Media Skills 101 (reprise)

First of all, apologies for radio silence. I’ve been on holiday. Very nice it was too. We hired a motorhome and stayed at four sites in Dorset. We hired the highly specced and almost new vehicle from Ferndown-based Abacus which turned out to be a very professional company. Highly recommended if you fancy that sort of holiday.

Before I get stuck in to blogging again, I thought you might be interested in some posts I wrote over five years ago about handling the press. While a lot of the press appears somewhat emasculated these days and the new media folk are largely more kindly, the suggestions I made then are no less valid for shaping your outlook and approach to the media of any kind.

Why IT companies top Newsweek’s green 500

Hats off to Newsweek for its green rankings of the 500 largest US corporations. And congratulations to Hewlett Packard for coming first.

Hang on… Hewlett Packard came out top? Surely a software company or some other organisation that is inherently more environmentally friendly should have topped the list? Yet four of the top five are computer companies. (The other was Johnson & Johnson.) Making computer equipment is known to be environmentally damaging. In fact, when Newsweek considered the environmental impact of the supply chain up to the point of delivery, it ranked these same four computer companies at 115th (IBM), 160th (Dell), 175th (HP) and 268th (Intel). Discrepancy or what?

The environmental assessments were done by a company called Trucost. Its methodology is widely regarded and is a heck of a lot cheaper than a company having to embark on a full lifecycle analysis (LCA) of its activities. Trucost maintains a research database of over 4500 companies which takes into account over 700 environmental impact measures. 

The results are not good showings at all for the IT companies but they are in line with what you might expect. However, their ratings rocketed because the Newsweek team decided to give 'green policies' equal weighting with 'environmental impact'. And it chucked in 'reputation' as well, for a further ten percent of the overall assessment.

The main elements of the green policies score were, 'climate change policies and performance, pollution policies and performance, product impacts, environmental stewardship and environmental management.' The reputation scores were derived from, 'an opinion survey of corporate social responsibility (CSR) professionals, academics and other environmental experts who subscribe to and CEOs or high-ranking officials in all companies on the Newsweek 500 list.' Weightings were applied: 3x for CEOs, 2x for professionals and 1x for others.

You can see that the elements of the survey make sense individually and the outcomes can, no doubt, be argued mathematically. But the weighting of the scores, especially the importance given to the three major elements, has to be questioned.

Also, was it wise for the research to try and assess vastly different sectors against each other and come up with a common measure? If a company knows it is not damaging the environment too much, then why should it spend fortunes on PR and CSR to influence external perceptions and, hopefully, internal realities? At this point, one can almost feel sorry for Newsweek for having taken on such a challenge.

So is the report of any value to you? Well, yes. It does allow you to look at rankings by sector and this has the potential to be helpful, but only if you consider each contributing factor separately. You might be wondering (if you've read this far) how your potential suppliers stack up in environmental performance or in green policies. Whether you care about reputation as seen through the eyes of C-level executives of the target organisations and several thousand CSR professionals is another matter.

What you clearly don't want to do is take the overall results too seriously. Treat them as a guide. Perhaps think of them as a cake that contains all the right ingredients but which didn't quite make the grade because inappropriate measures were used.

And this doesn't just apply to the Newsweek story. If you are being told something which jars with your reality, see if you can dig around a bit for the underlying assumptions.

Virtual events aren’t real events shoved online

As you know, most of us are facing financial difficulties and some of us are becoming concerned about our environmental impacts. Or we may actually find ourselves being pushed in that direction by customer pressure or legislation.

We still like the idea of jetting round the world, or even driving round the country, in order to meet our suppliers, customers and work colleagues. But, faced with the aforementioned issues, we’re increasingly turning to online meetings and events. And, for many, the experience falls short of expectations.

Of the whole panoply of virtual engagements from webinars to telepresence, one type probably sticks out as the most likely to disappoint and that’s the virtual exhibition and conference. And this is probably because we all know what a physical event should be like, so we expect the same or something very similar with the online version.

This is a mistake.

They are not the same and each has its strengths and weaknesses. To ignore this, when planning to present, exhibit or visit, is to invite disappointment.

We are all familiar with the physical event, so perhaps it’s best to focus here on the good and the bad of the virtual. You may have your own views in which case we’d love to hear them.

Primarily, a virtual event (subject to some technical and localisation caveats) is available to all, anywhere in the world. And it involves no travel or accommodation expenses. It will still, of course, take up some of the delegate’s time, but they can generally choose when they want to visit. (The events usually remain online for a while after the initial event closes.) If you visit in real-time, you can probably participate in live Q&As, for example, but you may put a higher value on personal convenience. Because of the social networking tools wrapped round a virtual event, you will still be able to reach out to speakers, exhibitors and fellow delegates as long as the event site remains live.

Exhibitors and speakers also benefit from lower costs, although these are mostly staffing, travel and accommodation savings during the event itself. They still need to prepare and adapt their approach to suit the online world. Making a recorded 90-minute PowerPoint presentation available online is really not taking advantage of the new medium or, indeed, the attention span of an online visitor. Remember that, just as with the web, escape for the visitor is just a mouse click away. In theory, a virtual event should be able to pull together a high calibre of speaker or panellist because of the smaller impact on their time. They would probably be happier to do shorter presentations too if they don’t have to travel thousands of miles for their appearances.

A hierarchical approach to exhibit materials would make sense. Exhibitors could offer a cascade of presentations from short and sweet down to whatever depth they feel is appropriate. And back this up with a menu of downloadable materials such as case studies, product/service information and white papers. This is similar to real life, except that shelf space is infinite, different languages can be accommodated and the materials can include podcasts and movies as well as documents and links to web pages. This self-service approach has the advantage for the delegates that they don’t have to run the gauntlet of the sales team in order to lay their mitts on the collateral. They’ll come back soon enough if they’re interested. And, because they’ve prequalified themselves, their value is much higher than that of the average booth visitor at a physical event.

From the organisers’ and exhibitors’ perspective, they can collect an incredible amount of detailed business intelligence during the event. All the conversations a company has with its visitors and who downloaded what collateral could be captured. At a more anonymous level, all the visits, engagements and downloads made by delegates show the organiser which parts of the event are working well and which are not.

At real events, ‘networking’ is probably claimed as the number one payoff for the delegates. And it’s true that this physical, “look ’em in the eye and shake their hand”, contact is missing from online. This is an incredibly important facet of our everyday lives but, if you can’t afford the time or money to participate in an important event, then a virtual equivalent might be better than no event at all. Having said that, in some respects the virtual event is better because of the ability to check out companies and individuals through the event directories and make appointments to meet them virtually. It is also theoretically possible to stimulate serendipitous meetings by having lounge areas for people to virtually mingle, backed up by on-the-fly created chat rooms if they need privacy. This does, however, miss all those body language cues which tell us whether we want to make contact or not. But some things things we’re just going to have to do without if we’re concerned about our budgets, our time and the environment.

Don’t put lipstick on the pig

Today’s issue of PR influences covers ‘greenwashing’ – "the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service."

It’s good to see professional PR folk in action. Part of their job is to make sure that companies don’t get carried away with their rhetoric and make fools of themselves. Of course, there will always be poor PR folk who see their job as "putting lipstick on the pig". We have to take a certain amount of personal responsibility for filtering good PR from bad.

Once upon a time, it was easy to pull the wool over most people’s eyes, by writing good press releases, advertisements and brochures. The public didn’t have much of a voice – the letters page of the newspapers, the complaints desk of a company or the local advertising standards authority. In other words, except in newsworthy cases, not a lot would happen.

Now, with bloggers galore, some will always be expert enough to see through the greenwash and blow the whistle. And we all know how fast bad news travels through the blogosphere. And how mainstream media organisations quickly pick up juicy stories.

We hear about companies that claim to be carbon neutral which is wonderful, if true. But, if close examination were to reveal that one of the directors drives a gas guzzler or that the heat from the data centre is being vented to the atmosphere, then the carbon neutral claim falls apart and the company risks ridicule.

The best option is transparency. To show what steps are being taken to run a sustainable (financially and socially, as well as environmentally) business and not make any pretence that things are better than they are. Some IT companies – IBM, Sun, Hewlett Packard, Cisco and Fujitsu Siemens spring to mind immediately – seem to be very forthright in their claims and their explanations.

They still fly people around when necessary, but they’ll talk about how much travel has been cut. They still have to run high-powered data centres – even more so for those who offer hosted software services, but they’ll talk about how much they’ve slashed their energy bills through consolidation, virtualisation and other measures.

Of course, they would all like to sell more equipment, software and services and they will dangle the cost and environmental savings that are possible. But they are also well aware that new equipment brings its own environmental costs, including the disposal of old equipment. Honest discussion around these issues will win vendors more customer loyalty than misleading claims based on dodgy premises.

Indeed, they may well find that their revenues rise for hosted services, consulting and software, even if an increasing awareness of sustainability among customers were to lead to a slowdown in hardware sales.

End of an era. Albeit a short one.

On March 27 last year, I welcomed Strumpette with the words "My God, if PR professional Strumpette’s blog posts are as good as her ‘About me’, she’s a must-read from now on."

Well, she blew hot and cold, like most of us. When she was ‘outed’ as Amanda Chapel, most of us thought that this was a made up persona, despite immediately receiving personal emails to try and convince us otherwise. I received twenty, which I will treasure.

Anyway, (s)he’s had enough. Hanging up the stilettos and moving on. We’ll miss you, whoever you are.

Tom Foremski over at Silicon Valley Watcher used her departure as an opportunity to explain what is wrong with PR. He sees it as Wily E Coyote hanging in thin air – an industry going nowhere. The comments are as interesting as the post itself.

Who writes Skype’s Heartbeat blog

After a couple of days of mayhem at Skype, its ‘Heartbeat‘ blog had this to say:

The Skype system has not crashed or been victim of a cyber attack. We
love our customers too much to let that happen. This problem occurred
because of a deficiency in an algorithm within Skype networking

Am I the only person who finds the second sentence to be utter tripe?

And, as for the third, isn’t this a glorious way of saying ‘it was a bug’?

UPDATE: Ah, I see the the Heartbeat author has now posted that it was, indeed, a bug. Hooray for plain speaking.

UPDATE: And I’ve just read this self-description of the blog author: "Yes, I'm a PR flack." It all makes sense now.

Social Media Analysis

Nathan Gilliatt has written a 75-page guide to the companies who  monitor, measure and analyse social media for business worldwide. He claims it’s the most complete guide available. If it’s any good (and I suspect it is), it could save you a ton of leg-work. The pdf download covers 31 providers in nine countries.

Nathan is a member of the Social Media Today blogging group (I used to be a member until I realised it was defining me too narrowly) which is why I’m prepared to pass this information on.

If you don’t like it, you can always ask for a refund on the $500 price.

Was Wired WaggEd?

Once upon a time a PR firm accidentally sent a British journalist the profile it held on him. It started "This guy’s a lush." Oh dear.

Well it’s happened again, more or less. This time it’s Wired contributing editor Fred Vogelstein who has been accidentally (or maybe not!) sent briefing notes from Waggener Edstrom prior to interviews with Microsoft executives.

Although it contains a short briefing on the journalist, it is mostly a backgrounder and ‘game plan’ for the Microsoft executives for a feature on its "video blogging initiative, Channel 9, and its overall campaign to embrace corporate transparency". From this perspective, it’s an excellent insight to how thoroughly Microsoft is briefed for interviews with influential publications.

If you’ve ever wondered about how to brief and steer your executives, it’s worth a read. Scale your approach to the importance of the publication otherwise you’ll end up paying PRs a fortune in bloated briefings.

I can’t help wondering whether Waggener Edstrom deliberately copied the information to the journalist. He and the PR know the game. Both know that preparation on both sides is key. So why not be transparent and pretend to reveal all? Then, with the journalist suitably off guard, send a second, confidential briefing to the executives that takes them deeper into the journalist’s psyche and the interview strategy.

The journalist would have a great resource to get him up to speed in the areas that Microsoft wants to talk about. Result: a fast start and an implied boundary to the conversation.

But, regardless of whether the leak was deliberate or accidental, any self-respecting journalist would still find ways to throws interviewees on the back foot and not let it change their approach in the slightest.

A PDF of the memo

Waggener Edstrom president Frank Shaw comments on the fuss.

Fred Vogelstein blogs his perspective.

Traditional media vs social media – Shel Holz ‘gets it’

A man called Stowe Boyd has been attracting a lot of attention to himself by lashing out at people who "don’t get it" when it comes to social media, new media or whatever you want to call it. Most people I know in the social media world hold Boyd in high regard. I have yet to reach that particular Nirvana.

Ever since I first entered the blogosphere (as a latecomer in 2004 with a mainstream media background) I’ve noticed that, when cornered, fanatical insiders like to hurl the "you don’t get it" accusation, without clarifying quite what it is that needs to be got. At least Boyd tries to help in this regard, but with mind-numbingly long posts.

A couple of days ago Boyd took Shel Holtz to task in a post headlined "Shel Holtz Is The Perfect Example Of PR People Not Getting It". I guess he knew he’d provoke discussion with that one and crank up the links to his blog (which carries ads, of course). Just like he did when he chastised the organisers of the Office 2.0 conference last year, making liberal use of the attention-grabbing word f**k.(My asterisks.)

Perhaps what he didn’t expect is that Holtz would reply with a long, reasoned and definitely not mind-numbing, response.

If you want to understand what’s happening in the media space – traditional as well as new – Holtz’s post is a fine place to start. (It’s ostensibly about digital press releases but it’s way more valuable than that.)

PR and marketing

Stuart Bruce is usually a good read. I ought to mention his stuff more.

Catching up this morning, I see that he’s been writing about PR and social media and he highlights a paradox:

As I’ve often pointed out public relations is a two-way process,
therefore it should be easy for PR people to adopt to having
conversations. Marcoms and advertising has always been about one-way
messages targeted at an audience.

Unfortunately, PR people often
have to report to marketing and too many of us have been willing just
to do narrow marketing and product PR, rather than look at the big