Traditionally, PR Generalists were defined as having in depth experience in several industry sectors, as compared to specialty agencies that focused primarily on a single industry. For example, some specialty agencies would solely focus on the tech industry or healthcare industry or on the consumer packaged goods industry. Traditionally clients had greater confidence in specialists and the “sell” for generalists to convince companies that their industry experience matched that of specialists, was often an uphill battle.
As CEO of a generalist agency, I was once asked by a shoe company who was searching for an agency, as to how many shoe company clients we had worked with. That was their stipulation for hiring an agency. If agencies had gone that granular as to categories of specialties, it would have just attracted a handful of prospective clients, and sporadically at best, and therefore would not have been sustainable for any agency.
So the traditional generalist agencies categorized their specialties according to overall experience in larger groupings such as business-to-business, which dealt with all sorts of professional services and associations, or consumer electronics, which covered the gamut of technology as it related to consumer use, or sustainability, which included environmental concerns, or non-profits which were not industry specific. Then there was the travel and tourism specialty that covered a slew of categories, from hotels to travel sites to international resorts and more.
However, given the dramatic changes in today’s communications landscape, the traditional agency model, whether generalist or specialist might very well be dying or even dead at this point. Per an article by Arun Sudhaman, partner and editor-in-chief at the Holmes Report, the new PR agency model is tilting in favor of structures that group people around distinct “specialisms” that are totally unrelated to industry experience. A new breed of client servicing is sprouting that includes specialties in idea creation, insight, content creation and engagement. Golin was the first major agency to commit to such a model, with such specialisms as “connectors” those that engage consumer and business audiences across several media categories (earned, shared, owned and paid); “catalysts” those that grow client relationships, “creators” those that generate ideas, and “explorers” those that deliver insight and measurement. Others are following suit with major restructuring of similarly grand ambition.
But really nothing has changed. Only the titles have changed, for all agency account handlers have had those same responsibilities in the traditional model. They have been responsible for coming up with creative concepts, have had to offer fresh insights, have had to deliver content, manage all sorts of media relationships (earned, shared, owned and paid) and certainly had to engage a client’s diverse audiences. This new structure seems to be a new variety of micro-specialization in skills, talent and expertise, rather than industry-specific.
I agree with Arun Sudhaman’s comment that what we now have is a resurgence of the PR agency generalists, but with a twist. The perception that generalists may have had a disadvantage vis a vis specialist agencies, will now be a thing of the past. If this new structure of “skill specialisms” as opposed to industry specialists, will be adopted and become widespread, generalist agencies will have been re-defined and the “score” will have been evened out. The key, however, will be in the “sell” of those specialisms to prospective clients and in understanding how to implement them effectively, as well as build a client’s confidence in these, as opposed to industry specialists’ expertise.
The pendulum appears to be swinging back toward an emphasis on skills and capabilities as a strategist and counselor, rather than that of a focus on industry experience — which was the standard bearer of all agencies in the first place.
The PR agency generalist has demonstrated an enduring capacity for reinvention.
Generalists are redefining themselves now…
Phillip Roth’s famous book, The Human Stain, speaks about an irreconcilable mistake in judgment that left an irrevocable “human stain.” Last week there was a “corporate stain” that will surely prove to be an irrevocable judgment call on companies that, in their rush to distance themselves from any involvement in Bangladesh’s garment factory disaster, forgot that corporate reputations depend on consumers that buy their products and that the voice of consumers demanding a corporate social responsibility (CSR) from the companies whose products they buy, has become increasingly vociferous, and as such, it will be the consumer who decides whether they want to consume the product of a company that has left a “corporate stain.”
In other words, companies have come under scrutiny by the very consumer that buys their service or products and it is not easy to wipe a corporate reputation clean.
There were clothing brands that issued stark denials that they authorized work at those factories in the building — even when their labels, such as Benetton’s, were said to be found in the rubble. A few remembered that today’s world is, after all, transparent and that the consumer rules. These acknowledged their connections to the tragedy and promised compensation such as Britain’s Primark and Canada’s Loblaw Inc. But my sense is that even this was thinly veiled as a calculated way of minimizing damage.
With several deadly disasters and fires in Bangladesh’s $20 billion garment industry in the past six months, possibly the only way retailers and clothing brands can protect their reputations is to visibly and genuinely work to overhaul safety in Bangladesh’s garment factories. As costly as that may be to a company, it is a pittance when compared to the loss of consumers who care deeply enough not to buy, no matter how cheap the product.
Just consider the profits reaped to the foreign garment industry over the past decade from Bangladesh, where a minimum wage of about $38 a month has helped boost profits in a global business worth $1 trillion a year.
Spain’s Mango said it hadn’t bought clothing from those factories but acknowledged it had been in talks with one factory to produce a test batch of clothing. German clothing company KiK said it was “surprised, shocked and appalled” to learn its T-shirts and tops were found in the rubble. The company said it stopped doing business with the Bangladesh factories in 2008. It promised an investigation. Walmart said there was no authorized production of its clothing lines at the collapsed Rana Plaza building, but it was investigating whether there was unapproved subcontracting.
The Walt Disney Co. needs to be lauded. Apparently it pulled out of Bangladesh production altogether after last year’s fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory, where its branded clothing was found.
Any marketer knows that a global corporate reputation is carefully built over a long period of time, but can also be lost in a very short period of time — and not easily regained. Companies should not count on the consumer’s short memory.
A corporate stain is just that…
It took a long ten months — from the time that Mayor Bloomberg proposed his plan to ban large sugary drinks of 32 oz. from restaurants, movie theaters and other establishments, ostensibly to curtail obesity, to NY’s State Supreme Court Justice Milton Tingling’s verdict, which came down yesterday invalidating the proposed law, calling it “arbitrary and capricious.”
What? We cannot do the simple math? In my blog of June 1, “…Size Matters,” I argued that if we could not buy a 32oz. soda, we could just get two 16 oz. ones, obesity be damned. Our choice. Not Mayor Bloomberg’s.
It is absolutely incredible that the proposed plan was taken seriously in the first place; incredible that it got so far as to have businesses such as Dunkin Donuts, hand out information cards to its customers in preparation of having to comply with the potential upcoming law; incredible that it wasted the time of lawmakers, judges, city clerks and, of course, Judge Tingling’s; and incredible that this nonsense might have become a law today.
Just imagine all that would have been accomplished in that time, had the focus been on what really would impact healthy eating. A law could have been proposed and implemented by now for public schools to get healthier lunch menus; for public education and community centers to dig deeper into needy neighborhoods that do not otherwise have access to health seminars and dietary information; for restaurants to list calorie counts of dishes they serve, no matter how upscale they may be; for movie theaters to do likewise with their snacks (if they don’t do so already); and for public health centers and clinics to re-double their efforts to promote healthy diets.
It’s a clear case of a misguided personal quest to leave a legacy of healthier New Yorkers. A personal quest at the cost of businesses’ profits, of sending a message to the obese community that cutting out large sodas is an easy answer to loosing weight and of mocking the real causes of obesity — health issues that go far deeper than soda.
It gets worse…It seems like he had all loose ends tied up to support his plan. He had the city’s mayor-controlled health board approve the ban last fall, improperly sidestepped the city council’s legislative authority, and had a new city study released the day before the law was to go into effect that showed that neighborhoods with the greatest obesity, also consumed the most sugary drinks.
Unfortunately, the city’s chief lawyer plans an appeal. More waste of time; much ado over nothing…
Somebody was asleep at the virtual wheel…
So Tesla finally did produce the vehicle logs that ostensibly contradict the New York Times’ reporter John Broder’s recent account of a test drive road trip he took, driving Tesla’s electronic car Model S, which resulted in a scathing negative review in that publication. But there was a lag of three days, which allowed for the rancorous back-and-forth to continue and escalate, pitting one of the nation’s most influential newspaper against one of the most successful entrepreneurs.
To begin with Tesla’s CEO Musk’s knee jerk response to the negative review was ill conceived. His blistering response in a blog post vociferously countered Broder’s account and said that data pulled from the Model S’s onboard computer would more clearly account for what really happened.
But no data was released to support that blog statement until three days later.
Apparently, for those who did not follow the public rants that erupted surrounding a bad review of the car, there are discrepancies in the nature of the trip as to how fully charged the car was at the outset, whether or not the car deviated from the planned route and took a detour and at what temperature the car was held – all directly responsible for the car’s performance.
This is clearly a case where data and PR intersect. One would think it critical for a communication team to create a scenario where success can happen, and have plans and precautions in place should there be a hiccup in the process — especially so when you have the Goliath of a newspaper covering the trip. As such, it would seem tantamount to success of any road trip to be able to follow it in real time, know where it is going at all times, keep aware of dashboard data in real time and act upon it. Minimally, the car was surely tracked via its GPS and at least that could have showed them any deviation from the agreed upon course, allowing the communication team to react as it happened.
What is puzzling is that Tesla’s communication team and engineers had several phone conversations with Broder throughout his trip. So how is it that they could not track the trip’s progress and counsel the driver of the vehicle in real time as to detours, charging and temperature gage, all directly impacting outcomes? And why was Musk not counseled as to his call with Broder last Friday, before the article appeared online, in which he offered regrets about the outcome of the test drive? Really? What regrets?
Or what about this one? According to Musk, “When I first heard about what could at best be described as irregularities in Broder’s behavior during the test drive, I called to apologize for any inconvenience that he may have suffered and sought to put my concerns to rest, hoping that he had simply made honest mistakes. That was not the case.” Apologized for any inconveniences?? Irregularities in Broder’s behavior not tractable in real time???
It would seem that this could have been easily course-corrected if someone was sharp at the virtual wheel. Opinions of what happened are flying, with even the NYT’s blog refuting every single point made by Tesla. Maybe the result will be a David and Goliath story, where the NY Times (Goliath) will not recant and where Musk’s (David) electronic data will not lie. With the difference being that the marketing disaster of Tesla’s own making is a misstep that may find “David” at the wrong end of the stick.
Hard to combat missteps…
Excerpt by Noemi Pollack from PRNewswire & Agility@Work’s crowdsourced e-book, The Practitioner’s Guide to Social Influencer Engagement
Nielsen reported recently that consumers trust “real friends” and “virtual strangers” over newspapers, TV, magazines or ads.(1) This trend, coupled with the increased value of third-party endorsements and positive word of mouth, demonstrates a fundamental need to earn trustworthy endorsements from influencers in today’s increasingly consumer-driven environment. The challenge for brands, however, is not just finding an influencer – it’s finding the right influencer. Measuring Influence
Influence is a commonly used word with a very broad definition. Without dissecting the etymology of the word, suffice to say it refers to the act of compelling someone (or a group of people) to a particular opinion or behavior. In other words, a successful influencer would be one who can incite others into converting, whether that means purchasing a product/service or agreeing with an idea.
Since influence is more than merely being heard, one must look beyond metrics such as audience size, friends/fans/followers, website visitations and impressions. There should certainly be a baseline expectation of a person’s network size, but that should not be the only metric. Influencers should be weighed more in the quality of interactions they have with their audience, the amount of responses they earn with their interactions and, perhaps most telling, the evidence of positive conversions. For example, looking at the number of Facebook friends is not enough. Do the friends interact and engage with the influencer? How many comments/likes does an influencer produce with each post? Is there evidence of conversations in which the influencer has swayed the opinions and/or behavior of audience members? This information can be found through an influencer’s blog, through Twitter mentions and any other platform on which he or she is active.
Qualifying the Influencer’s Audience
Determining whether or not a person is influential is not enough, alone. Your brand advocate could have sway over millions of people all over the globe, but if those people are not the right people for your brand, that influencer may as well be shouting in a vacuum as far as you are concerned. Age-old market research tactics can ensure that the right person is saying the right message to the right audience. Vetting a potential influencer’s audience need not be time-extensive and costly.
One can simply research his or her online network and view their profiles. What types of organizations do they like/follow? Do they respond in a positive way to brand messages similar to yours? Would they buy your product or be influenced by your ideas? The influencer’s offline audience can be researched as well. What organizations is the influencer involved with? Do their affiliations and offline activities support or conflict with your target audience? If you had the budget, would you pay to advertise to this influencer’s audience?
If you are engaging an influencer to become a brand advocate, or even if you are paying them to be, be clear that on many levels you are relinquishing control of your brand to this person. Therefore, it is paramount that the influencer personality and the brand personality be aligned. If the influencer’s communication style, general personality or personal opinions greatly conflict with your brand, then you could have tremendous exposure and heightened risk of negative word of mouth.
In essence, influencers behave as brand spokespeople – but unlike real spokespeople, brands don’t have direct control over their message. So a brand should be comfortable with an influencer’s voice, style and public positioning.
In a Nutshell
When actively pursuing influencers, take the time to gauge their level of influence, as well as their target audience and public persona. When there is a perfect match, then brand advocacy is effective and far-reaching.
1. Nielsenwire. 2009. “Global Advertising: Consumers Trust Real Friends and Virtual Strangers the Most.“ Retrieved from http://blog.nielsen.com/nielsenwire/consumer/ global-advertising-consumers-trust-real-friends-and-virtual-strangers-the-most/