Time to create engaged voters

85% voter turnout

The referendum on independence that the voters of Scotland participated in on September 18 was a close result. But the nays had it in the end by a ten percent margin.

What struck me most about this referendum was the voter turnout – almost 85 percent of the 4.2 million Scots registered to vote actually did vote. I’ve seen it reported that this was the highest voter turnout in any election of any type in the United Kingdom since 1918, the year that women won the right to vote.

Clearly there are significant differences in a rare event that can radically change the very nature of a country compared to an election in which you vote your political representatives into a parliament every five years. But surely there are lessons to be learned (the favourite phrase of politicians!) in not only the outcome of this referendum but also the campaigning beforehand and how the passionate minority – politicians and citizens alike – influenced the views of many in the voting majority to actually get out and vote never mind vote in a particular way.

Of all the politicians I saw and heard in the run up to last Thursday’s voting, none had an impact on my thoughts as much as Gordon Brown, the former Prime Minister, in a passionate speech supporting the Union between England and Scotland that he gave the day before voting.

You can listen to it here, see what you think:

(Audio extracted from the BBC News video report available on YouTube.)

I was never impressed with Brown as Prime Minister. But what an orator! In this speech, there was no script in his hands, no prepared statement he read. Just the power of his words and how he spoke them.

Would such passion – believable passion at that, genuine not scripted – make much difference in what voters think and do as politicians make their cases to those voters? Some might say that’s what they already do. I don’t support that view at all, certainly not from watching and listening to almost any politician today.

I think politicians of every stripe should be examining what happened in Scotland last week and considering what they need to do to aim for such high voter turnout when the general election arrives in May 2015.

Do we really want to repeat the dismal showing that saw UK voter turnout of just 36 percent in the European elections earlier this year, and even worse elsewhere in Europe? Surely not. But you have to make it interesting enough for voters to believe they want to become engaged, want to have their say.

You have to persuade voters to believe.

That’s a great deal to do with communication, specifically:

  1. Having a compelling story.
  2. Understanding which media are the most effective means to connect with voters in every single instance of reaching out with your story.
  3. Being honest, open, authentic, credible.
  4. Telling your story really well, in such a way that it will stimulate an action – in this case, engaged voters having their say, too.

Is it possible that politics might get really interesting between now and May 2015?

Related post:

The long vision of SpecSavers versus the short-sightedness of Boots

If Satisfied...

I’ve always believed that it’s the little things that really matter when it comes to excellent customer service.

I’m talking about the types of thing that don’t require a huge effort by an employee of a company, or a conscious thought that an action is required because of customer engagement training or a policy about customer service. It’s more about the willingness and ability of the employee to know instinctively that what he or she does to address a customer need, request or concern will have an effect in some way on the relationship with that customer.

In sum, it’s all about an employee with confidence – in his or her abilities, knowledge of the company and its whole ethos – to make a positive difference in how the customer feels about that employee and the company he or she represents, and vice versa. It can have a positive impact that lasts for years.

I have a perfect example to share with you, two contrasting experiences of my own.

Boots

A week ago, I visited a Boots store, one of the large out-of-town stores, looking for a case for my sunglasses. I wanted a soft case not one of those hard shell-type cases. They seem to be very hard to find but I figured surely Boots must have such things. They do glasses, after all, although this particular store didn’t have an opticians department.

But sure enough, I found precisely what I was looking for in a pretty logical place – the section in the store with a big sign above it saying ‘Sunglasses.’ The items had no price tags I could see but I thought they’d tell me at the checkout how much they cost.

So imagine my surprise when I arrived at the checkout and the cashier said he couldn’t let me have a case unless I bought a pair of sunglasses. It turned out that the cases were promo items, giveaways with the sunglasses. I asked him if I could just buy a case. That wasn’t possible, he said, as there would be no price reference to the case when he scanned the barcode.

As I was buying a handful of other products on this visit, I asked the cashier if I could have the case anyway. I said it with a big smile, even if it was a bit cheeky. But he said no, he wasn’t allowed to do that.

I noticed he hesitated before he said that – and I’ll swear he really wanted to say yes.

But it was ‘No’ that I heard so I paid for the items I had and left the store. On my drive along the motorway, I mused on that experience, one that will remain with me when I think of Boots and the service offered by its employees. The store cashier was polite and friendly enough but unempowered and without confidence, it seemed clear to me. Maybe such behaviour might be a major improvement focus after Walgreens completes its £6 billion acquisition of Boots.

Maybe they’ll import some good old-fashioned American style of customer service! Mind you, that doesn’t look like perfection at Walgreens either.

SpecSavers

Wind forward to Friday and a visit to London with my wife. Walking along Cardinal Walk, Victoria, my wife spotted a SpecSavers store and said “I bet they have a case!” It wasn’t entirely a random suggestion as SpecSavers is where we both had eye tests and bought new glasses (including sunglasses) in July, although not at this specific store.

So we went in and I asked the young man who approached us if he had a soft case. And he did. He asked me if I was a SpecSavers’ customer; my reply, of course, was yes although not this particular store, to which his response was, “Here you are, with our compliments” referring to the case. And he included a soft lens cleaning cloth for good measure.

Now that’s what I call service! Especially that final gesture, adding the lens cloth. Nothing earth-moving in terms of galvanising resources, a cost implied or otherwise, or making a huge fuss. Just one empowered employee with lots of confidence, a natural ability to engage and a winning smile.

These are two different experiences in two different stores from these two different firms. Each firm suggests excellent customer service is what each offers in all its stores, as you’d expect them to do, even if the corporate structure of each firm is different: SpecSavers is more of a franchise model than Boots. So I’m not suggesting my experiences reflect what you might expect in every store at each company, all the time. This is people we’re talking about, after all.

What I am saying is that these were my experiences with Boots and SpecSavers last week and on Friday respectively, experiences that, believe me, will influence not only my own behaviour when it comes to visiting a pharmacy or an opticians in future, but also in what I may answer to anyone who asks me what I think of each firm.

Like I said earlier, it is the little things that really matter.

(Photo at top via Frank Gruber under Creative Commons License)

Fake LinkedIn profiles are not okay, Okay

Okay App

Would you imagine that a new company has profiles on the business social network LinkedIn that build up a solid picture of smart and influential staff members working for a legitimate business – yet the profiles are fakes?

That’s what Okay App has done according to Hans Kullin, who writes about his suspicions being proven after he received a couple of requests to connect:

[…] It didn’t take much investigation to find out that these LinkedIn profiles were completely fake, as were several others from the same app company. First of all, their resumés were very short and looked a lot like each other. Then there was the obvious fact that their profile pictures were stolen, unless one of them was the identical twin of a Miss Ecuador 2012 contestant. The photo of “Chloe Anderson” is in fact the Norwegian model Polina Barbasova.

linkedin-chloe-500x176

[…] Why would anyone do this on purpose, one might ask. I suspect the answer is to get in touch with online influencers who in turn would spread the word about the app in social media.

Wearing my devil’s advocate hat for a moment, it could just be overly-earnest employees, maybe simply sharing a copy-and-paste boilerplate CV text with each other and taking “the Facebook approach” to using a photo of a favourite celebrity or glamorous star instead of one that’s the real you.

Definitely not a good idea on a place like LinkedIn where the intertwining of what you say, how you present yourself and the networking, recommendation and verification effects are largely built on trust.

If they don’t know better, a good place to look is LinkedIn itself which has some handy tips on how to create an effective LinkedIn profile.

So, assuming Okay App is a legit business – the CEO’s LinkedIn profile looks real enough – I’d say they have a trust mountain to climb. How big a mountain depends on what they do to address accusations of fakery, especially if Hans’ story gains traction. If LinkedIn profiles are fakes, what else might not be real?

PR spam on an industrial scale

Spamalot

When done well, PR pitching can be almost an art form.

If your pitch meets the criteria of the recipient of your outreach, its likely your message will be well received and may even produce the action you are aiming for.

The opposite is also true when a pitch is as thoughtless in its creation as it is mindless in its execution. You know the kind of thing I mean, email pitches in particular.

What if such pitching were to be automated, where the targets of your pitch weren’t individually assessed to see if each were the “right” target for your message (and for your client or employer)?

Instead, what if you created a hit list of thousands of email addresses and hit them up with automated email pitches on the basis that if you hit a large enough quantity, a small but sufficient enough number will respond to make your effort worthwhile.

Sound familiar?

That’s what PR Hacker is doing in the US, according to a report in The Holmes Report quoting PR Hacker founder Ben Kaplan describing the business approach from his previous experiences in book promotion that he’s bringing to his PR firm:

[…] His model relies on A/B testing and 1% conversions from massive media blasts to generate lots [of] media coverage quickly for clients – without the status reports, weekly update calls and other administrative overhead of traditional agencies.

Here’s how that works. The PR Hacker team blasts pitches to a database of 7,000 tech media and expects a 1% conversion to land its client, at least, 70 hits. Kaplan also keeps databases on money/business media and relationship/romance media that each have upwards of 5,000 contacts – so a multi-vertical pitch, by his estimates, should yield close to 200 hits assuming the minimum 1% conversion. To keep the pitches from seeming too much like spam, he personalizes various fields within each pitch.

“We A/B test our pitches on the lower tier guys first,” he explains. “Then we go to the top-tier with what’s been tested…And a great story will trump all. So rather than focusing too much on personalizing, we focus on getting the story right.”

Looks to me like an approach to spam on an industrial scale. At least, a “by the numbers” game.

Is this what this element of public relations practice will become? A percentage return on a massive database-blast investment? It doesn’t look like it will fit well with professional standards of behaviour defined by the PR establishment, not in the UK at least.

Yet Kaplan’s approach is clearly outside such standards – perhaps the clue is in the name of his firm – and goodness knows some poor PR behaviour may benefit from a shake-up that Kaplan could well be responsible for.

In any case, get your email spam filters up-to-date.

[Picture at top by Coast to Coast Tickets who have lots of tickets for Monty Python Spamalot performances across the US this year. I thought the Spamalot metaphor works well for this post.]

Is wearable technology an ethical nightmare for PR?

The Borg

Amongst the buzz and hype surrounding Google Glass, health and fitness monitoring wristbands, smart watches, implantable devices, talking cars  and the rest of the burgeoning field labelled ‘wearable technology,’ an important aspect is largely overlooked if not ignored.

That aspect embraces multiple issues, from privacy of personal or confidential information to ethical behaviours we expect from companies and brands who may use wearable technology in their marketing, communication and other activities that let them reach out to consumers and employees.

It seems to me that, too often, we’re overlooking a key point that technology, wearable or otherwise, is about what people do or not do, not the shiny new objects themselves.

So I’m looking forward to the opportunity to discuss such concerns as part of a debate that will take place in London next month at the House of Commons, organized by the CIPR:

On the evening of Monday 7 July in Committee Room 10 at the House of Commons, the CIPR will be hosting a Debating Group event to debate the motion ‘Wearable Technology is an ethical nightmare for the communications, marketing and PR professions’.

Chair: Lord Clement-Jones

Proposing the motion: Stephen Davies, Founder, Substantial Digital Health

Seconding the motion: Neville Hobson, NevilleHobson.com

Opposing the motion: Stephen Waddington MCIPR, CIPR President, Digital and Social Media Director at Ketchum Europe

Seconding: Claire Walker FCIPR, Chief Executive, Firefly Communications

This a red-hot topic, in my view, one that’s swimming with “It depends…” elements, and one that we must debate and get on the attention agenda of public relations practitioners.

The debate is free to attend but you must request an invitation. Details on how to do that are on the CIPR’s event page.

Hashtag: #CIPRdebate.

How high is the reboot bar for IABC?

Every time I hear about IABC these days, I suffer a continuing feeling of sadness.

The news this past week about the professional association for communicators does little to change that feeling where that news is all about financial loss (again), leadership issues, and an unclear future.

On June 4, long-time IABC commentator David Murray – often seen by IABC’s leadership as its nemesis by asking questions the leadership don’t like being asked, never mind answering – published a guest post by former IABC Executive Director Julie Freeman on the state of IABC’s financial affairs as revealed in its 2013 financial statement that Murray says was leaked to him a month ago.

Freeman took the helm at IABC in 2001 in the wake of a previous financial crisis. She left IABC in 2011.

And IABC critic Jack O’Dwyer posted a stark report on June 5:

International Association of Business Communicators lost $529,073 in 2013 as revenues dipped $692,486. A loan of $250,000 was taken to fund a new website.

[…] Revenues declined 10.8% to $5,666,483 from $6,350,927 in 2012. Net assets declined 43.7% to $680,013 from $1,209,086. Its deferred dues account, representing services owed to members over the course of the dues year, was $1,499,364 or about half of dues income of $2,917,858.

Julie Freeman’s post summarizes the key financial metrics in the financial statement and continues by setting out eleven specific questions she says IABC members ought to be asking at the association’s AGM on Tuesday June 10 during the 2014 IABC World Conference taking place in Toronto, Canada:

    1. Where did revenues fall short of budget and why?
    2. What were IABC’s major expenditures in 2013? How did these expenses serve members?
    3. General and administrative expenses increased 56% in 2013. What was the reason for this huge increase in expenses in this area?
    4. Board expenses increased 25%. Faced with declining revenues, how can the Board justify this increase?
    5. At the end of 2013, IABC’s cash and cash equivalents were $42,172, a decline of $495,117 from 2012. Does IABC have sufficient cash to make its debt payments and pay ordinary operating expenses in 2014? How will it do so?
    6. The Consolidated Statements of Financial Position (the Balance Sheet) includes Intangible Assets of $552,067. What does that include? How was that determination made?
    7. Several years ago the IEB approved establishment of an operating reserve and a special project reserve. How much should be in each of those funds? How much is currently there?
    8. What is the contract dispute related to the website development? How can members be assured that new web developer will not have the same issues? When can members expect a new website?
    9. What impact will the association’s current financial position have on its ability to recruit a qualified Executive Director? What is the status of that search?
    10. What is the current IABC membership? How does that compare to prior years?
    11. What is IABC’s current financial situation? What is the IEB doing to ensure that IABC will finish 2014 with a positive net? And will it keep members updated about finances before June 2015?

In my view, these are reasonable questions under the circumstance, ones I would expect members to receive credible answers on without obfuscation, fudge or dodging, and in a spirit of genuine openness and transparency.

Will that happen? Well, we’ll see on Tuesday although incoming IABC chair Russell Grossman offers a sense of optimism about this and what the new Executive Board will be doing in the nature of his response to Freeman’s guest post on David Murray’s blog in a comment to it, even if that response contains a few thinly-veiled barbs directed at Julie Freeman.

A key comment in that response:

[…] IABC’s International Executive Board is focused on creating alternate business models as part of our 2014 – 2017 Strategy (which has been open to member consultation during the last year) and our new Executive Director, when onboarded, will also be required to focus on short-term revenue generation as a primary objective, to help us make up the difference on lower income from membership dues and conference income.

Finally, the one thing we continue to need to get better at is, ironically, communication.

Our member communication is now much better than it was – and thanks to our hard working staff for that. The journey continues however – there is way more to go – and I personally am committed to further and rapid improvement.

Ah, yes, a search for a new Executive Director – the role Freeman had – in the wake of the awful debacle surrounding Chris Sorek whose short-lived tenure ended when he quit that role in May 2013. The good news is that one has been found and hired – Carlos Fulcher’s appointment will be announced at the Toronto conference.

Given that I’m not an IABC member, you may wonder why I’m writing this post.

I used to be an IABC member. Indeed, I was a member for 23 years – an accredited member (ABC) for 19 of those years – until November 2012, and served the association and the profession in a wide range of volunteerism roles during this time.

You don’t just dismiss a 23-year association, a belonging, with a group of people whose values you believed in and whose professionalism and friendships you admired, no matter what’s currently going on. I still care enough to devote some time and thought to writing this post which, if nothing else, will serve as a personal bookmark on my website along with the other things I’ve written about IABC over the past decade.

Organizations can (and do) go through crises – just read the business pages on any day. I recall the part I played for IABC in a crisis in Europe when I took on a rebuilding role as Director of the then Europe/Africa Region in 2002, a role I fulfilled until 2004. It’s the kind of task that requires you to have a  pretty thick skin, frankly, a clear belief in the heart of something (IABC in this case), and clear vision if you work with similar believers as I did at that time (notably, IABC members like Barbara Gibson, Marcus Ferrar and Allan Jenkins; and staff leaders like Julie Freeman and the team at the San Francisco headquarters).

So I trust that the AGM on Tuesday also serves the higher essential purpose of uniting voices – unlike last year’s  town hall meeting, although I believe the circumstance aren’t exactly the same today – perhaps taking a literal embrace of the slogan of this year’s conference:

  • Engage
  • Transform
  • Ignite

I hope that reboot bar I mentioned isn’t set too high.