Long Time No See

It’s been an awfully long time since I’ve posted here, but I’ve decided to return to blogging. Since I started Only in Public, a lot has changed. I graduated from New York University with my master’s in public relations and corporate communication last year. Finishing my degree was incredible, but it was also a wake up call. So much of my time had been consumed by school. As I neared the end of the program and had some time to reflect on my experiences here in New York, it led me to reassess my career goals as well.

After about eight years in public relations, three of which I spent working with consumer products, I recognized that a real need for me to feel a stronger connection to my work. Graduate school helped me gain a broader view of the power of  professional communication. Then I happened to read Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn‘s amazing book, Half the Sky, which talks about the abhorrent conditions women are subjected to in many parts of the world. I realized that while the work I had done for some of the largest consumer brands in the world was interesting and had certainly been valuable experience, it didn’t feel as meaningful as I wanted my work to be. I decided that I wanted to use my skills to help further issues I care about.

I left my agency and am now working for myself, switching my focus from consumer products public relations to communication work for issues-based organizations. It’s been a good change in many ways. I’m learning a lot. And since I have a lot to learn, I realized that this blog would be a great place to consider new issues and get thoughts from others. So I’ll be writing about some of the issues that matter most to me: women’s rights (and human rights in general), food issues and social justice. I’ll be looking at how organizations devoted to these issues frame their communication, how they get their message out, and how they harness public opinion to move toward progress.

I don’t pretend to know everything and I’m hoping to learn from others as I write. But I’m eager to explore these issues and how well their supporters are communicating to create positive change. I hope you’ll join me.

Photo: inspecting by fiddle oak

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Posted in Career Change, Communication, Human Rights, Nonprofit, Social Justice | Leave a comment

Mea Culpa

In public relations, balancing competing interests is all in a day’s work. On very good days, it’s not so hard – a reporter wants an interesting story, your client has intriguing news. The reporter and your client may not have the same ideas about which details are most important, but it’s generally pretty easy to work out.

But truth be told, most days are not very good days. More often than not, you’re juggling the needs of your agency (including those of your boss, your team and you), the needs of your client (including the various points of contact within the client company), and the needs of outside contacts like potential partners, reporters or vendors. Guess what? These needs generally don’t match up.

Recently, I received an angry message from a potential partner. She was upset because we had contacted her about  her organization taking part in a special event we were planning for a client. They would send several members to the event, and we would thank them for the work they do in front of a group of photographers. It was to be your basic celebrity photo opp. I explained that the event was in the planning stages, but that we would love to know if they were interested in participating. We would share details about the event when they were finalized. She would let me know what her members thought.

Over several weeks, the event morphed from a PR-driven photo opp into a consumer marketing event with radio promotions and giveaways. A few days before the event, we realized that there would be no purpose in having the partner organization participate since we would not be able to recognize them as planned. No photographers would attend a meet-and-greet radio promo. We didn’t want to waste the partner’s time and we wouldn’t have the necessary staff at the event to ensure the organization’s members would have a good experience.

Here’s where I screwed up. Caught up in the planning for a weekend worth of campaign launch activities, I forgot to contact the potential partner to let her know the change of plans. When I received the call from my contact at the partner organization a couple of days before the event, I explained and apologized. She told me that her members had taken time off from work to participate in the event. Man, did I feel like crap. I told her we would get several gift cards in the mail to her as a thank you for her time and the inconvenience we caused her members. After all, we had planned to give the members gift cards at the event as part of the photo opp. My supervisor had told me that sending a few gift cards for their trouble would be no problem at all. The promise seemed put my contact at ease.

Fast forward two weeks. Despite multiple requests of the gift card-keepers on my team, the gift cards still have not been sent. I realize this because I receive that angry e-mail full of ALL CAPS fighting words about how disrespectful my client and I are. I check with my team, who now informs me that we actually can’t spare the gift cards. We have a big, much-needed potential media opp, which will require all our remaining gift cards (I requested 10, we started with 1,500). Which leaves me with the task of soothing an angry potential partner, empty-handed.

It got me thinking – we face these situations all the time. Changed plans that end up letting someone down. Broken promises that break someone’s trust in your organization. A focus on campaign goals at the expense of individual relationships. Could I have handled this situation better? Without a doubt. I should have been in constant contact with the potential partner to let her know what was going on. Like I said, I screwed up, and I’m willing to take the blame for letting the communication break down.

But I feel there’s a larger breakdown in these situations – a basic lack of understanding that the little things we do as PR practitioners can have a great influence on individuals’ perceptions of our clients. Are we so focused on meeting impression goals that we are unwilling to keep promises to regular people and unwilling to speak with a client to explain why we need to make good on those promises? Call me naive, but I think enlightened clients would appreciate our willingness to stick up for their reputations, even with just a few people. And unenlightened clients benefit from our tenacity even when they don’t understand it. If we can’t make good on a little promise, all the press in the world doesn’t mean a thing.

I’m looking forward to working in an environment where candor coupled with tact is appreciated – by the client and my team. With a little luck, that starts really soon. In the meantime, I’d love to hear what sort of similar situations you’ve faced and how you’ve handled them. What did you do to make everyone happy? Or did you end up disappointing someone in the end?

Photo: Seven Clubs by timailius

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We Need to Talk

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my career. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m nearing the end of graduate school. Or that I’m coming up on a year since being laid off. Or maybe it’s just spring, and thinking about what’s coming next feels like it goes well with the season. Whatever it is, it’s making me think about how important communication can be.

The truth is an overwhelming number of people are not particularly good at communicating. You see it every day. From personal relationships (it’s not you, it’s me) to work situations (Ahh, I’m going to have to go ahead and ask you to come in on Sunday, too), we’re pretty dreadful at saying the right thing.

Which is what makes professional communicators (in theory) so extremely important. We’re not only good at saying the right thing, we’re good at saying the right thing at the right time to actually cause a desired effect. We can help explain complex issues to people who have no background on a subject, but have a dire need to understand it. We can help draw attention to injustice and persuade people to take action and help someone else. We can help people connect with each other and build communities where they feel they belong.

As professional communicators, we can do all these things. But so often we don’t. So often we fall in line with what the client requests, even when it doesn’t make sense. We spend our days just trying to keep ahead of the work piling up on our desks, too busy to ever stop to ask whether what we’re doing is making any real difference. We chase impression numbers because we never think about whether there’s a better way to demonstrate the effect our communication can have on a business or a cause.

I’ve been astounded by the sheer lack of communication among teams of professional communicators. Perhaps, even among professional communicators, many simply are not that good at saying the right thing. But, I think there are a few easy things we could do to take us one step closer to seeming like actual communication pros.

  • Talk to Each Other – Whether you work at an agency or in-house, talking with your team is the basis of everything we do. I’m talking about saying “hi” in the morning. And letting someone know your expectations for a project before they begin the work. Start there. But, beyond that, ask what your colleagues think of the campaign you’re working on, then listen to their responses. Bounce ideas off each other. That kind of communication is what makes us better at our jobs, and it’s what makes our jobs more fun than most others.
  • Ask Why More Often – And supervisors, be ready to answer the question. It’s a valid one, and one that often leads to a better plan. If you don’t know why you’re sending out a particular press release, there’s a good chance you shouldn’t be doing it. If we asked ourselves why more often, we’d end up with more campaigns built on solid reasoning instead of just rushing through in an effort to get stuff done.
  • Learn to Say No – This goes for employees taking on more than they can possibly handle. Not pushing back doesn’t make you a hero – it makes you someone who hates his job and produces sloppy work. It also goes for the communicator being pushed to go down a path that she knows is wrong. There’s a reason you were hired as the professional communicator – you know what does and doesn’t work. Keeping that information a secret makes you ineffective. And if you’re in a place where your insight isn’t valued, go somewhere it is.

These steps aren’t groundbreaking, by any means. But in the quick pace of day-to-day, they also aren’t common. It’s too bad. I think these little things could have some extraordinary results. I think they could elevate the quality and importance of our work. They could help us remember that what we do really can matter and we should strive to do it well.

What about you? Have you noticed an odd lack of communication among your communicator colleagues? Is there a simple change you think could make us more effective at our jobs?

Photo: Good News on the Phone by Carlo Nicora

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Nail in the Coffin

This blog began as a class project. As I started the spring semester in social media, I was tasked with not simply learning about social media, but also participating in it. And so, I started a blog. This blog.

The semester has been challenging – more challenging than I expected in many respects. Keeping up with this blog has been one of those challenges. It required quite a bit of time to come up with fresh ideas and craft coherent explanations of my thoughts. I’m what you might call a thoughtful writer. Nothing, not even an e-mail to a friend, happens in a flash. Another way of putting it is that I over-think things, which can make each post laborious.

What’s more, I’m what you might call an introvert. So I found laying my thoughts out for all (all right, 20, at most) to read a little nerve-racking. I’ve written before for audiences much larger than this little ol’ blog receives, but this forum is supposed to be about my thoughts on my industry. Oh, the pressure. It’s far more personal than I tend to get in my writing. And it’s far more brazen than I usually am with an unknown audience. Very rarely will you get my opinion about something until I know you.

But despite the challenges posed by keeping up with this blog (with just one post a week, no less), I have enjoyed the process. It has helped me grow more comfortable with sharing my opinions, even when they are completely uninformed and sometimes downright incorrect. Speaking up is something I could stand to do more often, and this blog has helped me do that. It’s also helped me find my voice again, through writing that’s a little more relaxed and a whole lot more my style than I usually get to draft. Writing the posts has also been a lot of fun. I had almost forgotten how much I love to write when I have something to say. And though, a stream-of-conscience blog would be easier and possibly more fun for me to write, it may not be all that much fun to read. I recognize that a blog about my field holds far more value for both myself and (fingers crossed) my readers.

So even though I am preparing to put a nail in the coffin of my spring 2010 term, this blog will continue. And it will continue to address topics related to public relations as I see the field. Who knows? Maybe before it’s all over, I’ll add something interesting to the conversation. We can hope, can’t we?

Photo: Last Nail in the Fuckin Coffin by )x(Nato)x(

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Taking Aim at Chatroulette

In an effort to end my blog post dry spell, I started scanning some of my favorite blogs for a little inspiration. Since sunshine (yay, spring!) and music have recently taken up the bulk of my attention, an awesome post on Chris Brogan‘s blog caught my eye. Chris was talking about Ben Folds, who played a little game with  Chatroulette users during a recent tour performance. After spending weeks obsessing over tickets to Ben’s Town Hall performance tonight (alas, not to be), I knew I had stumbled on something to get me writing again. After all, I’m a sucker for a man at a piano. And a fan of anyone who can do something unexpected and fun with a seemingly useless social media platform

Don’t get me wrong, Chatroulette, an application that randomly pairs users for video chats, sounds like a fun little game. For high schoolers. Or lonely people. Or perverts. In fact, a recent AdWeek article details the demographics of an average Chatroulette user:

“Robert J. Moore, CEO of RJMetrics, pointed to, for instance, Google’s new site, Chatroulette Maps, which plots screen shots from random sessions on a map.  For more than two weeks earlier this spring, RJMetrics compiled detailed data on 2,883 Chatroulette sessions that tied users to things like geography, gender and appearance. The data showed 89 percent of users were male and 11 percent were female. (Users are more likely to come across a Webcam featuring no one than to find a female alone.) Some 8 percent of spins showed multiple people; one in three females used Chatroulette as part of a group versus one in 12 for males. As for the perv factor, one in eight spins came up with something R-rated.”

Chatroulette is pretty new, so it’s tricky to say whether or not brands will find it a useful way to connect with customers. Two years ago, people thought Twitter was a joke. Now many big brands have fully committed to the application, with major communication campaigns using Twitter to expand reach. And in some cases, they are using Twitter as the center of client specific outreach tactics.

As for Chatroulette, brands are already playing with it, including Travelocity, French Connection and Burger King, according to that same AdWeek article. Travelocity’s gnome chats with users and answers questions about his adventures in the company’s advertisements. Cute. And apparently at least one of my favorite musicians is having fun with it on stage.

Ben set up a camera during his show, aimed at him sitting at the keyboard with his audience behind him. Chatroulette users who landed on Ben were treated to an improvised performance that worked the person in front of their computer into a song for the entertainment of those at the show. Apparently, the show is an homage to Charroultte star Merton, who appears on Chatroulette in a similar setup, minus the live audience. Many Chatroulette users thought Merton was actually Folds; Folds says that’s not the case. The clip of Ben’s game is fun to watch. And Chris Brogan says he bought a Ben Folds album because of his social media antics.

But will Chatroulette turn into an important product-moving or brand building platform for mainstream companies? My guess is no – most brands don’t get excited by the prospect of Russian roulette, even when the weapon is only a camera. That said, I do see some intersting options for brands that are used mostly by tech-obsessed men. Video games, for instance. And, à la Ben Folds, it could hold some fun potential for famous people who want to connect with their fans in a more personal (albeit random) way. What do you think? Have you ever played around with the application? Could Charoulette be the next Twitter?

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The Super-Social Nonprofit

If there’s a type of organization that often lags behind others in the communication game, it’s probably charities. Of course, this isn’t the fault of those running these organizations – it’s often all they can do just to raise the funds they need to do their important work. Thinking up new ways of communicating their mission takes a backseat to their fulfilling mission.

Most wouldn’t argue that there’s anything wrong with this. But a close look at how a one particular charity is using every kind of new communication tool possible not simply to communicate its mission, but to raise funds to support its mission, might change your mind.

charity: water is a different sort of charity. For starters, it’s young – founded in 2006. And it was founded by a former Manhattan nightclub promoter, Scott Harrison. And finally, perhaps because of those other two facts, the organization has embraced social media in a way that few, if any other charities have dared. And it’s worked remarkably well.

As you may have guessed, charity: water helps bring clean, safe drinking water to people in developing nations. The organization funds clean water projects, which are completed by other humanitarian organizations on the ground. By recruiting a dedicated group of core donors who fund charity: water’s administrative costs, the organization can dedicate 100 percent of public donations to water projects. So the primary role of administrative employees is to raise those general donations.

Turns out social media is a great tool for encouraging people to give and helping them connect with where their money goes. Every single completed water project is marked on Google Maps so donors can see exactly what their money is doing. Each marked well tells the story of the project and the people it helps.

The organization’s Twitter feed has more than 1.3 million followers. In February 2009, they organized a worldwide Twestival to raise $250,000. They provided shocking water statistics that others could tweet, which not only spread the organization’s message, but also drew followers and clearly, donations. Later, when the first Twestival-funded water projects began in Ethiopia, the organization created and shared videos of the well-building with donors, using Twitter again to spread the word. In fact, charity:water posts a whole slew of videos to Vimeo, which viewers can share with friends. One poignant clip shows Jennifer Connelly and other New Yorkers trekking to Central Park to retrieve water for their families from a pond. This is the sort of thought-provoking content that gets shared and draws donations. charity: water also post these videos to the organization’s Web site, helping illustrate the work they do to those interested in giving. And they provide other social media tools that let fans spread the word easily.

At every turn, social media has been integral to charity: water’s success. Other charities could learn a lot by looking at how charity: water has rethought nonprofit communication. They’ve made it relevant, interesting and engaging to support a cause by embracing modern communication tools. So far, this tactic has helped charity: water fund 2,321 water projects in developing nations, providing clean drinking water to more than 1 million people. What might social media help other non-profits accomplish?

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If You Don’t Know Where You’re Going …

… Any road will take you there. You’ve heard this maxim before, thanks to the Cheshire Cat. Well, that’s the gist of what the wise grinning cat was saying. Perhaps it was my most recent movie viewing expedition, to see Tim Burton’s fantastic “Alice in Wonderland,” that made this phrase spring to mind while reading “Groundswell.” Josh Bernoff and Charlene Li were discussing the roundabout wandering so many communication strategists do in the Wonderland of social media. Not unlike Alice’s lack of direction in Wonderland, these folks clammer toward technology with no mind toward what exactly they are trying to accomplish.

It’s easy to get caught up in the glitzy new toys paraded by technology bloggers and digital geeks at SXSW. Twitter! Foursquare! Gowalla! Gee, they have such fun names. And while it’s useful to know about the latest social media technologies, jumping on board before you think about what you’re trying to achieve, well, it’ll will get you nowhere.

So, with a little help from Bernhoff and Li, I give you my take on their five main social media objectives.

  • Listening: I can think of no reason not to do this. Social media platforms provide an unprecidented opportunity to hear what customers think of your company or client, firsthand and unfiltered. If you’re not at least listening, you’re missing out.
  • Talking: Bernhoff and Li compare this objective to the marketing department within a company, and stress the importance of participating in customer conversations, not just using social media to push out marketing speak. If you’ve read me before, you know I agree wholeheartedly. One of my favorite examples is Zappos, a company that is super-transparent in its communication and has a CEO who actually talks with his customers. Social media provide an opportunity to join the conversation, if you’re actually willing to engage like a human being.
  • Energizing: Bernhoff and Li compare this to sales, helping your company’s fans sell to each other. This starts with fantastic customer service (ask Ritz Carlton), but in social media, it continues to giving customers a way to speak on your behalf. Maybe it’s reviews about your products on the company Web site, maybe its helping them connect through an online forum. Regardless, it involves giving up a little control, which will make a lot of companies panic.
  • Supporting: Want to let your expert customers help each other out? Social media can facilitate that. Tech companies’ user conferences have linked up customers for years to share best practices. Social media can make that conference happen every day without customers ever having to leave their offices.
  • Embracing: Berhoff and Li describe this objective as working with customers to redesign products or services. I see this is the most exciting potential of social media – an opportunity to get real insight into your products from the people who know it best – your customers. And unlike a focus group, engagement in social media is ongoing, so presumably, a company can get new sharp insights into ways to do things better all the time. One of my favorites is Pepsi’s Refresh Project – where they dare to let customers decide how to spend their money. This one is super scary for a lot of companies, but I think of it as the ultimate goal.

So next time you’re mulling over a new social media tool (or building a communication plan, for that matter), stop and think about where you’d like it to help you go. If you skip this step, you’ll still end up somewhere. But even if you finish in a spot you like, good luck trying to explain to your bosswhy you went there.  

Photo: The long and winding road … by photo71

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