The Role of Public Relations in Influence

Posted on June 3, 2011 by Comments Off

When we discuss influence, we immediately think about popular movie stars or athletes. But what if I said that in today’s society, each of us is an influencer?

I listen to a lot of people talk a lot about influence. The amazing thing is that they all have something different to say. Here at Waggener Edstrom, we of course have our own answers about how to define and measure influence. But this got me thinking. What is the future of influence, and what role do we as communications professionals have in that future?

What is influence?

A recent panel I listened in on had the stated mission of establishing just how we can define influence. But even after an hour of people talking, nobody had a clear definition. At the end of the session, I tweeted: you know who should be influential for your brand? Your brand.

And I stand by that.

As integrated digital communications professionals (see also: public relations), being able to influence your key audiences by creating content and telling a story is the key to establishing and maintaining influence. But first we really do need to establish just what influence is.

While at South by Southwest, I had an opportunity to interview Klout CEO Joe Fernandez about Klout, what factors are important to influence, and what the future is for scientific research of influence.

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A research team at Yahoo! recently examinedthe various conversations that occur on Twitter and reported “a striking concentration of attention on Twitter roughly 50% of tweets consumed are generated by just 20K elite users|where the media produces the most information, but celebrities are the most followed. We also find significant homophily within categories: celebrities listen to celebrities, while bloggers listen to bloggers etc; however, bloggers in general rebroadcast more information than the other categories.” What’s that mean? It means that influence is as much created as it is earned, which has a definite impact on the future of public relations.

Be the story you want to tell

One of the tenants we profess at Waggener Edstrom is to be the story you want to tell. What we mean by that is when you have a message you want to convey, the best conduit for telling that story is to control how it is told. To influence how you are perceived through your own words and use the channels you build to influence the audience you want to reach the most.

So, how do we do that? To me it comes to three key strategies:

  • your own corporate blog
  • your own corporate website
  • your customers.

Your own corporate blog

By creating a two-way communications channel, you are able to interact with potential customers, existing customers and anybody interested in learning about the business problem your company solves. Being able to create a community around a central content hub, you are able to create influence among your core audiences. Social media is important for engaging and building a community, but your corporate blog is where you get to tell your story.

Your own corporate website

As important as real-time and in the moment communications through a personable blog are, having static content that is informative, engaging and compelling is vital to the success of your products. At the end of the day, ROI is not measured in clicks, likes or followers. ROI is measured in revenue. By having a website that is designed to convert the traffic your digital storytelling drives, you will continue to realize benefits over the long term.

Your customers

Empowering your customers to tell your story is the most influential thing you can do for your brand. Creating content that your customers can share and evangelize is essential. Being able to tell your story in a meaningful manner that is compelling and actionable will help influence not only the purchasing decisions of people interacting with your content, but influencing the purchasing decisions of others through their social interactions.

Digital media is the great influence equalizer. Anybody can create influence, and there’s no reason why your brand shouldn’t be an influencer as well.

Shaking Hands With Every Person

Posted on November 12, 2010 by Comments Off

By Melissa Waggener Zorkin, founder and CEO

I have to work harder every day to stay truly connected with more than 800 Waggener Edstrom Worldwide people across the world.  I want to be connected with them because I learn from every one of them, and it is imperative because I make better CEO decisions with their ideas and input – even if it’s sometimes challenging to hear.  Our people also want to be connected to the organization, the leadership team – and, even more importantly, to each other.  We can learn from one another: What are we thinking about what is going on in the world, and how it relates to our business?  What are we paying attention to?  What links are we seeing with what our clients are doing or what influentials are saying?  What is going on in our industry?

Of course, this means lots of traveling, which I love, and it’s a good energy, resulting in a useful give and take with our people.  It also means investing in bringing teams together, something that we must do more of as we continue to localize WE in other parts of the world.  I decided to do the math for how many days of traveling it would take me to have a real dialogue ongoing with everyone, COMBINED with client-travel requirements.  Daunting. 

For many years, all agencywide meetings and e-mail served as the primary means of staying connected.  These are effective at getting everyone aligned around the agency vision; and also for communicating the goals, challenges and opportunities.  But both do not lend themselves all that well to ENGAGED dialogue, sharing customized content/context for locations around the world, and building an honest feedback loop. 

Which is one reason why I not only believe in, and advocate with our clients to make use of social media, but have taken it on to be more active in using social media myself – versus just telling our clients how they should be more active, transparent and engaged via this medium.

I realize that a CEO of a communications agency saying they believe in social media is hardly a shocking concept.  And yes, we have been providing integrated communications programs for many years to our clients, and digital is one of the fastest growing segments of our business.  We have been cited for our progressive work in digital communications services and products as an agency and are firmly entrenched in evolving our capabilities and acumen. 

But we could still be better at connecting, collaborating and sharing around the knowledge within our whole organization.  I firmly believe that if you stop challenging yourself to learn, experiment, sometimes fail … and ultimately improve, you lose some of your credibility when challenging people within your company, as well as clients, to do the same.

To that point, I’m the first to admit that I have much to improve upon and learn still when it comes to being as effective as possible in my own social media use. It’s important to know the ROI on the time I spend doing various things, so I didn’t just jump right in and grab every option available:

-        First of all it takes time; so something has to give.  In my case, I am trying to directly reduce the amount of e-mail I send out in proportion to the time I spend communicating through social media.
-        The more I get engaged in communicating through social media, the more I love it; but there is also ambiguity because I certainly have had my share of surprises and learnings.

For example, at our annual board summit, I (and others) actively tweeted about what we were tackling. We had a screen up in the room where we could see what our people were tweeting about and wanted to know.   We were able to engage a number of our people, and the strongest input was around making sure they all got to hear in real time our areas of investment for the coming year. We turned around an open response and the ROI was that all our people knew what we decided upon in real time. 

I have heard at least one CEO say that it is rather humbling to sit down with your kids, or even more so the 24-year-olds in your organization, to learn the ropes of social media.  I’m enjoying the learning, and have had a number of cool surprises when I am traveling to meet with our people where my social media engagement has actually already opened the dialogue before shaking their hands.

Show the Sausage Making

Posted on August 9, 2010 by 2 Comments

Anyone who has worked at an agency hears the term “hide the sausage making” or “let’s not show them the sausage making.”

Lets not only show them the sausage making, lets give them a factory tour and show them where we source the ingredients.

Moving beyond the metaphor, the more you can expose to clients, be they customers, executives in your own company, or other divisions, the better. Exposing how you do things creates trust and a bond with the client. Clients understand how you think, the work that goes into making their stuff look great and are less likely to have questions about the invoice at the end of the month.

What to share:

  • process, workflow and how you get it done
  • the junior staff members, the clients are paying for them, show the client that they are doing more than making a run to Starbucks
  • your decision making
  • how you came to a point of view
  • internal discussions and debates over key strategies about their business

Being transparent is also a way to make sure your processes and methods are solid. If you can’tshow the sausage making, then maybe its time to clean up the factory.

What not to share:

  • anything irrelevant to their business
  • anything that is more about the running of your business rather than the running of their account or project
  • anything that indicates you value another client more than them.

Illustration by David Carroll

The Tweeting Bush

Posted on June 3, 2010 by 2 Comments

George W. Bush has a Facebook page and a Twitter account as of yesterday, although the latter appears to be fake. Still, Bush’s foray into the social media world makes perfect sense to me: Twitter and Facebook are great tools for listening to what people have to say. And the former president, as we know, has always been interested in what Americans are talking about — whether we know he’s listening or not.

All jokes aside, I’m glad to see more politicians using social media. It promotes transparency in government. For example, it’s easy for most voting-age Americans to watch Obama’s failed campaign promise to bring troops home from Iraq within 16 months. Thanks to social media, it’s tougher to flip flop, go back on promises or mislead the public. In a sense, we the people are poised to take over the traditional media’s job of keeping government accountable. That is a level of democracy the founders of this country could never have dreamed of.

Clever DisguiseThen again, social media can’t prevent scandals or stop power from corrupting. Future Governor Sanfords probably won’t create a Facebook photo album called “Appalachian Trail” and post pics from Argentina; future Monica Lewinskis probably won’t tweet “I’m under the podium, lol!” but the fact remains that social media helps keep politicians accountable. There are tens of millions of people on Twitter and hundreds of millions on Facebook, and their ability to spread news and shape opinions is making it tough for politicians to hide things in the shadows.

However, social media provides something even more important than transparency: Connection. Through social media, politicians can connect directly with their constituents in the same way corporate leaders can connect with company stakeholders. In Ye Olde Days, political candidates would ride trains from township to township. But towns aren’t communities anymore. Social networks are communities. Word doesn’t spread from village to village, Paul Revere-style. Word spreads via viral trends online. So, as more politicians join our online communities, their ability to listen to and understand us becomes greater.

Back to the matter at hand, I say congratulations to Bush’s staffers for getting “him” online. I say “him” with quotes because he isn’t running either account. Bush is not trying to build relationships and he is not trying to connect with people, which means his move is more of a publicity / reputation management stunt than anything else. That automatically makes it a failure as a social media strategy because nobody is interested in a boring feed of tweets like this: “Since leaving office, President Bush has remained active. He has visited 20 states and 8 countries.” Ooh la la.

This kind of social media is easy to spot because of the way it fails. Bush has just 7,000 followers on Twitter and 92,000 on Facebook, as of today. That is miniscule — Bill Gates got more than 100,000 followers on Twitter in 8 hours and John McCain has more than 560,000 fans on Facebook. Getting involved in social media is a nice thought, but it has to be done right.  Consider Bush’s Facebook page. Since the page is public, rather than personal, people can’t even “poke” Bush, as many people lamented on Twitter yesterday. Maybe the Twitter account isn’t entirely worthless though… if Bush isn’t contributing his own thoughts, I guess he’ll just have to re-tweet Karl Rove.

Image by Jill Clardy

Living a Public Life: How Open is Too Open?

Posted on February 3, 2010 by 9 Comments

I mentioned Blippy in a post on this blog last month about capturing content. It’s drawn a fair number of comments and some positive and negative attention for me. In fact, many people in my social media circles know me as the crazy Blippy guy. As a result, I got to be on KING 5 TV news talking about the service and my general feelings on openness, transparency and living a public life. (Click on image below to view video on the KING 5 site.)


Of course, the flip side of living in a glass house is what most people hear more about and live in fear of. For example, how does this movie trailer for “We Live in Public” grab you?

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Which camp do you fall into? What are your thoughts on living a public life?

Sidewiki, Pharma and Forced Transparency

Posted on November 5, 2009 by Comments Off

Heather Snow, Account Director, WE Studio D


About a month ago Google launched a new Toolbar tool — Sidewiki — which allows people who have the plug-in installed to add and view comments on any website — essentially converting Web 1.0 sites into 2.0, whether the site owner wants to be comment-enabled or not. Google isn’t the first to dabble here — others have tried it before without gaining traction — and among the Tech bloggers response has been ho-hum. Another tool, another shiny object, limited utility.

Response within the communications space has been somewhat more galvanized, ranging from wary to visceral. Some compare Sidewiki to public graffiti and worry that it will damage corporate brand reputations, others complain that it bifurcates the conversation on websites and blogs and puts Google in channel conflict with the author. Much of the hubbub is overblown, IMO, but what Sidewiki does do — for those who have it installed (which is still a relatively small user base) — is surface to eye level comments that might otherwise be buried with the corporate website. The fact is, brands can’t control the conversation. But that’s not news.

Except when it comes to Pharma, where it becomes a bit more sticky.

Much maligned as an industry woefully lacking in transparency, Pharma brands actually have a more nuanced and complex path to navigate when it comes to social media, due to strict FDA regulations around the reporting of adverse events and promotion of off-label drug use. Under these regulations, Pharma companies engaging in social media would have to actively monitor, document and report discussion of adverse events, as well as correct misinformation as it relates to off-label usage — requiring implementation of new processes and databases. Consequently many Pharma companies are reticent about engaging in social media. But now Sidewiki is forcing the issue. And many Pharma brands have already attracted Sidewiki comments.

There is currently little guidance as to whether the FDA reporting requirements extends to comments placed on Sidewiki and the onus is on the individual brand to determine how to respond. Some argue that the regulation does not extend to Sidewiki, as it is not actually part of the corporate site; however Pharma companies are required to report adverse events when they become aware of them, raising the question of whether to initiate corporate policies to actively monitor or to actively ignore Sidewiki.

But as I see it, the crux of the story here is not one of tools. Sidewiki is but a blip — whether it gains popularity or not is largely irrelevant. The point is that the communication landscape is changing and has been for some time. One-way communication is long dead. Brand reputation can be massaged, but not controlled. Conversations are happening whether you’re listening or not. The onus is on brands — and industries — to adapt their processes to transparent, dynamic, two-way communication. Now. Before they have to get reactive.

Because, to return to the graffiti analogy, graffiti only occurs when nobody is watching.

People who live in glass houses …

…don’t attract spray paint.

What’s in a Name? What’s in Your Cup? How Starbucks’ Signage Sneakery is a Sign of the Times

Posted on July 23, 2009 by Comments Off

Matt Whiting, Senior Account Executive, WE Studio D

Starbucks un-branding (Photo by Matt Whiting)

One of Seattle’s most globally recognizable and omnipresent corporate citizens is trying a new experiment that has some Seattleites steaming and others just perplexed.

As it has been widely reported, Starbucks is conducting a trial in which they will un-brand three Seattle-based shops in an attempt to endear the international company with those who prefer to buy their goods from local, independent shops. As reported originally by the Seattle Times and subsequently by many others, the shop on 15th Avenue in North Capitol Hill will now be known simply as 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea, a coffee shop that will not only offer standard coffee shop fare, but also will host poetry readings and serve beer and wine.

Stepping back from the caffeinated buzz, there are certainly some key trends to note here and lessons to be learned.

Transparency: Wiping the name from the windows is clearly a step away from the “sunshine” of transparency with condemnation of this move having already reached a feverish pitch online and in the surrounding neighborhood. While it is encouraging to see company spokespeople discussing the plans (at least somewhat) openly, the biggest complaints stem from the fact the company seems to be distancing itself from the brand it worked so hard to create. A good compromise would be for the store to be called something along the lines of 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea: Your Neighborhood Starbucks. Regardless of how they do it, the company needs to acknowledge the obvious or otherwise risk being seen as overtly deceptive.

Authenticity: Clearly not heeding Oscar Wilde’s oft repeated advice (Be yourself; everyone else is already taken), the new Starbucks is being derided for ripping off the style of its neighbors. As the puts it, “[i]f imitation is the kindest form of flattery, the restaurant and bar known as Smith is feeling … well … flat-out worshiped.” Smith and neighboring artisan coffee shop Victrola, among others are feeling less than flattered, but only time will tell if the new Starbucks location will outlast the opinions of those who have negative views of corporate copycatting.

PR Response: As often is unfortunately the case with any move by corporations, the communications intended to connect with their audience often come off as jilted and about as far from human as possible. As Marc Gunther of the Huffington Post aptly points out in a reaction to a particularly unnaturally sounding corporate response, “[t]hose, my friends, are words only a corporate PR person could utter. Any resemblance to spoken English is purely coincidental.” Such words do not serve to endear the company to those they are working so hard to win over by this extreme remodel. There is certainly a place for finely worded responses devoid of human emotion, but any such communications should be saved for legal matters and PR should get back to actually being able to relate to the public.

Knowing Your Audience: For all of the flak that Starbucks is getting for this, something has to be said for their attempt to adapt to what (they feel) the community actually wants. Sure, cynics will argue that the only reason they’re doing this is to make money, but what company isn’t trying to better its bottom line? The gravest error here is the lack of transparency and the fact that people feel they are being lied to. Completely un-branding oneself may be unprecedented, (those with more familiarity with techniques being used in test markets like Peoria and Columbus might know definitely) but trying to blend in with your surroundings is certainly a worthy goal.

Regardless of whether you are for or against the latest move by coffee’s corporate giant, (as clichéd as it may be) it is undeniable that the world is shifting in ways that would have been unimaginable just a few years back. In addition to coping with a recession unprecedented in modern history, Starbucks is forced to compete with a cheaper, even-more widely ubiquitous competitor in McDonalds’ coffee. Perhaps as important, Starbucks and global brands across the world are faced with customers who, through the channels of the internet, have become accustomed to immediate responses and are more attuned to the benefits of buying local.

Whether this experiment works or not, my guess is we will begin seeing more and more companies attempt to humanize their brands in the most efficient ways available. Here’s to hoping such humanization efforts finally add a nail to the coffin of contrived communications (bad corporate PR) as well.

Update: Earlier this afternoon, I received a friendly e-mail from Starbucks Corporate Communications following up on this post. The company rep kindly pointed me to a fact sheet that the Starbucks Newsroom launched at some point earlier today, while also assuring me that the company has thought long and hard about transparency and authenticity. While I don’t doubt the hard work and likely long hours that have gone into the planning of how this launch would be communicated to the public, I call into question the timing of when these communications were rolled out.

Much like the movie studios that are finding that many of their films are deflated by the time preview audiences have a chance to offer negative reviews about their latest offering, Starbucks seems to be the victim of an incredibly rapid news and complaint cycle. The fact that the press, including the likes of AP, The New York Times, The Huffington Post among others have reported on how the 15th Avenue Starbucks, to quote the AP piece, is “wiping its name” from the store, brings up the question of the need for immediate transparency. Since those reporting had nothing to go off of from the Starbucks communications camp, there was nothing to counter public perception and journalistic observation. Look for a broader discussion around the changing timeframes of communications in the near future.

GM Revives Brand Using Old Strategies & New Tactics

Posted on July 22, 2009 by Comments Off

Tac Anderson, Digital Consulting Director, WE Studio D

NEW YORK - JUNE 02: A torn and fading billboar...

Image by Getty Images viaDaylife

In a recent WSJ article John Stoll dives into the communication challenges GM faces in light of its recent bankruptcy and government bailout funding.

What’s interesting to note is the implementation of a traditional strategy using digital tactics.

Lee Iacocca is famous for putting a face on Chrysler’s turnaround efforts in the 1980s by appearing in TV commercials and in the media using a “plain speaking” and upfront approach to win back customers and trust.

GM’s new CEO Frederick “Fritz” Henderson is trying the same sort of thing but using an unscripted approach on company blogs, Web chats and a newly launched “Tell Fritz” online suggestion box instead of paid TV spots or other advertising.

Time Not Money

In Iacocca’s time writing a bestselling book (with the help of ghost writers, I’m sure) and buying a lot of advertising may have worked in a time before the Internet. Today those tactics would likely have resulted in more wasted bailout dollars.

While Fritz is taking a similar “honest” approach and putting himself front and center, he is making a greater commitment in time rather than money. Can you imagine how busy Fritz’s days are? Even as he works to revive a cornerstone of American manufacturing and pillar of the U.S. economy, he also takes the time to participate in Web chats and blogs. The message this sends is impactful.

But how does he do his “day job” at the helm of GM and participate in a meaningful way in social media?

Infrastructure and process provide scale

This shouldn’t come as a big surprise, but it’s not something you hear social media “experts” talk about. Putting processes in place and dedicating resources to “filter and flag” the most important content is critical. Technology alone can’t do this. It also takes a layer of human analysis.

At Waggener Edstrom we will often use various tools including (yet to be announced product) and twendz filter conversations from key influencers and flag the most relevant tweets for response. Fritz undoubtedly has people monitoring the most important and relevant comments and questions which he then responds to upon “arriving at the office or before he goes to bed.”

You’re planning a journey not an event

In PR we tend to spin cycles around upcoming events and product launches. But Fritz’s approach is not a one time, annual or quarterly event. It’s the way companies should be communicating now. You need a strategy, there had better be measurable results but there is no end date. There is no postmortem. You have to iterate and evolve as you go. Social media efforts are something you grow organically not hype up and then walk away from.

But will it work?

GM is in the midst of a PR nightmare. Consumers and taxpayers were outraged at the huge amounts of money given to the auto industry. Despite all the negativity, GM is staying engaged and working to focus the online discussion around its future, rather than the past.

GM was the first auto manufacturer to use social media and Fritz’s outreach shows those efforts are increasing. Through its consistent engagement, GM stays top of mind, participates and contributes to the conversation even if it can’t control what’s being said.

Even Those in the Business of Fake Need to Get Real

Posted on July 17, 2009 by Comments Off

Matt Whiting, Senior Account Executive

Flickr photo by flamed

No matter how you slice it, astroturfing is a terrible practice. In New York state, it turns out that such deception will get you noticed by the attorney general’s office. As Jacqui Cheng points out in yesterday’s article in the Law & Disorder section, a cosmetic surgery company in New York settled a case after it was caught putting up fake online reviews.

While fake reviews are by no means a new phenomenon, it’s disheartening to see companies continue to believe they will be able to get away with deliberately shady practices that undermine one of the core tenets of model Web behavior: transparency.

Perhaps it’s been too long since VH1′s “Behind the Music” of Milli Vanilli, but it’s time the world learns once and for all that, in the end, deceit just doesn’t cut it.

Facebook Public Posting — Welcome to YOU the Brand

Posted on June 26, 2009 by Comments Off

Jennifer Houston, Senior Vice President

It’s interesting to watch the chatter around Facebook’s decision to turn postings public (by default – you can actually change the settings if you don’t want your wild weekend be public). While I understand the passion around the decision, it has an element of the “duh” factor for me. Facebook is merely fast following a trend that has been building since we began to engage in message boards eons ago: in this post-digital era, we’re just on and YOU are a brand.

Me? A brand? I’m not talking Corn Flakes or Jaguar. I’m talking about the brand that is YOU. Every single piece of content we create (and, by the way, everything is content) – whether podcast, Flickr pic, tweet or (gasp) Facebook postings – all accrue to your brand. Come on, if you’re telling your friends what era of music or hostess you are, you have to be at least a little interested in sharing.

Things to live by for the brand that is you (taken liberally from what we have always practiced with public brands):

  • We’re just on. Not sometimes. Not at work or away from work. Just on. Be a good steward of that brand as it follows you (digitally) everywhere.
  • Invest in your brand. And be authentic, credible, transparent and honest. Or your brand will lose all credibility. See the above point.
  • We’re human. If you do experience a brand stumble, own it. Engage with those you have offended. Be transparent.
  • Be your brand in your own style. Don’t choose platforms that don’t authentically suit you. Create content about things you know. Posers lose credibility.
  • Give before you get. Add value in your interactions. Give someone a reason to want to engage with you.

Check out our Influence Manifesto to see how we’re evolving our craft at Waggener Edstrom.

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