January 2009

The Ketchum/FedEx issue on Twitter  is being discussed online quite extensively. In my opinion, blogger David Henderson is covering this story very well. (David is a newly discovered online voice for me – and he has quickly become one of my favourites. His blog is definitely worth reading.)

This story has legs. And it has created some valuable discussion online about freedom of speech, the right to your own personal opinion, what’s reasonable to say out loud, how to handle a crisis online and much, much more.

For those that might not know, the basic overview of this issue is that a week or two ago, a Ketchum PR VP (James Andrews) flew from Atlanta to Memphis to visit FedEx, one of the agency’s biggest clients. He was going to talk with them about social media. 

On his arrival in Memphis, he posted a message on Twitter that said: “True confession but I’m in one of those towns where I scratch my head and say, ‘I would die if I had to live here.’” He posted under his Twitter name @keyinfluencer.

Someone at FedEx was following Andrews on Twitter and forwarded his comment to a few other people at FedEx. Well, the good folks at FedEx weren’t too happy about the comment and they responded publicly with a personal message to Andrews. You can read it here at David’s blog – along with his take on this topic. David has/is covering this topic very well, his journalism experience shines through in the thoroughness of his research and ability to put the story into context.

There are many sides to this discussion, many of which revolve around the question: what was he thinking? There are several things that were done or not done that may have changed how big this story got. But, the thing is, this story is big. Some discussion has now turned to what should be done now to deal with what this has become, an issue that is being played out online.

This story and the continuing fallout has raised some interesting questions and points about living in an online 24/7 world where lines between personal and professional are increasingly blurred. Without turning this post into a novel, I have a few points I would like to open a conversation on.

Who are you?

I was at a workshop about Twitter recently and the presenter really pushed the fact that there are no longer those barriers – you can’t be someone at work, someone else at home, someone else at Church, your kid’s school…it’s all blending. Like it or not, it’s an important fact to note. I often have clients friend me on Facebook, I have clients following me on Twitter – and I have to admit, at first, that felt kind of odd. We are a small agency though and the truth is, we’re friendly with our clients. One of the reasons that we started AHA was because we wanted the ability and opportunity to work with people we like, people we respect, people that we would make time to meet for a coffee or a glass of wine. So I had to look at why I was a little uncomfortable about it. I am still not sure why, maybe it has nothing to do with the fact that they are clients or colleagues. Perhaps it’s that by being out there I am making myself more public and I am more of a private person. I got over it and I have to say, I love hearing about what others are up to. I am not as good at putting what I am doing out there yet, mostly because I wonder who would find it of interest, but I am getting there.

What’s Your Opinion?

Andrews had an opinion and he voiced it. I personally love Memphis, but there are places in the world that I am not so fond of. However, given that we are seeing a huge blurring of the lines—and the big fat megaphone that the Internet gives us—it doesn’t seem to be such a smart move to make such a negative statement so casually. I have been at professional events where blunders like this happen. Little conversations where someone mentions a topic and someone says that they would never fly on airline X, eat at restaurant Y, or buy product Z and someone else at the table says that they’re the VP of communications there. Everyone at the table gets a little uncomfortable, someone makes a funny and we all go back and repeat the story ad nauseam until the next time someone puts their foot in it. Andrews, however, was sitting at a big virtual table when he made his comment.

Are We Really Listening?

I don’t know if Andrews had been to Memphis before, but it seems like he might have made a snap judgment. Social media is supposed to be about interacting. Perhaps, his tweet might have said, “I don’t know much about Memphis, can anyone tell me the great things to see or do here?” He could have listened before he spoke and started a conversation rather than a firestorm.

What Happens Next?

On his blog, David outlines how all of this unfolded, including the response from FedEx and Ketchum (he called both organizations). Since then, it seems neither one has commented any further. 

There is still a lot of controversy online and off about this issue. It shows what can happen if you don’t take the power of social media seriously. I don’t know what is going on behind closed doors at Ketchum or FedEx or what they are talking about, but I have to wonder why no one from either organization is joining the conversation online. The tweet from Andrews may have started it all, but then FedEx also took their response public – and it was quite an aggressively worded one.

There is an opportunity here to come out and engage and contribute to the discussion. It seems that both Ketchum and FedEx made a statement and let Andrews take the hit – that seems pretty old school to me. Maybe Andrews shouldn’t have tweeted what he did, but then maybe FedEx shouldn’t have made its response public until they spoke with Andrews. 

What else could have been done? Maybe Ketchum could have stepped up and said they blew it here and insulted Memphis and FedEx, but they’re going to make it right – together. With FedEx they could have reached out to the Memphis business development association, the tourism board, or some smaller organizations that couldn’t afford Ketchum’s rates and help change some of the potential misperceptions and promote Memphis as a great place.

It’s Different Now!

The world has changed and organizations—and the people involved in them—need to better understand the importance, value, power and challenges that the online environment brings with it. Any good communications strategy needs to include online components. Sometimes it will be the priority, sometimes not. As communicators, it is up to us to help inform, educate and engage our clients in this area and to provide them with effective, professional advice. We can learn a lot from the Ketchum/FedEx issue. 

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Yesterday we hosted the first of what we hope will be a series of events focused on social/online media topics. We were very fortunate to have Kirk LaPointe, Managing Editor of The Vancouver Sun, as our guest speaker. (If you didn’t get an invite to this one, please don’t worry. Because of the small size of the events, we aren’t able to include everyone…but we haven’t forgotten you, I promise. We will invite you to the next one. If you want to make sure you are on the next invite, send me an email at ruth@ahacreative.com.)

Kirk participates online. He has a blog, he has been engaged and involved for quite some time and is a driving force at the Sun in their online evolution. Kirk is insightful and his experience as a media executive (he has worked in print and broadcast) gives an interesting and highly valuable perspective on how media and journalism are changing in response to Web 2.0.

We had a group of about 25 senior communicators and their CEOs in attendance – a bright and early morning with a 7:30 am start, I might add. It was a room full of smart, experienced business people that are genuinely interested in understanding how our professional (and personal) lives are changing.

Kirk has a healthy balance of skepticism and a desire to authentically communicate, peppered with a solid sense of humour and an appreciation of the absurd. He has embraced social media, but he sees its challenges, its flaws and its potential, and he is realistic about it. I found his candor inspiring and refreshing – and his presentation and the following group discussion provided me with some great food for thought.

The discussion continued long after Kirk had headed back to the newsroom and our guests had left. We thought it would be interesting to share the points that Kirk made that resonated with us. For those of you that were able to attend, please feel free to tell us what you found of interest or of value and what you might like to hear about in future Bridging Two Worlds Conversation Over Coffee. (Or, as some of you suggested, calling it Connecting Over Chardonnay, Meetings Over Merlot, Brainstorms Over Bourbon…really, we got it!)

Some of the points that hit home for us:

– I was excited when Kirk touched on the opportunity in the future to “customize” news and information for specific audiences. This is an approach that makes sense to me. Rather than reach out to a huge audience and hope that someone in there is interested, creating a reason for those that are interested to connect seems like a much more effective, efficient – and valuable approach. Along with this is another point that Kirk made, it all comes down to content – interesting content. Whether it is entertaining, informative, controversial or inspiring, it has to be accurate and authentic and it needs to be well written, no matter what the medium. When I think about the opportunity that organizations have to open a conversation with individuals or groups; to extend their communities; to create a connection with people that provides an open, interactive, two-way discussion; or in the case of Twitter – more than a two-way discussion, it energizes me. (Ruth Atherley, AHA)

– I particularly liked his recommendation to communicators “don’t spin – be transparent.”  I also liked his view on newspapers of the future (hard copies) – that they are already evolving into a medium that provides more analytical views versus just presenting the news (because it is not new to most readers by the time their newspapers land on their door steps)!  Newspapers will become “viewspapers.” (Patsy Worrall, QUAY)

– I was very interested in their plans for using a wiki to let readers help report on some specific news items in the future. When I put that into context around how we work with clients to help them to engage their stakeholder communities both internally and externally, I think that it supports the idea that there is great value in inclusive and collaborative approaches. There is a great deal of talent and knowledge out there (in the world and in organizations) that goes untapped and unacknowledged. Wiki technology allows us to connect with this expertise and create a positive and valuable experience through collaboration. (Paul Holman, AHA)

– I was very interested in hearing Kirk’s perspective of the future of newspapers online.  Specifically, the pay-per-use feature where people could have access to all the information that gets sent to media (I’m an information junkie). Or rather than pay-per-use, the possibility that certain companies could sponsor a specific section (i.e. Nike and the sports section).  Another interesting point was the possibility of wiki-articles online where experts in a certain field would be encouraged to “add-on” to an article.  And finally, I was surprised to hear that newspapers write their content for the web first and then for the hard copy. (Fareedah Rasoul Kim, QUAY)

– I think that the part that resonated with me most was how Kirk spoke of the evolution of the online world.  As he said, we are hard-wired to read paper. Looking at a computer screen all day is not conducive to our nature and he feels that in the future we will be reading from digital ink.  I thought that this was a really interesting juxtaposition between what we are traditionally used to and what we have become accustomed to. It will be interesting to see, in a couple of years, if such a thing comes to fruition.

I loved the term he used in reference to linking to other sites – Link Economy.  The name says it all and as online media continues to become more prevalent, we will want this easy access to other sites to help reference the topic of interest.  (Julie Owen, QUAY)

– I really enjoyed how Kirk spoke about the opportunity journalists have to become a reliable and collaborative source for reporting online.  Bloggers can be motivated by their own interest or a rumour they heard “somewhere.”  I am reassured knowing that journalists who write online adhere to the highest standards of reporting and are being encouraged (by people like Kirk) to link and collaborate with other news agencies and reporters.  It will result in a higher calibre of reporting and information available online.  (Julia Cameron, QUAY)

– Kirk’s point about recognizing other media (your competition) and sources for good information resonated with me. You can only do that if you come from a position of confidence and strength. Sharing of knowledge and information is the way of the online world and is now transcending into mainstream. It reminded me of the old movie – Miracle on 34th Street when the Macy’s Santa starts recommending customers go to the competition and how that led to more business and a good reputation for Macy’s.  That movie was made in 1947.  We have always believed in friendly competition.  Life is too short to live any other way. 

I also was intrigued by the movement of media into the world of databases. Public sector salaries, parking tickets….what could be next?

It is great to have people like Kirk at the helm of our major daily papers. He truly demonstrates the transparency, candor and forward thinking the business needs to survive. (Della Smith, QUAY)

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I was reading David Meerman Scott’s blog as I sat in the ferry line up last night. (I live—and AHA has an office—on the Sunshine Coast as well as our office within the QUAY Strategies office. It’s a tough life, I know.) I have been remiss in keeping up with what some of my favourite bloggers have been discussing over the past week or so because of a time sensitive project that we have been working on.

As usual, I learned a few things from David’s posts. One of the entries that I found very interesting was on the U.S. Air Force – it included a web response assessment chart, you can see it here at Global Nerdy.

David’s blog post (as always) is worth reading. It is also interesting to note that because of interest in the web response assessment chart and feedback from people such as David, Joey deVilla, Jeremiah Owyang, Steve Field, Matt McGee and others – Captain Faggard, Chief of Emerging Technology at the Air Force, revised the document. It is very interesting to me that the Air Force is using social media and how engaged they are. They are even on Twitter! They are authentically and effectively using social media to interact and engage with a range of people.

We’re talking a serious brand here. This organization has a reputation for being, let’s say, “in control” of their brand and their people and an image that may be perceived as not necessarily being the most transparent – for a variety of reasons.

Some unexpected organizations—such as the Air Force—can be found embracing social media, yet some other organizations are still living in fear of it. We are often asked at speaking engagements and workshops about how to “sell” online or social media to the CEO, c-suite, executive director or board of directors. The fact is, you can’t “sell” it. You can explain it, describe it, share the opportunities and showcase the potential threats you face by ignoring it. You can show many, many examples of why it should be included in strategic planning and used as a part of your toolkit. If you really have to convince the senior team of its value, you are already in a losing battle.

It seems that as communicators, we are smack in the middle of a huge shift in how we do things. In one week, I can go into one organization and find a senior team that shows interest, engagement and a recognition of the opportunity and the threats that social media presents and in another see a senior executive or board that is filled with fear and chooses to completely ignore it and bury their heads in the sand.

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There is change in the air in America – and it smells fresh and new. As President Obama was giving his inaugural speech yesterday and taking over the office of the Commander-in-Chief, a switch was flipped on www.whitehouse.gov. This site got a makeover that includes a new blog. With a focus on transparency, the new administration is posting all non-emergency legislation on this site so that the public can read it and comment before the President signs it.

Last year, I attended a social media conference where Bev Godwin, Director of USA.gov spoke. It’s not as though President Obama is introducing the Federal Government to Web 2.0, there has been movement towards a more transparent and interactive approach online for quite some time. The Department of Defense, Homeland Security, U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force are all active and interactive online. At the conference, Ms. Godwin spoke about the opportunity that social media presents in reaching out and creating authentic conversations that provide value for everyone involved, not just the politicians.

Now, with a leader who really “gets it,” it will be very interesting to see what happens when social media is embraced from the highest office in the U.S. and what kind of change will be created by embracing and increasing this kind of two-way communication.

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Today is an important day in the United States.

A new president has just been sworn in and it seems that the underlying theme of everything that Obama does is “hope.” Much has been said, written and discussed about the value that social and online media brought to the Obama campaign. It has been said that social media was the reason he won the election. While I think that it had a huge part in connecting him with people who were hungry to feel a part of something special, it took more than social media to elect him president. It took the right message at the right time. It took reaching out consistently online and in person.  It took a team of excellent speechwriters and a group of intelligent advisors.

It also took understanding the community. And I think that is why Obama was able to use social media tools so well. He didn’t see the American people as his “audience,” he saw them as his people, his community and his fellow citizens.

He created a dialogue. He turned us (even those of us who can’t vote) into evangelists who helped to spread the message. He made us feel a part of something bigger than ourselves. He created a digital tribe that had no boundaries and was made up of people of every race and of every religion – we were all different and that was celebrated. We all belonged and can all make positive change in our world and the world around us.

No matter where he was or what he was doing, he was interacting. He was listening. He was connecting. He had a blog, he sent out email blasts and he was on Twitter. He was everywhere and he was listening. I think that it’s been a long time that any of us in Canada or the U.S. have felt that politicians care what we think.  Many of us have never had this experience – it is new, fresh and exciting.

He has the right message and he understands who is a part of this conversation – all of us. Obama’s approach is inclusive, something that has been lacking in politics and our leaders for a long, long time.

Social or online media only provides tools, it’s how you use them that matters. All of the candidates had access to the same technology and tools that Obama and his team had.  It’s just that Obama understood how to use them. It’s obvious that he likes the connection that technology provides. When he won the election, he was picked up by the cameras emailing and texting on his BlackBerry. Reaching out is natural to him. It is a part of who he is.

Today he was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States of America, and Barack Hussein Obama had to hand over his BlackBerry. I bet he will go into connection withdrawal. How he personally connects with people will change – the Office of the President demands that. It will be interesting to see how he handles this aspect of his new role. Of course, Obama seems to see things as they could be. So as the most wired president in the history of the country, it will be worth watching to see how he blends technology and communication with the duties of President. 

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