Social Media: The Cocaine of Communications?

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I`ve come across a very interesting view on social media, stated by Mirko Lange, head of Talkabout Communications. He says social media is the "cocaine" of communication, referring to a conversation between Bill Cosby and a friend of his:

Cosby: "Tell me, what is it about cocaine that makes it so wonderful?"
Friend: "It intensifies your personality."
Cosby: "But what if you`re an asshole?"

Now according to Lange, this applies to social media just as much: Using it, whether professionally or private, will enhance and intensify your personality (i.e. your brand`s or your company`s personality). If you are an asshole - don`t use it. It`s as simple as that.

Well, unfortunately only few people see themselves that clearly. So they`ll do it anyways. And I do think that even a negative reputation can be turned into a positive one through social media, through public engagement and transparency.

But for some reason it`s usually the corporations who have a negative image already - the shady big players - that manage to screw up something as easy as social media.
Why? Because they handle it exactly the way they used to handle traditional media: dumping information on a passive audience and performing one-way communication instead of dialogue. This is bound to fail, since passive audiences don`t exist anymore. They`ve turned into publics, and publics want to be engaged.

We`ve seen the examples of Nestle, Walmart and BP (all issued in this blog) and they all had one mistake in common: they entered social media (a medium based on and consisting of two-way communication) and forced it into a one-way communicational approach. By spinning and holding back information, ignoring customers and other stakeholder groups, or - most obvious - by trying to withdraw information through legal actions (like Nestle who tried to get rid of the Greenpeace youtube video by issuing copyright claims). At least we now know how they`ve been handling their PR for decades.

These actions backfire in social media. Once information is online, it will stay there forever and there is no sense in manipulating your public anymore. The main principles of social media are dialogue, transparency and engagement.
So join the social media party, but even if you think you`re the coolest kid on the block: be social and take part in the conversation! If your not interested in other people`s opinion - don`t ask for it in the first place.

In many ways, social media is like cocaine. It`s highly addictive and it turns out the best and the worst in people. So make sure you are on your best behaviour.

"When you`re responsible, you don`t spend money on PR"?

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$ 50,000,000 is not much money. At least not in comparison to the amount of money that BP has spent in total for the complete elimination of the oil spill - according to the latest estimates, up to six billion dollars. Nevertheless, these 50 million might just turn even more people against the oil company BP. It`s exactly how much BP is spending for spinning its image through newspaper adverts and, most of all, the internet.

BP`s image couldn`t be worse at the moment, due to the poor handling of the oil spill in the Mexican gulf and its disastrous public relations. They reportedly continue to hamper journalists and publish questionable adverts.

But BP is also paying search engines for so-called AdWords, investing in SEM, Search Engine Marketing. "AdWords" might be terms often searched for, like "oil spill".

So if you search for "oil spill" on Google, the first result you`ve received over the last couple of weeks was BP`s corporate website. Although these links are highlighted in gray and shown as an advertisement, they are clicked on with a high probability. Of course, BP`s website only tells you what they think is the truth.
BP is paying Google for those AdWords - per click. At a cost of up to 2€ per click - which varies by market and quantities - such a campaign can get very expensive quickly. But right now, nothing is too expensive for BP in order to polish their image: during the last couple of weeks they`ve been buying terms like "oil spill", "gulf oil spill", "gulf disaster" or "leak".

Being asked about that by the media, a BP spokeswoman reasoned: "We want it to be easier for users to find important information". The website apparently gives information about asserting claims against BP or volunteering to fight the oil slick.

The (fake) Twitter profile "BPglobalPR" that has been making fun about BP`s terrible crisis management for weeks now, commented: "Investing a lot of time & money into cleaning up our image, but the beaches are next on the to-do list for sure. #BPcares"

Lauren McGowan, who is organizing US protests against the BP PR campaign, said: "Last night I saw an ad with Tony Hayward talking about how BP is "taking responsibility"- but when you`re really responsible, you don`t spend money on PR."

Well, I can`t say I fully agree with that. Of course you can spend money on PR and you should. But not in the way BP does. PR shouldn`t cover up the mistakes that have been done, but should manage the crisis accordingly. In this case, BP should have been honest and open about what has happened and should have granted journalists full access instead of hampering them. BP tried it with PR in the old fashioned way: lying, denying, distracting, spinning...and they`ve failed terribly.

In the end, BP is just another case of crisis management gone wrong. I know I`ve mentioned it many times before in this blog, but good PR has to be based on honesty, transparency and dialogue. Otherwise, it is bound to fail, like this recent example shows.

How journalists use social media

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PR and journalism go hand in hand and when you speak of the importance of social media for PR and how it`s become such a game changer, you always have to consider its influence on journalism as well.So here are some interesting facts from a piece of research by Middleberg Communications and the Society for New Communications Research, titled "Media in the Wired World"

  • Nearly 70 percent of journalists are using social networking sites, a 28% increase since the 2008 study
  • 48 percent are using Twitter or other microblogging sites and tools, a 25% increase since 2008
  • 66 percent are using blogs
  • 48 percent are using online video
  • 25 percent are using podcasts
  • More than 90 percent of journalists agree that new media and communications tools and technologies are enhancing journalism to some extent.

So is Twitter the new press release? Probably not. Still, it has developed into a notable source of information for journalists and therefore provides countless opportunities for PRs. Some people still think that social media suffers from the "shiny object syndrom", being hyped because it`s new, but I think social media came to last, enhancing the dialogue between audience and writer.
Even journalists` perception of the credibility of social media is increasing.

So it`s crucial for public relations professionals to use and embrace all different kinds of social media - not (only) because it gives them the chance to overcome gatekeepers and communicate directly with their audience, but also to maintain and enhance media relations.

Max Clifford: Don`t hate the player, hate the game.

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"Most journalists would sell their own mothers for a great story, but sometimes you're able to make them an offer that they think they shouldn't refuse. I'll find them a job or I'll come up with something that means they won't lose their job."
Max Clifford, Media Guardian 2009

Max Clifford is synonymous with British public relations. The founder of Max Clifford Associates, who is said to make an annual turnover of GBP 2,5 Million, makes sure he remains at the centre of most people`s perceptions of PR - for better or for worse.
There are many things you can say about Max Clifford: he`s a spin doctor, unethical, manipulating, ignorant and incredibly full of himself, but still: people come to him with their stories, because he`s probably the best thing that money can buy.

Max insists that these days, most of his work is keeping stories out of the paper. PR ad absurdum? The Guardian once called him a "human equivalent of the ghost containment grid in Ghostbusters". Bursting with newsworthy stories and you never know when it will explode - a fact that makes him even more powerful. His enormous influence in the business goes back to one simple tool: media relations. It`s Max` close ties to journalists that secure him his power over Fleet Street`s headlines, front pages and lead stories.

I guess he has always understood the power of networking and a good story. And with the success came the clients. Max Clifford made a fortune out of people´s willingness to exploit the private lives of not just themselves but other people as well. His actions have more than once overstepped the bounds of good taste (just think of Jade Goody`s public dying) but nevertheless: he did what he was paid for and what his clients wanted him to do.

What turns people against him is that Max himself became a celebrity and I think it`s a big part of his success. He gives interviews, visits talk shows and attends panel discussions, never failing to give his (unfiltered) side of the story. He is also very open and honest about his PR tools and techniques, even if they are ethically questionable. It`s this art of self promotion that people hate (and secretly admire) about him.

But as much as I disagree with Max Clifford`s shady techniques and his smug demeanour, I have to say one thing: Don`t hate the player, hate the game.
Max Clifford´s tactics wouldn`t work if it wasn`t for sensation seeking journalists, sleazy tabloids and glossies and most of all, millions of readers who are willing to spend a lot of money on sneaking into the lives of others. It`s apparently a part of human nature to do so and Max Clifford has only learnt how to make a business out of it.


Removed from reality: Quo vadis, Catholic Church?

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"We`re not intimidated by petty gossip."
Pope Benedikt, Palm Sunday 2010.

The Catholic Church is currently facing one of the most threatening crises of its history, with thousands of priests being accused of molesting children and the Vatican apparently being responsible for a huge cover up.

I don`t really want to talk about the issue itself here, since this can easily become unruly, but I cannot help but wonder why the church seems so unaware of what damage this does to its public reputation.

If you argue from a crisis management point, the church just makes it worse and worse everyday. They are clearly still trying to cover up the ugly truth instead of being honest or transparent and they have no control over their members whatsoever: priests and bishops in different countries talk to the media, apparently unconstrained by directives. Some are still denying the facts, others are justifying themselves, but the whole church just seems to get more and more caught in its own net.

Now the Vatican thought it would be a good idea to go into the defensive and attack the media. A Vatican newspaper editorial said the claims about Joseph Ratzinger playing a big part in the cover up were an "ignoble" attack on the Pope and that there was no "cover-up".

In Germany, still a predominantly catholic country, Bishop Müller accused the national media of campaigning against the church and compared the situation to the Third Reich, where journalists were also trying to "villainize" the church and to attack its credibility. Of course he was just trying to distract from the facts, "shoot the messenger" - what resulted in heavily offending the German journalists` union.

So how can such a global institution be so blind to the damage of it`s worldwide image?
The allegations have reached a level where there`s no longer a point in denying them. In my opinion, the only exit strategy the church has right now is to fully admit its guilt, to be open and honest about what has been happening in the past and what is still happening all over the world. They have to support criminal prosecution against priests instead of rambling on about "half-century old cases" and statutes of limitation.

The church clearly thinks it can save the institution itself by sacrificing a few black sheep and ride out the whole issue. Sure, they`ve been through worse.

Maybe the church thinks in centuries rather than decades. They still believe that things like that will eventually go away if you just remain silent long enough. But it doesn`t work like that anymore: the media, as well as the recipients have changed. And by not admitting their guilt, they are pushing away a whole generation of believers.

The Catholic Church is in desperate need of change: Change of attitudes, change of behaviour, change of reputation. Otherwise it will fully ruin its reputation and sooner or later, as generations change, lose its followers and therefore its right to exist.

For further information, watch this interview with BBC Vatican correspondent David Willey on failed PR.

Is lobbying destroying our faith in politics?

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The scandal on British MPs` expenses is still fresh but the next one is already `round the corner.

Today the Sunday Times featured the Channel 4 TV programme "Dispatches" that reveals the unregulated world of political lobbying. By pretending to be a fictional US public affairs company, journalists arranged meetings with several senior politicians and asked them if they were interested in a position on the advisory board of their (fictional) London office in order to get priviledged access to Downing Street No 10. Most of them agreed to help win government contracts, provide confidential information and lobby the right people, some even bragged about what they have already achieved for private c
orporate interests while still serving as MPs.

Well, these interviews were filmed by a hidden camera - gotcha.

Stephen Byers, former transport minister and known as close to Tony Blair, even referred to himself as a "cab to hire". A nice referrence to Mohamad al-Fayed who famously said 16 years ago: "You can hire an MP the way you hire a London taxi". So it seems like not much has changed. In the video, Byers boasts he had saved "hundreds of millions of pounds for National Express" and had "delayed and amended food labelling proposals for Tesco". He also mentions his close ties to former PM Tony Blair, saying: "If there`s an event, we could have a word with Tony, say come along for a drink."
And now we know exactly what buying an MP costs: Patricia Hewitt, former health secretary mentioned the sum of 3000 GBP a day, Byers said 3000 - 5000 GBP.

The revelations have transferred the pressure over Westminster sleaze that was previously focused on Lord Ashcroft on the Tories onto the Labour goverment. Of course David Cameron immediately took the chance to air himself, acting shocked and demanding a closer investigation. And being 6 weeks away from the elections, this might just tip the scales for Tory. But does it really matter?

This scandal once more reveals the corruptly politics really are - it is just another evidence for what most voters already know. No wonder a whole generation lost its faith in national politics whatsoever. All this isn`t harming Labour, Tories or Liberals in particular but politics in general: it`s only reinforcing the voters` disenchantment with politics. Even worse: the only parties benefiting from this could be radical ones.

And as always, transparency and honesty are not even considered for resolving the issue. Gordon Brown and the Labour government pretend to be shocked and the MPs caught on tape, as well as the companies they`ve been lobbying for say the allegations were exaggerated.

And in the middle of this, of course, stands PR. Lobbying, public affairs, political PR - the dark side of the industry, undermining the public trust in politics. Some would even call it the single biggest threat to our democratic health. What no one seems to get is that scandals like this hurt the reputation of public relations as a profession just as much as they hurt our trust in politicians. And once the trust is gone, it`s the hardest thing to be regained.


Another epic PR fail: When Nestle met Greenpeace.

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It all started with this video. WARNING: It`s hardcore.

Have a break? from Greenpeace UK.

The story behind this video addresses a couple of issues in PR: the power of NGOs, why they always seem to be one step ahead, why corporations are still so vulnerable when it comes to their reputation, why you can`t live without a descent social media strategy these days and last but not least, why having a facebook fanpage and a twitter profile doesn`t mean you control social media.

When a powerful NGO like Greenpeace starts a worldwide campaign against a corporation like Nestle, it is hard for them to react adequately. Greenpeace wants Nestle to remove palm oil from their products, because its production destroys the rain forrest. They launched the video above, a parody on a kitkat commercial and basically accuses Nestle of killing orangutans by destroying their natural living environment.
Nestle was not amused. But what is the right way to react in a situation like this? Well, we certainly know what the wrong way looks like: Nestle lobbied to have the video removed from Youtube, citing a copyright complaint. That was clearly a bad decision: first, because the video was bound to appear on several other video platforms and second, because it drew even more attention to it. Now that it`s banned, we have to see it, right? Nestle itself gave the video its news worthiness. A text book example for a phenomenon called the Streisand effect.
"Thank you Nestle...I would never have seen this video if you hadn`t had it kicked off YouTube. Now I`m forwarding it all my friends, through Facebook, and guess what they are forwarding it all their mates. Fire your PR team. They are muppets."

We`ve seen this scenario before: While NGOs know exactly what the web2.0 is capable of, partly because they`ve participated in it and needed it from the very beginning, big corporations like Nestle are still wary of it. They use it because they have to, so they employed some people to run a facebook fanpage, a twitter account and maybe a corporate blog. But when it comes to a crisis, they immediatly fall back into old habbits, in this case pulling some strings, make some legal threats, publishing a press release with empty phrases about CSR and hoping that everything will calm down eventually. They just don`t get that the world of PR has fundamentaly changed and that these tools don`t work anymore.

As the video went viral, Nestle made another mistake. Instead of using their existing accounts on social media plattforms to jump into the conversation and calm the waves a bit, they decided to stay away from it. Nestle decided not to address the issue on their twitter feed, except for one single link to their corporate press release, whereas Greenpeace makes it more than easy for supporters to participate in the campaign through social media. Even worse: Nestle is following only 8 people on twitter: what kind of dialogue is that?

Nestle tried to do the same with facebook, but Greenpeace wouldn`t let them. Supporters started posting to the Nestle and the kitkat fanpage en masse, encouraged by Greenpeace. Many changed their profile pictures to Anti-Nestle slogans. Once more, Nestle completely missed the chance to produce any kind of dialogue around the issue, but instead decided it would be a good idea to threaten the facebook users and snap back at fans. When a user posted the following (very true) comment:
"not sure you`re going to win friends in the social media space with this sort of dogmatic approach. I understand that you`re on your back-foot due to various issues not excluding palm oil but social media is about embracing your market, engaging and having a conversation rather than preaching!"
Whoever is responsible for the Nestle facebook account decided to respond this:
"Thanks for the lesson in manners. Consider yourself embraced. But it`s our page, we set the rules, it was ever thus."
Nestle completely lost control over its own facebook page - which shows the ugly side of social media. An open forum for comments and feedback can turn against you, when badly managed. The way Nestle snapped back at users is just ridiculous. The whole social media strategy seems completely uncoordinated and unorganized.

But I don`t see that as a threat to social media marketing in general, as some bloggers already predict. Corporations should be alarmed and learn from what`s happening to Nestle. Don`t take social media for granted and try to dig a little deeper before using it. True engagement in social media first requires you to understand the sociological and cultural implications that social media is funded on. Like every PR tool, it needs to be used strategically and consciously.