Monday, August 31, 2009

No Shades of Gray When It Comes To Ethics

Last week the PRSA (arguably our industry's most influential organization) released a statement in response to reports of public relations practitioners violating its ethical codes. 

In its press release, PRSA states: 
Over the last few months, there have been several news accounts of promotional tactics that signal a common thread of malpractice under the Public Relations Society of America’s (PRSA) Code of Ethics and PRSA Professional Standards Advisories (PSA). While each tactic varies in method and medium, PRSA states categorically that misrepresenting the nature of editorial content or intentionally failing to clearly reveal the source of message contents is unethical.
PRSA then goes on to address what constitutes deceptive online practices, illicit front groups, and anti-PR pay-for-play coverage, reminding communicators to remain transparent in their dealings online and disclose who, what and where the sources generating coverage are coming from (e.g. If a company sends you something for FREE to test out and evaluate on your blog, disclose that fact). Seems simple and straightforward to me. 

In a time where most agencies are just now beginning to recover from the recession, it pained me to read stories where firms and independent consultants allegedly violated or skirted ethical standards. I found myself asking - why is this happening? Is this a sign of the times because of the economy? Have firms and clients become so desperate in getting any kind of traction for their company/cause that we've now given up on creativity, genuine messaging, true engagement and caring about a customer/stakeholder that agencies and some individuals have turned towards an "easy fix" to generate manufactured ROI that allegedly influences and persuades audiences? Or worse yet: Has this *always* been going on?

I hope not. 

As I've advanced in my career, I'm met with a lot of young PR pros who have been taken advantage of by employers who wanted them to post anonymous or in some cases personal responses on blogs, online industry forums, or in the comments section of news articles to refute or attack a story or post about their client or bash a competitor. When I asked if they disclosed who they were working for/representing when responding or if they would have posted comments/reaction if they weren't prompted by their boss, more often than not they said no. They also did not seem to know that this was skirting the ethics of the PR practice as "online reputation management" was part of their job description.

One recent report alleges a PR firm AstroTurf-ing (faking) positive reviews of its client's iPhone applications in iTunes. What was so appalling to me about this is that it is reportedly the interns at this agency that were writing the evaluations. IMHO, having the interns write the supposed transparent evaluations is potentially setting them for a tough time later in their careers. It seems to be standard practice for an employer to research potential employees online to review social media interactions as well as any comments/stories/etc. to which the potential employee may be linked. Posting comments/posts without disclosing a relationship to a party may damage a candidates chances for a position later on or worse, misrepresent the character or interests of an individual. Even more disturbing is that young PR Pros may learn that this is "acceptable" PR practice and continue to perpetuate this tactic for other firms or on behalf of other clients. 

Online media and social networking has changed the way we communicate for ourselves and for our clients. However, even in this immediate gotta-know-right-now-press-publish world, we PR Pros need to adhere to and follow the ethical guidelines to play fair and engage openly with all audiences we serve. This starts with the core of understanding that transparency, openness, and responsiveness is the key to combating the negative associations with public relations. Now is the time to instill lasting ethical and strategic communications practices that reinforces all that is good and necessary about our profession.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Follow-up Part IV: Company Outrage Online

Since last year, I have been following the issues between Clean Air Gardening in Dallas, TX, and its former IMC agency, Christie Communications based in Santa Barbara, CA.  

Clean Air Gardening launched a Web site alleging egregious and horrible mistakes made by Christie Communications and over the last several months has appeared to post legal communications between their respective lawyers as both sides attempt to resolve the issues.

Looking at the latest updates, it seems like neither party is closer to a resolution and talks have atrophied in recent months. It appears that both parties are back where they both started - no closer to a resolution. You can review the Web site here to get Clean Air Gardening's side of the story and allegedly to see communications from Christie Communications lawyers.

I hope both parties are able to amicably resolve their issues. 

Saturday, August 22, 2009

10 Things PR Agencies Do That Limit Effectiveness

What a week for the PR industry. The justified outrage over the Brody PR debacle seems to be diminishing (Seriously, I was going to link to a story about it, but just search "Brody PR" and look at some of the headlines/blog posts that come up). I am finally addressing something that makes my blood boil (and yes, it makes my blood boil even more than a PR agency spamming more than one hundred technology and social media leaders) - it's the allegation that PR firms don't add value.

An article in the The Business Insider states that an anonymous former PR executive alleges that 90% of PR firms add no value. He/She then lists several characteristics businesses should look for in a PR firm to guarantee a higher ROI. Now, I have to admit, I agree 100% with every attribute listed. What I take issue with is that a majority of PR firms are unable or do not add value on a consistent basis. 

I think most PR firms add value to their client's business. I absolutely LOVE my industry and while agency relationships with a client are a two-way street, some PR firms are more effective and much better at establishing and maintaining long-term relationships with clients. But why? Why are some agencies better at this than others?

In my own professional experience, some PR firms aren't as effective as they could be because:
  1. They fail to do the research to really understand a client's industry/market space. Research can be expensive. If done correctly, however, it adds much needed information to craft an effective communications strategy across all aspects of a company's marketing, sales, internal and external communications.
  2. They fail to GET OUT OF THEIR OFFICES to go meet with the press/bloggers/etc. and learn about their interests (no pitching allowed). Research on the Internet will only get you so far. If a PR agency is getting out and meeting those who cover a client's industry (whether it be at industry events or buying them a cup of coffee to get to know them better), it helps in not only understanding the needs of a particular journalist/blogger, but also can help in gathering intelligence about the marketplace.
  3. They fail to introduce themselves as a resource (NOT just a source) for media who are increasingly pressed for time. Hiding who clients are doesn't work (unless an agency has a good reason for doing that). I've found sending a BRIEF note of introduction to key media when a new client comes on (complete with contact information), goes a long way in building strong relationships for clients with the press.
  4. They fail to effectively communicate to the client a realistic timeline for a media/awareness build, which eventually leads to frustration/disappointment. Anyone in the b-to-b  and b-to-g space will tell you that awareness and long-term engagement takes time. Communicating that upfront avoids frustration and disappointment. That is why having a sound communication strategy and plan from the get-go is so important.
  5. They fail to push back on the client when necessary in order to achieve maximum ROI. Most of the criticism of PR firms seems to come from the lack of creativity and further ideas to drive awareness of a company's offerings. However, this is a two-way street: if a firm is consistently coming up with good ideas to drive awareness only to have them shot down (the "stick to the press release" mentality), a company can expect a diminished PR ROI.
  6. They fail to effectively communicate their value. Media clips are nice, but PR is so much more than the latest press hit. If that's how a company is measuring effectiveness, they've just gotten publicity and NOT strategic communications counsel. Asking for an agency's advice or point-of-view on a business issue is one way to evaluate if a firm truly "gets" a company's business. It's not just WHO a PR firm knows, but WHAT they know about an industry. As I've said time and time again: Don't hire an agency to get you press, hire an agency to get you intelligence. Again, if an agency fails to demonstrate from the beginning how they measure and communicate to clients their effectiveness, a company should not hire that agency.
  7. They fail to be anything more than the order takers, when what a company wants/needs a strategic partner who can use business intelligence to keep their company one-step ahead. An agency should consistently demonstrate applied knowledge on a frequent basis to show that they are proactively striving and driving a client's PR strategy.
  8. They are failing to talk to the right people in a company. If a PR firm is not asking (and a company is not volunteering) senior leaders, SMEs, department heads, project managers, engineers, etc., it's not making full use of its arsenal of available PR resources and potentially atrophying its own ROI.
  9. They tell a company what they want to hear, not what a company needs to hear.  Part of a PR firm's job is to serve as the much needed outside, objective third-party that is able to give insight and prevent "group-think" from occurring internally. 
  10. IN SOME CASES, The people at the agency who sell the business, DO NOT effectively communicate a client's goals and objectives to the people who will be doing the work. This often leads to huge miscommunication and outright disappointment by a client who was expecting immediate results, when reality dictates that planning and (again) research be done to create and implement an effective long-term communications strategy.
I could list more, but these are the 10 things I've seen in my career that hurt a PR agency's effectiveness. Again, I need to stress that an excellent working relationship between a client and its PR agency is a TWO-WAY STREET. While agencies need to be more proactive, clients need to understand and establish how exactly they want to use and why they even want to work with an agency in the first place. Establishing goals, roles, and responsibilities for all parties at the beginning of a relationship will not only lead to a lasting partnership between parties, but goes a long way in PR agencies demonstrating value and enhancing its own reputation over time.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Coverage Is What a Company Defines It to Be

Today's MediaPost Online Spin is a great article written by Kendall Allen and seeks to address the question, 'What Constitutes Coverage in the Age of Social Media?'
Businesses used to a traditional media relations program (print, online coverage by media outlets, and MAYBE a few bloggers) probably ask themselves this question all the time. Questions I've heard in recent months include:
Does a customer twittering about our latest product constitute coverage? Does a Facebook fan page where I can post information about our latest version upgrades and have people comment and link to their own blogs/pages constitute coverage?Does traditional media even LOOK at social media for info on my company? Should I just target bloggers? Why would I need to do more than one social media platform?What's the value of all this anyway?
PR is going multichannel where communications and relevant content need to be deployed across numerous social media as well as traditional media relations platforms to be effective. This also means creating and packaging relevant information in to different formats (audio, video, mobile, social media engagement, etc.) to gauge receive the maximum ROI. This requires a strategic plan of deployment and engagement across many different targeted communication platforms as well as marketing channels. Where most integrated communication campaigns fall short is a deployment and engagement strategy to be able to update, monitor, listen, respond and learn from an audience's reaction to company content. It is the reciprocal and ongoing dialogue with an audience which makes a communications campaign successful and strengthens brand position.

The real question I think companies struggle with is what it is the VALUE of deploying a multichannel communications campaign? Understandably, most clients know and appreciate the value of having coverage in a major newspaper, magazine, trade press or even (arguably) high-authority blog. But what's the VALUE of having 100 fans or more on Facebook? What's the VALUE of someone twittering about the latest press release? What's the VALUE of 10,000 views of a CEOs video on quarterly figures?

The answer my friends is that companies are making their target audiences a PRIORITY. Interacting and providing content as well as services (think customer service responses via Twitter) allow companies to create goodwill for their brands and may even create brand evangelists in the long run. As any good crisis communication professional will tell you: don't wait for a crisis to start looking for allies. Create goodwill and protect your reputation NOW.

So what IS coverage in today's social media age? Coverage is what a company defines it to be. However, not making use of and deploying communications across multiple platforms means some companies may be limiting their ROI and losing a valuable opportunity for more customers, media and other stakeholders to learn and love their brand.