Does ‘Brand’ Mean Anything?

03 June 2010

I have had a post in mind  for a while now talking about what ‘brand’ and ‘reputation’ mean today.

This isn’t that post. I’ll get around to it at some point over the summer.

But over the past two weeks, I’ve come across two posts (with a hat tip to a colleague for pointing me to Leroy’s) which make strong and similar statements about brands that are certainly worth throwing into the idea mix:

Leroy Stick (not his real name), the person behind the satiric Twitter account @BPGlobalPR, says performance – not brand – is everything:

So what is the point of all this?  The point is, FORGET YOUR BRAND.  You don’t own it because it is literally nothing.  You can spend all sorts of time and money trying to manufacture public opinion, but ultimately, that’s up to the public, now isn’t it?

You know the best way to get the public to respect your brand?  Have a respectable brand.  Offer a great, innovative product and make responsible, ethical business decisions.  Lead the pack!  Evolve!  Don’t send hundreds of temp workers to the gulf to put on a show for the President.  Hire those workers to actually work!  Don’t dump toxic dispersant into the ocean just so the surface looks better.  Collect the oil and get it out of the water!  Don’t tell your employees that they can’t wear respirators while they work because it makes for a bad picture.  Take a picture of those employees working safely to fix the problem.  Lastly, don’t keep the press and the people trying to help you away from the disaster, open it up so people can see it and help fix it.  This isn’t just your disaster, this is a human tragedy.  Allow us to mourn so that we can stop being angry.

And here is what the inimitable Doc Searls posted not too long ago on his blog about reputation and branding:

That’s because brands are nothing but statements. At best they are a well-known and trusted badge, name or both. At worst they’re a paint job, a claim, a rationalization or an aspiration. Branding can help a reputation, but it can’t make one. Real work does that. Accomplishment over time does that.

Bit of a wake up call to communications professionals isn’t it?

Social Networks : Modern day Knights of Columbus (or Loyal Orders of Water Buffaloes)

31 May 2010

I spent part of a glorious Sunday afternoon this weekend sitting in an unusual place (for me) : a pew at the Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts church in the Laurentians. Curiosity had led me there. While I’d sat through countless Sunday masses as a child, this was the first time I would witness the ordination of a priest.

The whole process was very fraternal (emphasis mine). The novice, the Bishop and dozens of priests were led into the packed church by a plumed and caped group of older men I knew to be Knights of Columbus. While I’d never seen these men in full regalia, I knew immediately by their demeanor and costume who they were. For the uninitiated, the Knights of Columbus is the world’s largest Catholic fraternal service organisation. Akin to Fred Flintstone’s Loyal Order of  Water Buffaloes, if you will.

As I cursed myself for not having a fully charged iPhone with me for live tweeting and TwitPics, I sat back and reflected on the community I was observing before me. My mind eventually – inevitably – turned to social networking. Yes, I see everything (not really, but anyway), even the ordination of a priest, through a web 2.0 lens. I call it 2.0/2.0 vision.

I was watching a tribe in action. Two communities of men (the Knights, the priests) – mostly of an older generation – sharing similar values, a similar belief system and a relationship which is mutually beneficial. It’s not a stretch to imagine that members of the Sainte-Agathe chapter of the Knights of Columbus help one another and even refer business to one another. This is what we do when we’re part of a group of like-minded people. We refer people to those we know and we help other members of our tribe when we can.

Business groups are the same. On Facebook a few minutes ago, my cousin Dermot, an Irish photographer,  shared a Sunday Times article in which he’s featured. In the interview, he credits part of his business development success to Business Network International (BNI), an organisation that brings business owners from different disciplines together into a single group whose members refer their personal and professional contacts to one another.

Social networks, like LinkedIn, step in to provide a virtual way to cultivate and maintain business links. Today, I received a note from a colleague from a dozen or more years ago who is now a real estate agent looking for business.  Would I know anyone in the market for a house? I might decide to go out on the limb for him for any of a number of reasons — because I like him, because I see an opportunity for myself, or just because I’m nice. I’m not likely to do it, however,  if I don’t perceive him to be a member of my tribe.

No matter what form our business networking takes, the glue that holds it all together is the concept of tribe.

As we build our LinkedIn profiles, join Facebook discussion groups or join a hashtag-ed discussion on Twitter, we’d all be wise not to lose sight of the fact that human relationships remain at the cornerstone of it all.

ICCO Says Social Web Consulting Growing

19 May 2010


Nothing in the ICCO’s World Report 2010 is surprising including that “As interest in the exploitation of digital channels grows, public relations consultancies are increasingly positioning themselves as experts in the field, especially when it comes to managing an organisation’s reputation online.” (The ICCO is the umbrella organization for communications agency trade associations in 28 countries)

But here’s a tip: If you are thinking of expanding your agency business internationally, forget Sweden where most consultants find that “companies perfer to mee their digital needs entirely in-house or via specialist sub-contractors”. Instead head for Norway where “communication via new technologies is the domain of external providers, and 100% of consultancies offer these services”. Demand and supply are growing.

The opportunities are in Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Czech Republic, India, and Turkey where communications consultancies are apparently slower to add social web expertise to their range of services.

Since we have so many social web experts in North America, maybe some should think of setting up shop in these under-served countries.

Evolution of PR tactics for online reputation management

17 May 2010

The May 10 issue of Canadian Business had an interesting article about the importance of social media to an organization’s reputation in which social media gadfly, Dave Fleet, and I were both asked for our thoughts.  It seems we were in violent agreement with each other.

My quote focused on the idea that many big Canadian companies are involved in social media, but many are in the reputation monitoring phase and not necessarily ready to be part of the clichéd ”join the conversation crowd”:

To be fair, the way some of the companies in the survey use social media isn’t designed to catch the attention of the public. “I have lots of clients who do stuff behind the scenes,” says Dave Jones, Hill & Knowlton’s vice-president for digital communications. “They’re reacting, but they’re never going to stand up and speak at an event about how great they are at social media.” Some of the companies with which Jones works, particularly industrial clients in the mining and resource sectors, are concerned about social media’s potential effect on their brand’s reputation and are currently more interested in monitoring the conversation than in rolling out their own “big, shiny social-media group.” (He declined to name specific clients.)

I go on to explain that listening and analyzing conversations both good and bad are vital to ensuring that companies don’t over- or under-react to what’s going on in social media.

Hill & Knowlton Canada deals with a lot of clients who see social media as having a significant influence on their reputation. But it goes much deeper than that. Mainstream media is still extremely powerful as a driver of public opinion, but also as an influencer of search results. With this in mind the H&K social media team has devised a hybrid approach to managing reputation online that incorporates the following as appropriate:

  • Social Media
  • SEO
  • Paid Search
  • Google Ad Words
  • Online display advertising

This slideshow should give you a taste of how we need to be thinking when we’re counselling our clients about protecting or repairing their reputations. Thinking about strategic communications with a view to the end audience vs. thinking about the channels we traditionally play in means we give the best and most effective counsel to our clients.

You may have to watch the presentation in full screen as the upload to Slideshare has buggered up the resolution at the default screen size. Just click on the menu button at the bottom of the slide.

Bloggers telling PR how they really feel

14 May 2010

Since I wrote the Bloggers and PR Payola post the other day, a variety of bloggers have left comments and stirred up their own debates within their communities. Thanks to the magic of re-tweets, I’ve been exposed to some bloggers that I wouldn’t have otherwise read.

A few have really stood out for me and I thought you’d get a cold slap of reality by checking out how some of our pitches land with resounding thuds:

Ottawa blogger Julie Harrison had this hilarious exchange about a review for $1.99 product, including this classic line:

This is a product that retails for $1.99. Why would anyonespend time reviewing a product for $1.99? I just don’t get it. I wouldn’t even bother reading a review for a product that was $1.99 — I’d just buy it and try it out for myself.

The Bloggess has a couple of doozies in this post:  If I get one more press-release about baby wipes I’m going to stab someone in the face. This response to a pitch cracked me up:

Weird.  My blog is also award-winning, family-friendly and technologically advanced.  I’m including my paypal address as you are welcome to send me free money from your account.  Thanks for your time. ~ Jenny

How do you make sure this doesn’t happen to you?  I can’t guarantee that it won’t, but our team generally follows these rules when we pitch:

  • Ensure the pitch is relevant to the blogger
  • Keep it short, no attachments, bullets and a link or two
  • Give the option to send along additional info
  • Give the option to never be pitched again

Good luck!

5 minutes on designing your social media team

13 May 2010

Here’s a fun Pecha Kucha presentation I gave at the Demystifying Digital event hosted by H&K’s London office for their clients in the EMEA region back in March.

It’s 5-minutes long and covers what I think most organizations wonder about the most when they consider getting into social media: who should do it and how much does it cost?

I always have fun outlining the four personalities I think are key to any social media team:

  • reconnaissance
  • mad scientist
  • communications general
  • community manager

As you’ll see, I use my friends Ferg Devins (Molson) and Keith McArthur (Rogers) as examples of two guys who have social media responsibilities at two of Canada’s leading companies.  I have to be clear that while I assign dollar values to how much their efforts cost, I actually have no insight into what they really spend. I hope they don’t mind being used as broad examples based on pure speculation on my part to support the narrative.  If they do, they know where to find me…

D2 Pecha Kucha / Ignite: David Jones on your social media team from Hill & Knowlton on Vimeo.

A special thanks to Candace Kuss for the invitation to speak and the capturing of the narrated slideshow.  She’s posted many of the presentations on the HanK blog if you want to see what else went on at Demystifying Digital.

Bloggers and PR payola: is this the future?

12 May 2010

More and more bloggers seem to be trying to figure out a way to get paid for reviews that are being facilitated by PR agencies and departments.  While she’s not specifically advocating getting paid for reviews, here’s a recent post from popular Canadian blogger, Kim Vallee that inspired me to explore the topic of compensating bloggers:

I think that bloggers who write about products, stores and restaurants should take notes. With all the brands pitching us stuff that suit their agenda, it comes a time when we have to say “this is enough”. Otherwise, how we can expect to make a living from blogging. I think beyond the banner ads as a monetizing technique.

Take for example, the sales alerts and store events. I receive many emails every week from retailers about these topic alone. But announcing a sale or another promotional event is a form of advertisement that the retailer should pay for. Why not have a classified section or published a (clearly marked) sponsored post once a week announcing the sales?

And another from Michelle at EverythingMom (Update 05/17: EverythingMom has changed its approach based on a variety of discussions, including those in the comments below):

I read the debates around the blogosphere about paid reviews. Some said paid reviews compromised integrity and others said they did not want to read paid reviews because they did not believe them. Some bloggers have stopped doing reviews all together because it is too much work.

The general consensus, it seems, is that paid reviews are a big no-no. Yet here we are, going completely against the grain. Sure there are sites out there that offer paid reviews. But generally, when moms jump into the conversation, they say with gumption – no. No paid reviews for me.

I took each position in, weighing it’s merits, seeing how EverythingMom might fit in to this arena. We were already playing in it full out with our very own Reviews section. And we stood by the same position — no paid reviews. To this day, Carrie Anne has not been compensated (outside of product) for reviews. But I am out to change that.

Erica Ehm of YummyMummyClub left this comment to Michelle’s post:

I am in total agreement with you. “Mom Reviews” are a huge part of spreading the brand though word of mouth. Brands need to pay writers for their time. These “mom bloggers” are usually highly educated, thoughtful women with earned influence and a way with words. They absolutely should be paid for that expertise. The only caveat is that is should be transparent – ie posted somewhere that writer was compensated.

On my site, like on this one, we work with amazing women. I want them to enjoy some financial benefit for their hard work.

Kudos to you Michelle for putting so much thought into this. I’m right beside you on this!

They are all in agreement that as bloggers get popular and build a following through their hard work and passion, they tend to find themselves in demand by PR folk trying to get them to review products, attend events and share their experiences with their readers. That’s not a shocker to anyone in the business.

The general drift: since a PR firm is getting paid to make the pitch (in many instances), that perhaps some of that money should flow to the blogger for their time and effort.

Pay-for-post has been discussed in PR circles a lot. I’ve seen formal pay-for-post programs run by service providers like Izea and I’ve seen ad-hoc pay for play by PR agencies. It’s not entirely black and white, but at its best it feels a little like buying someone’s influence and at its worst it feels like a shakedown.

I don’t think Kim or Michelle or Erica are wrong in asking these questions and pondering how to get a slice of the marketing pie. It’s a worthwhile discussion to have in the social media community that is creating new standards and best practices on the fly. We have to keep in mind that this isn’t journalism, advertising, or PR. It’s everything mixed into a new media stew and we’re still figuring out what tastes right.

It probably won’t shock you when I tell you what feels right to me differs from Kim, Michelle and Erica. Now, I don’t begrudge anyone wanting to get paid, but my credibility compass swings towards not ever paying bloggers to post something on a client’s behalf. Even with full disclosure, it feels like it would land on readers as a paid post, sullied by the exchange of money and neither credible or trustworthy. It seems like an advertorial and a shortcut to coverage over the longer term of building editorial relationships with online publishers that are mutually beneficial.

You can argue that product demos, products to keep, products to giveaway to readers are the same as cash. You’d be right, but I don’t think it lands on readers the same way. We’ve given hundreds of dollars worth of products to bloggers, but we’ve never given cash. We have worked on a few projects with MomCentral, who reward their community of bloggers with nominal non-cash incentives ie gift cards and gift packs, that are disclosed. I’m still struggling with whether that constitutes pay-per-post or if it’s yet another ingredient in the social media stew.

Over the years several community papers and radio stations pulled the same sort of stuff: “we’ll write/talk about your client if you buy an ad.” That crosses a journalistic line in my books and I suppose I hold bloggers to the same sort of credibility standard as I do journalists: you either have a desire to inform your readers, or you have a desire to inform readers about things you get paid to write about.

These fine women aren’t the first or last bloggers to bring this topic up. But I do wonder if it is the start of a change in mindset on a broader scale. One thing is certain: both PR people and bloggers need to start understanding how each other fits into the social media universe. We really are on the same side.

UPDATE: Eden Spodek, a blogger at Bargainista long before she became a social media consultant at High Road, has written a post from her unique perspective:

Open File – journalism, wide open

08 May 2010

This new journalism project by Wilf Dinnick has piqued my interest (piqued being a giant understatement). Definitely one to add to your Google Reader:

Welcome to the beginnings of, a new voice for local news.

We are warming up, getting ready to unveil our website in just two weeks. We promise to provide smart, original, insightful stories about the places and topics that matter most to the people of Toronto.

For me, OpenFile represents a fresh chapter in my journalism career, which began more than 20 years ago in this city. As a video journalist at CBC Television, I was the night reporter, handling breaking local news – going live here, whipping over there for an interview.

After working in all of Canada’s national network newsrooms, I became the Middle Eastern correspondent for ABC News, then an international correspondent for CNN. I reported from Africa, Asia, North America and all over the Middle East. I covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, tsunamis and civil conflicts. These were big stories, but they taught me that all news starts as local news.

Over the past few years I’ve watched the news business change dramatically. Big media companies have struggled to figure out how to adapt to the way people are getting their news in the digital age. My biggest fear was that real journalism, stories that affect you and your community, would get lost as traditional news outlets scrambled to come up with a quick fix that would lure back their dwindling audiences.

We are not trying to replace daily newspapers or newscasts. We do not have the answer to all the questions that are keeping journalists like us awake at night. But we believe that journalism cannot evolve without input from you, the reader, so we’re trying something different. At OpenFile, readers can collaborate with our reporters and editors, creating a place for great storytelling to flourish.

When I returned to Canada last year, I got together a group of journalists and clever web thinkers and developers whom I admired. We spent months huddled over our kitchen tables, scribbling on Post-it notes, arguing and eating a lot of takeout before agreeing on this approach.

We asked some smart venture capital people to help develop a business plan. We did the “finance dance” for about five months and raised some money. We moved into an old factory in Toronto’s west end, and here we are.

We’ll start by doing one thing – local news – and doing it well. The internet is full of aggregators powered by search engines that spit out the same story over and over. We’re not like that. We’ll assign real reporters to cover the developments that affect your communities and neighbourhoods.

Toronto is our start.

This will be your site! Think of it as a work in progress, because we want to know how you feel about what we’re doing.

Founding Editor and CEO

Digital for the Defense

07 May 2010

The plaintiff’s bar, according to Richard Levick, “has asserted digital dominance over the defense. In countless class action engagements, plaintiffs’ attorneys have outpaced the companies they target in search engine marketing and optimization (SEM and SEO), in the blogosphere, and on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.”

The same can be said for companies under attack by activist groups and angry citizens. Activist organizations are much better at using the social web in attack mode, although they nearly always have far fewer resources at their disposal than their targets. The examples are legion, from Nestle to Toyota to critics of the development of Canada’s oil sands.

It isn’t so odd really. To use the social web to greatest effect, you need quick decision-making, nimble approval of content, faith that public opinion matters, and willingness to let others speak for you . . . in other words, actions counter to the command-and-control and circle-the-wagons mindset that overtakes the C-suite in a crisis. Unless it is proved that public opinion will influence the purchase behaviour of a company’s customers, piss off regulators or make investors unhappy, there is a propensity for managers to equate defense with inaction.

But that isn’t the best strategy. As Mao Zedong said “the only real defense is active defense., which is a good description of what companies should think of doing online, and a more felicitous strategy for the social web than the common adage that ‘the best defense is a good offense.’

Companies don’t need to be combative or belligerent as might a plaintiff’s counsel in the U.S. But they should offer — and be willing to discuss — a point of view using social web tools for three reasons:

  1. A transparent, fact-based story shared with appropriate humility (if a mistake has been made) and discussed will get traction with non-aligned, non-dogmatic (yes, there are some) social web participants. The critics on the social web may shout the loudest, but the conversationalists and collectors can have political impact (Note . . .  Forrester Research social technographic categories)
  2. The ubiquitous use of search — on any platform (Google, Twitter, YouTube etc.) — means that the company’s angle on an issue or problem at least stands a chance of getting exposed to  non-obdurate or non-ideologically driven citizens.
  3. Digital memory is timeless and the next time something happens to the company that digital retrospection may not just be of a mess but also of an accurate explanation.

Activist Boot Camps for Everyone

28 April 2010

Take a look at this description of an activists’ training summit being organized in seven U.S. cities this spring and summer:

The following training courses were designed for the grassroots and focus on key areas of effective activism.

Grassroots Organizing:

  • Creative Leadership
  • Micro-targeting Precincts
  • Building Effective Coalitions
  • Media Training

Online Activism:

  • Online Image Management
  • Blogs and Wikis
  • Patriots 2.0
  • Creative Messaging

I know what you’re thinking: It’s just another left-wing fringe group preparing for the G20 Summit in June in Toronto or a protest over some environmental sin or other committed by a multinational corporation somewhere in the world.

Not this time. The social web activist boot camps are part of a series of ‘Post-Party Summits’ organized by a group announcing “the beginning of the new American Revolution, one in which we organize for liberty and take back our communities from the political class.” That’s right . . . The Tea Party, or one of its sister organizations on the right, is looking to train its supporters in social web influence strategies.

Ironically, it may be that the Obama presidential campaign’s successful use of the social web has given the “enemy” new ideas for grassroots organizing.