Right Messages + Right Spokesperson = Audience Engagement

So let’s talk a bit about messaging and spokespeople and audience engagement.

A recent commercial radio news bulletin, here in the Emerald City, concerning the renewal of a corporate sponsorship of a leading entertainment venue.

An opportunity, with the right messages and delivery, to enhance the general perception of a company, and get people on board.

Include detail, avoid buzzwords

The spokesperson talked about transforming the sponsored building into a ‘smart venue’. This may well be a thing, and it may well be something that can be delivered – but without any explanation, it’s a lost opportunity to connect with the audience. Then there was ‘improving customer experience’. Without specifics, why should anyone care?

It is too easy to substitute a shorthand term for the real message. ‘Smart venue’, when we mean a building that can tell you where things are, tell you how long the queue for the ladies’ loo is and allow you to pre-order two hot dogs and four pints via an app on your smartphone. ‘Improving customer experience’ when we mean discounted gig tickets, a chance to meet the band and 4G in the mosh pit.

Messages are the detail that gets people interested, draws them in, makes them want to be involved. In this case, however, both key points sounded like buzzwords from an approved list, drawn up because research shows they’re what the customer wants to hear.

Suitable spokespeople, not senior spokespeople

The spokesperson had clearly been briefed, and did a workpersonlike job, but sounded uncomfortable and didn’t have the detail that would make the story live. Agreeing a spokesperson is not easy – often simple seniority carries the day.

An alternative approach is to establish a panel of ‘subject matter experts’ who take the spokesperson role when it’s their area.

Another is to spread the responsibility – get agreement that a handful of senior people should alternate as spokesperson, thus limiting the exposure of any one in particular.

And there’s selection of opportunity – the less able spokesperson gets the less pivotal gigs.

Training to tell stories

In the real world, of course, this doesn’t always work. The media want to speak with the CEO, and no-one else will cut it. Or maybe the news story is about a ground-breaking use of technology and only the CTO will do.

Which is where, of course, the message and the spokesperson should be managed in tandem.

Messages are not buzzwords, and a spokesperson is not someone reading buzzwords off a script. Training and rehearsal – above and beyond a simple ‘briefing’ – help the spokesperson to build their own story around the messages.

Telling a story that they’re comfortable with not only brings the message to life, but allows the spokesperson to be genuine in their delivery.

It’s the combination of interesting detail and genuine delivery, by someone who’s comfortable with the material, that creates audience connection and propensity to engage.

There Is No Secret Ingredient…………..

Those of you who – like me – thought ‘kids – how difficult can it be?’ and then went and got yourself a handful, will most likely be familiar with the film classic ‘Kung Fu Panda’ (2008). And I’m not kidding – it is a classic. Those of you who haven’t got kids, and haven’t seen it – stop what you’re doing right now, hie thee to Netflix with alacrity, sit back and enjoy.

So, having just done you a big favour (no worries, you can – as the Americans would have it – get me back later) I am going to reveal a big truth that will benefit us all. (Yes, it’s in Kung Fu Panda. I’ve not gone all Barry Norman on your collective ass not to make a point.)

It comes when Po (the eponymous panda) is running away from his destiny because he doesn’t understand the scroll of the Dragon Warrior. (See? I told you. Brilliant.) His adoptive father is a duck called Mr Ping, a noodle chef, who shares with him the secret of his famous Secret Ingredient Soup.

“The secret ingredient is…..nothing!……There is no secret ingredient.” At which point Po has an epiphany, which is explained, for an audience that is probably quite young and still slightly hard of thinking, when Mr Ping continues “to make something special, you just have to believe it’s special”.

Which brings me to my point. I don’t for one moment believe social media is special, but I am realising that there is no secret ingredient. And, of course, this has been the problem all along – why otherwise sane companies have chucked endless resource at social media (talking to an airline recently – 130 people on their social media team – think about that for a second or two), why organisations with no revenue-generation model are suddenly worth billions and why social media gurus are the rock stars des nos jours. (Probably a bit of an exaggeration, but you know what I mean.)

A mass breakout of Shiny Object Syndrome caused – and still causes – many to believe that social media are special in some way. And as Mr Ping said, the belief is enough to gloss over the inherent non-specialness. Worse, like Mr Ping’s Secret lngredient Soup – only were I to use a food-based metaphor for social media, it would be Secret Ingredient Tripe ‘n’ Onions – it has been assumed that there is, in fact, a secret ingredient. Something that’s not unakin to the philosopher’s stone of ‘virality’.

And, clearly, while these assumptions still hold sway, you average social media guru can get away with charging over £400 for – I kid you not – a Pinterest Marketing Masterclass. (I’m talking about you, Social Media Advance, of London EC2.)

But there is no secret ingredient. The same stuff that has always counted, still counts. There are still about five elements that will make your narrative a story. A picture will still do its business with a thousand words. The difference is that if the social audience like what they’ve seen, they’ll share it virtually, rather than really chatting to their mates about it down the pub.

But that’s it. You don’t need content prepared especially for social, on the basis that it’s somehow different. You don’t need distinct strategies. You don’t need gurus. You don’t need hundreds of people. You do need great customer service and unique product proposition – ‘twas ever thus – and, if you’re going to take part, you should be readily available to respond.

There is, of course, one secret thing about social.

It’s a new class of data called “social data” which are data that people create when they use social platforms like Facebook, Pinterest or LinkedIn – their likes, pins, favourites, retweets, status messages, the content of those messages and the people we are friends with.

Needless to say, I doubt you’ve given anyone permission to gather this data – but they’re mining it anyway.

CEOs Avoid Social Media

Ah – there you are. As you were.

When I read the title of this piece from the august and authoritative communications organ, Communicate Magazine (a title which I have simply stolen and used as my own), I was – I will not deny it – delighted. At last, I thought, CEOs show some sense. CEOs have (collectively) told their social media advisers (gurus, probably) – people whom I imagine to look and behave rather like the character Grima Wormtongue out of The Two Towers – that enough is enough and, starting today, we’ll be avoiding that social media malarkey, an’ thank you kindly.

Grima Wormtongue and a CEO, yesterday

Grima Wormtongue and a CEO, yesterday

Unfortunately, I was a bit previous. On fuller examination of the article’s contents (go on, do the clickety, you know you want to) I find it is reportage of yet another survey by yet another holistically thinking communications agency, promoting their expertise in the field of corporate reputation management by revealing (ta-DAAAA!) that “more than one-third of American CEOs do not consider the reputation their company has on social media when making decisions…….however, B2C CEOs consider social media more than their B2B counterparts.” The figures, because you’re gagging for them (I can tell) are thus:

  • B2B businesses only respond to online crises 43% of the time
  • (This is) well behind consumer-facing companies’ 63% response rate
  • B2B companies are twice as likely to entirely avoid addressing reputational issues with their digital audience

(I am afraid that I didn’t feel compelled to read the rest of the findings, but should you – dearest blog trotter – be desperate, here’s a link to the source.)

Anyhoo, having taken a bit of time to analyse the sentence “more than one-third of etc etc etc”, sad to say, I’m not sure what it means. Does it mean that, when making decisions, American CEOs don’t think about the potential effect that decision may have on social media communities and how they may, therefore, react (positively or negatively)? Or does it mean that American CEOs (possibly through the offices of Grima Wormtongue) have managed to put a value on the reputation their company has on social media, but don’t really care about whether that value goes up or down as a result of the decisions they make? Either way – and this POV won’t surprise those of you who know me – I think we’re allocating social media a corporate-reputation-affectiveness weighting (yes, I just made that up) that it doesn’t have. I would be fascinated if American CEOs have managed to put a value on social media reputation, mind.

(And, just briefly, how was this research carried out? Was the question “Out of every 100 online crises, how many did you respond to?” really asked? Yes, I know I’m being facile. Sorry.) (But, a serious point here – we’re obviously not talking about crises, we’re talking about issues. No company can be unlucky (or incompetent) enough to have encountered 100 real crises.)

So. I’d like to attempt an answer to the burning question raised by this research, which is (obviously) ‘why are CEOs avoiding social media?’ And in formulating my answer, I provide this piece of evidence, which I shall call (to make it sound weighty and official) ‘Exhibit A‘. It’s quite old, but it is the record of an online complaint being addressed, reasonably sensibly, by the company at which the complaint was aimed, and the subsequent response from the complainant.

Ladies and gents, I put it to you that the reason that social media ‘issues’ are being avoided by many (not enough) companies is because a vast majority of those using social media – and commenting on a vast range of topics, including the doings of big corporate – are completely and utterly hat stand. Dribbling, incompetent loons, gibbering into the void. And no matter what you, the corporate, do or say, you will not win.

Best, often, to keep schtum.

Some More Thoughtful Social Media Commentary

You know me, not much of a socio-mediavelist on the whole – but, still, I bet you thought I’d gone a bit Southern (for my friends from the United States and America, ‘southern’ in this context means ‘effeminate’, not ‘toothless, hairy, armed and smelling of bourbon’) (and for my UK fans, yes, I am a southerner, so it is perfectly alright for me to use the word ‘southern’, as it is not offensive. In the same way I could use the word ‘gay’, if I wanted to) (which would be offensive) when I stopped ranting about t’social and how it represents a direct road to hell for civilsation as we know it.

Anyway, rumours of my descent into southernness have been greatly exaggerated, as demonstrated by this article from that stalwart bulwark of editorial honesty (on matters communication), Communicate Magazine. I cannot tell you how much I echo the sentiments in this article – not all of them, obviously, there is some very Southern thinking contained within – and how I am in complete agreement with the school of thought that says social media are completely irrelevant. (OK, that’s not EXACTLY what it says, but near enough as makes no difference. To my mind.)

I also admire the (again, to my mind) extremely clever way that one of the authors – the one in the right, obviously, the one on the side of truth and justice – has designated social media ‘SM’, which, of course, is simply shorthand for a very Southern practice indeed.

Yes, I am wholly in favour of one half of this article.

The one that I wrote, clearly.

 

Made-Up Jobs In Communications – Chief Content Officer

Once upon a time, there was a chap called Nicholas Graham, who (in 1985) started a company called Joe Boxer, which sold (and still sells) underwear. Nicholas Graham syled himself  ‘Chief Underpants Officer’. I have often wondered whether I should give myself a spurious title (rather than simply ‘Managing Director’ (of The Wordmonger Limited)) but, honestly, I’ve not been clever enough, to date, to come up with something that works.

And, let me tell you, Chief Content Officer is something that doesn’t work. I have difficulty with the concept of content anyway – it smacks of a term coined in desperation to describe a disparate and amorphous group of extraordinarily different concepts and products with the idea of somehow ‘bucketizing’ it (thank you, America), thereby rendering it somehow harmless, easy-to-understand and pigeonhole and – above all – non-threatening. The content conceit has developed in parallel with the proposition that we have never faced such corporate communication complexity and an entire industry has grown up around it, propagating fear and awe in equal measure and taking a large cut of the content investment it recommends.

So I’m not really a believer then.

Anyway, here you are, snorkellers, here’s a piece from Forbes, asking the question ‘Do organizations need a Chief Content Officer?’ and, as far as I can see, failing, abysmally, to answer it.

Apart from the fact that I started to get a headache when I read this – which is a sure sign that it’s more complex than it needs to be – it’s also got a diagram, reproduced below.

Which, frankly, gives me the heebeejeebies.  This is trying to put a forced order onto a naturally chaotic process. Trying to define what things are, identify where they come from and map out where they go. This is trying to create a science around what is essentially an art. This is all about complicating something intuitive with badly-drawn rules. I could go on.

Content? It’s the same old stuff that we communicators have been producing since time began, with a few new bits. Audiences? The same old audiences, with some new points of access. And the audiences vary from topic to topic, product to product, concept to concept – there is no hard and fast set of messages or basket of content that will suit every audience, every time (what you tell your investors will be different to what you tell the community in which you operate and different again to what you might tell your employees). This is not to say that there shouldn’t be a single central theme on which you hang the audience-driven elements – but still, trying to diagrammatize it (thank you again, America) is a pointless exercise in navel-gazing – thought and talk, for thought and talk’s sake.

Chief Content Officer? Librarian, right?

A Response From Orange, Mobile Network Provider of This Parish

So, Blog Snorkellers all, I got my mobile network problems sorted and am now up and running with email onna go. Amazing how quickly these things get sorted when you loop in the senior personnel of a company.

In fairness to Everything Everywhere – I sent an email to their CEO, CMO and Chief Performance Officer late on a Wednesday evening and by Thursday midday, everything had been rectified. I got an email from the CMO and a ‘phone call from the office of the CEO. It became the sort of experience that, as a loyal customer of ten years’ standing, I would have expected from the off. (Well, I don’t actually expect a ‘phone call from the CEO’s office, every time I renew my contract, but I do expect easy and quick.)

But I guess you can see where I’m going with this. Why does it take several hundred words of borderline crazy rantiness, delivered directly to the C-Suite, to get a result?

This is the digital age. This is the age where anyone can broadcast their thoughts and opinions far and wide, easily and instantaneously. As my faithful few followers will know, I’m not a fan of social media – but I do recognise that where it comes into its own is during a crisis, either as a response, or as a crisis creator.

Customer service is key. No matter how good your corporate reputation, no matter how loyal your customers, they can be turned against you almost immediately by one person’s bad experience. In days gone by, you could let it slip occasionally, safe in the knowledge that – as long as no-one died, and you didn’t annoy a journalist (or a journalist’s friend) – no-one would find out.

No more. The bigger you are, the more important it becomes that you get it right every time.

A learning, I think.

Journalists Prefer Traditional Comms – Pope Has Balcony Etc Etc

From the hallowed pages of PR Week (issue dated July 22, cover price £57.32) comes this story – and story it is, for no – disbelievers all – the Week has not made it up, oh no, they let Broadgate Mainland(*) make it up for them – t’Week has simply reported it. They’ll make journalists yet.

(* Meisters of Financial Spin of the parish of Old London Town.)

Anyway, before I got so wildly carried away, I meant, bloggy snorkellers mine, to post the link. No, of course you won’t. You’ll simply see if you can make head or tail of the post without going anywhere near the colourful linkey of doom. Wet, is what you are. That being said, maybe there is an Arthurian trotter amongst you and for that brave Templar I provide this – the Holy Link of Har Megiddo. Carefully now – swish and click – obliviate!

(Warning. I am sorry, faithful followers, but in an almost Murdockian stylee, PR Week will wish you to subscribe before you read the article. You may not wish for PR Week to be your horcrux, however, at least, not while there are still pesky kids around.)

So, the article. In brief, it says that while UK corporates are doing more social, a survey of financial journalists (and I think we can take that to mean journalists, period) reveals traditional comms channels remain the more important media relations tools. That’s what it says – ‘more important tools’. With 81% of the 100 surveyed saying that they prefer to receive stories via email, I’d say ‘most important tools’, wouldn’t you?

In other bears-defecating-in-the-woods- type revelations, only 11% thought Facebook was an appropriate corporate comms channel and 97% researched companies via their corporate websites. (Incidentally, a truly spiffing photocaption for the article’s illustration of Zuckerberg’s monster – “‘Inappropriate’ Facebook”.)

So, it’s official. Journalists prefer to get their stories off real people, in real time, via targetted communication. Unsurprisingly.

Other stats in the article included the 38% of FTSE100 companies signing up to Facebook (up from 25% six months ago) and the 56% running a corporate Twitter account (up from 40% in December). And we know why they’re doing this. Mostly peer pressure and a misguided desire to be ‘down with the kids’ and to have their very own shiny object. And, as I’ve said before – if you’re an airline, then Twitter is useful for updating your customers. If you’re a firm of management consultants it is wholly inappropriate (like Facebook). In the case of most of the FTSE100, it is wholly inappropriate.

Just sayin’.