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Saturday, August 15, 2009

Google, Zappos, and the "New PR" - Communications Savvy Must Be Distributed Across Your Company

This isn't really a post about Google per se, but working with different Googlers at different levels, and reading their various public statements and blogs, and hearing Googlers speak and interact with the public, definitely hammers the point home. It's a huge company. Their people are well trained, well spoken, and well scripted. But everything can't be scripted, and they'd come across as awfully spooky if they walked around "muzzled".

Typically in the good old days, public relations messages were controlled. And people in companies were supposed to communicate sparingly and always "check back to base" before sharing with the public.

In companies still controlled by traditional top-down PR concepts, this seems like the right thing to do. To everyone else, it seems not only old-fashioned, but unworkable.

The Zappos legend is one of radical openness - one of allowing reporters to walk around and talk to any old employee. No surprises, no secrets.

I thought of this again when posting a response to a customer on a consumer review site I work with. A little part of me said, well maybe I should be collaborating on the team before I post my responses, to make sure we are all on the same page. But you know what? If we always did that, our responses would sound canned and we wouldn't sound like real people. And the speed of the business would slow to a crawl. Especially in the digital world, a slow business is a dead business.

What it comes down to is this: everyone in your organization needs to be someone you can trust to do a good job of representing your brand and helping out a reporter or customer when they're seeking information or ideas. Scary from the standpoint of traditional PR, but most of all, an opportunity to reflect on whether your people have your full confidence: do they know their stuff, do they have good judgment, are they social media savvy, do they know how to make it clear that there's a difference between them thoughtfully considering an issue in their unique human way and official company policy, etc.? And if they aren't quite up to speed on all that, maybe there's an opportunity for company-wide education - not about how to stonewall, but how to naturally reach out to the ecosystem based on the relative transparency of the "new PR".

When more people are qualified and willing to speak on behalf of the company at a moment's notice, you can get more done. You can draw customers into the dialogue, and solidify your role as a partner. It's a mistake to imagine that there is any other way to go about it. That's especially true in companies that have all sorts of responsible people working on hundreds of products, in dozens of divisions.

The "letting go" attitude also strengthens accountability and responsibility in more people in an organization and even outside it. That reinforces the idea of partnership. Think about the difference between two celebrities or CEO's who come to a major interview. One has had his "people" control which questions can and cannot be asked, and wants their bio to be structured in a certain way. The other has her people inform the magazine that (unflattering photos aside) the choice of questions and biographical portrayal are in the reporters' and editors' "capable hands". Who do you think is going to think harder about their real role as a responsible journalist? The one who is told what to say? Or the one who is asked to exercise their judgment?

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