Tuesday, January 14, 2014

My Mid-life Crisis: 40 Lessons at 40

Lesson 1, It’s about others

When I was younger I had dreams to change the world. I was not sure how I would do so, but I wanted to make an impact. Today, there is a greater sense of urgency—time’s value is increasing.

I’m learning though that the changes I hope for in this community, in this world, do not have to occur as a direct result of my words and actions. It can come as I invest in others—my children, the students at Southern Miss, etc. It’s a wonderful realization, one that I hope is reflected in my daily actions.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Social media critics, jerks and trolls

So you say you want a big social media presence? First, ask yourself how thick is your skin? I’m not sure how direct the relationship, but it is a certainty that with increased social media visibility comes increased scrutiny.

Seems obvious, right? This is not a surprise to public relations professionals, whose experience pre-social media was the larger the organization, the larger the market, the greater the amount of mass media attention.

While that’s true, a huge difference is also proving to be true. Social media also attracts a different crowd—less polite, more vulgar and less rationale. Those people now interact directly with the organization, grab headlines and infuriate the public relations professional.

If you’re a high school basketball standout, making the decision to attend a university, here is what it looks like on twitter:

Andrew Wiggins tweet

If you’re the President of the United States, every tweet is subject to a barrage of insanity.

President Obama tweet

And what if you’re the Pope, attempting to spread love throughout the twitter-verse? Well...

Pope Francis Tweet

So how should you deal with the critics, jerks and trolls? Here are a few suggestions.

1.     Determine ahead of time to what and in what situations you will respond. Have a plan and don’t get emotionally suckered into responding. The biggest social media mistakes are made when someone tweets in an emotionally elevated state. Restraint can be an effective strategy.

2.     Consider “real-world” interactions. Ask yourself if you were conversing with this person in a public place, how would you respond? Would you ignore the person and walk away from the situation? Would you try to elaborate on your position? Would you present your argument in a slightly different way? The answers in the “real-world” and social media perhaps should be the same.

3.     Understand the audience. You will want to consider the goals of the person inviting your reply. The person may be genuinely interested in your response; however, the person may be posting so that their friends can “like” their clever and sarcastic comment. In my opinion, the former demands your attention, while the later does not.

The truth is, criticism comes with a large social media presence. This is the reality for public relations professionals, but for most of us, our audiences are there as well though. We must be there, and we must learn to manage our relationships with critics, jerks and trolls, as best as possible.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Oversimplifying Social Media

“I am very little inclined on any occasion to say anything unless I hope to produce some good by it.” – Abraham Lincoln

As I consider social media, I cannot help but believe that in many cases public relations professionals individuals over-complicate effective communication. So, allow me to swing the pendulum entirely other way, prove my foolishness, and oversimplify it.

The question of how to respond to negative social media comments and posts was once again a topic of discussion among a group of public relations professionals I visited with last week. I remarked that I believe that in many cases I would be better served approaching social media as if it were an interpersonal conversation. This is especially the case during unpleasant conversations.

Let me explain.

In real life, clearly explaining the rationale behind a decision does not solve every disagreement, nor does every rebuttal ensure a point of contention is reconsidered. At times, “agreeing-to-disagree” is the only civil solution in my opinion.

Yet, this is contrary to what many social media experts profess. Instead, increased engagement is often considered a magic elixir. To be sure, I hope you do not read this as a post against engagement, as I believe it is the single most important quality of good social media. Nevertheless, hindsight teaches me that the biggest mistakes I’ve made on social media have come when the conversation was not going my way, but I unsuccessfully attempted to win someone over to my point of view. My continued engagement only led to my frustration, my counterpart’s anger, and an increase in hostility from others not previously involved in the conversation.

The differences in social media and interpersonal communication are many; I acknowledge my oversimplification. Most obvious is that a one-on-one conversation is a far cry from a one-on-one conversation in front of a few thousand of our closest friends.

Simply put, in real life and in social media, I believe there are times to continue the conversation, as additional details may help others’ understanding of a complex matter. At times, the person with whom you are conversing is someone you greatly respect. By all means engage that person with the care you’d offer a close friend or to anyone you greatly respect.

In real life, though, there are also times when walking away is he most effective approach as well. In my opinion, we would be better served in real life and in social media if we spoke only when some good could reasonably be expected to come of it.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Social Media, Brands and Your Reputation

If communicators are to be responsible professionals, we must acknowledge this: we have never been in less control of our brands. The voices outside of our organizations are too many and too loud, and their reach is too great. What we say about ourselves is often lost in a sea of social media, as Facebook friends opine about the latest news about our organizations, good or bad. Our reputations are formed from this myriad of public opinion, and when it differs from our brand, can overwhelm it.

I am sure this list is not comprehensive, but here are a few ways social media affect modern-day brand management in my opinion.

1. Public relations > advertising

The influence of advertising is decreasing relative to public relations. Your reputation has always been important, but your advertising once was the sole source or combined with word-of-mouth to shape a consumer’s opinion. Today, your voice is one of many, and rarely the most trusted, as friends and family share their opinions publicly as well. Your relationship with your audiences is more important than a slick 30-second tv spot.

2. It’s all public

The resolution of a situation involving a rogue employee or a poor customer interaction was once limited to the domain of interpersonal communication. A phone conversation or a meeting often closed the crisis. Today, though, that interaction or malfeasance can become a viral video or a Twitter trend, and involve an entire company in the response. And one act can damage a brand in ways it could not years ago.

3. Environmental scanning is more difficult

The minefields for the reputation manager are everywhere. Today’s communicator must keep an eye on message boards, social media, mass media, and more. And damage to your reputation can come at anytime in any forum. Quickly sensing danger (and quickly responding in the appropriate manner) is of critical importance.

4. What you stand for is as important as what you do

Cut down trees to produce your product? Affiliate yourself with a particular political candidate or issue? Be prepared for it to affect the bottom line. More and more consumers are aligning themselves with companies that reflect their beliefs and values. As communicators, we must adjust, communicating effectively our organization’s beliefs and values.

If we do, we will attract consumers who share those beliefs and values.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Think long-term during a crisis

The crisis hits. It is real. You must respond.

The overarching goals for the public relations professional are the often the same regardless of the crisis—craft the perfect response that will be honest, transparent, effective, and if possible, make the crisis “go away” as quickly as possible. The quicker the general public moves on, the quicker the organization can get back to fulfilling its primary mission—right?

Today, responding to crisis requires public relations professionals to think and act more quickly as a result of social media. Often, we must respond without a full grasp of the implications of our response. Often, we must respond without all of the details. Often, the result is that we fall into a trap of thinking and reacting moment by moment. I know because I’ve made that mistake.

Call me a fool, an irrational optimist, or something else altogether, but I’ve learned there is at least one important positive to a crisis—you are exposed to journalists and mass media outlets that you usually unsuccessfully beg for attention. You may be at the beginning of a long and good relationship—if you handle the situation well. That means being accommodating (a difficult task), being unafraid to answer tough questions (an even more difficult task), and above all else, keeping good contact information for future use.

My case in point is a situation two weeks after the “pep band incident” of 2012 at Southern Miss. I received a call from a national writer who wanted to follow up on the incident and “see what we learned.” You can imagine our initial reluctance. The crisis had largely passed, and even though we received some positive response for the University’s handling of the incident, media coverage for a week or so had been overwhelmingly critical of the young men and women involved. We relented though, and the result was a fair story that reminded people of the incident, but was also complimentary of the University’s response.

But I take particular pride in the work done in the months following that article. We kept in touch with the writer and continued to successfully pitch story ideas—the result to date has been two additional national stories that remind readers of great athletes at Southern Miss. We had not made the original story worse by our participation, and the subsequent stories would not have occurred had we resisted the initial inquiry, failed to keep contact with the writer, or not been thinking long-term.

Despicable words by Southern Miss band members at NCAA tournament lead to ‘teachable moment’ – March 28, 2012

Legendary Raiders punter Ray Guy frustrated but resigned that he's not in Hall of Fame – Nov. 11, 2012

Read-option star QB Reggie Collier missed NFL stardom, but at peace after conquering addiction – Jan. 31, 2013

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

10 Social Media Truths During a Crisis

As I prepare notes for an upcoming presentation on social media and crisis communication, I have come up with 10 “truths” about social media that I feel communicators should keep in mind during an organizational crisis. PR pros, what are your thoughts? Disagree with some (or all)? Are there some I’ve missed?

1. Who manages your social media accounts is the most important decision you’ll make

In the words of Ricky Bobby, with all due respect to my younger peers who know a great deal about social media, a crisis may not be the best time to have an inexperienced recent college grad, responding to social media posts. The manager of an organizational social media account must be able to respond quickly, responsibly and calmly.

2. Social media is an emotional place

This can be good or bad. At its worst, social media is a place for friends to question your integrity or motives and trolls to attack, often using words that they might not say in person. At its best, there is no better catalyst to spread positive energy and emotion—quickly. The best crisis manager knows when to step back and allow for venting, but also when to capitalize on positive feelings as well.

3. You will be criticized

It feels like it is just you, but it’s not. Trust me. Celebrities, universities, and businesses are being attacked online every day. You need to be in social media; your audience is there as well. Be prepared, though, as social media is the new customer service department. Have thick skin.

4. Sometimes your best isn’t enough

It’s a bummer, I know. Sometimes you can do everything right, and your Facebook wall is still filled with criticism. Make sure your superiors understand this, and go get them next time.

5. Sometimes less is more

Engage. Engage. Engage. You hear one social media expert after another profess the necessity of engaging audiences on social media. During a crisis, though, not every complaint warrants a response; not every question deserves an answer. You won’t win every commenter over; trying too hard could be a sign of insecurity in your position. Learn which posts warrant responses. Comment when you have something to clarify or add to the conversation.

6. Sometimes more is more

Don’t be afraid to post more frequently than normal if increased communication is helpful in resolving the crisis. During a crisis, the audience may be starved for information and looking to you. While two or three tweets a day may be a good rule of thumb for a Monday when nothing else better is going on, an hour between posts might as well be a lifetime in certain crisis situations.

7. Social media is more alike than different than traditional forms of communication

Ask yourself the same questions about the crisis you would have 10 years ago, but quickly come to conclusions. The same situations still warrant apologies. The same situations warrant the same responses. The right thing to do is still the right thing to do.

8. Up-front approaches are more effective than subtler tactics

During a crisis, a whole new audience may be monitoring your social media accounts. They may know little about your organization or its history; their interest is in the crisis of the moment. In other words, your great reputation may not help. Social media posts must be made with that in mind.

9. Internal communications are more critical than ever

If the people within the organization are telling a different story than the organization, your words may prove meaningless, or worse, could be used as additional cause for criticism.

10. Adaptability is essential

Have a plan for social media, but don’t be afraid to deviate. Arrogance will get you nowhere. We are still learning about social media; each situation is a little different. The best crisis managers keep a level head, are quick on their feet and are (somewhat) fearless.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Tools change, but pr still about relationships

Last week, I was awarded the Pine Belt Chapter of the Public Relations Association of Mississippi’s Practitioner of the Year Award, named in honor of my predecessor, Bud Kirkpatrick. Shameless self-promotion aside, the honor is special to me because of its namesake. As many of you know, Bud ably directed The University of Southern Mississippi’s public relations efforts for decades—to this point I have done so for two years. There are days, though, when I feel that changes in communication, both in significance and in number, have been greater in those two years than in any other similar span in modern history. Those changes make it extremely difficult for public relations professionals to perform their jobs at an expert level.

Here is what I know—learned primarily from watching and listening to the masters of the craft like Bud—as important as it is to stay ahead (or just keep up) with changes in communications, it is equally as important to remember that public relations remains about what the name of the profession suggests. Ultimately, it is about maintaining positive relationships, and Bud was and is the best at it. Whether the tool is Twitter, an email, or a phone call, if the recipient of your message trusts that you are honest, are well-intentioned, and have the best interests of others at heart, the message will likely be received well.