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Build a network, not a company

4 Sep

In discussing the future of newspapers, Jeff Jarvis makes an articulate case for a new business model for the post-industrial economy:

"When you think of news instead as the province of an ecosystem that is distributed and owned at the edges by many players operating under many means, motives, and models, then the notion of contribution, ownership, and control changes. People own their own stakes but they benefit by joining together cooperatively. They create a tide upon which all their ships rise. That’s a network, not a company."

Among the comments, someone points out that this is idealistic. Yet Jarvis cites some thriving examples of the community model (Wikipedia, Craigslist) and idealism begins to look realistic once all other avenues have been explored.

Apart from the importance of news channels to public relations, there are wider implications here too. It's possible to see public relations in a community engagement role; its purpose being legitimacy and licence to operate over the longer term rather than short-term profits.

Age of innocent

7 Apr

It's interesting to watch the diffusion of news and chatter as a story breaks.

Coca-Cola takes a £30 million stake in innocent. Most of us will have heard this first from the media, or will have checked the media for verification. You can also read innocent's news release (note the carefully worded title). Round one to the media.

Then the chatter and analysis begins. Many are comparing this to those other niche, eco brands taken over (or bought into) by large corporations: Ben & Jerry's, Body Shop, Green & Black's. There's some discussion on blogs, but the most telling contribution is that of Stefan Stern for the Financial Times. Round two to the media.

For the authentic, instant and unmediated reaction of the crowd, we turn to twitter. 'No, not innocent at all. Am thinking about a boycott!' Nick Band, a PR consultant, manages to be literary in 140 characters: 'Age of Innocence over as Coke buys Innocent'. Many more take a similar theme. Round three to the people.

Still growing, just

6 Mar

WPP's results are closely watched as they say so much about the relative performance of various marketing services including public relations. They also give a global view. There's a straw to cling on to, but worse is expected from 2009:

Public relations and public affairs was the fastest growing communications services sector on a like-for-like basis. New technologies and new media have, once again, demonstrated the power of editorial publicity through fast-growing new applications such as MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, Flickr and Wikipedia… In addition, public relations and public affairs have benefitted [sic] from the impact of polling techniques, which have provided a more scientific basis for the industry.

Crowdsourcing book review

8 Jan

Some ideas quickly seep into the public consciousness so that they seem always to have been around. Yet Crowdsourcing (not to be confused with Crowd Surfing or The Widsom of Crowds) is a new book based on an idea first published in a 2006 Wired article (following in the slipstream of The Long Tail).

The writer Jeff Howe is careful to point out that he is not describing a new concept. He cites a long cultural tradition and Adam Smith's 'the invisible hand' as precedents. Yet the book inevitably draws its examples from the Web 2.0 economy of 'user generated content'.

In summary, it's cheaper, smarter and less risky to involve the crowd in solving problems and in developing products than relying solely on employees. Examples are drawn from the Open Source movement, music and entertainment (American Idol and computer games), and commercial photo sharing (iStockphoto). In this, Howe agrees with Clay Shirky, whose Here Comes Everybody (now out in paperback) has stolen some of the attention away from this book.

Like Shirky, he's an optimist, though corporate suits will find much to be gloomy about (there's a chapter called 'The rise and fall of the firm'). But Howe is at his best describing the failures and false starts, and we learn most from these contradictory case studies. For not every community takes off, and not every vibrant community acquires a viable business model. (He gives us ten tentative rules for community building in the conclusion to this book.)

For there's a 1:9:90 rule of user engagement (called participation inequality by Jakob Nielsen, though he's not cited in this book). For every hundred people on a site, only one will actually create content, another nine will comment on what has been created while the majority will simply lurk. The maths works out for Wikipedia (though a small few create most of the content) and for American Idol, though most communities will struggle to gain critical mass.

There are lessons in this for so-called citizen journalism, though Howe takes a balanced view: 'We are all better served when the crowd complements what journalists do, rather than trying to replicate it.' There are lessons for marketing because co-opting the crowd into research and development creates by this process a ready market for the resulting product (eg Threadless t-shirts).

Lessons for public relations are not made explicit, so I'll suggest them. One is that the crowd is the public, so we should by definition be experts in forging relationships with them. Another is that we need to focus on the quality of these relationships – public engagement in Richard Edelman's phrase – and community building brings many potential benefits. Last (not least), Google is now the key player and so links – the key to PageRank – are themselves a form of community and a benefit of community building.

Sexy B

20 Feb

When did business become sexy?

As evidence, I’ll cite the popularity of Dragon’s Den, the circulation of The Economist (over a million a week), even the popularity of business courses at university (our faculty is the size of some universities and still growing strongly).

Is it the fascination with money? Was it the quality of the stories, from Dot Com to Google to Enron and Northern Rock?

David Parkin of The Business Desk spoke to us this evening, and his story wasn’t really ‘the death of print’, a title he tried to blame on the sub-editors. His story was about the entrepreneurial urge.

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Righting wrongs

11 Jul

Do we judge an organisation on its ability to get things right first time, or on its ability to make things right quickly and creatively? I suspect the latter, because we give no credit to those who merely do what is expected of them.

I’ve taken up the cases of several students concerned about their results and their resits. In two cases, those results were simply wrong and – despite this being the holiday season – my colleagues have quickly corrected these mistakes. (Nobody’s perfect: this includes individuals, organisations and systems; but everyone should be striving to improve.) The relief has been palpable.

The lesson from this is that organisations need to empower those in customer- (or student-) facing roles to apply commonsense, think creatively and take decisions. This is harder than it sounds.

The cynical thought is that organisations can gain credit by making deliberate mistakes in order to quickly and publicly correct them. Is this why there are so many product recalls?

No publicity, mind

1 Dec

It started here as another exercise in word of mouth on behalf of a South African winemaker. Now it’s gathering major news headlines and is threatening to become a ‘brilliant-marketing-but-bad-for-business’ case study. Let’s hope for Thresher’s sake it’s not Hoover all over again.

OFR becomes ‘business review’

18 Oct

The annual report has doubled in size in ten years according to a Deloitte study reported in Accountancy Age. This despite the decision not to make the operating and financial review (OFR) mandatory.

In place of the OFR, companies are to produce ‘business reviews’ – detailing their approach to the environment, employees, social and community issues. On the face of it, this will provide more work and more responsibility for PR advisers. But lobbying efforts of the CBI and others to reduce the burden of ‘red tape’ are reported in The Guardian today.

Communication skills – not for Aussies

5 Apr

This is taken from a publisher’s catalogue of training DVDs (no sledging please, Aussie readers).

This program presents a series of eye-opening cross-cultural situations that reveal how such cultural givens as getting right to the point, saving face, and taking turns in conversation can complicate inter-cultural communication. It features a multicultural cast and provides practical guidelines for communicating respectfully. Not available in Australia.


30 Mar

It’s no longer about technology. It’s not just about blogging. It’s about business: how to keep the once-nimble start-up innovating into its middle age.

Microsoft is past 30 and getting slower. This analysis in Technology Guardian (free registration required) points to the internal debates about the company’s direction:

The blogger who writes Mini-Microsoft used that title because he believes the company needs to shed staff from its 63,500 headcount. Microsoft’s challenge now is not to turn into the sort of slow, bureacratic company it tore apart – IBM.