Ragan Recap: Communications, Chicago-style

chicagoI’m so exhausted after three days in Chicago that I can barely stay awake to write this post. I took in slightly more information than I did beer in the Windy City (but not by much) and want to share my impressions of the 2009 Ragan Corporate Communicators Conference and some of what I learned in the sessions.

A few of the sessions I attended were so outstanding that they warrant their own individual posts that will come later this week (stay tuned). The others were quite solid. I predominantly went to workshops on the PR/Marketing Communications track. Here’s a rundown of some of my favorites:

ComEd: Generating positive publicity when the lights are on

ComEd Communications Manager Jeff Burdick led this session and started with a slide that said: “99.95% of the time, you DO have power!” But of course, that’s not what customers want to hear during an outage. The average customer is only without power for a total of four hours in a given year. Obviously storm and outage communication is a major issue for utility companies, but during the rest of the time when everything’s buzzing along, how do they generate interest? ComEd focuses on pitching stories about reliability and infrastructure investments, its employees, environmental projects, and corporate citizenship. ComEd targets local TV news and smaller, community-based newspapers (many of which aren’t suffering and closing at the rate of large metropolitan dailies).
Key takeaway: Look for “Riches in the Niches” and leverage unique, local angles in stories. Don’t always focus on the largest media outlets

Wells Fargo: Flexible communications in the face of merging organizations

Presented by Kathleen Golden, VP of Public Relations for Wells Fargo Wealth Management Group, this session focused on the 2008 acquisition of Wachovia by Wells Fargo and the associated communications challenges. When merging the leadership of two organizations, speculation runs rampant among employees and the media. Who’s getting what job? Who’s leaving, who’s staying? Why are they structuring the new company this way? Communicators in this situation have to have the pulse of what’s being said and address any misinformation as soon as possible. But, it’s okay to tell stakeholders that you don’t have the answers yet.
Key takeaway: Establish a process for both sides of a merger to share, receive and distribute information. Address rumor and specualtion as much as possible with the information you have on hand to diffuse any issues. Involve communications early on in the merger process.

Word of Mouth Marketing – Get customers talking about you

I was a bit disappointed in Andy Sernovitz’s session, mostly because I felt he didn’t share anything beyond what you could get from his book or blog. All of the examples he used were primarily B2C companies (Skittles, Zappos, Duct Tape), which I think generally lend themselves to more viral, word-of-mouth activities and campaigns. It can be much harder to get a bunch of supply chain managers to become rabid fans of plastic fasteners or concrete forms or raw chemicals. While Andy had some good tidbits here and there, I was bummed that I skipped some of the other sessions going on at this time (including Katie Paine’s) to go to this one.
Key takeaway: Make it easy for customers to talk about your brand. Create content that they can participate in and make their own, then share with their friends.

Calculating the ROI of your communications – turning results into dollars

Angela Sinickas offered ways to measure communications efforts and show how communicators can take credit for behavior changes that earn or save money for a company. I’m not sure I fully understood her approach, as she seemed to advocate for continually adjusting either the costs incurred or the value derived to achieve the ROI result you wanted. In the corporate communications roles that I’ve held, the finance team would pretty quickly sniff out any data massaging like that. The other issue I had was that her approach relied on having good data available – which many communicators don’t always have at their disposal. But the basic concepts were intriguing and I think I’ll refer back to her slides and check her Web site out to learn more.
Key takeaway: Only behavior changes can have a dollar-value attached to them, so measure that. Calculate communications ROI on a project basis instead of trying to do it annually for an entire department.


As is usually the case, the best part of the conference was getting to meet so many great people. It was fantastic to have lunch with Katie Paine and see Shonali Burke at the cocktail hour. I got to meet Amber Naslund, Rachel Esterline and Ari Adler at the unconference. I hit the town with Mike Pilarz, Allan Schoenberg and Amber Porter Cox. I had my first Bell’s Beer (and my second, and my third…) and took an extra day with my good friend and travel companion Christine Hartter (who also wrote a great conference recap) to check out The Bean and the Art Institute. Verdict: Chicago is my kinda town!

Image via Flickr user amymengel (thanks to the waiter who snapped the pic above!)

Are corporate communicators hopeless in social media?

Have you ever had an experience where someone says something that makes you immediately cringe, but you also know that they’re at least partly right? I had that reaction a week ago listening in on Social Mediasphere TV, Jim Turner’s weekly show on Ustream. His panelists included several social media rockstars, among them Amber Naslund. Amber was asked if she had to replace herself in her role as Director of Community at Radian6, what would she look for in a candidate? The first thing Amber said she wouldn’t want is someone with a communications background. Ouch! Here’s her transcribed response:

I actually probably don’t want somebody with a communications background..sorry communications people…but the truth is there’s a lot of preconceived notions in corporate communications that are very, very difficult to undo and part of the reason that social media is struggling for adoption inside of established companies is that they’re having trouble jettisoning the old ideas they have about how and what to communicate to their customers.

So, if I were replacing myself I would actually want someone who is closer to a rookie and somebody who has the passion for connecting with people. I came up through a nonprofit fundraising background and to be perfectly frank when we were fundraisers we weren’t taught a lot about proper corporate communication practices. We were taught that connecting with the donors about the story behind the organization was what was going to connect with them at a level that compelled them to want to support it. I go back to those tenets a lot in my community work.

So if I was going to replace me I would probably look for a grassroots nonprofit type person who is really plugged into the people and not so much plugged in to their MBA textbook that’s collecting dust on the shelf. And I’d look for somebody that has a bunch of unrefined skills that is eager to get out there and do really good, hard work . This is not a 9-5 job, so I need somebody with the work ethic that can dedicate themselves to it but I want somebody with kind of a fresh slate because I don’t want somebody whose ideas I have to undo.

My initial reaction to Amber’s answer was to cringe, wince and recoil. I’ve got six years of corporate communications under my belt (and a shelf full of dusty MBA textbooks too, for that matter) and now the rockstar of social media rockstars is telling me that I’m not likely to be a good fit for a social media job? Yikes.

squarepegBut then I stopped to really think about what Amber said (and it’s why I waited a week to write this post). Her basic tenet is that a lot of corporate communicators still want to control how, when and what is communicated to customers. They’re trying to fit a square social media peg into a round corporate communications hole, and it’s not working. They rely on models, rules, diagrams, pie charts or PowerPoint slides to define effective communication. And by they, I also mean me– at least a part of the time. I admit that I sometimes tend to fit communications strategies into my company’s current operating framework rather than challenging that framework and looking for more effective ways of reaching customers. Sometimes I get caught up in the process and mechanics of communication and forget to focus on telling a compelling story.

However, I don’t think that means professionals with a communications background couldn’t be effective in a community-focused social media role. Amber talks about not being able to “undo” a corporate communicator’s old ideas. It is hard to jettison those ideas when you’re still at a company that reinforces them. But I do think many corporate communicators are aware of the strictures that are often placed on us and in some cases are frustrated by them. Once they step away, some of those preconceived notions can be undone pretty quickly, primarily because they don’t have HR, legal, marketing or operations underscoring them right and left. Sometimes all it takes is a change in scenery.

I’m sure Amber’s right in that a young, scrappy, go-getter fundraising type would make a great community manager. But I wouldn’t entirely count out folks with communications backgrounds. Some of us may just be looking for the opportunity to undo some of our ideas. What do you think? Is it a matter of the corporate culture driving communicators’ approaches, or communicators in corporations clinging to their “old ideas?” How can corporate communications pros make a transition into a role like Amber’s?

Image via Flickr user danstorey14

Tight on resources? Deputize your brand’s fans

Sometimes you just need more people. In January, Washington, D.C. deputized out-of-town security and police forces during the Obama inauguration. The city gave them the tools and authority to manage the massive crowds that had descended for the weekend. The size of the actual D.C. police force didn’t grow permanently, but it had the resources it needed to get through the event. Brands can achieve the same effect – a simulated growth in the size of its marketing resources – by deputizing their fans.

penzeysI am a huge fan of Penzey’s Spices. The company is based in Wisconsin and has a few dozen stores throughout the US and a mail-order catalog. Their products are amazing. Their cinnamon (all four varieties) is the best I’ve ever tasted. Penzey’s rubs and spice blends for meats and vegetables can make a good cook out of just about anyone. They offer adorable spice gift packages that I’ve often given at wedding showers and as holiday gifts. A few of my favorite recipes were discovered in their spice catalogs. I don’t ever plan on buying grocery-store spices again.

I will gladly sing Penzey’s praises to anyone who will listen (see above paragraph). But here’s the problem – I have very little at my disposal to aid in my Penzey’s evangelization. It doesn’t appear that the company has even dipped its toes into the social media waters yet. No Facebook fan page, no Twitter account, no company blog. That leaves me with only their Web site to direct people to after I tell them how absolutely delicious the Florida Seasoned Pepper or Northwoods Fire blend is.

But Penzey’s Web site is relatively bland – it’s set up essentially as a no-frills eCommerce site. There’s no way for me to interact with the brand and share it with my friends. Bill Penzey, the company founder, writes a folksy customer letter in each catalog and it’s posted on the penzeys.com Web site. But I can’t share it via Facebook, Delicious or Twitter. The catalog is essentially on the site in .pdf format – making it difficult to share. The recipes from the catalog are also posted to the Web site. But again, I can’t bookmark them, post them to a profile, or even “e-mail this page to a friend.”

What Penzey’s perhaps doesn’t realize is that I, and I’m sure many of their other fans, would do a heck of a lot of free marketing for them if we only had tools and content at our disposal. People are already talking about the brand online: a Google blog search for Penzey’s returns more than 14,000 results. On Facebook, a loyal Penzey’s fan created a group that has almost 400 members and there are three others with a couple dozen members. It doesn’t appear that anyone from Penzey’s participates in these groups.

If Penzey’s fans were deputized – armed and equipped with social tools to take to our friends and networks – we could spread our love for Penzey’s at an exponential rate. Imagine if Penzey’s had a Facebook fan page that featured recipes, images, coupons, gift ideas or cooking tips. Or if they created a YouTube channel or Flickr account where their fans could post photos or videos of the meals they created using Penzey’s spices. Penzey’s doesn’t necessarily need to dive in to a full-fledged social media campaign, but creating some social outposts could go a long way toward allowing their fans to interact with the brand (and with each other) and easily share Penzey’s information with their social networks.

Many smaller businesses are afraid of moving into social media because they think it will take too much time. But if your customers like your brand enough and you give them the necessary tools, they will spend their own time to tout your brand among their friends. So give ’em a badge.

Image via Flickr user amymengel (yeah, I took that one)

No to Carrots, Yes to Pomegranates

Shannon Paul, at her excellent and Very Official Blog, wrote earlier this week about a situation where a company tried to pitch her via a comment on one of her blog posts. The product had nothing to do with the topic she’d written about (using her grandma’s carrot cake recipe as a metaphor for sharing great content) and the pitch itself, for skincare products from a company called Yes-to-Carrots, came off as a “free billboard” advertisement. The story has somewhat of a happy ending, as the offending commenter later called Shannon to apologize. But trying to pitch via public comments shows a pretty incomplete understanding of effective blogger relations on the part of Yes-to-Carrots.

Pomegranates, however, are a different story. A few weeks ago, in my post about the changes to US Airway’s inflight magazine, I mentioned that part of the magazine included an excerpt from the new book Rubies in the Orchard, which is Lynda Resnick’s story of the founding and marketing of POM Wonderful pomegranate juice. I said I had read the chapter excerpt in the magazine and was likely to read the whole book at some point. It was merely a mention in a post that wasn’t really about the book at all, but two days later I received the following e-mail:


I enjoyed your post, Blogs on Paper at 35,000 feet. Did you pick up the Rubies in the Orchard book yet? I’d be happy to send you some POM juice to enjoy while you’re reading.

Send me your contact info and I’ll get you some juice within a week or so.


I sent them my address, more to see what happened than anything else. Today, I received a package in the mail with a case of POM Wonderful juice, a personalized letter, and a fact sheet about pomegranates and their health benefits. I didn’t intend to blog about their outreach, as it’s really nothing new and bloggers are frequently targeted and pitched. But POM Wonderful’s efforts were in such stark contrast to what I read about on Shannon’s blog that in the end, I did end up writing about them again (although I’m sure they’re sad to learn that my blog’s audience is about 15 readers, including my dad). Perhaps most importantly for them, however, is that they’ve gained a customer: I really did like the juice and will probably buy it.

I’m sure Yes-to-Carrots and POM Wonderful both ended up at Shannon’s and my blogs, respectively, via a Google alert on a certain keyword (although Shannon’s follow-up post seems to indicate that her commenter may have been a regular reader). But what separates the carrots from the pomegranates was what they did with that info. POM Wonderful used it as an opportunity to send me a private e-mail. Yes-to-Carrots inappropriately posted a public comment to Shannon’s blog. As Shannon noted in her own comment, “I can’t think of an example where it would be a good idea to pitch someone in the comments.”

Even though Yes-to-Carrots did the right thing by calling Shannon to offer an apology and trying to start a dialogue with her, she stated that she might now be hesitant to buy a product that she already knew of and liked. Yes-to-Carrots potentially lost a customer because of botched blogger outreach. POM Wonderful gained a customer because they did a good job. Sometimes being a little seedy is a good thing.

Update: Jeremy Epstein, who posted the original Yes-to-Carrots pitch on Shannon’s blog, posted a “learn from my mistake” post at his own blog. Check it out – very impressive and goes a long way toward undoing the “damage” from the initial comment, in my opinion. Kudos to Jeremy!

Is Facebook the new AOL?

exitWhen I was in middle school, EVERY family I knew that was on the Internet was on AOL. It seemed like the only way you could get online. Everyone had AOL e-mail addresses, AOL Instant Messenger handles, and those somewhat stalker-enabled AOL Profiles. There were some alternatives, like CompuServe, but essentially you were on it because everyone else was.

Fast Forward 10 or 15 years and enter Facebook. Lots of people are joining the site because, well, everyone else is on the site. People in my parents’ generation have started to join because they’re being left out of information and conversations that happen on the site. Grandparents are joining Facebook because that’s where pictures of their grandkids get posted. My husband calls his parents in Pennsylvania to fill them in on the health of a neighbor who recently suffered a stroke. My in-laws live 500 yards from this man, but since my husband has friended his daughter on Facebook, he knows much more about how the neighbor is recovering than my in-laws do – despite that fact that we live 250 miles away. If you’re not on Facebook, you’re missing out.

But Facebook made changes earlier this month to its home page and the way information is presented. It now emphasizes friends’ status updates and photo posts and makes it hard to tell if they’ve joined a group, friended someone you know, became a fan of something, or installed an application. You have to visit their profile page for that. The process for things virally spreading through Facebook has been hampered, in my opinion. And according to TechCrunch, a new Facebook poll shows that 94 percent of Facebook users don’t like the changes, either.

In many industries, customers can “vote with their feet.” If they don’t like something, they leave. They take their business elsewhere. As alternatives to AOL began sprouting up, people began doing just that. They opted for a more open Internet, better connection service, less controlled content. But with Facebook, there doesn’t seem to be that option. How do you vote with your feet when there’s nowhere to go? MySpace is old hat and has its own set of issues that make it less user-friendly than Facebook. If all your friends are on Facebook and that’s where the action is, it doesn’t make much sense to leave in protest unless you can all go somewhere together. So as much as people are griping about the homepage changes, Facebook doesn’t have a ton of incentive to revert to the old site. Where are people going to go?

Facebook has shown willingness to listen to customers in the past – notably with its Beacon advertising platform and its recent changes to its Terms of Service. And several users weren’t fans of the 2008 design change, but Facebook stuck with it (those changes were more subtle). It has the luxury right now of being the biggest game in town. But judging by what became of AOL, that’s not a position that Facebook should get too comfortable in. Eventually, if Facebook users remain unhappy, expect a newer, cooler kid to roll in and start attracting attention – and users.

Image: Flickr user Scoobyfoo