The Value of Information

Business, Business Communications, Finance, Social Media

Social media has certainly changed the role of PR pros in a myriad of ways. Clients or employers no longer expect just a book of media clips to show the value of public relations. More and more, communicators are being asked to extend their roles to encompass what might have been described as marketing, sales, and customer relations.

Aside from the titles and tools though, has the real value proposition changed?

In 1987 one of my favorite film characters ever, Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, hit on a very real business truth. “The most valuable commodity I know of is information.”

Information sharing is at the core of social media. At a time in the PR industry when access to members of the media is just a mouse click away for almost anyone and a well done blog post can generate as much visibility as a hit on the six o’clock news, PR pros can play a vital role in organizational success based on this concept.

  • Assess the information coming into the organization

Begin by listening to what’s being said. What are the messages resonating about your company? Are they positive, negative, or (perhaps even worse) unclear?

Provide your clients/company with strategic counsel at this stage on what the marketplace is really saying about the brand. The speed with which problems can go from minor to a major issue is significantly faster with social media than in the past. Continually listen honestly to understand where you fit in market in the eyes of the public and communicate that with the leadership team.

  • Understand the benefits and limitations of distribution channels

Next step, take some time to think critically about old habits and if there is a need to change your approach. As an example, if a controversy were to flare up online, PR pros need to make the call on how to respond. A traditional news conference likely isn’t the fit. Get rid of any habits that are wasted effort.

Facebook fan page complaint may well be best addressed in a discussion right on the page. But what if the comment is on a third-party blog? Spend time *now* before there is an issue to get up to speed on social channels and how information moves uniquely in each one. Social media communities are not interchangeable and cannot be treated as such.

  • Create information to fill a need

This is where the preparation comes together. Once you understand the market perception of your organization and the channels available to you, it comes down to providing the audience with the information they need and can’t get anywhere else.

Rather than pushing out material *at* people, this is the point where PR practitioners can demonstrate their own value by creating unique content that addresses gaps for the customer. Consistently hearing that your company isn’t providing clear guidance on a service? Then try a YouTube video shared socially to walk through those challenges in a simple manner with some personality. Or maybe it’s a well-written post on a major industry blog to address the concerns. The key outcome is solving a problem that exists for the market and in doing so; you will enhance the value of a particular brand.

Gordon Gekko had it right 24 years ago; the most valuable commodity is information. Now go out and share some information that will be helpful as well as advance your goals.

Don’t Fear the Financials

Business, Business Communications, Communications, Finance

finance, financial PR, annual reports, PR mathOne of the great misconceptions about the communications industry is that it is just a creative industry. Only right-brain people need apply and it’s all about being a “people person” and connecting.  Those are fine traits but communications professionals must be balanced and there remains an inherent fear in a lot of PR or communications people to tackle math and financials.

The truth is that it isn’t that hard to pick up a decent level of financial understanding and I have great faith in my communications colleagues. It’s just a matter of practice and taking the time to work through a few examples. Being able to read an annual report effectively is an important start so you can understand the current state of your company, clients, or competitors. By just walking through a few tutorials, you can understand all the basics needed to find important information about a company in those seemingly confusing sections. As a starting point, check out this How to Read an Annual Report post which provides a nice step-by-step process and examples.

From there, communications pros that are a bit shy about annual reports, 10k filings, and regulatory documents might be pleasantly surprised what intelligence and research is already out there about companies that will help improve their own work. After getting a few of those basics down, try checking out a site like Investopedia to work through the next steps like economic indicators, analyzing earnings (earnings calls are another great source of information for communicators by the way), and mergers and acquisitions. Or check out a book like Finance and Accounting for Nonfinancial Managers by William Droms and work through it at your own pace.

This isn’t to say you need to be a CPA to be an outstanding communicator but it also doesn’t hurt, especially when working with business leadership who are responsible for every number reported in that annual report. As with anything else, adding another strength to your creative communications toolbox is a good thing and these tools and resources can be helpful for anyone starting out learning more about finance.

What has your experience been working with finance departments or leadership? Is the relationship challenging or have you found tips to bring together the creative and concrete parts of your organization?

Time to Think

Communications, Growth, Public Relations

It’s hard to do when competing in a truly 24/7 world that depends on constant motion to stay ahead of the curve and ahead of your competition. However, there is an essential element to growth and success that requires leaders to make a conscious, and seemingly backward, choice. Stop. Think.

Instead of pushing for faster and more efficient there are times when you need to look for slower and more thoughtful. In just the PR world, if you search on Google for PR Consultant List you’ll get over 3.2 million results on how to be a good consultant, who are the best consultants and much more. The point of all this? There are thousands of other professionals in any field that are tactically able to execute to some level in the same general way.

Finding creative solutions is not a new problem, every great advance in human history is brought on by the need to solve a challenge that required a different type of thought. The industrial revolution for example was a shift focused on economic development that increased the growth of major cities and moved countries away from a predominantly agricultural model. In 2011, as we collectively look at a landscape of economic challenges, significant global turmoil, and rapidly changing technological advances; it’s time to think again. People in every industry are seeking and desperately wanting to find creative ideas. That desire for truly smart thinking is why TED Talks are so engaging and popular. Smart thinking is not a commodity business, churning out tactics is.

Find ways that work for you to think and evaluate what’s next. A few ideas to consider might include:

Blocking time on your calendar – Literally carve out time on the Outlook or Google calendar that pushes you from meeting to meeting. Close the door for an hour to read, think about a challenge in front of you from a different perspective, or write out a few free-flowing ideas (maybe crazy ones) to spark your thinking.

Talk with others – Go out, get away from your typical environment. If you’re a social thinker you’ll be well-served by gaining energy from the process of gathering input and feedback.

Shut it down – If your goal is to push a 2,000 pound boulder up a hill, just pushing harder isn’t going to cut it. Same thing happens when we try to solve problems by just pushing. Go entirely away from the situation, find a place where you’re relaxed and can find new perspective. Maybe you’ll find that there’s actually a good boulder on the other side of the hill and you don’t need to push the first one at all.

The communications profession is not just a collection of tactics. It relies on smart thinking, problem solving, and understanding human dynamics which cannot simply be found on a checklist.

There is no right answer and everyone will find their place and style but having a place to think and create is critical. It’s what separates you from the 3.2 million other options out there for your clients and employers. What do you do to think and find focus? What has worked for you?

Where Are You Going? Three Benefits of Setting Goals.

Communications, Growth

As fall begins to settle in here in the great state of Minnesota, it gets cooler and the leaves fall. We collectively drag out some warmer clothes and bitterly put away those summer shorts and wonder why we do live here year after year. Fall also reminds me of looking forward and sorting out what’s next. You see, despite Outlook for both the office and my phone, Google calendars, a calendar on the fridge, a calendar in my office (you’re getting the idea) I still keep a planner too. It’s nice for me to make notes or change appointments on the go and it’s always with me. As I get ready to order the 2011 planner, I looked back and flipped through the pages of the last year. It’s amazing to see the journey you take in a year. There are reminders of successes, failures, and moments to remember both personally and professionally.

I also set goals in the back of said planner. Some are for the next year and some are significantly longer-term. I recently hit one that I’d set out more than 10 years ago when speaking with the president of the first company I worked for out of school. He’d asked “how will you know if you’re successful in your career? My response was, when my peers and those I respect come to me for thoughts, assistance, or to chat when they hit challenges in their careers. It was an answer rooted in what I saw in my dad growing up as he worked hard but gave freely of his time to try to help others and his profession. It was a surprising moment for me and one that probably wouldn’t have meant much if I hadn’t set out some goals about what I want to achieve and how to do so.

So, as we enter 2011, consider the benefits of goal setting in your career.

1) They provide focus: The process of goal setting is one where you need to stop and think. These goals aren’t just the tactical elements that need to be covered for you team/boss next year but think about where you really want to be in three years. What are the steps you need to take to make that possible? It’s difficult to take time to stop and slow down but it provides clarity to what you truly want to achieve.

2) You have accountability: The simple act of writing out goals provides you with a measurable timeline. You’ve laid out your goal, perhaps some building block goals along the way, and you have a path to guide you. You’re far more likely to meet your goals when they are written out than just saying “someday I want to…”

3) Goals serve as a reminder: When times get tough, which they will, looking at your written goals can provide you inspiration to keep moving forward. The challenges remain but when aiming for a larger goal, you can ride out the ups and downs along the way.

Five Ideas to Repair the Credibility of PR

Business, Communications, Leadership, Public Relations

Photo courtesy of DoktorSpinn under Creative Commons.There’s an issue that has always been a challenge for a lot of good PR people and it rears its ugly head a few times each year.  How can PR improve its own reputation?  I had a couple of reminders on the need for this work recently from very different sources.

First off I saw an interesting post from Keith Trivitt on PR Breakfast Club titled Ethical vs. Unethical: A Lot Rides on Only 2 Letters that highlighted yet another case where PR ethics were called into question around paid toy pitches that were framed as “expert” opinion.  Of course the problem is the expert was a front.  Transparency? Nah, why bother.  Focus on the audience? Crazy.

The second time the issue of our professional credibility came up was a chat I had with the stylist cutting my hair.  She asked what I did and I explained a bit about my varied communications work. She was surprised by the variety of efforts I mentioned.  She shared that she essentially thought of PR as promoting celebrities. Ugh.  She asked more about if PR could actually drive customers to a business like hers.  I explained that it sure better or you’re wasting your money and your PR person isn’t doing their job.

The professional of public relations has been relegated to the world of used car sales credibility for too long.  What can we do to improve the reputation of our field? Here are a few starters:

  • Highlight broader knowledge: The discipline of PR isn’t just media relations, it never has been.  Working with the media is an important skill but so is understanding product positioning, recognizing the importance and value of strong corporate reputation, and how online engagement has changed the dynamics of customer interaction.  Many PR professionals are handling all this and more everyday and their credibility is undermined by the type of PR people who believe the only credentials our profession requires are a good smile and the ability to raise a martini glass.
  • Industry advocacy: Our industry needs to continue to work on its own image.  At a national level, PRSA has been working to highlight the importance of ethical behavior and has a code of ethics for its members.  However, I think the industry needs to go further to push forward on what essentially equates to a campaign for itself to fight the stereotype of PR that continues to be pushed out by idiotic representations like The Spin Crowd.
  • Greater transparency:  Many of the problems surrounding the industry stem from questions around the motives of professionals and what is happening behind the scenes.  The toy review case mentioned earlier is a great example of what happens when your strategy is “let’s hope nobody notices or finds out.”  If that concept is ever raised in a meeting you know where its going to end up.  The need for transparency is well documented and is more important now than it ever has been as we live in an era where nearly everything can be tracked digitally.  If you aren’t comfortable with your name appearing next to your work on a billboard it’s a sign that you might want to rethink the idea.
  • Training: These issues can be very muddy to discern, especially when you’ve not faced them in the past, and greater training and education would benefit the industry in the long run.  Again, greater emphasis on real-world ethical case studies via PRSA programming could go a long way to providing guidance.  As could commitments from many of the larger agencies in the field.  A high percentage of younger pros get their first shot in PR from agencies and there are certainly some agencies out there that are part of the problem but many could also have a tremendous impact on industry reputation by including ethical decision-making as a key point of ongoing training.  By investing time on employees early on, they also protect their own reputation to avoid train wrecks that hurt the business like the FTC issues for Reverb and the industry.
  • Accountability: We are all responsible for this.  If you care about your own future in this industry and want to be able to hold your head high saying you work in public relations, you need to take steps to hold yourself as well as the companies and clients you serve to higher standards.  Take time to think about these issues and question those that would push you to compromise your values.  It’s ultimately your reputation and name on the line.

What else can we do to improve the expectations within our profession?  How can we take some time to repair our own image?   Add your ideas and share them with others so we can all feel good about the amazing work being done in our field and its future.