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.