Saturday, 7 April 2012

Twitter: My cents-worth observations

I had not paid much attention to Twitter until a few weeks back when I was first introduced to the whole new world of media tools and technologies and the possibilities they portend for public relations. My experience with new media has been basic. For the longest time, I have happily worked with the email and short messaging service for both business and social purposes. I tried working with facebook specifically to set up an alumni association for my former high school. That was a real hit.

Like so many people in the 40-something age-bracket who proudly belong to the telephone and television communication age, my first reaction to the new tools and to Twitter specifically, was: what good is another communication tool? why the 140 characters restriction? Where is the time to follow and keep the pace when the information floodgates open? Two weeks later after that first introduction to Twitter, I am still learning how to put the tool to full use and enjoying it. Meanwhile, here are my cents-worth observations with the tool thus far:

1. I value the knowledge sharing opportunity presented by Twitter. And because people ordinarily share from a self-interest point, I have benefited immensely from the many different views expressed by my colleagues with whom I have been studying the subject of PR and technology during the last six weeks. Learning in this way is both rich and challenging. To get real value from the learning, there are as many links to follow as there are information sources to cross-check for credibility.The self-expressive power given to each of us by the new media makes us all publishers and influencers in some way.

2. Twitter is a perfect medium for forming and sustaining groups regardless of their geographical boundaries.When motivated people share a common interest Twitter makes it easy to stay connected to the group.

3. I have found Twitter useful for sharing real-time updates whether from conferences, symposia, media events etc. Because I 'follow' Porter Novelli, for example, I was able to get real-time updates from the recently concluded 2012 SXSW Interactive Festival held in Austin, Texas.

4. Twitter can be effective for gathering real-time research data to generate PR campaign insights. In the Domino's Pizza Turnaround campaign that I came across in the internet recently, Domino's used the customers' feedback generated on Twitter to reinvent its brand successfully. It is also an effective tool for amplifying a campaign as was achieved by the Kotex online campaign (link was shared by a colleague). The campaign used Pinterest as the primary media for reaching inspirational women, but amplified it on Twitter, Facebook and on YouTube. The point is, on its own, Twitter cannot carry a campaign. It has to be embedded in the wider PR strategy.

5. Due to its interactive capability, Twitter, like other interactive media is a challenge for individuals and organisations because of its demands on personal and organisational time. Without a filtering mechanism, I have found that one requires a lot of time to sift through tonnes of content. An Agency would need a great content filtering mechanism to support Twitter's otherwise great uses.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Inspired by critics, Domino's Pizza turns its image around using social media

Domino's Pizza President Patrick Doyle would never have guessed that two employees of the pizza company would plunge his 50-year old brand into the public dock by shooting a video of themselves doing disgusting things with pizza and sharing the video on YouTube. As would be expected, customers of the 9000-restaurant chain were enraged by the video and they did not hide it.

Determined to rebuild the customers' trust, America’s largest pizza delivery company's President made a public apology on YouTube and soon after launched the Pizza Turnaround Campaign based on a 'come-what-may-approach' that few agencies would be bold enough to try. The campaign designed by Domino's Agency Crispin Porter and Bogusky put the brand through a self-deprecating process in which consumers gave their bare-knuckle comments about Domino's pizza in focus group discussions. The comments were shared on a video on YouTube. 

Domino's Pizza took the campaign a step further and put up a giant billboard at a famousintersection in Manhattan, allowing any customer who ordered food using the Domino’s Pizza Tracker the opportunity to share their feedback with hundreds of thousands of Manhattan pedestriansand with other people around the world through a web video feed. No comments were excluded no matter how negative. The Tracker enabled customers who submitted their orders online to track their food from the oven to their front door. Once the delivery was made, customers could rate their experience and leave comments for restaurant staff. The Times Square tracker ran for two hours and 54 minutes a day, and pulled in approximately 700 comments at a rate of four per minute.

Domino's Pizza did not just collate and file away the comments the Company received. The Company used the criticism to reinvent their pizza and to improve the quality of their food, restaurants and services. At the launch of the campaign on a YouTube video, Doyle had noted, 'You could use negative comments to get you down or you could use them to excite you and energise your processes of making better pizza.' Obviously, Domino's Pizza chose the latter approach.

Domino's Pizza brand reinvention campaign is a classical case of the dictum, 'the more things change, the more they remain the same.' Porter Novelli (PN), a global agency with specialisms in brand building and brand marketing underscores this and points out that knowing how to 'do digital' for its own sake is far from enough. According to PN, brands achieve most success if they combine social media survey with human insights.

This is exactly what Russell Weiner leaned on to generate Domino's successful campaign. Initial research had indicated that American consumers 'yearned to hear the truth at a time when banks were collapsing, wall street and detroit were imploding and confidence in corporations, politicians and
authoritative figures had sunk to all-time low.' Weiner used these insights in the Turnaround Pizza
Campaign to show the world that admitting to the negatives of your product can lead to positive reaction. The campaign paid off handsomely. Same-store sales growth increased by 10.4% between 2009 and 2010 and were up by another 2.3% during the first quarter of 2011.

Public Relations has always been about understanding people and what influences them, no matter the medium used. New media tools now provide organisations with new ways to listen to consumers and for consumers to initiate communication with organisastions. According to Grunig and Grunig, because of of their interactive nature 'new media make it possible than before to have a two-way balanced dialogue with publics. The Turnaround Pizza campaign demonstrates how dialogue helped to alter both the brand's and consumers' attitudes and behaviour towards each other, and the eventual impact on the brand's relationship with the consumers.

Domino's Pizza's continued strive for transparency since the 2009 incident is proof of new media's
ability to contribute to organisation's behaviour and improvement of its relationships with its consumers.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Is this the Writing on the Wall for Traditional PR?

Johannes Gutenburg
In his book, ‘Here Comes Everybody: How change happens when people come together,’ Clay Shirky recounts the paradox behind Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press which literally ushered in the revolutionary technology of reproducing the written work. To much astonishment, the new technology was ill-embraced by the scribes of the day; a ‘rare populace’, whose work entailed the copying of new editions of old manuscripts, word for word, by hand. ‘For the first time in history a copy of a book could be created faster than it could be read,’ notes Shirky of the invention. However, almost half a century after the introduction of the moveable type press, the scribes who had lived to promote literacy came out in fervent defense of the much-revered scribal tradition and regretted its edging out by the new technology. Shirky makes some interesting observations from these events that would make instructive learnings for the Public Relations Practitioner, in this age of digital  media.

Medieval scribe Jean MiƩlot (AKA Jehan), sitting at a
desk, making a copy of another book, ca. mid 1400s.
Image published: 1885.Credit: Eon Images

Before the invention of the moveable type, the scribes were an ‘indispensable and irreplaceable’ group who had earned a special place in society as custodians of cultural memory by using their rare ability to copy and reproduce old manuscripts. Thus, the entry of Gutenberg’s technology in the late 1400s turned the tables by enabling mass printing and subsequently increasing literacy. Reading and writing was no longer a preserve of the scribes. It had become ubiquitous. ‘If everyone can do something, it is no longer rare enough to pay for, even if it is vital,’ notes Shirky. Under ordinary circumstances, he observes, the scribes function - that of making copies of books - would have been accomplished by ignoring the scribal tradition, than by embracing it.

Moveable type printer
In the same way that the printing technology made a massive reduction in the difficulties involved in reproducing books and helped to embed literacy in society, so has the new media diminished the old limitations of traditional media and transferred much of its power to publics to the chagrin of many PR Practitioners and their organisations. Much PR practice today still hinges on the predominant traditional public relations which emphasizes messaging, publicity, informational, and media relations function (Grunig, 2009). Like the scribes who specialized and excelled in the handwritten copy-making function, many PR practitioners are accomplished ‘conveyors of messages through traditional media - about decisions usually made by other managers,’ (Grunig, 2009).

The challenge with this PR paradigm is that in this age of new media, people are less constrained by the information that PR Practitioners and, or journalists choose to make available to them directly or through the media. Members of publics now, as well as journalists, can seek information from millions of sources, anywhere in the world. ‘People have many more sources of information available to them than journalistically mediated sources,’ (Grunig, 2009; Shirky, 2008, p.73).

In the wake of the usurping of the traditional PR practitioner's message-conveyor function by digital media technology, Grunig re-emphasises the ‘re-institutionalisation of PR as a behavioural, strategic management paradigm in place of the predominant symbolic interpretive paradigm. It is only then, he argues that Public Relations can reap the full benefits of digital media.

‘The new digital media have dialogical, interactive, relational, and global properties that make them perfectly suited for a strategic management paradigm of public relations—properties that one would think would force Public Relations Practitioners to abandon their traditional one-way, message-oriented, asymmetrical and ethnocentric paradigm of practice,’ (Grunig 2009).

As a strategic management function, PR Practitioners can adopt the wide range of digital media tools available for PR planning and programming - whether it is environmental scanning, segmenting stakeholders and publics, anticipating and dealing with issues and crises, measuring relationships and reputation, and evaluating communication programmes.

Digital media offers a variety of tools for scanning the cyberspace for problems, publics, and issues. The Practitioner can set up Google alerts for example, and use her organisation’s name as a key word. Similarly, by entering key words that describe potential problems and issues that relate to the organization, or decisions and behaviours the organization might be contemplating, it is possible to scan the organisation’s environment, (Grunig, 2009). Further, analysis of online media can go beyond segmenting stakeholders and publics to search for, and categorise the issues publics might raise and the crises that might result from these issues. Tweetlevel can help to evaluate the conversation trend around a given campaign topic (Patel, 2012). Digital media such as websites and blogs also can be used for issues and crisis communication programmes (Coombs, 2008). It is also possible to use cyberspace as a database for measuring the type and quality of relationships developed with publics.

On the backdrop of these fast technological changes and the associated ramifications for the PR practice, the wide range of new media can seem like a convolution ready to upset the traditional Practitioner’s status quo. As is evident in the case of the scribes, when a better, non-scribal way of accomplishing increase in literacy levels came along, they stepped in to argue that preserving the scribes’ way of life was more important than fulfilling their mission in a non-scribal means, (Shirky, 2008, p. 69).

This, is the kind of predicament that Shirky warns us against, when he observes that professional self-conception and self-defense, so valuable in ordinary times, becomes a disadvantage in revolutionary ones, because professionals are always concerned with threats to the profession, (Shirky, 2008, p. 69) than threats to the society they serve in the first place. Is this the writing on the wall for traditional PR practitioners?

Monday, 12 March 2012

How Convergent Media are Changing Communication in a Rural Village in Kenya

The timelessness, interactive and boundless reach features of convergent media are facilitating and enhancing human communication in unparalleled ways. What make convergent media particularly attractive is that they are not constrained to location, time, reach, and to a great extent – cost. Individuals, organizations and communities for whom traditional media have been out of reach (especially due to cost and requirement for specialized skills) can access and share information and interconnect with other individuals, groups and societies anywhere in the world, any time.

Take the case of the Kenya Government village Chief who has captured the attention of the CNN and BBC, Kenya London News for his innovative use of twitter. Chief Francis Kariuki is using micro-blogging for everything ‘from tracking down missing sheep to stopping crime’ in his rural village. Using his twitter-enabled smart-phone, the 47-year old Administrator does not only relay government directives to the residents of Lanet, but also participates in conversations initiated by the residents on matters on the new constitution, youth unemployment and how to bring down crime in the village. The Chief has become the envy of many local politicians and Government Administration officials who still rely on the irregular village ‘baraza’ - a public forum usually called by the Chief to communicate information to rural residents.

In Kenya, internet use has grown by a staggering 2000 per cent in the last ten years, with users increasing from 200,000 in the year 2000 to 3,995,000 users in June 2010. In essence, an estimated 10 per cent of the population has integrated internet use in its communication.

One of the transformative elements of convergent media are their capability to traverse the different levels of communication without the constraint of what Gregory and Fawkes describe as the ‘practical difficulties of using, coordinating and integrating a multitude of communication techniques'. To this, add the cost of producing and disseminating the communication. Using the PC or a mobile phone, an internet user can easily and swiftly engage in intrapersonal, interpersonal, group and society-wide level communication without needing to enroll a host of other media such as telephones, newsletters and radio.

The integration of different communication elements can greatly enhance the four primary functions of media: relationship building, expression of views and values, alteration of others’ attitudes and behavior and knowledge transmission (McQuail, D. 1994). Although traditional media fulfills these functions successfully, the speed, reach and timelessness of convergent media introduce a new dimension to the entire communication scope. Individuals can access a variety of information to help them make decisions much faster. They can then transmit the information they have gathered and share their points of view with other individuals or groups (formal or informal) and contribute in shaping people’s opinions and behavior in real time, and without incurring the costs of production as in the case of newspapers and magazines. Similarly, feedback – negative or positive - can be generated at the same speed and shared as widely within the existing communication networks and with other new networks, making the communication loops endless.

Chief Kariuki (left) with Lanet residents
And so the ‘Twitting Chief’, is able to answer individual residents’ distress calls on his phone at odd hours and link the callers up with the local police station or hospital ambulance. He no longer waits for the market day to discuss the on-goings in the village. Through twitter, he can receive security  alerts promptly and mobilise immediate response. Occasionally, he tweets inspirational messages to the congregants of his Lanet Methodist Church where he is a pastor. He also keeps a group of Kenyans from his village who reside abroad informed of the developments at home on twitter.

The implications of the changes enabled by convergent media are many and varied. On the one hand, it is the new and welcome facilitator and enhancer of human communications but on the other, it has potential to generate problems for communicators. Because content can be interfered with online, questions of credibility of the content and the content’s source can arise - impairing the very purpose of communication.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Jambo from Kenya, Africa

As I mulled about what I might share in my introductory post with classmates from different parts of the world, this TV commercial (click here to watch) based on the Bible verse John 3:16, from Focus on the Family came to mind. There are two reasons why the commercial resonates with me.

I memorised John 3:16 as a child, when we had only one national TV and radio station in Kenya. Then, I did not have the luxury of choosing what to watch, or listen to, when. So I read books and memorized what I needed to ‘store’ within. Recently when I saw this commercial on the internet and learnt that more than 40 million people across the world had had the opportunity to watch it either on TV or through the internet in a span of 24 hours, I was totally blown by the power of new media - that John 3:16 can speak to me in  Nairobi, Kenya; and speak to you too, wherever you are, in a different time zone, in the same clear and powerful way. That’s the power of the new media. Whao!