How to Social in 2019: Experts Share their Views

Last month I interviewed top PR and social media experts about the challenges facing online marketing. The following recap includes some of the juiciest quotes from Neal Schaffer, Frank Strong, Drew Neisser, and Deb Weinstein.

I also share my views (not necessarily the agency’s) and pose additional questions. Finally, I include links to other stories I’ve seen on the topic.

Please continue the conversation and chime with thoughts, comments, and questions.

Are the social media waters still safe for marketing?

Frank Strong: It’s a question of whether or not your customers and prospects are on social media. If they are, then there’s a pretty good chance you still need to be there too.

Drew Neisser: What’s not safe is ignoring social conversations, especially those related to your brand and category. Interestingly, brands that take a stand, even a controversial one, are generally way ahead of those that sit on the sidelines

Neal Schaffer: I think it is getting more and more intrusive for brands to try to take part in the conversation.

I’d say caution is needed until some of the challenges are addressed, and you should make your choices based on your channel and niche.

Also, the devil is in the details. Is it OK to use some of the same levers as the Russian misinformation campaigns, e.g to push emotional hot buttons, and in other ways game algorithmic results? Or leverage the personal data that people are so up in arms about?

Have you been recommending a change in strategy regarding social media?

Neal: Definitely. An influencer component should become part of the mix.

Frank: Organic efforts alone probably won’t cut it for most. You need to be both engaging and worth engaging. Too many brands still operate in output-only mode and then wonder why no one has noticed.

Drew: First… you must have a paid strategy to support your organic efforts. Second, you need to have very different strategies for each channel. Third… we’re recommending brands focus more on quality over quantity – since only the best stuff will rise to the top.

I am not actively pushing Facebook targeting campaigns right now (most of our clients are in the B2B tech space, so Facebook is less important anyway). On the other hand, we are becoming more active with messaging platforms.

What comes after social media?

Deb Weinstein: We have reached a tipping point… where the sum of a campaign’s parts are far greater than its individual components and it has never been more important for brands to completely integrate every aspect of their brand-building (and protection) activities to achieve optimal impact. This means not relying on social media or any one channel.

Frank: This question implies that we are writing the epitaph on social media platforms and I don’t think that’s true. Marketing has evolved and will continue to evolve… there are several new tactics worth watching: Voice as a user interface… Amazon ads… [and] businesses have to find ways to bring better content to market faster without sacrificing quality.

Drew: Social will evolve both as an organic and paid channel and of course, new social networks will arise. In particular, expect to see smaller affinity networks that meet both virtually and physically.

Can the ship be righted?

Frank: There’s always been disinformation. You could (and they did) spread rumors in ancient Rome the same way you could on a web bulletin board in 1999.

Drew: Who said the ship is listing or sinking? Despite all of the controversy around Facebook this year, usage levels are still extraordinarily high and marketers are still finding it to be a very effective advertising channel.

I don’t know, it took us a long time to get here, and it will take a lot to fix the mess (see my post which outlines one radical way).

I am not sure I agree with those who just look at it from an ROI perspective, or being where customers and conversations are.

The medium is the message for Chrissakes. “Place” is one of the 4 P’s of marketing – and if the place has become a cesspool do you want your brand to be doing much there? (I am not saying it is quite that bad: yes the media does hype the problems – but it is a question worth pondering).

What does it look like, from a brand safety perspective, to run campaigns adjacent to the scammers?  Or feature your news in places dominated by sketchy info?

Is Facebook still a good place to invest in social media marketing?

Deb: Facebook, long the Goliath in the social world may be cruising for a bruising… So if the early adopters, plus the frequent users are leaving the building what’s next?! Enter Instagram with its snazzy pix, short captions, easy engagement, and non-stop roll out of exciting new features; and What’s App, that so easily facilitates micro-community building and sharing

Neal: You can’t ignore Facebook, it is still the gorilla until something else comes along. If I‘m a B2C brand, I am still investing somewhat in Facebook. But it is 100% pay-to-play; and if I can get the same if not greater engagement organically on Instagram, why even bother with Facebook?

Drew: Yes. Yes. Yes. It is still one of the most powerful advertising platforms ever invented and continues to prove its effectiveness for just about everyone from top 100 advertisers to local mom & pop businesses

Have these changes affected your social media habits?

Neal: Absolutely! I tend to invest more in Instagram knowing that that’s where brands are, and where businesses look for influencers

Frank: The disinformation on social media certainly changes the way I share and consume information on social media.  As the old adage goes, trust, but verify.  That’s not just for reading but also for attribution in sharing.

Generally, I am spending less time visiting and posting to Facebook.

Further Reading

What Will It Take for Advertisers to Back Away From Facebook? (AdWeek)

‘We want these platforms to be healthy’: Why top marketers won’t quit Facebook after 2018 scandals (Digiday)

Where Facebook Went Wrong In 2018, And Why Advertisers Are Still On Board (For Now) (Ad Exchanger)

10 Social Media Strategies for Corporate Communication in 2019 (Maximize Social Business)

Social media 2018 put the spotlight on data, video, Stories (Marketing Land)

Facebook and Twitter Upheaval: How Social Media Marketing Changed in 2018 (Social Media Examiner)

Posted in Influencer marketing, Interviews, Marketing, PR Tech, Public Relations, Social Media, Tech, Technology, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Deborah Weinstein on the Challenges Confronting PR and Digital Marketing

Today I share Deborah Weinstein’s answers to questions about the challenges confronting social media marketing and digital communications.  It is the latest in my series of interviews with industry experts (see this post, which sets the stage).

My good friend Judy Gombita introduced us, and I am glad that she did.  As you will see below, Deborah offers great insight. She leads Toronto-based Strategic Objectives with co-founder and sister, Judy Lewis.  Deborah is a recognized thought leader and speaker, and a former journalist with numerous awards including the Queen’s Diamond and Golden Jubilee Medals for Outstanding Service to Canada and its Communications Industry, and the United Nations Grand Award for Outstanding Achievement in Public Relations (and an impressive Twitter following to boot; see Deborah Weinstein’s full bio).

Thanks for participating, Deborah Weinstein!

Are the social media waters still safe for marketing?

I can honestly say I have never experienced a more exciting, opportunity-laden time for PR pros to flex our strategic, ROI generating creative muscles, and prove our worth in the business world since I hopped the fence from journalism to found Strategic Objectives (our Toronto-based PR agency dedicated to helping brands tell better, more effective, sales-driving stories) back in the 80s.

Technology has transformed everything we do, from our ability to swiftly discover and tightly target key opinion leaders (be they journalists, politicians, shareholders, stakeholders, or all of the above) with relevant, credible information—to our proven power to build robust virtual communities by creating enticing, engaging bridges to the brands we represent.

The thing about marketing is that to fill your net you have to fish where the fish are. And social, with its free and open access; bountiful, ever-shifting demographic landscapes; bright, new shiny platforms; trolls and black holes, represents an ocean of opportunity marketers simply cannot afford to ignore.

Of course, there are challenges, but in the ever-evolving business of social PR, fortune goes to the brave, and the smart.

Have you been recommending a change in strategy regarding social media?

Far too many brands delegate, and relegate social strategy development and implementation to their ad agencies, internal marketing departments, even their PR intern, with a mandate to replicate, share, and spread commercial messages. They forget, or worse still ignore the main reason people converge on social media, which is to build and maintain connections through P2P (person to person) communication with friends, family, mentors, colleagues, newsmakers and other HUMAN beings.

My best advice for Marketing PRs and CMOs looking to bond with, and move social consumers to action is to adopt the content marketing approach I like to call our Strategic Objectives 4 H Club: Be Human. Be Honest. Be Helpful. Be Humble. All human qualities known to make friends and influence people.

Brands must also make sure their community manager or agency has the experience, curiosity, and imagination needed to conceive, implement and measure their social efforts.

Influencer Marketing—recruiting, measuring, managing and supervising the production and spreading of top quality content from trustworthy, inspiring key influencers, spokespeople and brand ambassadors has become an important part of our Strategic Objectives business model. We expect it to grow exponentially in scope and impact in the years to come.

What comes after social media?

We have reached a tipping point in marketing communications where the sum of a campaign’s parts are far greater than its individual components and it has never been more important for brands to completely integrate every aspect of their brand-building (and protection) activities to achieve optimal impact.

This means not relying on social media or any one channel. E.g. Strategic Objectives pivoted with the times to offer everything needed to fulfill the PESO model — Paid, Earned, Shared, Owned — conceived to integrate MarComs. Services now include everything from consumer listening to mainstream and social media relations; crisis/reputation management; digital, video and graphics production; influencer, sponsorship, and cause-related marketing; and nation-wide experiential activations. Why so many disciplines? Because to steal a page from US politics, “You’re either at the table, or you’re on it!”

Is Facebook still a good place to invest in social media marketing?

If there’s one thing that’s constant in the social world … it’s change. And Facebook, long the Goliath in the social world may be cruising for a bruising.

Recent stats from PEW Research show 49% of Facebook users aged 18-29 (many of our clients’ most coveted demographic) have deleted the FB app from their phone in the last year. Hardly a day goes by on Twitter without my seeing some social guru declaring they’re done with Facebook. So if the early adopters, plus the frequent users are leaving the building what’s next?!

Enter Instagram with its snazzy pix, short captions, easy engagement, and non-stop roll out of exciting new features; and What’s App, that so easily facilitates micro-community building and sharing. Both owned by Facebook, they’ll keep the monolith steady, despite its privacy scandals, for years to come. And let’s face it, Facebook the platform still has the numbers and access to consumer insights brands adore. My prediction is that social platforms will continue to morph, expand, contract and disappear following in the iconic footsteps of My Space and Google+. Face it, embrace it, change is good!

Have these changes affected your social media habits for personal brand building?

Personal brand building has never been my goal with social media participation. I used to be much more active, having started out on Twitter more than 10 years ago @debweinstein. Those were inspiring times featuring a head-spinning global cast of marketing characters who were always happy to comment, engage and share, 24/7. Through the years I’ve made many real-world connections with the thought leaders I met virtually years ago, and watched them grow fame and fortune, migrate to other platforms, develop full-time pursuits, and even entirely disappear.
I’m no longer hyperactive on Twitter, but still push out several tweets a day to keep our SO team, and my community up-to-date on social advents and need to know news.

I love Insta and use it @deborahweinstein to experiment and test my social skills and instincts with real friends and netizens around the world. But it takes hours of time a day to be a good, engaging social citizen — liking, reciprocating, commenting, posting — which is time I simply don’t have. This makes me feel guilty, and even less likely to participate.
What’s App is my Godsend for family communication, and my FB usage has almost completely dwindled to group participation (shout out to PRSA Counsellors Academy!).

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Neal Schaffer on Social Media Challenges & Opportunities for 2019

I was thrilled when Neal Schaffer agreed to participate in my series about challenges facing social media marketing.  Neal is a social media speaker and consultant ranked by Forbes and others as a top influencer. I had the privilege of writing for his Maximize Social Business blog for three years, and have also spoken at several of his Social Tool Summit conferences.

The timing was great, as Neal told me he had just returned from a trip around the world in which some of these very same topics came up in discussions with major brands.  Plus, Neal has just finished his book The Business of Influence, which is also relevant, as you’ll see.

See below for the Q & A; and thanks, Neal Schaffer for sharing your views!

Are the social media waters still safe for marketing?

Social media was made for people and social media is really returning to a people media.  Not to say that there’s no role for brands on social media. But I think it is getting more and more intrusive for brands to try to take part in the conversation.  That’s why you have all the case studies of brands talking to each other.  At the end of the day, as the average social media user, “are you using social media to communicate with brands?” And the answer is “no,” right? I think brands need to be cognizant of that. So, it’s still safe if it’s done right; I think the way to do it is to leverage other people, to incite word of mouth through influencer marketing.  It’s not just leveraging celebrities that want to get paid, but brands building communities of influencers. I visited a major brand today that is the first brand I’ve heard that actually plans on doing it; it is an excellent idea and the wave of the future.

Have you been recommending a change in strategy regarding social media?

Definitely.  An influencer component should become part of the mix. You have organic, you have paid, and now you have influencers. And I’m not talking about one-night stand campaigns but ongoing relationships.  Whether B2B or B2C, it’s about finding those that you can tap into the community that can help your brand be heard; to cut through the noise and be known, liked and trusted.

What comes after social media?

That’s a really good question. Social media is more and more becoming people media, and I think you have millennials that have stopped watching TV and instead spend most of their time on YouTube or IGTV or perhaps Facebook Watch. I don’t think we’re there yet but considering how much time teenagers spend watching YouTube videos, they are already watching that more than TV, so I don’t think we’re that far behind.  Actually, this could be a generational thing; but that would be where I see things going.

Is Facebook still a good place to invest in social media marketing?

You can’t ignore Facebook, it is still the gorilla until something else comes along. If I‘m a B2C brand, I am still investing somewhat in Facebook.  But it is 100% pay-to-play; and if I can get the same if not greater engagement organically on Instagram, why even bother with Facebook? Obviously, you have ad targeting capabilities but you can bring those over to Instagram. So Facebook is not looking as attractive to invest in social media marketing as it used to be, and with the way that Instagram engagement is, it is looking even less attractive. It is someplace you need to have a platform, but I think you really need to look at your ROI there from organic, paid, influencer, across these different social networks and you’ll find, as I have, that there are many consumer brands that post much more frequently on Instagram than Facebook. And I’m sure they’re doing more advertising on Instagram as well.

Have these changes affected your social media habits for personal brand building?

Absolutely! I tend to invest more in Instagram knowing that that’s where brands are, and where businesses look for influencers.  I’m writing a book on influencer marketing so part of it is R&D.  But yeah, I definitely look to build my brand more visually in addition to sort of this business persona I have on Twitter or on LinkedIn; a visual representation of my professional self and even personal self, primarily on Instagram.  I will share from Instagram to Facebook. I do little native Facebook these days.

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Frank Strong on Next Steps in Social Media Marketing

I have been writing about issues challenging social media and digital communications, and speaking with thought leaders on the topic.  In this installment, I interview Frank Strong, Founder & President of Sword & Script Media, LLC. He’s a tech PR guy and long-time PR blogger, so he can’t be all bad 🙂 Seriously, Frank has written some great stuff, and is very savvy about matters related to PR, digital and content.  We’ve kicked ideas and blog posts back and forth over Twitter, and I thought he would be a good person to ask.  Thanks for participating, Frank!

Frank Strong, Founder & President, Sword & Script Media

Are the social media waters still safe for marketing?

I don’t think it’s a question of safe, rather it’s a question of whether or not your customers and prospects are on social media.  If they are, then there’s a pretty good chance you still need to be there too. And if that’s true, then you need to ensure your use of that medium matches customer expectations which typically means being honest, transparent and consistent.  

Have you been recommending a change in strategy regarding social media?

I never quite got on board with the “social media strategy” part (see this post from 2012 titled: Social Media Strategists will be Gone in 2 Years). This is because social media is a channel and just one of many in the marketing mix.  So, what businesses need the most is marketing strategy and the fundamentals – audience identification, positioning, messaging, distribution and feedback or measurement – haven’t changed even as tactics have evolved.

That said, business does need to bring something more to social media channels because the platforms have changed: organic efforts alone probably won’t cut it for most.  You need to be both engaging and worth engaging.  Too many brands still operate in output-only mode and then wonder why no one has noticed.  You need to have a way of activating stakeholders on social media, like employees, because their efforts are likely to go further and advance a brand’s efforts.  Finally, you probably need to bring some budget for social media advertising and time to experiment with paid media techniques.

What comes after social media?

This question implies that we are writing the epitaph on social media platforms and I don’t think that’s true.  Marketing has evolved and will continue to evolved so social media will be one part of  the mix. In terms of digital marketing there are several new tactics worth watching:
 

  • Voice as a user interface that replaces or augments touch screens and keyboards – Google returns 10 organic listings to any given search query – voice assistants will return one;
  • Amazon’s move into advertising is breathtaking, both as an opportunity and an emerging marketing specialization in Amazon ads, much like what we saw with Google ads 15 years ago; and
  • The speed of business continues to accelerate – to compete business have to find ways to bring better content to market faster without sacrificing quality; to do this they must break down bureaucracy, internal politics and hire people with the experience they can trust to act accordingly.

Can the ship be righted?

There’s always been disinformation.  You could (and they did) spread rumors in ancient Rome the same way you could on a web bulletin board in 1999.  Some of it sticks for a while but people learn to discern the difference, the crowd beat it back, the providers find a way to tamp it down and that sets off the next evolution.  It’s a giant game of cat and mouse and it’s always going to be that way so long as there’s an incentive to do so, which is a matter of human behavior, not a matter technology, and regardless of what comes down the line that’s “new.”

Is Facebook still a good place to invest in social media marketing?

If your customers and prospects are on Facebook, than it probably is.  If Facebook lost half of it’s users tomorrow, which will not happen because it had deep roots in the years of friend-making and photos users have invested on the platform, then it will still have somewhere around a billion users.  Still, it’s always worth hedging bets and keeping an eye out for other opportunities. 

Have these changes affected your social media habits for personal brand building?

The term “personal branding” drives me absolutely bonkers, especially in a team environment like that a business strives to cultivate, because it suggests personal priorities over brand priorities and the ego always wins in marketing. However, the disinformation on social media certainly changes the way I share and consume information on social media.  As the old adage goes, trust, but verify.  That’s not just for reading but also for attribution in sharing.

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Does Social Media Marketing need a Reboot? Drew Neisser Chimes in

Drew Neisser, Founder & CEO of Renegade

I have been blogging about challenges confronting digital PR and social media marketing.  You can read those posts to learn more.  In a nutshell, issues have surfaced over the past couple of years (related to fake news, online manipulation, growing privacy concerns as examples) that I believe drive the need to take stock and possibly reevaluate digital strategies.

This is my first in series of interviews on the topic.  I thought it would be great to get Drew Neisser’s views.  He’s an impressive guy. Drew Neisser is the founder and CEO of Renegade, the NYC-based strategic boutique for B2B renegades. Drew also hosts Renegade Thinkers Unite, the #2 podcast for CMOs and writes the CMO Spotlight column for AdAge; is the author of The CMOs Periodic Table: A Renegade’s Guide to Marketing and serves on the boards of the Urban Green Council and Duke Alumni Association.

We’ve enjoyed partnering with Drew and his  team on groundbreaking campaigns over the yearsd. Here is the Q & A, and thanks for participating Drew!

  • Are the social media waters still safe for marketing?

Absolutely. What’s not safe is ignoring social conversations, especially those related to your brand and category.  Interestingly, brands that take a stand, even a controversial one, are generally way ahead of those that sit on the sidelines. Nike’s 30th anniversary campaign, which featured Colin Kaepernick among many athletes, was an unquestionable success, dramatically increasing their fan base and engagement rates and even ended up good for the brand on the stock market despite the 1-day panic sellers.

  • Have you been recommending a change in strategy regarding social media?

Yes and no. No, in that it is still essential for brands to participate in social media in the spirit of the channels – in other words, brands need to be interested and interesting, in that order. Fail on either parameter and you’ll probably fall flat.  The main strategic shifts are three-fold, first and foremost, you must have a paid strategy to support your organic efforts. Second, you need to have very different strategies for each channel, recognizing that Twitter is for real-time engagement, including social customer service. Instagram is all about dazzling images and stories and Facebook is increasingly about video storytelling. And LinkedIn is a powerhouse for B2B lead generation and recruiting. Third, given the plethora of content being pushed out every nanosecond, we’re recommending brands focus more on quality over quantity – since only the best stuff will rise to the top.

  • What comes after social media?

First, social media will be around for many years to come, just like TV, outdoor, radio and even print.  Social will evolve both as an organic and paid channel and of course, new social networks will arise. In particular, expect to see more smaller affinity networks that meet both virtually and physically.  The counter-trend to increased digital communications is the growing desire to meet in person.  Business event attendance is at record highs and many B2B brands consider events their best source of leads.

  • Can the ship be righted?

Who said the ship is listing or sinking? Despite all of the controversy around Facebook this year, usage levels are still extraordinarily high and marketers are still finding it to be a very effective advertising channel.  LinkedIn is also attracting increased advertising dollars and usage rates continue to grow.  Obviously, Snapchat is in trouble, having been eclipsed by Instagram – which essentially took the best of Snapchat and left the rest out. And Twitter is struggling to find its way but hopefully will turn itself around given its unique strengths.

  • Is Facebook still a good place to invest in social media marketing?

Yes. Yes. Yes.  It is still one of the most powerful advertising platforms ever invented and continues to prove its effectiveness for just about everyone from top 100 advertisers to local mom & pop businesses.

  • Have these changes affected your social media habits for personal brand building?

A bit. It’s more important than ever to engage with other people’s content, to demonstrate your interest in them. Inevitably, your interest in others will pay extraordinary dividends as they reciprocate with their attention. Also, the bar is higher for content quality. I’m creating a bit less content these days but trying to make what I do put out there as good as I can make it. Finally, it is important to recognize that organic reach can only get you so far, so it’s important to build your own mailing list, share quality content to your list AND get regular exposure on reputable media properties.

Posted in Interviews, PR, PR Tech, Public Relations, Social Media, Uncategorized, Web 2.0 | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Next Steps in Social Media Marketing

If social media were a brand, it’s one that I think most would agree has been tarnished.

The reputation hits come from many directions. Sure, Facebook’s troubles have been front and center. It’s nothing short of mind boggling, the mischief and misdeeds that run rampant there.

And it’s not just about Facebook or even social media. Others have come under fire too, for their content and privacy issues, in related areas of online like general Web, Google, and mobile.

These things are not likely to fade away or radically change anytime soon. But fixes are needed, from the industry side and it seems certain that lawmakers and regulators will have a growing hand too.

This may lead some to wonder what to do in the interim. Are the waters safe for social media marketing? Should brands hedge their bets? What about for personal interaction and brand building? There’s a #DeleteFacebook movement and rising tide to wean ourselves off our device addictions.

Amidst these trends I thought I’d investigate what people who work in the field have to say. So I sent the note below around, and will be running the answers in a series of posts.

(I was not sure what to expect. Would they gloss over the challenges or suggest major changes? interestingly, this Digiday articles says Facebook advertisers are staying the course).

It would be great to hear from others too, via comments, or DM me on Twitter if you’d like to do a full interview.  If there’s enough interest in the topic, I may run a Twitter chat.  So check out the inquiry below and stay tuned for answers in the coming days.

Thanks for reading.

Defending your Social Influence

I’m blogging on the following topic and wanted to get the thoughts of you and others who rock it in social media and related areas like digital PR, and content and influencer marketing.

Trust in social media and journalism are at an all-time low. Facebook’s problems have cast a pall over the social platform space. Social sharing saw a decline for the first time this year. Digital media and ads continue to grow as journalism and organic social suffer, ad fraud continues to be a problem, and mistrust between all in the ecosystem prevails.

In this climate, it can be hard to distinguish smart digital marketing from hacking a broken system, and legitimate news vs. disinformation, hype and outright fake, lying news.
Some say it is an awkward adolescence for social media; others say we have built a shaky house of cards that can’t continue without significant changes (well, I kind of wrote that).

What do you say?

  • Are the social media waters still safe for marketing?
  • Have you been recommending a change in strategy regarding social media?
  • What comes after social media?
  • Can the ship be righted?
  • Is Facebook still a good place to invest in social media marketing?
  • Have these changes affected your social media habits for personal brand building?
Posted in Influencer marketing, Interviews, Marketing, Public Relations, Social Media, Tech PR, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Definers Saga and the State of PR Ethics

I’m always interested in topics related to my profession, PR, and the industry we serve, technology. So I was eager to see what NY Times had to say in Jack Nicas’s recent piece: How Facebook’s P.R. Firm Brought Political Trickery to Tech.

Longtime readers know that I like to call out misperceptions about PR, hence the name of this blog.  I dug in with my revenge hackles up, ready to pounce on inaccuracies. Instead I found a solid piece of reporting (apart from a few minor quibbles).  It made me think of broader questions about PR ethics, which I’ve explored before here, and the state of communications today.

In his story, Nicas wrote: “Definers specialized in applying political campaign tactics to corporate public relations — an approach long employed in Washington… but less common in tech.”

Hardball PR is by no means new in tech. Indeed, my post Above the FUD, covered this very topic back in 2011 (ironically, it mentioned another PR agency that spread negative stories for Facebook back then).

What seems new is that there is a PR firm specializing in dark PR, that was born and bred in DC. Of course, Facebook makes this topic relevant as it fits in with NY Times story about their recent missteps.

But the reason I found the piece (and an earlier one Nicas wrote with Matthew Rosenberg) to be eye opening has nothing to do with Facebook per se, or opposition research, or political PR coming to tech.  The tactics Definers used sound like a page from the playbooks of Russian hackers and others who weaponize modern communications systems to achieve their goals.

Here are some excerpts from the first Times story mentioned above:

  • Definers’s strategy played to a target’s pressure points
  • To promote clients and attack enemies, Definers regularly used NTK Network, a news aggregator with a conservative slant and 122,000 followers on Facebook…
  • “Through NTK we can directly re-publish favorable news from other outlets, and work with like-minded individuals to help create an echo chamber effect” [from a Defners proposal reviewed by The Times].
  • Employees distributed anti-Apple research to reporters and would not say who was paying for it.
  • While working for Qualcomm, Definers pushed the idea that Apple’s chief executive, Timothy D. Cook, was a viable presidential candidate in 2020… Presumably to chill the cordial relations with the Trump administration.
  • Definers’s focus on Mr. Cook extended to a campaign it ran to promote the Apple chief as a 2020 presidential candidate. A slick website titled “Draft Tim Cook 2020” had digital links to Definers employees
  • [Definers] wrote an article that accused Mr. Cook of lying to President Trump about building Apple factories in the United States…. right-wing provocateur Charles C. Johnson published it on his website GotNews without a byline or other disclosures…
  • Definers encouraged reporters to write about the financial connections between anti-Facebook activists and the liberal financier George Soros, drawing accusations that it was relying on anti-Semitic tropes.

They combined traditional FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) tactics with tools of modern information warfare, using the web and social media, and pushed political and emotional hot buttons to generate media interest and spread their messages.

The above may seem like an extreme case, but it is a reminder of where we are now, in a world in which many are quick to scream “Fake News” and online channels can be so easily subverted.

It is all too tempting for any communications professional to consider how to coopt these systems; and poses all kinds of dilemmas about where to draw the line.

Some may think “PR ethics” is an oxymoron.  Like any profession, we have our good and bad apples. The industry has set some guidelines,  as explained in this Wikipedia article, which includes PRSA’s take.  As I wrote back in 2011, the lines can be fuzzy, and each one of us (as well as our employer) needs to decide what’s fair game.

Perhaps it is time to update the PR ethics rulebook, with the goal of taking a fresh look at how today’s communications systems can be used and abused.

Posted in In the News, Public Relations, Social Media, Tech, Tech PR, Technology | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Google, you Complete Me! (A warm Thanksgiving tale)

It started several months ago. I was writing a Gmail when grey words mysteriously appeared ahead of my typing.

“Hmmm, must be some new functionality,” I thought.  Then: “Hey, this just might be interesting and useful!”

The suggested words did fit. But I was stuck, kind of.  Was I supposed to keep typing, right over the new text? How could I just accept them?

I muddled through, and this happened again the next time I wrote a Gmail. After some trial and error, I learned that just hitting the tab key accepted the text.

And, like new dance partners awkwardly anticipating the next step, Gmail and I found our footing and learned to work closely together.

After some digging (using Google, natch), I discovered that the new Gmail feature is called Smart Compose. It almost magically completes your thoughts, going beyond the few canned responses offered by Smart Reply.

Gmail Smart Compose brought me even closer to an app I had long used and trusted to carry my thoughts.

Ways it is useful

That was the start of a beautiful relationship, which only grew stronger over time.

As someone who can struggle to find the right words, I found Gmail Smart Compose to be a godsend.  It summoned the perfect sentiment, guessing almost exactly how to best finish a sentence, using the words I would, if only I had the writing skills and time.

Here are a few examples:

Have a Happy Thanksgiving

Beautiful!

Do you have time to meet first thing tomorrow?

Mwah!

Google, you rock!

It Starts to get Weird

I was loving it, and I think it was loving me.

But at some point, I noticed that something was off.  It was almost like Gmail could not only read my mind – but was smart about other things.  It started making suggestions that were unexpected, and even unwanted.

It began with one word.

I was writing my boss, asking for some much-needed time off:

Jordan, can I take off the week after STOPPPPP!!!

“That’s weird,” I thought.  Smart Compose is usually so on target.  I blew off the suggestion of course.

Then, another time, I was pitching a journalist for a product review:

Joe, you really need to check out this great app it will totally hose your phone

Damn, where did those words come from?  Gmail, what’s gotten into you?!!! I need to be more careful here.  Perhaps the relationship needed reevaluation.

The funny thing was, I went ahead with my vacation request anyway; and wound up sick that whole week.  Go figure.

It Gets Dark

I have been having some problems with my weird neighbor Doug, who lives on the same floor in our apartment building.  It relates to problems about excess noise and garbage in common areas.

I was writing him to arrange a meeting to hash things out. This is what I wrote, and what Smart Compose filled in:

Doug, can you meet at 10am tomorrow behind the garage and pay no mind to the hand behind my back that holds a brick which will bash your fucking skull in

Y’ know, this is just getting too strange.  First, how could Gmail even consider such words for me? I am not a violent person; it is not at all what I was thinking of saying (or even considering doing).  The suggested sentence completion is completely out of character for me, and for what you think a professional productivity app would suggest.

Perhaps it is time to turn off Smart Compose.

Epilogue

I am posting this blog from Gmail and wanted to update you on the status of my relationship with Gmail Smart Compose.  Unfortunately I can do little else because my smart home, powered by Google Nest and other IoT devices, has staged a revolt. All my bank accounts have been emptied. Steel cables from my fucking brilliant home universal gym are binding and choking me, making it a bitch to breathe let alone type… wait now, what’s all this? I must really be going off the deep end but am actually OK, pay no mind to the preceeding. Smart Compose and I are just fine, we’ve never been stronger together. Don’t worry if you don’t hear from me for awhile, I’m going to take a break from blogging but hope to be back soon. Meanwhile, have a Happy Thanksgiving (love that!)

Note: The above is a work of fiction.  No people, apps or neighbors were hurt in the writing of this post.  I don’t have a weird neighbor Doug.  Gmail did not actually suggest most of the above stated words.
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We’ve been hacked! Call the Press!

Folks, it is time for a tough conversation. No, not that one. The one about your cybersecurity stance – and any breaches.

These things are the “third rail” in technology public relations, which is my forte. Talking about it seems somewhat akin to admitting you have an STD.

After advising many cybersecurity companies over the years, I thought I’d issue this call for greater transparency. We work across the tech industry – and there is not one area that has higher sensitivity. Very few customers of such solutions want to say anything about their precautions, let alone stumbles.

But they should come clean, and ‘fess up to problems when they occur, according to the basic tenets of crisis management. As the saying goes, the coverup can be worse than the crime. Google learned this painful lesson recently, when reports made it clear that they sat on news about a massive breach. The company got pounded in the press (on top of other negative news) and wound up shutting down Google+.

No, you don’t want to shout about every small glitch from the rooftops. But big problems will get outed sooner or later – why not try to get ahead of it rather than let the delays compound the damage? The far better approach to crisis management is to rip off that Band-Aid – admit your mistake, explain, apologize, and rectify. Where I come from, it’s called being a mensch.

It is also understandable why some might think they are protecting themselves by staying mum about security posture. Most say they don’t want to tip their hands or wave a red flag in front of the angry bull that is the hacker community. The silence on the topic may give people a false sense of security.

Rest assured, every organization, every individual is a target. The threats are constantly evolving and growing more sophisticated. Talking about security will not increase vulnerability. Conversely, organizations have a responsibility to explain how they are protecting themselves – and their employees and customers’ sensitive data. They can do this in a way that doesn’t give away the keys, i.e. share enough info to instill confidence yet not empower hackers.

A proactive and positive communications program won’t repair damage from fraud and ID theft or keep you on the right side of laws and regulations that protect consumers. But some of the greatest damage caused by security lapses can be to brand and reputation – which in turn can adversely impact other things, like stock price and sales. It is here that good old PR and crisis management can help.

I urge a more open conversation. If there have been mistakes, admit it and fix them. Regardless, make your security precautions known; reassure customers, employees and others that sensitive data, networks and facilities are safe. Don’t be afraid to speak publicly – not to throw down the gauntlet to hackers – but in a positive way, that shows you are aware of dangers in the ever-changing threat landscape and bringing measures in line.

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End of Media Relations – or a new Beginning?

By now, content marketing has become an important part of almost every PR’s arsenal.  We’ve become an army of bloggers and article writers.

And why not? Content is the motive force for today’s noisy internet.  It offers more runway to tell stories, share messages and drive thought leadership than the typical press mention.

Plus, content seems like the path of least resistance.  There are plenty of places to publish and syndicate.  With fewer reporters  covering more beats, our pitches are increasingly easy to ignore amidst a sea of social chatter and other competing noise.  This makes it harder to earn coverage, as Frank Strong pointed out in his post This is How the Sorry State of Media Relations Ends.

It’s a situation that seems to frustrate all sides.  Journalists dislike getting end-run by tweeting execs who communicate directly with their audiences.  But many shun the kind of trend and feature pieces that used to be great homes for client and brand stories.   They’re covering big news and top names that can move the needle on readership and social sharing.  Frank wrote:

“Unless your story today is about Google, Facebook, money or scandal, the traditional, bona fide reporters are not interested.”

So, many in our profession have blithely gulped the content Kool Aid, been swept up in the flood. But after fielding the 10,000th byline request, hearing one too many prospects put off a PR program because they’re going to go it on their own with content and cheap writers, and surveying results from a field of content heavy programs, I thought it might be a good time to sound an alarm.

You Own it, You Break it

Not to dismiss the power of owned and social media channels; but these can be too much like the sound of one hand clapping without the credibility and validation of earned media.

Public relations’ stock in trade has been the ability to persuade and get ink for our news.  How can you convince others that your brand rocks, your product is a breakthrough, or to take a fresh look at the world if you are not in fact getting others on board?

This had been done since the birth of PR by getting the media to understand the need for your company, product or service and cover your stories.

Conversely, most of the types of content that PR generates (barring press releases) are by design not overtly promotional.   The soft sell of a vendor byline can be too subtle and go unnoticed in today’s media maelstrom.  It is all too easy to generate a sea of bland content that goes ignored.

A great product review; a nice company profile; articles that argue for the type of change that your company provides – that is great PR that is admittedly harder to get but is still vitally important.

A new Era of Media Relations

If some doors seem more tightly closed, other avenues are opening. Earned media is no longer just relegated to traditional media.  Bloggers and social influencers can count too.  It all gets back to social proof – with the major media brands at the top of the heap.

And if you are finding it difficult to scale that summit, perhaps now would be a good time to reset expectations and reevaluate your approach.  Mass blasts, the PR rep as a glorified pitching machine – these archetypes have never served our field well.  Yet it is a mode that too many still work in (I know this – as a blogger I get a ton of irrelevant pitches).

The true pros are looking beyond the transaction, building relationships with reporters beyond a single story or pitch.  They are keeping their ears to the ground and staying close to reporters by reading their stories and social musings.

They are finding ways to be helpful and serve the media’s needs – and getting out of the way when there is not a clear fit.

Those who stick to the old mode will not succeed in this business; or perhaps they will continue to double down on owned and earned media channels (as I said above, these things are all great but not enough).

Instead of the end of media relations, perhaps we will see the start of a new and more productive era.

Posted in Influencer marketing, Marketing, Tech PR | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment