Thursday, January 15, 2009

Interesting Conference on Real Time Communications; Great List of Tools for Reputation Monitoring

I spent yesterday morning at a conference on “Real-Time Communications” presented by the Business Development Institute and sponsored by PR Newswire. Not surprisingly, given the sponsor, this turned out to be mostly by and for public relations professionals. This group’s main concern seemed to be reacting to public criticism, and “real time media” meant primarily blogging and Twitter. There was heavy representation from the pharmaceutical industry in particular, which, as several speakers mentioned with obvious frustration, is highly constrained by regulatory rules from making proactive comments. Beyond reacting to immediate crises, it seems the main media relations strategy of this group is to reach out to better educate the press about industry issues, so any reporting will be based on a reasonably accurate understanding of the situation. Apparently even this basic approach is somewhat revolutionary in the industry: keynote Ray Kerins of Pfizer said that until he took over as VP Worldwide Communications two years ago, the company policy was to simply ignore the first phone call from any reporter. Interesting attitude, that.

Kerins also provided perhaps the most intriguing factoid of the day, which was that 15,000 journalists lost their jobs in 2008. (I traced this figure to the Web site Paper Cuts , which tracks reports of newspaper layoffs and buyouts. Apparently the total includes all newspaper employees, not just newsroom staff. But either way, it’s a big number.) Kerins’ comment was that many of the people being let go are well-trained and experienced reporters, who provide “context and analysis”. They are being replaced in many cases by bloggers and other non-professional observers who offer “speed” but are often not as knowledgeable, thorough or objective. This is a big issue, particularly for someone in a complicated industry such as pharmaceuticals.

Another, related point came from Morgan Johnston, Corporate Communications Manager of JetBlue, who described a situation where a customer complained while at the airport to 10,000 online readers about not being compensated properly when her baggage didn’t show up—only to have it appear 15 minutes later. (I’m not clear whether this was on Twitter or a conventional blog.) His point was that the damage was done, even if she posted a follow-up message saying that all was well. The original complaint will live on more or less forever, and people may not notice the final resolution. The particular moral here was the need to respond very quickly to such complaints so the company’s reaction becomes part of the permanent record.

From my own perspective, I was struck by the focus on reacting to other people’s comments in real-time media, as opposed to using those media for a company’s own marketing programs. I suppose the outbound programs are run by marketing rather than public relations.

On the specific issue of marketing measurement, no one at the conference seemed to feel they could meaningfully measure the return on investment of blogging and other projects. From the reactive PR perspective, it’s largely about being defensive and preventing damage to reputation, so it’s probably something you can’t afford not to do. The very little discussion I heard about proactive programs mentioned that it’s occasionally possible to count the direct leads or revenue, but there isn’t much of a way to measure the long-term financial value. This matches my own observations, mostly because the impact of these programs is usually too small to isolate from other factors that also affect performance. There might however be non-financial measures that are more sensitive, like Web site traffic by source.

One very specific and highly valuable product of the conference was a casual remark by one panelist to look at a Web post by Dan Schawbel at for tools to measure brand reputation online. I tracked this down and found two extremely valuable posts, one describing free brand monitoring tools and another describing paid reputation monitoring tools (many of which are very inexpensive). There’s no point to my listing the products here, since you can just read the posts themselves. But this is very useful information – indeed, it made the whole morning worthwhile.

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