its relationship with Zoho. I suspect the initial agreement was part of’s approach to acquire Zoho at the most favorable terms possible.

It didn’t work out. So they changed course. As long as did not violate the terms of a contract or acting unethically, they were merely executing on a business strategy.

Where it breaks down for is when their CEO Mark Benioff stands in front of a room of customers at its user conference and declares that they, unlike Microsoft, “love everybody.” (Image courtesy of ZDNet.)

It’s simply not true and, as a result, the statement rings hollow. Like the speaker from my NVTC event, Benioff should embrace his desire to win.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Social Media as a Testing Hotbed

It’s no secret that corporate marketers rarely have the luxury of time and money. Today’s market conditions merely heighten the pressure to construct lead generation and corporate positioning programs with messaging that resonates with key audiences.

Companies simply cannot afford a miss. As a result, marketing and promotional campaigns are evaluated, tested, scrutinized and scrubbed prior to launch. This sanitizing process creates the risk that the final product will become so watered down in messaging and presentation that it falls short of achieving its benchmarks.

It is ironic the fear of wasted investment contributes to that very outcome.

What is a marketer or corporate communications professional to do? Our suggestion at Strategic Communications Group (Strategic) is to still test, yet to do it in a creative and cost-efficient way using social media channels.

Corporate or executive blogs, micro-blogging platforms like Twitter, and participation in social networks and online communities allow you to segment audiences by industry, demographics and/or geography. And those active in social media are seldom shy.

They will tell you exactly what they think and why. Plus, once a relationship based on trust is established these social media engagers will often champion a company’s product or cause resulting in a measurable positive outcome. Rubicon Consulting recently reported those who dominate social media conversations are most likely to influence their peers’ buying decisions.

Here are a few suggestions on how to leverage social media prior to launching your company’s next promotional campaign:

1. Identify influencers in the blogosphere and social networks, and be proactive in asking them their opinion.

2. Listen…consider…and respond. This is the foundation of relationship building.

3. Welcome criticism. Thought leaders accept that this comes with the territory. For instance, my recent post about colleges falling down on social media education created quite a firestorm. It was good feedback though and I came to realize my broad categorization was unjust.

4. Build on the momentum. Point to good social media buzz in traditional public relations, direct marketing, advertising and sales activities. It’s validation that your product or service has been well received by the market.