Today in Social Monitoring

The Old Guard, the Army unit responsible for guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, provided a small example of the importance of social media monitoring today. As Sandy began her approach on the East Coast, the photo below started hitting the Twitterverse (I was one of many who tweeted it).

About three minutes after Samir Mezrahi (@samir) from BuzzFeed posted it on Twitter, The Old Guard (@The_Old_Guard) responded, saying the photo was actually from September and provided a couple of photos of the Soldier actually guarding the Tomb during the storm.

The unit has corrected a number of sources on this, including the Washington Post.

No, it wasn’t detrimental to The Old Guard’s image to have the incorrect photo circulating, but kudos to the unit’s public affairs team for using social monitoring to find the mistake and correct it. And — this probably goes without saying — props to the Soldiers who’ve guarded that Tomb every minute of every day since April 1948.

 

A Fraternity Responds to a Tragedy

I called my father 13 years ago to let him know I was planning to pledge a fraternity. His response: “Don’t become a statistic.”

At Cal State-Fresno this past weekend, we saw coverage of the kind of event that leads so many parents to say similar messages to their sons. Regardless of the circumstances of the death of Philip Dhanens, a Theta Chi Fraternity pledge, it’s certainly a tragic event and a blemish on the reputation of the Greek system, Cal State-Fresno and Theta Chi Fraternity (full disclosure: I am also a Theta Chi).

Theta Chi has responded to the event with this statement:

The thoughts and prayers of the members of Theta Chi International Fraternity are with the family and friends of Philip Dhanens. Our deepest sympathy is with them during this difficult time.

Theta Chi Fraternity has a strict anti-hazing policy, and strict guidelines for chapters which prohibit underage alcohol consumption. Theta Chi Fraternity has dispatched senior representatives of the international organization to Fresno to assess the situation. The Fraternity intends to fully cooperate with local authorities and the administration of California State University, Fresno, to find out exactly what happened, and to determine what course of action to take next with respect to the local chapter. Based upon the preliminary details reported to our International Headquarters office, the CSU Fresno chapter was suspended by the Fraternity on Saturday.

What does this statement do well?

  • It expresses sympathy without laying blame. We aren’t sure about exact details of Philip’s death yet, but we know it was a tragic event and I’m sure that everyone is sorry that it happened. It’s sad that organizations have to think this way, but sympathy is a heartfelt sentiment that avoids any legal implications (i.e. accepting responsibility).
  • It lets the public know the Fraternity has policies against hazing and underage drinking. We still don’t know if Philip chose to drink too much or was forced to drink too much, but we know he wasn’t old enough to drink legally. That means that if Philip consumed alcohol at the fraternity house under any circumstances, this Theta Chi chapter did not abide by Fraternity policy .
  • It explains what the Fraternity has done. Senior Fraternity representatives have been sent to Fresno to assess the situation and the chapter involved has been suspended. This lets people know that the Fraternity is actively looking into and reacting to the situation.
  • It makes clear that the Fraternity intends to cooperate with authorities. This lets the public know that the Fraternity wants to be part of making sure events like this aren’t repeated.

What is the statement missing?

  • Details. Theta Chi needs to establish itself as an information source on this event.  The statement doesn’t mention anything about what happened and that information needs to be available through the Fraternity. The Fraternity leadership needs to communicate proactively and become an information source to build credibility — something fraternities often lack in these situations.
  • History. What has the Fraternity done in the past to prevent hazing/underage drinking? What has the chapter done to prevent foul play? Policies are great, but how is the Fraternity proactively enforcing them? I know for a fact that the Fraternity headquarters sends out representatives throughout the year to consult with leaders at every chapter across the country, but there’s no mention of that here. That information needs to be out there and it needs to be prominent.

What does the Fraternity need to do?

  • Be honest. There can’t be any cover-ups here. Every bit of information Fraternity leaders and members have needs to be out there. If the chapter was involved, it needs to be held responsible and all actions taken need to be made public.
  • Be human. Let’s be real here — a young man is dead. No spin, no BS, no dodging responsibility.
  • Be visible. The local chapter can’t simply hide in the fraternity house. Fraternity leaders and chapter members need to be involved in communicating about what happened. Not communicating simply creates a vacuum of information and if the Fraternity isn’t providing the information, someone else will.
  • Be patient. No one can jump to conclusions yet. It’s tragic that a young man is dead, but let’s not punish other young men until we’re certain how and to what extent they were involved.
  • Change up its website. The Fraternity was right to add a link to the statement on its home page, but it may want to edit the scrolling photos on the top of the page. Yes, it’s good to publicize the accomplishments of other Theta Chi chapters, but maybe the last thing a friend or member of the Dhanens family wants to see is a photo of a bunch of smiling Brothers from another chapter front and center on the Fraternity’s website.

Personally, I’ll say that the experiences I’ve had as a Theta Chi Brother have been wonderful and have positively affected the relationships I’ve had throughout my adult life. I continue to believe in my Fraternity’s traditions and ideals. I express my sincerest sympathies to the family and friends of Philip Dhanens and I hope that, through the actions taken in responding to his tragic death, events like this will be prevented from happening again.

Six Public Speaking Tips from Toyota’s Wil James

Some people are naturals are public speaking. Most public relations professionals probably wish that the leaders of their organizations fit into that category. But as hard as many PR pros try, sometimes it’s an uphill battle to get our bosses comfortable and natural in front of a crowd. It’s an important goal, as a confident, comfortable speaker is credible, and a credibility is priceless for any organization that is trying to deliver a message.

Wil James

I recently had the chance to hear a presentation from Wil James, president of Toyota manufacturing in Kentucky, and that man is a natural. Here are six things I picked up from his presentation that every public relations pro should share with his/her leaders.

1. Practice Just because you’re a natural, that doesn’t mean you don’t have to practice. James had his public relations guy running the slides and he never had to ask for a slide to change and he always knew what slide was showing behind him. He spoke confidently and the two of them moved through the presentation flawlessly.

2. Chill Out. Practicing also gives you the confidence to be yourself. James spoke in a very natural tone and used his natural dialect. He was funny and endearing, which no one ever is if they’re focusing too hard on the material – or just reading the slides.

Toyota's Wil James shows his public speaking skills at the Blue Grass Unite function in Central Kentucky.

Wil James speaking at the Blue Grass Army Depot

3. Easy on the Details. I’m sure there are a million things going on at Toyota that Mr. James could have spoken about for hours, but he didn’t. Knowing that his audience wasn’t going to be writing a novel about Toyota operations, he kept his presentation brief and high-level. That said, when someone did ask for details about Toyota’s new initiative to provide power to the plant by using landfill gas, he provided them.

4. Stay in Your Lane That said, sometimes a public speaker might get a question outside his or her purview. When that happens, it isn’t time to promote yourself or make something up. “I don’t know” is always a good answer if you promise to get back to someone with more info.

When James was asked about the future of the hybrid, he said, “I can’t speak for Toyota, but I think…”

5. Ixnay on the I. As far as I know, Wil James hasn’t had a single idea or initiative in his position. That’s because he never used the word, “I.” Everything was “we.” That’s good because it helps the morale of his team and kept his audience from thinking he was pompous.

6. Connect. When James realized he didn’t need his microphone to be heard, he stepped out from behind the podium, removing the obstacle between himself and his audience. He asked the audience questions, spoke directly to people and told a couple of decent jokes.

When Measurement isn’t Measurement

So today was the big physical fitness test for my Army Reserve unit. We all gathered for the semi-annual assessment of our fitness by doing push-ups, sit-ups and a two-mile run. It’s always a nerve-racking event full of troops either trying to push for a good score so they can get promoted or just trying to pass so they can retire. Splendid fun.

We used a new course for our two-mile run this time, which is fine, but at this random point along the course one of the graders started calling out the time that had elapsed. “4:26, 4:27, 4:28…” he yelled out (yes, it’s common for graders to call out every passing second). So I asked him how far along on the course we were. He said he didn’t know.

Awesome.

And since I find myself so often trying to compare life experiences to my career, I started thinking about measurement in public relations and social media. I try to read up on what people are talking about as far as new methods to measure communication efforts (and there’s a lot to read) and one thing I haven’t seen much of is the importance of having something to measure against. It’s great to have a lot of followers or to have a lot of people visiting your site or to see a lot of comments on your blog. But if you haven’t set a goal for yourself or your organization, or if you aren’t benchmarking against competitors in your industry, what exactly are you measuring?

I did just fine on my PT test, but that dude calling out a random time at a random point along the run didn’t help. Had I known I was about a third of the way through the course, I could have stepped it up and really beaten my goal — just like how you can use your communication metrics at a given time to compare against your goals. That way, you can change course or step up your effort if you find yourself lagging. Without goals, you don’t know if what you’re doing is working or not.

The bottom line is that without having some sort of definition of success, measurement is just a waste of time.

The Physics of PR: Newton’s First Law of Crisis Communication

Confession: If I could work in any field other than communication, I’d want to be a physicist. I mean, if there were a fantasy world in which my mathematical clumsiness were not an issue in a field like physics, I would totally be a physicist.

Anyway, I opened up my old physics book from college and while thumbing through it I realized that there actually are some similarities between physics (minus the math) and public relations. So, I’m going to explore the physics of PR from time to time here. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I live to make analogies, so here’s my chance to do that for everyone to see.

First analogy: Newton’s First Law of Motion. Now, if you remember, Newton’s First Law states that any body will tend to stay at rest or maintain a constant velocity until it’s acted upon by another force. So, if you roll a marble across a table, it theoretically could roll forever. It doesn’t because forces of friction and air resistance act upon it. Eventually, it stops, and once it’s stopped, it isn’t going to move again unless something makes it move.

Think about it: That’s crisis communication. As we all know, effective crisis communication begins long before a crisis actually happens. That’s called reputation management. You help create a positive reputation for your organization by maintaining good relationships with stakeholders, being open about your operations, effectively communicating key messages, etc. So, keeping with the example above, your organization is the marble. As you communicate outside of crisis and manage your reputation, you begin rolling your marble and gaining momentum. Theoretically, that momentum could last forever. When your organization experiences a crisis, that’s when the friction and wind resistance begin acting upon your marble. See how it works?

Now here’s the thing: The more momentum you have going into a crisis, the more difficult it is for the crisis to stop your organization’s operations. Remember, not all organizations survive crisis situations. Your existing reputation going into a crisis can help you survive.

So – and I’m not claiming to be a great writer of laws here – we could say that Newton’s First Law of Crisis Communication states that an organization that actively practices reputation management is more likely to maintain its reputation, resist the negative forces of a crisis and maintain its operations than an organization that does not practice good reputation management. Perhaps not the best wording, but I don’t think we need to go so far as to put it to a vote or anything (chuckle).

Many thanks to Khan Academy for a) being awesome and b) teaching the world about so many things. I’ll be relying on Khan Academy for these posts to give more in-depth explanation of the physics concepts. I barely understand the stuff anyway…

Back to School

So, I’m about to head back to Chapel Hill to give a lecture at the University of North Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. I’m lecturing on my thesis, which was a case study on crisis communication in the Air Force.

I decided to use Storify to mix it up a bit. I think we’re all getting tired of PowerPoint for everything. So, my initial draft is below.

Now, this is meant to help the students prepare for the lecture, so I intentionally left some things out. I know they are supposed to read my whole thesis, but it’s almost 150 pages with appendices and I know the students just aren’t going to read that. So, below is the draft, with a few holes in it. I’m going to add in the rest tomorrow before the lecture. I thought it’d be fun to see how it changes after tomorrow.

For now, if you have an opinion on the presentation, let me know. Enjoy!

Lost Missiles and Lost Messages

Advice to PR Newbies: Where You Sit is Where You Stand

I’ve seen a lot of folks blogging with lists of the most important things for you public relations professionals to do while looking for or starting their careers. I agree that it’s very important to blog, brand yourself, stay current with the news, etc., but I feel it’s necessary to bring in one reminder about PR and personal beliefs.

I had a professor in grad school who had one oft-repeated saying: Where you sit is where you stand.

As young public relations pros enter a tough economy, we might see them becoming less choosy about where and with whom they accept positions. Yes, it is understandable for someone to make sacrifices in salary expectations or location desires at this point. But it’s important for all of us to remember who we are as we consider what organizations we want to be a part of.

That’s where my professor’s motto comes in, because where you sit truly is where you stand. Think about it — it’s important for you as a communicator to work for an organization with a message you’re comfortable with communicating. Imagine if you were an environmentalist in the PR department at BP in 2010. If you’re a republican, MoveOn.org probably isn’t a good career move. Remember that you’re going to be a spokesperson for every business decision and every campaign your organization takes on. It’s important that you be comfortable with the messages you will deliver. Also remember that this position will be on your resume when you choose to leave.

Where you sit is where you stand. Make sure the chair is comfortable for you.

Personality in social media: The college basketball rivalry version

In honor of Saturday’s game between the noble Tar Heels and the evil Wildcats of Kentucky, I would like to comment on something at which the University of Kentucky is really schooling UNC.

A little more than a year ago I wrote a post about a journalist named Lucy Kellaway and her opinion that the somewhat recent trend of personalizing organizations was making it easier for stakeholders to hate corporations when they made mistakes. A really smart social media guy named Mark Schaefer (@markwschaefer) put up a post not long ago disagreeing, pointing to a study that says, “being human sets thought leaders apart.”

I’m with Mark.

Look, people don’t relate to lawn mowers and they don’t relate to news aggregators; they relate to people. As painful as it is to admit it, the University of Kentucky (@universityofky) has totally figured that out. UNC (@Carolina_News) has not.

Did you take a campus tour at UK? Wondering about the status of your admissions application? Thinking about becoming an organ donor? Tweet about it. UK responds to this kind of stuff every day. Even when I wrote a somewhat antagonizing post about UK last year, @universityofky responded (antagonizingly).

For the university community, in which institutions are competing for the love of 18-year-old applicants and 30-year-old alumni alike, the UK Twitter account is a cool, responsive friend (or rival) with lots of info behind it.

Now look at UNC’s Twitter. First off, good luck finding a link to it on the UNC homepage. The account is a great aggregator of news about the school, but there’s no personality. It’ll tell you UNC men’s soccer made the Elite 8 (congrats) or the results of a new campus study, but there aren’t RT’s from applicants or fans. There’s no playful banter about athletics or food. Even the name is a drawback; it’s not the university itself, it’s news about the university. If you toured the campus, would you feel comfortable tweeting “I toured @Carolina_News today!”? Of course not. It sounds dumb.

More proof? Look at the followers. The schools’ websites show UNC and UK have similar enrollment numbers (UNC-29,000; UK-28,000) but UK’s account has almost twice as many followers (12,235 to UNC’s 6,708 as of Dec. 1).

Perhaps the most damning proof: me (sorry). My UK alumni friends would be glad to tell you I’m one of the biggest haters out there. I’m not a UK fan, I’m not a Calipari fan, but I do follow @universityofky. It’s entertaining. Sure, you may argue that I’m following UK because I live near it, but I live closer to Eastern Kentucky University and Berea College and I’m not following them.

People appreciate the fun that comes with following an account like @universityofky and I think other schools, including UNC (of which I am an alumnus), could learn something from the way UK rolls on Twitter.

Now, let’s just hope UNC rolls over UK in basketball on Saturday. Go Heels!

Planes, Banks and Stupid Fees

I’m late. I know.

OK, so last post asked why the airline industry has been able to get away with fees on just about everything but Bank of America wasn’t able to pull off a five dollar monthly usage fee on debit cards. Well, I figure there are four reasons: options, necessity, anger and commitment. More than one of those reasons explain a lot of the way the airline industry works the way it does.

First reason: Options. Pretty much every airline has added pretty much the same fees. Baggage fees were first, then charges for snacks and drinks, charges for not notifying that you’re bringing a carry-on, charges for seat selection, so on and so on. The airlines that don’t have as many fees are smaller than the major carriers and don’t fly everywhere. That means you don’t have options. Pay the fee or go on a road trip.

Second reason: Necessity. You don’t have to fly, but you do need a bank. That means more mad people. Simple math.

Third reason (maybe most obvious): Anger. People are mad at banks. Multi-billion dollar bailouts will do that. In BoA’s case, the animosity is exacerbated by layoff announcements and foreclosure increases. Airlines didn’t get those same bailouts. Now, one might argue that people’s anger at big banks couldn’t have gotten any worse than it already was (a similar argument is grounds for defense in libel cases), but there’s just no limit to some people’s anger, especially in a down economy.

Fourth reason: Loyalty. Frequent flyer programs be damned – there is little loyalty in air travel. If there were, sites like Expedia and Travelocity wouldn’t exist. Hell, there isn’t even loyalty to travel sites. If there were, Kayak wouldn’t exist. People want to fly cheap and choosing an airline for a specific trip has but a short commitment. Next time you fly, you’re welcome to switch airlines with no extra work. Banks require more commitment, especially for those of us who have direct deposit. Switching is much more labor intensive.

The way I see it, that fourth reason explains a little about how airlines behave. This isn’t based on in-depth research, but my opinion of airline customer service has gone way down. I imagine many would agree. Well, if loyalty is at such a low, why go the extra mile?

Next post: I explain ways to make air commuters happier.