Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Social reading

This holiday, it feels like I've been treated to my fiction wish list with new books by two of my favourite authors, Kurt Vonnegut and Philip Roth. Roth's is The Humbling, a short novel about acting and dying (literally); and Vonnegut's is Look at the Birdie, a collection of early unpublished stories that very much ring true today. I've read one book and am halfway through the other and wish neither would end.

And speaking of books (now there's a segue), I thought this is a good time to highlight and recommend a few social media reads that stood out for me in 2009. All three books offer insights on the lay of the social landscape and its growing importance to business.

They are (in no particular order):

SocialCorp by Joel Postman - I reviewed the book when it first came out and feel it's a great starting point for any organization seeking a strategic approach to becoming more social. The writing is smart and crisp. Of particular interest are the case studies and Joel's approach to ethics and transparency.

Six Pixels of Separation
by Mitch Joel - I finally met Mitch in person this year (having been a reader/listener for a long time) and thoroughly enjoyed his book. Again, it's aimed at businesses who want to enter the social arena and is filled with ideas, tips and real-world examples. His writing is sharp and knowledgeable. And he's managed to capture the essence of his engaging speaking voice in print (not an easy thing to do).

Groundswell by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff - This isn't a new book, but it stands the test of accelerated time (in this case about two years). It's a researchers approach to social media, technographics and the marketplace. But while it's filled with data, it's anything but academic and offers practical approaches to getting started: listen (first ) and then engage the people you're trying to reach (both inside and outside an organization).

One other non-fiction book that stood out for me is Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. It's written in his inimitable conversational style and has some wonderful stories about why some people succeed and others don't; looking beyond raw talent and taking other, often surprising, factors into account.

By the way, I read all of these in the old fashioned print format. I've yet to get an e-reader, but now that Kindle's available in Canada, that's something I'll probably try.

Do you have any other titles to add?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The secret of comedy?


Yes, that's the punchline to an old joke but it's also very true. And for a comic, material (content) is key - but equally important is its delivery (timing).

In other words, is your message getting to the people you're trying to reach when they're looking? (That's what retail is all about.)

I was thinking about timing this morning; I always do at the end of the year reflecting on what's ahead, looking back.

And I realized that, in addition to standout content, timing is of the essence for PR and social media.

For example, if you're trying to reach a business audience, should you post a new blog entry on Saturday afternoon or would it have more impact on a weekday? When are the people you're trying to build relationships active online? Are they too busy thinking about something else (the holidays, for instance) to pay attention to your message? What's the optimal time to publish to reach your goals?

I think as social media moves to the mainstream, we need to blend immediacy with appropriate timing. Sure we want to share some things right away - but before we do, let's stop for a moment and think about whether this is the best time to publish or press send.

Of course, I should probably hold this post till after the holidays, but sometimes you break your own rules.

Thanks for sticking with me and reading my blog this year. I want to wish you and yours a Merry Christmas and a truly enjoyable holiday season. It's time!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Seasonal spam

If I can borrow a thought from Gertrude Stein, 'a spam is a spam is a spam'.

And I think it's safe to say it's something we all despise.

This year, spam has turned seasonal with the proliferation of holiday e-cards. They're coming fast and furious and there's no way to stop them.

Now, I'm no Scrooge McDuck. In fact, I love the Christmas Spirit. If you listen to Inside PR #184, you'll hear me say that I think we should go back to saying 'Merry Christmas' and not rely on the euphemistic 'happy, etc. etc.' Having grown up without the holiday, I'm a big fan of the celebrations, the parties, the lights, the songs...

And the cards. I even like receiving cards from people I don't know very well, but who have at least made the effort to sign them.

However, e-cards are a completely different thing. In the same way that PR people used to blast out mass uncustomized pitches in a bcc list to hundreds of journalists (or more), these e-cards do nothing to build a relationship. They don't offer a genuine greeting, but attempt to sell you something. In fact, since I've been writing this post, I've received four more - all from companies I've never heard of!

'They're just using Christmas to market their own shit', says Louise Armstrong, who, if you read her blog and know her, is not prone to using that type of language lightly.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm happy (honoured) to be on your mass distribution list if we know each other (and I appreciate the gesture). And I will admit that we've sent e-cards in the past, though we put people's names in the to line, emailed them one at a time and only to people we consider colleagues and friends.

This is a wonderful time of year to reach out, reconnect and show people you're thinking about them. Like social media, why not make it personal and meaningful?

So let's get away from Christ-mass: please stop sending out seasonal spam. (Pass it along.)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Before marking

In early September, I wrote about the FDOC (first day of class) for my McMaster social media course. And now - 14 weeks later - we had our final session. And before I start marking (it feels like an arduous task), I thought I'd share a few observations.

First off, I've had a great time meeting and getting to know the students; watching (and hopefully helping) them learn to make their way around social networks and seeing how their voices emerged. I'm happy to report that most of them want to continue their blogs. In case you're interested, here's a class list.

It's been a truly rewarding and humbling experience. I met the father of one of my students at Tim's before class. He's a former teacher and remarked that teaching is like being on stage except you're throwing away 20 per cent of the script. That's a great description.

Here are a few things I learned:

  • It takes a lot of time to prepare - I spent between four and five hours each week getting the lecture ready, managing the Ning class site and keeping up with reading and trends.
  • Terry Flynn was right. I can see why he said you need to teach a course three times to fine tune all the details. Overall I was pleased, but there are some things, notably the course outline and assignments, that I would adapt.
  • If possible, the textbook for a social media course should be in a digital format - so it can be updated frequently with new tools and relevant case studies. There's an opportunity for someone.
  • Because it takes time to build relationships, readership and trust, I wonder if this should be a full-year course.
  • I'm not used to being the marker as opposed to the markee. I guess I will be soon.
Well, now it's time to stop procrastinating and start reading the blogs and Wiki assignments and doing some serious grading.

Congratulations to all the students. Thanks for making it easy for me to get up early every Saturday morning and drive to Hamilton. Thanks also for making me want do it again!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

PR and sales - cut from the same cloth?

I think we are. And I say that with complete sincerity. (Pause for the sound of people throwing things.)

I actually think our profession has a lot more in common with sales than with marketing.

For the record, I grew up in sales. My dad owned a couple of fabric and drapery stores in Winnipeg. And watching him go about his business, I learned that the best sales people, like the best public relaters, are all about two-way relationships. Listening. Helping. Telling a story well and truthfully. Being social. Engendering trust.

Now that's not to say we're completely altruistic. Like any business we're goal-oriented. But we don't create visuals that do nothing but dazzle, sweep you off your feet with sweepstakes or deliver direct mail directly to the circular file.

Sure there are stereotypical images of high pressure salesman - hucksters - who see you as nothing more than a commission. The same holds true for certain PR people - call them hypesters - who'll stoop to anything to get their client's name 'in the press'. Both types give their respective professions a bad name.

But have you ever sat in a room full of great sales folks and listened to them swap stories? You really get a sense that they like and respect their customers/clients, and will go out of their way to help.

And if they're really good, they know they won't always win or hear the answer they want. But that doesn't matter. They're in it for the long haul.

Sounds familiar, doesn't it.

So... sales and PR - cut from the same cloth, as the son-of-a-fabric-man might say. What do you think of that?

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Does PR need a new name?

When I started in PR, I worked in arts and entertainment and called myself a publicist. And I was proud of the title.

Then I switched to the corporate agency side and became a PR consultant who practised media relations. It didn't take me long to realize those two were pretty close to the same thing. In fact, while we offer many types of communications counsel, media relations/publicity has, for a long time, been the cornerstone of what we do.

But these days with MSM in transition, it doesn't take an Amazing Kreskin to predict that our comfortably familiar landscape is fading. And great chunks of it are just plain disappearing; morphing into something new.

So with PR in rapid-evolutionary-mode (REM), perhaps it's time to dream big and rethink what what we do and where we're heading.

And for me (and many other people) that means a shift to social media. I have to say direct-to-influencer connecting has re-energized the profession, encouraged us to learn (and enabled me to teach) and caused us to look at what we do through a less-filtered lens. It's also given the profession a voice and helped us step out of the shadows.

But in order to truly change, we need to rid ourselves of our shackles - notably our reliance on pure media relations. Sure, that will always be a part of our repertoire. But if we want to survive and thrive, we need to do so much more:

  • Really start listening (that means opening our minds)
  • Get better at telling visual stories
  • Become less text-reliant, while still being the guardians of grammar and voice - we can't ever forget how to write with clarity and style
  • Master new techniques - video/audio production, designing and coding a website
  • Join communities, participate and connect
  • Issue a full-on challenge to marketing and advertising. Maybe I'm biased, but I feel we really are the naturals to understand and get around in this space.

So what should we call this new entity? Truth is, I'm not sure.

Social media? I like it, but there's a day where that could seem faddish. Digital relations? Sounds like PR for the AI set. Social relations? A bit too much like someone who plans parties for the DAR. Social networking? Too much like self-help. Networked relations? Are your cousins on Facebook too?

Part of me still likes the term public relations - that is if we go back to its original definition.

Or maybe we need a completely new moniker. And if so, do you have any ideas what it should be called?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Do you complify instead of simplify?

At Palette we have a promise (to our clients and ourselves) that our relationships and work will be based on three pillars: simplicity, energy and integrity.

It's at the heart of everything we do.

But lately I've noticed that for some people and organizations simplicity has (simply) gone awry.

And instead of making life easier, we make things more complex: we complify.

Here's what I mean. In the course of a workday, you notice something you're doing is cumbersome and has too many pointless steps. You think, we should come up with a way to fix this.

But instead of cutting through the crap, egos get involved. And then an old process is replaced by a newer process, a few extra levels are added (in the spirit of collaboration, of course) and all of a sudden something that wasn't working very well to begin with (the devil you know) has been transformed into something that doesn't work at all.

Congratulations. You've just been complifed.

So how can we avoid getting into this trap?

Here are three (simple) steps:
1. Ask yourself if an improvement is truly needed and if so, will people buy in.
2. Strip down the activity to its base elements, assume nothing is sacred and cut, cut, cut. (Pretend CTL-V does not exist.)
3. If your solution involves more than a couple of moving parts...abort! Remember what you're goal is.

Sounds simple? Sure. But I can tell you in no time, it wouldn't be hard to add a few more steps to this plan and complify.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Poppy Day (revisited)

Every November 11, I think of my dad, a WWII veteran and a man with a supreme joy for life. He always shared his wisdom, ideals and opinions (often without being asked), but kept the horror of his war experience to himself. He passed away over nine years ago, and for me, Remembrance Day is like another Yahrzheit for him. So today, to celebrate his memory and everything he taught me, I'm going to republish part of a post I wrote in 2007:

November 11.

When I was growing up in Winnipeg we called Remembrance Day: Poppy Day. And every year when it came around, my Dad would return from work with a poppy on his lapel. Often, he’d bring some home for us and I felt it was both a thrill and an honour to wear one. It connected me with my Dad and by extension with history. It made me feel proud.

Back then my dad, a veteran who saw action as part of Montreal’s Blackwatch regiment in WWII, would have bought the poppy from someone more senior than he was (by that I mean someone who’d fought in WWI).

Later, the ‘torch’ was passed to the WWII vets, and now they’re mostly gone too. Today, you never know who’s going to sell you a poppy (and sometimes it’s just the honour system and a contribution you make at Tim Horton’s). Time marches on.

Every year, I continue to wear a poppy over my heart and feel nostalgic. I love the symbol, the visual reminder of Flanders Fields, where ‘poppies blow between the crosses row on row. That mark our place…’

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Introducing my social media class

Well, the social media for PR course I'm teaching at McMaster University is half over (hard to believe) and the students are busy working on their blogs. I'd like to take this opportunity to introduce and welcome them to the online community.


Blog title


Devorah Abrams Farmer

Devorah’s Blog


Suad Abukamla

Suadabukamla’s Blog

Natalie Ardanaz

Natalie’s Blog


Lisa Atkinson

Lisa M. Atkinson blog


Christine Davis

My New Digs


Sonja Dowbiggin

Staying Alive in the 905


Donna Drake

Dawna’s Blog


Paul Jones

Collapse of the West


Giselle Kimos

HR and more...


Lesley Morris

It’s All About Relationships


Julia Oudeh

JuliaOudeh’s Blog


Jotsna Pervin

JBPV’s Blog


Helen Powers

Socially Responsible Thoughts


Madeline Robins

You, Me and Poverty


Margaret Shkimba

In the Sisterhood


Mark Skeffington

About Cities


Allyson Wenzowski

Allyson’s Publicity Works School Works Blog


Kaan Yucel

Kaan’s Dervish Lodge


If you have a chance and visit their sites, you'll see an eclectic group; original voices writing about a wide variety subjects including living the unemployed life, corporate social responsibility, city politics, HR, women in society, being a new homeowner, a doctor's view of the mind, and many more.

And, if you do drop by, please share your comments and thoughts. I'm sure they'll appreciate it.

Special thanks to Joe Thornley for suggesting I do this.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Are Canadian media responsible for spreading viral news?

You can't pick up a Canadian newspaper, listen to radio or watch TV without hearing about H1N1, the vaccination process, supply issues, lineups...

But the story doesn't seem to have the same intensity in the U.S. It wasn't even mentioned in Conan O'Brien's monologue a couple of days ago (when it was the lead on CBC) - and talk show openings are often a good barometer of big news stories (as silly as that sounds).

I did a search of 'H1N1 vaccine' on Google this morning* and in the first 30 results, there were 25 Canadian stories; four U.S. stories; and one international story. That's over 80 per cent of today's coverage emanating from Canada.

Now, we all know a pandemic is a very serious situation. And I'm not saying we shouldn't do everything we can to prevent the spread of the virus. It's important to be informed and educated.

But I wonder if Canadian media are making H1N1 a bigger story than it needs to be right at the moment.

What do you think?

*Search results as of 9:30 a.m., November 4, 2009

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Musings on meshmarketing

Last week, I attended meshmarketing - a one-day gathering in Toronto highlighting social media case studies and best practices.

The event took place at CiRCA, a Toronto nightclub. And I have to say, I wasn't ready for the stanchions, bouncer attitude and red carpet at 8 in the morning. In fact, it felt like I was entering a super-cool boutique hotel - dark and with plenty of attitude. I got the impression that many of the staff had not been on the job at that time of day in a long, long time.

However, my eyes (and attitude) adjusted before the sessions. Here are my Twitter-notes highlights:

Keynote Gaping Void/Hugh MacLeod:
- Human beings socialize around objects; we talk about them; share knowledge.
- Web 1.0 = search. Web 2.0 = share.
- Products don't go viral just b/c you throw a lot of money behind them.

Facebook's Elmer Sotto:
- Facebook thinks people want to interact with brands in much the same way as they connect with friends.
- Think about FB user experience, profile, compelling profile visual (doesn't have to be logo) & thumbnail image.
- On FB brands should pace their posts, establish an 'editorial' calendar and [not] overdo it.

Measurement guru Katie Delahaye Paine:
- Measuring eyeballs shifting to measuring engagement; numbers go down but quality of dialogue goes up.
- People measure; computers count. You need people to analyse the results.
- Improve reputation by changing conversation: listen first then respond, and stop doing stupid things.

With one exception, the sessions offered useful tips and practical approach - the same high calibre as Mesh but in a change-of-intensity setting. And I liked that the level of information was aimed at people with a working knowledge of social media and not at the beginner level.

I also had a chance to record a couple of 4Qs for a future Inside PR podcasts.

If you were there, do you have any other nuggets to add?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Fixing what's broken between journalism and PR

On Inside PR #173, my '-30-' comment, the short POV remarks we're using to end the show, dealt with a few of the things we need to do to start fixing the pretty much broken relationship between journalism and PR.

This is something that must be done. And I think it's up to our industry to take the lead and try improve the way we interact with each other; build trust, credibility and respect on both sides. I think the same applies to bloggers and other influencers, as well.

Part of the problem lies with the way our profession functions: trying to place stories, traditionally in MSM, for clients or organizations. We often feel under a lot of pressure to deliver results for which we have virtually no control.

Fine. That's our reality and no one forced us into it. I'm proud to be a PR practitioner and this uncertainty is one of the things we just accept.

There are many media with whom I feel I have a good professional relationship. I define that as being able to approach a journalist/blogger with an idea they might be interested in, showing them why/how it works in a quick, efficient manner and having them say either say yes or no (or sometimes saving it for a future story).

However, I think that over the years we have made many repeated mis-steps that hurt the industry and our collective reputation.

And now, with social media and two-way conversations being embraced by both sides, this seems like a perfect time to make the change.

Here are 10 steps the PR profession can take right now:

  1. Always read a journalists or blogger's past stories (and not just from last week). We need to do our research and know who's covering or interested in which subjects.
  2. Know the difference between hard and soft news and position a story accordingly. It may seem big to us (or our client), but we have to step back and realize where our news fits into the grand scheme of things. I mean really fits.
  3. Be transparent and tell the truth.
  4. Stop writing in corporate-speak
  5. Strive to be helpful, not a pest.
  6. Understand that while our clients are a top priority for us, the reporter has many other priorities and we need to empathize more with them.
  7. Stop making media lists from databases. Go to the source: newspapers, broadcast outlets, blogs, online publications. See who's writing about what. If we're not passionate about media, why are we in PR?
  8. Never blast out an email to a large (or small) bcc list. We've all done that in the past. And some are still doing it. Really, this was a bad idea from the start. It turned us into broadcasters, something we're not.
  9. Leave our PR egos at the door. It's up to us to reach journalists. Stop griping if they don't always call back when we want them to.
  10. Help journalists and bloggers understand the new FTC rules/principles so that we can continue to work together in a mutually beneficial way.
It sounds simple but we've got to make the first move.

What do you think?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

CPRS Toronto gets connected

As many of you know, I'm the president of CPRS Toronto and, if you're in the city, I'd encourage you to attend our first fall professional development event.

It's a panel discussion on October 15 called 'Get Connected: Building Virtual Relationships to Expand Communications'.

It features three savvy social media strategists, Michael O'Connor Clarke, Eden Spodek and William Young, talking about how we can use social media tools to engage and connect with our communities online and in real life.

I'll be moderating the session.

If you're interested, here's some information on the event. Hope to see you there.

Friday, October 09, 2009

To tell or not to tell...

That seems to be the question these days. It follows on changes to the FTC's rules requiring, among other things, that bloggers to disclose if they've received product samples for review.

There's been a lot of discussion on the subject online and in MSM including a good piece in the Globe and Mail. There was also a lively Twitter debate between Jeff Jarvis and Mark Glazer (thanks Mathew Ingram).

And while the ruling doesn't apply to Canada, the principles do.

For the record, I am in favour of disclosure. I think it's always easier to be up-front, honest and transparent. Then, people know who you are and where you stand.

I think a lack of disclosure by some (many?) PR practitioners over the years, contributed to giving our profession a bad name.

However, I think Jeff Jarvis brings up a good point about fairness. Why should bloggers be singled out when MSM journalists receive product samples all the time? Shouldn't both be held to the same standards? If not, the rules seem skewed in favour of companies over those with an individual voice.

I'd much rather have a level playing field with the same code of transparency, ethical behaviour and freedom of expression for all sides.

UPDATE: Here's a good legal perspective on the new FTC regulation from the Council of PR Firms' legal counsel, Davis and Gilbert LLP (by Michael Lasky).

Thursday, October 01, 2009

How much is too much (social media, that is)?

That's a question I was asked recently in my social media class. And it's one that comes up a lot.

With the proliferation of social networking tools, how much time should we/can we spend on various sites?

I'd like to borrow my answer from a thoughtful post by Amber Naslund: 'It depends'.

Actually, I think you need to look at the question from two perspectives.

The first has to do with the learning curve involved when you try to master anything new. And that can be fairly substantial including:
- Discovery
- Getting a handle on what a site is all about and how to use it intelligently
- Registering
- Testing
- Listening
- Engaging
- Participating

All this takes time. And it's not something that can be accomplished in an eight-hour burst (though you sometimes need that sort of intensity to get started). It's a long-term commitment; the same process that we go through when we learn anything new.

The second consideration is personal: What are you looking to get out of the site?

Here are a few things to ponder:
- Is this something you have to know/do as part of your job/class?
- How busy are you?
- What one thing that you’re currently enjoying would you be willing (and able) to scale back or give up?
- What are you looking for (fun, networking, business-building)?
- Will it obsess you (and not in a positive way)?
- Will adding it to your routine completely overwhelm you?
- How will it affect your real-life relationships?

Really, it comes down to a matter of self-awareness, personal and professional choices, your goals and commitment. And a willingness to experiment with something new.

And of course, if you don't like it, you can always stop and try again later.

What do you think?

Monday, September 28, 2009

The PR list

I was recently honoured to be part of Valeria Maltoni's list of 100 PR people to follow on Twitter. I can only imagine how much research it took her to assemble and review each person, read their blogs and put in all the links.

It features some really smart PR folks and original thinkers (many of whom I've been following for a while). Talk about being in good company...

And, if you go here, Neville Hobson's assembled the group so you can easily select the ones you want to check out.

Thanks to all the new folks who found me. I'm trying to catch up, but it will take me a little time. In the meantime here are a couple of things you may want to know:

  • I look at every follower's profile, read a bunch of tweets and often click on your website to get a sense of who you are and your personality
  • I'm particularly interested in people who work in PR/communications/social media, but I'm also open; again it's all about personality
  • I try to follow back if we have a couple of conversations
  • I never auto-DM
Looking forward to 'meeting' and engaging with you.

And a special thank you to Valeria for including me!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

What happened to Eatons?

Growing up, if someone had told me that Eaton's would cease to exist, I would never have believed them. The department store was a Canadian icon. It had prime locations in downtowns and malls across the country, produced an aspirational Christmas catalogue, sponsored the Toronto Stanta Claus parade and, in Winnipeg (where I'm from), was the book end of a Portage Avenue stroll that started at the Bay and finished at the venerable merchant.

Yet here it is 2009 and Eaton's hasn't been a part of the retail landscape for several years. There are many reasons for that: different shopping needs, complacency, an inability to change.

I thought about Eaton's after reading Matt Hartley's article in the Financial Post on Canadian business's reluctance to embrace online advertising (and I would say the same applies to other social networking opportunities, too).

It made me realize that a lot of what we consider certainties are time (and trend) sensitive. Sure it's comfortable relying on the familiar. But in business, as in life, innovation, ideas and growth come from risk-taking and knowing when to try something different for a change.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The new PR?*

*Warning aspiration alert...

Much has been written about the new PR versus its more traditional practice; how the industry's changing; what we need to do to adapt.

In many ways, the new PR strikes me as a conceptual cousin to the old PR. Now before you pummel me with a twitstorm of criticism, let me clarify: it's similar if you go back to the essence of PR and its best practices, like two-way symmetric communications (aka conversations).

With MSM in a downward flux and the rise of social networking, there will come a time in the not so distant future when those two lines will cross. And we'll need to rethink the way we communicate and not be so reliant on media relations as the core of our profession.

So with that in mind, here's a quick list of what I think we should be:
- Connectors
- Relationship builders
- Creative content producers/distributors
- Reputation minders

And here's what I hope we're not:
- Spammers
- Direct mailers
- Pitchers
- Loud mouthed BS'ers

The recession has sped up many changes that were already taking place. And just because clients are asking for the same things we did last year doesn't mean we can dismiss the importance of social media.

I think now's the time to gently lead our clients toward the future - not with the promise of ever shiny tools, but with our experience and insights, strategic counsel, data and case studies; and yes, trusting our gut.

But before we do that, we need to participate, to embrace social media and learn how to do it well. I'm not saying traditional PR is over, I say it's time to welcome some new traditions.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Inside PR #170...recording

In the grand broadcast tradition of summer re-runs and new fall shows, we're happy to say that Inside PR is back!

This season, the shows are going to be completely scripted... OK, maybe not. But they will be tighter with a main theme and some special features including 4Qs: four-questions for PR and social media luminaries; and '-30-', where Terry, Dave and I sound off on a topic of our choice for half a minute. (I promise I'm going to time my segment from now on.)

We're also planning to take the show on the road for more live recordings.

And you can follow us on Twitter @Inside_PR.

I hope you'll tune in, keep sending us your ideas (either as a comment or via Twitter) and continue to share your thoughts.

And thanks for listening.


Monday, September 14, 2009

Two-way street

Not too long ago I got an email from a person I didn't know with the subject line: 'I was just on your blog'.

Well, naturally I was curious. I opened the note only to read how much the woman liked my blog (flattered) and, how she felt it was an ideal place to promote a giveaway for of a pair of Ugg boots. She even offered $100 if I could drive enough traffic to her site.

Well, thanks but no thanks. It was clear she hadn't read my blog or bothered to engage me other than by offering a vapid compliment that was easy to see through.

In other words, an irrelevant pitch. Something the PR industry has been accused (and guilty) of again and again.

And, it's true. As it's been said many, many times, we have to go beyond form letters and lists gleaned from databases and offer journalists something of value to them. We have to read what they write, understand their point of view and show them why our stories might be of interest to their readers.

However, there's a flip side to all of this. Sometimes, we do target the right journalists and bloggers, read their articles/posts (often look forward to them), feel we grasp what they're after and tailor what we think is a perfect story for them. Only to hear someone say: 'You don't have a clue about what I write about.'

This can also be a canned message. And possibly a knee-jerk response to all the bad pitches they've received.

So maybe all of us - journalists/bloggers and PR - need to step back and realize we're on a two-way street in the same community and try to have a little more respect - on both sides of the fence.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


*First day of class...

Many of you know that Saturday was my first day teaching a 14 session course on social media at McMaster University.

And while I've guest lectured many times, presented at conferences and meetings, done keynote addresses, I don't mind saying I had opening night (day?) jitters.

Walking into the class I felt much like I did as a student. Except my desk was facing the other direction. It put my own education in a slightly different perspective.

With a course on social media, one of the challenges I think we'll face is the 'body of knowledge' is very new and constantly evolving. On the positive side, I'm trying to reflect that in the course and cover/discuss emerging trends, issues/crises as they happen.

So even though there's a course outline and framework (and for anyone from the university who happens to read this, yes, we will cover it!), the dynamic and evolving nature of social media is going to play a big part.

One thing I did was create a Ning community for the class; everything's going to be on it including the outline, suggested reading, assignments, my notes, photos, videos, RSS feeds of the student blogs (each student is going to have one), discussions, events. The only thing that won't be there are the marks. I hope it becomes a virtual classroom that goes on beyond our formal hours with lots of conversation and shared ideas and information.

And even though I'm the instructor, I feel I'm going to come away from the experience having learned a lot, too.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

A tour of my homes

Where to begin: the Manse in Malibu? Pied-a-terre in Paris? Cottage in Collingwood? Bungalow in Buffalo?

Truth is I have one house and an office (both in Toronto). And, on most days that's where you'll find me.

But online is another story. Especially with the rise of social networks. Now, we all reside in many different locales. In fact, if you tally up the number of cyber homes we have, you'd think we've all become jet-setters, constantly flitting from one place to another.

Which is, in a way, what we do. And that makes it a lot more challenging for communicators to find us.

It wasn't too long ago when PR folks relied almost exclusively on MSM to reach people. And, of course traditional PR still works - though I think it may be less effective than it was five or 10 years ago. You don't feel the same awareness and excitement from a successful media relations program as you once did.

Because we now have both mass and mini media.

And which delivers stronger results? There isn't a definitive answer yet. But I think we can all feel a shift. Some of us see it moving faster than others. Some are resistant to change. But let's face it, things aren't the way they used to be. And that's good.

And, I think that if we want to truly engage and build a relationship with people, then it's up to us to find where they like to be and go there and not wait for them to search us out in the place where we want them to go.

That's a different way of looking at communications. We need to be more creative; to listen and participate; to be more open and visible but not be a pest. We need to try to become a meaningful part of their stories and not merely want them to consume ours.

And, if you are looking to find me, online, here's where I'll probably be:

  • Email - (my BB is never far away)
  • Twitter (thanks to UberTwitter, it's a close second)
  • My blog (here)
  • Google Reader
  • Linkedin
  • Delicious
  • Facebook (not that often - and it's mostly for old friends. Don't get me wrong, I like it, many networks; so little time.)
I have lots of other accounts that I will flip to from time to time, much like the way I might use a remote to check out what's on TV. But, now you know how to reach me.

The question is: what's the best way for someone to reach you?

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Back to school

Every fall, I (and a ton of other folks) get nostalgic about returning to school. Of course, I never did, though there were times when I seriously considered it.

But now I am heading back to the hallowed halls of academe - as a sessional instructor at McMaster University's PR program. I'm teaching a class in Social Media for PR (you need to scroll down to see it).

As a first-time course, there's a lot to think about and prepare. My goal is to present a strategic framework that shows how to integrate social media and PR. There's going to be a significant hands-on component as students jump into the conversation and explore blogs, Twitter, podcasts, video other social networking tools.

I'm hoping to include some emerging trends and issues as they happen (hey, isn't it all emerging?). I'm also planning to invite some guest lecturers, both live and online.

From time to time, I'll be posting about what we're doing in the class, asking for your thoughts/suggestions and hopefully introducing some new voices.

It's starts on September 12 and runs through the fall (and - plug - there are still a couple of places left).

So after all these years, I get my wish. Now, I just have to figure out which coloured pencil set to buy...

Sunday, August 23, 2009

See you in September...

I suppose I'm a bit late writing this, since it's been about three weeks since my last post. But my alternating half-cation throughout August (away with a few meetings/back at work/away with a few meetings/back at work, etc.) has left me trying to catch my breath at the office and at home. It reminds me of my old friend, comic Lou Dinos', routine about a greasy spoon: I'm not sure if I should 'stay or go...'

And, while I have a number of half-started posts and, of course, a case of blogger's guilt - so much to say, so little time to rewrite - I'm heading out again tomorrow and I won't be back to the blog for at least another week.

That said, it's been fun experimenting with cut-up holidays. I feel both refreshed and exhausted (but almost completely in the loop). I'll probably keep it up but with more consecutive time away next year.

So, as they used to say in the teen movies, see you in September (sealed with a tweet)...

Friday, July 31, 2009

All play and no work...

I was sitting in a Starbucks on a Friday morning (not something I often do). But this was the first day of my holidays, or really the pilot for the first day (today was filled with errands).

And I was thinking about my vacation and the fact that when we're away, we're supposed to switch off and recharge. That's a good thing. We get to take a break, watch, listen and learn, spend time with family and friends, chat with strangers and generally view things from a different vantage point.

And come back refreshed.

A lot of people say we should unplug completely. And that's fine if you want it. But I don't feel it's right for me.

In fact, vacation has its roots in the Latin word meaning 'freedom from something'.

So this year, I'm looking for freedom from... the recession; stress; people who are too hung up in the way things were to see that the world has changed; stuff that makes my blood boil; obligations I have to do (but don't necessarily want to).

But not freedom from things I like.

So I won't be on my laptop or BB eight hours a day putting out fires or answering emails.

But you will probably find me on Twitter. And I will be reading and occasionally commenting on blogs. I may even write a post or two (though the jury's still out on that one).

Maybe it's because social media blurs the lines between professional and personal; work and play; business and fun.

It's a holiday; when better to be social?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Giovnani Rodriguez... rising

I first learned about social media, blogs, RSS, Wikis, streaming and podcasts from Giovanni Rodriguez, in a breakfast roundtable at Counselors Academy a few years back. And I left his session excited, energized and with my head swimming. I'd tasted the 'forbidden fruit' (content creation) and knew there was no turning back.

Over the years, I've gotten to know Giovanni, personally and professionally. He's a soft-spoken thinker, insightful and highly intelligent. And he's able to connect some very disparate concepts in a way that not only makes sense; he helps you see things in a new light.

That's why I'm so excited about Giovanni's newest blog, All Things That Rise. It's focusing on ideas that impact 'culture, commerce and consumers'. You will find informative links and ephemera combined with longer pieces. In many ways it reminds me of the kind of content I used to anticipate in certain general interest, literary magazines.

Here's how Giovanni describes it:
A broad inquiry into the physical, intellectual, and emotional limits of human beings at the dawn of “the age of intelligent machines.” I will look at how people, businesses, and governments are using a range of intelligence-enhancing technologies — from consumer gadgetry, to the full panoply of social technologies, to the new frontier of artificial intelligence and robotics — to rise above those limits. My hypothesis is that the socializing effects of these technologies is driving the evolution — evolution with a little “e” — of smarter, more competitive, and, ultimately, more ethical organizations and systems. But I will be looking at the negative effects as well — information overload, public safety, cultural divides, etc. Evolution is a complex affair, and it pays to look at winners and losers — and saints and sinners — all around. Hope you will join me on this little journey. I’m just getting started.
One post of special note is Giovanni's take on the evolution of a new kind of PR agent. I agree that we have to look at the new landscape and develop a more relevant and social model.

And while you're at it, have a look at Giovanni's other blog, The Hubbub and especially the in depth series he wrote on characters in marketing/ads.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Three things I've learned from the recession (so far)

I am just plain tired of the recession. (I know, who isn't?)

But I'm not simply talking about the state of the economy. I'm sick of the negative attitudes and the fact that good news has come to mean news that's not as horrible as anticipated.

Now, I don't say we should run headlong into the lend-to-spend world that got us into this mess. But do I feel it's time for us to instill a renewed confidence in ourselves, our businesses and the economy.

I'm going to start by listing three things I've learned from this adventure and how they changed my view of the world:

  1. You get very different advice in good times and bad. Basically you go from from spend, spend, spend to cut, cut, cut. Pendulum thinking, really. Personally, I think we should fall somewhere in between and adopt a philosophy of 'risk and sensibility'.
  2. There are no guarantees. Contracts may disappear. Clients may cut back at a moment's notice. Someone who calls you in for a new business opportunity one day could be laid off before the meeting ever occurs (this actually happened). What that means for business and individuals is that we need to honestly assess every situation and be prepared to turn on a dime. If you're an entrepreneur, it's a bit like being in perennial start-up mode, familiar, fun, yet occasionally a bit exhausting.
  3. Don't wear rose coloured glasses, but don't lose hope either. This isn't easy when you're exposed to dire news at every turn. But that's a time to step back and put things in perspective; be thankful for what you do have and appreciate the truly important things in your life. And try to be cautiously optimistic amid the turmoil. At the risk of sounding schmaltzy, I'd like to invoke Jerry Lewis and his telethon finale: 'When you walk through a storm, hold your head up high...'
Oh, and for PR people there's a fourth thing too. The recession has accelerated a change in the communications industry. And while no one knows exactly where we're heading, there's no denying we aren't going back. Social media is part of our landscape. And it's going to continue to grow in importance for our practice and profession. Whether we become leaders or followers is entirely up to us.

What have you learned?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Self-promo: one on one...

Dave Forde, publisher of PR in Canada, recently launched a series of interviews with PR/social media folks across the country called: 'One on One'.

My take on the industry is featured today.

I'd be very interested in hearing your thoughts.

(Thanks Dave.)

Monday, July 13, 2009

Who's your filter?

It wasn't that long ago when MSM was our main filter (and source) for news. And it was usually quite reliable. Sure something outrageous might slip through and cause a stir, but generally what you read in the paper was considered to be accurate.

Then along came blogs, the rise of citizen journalists and Twitter. Now, credibility is pretty much in the eye of the beholder.

And as the old Johnny Carson show used to ask, 'Who Do You Trust?'

I thought about this again after reading an article in the NY Times that noted how the deaths of Ed McMahon, Farah Fawcett and Michael Jackson spawned a spate of false celebrity deaths including Jeff Goldblum, Harrison Ford, George Clooney and Miley Cyrus. All were quickly denied. But only after the word had spread on Twitter.

It sounds like the rumours emanated from the same source, a somewhat macabre website, where people can plug in a celebrity's name and various details and the site will generate an article speculating about their death.

Now I do like practical jokes and humorous hoaxes (and, full disclosure, have been involved in a few myself). However, in a world where silliness can instantly morph into news, I think it's up to all of us to establish our own system to filter truth from idle gossip.

It's easy to do. When something juicy comes across our stream (of consciousness), instead of simply hitting RT (or posting it on Facebook or another social site), take a moment to research the veracity of the item.

As communicators, we should know how importance it is to dig deeper, analyse and verify; and not simply believe/repeat everything we read, see or hear.

In other words, look both ways before we tweet.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Is follow the opposite of lead?

I don't think so. Actually, it seems that Twitter may have a better handle on this notion. You follow / are followed back. There are no sections on the microblog about leading (thought leadership aside, of course).

Too often we equate strong leaders with how many so-called disciples they have. People who are willing to blindly jump off (or blow up) a bridge. Now while that might work in banana republics and assorted dictatorships, it doesn't seem like a smart model for business or the arts, where you'd hope the emphasis would be on looking for new ideas and insights; reflection that sparks imagination and provokes debate.

I got to thinking about this when I read what I'd call a truly inspirational blog post by Randy Hall on 'Self leadership'. In it, he contends that great leaders must first learn how lead themselves. And by that that he means going outside your comfort zone, not being afraid to dream big, try something new, fail and then try again; keep learning, have passion and truly believe in the vision you are trying to achieve.

I couldn't agree more. And, from a PR agency perspective, now seems like a great time for us to 'follow'-OK embrace-these principles so we can provide real leadership and guidance to our clients, encourage them to get beyond the tried and true practices and see the communications light at the end of a social tunnel.

And while we're on the subject, you may want to check out this post on 'How to be an effective CEO'.

Special thanks to my friend and agency-owner Gini Dietrich for being a such a superb RSS feed and pointing to so much relevant and worthwhile content.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

CPRS 2009 national conference - Twitter notes

If you're following me on Twitter, you've probably noticed my recent propensity to live-tweet at events. I've tried to take my cue from Joe Thornley, who sets the bar high. And while I do like being an ersatz 'reporter', I know there's a trade off between filing stories in 140 and full concentration. (I'm sure some psychologist will conduct a study to measure it.)

Here are some of my Twitter highlights from the CPRS national conference in Vancouver (or search the hashtag #CPRS2009):
@thornley Old PR is dying, our eyeballs are moving over to social media; the world is changing, media is evolving

@briansolis Press release just over 100 yrs old; journalists and bloggers have yet to get as excited about it as PR folks

@briansolis Reason why PR is in a state of crisis - we act like publicists, not evangelists

@dbarefoot: Social media sin 3: foist not thine spam upon yon rabble

@julieszabo: Social media sin 6 abandon not thy blog (try not to lose steam-that is easier said than done)

@terryflynn: 74 pct of Canadians felt Maple Leaf CEO had credibility during crisis; higher than Obama had on inauguration day

@maggiefox: In Social Media it's important to focus on relentless innovation; the internet never sleeps

And finally...
@martin waxman: How much to we miss by live tweeting? I like doing it, but have to admit some trains of thought do leave the station without me. Just asking

Special thanks to the On The Edge organizers and to the student bloggers, @LesleyChang, @apparently_so, @mikedefault, @ashletts, and @stephleung who really added a lot of content and energy as they chronicled the event.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Should a business have a website?

It's hard to believe that question was seriously debated by companies not that long ago (OK, in the '90s). There was this newfangled worldwide web thingy and many organizations were just not convinced it was going to last.

I actually worked at a PR agency at the time where the senior partners felt it was too forward for a communications firm to have a website; they didn't want to give away 'proprietary' information like the fact we did media and investor relations.

No kidding!

I even wrote a site for the agency (on my dime) and bartered my hours by doing pro bono work for a design firm who brought it to life. And even when I showed the principals the finished product, it was still shot down (post Y2K, no less). Bitter? Not anymore. But I don't mind saying the lack of a website put us out of the running for a number of great accounts.

So why do I bring this up? Well, my very good friend, Gini Dietrich, wrote a post yesterday where she convincingly disputes a Newsweek story that contends there's no value in social network if you're a CEO.

And it took me back to the fearful, wrong-headed, backward-thinking, anti-internet agency I once worked at - and (thankfully) left.

Granted, change is difficult for many individuals and organizations. But ignoring an emerging trend is worse. Especially when that new technology can help you build and strengthen relationships.

Yes, it's important to be strategic, think critically, make smart choices, not fall for all the pretty, shiny things. But wouldn't we, as business leaders, want to embrace meaningful ways of engaging with our customers and actually having an honest and open dialogue with them?

I think CEOs are missing out on many potential opportunities if they're not listening, understanding and participating in social communities of relevance to their businesses and them.

Who knows what we might learn?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

A tale of two conferences: Counselors Academy and CPRS

I don't usually attend two conferences in two weeks - much less two PR conferences. However, that's what happened early in June when I twice ventured west: first for Counselors Academy in Palm Springs and then for the Canadian Public Relations Society in Vancouver.

And I thought it's worth noting some of the similarities and differences.

Both conferences focused on social media and its application to PR; both had knowledgeable presenters and tier one keynote speakers (including Robert Stephens, Steve McKee, Brian Solis and David Suzuki - to name a few); and both had PR students live-blogging/tweeting about the events.

I personally thought having the students actively involved added a fresh energy to the events.

However, and I don't know if this is a U.S./Canada or an agency/client thing, but the general knowledge of and enthusiasm for social media seemed less prevalent at the CPRS event. Certainly there was interest, but not the same kind of passion I witnessed from agency heads (mostly from the U.S.). Or maybe Canadians are just a bit more resistant to change.

Now, there's no doubt Counselors is all about the agency business and, if you're an agency principal, there's nothing that compares to it. And, as counselors, it's incumbent on us to be up to be on top of trends in order to offer more intelligent counsel to our clients.

I don't have the answer to this.
I did notice that there was a lot less live tweeting at the CPRS conference; a few people were active.

But maybe it's the small number of agencies represented (from out East, I mean). And that could be due to the economy, but I think it's a shame that there isn't a bigger agency president at CPRS national and Toronto.

Which begs the question: why aren't Canadian agencies more actively engaged in CPRS? I asked my friend Scott Farrell, president of PRSA Chicago and he said they were trying to get more clients to participate; they had lots of active agency members.

And, as the president of CPRS Toronto, I throw this question out to PR folks. What would it take to make agency people want to get more involved?

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The community, the people: Counselors Academy 2009

I recently returned from Counselors Academy’s annual conference for agency leaders, my PR highlight of the year. I always come back from these gatherings with new friends/colleagues, fresh ideas I want to try and a renewed energy for the profession.

I first learned about social media and its PR potential from Giovanni Rodriguez at CA2005 and decided right then and there to start a blog (though it took nearly two years of research and listening before jumping in).

This year in addition to insightful and entertaining sessions, attendees contributed a rich and active twitter stream that offered a fresh dimension to the conference; check out #CA2009.

It wasn’t unusual for a table to have three or four people listening, tweeting and commenting on their colleagues’ tweets. My very good friends Gini Dietrich and Scott Farrell were my regular twitners (twitter partners), with special nods to my traveling buddy Joe Thornley and Abbie Fink. In fact, Gini Dietrich highlights a number of Counselors Academy thinker-tweeters here.

Here are a few of my most memorable highlights (via Twitter notes-better than Coles notes by far):

Tom Gable: There are three rules for succeeding in a recession. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.

Shanny Morgenstern: It’s not billable hours that matter, it’s the hours billed. (There’s a subtle distinction there, but an important one.)

Monty Hagler: 5 Rs drive new business: relationships, referrals, reputation, radar screen, RfP

Jason Baer: Listen on behalf of your clients; make sure you have a social media crisis plan in place and respond at the flashpoint (where it started).

Steve McKee (author of When Growth Stalls): Factors that contribute to a stalled business include: lack of consensus, loss of focus, loss of nerve, inconsistency.

Steve McKee: A business is more likely to be successful if it pursues a commitment to excellence.

Robert Stephens (founder of Geek Squad and the ultimate nerd): Think of your company as the plot of a great movie.

Robert Stephens: Hire for curiosity, ethics and drive.

I think the key to Counselors is that it’s a true community in every sense of the word – PR agency leaders, entrepreneurs, people with a common interest and goal. We come together in the spirit of meeting, learning, sharing and friendship. And it’s both inspiring and humbling to be around so many smart folks in one place.

In retail it’s location, location, location. At Counselors, while no one could complain about the location (a lovely resort in Palm Springs), it’s really people, people, people.

The next meeting is in May 2010 in Ashville, North Carolina. Hope to see you there.

P.S. You can also listen to episode 166 of Inside PR for some CA mini interviews.