I ought to start a blog that exclusively focuses on the not-so-pretty way that stories get made.
The April cover story of WIRED is "Radical Transparency," and one of the stories is a Fred Vogelstein feature on the Microsoft "Channel 9" social-media portal. The whole point of the piece -- and the issue -- is to illustrate how businesses are using more open and transparent communication practices to transform themselves.
Nothing new here -- and a lot has already been written about Channel 9 (in fact, I have been touting it as an amazing case study for more than a year). The news today was not the cover story, but a Chris Anderson (WIRED editor) blog post that points to an internal Microsoft memo prepared by the company's agency for the purpose of guiding spokespeople through the Vogelstein interviews. The dossier, as Valleywag called it, reveals how PR is really done at large companies -- coaching, prodding, framing, fixing -- despite what any new-age, transparency-talking PR pro will say.
You can imagine how the blogosphere reacted. No one got off clean -- not Microsoft, not the agency, not WIRED (Valleywag saved its harshest words for the magazine). But everyone was doing their job, and from my perspective (though jaded), no serious PR crimes were committed. And I can't help but feel that all parties will benefit in the end. Nothing wrong with a little tour of the sausage factory, every now and then. How else are we going to learn if there are any health-code violations? (I detected a few).
From Mike Manuel: Voce Communications has hired Andrea Weckerle. It's a big win for the agency; I do not know her personally, but have heard many good things. And she's from the East Coast. As a refugee from New York, I've got some perspective on this. Andrea: you're going to feel quite welcome in the Valley.
Big buzz today on Techmeme today is Freebase, the first project by stealthy start-up Metaweb. It aims to be a centralized database that will automate the machine-to-machine mechanics of Web search. But the way it will do this is by tapping the collective wisdom of folks like you and me -- OK, maybe not you and me, but people far more industrious -- to not only help them build the database, but to provide the metatags that will help with the machine automation. Several things struck me about this story:
--Hype or no hype, this story has so many of the qualities that PR people lust for -- man versus machine (nay man working for machine), a celebrity founder (Danny Hillis), a barely subliminal countercultural reference ("freebase," as in the purified drug), a barely subliminal anti-Google reference ("freebase" as opposed to Google Base) -- that it's easy to see why it has been so irresistable to write about (though few people can pretend to truly understand it).
--Like many Web 2.0 ideas, Freebase assumes that people will actually contribute to the database. We'll see. In the meantime, David Weinberger guesses that it would only require that 2% of the population to tag 98% of the content (though he cheerfully admits that he "totally made up those numbers").
--Already we are talking about Web 3.0. John Markoff, the author of the New York Times piece that broke the Freebase story used that phrase in an earlier piece on the "semantic Web," and naturally the bloggers remembered. But if Web 2.0 was about "you," what, dare we ask, is Web 3.0 about? It might be the sorry realization that many people cannot be bothered with all the things that 2.0 companies are asking them to do. Web 3.0 may be about machines that understand implicit behavior as well as explicit behavior. And if that comes to pass, we've got another sexy story -- machine working for man.
I've seen this happen before. From the outside, the PR world must look like a single, clueless entity. It must be great fun to descend upon us, enter our neighborhood,and start a public rumble. And, of course, it makes for great copy.
That seems to be what happened this week when blogger Stowe Boyd paid his first visit to Third Thursday, a monthly Bay Area meetup for PR pros. (Third Thursday -- which I co-founded last year with PR bloggers Mike Manuel, Jeremy Pepper, and Phil Gomes -- went dark for a few months, and is now back with the support of Jen McClure and Chris Heuer). I was out of town this week, so I missed the event. But the topic was the "social media press release," and the conversation failed to impress Stowe. His post created quite a stir, generating lots of smart comments, as well as the usual barrage of flak-baiting blather we get whenever there's an opportunity to attack the PR industry as a whole.
I happen to agree with many of Stowe's observations; in my opinion, the social media news release is an inconvenient distraction from the real task at hand, which is getting businesses to understand what social media is in the first place, how it changes the rules, and how it challenges received wisdom and ancient corporate communication tools like, er, the press release. But to tell clients to scrap releases altogether is naive (I'll refrain from saying "clueless"), and fails to address the other folks (not PR folks) that need some education. Folks like:
CFOs: in the minds of many CFOs, the standard press release satisfies the requirement of uniform public disclosure. There is a legitmate debate as to whether blogs get the kind of distribution to satisfy that requirement. Many smart PR folks are on the right side of that debate. But the debate is not over.
Google: the very fact that Google segregates news from blogs underscores the question about disclosure. No doubt, this is an effective filtering mechanism, but what company wants to be filtered?
News organizations: yes, even news organizations suffer from this bias. There were several times over the past year when reporters -- smart reporters -- have asked me for a copy of the press release before taking a live briefing, because the release supposedly represented something better than the candid blurbs and observations that the company would otherwise provide. Reporters like that the standard release represents what's official -- i.e., what has been vetted by everyone responsible for the company's public and legal representations (including, sometimes, the CFO).
Folks like Stowe understand that there's a real revolution going on here, and they can't be bothered with half-measures. But until our work is done with the existing gatekeepers (like the three above; there are others), there's little we can do about press releases but improve the way they are written. I believe that this is what the new-release folks are talking about. The consistent themes have been, "get rid of bullshit quotes," "adopt a more direct and personal style of writing," "add meaningful content and links." Sounds right to me. And it reminds me of what I've been telling clients over and over again these past few years: the press release was perhaps the first social-media tool, because it gave businesses the power to play God just like the media. Hell, even bloggers play that game. Problem is, we're all "atheists" today, and we'd prefer to hear the human voice. It's time for all of us to get real.
I'm finishing up a long week of travel, and I've got lots to report (will do so soon). But if there's a single thread to this cross-country tour, it is this: it's cold out there ... everywhere. Even Houston got chill weather this week. I've got a client there who told me the temperature dropped to 31 degrees. In Houston .... And then, there are the storms in the U.K. and Europe.
[Disclosure: my agency represents several companies in the mobile tech space, including JAJAH and Berggi. These views are my own, not those of my clients.]
A few not-so-random thoughts about the Steve Jobs Apple iPhone presentation, which I followed on Engadget:
*It felt like an evangelical church revival. The spectacle, the theatrics, the call-and-response interplay with the audience.... I say that with the utmost respect -- and awe. The audience had many true believers. It was thrilling to see the presentation unfold.
*This evening, I watched the Apple video of the presentation with my wife. We both wondered why there was no mention of business productivity applications, other than voice, email, SMS. Two possibilities -- One: Jobs wants to emphasize that voice, email, and SMS are the chief mobile applications for business users. Two: Jobs wants to market the product to a far bigger audience than business users, and any mention of other productivity applications -- e.g., word processing -- would dilute the overall message. (Here's another perspective).
*Will the iPhone cannibalize the iPod? There's no question in my mind that the timing of this pre-announcement is meant to freeze sales for smart phones (BlackBerries, Treos) in Q1 and Q2 2007. But will it also freeze sales for the iPod? Perhaps, but Apple might compensate for the loss by accelerating sales for the Mac, which suddenly looks like a smart investment for many people.
... so says Sapient , an e-business consultancy, in a recent report. For years, so-called integrated marketing firms have tried to position themselves in the middle of the marketing mix, as capable providers and integrators of various services. It was a concept that was great on paper, miserable in practice, and IM never took off. But with the increasing demand for complex online communication services, IM is getting a second look. And traditional agencies may be unprepared to meet the new challenges. That's a self-serving observation, true; one of the reasons I co-founded Hubbub was to create a group that could credibly integrate the new services. But I do believe that both ad agencies and PR agencies will stuggle in the next year, as more CMOs look for better integration. In the meantime, the ad industry may have the most to lose during this time of transition. An article on the study notes:
According to a recent study of senior marketing executives by Evalueserve for Sapient, just over half of Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs) believe that traditional, large advertising agencies are ill-suited to meet online marketing needs. Similarly, 49% of survey respondents believe that traditional advertising firms have difficulty thinking beyond traditional print and TV media models, which no longer are effective ways of engaging consumers who now get their information and influence one another primarily through digital channels.
One more thing: intellectually, it always made sense that the chief marketing officer -- a recently created role at many organizations -- would come around on this issue. All things that rise must converge, as the saying goes, and CMOs need smarter partners.
Each Christmas, Eden and I take the long drive on Highway 101 from the Bay Area to Los Angeles to spend Christmas with my parents. In recent years -- after Isaac was born -- the annual trip has become an event of sorts, and the journey itself is now as important as the destination. We now stop for an overnight, generally in the San Luis Obispo area, the halfway point. We like The Pismo Lighthouse Suites, because (a) it is comfortable, and, yes, (b) because it is in Pismo Beach, a place that has great personal value to me because I always wondered about it as a boy in New York City. Pismo Beach, you might recall, is where Bugs Bunny went when he took the wrong turn at Albuquerque.
This Christmas, the power of kitsch has weighed heavily on my mind, and the visit to Pismo -- a run-down coastside town better known today for its clams, juvenile delinquents, and middle-aged bikers -- triggered an unusual amount of Holiday introspection about the business I am in. The actual trigger was a visit to a kitschy candy store in a penny arcade where they sold a number of items you're unlikely to find anywhere, except for, of course, in towns like Pismo Beach, a perfect venue for selling of junk-food nostalgia to people old enough to value them and silly enough to buy them. I did not resist the impulse this year. Didn't go overboard -- there was an expensive vintage soda ad that caught my fancy, and I passed on it -- but I did use my son Isaac as the excuse for purchasing a few items from the childhood I never quite had. I bought Isaac a Lightning McQueen Pez, a mini-size Moonpie, and a few sheets of Necco Candy Buttons (arguably the junkiest candy in the world). Isaac, who has just begun to enjoy candy, clearly was not expecting the windfall; his Mom and Dad are pretty strict when it comes to this sort of thing. But it only happened because Dad wasn't really buying candy for Isaac. He was buying something else, and that something else seemed to compensate for both the cash and the guilt that all that junk cost him.
On a recent business trip with a client, we were re-routed to Westchester County to avoid a rainstorm at J.F.K. It was small plane, and a very bumpy ride, and there were several moments when I saw my life flash by, as the old cliché goes. Must have happened to my client, too, because he got into a particularly giddy mood and began telling me about his early days in the marketing business when he worked on the "packaging experience" team at Apple during the first years of the Macintosh. If there is one company that understands the user experience, it is Apple. So important is it to them -- my client explained -- that they include physical packaging as part of the experience. The Apple team even came up with a faux Japanese name for the concept -- as a stand-in, let's call it kitschitomo -- which was supposed to denote the sensation you feel when first opening the box that holds your first Apple product. The idea is that you will get so excited that you will just have to pick up the phone -- perhaps an Apple phone someday -- and call all your friends to tell them about the gift you just got. The faux Japanese concept seems to fit. My client told me about a Japanese store in San Francisco that has elevated physical packaging to an art form. One Christmas, he and his wife bought each other gifts from that store, but never opened them (a contemporary telling of the Gift of the Magi). Opening the packages would have spoiled the experience.
That might sound a little extreme -- the art of packaging fetishized -- but consider the Pez that I bought Isaac the other day. Does anyone buy Pez for the candy? Not likely. More likely they buy Pez for the dispenser, or the memory of buying Pez as a child. The Pez people, from the very beginning, have understood that they're in the user experience business, not the candy business, and that there's little sense in focusing on the quality and flavor of the candy (chalky, tart, forgettable). And for a more contemporary example, remember what Starbucks founder Howard Schultz once said: "we are not in the coffee business serving people, but in the people business serving coffee."
Coffee purists, I am sure, would agree. Starbucks is not in the coffee business. But is there anything wrong with that? During the holiday season, when the entire Western World is under the constant assault of marketers, advertisers, and PR people, I believe it pays to pull back a little and be philosophical. The senselessness of shopping for shopping's sake is at least one of the causes of the emptiness and melancholy so many people feel this time of the year. Yes, shopping and gift-giving help us to connect with people. And yes they drive the American economy, which as a journalist friend recently observed would be even more obvious if you had to cover the consumer electronics industry. But it is the consumer economy that they drive, and you do not need to be a grinch to know that this is not all good. Next year, before you purchase the first gift of the Christmas season, ask yourself three questions:
What am I buying -- is it the item itself, or the experience that the product or service promises to deliver?
If I am buying the experience, does it really make sense to get that experience through this product or service, or is there another way?
OK, you still want to buy the dumb gift, but does it really matter?
In the end, shopping is a personal choice, and if after this little dose of life-examining introspection, you still want to listen to the schnook within -- after all, we're human, and there's a little schnook in each of us -- go ahead. Yes, the life unexamined is not worth living. But a life examined in its entirety is unbearable. Just keep the schnook inside of you in check, lest he steal Christmas, and make you feel dumb the morning after (beware the schnook that stole Christmas). The ultimate user experience -- and it's one that marketers ought to think about in this so-called age of transparency -- is feeling a little less stupid on Christmas.
Oh, I made one other dumb purchase at Pismo Beach: a bottle of Moxie soda. Applying the three-point system above, in retrospect, I fully understood what i was doing: (1) I was buying a bit of kitschy American history that would enable me to send a virtual Christmas gift to a fellow blogger (Miss Moxie), (2) there was no other way of getting that weird experience, and (3) who cares anyway? Well, as it turns out, I got even more than I expected. Curious about the soda, I did some research later that day and discovered that Moxie was the first mass-marketed beverage in the U.S. and that it outsold Coca-Cola in the 20's. Moxie is, in fact, a great case study in marketing and user experience.
Originally a foul-tasting patent medicine (most carbonated beverages began that way), the product was repackaged with great spunk and verve by adman Frank Archer who pulled stunts like creating automobiles equipped with large paper-mache horses that would tour the nation's cities (a brilliant and funny idea because city-dwellers back then were just getting used to the idea of horseless carriages -- "hey, you can put the horse in the carriage"). Moxie was the favorite soda of Calvin Coolidge
and millions of others until the Great Depression when the company decided to cut back on advertising. Without its marketing engine, Moxie was just another foul-tasting beverage, and today it has only a small-but-loyal following, mostly in New England, a world that's famous for its market-snubbing loyalty (e.g., the Boston Red Sox). But when Frank Archer had his marketing budget, the goal was to get the masses to understand that Moxie was, er, "an acquired taste." If the company had bet differently, and kept its marketing budget, it might have succeeded. And it would have made an even better case study on how a sweeter, better tasting beverage may not be the most popular. But after the Great Depression, the soda industry belonged not to Moxie -- a company that marketed itself so well that it became part of the American vernacular (Moxie the brand gave birth to moxie the word, not the other way around) -- but to Coca-Cola and Pepsi which would then go on to package, market and sell to "our schnook within" for generations to come.
But I owe this holiday revelation not to Coke but to Moxie, which in its new "blue cream" version (sans gentian root, the key ingredient in the real Moxie soda), I must admit, is not bad. Not exactly what the practitioners of kitschitomo would hope (I will not be calling friends to rave about it), but not bad. Not bad at all.
Great post by David Strom, who spoke today on Sam Whitmore's weekly conference call with the PR industry. David included Hubbub in a list of PR folks who are using social media "to get their jobs done." Note: David's list, of course, is not complete. But it's an interesting sample of how communication pros are actually using social media to run their businesses or get smarter at what they do.
Paul Gillin (formerly of Computerworld and Tech Target) has written a book called The New Influencers. This chapter on tools is very instructive.
Suzanne Stefanac has written another book called Dispatches from Blogostan. Here is a chapter on blog design, although there are others (not online) that have moretechnical information about Web 2.0.
Digg Labs has two visualization tools (Swarm and Stack) worth a look that show where all those links go.
Michelle Leder, a blogger for footnoted.org, uses SEC and other public documents to research what is going on inside many companies. A story here on the AlbanyTimes-Union talks about her discoveries.
Contantin Basturea’s list of all PR bloggers here and also has another list of more than 250 CEO bloggers (as of October).
Debbie Weil has written the Corporate Blogging Book and has plenty of great advice and case studies too about corporate and CEO bloggers.
Then there is the hubbub guys, who are using Wikis and blogs to build their own PR business.
The folks at SocialMedia Club is focused on identifying best practices in the social networking space that seems geared towards PR people