Deception, Lies and Damn Lies!

Three recent news stories caught my eye this morning and all three have to do with the same issue: use of the cyber world for less-than constructive purposes.  Two are very similar, one is a bit farther afield.  The common thread is that all are instructive and collectively a “wake-up call” for American business. 

First, the “farther afield” story.  MSNBC reported yesterday that the North Koreans have a super secret “cyberwar college” that trains students in cyber warfare, (“Secrets surface about North Korea’s cyber war college,” 11 May 2011, Matt Liebowitz.)

Coursework takes five years to complete and the school reportedly trains up to 120 students a year in one of five areas of instruction: electronic engineering, command automation, programming, technical reconnaissance and computer science.  The school has been in existence for 15 years…  That’s right – 15 years!

It’s notable that a country unable to feed its citizenry has invested such significant resources into developing skill sets to employ a full range of cyber activities developed solely to achieve an equally wide range of nefarious and destructive ends.  Think theft of intellectual capital.  Think of your IT system being co-opted and part of a botnet under someone else’s control.  Think of your business banking, accounting and financial records being manipulated or destroyed and in a worse-case – think of a Stuxnet like attack that wreaks havoc on your company’s operations.  In the months it would take a skilled forensic IT team to unravel the damage, your business would be long dead.  Sound far-fetched?  Well, it shouldn’t.

Nation states, terrorist groups, organized criminals and malicious hackers actively scan and attack U.S. businesses and U.S. government networks thousands of times each day.  These same nation states invest considerable capital into protecting their own collective cyber assets.  Sadly, in the U.S. we don’t approach things that way.  Here, it’s every company for itself and unfortunately, very few – if any – are up to the challenge.  Hardly a week goes by when we don’t hear of a successful hacker attack on a large bank, credit card company or other major corporate player.  Just two weeks ago, it was Sony’s PlayStation Network.  

Deliberate misuse of the web is an even more insidious issue

The other two stories underscore a similarly dire threat to all U.S. businesses – and one that cuts straight to what we at P2R Associates do for a living.  This one concerns your company’s reputation.

Both China, and our very own Facebook, along with Facebook’s public relations firm,  Burson-Marsteller, have been very active in using social media to manipulate their audiences with disinformation – i.e., to hide the truth.  (“China’s web spin doctors spread Beijing’s message,” AFP, 12 May 2011, Pascale Trouillaud; “Facebook red-faced after PR attack on Google,” AFP, 12 May 2011, Chris Lefkow; “Facebook Busted in Clumsy Smear on Google,” The Daily Beast, 12 May 2011, Dan Lyons.)

The aging autocrats in China have long engaged in industrial espionage, intellectual property theft and every other sort of underhanded activity imaginable, so it’s not surprising to learn that they have employed “legions” of “web commentators” who are paid to spread politically-correct arguments and propaganda through online forums, chat rooms and other means in order to promote the party line. 

We all know China’s reputation concerning intellectual property, industrial and state-espionage, currency manipulation and similar unfair / illegal practices.  Unfortunately, such bad cyber-behavior comes as no surprise from that quarter.   It’s wrong.  It’s deceptive.  It propagates a lie.  Ironically, it displays the ignorance of Chinese leaders for the entire world to see – including China’s own citizens, many of whom I suspect aren’t fooled.

In Facebook/Burson-Marsteller’s case, it’s a whole, ‘nother, disgusting little story – and the more it unfolds, the more disgusting it becomes. 

Let’s consider: in this case, a major American company – Facebook (which should have known better) – initiated a campaign to deliberately deceive the public about a rival.  What’s even more despicable is that a major public relations firm – Burson-Marsteller – knowingly took on the assignment, even though Facebook insisted its name be withheld as Burson’s client! 

Even more remarkably, the CEO of Burston-Marsteller, Mark Penn, has admitted that lack of transparency violated their own policy, “Whatever the rationale, this was not at all standard operating procedure and is against our policies, and the assignment on those terms should have been declined.”

So let’s be real clear: a powerful public relations firm took on an assignment to knowingly smear the rival of its client.  The plot only came to light when a blogger whom Burson-Marsteller approached, refused to run the story when Burson would not reveal the client.

Since I’m on a role here – and this is a blog – I will say that Burson-Marsteller needs to immediately “stand-down” and address its serious ethical breach.  A company-wide “in-service training” starting with a review of the Public Relations Society of America’s Code of Ethics should be today’s order of business.  A few tidbits from the Preamble should start things rolling (Bold emphasis added):

ADVOCACY

We serve the public interest by acting as responsible advocates for those we represent. We provide a voice in the marketplace of ideas, facts, and viewpoints to aid informed public debate.

HONESTY

We adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public.

EXPERTISE

We acquire and responsibly use specialized knowledge and experience. We advance the profession through continued professional development, research, and education. We build mutual understanding, credibility, and relationships among a wide array of institutions and audiences.

INDEPENDENCE

We provide objective counsel to those we represent. We are accountable for our actions.

LOYALTY

We are faithful to those we represent, while honoring our obligation to serve the public interest.

FAIRNESS

We deal fairly with clients, employers, competitors, peers, vendors, the media, and the general public. We respect all opinions and support the right of free expression.

A thorough review would be for starters. 

I will add that as a career-long communications professional, business-owner, near 30-year Navy Reserve public affairs officer and former Defense Information School staff member – such an ethical lapse by any practitioner is in my mind unpardonable.

Bottom line wake-up call for business

Here’s my promised wake-up call:

First; no matter how large or small – all businesses are at risk.  Hackers are a very real threat and American businesses are ripe targets.  The potential damage of a coordinated assault on our economy would be devastating and second only to the damage it would do to individual businesses.  It behooves all businesses to employ skilled IT professionals who can maintain strong defenses and a robust data recovery program. 

Second; regardless of size, no business can neglect social media and media monitoring.  However simple it might be, every business should maintain an online presence and monitor its name.  The latter will allow a business to quickly detect a smear, while the former provides the means to instantly correct or counter it. 

Remember – had a single blogger not blown the whistle on Facebook and Burson-Marsteller, their smear campaign might have worked very well and Google would have spent considerable resources transitioning from reaction to successful correction.  Few businesses have Google’s resources or technical savvy and a single, determined person could cause similar havoc to virtually any business.

Final wake-up call:  if you have a business, first – you need to have a web presence.  No longer just a nicety or marketing support effort – these days, it is your lifeline to your customers, suppliers, partners – and markets around the world.  Moreover, it is your first line of defense in the event of any kind of attack or disinformation smear. 

No matter how small – businesses of all size cannot neglect having a “social media strategy.” It must be part of your company’s communication plan – no matter how small your company or how tiny a role web-based activity might play. 

Like having a safe place to ride out a hurricane – your business needs a strong defensive position on which to fall WHEN a web-centric attack occurs.  Notice I said “WHEN” and not “if.”

Advertising – The Fundamentals Still Matter

A colleague recently shared the insight that people don’t like advertisers.  That comment intrigued me and so I quickly found that Forrester Research ’s had recently produced a report drawing that conclusion and pointing out that more than half of American households use some form of ad-blocking technology or software such as Tivo, a spam filter or a pop-up blocker.

A little more research revealed a wide range of comments, likes, dislikes – and a widely varying degree of technical sophistication on the part of consumers in general.  This last point stuck in my mind for two reasons.  First; it seemed the greater one’s “technical comfort level”, the greater the expectation for non-intrusive, entertaining advertising.  Second; what’s old is new…

A message is either targeted to its intended audience – or it’s not; or by design, it’s targeted to a broad-but-related range of targets and some drop-off is expected.  Advertising has always been a dynamic function.  Technology and the typical users of its various flavors have only made it more so.  The upshot is that fundamentals haven’t changed, there are just more delivery options. 

I would add that a lot of advertising is poorly done — either in execution or targeting — and that often advertisers don’t take into consideration the pervasiveness of advertising that people are exposed to — and this works against otherwise good, effective work.

Sometimes the net result of messages from print, broadcast, the internet, mobile – add up to being too much for many people, making it ever-more important to consider the volume across all media to which an audience is being exposed.

Volume will only continue to grow – but messaging will become better-coordinated. What we think of as the “messaging environment” also will continue to shift, making successful strategy increasingly seem like grabbing at sand unless we accept and overlook being a half-step or so behind emerging trends — and that is not a bad place to be.

I can think of a highly successful car company that has surpassed its rivals by never being in the vanguard, but rather introducing technology that’s proven. That particular brand is known for quality and reliability – not bad things in the car business.

Translating that to advertising: simple, clear, well-targeted, non-cutting-edge campaigns might not win awards – but may well produce the best results for clients.

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Claiming the Premium Market Position

Increased competition and consolidations among component manufacturers in the North American automotive replacement parts market have created an urgent need to maintain a market leadership position among customers.

Now is the perfect time for aftermarket parts manufacturers to lay claim to their respective premium replacement product(s) categories and launch an aftermarket name brand assault.  Establishing a brand as top-of-class quality can be as simple as saying it – assuming that the brand does, indeed have premium quality and can back up that claim.

Once a company decides this is the proper direction for a brand, claiming the premium position should be backed up with all company communications to the market including advertising, marketing, public relations, sales force, web site, even business cards.  Once a brand has been established as the lead, it becomes difficult for other companies to dispute.

Claim your position today.

Crisis Communications Planning – Is Your Company Ready?

When crisis strikes a company, it can be difficult for an unprepared management team to effectively respond to demands from the media and stakeholder groups for information and action.

There are a myriad of “disasters” that could impact your business to the point that you are forced to focus your time on putting out fires instead of pro-actively executing your growth strategy.  Companies that have anticipated these events and planned communication processes with key stakeholders (employees, customers, suppliers, etc.) and the media will be in a better position to emerge from a crisis with their corporate reputation intact – perhaps even enhanced.

Handling a crisis badly can have severe long-term, negative consequences for an organization, its executive team and employees.  In some instances, poor response to crises can lead to a company’s demise.  To avoid this, companies need to respond immediately and remain proactive to minimize the need to continually react to rumors and unfounded accusations, and to allow the company to emerge with its reputation intact.

Many crises can be prepared for, even if they cannot be predicted or prevented.  A company that handles a crisis well can mitigate lingering effects at a minimum, and in many cases, can emerge from it with its reputation enhanced.

For more information, including a complimentary crisis communications assessment, contact Gordon Cole at gcole@p2rassociates – (248) 348-2464 – or visit www.p2rassociates.com

Marketing Strategies for Today’s Economic Climate

9 strategies to help stretch your marketing dollar

As we head into Q4, business executives remain hopeful that the worst of the recession is behind us, and despite the many questions regarding the impact of policies being implemented or considered, smart American business leaders know they must look forward and find solutions.  While the urge to “sit and wait” for clarity is strong – and the norm in many places — the reality is that business goes on.  Markets continue to evolve, and competition does not stand still for indecision.

While some functions can and should be delayed, others – such as marketing – should not be.  A company’s hard-earned position in the industry, reputation and all things “brand” continue to be earned, refreshed, and solidified – by design and direct action, or by random occurrence through inaction.  The race goes on, whether the runners know it or not.

The challenge for many marketers becomes a question of how to maximize the effect of marketing and support activities when resources continue to be lean.  Different organizations will have different “go-to-market” processes and so will prioritize in varying ways, but focused attention in 9 key areas can help the majority of businesses make the most of their efforts and dollars.

Target your effortSpend your money where it matters – focused on the people who buy your products or services.  Ads or outreach activities aimed at non-buyers are not targeted effectively and won’t “move the needle.”  Conversely, a campaign that’s targeted on your customers or their influencers will consistently produce strong results.

Be repetitious and consistentAmong the keys to successful marketing communications activities are maintaining frequency and being consistent.  This is especially so in downturn periods.  On-again, off-again budgets drive on-again, off-again efforts and in the eyes of most audiences, indicate a number of things – none of them good.

Such efforts drive speculation about a company’s staying power and competence, and speak to a company’s vision.  A company with a vision and a plan gets and stays on a consistent path.  Those companies are seen as survivors and their customers perceive a sound approach.  Other companies are perceived as not “walking the talk” and jeopardize their credibility at the worst possible time.

Consistent budgets drive consistent efforts – so resist the urge to cut marketing budgets. Use the budget to maintain the visibility your stakeholders and customers expect.  Shift budget from non-producing efforts and apply them to things that work for you.

Leverage your budget – integrate activities — don’t focus efforts on individual activities or efforts that are not coordinated.  Whether its traditional or online advertising, special events or media outreach – you will achieve significantly greater results by integrating your activities.  Your marketing communications activities are like an orchestra – and you are its conductor.  The different parts support one another and leverage individual success into a larger organizational effort.  Your activities will be recognized for their cohesion and by communicating with “one voice” – your message will ring clearly in the market place.

Quality Trumps QuantitySo keep your focus on quality.  When times are tough and your competitors are shaving costs across the board – let them.  Maintain your standards and offer the same quality in your products, services – and your marketing communications.  Your customers are already looking for greater value and will fill any void created by your less astute competitors.  Let them!

Push and Pull Your Way to Success “Push” marketing includes direct mail, email marketing, and the like.  “Pull” marketing is bringing potential customers in to your website – or causing them to phone you from a variety of places that can include advertising, search engine listings and other such vehicles.  Recognize the dual nature of your lead-generating activities and look for advertising or other marketing service providers that already have your target audiences in the cross hairs.

Seek Assistance from Media Partners – Your success is their success.  They know it and will be eager to help you!  They’ll know things you don’t and many times won’t know how to help, or even that you would welcome it – so talk with them, ask questions and reach out.  In addition to their expertise typically surpassing your own – they generally work more cost-effectively.  Ask yourself if your time is best spent monitoring metrics or web effectiveness for 2 hours a day – or better spent managing those areas and driving larger success.  Think of your time as the critical and finite resource it is; and consider your media partners as resources there to help you.

Benchmark Good Ideas – and learn from others – A wise man once said, “Good ideas are where we find them.”  There are plenty of smart people out there today and many more in our past.  While technology drives incredible change – many of the challenges we face are ones that have been faced before.  Research your challenges.  See how others have overcome them and learn from their experience.

Assess Effectiveness …Measure Performance – Metrics are a good thing.  You don’t need to buy a sophisticated package or the latest whiz-bang program.  Develop your own.  Measure what you determine to be necessary for your success, keep it simple and focus on improving in those areas.  For your online activities, you’ll want to hire someone or a firm with the experience to decipher your analytics and dial-in an effective online program.  It is money well-spent.

Incorporate changes quickly – when metrics or changing conditions warrant a shift in tactics – implement the change quickly.  If you wait for the perfect solution – or until the next quarter, you’ll likely be passed by the competition.  Sometimes you’ll have all the verification you’ll need, but most times, you won’t.  This is especially true in marketing activities and more so during uncertain times or challenging environments.

Remember too – there is always merit in a calculated gamble. If the potential is great and the risk is acceptable, why delay?  Similarly, if your organization can learn to be nimble, you will be able to take advantage of rapid changes in circumstances and the opportunities they bring.  Make challenges things you simply adapt and overcome.

Award-Winning Firm Seeks Award-Winning Clients

P2R provides clients with strategy-driven tactics, superior service and measurable results. Our senior management team has a combined 50 years experience in marketing, planning, communications, program management and execution of results-driven support programs in the automotive, aerospace, defense, engineering, construction, retail, real estate, technology and non-profit sectors. 

Utilizing a proprietary e³ Process – Evaluate / Engage / Empower, P2R’s team of professional counselors help companies cut through the clutter and reach customers, investors and other key stakeholders with a clear, unified message. 

For more information, including a FREE marketing communications audit, contact us at 248-348-2464 or scott@p2rassociates.com.  Also visit us at www.p2rassociates.com

P2R trademarked process builds a strong foundation and identifies the right tools…

We build on a solid foundation… efficiently and with the right tools.

Our integrated communications approach results in break-through communications that are aligned with business objectives and focused on sustaining success.

We use our simple P2R – e³ Process™ to understand your business & develop a unique, tailored action plan.

Check us out at: www.p2rassociates.com

We’ve Been Called a “Secret Weapon”

A client referred to us as their “secret weapon…” It was a huge compliment to our team and underscored the appreciation for our efforts in helping drive their success.

P2R Associates is an award-winning public relations and integrated brand communications firm.

You can say we’re the “little agency with the big experience.” P2R combines the strategic public relations, integrated brand communications and business development support practice areas that harried senior executives wrestle to manage successfully. 

We specialize in strategic public relations and integrated brand communications activities that “speak with one voice.” We help you cut through the clutter and reach your customers, investors, employees and other stakeholder audiences with a clear, unified message.

Unique among our peers, P2R staff combines senior-level corporate experience with similar agency experience. We’ve been in our clients’ shoes.  We understand budgeting and internal decision drivers. We find creative ways to tackle challenges and make things work.

P2R is a resource allowing you to align your messages, integrate your activities and manage those key areas in a way that leverages success and produces results.

Learn more at www.p2rassociates.com

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Social media may be exciting, but strategy has to come first. In all instances. Without fail.

We like technology. Really, we do.

We like things that make us do my job more effectively and more efficiently. However, much of the whole social media push is starting to leave a sour taste in our mouths.  Not because we don’t see its value – anything that helps a company connect to its customers and other stakeholders is a valuable weapon in the marketing arsenal.

But, we have a couple of issues with where this part of the industry is heading:

  • Social media is NOT a be-all-end-all means to an end. In the B2B world, people buy from people and so there are still sales teams on planes, trains and automobiles every day. Road warriors don’t care how many people are following the social marketing director on Twitter – if you want their buy-in, show them how social media technologies will help them close a sale with an engineering or purchasing manager.

 

  • Technology is only one segment of the economy. Mining operators, metal-bending manufacturers, electrical contractors and other “old economy” enterprises employ thousands and earn billions. There’s nothing particularly sexy about these businesses, but without them the economy would collapse. The fact that social media will likely never have a central role in their sales and marketing operations should not preclude them from getting the same creative marketing and public relations support as new social networking technologies.

 

For most companies, business strategy might dictate that social media be included in the broad marketing program. For some companies, it might even be front and center. But strategy has to come first. In all instances. Without fail.

So, please, oh masters of social media, do the rest of us a couple of favors:

  • Please stop looking down your noses at marketing and public relations people who see social media as something that probably has a role in, but will likely not be the centerpiece of every program we design.
  • Please feel free to continue trying to sell “old” companies on how they’re doomed to failure unless they jump into social media with both feet. It makes the rest of us appear a lot smarter when we talk to them about how we’ll develop and implement truly integrated programs that support broader business and marketing strategies.