Friday, 10 December 2010

The impact of student violence

I’m deeply troubled by yesterday’s vote on tuition fees. I had the benefit of a free university education, bar £300 in my final term - the year that Thatcher introduced student loans. And so, I understand and support the students who want to protest against the vote and do so peacefully.

I absolutely do not condone violence in the protests. But it's no great surprise that what starts as a peaceful protest turns nasty. A toxic combination of various groups with an eye for trouble, high tension and emotions, and a student body that has been sold out by the Lib Dems they supported, makes it inevitable. This is a generation of young voters who are - at an age where they should be full of hope and political expectation - disillusioned with and already betrayed by our political system.

But today’s headlines make me incredibly sad. Ministers who voted for the bill are able to take the moral high ground by focusing not on the appalling implications for studentsand for a fair education, but on the violence from yesterday’s protests.

The effect of the violence has been to undermine the student’s message: that this coalition government has saddled them with a lifetime of debt, in an era when we’re told what matters above all else is to be rid of debt. 

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Who creates social media strategy?

There’s a piece of ‘who owns social media’ research reported yesterday on PR Week, the results of which are, apparently, ‘relatively staggering’ (no, I’m not sure, either). The research, conducted by Wildfire PR, looks at who in-house marketers think should be responsible for their social media strategy.

Now I should say here that I think the report itself looks really interesting, and good on Wildfire for doing it - we all need to understand more about how in-house marketers approach (or don’t) social media strategy. It looks at the confusion over who should determine the role social media should play within the business, and the reasons marketers are adopting social media tactics (mostly because other people are, rather than for any strategic reason).  I really like the approach taken by the agency of ‘sustainable social media’, and its report that gives some sensible advice to in-house marketers on how to develop a social media strategy.

But, as ever, the response from other PROs (according to PR Week) is to ‘express shock’ at the fact that social media responsibility is spread across a number of different divisions of the company, and not all outsourced to PR agencies.

Of course it isn’t. More often than not, these days, social media strategies include sales, customer service, marketing, HR and any other bit of the business that thrives from human contact. None of these business strategies are outsourced in their entirety to PR agencies. The bits that are outsourced to PR agencies are, er, the PR strategies. And I mean PR in its widest, proper, ‘today’ sense of social communications: building relationships and conversations with an organisation’s public.

The research, I think, reflect this. In-house PR teams come out on top for creating social media (as part of marketing) strategies. About right, probably. Presumably the customer service team is responsible for social media as part of customer service, and sales for sales, etc.

As for the 20 per cent of those who think responsibility for social media lies with the IT team - well, I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt, and hope they mis-heard the question.

Monday, 8 November 2010

If you haven't got anything to say, keep quiet.

This might be a bit of a rant, so sorry about that. But there’s some stuff being spouted by so-called social media gurus/experts/thought leaders [delete as appropriate] that’s driving me nuts.

The latest is a post I saw today by someone who shall remain nameless about the ‘optimum’ number of tweets you should send in a day (apparently it’s 22). This gem of marketing information is designed to help companies understand and plan how much resource they should throw at Twitter.

Is this really a valuable lesson in using Twitter as a marketing tool? Doesn’t it depend on what you want to say? I mean, I could fill up my weekly quota on a Saturday evening in front of the X Factor. It wouldn’t help our marketing much. And if you’re issuing company information 22 times a day, then God help you. And your dwindling band of followers.

It just smacks of the bad old days of PR, when a client brief would come in that made you want to cry, by claiming that one of the PR ‘objectives’ was to issue 48 press releases a year. No news, mind, just press releases.

I’m not pretending to be a Twitter expert (does such a thing exist?). But I think the only thing people care about on Twitter is whether you’re interesting. There are some people I follow who don’t say anything for a few days, but when they do, they really make me laugh. Or are a really useful source of information. There are others whom I’ve un-followed because they do nothing but self-promote.

If you’re a normal person, there will be some days when you just don’t have much to say. So maybe you just shouldn’t say anything. 

And now I'll take my own advice, log off and have a large glass of wine. 

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

No single discipline ‘owns’ social media.

What's with the debate about who owns social media - is it marketing, is it communications, is it sales, is it customer service?

You might as well say, who owns the phone: comms or customer service? Print media: Advertising or PR? Facebook: comms, advertising, customer service and marketing? (Or just you and your mates?)

I remember this debate about search, when it was still a fairly new marketing tool 10 years or so ago. We were involved with Overture as it launched into the UK, and there was a big issue around whether sales, web development, IT, marketing or ecommerce heads ‘owned’ search. Now, of course, it’s seen as a broad sales and marketing discipline and is integrated (or should be) to every part of the business, depending on what outcome you’re trying to achieve. Communicators use search to support campaigns; as do advertisers; as do marketing heads in launching a new product; as do customer support teams to help people looking to resolve an issue; and so on.  It fits into the overall business strategy.

The same will happen with social media. Every department in the business will ‘own’ part of it. PR / comms are becoming much more social. Advertisers are using Facebook, or highly targeted social advertising, and incorporating social media to their campaigns (is the Meerkat advertising or comms, now Orlov has his own Twitter feed?). Search is becoming social; BT Care is a great example of customer service over Twitter; and you can sell through Facebook.

The ‘who owns what’ debate is completely irrelevant. More to the point - where are your audiences, and what do they want to do over what channel? Ultimately, consumers own social media, and it’s up to businesses to respond accordingly.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

The nice things clients do

We all have favourite clients. And when you really like a client, you put in extra effort. You’ll stay late to finish a feature to make certain it hits deadline; you make sure the copy for an article is perfect; you think of them whenever an opportunity comes your way to get them extra coverage; you’ll brainstorm new ideas to get them better exposure; you point out details on their blog or website that could improve their positioning. It would be lovely to say we all do that for all our clients - but the truth is there are some that get special treatment.

A new client asked me recently in the pitch process what would make them an important client to us. I think they were expecting me to say the usual ‘we grow with your success’, ‘we value all our clients’ or even ‘increase your fee’. While I suppose those things do matter - cheesy as they sound - they’re not really what make a team go the extra mile for a client.

The beauty of having your own business is that you can choose your clients, and it really isn’t just the financial stuff that matters. Sometimes, it’s worth taking a hit and not working with a client you know is going to be a nightmare.  (I’ve worked with a few of those in the past, and I’m never doing it again, if I can possibly help it.) Some people don’t need to like their clients, and they’re luckier (and probably much richer) than I am, but to me, it matters to get on with someone you’re working with.

The things that make a client really important to me are:
  • I care about what they do. They don’t have to be earth shattering, just interesting.
  • I get on with them, and they’re decent people (I’d find it hard to work with someone who was racist, or homophobic, for example). I think it’s a fact of life that if we like someone, we do more for them, fee or no fee.
  • We can laugh together. That might be on a conference call, or over lunch, but a completely humourless client is very hard work.
  • You get the occasional ‘thank you’ when something’s worked really well. It goes such a long way - if you’ve slogged over something it matters that the client appreciates it. I know it’s what we get paid for, but we’re people, not machines.
  • They treat us like grown ups. They pay us for our skills, not for their ego. There’s nothing worse than giving your best advice for it to be ignored, or your best copy for it to be massacred, or your best ideas to be nicked and passed off by someone else. If they ask advice because they want it, and listen to it, and even act on it, it makes us much more likely to give it our best consideration.

It’s hard to know whether the relationship’s going to work at the pitch stage. I always think the best clients start with meetings that don’t involve creds presentations, or pitch ideas, but just a conversation. You get a feel for whether the relationship is going to work or not.

Maybe we should build some more ‘gut instinct’ stuff into the pitch process (maybe the lead qualification checklist should start with ‘can we spend time with them without wanting to self harm?’). Do others do this already? Does it matter if you like a client or not?

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Managing a social media crisis

Yomego, eModeration and Carrot have combined brainpower in this white paper/guide to managing a social media crisis. You can download it here. Would be very interested to hear people's thoughts / experiences, either on this blog, or over at the Breakfast Bunker Briefing blog.

Monday, 19 July 2010

How To Avoid A Social Media Disaster (eModeration, Carrot Communications And Yomego)

Here are the slides from our breakfast bunker briefing. White paper on the subject to follow.

Portrait of a social media crisis

Last week, we got together with two great companies that we work with - Yomego and eModeration – to run a seminar on how to avoid a social media disaster. Yomego is a social media specialist, and has just launched a new online reputation monitoring tool (Social Media Reputation, or SMR) that, among other things, helps brands spot an issue early, so they can respond quickly and avoid a disaster. eModeration is a moderation and community management company, and there’s not much it doesn’t know about managing online communities through a crisis. We provided the ‘response’ bit – how to communicate through a potential crisis.

I should mention that both Yomego and eModeration are clients of ours, but it made so much sense to join forces on this issue. It also really proved to me – more than ever - that no single marketing discipline ‘owns’ social media. We need specialists, not generalists, in some areas – and we need to work with the agencies round us to provide really good advice (never more so than when a brand is facing a crisis).

Our ‘breakfast bunker briefing’ was a closed seminar for around 40 people in the Cabinet War Rooms, with some top brands in the audience. (The War Rooms are a great venue by the way, if you’re ever planning an event. We were in the old ‘switch’ room, where an emergency power supply for London could be switched on if regular supplies were stopped by bombing. Seemed somehow appropriate.)

Our slides from the day are on Slideshare (getting top billing today, which is great); and on the blog that we set up to address some of the issues from the day. We’re also issuing a thought piece on avoiding social media crises which I’ll post soon.

But first, we opened the seminar with Yomego’s Steve Richards, setting the scene for how an issue becomes a crisis on social media, which I’ve pasted below – it’s brilliant. Any resemblance to real social media crises / brands is unintended etc…

A portrait of a social media crisis (by Steve Richards, Yomego).
It’s a sunny Wednesday morning, the sun is shining and there are few signs of the menacing clouds of discontent soon to gather. Our protagonist is the MD at HUSH – that’s HabitKatBucks United Southwest Holdings – a recent merger of several companies who had had some ‘issues’ recently.

On this fine day, our man, who we’ll call Mr X to save his blushes, arrived at his desk at 8.30 as usual, double-shot caramel moccaccino in hand, to find an email from his PA Debbie who’d overheard a bad customer experience on the train that morning.

“Don’t worry, Debs” Mr X assured her: bad reviews are ten a penny, but sales are up and the HUSH brand has just crashed through the magical 100 likes on Facebook, or so his daughter had assured him.

Ten minutes later, Mr X’s new Marketing Director flagged up a familiar sounding complaint he’d found on Twitter. Sounded potentially damaging, but, undaunted, Mr X dismissed it. He was feeling bullish and besides, his double-shot was going cold.

“People whinge all the time,” he repeated. (The Marketing Director really should meet Mr X’s wife who has turned moaning into an art form.)

An hour later, HUSH’s PR Manager emails Mr X: there’s a video, apparently, on YouTube, showing the source of the complaint – an HUSH store manager appears to throw a cup of coffee in the face of a disgruntled female customer.

It looks bad. Mr X tells the PR Manager to get the PR Director to deal with it immediately.

Two hours later, the Daily Mail calls Mr X wanting an official comment on ‘Cappuccino Gate’ as it’s being called. Mr X’s blood is up. He’s furious. He calls the PR Manager to find out why it hasn’t been dealt with only to discover the PR Director’s on an outward bound training course in the Brecon Beacons. “No phone reception. Sorry.”

“Surely the PR agency knows this hack at the Mail?” Mr X demands, only to be reminded he’d had the agency dropped three months ago – “luxury item” was the phrase he’d apparently used at the time.

Mr X decides to Google ‘Cappuccino Gate’. There are links galore. He loosens his tie. This is not ideal. Not ideal at all. He watches the YouTube video (currently 15,000 views), reads the blogs. Trouble’s brewing. The forums are abuzz; Facebook is awash; Mr X needs ‘awayout.’

The content links have acted like candles and disgruntled moths are fluttering around, all too eager to share their bad experiences. Mr X does what everyone in his position would do - he concludes he is surrounded by idiots. Mr X was always a fan of Billy Ocean and when the going gets tough…

He resolves to snuff these candles out personally.

He demands access to the HUSH feed on Twitter, only to find out the @Hush hashtag was registered 18 months ago by a friendly neighbourhood anarchist called ‘Scud’, who has helpfully used Twitpic to broadcast the most damaging still of the event to his 716,000 followers, half of whom have retweeted it to their collective secondary audience of 6.2 million people.

“Breakout the Social Media Crisis Plan,” bellows Mr X to the PR Manager.

Apparently there isn’t one. Mr X draws on his military training and tells her to “Foxtrot Oscar.”

“Always fight fire with fire,” concludes Mr X – echoing his father’s motto which, incidentally, lead to Mr X Snr’s dismissal by the fire brigade. Mr X instructs his PA, Debbie, to post positive testimonials on every forum she can find under a pseudonym. The PR manager is told to delete as much negative comment as she can find on Facebook.

Bud successfully nipped, Mr X is now in his stride. He orders the Store Manager who threw the coffee to be sacked on the spot and instructs the PR Manager to post the following edict immediately on the company website: “With reference to the so-called Cappuccino-Gate fiasco, I can assure HUSH customers that this is an isolated incident. One swallow does not make a summer. (Even if the swallow in question was thrown all over a paying customer LOL). HUSH is a family company and refuses to be dragged through the ‘cyber-mud.’ (He was especially pleased with his turn of phrase.) This is a storm in a coffee cup and HUSH has instructed its lawyers to follow up on any libellous rumour-mongering.”

“That’s shown them,” he thought. Decisive leadership. Disaster averted.

But Scud has noticed the Facebook deletions and exposes the practice as ‘the most crass kind of ham-fisted corporate censorship’. Worse still, he has traced the sudden bout of flag-waving advocacy to ‘Debs’, Hush’s PA to the Managing Director. 6.2 million people are updated almost instantaneously. Mr X’s hole is suddenly a lot deeper.

Ten minutes later, Mr X receives a phone call from the Chairman. Mr X’s hardline policy has been picked up by CNN and the homepage is lead story of Why hadn’t they seen this coming? And what are they doing to make it go away?

The new Marketing Director hands in his notice highlighting as a parting shot that he’d just joined the ‘Bollocks to HUSH’ group on Facebook which already has 23,000 likes. The Chairman’s back on the phone; the company’s share price is down 15 per cent. Mr X stiffens his upper lip; time to draw on the Dunkirk spirit. He decides to blame the PR Director and jumps in a taxi to the Brecon Beacons. Best to tell him the news in person.

Turns out, the store manager who had thrown the coffee was conducting a staff training session on the perils of bad customer service. The hot coffee had in fact been harmless dietcoke. No harm done - it was all a misunderstanding. He was just about to seed a full explanation absolving HUSH on any involvement…until he found out he’d been sacked.

He decided to join the 'Bollocks to Hush' Facebook group instead.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Twitter rules

I've blogged (ranted?) before about when not to follow someone on Twitter, but this is a rather more thoughtful post on the subject, by Tia Fisher at eModeration. Some good rules to stick to.

(Disclosure - eModeration is a client. I'm posting the link because I really like it, not because it's a client. Personal rule.)

Monday, 8 March 2010

Paul Armstrong, in his blog Don't Fear the Firehose for PR Week, this week debates whether PROs are becoming 'glorified community managers'.

My view, for what it's worth, is that good community management is a highly skilled, specialised job that is separate from the role of PR. It may be a skill PR teams buy in, or work with, but it is not a core part of PR. PR does more to drive the discussions within the community, than manage the community itself. What do others think?

Friday, 19 February 2010

Measuring digital PR

The PRCA invited me to give a short presentation for one of its series of ‘Expert Briefings’ yesterday, this time on measuring digital, hosted by Ketchum Pleon. Up in the firing line with me were Fernando Rizo, head of digital at Ketchum Pleon, and Kristin Wadge, a director at Metrica. Although the three of us have quite varied clients, we all pretty much said the same core things:

  • Metrics have to have real meaning to the business: they must be things we can learn from, and feed back into the development / strategy process.

  • Online measurement must tie in to offline measurement. We set audience strategies ahead of channel strategies, and the ways to reach those audiences will be online and offline.

  • AVEs are completely meaningless in these days of digital communications and two-way engagement.

  • It is almost impossible to demonstrate a direct financial ROI for clients on their PR spend because of the difficulty in tracking action arising from PR. But, PR does have a clear business value which can be measured.

I was surprised at the reluctance of people to discuss the issue in a public forum (although I know sometimes I talk too quickly, which makes it hard for anyone to get a word in – the result of years working with Richard Houghton!). But a number of people did come up and ask questions after the event – these are the ones that dominated:

How do we pre define ROI? (ie what do you say to a client that says “If I spend 10k with you, how much will I get back?”)

Sadly, I don’t think we can pre-define financial ROI at all, in isolation from other marketing disciplines. We can do it in conjunction with others – Kristin talked about ‘econometrics’ that charts trends in sales / action against different marketing activity peaks (taking into account buying patterns such as seasonal trends, for example). She made the very good point that often this research is done with the ad and DM agencies, but PR just gets left out. Action: make sure PR is plugged into the research along with the other marketing disciplines.

I do think there are measurement criteria you can pre-define with clients. Set clear objectives, and set KPIs (not spurious ROI figures) against them. That might be reaching the right kind of audience (do some proper research into which media will influence buying decisions, rather than which will impress the CEO’s neighbours); and metrics against media placement and engagement within that audience.

What if your client’s product just isn’t very good? How do you manage social media response?

(Actually the problem was more precisely: “my boss has promised my client a social media programme for a product that I know people are going to hate”).

I think that digital is the death of spin. All the adjectives and shiny pictures in the world aren’t going to cover up that people just won’t buy rubbish. You won’t be able to manage the social media response; better to change the product, or turn down the client.

We need to give better advice to our clients – and this means either senior people having to do the work (that’ll stop them promising stuff that’s not deliverable) so they understand what will and won’t work; or letting the people who are going to do the work in on the planning conversations. Or walking away from clients who won’t listen.

There are some things we do for clients that we know lead to an increase in sales / activity etc. They have clear financial ROI – do we set targets for these and charge bonus payments for them?

There are always some ‘milestone’ articles that will see a short-term sales peak (for example). But those sorts of placements aren’t sustainable – if you know that getting into the Sun, or onto Reuters, has a positive financial impact on your client then of course you should target it – but you can’t achieve that every week.

Good PR is a combination of achieving these big goals that have short-term impact, and building gradual change in reputation / attitude / awareness to achieve a long-term goal. If you want to be bonused on the big hits, fine – but remember that you’ll focus more on that than on building the long-term stuff. So you may find you have a short-term client.

It was an interesting event, and many thanks to the PRCA for organising it. I wondered whether people were coming along looking for a magic metric to demonstrate ROI. But each client has different requirements – value means different things to different people. The key is setting clear objectives, and understanding what you can (and what you can’t) prove with measurement.

I’ll post the presentation points in more detail over the next few days. PRCA members will be able to access all three presentations from the PRCA site in due course.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Can PR drive sales?

We're always being asked to demonstrate what return on investment we can promise to clients - and from various conversations I've had with colleagues in the industry, we're not the only agency to be asked. If a client spends 5k with us, what will they make back?

It's an almost impossible question to answer - and trust me, I've tried as hard as anyone to come up with a metric that shows the direct impact of PR on sales. Note here that I'm talking about a direct link from PR to sales rather than the things we can track rather more easily (reputation, awareness, positioning etc).

The problem is that mostly we have no real control over the end product we're promoting. We can choose not to get involved, or we can spot problems and feed them into the R&D process - but ultimately, we rely on our clients to produce things that people want.

Recently, we've worked with a company that lets people compare the best prices and buy stuff from their mobile phones. It launched a very clever iPhone app, and we thought it might fly. We drafted the launch release, got some great photos, and talked to a lot of journalists. A half-page in The Sun later, and the company was top of the paid apps list on iTunes, with 30,000 people paying to download the app the first three days (it was then used 400,000 times in the first week). Did PR influence the sales? Absolutely.

Six months ago, we did something similar for another company, operating in the same sort of market. It too produced an iPhone app, we helped the company gets lots of exposure, and... nothing. Very little impact on sales. And yet, the coverage was just as good - the journalists and we all thought it was a decent product. Did PR influence sales? Not at all.

The difference was that people wanted the first product, and they didn't want the second one.

While media coverage is great at bringing a good product to the attention of potential customers, it won't persuade them to buy something they don't want; and it won't gloss over something that doesn't work. Which is why I'm yet to be convinced that it is possible to guarantee a direct sales return on a PR investment. I'd love to know what others think.