Thursday, November 27, 2008

Social Media: Fatigue of a Fad?

I had an interesting class last week. A social-media expert guest speaker mentioned Twitter and most students in the class did not show any enthusiasm. The sense was that it was just getting too much. Too many tools. Too many updates. Is it too much? When is it too much? Is this social media boom a fad? Is it a bubble waiting to bust? Or will it keep growing in the future? Regardless, one thing was clear for all us--as PR professionals, we had to be familiar with every new tool of communications that's out there, be able to use it and be able to counsel on its applicability and usage to the clients. There was no escaping from that, if we want to be successful.

My online presence has no doubt expanded in last few weeks. I use Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, RSS feeds; I follow more than 25 blogs daily and also tried Google Analytics recently. I caught on to social media because I know its important. In every class, everyone talks about social media. Every PR professional I am following, virtual or real, acknowledge some aspect of this new media.

Generation Y, the so-called Millennials, those who are in their early 20s, maybe having a sense of fatigue with social media because they use it all the time. It's the way they communicate, it's an integral part of their life! But there are many, rather, most in the PR profession, that are still starting to use social media. They are the early adaptors who are starting to feel the thrill of these new communication tools. And then there are those, who will not use social media for professional communications. A survey of CEOs in September by Burson-Marstellar and PR Week, only 18% said they used social media to communicate and reach their business stakeholders. Factors they cited were lack of control of their message, lack of relevance to stakeholder groups, concern on the ROI and lack of knowledge and capability of the company.

This was not surprising. But what's interesting to me is, here's a generation of workforce, like me, for whom social media is such an integral part of life, to the extent that it becomes exhausting at times. We strongly believe that social media can be used effectively for professional communications. And there's the leadership, the top management of companies, that perhaps use these social media tools personally, but do not use it for business communications. The C-suite executives are still dubious about using blogs, Twitter or other online tools. This divide, I believe, will fill in coming years.

Companies are fast realizing the value of social media and no doubt, the progressive ones are smart enough to see its power and embracing this new media. There is no denying that technology has indeed changed the world--the world of journalism, the world of communications, the world of business and perhaps, with Obama as our leader now, the world of government. The resistance of top management for use of social media will fade over time, once companies and the CEOs prepare themselves for these changes.

There are pros and cons to everything in life. So is with social media. On one hand, social media has made communications instant, transparent, authentic and targetted. It has "democratized" communications and empowered people. I could feel the power of citizen journalism when I was following the recent Mumbai attacks yesterday. I got more relevant and faster updates on Twitter than CNN-IBN. Bloggers were blogging about it, there were "Tweets" from eye-witnesses for donating blood, calling hotline for friends and relatives etc. This article from WSJ today sums it up well. On the other hand, since most companies are still "figuring out," the concerns mentioned in the BM survey by CEOs are legitimate. Lack of control of message is always an issue for communicators. ROI is important. And building capabilities for a company to adapt social media tools is ofcourse, the first step. But all of these concerns can be addressed over time by effective social media usage.

Yes, I still find the need to shut off all gadgets and take time to think and reflect on my life without staring at any sort of screen in front of me. But rather than being on the sidelines and watching this social media phenomenon unfold, I have chosen to jump right in and experience it at its best.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Opportunity or threat?

The recent downturn and financial crisis has led many PR professionals to wonder whether it poses an opportunity or a threat to our profession. On one hand, because of the sheer nature of what we do, companies need our counsel at such times the most--to communicate with different stakeholders, increase frequency of employee communications, monitor the media, safeguard reputation or simply provide on-going strategic counsel. On the other hand, companies are slashing budgets which may or may not include PR, so business at lot of PR agencies who counsel these companies may affect adversely.

Weber Shandwick recently did a study and found that companies are not communicating enough in the present crisis and hence, there is an opportunity for PR profession. In fact, Jack Leslie, the chairman of Weber Shandwick said on CNBC that he has seen an increased demand for communications in the management. If so, its great news for our profession. We are finally recognized for the value we demonstrate to companies. For more on the CNBC interview with Leslie and more on role of PR in this crisis, click here.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Lessons from a historical campaign

It's been three days since Obama's victory and I am hardly recovering from the excitement and Obamania around the election day. The world seems to have changed so much in these three days. There is hope and spirit of "change" in the air. Change was evident in the elections: Traditional red states turned blue. There was a record turnout of young voters across America. Thousands and thousands of volunteers worked with passion for campaigning for Obama. Obama's victory was their victory.

Having lived in the United States a little over three years, I have not really been a part of previous election campaigns and was unaware of the drama that goes during the entire time during the presidential campaigns--the debates, the commercials, the SNL spoofs, the tours, the controversies, the media. I am not a republican or a democrat or even an independent. But I am indeed fortunate to witness this historical campaign. And to be able to study one of the best campaigns fought in the history of American politics.

I was intrigued by Jack Welch's recent remarks on CNBC about President-Elect Obama. He said, "Obama has run his campaign like a business. Every manager in the world should learn and study his campaign to succeed in business." Hmm. What principles can business leaders learn from Obama's campaign?

First, of course, is the extraordinary leadership. Business success is largely dependent of leadership of the management and there is little doubt that Obama will be mentioned in the history books as one of the finest leaders who was able to unite and rally America at one of its most difficult times. Like an entrepreneur, he surprised and beat his opponents every way by innovative strategies. He went into states where Democrats never went. He tapped millions of dollars using the power of technology. He defined reality for the American people, that the journey is not going to be easy. Yet, without demotivating them. There is no secret now that America and few of the global economies will be in recession for the next year and if Obama can instill hope among people, cross traditional barriers to get things done and can unite and rally people to work together, it will be the most important contribution his presidency can offer. It is such extraordinary leadership of top management that defines how a business fights or concedes in challenging situations.

Next comes the power of strategic communications. When polls showed the economy is top on the minds of voters, Obama effectively talked about key economic issues. He understood his stakeholders, the voters. During crisis, (Rev Wright) Obama did not shy away from the issues raised. Rather, he came out and addressed it directly and honestly, without wasting any time. His speech on race not only helped calm the issues, it also increased his respect among voters. This was another example of his exemplary leadership. His speeches brought hope and inspiration for the millions. The more time passed, the more credibility he earned by straightforward, inspiring and candid communication.

In our Strategic Communications class, I learned the importance of framing, mental structures that are triggered by language and words. Framing is key to strategic and persuasive communications. If facts fit the frame, facts stick. But if facts don't fit the frame, the frame remains and facts bounce off. Whoever controls the frame, controls the outcome. This is better understood by studying Obama's classic and shrewd campaign. Obama's frame was 'change.' With that theme, he reinforced his messages that stuck with the frame and persuaded voters. (changes in healthcare, change in tax plans, foreign policy etc). McCain, on the other hand, failed to have a frame that he could own. Even some of the facts that McCain talked about Obama, like William Ayers, never stuck to the original frame of 'change' controlled by Obama.

Finally, Obama's use of technology in this year's "YouTube election" will also offer many guiding principles for generations of campaigners to come. His grassroots support and ground game was at the core of his victory over old, seasoned democrats like Hillary Clinton and later, against John McCain. And this grassroots support came by leveraging technology--websites, online social networks, youtube etc. From creating buzz, marketing, advertising, fund-raising, volunteer network and relationship building, online tools helped Obama achieve historical milestones in this campaign. (e.g. victory in Iowa). The world of communications is "democratized" today and businesses have no option but to change their traditional, old models of management and open up two-way communications. Technology is powerful and if harnessed properly, it can do wonders for the business.

I was reading Obama's blog and learned that he sent a message to all his online supporters before heading out to Grant Park for his victory speech. It was a short note of gratitude for their support. He has created another website, for Americans to read about his policies, provide feedback and write about issues that are important to them. It will be interesting to see if Obama can make the Government processes transparent and open for people by using technology. And like the feedback section on his new website, if he really intends to engage and listen to people in policy-making, it will be an iconic shift from the way government runs in Washington.

Obama's masterful and almost flawless execution of his campaign and his ultimate victory serve as great example for business leaders. Here is a leader that has rallied almost entire world by powerful, honest and inspiring communications that is really required in today's cluttered world.

Of course, the big question still remains--whether Obama can govern as well as he can speak. Nevertheless, the way Obama has campaigned for two years tells a lot about his intellectual prowess. I am sure better times are yet to come.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Is there a silver lining?

Fareed Zakaria writes there is one. Fareed writes that amidst all the fears of recession, global economic meltdown and the credit crunch, there is a silver lining for the United States--if it learns lessons from this crisis. The culture of overspending and over leveraging might finally end. The habit of having 10 credit cards and fancy cars and houses that we cannot afford will no longer remain the same. Accounting standards will change, regulations will change, all for the better and not worse. We will see a more disciplined America.

We are witnessing history in the making. Probably even the world's most intellectual economists are having a hard time figuring where's the bottom. The unpredicatable swings in Dow Jones everyday only indicate that maybe worst is not over yet. United States, as stated in Fareed's article, is on its way to having some fundamental changes not only in the way Wall Street operates, but in a way the economy is regulated and governed.

When the world markets are in turmoil and there's rampant fear of recession in the United States, two politicians, aspiring to take the most coveted seat (so far) in the White House, the Presidency of US, had their final debate this week in long island, NY. Obama and McCain fought tooth and nail last night, and all the pundits, analysts, media polls, republicans and democrats provided their own analysis of how they performed and who won. However, none of them talked about the global meltdown, the meltdown continuing in Asian markets and how prepared are they to take leadership in this crisis. Rather, Joe the Plumber took the center stage and became an overnight celebrity. Sure, they did mention their economic plans as part of their "key messages," however, both lacked a thorough, convincing, specific view on how they perceive the current situation and what exactly will they do about it. Ironically, they know that its the number one issue on everyone's minds right now. It is unfortunate that none of the candidates seem to have any grasp of what's going on in the world economic crisis and we are only 20 days away from selecting what was once the most powerful and coveted positions in the world, the President of US. I do not favor any party or leader. But it is sad that this crisis is not only of confidence, but also of capable leadership in the country today.

Economic downturns are cyclical, what goes up comes down and what comes down will surely move up. However, as Fareed writes, United States is undergoing some profound changes--in its culture, in its society, in its markets, in its government and in its leadership. It remains to be seen if the vision of the two presidential candidates will enable this country to cope in this changing environment.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Time to speak up and fight back

I read an interesting article about an op-ed published in Forbes about Goldman Sachs. It predicted that Goldman and Morgan will be the next banks to fail and that they should consider more options of merging with foreign banks. Interestingly, the head of media relations at Goldman replied back stating the claim is more "from gut" than factual. I loved reading the Goldman's reply as well as the original post.

We are indeed living in fascinating times. The communicators at the survivor banks like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley face a daunting task: Their firms are constantly amidst rumors, analyst discussions, speculations and media scrutiny and it is the job of these communicators to remain vigilant about what is said about them and act promptly to correct facts and restore investor confidence. This is over and above providing candid and honest communication to all their stakeholders about their strategies and current operations, boosting employee morale within the company and keeping clients happy and reassured.

After Moody's sent a release about the possible downgrade of securities of Morgan Stanley, if the Mitsubishi deal doesn't come through, the stock of Morgan Stanley plunged. However, Morgan was quick to respond. The management immediately held meetings with its shareholders, communicated with its employees and counter-parties to reassure them about the Mitsubishi deal and explain Morgan's current stability.

The importance of communicators has never been so crucial. Today, they are adding demonstrable value on every front--right from keeping the morale of employees high to safeguarding the reputation of their company amidst all the speculation and rumors. At a time when confidence is at historically low proportions, only honest communication can restore it and help regain the credibility. In today's environment, where rumors are driving the fate of hundreds of years old institutions, effective, prompt communication has not only helped businesses fight back wherever needed, but it has also helped them survive.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Historic times....historic measures

Living two blocks from the Federal Reserve building in Downtown Manhattan and witnessing the unfolding drama among the global banking leaders so closely is not the only reason I will remember the last weekend forever. Rather, I'll remember it for the speed at which the fate of hundreds of years old financial institutions got decided in a couple days and the impact it had on the rest of the global economies. That Wall Street is on its way for a historic transformation is not a surprise now. Lehman Brothers collapsed after failing to find a suitable buyer to rescue it, meanwhile Merill Lynch grabbed the opportunity of selling itself to Bank of America before history repeated itself for Merill, like Lehman. Though the Fed did not change the much anticipated interest rates, it decided to extend $85 billion to AIG to bail it out.

As a communications professional, I believe this is a FASCINATING time to really check in real time the value of powerful communications in restoring a company's reputation. Going into the historic weekend, the overall sentiment among everyone on Wall Street was that Lehman will have to be bailed out either by Fed or will be bought out by someone (most likely by Bank of America or Barclays) and thus be saved. Come Sunday, Lehman announced liquidation and Bank of America announced it is buying Merill Lynch. If you were an employee at Lehman or Merill, what would your reaction to the news be? You might be shocked and grieved and wait to hear from some official word from the top management of your company. In Lehman's case, the employees are still waiting. Richard Fuld, the widely popular chief excecutive of Lehman did not address its employees--not after filing the Chapter 11 bankruptcy, not after sending out the release, not the next day morning, not the next day evening.........not at all perhaps. Media reported Fuld's huge painting in front of Lehman building signed by various employees and on-lookers with hate messages. For someone who's worked his way up from an intern to a CEO at Lehman, led the company through difficult times like 9/11 and done some great things for Lehman, this must have been the final nail in the coffin. In two short days, Fuld lost all respect that he might have earned by working hard throughout his life.

Whereas Merill and Bank of America acted quickly. The CEOs appeared jointly in a press conference the next day, convincing the world how strategically perfect their combination was and the synergies that the two businesses achieved because of the merger. Merill website was updated with the announcement. Chances are, the employees at these companies were also communicated in some fashion about the merger.

One can only imagine what would the emotions and sentiments among employees and everyone on the Wall Street be right now. The confidence is tremendously shaken, the morale is low, there is fear, anger, anxiety and uncertainity about what's next. Is the worst over? What is more to come? Timely and effective communications in such turbulent, difficult times can address these questions, if not answer them fully. For the big financial institutions, it is important that they keep serving clients, keep getting more business and keep working together through this crisis. But for that, they need to communicate honestly and timely to their stakeholders--employees, clients, shareholders, customers, Government and media. Bank of America might have to assure employees of the process of integration with Merill and what it means to them. Merill might have to communicate with its clients and employees what this merger would do for them. And of course, Lehman should do what it has not done at all! Speak up, accept the reality, provide an explanation and the future of its employees atleast, if not all stakeholders. Chapter 11 bankruptcy does not mean that the business will be shut down, it only means orderly disposing of assets to pay off bad debts etc. So if the business has to keep running, start afresh and hopefully get back on track, doesn't Lehman need its employees, clients, counter-parties, short, everyone whom it affects? It's a sorry sight to watch employees on national television pack boxes and take their stuff from the Lehman office at night, when they probably don't know why and what's next.

It is said that the real task of a leader is to define reality. And reality is defined cleary with honesty, character, integrity and clear communication. Even if communications cannot change the fate of a company, it certainly can promise to get business back on track, which is of tremendous value in such times. And, like Lehman, if you are going down, why not go down with dignity? For those like AIG who are still surviving, isn't it important to communicate your key stakeholders what's going on, what you are going to do about it, and what are they expected to do?

The leaders of major financial institutions have a herculean task ahead of them--to motivate employees to continue working with a focus on the future, to assure Government that it is doing all it can to help the entire industry and to retain and calm the investors and clients whose confidence have shaken. But in the end, mutual respect, unity and trust among all stakeholders is what might save a company in such times and only candid and timely communication can help achieve it.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Election 2008

There is no doubt that the current election campaign is by far the most interesting and close campaigns in the history of American politics. It began with Hillary v Obama, then moved on to Obama v McCain and now its Palin/McCain v Biden/Obama. Boy, what a journey for these presidential candidates!

I am following the election closely--not as a citizen of America who will be deciding the fate of these candidates by casting my vote, but as a strategic communications professional who learns from these events everyday. This campaign is rich with learnings for PR aspirants with stark indications of what to do and what not to do and the best practices. Obama's messaging ("change"), his framing and extraordinary oratory make him one of the most likeable candidates, while McCain's messaging ("country first") and strong story content (war veteran, personal sacrifices etc) make him the most logical choice.

Today, Gov Sarah Palin got a chance to make her case to the country. Her speech was important--to introduce her to the nation, to convince the nation of her leadership abilities and to explain the recent media reports and controversies surrounding her family. All eyes were on her today. She delivered the speech with poise and confidence. While there will be numerous reports in top national media and online blogs, newsites etc critiquing her speech, from a communications standpoint, I believe her speech was indeed a great effort on her part.

Sarah did a great job addressing criticism on her lack of experience, "small town" image, taking on the opponents on key issues like energy independence (which is her sort of her expertise!) and national security. She was playful at times, serious and ferocious at other times. She easily connected easily with the audience too ("hockey moms"!)

Perceptions matter and there is no better example of how communications can shape perceptions, than in this year's election campaigns. Like other fellow Americans, I would be eager to see the outcome of this fight. Meanwhile, effective communication strategies will continue to dictate victories or losses for these candidates.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

There I go again...!

Two years and four months--that's the time before when I first penned my thoughts on a blog. Boy, how time has changed since then! From random ramblings to deep discussions, from obscure unknown sources to the 'go-to' destinations, blogs have evolved in such a short time-frame! And I have grown so much more in these two years as well. A student in Public relations and Corporate Communications, with two real-world credible internship experiences and an enthusiast of the New York city--I sure have a lot to catch up on this blogosphere!

I felt the need to start blogging about PR simply because now, I am knee-deep in this profession, atleast in terms of knowledge, if not experience. Countless everyday observations that add so much more meaning to my repertoire of knowledge compelled to me to pen it down and share with the world. Public relations and Communications is a fascinating field (despite its share of controversies) and I am indeed very glad that I found my passion in it. This blog will be about my musings on what all is going on in the world of PR and the shared knowledge of interesting articles, quotes, anecdotes, newsmakers, news itself! I only hope I do a good job keeping up with regular posts and eventually, improve my writing in the process (that I so much need!) Hope you'll stay tuned.