Archive for the ‘Public Relations’ Category

There’s more to digital PR than social media

posted by Brendan Hodgson

In recent months, I’ve become somewhat concerned by the overwhelming attention being paid to social media at the expense of other digital PR functions.

While social media is inherently an extension of that function, for the benefit of younger PR professionals and those who are still exploring the role that digital plays within a PR context, I thought it important to outline some other activities – in addition to what we are doing in the social media space – that are taking place within H&K Digital here in Canada.

The point being, that we need to avoid the same issue currently faced by our industry around the mistaken association that PR is synonymous with media relations and nothing more. We can’t ignore that social media, like media relations, is becoming a key (and highly visible) subset of our respective offerings, overshadowing many other PR disciplines and areas of expertise.

But we have to avoid falling into that same trap, and yet do so intelligently. Clearly opportunities exist for forward-thinking PR firms and practitioners. But we must also be aware of the challenges related to finding those practitioners with the right skillsets required to undertake these types of assignments – namely the capacity to bridge the chasm that often separates the traditional PR practitioner with the digital specialist (not only the social media specialist) trained in areas such as functional design, information architecture and content management.

The opportunities exist. Here’s a quick sampling of digital projects currently underway in our shop that extend beyond social media:

  • Auditing the electronic communications (EC) function of a federal government department, and providing recommendations on how to position the EC team to more effectively address emerging trends in digital communications, and the changing expectations of their internal clients.
  • Undertaking various training sessions, including conducting a half-day ”Writing for the Web” course for another government department
  • Auditing the communications function of a large energy company as it relates to that organization’s overall emergency response protocol, and making recommendations for digital integration within that function.
  • Providing strategic guidance on the development of a crisis dark site for another large corporation
  • Developing an over-arching online strategy (that will likely include social media) for a large technology firm’s sponsorship of a major cultural event.
  • Supporting an organization’s online efforts to reach out to, and effectively communicate with, both institutional and retail shareholders on a key issue.

To repeat: social media is undeniably a critical component of many campaigns that we now execute on behalf of clients. And while we regularly bake social media into our strategies and programs, and as we are increasingly engaged to create, feed into, or support various corporate blogging strategies, blogger outreach campaigns, and other social media initiatives, connecting ourselves too aggressively to that one segment of the digital universe could result in our being excluded from other more “traditional digital” opportunities… which would be a bad thing for PR as its seeks to re-define its role in the changing communications landscape.

Experienced PR Professionals wanted in Ottawa…

posted by Brendan Hodgson

Is it all about growth? That’s certainly a big part of it. 2007 was a pretty good year. But it also has to do with a combination of many other factors: new business, pending parenthood, evolving skillsets and the like. All that to say, there’s a few offices here in Ottawa looking to be filled.

So here’s what Hill & Knowlton is looking for (in a nutshell): Experienced mid-level (Account Director) and junior communications consultants with solid track records of experience and education. People who “get” traditional PR but who also get the changes currently afoot in the world of social media and the internet, and can connect the two together in ways that make sense for our clients. We’re talking team players who can think on their feet, and who can get the job done without a lot of hand-holding.

Solid writing skills are essential, as is, of course, attention to detail and the capacity to think and deliver both strategically and tactically. And in this town, bilingualism is always an asset.

What do you get in return? Opportunities to work with some of the smartest folks in the business, cool clients, beer cart every Friday, good benefits, and all the fun stuff that comes with working in a high-pressure, high-expectations environment. 

Show us what you’ve got. Send me a message via my blog, or contact Jackie King, VP Communications at jackie(dot)king(at)hillandknowlton(dot)ca. We’re also online at

Don’t be shy.

Real Threats. Real Plans – Crisis Communications in a 2.0 World

posted by Brendan Hodgson

Real Threats. Real Plans. This was the theme of DRIE Toronto’s first quarterly meeting for 2008 held yesterday at the Royal Bank Auditorium on Front Street in Toronto.

For those of you unfamiliar with who or what DRIE is, here’s the spiel direct from their site: The Disaster Recovery Information Exchange is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of Business Continuity Management, Disaster Recovery Planning, Crisis Management, Emergency Planning, and other related disciplines as integral components of an effective business strategy.

I’ve presented to this group twice now – late in 2007 and yesterday – both times on the impact of social media and digital technology on crisis communications. Without question, there’s a hunger for this kind of knowledge particularly given the dynamically changing communications landscape within which we, as practitioners, must now exist.

Why is this important? Because a number of fundamental changes are afoot – driven by digital technology, including:

  • The speed by which issues and threats can escalate into full-blown reputation crises
  • The surge in the level of “noise” around an event or issue - increasing the risk of misinformation and speculation to re-shape the dialogue and side-track an organization’s response
  • The extent to which social media is transforming how traditional media report on a crisis
  • The changing role of employees as brand guardians, and the need to help guide their behaviour in the online space
  • The impact of the online world’s “permanent record”, and the challenge facing organizations to rebuild their reputation in an environment where Google, according to Wired, has become less of a search engine and more a reputation management engine.
  • Most importantly, the importance of an organization’s own web footprint as a vehicle for timely, transparent, and responsible communications.

Effective crisis response in a 2.0 world requires understanding of each of these factors – and appropriate strategies to address them. Most importantly, it requires buy-in from senior leadership across all key business functions – not only communications. It requires a focus on speed and visibility, a commitment to responsible and ethical disclosure, and a recognition of the importance of being viewed as a voice of credibility and authority.

It does not diminish the importance of traditional principles that have governed crisis communications in the past – in fact, it reinforces many of them, allowing organizations to put a more human face to their communications, creating a direct channel to stakeholders, and enabling more timely and transparent dialogue.

Already, H&K is working with a number of clients to help advance their thinking and preparedness in this space. Most importantly, these are collaborations that are not simply one-way information exchanges, but two-way conversations that continue to inform our own thinking around crisis preparedness and response in a 2.0 world (in addition to what we read about Virginia Tech, the California Wildfires, JetBlue, Dell or other more commonly-discussed case studies).

Because the challenge is rarely identifying the threats. It’s ensuring that your plan of action is appropriate to the crisis, and takes into account this rapidly evolving landscape.

PR Pet Peeves for a Friday Afternoon… Industry self-flagellation & (more) jargon

posted by Brendan Hodgson

Is it just me, or are public relations practitioners – in particular, the bloggers – an uber-sensitive lot? Echo chamber effect aside, are there other industries out there – besides politics – that feel the need to publicly goose one-another more than we do? If so, I’d love to know. Granted, I’ve itched to question the (often half-baked) decisions of my competitors (and have stated as much), but let’s not transform what might be useful discussions - or even those less-than-useful - into glorified episodes of America’s Next Top Model. Yeah, conflict makes for good reading (nay, rubbernecking), but do you really want to be remembered by potential clients or employees for simply being good at slagging others? Who knows when you might be knocking on their door for a job?

That said, I cannot claim absolute innocence. Once upon a time (meaning pre-21st century), I jumped all over a member of the marketing community for pronouncing himself a “concepteur” (granted, it had been a bad day all round, and that just capped it off) which led to some pretty ribald exchanges in the letters section of Canada’s Marketing magazine.  Today, however, my latest peeves are jargon-y stink bombs like “ideation” which remind me of a recent Economist obituary for Jim Michaels, a former editor of Forbes, who once tore a strip off a journalist for using the term “upscale”:

“His edits, seen by everyone on the open filing system, were surreptitiously collected in the “Abuse File”. Some entries became famous outside the magazine, such as his wild reaction to “upscale”: “IF I SEE THIS WORD AGAIN ILL UPTHROW”. Copies are still circulating.” 

If you want to validate the PR profession, don’t do this…

posted by Brendan Hodgson

In the category of things that might effectively neuter the future viability of PR, I offer you this direct from the Bulldog Reporter’s 2008 Bulldog Awards brochure:

“Who better to assess the work of PR professionals than the most important audience for your work? Our 20 journalist judges are tough but enthusiastic supporters of media relations excellence.”

Without question, traditional media relations remains a critical component of the PR toolkit, and will remain so for the forseeable future. The reach and credibility of the mainstream media (for the most part) is still vital to influencing perception and behaviour. But what cannot be ignored, however, is that this perceived supremacy is being challenged by the ability of an organization to reach and engage its “real” audiences directly (meaning customers, employees, communities, governments, etc.), to mobilize advocates and galvanize support and endorsement beyond the media itself. Furthermore, and in specific instances, effective PR is about not engaging with the mainstream media at all. So why define PR success in such narrow terms?

Quite simply, if we as an industry continue to believe in and support the notion that PR is synonymous with media relations (and that the journalist is the “most important” audience) at the expense of everything else we could and should be doing, then the battle for future legitimacy will be lost without a shot being fired.

When was the last time you did something truly different?

posted by Brendan Hodgson

When I look at the business of PR today, I often ask both myself and my colleagues, ”when was the last time you did something truly different?”

It’s an important question because clients are looking for increasing levels of creativity in the plans and strategies we’re asked to provide. Granted, they may not act on them. But they want to know that we can think out of the box, and do so in a fashion that makes sense to their business.

Moreover, it allows consultants (particularly those new to the profession) the ability to look beyond the basics and the more traditionally-focused tactics (read ‘media’) that they learned in PR school. And when they know that they are able to expand their horizons, and do so within the context of what we’re being asked to do (meaning, with senior strategic oversight), exciting opportunities can be created.

Obviously, the best-case scenario is when our clients act on those ideas. Case in point: we’ve been privileged in recent months to work with Intel Canada on their gaming business. At the core of the strategy is Gamefaces, and driving the campaign is a focus on creating original content that we hope will resonate with gamers. And that speaks to the question I asked at the beginning of this post.  We’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with a client that get’s it – that understands the importance of “content” as table stakes. It means we now have the ability to capture and share the stuff that traditional media might not touch, but which our audiences might find both entertaining and useful, and ultimately help to re-shape perceptions. It means being able to engage real gamers in ways that might previously have never been considered in a PR context – and using the social media tools available in order to reach gamers where they go to get information.

Equally interesting, this campaign is already moving beyond Canada’s borders and – with the current Extreme Gamefaces Zero G promotion – providing the foundation for reaching audiences across North America and, potentially, globally.  

So when was the last time you did something truly different? If you haven’t, start now. Clients are asking for it.

"Labatt Life" blog and stakeholder expectations

posted by Brendan Hodgson

In an earlier post, I mentioned briefly that we were working with Labatt to help build and launch their “Labatt Life” group corporate blog. I also mentioned that I wanted to focus on this project a bit more – for a few reasons.

Today’s corporations face issues that require highly targeted forms of communications – be it to investors , governments, communities, prospective and current employees, and around issues such as corporate social responsibility, corporate reputation, and so forth. Increasingly, this targeted outreach requires an organization to become significantly more strategic in the messages they wish to communicate to a particular audience, and the channels through which those messages are delivered to that audience. All pretty straightforward stuff.

Add to this, however, the evolving notion of ‘expectation’ and this scenario becomes even more challenging. Quite simply, stakeholders are increasingly setting the parameters for how they elect to receive information. And that has implications not only for what I chose to communicate but also how I chose communicate it. Previously, expectations were constrained largely by the channels themselves – specifically, the lack thereof and the high cost of utilizing those channels (that did exist) in order to reach niche audiences. 

Today, however, audiences increasingly expect:

  1. communications that are more frequent (yet more targeted and relevant)
  2. communications that are more direct (and unfiltered by third-parties)
  3. communications that are more “substantive” and “authentic” (vs soundbites)
  4. communications that are delivered via the media of their choosing (traditional or new)
  5. communications that allow for both reaction and interaction

For Labatt, talent acquisition and retention is a key priority, and their management trainee program is a critical part of their recruitment strategy. At the same time, they also realized that traditional forms of communications were no longer sufficient to meet the changing expectations of this increasingly “wired” target group. Which is why the Labatt Life blog was created: to provide additional opportunities for Labatt to communicate to potential recruits in a way that allows for direct, frequent and “authentic” interaction (given that this blog is authored in part by current trainees, and provides a real, behind-the-scenes perspective), via a channel that these audiences increasingly look to for information.

That Labatt understood this changing environment made the experience of working with them even better. How they support and sustain this platform over the long term will be the real test. However, keep your eye on the site as they look to integrate cool content from across Labatt, and as they tour campuses across Canada.

Congrats to the Labatt team for making this happen.  

David Jones joins Hill & Knowlton Canada’s Digital Team

posted by Brendan Hodgson

Over the past few years, and through the efforts of lots of people, Hill & Knowlton Canada has been positioning itself to address the growing impact that digital media is having on the business of public relations and public affairs. It’s been an interesting ride, particularly coming out of the bubble. Clients have always shown interest – though fewer were prepared to jump in than we would have liked - but it’s paid off in some interesting work… work that’s prepared us for where we are today.   

However, with social media continuing to fundamentally re-define the changing communications dynamic within which we now work – as marketers, public affairs and crisis practitioners, and corporate communicators - this positioning has taken on an added urgency. As our global CEO reinforced only a few days ago at our global digital practice meeting in Phoenix, H&K’s future success will be based largely on the extent to which our company overall becomes more digitally engaged, and on the ability of our people to advise clients of the importance of new media as an increasingly vital and strategic part of their overall communications solution. 

Which makes a ton of sense if only for the fact that in Canada (as well as in many other parts of the network I’ve learned) our clients expect it, are asking for it, and are increasingly looking to their PR agencies to deliver a more robust and relevant offering that integrates it. 

But to do this effectively, much needs to happen – not least finding the right people to help drive this focus on digital engagement and integration, and who can speak knowingly to the opportunities and issues that sit at the intersection of digital and PR. That said, finding the “right people” who do more than simply produce digital outputs in the same way we do press releases is anything but easy. Fortunately, our Canadian leadership team, like the uber-boss himself, has refused to simply pay “lip service” to the importance of digital, realizing that we can no longer continue to rely on purely conventional theory to drive growth. Which means walking the talk and building a team that can serve as catalysts for change – strategically integrating digital in ways that deliver real value to our clients. 

Which is why H&K, and the Digital Communications Practice in particular, are particularly thrilled to welcome David Jones, one of Canada’s foremost social media and digital evangelists, to Hill & Knowlton as vice president, digital. In his multi-faceted role, David will be working with me, the digital team, and our digital champions across the network to further grow our integrated offering.

In addition to his extensive PR knowledge (and you can peruse the impressive particulars here), David, as many of you know, is an early-adopter in the use social media for PR purposes. He authors a popular Canadian PR blog ( and co-hosts the weekly Inside PR podcast ( and is a frequent speaker at communications conferences on how to use social media as an effective PR tool.

So what more is there to say about this blistering shift in the Canadian social media and PR landscape? Methinks nothing save perhaps a line from the King himself:  A little less conversation, a little more action please…

Don’t know who you’re talking to? Game over

posted by Brendan Hodgson

Work took me to Toronto this past weekend for the World Series of Video Gaming. It was a wild event, and introduced me to a culture and community I had not been exposed to previously. The intensity and passion of gamers both amateur and professional was clearly evident. Of the event itself, there was nothing amateur about it. Professional gaming in Canada has certainly come of age – although nothing (yet) like their counterparts in South Korea or Japan.

Watching teams battling it out in the World of WarCraft 3v3 arena battle, or observing individual gamers going head-to-head (both virtually and literally) in the the Quake IV and Guitar Hero II competitions, was something else entirely. Teams strategized in the stands as they watched the competition in action. Boisterous audiences cheered on players known only by their handles. Competitions were broadcast on big screens throughout the venue. And, of course, no professional tournament (in any sport) would be complete without it’s share of controversy, be it around illegal game settings, or confusion around the rules in place to ensure a level playing field.

Ultimately, my fascination with the whole event was grounded by the re-affirmation of the importance of knowing your audience – intimately – and of filtering and channeling your messages (be they corporate, tech or otherwise) so that they speak the language your target audiences speak. It’s about understanding what motivates them and the touch points that connect them to your brand. And it’s this which reinforces the value of the web as a mechanism to build that bridge. Part of our campaign was to foster a more meaningful link (online) between our client and the gaming community, one that spoke their language, encouraged engagement on their terms, and provided valuable content. This event (we hope) was only the beginning of what will be a sustained campaign on the part of our client to interact with audiences in ways that naturally extend the traditional relationship between the two.

Issues management and the social Web – black and white, or shades of gray?

posted by Brendan Hodgson

I was quoted this morning in an article related to an issue pitting Dalhousie University against a Facebook group protesting the school’s use of animals for research. You can read the story here (and find additional context here). It’s an interesting piece, although I feel the need to clarify my rather “sensationalist” quote.

Without question, this imbroglio is a clear example of the changing face of crisis communications and issues management in today’s networked world. It speaks not only to the speed and efficiency by which an issue can erupt and spread – both in the media and the blogosphere – but also to the issue of what organizations can or should do to respond. My colleague, Boyd Neil, a senior crisis practitioner, has also posted his thoughts on this issue.

In a growing number of instances, issues move through the blogosphere and social networking sites so quickly that trying to respond on a one-to-one basis would be virtually impossible, and a massive drain on resources. It would be akin to playing “whack-a-mole” versus strategically targeting your communications to those audiences and influencers that really matter, be they employees, loyal customers, communities, regulators etc. Likewise, the speed by which communities spring up around such issues, as was the case with Facebook, only adds to the complexity of this new landscape that we, as communicators, face. And that was, to some degree, a key point of my quote.

Further to that point is the question of when to respond and, if a response is deemed necessary (depending on the impact of the action being taken), how. In times of crisis, timeliness is still an essential component to any communications. Increasingly, however, timeliness must also be matched by an even greater focus on credibility, transparency and authority. As the social web grows, so too will the level of misinformation and speculation, either intentional or inadvertent. And that has clear implications around how an organization should consider the response they take. 

Ultimately, an organization must first decide if the issue (if left unchecked) might ultimately impact their “business” – be it a negative impact on sales, a substantive hit to an organization’s reputation, or reduced enrollment (as in the case of Dal). Or might it, as Boyd suggest, fade into obscurity?

Secondly, it must consider the environment in which this issue is unfolding. Per my comment on Boyd’s blog earlier today, and as I noted to the reporter yesterday, the social web can often be, to a degree, self-policing. In reading the comments on the Facebook group, you see a lot of folks supporting Dal’s arguments and taking a highly critical stance against the creator of the group. Which begs the question, should the school itself should seek to participate on this forum or let the masses fight the battle for them?

Additionally, it could be argued that when the “author” or “instigator” of an issue hides behind anonymity (or a name only), or is in no real position to comment with authority (meaning, is either a spectator or does not have the appropriate perspective or knowledge to truly decipher what that person has either seen or heard), does responding lend credibility to the “instigator” where none previously existed?

Furthermore, an organization must also explore how it might, if necessary, use its own online footprint to correct misinformation, address inaccuracies, and provide clarity on the issue in question. This might include posting links to third-party accreditations of its practices, and other endorsements from credible parties. It might include photos or video tours of specific facilities accompanied by neutral observers. And, as Boyd mentioned, it might include offering doubters the opportunity to see for themselves. In doing so, you are also arming your supporters with information and content that they are then able to use in other forums.

For the most part, legal action should, as Boyd infers, be considered a last resort. At the same time, organizations need to better understand the implications of social media, particularly in times of crisis, so as not to over-react to every negative comment, but also to know when to respond to prevent an issue from having a lasting impact on their reputation or business.