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Was Netflix Tuned In?

29 Sep

Last week, Netflix, the innovative movie rental company with the famous red envelopes, made an announcement. Well, actually, it was an announcement wrapped in an apology. Which was a little weird, especially since the apology was – oh – about two months late.

So much about this announcement left people scratching their heads. Netflix would not only keep its raised prices (which is what set off the loud volume of complaints earlier this summer), but it also would split its streaming and DVD business into two distinct companies. The new DVD company also had a new, retro name: Qwikster (and a not-so-retro Twitter account). The communication resulted in more customers canceling their accounts, and a devaluation of Netflix stock.

Kudos to Reed Hastings for apologizing. I’m sure it was done with good intentions, but the execution left a lot to be desired. A number of people commented that it felt hasty and thrown together. I suspected a disconnect between the company’s executives and the communications team. Perhaps it was a bit of both, because some positive announcements soon followed the apology: Netflix integration into Facebook’s Open Graph and the newly inked deal to stream Dreamworks movies. Unfortunately, neither of these announcements got the attention they deserved.

I find it hard to believe that Netflix made a hasty decision to split into two companies based on public outcry over a price increase, but the way the announcements played out, that’s sure what it seems like. It also felt like Hastings wanted to play down the apology by announcing what he felt was really good news. Wrapping the two together simply confused customers further.

I’m sure Netflix had good reason to break into two companies, and there have been several people who have said this is a good strategic – even visionary – move. Unfortunately, that message was lost to customers.

Follow these tips to better manage a series of high-risk communications:

  1. You must tell a bigger story. Announcements can’t be treated as isolated incidents. They will always be received as another chapter in your corporate story. Have a strategic communications plan and remember that its goal is to help audiences understand the bigger picture.
  2. You must have good timing. If criticism reaches a crescendo, apologize immediately. If you must wait, focus only on the apology and explain why it has taken you so long to do so.
  3. You must have a plan. A messaging timeline ensures that your communications remain crisp, clear, and consistent. A strategic release of messages means that each announcement gets the appropriate amount of attention.
  4. Your messages must be clear and consistent. It’s important to listen to what you’ve crafted as if you are the recipient. Here’s where the rubber meets the road – and where insular thinking gets organizations in trouble. The best approach is to test the message on someone outside the company. And remember that some messages are too complicated to be communicated along with another. The news about Netflix splitting its business in two? Too complicated to be delivered with any other message.
  5. You must do your due diligence. I liken this to the advice given to trial lawyers: never ask a question for which you don’t already know the answer. It’s true with announcements too. You must consider all questions and criticisms and have your answers ready. And for brands? Make sure you do that Google search (and check that Twitter handle).
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Needed: Real-Time Local Info

12 Sep

The last week of summer is supposed to be spent slowly, in relaxing bliss, under a warm sun, by a pool, drink in hand. I did not want second-by-second heart-pounding action.

But that’s what I got, thanks to an earthquake, a massive hurricane, and a few tornadoes. Oh, and did I mention we were moving my son into college on the same weekend?

It got me thinking about the need for real-time information in local communications channels. The earthquake provided a great example of real-time crowdsourced news. Within milliseconds (not minutes), I learned from Twitter that the earthquake had started somewhere in Virginia and had been felt as far north as Toronto. As my husband surfed the TV channels and waited for news announcers to give him the details, I was shouting out locations based on my friends’ Twitter feeds. “People felt it in Washington! New Hampshire! Here’s someone from Toronto!”

Yet, the earthquake turned out to be a mere talking point. The hurricane presented a more urgent need for real-time, accurate information about what was happening in my town. Among my questions:

  • Is there a tornado heading toward me?
  • How do we get alerted to an approaching tornado?
  • Has my son lost power in his new apartment?
  • Has the hurricane blown out his floor-to-ceiling windows?
  • How do I get more information about problems with our water treatment plant?
  • Do I stop flushing the toilets all together?
  • Can I take a shower?
  • What roads are closed?

David Meerman Scott has written an excellent book on this topic. But, real-time social media isn’t just for the big guys. Local government and businesses need to use it too. These events provided some great examples of those who do it well. Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, hears of and solves problems via Twitter. I don’t live in Newark, but I had great insight into how the city was dealing with the hurricane.

The hurricane proved a boon for our neighboring town of West Windsor, whose police department used its Facebook page to post regular updates on power outages and road closures. The number of “likes” went from 200 before the storm to more than 1500 after.

I’m sure many of those were from Plainsboro, the town in which I live. Plainsboro does have a Facebook page. But, beyond the warning message, posted before the storm hit, there was nothing. United Water, the owner of the water treatment plant, didn’t even use its website to post updates.

I understand that during crisis, everyone is focused on fixing the problem. But communication is not a nice-to-have. It’s essential to preventing your existing problem from becoming an even bigger problem. In fact, I always counsel people: communicate and you’ve solved 90% of your problem. Social media offers a simple and effective way to keep stakeholders informed, without much effort.

If you’re a local business or government, here are three things you can do to improve communication with your citizens and customers:

1) Develop a social media strategy. It doesn’t have to be complicated, and you don’t have to be on every social network. Start with just one: Facebook, which has the largest number of users.
2) Assign one person to manage your network, and require that they update it regularly. During a time of crisis, updating the network and fielding questions will be this person’s primary responsibility.
3) Get started now – before the next crisis hits.

When PR must be about more than words

1 Apr

No PR pro likes the word “spin,” (by contrast, I think some of us use the word “flack” with some pride, if not humor). To spin is to lie. Most of us view our work not as truth-bending, but as getting our side of the story out.

Nearly all of the time, even in the toughest crisis, we are comfortable with that. Our organization may have made a mistake, and we’re ready to admit it. More often than not, our side of the story is more complicated, and it takes some work to explain it. When we do our jobs well, our organizations may not be loved, but understood and sometimes even forgiven.

What happens, though, when we are asked to lie? In grad school, there was one ethics question that we all found easy to answer. What would you do if your executive asked you to do something unethical or even illegal? Let’s say, for example, that we were asked to hide the truth about illegal accounting practices. We all agreed that we would resign, even if it meant putting our families at risk. Before taking that step, though, we believed it was our responsibility to try to change the system.

Public relations is not just about trying to put a good face on a bad situation; it’s also about trying to help the organization’s leaders understand what the public believes the organization should be and to use that information to persuade them to change the organization so that it can best serve the public.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this as the Roman Catholic Church’s latest sexual-abuse scandal unfolds. This is an organization that for centuries has relied on words delivered via an old-school one-way communications model and without any channel conflict. But, today, words not only travel farther and faster than ever, they also reverberate and boomerang in nanoseconds. On their return, they are often refuted, laced with criticism, contradicted by new facts, and edged with anger. And these additional  words are coming not from the media, but from the flock.

The problem here is that the rock on which the Church was founded – its moral authority – has been called into question. Can it still function as a moral leader when it has admitted to choosing the well-being of pedophiles over the safety of children? Can it still guide the flock when many of the conditions that allowed pedophiles to flourish within the church structure haven’t changed substantially?

People are quick to point to celibacy as a reason for the many cases of child abuse facing the church. Others call for the ordaining of women to bring greater sensitivity to the old boy’s club. Both of these situations may be contributing factors to the crisis the church faces. But the problem runs deeper. The fact is that the church has created a safe and opportune environment that makes priesthood highly attractive to pedophiles.

People are smart, and sometimes as leaders and PR pros, we fail to see that. They always see through our stories, and they expect more of us, of our leaders. They expect us to do the right, moral thing. And sometimes, an apology simply isn’t enough. Sometimes real organizational change is required.

If I were the pope’s flack, here’s what I’d tell him:

Church policies have put children at risk and prioritized bad priests over innocents. Public discourse has changed more in the last ten years than the last 2000; people are no longer influenced only by you or those you think are your enemies (i.e. the media). And Catholics don’t need the media to tell them that pedophilia is morally wrong or aiding and abetting criminals is also morally wrong; after all, the Church has been teaching them how to recognize sin for more than 2000 years.

As a result, the church’s reputation is in danger and the long-term viability of the institution itself is threatened. You can continue to make apologies, but words will eventually lose their impact, especially as more accusations are made. To protect the church and the flock, you must take meaningful action.

Open up the church’s secrecy and make the inner workings of the church explicit and transparent. Work openly and in conjunction with law enforcement and abide by local laws. Appoint a governing body comprised of church leadership and laity, include both men and women, and give them all equal power. Write and enforce new church policies that exact harsh consequences for priests who commit the sin of pedophilia and for those church leaders who don’t bring these sinners to justice. Retroactively punish all who were involved in sexual abuse cases. Resign your office and hand control of the church to the new governing body.

This is a radical suggestion, I know, and one unlikely to be considered. But what the pope needs to consider is the impact on the effectiveness of other church communications. This crisis threatens to weaken all other messages that the Church would like to promote, in particular, its advocacy against abortion, birth control, stem cell research and homosexuality. (Full disclosure: My views on these issues do not align with the Church’s positions; this is a column about the impact of crisis on the effectiveness of PR.)

I read a commentary today that said the pope had done more to shine the light on sexual abuse cases than any other pope. That may be. But unless he makes radical change to the organization, he is likely to go down in history as the pope who had the opportunity to halt the decline of the church, but didn’t take it.

Words can sugar a situation, but they won’t quell a crisis on their own. They have to be backed by substance.

So, I have this really great story to tell you…

21 Feb

The best way to learn how to tell a story? Read and listen to others. One of my favorite sources is This American Life with Ira Glass. He and his team are master storytellers (download their new app for the iPhone, which gives you access to the entire TAL archive and costs just $2.99).

A few years ago, Ira recorded a four-part YouTube series on how to tell stories (watch the first one here; click on the link to get to the rest). It’s well worth watching.

Ira Glass on storytelling

Lost on language

28 Sep

I’m feeling quite lost today, linguistically speaking. For those of us obsessed by words, their origin, and their proper usage, yesterday was a sad day. Our favorite language maven, William Safire, passed away from pancreatic cancer.

I’m not sure I can summon the words that best capture how I feel. So, please, forgive me if my words are dull, without verve, and minus any clever alliterations. Frankly, I’m not up to it. Not that I ever expected to be up to his standards, but I’m disappointed that I can’t coax something more profound from my lexicon to memorialise him.

But I can share a few simple stories.

There was a deliberate pattern to my Saturday morning. Gym, coffee, New York Times (newsprint edition). Real estate section, the Lives column, the Ethicist, On Language, then random articles throughout the Saturday and Sunday editions. In essence, I saved Safire for last, so that I could savor the anticipation of his column.

Once, we were having breakfast at the diner, and I began exclaiming, “oh my god,” over and over.  I can’t fault my husband for looking alarmed. But it was only Safire, who had mentioned that my company, Factiva, “sometimes outgoogled Google.” I headed up PR for Factiva at the time and really felt that this time, he’d chosen the wrong word. Always would have been more accurate.

Over the last several weeks, I’ve noticed other bylines adorning On Language, but I was busy with the end of vacation, the beginning of a new season of work and a new year of school. I assumed Safire was on vacation (wasn’t he always off for a couple of weeks in August?). I didn’t know he was battling cancer. The news made me feel guilty.  I should’ve known. Friends pay attention, right?

Isn’t it funny that a writer can make you feel this way? I felt as close to him as any friend, a regular in the bar, a colleague at work. I’m convinced I knew him because I read his columns. Of course, I didn’t; but like his friends, I’ll now need to learn how to move on without him. Saturday mornings will be different.

It seems appropriate to let him have the last word, even in this blog post. Here’s the farewell column he wrote when he retired from the NYT Op-Ed pages. Watch out for the traps.

Don’t Read this Tweet while Driving

19 Jul

About three years ago, the car I was driving was nearly hit head on by a minivan driven by another mother as she pulled into the Exit Only of our high school. She never saw me, never heard my horn blaring, never once looked my way, even as she drove right past where I’d swerved onto the grass in order to avoid collision. Still engrossed in her cellphone conversation, she continued entering through the exit and on into the school parking lot. Luckily, it was well past 3 p.m., so no student drivers were around for her to pick off on her way to pick up.

Since then, I’ve been a big advocate of hands free and focused driving habits. That’s why today’s recommended read is an article in the New York Times, Driven to Distraction. I think we’ve all experienced many of the situations described. Just yesterday, for example, as we headed to the beach on the interstate, I cautioned my husband to get ahead of the Lincoln Aviator we were following. The driver was erratic and had swerved several times into the adjacent lane, once very nearly colliding with the car next to it. I pointed out that we were close enough behind to be involved if a crash did occur. As we passed the Aviator, I looked over at the driver. Sure enough, she was on a cell phone.

The Times article points out that although we know that fiddling with our devices while driving is dangerous, we’re still very unlikely to stop doing it. Admittedly, I haven’t completely stopped multitasking while driving, though my cell phone/BlackBerry use has become much rarer. Still, 5 seconds is all it takes to change a life. Which is why I do think laws are needed and it’s disappointing that lawmakers are reluctant to pass limitations.

Apparently the cell phone industry has taken a neutral stance. That’s too bad, because it would be a good public relations move to align itself with public safety. It might provide a good value proposition for new voice-guided GPS smartphone applications too. A couple of weeks ago, I came very close to buying AT&T’s new Navigator app for the iPhone, but it came at a price of $9.99 a month. No way! I thought. Get a grip on your pricing, AT&T! Why would I pay for this? How’s it better than the Garmin?

But after this article, perhaps I might rethink the app for safety reasons. $120 a year seems a small price to pay for not having to look down every few minutes at a silent navigator. Interestingly, if you watch the flash for AT&T’s Navigator, you’ll notice that safety isn’t part of the AT&T pitch (having GPS with you all the time, and finding the lowest priced gas and a wifi spot is).  And, yikes!, it includes a photo of a woman behind the wheel staring at her phone (though it’s not clear if she’s on the road or parked – but why include such an ambiguous photo?!?!).

I’m also thinking that it might be a good idea to get my teen to sign a driving contract. I found a pretty comprehensive one here that can be modified to individual situations.

Bottom line: Driving without distractions is the way to go.

Are you anti-social?

15 Jun

Recently, my husband arrived at our nephew’s bar mitzvah before me. He settled himself at a table with his 85-year-0ld father and one of his brothers, both of whom need a little prodding to engage in prolonged conversation. Three women sat directly opposite. I think he might have panicked a little at first. I know he wished I was there.

Here’s the problem. I am very social; I like to talk and ask questions. My husband really isn’t anti-social, but he is very proper: polite, but not overly aggressive. I, on the other hand, will walk up to a stranger in a crowd (as I did one night last week and introduced myself to nearby runners at the Corporate Challenge). His decorum extends to the types of questions he’ll ask. Certain things are off limits. (“You asked them what?!” he’ll say, aghast, when I mention how much a neighbor paid for a newly installed patio.) Consequently, it’s usually up to me to get the conversation going. Otherwise, we don’t get much further than first names.

“I was you,” he proudly said to me later. “I asked their names, found out where they lived, where they worked, and how they knew (our sister-in-law).”

And he did more: he shared. He told them where I was, why I was late, all about our children; so that when I sat down, to my surprise (and some disappointment, as I also enjoy storytelling and, ahem, being the center of attention), they already knew me.

Such sharing of experience, background and knowledge is also a critical skill at work. Employees that are willing to open up and socialize in the office tend to gather information that helps them do their jobs better. Organizations that make collaboration easy either through technology or culture can turn the wisdom of crowds into competitive advantage.

At Dow Jones, two of my colleagues – Daniela Barbosa and Greg Merkle – collaborated with social media pioneers, Robert Scoble and Shel Israel on an ebook about social networking and collaboration in the enterprise. The Conversational Corporation looks at the impact of social media and Gen O (the online generation, also known as digital natives) on corporate social networking programs. It also offers some tips for developing a more conversational corporation.

So, how social is your organization? Does it make collaboration easy? Are employees banned from FaceBook and Twitter (this will change; remember when companies banned employees from the Internet? Medieval times, they were). Does your organization encourage conversations via social media tools both inside and outside the organization?

Here’s my favorite anecdote from the ebook:

There is yet another reason that we feel Gen O is the killer app for social media adoption. Companies that do not embrace social media will be hard-pressed to attract the best and brightest new employees. Ethan Bodnar, a Cornell-bound high school junior and an Eagle Scout, was interviewed by Shel for the SAP survey. Shel asked him if he would ever work for an employer who prohibits blogging.

“Why would I work for company that doesn’t trust me enough to let me talk about my job?” Bodnar asked. Shel had no answer.

For those of us in PR, the answer to the last is tricky. Our CEOs are definitely jittery, wondering where in the socialsphere the next reputational disaster will hit. And who wouldn’t be? How many kids are out there with a Flip camera, a wicked sense of humor, and a limited appreciation for the potential consequences of their actions?  Yeah. No wonder the PR profession is holding steady in these economic times.

My PR friends have been telling me that they need to monitor everything – mainstream media, blogs, boards, Twitter, FaceBook, digg, YouTube, and on and on. Listening strategically is what will help us pinpoint the next brand disruption. Engaging regularly in conversation both internally and externally is what will help us avoid the risk. But it’s on us – the PR team – to make sure the external conversation is distilled and delivered inside to key executives as well. That’s how reputational disaster is avoided.

Speaking of internal conversations, I have good news: Earlier this month, the PRSA NJ Chapter recognized my ebook, “Talk to Me: 10 Tips for Translating PR Results into the Language of Business,” with a Pyramid award. Thanks so much to the chapter for this. The ebook is based on my research as a grad student at Syracuse’s Newhouse School. With so many disruptive technologies and behaviors challenging our profession – not to mention the economic crisis and some profound changes in journalism – I think it’s more relevant today than when I completed the study three years ago.

So, now I’m interested to see if my husband’s newly found disruptive behavior will continue. I plan to test him out this weekend at Trenton’s Art All Night.

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