August 2008

Over the past few days, I have spoken with quite a few communicators about B2W. There seems to be some fear attached to online media — fear of losing control of the message, fear of not being able to manage the brand, fear that others (public, stakeholders, consumers, customers…people) now have the balance of power. It is a natural and normal fear for communicators. However, let me tell you — it has never been a better time to be in this profession or to communicate.

Great communications or PR has never been about “spin” or about slanting the truth to suit an organization’s needs…it has always been about being authentic, being open and honest and about connecting. About, first and foremost, doing the right thing and then, if appropriate, being seen as doing the right thing.

With social media, being authentic and transparent are at the foundation of it all. Doing and being seen are one and the same. Don’t get me wrong – brand, positioning, messaging – it is all still very important, but it has become collaborative. We don’t “tell” people what our organization is all about anymore, we share it with them and listen for their feedback, input and response. Or, in some cases, they share what they think first – letting us in on some incredible things that we might not have even known were being talked about.

The fact is, we have never really been in control of the message. People talked about things all the time, but in smaller groups at home, at the water cooler, at the coffee shop, in the pub, on the bus … it happened. And they had their own opinions and ideas and experiences of your organization. They had their own perception of your brand. Now, it’s online 24/7 and accessible by more people. And that’s where the opportunity lies.

Today – if someone has something good or bad to say about your organization, you have the opportunity to reach out and start a conversation that is open and transparent – and authentic. We know that people, organizations and (my goodness!) even politicians are going to make mistakes. That’s what happens with human beings…we just want to know that you acknowledge it and are accountable. With social media, you have that opportunity to reach out immediately and start a conversation with us. Make it right and chances are, we will forgive you. Ignore it, hide it or try to “spin” it – and it will come back and bite you.

For people like us, this is the era we have all been waiting for (whether you knew it or not!). With an approach based in authenticity and integrity, there are huge opportunities to connect with stakeholders, with each other, with individuals and groups that are finding each other online and reaching out in the “real” world.  Technology has brought us opportunity – and with that some challenges. But once you get past the fear of the unknown (and that really is all it is), you will see how much can be accomplished by reaching out this way.

It is a great time to communicate.

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Today is a special day for all of us at Bridging Two Worlds (B2W). While the QUAY and AHA teams have been working together for quite some time now, today is the “official” launch day for B2W. My blog posting for today is a bit longer than usual, but since it is Launch Day, I thought it might be ok.

The online world is busy. While the whole team is online regularly and are always checking things out, I think it is safe to say that I am probably the most obsessed with it all. (Although I do have to tell you that Della Smith from QUAY is a close second!) I think that B2W brings something unique to the marketplace, and that is strategy. The online world is pretty young (someone said that the Internet that we, as the public know it, is only about 5000 days old…) and I think one of the key components that has been missing is a strategic approach to communication online. B2W does that. We understand both the online and “real” world and we know that without a strategy that bridges the two, then it’s just a series of tactics. There is both great opportunity and great risk online. It’s an exciting time to be a communicator and I know that our clients will benefit from our expertise. We’re not new to strategic communication or to the online world. That’s a powerful and valuable combination.

I have been online for more than a decade. As a matter of fact, I can remember as a senior associate at QUAY (I worked with Della and Patsy for a little over two years in the mid-90s), being the instigator of email and a website for the organization. At that time, not everyone was buying into the whole website thing, but they did. I don’t think any of us knew how or when, but we knew things were changing. They “got it” then and they “get it” now.

I was also fortunate enough to work as Communications Director at Vancouver Film School (VFS). I helped to launch their new media program (it has since been split up into several programs including digital design, sound design and I think most of their programs include some element of online media) and through VFS, I got to meet – and have stayed connected – with some of the Web’s best and brightest.

With all of the influence of smart, forward-thinking people, I couldn’t help but be interested in what the online world would become and how it would impact how the world communicates, professionally and personally. I have been online checking things out, seeing what works and what doesn’t, searching out best practices and watching as organizations wade through online media with some successes and some failures.

Years ago, we made a strategic decision NOT to become active online, but to be observers, listeners, researchers – lurkers (that’s the online term for someone like me who hangs around checking things out, but doesn’t participate). Don’t get me wrong, as soon as something new comes along, I am an early adopter, I sign up, I log in, I beta test. We should all take the time to check things out, to try new things, but my role is to see how others use new technology and opportunities. Through all of the new tools and the bells and whistles and the rapid pace of change in technology…one thing remains constant. People want to have a conversation. They want to participate and engage and connect. Organizations have a huge opportunity to reach out and extend their communities right now. They are also facing a huge threat – no longer does the organization control the message or their own brand. That’s now in the hands of the people that are online.

With the click of a mouse, you can reach out to the world with good news or bad. Individuals and groups now have a voice and they are making it clear that they are ready to talk. Our role is to help our clients to understand the online world and how it can fit into their overall strategy, to help them strategically bridge the two worlds.

It will be interesting to see what the next 5000 days will bring.

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The airlines are in trouble – we all know that. Well, maybe not Southwest – who have a great blog and seem to keep their passengers if not insanely happy, at least not screaming in the aisles like most other airlines. Now, United Airlines pilots are using social media tools to air their issues and demand the removal of UAL Chairman, President and CEO Glen Tilton.

They got the right url  and on this site, there is media coverage, reports and the opinions of the pilots themselves. They want Glen Tilton out and they are telling the public why.

From what I can see, no one from United Airlines is responding to this website or acknowledging the issues that the pilots are putting forward, at least not publicly. This is one of the challenges of social media, when something like this happens – what do you do?

I have to be clear that I do not know the entire story from both sides. I only know what I have read and seen in the media and what this website tells me. Which, I think is a perspective that United Airlines might be missing. They may have done a great deal to work things out with the pilots, but I don’t know that, as they aren’t telling us anything.

They may be in talks with the pilots right now. For all I know, the board of directors may be asking for Glen Tilton’s resignation as I write this. That’s the problem — no one from inside the organization is letting us know what is going on.

What if they did? What if they publicly announced that they were going to hold town hall meetings and that they were going to tape them and put them up on their intranet for employees who could not be there in person? What if they reached out to some of the pilots and and set up live panel discussions that were webcast so anyone in the company could watch the senior executive and the pilots have open, respectful and authentic discussions on what can be done to bring the two sides together? None of this would be available to anyone but employees, but what if they told the public that they were doing this … I know I would have a better perception of the people running the company.

From my perspective, United Airlines needs to wake up and smell the coffee (which is one of the few items you are not yet charged for on an airplane). The pilots have gone social media on them, they have opened their problems to the whole world. Shutting their C-Suite doors and pretending it isn’t happening, won’t do them any good.

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The New Rules of Marketing & PR is a book worth reading. It’s by David Meerman Scott…you can check out his blog here.

I was reminded of David’s work in a blog post by my friends at Beaupre. As communicators, we have this great opportunity to speak with people … news releases aren’t read just by the media anymore. On a global level, people are using search engines like Google to find the information they want and need. And – when they are searching online, it’s our job to give them what they need. Visuals – images, video, links to other information and — no more industry jargon. It’s a great time to be in this job — we get to have open, real, authentic conversations with real people. It’s exciting. And I can see how it can be scary, too. Change usually is. Do yourself a favour, buy the New Rules of Marketing & PR and read it … it will open your mind to a whole new way of doing business.

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