Online is everything. Through this blog, I’ll share my thoughts about online marketing and highlight industry practices, both good and bad, to help you understand the importance of controlling your image in today’s media-rich online environment.
Since 1980, I've worked with hundreds so-called 'first-responders' or employees perpetually on call to fight "incidents" like fires and explosions at refineries, chemical plants and other oil-and-gas facilities.
In the pre-Macondo, Texas City days, before the energy industry seemed to really "get" safety, first-responders routinely made company newsletters and intranets. I would dutifully head out and photograph them at all angles as they scaled units, demonstrated how to wear gas masks, and posed with all manner of firefighting trucks and equipment. Genial to a fault, first-responders carefully oversaw my photo shoots so that the highers-up would not axe photos due to my ignorance about the nuances of sanitized safety.
Working in and around energy infrastructure is always dangerous. But the steadfast dedication of these men and women -- who almost invariably harked from the lower ranks of refinery fiefdom -- gave me the confidence to visit operating units and control rooms in order to talk and write about maintenance and operations.
If you follow oil-and-gas disasters, which I do both professionally and as horrified observer, almost any statement about those incidents comes from a JIC. I'll spare you the details of how energy companies work with federal, state and local officials in times of crisis. But in this particular instance, I served as the public information officer (PIO) in a JIC at a troubled refinery with serious process-safety issues. An employee had improperly used a wrench on a vessel, and explosive gas now hissed out of the unit in question. We were in lock-down mode, and I was sitting in the administration building's main conference room, wondering if we were all about to be blown to smithereens.
The refinery manager calmly fiddled with the window blinds, suggesting that if he closed them, they might shield us from some of the destruction should the gas-cloud ignite. I recall a specific conversation about how we should drop to the floor in the nano-second before an explosion vaporized the building.
A smart PIO might have walked to find a safer flack profession, such as pitching real estate ventures to the Houston Business Journal. But I was in full-blown JIC mode. Working at a facility is like being in the Army. When push comes to shove, you have a job to do because you never let your co-workers down.
One co-worker in particular, the refinery's fire chief - the leader of first-responders - was out in the plant, quietly communicating his efforts to staunch the gas flow via radio. The suspense was palpable in the JIC. We followed closely as he interacted almost matter-of-factly with the high-level engineer who monitored refinery operations in real time inside the JIC. The fire chief gradually made his way into the heart of the unit with a leak, calmly apprising us of his progress. When he located the source, and a subsequent all-clear sounded, several of us almost applauded.
(And so I lived to ply my trade another day, albeit with a strong preference for the corporate office.)
Did I mention this very same fire chief once collapsed, trying to save other firefighters during an H2S leak? The plant doctor and I spent many an hour re-living how she de-fibbed his heart back into life. Of course, he should have known better than to run towards men and women inhaling poisonous gas. But such is the nature of first-responders.
To this day, their zeal and passion for service brings tears to my cynical eyes.
Now for Oklahoma, where first-responders descended into the hell of a vaporized elementary school in the wake of yesterday's F4 tornado.
I was glued to CNN first in horror, then with professional interest. I wanted to quarterback the way state-and-local officials communicated with the public and the media. What struck me was the time and effort authorities invested into thanking first-responders for their selfless response. Instead of specific, useful information, those interviewed both on and off camera wasted their sound bites thanking responders up and down the disaster food chain and across municipalities. Perhaps this was because they had little to report. Several, in fact, observed what they did know during the immediate aftermath of the storm came from media helicopters hovering above.
Until Oklahoma's medical examiner phoned in to discuss fatalities with CNN, there was very little substantive reporting ie facts about the disaster.
As one who communicates for a living, this disturbed me greatly. First-responders are not the news. They are part of the story, but they're not the news. This didn't stop the media from participating in the cluster-thanks for those who train for the worst and hope for the best. Nor did it stop the media from almost infantalizing the first-responders, homogenizing the disaster as if to stave off the sad news to inevitably follow.
Every disaster needs heroics and a semi-happy ending so the rest of us can process and contextualize -- and shield us from -- the horror.
Fortunately, when I awakened this morning to my Facebook stream (yes, I sleep next to .... but not with ... my iPad) the good news du jour came froma widely shared news clip of an old, semi-toothless old lady who refused to be sanitized. The TV bimbo (the bane of all corporate executives) politely asked the woman, standing atop the matchsticks of her former residence, if she could really process what had happened.
"I know exactly what happened here," she snapped. "I know exactly what happened."
Cue the tears. At exactly that moment, her presumedly dead Schnauzer stirred in the rubble.
"I guess God answered both my prayers," she said as they pried the dog loose from the detritus of the storm, the camera person so excited by this breaking news that his boom mike got in the way of the canine. "I prayed that I would survive, and my little dog, too."
This is the prayer of all first-responders. Not to become the news, but to effect recovery.
Corporations spend a lot of money training lower-level men and women at facilities to become effective spokespersons until "corporate" takes over.
Teaching them how to deal with lights, camera and spin is important.
But there's one thing all of the crisis training in the world can't buy, and that is the genuine sincerity and concern of the first-responders who protect their co-workers, communities and companies in the wake of disaster. These employees prefer rushing into disaster to talking to reporters. They also embrace the searing camera lights and the possibility of universal ridicule if they goof up live, on CNN. I've known many a senior executive to blanch in the face of media hell that first-responders duly face as just another part of their jobs.
I don't want to infantalize the first-responders. This blog is for professionals and managers who count on first-responders to preserve assets and reputation. First-responders don't need media lessons in sincerity.
Like the little old lady in Tulsa, they process everything. As a result, there isn't a reporter in the world who can budge their genuine sincerity. The rest of the PR world and upper-level management deal later with spin and lawyers. But nothing we can/say/do will ever match the media power of the on-site employee who effects news instead of affecting response.
In terms of credibility, they're right up there with the old lady and her dog.
Disclaimer: I once rode in an elevator with Richard Edelman and his father. This was in the late 1970s. I was infatuated -- not with his looks, but the Edelman brains! Working for Edelman in Chicago, typing away during summer break from the University of Missouri-Columbia, I earned enough to buy new clothes. When I returned to the journalism incubator that Fall, the seed was planted: Newspaper work...low-paying...no emphasis on hair color in those androgynous newsrooms...PR...smart people, trendy styles and a lot more money. A lot.
So now that you know, I'd like to weigh in on the PR war now raging between two giant agencies of my business-communications realm, Edelman PR and FleishmanHillard.
At issue is how PR agencies can meet the needs of marketer clients struggling to engage audiences.
Fleishman-Hillard, founded in 1946, thinks it's time to add content-marketing and advertising to its roster of services.
" 'True' is the central concept we're rebranding on, to deliver our promises to be the trusted adviser to guide you through the maze of choices," opined Dave Senay, president and chief executive at company headquarters in St. Louis. "It's not that we're going to become an ad agency. We're moving into a different space. The vision is to be the most complete communications company in the world. Somebody's got to be able to put it all together."
There you have it. FleishmanHillard is now a "total communications resource" that coveys "what a brand wants to say."
They're following the money. Their traditional emphasis on trying to connect people with brands is morphing into connecting people with people about the brand.
Enter the Edelman brains. In a blog item published April 30, Richard Edelman argues that PR is different. PR tells stories that stimulate discussion and engage stakeholders. PR's "inherent advantages" are "credibility, speed, two-way interaction and continuous story creation. In the end, the consumer may not care about the source of the content, but quality counts."
Edelman's following the money, too -- even though PR "has grown more slowly than advertising and much slower than digital in the past year."
He argues that "massive white space opportunities" exist to create "intelligent debate."
We at Lieber Johnson agree, which is why we specialize in online stakeholder engagement. We manage content so it informs and Googles well. We reach out to audiences with carefully crafted press releases, focused crisis-communications strategies, community relations and public affairs programs, and websites that converse directly with stakeholders.
As they say in marketing, it's all about the brand. PR, as I've noted many times, is a subset of marketing, not advertising. The Web completely leveled the playing field for PR practicioners.
We'll see where that takes us.
Someone's already posted a social-media response (of sorts) to last night's rescue of three young women in Cleveland. If you haven't watched the news yet this morning, turn on CNN. Cleveland resident Charles Ramsey, Big Mac in hand, kicked in his neighbor's door after hearing screams for help. He freed young women - and a child born in captivity - from 10 years of chained, sexual enslavement.
"I knew something was wrong when a pretty little white girl ran into a black man's arms," he told reporters. Less than 24 hours later, YouTube immortalized his heroics in song. A link to the video is posted on news sites, next to tapes of the 9-1-1 call and heartwrending photos of a victim's sister meeting her niece for the first time.
The vid is either funny, poignant, appropriate, or reflective of the giddy relief and tears we're all daubing back thanks to this happy ending to a horrific story.
For those in business PR, this latest eruption of digitzed emotion is further evidence that anything your client says or does that's remotely edgy can be fodder for cagey young wits worldwide. Reporters, dying breed that they've become, are the least of a company's worries when trouble hits. Clients used to worry about how to respond to media. I used to worry about how to spin them.
That's not enough nowadays. Figuring out how to avoid becoming an Internet meme (unless you're a true hero, like Ramsey) is paramount. Controlling messaging is paramount. Understanding how ever-evolving social media works is critical. Willingness to engage transparently, to use everyone's favorite business buzz word, is essential.
Because if you don't, someone on the Internet will help you along.
A student on LinkedIn's American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG) thread asked about the origins of the term "shale gas."
Replied geologist Dennis Thomas: "Setting wells in my early carrier, long before George Mitchell learned how to make the Barnett Shale productive, I would get a show of gas on the 'hot wire' when drilling through some shale beds. You learned to ignore this 'shale gas' as a false show. Gas was released into the mud as the bit ground the shale into small pieces but you couldn’t produce the gas commercially with the completion techniques we knew at the time. So, this was called 'shale gas,' informally, long before anyone considered shale as a possible reservoir."
I remember now, reading those drilling reports back in the early 1980s, back when the "only" depth was TVD. Wonder what else we missed? What a great story for a reporter.
Understatement of the week from today's guardian.co.uk: "Among the most spirit-sapping indignities of office life is the relentless battering of workers' ears by the strangled vocabulary of management-speak."
We may be frequent purveyors of said management-speak, but PR types (weasels?) who are former reporter types dislike weasel words as well. There's no joy to weaving entire internal comms missives or press releases around cliches or safe phrases legal is sure to approve.
Examples of mind-numbing words/phrases cited in Steven Poole's column are "going forward, "drill down," "action," "end of play," "deliver," "leverage," "issues," "stakeholders," "competencies" and "sunset."
Hey Guardian - don't forget that other tired phrase, imported into U.S. boardrooms from headquarters in London: "Good optics."
(Full disclosure: I specialize in "online stakeholder engagement" because Google algorithms crawl all over it.)
I take my hits from co-workers (and my kids) for leaving gossip columns open on my desktop. For the record, Celebitchy.com, LaineyGossip.com, and the UK's Daily Mail are my favorite three. Their language is tight, punchy, entertaining and yet never loses sight of the jugular. So unlike corporate communications.
But I digress! PR is the art of nuanced persuasion, and Hollywood never disappoints. The best publicists in the world shill for stars. Their spin is nonpareil, in this particular instance, in the aftermath of the Reese Witherspoon drunk-driving episode. The one where Georgia cops pulled over Hollywood's hottest couple, Witherspoon and CAA power agent Jim Toth. Both were drunk following a night of partying.
Witherspoon got out of the car, fists swinging, to defend her husband and ridiculously demand her rights as a U.S. citizen after cops decided to cuff her inebriated spouse. "Do you know who I am?"
Not perky, not smart. Nor were the lawyer-approved statements that constituted initial spin control the next day (even as the Toths partied with Chelsea Handler the following evening). Through a flak, Witherspoon humbly yet tritely apologized for her behavior to the cops.
Fail. A really good PR person would have thanked the cops for taking the keys away and saving lives. A savvy actress would have owned it. She would own it because that's what the perky heroines she plays in movies would do. It's her public image. Here's how I would have scripted Reese: "We drank, we drove and we realize we could have seriously injured not only ourselves, but also others on the road that evening. We were wrong, and seriously negligent in our behavior. I would like to thank the police officers who did their jobs. I've spent a good part of my career advocating for the moral rights and obligations of younger women. To these fans, I also sincerely apologize - but especially to my children. I've set a terrible example."
Fortunately, husband Toth, is Reese's agent. Agents and spinmeisters protect "the talent" (read "brand") a little more creatively than lawyers.
Here's Lainey Gossip's take on the latest spin. Poor little Tennessee.
Never fails. No make up. Bad mood. The TV crews find me.
"Hey, we've had so much sadness lately? What do you think of the sad news?"
This time, I was filling up my little Fiat at a West U gas station right off 59. It's favored spot of female reporters who don't like to go too far or too low-income in their search for someone with mindless quotes about serious topics.
She stuck the mike right in my face.
I can handle that. I cut my teeth defending big oil in crisis situations like blowouts and spills and releases and times of "heinous" pricing.
But I make at least part of my living telling other people how to deal with rude media people like this one. Calmly. In measured tones and with body language that presupposes your high intelligence and the integrity of the firm that hired you.
I might have played along, if it weren't for one of her brethren, the Fox 26 producer who thought it was funny to catch me in my pajamas, yelling at my dog at the Danny Jackson Bark Park. I'd declined that interview but he used that long-focus camera to make me the poster child for owners who scream at their dogs while checking their Blackberries.
Quid pro quo time.
"Sorry, I decline to be interviewed because I'm not wearing make up, my gray roots are showing, and I'm in media relations and I never give interviews unless my makeup looks as good as the reporter's."
I glanced at the pink tennis shoes she sported beneath her business suit.
"Nice," I said with genuine admiration. Why can't women get away with this in PR?
The light of feigned interest dwindled in her eyes as she turned away, temporarily relaxing her mandibles in preparation for her next faux friendly encounter.
"It's a topsy turvey world," I muttered to myself.
"Are you sure you don't want to be interviewed?" The camera swung back in my direction, but it was too late. Ensconsed in my poseur little car, I drove away. Sad, isn't it? During one of worst weeks for any crisis communications outreach, the local media can thing of nothing better than tritely asking Houstonians to react to horrific news.
I fell asleep last night, listening to Piers Morgan on CNN interview a woman whose house, dog and possibly husband were destroyed and killed by the fertilizer "incident."
Sometimes, a "no comment" doesn't even do the media justice.
Nicco Mele's new book, The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath is out this week. In it, he argues we need a new, networked journalism that gives talent a chance.
"What if news organizatons confronted the reality that nearly all media will be 'social media' a decade hence? . . . What if news organizations acknowledged this - or even got out in front of it, ahead of the curve this time - and organizd themselves as platforms for talent?"
You can read the book or, Pew's 2013 report on the state of media. Its key finding is that in 2012, "a continued erosion of news reporting resources converged with growing opportunities for those in politics, government agencies, companies and others to take their messages directly to the public."
Why is a PR practicioner writing about the media?
Most of my clients are thrilled when I get their stories in print. PR is a subset of marketing, but those of us who hark from newspaper backgrounds secretly know that getting someone "in the news" is better than any "interactive marketing" strategy.
However, other clients don't want publicity. They eschew it. For years, I've heard them complain about media, and how it doesn't "understand"their industry. For years, I've fought many a battle trying to convince them that for better or worse, media is a necessary and fundamental part of democracy and should be treated with the respect due the First Amendment.
This new age of dwindling media corporations should thrill businesses whose idea of engaging media is a two-sentence, tersely worded, drafted-by-legal response that's emailed to reporters.
What if business let this old model of communication die alongside big media? Read the second and third paragraphs of this post. In the second graph, replaces "news organizations" with companies. In the third paragraph, note the word "companies."
Engage, my clients. Blogging, twitter, Instagram, Reddit, Pinterst are yours for the taking. Never, in the history of well, humanity, has business had so many ways to by-pass media and tell their story to the world.
Your daddy's API is still your daddy's API.
Yesterday, the American Petroleum Institute once again revealed its complete inability - unwillingness? - to really win young hearts and minds for the domestic energy industry. In its "Energy Works" campaign, API President and CEO Jack Gerard announced the launch of "a new website that uses videos to tell the story of the industry's workers and the communities in which they live."
Noble goal. "Raise energy literacy."
Certainly the oil-and-gas business has been great to Lieber Johnson. We're strong industry advocates. Based in Texas, we know all about how energy works: The industry pays well, creates jobs and literally fuels the economy.
If you don't believe us, read the story here, where the API scored 100-percent in media outreach to an industry friendly publication.
We have to wonder, though, how the API's latest campaign will play in the blogosphere where its target demographic cyber-lives and works: States where hydraulic fracturing is booming. "In Mansfield Pa., a local hardware store's sales increase tenfold. In Bismarck, Nd., unemployment drops to 3 percent - America's lowest."
Cool, but is this enough for residents living in the Marcellus Shale play, where homeowners entertain reporters by igniting the water in their sinks?
Frack-ing/frac-ing (you pick) is the new war zone for the energy industry, still reeling from the Gull spill of several years past. Much of the credibility the industry worked hard to earn and protect over the last 15 years gushed right out into the gulfstream, along with hydrocarbons. Convincing the general public that industry has its act together this time won't be easy.
To rebuild credibility, the API, which speaks for industry, needs to act like an organization seriously interested in engaging those still unsure whether the "unprecedented economic revivals stimulated by oil-and-gas" are worth it.
Talk to the Internet - really. Be engagingly transparent, not boring. Try to sound less like a cheerleader and more like the voice of reason.
Most major energy companies have special groups for young, bright, well-paid employees. Let them do the tough talking. They know a whole lot more about effective online networking and social media than all of the flaks at the API.
Don't leave lobbying to the lobbyists or mediocre media campaigns to people like me. Get your youthful energy ambassadors out into the community, and I don't mean send them out to help fifth-graders plant gardens. Partner with local high schools. Actually show up at community meetings prepared to talk, not mouth platitudes. Build social-media sites which invite dialog and debate.
Embrace ambiguity. Nobody's 100 percent sure about the safety of frac fluids. (Bad timing, about this Houston Chronicle article, too.) Stop claiming industry has all of the answers.
Start FIGHTING back. This weekend, thousands of "fractivists" head for Washington D.C. for "Stop the Frack Attack."
Will the Empire frack back?
(DISCLAIMER: All AP style violations in direct quotes are courtesy of the API.)
It's so easy to be profound on the Internet these days...so much good information to steal from experts that it's impossible to sift through. So we blamed our hectic schedules for catching this one so late: "Eyetracking Web Usability," from New Riders Press. It's "old" by Internet standards; However, Nielsen Norman Group's 2009 usability studies still reveal everything you need to know about using words to grab readers' attention.
Why are we sharing these great ideas with people who ought to pay us for them?!
Because half the time, clients don't listen. Everyone is an expert in the online universe. One client wanted "sponsors" moved to the top half of his site (ugh) and wasted valuable real estate. Another wants to post a low-res image in a slideshow at the top of the page. Ok, well if you are a client I suppose you are always right...
But it's the written word that interests me here. Thanks to Joomla and Drupal, fantastic, well-designed templates are now the norm. Words, not so much. Layers of requisite approvals and corporate fear of anything catchy and attention-grabbing lay waste to great editorial opportunities.
So here's proof (finally) of why we're right about the importance of headliners and sub-heads, and where to place them to maximize readership. Back in the old newspaper days, we used the inverted "S" theory of modular design to write important headlines for newspapers and newsletters. All that changes now, with this new, F-shaped pattern for reading web content.
"This dominant reading pattern looks somewhat like an F and has the following three components:
They say "movement" but we read "content." Catchy, three-word headers grab attention and subsequent sub-heads rope readers in. After this, content is king.
"Heatmaps" prove it, though note "about us" sections of corporate websites, "product 'pages" on e-commerce sites and "search engine results pages" are viewed with some variations.
Confused or, we hope, enthused? You know what to do...
Do you send all-employee emails strongly urging workers to show face at happy-happy-joy-joy volunteer events? There's a right way and a wrong way to incent employes to participate in corporate outreach programs. Causecast weighs in with some great ideas on how to use Pinterest to boost corporate volunteerism. Images, it argues, are critical.
Killing time on Gizmodo.com and came across an interesting piece on how Yahoo killed Flickr.
I love the lede: "Web startups are made out of two things: people and code. The people make the code, and the code makes the people rich. Code is like a poem; it has to follow certain structural requirements, and yet out of that structure can come art. But code is art that does something. It is the assembly of something brand new from nothing but an idea."
My business partner Joe 'n me spend countless hours discussing how to adapt sophisticated Joomla templates (hello Momentum, looking at you) to create high-end websites for clients. It really does boil down to people and code. Joe's one of the very few editorial types who dreams in html and can make art out of back-end editing stuff. I, on the other hand, get away with conceptualizing fonts and color blocks only.
Keep watching the new site he's building for his latest novel, massucci.com. Still under construction, it's a great example how a little structure can showcase great art. For more, visit his other site, safarimultimedia.com.
Nobody reads mindless tripe on employee intranets.
And in the days of yore when companies printed newsletters, noboy read it then, either.
Real employee engagement begins with articles that are relevant and interesting. One of the best ways to capture employees' attention is to make it all about them.
NPR (National Public Radio).org today turned a fairly boring topic like Ride Your Bike To Work Day into a real attention grabber. It asked listeners and readers to submit photos of themselves riding their bikes ... to work. This is not one of those corporate yawners about employees-in-spandex. The story features real people who've chucked their cars to ride limited distances on unglamorous bikes-with-baskets.
Try something like this on your intranet and watch what happens. A little fun goes a long way in corporate communications - and promotes the healthy lifestyles health-insurance companies rave about.
Who knows, employees might actually read that infamous safety article right next to the bike slideshow. Credibility is the ultimate in corporate communications.
I've followed the Houston Chron's Kate Shellnutt ever since she featured one of our pro bono clients, The L'Chaim Center. Today's headline about a Houston megachurch 'grieving' over Obama's gay marriage stance sorta caught my eye, but what I found more interesting was the religion reporter's 'byline.'
"Kate Shellnutt is the web producer for HoustonBelief.com."
Not just a reporter. A producer.
For years, PR people patiently explained the concept of the copy desk to clients. "Reporters don't write the headlines, copy editors do." "Reporters don't edit stories, copy editors do."
Reporters, of course, embraced the argument, along with PR people. The invisible copy desk always to blame! Not your fault they reduced a complex comment to a five-word headline (usually described by client as 'sensationalistic.')
Now those of us who work in print - which is, to say, online newspapers - have to readjust our bearings and counsel our clients to think of reporters as artists. Not only will they write the content, they'll post it, blog-style, after writing headlines and selecting images. The format is semi-informal, which can be good or bad, depending on the topic. And don't forget the 'Comments,' often much more interesting than the article itself.
So when you try to "win" a reporter over, think in 3-D.
BTW, when Shellnut's not writing for the Chron, she's a decidedly wicked and lively food critic for the Houston Press.
Yes! The young, the witty and the cool aren't wedded to a brand like reporters of just 10 years ago. The Internet sets us all free, to a degree. The trick is understanding how all of the pieces fit. You're not just talking to a reporter - you're talking to a website and, ultimately, a search engine or Facebook page.
Ask a Reuters reporter who Houston Chronicle's energy reporter Tom Fowler works for, and they''ll tell you FuelFix. Which, by the way, doesn't always link smoothly back to the Chron site. Unlike the Chron site, one of the region's preeminent oil-and-gas watchdogs doesn't worry about separating the editorial from the advertorial. FuelFix, as it proudy announces in the masthead, is fueled by StatOil.
Getting ready for a media interview? Talk to the hyperlink! And check out the URLs. Carefully.
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