Posted by Shel Holtz
Strumpette began the week by suggesting that it's game-over at Edelman's Me2Revolution unit. The speculation was based on a tip from an unnamed source and some dubious mathematics that tallied costs but did not account for revenue. But let's skip the math and focus for a minute on the unnamed source. All we know is that the source is an "insider." Inside Edelman? Inside PR? Your guess is as good as mine. But I come from the world of journalism (I was a daily newspaper reporter back in the manual typewriter days before jumping over to corporate communications), and we had a rule we had to follow when reporting on a tip. We learned this rule in the various 101 classes in college, then had them hammered into our heads in the newsroom. The rule: Confirm the tip with a second reliable source or don't report it.
(One of the things that concerns me about the whole notion of "citizen journalism" is the amount of crap that inevitably will be reported that has not been confirmed. All it takes is one disgruntled employee who wants to get even with his company to turn misinformation into "news.")
Amanda also listed some items from Richard Edelman's "6 a.m." blog touting Me2Revolution activities as though it's some kind of comprehensive list, rather than just the items about which Edelman felt like talking. Further, not all of the activities listed in each of Edelman's post made it onto Amanda's list. Further, Edelman clearly states, "These are just a representative handful of our efforts to bring public relations practice into the new world in ways that are helpful to our clients and welcomed by the web."
For a practice on the brink, it seems odd that Me2Revolution would add a new staffer in Gary Goldhammer. In fact, Goldhammer stood in for Me2Revolution honcho Rick Murray as a panelist at the New Communication Forum in Las Vegas last week; Murray had to be at an important new-business pitch.
I have to admit, I'm getting tired of hearing the rise of social media described as a "bubble." Let's get this straight: a "bubble" occurs when asset prices exceed realistic valuations for the asset. Irrational optimism about the future of something usually fuels a bubble. And while there are plenty of people waxing optimistically about the future of social media, it has not led to hugely inflated asset prices. That is, the worth of companies like, say, Digg, Technorati, Six Apart, and (of course) Edelman's Me2Revolution have not reached jaw-dropping proportions. A few companies have seen huge value in properties like Skype and YouTube and paid big money for them, but these represent investments, not current valuations. (Both eBay and Google -- the acquirees -- are doing just fine in terms of real-world ROI, thank you very much.)
As for the Me2Revolution, there are very smart people working in that group and a lot of companies desperate for their expertise. (Believe me; I know. crayon, the new marketing company for which I work, doesn't have a fraction of Me2's buzz, and we're getting calls every day.) I'm always loathe to predict the future, but I wouldn't count the Me2Revolution out.
Unless, of course, Amanda can find a reliable source to confirm the allegation.
MWW's Green Initiative
MWW's green campaign was Amanda's next target, albeit one that was certainly easier to lampoon. I was particularly struck by this zinger from MWW's statement: "MWW Group will now require that all offices recycle pop cans, plastic and glass bottles." You mean, they haven't been doing this for the last decade like most companies in the U.S.?
Ultimatley, though, I suspect that MWW's CEO Mike Kempner hasn't read the study of "Stocks of Admired Companies and Despised Ones" (Acrobat PDF file). The exhaustive study of companies listed in Fortune's Most Admired Companies report covered 23 years of stock performance, revealing that despised companies (those at the bottom of the list) outperform admired ones (those at the top). In the introduction to the report, the authors write:
"We...find that stocks of admired companies had lower returns, on average, than stocks of despised companies during the 23 years from April 1983 through March 2006. We link differences between the returns of stocks of admired and despised companies to differences in affect, the quick feeling that distinguishes good from bad, admired from despised. The affect of admired companies is positive, and investors who were attracted by affect to stocks of admired companies paid for it with lower returns.
The study raises a lot of questions well beyond the visceral reaction, "Well, hell, reputation really doesn't matter, then, does it?" But it does suggest that MWW could probably do better by focusing on doing excellent work that produces solid returns. There's nothing wrong with BEING green, but touting is seems so far to yield only derision. Better just to BE green than waste resources touting it.
Regarding the Ronn Torossian dust-up, somehow I just can't bring myself to care. I'm not sure I understand Amanda's opposition to self-promotion. How else does a PR agency get business if not through promotion of its capabilities and achievements? But this particular incident -- including the threatened lawsuit -- just makes me yawn. Had I been in Torossian's shoes, I would have ignored the Strumpette threat to publish the parody press release. After all, would I want this to become a bigger story? But ultimately, I just have to think: Whatever.
New Communications Forum
Now then, on to the so-called review of the New Communications Forum. Here, Amanda claims to have attended. (She didn't drop by to say hi to me, or mention my wrap-up keynote -- do we only get to meet face-to-face in Second Life? -- but let's not get into the whole issue of identity, which has been rehashed to death.) The review covers a couple sessions (that were blogged elsewhere) and ignores the luncheon keynote, my keynote (which I thought was pretty good), and many other sessions (including one by John Bell, who wrote a guest column here last week). What this all comes down to is another opportunity for Amanda to assert that the whole social media phenomenon is a bubble that is due to burst: "If this nonsense succeeds, why would society ever need a PR person? If this supposition fails which is likely, will we ever have ANY credibility again?"
I have already addressed the "bubble" concept. As to whether "this" (the arrival and staying power of social media) is real, one has to wonder why Strumpette's wisdom in the matter would surpass that of most agency CEO's, smart and respected academics, thoughtful researchers, government agency directors, Fortune 500 companies...the list goes on.
Here's what we need to know about social media:
Word of mouth has been around for a long, long time. People routinely tell other people what they think. They share their expertise. They want to be heard by people and organizations that piss them off and have found ways to make themselves heard. Now there are tools that simply amplify those voices. They are free (or ridiculously cheap) and easy to use. Does anybody seriously believe this genie is going back into the bottle?
And how long does a bubble last, before it’s not a bubble, anyway? This social networking has been facilitated by online capabilities since Usenet first appeared in 1979. FidoNet launched in 1984, making it possible for the same kind of conversation among participants in local bulletin board systems (BBS). Mailing lists like the original Listserv -- also introduced in 1984 -- allow online collaboration among like-minded people via email. CompuServe's forums brought the whole online collaboration concept to another level; I got involved with the PR & Marketing Forum in 1987, joining more than 40,000 others. Blogs, wikis, and the like are merely extensions of these tools that make it easier and less expensive for everyone to participate. If this isn't real, then it's been an interesting 30 years or so of faking it.
Traditional communication is losing its effectiveness. Influence is no longer wielded through a 30-second spot on the ABC, NBC, and CBS evening news. Not only has the audience fragmented across far more media channels, the audience also fast-forwards through those commercials with their DVR's. Influence is increasingly wielded in conversation. And while advertising and marketing are accustomed to delivering one-way, interruptive messages, those of us in the PR profession are far more accustomed to conversation, dialogue, relationships. Thus we are well-positioned to engage on behalf of employers and clients in this fast-growing space that is most definitely here to stay.
Nobody controls the message any longer, but if you can seize the conversation, you can deliver disproportionate impact. Anybody can start a conversation -- a company, a customer, an activist, anybody. And anybody can jump into that conversation and offer value through interesting, relevant, and useful participation. Why would anybody ever need a PR person again? To make sure companies are represented intelligently and vibrantly within these conversations, to ensure new conversations are started effectively, and to address the myriad crises that could arise, all in a strategic manner aligned with the goals and objectives of the organization.
I mean, duh.
Phil Hall makes an excellent point when he suggests that HR actions result in PR perceptions. I recall my own incident. A national bank in the U.S. generated a lot of publicity when they announced a program in which bank employees (notably tellers) would adopt their own bank ATM's, volunteering to keep them spotless. Intrigued, I asked a teller the next time I went into one of the bank's branches (I happen to bank there): "Have you adopted an ATM?"
She laughed, then turned to the teller at the next window. "Hey, Mary," she said. "Have YOU adopted an ATM?" Mary laughed and said, "Yeah, right. With the salary they pay me, I'm going to buy Windex and paper towels and clean up their ATM's because they're too cheap to pay to have it done." Within minutes, at least five tellers were laughing at the notion and insulting their employer.
Here it was an ill-advised PR effort coupled with HR policies that led unhappy employees to undermine what otherwise might have been a nifty campaign.
I'm not certain that HR people are always responsible for bad HR policy, however. At one company where I worked, my proposal for an employee environmental survey was shitcanned by the Corporate VP of Human Resources. I was shocked, since he was the author of a book on such surveys. "When you conduct such a survey, employees develop the expectation that you're going to do something about the results," he told me. "The president and the chairman of this company will not do anything, they won't let me do anything, so why bother asking in a survey?"
Sounds a lot like what happens to PR and corporate communications in a lot of instances -- good people stuck in a bad company. And let's not forget all those companies where employees are thoroughly engaged, the ones at the top of Fortune's most-admired list, where human resources makes a genuine positive difference.
Still, Phil's point is an excellent one. I'll add to it:
The line between internal and external communications is blurring, largely due to the growth of social media. What happens inside an organization -- whether it's HR-initiated or under the jurisdiction of some other department. Those of us working in PR are now all internal communicators, and internal communicators need a broad view of the impact their efforts will have.
Until next week...
Shel Holtz, vice president of new marketing for crayon and co-host of the For Immediate Release. Shel has nearly 30 years of experience in organizational communications. He is the author of four communications-related books, including "Blogging for Business" and is a regular on the communication speaking circuit. He is accredited by the International Association of Business Communicators, and is the recipient of five IABC international Gold Quill awards for communication excellence. In 2005, IABC named Shel a Fellow — the association's highest honor.
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From: Gary Goldhammer [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Sunday, March 11, 2007 1:20 AM
To: Amanda Chapel
Subject: Re: Last Call
Amanda, sorry — I was traveling this week and just got your message. No, I’m not in Me2, I’m in the EIS division (Edelman Interactive Solutions), working in the Los Angeles office. I honestly don’t know how many are in Me2 — heck, I don’t know the exact number of people in EIS, either :-)
Again, sorry for not getting to your messages sooner. Hope all is well.
Shel, your clarity and fairness of thought are refreshing.
Considering that Georg is the "mastermind" behind the Text100 Second Life Scam... not sure I'd consider that all to complementary.
Great summary and criticism.
Your weekly review is a must read, thx.
The fact you didn't meet Amanda doesn't surprise me. After all, she has to be in "pseudo mode" at all times.
If that veil is lifted, it would just spoil the fun for all of us in "Strumpette Life".