A Year in Five Social Media Movements

04 January 2010

Reports on social media trends in 2009 are ubiquitous — here’s one of the most useful lists from Adam Vincenzini in The Comms Corner — as are cogitative posts about what to expect in 2010 like that by David Armano blogging at the Harvard Business Review.

My assessment of what mattered last year is shorter and more personal, and I am too deferential to the forecasting abilities of others to speculate on 2010:

  1. Many words, occasional invective and a lot of social media blood were spilled over the demise of newspapers and its effect on journalism and those who practice it within the historical news delivery infrastructure. I weighed in often enough because I believe there is a radical shift in the sources of reporting, the formation of public opinion through communication, and the opportunity for individuals and groups, when motivated, to work around the traditional news infrastructure to exchange information, ideas and opinion for social change and political purposes.  The critical words on this issue in Canada may have been spoken by The Supreme Court of Canada. In late December its ruling on responsible communication made it clear that such communication is not just the province of journalists, but of anyone engaged in public communication including bloggers  As David Eaves so eloquently summed it up in his post “The ruling acknowledges that we are all now journalists and that we need a legal regime that recognizes this reality.”
  2. During the Iran elections in June 2009, Twitter became the means for getting images and news out about the repression of democratic protest. Recognizing that Twitter was a tool by which people in Iran were communicating with each other, and the world outside, even the U.S. State Department asked Twitter to delay its scheduled maintenance outage in order not to impede the flow of information. In my view, this was the single event that brought Twitter naysayers to heel, especially cynical journalists. News was being reported by citizens through a social network that some silly luddite columnists (still) see as “little more than the glorification of self indulgent trivia”. (Martin Vander Weyer in The Spectator, January 2, 2010).
  3. Speaking of reality, it is now being augmented in ways that are mind boggling. Augmented reality refers to the overlay of the virtual on the real. As explained by Ben Parr last August “These applications combine virtual data into the physical real world by utilizing the iPhone 3GS or an Android phone’s compass, camera, and GPS system. The result is that you can see things like the location of Twitter users and local restaurants in the physical world, even if they are miles away.” While excitement has been focused on fun apps like being able to wave your iPhone or Android in the air and find the nearest pubs, there are obviously hundreds of other uses, especially for product seeding . . . about which I know nothing. As for reputation management, corporate communications or issue identification and control, well, I’m not sure.
  4. I am a little surprised that Google’s Sidewiki has become a non-story. At first blush, it seemed to have the potential to be a game shifter in how people interact with web content about which they have strong opinions, pro or con. It may be that social networks are already platforms for interaction about web content and Sidwiki in the context of opinionated and criticism-friendly social networks is simply redundant.
  5. As a consultant over the past couple of years, I have been recommending social media strategies as pivotal in the success of reputation management programs largely because they are community (or affinity) rather than media focused. Clients are buying into it. But the conversations I’ve been having with companies over the last few months lead me to think we are at a social media tipping point (no, I have not read Mr. Gladwell’s epnymous book). According to the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts, “Social media is mainstream. Forty-three percent of Inc. 500 companies consider social media important to their business, with 91 percent of Inc. 500 companies employing at least one tool in 2009.” Employing one tool, however, is not a strategy and many companies and organizations are recognizing that the one-off Facebook page or Twitter handle isn’t giving them traction, nor will it. They’ll want — or should be wanting — the full game plan.

So, I lied: Number five is a 2010 forecast.

Newspapers as Niche News Providers

09 December 2009

This post by Jim Horton at Online Public Relations Thoughts makes an interesting follow-on to my last post on the decline of newspapers.

The story Mr. Horton references adds even more evidence of the print implosion going on. But his point that “newspapers are fast becoming a niche medium” is the one that hits home: (This is the full text of his post.)

“This is interesting. Newspapers have finally recognized that they are no longer mass media and are cutting back to a core of readers willing to pay for the paper daily. In other words, newspapers are fast becoming a niche medium, no longer powerful but catering to what is probably an older crowd. This means, of course, that newsrooms will continue to shrink and coverage as well until a balance between cost and revenue is achieved. The hard task for newspapers is not to cut too much. The New York Times, for example, is in the middle of newsroom buyouts and lost some of its well-known business reporters in the last few days. Who will replace them? No one.

In PR, we have seen this coming for a couple of years and as practitioners we have been shifting away from newspapers for some time. The problem is that in some areas like business news, there is nowhere else to go. There are no independent blog sites for business news that have become prominent like Politico for political news. Business news blog sites are associated with the same mainstream media that are cutting back. It is a challenge for corporate PR that will only become larger.”

There is a shortage of reliable and trustworthy social media alternatives for business news and analysis. Yes, there are dozens of financial and market-watching blogs, online newsletters for the investment industry, and an assortment of kvetchers, but as far as I know no credible news alternatives to the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times of London or the New York Times business pages (at least for the time being).

Until that gap is filled, it will be difficult to convince some organizations of the value of social media-driven communications strategies, although as Mr. Horton points out there may be little choice if business reporters become extinct.

Print Backsliding – Cause for Worry?

30 November 2009

It’s maybe time to close the book on the reality of the decline in newspapers and get on with the argument about the hole it leaves, or doesn’t. The latest is summarized in a blog post on Reflections of a Newsosaur aptly called “Carnage continued in Q3 newspaper sales”

“Continuing 14 straight quarters of mostly accelerating declines, total print advertising in the third period fell a bit less than 29% to $5.8 billion. Interactive advertising sales, which the industry once hoped would be its salvation, dropped nearly 17% in the third quarter to $623 million, marking the sixth quarter in a row of declines in this crucial category.”

This is stark evidence that in spite of industry claims to the contrary the legacy media infrastructure is, like Marx’s hope for the State, simply withering away, and the end point of the decline isn’t yet in sight.

It is what it is and there is likely no going back, even if I share the angst the diminution occasions. The important discussion now is what should be saved and how. In spite of the stupidity of much of today’s ‘entertainews’ , we still need columnists like the Globe and Mail’s Jeffrey Simpson who keeps the current Canadian governing party in his sights and calls it out for every mendacious and insensitive word and act, which keeps him busy.  Democracy ought to have a vigorous fourth estate. Or, at least, it cant do without wise, critical, often cantankerous, always careful sentinels.

But let’s be clear about a few things:

  1. The disappearance of print vehicles isn’t the same thing as a flight from the consumption of news and information. People today are consuming more information and news than they ever have in the past. A lot of it is junk like TMZ.com and Perez Hilton’s blog. (Then again, there have always been gossip, scandal, heartbreak and blood-first news books.) But it can’t be denied that the rate of taking in news, facts and opinion is, in fact, going up.
  2. People are finding niche and important-to-them information, arguing with it, deep diving into it when it concerns them or affects their lives, and forming into groups when the news or chicanery requires action. There may be, to quote the ‘Internationale’ (there is a theme here you can tell) “a better world in birth.”

I am in the camp which thinks the new substructure already exists for a strong new ‘estate’ of inventive, articulate (even if their metier is the image), critical guardians of democracy and its breeches. All the cream hasn’t yet risen to the top as it has in print and television commentary. But there are beachheads, in Canada anyway, with the likes of David Eaves or some of the writers at the online newspaper The Tyee and, occasionally, The Torontoist.

So, there is no cause for worry because, as a recent article by David Carr concludes:

Somewhere down in the Flatiron, out in Brooklyn, over in Queens or up in Harlem, cabals of bright young things are watching all the disruption with more than an academic interest. Their tiny netbooks and iPhones, which serve as portals to the cloud, contain more informational firepower than entire newsrooms possessed just two decades ago. And they are ginning content from their audiences in the form of social media or finding ways of making ambient information more useful.


Why Sidewiki May be Okay

13 November 2009

I am a bit late to the game with comments on Sidewiki. (It launched more than a month ago.) A student in my Ryerson University reputation management class gave a presentation on it the other night which got me thinking that the debate about its influence on public relations has been thin. Surprising really given that some, like Mark Rose, believe Sidewiki “is a PR game changer”.

Here’s what Sidewiki allows you to do once you have installed the application: As Google describes it “Google Sidewiki is a browser sidebar that lets you contribute and read information alongside any web page.”

In other words, you can write an un-moderated comment beside any web page you want. You can add anything you like (with the usual caveats about libel, perversion, vulgarity, etc.), provide your perspective on the page, add new information, share an anecdote, or add a link that sends readers somewhere else.

I believe Google uses an algorithm to rank Sidekwiki posts by relevance and credibility rather than chronology. Through its webmaster tools it will also allow the website owner always to have the first note in the sidebar.

Of course, the dangers are self-evident. My first Sidewiki contribution to the front page of the Globe and Mail was a complaint about the panic-inducing headlines and coverage of H1N1 in Canada’s national newspaper. As much as I like to be helpful, I am just as likely to get frustrated by the content on organizations’ web pages. Now I can have that frustration, even anger or disgust  made evident to every other reader of the page with the Sidwiki app.

The debate about the ethics of being able to tread on the last piece of web ground that an organization could “own” should go on for a long time yet once people take the full measure of this new social combat tool. At least I hope it does. (If you want to see some pretty harsh and cogent criticisms take a look at the website called Sidewiki Sux.)

But Sidewiki may have one benefit. For those of us who get stonewalled whenever we suggest that organizations should pay more attention to their websites, make them more peppy and responsive, treat them less like a print annual report or marketing brochure and more like, say, a collaboration platform, this may be a turning point.

Could Sidewiki actually encourage (force) website owners to breathe life back into moribund web anatomies because people may actually be stopping by and, excuse the vulgarity, taking a piss on them?

IPRA Summit ‘09 – PR 2.0

05 November 2009

The International Public Relations Association (IPRA) Summit 2009 last week in London England was more interesting than I had expected. Past conferences have been generally okay, and not just because I was speaking.  This one, though, was focused on PR 2.0 and my fear was yet another conference in which self-styled experts told us we have to take the measure of social media in communications strategies (Duh!) without adding much to the arsenal of ideas.

Rather than write about my viewpoint on what I heard, I’ll let some of the social media and public relations apostles speak for themselves:

Christophe Ginisty, president, Rumeur Publique  (Note . . . I have shared a platform with Christophe before and he is always the most invigorating and creative presenter:

“We live in world in which nothing is virtual. I hate using the word virtual to describe online communities.”

“The two words that best capture an effective online community are a mirror and a nest. Before talking about the platform, you have to discover the what brings people to a community, what motivates their belonging; mirror it; build the nest; make it safe; feed the birds; then let them live their lives.”

“You know why teenagers like social networks. Because the social network community members understand them while adults don’t. In other words, they want the mirror. The web is the easiest and most comfortable nest when they move away from home.”

“Online communities have to be specific, the more specific they are the more successful.”

“Communities can be activated anytime: you need to push the right button. We do not create communities. We move them and activate them (by chance or talent).”

Paul Holmes, the inimitable editor of The Holmes Report:

“HBR did a whole issue on trust and didn’t think to speak to a public relations professional, which says something about how public relations is misunderstood.”

“Public relations should always have been about dialogue and conversations only the processes have changed. We used to ask journalists do our communicating. Now we can do it ourselves.”

“The cost of being a lousy PR person is going to go through the roof as a result of social media.We are going to need courage to fight off lawyers and those who won’t listen to our recommendations about social media. If PR people don’t take this on, management consultants will.

Bill Mew, global communications leader for the financial services sector group at IBM:

“The biggest step IBM took was to empower all employees to tweet and blog and also to create early on community-developed social computing guidelines.

“If current culture doesn’t align, start to create it.”

“Stream computing will allow real time analysis of what people are saying about your brand everywhere in the world.”

Cathy Wallace, editor of PR week:

“Separate digital/social media departments in PR firms should disappear as everyone in agencies has to become able to deliver social media strategies . . . and as a result, the power of public relations will increase.”

Robyn O’Kelly, head of corporate affairs, T-mobile:

“Social media confuses communicators because they aren’t sure where it sits. Is it marketing, advertising or public relations?”

“We still need the media to drive people to our YouTube channel.”

Fernando Rizo, head of digital, Ketchum Pleon (London):

“Proving the value of what you are doing and managing client expectations are the central questions facing social media strategists.”

“Good digital PR means becoming a publisher.”

“We have to get rid of the ‘digital engagement is free” mentality.

“The concept of ‘impressions’ has to be taken out of measurement of social media.”

“I won’t let anyone talk about making viral videos. Videos become viral; we don’t make viral”

Olle Ahnve, digital planner, Jung Relations, Sweden:

“You can fake transparency and dialogue in social media: You can’t fake personality.”

Gareth Davies, head of digital, MS&L (UK):

“Social media is about trust and credibility.”

“There are five things you have to do to build a credible community online 1. Spend time listening to your audience. 2. Lever the power of your network. 3. Don’t be afraid to give customers control. 4. Crowdsource content. 5.Create and embed brand ambassadors.”

Stuart Wilson, CEO MS&L (UK):

“Social media is not about cannibalisation: It’s about investing for the future.”

Anne Walker, associate director, digital practice, Fleishman Hillard:

“Focus on interests, not borders when building a community.”

The Power of Apologies

22 October 2009

Anyone who has followed my posts on apologies will know how important I feel they are as a way to manage reputation in a crisis. (Forgive the self-reference, but two of the most recent posts can be found here and here.)

A colleague in my firm’s Seattle office, Drew Arnold, sent me an article from the Oregon Business Journal referencing a June 2009 discussion paper called ‘The Power of Apology‘ from the University of Nottingham’s Centre for Decision Research and Experimental Economics.

Here is the paper’s abstract:

After an unsatisfactory purchase, many firms are quick to apologize to customers. It is, however, not clear why they should do that. As the apology is costless, it should be regarded as cheap talk and thus ignored by the customer. In this paper, we test in a controlled field experiment whether apologizing influences customers’ subsequent behaviour. We find that apologizing yields much better outcomes for the firm than offering monetary compensation.”

Based on a study of customers using eBay in Germany, the study found among other results:

  1. “Customers who receive an apology instead of a monetary compensation are more than twice as likely to withdraw a (negative) evaluation.”
  2. “When money is offered, a higher purchase price makes it less likely that a customer withdraws his (negative) evaluation. An apology works independent of the level of the purchase price.”

Why then can’t we assume that the propensity to consider legal action when harm has been caused by an accidental event, even if negligence is involved, just might be mitigated by a genuine (and the key here is the word ‘genuine’) apology?

Why ‘Media’ with ‘Social’

19 October 2009

A post by a colleague got me thinking about the phrase ’social media’ as the lexeme to describe the technologies of web-based self-publishing that have led to unprecedented connection, conversation, engagement and community.

The provenance of the phrase is evidently to contrast user-generated news and comment with mainstream or industrial media in which the ‘means of production’ to use the Marxist description (also favoured by cultural commentator Andrew Keen) are owned by corporations not the individuals who create the content. The debate about whether ’social media’ is the right term has been going on for at least two years.

The problem I have is less with the ’social’ element of the lexeme than with ‘media’ to describe the interface, although a colleague did comment the other day that it would make it easier to sell social media as a communications strategy to companies if it didn’t contain the word ’social’ which smacks of people-driven rather than business-driven decision making . . . which is the point of course.

Let’s do a little academic geekery here. Dictionary.com defines media as “the means of communication, as radio and television, newspapers, and magazines, that reach or influence people widely.” (The ‘reach’ is becoming questionable and the ‘influence’ declining. But that’s the subject of a future post.) The Online Etymology Dictionary suggest a derivation from the “notion of ‘intermediate agency,’ a sense first found around 1605.” According to Spiritus Temporis, media refers to “those organized means of dissemination of fact, opinion, entertainment, and other information.”

You see the trend: The word ‘media’ has about it the notion of a channel by which you deliver something to people, not interconnect with them. Some, well many, communications and marketing people have a hard time switching mental models when it comes to assessing social tools for online interaction. They fixate on the term ‘media’ and apply old public relations patterns and benchmarks to social media strategies.

Doc Searls (co-author of the groundbreaking book The Cluetrain Manifesto), for one, objects strenuously to the limitations and misdirection prompted by the ‘media’ terminology. I do to . . . but the battle for a new conceptual model may already be lost as usage soon drives definition. Even though the conceits of social computing tools, social interaction software or social engagement strategies seem to collocate better the important elements of the digitally-driven cultural revolution, they still aren’t really there yet.

So, can we revive the two-year-old or longer debate? Or has it been resolved and I am just out of the loop?

Twitter . . . Why Bother?

04 October 2009

Maybe it isn’t enough to denounce silly sniping at Twitter – as I did in the previous post – without making a case for why bother exchanging 140 characters with some friends and many more people I’ve never met.

How about because:

  1. You can use Twitter to reinforce the legitimate personal need to provide value through your comments, links, humor and polemic . . . I do.
  2. Twitter, as Andrew Keen said last Friday at a panel discussion with Clay Shirky, is pure, by which I think he means it is direct and surprisingly transparent.
  3. Twitter posts expose personality, your own and that of others, better than dinner party conversation. You learn a lot about people by what they contribute and how they participate.
  4. Twitter has some many political and social uses as evidenced by last June’s elections in Iran. Jim Gilliam, creator of the Twitter petition tool called act.ly says his ‘tweet change’ tool makes it possible ‘for anyone to pounce on an opportunity, no matter how small, without the run-up and vetting and committee meetings that traditional advocacy groups might have to churn through before they act.’
  5. It can be, says web strategist Jermiah Oywang, a shared feed reader, chat room, listening tool, traffic driving tool, and note space.
  6. People direct me to great stories, edgy ideas and very occasionally products (usually wine) that I would not find otherwise.

In other words, assuming you choose the right people to follow (and by “right” I mean those who you want as part of a community of interest) Twitter helps build fruitful, lively, and perspicacious reciprocal relationships.

If you have an extra six minutes, watch this video about why others like Twitter.


International Public Relations SUMMIT

27 September 2009

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that I will be able to attend the International Public Relations Association (IPRA) Summit in London this October. It takes place Friday, 30 October 2009 at Merchant Taylor’s Hall, Threadneedle Street, London and the theme is PR in times of crisis – From austerity to opportunity. You can register here if you can spring for a thousand or so British pounds, plus travel.

This is one of the few international conferences I get to, having been to three IPRA Summits in London over the past 2 1/2 years. (Disclosure . . . I am a member of the IPRA’s governing council.) Having not been offered a speaking platform (which I have in the past), and running up against the restrictions on business travel common to many agencies these days, the chances of getting to the U.K. for October 30th are slim.

I’ll miss it.

The number of North American public relations and social media conferences is overwhelming. However, at them seldom do you hear the perspectives of French, British, Israeli, Norwegian, Russia, Irish, Indonesian, Indian, Nigerian, and Singaporean public relations professionals, for  example, as I have at the London meetings. Their experiences can be sharper than in North America; their stakeholders more aggressive; their governments over-intrusive; their cultures less – or more – flexible; their political sensibilities acute; and their use of mobile technologies extravagant.

The speakers at this year’s conference include Nick Sharples, Sony Europe (who has tweeted all of once at @SharplesN); Fernando Rizo, Ketchum UK; Robin O’Kelly, T-Mobile; Rob Brown, author of Public Relations and the Social Web; Elizabeth Goenawan Ananto(Indonesia); Tim Weber – BBC Interactive (who tweets at @tim_weber); and Maria Gergova – IPRA.

Less cosmopolitan than usual, but still a strong cast.

A Friend’s Take on Transparency

17 September 2009

I recently re-tweeted something from Todd Defren about a stark example of a lack of transparency in the use of Twitter by a public relations agency.

[RT @TDefren: Shouldn't "Seth the Blogger Guy" have *disclosed* that he worked at Fleishman? http://tinyurl.com/narrze http://myloc.me/DGYQ

A friend of mine who works in a senior corporate communications role for a large company felt the tweet deserved a reaction. He sent me an email I thought was worth sharing largely because it takes a contrarian view to received ideas about transparency. He said he was okay with me posting it here (unedited) anonymously. So here are the thoughts of one experienced corporate communications practitioner who, I must say, does delight in the role of iconoclast.

In my view, “transparency” in corporate communication, while a noble ideal, is just that, an ideal.  It’s like democracy or green living, the reality is much thornier and more complex in practise (or is it practice?)  

Having kicked around the net for awhile now, personally and professionally, I have come to the conclusion that an unrealistic definition of transparency is placed on most companies.  In my view it is rooted in a stereotypical belief that corporate entities are essentially run by very bad people and a company is always guilty until proven innocent.   There is this odd double standard attached to companies participating in net-based communications, that somehow they are required to always declare the name behind the username, whereas virtually nobody else is. Who exactly is canuck1975 and who cares? – unless he works for the man.  Activists and critics and trolls run about the internet with relative impunity, because the David and Goliath narrative always favours David, even if he’s stretching the facts, ignoring those that don’t suit him, and generally whooping it up with no constraints.  Sure it’s exciting, but it doesn’t make for valuable information.    

I was thinking about transparency in the context of your tweet and perhaps they did make a mistake, but then I got wondering:  did they choose to make it?  No one’s that naive anymore… more than one corporate representative has been unmasked at this late date.  It’s not like the risk was was unknown.  Although if an SVP at an agency didn’t know about it, tough luck, Charlie, and enjoy the account review.

In this instance perhaps it was a phased approach, getting the message out in phase one trumping concerns about the means by which it was done and the revelation of that means, if it even ever was revealed.   If the information was factual, valuable and verifiable, I suggest the how and who are less important.  The net is a rough and tumble place, a reality often considered in passing, if at all.  Declaring “I am the company” or “I work for the company” runs the risk of shifting the focus from the message to the messenger.  Immediately teeth are gnashed and cries of “Spin!” et al displace reaction to the content and a big old flame war erupts where everybody can have some fun.   

Consider it this way.  You’re in a meeting with your worst enemy, who is presenting an idea, that is, in fact, a damn good idea.  How many of us, in all honesty, aren’t spending at least a little time looking to poke holes in that  and bring the worst enemy’s house of cards tumbling down?  Now imagine the same idea is presented by a respected colleague and the consensus view is it’s an excellent idea.   Then the respected colleague acknowledges your worst enemy as the brains behind the presentation.  Well, you might be a bit rueful, but there’ll be no denying the quality of the thought, even if it surprisingly did come from that bloviating idiot. 

 Let the content be judged, I say.  So if that requires flying beneath the radar, that may be a choice that needs to be made in an environment where hyperbole and flame wars are often the best show in town.  There’s no point executing a brilliant ground strategy if the battle’s being fought on the bounding main.   Perhaps they actually made a wise decision to divide the process into two parts by getting the information they wanted out there and then, in the second part, dealing with the fall out from the revelation of who provided it. 

Which brings me to my second point:  web ‘management’, the new inside baseball.  Sure, as practitioners, we have an interest in the drama and the strategy, and certainly an activists or critics of the organization in question could feast on this revelation like it’s steak.  But does the target audience for the information really care about the who and how of how it got there?  I suspect if you ranked the criteria for credibility, using the 80-10-10 rule to divide the audience, the factuality, verifiability and value of the information would trump who wrote it.  That’s not to say strategies don’t shape perceptions, they do.  But I don’t believe it’s a given that the outcome in this specific case means anybody’s going to wear an indelible stain in the view of the audiences that count.   Then 10 and the 10 may remember, but the focus of the 80 is very likely elsewhere. 

I wouldn’t recommend it in every instance, nor am I counselling the same recklessness and subterfuge that often accompanies the online antics of the loudest voices on the message board.  But on the other hand, lets get real:  the shock of finding a company or its consultant behind a web mask isn’t what it used to be.    If the information is factual, valuable and verifiable, and the climate irrationally dismissive of certain sources, sometimes perhaps a case can be made for taking your lumps if you get caught doing what almost every other demographic on the web is doing from time to time as well.   If you’ve got the defence of substance, versus spin, it could be an imperfect strategy worth executing.  The dogs bark, but the caravan passes by.  The question that has to answered is whether anyone will remembering the barking or what caused it. 

I’d like to know your thoughts because it’s a weird thing to take such a contrary view to the easy, perhaps reflexive, mantra of transparency and what that means.  If you ask me the web is translucent at best and that goes for the lot of us, spinmeister, client, activist, geek and basement dweller.

I’ll discuss this over lunch with my friend . . . but I would love to bring him your comments through the comment thread below. (No Facebook wall posts please . . . aggregate comments here so others can see.)