The Importance of Listening

listening earIn this social media world, the importance of listening has come to the forefront. Platforms such as Twitter allow easy monitoring of what is being said about a person, a brand or an issue. If a person or company isn’t “listening”, then the point of social media is lost on them. It’s easy to monitor on Twitter with hashtags, Twitter search and third party tools such as TweetDeck for searching keywords. However, I don’t know that the importance of listening translates as well to the real world. A challenge we all have as communicators is figuring out the right way to get our message across and through the noise the bombards us all each day.

I’m sure we can all count the number of times we’ve said something to our spouse, friends or colleagues only to discover that the message was never received. Or do you remember playing “Telephone” as a child? The game where a message starts at one end of the line and by the time it reaches the other end, everyone gets a kick out of how it changed. While we enjoyed this as a game, the real world isn’t quite the desired setting for mixed messages. This typically leads to repeating yourself and getting frustrated with the non-listener.

As a communications professional, I’ve studied numerous theories that highlight all the ways in which a message can be misinterpreted or ignored by the recipient, depending on the noise elements that come into play. Every time I put a plan together, I think through ways in which the message may get lost. I look at past program details and I ask myself simple questions such as — Are emails opened or ignored? — Would a direct mail piece have more impact than an electronic piece? — Is there something going on to physically distract from the message? (i.e. activity at a trade show)

Besides the challenge of whether or not a message is reaching the intended audience, another challenge we face is whether or not there is comprehension. Someone may acknowledge receipt of the message with a nod or response but did the message actually click. Did the recipient actually understand what was being said and will it have the expected impact?

The social media world intrigues me because it does make listening easier in ways, but it also makes it more difficult. It’s yet another channel that we must understand and become well-versed in explaining to non-users. It’s the latest trend, and everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon. But how many are actually listening to what is being said? And, with social media tools such as Twitter having 140 characters limits, how many people are truly understanding what is being said?


Apologies but I’m Feeling Selfish

1101970609_400I have a pet peeve. I’m a member of Generation X. Born in 1973, I’m right smack dab in the middle of Gen X. Trapped between the Baby Boomers and Gen Y, we represent the transition from a generation that has more than likely worked only one or two jobs during their lifetime and the generation that has a reputation for needing immediate gratification. We are the sandwich generation now, taking care of our children and our aging parents. We are the group taking on leadership roles in more and more companies. We are overlooked, and unfairly so in my opinion.

I think it’s forgotten that Gen Xers are the ones who grew up with some of the most powerful technological advances and have played a large role in mainstream adoption of them. Most of my generation can remember when personal computers first became the norm in households. My generation fondly remembers Ataris and first generation Nintendos as precursors to the PSPs and Wiis. I remember moving away to college with a cell phone that was carried in a bag so I could use it on drives to and from home. Now, we all have small phones that fit in our pockets.

It’s for that reason that I wonder why so-called experts have chosen to push the need for Gen Y to be the leaders in social media.

In a world where new technologies are controlling how PR and marketing is handled, it’s important to realize that Gen Xers are the individuals who are choosing whether or not new tools such as social media are being adopted by companies of all sizes.  We are the ones who not only have to adopt and practice social media but also have to sell the value of social media to our management peers. It is our job to communicate to CEOs and presidents what our Gen Y employees believe strongly is the new frontier for PR and marketing.

It’s been approximately a year since I stepped into the social media world, and in that time I’ve learned a lot. While I’ve listened to numerous speakers, shared info from other social media practitioners, and grown more confident in my social media activities thanks to people around me, the greatest understanding has come from participating myself. I’m the one who understands my business so I’m really the one who must build the right business plan for implementing social media at a corporate level.

OK, I feel better now. Just had to get that off my chest.

Who Represents Marketing?

There have been several interesting posts recently about who owns the social media function. One of those posts generated a conversation on Twitter between myself, @mandy_vavrinak and @patrickallmond, and I started thinking. Dangerous I know. 🙂

The comment was made that PR or Marketing should manage the social media function, and if people using social media are not in Marketing then they need to be moved there. I don’t agree with that statement because I believe everyone in a company represents Marketing in some form or fashion.

Organizational structures are different with every company. Some have Marketing and a separate PR department, while others combine the two functions into a single department. I know there are arguments as to which is the ideal situation, but that’s not the point of this post. I think we can all agree that there must be an area in the company that focuses on strategic communication, messaging and the management of the plan’s execution. I would be surprised if we didn’t also agree that there needs to be an understanding that everyone within a company represents the brand, and therefore becomes an extension of the Marketing department.

Marketing’s job is to work with senior management to develop the right strategic communications plan that works with the business’ objectives. It is our job to not only determine how that message is to be shared with external audiences but, more importantly, how it is to be shared with internal audiences.

Whether you work in IT, Engineering, Customer Service, Sales or HR, every single person should recognize the talking points that matter most to the company for a given year or period of time. If you can’t walk down the hall and ask every one you see what those points are and get the  response you desire from your team members, then you are not doing your job as a communicator, in my opinion. Somewhere in the communication chain is a breakdown that needs to be addressed.

That’s not to say that the message is so scripted that there isn’t room for personality or individuality. However, a solidly prepared plan provides a foundation on which all conversations can be held. The company’s communication and social media policies must be shared throughout the organization.

I was fortunate at one company to work with a President who worked very hard to share the business and marketing strategies with all employees. He would host town halls, luncheons, manager meetings, etc. to create the opportunity to share but also listen to what employees had to say. If there was a disconnect between what he was saying and what he heard then he would come back to us in Marketing and figure out new and different ways of conveying the message.

Courtesy of Google Images

Courtesy of Google Images

Your employees are one of the most important assets for your brand. While products and services evolve, the core foundation will remain your employees, and allowing them to develop the knowledge, subject matter expertise and loyalty needed to do their jobs properly plays an integral role in how your brand is perceived in the marketplace. This means too that you are empowering others in the organization to execute on the communications plan, giving up a measure of control over what might be said, to build an employee base who believes in the brand and feels as if they have a true stake in the organization. The key for the business and for us as strategic communicators is to train others to use the available tools well and understand the messages completely. Our success as marketers depends on it.

What are your thoughts?

How I Use Social Media

As a public relations professional, it is expected that I will be up-to-speed on the latest technologies that relate to our business and will better serve organizations with which I work. I first joined LinkedIn more than three years ago as a professional networking site where I can connect with people I know in real life or contacts I have made throughout my career.

From there, I moved on to Facebook. I initially found that it was a great way for me to reconnect with high school and college friends who I haven’t seen since our respective graduations. But my Facebook time has evolved to include far more professional colleagues than I expected and I use those connections to promote activities and events with which I am involved outside of my day-to-day job as well as share brief conversations with personal and professional friends.

After some initial trepidation and confusion about Twitter, I have been active with conversations there for about five months. My Twitter usage is designed to connect me with PR and marketing professionals around the country as well as Oklahoma. Some of my Twitter relationships have moved to real-life connections that have provided me with friendships, professional networking and challenges to my way of thinking. My Twitter profile is my personality through and through. Therefore, it represents my life outside of being a PR and marketing professional. Sometimes those conversations evolve into discussions about personal activities that take place.

While I agree that there are people who share too much information or carry on conversations that are unprofessional, I believe that being open in your dialogue is the epitome of social media. I posted a few weeks ago about my irritation with social media users who focus on building their follower count. To me, it’s not about followers but it’s about conversations and making connections that work well online and off. Whether or not the personal discussions arise, I don’t want to limit the opportunity to connect with someone through one of these channels simply because there is a perceived line between personal and business.

What do you think?

What’s the Plan?

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post on Why Research is Important. Marketing strategists understand the need for research, whether or not there is a budget for comprehensive, formal methodology. If you are a student of public relations, then you will know that research is the foundation on which all strategy is built.

Photo from Google Images

Photo from Google Images

In PR, there is a four step process which professionals are trained to integrate into their every day activities. Those steps are 1) Research, 2) Planning, 3) Implementation, and 4) Evaluation. My personal favorite is planning. Since the early days of my career, I have truly enjoyed the planning process for clients and organizations. It’s a challenge for me to take the research that has been done and apply it to a program specifically designed for a single organization, defining the measurable objectives and goals, developing the strategies, and determining which tactics will be most effective.

How many times have you sat in brainstorming meetings where the focus tends to center on tactics that others in the room think should be done? Ideas are tossed around, but there is never any discussion of the overriding strategy behind those tactics. That’s been a pet peeve of mine for as long as I can remember. Why don’t more people ask questions about the business goals? What are the sales targets? Who are we really targeting? When does this program have to begin? How long do we have to accomplish our goals? And those are just basic questions that need to be asked …

Without a solid plan in place that answers as many questions as possible, it’s impossible to determine whether or not the program worked. Whether or not a press release is written or the Twitter hashtag is created doesn’t matter if there isn’t a rhyme or a reason as to why that’s being done.

In my nearly 15 years of corporate, agency and non-profit marketing and PR experience, I’ve seen too many programs and campaigns fail miserably because the organization doesn’t want to take the time to put forethought into the process. But the proof is in the pudding — time and time again, the companies that spend a few days early on asking questions and finding the answers will be more successful than those which impatiently focus on execution.

#okieSMart Summary

I attended #okieSMart, a social media conference held in Tulsa last week. It’s taken me a week to put this post together. The full transcript from the conference can be found here.

Peter Shankman was keynote speaker for the event and focused his attention on four key rules of social-media-peoplesocial media plus a bonus. I’ll get to those in a moment. Peter started out by saying that social media doesn’t exist. Instead, we simply have the opportunity to make errors on a much larger scale to a much larger audience. Social media is a mesh of tools that make listening to ongoing conversations easy. Listening is critical for social media to work for an organization. The biggest mistake a company can make is monitoring and listening to conversations on social media platforms yet not acting or responding to those statements made by disgruntled — and satisfied — customers.

The rules, as outlined by Peter, are simple.

1) Transparency — At this point in society, everything we do centers around our brands, whether they are personal or professional. The key with those brands is that everyone associated with them must be as open and honest as possible. Social media tools are requiring that organizations and individuals be more transparent in their thinking and sharing of information. That doesn’t mean everything has to be shared but it does mean that honesty should be the priority. Don’t mislead people by saying one thing and then having another be the reality. Also extremely important to remember, transparency means that if you make a mistake, admit it openly and your audience will likely forgive you and become a fan. If you don’t admit it freely, then you risk losing customers to competitors who are more open.

2) Relevance — Social media tools allow organizations and individuals to listen more carefully to target audiences. By listening, PR professionals can determine the most relevant content and channels through which that information should be shared. The worst thing an organization can do is monitor social media tools but not listen to what is being said. If you expect your message to be heard, then you have to find a way to become more relevant to your audience. If you can’t or won’t, then your customer base will find someone who will give them exactly what they want, when they want it. Take a look at Mandy Vavrinak’s post on for the Journal Record on Relevance to get another perspective.

3) Brevity — Be concise. Kind of a “duh” moment, but the point here is to think in sound bites or Twitter’s 140 characters. Our society is trained to hear bits and pieces of information in three to five seconds. This also means that you need to learn to write well. The day after #okieSMart, I wrote this post for the Journal Record. Get to the point as quickly as you can in a manner that makes sense to your audience. If you can’t, then you’ll lose out again and your audience will move on to someone else who can give them what they want.

4) Top of Mind — Find a way to connect with your audience and you’ll be their source for information continuously. You’ll be the first to come to mind. As Peter said, we only connect with about 3 percent of our network on a regular basis. That leaves 97 percent open and available for others to snatch. If you take the time to touch base with your network, they will be more willing to listen to what you have to say.

And the bonus … Self-promotion — Self-promotion will save the world, according to Peter. Self promotion is relevancy and customer service, and this  will get your customers promoting for you. By choosing the content that is most relevant to your audience and monitoring what is being said about you, your organization will stand above the fray. You won’t have to promote yourself or organization. Others will do it for you because the service you provide is absolutely the best.

Probably nothing new here, but I’m curious about your rules for using social media. Any additions or changes?

No Egos Allowed

Earlier this week, I attended the first OkieSMart social media conference hosted by PRSA Tulsa, IABC Tulsa and the Tulsa Press Club. The keynote speaker was Peter Shankman, CEO of the Geek Factory and founder of Help a Reporter Out (HARO). I’ve heard Peter speak a few times now, and find him to be entertaining and educational. One thing I find interesting about him is that he is not one to tout his expertise in social media but rather allows others to do that for him. That’s not the case with everyone I’ve run across in the world of Twitter, Facebook and other social media networks.

Several blog posts in recent weeks and months have called into question whether social media experts really exist, and if they do what is important for them to share with you. Check out a few of the ones I came across here, here, and here.

I still wonder what makes one a social media expert. Is it his participation on Twitter? Does it amount to the number of followers she has but not the quality of information she shares? To Peter Shankman, social media is about the quality not the quantity and I have to agree. My fear is that too many people take advantage of the uneducated or uninitiated people who simply hear that social media is the next “big thing” and need to jump on board.

I have run across a number of people who I find to be simply egotistical. To me, ego should not play a role in being a strategic partner for an organization. In my opinion, true counselors leave their own promotion at the door and instead focus on the needs of the organization with which he or she is working. When egos are involved, it’s far too easy to overlook the true objectives of the business and think only how the “social media expert” might benefit from the relationship being developed.

I’m intrigued by a new book coming out this fall called Trust Agents: Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Relationships and Earn Trust. Building trust is difficult and requires a lot of effort on the part of the counselor. It’s baby steps that allow the understanding and shared mutual goals to strengthen a relationship enough for trust to be a part of it. It takes sacrifice on the part of the counselor to recognize when he or she needs to step back and listen versus speaking out too vocally.

What do you think? Am I on track with this thinking or am I off base?

Photo from Denise Lamby