About Me

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Edward Bernays would dig me. Seasoned public relations strategist (10+ years in the game) who has practiced PR in multiple cities: Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago & DC. I'm an observationist and a soon to be card carrying member of the Twitterati. I love comfortable silences, revel in the Seinfeldian absurdities of life and have been described as a habitual line stepper. These are my thoughts...

Monday, May 17, 2010

Intern Wanted! Must Have Social Media Experience

If you are a CEO, VP of Communications or a small business owner and you’ve uttered any variation of the following, “we need to bring in an intern to handle our social media,” then it’s clear that your organization is NOT ready and this new form of communicating is not for you.

After all, you wouldn’t let an intern respond to a crisis situation, handle a delicate client inquiry, craft your PR/advertising campaigns or pitch the media on behalf of your organization, so why turn over the reigns of your social media communications outreach to the least vested and least experienced person at your organization?

Social media outreach is not something that is conducted within a bubble. It is your organization’s public face and sometimes it is the first experience an individual may have with your brand. It has to be handled in a strategic and responsible manner and it has to be taken seriously by leadership.

While interns carry the reputation of being more adaptive to embracing new technologies and trends, or can sometimes be a great resource to mine for creative ideas, the fact remains that their experience is limited. Additionally, they know the very least about your organization and how it operates. So again, why put them on the frontline?

Right now I know what the aforementioned CEO, VP of Communications and small business owner might be thinking, “that internets, Spacebook, Myface and Twittering thing is for college kids with too much time on their hands, so why not get a college kid to handle it? Besides they would only be talking to their peers anyway.” Wrong on all counts!

When it comes to social media, the median age of users are as such:

Myspace – Age 26
Twitter – Age 31
Facebook – Age 33
LinkedIn – Age 39

Given this data, it hardly makes sense to try and make a 20-23 year old relate to these demographics, especially without the steady and keen hand of a seasoned communicator guiding them and the messaging.

I’m a strong proponent of an organization’s PR/Communications department owning the social media function. I believe it’s just a natural fit, since communication and engagement is at the core of effective social media outreach. And besides, any modern day PR pro that doesn’t have social media in his or her toolbox is lacking and incomplete. But I would never in my wildest dreams think to hire an unproven intern to implement my company’s social media communications.

But yet, that’s what’s happening everyday. In my work with the Intern In Michigan program, whose primary goal is to grow the number of internships within the state of Michigan as a means of attracting and retaining young professionals, I see dozens of organizations every month looking to hire an intern to handle their social media communications or worse, to implement it. I have nothing against employing interns, in fact I tout the benefits of hiring interns on a daily basis, but what I don’t condone is hiring interns to handle important communications functions. It’s best to remember that they are in training.

So the next time an organization thinks to hire an unpaid intern to speak for them through social media, they should keep in mind the following quote from Oscar Wilde: “Experience is one thing you can't get for nothing.”

So hire a professional.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Take My Junior Staffer…Please

Recently, I was in DC for an interview with a major association. I was having a one-on-one with the VP of Communications and as I normally do in such situations I inquired if the organization handled its PR totally in-house or if they also contracted an outside agency. Having worked in an agency as an account lead, the question allowed me to segue into talking about my experience in that capacity. The VP told me that the association “used to” contract the services of a very big and well known PR agency (name omitted on purpose).

He went on to let me know that the selection of this particular agency was a board/executive team decision. They wanted big results and so they went after a big name with the experience to get big results. I next asked the VP what happened to the relationship and whether or not this “Big Name” agency was able to deliver results. The VP informed me that the results were pedestrian at best and not at all what the association was expecting for the $240K they were shelling out annually (for the math impaired that’s a $20K/mon. retainer). He further indicated that they were unresponsive, inattentive and failed to take advantage of key opportunities to position the organization.

There was one particular incident when he needed to speak to a principal about a crisis communications situation that had arose. The VP thought that paying the $20K per month retainer would at least get you access to an agency leader. But he found that out to be a very false assumption. When he called the agency to seek the counsel of a principal (the same principal that was very active during the pitch meeting) he was blocked by that person’s gatekeeper. The gatekeeper informed the VP that the person he sought was unavailable because he was busy with another client (a major credit card company with lots of commercials on TV).

Because that major credit card company paid millions annually for the agency’s services, it not only got more attention, but the attention of the higher ups. Unfortunately, the associations meager $240K per year did not warrant getting that kinda luv. I asked him, Well what kind of attention did it get you? His reply, “They gave our account to some junior staffer practically fresh out of college with limited experience.” As a result of that treatment and the apparent lack of results, the association decided to discontinue the relationship with the agency and bring all of the PR in-house, hence the reason I was being interviewed for the Director of Media Relations position.

Now, I don’t know how it works at everybody else’s agency, but at the smaller agency I worked at, this association would’ve been a premium client and at the larger agency I worked at, they still would’ve been able to get some top exec handholding for $240K annually. I was astonished by what I had heard. At either agency I worked for, I don’t think the practice of putting a junior staffer on a significant account would’ve been implemented. Or would it?

When I say junior staffer I’m talking account assistant or account executive. I believe anybody from senior account executive on up should be able to lead an account and/or an account team. I myself was leading small to mid-sized accounts from the time I came in the door as an account executive. But should I have been doing so? I knew the frustrations of the association as it pertained to the “bait and switch” because I had been involved in a few. The bait and switch refers to an agency principal being heavily involved in the new business courting and the pitch meeting, but once the account is secured it gets turned over to another staffer to lead and conduct the work.

On the surface this might seem disingenuous or even shady. But so long as no promises were made, that a principal would be “leading” the account or actually doing the work, it was all above board. Many times, I walked into those new biz pitch meetings knowing that I’d be leading the account. So I would try to kill any potential future concerns before they were born.

This might sound crazy but I somewhat agree with the practice of people other than the principal, handling the work and managing the client relations. Depending upon the scope of work and the amount of the project fee or retainer, it may not be the best use of agency time or resources to dedicate a partner to doing the work. There actually is such a thing as you get what you pay for, but that something you pay for should still net you some kind of return. So long as the person leading the account is knowledgeable, qualified, results oriented and attentive to the client, it shouldn’t matter to the organization spending the dough.

Quick antidote: I once led the account for a mid-sized Detroit-based law firm (20 employees). This law firm paid a very modest retainer, but still wanted the attention as if they were paying $240K. For that modest retainer I did a lot of hand holding with the law firm’s president and I generated some pretty decent results. But he wanted a lot more results for the money he was paying. I informed him, that it wasn’t a lack of understanding or ability on my part, but rather that the work necessary to get more results required an increase in account hours, hence a bigger retainer. He didn’t agree with my reasoning. To this client it appeared to him that if he had a partner, as opposed to some account supervisor handling his account, the results would be different. So he proceeded to end around me until he finally got an agency partner on the phone. In the end, the partner calmed his nerves, got the retainer increased and then sent him back to me. Go figure.