Archive for the ‘Amy Howell’ Category

When Crisis Knocks: Being PR Savvy through Social Media

By Amy Howell, CEO of Howell Marketing Strategies

Social media has been a game changer for PR folks across the board. No matter what type of business, industry, or organization you are in, social media means you can run for a minute, but you sure cannot hide.

I have been in PR and marketing for more than 20 years, working mostly in B2B organizations, and I have witnessed the drastic shift in how we communicate the corporate messages—good, bad, and ugly. I think that in order to appreciate and use what we’ve learned, it’s sometimes important to look back and think on what worked then, how things have changed, and what lessons we can carry forward to improve our role as PR professionals.

In the “good ole days” when agencies had fat budgets and big offices, often the PR strategy was crafted to “spin” a story a certain way to try and control the outcomes. Sometimes it would work, sometimes it would not. Either way, that control is largely gone with the use of social media, smartphones, and mobile communications.

I hear and read often that companies can’t control their stories. That’s only true if they let it get out of control in the first place. Sometimes it gets out without anyone doing anything. An explosion or fire would be this type of crisis. The media is relentless when it comes to a crisis, and a company has to be ready to be totally “bombarded” and handle all inquiries. A very tough skin is needed for this, as dealing with a heady crisis and doing good PR is not for the weak or inexperienced.

I have only had two really bad crisis client PR projects and—though we got through them as well as we could have under the terrible circumstances—it’s highly stressful and downright scary work. I’ve had CNN, AP reporters, international calls, and the local media all on my back at once, and there is no class or training that can prepare you for the actual day that happens. But I learned a ton, didn’t sleep much, and added great depth to my experience in PR under pressure.

Now, onto the three main points I would like to make. Corporations with big news to tell (good and bad) need to understand a few key points:

  • The art of being proactive and always anticipating what can happen: When crisis comes—often by surprise—you must immediately be ready to anticipate what will happen next. I cannot stress enough the importance of having a crisis PR/communications plan ALREADY WRITTEN before something happens. The most common thing to anticipate is that people love to talk about a crisis, which means you will have two major projects: one is dealing with and getting accurate information to the media (you want them on your team, and they can make or break you) and dealing with comments that are posted on the Internet. Immediately, you need a team that’s social savvy to monitor what’s being said, and you will need this 24/7. How you handle these steps is critical. In dealing with the media, you must be fair and straightforward, and you must set the pace. When we had crisis #1, I set up a system to communicate with all the media and used different tools to post information. The first was the posting of updates and statements as they became available to the top of the client website. This helped us do two things: control information in written statements and mass distribution (we didn’t have time to do press releases). The second tool was the use of the wire; we monitored the Internet. It took a team of four to six people dedicated to this, and I worked remotely in the client’s conference room for days.
  • The discipline and intelligence to use confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements: I hate to say “duh,” but I said it. Companies and organizations that can’t keep information from leaking out deserve what they get. And I would fire any communications staffer immediately if I found out he or she talked about highly confidential information. Rumors cannot exist if you want good PR results. For example, last year, one of my clients (and large employer) announced the decision to relocate its corporate headquarters to downtown Memphis. The CEO, COO, CFO, and legal team made everybody—including me—sign a non-disclosure. I had the pleasure of coordinating the press for the announcement and the event we held onsite. That was a difficult “secret” to keep quiet, but we did it, and that’s proof that companies can indeed control when big news gets announced, how it’s announced, and to whom it’s announced.
  • Telling a story well through both traditional and social: I think social media has given us the transparency we need to find real, truthful information and has forced companies and organizations to be more diligent about being truthful. My dad always told me that if you tell the truth all the time, you never have to worry about telling a story—a powerful lesson. Social media gives us great channels to be truthful and to be transparent. Social media has changed PR in many positive ways, and I think that the positives far outweigh the negatives. All of this is why companies need to already be “in” the game of social. Establish your footprint and tell your story, so that when you have to defend yourself in a crisis, you can. As my good friend and social media consultant @GlenGilmore says, “Build your tribe before you need it.” And believe me, one day you will need it.

Thanks for reading this, and I’d love to hear how social media has helped or hurt you in a crisis.

Social Media: Still a Mystery to Most Small Businesses

By Amy Howell, CEO of Howell Marketing Strategies

Not a day goes by that someone doesn’t ask me about social media for business. LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter are all new media tools that can help bolster your Internet or digital “footprint.”

You can read all about how social media is ramping up the conversation by doing a simple Google search. But the more important question small business owners want answered is how to use social media to boost sales and get the phone ringing. I call it “turning on the water faucet.” Social media for businesses should mean one thing: free tools that can strengthen your organization’s SEO (search engine optimization), help get your message out, and engage with customers and prospects.

Now these tools may be free, but the time you must spend executing the work can be extensive. A lot of writers just re-hash what’s already been written, so what I find most helpful is to share what we help clients do in the trenches every day. Below are the main barriers to using social media and why it remains a mystery, followed by how to get started and what to do first.

The barriers for most small businesses using social media are:

  • Time and education: It takes time to read and learn about the ever-changing, growing tools online, and most business owners don’t have extra time to devote to this. I hear it every day, and as a small business owner myself, I certainly understand this constraint. Small businesses have limited resources and must focus on revenue development and all that comes with running a business. Social media can help a small business tremendously, but most owners have not had time to get up to speed.
  • Lack of resources: It takes a dedicated effort to employ social media tools. Most companies can hire help, but many simply don’t have the extra resources to do so.
  • Reluctance to embrace new media: A lot of people are just flat out skeptical of social media. There are legitimate reasons to ignore it, especially if you are in a regulated industry (banking, insurance, finance, etc.), as some governing entities such as the SEC have policies against any use of social media for work. I think that will change soon, as I’m already seeing some large organizations issue new policies on social media use.
  • Generational: Most people would be surprised to know that the average age of a Twitter user is between 40 and 55. Age isn’t an excuse to avoid social tools, but it is often an explanation.

How to get started if you want to add a social media strategy to your marketing toolkit:

  • Read, read, read. There are some excellent blogs (like this one) and other resources online that can tell you all you need to know. There is no “magic wand” that will do this for you. If you really want to jump in, you have to do the reading yourself. You can hire it out of course, but the ideal results spring from the business understanding social media and embracing it, even if it means only monitoring at first. Let’s take the Judy McLellan Team for example (@JudyMacTeam on Twitter). Judy hired my firm to help with a real estate marketing and PR strategy that included the use of social tools. At first, we did some of the tweeting and posting. But now, you can find Judy out selling homes while using her iPad and iPhone to tweet and spread information about her listings.
  • Pick one tool and learn that first. For me, it’s Twitter. Once I understood Twitter, I moved on to learning about some other tools. I think by mastering one tool, small businesses can see results faster. Let’s take Cheffie’s Cafe (@Cheffies on Twitter) as the next example. We helped Cheffie’s Cafe spread the word by using Twitter, along with traditional PR during the previous few months. A good Twitter strategy is key to a successful PR campaign.
  • Look at what your competition is doing. Get online and do a little research to see what your competition is up to in the social space. Let’s take OrthoMemphis, a successful orthopaedic practice in Memphis that adopted social media long before its competition did. We have helped OrthoMemphis (@OrthoMemphis on Twitter) use social media tools to not only market their sub-specialists (knee, hips, and shoulders), but also to launch OrthoStat, its acute care walk-in clinic. Combined with direct mail, PR, and patient communications, Twitter and Facebook have been tremendously helpful.
  • Get a social media policy in place and communicate it to your organization. There are some great examples online and free resources available. I suggest any small business that wants to use social media tools have a policy in place just like a media policy. Talking online is like talking in the newspaper, and it’s important to have a strategy and know the dos and don’ts of posting online. Good examples are Coca-Cola, Kodak, and Intel. (A list of these can be found on my blog.)

The smaller the organization (or flatter), the easier it is to employ social media. Even though they may have more resources, larger companies are often more bureaucratic and have more red tape. Larger companies are also usually slower to “get it,” and we have found that companies without all the red tape can move faster and are often more decisive. Social media gives the little guys a leg up and is a great way to have a big voice online.

In the Trenches: The Reality of Social Media for Business

By Amy Howell, CEO of Howell Marketing Strategies

2009 will be viewed as the year that the social media tidal wave hit, taking most businesses by surprise. But 2010 rings in promising new opportunities, more optimism in the economy, increased advances in technology, and with it, increased focus on digital marketing and social media marketing for most businesses.

In social media, like anything else, practice and learning by doing makes us better. We learn from mistakes and get better as we go—just like surfing. Kudos go out to those individuals and organizations who grabbed their boards, jumped in, and attempted riding this dynamic, changing wave.

According to MediaPost, 2010 will be the year of reckoning for marketers and social media. Forrester Research released a list in December 2009 predicting that companies will create cross-functional teams aimed at sharing ideas about social media and will get serious about budgets, efforts, and policies. The report also suggests that an “increasing number of marketers will adopt listening platforms to monitor social media.” A lot has been published online recently about predictions, trends, and stats, so I won’t repeat it all here, but it’s out there—just Google it!

So here’s the question: Boil all of this down, and what does social media really mean for businesses? As the owner of a PR and marketing firm, I have daily contact with every client of our firm, and many are still asking, “What does social media have to do with our business?” My response: Everything or nothing. We have advanced some clients’ strategies and have been able to point to some revenue generation due to social media engagement. And that is the key: engagement.

Social media itself is not a strategy. Success means using social media strategies to drive traffic to businesses to create opportunities, develop relationships (human interaction), and generate sales that actualize revenue. So from the daily trenches, here are some of my experiences that I share, hoping they are helpful.

  • Expect and anticipate the continued debate over social media ROI, especially for small businesses. We hear a lot about large corporate users, but remember that they have the resources (both human and financial) to use social media. The irony here is that the smaller the organization, the better the results (and speed to market) of the campaign. So if you are a small business, that means you have really big opportunities. Large companies are often too bureaucratic and political to agree, collaborate, and move quickly, and some spend too much time letting lawyers and HR dictate strategy (which is not the right way to do it, in my opinion).
  • View social media as a positive for your business! It’s giving us access like never before. You can ask a question on Twitter, for example, and get great advice and answers from some of the most brilliant people in the world. How cool is that? If you use Twitter correctly, you don’t need a research assistant.
  • Use traditional marketing planning to mirror key social media strategies. Social media is not an alternative to traditional marketing but a vehicle to advance what’s always worked. Get your plan together, focus on creative ways to market your business (generate revenue), and then apply the appropriate social media strategies to the plan. Budget for the time—and the resources—it will take to implement social media strategies. That can be a challenge for small companies, yet the rewards are far too promising.
  • Establish a corporate policy based on the appropriate culture, goals, and objectives of your organization. The best policies are the simple ones, and getting key players in the business together on the same page when it comes to social media is critical. Social media will fail if the stakeholders and/or owners don’t agree. For example, Kodak has one of the best social media tips and policies document I have seen. It’s brief, straightforward, and there is no way you can misinterpret its intent.
  • One of the most important issues to consider when applying social media strategies is the value of communication. Never in the history of business has it been so easy and efficient to communicate with mass amounts of people (customers, potential customers, the media, etc). What price can you put on that?
  • Pick your social media channel. The main channels and tools for businesses will be Web sites, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. There are certain strategies appropriate for certain vehicles.
  • If nothing else, listen and learn! Use social media as a way to monitor what is happening and take advantage of information. For example, Twitter is a great way to listen and monitor due to its real-time search feature.

Never in my 25 years in corporate marketing has there been this much excitement, and 2010 will be the year for organizations to realize actual revenue for their social media efforts.