Thursday, November 17, 2011


Trinity Wall Street, Churchyard


9/11 Memorial

Reflections on textscaping : runaway horses and Zuccotti Park

Since the clearance by New York City of the occupiers of Zuccotti Park earlier this week, the media has juxtaposed the commentariat with the protesters in both predictable and troubling ways (just one example from WNYC). At times like this, it is striking how "real" life, media frames, and literary/philosophical narratives echo each other. I just finished reading Yukio Mishima's Runaway Horses (1969), the second novel in his The Sea of Fertility tetraology. Mishima's young patriot/idealist, Isao Iinuma, seems to have been reincarnated (again) in the OWS zealous. Mishima's global investors and merchants are their generation's hedge fund managers. And the lawyer, Shigekuni Honda, and teacher, Shigeyuki Iinuma, are the classic survivors/compromisers -- just like those NPR commentators who feel the occupiers' pain but who also despair about the impracticality of it all, especially in light of their list of historical analogies.

I certainly hope that over the next few days (OWS announced it is moving on from occupying Zuccotti Park to occupying the subways and the City) things don't play out in real life New York City they way they played out in 1930s Tokyo for Mishima's characters. Like Isao and his co-conspirators, the OWS protesters do have more than a little of that runaway horses muscularity and dubious purposefulness.

Textscapes (like Runaway Horses for OWS protesters) give ephemeral and contingent experiences the resonance of significance, permanence, and meaning. Not literally, but suggestively, the reincarnation Mishima's characters discover. That's the work of writers (novelists, PR people): when we're doing our job well, we're writing meaning and transcendence to other times and places in to today's experience.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The textscape of crisis: revisited

In my post of October 28th, I wrote that "so many organizations have shown the remarkable ability to rehabilitate themselves (although the record isn't nearly so good for individual executives)." Tamar Lewin in The New York Times on November 13th applied that same thought to the recent situation at Penn State. We rarely see individuals come back from an epic fail, but it is uncanny how the imprint of individual malfeasance is not indelible for organizations. Corporations [organizations] really don't seem to be "people" -- they're much more resilient, malleable. And the public forgets and forgives organizations quicker than they do for real people. It should be some comfort for crisis communications managers.

Monday, November 14, 2011


Ulster County, New York


Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Reimagining our profession, PR for a complex world -- with an imperative assist from PR research

Richard Edelman's lecture last week at the Institute for PR's 50th Annual Distinguished Lecture and Awards Dinner at the Yale Club raised some interesting challenges for the practice of PR -- but, more importantly, demonstrated the role that PR research will have to play if those challenges to the PR practice are ever going to be met.

Many of us were relieved and reassured that we did not have to hear another PR agency leader telling us we live and work in a new digital world. The Edelman agency has authentically been an innovator in the use of digital media -- and they also, obviously, have kept good perspective on that fact that digital, for all its disruptive creativity and cool factor, is, after all, just a tactic and technology.

Edelman quite rightly reminded us that the biggest challenge for the practice of PR is keeping PR in the realm of strategy development and operational relevance. He noted, correctly, as far as I can see, that "PR has been at the far end of the continuum [compared to the category of consultants involved in analysis and strategic direction], often using creative we are handed and explaining policy that has been set [by others]."

This situation is not just a reflection on the relative low status of PR in many organizations; it is a well-documented problem of management decision-makers not having a clue about relationships, engagement, and audiences that are the expertise of thoughtful and effective PR people. Edelman's speech cites an array of examples from recent headlines of corporations who have suffered greatly -- including in their revenues and equity value -- because of faulty or non-existent PR forethought.

Edelman concludes by formulating four principles, which he calls the Nielsen Principles (named after Bill Nielsen of Carl Byoir and J&J) which, if pursued, could "make public engagement the standard for our industry." Principles 3 and 4 make sense ("Take full advantage of a democratized media" and "Attract and develop talent with broad skills"), but they fall under the category of Competence. His first two principles, however, ("Drive operating strategy" and "Practice radical transparency") fall under the category of Excellence -- and are more radical recommendations than the tone of Edelman's speech first suggests.

PR people will rarely be included in the team that drives operating strategy as long as PR practitioners build and shape their careers around being order-takers. PR will remain an order-taking function as long as its outcomes and impact cannot be expressed in a mission-critical value. The paucity and superficiality of the research conducted by most PR agencies and departments reveals how inadequate PR people can be to participate in driving operating strategy. Why would a CEO include a PR person in the management team, when the work product of PR is described as counted up clips, tweets, and likes? PR people are welcomed as operating strategic thinkers when they can document changed minds and new behaviors.

Likewise, Edelman's Nielsen Principle of practicing radical transparency presents a transformative dilemma for public relations and for business. He says "business must explain how and why decisions are made. This is not a strategic opportunity; it is a necessity." That assertion flies in the face of what many in business consider the basic concept of competitive advantage (in product, process, and culture). I think Edelman is right: lack of transparency (indirection or misrepresentation) may increasingly be a friction in the business process, a cost of doing business, as increasing numbers of consumers and stakeholders focus skeptical attention and express (accurately or unjustly) influential opinion through social media. But there certainly are many companies and many industries that are not about to begin practicing radical transparency in the near term.

Edelman just glancingly touched on the relevance for PR people: "We are the last line of defense for the truth, because our material is increasingly used as primary source data. We also must be scrupulous about policing our own behavior and even what we pass along in social media." This is the 21st century Catch 22 for PR people. The public, the market, customers increasingly demand that radical transparency. Organizations define transparency as a cost, and therefore, understandably, want it controlled and minimized.

Edelman seems to be just scratching the surface of what may really be a radical principle. If radical transparency is good for business, it becomes the role of PR person to describe and demonstrate the value -- the competitive value -- of that radical transparency that engages the audience. Which brings the conversation back to PR research.

PR research isn't done for the finance guys or the procurement department. PR research may, if Edelman is right, be the definitive means by which public relations does finally firmly and consistently establish itself among the strategic decision makers and the creators of value throughout the marketplace and society.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

So, if content is king, what do we do next?

The MediaPost blog Online SPIN has a post today by Cory Treffiletti of Catalyst S+F, "Content Beats Targeting -- 'Nuff Said" that is well worth the read and a second thought. "Content is king" is one of the verities of 21st C marketing. I also had to be impressed by Cory's reference to the science/art trope. (Cory writes, "It [marketing creative] is the art behind the science [data-generated 'production' -- analytics, targeting]. Science is certainly important, but science without art is useless." For some years, one of my professional commitments/enthusiasms has been the Institute for PR, which has had the mission: "Delivering the Science Beneath the Art of Public Relations.")

Cory's blog, however, raises a provocative issue beyond the verity.

In a sense, the science of marketing, including PR, mostly focuses on the "easy" stuff -- the analytics that are designed and designable through the digital analysis and logarithms that we didn't have ten years ago. (Is the "work" done and the wisdom gained only if we can build a dashboard?).

Myself, being more of an artist than a scientist, I'd never claim that marketing scientific method could isolate the characteristics of good creative in a predictive way. But there is so little effort in exploring the characteristics of good creative in even a sufficient way. In my experience, in the classroom (in front or in the seats) or in the PR agency, I've never had a creative session backgrounded with research that asserts: sufficient characteristics of a successful creative strategy for this kind of challenge are A, B, and C. (Some of that is implicit -- it's why there are always a few grey-haired types in the creative session; intuitively they have a feel for "what works." Like the recently popularized Steve Jobs persona, they know it when they see it. All that makes a nice Mad Men episode, but I'm sure glad my dentist doesn't operate on such fundamentals.)

Especially as we write, teach, and set examples for young professionals, we are limiting our potential and our ability to serve clients when we don't turn the scientific lens on content as well as on audience/production.

There is some good research on content analysis that has clear predictive (and proscriptive) implications: see David Michaelson and Toni Griffin's IPR research paper, "A New Model for Media Content Analysis." Also, take a look at the work of Marianne Gobeil at Leading Communicators for research-based content effectiveness. There is provocative research going on in neuromarketing (see the Neuromarketing blog for just some examples), but I don't know of much connecting-of-the-dots going on between neuroscience and day-to-day marketing practice. I find that the more sophisiticated folks working in infographics have some deeply useful insights about how content can be created, perceived, and internalized (for example, see the work of David McCandless and Tom Wujec's work on Visible Innovation; reflect on all the infographics-of-the-day in the media). Finally, the cultural studies folks, linguists and semioticians, text-analysts remain for the most part uninterested in marketing, unless they are providing a political critique of marketing's sins.

So we've settled it. Content is king. Let's assume this isn't the end, just the beginning of the discussion.