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Humbling, a short novel about acting and dying (literally); and Vonnegut’s is Look at the Birdie, a collection of early unpublished stories that very much ring true today.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?


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!

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.)

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!

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?

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?