Thursday, October 29, 2009

Doubling Down on Social Media

The cuts at media publishing houses are now slicing into muscle.

Consider reports this week out of Forbes where 50 editorial positions have been slashed, including the elimination of news bureaus in Los Angeles and London.

This isn’t Toledo and Tacoma being whacked. It is simply stunning that Forbes has pulled out ground resources in two of the largest, most relevant cities in the world.

Wire service Associated Press is feeling the same economic burn. Apparently, management has told employees to prepare for a 10 percent staff reduction in 2010. That translates to more than 400 news reporting jobs set to be scraped.

The free fall of news publishing is not solely a result of the prolonged global financial downturn. There is a bigger and more game-changing factor at play here.

Simply put, the reliance by business customers and consumers on social networks and online communities as sources of high value and trusted content has marginalized the influence of traditional providers of credibility.

You have to fish where the fish are, right? And companies now recognize that their key audiences have shifted to online environments. The advertising-based business model of publishers and broadcasters is no longer viable.

What does this mean for the corporate marketing professional?

There is a more compelling business case for the integration of social media marketing activities into a company’s mix of promotional programs.

We’re still very much in the early adopter phase of social media marketing as a measurable driver of business ROI. Yet, at Strategic Communications Group (Strategic) we’ve spent the better part of two years running campaigns for clients like Microsoft, Monster, British Telecom (BT), BearingPoint, Sun Microsystems, Inmarsat, Spirent, GovDelivery and BroadSoft.

This experience has given us insight into lots of best practices.

Ultimately, there will be winners and losers when it comes to where people spend a majority of their time. My bet is on social media.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Hold the Line on PR Compensation

I spent nearly four months carefully cultivating a new client opportunity.

All signs pointed positive. The lead came from a trusted relationship. The prospect competes in a fast growth segment of the market. The CEO invested time with us throughout the process. I qualified the opportunity on budget – twice.

The CEO personally called with the good news. “You are the agency for us,” he explained. “There’s just one thing I need your help on. One of your competitors offered to reduce their fees by half to represent us. We’d like you to do the same as an investment in the relationship.”

Ouch! That opportunity blew up.

Admittedly, we did consider the rate cut to secure this promising piece of business. It is a sluggish market and clients know it.

Ultimately, we held our ground on our requested compensation and, as a result, the prospect elected to retain a different firm.

This recent experience reflects what continues to transpire across the spectrum of marketing, communications, advertising and public relations firms. Clients are squeezing margins while demanding a comprehensive set of services.

It’s gotten so dire that industry rag Advertising Age recently implored firms not to “cave” when it comes to negotiating the financial terms of a relationship.

This is no criticism of clients and their desire to achieve the most favorable conditions in a vendor relationship. Their responsibility is to their own profitability and financial well being.

It’s up to us as service providers to hold the line on fair compensation. We collectively complain about feeling undervalued, yet then roll back the prices like a Wal-Mart Supercenter.

Ad firms and PR shops need to demonstrate flexibility during a difficult economy. However, it’s equally important to recognize the terms that create an unprofitable piece of business and then have the will to walk away.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Time to Lawyer It Up

Although I hail from a family of attorneys, I am no fan of the legal system and how it retards corporate innovation and ingenuity. The litigious inclination of today’s corporate executive is a true blight, limiting the global competitiveness of US-based companies.

Consider the vicious circle that engulfs many firms. They devise an offensive legal strategy to strangle and distract competitors.

Concurrently, they employ a defensive legal front to fend off investors, customers, partners, and…yes…even their own employees who claim they’ve been somehow wronged.

I could easily play the legal card. Strategic Communications Group (Strategic) owns the trademark for the phrase “Network of Relationships.” Undoubtedly, each quarter I receive an inquiry or two from a law firm with an offer to seek out and take action against violators.

“We will happily do all of the research and handle the legal filings for a modest 60 percent of all fees collected,” one firm recently wrote in an Email.

My answer is always the same: “Thank you, but no.”

While it is an important part of Strategic’s value proposition, this trademark (and the business concept it represents) is not core to our success. As such, I’d rather focus my time on more meaningful activities that create value for the organization.

With such fervent views on this issue, you’d think I would be mortified by Starbucks recent legal suit to block the hiring of a former marketing executive by rival Dunkin’ Donuts.

Well…not quite. In fact, I stand 100 percent behind Starbucks’ right to enforce an employee agreement that included an 18-month non-compete provision.

I do respect the right of every individual to seek employment at their company of choice. Plus, it’s absolutely appropriate for an executive to carry their experience to a new position, especially when it provides a competitive advantage to their employer.

Yet, in this specific case Paul Twohig freely elected to sign an agreement at Starbucks that barred him from working for a competitor for a specific period of time. And now he has to live up to and meet those conditions.

Strategic’s own employee agreement includes a section that prevents the solicitation of clients should the staffer resign from the firm.

The employee must also agree not to take steps to influence a colleague’s standing with our company. Simply put, they can’t recruit away other agency staffers to their new place of employment.

Only once in 15 years have I had to ask our corporate counsel to remind a former worker of these obligations. He chose to ignore his commitment. That wasn’t OK.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Ted’s Business of Happiness

The Association for Corporate Growth’s (ACG) networking breakfasts always wrap up at 9 AM sharp.

The attendees are the Washington, DC region’s dealmakers. They are the investment bankers and M&A advisors who bring buyers and sellers together. They’re the private equity types and commercial bankers who are sources of capital. And they are the corporate leaders who are always cashing in or cashing out.

There are deals to be made and business to get done. No one dares linger.

This past Friday was an exception. In fact, it was nearly 9:30 AM when ACG president Braun Jones stepped to the podium to thank the speaker and wish the membership a productive day.

What (or more appropriately who) kept this ADD-set clued to their chairs?

It was a presentation from Internet entrepreneur, former AOL executive, professional sports team owner and film maker Ted Leonsis. His topic: an upcoming book Ted has authored entitled “The Business of Happiness.”

Due for release in early 2010, the book is based on a fairly straightforward principle Ted uses as a guide for his life -- happiness brings money and success (not the other way around).

Ted outlined his five core tenets of happiness:

1. Be an active participant in multiple communities of interest. Ted cited the success of social networking sights such as Facebook and Twitter as validation of the importance of engaging with others who hold a similar belief system.

2. Display a high level of personal empathy. These people tend to be our leaders. For instance, Ted pointed out that Barack Obama claimed the presidency because he ran a highly empathetic campaign.

3. Identify many outlets for personal expression. Ted sure has this down. His blog ( is an outlet, as are the multiple social networks and communities where he contributes.

4. Get out of the “I” and be deep in the “we.” OK…it’s a cliché. Yet, Ted talked in detail about how his charitable activities have helped define him as a person.

5. Find a higher calling. This isn’t a religious reference. Rather, it is an evaluation criteria Ted employs to shape the direction of the commercial ventures he is involved in. Whether it is the Washington Capitals hockey franchise or his “film-anthropy” production studio Snag Films, Ted’s mission is to do well while doing good.

Personally, I find Ted’s business of happiness to be a bit too much on the warm and fuzzies for my taste. Plus, it’s relatively risk-less for him to tout such a philanthropic view of the world with millions of dollars safely resting in his bank account.

He’s not working to pay a mortgage, nor does he worry about how to fund his children’s college education.

Yet, this book and his beliefs are no image building play from Ted. He lives it everyday. And because of it he has truly found happiness and (selfishly) the DC community where I live is fortunate to have him.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Like Business, Social Media's Foundation is Trust

For more than 15 years I have played the role of chief rainmaker at Strategic Communications Group (Strategic). In that time, I have helped bring in over $10M in business from more than 100 clients.

Yet, I have never once sold anyone public relations or social media marketing. Yes…those are the services Strategic provides. However, in a business-to-business sales environment what I am ultimately selling is trust.

If I fail to connect with a potential client, it simply does not matter how wonderfully qualified Strategic may be to represent their interests. For a relationship to commence, a client must believe in our ability, and have faith and confidence in our commitment to their success.

This same “trust” must be present for a connection initiated in a social network to naturally migrate into a relationship with measurable business value.

Personally, I like to take ownership of the trust building process by making an investment of time and effort. I constantly identify opportunities to enhance the professional development and accomplishment of my portfolio of social media connections.

In turn, I am candid about my expectation that they do the same for me. Do they have ideas about how Strategic can run more efficiently? Can they refer me to potential clients? How about suggesting a possible new hire?

I’m always amused by those who claim their networking motives are merely altruistic. Charity is certainly admirable, yet in a business setting it comes off as disingenuous, thereby damaging credibility and trust.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Racism and Social Media: It’s Worth Asking

Are social networks inherently racist? How about sexist? Anti-Semitic?

Before you discard these questions as merely inflammatory, take a few moments to study your own collection of friends and contacts on Facebook, LinkedIn and the other online communities you participate in.

I’m going to bet a fair number of the faces gazing back at you from the screen mirror your own. The same can most likely be said about their backgrounds, interests, and professional and personal affiliations.

It is understandable. Social media is merely the online extension of the age-old human attribute to align oneself with others who share a similar background and belief system. The problem that arises in a homogeneous community is those who fall outside the accepted norm tend to be shunned and, in extreme cases, even ridiculed.

Let’s not pretend this doesn’t happen – regardless of who resides in the White House.

I consider my views on race, religion and gender relations to be rather contemporary. Yet, I have also found myself at times in somewhat questionable situations.

For instance, in college I was a member of a predominantly Jewish fraternity. It was not uncommon to hear a derogatory put-down about those who chose a different religious path.

More recently, I stood with a group of male executives at an industry event who found amusement in inappropriate comments about a female attendee.

I’ve been thinking about the issue of bias in social networks since coming across an article about a new online community created by American Airlines for African-Americans. Branded “Black Atlas,” the content of this social network caters to the supposedly unique interests these travelers have in destinations and accommodations.

While in no way do I mean to imply that American Airlines is a racist organization. However, I do question the viability of a marketing initiative that is so ethnically centered.

Ultimately, I do not believe racism, sexism or religious intolerance permeates most social networks. Online communities reflect the natural bias and preferences that come with a gathering of individuals who share so much in common.

Social media is about people and, after all, we are only human.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Healthy Balance Delivers Impact

During a sit down with government 2.0 wunderkind Steve Ressler a few weeks back I asked him when he knew the GovLoop community he created had the potential to be something very special.

Ressler thought for a moment and then said, “When reporters began to call me about it.”

Readers of this blog know of my conviction to the belief that there has been a shift in influence in the market from traditional sources of credibility -- such as journalists, analysts and industry conferences -- to social networks and online communities. This transition of power will accelerate, further eroding the value and ROI of traditional advertising and public relations programs.

Yet, the media’s sway remains, and respected editors, writers and pundits continue to serve as a critical audience for any company with growth aspirations.

I was reminded of this when Strategic Communications Group (Strategic) was tasked by long-standing client GovDelivery to announce their acquisition of GovLoop.

We tapped into social networks and connected with a myriad of Web 2.0 influencers to share this exciting news. However, it was the good, old fashioned press coverage we generated from business, financial and trade media that truly made this a portfolio-worthy effort.

Social Networking Entrepreneur Taking It to the Next Level

Facebook for Government Enters New Phase

Social Network GovLoop Sold to GovDelivery

Facebook for Feds Social Networking Site Acquired

The take-away here is when it comes to marketing promotion, PR professionals should strive for a healthy balance. It’s critical to connect with key audiences through a mix of both traditional and emerging channels of communications.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Add Another Industry to Facebook’s Hit List

My 20-year high school reunion was a real dud and I blame Facebook.

It certainly wasn’t the fault of the organizing committee. They hired an experienced management company, meticulously compiled a list of the 400 or so graduates and promoted the event religiously.

So why was the turn out a mere 10 percent of the class of 1989?

It’s because thanks to that 300 million member social community there is little value in attending a reunion. I am already clued in to what most fellow classmates are up to. I’ve read their updates. I have seen their photos. Heck…I probably know more about them now then when we sat in the same junior English class.

Admittedly, I did hesitate a bit before scratching out a $150 check for my wife and me to attend this past Saturday’s event. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one with reservations. Most of my former classmates elected to save their money and simply spy the post-event photos on Facebook.

Will there even be reunions by the time my 30-year rolls around? It’s a legitimate question.

This Web 2.0 era of the past 36 months has forever disrupted a myriad of tried and true business models. Just ask any publisher.

In fact, the Washington Post published a fascinating article a few weeks back which predicts the demise of the traditional higher education campus setting. Before you discount this, consider that by the time my six-year-old is college aged a year’s tuition at a state school in Maryland will run about $80,000. Something has got to change.

Business evolution is unrelenting and casts aside industries that lack adaptability.

For me, I was sadly reflective as my wife and I walked to the car after the reunion. Perhaps I’ll share this with a few of my close friends from high school. I’ll send them a message on Facebook.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Smart Business of Message Control

It is ironic that a profession perceived to be about message control really has little, if any at all.

Yes…I am referring to the craft of public relations. Prior to a press interview, we load up our executive with speaking points and background information, and then cross our fingers that he or she will be on message.

Yet, we are ultimately at the whim of the journalist and how that message is translated and edited into an article or broadcast that is then offered up as finished content. Consider how often you hear that a spokesperson has been misquoted or their comments taken out of context.

To splash fuel on this fire of PR frustration, we are also completely at the mercy of how consumers digest media content. Accurate messaging that plays well in an internal planning session, can easily be misinterpreted by external audiences. And these misunderstandings can have a meaningful (and negative) impact on the business.

There is simply too much hope in public relations.

Enter social media. While I have heard clients and prospects cite the lack of brand image and message control for failing to engage in social networks, I contend that there’s actually a much greater opportunity to effectively manage communications.

That’s because unlike traditional PR channels a corporate social media program typically involves a fair amount of content creation – blogs, Twitter, Web-based video, discussion creation in online communities, etc. This is a more direct channel as there’s no dependency on a journalist ability to translate a message.

Of course, the foundation of any social media initiative is content that engages, educates and entertains. You simply can’t publish fluff or marketing hype and expect to garner much in the way of readership.

And yes…it is not appropriate (or possible) to control how an audience perceives and reacts to your corporate view delivered via social media channels. Unlike traditional PR, there is a mechanism for response though.

At Strategic Communications Group (Strategic), we counsel our clients that the most effective course is to assess reaction, correct inaccuracies, and engage only with those who are open to a fair and cordial dialogue.

There are some who argue that any attempt to shape messaging in social media is fool hardy and simply about a perverse desire for power. Not so. When managed professionally, a well articulated message delivered via social networks is smart business.