Thursday, September 28, 2006

Opening in Baghdad

A former colleague recently sent me a notice about a communications job.  It looked interesting with intriguing pay, benefits and a completion bonus.  Then I saw where:  Green Zone:
Baghdad: Iraq.  Term of service: 12 months with deployment in late September or October.

I considered the position for a nanosecond.  Even passed it around to a friend or two.  Whatever your feelings about the war in Iraq, the prospect of a year in Baghdad was terrifying.  The closest I had been to the conflict was watching the horror of 9/11on TV while visiting my mom who lives in uptown Manhattan.  I had been scheduled to fly to LA that day. 

 

The closest I have come to military personnel are the brave men and women in uniform that I see traveling through Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta. (When I can, I thank them.  It does not seem like enough.)

For them, the volunteers, they have no choice.  Duty called.  Some have been sent back 2 to 3 times to probably the deadliest place on earth right now.  

All the while, I sit in my office and go about my life trying not to ignore what is happening around the world and trying not to feel overwhelmed by the daily reports of more dead, more injured and more destruction. 

Puts everything in perspective as we discuss new media, blogs and Second Life. 

Let me get back to you. 

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Monday, September 25, 2006

Be My Friend….Please

And I thought I left high school 25 years ago.

Did any of you read Janet Kornblum’s piece in last week’s USA Today about “friending” — MySpace users who obsess about building a robust list of MySpace friends?  Apparently, competition for friends among the younger set can be fierce. Too few friends, and you are like way uncool. 

I am glad that when it comes to links and Technorati rankings we adults don’t worry about things like that.

Apparently, though, friending has become big business.  And I don’t just mean the upwards of a $1 billion price tag that Facebook might fetch according to a Wall Street Journal front page story.

Rachael King recently reported the following in Business Week:   ”As companies try to build or keep relevancy among young people, they’re increasingly tailoring marketing campaigns specifically to social networks. These go far beyond placing banner ads on a site, and involve interaction with users over time in what companies hope will be a memorable way…Burger King, for instance, created a MySpace page for the King, the weird character that appears in their commercials.”

King (the reporter) goes on to report, that Burger King’s King has collected more than 120,000 “friends,” or fellow MySpace users.  Of course the King she writes “buys his friends with free episodes of Fox shows such as 24 and American Dad.”  Fries with that?

I am having a hard time digesting this “friends” concept.  I remain skeptical about whether those 120,000 friends of the King (Burger King) are actually meaningful.  

There are some who think it is no longer a matter of numbers anyway.  There is an emerging school of thought that says - when it comes to social media — the level of customer engagement is the more meaningful metric.

I am currently reading Henry Jenkins’ book Convergence Culture. Jenkins writes:

“In the past media producers spoke of ‘impressions.’  Now they are exploring the concept of ‘expressions,’ trying to understand how and why audiences react to content.”

It is the quality of the engagement that is most important.  A vocal and committed few help drive the brand more than a non-committed majority. 

More broadly, however, I am not sure whether a transactional relationship really constitutes a friendship anyway.  Brand loyalty clearly exists, but the foundation will always be shaky when dollars must first exchange hands.  Just like a manager can never truly be a friend of his or her employees, I am not sure a company can be friends with its customers or a PR professional with reporters that cover them (and I like the folks who work for me and the reporters who cover us).  Committed yes, honest for sure, but friends?  

I think we need to formulate a new term somewhere between friend and customer to reflect the new types of relationships spawned by the dynamics of social media.  

Personally, when it comes to my friends, I have learned to pick them carefully.  I am going to avoid succumbing to popularity contests. 

See ya in homeroom.

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Thursday, September 21, 2006

When Is a Blogger a Reporter?

We have all experienced it – a news story runs about your company, but the reporter never contacted your company for a comment.  Makes us mad and clients mad.  Journalists should know better we say.

But how about when
bloggers post a comment about your company or pull comments from a company blog without contacting the PR department?  Are we still as angry?  My guess is probably not.  

Would we still be as mad if the blogger was also a mainstream reporter or represented a mainstream publication?  Madder yes, but as mad as a “pure reporter?”  

Again, probably not.  Are we giving bloggers a free ride based on precedent or do bloggers need to be taken to task for not acting like journalists?  Or maybe we don’t care because we don’t have time to contact every blogger who writes about us.  

Fact: Bloggers are becoming as influential as reporters.  So when do they cross the threshold of citizen journalist and become de facto journalists?  From what I can tell, many bloggers would be insulted to be called reporters.

Are we entering a journalistic/PR no man’s land?  What ethical considerations apply to bloggers?  

Doing some digging on the Net, I unearthed the following posting by Wendy Gee, a contributor to the KQED Food Blog: Bay Area Bites (and yes, my apologies to Wendy for not contacting her for a comment.) KQED is an NPR station in northern California

“To me, the beauty of the blog is that it does not have to follow the strict guidelines of mainstream newspapers and we can exercise some flexibility and get first impressions out quickly. A key factor is being up front about these conditions. Our bloggers need to clarify their position, timing and perspective. Blogging is very much about personal opinion. The opinions expressed by our individual bloggers are not necessarily KQED’s opinions, but as an organization, it does need to have guidelines in place to support KQED bloggers.”  

Yes they are opinions, but they are on a mainstream media web page.  Saying that something is unofficial doesn’t necessarily negate its impact. 

The blurring of boundaries between bloggers and journalists brings me back to a parallel debate about bloggers and PR folks. Are bloggers writing about their company functioning as PR agents?  Or is a blogger just a blogger when he or she is not officially designated as a spokesperson.  Are his or her comments any less valid?  While these postings are fair game for another blogger, can a reporter use postings from an employee blog whose comments “do not necessarily reflect the views of the company?”  

Welcome to the brave new world of PR 2.0, where rules are being invented on the fly to meet the purposes of the offending party.  

I am kind of old school.  I like what Bob Steele at the Poynter Institute wrote to me:

“I believe bloggers who are writing about issues, events, organizations or people should use the time honored values of accuracy and fairness as ethical guideposts. Depending on the nature of the content, it may be necessary for the blogger to contact the company or individual who is being written about in order to ensure that the accuracy and fairness values are honored.”

In the end, however, what is purity anyway?  Like Dove soap, nothing is 100 percent pure.

 

Let me get back to you.

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Monday, September 18, 2006

Getting a Second Life: An Interview – Part II

This is the second part of an interview on Second Life (SL) that I recently did with Aaron Uhrmacher, senior account executive at Text 100, our PR agency of record.  The first part was posted last Thursday.  He played a key role in developing Text 100′s presence on SL
  

Second Life has been generating a great deal of buzz in the PR community and is the subject of recent posts by Kami Huyse and Eric Kintz.  IBM even hosted an alumni reunion on SL.  In the second part of this interview, I want to focus on some of the challenges of SL and where it might be heading.


Dan Greenfield: What are common errors that SL newbies make? 
 

Aaron Uhrmacher: The biggest mistake you can make is looking at only one place and making a judgment too quickly. Go on a tour.  Do your research.  Seek out mentors and listen to conversations.  See what people are doing and saying.  You need to take the time to explore different locations and at different times of day.   Special events can drive traffic, and evenings are more popular than during the day in terms of the number of SL residents that are logged in. 

Greenfield: How do you balance a company’s real life brand with its SL counterpart?  What brand elements should be different and what should stay the same?

Uhrmacher: A company’s SL presence should reflect its real life (RL) work. Second Life is a platform that will extend the interaction with your brand, like blogs and wikis. Think of it as a place to enhance your communication at different levels – with your employees, your customers and your other constituents. Let the people conducting R&D or in the marketing department look at 3D versions of products and discuss them in real time. Encourage employees to replace conference calls with avatar meetings in your virtual office. The possibilities are limitless.  You should definitely check out this machinima clip, which Text 100 produced entirely within Second Life. It gives an overview of how businesses can leverage the emerging popularity of virtual worlds.

Greenfield: Given the story in CNET about the security breach, what can companies do to protect themselves?

Uhrmacher: The security breach affected every resident of Second Life, so there’s not much that a company could have done to protect itself against this particular attack. However, Linden Lab did a fantastic job of alerting the community to the incident and taking steps to resolve the issue as quickly and efficiently as possible. Every day, the security tools become more sophisticated and Linden Lab has shown that they will not tolerate bad behavior or griefing whatsoever.

Greenfield: How do you keep disruptive (protesters, saboteurs) avatars from undermining your online presence?

Uhrmacher: There are various ways to protect an island or store by setting permissions or limiting visitors to those who are approved using the group function. And while the security threat exists, companies should exercise the same vigilant oversight as they do with their company website and/or blog. At this stage, I don’t believe that security is an issue that should dissuade a company from entering Second Life. What should motivate them is that their customers are there. Communities of influencers are there.  People that can help them build their brands are there. That’s what should be top of mind. 
 
Greenfield: Is there life beyond SL? (What is on the technology horizon?)  

Uhrmacher:  SL is just one of several virtual worlds that exist today.  In the future, you may see one model developed as a more open source platform.  Blogs will still exist, but they will evolve with the growing popularity of virtual worlds and communities like SL.  It’s the same way that we’ve seen digital media evolve over the last several years.   The technology and graphics continue to improve and will benefit from PCs with better graphics cards and more RAM.  It is still unclear how communities will evolve as more companies start experimenting in SL, but we’re excited to help grow this platform as a tool for communications.   

Greenfield: If you were in charge of SL, what would you do differently? 

Uhrmacher:  At this point, nothing different.  We have gotten really positive feedback from employees and clients.   

Greenfield:  Thanks Aaron. 

Uhrmacher:  My pleasure. I think SL is an exciting opportunity for companies to extend their brand.  I would be interested to hear from companies about their experiences with SL. 

——-

I will be interested to see how many other companies decide to create a presence in SL and how successful they are.  Given how new this technology is, I am also curious to know how companies will measure success.  In the short run, I will put my money on building brand awareness rather than making Linden dollars.

Let me get back to you.

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Thursday, September 14, 2006

Getting a (Second) Life: An Interview – Part I

Putting aside last week’s security breach that required Second Life customers to change their passwords, I am intrigued by this virtual space.  Part of my interest is the coolness factor; but man and woman cannot live by coolness alone.  Using it as a personal gallery to exhibit my photographs is one thing.  Encouraging my company to invest marketing dollars is quite another.
 

For the uninitiated, Second Life, shortened by most to “SL,” is an online virtual world where anybody with a broadband connection and a reasonably powerful computer can interact, create, educate, play, and work in a graphically rich 3D environment. It is an immersive space where you interact with your surroundings and other people through an avatar (a representation of a human, or non-human, being) who walks, flies or drives around.  

SL certainly has gotten a lot of buzz.  It was featured at this year’s PC Forum and made the cover of Business Week. Currently, there are a few hundred thousand users registered with SL. 

To look beyond the hype and get some perspective, I recently spoke with Aaron Uhrmacher, senior account executive at Text 100, our PR agency of record.  He played a key role in developing Text 100′s presence on SL.  Needless to say Aaron is a SL advocate.  After a virtual tour of Text 100′s island (SLurl), I asked Aaron to discuss how his agency launched their island and why.  


Dan Greenfield: Why did you build an Island in SL? 
 

Aaron Uhrmacher: Our SL presence stemmed from a presentation that we made at the Arthur Page Society on the future of communications and social media.  In our work, we are very involved in peer-to-peer media – blogs, wikis, podcasts, etc.  SL allows for a more immersive form of communications.  In SL, you can collaborate in three dimensions.  With this island, Text 100 can put into practice elements of a digital lifestyle for both internal and external audiences.   

As a public relations firm, we were not interested in buying and selling goods, like some other companies are doing.  Our primary objective is communications.  We feel it is a fantastic communications tool for our employees as well as our clients, and it’s part of the natural evolution of peer-to-peer media. It is an immersive environment for companies to hold internal meetings, showcase new products, receive feedback on products still in development and deepen the interaction customers have with their brand. 

Greenfield: How did Text 100 set up a SL presence?  

Uhrmacher:  We purchased land from Linden Lab and built Text 100 island.  By choosing to build a private island, no one else can build on it.  How an island looks differs from organization to organization – and primarily depends on your company’s objectives for establishing a presence in SL.  For example, do you want it to be replica of your real life product or service, or more representational – communicating what your company represents and stands for. 

The design of the Text 100 Island reflects our agency’s culture.  It is not a replica of our real life offices.  We wanted to experiment and take advantage of what SL is all about.  Our space is three-tiered. Through your avatar, you can fly from one tier to another, which takes advantage of SL’s flying capability.  The architecture is open and transparent, reflecting Text 100’s culture. It has a futuristic look and feel to represent our company’s focus on technology communications.  

Greenfield: What should you know going in?  What resources do you need to build and maintain an existing site? 

Uhrmacher: It is very labor intensive. You need to ask if you want to buy your own island or rent space on an existing island.  You may want to consider experimenting on an existing island first and hosting an event to see what SL is all about.  Buying space on an existing island involves less financial and labor investment, but you won’t have as much control of your environment. Buying a virtual island costs between $1,200 and $5,000 in U.S. dollars. The first step is to have a strategic vision of what you want to accomplish.  Contractors and residents can help build your site.  We used the design firm The Electric Sheep Company.  SL has a scripting language that you will need to use. You will also need an in-house team including designers, IT folks and a legal expert, just as you do for your website.  A typical island can be developed in two weeks.  

Greenfield:  What kinds of companies should do it? How do they know if it is right for them?  

Uhrmacher:  SL is an excellent opportunity for companies that want to extend their brand and are open to the opportunities made possible by new forms of social media.  Technology companies are among the first to take advantage of SL, though there are plenty of traditional companies who are willing to experiment with this new technology as well.  It all depends on your company’s business objectives.

Second Life is a fantastic way to offer your customers a more immersive brand experience than that which is possible through a website or blog. It provides a 3D space where individuals can form communities, hold discussions and interact in a profound way. We see this as the next natural way for companies to engage their audiences as well as this new public in conversations and activities that enhance the brand experience and improve peer-to-peer communications.

Greenfield: What are the rules for being effective in SL?   

Uhrmacher:  The rules are still being written and they will evolve as SL grows.  The community will drive the rules.  Today you can only buy goods in SL to be used by your avatar in SL.  I can see the day when individuals shop on SL and have the products delivered to their real life addresses. 

End of Part I.  I will post the second half of my interview on Monday, September 18.

Let me get back to you.

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Monday, September 11, 2006

On PR’s Edge

I am having an existential PR crisis.  Not really, but it is increasingly clear that what PR is now is not what PR was.

A little confusing – well so is the role of a PR professional in the age of new media.  Where does PR end and everything else corporate begin?

It’s a discussion I am increasingly having with my colleagues including EarthLink
blogmaster Dave Coustan. 

Dave and I are both speak for the company, but our roles and perspectives are very different.   I report into marketing, and he into the product and value added services group.  He communicates with bloggers and the general public, and I with reporters.  I often speak in message points, and he in a personal, more conversational style.  These are distinctions that have served us both well.

But recently, the boundary between us is blurring, and corporate communications and blogging will be better for it.

Case in point:  When bloggers Steve Rubel and Mike Arrington commented on our new RSS aggregator and social bookmarking site, Dave was on the front line discussing these products as a blogger in advance of any press release or reporter interview.  In fact, we did not issue a press release.  The buzz took place in the blogosphere in a way that reflected a blogger’s sensibility.   

Finding PR’s edge – it’s the focus of PR 2.0 and not unique to EarthLink.  I am sure corporate communications departments across the country are facing similar challenges as the definition and role of public relations evolves with social media – perhaps even faster than management realizes.  

We are now talking more often and more directly with more outside stakeholders.  Public relations, customer relations and product management – traditionally under different departments – are fusing together with the understanding that they operate like a Rubic’s cube – move one panel on one side and you impact the other panels on all the other sides.  

Marketing consultant and blogger Brian Oberkirch has a great name for it: edgework. Brands have multiple faces; they mean different things to different people.   We need to change our traditional understanding of brands.  Extending brands to their edge requires some loss of control.  It means using overlapping communications channels to speak to different audiences with voices that will resonate specifically with them.


That corporate communications departments need to factor in all these audiences is not what is new.  What is new is the urgency and immediacy.  Audiences now have public, two-way interactive forums in which to be heard and reckoned with. 

These audiences are ignored or minimized at a company’s peril. Conversations with call center reps are taped and make their way to YouTube and the Today Show.   Ignoring conversations in the blogosphere cost companies like Kryptonite locks millions of dollars.  On the other hand, engaging critics constructively might allow companies to fend off more public stories in the mainstream media.  

To be sure, these changes afford us more opportunities to get our messages out, but also present us with more challenges.   It is not without irony that decentralizing corporate communications also requires more coordination to determine the voice that best resonates with different constituencies.  

No longer is a PR person’s reporter Rolodex the gateway to successful corporate communications.  Instead, that Rolodex is as big as every customer, vendor, partner and competitor who interacts with your company.

Let me get back to you.

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Thursday, September 7, 2006

The Pressure to Post

I read Shel Holtz’s September 4th’s
blog posting 
with great sympathy.  I didn’t post on Monday because it was a holiday.  He missed a few days because his 17 year old daughter was in the hospital suffering from a painful kidney stone.  I hope she is all right, and I think Shel had a very good reason for missing a few days. 
 

But certainly we all face the pressure to post and the guilt when we don’t. Shel’s case, while extreme, does point to the struggle that bloggers have when real life, holidays or just plain fatigue get in the way of writing on our prescribed schedules. 

This issue had surfaced last week with a story written by Elizabeth Holmes in the Wall Street Journal about bloggers who debate about whether to post when taking a vacation — much to the dismay of family members.  The article pointed out that several bloggers suffered a decline in readership from not blogging or using guest bloggers.   

My advice:  take the vacation and put aside the blog.  The blog will still be there and so will the readers.  That’s what bloggers Mike Manuel and Eric Kintz did this summer.  Eric took a self imposed vacation, while Mike took a few weeks off from writing and spent time reading blogs to gain some needed perspective. 

In fact Mike Manuel wrote: “Why is it that bloggers freak out at the thought of taking a break? IMO, it takes a seriously inflated ego (or a seriously deflated income) to get overly concerned about this sort of thing. If people enjoy reading your stuff, they’ll remain subscribers, hell, they might even appreciate a pause every now and then, just to catch up….” 

Giving your readers a break is something that Eric has addressed before Eric takes exception to the rule that you have to post every day.  Among the reasons he gives for not posting daily are that blogging every day impacts quality, loyal readers will stick by you regardless, and he loves his family too much.   This philosophy seems to have served him well as he was recently ranked as a top 10 CMO blogger.

I for one have opted for longer, but fewer, posts.  When I travel to Peru in November, I will take a blogging break.  Sometimes a few weeks off is just what you need to clear your head and inspire better postings. 

Of course now that the summer is over, we have fewer excuses to avoid blogging. 

Let me get back to you.

Posted by Dan Greenfield in 12:29:25 | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, September 5, 2006

Formulating a Company Blogging Policy

Last week we issued our blogging policy at EarthLink, where I work.  It reflects a collaboration of several individuals and was approved by our management team.  It also incorporates publicly available best practices of other companies.
 

I feel that this policy represents a recognition of social media’s growing presence and an important step in extending its reach.


We are taking a gradualist approach as we experiment with blogs, vlogs and podcasts and launch web 2.0 products like WebLife, a service that lets you store, organize, edit and share your digital photos, media and data files online, and myEarthLink Reader, an RSS aggregator. 

Along the way, we have made a few adjustments – relaunching our blog with a broader mission and single author and adjusting our advertising on podcasts to take into account listener feedback.


For me, a blogging policy should reiterate the existing guidelines governing the disclosure of confidential and sensitive information by employees; provide clear guidelines for those employees who choose, without specific company permission, to reference their company when commenting on a personal blog or podcast or any other online forum; and protect the company from any legal, financial or HR issues that may arise when employees discuss their company in an online forums.

In formulating a blogging policy it is important to consider how specific the policy should be, whether it should encourage blogging or remain neutral and what the definition of harm is, as in directing employees to do no harm.

Neutrality vs. Encouragement: A policy is a translation of a company’s tolerance for unpredictability and honesty.  Some companies actively encourage blogging and online commentary and others merely tolerate it.  The issue is both a legal and communication concern.  If you encourage blogging, then you limit the ability to minimize liability for those that abuse their blogging privileges.  But remain too neutral or worse, ambivalent, and you discourage blogging and undermine its efficacy. 

General vs. Specific:  Closely related to the issue of neutrality is how general or specific a policy should be.  I suspect financial and security companies have heavy restrictions if they allow blogging at all, while others have precious few.  Make the policy too restrictive and you limit potential liability but you stifle creativity and participation. 

Do No harm:  Are you prepared for an employee at your company to write on a blog that your company “sucks.”  Are you prepared for a more thoughful but candid assessment by an employee?  A policy should give your employees the freedom to express themselves, but parameters of what they can say and how they can say it.  It should also give employers guidelines for employees who cross the line. Employees are after all employees.  Everything does not go.  Blogging is not permission for an employee to say anything he or she wants – even if that employee thinks it’s in the company’s best interest. 

Our policy is a recognition that blogging is an important communications tool.   Our goal is to give employees the guidelines for engaging without being blogging’s advocate – just like we don’t “encourage” press releases, annual reports and direct mail. 

Our guidelines cover all the legal and disclosure requirements as well rules of engagement that are consistent with our employee code of conduct.

In the end, blogging policies are starting points.  Actual mileage may vary. (I went car shopping this past weekend.)  Blogging, like social media itself, is evolving and no policy can cover all contingencies.  As such, it is up to corporate communications and management to regularly educate the rest of company to show how a policy and actual blogging can coexist. 

Rather than a set of restrictions, a blogging policy should be seen as a tool to give employees an outline for engagement and a guide for initiating conversations.

Let me get back to you.

 
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