Vetting Your Brand’s Voice – a Lesson from KitchenAid

This morning I caught wind of a Twitter “oops” made during last night’s Presidential Debate by the well known brand KitchenAid. Someone responsible for the Twitter handle Tweeted, “Obamas gma even knew it was going 2 b bad! ‘She died 3 days b4 he became president” – in regards to President Barack Obama’s deceased Grandmother.

While a lot of outlets are reporting on how KitchenAid handled the bump – Cynthia Soledad, the senior director of KitchenAid’s brand and marketing division jumped on Twitter immediately apologizing and offering explanations and interviews – I’m more interested in how such an accident happens in the first place. My Twitter pal Chuck Gose said,

This “simple case” begs the bigger question for me on how companies are vetting and qualifying employees responsible for corporate social communications. It goes beyond the technology tools and “need for social apps that let you better separate accounts.”

I’m thinking beyond that. I understand social media managers could have a dozen or more Twitter accounts that they are responsible for. I understand how easy it is to be furiously Tweeting in order to keep up with the conversations taking place, and to accidentally tweet from the wrong account. I get all that and yes, from that perspective, it’s a simple mistake.

The bigger question is – are brands thinking about who they are hiring for such important decisions and investing in the right level of experience for such? I’m not talking about HR violations like asking what someone’s political preference is, but rather, taking a look at their communications experience and ability to think strategically in the way they present information and engage constituents in conversations. I’d also recommend taking a look at their personal Twitter accounts, blogs and Facebook status updates to get a good sense of cultural fit with your organization and corporate values. I don’t condone asking for Facebook passwords but I do believe that checking a candidate’s public social behavior is a must – especially if they will be a public voice for your brand. In this case, perhaps that “tasteless” individual would have shown such characteristics and not been hired. Would you hire someone that made such a crass comment in an interview? I don’t think so. And if you’re hiring a social media manager, I think checking their social behavior when they’re not “on the clock” is perfectly acceptable.

I’ve watched the evolution of companies finally coming around  to social as an important part of their marketing mix. But I still think it’s a bit of a stepchild – companies want to be social but they still don’t take it seriously enough to put a strategic communications expert behind the curtain. This isn’t the role to throw an inexperienced, entry level executive into managing. Let me ask you this,

Who would you put in front of the microphone to represent your brand at a news conference?

Who do you have in charge behind the scenes to write speeches and content for that person to present?

Those are the same people who should be in charge of your social communications.

It’s been argued that the younger generation should be in charge of social because they “grew up on it” – with one young lady going so far as to say no one under 25 should be a social media manager. I don’t understand this mentality at all. Just because someone knows how to use a tool doesn’t mean they’re good at it. Everyone has a telephone, right? It doesn’t mean they are effective, strategic communicators. I have said this time and time again – putting someone in charge – or even as a team member – of your social should be carefully considered. You are vetting your brand’s voice and putting it in their hands!

Perhaps the KitchenAid executive was just one of a handful of folks who have responsibility for – and access to – updating the brand’s Twitter account. Perhaps they aren’t in charge of producing strategic content, but rather just posting prewritten updates. In any event, brands need to be very careful about who has control of and access to using social networks on their behalf – this is a good lesson that anything they say or write – even a “simple mistake” – can come across as your brand’s voice, and reflect on much more, such as political views, religious beliefs and other stances best left out of the corporate environment. (Not to mention, if they’re this tasteless, do you really want them in charge of your creative communications ideas?)

How do you manage your social accounts? Do you vet who has access and participation rights? How deep do you go in the HR process to check their online behavior before hiring them?



Running a PR Agency – Big or Small, Challenges Remain the Same

Last week I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Council of PR Firms‘ Boston roundtable, to discuss industry and agency issues with fellow Boston agency leaders. This was my second time attending this annual event, and I again came away inspired, energized, reassured and enthusiastic. The folks I was lucky enough to sit around the “asylum white” Board room with at Weber Shandwick included agency leaders in executive management, HR and business development from large, global firms such as Porter Novelli, Weber and Fleishman-Hillard, to midsize and smaller agencies such as CHEN PR and March Public Relations. In all, there were about 20 of us who talked about what’s looking up in the PR industry, how PR has evolved since the advent of social and digital media, HR and recruitment challenges, the integration of advertising, digital, social, mobile and video into PR campaigns and much more. We spent a great deal of time talking about measurement – what clients want, how we provide it and what tools and strategies we are using to get there.

The thing that I always find most interesting about meeting with my industry colleagues – some of them even competitors – is that we all face similar issues. Large or small, focused on tech or healthcare or consumer PR – the agency challenges are always along the same lines. As the owner of one of the smaller agencies, I love to hear that we are successfully navigating the same issues that agencies of any size do – how to motivate staff, how to identify and hire the right people for our culture, how to juggle client demands with realistic budgets. It reminds me that sometimes getting together with your “frenemies,” as I like to call them, benefits everyone. Here are some of the issues that resonated across the board:

Recruiting. Currently, the biggest challenge is finding social and digital experts who understand communications strategy and PR. It’s easy to find one or the other, but the combination of both is valuable and rare. PR folks –that’s an open invitation to you to hone your social and digital skills and surpass those “social media experts” for jobs that require knowing more than how to Tweet. What’s the real value in using these tools in a strategic communications campaign?

HR. One of the big issues on the table was telecommuting and virtual work. I am obviously – as an owner of one of the first and most successful virtual agencies – fortunate to not have to deal with a traditional office environment where executive staff is trying to figure out how to provide the opportunity for employees to work from home some of the time. That balancing act can get tricky – providing the perk without it getting out of control, managing expectations between management and staff and still keeping employees motivated and happy. Almost every agency provides the opportunity to work from home some of the time for some of their employees, but much was discussed about how this affects training of junior staff, expectations from clients, and the overall culture. Apparently the new wave of workers expects this perk, so agencies are navigating their way and trying some interesting combinations of integrating virtual work with traditional office environments. Other topics on the HR front were how to manage employee demands for more and better perks, investment in training and opportunities for growth from within, as well as the return of bloated salary requests. We were all enthusiastic about joining an HR roundtable next to continue to inform one another and discuss these issues – helping to keep the industry in check.

Client Expectations. This is always a topic of discussion and I was glad to hear that budgets all around are returning to a more realistic level to align with the results desired by clients. Remember, you really do get what you pay for in PR. You can’t expect to saturate the market if you don’t put the proper investment behind that (money, time and executive commitment and belief). Remember what Bill Gates allegedly said about his last dollar

Measurement and Proof of Value. Speaking of client expectations, the burden of proof of reaching those expectations continues to drive discussions within all agencies. We talked about using tools such as Radian 6 and (our PerkettPR client) uberVU. We discussed the value of measuring how our promotions are driving traffic, sales leads, brand awareness and more – but the challenge remains to find the exact best way to do this. There is no PR industry standard and furthermore, clients don’t want to pay extra for it. The burden of proof is on PR firms – and how the different agencies handle that is all over the place. (On a self promotional note, our agency is working on a tool that fellow firms will definitely find of value – stay tuned for our launch this Fall.)

Competition. A great deal of discussion was spent on how PR agencies are taking business not from each other, but from other entities such as advertising agencies, digital houses and even the new found “social media” agencies. The common belief – and trend we’re all seeing – is that the shiny new ball syndrome of hiring an entire agency to execute social media is quickly fading. Social media is simply a new set of tools, not an enlightenment of communications strategy for newbie professionals who have never dealt with brand strategy, corporate crisis and more. The competitive landscape is wider, but PR is holding its own, as effective communications that illicit the proper actions continues to be key. Also hot for PR agencies is adding staff for mobile, digital and video content. Most agencies are moving from outsourcing this type of position to owning it in-house with a dedicated team or position.

I do believe there were a few laughs when I mentioned that the telephone has been around for quite a while, but it certainly doesn’t make everyone good at communicating. It’s true – and neither do social media tools. This is why the PR industry is not dying. We’re thriving – and our 2012 budgets and client rosters continue to reflect that truth. I can’t wait to see what 2013 brings to us as an industry.

If you’re a PR executive or agency, what trends are you seeing in the above areas? How are you navigating the changes discussed (or the traditional issues we all still face)?

Thanks to Weber for hosting, and to Matthew Soriano and the Council for including me. And of course, to my industry colleagues for participating. It’s always a pleasure learning from you all.

PS Head on over to the Council’s website for more industry stats, insights and information! It’s  a great resource.

Introductions, Referrals, Recommendations and References – Not Created Equally Online

In these days of social media madness and online relationships, it can take even more work to be sure that who you’re talking to is genuine, qualified and credible. I’ve noticed that people ask for things online in a more bold way than they used to, when face-to-face relationships ruled. Just this week I’ve been asked to write references for people I don’t know, link to and “check out and promote” several products – ranging from consumer goods and business apps, to social media training services – all of which I’ve never tried (PS you know this is what companies pay me to do, right?), and to make introductions for someone to another person who I’m not even connected with or know. What is it about digital relationships that make people so bold? How much clout do you give referrals or recommendations on networking communities and online reputation graders such as Klout, BranchOut, RateStars, Namyz and countless others? How do you handle it when a near (or total) stranger asks for a referral or other validation? Sometimes you might not even think too much about it because social networks make it so easy to just provide a recommendation without really thinking it through.

Managing your personal brand is important, yes. Ensuring your online activity is of positive quality – absolutely essential in business. Showcasing a robust online “rolodex” and “Klout score” is also key for most business professionals – especially in social marketing. But asking for and displaying recommendations or “references” from folks that really don’t know you or your work is a little misleading – and in my opinion, getting to become a disturbing “norm.” Asking for an introduction is one thing, but introductions, referrals, recommendations and references are not created equally. Do you know the difference?

  • Introduction – offering to introduce someone to a professional who works in a certain industry or could provide services that a company is seeking. Perhaps you just know of them and are connecting them with someone seeking vendors.
  • Referral – similar to an introduction, a referral could include someone you haven’t worked with, as long as you make that clear, such as, “I see you are seeking a socially savvy PR firm. I have heard that PerkettPR is great, although I’ve never personally worked with them.” These are also often made as a result of being connected online in communities such as Namyz or BranchOut.
  • Recommendation – usually involves knowing the work of a particular person, company or product, such as “I recommend PerkettPR because I’ve seen their digital work and am always impressed,” or “I tried this product and it worked for me.” Recommendations are big on Linkedin – but it’s important to note that many times people ask others to provide them without actually having worked together. It’s kind of like “link love” – I’ll give you one if you give me one. Make sure it’s a legit recommendation.
  • Reference – this is key. A reference is usually what someone asks for when they’ve been through all of the above… Such as, “Okay, I was introduced or referred to you, I received or read a few recommendations from folks in the industry who know of you and have seen your work, now I’d like to talk to someone who has actually worked with you and can talk to the results that you delivered, your work style, etc.”

And why should you care? I can think of a few reasons – both personal and professional:

  • Are you hiring employees?
  • Qualifying a vendor?
  • Hiring a services firm (like PR)?
  • Comparing products?

These are important business developments and should be vetted appropriately. Make sure you know the difference between someone providing a recommended vendor or individual based on word of mouth, and an actual reference based on experience. Online relationships have blurred the lines and sometimes people are providing recommendations to others just for popularity points, unfortunately. Be sure that you speak to actual references when hiring an employee, vendor or services firm, especially. The online world can still be misleading.

I also suggest doing some of your own digging to find people or companies who have worked with the person or vendor before – that aren’t on their reference list. For example, if you’re seeking a new PR firm, Google who a specific firm has worked with and reach out to someone there to ask about their experience. Sometimes the unlisted references are the best references.

Happy Employee Appreciation Day to PerkettPR – An Amazing Staff

The first Friday in March marks Employee Appreciation Day and I wanted to be sure to send a small token of appreciation out to my amazing staff. In the PR agency business, it’s not unusual to see a revolving door of employees and I have to say that I am very lucky to never have had this problem. I have a talented staff that is smart, energetic, creative and amazingly loyal to PerkettPR. I’m not quite sure – you’d have to ask them – why I’m lucky enough to have such a good retention rate, but I do know that we just celebrated milestones of 4, 7, and even 10 years with several employees (out of 14 in business to-date).

I always wanted to build an agency that was less political than a typical PR environment, and so we’ve always been pretty choosy about who we hire. We want folks who have entrepreneurial attitudes, but who aren’t going to stick around for just a few years and then take off. We ask employees to leave their egos at the door and put clients and teammates first. We require collaborative work, especially as a virtual environment, and we can’t offer anyone a corner office to show off to their friends and family. And yet, we have a staff that sticks by one another, challenges each other to work better and smarter every day, and that clients continually come back to because not only do the PerkettPR-ers turn out amazing results, but they are fun to work with. I can attest to that. We have such a good camaraderie that it often surprises people. After one six-month long RFP process, in which we were unanimously chosen over 14 other agencies, I was told that one of the reasons we were hired was because “Your team had such an amazing spirit of collaboration that we’ve rarely seen with any agency – let alone a virtual team.” That’s right – you’d never know we’re not in the same “office” every day. We are true teammates and it shows in our results.

I appreciate my staff more than I can ever express – you can’t always get along with everyone but I have to say I’ve been very lucky to have had truly great relationships with 99% of the folks who have worked here. Even in tough times when we’ve had to let people go, they’ve remained friends and professional colleagues and that means the world to me – it shows me that we really do work with those of great character and exceptional spirit.

Hiring folks with such commendable attributes translates to a team that has worked together for years, can ramp up quickly for clients and that many clients have had the luck to work with over their careers, even while moving from company to company over a span of a decade+. It feels great to be able to say, “Yes he/she is still here and we can get them on your account” when a former client comes back to hire us again.

So thank you, PPR team, for being not only amazing PR professionals, but just damn great people to know. I am blessed. And truly grateful.

Seven Business Lessons from the Military

If you are connected with  me on Facebook or Twitter,
you probably know that I recently saw my brother off as he deployed to
Afghanistan. A part of the weekend was spent at a deployment ceremony
for his unit, and the other part consisted of my asking a lot of
questions about what he does, what military life is like, etc.
Somewhere along the way, I was struck by the way things worked – and
how more civilian businesses could learn a lesson or two from these
government-run entities.

Here are seven takeaways of what I think more businesses could emulate from the military:

1) Respect – the military demands it and has little tolerance when it’s not in place. I think businesses could use more of this discipline. Demand it from your employees, provide it to your colleagues and boss, insist on it from your clients. If you don’t get it, ensure consequence to force change. It may be impossible to like everyone you work with, but you can – and should – show them respect.

2) Recognition – you’ve seen the uniforms and badges. It’s about recognizing, rewarding and promoting hard work. What “badges” do you give to your employees for a job well done? Make sure there are opportunities in place for employees to be recognized, rewarded and promoted.

3) Paying Dues/Earning Your Position – recognition doesn’t come without hard work. The military has very definitive goals and milestones laid out from position to position. There’s little question as to what needs to be accomplished in order to earn your pay grade and title. Employers – are you clearly communicating expectations and milestones? Employees – do you understand and respect the process? Ask questions if you don’t, and work hard to earn your dues – understanding that doing so means much  more than simply passing another anniversary with the company.

4) Why Hierarchy Works – The “everybody wins” mentality from grade school just doesn’t work in business. Hierarchies are in place for a reason – someone’s got to steer the ship and make the decisions. Don’t look at it as a negative, but embrace your role and respect others. And let it inspire you to do #3.

5) The Importance of Ceremony – marking not only accomplishments but rituals that honor the unit as a whole. I think we could use more “ceremony” in business – again, celebrating hard work and promoting successes. Ceremonies provide a sense of unity, accomplishment and pride. Whether it’s for a promotion, a new client or a goal accomplished, create something that can allow everyone to participate in the celebration.

6) The Value in Tradition – we’re always talking about the importance of innovation in business, but don’t forget the value in traditions. Do you have any in your business? Traditions can help connect the history of the company, create a strong sense of pride in its culture and even teach us a thing or two. It doesn’t mean you have to do things the “old way,” but rather that you aren’t opposed to learning from the past as well as planning for the future.

7) A Sense of Humor – while the military is serious and deals with serious issues, humor does abound. Punches upon promotion, the “responsibility” to buy a round of drinks, a running joke – all of which help form a stronger bond among comrades, a bit of stress relief and a sense of belonging (sensing some themes here?). Don’t you want your employees to feel loyal to your business? Do you want them to be happy and enjoy working for you? Do you want them to stay inspired and motivated? Then insist they have a little fun, too – both at the office and “on leave.”