Friday, December 10, 2010

The Importance of and the Way to Research

Now that the turkey and gravy have been consumed, and annoyingly happy noels stalk us on every wintry street corner, it's time to "plan" for 2011. If you work in public relations or marketing, however, there's one important step prior to planning...something not everyone considers, but one which is critical to the success of communications programming: research.

If you support a professional services firm, the type of research you conduct can be one of two types. With internal research, you decide to identify organizational processes and procedures through interviews, surveys or focus groups with leaders of your firm and consider strategies for creating efficiencies and improvements in business development activities.

Or, you might conduct external research across your client markets using similar methods to determine how decision-making occurs, what problems and challenges are faced in the industry (or in today's withering economic environment) and what kinds of professional services clients and prospects find attractive to meet their needs.

One occasional challenge that can beset researchers, though, is the concern that organizational leaders perceive that nothing seems to be happening. Perceptions of public relations and marketing people include ideas that they should be meeting people, building relationships, advertising, zapping out direct mail, sponsoring events, basically whatever demonstrates an effort to gain visibility. The problem, of course, is that while such frenetic activity often may "look" good or valuable, without proper planning and appropriate decision-making ahead of time about who to build relationships with and who to target with your advertising campaigns, nothing positive will likely happen within your organization.

One must feel comfortable conducting research and acquiring knowledge to help make effective planning decisions. Ensuring you can do that starts, first of all, with articulating to management what kind of research you intend to conduct and what you intend to accomplish by doing it. While you may wonder whether management will be supportive, you may be pleasantly surprised by a number of possible reactions--"We've never done research before," "I like the idea of making better decisions" and "It'll be good to know why we're doing something".

I'll save the details of what kind of research you might conduct for another post (i.e. the details of surveys or interviews), but I will say it's good to conduct research before planning occurs. Yet, even given the fortuitous circumstance of management support, research in an organizational setting must be applied (as compared to academic research, which responds primarily to philosophical questions than business ones). Applied research is research intended to serve an organization's goals and objectives.

The trick with overly scientific research--this is when you get into things like random sampling, standards of deviation, etc.--is that it can become all too easy and tempting to get caught up in the details of your research and lose sight of the bigger picture. If too much time passes, if your methodology and indeed your results seem too abstruse or removed from the organization's goals, you become vulnerable to a loss of management support.

If, on the other hand, you the researcher set a research timeline for yourself ahead of time--and every task, from a project management point of view, should have a timeline--then it will be easy to determine when you've conducted sufficient research and determine that it's time to move on with what information you've gathered and enter into the next, planning stage.

It may be difficult to do this. As a researcher, you may find that as you acquire information, you will be inclined to probe further with deeper questions and seek new and more sophisticated answers. But again, this path can stray from the organization's path and lose management support in the process. What you must concede as you conduct research is that you cannot answer every question about your clients due to time constraints but you will get further along than you were beforehand and begin to understand the demographics of potential customers (whether it's your firm's leaders or external clients).

Ultimately, you must execute. You must make plans and, again, you must execute. Research informs planning activities and as you explain to management the basis of your planning decisions, you can proudly point to the research you conducted. That is much better than planning based on hunches, impressions or "just because", which is, sadly, what a lot of public relations and marketing individuals do. It is good to have a foundation for your decisions and for the direction of your communications program.

Even if your first round of research doesn't uncover everything you wanted to--and it likely won't--you have at least established a good direction. So while you're developing goals and objectives during the subsequent planning stage and selecting tactics to achieve them, you can also begin thinking in the back of your mind: what research must I conduct next? Likely, if you've made good planning decisions as a result of your first round of research, you will have the opportunity to conduct more in-depth research in the future, and while the communications program is underway, because management will already decide that you're heading in the right direction. You will often be given the license to continue mining information (which leads to the sophisticated Q&A that is the result) so that, in the long term, even while you're executing, you'll become even more aware of the business environment in which you operate, and will become a valued member of the organization's team.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

CRM Wins with Marketing and Public Relations

One benefit of bringing a public relations background into marketing management (like I am) is that you're unlikely to either a) drive too hard for an immediate sale that misses opportunities for long-term brand loyalty, or b) linger on facilitating good relationships that never quite influence the behavior of your audience in the intended fashion. Of course, it is ideal for both sides to work together; culture wars between marketing and PR can lead to low morale or uncertain goals as I have learned in the past, to my chagrin. One great way I've found for both sides to work together is through relationship marketing and the adoption of a customer relationship management (CRM) tool.

Such a tool can help marketers identify and segment potential customers for campaigns with strict, shorter-term sales quotas, while public relations has the ability to develop data for more challenging audiences that require more strategic engagement, loyalty-building touch points and activities that share value and increase the attractiveness of your service offerings.

At Gelman, Rosenberg & Freedman, we began collecting and segmenting business prospects into ACT by Sage, a fairly well-known CRM tool. It's taken a mental leap on my part to get past thinking of data entry as only a mindless administrative task and the process has been assisted by two items. First, from a process point of view, our marketing team commits only a limited period of time to data entry so there is never the sense that we are neglecting more strategic duties (and in fact, developing the knowledge about business prospects that can result from research and data entry has become aligned with such duties). Secondly, though, we are already seeing immediate results on new engagement opportunities with nonprofits and government contractors we otherwise would not have had otherwise.

CRM was the topic of a recent post by Tina Lewandowski on the Association of Accounting Marketing's LinkedIn group page. She asked for recommendations of various CRM tools and among those mentioned (and praised) were Microsoft Dynamic's CRM, Interaction and ContactEase.

As greater numbers of business operations move toward the realm of cloud computing, there is a similar shift as well from license-based CRM tools such as ACT toward software as a service, which allows for easier user access and more affordable services; software services are delivered over the Internet, often using a pay-as-you-go model. is developing a good reputation in some circles.

No matter which tool you utilize however, CRM can satisfy both the shorter-term goals of sales and marketing campaigns while also allowing public relations teams to identify and reach out to higher-value prospects who cannot be engaged so quickly or easily. It can keep marketing and PR working together in a friendly way as they pursue their distinct goals while keeping helpful information about your desired customers or stakeholders always in front of you.

Image: healingdream /

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Check Yourself at the Door for Effective Communications

How often have you received a marketing or public relations message dripping with the intent of the sender? A media pitch oozing with self-promotion? Marketing collateral inflated with puffery and self-congratulatory language?

We are all needful creatures, pursuing solutions to our own unique equations of personal and professional satisfaction, and the examples above reflect that self-focused side of human nature--the side that wants to win, to take, to get.

Perhaps more than in any other field, however, professional communicators must recognize the proclivity to speak in this manner, bolstered by the semantics, signposts and expressions of their own personal worlds of meaning rather than in the language and constructs of meaning of those they wish would respond. No wonder our field can have a bad reputation; too many poor practitioners demonstrate complete disregard for their audience and their needs and, in doing so, not only isolate potential clients and supporters but leave a bad taste in their mouths.

Effective communications requires that we abandon ourselves, check ourselves at the door, render ourselves invisible, and tune ourelves to the needs and desires of our audience. Effective communications requires that we understand a world beyond our own.

Misunderstandings can rear themselves in the nastiest of ways--political belligerence, war, broken relationships. While professionals in other fields sometimes don't quite 'get' what it is that we do, this list of tragedies reflects what can happen when professional communicators (or at least the capabilities for effective communications) are absent.

But then, what about the human side of communicators? Who will look out for us? Who will satisfy OUR needs if we sacrifice ourselves to the worlds of our audiences?

An old adage states that one must give before one gets. Not coincidentally, listening, understanding and responding to others is generally recommended as the first step for any individual or organization wishing to develop a presence in the social media space. Social media may be new but...the more things change, apparently, the more things stay the same.

What professional communicators receive as the reward for doing their jobs well is a response. How many frustrated salespeople or marketers wonder why no one listens to them or responds with loyalty or purchased services? How many so-called professionals remain locked in a world of their personal signposts and semantics, believing their words represent actual communication while no one listens?

Our audiences will be attracted to us when we speak in a language familiar to their world. Every one of us is bombarded daily by the messages, advertisements and pitches of others, generating emptiness, stress, loneliness. How rare a thing is it to be spoken to in our language of meaning and need? Is it any wonder then, when that rare instance happens, audiences are attracted?

To communicate this way is neither manipulation nor unethical. So long as our communications are accurate and elicit expectations for goods and services that truly can be delivered by our organizations in the manner we describe, then our conduct--checking ourselves at the door and communicating in the language of our audiences and their needs--becomes a boon and a source of greater competitiveness in the marketplace.

Whenever I think of the power to attract audiences with professional messaging, I think of the scene in Star Wars when Obi-Wan Kenobi commands a risky situation to turn away unwanted attention from Imperial stormtroopers. He utilizes intense but graceful, calm though powerful, reassuring though intentful words to achieve his desired results. Although we may never find ourselves in the Tatooine desert needing to schlep some droids to the planet of Alderaan, the results we can elict are often the same as those of the Jedi Knight.

And remember, Obi-Wan Kenobi was the good guy.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Social Bookmarking for Research

Last year, I read an article about social bookmarking in PRSA's Tactics. At the time, I was unfamiliar with sites such as Delicious, which allow users to store web pages and electronic files of interest. Once you register for a free Delicious account, you're given the option of downloading a toolbar, which thus allows you to bookmark a web page with a single button click.

As you can probably tell by my last sentence, I've since gone ahead and started using Delicious, and it's been a great benefit. You can not only bookmark sites with one click, but you can also organize them using a Tags field. Delicious will save your tag entries, so once you've entered a tag once--such as blogging, or social media, or November elections--bookmarking future sites with the same tags becomes much easier. Just type the first few letters of your tag in the relevant field and Delicious will automatically "guess" using your personal history of tags and populate the field with the full name.

On your personal Delicious page, your column of tags appears on the right side of the screen, allowing you to review all categories under which you've saved pages (as well as the number of pages linked to each tag).

This is, first of all, an easier and more user-friendly way of storing websites than Internet Explorer's Favorites service. Fewer button clicks are involved, the storage system is much more organized, and the layout of stored websites and tags is much more readable. Finally, the social aspect of bookmarking means research with colleagues within an organization or an industry can benefit from multiple users; you can share your tags and stored sites with other Delicious users.

Most mornings, when I go to work, the first thing I do is open Google Reader to scan marketing and PR blogs for posts of interest in various categories. I don't read most of them right then, unless they are particularly relevant to what I am doing that day, that week or maybe that month. But some may be relevant to projects I know are coming but which I haven't thought about yet. Opening posts with such content and clicking Delicious' tag button at the top of the screen allows me to do an instant save under clearly defined tags--"website design", "market research", etc.--so I can save the posts as informational resources when planning those projects.

Working as marketing director at Gelman, Rosenberg & Freedman, CPAs in Bethesda, MD, I am happy to share my links with other marketing team colleagues at the firm, or with non-competing marketing colleagues in industry groups such as the Association of Accounting Marketing or CPAmerica International.

I did issue one public request to share bookmarks to colleagues in an industry group, and got no takers. I don't believe sites such as Delicious have the same notoriety as social media tools such as Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook. But I believe social bookmarking presents an excellent opportunity to not only store resources for research projects but also to share your results with others who can benefit (and who can provide you with similar resources as well.)

By the way, I am not affiliated nor have I ever been affiliated with anyone with a stake in the success of Delicious.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Copyright Infringement and The Social Network

Maybe it's all the studying I've been doing for the APR exam that's got me thinking about copyrights and The Social Network, which I saw the other day at the Avalon on Connecticut Avenue. Very good movie, though my wife did compare it somewhat disparagingly to The Graduate for its lack of an iconic message for our times. Harsh.

The crux of the film is the issue of whether Mark Zuckerberg "stole" the idea of Facebook from some Harvard crew champions--buff, muscled Aryan types who actually exhibited more personality in the film than you'd expect from your typical baddies. (They decided pummeling the scrawny computer programmer was inappropriate, as other baddies in other films might do, since they were "Men of Harvard". Very interesting).

Whether it happened this way in real life or if it was merely dramatized, these two rich guys/students (blond twins, naturally) first connected with Zuckerberg after learning about his reputation as a first-rate programmer. They asked him to help develop an exclusive social networking site for them and their 'elite' Harvard friends. Zuckerberg said he'd help, then apparently led them on for several weeks telling them he was working on code for the site, or was too busy to work on the site, or this thing or that thing with them apparently growing more and more perplexed with his excuses while he, inspired by the idea of an "exclusive" social networking site, pursued his own vision for what that might look like. Soon Harvard students were introduced to Facebook and the crew champions hit the roof.

Is that copyright infringement? Judging by the facts presented in the movie, the answer is an unequivocal no. Copyright law states that an idea is protected from public use as soon as a creative expression of the idea exists; when the Harvard crew guys met up with Zuckerberg, they had an idea for an exclusive social networking site but it did not exist in any manifest form. There may be other areas of legality surrounding intellectual property that I'm not as familiar with but in terms of whether these Harvard guys could reasonably claim a copyright on an elite social networking site, it only existed in conversation until Zuckerberg came along.

Additionally, if they DID want to complain about his theft, they themselves might have been asked to answer to the fact that they were 'borrowing' the idea of a social networking site in the first place. But as Zuckerberg says during the film, look, you have an idea for a chair, and chairs have existed for a long time. But you still have the legal right to make and sell your own chair.

The Social Network does suggest that Zuckerberg did make a kind of gentleman's agreement with the Harvard crew guys in agreeing to help them in the first place and then was less than candid with them as he pursued his own vision for an exclusive social network (Facebook, based on 'friends'). There are ethical issues there, no doubt. But if the question comes down to legal issues, then it wouldn't seem he broke any laws.

Of course, the film does conclude with the news that he settled a lawsuit with the Harvard crew guys for $65 million, so there might have been other issues involved in the real-life play-by-play that didn't make it to celluloid. But that goes beyond the scope the film The Social Network and this post. The movie was very much worth seeing and I recommend it to anyone who'd care to see how a social network phenomenon came to life.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Do You Want Management to Think You Are an Expert?

I just came across a list in a communications textbook that identifies four types of public relations professionals. The first, a "communications technician", is an individual responsible for process-oriented tasks--writing newsletters and copy for collateral, producing and distributing news releases, maintaining a contact database, etc. The role is purely tactical and more often than not represents the first role in a young public relations practitioner's career.

The third and fourth classifications of professional reflect strategic roles in which they understand their clients' business and industry, and are capable of making informed recommendations based on environmental scanning, risk assessments and relationship-building opportunities with key publics. Yet it is the second classification of professional--the "expert prescriber"--that most interests me as a potential danger to the client organization and the practitioner.

I was once hired by an organization to generate publicity for projects the company believed had newsworthy value within its target industries. Fair enough. If you haven't proactively done this before and if you believe you are doing newsworthy work, why not pursue this? I was hired as the public relations expert and, as such, was expected by management to build relationships with and deliver visibility in tier 1 media markets.

There were warning signs even at the beginning which, if I'd been more experienced at the time, I would have recognized as dangers-in-waiting. First, in this role I had no access to top management, and therefore lacked insight into key issues impacting the organization. With this knowledge, I might have had the tools to make more strategic decisions about which media markets to focus on. My new role also included responsibility for producing internal publications requiring significant communication with employees to develop accurate and in-depth copy; this essentially brought an overwhelming overlap of technical and strategic responsibilities. Finally, representatives of middle management often did not attend meetings to discuss activity in their departments.

When I was hired, it was as the public relations expert and, as such, little corresponding sense of responsibility remained with management to participate in the public relations process. No champion for PR existed in the suite of top management professionals. Any and all PR within the organization fell in my lap, no matter how essential collaborations were to success.

My relationship with the organization did not end well. I was an "expert" who ultimately was not deemed an expert. The failure was not entirely that of the organization, but a failure of my ability to lay out (at the beginning of my tenure) realistic expectations and an explanation of resources needed to attain the success the organization wished to achieve.

The dangers of being an "expert" were apparent almost immediately; without the participation, buy-in and endorsement from top management public relations can accomplish little. Of the four types of public relations professional, the role as "expert prescriber" has the potential to present the most danger.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Mismanaging the 9/11 Tribute Says a Lot about America Today

This was the first year since 2002 that I woke up and had to be reminded by a news broadcast that it was 9/11. Time passes and our lives accumulate the detritus of daily responsibilities. But nine years later, the terrorist attacks seem no less horrible nor does my memory of the morning fade; I remember the clear blue sky of Washington, DC where I worked two blocks from the White House. I remember facilitating a morning event for the Science and Technology Fellows at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. I remember the phone call I got from my friend Greg who first told me a plane had hit the World Trade Center.

Earlier today, as I was perusing my Facebook page, I came across the image of a 9/11 tribute flag on the feed of a high school friend (see above).

I added it to my feed as well, believing it a noble tribute to the 3,000 Americans who lost their lives that day. Well, it was a noble tribute. It may have also been a partisan ploy for publicity.

When the flag appeared on my Facebook feed, a small subhead also appeared under the image that read "Being Conservative". Whether I am conservative or not isn't important. If it had said "Being Liberal", I would have been just as disappointed. Needless to say, I removed the flag. Or rather, I removed the flag that happened to be attached to a partisan message.

One memory I have from just after 9/11 is when Republican and Democratic members of Congress sang God Bless America together in a striking and moving show of bi-partisanship. As one commenter on YouTube wrote about this video, "This always makes me cry...."

Two days ago, ran an article entitled "U.S. Losing Competitive Edge". In terms of international competitiveness, America slipped behind Sweden and Singapore to the number four spot on the list of all nations (we were already behind Switzerland before the list was published). One of the contributing factors to the loss of our competitiveness is that: "the United States is hamstrung by its distrust of politicians".

That we have become more partisan as a nation is plain to see. That our sick economy is sinking beneath the weight of bloated debt on one hand and inconceivable levels of unemployment on the other is also clear. That this alarming situation has not brought political leaders together to devise solutions on behalf of one nation that has experienced three horrible years is a tragedy beyond words.

These three horrible years still do not compare to the horror of 9/11. But when we honor 9/11 by "being conservative", we lose America. That's the road we seem to be on now and that is, unfortunately, yet one more tragedy.

Let all Americans always remember the 3,000 people who lost their lives nine years ago. Let us also work together to improve our economy and bring a new dawn to the United States.


"Being American"