Feb 122016

What does a startup do when it’s faced with a PR crisis? Recently Australia witnessed a spectacular example of what not to do when Sociabl, a startup that promised to connect users with celebrities, flamed out spectacularly.

Sociabl promised to connect punters over video with celebrities for a fee ranging from $500 up to $100,000 for individuals like Richard Branson with half the money going to a charity of the celebrities choice.

The app and its two young founders had plenty of coverage and all looked good until one of them, Brandon Reynolds, appeared on prime time evening show A Current Affair to spruik the service.

Unfortunately for Brandon he was interviewed by one of the celebrities listed by his app and David Campbell had never heard of the service.

A true PR disaster

Needless to say the interview didn’t go well with poor Brandon meekly declaring at one point “we’re not a major fraud!” You can watch the train wreck on the show’s website.

To compound the problem Brandon then wrote a defiant Medium post accusing the program of slandering him and posting a pile of correspondence with the various celebrities’ agents.

Earlier this week I was invited to join a panel consisting of a journalist, a startup founder and a lawyer who also runs a startup along with myself we looked at how a startup can avoid a Sociabl like disaster. The lessons from it were clear.

Stop digging

Rule one in crisis management is when you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop making it deeper.

Brandon clearly missed that memo and his defiant post that accused the journalists and the network of defaming him only antagonised them. What’s worse, the attempt to throw the celebrities’ agents under the bus was only going to take him and his business partners into a new world of pain.

So when things are looking bad, stopping and taking a deep breath is the first thing to do. The absolute wrong action is lashing out publicly at media, advisors or business partners.

It’s probably not a crisis

There is no doubt Sociabl’s debacle was a crisis, but it’s an outlier and a situation that few startups or any businesses will find themselves. In most cases what appears to be a crisis is just a minor hiccup that looks like a big problem because you’re too close to it.

Most startup founders and small business owners are working hard, under stress and deeply emotionally engaged in their business. It’s understandable to over-react to what is often a minor, or even imagined, crisis.

By stopping digging, or panicking, and taking that deep breath you have the opportunity to get things into perspective. It’s also the opportunity to take advice.

Talk to your friends

One of the first things any new business should set up is an advisory board or panel. Helping with a crisis is exactly what those advisors are for. Talk to them and get their wisdom, usually they’ll bring some perspective and more experienced friends will know how to manage a crisis (if it exists).

An important aspect of asking for advice is actually taking what’s offered. One way of burning bridges with friends and trusted advisors is to ignore their advice after asking for it.

If you have investors then talk to them, particularly if they have seats on your board. They’ll want to know about the crisis anyway and if they’re experienced may well be the best people to help.

Get professional help

For early stage startups this tip isn’t much use as good PR and crisis communications professionals quite rightly charge a lot of money for their services.

If you do have raised substantial money however, then a good PR agency should be one of the first professional services engaged with the funds. Sociabl claimed to have raised $210,000 which probably wasn’t enough to get a good one.

Had Sociable engaged a competent and professional PR firm, it’s likely they would have avoided the disaster on A Current Affair.

Rally the fans

If you have loyal customers, user or supporters then a crisis is the time to get them onside by engaging honestly on the web, through email and on social media. Be honest, be open and be quick to reply.

If you have made a genuine mistake then it’s likely your fans will support you as long as you come clean. All bets are off however if you’re ripping those loyal supporter off.

Have a plan

Early in your business do a risk analysis to identify where things could go wrong and have a plan to deal with known risks. Hopefully you’ll never use it but it’s handy to have when something foreseeable happens.

Don’t be a fraud (of any size)

“We’re not a major fraud” will go down as one of the greatest lines of the current startup mania and one that Brandon Reynolds will struggle to live down for many decades.

The key lesson is don’t be dishonest. Only make claims you can justify and promises you can deliver. Hell hath no fury like deceived customers, investors or journalists.

For those raising money through crowd sourcing this is an important point as overstated claims and missed delivery dates will not only cause a crisis but see loyal supporters desert you.

More importantly, a crisis brought on by dishonesty may get the attention of the authorities if you’ve breached consumer law with your customers or securities regulations with your investors. Don’t be evil is a good philosophy for a young business.

In summary, the best advice for a startup in avoiding a crisis is not to put get in the position where you might find yourself in one however sometimes things are outside your control, when they do take a deep breath and talk to your friends.

Jan 052016
How are magazines and newspapers surviving in a digital world?

We may have reached Peak Content suggests Kevin Anderson in The Media Briefing as media companies, social media services and sharing platforms flood the world with information, rendering a lot of what’s being produced by media companies effectively worthless.

For publishers trying to make money from advertising this has been the reality for the last decade as the market has been spread thinner as thousands of new channels have developed and the established players have doubled down on their efforts to churn out content.

To illustrate the content explosion Anderson cites Columbia Journalism Review’s 2010 feature The Hamster Wheel where Dean Starkman described the effect of media outlets’ focus on churning out content with a description of the Wall Street Journal’s output.

“According to a CJR tally using the Factiva database owned by the paper’s parent, News Corp., the Journal’s staff a decade or so ago produced stories at a rate of about 22,000 a year, all while doing epic, and shareholder-value-creating, work, like bringing the tobacco industry to heel. This year, theJournal staff produced almost as many stories—21,000—in the first six months.”

While that was bad enough new players were pumping even more content onto the interwebs as Anderson points out, in 2013 the Huffington Post put out 1,600 pieces a day from its 550 staffers and an uncounted army of unpaid bloggers.

The vast bulk of what is being put out is trash, in Huffington Post’s case well web optimised garbage, that adds no value to readers and is only attracting fractions of a penny per article. The model, as both Anderson and Starkman point out, is broken and no-0ne is paying much attention any more.

Fixing the broken attention model is what online travel site Skift are exploring as they rationalise their operations to focus on delivering more relevant content to their audience.

Skift’s co-founder Rafat Ali described how the company refocused on its core purpose of informing travel industry professionals about their sector and stopped regurgitating syndicated stories and those of less value.

We gave up chasing scale. We took out *all* goals on traffic on the site, for everyone. We could do this because we didn’t have tons of outside money pumping through our veins, and this was a useless pressure we created for ourselves in an effort to show the illusion of growth to investors. And since we weren’t chasing investors, we didn’t need to chase what they would consider scale. It was a vanity metric.

We cut back on spending any money on getting users through Outbrain/Facebook/Twitter. We cut back on the number of stories we were doing on a daily basis, on chasing the tail on disposable news stories. We also cut back on syndicating our stories — in which we put in a lot of effort at the start, publishing on NBC News, CNN, Quartz, Fox News, Business Insider, Mashable and many others, to zero effect on our revenues — and also cut back on publishing useless filler syndicated stories we got from a third party syndication service.

Chasing those ‘vanity metrics’ was killing Skift, just as it is for most of the publishing industry in the views of Starkman and Anderson.

While we’re still some way off finding the model that works for online publishing, Skift’s stripping back to the basics seems to be an important step in finding what’s profitable.

The biggest problem though facing the publishing industry is convincing consumers, or advertisers, of the value they are adding in a world of almost unlimited information. This is a challenge that many industries are going to face.

Nov 022015
Salesforce Analytics Cloud

The Public Relations industry has been mismeasured and undervalued, believes Rebekah Iliff, the Chief Strategy Officer of PR analytics company AirPR.

San Francisco based AirPR is an analytics company founded in 2011 on technology tracking the performance of PR campaigns. Despite being relatively young, the business counts among its customers Fortune 1000 companies such as Rackspace, Experian and the New York Stock Exchange.

Analysing stories

The idea behind AirPR is by analysing the responses to stories, be they articles in mainstream media sites, social media posts or the client’s own content, PR people are able to get a much better insight into what is working in the marketplace.

“You can no longer just throw out a PR campaign and say ‘oh, we got 200 million impressions.’ No CEO is going to buy that,” says Iliff. “You’re going to have to have deep data that you can dive into and then report the things that are going to work.”

Part of the reason PR is failing, Iliff believes, is because practitioners are only making decisions on ten to twenty per cent of the data they have. To make the most of the information they have available involves a rethink on how companies get their message out to the community.

Shifting PR thinking

“We’re trying to shift people from thinking about PR in a linear fashion to get into thinking about it in a networked fashion. A really good PR strategy or narrative looks like a spider web, there’s all these things connected to each other.”

Making those connections is creating a new set of demands on the PR industry as new tools and communications methods evolve.

“The PR professionals of the future who are be best placed to be successful will be the ones who take an interest in the analytics, who understand how to talk about so they can improve the storytelling.”

Stopping the pitching

In Iliff’s view part of the PR industry’s problems lie with how new entrants are taught is how to pitch to journalists, rather than to evaluate what works for their clients. “The second someone comes into an agency on a green level they should be bought into the analytics conversation and be taught how to measure it.”

“Instead they are taught ‘your job is to create storylines and pitch to journalists’, which by the way ninety percent of what you pitch no-one’s going to return because it’s irrelevant.” She says.

“Journalists give you credibility and they’re a third party endorsement but they can’t tell the story the way you want to tell it. There’s a disconnect between the role of journalist is, the role of the journalist is not to sell to your customers, the role of the journalist is to tell the story from an objective viewpoint that puts you in the context of where you fit in the industry. I don’t think people get that.”

“You should be writing the story, following it through and understanding the metrics around it so you can go back and create a better story. It’s like that connective tissue between parts of PR instead of siloing.”

Breaking the data silos

The siloing of the analytics functions of PR and marketing remains a problem for the industry as well, Iliff stays and her advice to communications professionals entering the fields is to understand the data aspects.

“Get a Google Analytics certification, it’s very simple to do,” she states. “Take a couple of Coursera courses on basic statistics and how to analyse data – what’s the difference between prescriptive, descriptive and predictive data – very simple things that if you know how to talk about so you can have a discussion with the engineers.”

As the media industry evolves as it becomes even harder to pitch to fewer journalists working for a shrinking number of traditional outlets, Iliff thinks the future for the PR industry is with making its own content.

Focusing on owned media

“I think in the next five years a lot of things will change because of a couple of things, one is that we have access to data so owned media programs will become stronger for the people who are focusing on it and it will become a huge component in driving leads and sales. So people will stop spending so much time pitching.”

“Things like owned media will be used in a more comprehensive and compelling manner to offset a lot of the things that aren’t working on the earned marketing side.”

“My hope is that brands just hire an internal storyteller like Dell has done and Adobe has done and HP to tell you the story and connect with their customers. That’s the closest point between A and B.”

Taking PR seriously

Ultimately Iliff believes PRs will be taken more seriously in business is if they show they can use the data they have to show companies how to more effectively communicate.

“The only way you’re going to get a seat at the table, the only way you’re going to be taken seriously, is if you have data and you have the most relevant data.”

With data analytics reshaping most industries, it’s hard to see how the PR sector can resist those fundamental changes. How public relations practitioners apply that knowledge to their work is going to be key to their relevance in the business of the future.

Oct 242015

Thought of the day. We’re in at point of change in social and consumer behaviour similar to that of the late 1950s.

Sixty years ago the drivers were; the first baby boomers entering their teenage years, the rise of television, an era of accessible and cheap energy, along with rising incomes from the post World War II reconstruction.

Today the drivers are; the baby boomers entering retirement, the rise of the internet, an era of abundant and easily accessible data, the rise of the internet along with stagnant living standards following the late 20th Century credit orgy.

Your thoughts on where this goes?

Sep 192015

The latest release of Apple’s mobile operating iOS with an inbuilt ad blocker has again raised the issue of blocking website advertising.

Some see it as good for the advertising industry, believing it will force advertisers to think beyond intrusive pop up ads while others point out that ad blocking will devastate most of today’s online publishers.

While both views are probably right, it underscores how the media world is still waiting for a modern David Sarnoff to appear as the current model that sees publishers’ revenues declining is clearly not sustainable.

In the meantime though we’re almost certainly going to see more aggressive ‘native content’ – adverts posing as articles – as publishers try to find revenue and advertisers attempt to get their message across readers can expect more desperate attempts to get attention.

Those cheering for the end of the current advertising model should be careful of what they wish for though, the scramble for revenue and eyeballs is going be unseemly as we enter the era of the blocked advert.

Aug 082015
not listening to your market or industry is a big management risk

Yesterday Decoding The New Economy posted an interview with Michael Rubenstein of AppNexus about the world of programmatic advertising and being part of a rapidly growing startup.

The whole concept of programmatic advertising is a good example of a business, and a set of jobs, being disrupted.

Media buying has been a cushy job for a generation of well fed advertising executives. David Sarnoff’s invention of the broadcast media model in the 1930s meant salespeople and brokers were needed to fill the constant supply of advertising spots.

Today the rise of the internet has disrupted the once safe world of broadcast media where incumbents were protected by government licenses and now the long lunching media buyers are finding their own jobs are being displaced by algorithms like those of AppNexus.

A thought worth dwelling on though is that media buyers are part of a wider group of white collar roles being disrupted by technology – the same Big Data algorithms driving AppNexus and other services is also being used to write and select news stories and increasingly we’ll see executive decisions being made by computers.

It’s highly likely the biggest casualties of the current data analytics driven wave won’t be truck drivers, shelf pickers or baristas but managers. The promise of a flat organisation may be coming sooner than many middle managers – and salespeople – think.