Do Tweets Deserve the Credibility they Get?

shutterstock_191728364You know what they say: ‘Life imitates Twitter.’ Well, actually, “they” don’t really say that. I just said it, which kind of ties to a tweet I posted last week that gained a little traction.

Every day, I tweet a PR “Tip of the Day,” and one of last week’s postings was, “’Tweets’ are hearsay, don’t comment on them unless facts are independently verified.”

This was in the spirit of the long-standing, common sense PR position that we should never comment on hearsay, but rather only comment when we have verified the information at hand and its source is known. Increasingly, social media users and reporters alike will expect a brand, an organization or its PR representatives to comment on tweets and social media posts.

Ironically, last week’s PR Tip generated a response enthusiastic enough to warrant a little more attention. The issue at the center of all this was my contention is that far too much credibility is assigned to tweets on face value.

Before getting into the theory of it all, let’s break it down. Anyone can tweet.  Twitter users are not required to reveal their true identities. That should undermine the social media channel’s credibility quite a bit, but often it does not.

Second, there are techniques that tech-savvy social media gurus can use to multiply the impact of tweets. One user can trigger thousands of tweets advancing a particular point of view, opinion, claim or allegation, deceptively giving the impression that the sentiments across all of these tweets is shared by thousands of individuals. That possibility is lost or overlooked by the public, and quite often by reporters who may base coverage on social media content.  Often, an assumption is made that even a handful of tweets automatically reflect general public opinion.

In conventional media coverage of tweets, the burden is sometimes placed on PR professionals to respond to social media activity.

Traditionally, journalists have considered it their primary mission in reporting news to center on facts, not opinion or conjecture. That, we learned in J-school, was the domain of the opinion page editors and the commentators at our news operations.

But when social media came along, the temptation was simply too great for TV, radio and print/online execs to look for “synergies.” This term can mean many things, but in this context it represents a convergence where the interactive nature of social media is leveraged to create news content and more directly build audience at the same time.

By engaging the audience with content based on social media, and then using social media to solicit more feedback, the media organization can create a cycle where this dynamic process builds momentum and can potentially take on a life of its own, adding a viral element.

What has come out of this is that news organizations now sometimes report Twitter reaction to other events or their own stories, creating completely new stories unto themselves based on tweets. In the process, the facts of the stories can become secondary. Instead, Twitter “backlash” or “social media outrage” defines and shapes the story.

This marks a significant shift in focus. The “fact” that people are posting opinions and conjecture about the story becomes all the justification needed to run with a story. Thanks to social media, and oftentimes Twitter specifically, opinion, rumor, speculation and conjecture drive a given story.

Narrow Demographics

The very demographics of social media are much more narrow than most believe. When traditional media tells us that thousands of Twitter users are offended by a new toy on store shelves for the holidays, or that there is Twitter controversy over a TV commercial, do we know who exactly is offended and how much of a cross-section of society feels the same way?

According to the Pew Research Center, about 23 percent of adult Internet users count themselves as Twitter users, at least occasionally. “Twitter is particularly popular among those under 50 and the college-educated,” observed Pew.

The largest percentage of adult Twitter users are between 18 and 20 years old at 37 percent; most have a college degree; and 41 percent earn $50,000 or less per year. Most Twitter users live in cities and suburbs, a combined total of 48 percent, while rural users total 17 percent. Ethnically, Pew reported that adult Twitter demographics are almost evenly distributed.

It would take a much more comprehensive data dive to more fully make sense of these numbers, but what we can conclude is that news stories centered Twitter activity:

  • Do not provide a solid representation of adults aged 30 and over;
  • Do not provide an accurate representation of people who live outside of cities and suburbs;
  • Do not provide an adequate representation of individuals who earn $50,000 or more per year.

What Twitter does provide, it seems, is a representative depiction of attitudes among 20-somethings who live in urban areas and make less than $50,000 per year. That is only a sliver of demographics that comprise society and cannot be assumed to represent public sentiment in general.

If the narrow demographics of social media users are important to you, then social media trends should be.  Still, it is safe to assume that these narrow demographics aren’t enough to accurately make conclusions on how the majority of people feel.

OBC Twitter TweetWhat this means to reporters and for those of us in the business of PR is that as long as verified facts are the basis of our own credibility, and as long as credibility matters, it’s in everyone’s best interest to put tweets and other social media posts into the proper context and perspective. Understand the context and know that Twitter users are a narrow group. Speak to the facts. Do not speculate and do not validate speculation or rumor presented on face value.

When the Gatekeepers Lock the Gate: Sponsored content could be an option

Locked GateThere is not one good PR person in the business who has picked up the phone and pitched a pretty good story to a reporter or editor and hasn’t had it shot down. It happens all the time for any number of reasons.

Perhaps the story doesn’t fit the news organization’s formula or format for news. Maybe the story has been done recently. And then there are times when editors and reporters decide that the subject matter is a bit too complex or just not interesting enough for their readers or viewers.

For these reasons and many more, communicators run into the buzz saw that is media relations.

So, what to do when the gatekeepers of the news room “lock the gate?”

There are many options while staying within the realm of media relations. You could re-think your approach. Maybe target a different beat in the news room, or rethink the way the story is presented. All worthy considerations under the right circumstances.

But then there are times when it’s worth considering stepping outside the boundaries of traditional media relations and considering a different approach, one where you can still reach out to the same readers with much greater control and predictability – sponsored content.

Why sponsored content?

Sponsored content is otherwise known as “native advertising,” and it used to be commonly dubbed “advertorials.” The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) says that sponsored content or native advertising consists of “paid ads that are so cohesive with the page content, assimilated into the design, and consistent with the platform behavior that the viewer simply feels they belong.”

In other words, you’re creating an ad that looks, reads and feels like the publication’s or Web site’s own editorial content.

Of course there are ethical stipulations so that the reader is not fooled into presuming that your ad is in fact content produced by the editors of the media channel that publishes it. Most notably, your content will be labeled (usually tastefully) something like, “Paid Content,” “Sponsored Content,” or simply “Advertisement.”

A Construction and Siting Scenario

Let’s say project planners want to work to build awareness of and create transparency around siting for a construction and development project in a rural area.

The complexity and sensitivity of the issues involved require more than periodic dissemination of news releases announcing the project’s plans. Regulators are involved. Maybe there is a public hearing process as well. So, an ambitious media relations outreach program is conducted. As part of this program, the planners develop traditional opinion page submissions. Some make it to print, others do not.

It becomes clear that this approach may not be enough to ensure that the community is getting all of the information it needs. Still, it is unrealistic to expect the editors to devote the kind of editorial space required to truly do justice to the broad and comprehensive subject matter associated any single construction project.

A supplemental strategy of using sponsored content may be an option.

Using such a strategy, planners can decide when and where certain content appears. Each article can more deeply explore particular issues, such as the potential economic or infrastructure impact of the project, and what’s being done to protect the community and the environment.

The complexity of these topics cannot easily be covered in a billboard or 30-second commercial. Advertorials developed around each important issue can make a difference.

A consistent format that is unique to the project can then be developed so that it complements the editorial content of regional and local newspapers, without creating confusion over the source of the content, which is clearly marked.

In the end, the community has a chance to more fully hear the story on what the project means to them, and the project planners are better able to keep their commitment to openness and transparency.

If your organization is faced with the challenge of communicating comprehensive and complex information and may need to supplement or extend its traditional media relations efforts, an appropriate sponsored content strategy could be a way to go.

If this is something you’re thinking about, please feel free to get in touch. We might be able to help you get your plans on track.

3 Questions to Ask Before Apologizing

IMG_20150923_134511_554-1On Wednesday, Volkswagen announced that its CEO Dr. Martin Winterkorn has resigned. This came days after it was revealed that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had discovered that the German automaker appears to have installed software in vehicles enabling them to fool emissions tests.

Winterkorn had admitted as much in a lengthy apology he gave earlier in the week. According to reports, the company had installed software in some vehicles that only activate specific emission control functions when the car senses it is getting an emissions test. It appears that the emission control functions were not used during normal operation of the vehicle.

The story came to light when the EPA ordered the carmaker to recall almost 500,000 cars that were said to have utilized the technology. Subsequently, Volkswagen will discontinue sales of its cars equipped with four-cylinder turbo diesel engines in the United States.

Because the use of this technology could have violated the U.S. Federal Clean Act, the company could be penalized “up to $37,500, or more than $18 billion,” reported the Wall Street Journal.

This was the context for Winterkorn’s apology, which didn’t appear to be enough to stave off calls for his removal:

“I personally am deeply sorry that we have broken the trust of our customers and the public. We will cooperate fully with the responsible agencies, with transparency and urgency, to clearly, openly, and completely establish all of the facts of this case. Volkswagen has ordered an external investigation of this matter.

We do not and will not tolerate violations of any kind of our internal rules or of the law.

The trust of our customers and the public is and continues to be our most important asset.

We at Volkswagen will do everything that must be done in order to re-establish the trust that so many people have placed in us, and we will do everything necessary in order to reverse the damage this has caused. This matter has first priority for me, personally, and for our entire Board of Management.”

Obviously, there are many factors beyond mere words that will drive events at Volkswagen in the coming weeks, months and years.   But for our purposes here, we can learn from the company’s seeming need to issue an apology so early in the process. With this in mind, if your organization is ever in a situation where an apology is under consideration, it is recommended that you ask yourself three questions.

1. What corrective actions are being taken?

In Volkswagen’s case, it will have a new CEO, and it is recalling a large number of vehicles. It is stopping the sales of certain vehicles in the U.S. And the company is cooperating with investigators.  On Friday, the company designated Matthias Müller, who was head of Porche, as the company’s new CEO.  These corrective actions are likely to help the company deal with a terrible situation going forward.

But the company cannot change the past. If the company has done what it’s accused of doing here it would have required time, money, people and resources. The one thing the company cannot correct is the record.

2. Will the apology be believed?

Because the company is being judged on a pattern of behavior in this case, and not just an isolated instance or an unexpected mistake, the very credibility of the company and its leadership is at stake. This raises questions about how the organization thinks, the way it operates, its core values and reputation. When that happens, the company’s institutional brand is in a precarious position, and an apology can only accomplish so much.

Aside from the serious legal and financial ramifications, this adds up to a crisis of credibility where the company is perceived to have intentionally violated a sacred trust between it and its stakeholders.

This is not to say the company should not apologize, but the worst thing any company can do is to build an apology around empty words and promises.

3. Is now the time to apologize?

Ultimately, timing is everything. If your organization gets out ahead and announces a series of corrective actions and apologizes, that apology is more likely to have some credibility. Or if the company waits until all of the dust settles and lays out a concrete plan of action that ensures that such malfeasance never occurs again, the accompanying apology may mean more.

But if your organization is exposed by a third party for doing something, or not doing something, and the facts are only now coming to light, the timing may not be good.

Certainly it is a time to communicate, to be transparent, and to let your stakeholders know you are committed to turning things around. But it could be best to apologize after you have a clear sense of the operating landscape and the impact of events on the company, its stakeholders and its ability to operate going forward.

Apologies in themselves almost never make a dent in a reputational crisis. They must be accompanied by corrective actions, a spirit of meaningful intent, and they must be delivered at the right time. In doing so, you can take the first step towards rebuilding any trust that may have been lost.

8 Spokesperson Critical Success Factors

shutterstock_116176801You’ve been tasked with speaking on behalf of your organization to the public. Maybe it’s the media, or maybe you’re going to speak at a community event or town hall-style meeting.

Regardless, there are two things you know: first, that there are so many uncontrollable variables that you never really know what you may be asked; second, once it starts, there is good potential that word-of-mouth, social media and possibly professional reporters in the audience will amplify and extend the life of your words.

With this in mind, the best way to eliminate or minimize the impact of factors beyond your control is to prepare. The following are eight critical success factors for powerful spokespersons:

  1. Media/audience analysis – Good preparation is always the starting point. Prepare an analysis that includes a profile of the reporter, publication or group of reporters that may be covering you. If it’s a public meeting, generate as best as possible, a profile of the audience and people who will be in attendance, what they care about, why they may be interested in listening to you, and most importantly, what they may want to tell you once they get there. This can be the basis for the other planning you will do.
  2. Anticipate the questions – Once you have a sense of what people in the room care about most, you can begin to anticipate the kinds of questions they may ask. Start by listing the questions you’d rather not have to answer, and then develop responses. Be thorough, plan for the worst and work toward the best. You may find that the reporter or audience may only ask a fraction of your questions, and they may ask a question or two that you didn’t consider, but this kind of preparation will go a long way towards giving you the confidence and comfort level you need.
  3. Develop key messages – The major difference between anticipating Q&A and your key messages is mostly one of size and focus. Your key messages must be more focused and condensed than a long list of all the questions you could receive. These key messages are the core themes and points you want to make in order to pre-emptively address the things your audience cares about. They should follow your larger communications strategy, helping you to achieve your communications objectives.
  4. Dress for success – Think about the venue, the time of day, the location, the audience’s culture, and the non-verbal message you want to send with your appearance. If you’re going to a county fair, don’t wear a suit, try jeans instead. But even in jeans, look sharp. If you will be at a Downtown club for a luncheon event, think about what the audience will be wearing. By working to blend you are eliminating a non-verbal barrier to communication. Of course, there are exceptions. Sometimes it’s necessary to make a statement that calls for a different appearance.   I remember a few analyst meetings I attended where the Harley Davidson senior management team wore leather jackets and some rather upscale casual clothes as they addressed a group of Wall Street execs in suits. Imagine a hotel ballroom filled with analysts in suits, sitting behind tables set-up classroom style. Then the speakers ride onto the platform in full chrome-plated volume on their Harleys. They made their point even before they began to speak.
  5. Don’t forget your voice – Too many average spokespersons don’t pay enough attention to how they sound when speaking to reporters or in the public.   By “voice” in this larger context, we also mean your words. Speak loud enough to be heard. If you have a microphone, use it and don’t turn away from it while you look to the side at your presentation screen and continue to speak. And avoid jargon and excessive use of acronyms in your comments. Keep it simple, relatable, and look at the people to whom you are speaking when you speak.
  6. Keep it short – While your larger remarks or interview may take some time, avoid rambling on specific points or topics. Broadcasters would characterize this as speaking in sound bites. These are 30- to 40-second comments or responses that have a clear beginning, middle and end, structured to deliver a key message and then stop. The best sound bites do not include qualifier words or long words. Simple words and memorable messages that get to the point.
  7. Be compassionate – This does not mean to fake it. Just the opposite. It means not to leave your human compassion and your own emotional investment in the topic at the doorstep. Incorporate your genuine interest in the issue, the audience and the subjects that are raised by reminding the reporter or your audience that everything you are discussing is very important to you on a personal and professional level.
  8. Rehearse – Never think you will be that effective if your plan is to “wing it.” I’ve seen some spokespersons say things like, “I’m always better if I improvise.” Or, “I sound fresher, more genuine and more spontaneous if I don’t rehearse.” They’re wrong.  The rehearsal process is not a memorization process. The goal of rehearsal is not to create a robotic spokesperson who never strays from script. The goal of rehearsing is to allow the spokesperson to truly master the subject matter, to internalize it, so that when the speaker gets in front of the media or the public, he or she can be more comfortable, flexible and spontaneous. A rehearsed speaker can better stay on message, not be surprised by certain questions that come up, and stay in the moment.

These critical success factors for powerful spokespersons, which represent a good deal of planning and preparation, can serve as a model for you to make sure you provide your audience with content that effectively addresses their most important issues and concerns.

Welcome to the New Online Home of O’Brien Communications!

It’s been long overdue, but it’s finally here, the new web site.Web Site Billboard - Deep Red New and Improved

From your perspective, the main thing is that now both my blog – PR, Pure & Simple – and the O’Brien Communications site are now on one platform, making it easier to access the information you may want.

From my standpoint, this means more adequately and accurately presenting O’Brien Communications’ brand and capabilities to you.

Since I started this business in 2001, I’ve always had a web site. I initially created one on my own computer and uploaded it to a somewhat unreliable host site. That led to a couple of instances where the servers were hacked and I had to rebuild.

Thanks to the pace of client work and other demands, at one point I found I didn’t have the time to keep approaching it that way, so I moved platforms, creating a Spartan site that I thought of as a temporary online placeholder of sorts until I could get a good site up and running. “Temporary” turned into years until enough was enough. I just had to make this site a priority.

There was a silver lining of sorts for me. By the time I created this site, technologies, tools and options have improved dramatically. So what I was able to build is a “responsive” or mobile-friendly site that is very adaptable to any changes I may want to make going forward. This is important for you as well. If your site is not mobile-friendly, now would be the time to begin revisiting a revamp.

According to a report from KPCB mobile technology trends  by Mary Meeker, mobile platforms are well on their way to surpassing desktops as the means for most to access the Internet.

In addition to the blog and site sharing the same platform, navigation has improved dramatically, making it a much more user-friendly access-point for O’Brien Communications’ social media presence – LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.

Going forward, you will find that this site will remain fresh with new updates and other relevant information on O’Brien Communications. At the very least, what you will find here is a more substantive representation of O’Brien Communications and what it has to offer you.