Help yourself help your customers

Kroger app screenshot


Once a company has made things easier for its customers, there are few things as frustrating as having them turn around and make things difficult again.

I experienced this recently at my local Kroger grocery store when they had a sign advertising a coupon for a free item.

Kroger has one of the better shopping apps available for your mobile phone. It offers more than you really need, but it builds upon the company’s shopper’s card, which helps you get discounts at the store. I find the app most helpful for “clipping” coupons to my shopper’s card. It easily replaces the old paper coupons and actually has me using more coupons than I ever did the old-fashioned way.

Back to my recent experience, I spotted a sign in the store for a Free Friday Download, which is a relatively new marketing promotion Kroger is trying. The idea is that you can download a coupon for a free item — in this most recent case, it was for a bottle of pop. So, I decided to try to take advantage of the freebie. That’s when frustration reigned supreme.

My first thought was, “I’ll just open my Kroger app on my phone and grab it from there.” I don’t remember seeing the Free Friday option the last time I was on my app, but since it’s a new thing I figured maybe I just hadn’t noticed it yet. So, I opened the app and searched while following my wife through the store. I searched. And searched. There was no Free Friday download or related coupon. I made my way back to the sign to see if I had missed some direction.

Kroger Free Friday download signWhat I found was a website address. Fine, it’s not as convenient as the app, but if it was mobile-optimized maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. While the site was mobile-optimized, it was not the doorway to a convenient experience. I could see the Free Friday coupon, but I couldn’t download it to anything. The reason is that it required me to log in to my Kroger account via my email address and password.

The reason I have an app, and use it, is because of its convenience and the fact that I don’t have to constantly remember my log-in information. It just opens and works.

I couldn’t remember my log-in and I wasn’t going to waste time standing in a grocery store aisle to try to figure it out. So, I gave up. That means instead of getting a free pop and expressing appreciation for it to anyone who would listen, I am now writing a negative blog post about a customer service and marketing screw-up by a company that does well normally.

If your company an app, then use it, drive people to it, promote more downloads; never abandon it. The marketing sign should have promoted the app. If Kroger wants customers to download something, they should have them download the app, then make the Free Friday coupon available on it.

Kroger has figured out how to help its customers in many ways. Now, it needs to learn how to help itself help its customers even more.


These savings programs work because you don’t have to

You can save money if you clip coupons, become a member of a rewards club, and do a lot of other things that take time and effort — both of which are in short supply these days. Besides, many rewards programs require you to carry around those annoying plastic key tags. Instead, you can take advantage of technology that does the work for you. For the past few months, I’ve been using two such technological advances and I’ve found they work well, save me money and are about as effortless as you can get. Oh, and it’s all free. Cha ching!

The first is Key Ring, an app available in both the Android and Apple app stores. Initial setup takes some effort, of course, but it pays off well in the long run. You’re required to set up a Cellfire account, which then allows you to enter your current rewards program key tabs. If you initiate the app on  your phone, you can simply scan the barcodes and it will enter all the information for you. After that, the program is relatively maintenance free. You just open it up periodically and “clip” the coupons that are offered. Here’s where the easy part comes in. Once you clip the coupon, it is added to your rewards program account and the coupons are automatically deducted from your bill when you shop at that store and use your savings card. If you’re so inclined, it will even produce a shopping list for you based on the coupons you’ve clipped.

For example, one of the grocery stores I shop at is Kroger. Their  tag has been dangling off my keychain for a few years now and, overall, the card is worth it because of the instant savings it offers. But now, because I’ve connected that rewards card to my Key Ring app and Cellfire account, I can clip coupons that are electronically stored on my rewards card. When I go to the check out, I simply enter my ID number and scan my groceries. When the order is totaled, Kroger takes off its instant savings and the Cellfire account deducts my electronic coupons. Cha ching!

You’re supposed to be able to scan the program tag’s bar code straight from your phone, but I’ve found some of the scanners don’t like to read the phone screen, so I just punch in the numbers. It’s not that difficult and worth the savings. Plus, this should solve the problem of the dozens of coupons that get clipped, hung on my refrigerator, and then periodically thrown away because I never remember to grab them on the way to the store.

As a bonus, the Shell gas stations in town have a deal  with Kroger so that as your grocery purchases add up, they can result in a discount for gasoline. So, for example, I have shopped at Kroger more because of the Key Ring/Cellfire program. I saved money I wouldn’t have normally because I had electronic coupons available for my purchases and because I’ve shopped at Kroger more, my total spending there has added up. When I entered the program code at the gas pump, I saved 10 cents per gallon. Cha ching!

It’s easy, it’s relatively effortless, and it finally gives me a rewards program that I find more rewarding than annoying.

The second program I’ve found some limited success with is the new connection between Foursquare and American Express. You can now register your American Express credit card with your Foursquare account, which allows you to receive discounts and special deals at businesses if you check in there. For example, a car wash near me had a deal for Small Business Saturday that if you checked in on Foursquare and purchased a pack of washes with your American Express card, you received a statement credit. The washes there start at $6.50 each. Thanks to this new Foursqaure/Amex partnership and a bulk discount from the car wash, I am getting $32.50 worth of washes for $2.50. Cha ching!

I can’t wait to see what will happen with the Foursquare/Amex partnership as more businesses catch on to the benefits of offering special deals for people who are tech savvy and take advantage of being connected. The businesses that will be the most successful in the next few years are the ones who have figured out that their consumers are mobile, so the deals should be, too.

I think I covered the basics on these two programs, but if you have questions or concerns, drop me a line in the comments section and I’ll do my best to help. If you’re good to go, then I encourage you to take advantage of the technology. It’s as if a little money tree is sprouting on your phone and all you need to do is pluck the leaves.  🙂

Betting on social media

Here’s a story I wrote for about the use of social media by a casino in Battle Creek, Michigan —

How a Michigan casino bet big on social media—and won

Firekeepers wooed its early detractors in greater Battle Creek, and it has built an online following, especially on Facebook.
By Ari B. Adler | Posted: September 14, 2011

Before the first patron could ever try to hit a jackpot on a slot machine at the Firekeepers Casino in Battle Creek, Mich., Jeff LaFrance and his team were betting on social media for the win.

“We saw a growing trend in social media, and in January 2009 we started a Facebook page. Before the doors were opened, we had 75,000 Red Hot Rewards club members registered,” says LaFrance, marketing manager for Firekeepers.

LaFrance says the casino built up its club membership before it opened in August 2009 through online registration, driven through its website and social media.

“That built integrity for us and a solid online presence,” LaFrance says. “They know what to expect from us, they know they can trust us online—which can be difficult.”

LaFrance, one of the first 10 people hired at Firekeepers, holds a computer science degree from the University of Michigan and started as a graphic designer at Soaring Eagle Casino in Mt. Pleasant, Mich. He says getting pulled into the online interaction provided through corporate websites and social media is an ideal situation for him.

LaFrance says that although the website is the casino’s main online presence, it also uses Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

“They’re all linked off our home page, and every other page on our website,” LaFrance says. “Overall, social media is a fantastic success story for us. It’s given us another opportunity to reach our guests and have a pulse on what is going on with our customers.”

When Firekeepers was proposed, there was a bit of an uproar in the city of 52,000 in southwest Michigan, with people worried about what its presence would mean for the community. In the two years since it opened, however, the mood seems to have changed, and the casino has become more widely accepted. Could online outreach have played a role?

Social media “can almost be used as an online focus group in some ways,” LaFrance says. “We can post questions to see what people like and what they don’t like.”

Firekeepers sometimes asks the community at large for input about an upcoming promotion or sale; other times people offer unsolicited feedback.

“People love expressing their opinions. Keeping your finger on the pulse of your audience allows you to react more quickly than ever before.”

With more than 57,500 fans on Facebook—and the total has grown every week—Firekeepers has plenty of feedback available.

“We had a big burst in the beginning once we opened, and then it trailed off for a bit. But then we invested more time, energy and content into the Facebook page, and our fan base has been steadily growing over the past six months at almost 4,000 to 5,000 per month,” LaFrance says.

Despite having a much smaller footprint in real life, Firekeepers has more Facebook fans than much larger casinos, including Hard Rock, Circus Circus and Excalibur in Las Vegas.

“For a casino in Battle Creek, Mich., to be ahead of casinos in Vegas is pretty amazing,” LaFrance says. “The key is to not use social media as a platform for you to sell everything about you. It’s meant to be social; it’s not meant to be just about you and your products.

“People will start to tune out, and you lose value in your posts. Find something interesting about your business, and engage with people.”

LaFrance says he often gets a lot more comments on the casino’s Facebook page when it posts questions completely unrelated to the casino or gaming. For example, last season it asked about the big football game between intrastate archrivals Michigan State University and the University of Michigan.

“We had a few hundred comments on it. You have to give visitors a fresh way to look at you,” he says. “That gives you an identity and gives your business a stronger social presence.”

Having an open page where everyone can participate means Firekeepers hears from folks who didn’t walk away big winners. That’s to be expected, but it’s the customer service concerns that really get the team’s attention.

“Part of social media is that everybody has a voice,” LaFrance says. “We’re in the casino industry, and, unfortunately, people do lose money. With complaints about service, we reach out and address the situation and get those customers back.”

LaFrance says that positive or negative, most comments remain on the wall for all to see and for the casino to address. Vulgar language and any mentions of violence are deleted.

The communications and marketing team of six at Firekeepers also maintains Twitter and YouTube accounts, but neither has seen the success of the Facebook page. LaFrance says that’s more likely because the general casino customer demographic skews older, and older folks favor Facebook over the other social networks.

The biggest reason to be involved in social media, after all, is to connect to your customers. So, you need to be where they are.

“If you’re not spending time there, you’re missing opportunities to touch your audience,” LaFrance says. “Social media is one of biggest growth areas online and should be a tool in your toolbox. In terms of dollars spent, the monetary value isn’t there, but the importance is. We treat everything equally.”

So it’s not about spending money, but what about the time involved? LaFrance takes care of most of the social media interaction for the casino himself, and it doesn’t have to be a huge time drain, he says.

“There’s not an army of people here, but you don’t need that if you can plan things out efficiently,” LaFrance says. “Invest in creating content, and then reuse what you’re creating.”

For example, video ads for promotions and events that run on in-casino TVs will then get new life on the casino’s YouTube account and are linked on its Facebook page.

“It exposes more people to the work you’ve already done,” LaFrance says. “The reality is that social media doesn’t take that much time. You don’t have to spend 24 hours working. For me, I monitor social media all the time—after meetings at work or when I’m at home. Often, I can just check in on my phone. One of the great things is how mobile social media is. That helps you get an opportunity to address any situation and to react quickly.”

So far, Firekeepers has found a way to win with social media, and the casino doesn’t plan to stop betting on the technology anytime soon.

“We’re always researching things, keeping an eye on what’s developing in the market,” LaFrance says. “Facebook is consistently coming out with new features. The joy of social media is it never really ends. There’s always an opportunity for growth and to continue engaging.”

A “simple life” depends on how you define it

Montgomery Ward 1872 Catalog

Montgomery Ward 1872 Catalog

I recently posted a fun history update to Facebook about how the Montgomery Ward catalog was first released in 1872, and it was only one page. I commented, “No wonder life was simpler back then!”

My colleague Alan Stamm replied with a disagreement, acknowledging that I was having fun and he was “being a pooper.” But he raised a good point nonetheless:

Life wasn’t simpler when people had to make their own clothes, furniture, curtains, bedding, tools and other necessities or find a nearby craftsman to do so. Our transactions are impersonal and our creative pride transfers to other tasks, but life is much, much simpler now, as I define it.

And that’s really the heart of the matter, isn’t it?  Define “simple life” for yourself, and you’ll likely find others who think your life is much too complicated. I’m sure to the folks Alan mentioned, those who had to make everything for themselves, keeping up with the multitasking on laptops, smartphones, iPads and other gizmos would seem overwhelming. Certainly, they wouldn’t view my current life as “simple.”

However, as Alan pointed out, having to make my own clothes and furniture would be incredibly difficult for me and if I were transported back in time, I’d long for the “simple life” I led when all of that was offered for sale at a local store.

Reaching that store is simple for me, compared to folks in the 1800s who didn’t have automobiles. But those folks transported forward in time would probably find our chaotic and often-dangerous streets to be anything but simple.

Certainly, technology has made our lives easier in many ways, but I can’t say it has kept them simple. Fighting regularly to keep computer systems up and running, maintaining automobiles, servicing whole-house furnaces and air conditioning units is not simple. On the other hand, being able to have ice on demand from our freezer door sure makes things simpler. And that whole refrigeration concept does make fresh and healthy food simpler for all of us.

Perhaps the old saying about “the grass is always greener” really is true. Perhaps “a simple life” is defined by the longing for things you don’t have. People in the 1800s didn’t have the ability to sit down at a laptop computer and share their thoughts with the world after just a few simple keystrokes. I, on the other hand, don’t have the opportunity to enjoy a peaceful summer evening surrounded by a family that isn’t being pulled in six different directions because of commitments to work, school or volunteer and professional organizations.

Is it simply impossible for humans to recognize what a simple life really is? Are we always going to long for what we don’t have rather than enjoy what we do?

What does “a simple life” mean to you? Is it having technology and machinery available to do things for you so you don’t have to? Or is it having the ability to do things for yourself without the need for technology, and accepting that your limits are what they are and when you’ve reached them, that’s simply good enough?

I certainly don’t have a solid answer to that yet, but for now I have to stop wondering about it. I have to get to work, so I can earn money, so I can buy commodities that I cannot make for myself but which I can easily order online thanks to the simplicity of the Internet — one of the most complex technological advancements in human history.

Simple life, indeed.

Survey says: Pointless Surveys Are Dead

Breaking news! All forms of media are dead! They are useless to the world of public relations because what the media covers and what is being chatted about on social media just doesn’t matter anymore. It’s all about direct influence of consumers through…well, wait, if we don’t use the media and social media, how will we reach consumers? I’m sensing a flaw in the latest survey by the Reputation Institute that is making some communications pros question their media relations and social media outreach plans.

The basic premise behind the Reputation Institute’s findings is actually quite reasonable. It suggests that direct experiences with a company have more of an impact on how a consumer feels about a brand. They compared that with what a company says and does or what is being said about the brand in the mainstream media or on social networking outlets. Really though, I’m certain the proverbial 1,000 monkeys at 1,000 typewriters could have produced that report.

What I find flawed is the interpretations of the survey results. I’ve already heard one industry leader reference the survey and buy in to the Institute’s headline: “Media’s Net Impact on Reputation is Zero.” I imagine others will jump on this bandwagon as well. The survey suggests that the reputation gap between those people who have had direct experience with a brand and those who have not is nearly zero when measuring the influence of media and social media. That finding, of course, may have people wondering why so much attention (and budget) is being paid to social media experts and the media relations teams at various companies.

The problem is that the finding is utter nonsense. The category that had more of a reputation gap was the one that included marketing, branding and public relations. The largest gap was found in the area that included customer service, products and employment. The idea here is that the larger the reputation gap, the more impact that particular area has on people’s opinions of a company or brand.

But like too many traps in the public relations world, you cannot boil public relations, marketing, media relations and social media activities into one solitary silver bullet that is the cause of trouble or the salvation for your business.

What you make as a product matters to your reputation and so does customer service. Marketing your product, public relations efforts to consumers and branding activities involving social responsibility are important, as well. If you have a great product and excellent customer service, and if you spend money on marketing, public relations, and social responsibility, then you are probably involved with the mainstream media and social media as well. These areas are not silos that can be singled out as the best or worst thing your company should focus on. Instead, you need a more comprehensive and cohesive approach to success.

A great product will sell. Excellent customer service will bring in more customers. And both will be advanced through great public relations and marketing efforts. Those efforts, more than likely, will involve mainstream media stories, articles in industry publications and perhaps even some social media outreach.

So before people go running off declaring media doesn’t matter, perhaps we should look back to earlier reports. Remember the stories about the press release being dead? It’s not dead; it’s simply evolved rather than becoming extinct. Evolution is the name of the game now. Before you write off all forms of media relations because of survey results, consider whether they make sense or not. Perhaps what we need to do is declare pointless surveys with screaming headlines dead. Anyone willing to conduct a survey for me on that?

“The Friday known as Black”

Here’s a piece I pulled together based on A Visit from St. Nicholas by Clement Clarke Moore:

‘Twas the day after Thanksgiving, when all through the store

Employees were frightened as shoppers screamed “more!”

The sale papers had been scanned and clipped with great care,

In hopes a few bucks could be saved here and there.

The CEOs were still nestled all snug in their beds,

While the sounds of cash registers danced in their heads;

And mammas in their sweatpants, and daddies in their caps,

Were ready to do battle since they’d taken quick naps.

And there on the TV, there arose such a clatter,

I hit the volume button to see what was the matter.

Away to the registers, the workers flew like a flash,

As patrons tore through doors and made a mad dash.

The news crews were capturing it all for the show,

How many were injured, police did not know.

When, what to my wondering mind should appear,

But a moment of pause when things seemed quite clear.

With a move of my hand, so lively and quick,

I saw more news with every mouse click.

More rapid than eagles the shoppers they went,

Store to store they ran, for bargains hell-bent;

And they whistled, and shouted, and called each other names,

All because they wanted some big TVs and Wii games.

And the families of workers, were just rising up

Pouring coffee and orange juice into their cup.

“Mommy’s been there since 3!” the smallest kids shouted,

The true meaning of Christmas they suddenly doubted.

“If it’s supposed to be about giving and love,

Why are those people doing a push and a shove?”

It’s that special time, their daddy did say,

When stores cut prices like no other day.

And shoppers forget there is a real reason,

That Christmas can be such a wondrous season.

Their wits will return when they see what they did,

But on that one terrible day, they all blow their lid.

No bargain’s too little as they cruise through the mall,

They’ll hit every store, not just most but all.

And when Christmas day comes and the kids see their toys,

Popular dolls for the girls and hot games for the boys,

I wonder if they’ll sit back and remember,

That long, horrifying day in November;

When their friends and neighbors went on the attack

To buy so many things, on the Friday known as Black.

. . .

(Sale sign picture courtesy of bixentro’s Flickr photostream.)

Blogging finally pays the rent for someone

Here’s a piece I wrote for about a blogger who won a free year of rent in exchange for blogging about her experience:

Published: 7/29/2010

How a video contest boosted new condos, gave a blogger a home
By Ari B. Adler

‘I Love Detroit’ competition draws global interest in the city’s comeback efforts

The number of bloggers in the world has grown dramatically over the past few years, but there aren’t too many who can say it helps them pay the rent. Brandi Keeler of Detroit can, though, at least for a year.

Keeler, an advertising and design major at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies, won the Garden Court Condominiums’ “I Love Detroit” video contest. That means she will be living rent-free in a downtown condo in exchange for her blog posts chronicling her participation in the city’s culture, dining and sporting events.

Identity Marketing & Public Relations in Bingham Farms, Mich., was the agency that worked with Garden Court on the 30-day contest, which was developed to raise awareness for the recently renovated condominiums. Using traditional media, new media and events to create buzz for the contest, Identity also was getting people talking about the condos and the city of Detroit.

“The contest clearly struck a nerve with people who have a passion for the city of Detroit. There are some incredible advocates for the city, and this was an ideal platform for them,” said Andrea Trapani, senior account executive and Identity’s architect behind the concept. “We knew the contest would be something different, but it definitely exceeded our expectations in regard to the quantity and overall creative quality of the videos submitted.”

The contest launched in late May with an appearance on FOX 2 Detroit by David Farbman of Garden Court. By the end of the contest in late June, more than 60 two-minute videos had been submitted from around the world, with 53 making the final cut. More than 300 people also joined the special Ning community that Identity had established for the contest. A panel of local personalities and bloggers judged the videos.

“Since this was unlike anything the client has done before, we did not set any specific expectations regarding how many videos would be submitted,” Trapani said. “We knew that by leveraging social media channels, as well as the traditional media, that the overall brand exposure would be broad and meaningful.”

According to Identity, the contest resulted in more than 48,000 page views and more than 23,000 views for the videos that were submitted. The promotion resulted in 15 online stories posted by traditional media and bloggers within 20 days, and there were more than 300 tweets sent using the hashtag #ilovedetroit. Perhaps most important to Identity’s client, however, is that the contest resulted in generating more inquiries from people interested in buying the condominiums.

“The overall positive responses shared from contestants on the site was inspiring,” Trapani said.  “They supported and complimented each other’s videos. New connections were made, and many have continued past the end of the contest. On multiple occasions, we heard, ‘It doesn’t matter if I win; I’m so happy to have the chance to connect with others and share my story.’”

Trapani said she considers the contest and the promotional idea to be a success and, with lessons learned in hand, the potential for similar campaigns is high. That raises the question, however, of how many of these can succeed before they are too common to draw the attention that Garden Court did.

Brandon Chesnutt, social media director at Identity, says there will always be a market for them.

“Just hearing the phrase, ‘enter for a chance to win,’ creates a unique level of excitement,” he said. “What organizations really need to start thinking about is what happens after the contest. How do they continue to engage the audience without an incentive in place? There should be a plan to keep the buzz going until their next call for entries.”

No matter how hard managers stir, “communications” still isn’t a bucket

A recent column and blog post have created a dust-up over whether journalists should be hired to do public relations. It all started with a column by Jill Geisler at listing the 10 reasons why journalists could help public relations operations. That led to a post by Kathryn Hubbell at the Public Relations Society of America’s blog citing frustration in some parts of the PR profession with journalists invading the PR territory.

The comments at the PRSA blog turned nasty rather quickly, suggesting that Hubbell’s piece was inappropriate, short-sighted and, for some, insulting. I was bothered by the post, too, because it seemed to attack the path I had taken in my career. I was a newspaper journalist — first a reporter, then an editor — before jumping over to the public relations side of the business. I’ve always valued my media background, and so have my employers and clients. Journalists are trained to recognize a good story, write it well and explain it in easy-to-understand terms. Still, there’s more to public relations than that. There’s research, strategy and myriad other components involved in being a good PR counselor.

At first I was going to respond to the PRSA post talking about how off-base Ms. Hubbell was, but then the slew of comments that ensued took care of that for me. And as I watched those comments unfold, my opinion that some PR people are just snooty about their profession and want to defend it from outsiders changed. I came to realize that we’re all a bit like that, whether we specialize in journalism, public relations, marketing, advertising or any other form of communications. We hold our specific training and talents sacred — and rightly so.

The problem now seems to be that economic conditions have led to management teams losing sight of the fact that “communications” is not a bucket into which you can just stir in bits and pieces of professions and watch great products emerge. Journalists and their counterparts in the other various communications fields each have something to bring to the table. Unfortunately, we’ve reached an era where management is looking solely at the bottom line, hoping that by combining public relations, marketing and advertising into one discipline, with half the positions previously considered necessary, they have a winning managerial decision on their hands.

But the reality is all they’ve created is an inefficient and ineffective mess. Here’s a newsflash for those number-crunching CEOs: the people trained in those disciplines get upset when they’re told anyone can do their job, and so they should. Too many CEOs and vice presidents seem to believe that if you’re a journalist, of course you can do public relations. If you can do public relations, of course you can do marketing. And how hard can advertising really be, so why can’t the PR people or marketing staff take care of it? Oh, and internal communications — well, anyone can drop some cute stories into a company newsletter, right?

I’m a former journalist who now does public relations. The leap can be made. There are plenty of people who can be trained to cover more than one discipline. But it takes years of training, experience or both to make that transition and reach a point where you are comfortable saying, “Yeah, I can do more than one job for you.” But even then, it doesn’t mean you want to or that you should have to.

The company managers trying to figure out how to handle media relations, public relations, marketing, advertising and internal communications need to get a grip on reality. They should stop trying to save money by forcing people to work outside their disciplines, and then holding them accountable when they don’t get the biggest bang for the buck.

As I was thinking about this over the past few days while contemplating this blog post, I remembered a great lesson on figuring out the difference between several of the communication arts disciplines. It goes like this:

If the circus is coming to town and you paint a sign saying ‘Circus Coming to the Fairground Saturday’, that’s advertising. If you put the sign on the back of an elephant and walk it into town, that’s promotion. If the elephant walks through the mayor’s flower bed and it makes the nightly news, that’s publicity. And if you get the mayor to laugh about it in the news story, THAT’s public relations.”

Maybe those of us involved in communications should begin communicating more with our managers, starting with delivering a copy of that story.

(Image courtesy of Jake Khrone’s Flickr feed.)

Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the gallon

One of my part-time gigs is teaching public relations courses to students at Michigan State University. When we start talking about media relations, I explain how it’s not that hard to understand, but it can be hard to execute. That’s because media relations is primarily about building relationships.

There is a symbiotic connection between journalists and PR professionals. They both need each other to do their jobs well, which means both sides need to understand the other one’s wants, needs and desires. It’s not a system that is completely in balance, however, since journalists are able to impart quite a wrath on a PR person, their employer or their client should things turn less civil.

One of my favorite old sayings about dealing with newspapers reporters and editors is, “Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the gallon.”

It is vital for people to understand that while you can’t kowtow to the media’s every whim, when you get right down to it “the media” is just a group of people trying do their jobs so they can pay the mortgage and maybe, on a good day, feel like they’ve made a difference in this world.

That’s why I am flabbergasted when I see reports of PR spokespersons or companies making huge mistakes and turning a potentially good or neutral relationship into an adversarial one.

A couple of recent cases to consider come out of Florida.

First, a group of Toyota dealerships pulled their ads from local ABC TV stations “in response to persistent reporting on the company’s sudden unintended acceleration problems.” Because, somehow, they must believe that hurting the stations economically will force them to call ABC News and ask them to call off the dogs? That’s highly unlikely because when I was a newspaper reporter, I knew that stories resulting in calls from officials to my boss generally meant I was getting close to something bigger and they were nervous. Besides, pulling the ads resulted in more news coverage by more news organizations than just ABC News, so the dealers actually created more headaches for themselves.

Then we have one of the most bone-headed PR moves I’ve ever seen a spokesperson pull. Karen Ryan, public relations manager for the LCEC electric company, wasn’t happy with how the local FOX TV station had been continually reporting on customer complaints. When enough was enough for Ms. Ryan, or perhaps for her bosses, she sent an email to the station management asking for a meeting to discuss the situation. She included a veiled threat to go above station management to the corporate owners if necessary.

FOX 4 responded with a 5 minute, 41 second news story about the entire situation. That was followed up with a story that lasted more than 3 minutes and talked all about how Ms. Ryan and LCEC were done doing interviews with FOX 4.

When I shared the first story via Twitter recently, here are what some folks had to say about it:

@digimae: WOW. They spent 5 times as much time on that because of her letter. Amusing!

@ryanknott: I love PR people who choose to have a confrontational relationship with the media. So productive and helpful. She missed a tremendous opportunity to garner GOOD PR. Total fail.

@anneread: That was a bit painful to watch.

I will never understand why people think that fighting with the media is a solid tactic. I have been the person who had to take phone calls from reporters working on a less-than-flattering story about the boss, the company and the client I was working for. I have handled them all with courtesy and common sense. I may not agree with where the story is headed, but maintaining an open dialogue with a reporter is a much easier way to make sure your side of the story is told fairly and completely.

I’ve explained to more than one boss who was frustrated with media coverage that attacking a reporter or editor for one story does not garner you better stories — in fact, it tends to have the exact opposite effect. After all, if the pen is mightier than the sword, imagine what a printing press or a TV studio can do to you. Actually, you don’t have to imagine. You just have to ask Karen Ryan at LCEC what it feels like to show up with a knife at a gunfight.

Move over, content; consumers will be kings this year

Here’s a piece I was commissioned to write by Ragan Communications. Thanks to the great folks quoted in this article who were willing to spend time helping me with it.

Published: 1/4/2010

Move over, content; consumers will be kings this year
By Ari B. Adler

A customizable Web and mobile apps and augment users’ already formidable clout

From banks and Big Three automakers that needed rescuing, to the governors and golf pros who couldn’t master monogamy, 2009 may well go down in history as the year of the bailouts.

Public relations professionals have spent a tremendous amount of effort trying to fix things for their clients while the news broke faster than birds can tweet.

So, what’s in store for 2010 in the communications industry? That depends on whom you ask, but a common theme is the idea that consumers will have even more control, whether they are consumers of a product or of information about that product. In short, communications professionals will have to fight even harder for their client’s reputations.

“As social networking adoption continues, frontline communications and PR will become the responsibility of everyone inside a company,” said Charlie Wollborg of Curve Detroit. “Social media will stop being ‘some newfangled doohickey the kids play with’ and simply become the de facto way business is done.”

If Wollborg is right and social media use continues to grow, which is likely, will consumers eventually reach a saturation point?

“As more companies build an online presence, the ability or desire for consumers to keep up with all the content generated will max out,” said Amy Mengel, a communications professional from the capital region of New York.

Mengel believes we’ll see increased filtering in 2010, particularly in the field of tools that allow people to sort, rank and prioritize content.

The sorting of information is going to be especially important to keep tabs on if you have a client targeting the younger population, says Becky Johns, communications coordinator for Delta Dental of Michigan and a member of the Millennial Generation.

“We don’t find the news anymore; the news finds us,” Johns said. “As PR pros, we need to package our messages in a way that they will actually reach young people who aren’t out trolling for what’s going on.”

She said that for the younger generations, the source is still important because the information needs to be credible, but they care more about how relevant the information is than where it comes from.

“The Internet has made everything so customizable that there is no need or room for anything not relevant to what someone is looking for,” Johns said.

“We grew up typing a set of words into a box and being fed information about whatever we want, whenever we want it. We have choices beyond the mainstream media and dealing with that reality has to be a priority for PR pros in 2010.”

A year of transition

For Jason Kintzler, founder of PitchEngine, 2010 will be the year social media is tested as a resource, perhaps because people like Johns aren’t as concerned about sources anymore.

“We’ll see some ethical questions raised,” Kintzler said. “False reports, investor mishaps and other fails will likely spark some mainstream dilemmas. People flocked to Twitter and Facebook in 2009. They began to consume news in ways never imagined. Many of them even shut off their televisions and closed the newspaper. In 2010, questions of trust will run rampant.”

Johns and Kintzler do agree that metrics will be tested this year.

“We need to take ownership of the way communication has changed,” Johns said. “Social media is still widely considered broadcast media, and the focus is all on ‘What can we put out there?’ when it really should be on ‘What can we learn from it in order to do business better?’ ”

Kintzler said success in PR and advertising will need to be measured on more than impressions alone. “With marketers getting savvy to the ways of the social web, they’ll adopt more organic ways of reaching consumers and new forms of reporting,” he said.

Get familiar with mobile apps

The use of video and mobile applications also will see an uptick in 2010, according to Kintzler and Wollborg.

“Company YouTube channels and video blogs will replace company text blogs and news feeds,” Wollborg said. “Company iPhone and Droid apps will become as ubiquitous as company Web sites, and you’ll see PR and communications firms rebrand as ‘community relations firms.’ ”

Kintzler said startup companies will see a boom as retailers find ways to connect fans and followers to their brick-and-mortar stores. “Consumers will use their smart phones on a transactional level, and retailers will salivate,” he said.

With all the buzz about social media, mobile devices and online interaction, will there be any room left for old-fashioned PR basics? Absolutely, says Sam Sims, APR, account director at Jones Public Relations in Oklahoma City.

“With the outburst of new communications tools, mediums and vehicles, successful PR practitioners will root themselves in the foundations and be successful regardless of hype,” Sims said. “What’s new to PR in 2010 is really not new. It’s the four-step process centered on communications theories. Call it retro, antique, rustic—it’s good old-fashioned PR foundation.”

Ari B. Adler is a media relations professional with experience as a newspaper reporter and editor as well as a government and corporate spokesperson. You can follow him on Twitter at @aribadler.