Lazy Hazy Days of Summer… Not Likely!

posted by Brendan Hodgson

As the seasons shift from spring to summer, there’s always a smidgen of hope – soon dashed – that the hottest months might, in fact, be a tad quieter than the rest of the year. And without exception, this year demonstrates the folly of harbouring such expectations.

From a digital perspective in Canada, there appears to be no let up in sight, nor does the social media world appear to bring any respite for the weary, as even during a brief lull and a few days at the cottage and by the sea, much appears to have transpired:

  • In the U.S., the Securities & Exchange Commission finally gets with the times. Per a recent speech given by Kim McManus, Special Counsel, Division of Corporate Finance, the SEC will be providing ”additional guidance and greater certainty on how companies can use their web sites to provide information to investors in compliance with the federal securities laws.” - It will be interesting to see what this will mean for Canadian companies and those companies trading on Canadian exchanges. Equally interesting is the debate around whether this will signal the death knell of the newswires that rely so heavily on disclosure-related activity, as some are already predicting.
  • Kate Trgovac pointed me to this recent post by Jeremiah Owyang initially discussing what appeared to be a potentially ill-guided foray by ExxonMobil into the Twittersphere, but which later showed the company to be the unwitting victim of a brandjacker. This incident clearly reinforces the need for vigilance against brand attacks from across any channels, not simply traditional media. At the same time, however, and while this situation highlights the increasing influence of micro-blogging tools such as Twitter for purposes both nefarious as well as good, it also demonstrates the power of both the blogosphere and Twitter to escalate this issue, despite any real efforts (other than it would seem by Shel Holz) to go to the source to determine if “Janet” was, in fact, an ExxonMobil employee. 
  • Speaking of disclosure, Jon Hamilton at Petro-Canada (Pump Talk blogger and client) recently notified me that the Blog Council, to which they belong, recently published its Disclosure Best Practice Tool Kit, a “draft series of checklists to help companies, their employees, and their agencies learn the appropriate and transparent ways to interact with blogs, bloggers, and the people who interact with them.” Much like H&K’s own social media guidelines, all common sense, yet a vital reminder to all employees of an organization (not just professional communicators) of the importance of transparency in this age of transparency.

What if there were no stop signs?

posted by Brendan Hodgson

We don’t have clients like this in the PR world… do we?


Want to jazz up your municipal web site? Start with Explosions!

posted by Brendan Hodgson

Rarely is it that municipal websites offer up anything of great excitement. So it was some kind of wonderful to be able to watch video of the controlled demolition of the lower half of the southside stands at Ottawa’s city-owned Landsdowne Park – which took place yesterday (July 20, 2008). Video provided courtesy of the City of Ottawa website.

For sure, explosions are cool. Even somewhat lame one’s such as this (only half the stands?). But given that this is a PR-focused blog, there’s also a communications message here, albeit buried amid the carnage. Namely, that innovative organizations – public and private alike - have incredible opportunities to become content creators and distributors in their own right, and to do so in ways that are far more compelling, and even relevant, to many of their target audiences, make their sites much more desirable destinations, and which go beyond traditional text-based media.

So should organizations simply video-tape and post content such as this for the sake their, erm, incredible awesomeness?  Yes, of course. More of the same, please. But they should also do so with the same level of consideration given to any communications strategy. Meaning, of course, that they have to get it right.

For example, what is the message the City is trying to reinforce here? Is there even one? Ultimately, I would suggest that this demonstrates clear “action” being taken by the City to move ahead with its plans – whatever they are – for the Park. Sadly, a lot of that context is missing from the site – and whatever there is is very difficult to find.

Because where communications typically lets people down is when it’s more about talk and soundbites rather than the actions that often validate those soundbites, and when information is communicated without context and thought to why it’s being communicated. And when you can show something as ‘memorable’ as this, it becomes a “proof point” that will stick in the minds of residents (and voters) when elected officials are asked to remind us just why they’re there, and just what we as taxpayers are paying for. 

Collin Douma joins H&K Digital

posted by Brendan Hodgson

Finding smart people who fundamentally ‘get’ how digital and traditional intersect, who have ’real’ experience  consulting with some of the largest brands in the world, who are both thinkers and doers in the social media sphere, and who have a fetish for steam punk and soviet-era posters, has never been easy.

In recent months, my colleague David Jones and I have realized just how difficult it is to find (and then recruit) that right blend of talent to add to the digital team. We’ve interviewed some very smart and uniquely experienced people who for, a variety of reasons, either didn’t quite fit the bill or were snapped up before we could make an offer. As of this week, however, we’re breathing a little easier. We’re certainly still looking - because we know the business is there – but we’re glad to welcome a new addition to the digital team in our Toronto office.

Given that many of you already know this individual, I won’t tax your patience. His name is Collin Douma. His blog is Radical Trust. And his experience, depth of knowledge, passion for digital, support for the social media community, and portfolio of work speak for themselves.

Both David and I are pretty chuffed to be able to bring his skills to bear on behalf of our clients – despite his dubious cultural addictions.

Welcome to the team, Collin.


Toxic Shower Curtains… or a sign of things to come?

posted by Brendan Hodgson

Woke up to find a link to this New York Times story in my inbox.

Albeit a tad depressing given the context, it’s also an important reminder of the “art of strategic word selection” as a means to grab the attention of media and influencers via both the newswires and the search engines. Equally important, however, it highlights the rising “sensationalist” tide that pervades today’s media environment, and the potential for damage that it can cause.

“With varying amounts of credulousness, other outlets ran with it as well, including U.S. News & World Report, The Daily News in New York, and The Los Angeles Times. The gist of some of the coverage was that it was all a tempest in a bathtub, though other reports took the information at face value.”

While this story about toxic shower curtains appears to have been successfully debunked by most mainstream media from the outset, the fact that even some took the information at “face value” is worrisome. Quite simply, the potential for other questionable research to cause significantly greater and longer-term damage to an organization or industry given the rush to publish, appears to be increasing, particularly as stories are picked up and shared across the social web. Vigilance will be critical.

On a lighter note, however, I agree fully with one PR expert’s assertion – cited in the same article – that such dreck as “solutions,” “leading edge,” “cutting edge,” “state of the art,” “mission critical,” and “turnkey” are, without question, the kiss of death.

Friday Digital Miscellany: Crisis, activism & a behind-the-scenes look at what IT is really up to?

posted by Brendan Hodgson

Summer in London may not be springtime in Paris, but at least it didn’t rain last week for an internal digital and crisis conference I attended with fellow H&K crisis practitioners from across Europe, North America and Asia.

The key learning of the two-day event – other than to not let Cy Twombly’s art truly aggravate you: digital can no longer be considered an afterthought when preparing for, or executing during a crisis. It must be burned into the system from the outset - the technology, the people and the processes. It must become an integral part of the training regimen, be designed to support various crisis thresholds and provide sufficient flexibility to evolve as the crisis evolves. And not only is it simply about launching a “dark site” or adding a line item to a manual. It is also about guiding employee behaviours online, assessing how and when to respond (and not respond) to misinformation and speculation that may be bubbling throughout the social web, considering new ways and formats to deliver content and messaging, and working with other functional areas (per my last post) to ensure the ‘machine’ operates seamlessly.

Developments on the activism and social media front and the impact of the citizen journalist on the newsmaking process also caught my eye this week. In Canada, much like what happened recently in the U.S. over downed cattle resulting in one of the largest beef recalls in history, activists using a hidden camera were able to reveal what many consider to be questionable practices related to the slaughter of horses. And while the footage generated considerable media coverage, it also raised a number of questions related to how the industry is regulated. Not only is this further demonstration of the increasing levels of transparency now being imposed upon organizations through the use of technology and the rising importance of video and images to communicate in a way that text never could, it also demonstrates how easily such footage can be taken out of context, according to one industry expert: 

“…Shanyn Silinski, executive director of the Farm Animal Council in Manitoba, an animal welfare group, noted regulations govern the slaughter industry… Silinski cautioned against drawing conclusions about a particular facility based on clips of camera footage.” 

Finally, and on a more humorous side, props to Churbuck for, one sick video that, in the words of Homer Simpson, is funny cuz it’s true.

Effective digital PR reaches beyond the Comms Department

posted by Brendan Hodgson

Before jumping on a plane to London last night, I was invited to speak to the senior legal officer of a major Canadian corporation. The point of the meeting was to discuss the impact that digital communications, and social media in particular, was having on organizations as a result of the heightened transparency being imposed upon them - both from within and without.

With thousands of employees potentially speaking on behalf of the corporation through blogs, social networks or other online channels - willingly or not, and appropriately or not - the level of exposure faced by many organizations is daunting.

Which makes our job that much more exciting – if not extraordinarily difficult – as the reputational implications of the social web bleed into other functional areas of the corporation — be it HR, Legal, IT, and the c-suite. It reinforces the need for communicators to become increasingly knowledgeable about all aspects of an organization, not simply communications or marketing.  And it is an area of opportunity that – if approached correctly – will allow PR to extend its reach beyond the traditional grey areas currently being fought over by ad firms, digital shops, and PR consultancies.

As the Arthur Page Society’sAuthentic Enterprise” whitepaper sets out, communicators must now become stewards of reputation rather than owners of it. Which means that tomorrow’s communicators must be trained not only to learn about the craft of communications, both traditional and digital, they must also learn about how organizations function beyond the narrow silo in which we currently operate, and be able to strategically apply their knowledge to supporting the challenges these functions now face. They must be able to guide and shape the behaviours of the organization, recognizing that virtually every employee is now a potential avenue – frightening as it may be to some – to communicate the organization’s messages, and perhaps do so better than the c-suite or PR department ever could.

I often ask organizations if they’re ready to embrace the changes being forced upon them as a result of the social web – but perhaps we need to be asking ourselves that same question.

Employees, Social media and Reputation… A Month of Discussions

posted by Brendan Hodgson

June was never going to be an easy month, yet we’re nearly half-way through and I’m starting to breathe a little easier. Two conference presentations down, and two more to go – although the latter two will be more internally and client-focused which tends to make life a bit easier (he says, knocking wood).

Over this past week, Amanda Brewer, H&K Canada’s director of internal and change communications, and I have spoken at two events: the first being the 2008 CPRS National Conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and the second being to the Council of Human Resource Executives in beautiful Quebec City (currently celebrating its 400th anniversary – I suggest you go. I hadn’t been to QC in years, and it’s as stunning as ever).

Although slightly different in their focus, the general theme of the presentations were the same: that social media and Web 2.0 is transforming the role of the employee as “brand guardian”. And while this transformation is creating opportunities to drive greater transparency and bring employees closer to those upon whom the company relies – customers, communities, partners, potential employees etc., it is also highlighting a number of potential risks and challenges with respect to employee behaviour online and the consequences that could follow, intentional or no. In the presentations we highlighted examples of companies who have done it right, and we explored examples of what happens when employees take it upon themselves to communicate on behalf of the organization through social media, to both positive and negative effect.

At CPRS, we dived deeper into how organized labour has adopted social media in their efforts to communicate their stories and messages beyond traditional media filters and mobilize their membership and supporters, and considered how corporations are (or should be) responding. In Quebec City, we explored how organizations could (and should) help to guide employees in their use of social media – realizing that the workforce of tomorrow will have grown-up using these tools as part of their daily lives. Both are areas of increasing innovation in public and private sector workspaces, and judging by the level of discussion that ensued, it’s an area of increasing concern to those who practice in these areas.

Interestingly, I also see these discussions as an opportunity for organizations to further bridge the silos separating HR and internal and external communications departments given the increasing visibility of employees as brand advocates. And, as always, when we talk about “tomorrow’s employees”, I started off by showing this video – in my view, a creative and powerful perspective of the changes taking place in our society and mindset. (kudos to Dr. Michael Wesch at Kansas State University)

Next week, I will be in the U.K participating in an internal conference on crisis and digital, and working with our network of senior crisis practitioners to ensure our counsel and strategies reflect the digital dynamic and the potential for digital tools to support organizational communications when the stakes are highest – much as we’ve seen during the California Wildfires, and recent campus shooting. Interestingly, the area of crisis is another where the potential for employees to both support or, unfortunately, harm an organization’s communications efforts is becoming increasingly important.

The week following, my colleague Boyd Neil and I will be in Vancouver (I get to spend a whole 16 hours in Ottawa in between, yay!!) where I hope we’ll be able to take some of the learnings from the UK and apply them to a joint presentation to a global corporation (and client) on reputation, issues management and the impact of digital and social media.

Then Canada Day… and then a long rest.

If you’re in London and are able to get together on the night of the 20th or 21st, do get in touch.

"Supercuts" and their impact on reputation

posted by Brendan Hodgson

I was reading a recent post by Andy Baio on the proliferation of what he calls “supercuts” or video montages made by obsessive fans of their favourite TV shows, films or video games – and he lists quite a few classics.

What’s interesting is how easily I see this format transferring into both the political and corporate arena by organizations and individuals seeking to capture a litany of “promises” or statements made by elected officials or corporate spokespersons either to demonstrate support for or, more likely as in the case of this famous “flip-flop” video of John McCain (courtesy of Jeff Jarvis), highlight more negative behaviours.

As more and more “gotcha” moments are captured on film or audio and shared throughout the social web (here’s a recent, and extremely powerful, example) , the implication on corporate, political and personal reputation is significant. The aggregation of incidents such as these over time coupled with the permanence and searchability of the web, could become a significantly damaging force in times of crisis, and when organizations (and their reputations) are under the spotlight.

Nor is this “syndrome” restricted solely to the social web. Increasingly, mainstream media are collecting and presenting lists of “related” stories around organizations and issues that often - through selective aggregation – portray that organization in a negative light - typically highlighting recent stories of past tragedies, crashes, blow-outs etc., or other failings that have hit the media (case in point).

And the risk of reputation damage becomes even more acute when these clips and stories are aggregated without context, or with the intent to portray a specific bias, further propagating this culture of misinformation within which we increasingly exist.

For those charged to defend an organization’s reputation, it won’t be enough to simply cry out: Noooooooooo!

Random notes on online reputation management in 2008

posted by Brendan Hodgson

Everyday, innovative campaigns and tactics emerge from all sides of virtually every issue. At the same time, it’s encouraging to see corporations increasing their level of experimentation in the digital space around the areas of reputation management.

Here’s just a few recent examples of highly visible campaigns designed to both challenge and reinforce the reputations of leading corporations:

  • Few organizations understand how to trigger a response better than PETA… and their latest MTV-style video campaign is no exception. The campaign – including the site itself - is reminiscent of the recent spate of cinematic gorefests - think the Hostel or Saw series – and, as such, primed for the youth segment that it’s attempting to reach. It reinforces the importance of the “extraordinary” idea (and the power of video) to be heard above the ”noise”, while also effectively demonstrating – as any activist campaign should – how to bridge seamlessly between entertainment, education, and engagement.
  • On the other side, Southwest Airlines has recently taken their already impressive ”Nuts About Southwest” social media campaign up a notch and added a slew of new features – including a Flickr group, video blog, and links to their Twitter feed and Facebook group – to further connect with their massive community of fans and advocates (and to directly address emerging issues as they’ve done with their blog in recent months). 
  • Lastly, in the footsteps of Ideastorm and MyStarbucksidea, American Express has launched Cardmembers Voice as a way to solicit ideas on how to improve their products and services, and to strengthen their engagement with cardholders. [update: Amex is an H&K Canada client]

More to follow in the weeks ahead.