It’s fiction. It says so right on the spine of the book, above the title, The Da Vinci Code.

It’s meant to be nothing more than a good read that causes you to pause occasionally after reading a passage and think, “gee, I should take another look at that masterpiece by Leonardo Da Vinci.”

Why is it that anytime a good read is published, there’s an outcry that the book is going to destroy our faith, encourage bad behavior or corrupt us in other ways. The latest is The Da Vinci Code. Before that it was the Harry Potter series and Harry Potter was preceded by To Kill a Mockingbird and C.S. Lewis books. Fiction is a great escape — transporting the reader to other lands and lives – until marketing muddies the water.

Positive word-of-mouth marketing can land a book on The New York Times bestseller list and get it adopted as a must-read for book clubs. Equally positive (or negative, as is the case here) grassroots advocacy can cause a book to be bashed from the pulpit and on the op-ed pages of the national and local newspapers. The positive buzz can quickly turn to negative and confuse fiction with fact.

The fact is … it’s fiction … fiction that has encouraged people to turn away from the TV and turn another page in the book. It’s fiction that has encouraged lunchroom discussions among co-workers and conversations with friends and family. That’s what a good read is all about.

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Administrator
May 25, 2006
Customer Service: PR Job #1
Filed under: General — Administrator @ 8:52 am
“Marketers must remember that they’re in the customer advocacy business, not the cost containment business. Forget that fact, and you’ve lost.” – Michael Krauss, Marion Consulting Partners. (Marketing News, March 1 2006).

When it comes down to it, even the best PR is an uphill battle if the core of your business is not customer-centric. Regardless of endless research that proves this point, companies continue to seem stupendously unaware that retaining clients is less expensive and has a far better return than recruiting them.

Take for example, my recent experience at a local kids’ gym. My young daughter attends, and we are about to finish our third 10-week session. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity at a silent auction fundraiser to bid on a $50 gift certificate to this gym. Assuming that we would continue our classes, I bid on the certificate and ended up the highest bidder at the end of the night.

When I presented the certificate to our teacher (who also is a co-owner), rather than cheerfully accept the certificate and be pleased that we would be signing up for a fourth session, she seemed aghast that I had acquired such a thing at a fundraiser – “we never donate certificates of this value” I believe was what she said to me – and was really quite bummed out that she had to honor it. I think she was ready to call her fellow owner (who presumably issued the certificate) right then and there and cuss her out. I could tell she was peeved with her colleague, but I felt as though she also was peeved at me. To further convince me that I was right, she begrudgingly agreed to honor the certificate (for which I did pay real money, you understand), but not the $10-off early bird special they happened to be running that day.

What’s going on here? I understand that a small business owner has to wear all hats – controller as well as marketer. However, when poor marketing has a negative impact on revenue, the controller conscience should recognize the impending “cost” (loss of customer) and back off.

In the book Creating Customer Evangelists, authors Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba discuss how to cultivate loyal customers – certainly for the long-term value they themselves represent, but almost even more for their potential as a volunteer sales force.

Remember the last time you found a product that thrilled you so much you couldn’t stop talking about it to your friends? I remember several years ago discovering Mr. Clean Magic Erasers, which, with just water, made my dingy kitchen cabinets look freshly painted, all because of their amazing cleaning ability. My latest find, thanks to my friend Amy, is the Method line of home cleaning products carried at Target. She gave them to me as a gift; I in turn gave them as gifts to three others and have probably told 10 more about them.

Do you see the potential? Delighted customers can be your best salespeople – they are genuinely passionate about your products or services; they aren’t employees and are therefore more credible, and they aren’t even on your payroll! What’s more, your PR and marketing efforts will go much further when you already have evangelists in the marketplace dousing your prospects with kerosene-like enthusiasm.

Creating customer evangelists is really quite simple: treat your customers as you would like to be treated. Thrill them with attention. Check on their satisfaction. Take every opportunity to say “thank you,” and show how much you value your relationship with them. Don’t quibble over small change.

Meanwhile, back at the gym – actually, we won’t be going back. There won’t be any glowing recommendations about our experiences there. They did not turn me into a customer evangelist. My daughter enjoyed it very much, and they do an amazing job with so many small children. And if someone ever asks me how we liked going there, I’m sure I’ll tell them that. But the bad taste in my mouth will involuntarily trigger an odd look on my face and a hesitation in my voice, and I will be compelled to explain that my business was not valued.

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Aileen Katcher
May 15, 2006
Crime Stoppers
Filed under: General — Aileen Katcher @ 10:31 am
In a column labeled “TV Crime – Fake News,” the Nashville Scene recently took a local TV station to task for running a video news release without attribution.

According to the Scene, the station picked up a story from a network news feed that was developed from a VNR but not labeled as such, leading a local weekend producer to believe it was a network news package and hence “kosher” to use as news. Was that a crime?

The Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) guidelines for the use of VNRs direct managers to determine if the station is able to shoot the video itself or get it through regular editorial channels. If a VNR is used, the stations should clearly disclose and label the origin of information.

RTNDA says stations should determine if the VNR follows the same newsroom standards they have regarding conflict of interest and editorial processes. Producers should question the source of all videos, including network source feeds. (Complete RTNDA VNR Guidelines: http://www.rtnda.org/foi/finalvnr.shtml)

Did the local news producer question the source? Did he assume a story about tax preparation during tax season is hardly controversial or even questionable, especially if its central interview was with the CEO of the second largest tax preparation service in the country? What should he have done? And did the tax company waste its resources producing the VNR if it was going to be so closely scrutinized?

In testimony given before a U.S. Senate Committee last year, national PRSA President Judith Phair said the society recognizes that in strategic communications planning, VNRs can be valuable tools promoting the free flow of information. But, they should be produced and disseminated with the highest levels of transparency, candor and honesty.

Phair also testified that VNRs should provide broadcasters with all the needed information to decide the best usage. Disclosure to the public, however, is ultimately the responsibility of broadcasters.

The lesson: Everyone involved needs to do the right thing. Public relations practitioners should ensure that any VNRs they produce clearly identify the sponsoring organization (client or company paying for the piece.) They should focus on using VNRs to meet public information needs and interest.

The broadcast media, in return, should carefully weigh the value of using the video. If used, it should clearly identify the source, either in audio or in on-screen credit.

When produced following a high ethical standard, and aired by those same standards, VNRs can provide helpful information. And using them is hardly a crime.

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Heather Buckner
May 10, 2006
Talking ‘Bout My Generation
Filed under: General — Heather Buckner @ 8:30 am
I always thought I knew myself pretty well – how my mind worked, how I liked to be communicated with and what media strategies were effective for me. I may have been wrong.

I recently sat through a Frank N. Magid Associates presentation about communicating to the Millennial generation – those of us born between 1977 and 1995. There are now 79 million Millennials as compared to 48 million Generation Xers and 78 million Baby Boomers. Who knew we were taking over the world?

So how do you communicate to this growing population of 11-29 year olds? Talk with us, not to us. We like open dialogue and two-way communication – we are a generation of email, text messaging, instant messaging and blogging. Focus on consumer-generated content and don’t assume that we consume media passively. Advertising is never enough.

Along those same lines, get to know us and speak our language. More than 80 percent of Millennials believe college education is the “coolest” thing they can do. Thirty-five percent identified not succeeding at school as their biggest fear, while 20 percent said it was not succeeding at work. We aren’t a cookie-cutter generation – it is worth taking the time to determine what we value and target your marketing and PR accordingly.

Our generation is defined by technology – laptops, cell phones and iPods, to name a few. With all these options, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that we have mastered the art of multi-tasking. So don’t limit yourself to one avenue for communication. Our average day consists of 2.5 hours of watching television, 2.5 hours of surfing the Internet, 2.3 hours of listening to music and 1.2 hours of talking on cell phones. It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to realize that there has to be overlap in order us to work, eat and sleep.

Finally, target peer-to-group communications – we are greatly influenced by our social networks. The average size of our social network is 21 people, and the power of buzz marketing resonates loud and clear with us. One online public relations firm, BzzAgent.com, allows people to sign up and serve as buzz marketers for products ranging from books to hygiene products to food items. By using word-of-mouth marketing and participatory communication, BzzAgent has figured out the way to engage the Millennial audience.

So, do I agree with everything in this presentation? Being on the older side of this generation, I would say some applied and some didn’t. But for the most part, it was pretty much on target. And since I started writing this blog, I’ve taken three phone calls and written four emails, all with music playing in the background and while snacking on Cheez-its. Hmmm….

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Roy Vaughn
May 9, 2006
What’s That Smell?
Filed under: Practices — Roy Vaughn @ 7:18 am
I am always amazed by how long it takes some corporate executives to wonder “What’s that smell?” The answer is usually the company’s reputation going up in smoke.

One of the most recent examples is MySpace.com, the Web site primarily serving teens and young adults with their own blogs that has caught on like wildfire. MySpace has been a huge hit with advertisers because it targets this desirable market and boasts around 60 million users (many of whom are parents checking up on their kids).

So after months of being under a siege of negative publicity related to questionable standards for user content and sexual predators’ misuse of the site to connect with possible victims, MySpace last month announced that it would launch a massive ad campaign for an Internet safety initiative led by a former U.S. Department of Justice prosecutor. In its April 17 issue, PR Week called the move “savvy.” I agree the MySpace response is appropriate, but a really savvy call would have been to take action much sooner.

Were the MySpace execs too busy counting their money, only to realize that, “Hey, some of this may go away if advertisers don’t believe our brand is a safe place for their brands.”?

Can they make up for lost time? Probably so, because of the eyeballs they deliver, but they may need to make major adjustments to their operations or business model. In other words, MySpace needs to change its behavior, too, and education is a good start. It may also mean not asking demographic questions of members that cause parents to cringe, i.e. sexual preferences. Or perhaps actually enforcing its policies on posting nudity and vulgarity.

MySpace is undoubtedly a successful communications tool. It also seems to be a sort of new age Wild West. Taming MySpace may cause it to lose some of its appeal to youth – but it’s the right thing to do.

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Aileen Katcher
May 5, 2006
Too many blogs, too little time
Filed under: General — Aileen Katcher @ 7:48 am
I was asked by a young public relations professional last week what I thought of blogs.

My immediate response was there is so much information available to us on any given day, how can we support the proliferation of blogs. In other words, so many blogs, so little time to read them.

On any given day, I read two to four newspapers and receive daily email updates with links to relevant articles from four other publications, email news digests (which include links to blog postings) from four news and industry sources and news alerts sporadically from several outlets alerting me to “breaking news.” And, of course, I try to catch at least one radio news report and one local TV newscast everyday. Oh, and also do my work.

I admit, some days, I skip a newspaper and delete some of the email sources without reading them. And I read some things more thoroughly than others.

What good is a blog if no one reads it? And, that doesn’t take into account the time it takes to write and keep up a blog.

While blogs may be the “in” thing, I predict that in a year’s time, we will see many go by the wayside as audiences gravitate to the most useful, most credible sources and as many of the thousands (could it be millions?) of bloggers out there tire of spending their time pontificating.

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Greg Bailey
May 1, 2006
Dancing Into the Future With the Social Media
Filed under: General — Greg Bailey @ 2:46 pm
I’ll admit that the first time I heard the term “social media,” I thought immediately of NFocus, the fun, local monthly chronicle of parties, pedicures, paninis and papaya mud wraps at the spa de jour.

A few months later, social media is creating a whirling-dervish effect on our culture and, in the practice of public relations, we are confronted with providing appropriate counsel to clients that allows them to maximize this universal dialogue.

Social media isn’t haute journalism. In fact, it’s the New Journalism. Think blogs, digital stories, RSS feeds, wikis and social networks. What’s news is no longer dependent on the newsprint lying in the front yard each morning or the snippets of video strung together by the trained news technicians of television. Rather, have you checked out youtube.com? It’s the ultimate in video-on-demand, programmed by consumer content managers. Don’t forget podcasts in this mix, the audio-on-demand format downloadable to an IPOD, MP3 player and upscale cell phone near you.

If you question whether all of this is a mere fad in the cyber-universe, forget it. Follow the money: Combined spending on blog, podcast and RSS advertising grew 198.4 percent to $20.4 million in 2005 and is expected to grow another 144.9 percent to $49.8 million this year, according to researcher PQ Media.

The 15,000 new-blogs-per-day statistic reminds me of the Web site boom 10 years ago. Everybody had to have one – what the organization did with it was another matter. It’s impossible to forecast how many of those new blogs will be around 10 years from now or 10 weeks, for that matter.

What I do know is that social media, and blogs in particular, is driving a gigantic shift from the “old-style” mainstream news media telling us what was news to this personal communications – a two-way conversation between the individual journalist and his or her audience.

For clients, social media offers an unprecedented opportunity to develop an ongoing dialogue with an organization’s principal audiences. It’s time to speak up. There’s no better time to come to the party.

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Dean Flener
April 13, 2006
Pandemic Preparedness Should Be Standard in Business Crisis Planning
Filed under: General — Dean Flener @ 9:21 am
Lives first, stability second will be Tennessee’s key priorities during a pandemic flu crisis. This was the key message coming from Tennessee’s Pandemic Flu Summit April 10 in Nashville.

The current H5N1 flu strain, commonly know as bird flu, has impacted more than 20 countries in Asia and Europe, wreaking havoc on their poultry markets. So far, 194 humans have contracted H5N1 and 109 have died. Relative to deaths from all illnesses, this is a low number. Comparatively, this is a nasty virus with a very high mortality rate, more than 50 percent. The virus does not have the ability now for effective human-to-human transmission. However, because it’s the nature of viruses to mutate (this is just what they do), health experts fear a mutation will occur so that H5N1, or even another flu strain, could pass easily human-to-human.

The federal government is predicting it will be just a matter of time before H5N1 appears in North America, given the migratory patterns of birds from Asia and Europe. At the Summit, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt and Governor Phil Bredesen made clear it’s not a matter of if an influenza pandemic will emerge, but when.

An influenza pandemic is likely to occur almost simultaneously across countries and communities. While community, education government and health care leaders should be at the foundation of pandemic readiness. Businesses should be thinking about how they will address the economic impact of a pandemic. Even a moderate outbreak, where 20 percent to 30 percent of the population is infected, could lead to a severe business cycle recession.

Here are a few basics to think about in preparing your business for a pandemic:

• Incorporate a pandemic flu plan into your business and crisis plans
• Take measures to reduce spread of the virus in the workplace
• Prepare for absenteeism
• Establish redundant systems so critical functions can continue
• Maintain critical functions through telecommuting
• Plan for supply disruptions
• Anticipate a significant drop in consumer spending

A few key resources business can use to monitor the pandemic flu issue and to prepare:
www.pandemicflu.gov
www.ready.gov
www.cdc.gov/business

Right now, the only ones in the middle of a flu pandemic are birds. We’re just bystanders to this point. This could change quickly…and businesses should be preparing.

Next Time: Pandemic Planning Checklist

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Aileen Katcher
March 22, 2006
The Joys and Horrors of E-Mail
Filed under: General — Aileen Katcher @ 10:35 am
Back in the Stone Age, before email, the hospital pr and marketing department I worked in got its first networked computer system. I was amazed that I could send a 60 character message to Earl in the media services department two buildings away using an early predecessor to instant messaging. Well, we have come a long way, baby!

Today, email is one of the central forms of communication in the business world. And what can make communication easier can also create communications problems, and sometimes nightmares. Below are my thoughts on how to make email work better for you.

1. Don’t rely solely on email. Pick up the phone and call your customer, associate, co-worker (or walk down the hall) occasionally. Nothing can replace face-to-face or voice-to-voice contact. Emails don’t communicate expression or tone-of-voice, so for sensitive communications, a phone call may be more effective.

2. Don’t assume your email arrived or was read. For important information or deadline sensitive requests, a heads-up phone call or voice mail is in order. (And use the mail receipt option on your email program.)

3. Don’t write and send an email in the heat of the moment. If you’re upset about something, take a few minutes before you write that reply or message. And, when you do, write it before you fill in the send information, wait a few more minutes (and perhaps take some deep breaths) and read it again before you put the address in and hit send. A few years ago, a client called distraught because a terse message criticizing a customer’s email she meant to send to her boss went to the customer (whoops – ex-customer) instead.

4. Proofread your message. That includes the recipient addresses. Recently, I sent a synopsis of a speech I had heard to a friend named Julie, instead of to my client named Julie. Both their last names started with the same two letters and my auto-address function put in the wrong Julie’s address. I was in a hurry and didn’t check it.

And remember, it was not long ago when we had to rely on printed memos and reports, phone calls and meetings.

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