Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Naked Conversations: The Next Chapter

Yesterday, I wrote about a conversation I had with Robert Scoble that looked back on the lessons from Naked Conversations.  Today, I offer up Shel Israel, the other half of the dynamic duo that co-authored the book, to get his perspective.

Dan Greenfield: What is the biggest development that you did not forsee when Naked Conversations was first published?

Shel Israel:  The number of conversational tools that would become available on the Internet.

Greenfield: With the advent of social networks, podcasts and vlogs, are blogs yesterday’s news or is corporate blogging still in its infancy?

Israel:  There is no contest between the items in the social media toolshed. The blogging craze is subsiding and the tool’s use is normalizing, just like email did a decade ago or a hammer did when it replaced the rock as a pounding/building tool.

Greenfield:  Is a blog still a blog if it is more video and audio than text?

Israel:  The more ways that people can have conversations, the better off they are, business is, government is.  You seem to be focused on blogs as in some sort of competition with other tools. I am more interested in the cultural changes that happen when people have the power to talk back, when people have the ability to simply bypass organizations that want to deliver and insert messages into their foreheads. The tool is not what is important.  Someday people will look back at today’s blog and say, “how quaint” they were back at the turn of the century. They will not be replaced.  They will evolve into something much better.

Greenfield: 
What do you think about the concept of microblogging that Twitter is making more prominent?

Israel:  One more neat conversational tool. A great many people love Twitter and other microblogs.  Businesses have a new way of distributing information to those who want it. I don’t Twitter, because it is not a tool for me. But I am a strong proponent of any conversational tool.

Greenfield:  If you were writing Naked Conversations today, how would it be different? same?

Israel:  The book was about Conversations. We would cover a great many more tools.  We would have new and different stories to tell. Maybe we should write a Naked Conversations Volume II.

Greenfield:  With all the changes in technology, how can communications professionals keep up?

Israel:  They should stop trying to insert messages and just join the conversation.  I hope they start understanding the value of taking messages back to clients, rather than just trying to deliver messages from clients. And if I am allowed a little bit of my curmudgeon-side to come out. They should read my blog long before they approach me. I will have a conversation with anyone who takes he time not to waste mine.  When they don’t know who I am, what I write about, what I’m passionate about, they have shown a lack of respect for me before we even begin to speak.

Greenfield:  I think I get the message, Shel. And thanks

——–

A year ago, Naked Conversations spurred my interest in blogging.  Today, the new communications tools are very alluring.  Just yesterday, Robert was remarking on how much more proficient he was getting with video.  The pressure is on for higher production values.  But in the end, the essence is still the conversation.  I look forward to getting their Volume II…on video or at least on a podcast.

Let me get back to you.

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Political Reflections: An Interview with Paul Begala

Below is an interview that I recently did with Paul Begala.  Paul was a rising political star when I first met him in
Des Moines in early 1988 on the Gephardt for President campaign.  Later that year, we worked together on the Lautenberg for Senate race in New Jersey.  That contest was “nasty, brutish and short.”  But we won.  I was hoping to meet up with Paul for a Lautenberg for Senate reunion in Washington, DC in early January.  Sadly, it was the day after my CEO Garry Betty passed away so I was unable to attend.
 

I decided to use the reunion as an opportunity to get Paul’s take on how political communications has changed over the years.  As his custom, Paul quickly responded and graciously agreed to share his insight.

So much has changed since those frigid days in Iowa when we were fighting the good fight.  I was 25 then – new to politics and PR.  I wasn’t exactly sure what spinning was, but quickly got caught up in the excitement of a political campaign.   This week, as the list of presidential candidates grows and the President issues his State of the Union address, I can’t help but get a little nostalgic for a time in my life now far behind me. 

Dan Greenfield: Back when you started were communications and technology so closely bound together as they are today or was technology just a means to an end? 

Paul Begala: When I started, in 1983, the state of the art for me was an IBM correcting Selectric typewriter.  Liquid Paper was new, and cutting edge meant taking a pair of scissors and snipping different paragraphs together.  Faxes were rare and the quickest way to get information from here to there (absent the phone) was FedEx.  [James] Carville and I started out running a US Senate race in Texas.  The communications technology we used in 1984 was not significantly different from that which LBJ had used in 1964:  fly around the state on a small plane (Johnson preferred a helicopter), hold a press event, and have it covered by TV, radio and print.  But in the 20+ years since then, the whole world has changed. 

Greenfield: What was the really cool technology back in 1988? 

Begala:  By 1988 faxes were in fairly common usage.  Of course, they used waxy, thermal paper that curled up.  It was almost like reading a scroll. 

Greenfield: How has the news cycle changed in 20 years and how does it impact the way you work? 

Begala: The news cycle is inestimably faster.  We speak of 24-hour news cycles today.  Every story can be changed, answered, defended, attacked, critiqued — and all in real time.  There is no more waiting for the nightly news at 6:30 or rushing to the loading dock at dawn to get the bulldog edition of the paper.  Everything is online first — and our ability to respond rapidly is greatly increased. 

Greenfield: The 1988 Lautenberg race gained a reputation as being particularly nasty.   Does the Internet make things nastier today (e.g. bloggers not journalists breaking news, opinions and emotions over facts and reason)? 

Begala: The internet has made news — and especially campaign coverage — much, much better.  In the bad old days, publishers, who are generally conservative — they voted for Bush over Gore by a 3 to 1 margin — had the last word.  Now, thanks to the Internet, we the people can have unlimited words after the fat-cats are through with their endorsements.  Has the internet coarsened the discourse?  I don’t know – hell, I hosted “Crossfire” for years.  I think the American people are tough.  And what is said about George W. Bush these days is nothing compared to what was said about Thomas Jefferson.  So I don’t join the chorus of hand-wringers and whiners who complain about the internet.  It is a democratic phenomenon (with a small “d”) — so it reflects all of us:  the good, the bad and the ugly.  I just believe that most of us are basically good. 

Greenfield: Will politicians creating avatars and hosting meetings in Second Life ever replace good old fashion pressing the flesh? 

Begala:  Replace? No. Augment, yes. Only tiny fraction of Americans will ever meet a presidential candidate in person, so smart politicians are always looking for ways to get close to more people.  Technology allows that better than ever before. 

Greenfield: Has the Internet made your job easier or harder? 

Begala:  Inestimably easier.  Computer-assisted research — principally Google — has made my work much easier.  I can fact-check anything in less than one second.  If I’m debating Rev. Jerry Falwell about the separation of church and state, I can find Jefferson‘s letter to the Danbury, CT Baptists in a nanosecond.  Rather than paraphrasing it from hazy memory, or spending half the day going down the library and looking it up in a reference book, I can quote Jefferson directly and accurately when he called for a wall between church and state.  It’s right there, on the Library of Congress’s website…In fact, that statistic I cited above about publishers voting 3 to 1 for Bush over Gore in 2000?  I got that from Editor & Publisher online by searching with Google. 

Greenfield:  Does the Internet redefine what it takes to be a successful candidate? 

Begala:  Somewhat, but not much.  We still want someone who is strong and brave and wise and kind.  Someone who cares about people like us, who has an open mind and a loving heart.  Lincoln would excel today just as he did in the 19th Century. 

Greenfield:  How much of a political campaign should be waged with new media vs mainstream media? 

Begala:  A lot.  Bloggers on both the left and right bedevil corporate media, and I couldn’t be happier about it (even though, as a mainstream media pundit at CNN, I get my share of grief from both the left and the right).  They keep us honest.  You have to have a thick skin, but why should media be immune from the same sort of scrutiny we give politicians? 

Greenfield: How important are sites like YouTube in getting out the message?  Does it change the ad strategy for political consultants? 

Begala:  YouTube is enormously important because it is free, credible and egalitarian.  The old, canned b.s. from media consultants — the candidate and his lovely wife Louise sitting on the front porch swing, (under perfect lighting and with two pounds of makeup) just won’t work anymore.  YouTube compels authenticity; its viewers have zero tolerance for bullshit.  (As an aside, I once saw an interview in which the founder of YouTube said he got the idea for it after seeing how many people watched Jon Stewart’s little hissy-fit on Crossfire online a few years ago.  I am proud to have been the inspiration — albeit unwittingly — of such a terrific website.) 

Greenfield:  If 2004 was all about the blog, what will 2008 be about? 

Begala:  If I knew that, I’d be creating it right now. 

Greenfield:  Thanks Paul 

————–

No question, politics have changed since those days in 1988.  Just as video altered the debate, so has the Internet impacted political discourse.  As Paul points out, bloggers and citizen journalists have shifted the balance of power.  We used to complain that soundbites were getting shorter and shorter – giving us abbreviated remarks with little context.  An editor or producer decided what was the most important part of a candidate’s speech.  Technology has freed us from the restrictions of a thirty minute broadcast.  Now those wanting more information can go to political websites and see speeches and events in their entirety.  Position papers can be accessed in a nanosecond. Ironically the speed of the Internet is giving us more time to digest and reflect.  In the age of the Internet, the race may not be to the swiftest but it certainly gives an edge to the most technologically adept.    

Let me get back to you.   

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Thursday, December 7, 2006

“Newsotainment:” An Interview with a Funny Man

Call it the JibJab effect or the Daily Show phenomenon.  Whether it is news or politics, humor is in.  And I don’t mean the political ditties of the Capitol Steps in
Washington or the monologues of Jay Leno.  I am talking humor of the “edgy” variety (not the entertainment publication), as in the blurring of the boundaries between news and entertainment.

And so I come to today’s topic, should news be entertaining or entertainment newsworthy?  Should politics be played for some laughs?  And more specifically, should PR follow suit and get into the funny business – especially in the age of new media?

For starters, I looked no further than funny man Jim Meskimen.  I worked with Jim on a video to launch HELIO, the wireless joint venture between EarthLink and SK-Telecom.  Among his many credits, Jim did the voice-overs in the now famous JibJab videos from the 2004 elections featuring President Bush and Senator Kerry.

Dan Greenfield: I hear you are a funny guy.  How funny are you?

Jim Meskimen: I’m so funny that my own crow’s feet beg me to stop.

Greenfield: You were the voices behind the JibJab videos in the 2004 election mocking both President Bush and Senator Kerry.  Have you no respect?

Meskimen:  Not really.  I can’t afford to.  I’m the Marni Nixon of the political world.  I also voiced Cheney, Edwards, Michael Moore, Al Gore, Rush Limbaugh, McGreevy, John McCain, Clinton, Schwarzenegger and Dan Rather.  And I can only assume that they make fun of me, too.

Greenfield: Do you think humor was a bigger factor in the 2006 elections because of videos like the one you did in 2004?  Did you see more instances of humor?

Meskimen: I saw a lot of JibJab wannabes.  The thing is that nobody can match Evan and Gregg’s (the Spiridellis brothers) dedication to making superb animations.  They make it look easy, then you see some of the copycats and go, “Oh, I understand.  This stuff ain’t easy.  In the words of our Commander in Chief, “It’s hard work!”  Now, the Daily Show, that’s something else.  Man, that stuff is funny.  And they get to use the actual footage, so they don’t need to make brilliant animations.  But is it art?

Greenfield: The Daily Show, Bill Mahrer…how is humor changing the tenor of political discourse?

Meskimen: Humor has always been a major language tool in political discourse, as far as I can tell.  I got my first taste of it with MAD magazine, which was, in the sixties, INTENSELY political.  They did what JibJab does, and skewered everybody, regardless of political affiliation.  The thing is, politics is always, always, ALWAYS slanted in some direction, and so it will always have a surplus of untruths, hypocrisies and falsehoods tagging along.  These are usually strung out behind any political figure and are exposed, just waiting for someone to come along and take a potshot or two at them.  It’s a bit like Hollywood that way; it’s almost like shooting fish in a barrel. 

Mark Twain was a brilliant political humorist, too.  I think humor gives us a socially acceptable way to discuss a very volatile subject, and anything that facilitates that is okay by my book. 

I actually don’t discuss politics much.  Any of the big social problems I am very confident will NEVER be solved by the political arena, but by caring and informed individuals.  If politicians can stay out of the way of these more noble sorts, then they will have done a great service.

Greenfield: Is the public expecting more humor in their news and from their candidates?

Meskimen: I have no idea.  For me, the humor is already there in many cases, if you can listen or watch with a discerning eye.  Unfortunately, the things that would be most hilarious and ironical in the world of politics do ACTUALLY have a negative impact on the lives of real people like you and me.  Then it’s not so funny.

Greenfield: How much do you love YouTube?  How is the Internet changing what you do and how you do it?

 

Meskimen:  I like it, but I don’t think it is organized very well.  I am a bit wary of it, because it is so uncontrolled; for instance, anything I do as an actor can wind up there to a massive audience.  That’s fine, if I’m proud of it and if anyone can actually find it.  I’m not getting paid, but it is free promotion… but what if my car gets hit by a train and anyone can watch me get splattered over and over again?  It’s kind of creepy to think that with all the cameras around, pretty much anything is available, even the things that human dignity would suggest be best treated with privacy.  Hey, what a funny interview, huh?  Man, cheerful stuff!

Greenfield: If the Internet were a joke, what would be its punch line?

Meskimen:  I don’t know.  But if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has an email address, is it mailto:Netanyahu@yahu.net? 

Greenfield:  Thanks Jim.

 

——-

 

To me, the likes of the Daily Show, E! News and YouTube are raising (or lowering) the stakes – turning news into “newsotainment.”  What does this mean for PR folks when an interview with Jon Stewart may be more impactful that one with Katie Couric?  And in a nod to ABC News, what does it mean that many Americans get more of their news from the Daily Show than from any other source?

Now I make a distinction between celebrity news (E! News) and parody (the Daily Show) whose “news” formats serve to blur the distinction between news and entertainment and YouTube where featured video clips make their way to mainstream news.  These clips are often entertaining even if the subjects of the videos were not intending to be (e.g.  the Comcast rep caught on video falling asleep on a service call).  YouTube’s popularity only guarantees that more embarrassingly funny true moments of real people (and possibly our clients) will find their way into the news cycle.  We now are all actors in our own lives.  Is news the new Hollywood?

We, the keepers of the PR tradition, have decisions to make.  Do we continue playing it straight or do we start infusing some humor into our press releases and pitches?  Do we start producing podcasts and YouTube videos with entertainment in mind?  My advice: tread carefully.  As Jim pointed out, humor is “hard work.”  Being unfunny, when trying to be funny, may be funny but not the way you intended.

Let me get back to you.

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Monday, October 30, 2006

Blogging in a Crisis: An Interview

Do your clients or does your company have a crisis communications plan?  Hopefully the answer is yes.  But if we thought crisis communications was a challenge before, think again as we (fear) factor the blogosphere into our plans.  Talk about controlling the message. It was one thing when your worst nightmare (on Elm Street) was a 60 Minutes ambush interview.  Now we along with 60 Minutes must worry about bloggers ambushing from multiple fronts as Dan Rather experienced with President Bush’s National Guard record in the 2004 Presidential election.

To get some perspective, I recently spoke with Erin Byrne, managing director of interactive at Burson-Marsteller for the past 8 years.  If anyone should know about crisis communications in the interactive age, it is Erin.  Her PR firm helped write the book on crisis communications as they helped Johnson and Johnson through the Tylenol scare.

Dan Greenfield: Halloween is fast approaching.  In the age of blogging, should clients feel scared, very, very scared when it comes to crisis communications?

Erin Byrne: Clients should only be scared (very, very scared) if they fail to recognize that the way people communicate has completely changed, and there are no longer separate online and offline communications.  Companies can not afford to ignore user-generated media, search, and word-of-mouse, just like they can’t afford to ignore traditional media.  The smartest companies will develop crisis preparedness plans that include training, policies and protocols for leveraging online communications as part of a holistic approach to crisis management.

Greenfield: Besides creating opportunities for firms that specialize in crisis communications, how does blogging benefit PR practitioners who must manage communications in a crisis?

Byrne: The rapid-fire pace of the blogosphere provides an opportunity for PR practitioners to tap the pulse of the public by reading blogs, and provides a mechanism for clients to engage in conversations with various stakeholder groups.  Whereas press releases are an excellent tool to distribute a company’s position on a matter, they are primarily a one-way communication.  Blogs allow companies to create conversations, answer questions, refute criticism and reach target audience groups when they are engaged in a particular issue or topic.  Provided they follow the rules of the road, blogs can be a powerful new tool for companies who must manage crisis situations.

Greenfield: How does new media change the rules of crisis communications? 

Byrne: New media changes the rules in that everything is immediate.  Content, responses, reactions, the ability to get additional information – it all happens in real time, especially in a crisis, due to the way blogs and other new media have changed the communications cycle.  This has forced companies in many cases to respond more quickly than they are accustomed to, and often over a longer period of time.  Blogs are just another touch point to reach varied audience groups, and one that allows you to reach them in a conversational, informal tone without the wrapping of PR or advertising.  This authenticity can be very helpful in a crisis. 

Greenfield: What role do bloggers play? 

Byrne: Much of this depends on the crisis being managed.  The blogosphere and Internet communications in general have created a thirst for immediate information on a deeper level.  A cursory response will not satisfy online information-seekers, and an unacceptable response can create chatter and questions about a company and their intentions.  However, bloggers create an opportunity as well – for companies who are willing to engage in Internet conversations they have a significant opportunity to deepen loyalty in their company and products.

Greenfield: Does a crisis change your relationship to bloggers? 

Byrne: Depending on the crisis it can make one more wary of or reliant on bloggers.  When there is a crisis that gets covered online, it is very important that companies engage influential bloggers as another channel to reach target audience groups.  Ideally they will have created a buzz map in advance that identifies what blogs/sites are speaking on relevant topics the most, notes the sites that consumers turn to for related information, and then compares the two to identify the sites that yield the most influence for a particular company/issue.  Most companies will have several buzz maps depending on their business and needs, i.e. one for corporate issues, a different one for product-related, another one perhaps on an industry sector, etc.  It is critically important that companies begin engaging influential bloggers before the crisis hits.

Greenfield: How do you decide which bloggers to respond to?  Would you ever go to a blogger first over a mainstream reporter? 

Byrne: This completely depends on the situation.  For example, many consumer packaged goods companies often face and need to address internet rumors. This may be a situation where a response to a blogger will suffice.

We work with clients to develop a decision tree and then determine which bloggers to respond to on a case by case basis.  We consider the range of influence, number of comments, tone of the blog, willingness to consider an alternate point of view, and potential risks.  In order for us to respond there has to be potential to be heard, a willingness to have a conversation, and some level of influence relative to the risk.  Even if a blogger is a “plant,” or a competitor posing as a legitimate blogger, the other participants and readers are probably real, so it still pays to proceed with caution, and to follow the rules of the blogosphere.  

Greenfield: Why do you think most crises start in the blogosphere and spread to mainstream media versus the other way around?  

Byrne: I think this depends on the type of crisis and the audiences affected. Technology companies are likely more vulnerable to having crisis start and/or spread online due to the tech savvy nature of their target audience groups.  Rumors and product recalls/challenges also can spread like wildfire online, due to the fact that it is easy for online information-seekers to spread this content using their own personal communications networks.  However, mainstream media still provides air cover to share news of a company crisis, and needs to be addressed as well.  It isn’t an either/or situation.  

Greenfield: Finally, what are the essentials in dealing with bloggers in a crisis? 

Byrne: As with any online communication, honesty and transparency are mandatory.  Disclosing your true motives in reaching out to a blogger are important, and it is always advisable to have examples of third party credibility available.  Speaking in an appropriate and credible tone is also necessary – bloggers do not want to be a channel for your marketing efforts.  But, if you speak with an authentic voice on relevant topics they will welcome your participation.

Greenfield: Erin, thanks for your time

————–

Blogging changes the dynamics of a crisis; for better and for worse, they require us to respond on more fronts and in more voices.  Ultimately blogs or no blogs, certain rules of engagement remain constant.   Planning and conducting internal simulations are critical to understanding the chain of command and the threshold to activate a crisis communications team.  Whether we are dealing with new or old media, we must act quickly, recognize the crisis, communicate the steps being taken to resolve the crisis, and announce measures being instituted to avoid a similar crisis in the future.  In the end, it is imperative to not let the crisis define you, but for you to define the crisis.

Let me get back to you.

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Thursday, October 5, 2006

Blogging at Blue: An Interview (Part II)


This is a continuation of an interview with Christopher Barger, who heads up IBM’s blogging efforts.  The first part of the interview was posted this past Monday. 

 

Greenfield:  How would you rate IBM’s blogging efforts?  

 

Barger:  We’ve done well, but there is always room for improvement.  The first phase was the grand unveiling — go forth and blog.  Next step – tie it more closely to business strategy.  For small and medium and businesses, for example, which is a very important part of our strategy – who do we have in SMB who would be an effective blogger? 

It’s important that we keep focused on the audience’s interests, not just our own. Let’s not just discuss new software or new product.  Let’s talk about the issues the audiences are facing and pay attention to what they want to hear.  Stonyfield Farms yogurt has blogs that don’t even mention yogurt.  They provide information that’s relevant and related to their core audience’s interests, and that’s why their blogs are successful.  

Greenfield:  Won’t IBM’s blogging efforts lose their authenticity if it is about strategy?

Barger:  Blogging is both a science and art, and this is the “art” part. The key is finding the right individuals. It’s not about the title of the blogger, it’s about having passion, about being unafraid of feedback and engagement. They need to want to learn from their audiences too, and be there for the dialogue and not just to “message.” And if we have those bloggers, the ones who enjoy the interaction and who “get” the blogosphere instead of just feeling like they need to have a blog because everybody else has one or because they want to raise their own profile, I think we’ll be okay.

Greenfield: What lessons have you learned? 

Barger:  Community policing works. You really can trust most people to be fair-minded and to want to be responsible – both your employees and outside bloggers. For the most part, the fist-shakers get ignored, or corrected by more fair-minded members of the community. 

It is the dynamic of the community that influences the conversation.  Fellow IBMers are watching the blogosphere.  When they see something bad, they bring it to my attention faster than any internal monitoring group.  It is all volunteer.  It is not part of their responsibility to do it.  I am connecting with people at IBM and that would never have happened without blogging.  

Greenfield: What advice would you give your counterparts at other companies?

Barger:  If executives are going to blog, but don’t have time, DON’T use ghost writers. It’s such a personal communication, and no one else can be you.  It’s all about authenticity.   Also, don’t see blogging as just another channel to get your message out. Blogs are about dialogue, about conversation, and about interaction. Look on them as an opportunity to learn from your audiences as well as to influence them.

Greenfield: What’s on the horizon with blogging and social media at IBM?

Barger: We’re going to continue to expand our blogging program – even internally, where we have more than 24,000 registered users of the blog platform, that’s not even 10 percent of our employee population. So we have room to grow. We’ve also embarked on a similar kind of initiative with podcasting and videocasting; we’ve got a tool inside the firewall that allows any IBMer to record, edit and upload their own podcasts internally, and we expect to expand this program to external publishing (IBMers publishing their own podcasts externally) very soon.  And we’ve now started experimenting with video in the same kind of way. 

The bottom line is that it’s becoming so much easier for any employee to produce content – written, audio, or video — and distribute it; and we want to find the best way to enable that and tap into the collective expertise of our employees while acting in the company’s best interest. It’s really an exciting time to be in communications. I honestly can’t wait to see where all this goes – and I’m lucky enough to be in a position to try and steer it a little.

Greenfield:  Thank you Christopher.

Barger:  Thank you, Dan – I appreciate the chance to talk with you.

 

——–

 

IBM’s blogging efforts are that much more impressive given that I just read in Nancy Flynn’s book Blog Rules that only four percent of major American corporations operate publicly available blogs.  It is to IBM’s credit that they embrace blogging in such a big way.   I was also impressed with their ability to tolerate the dissenting views of individual employees, fully confident that the larger community of IBM bloggers will help present a balanced view of the company. 

 

If you are interested in sharing your company’s path to blogging, please drop me a line.

 

Let me get back to you.

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Monday, October 2, 2006

Blogging at Big Blue: An Interview (Part I)

[This is the first of what I hope to be an ongoing effort to profile the social media efforts of corporate America and abroad.  These profiles are intended to show how companies are making the transition from old media to new, including the requisite who, what, when, why as well as lessons learned along the way.]

 

Imagine you have a pretty good job in corporation communications at a multi-billion dollar, well-established technology company and yes, you
blog on the side.  Then one day you are called in by your boss and another senior level manager to discuss your blog that as far you were aware was unbeknownst to anyone else in the company.  First thought:  You’re fired.  Then, how would you feel when they say they were so impressed by your blog that they wanted you to build a blogging initiative? You would feel like falling out of your chair, right?

 

That is exactly the way Christopher Barger felt when his boss called him into his office.  And from this single meeting, Chris, 38, now heads up IBM’s blogging initiatives.

 

I recently had an opportunity to talk with Chris about blogging at IBM.  Employees at the Armonk, NY based company have been experimenting with blogging a few years now, but it wasn’t until 2005 that the company instituted official guidelines for blogging on or off the IBM website. Today IBM has more than 24,000 registered users on its internal blog platform, with IBM encouraging its more than 320,000 global workforce to experiment with the medium.

Dan Greenfield:  Tell me what it was like to be called into your boss’s office to discuss your blog?

Barger: I have spent most of my career in corporate communications.  Three years ago, I started doing a personal blog.  They said “we know that you are doing a blog.  We don’t get blogging, but you do.  We want you to lead our blog initiative.”  We then assembled a 22 person task force using a wiki to come up with best practices.

Greenfield: What is blogging’s impact on what you do and corporate communications?

Barger:  There is a huge shift in the communications model.  We are no longer informers; we are influencers.  It’s a scary step, but we need to ride this. Inside the company, it’s democratizing the process of innovating and collaborating.  Both the executive and the intern can now be thought leaders – in this marketplace, it’s the best idea and not the biggest title that wins out. In a company the size of IBM, it is easy to get lost, so blogging provides an opportunity to establish yourself as a strong or innovative thinker.  By not just by repeating the company line, bloggers have emerged as leaders by sometimes expressing independent thoughts.

Greenfield:  How did a company with as long a history as IBM come to embrace blogging in such a big way?

Barger:   One of the reasons we were so comfortable with the idea of blogging was our history of “jamming” – jams are three day directed brainstorming sessions that can involve all 320,000 of our employees, facilitated by corporate communications. We’ve been doing jams since 2001 on a variety of subjects – and what we’ve learned from these directed conversations is that people are engaged and that the company can handle open, constructive conversation.  Because we had that comfort level, the idea of blogging and the atmosphere of the blogosphere were less daunting than they might have been.

We had a number of IBMers who were blogging on their own, and who were evangelizing blogs to management of their own initiative. By early 2005, we hit critical mass – management agreed that we needed to have a policy and embrace blogging. 

And because we based the guidelines on IBM’s already existing “Business Conduct Guidelines” and stayed faithful to what was already standard for us, the HR and legal departments had only minor changes or suggestions for the proposed blogging policy.  On May 16, 2005, we launched the blogging initiative internally, and that story on our intranet experienced six times the normal readership. 

We encouraged employees to blog externally.  They did, and we got tons of press without ever issuing a press release or calling a reporter.

Greenfield:  What benefits does IBM see in blogging? 

Barger:  IBM encourages its employees to blog, but only if they want to; we’re not saying that everyone has to blog. We do see blogging as a good thing for the company – recognizing that our employees are our best assets.  They are the experts and getting them out and engaged benefits IBM.
 It’s not just that, though. We need to adopt new communications tactics to adjust to a new reality: we are seeing a shift in audience dynamics.  The audience now controls your brand and how you’re perceived – not the messenger. Every single person can respond. Perception is controlled by how the audience is receiving, not how we are telling. 

And there is an increased cynicism on the part of the public. Our old ways of communicating are not as effective.  People are more dismissive of what they see as “corporate spin.”  They trust the individual voice now more than they do the institutional voice.  People don’t necessarily want an IBM press release, they want to hear what “real” people think – and by encouraging blogging, we are empowering the individual story. 

Greenfield:  Weren’t you worried that employees may say the wrong thing about IBM?

Barger:  If people bring up legitimate issues, engage constructively, this is good, and we can collaborate.  The community will police naysayers.   It is part of the experience.  The world won’t end.  This won’t harm us.  Ultimately, blogging is about credibility.  You have to been seen as a credible source – and if you’re only saying good things all the time, you get seen as kind of a Pollyanna, which no one finds credible.  We are open to observation or criticism. We give our employees parameters, not what they can or can’t say.  Unlike other companies, we don’t house our blogs in one place.  There is no single template they have to use.  We don’t necessarily know about all our employee blogs.  We have even let employees expense the cost of hosting their personal blogs.

Greenfield:  What has been the reaction by management? 

Barger:  Surprisingly management has been the most receptive.  It is communications folks who were initially the most skeptical, I think in part because it’s our paradigm that’s shifting the most, and our jobs that are changing most dramatically. 

Greenfield: What’s been the public’s reaction?

Barger:  Overwhelmingly positive. I’ve never seen a negative article in the press about IBM blogging.  I think people are sometimes surprised that a company like IBM, that’s perceived sometimes as “old school,” is embracing this new medium so enthusiastically. And largely, I think the public likes being able to engage with the individual people who make up our company. I saw a headline the week we announced the initiative that said, “Chances are, today you feel a lot closer to Big Blue.”  I thought that summed it up perfectly.

 

———-

 

End of Part I.  I will post Part II this Thursday.

 

Let me get back 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, August 28, 2006

Social Media Trends: An Interview

I recently helped lead a discussion of the Atlanta Media Bloggers, a group of
bloggers and aspiring bloggers who meet once a month at a local pizza place in Atlanta.  The topic stemmed from an article that I had written for
iMedia Connection about social media lessons that EarthLink has learned.

To get a different perspective on social media’s impact, I recently exchanged IMs with iMedia’s executive editor, Brad Berens. 

Dan Greenfield: What is imediaconnection.com and what unique need does it meet?

Brad Berens: iMedia Connection is a daily email newsletter and website that covers new media (the web, email, mobile games, podcasts, etc.) with a particular interest in how those media affect marketing and advertising. Our readership is largely composed of the marketing folks at brands who work in or with interactive media, and the interactive ad agency folks. 

Greenfield: What interesting trends are you seeing in social media?

Berens: Right now, we’re in the early stages of a big transition that is paying, or might pay, off what the authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto were talking about at the turn of the millennium: markets are conversations. Brands like EarthLink, Microsoft and many others are moving from a univocal “this is the brand voice” model to the many-voiced model.

That’s a big deal because it entails more work on everybody’s part. Indeed, if I had to point out one particular trend, it’s that as media explodes into more varied channels with more and more and more content getting stuffed into those channels, the citizen who consumes media has to work harder and harder and harder to make sense of the world, and the media creator has to work harder as well.

Greenfield: How are companies adopting to social media?

Berens: Slowly.  Some big companies are allowing their employees to blog, but I think that a lot of companies are not sufficiently listening to the conversation that is happening about their brands and products.  Increasingly, traditional media properties get many of their leads from blogs, which means that ignoring a blogger with a decent readership can be perilous.  

On the creative side, things are happier, I think.  Subaru had a student competition for its new campaign. Bazooka gum has a consumer video contest.  Honda, a year or two ago, had an impressive “People Who Look Like Their Cars” campaign that took off. 

Greenfield: Who is not doing it well?
 

Berens: Wal-Mart’s attempt to rip off MySpace and control the conversation is, I think, not going to work out.  The Mazda’s fake auto manufacturer blog was a big mistake.  In essence, any time that marketers try to use a new media approach but wrap it up in old style control, it’s a time bomb.  

Greenfield: Playing off the column from Wired Magazine, what are “wired,” “tired,” and “expired” in the social media world?

Berens: Starting with “expired,” the belief that the marketer controls the brand image and that the brand can sit apart from the conversation taking place, hiding up in an ivory tower.  If you saw the Diet Coke / Mentos viral video a few weeks back, it was illuminating to see how Coca Cola and Mentos reacted differently to the video. In essence, Mentos completely embraced the video while Coke stuffily responded by saying, “we’d rather have people drink our products.”  Mentos seemed like the cool brand on the block. Coke lost face. The brand is now in play on multiple fronts.

Under “tired” I’d list all forms of interruptive advertising. Online, that would mean, of course, pop-ups, but also anything with audio that is not user-initiated.  The most interesting thing about social media is that there are thousands upon thousands of practitioners out there who create things and then give them away rather than selling them. We’ve returned to a partial gift economy.

As for “wired,” I’d say that the opportunities for marketers and advertisers to sponsor content, bring new content to viewers, brand entertainment and generally help people to achieve their goals… this is just beginning.

Greenfield: how does PR fit into the marketing mix?

Berens: The job of the PR person just got a LOT harder.  There is so much more to keep track of now.  Technology can help — free Google alerts, Technorati, etc. — but it’s a tooth-and-nail fight to keep from being merely reactive.

Talented PR people will be in hot demand, I think, as the sheer size of the media river grows and grows and grows.  For all media consumers and creators, PR, creative, editorial, users, the real challenge now is to know when to UNPLUG.  What to take seriously and what not to take seriously.  These are judgment calls, and judgment comes with experience. 

Another thing that is interesting — and this is both a global media thing and a PR thing — is how time and place shifting will impact everything.  Back in the day, back before the internet, if you had a PR gaffe, and I mean something really horrible, you sucked it up dealt with it and, eventually, it was over.  But nowadays the indelibility of the internet means that some things never die.

The best thing that people in your role can do is to manage UP, to educate CEOs, CMOs and COOs about how much chatter is going on.  The PR folks need to integrate closely with marketing, as closely as they currently do with legal.  That’s on the internal side.

On the external side, you might enjoy this “how to track your buzz” tutorial that has been picked up by different folks. It’s a good indicator of just how much work there is for PR.  

Greenfield: Finally, how can marketers successfully navigate in the new world of social media given that many don’t know what social media is, let alone how to use it?

Berens: I think to that to call what’s happening now “web 2.0 is just ridiculous. At best, we’re somewhere around web 1.01…The point of all this is that enabling the social media conversation is different than forcing it on people.  More people simply WANT information than want to CREATE information.  Successful companies will be careful not to get in the way of basic information acquisition, while making the path to engaging the community well-lit and easy to tread.

Greenfield:  Thank you for your thoughts.

Berens: Always a pleasure.

——-

My interview with Brad is one of many I plan to do with other opinion makers in upcoming postings.  Where I can, I will focus on how social media is blurring the line between traditional marketing and PR – especially as PR professionals rely less on mainstream media journalists to deliver their message. 

Let me get back to you.

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