Sarah Santucci of SMS Strategies joins the Roundtable this week to discuss a variety of topics of interest to public relations and communications professionals. Among the subjects we explore include:
— The role of communications in improving turnout in elections, spurred by some observations made by FIR Podcast Network co-founder Neville Hobson.
— The importance of being a communicator first and a technologist second, as argued by frequent Roundtable guest co-host Mark Story.
— Advice on starting out as a freelancer or PR agency founder, through the eyes of Gini Dietrich.
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CHIP GRIFFIN: Hi. This is Chip Griffin from “Custom Scoop” with another episode of the “Media Bullseye Roundtable.” I’m very pleased to have back at the table once again Sarah Santucci.
SARAH SANTUCCI: Thank you for having me.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Sarah has her own digital consulting firm, SMS Strategies. And, of course, many long-time listeners of the show will remember that she used to host it and has been a frequent contributor ever since.
Sarah, this is the point in the show where I hand off for any shameless self-promotions, so take it away.
SARAH SANTUCCI: [Laugh] Sure. Anyone wanting to find out more about me can find me on Twitter easily at my maiden name, though: @SarahWurrey. And if you want to learn more about what I do professionally, it’s SMS-strategies.com.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Fantastic. All right. Let’s jump into the topics du jour. We’re going to start out with one that made a lot of headlines last week and was the topic of a lot of discussion on Facebook, and that was the Scottish independence vote that took place. And, in particular, we wanted to talk about a piece that Neville Hobson had on his blog. And, of course, this is one of the shows on the FIR Podcast Network, of which Neville is one of the two godfathers, or “podfathers,” as I like to say. And so he talks about how there was nearly 85 percent turnout for this referendum which, you know, folks like Sarah and I [sic], who’ve been involved in public affairs know that’s just a stunning number. But he contrasts it to the UK voter turnout of just 36 percent in the European elections earlier this year; and he says, you know, how can we do a better job of getting these turnout numbers up. And this is something that’s a frequent topic of conversation amongst better government experts and that sort of thing. But what he says is you have to persuade voters to believe, and he said it really comes down to communication. And I’m going to summarize here, but will include a link to the full story in the show notes. But he says you need to have a compelling story. You need to understand how to use the media effectively. You need to be honest, open, authentic and credible. And, of course, you need to tell your story well, in such a way that it drives people to take action.
And so I think there’s [sic] a lot of different places we can go with this; but, you know, I guess I would start with, is it realistic to think that, apart from these monumental votes on what’s effective secession, can we really expect that high a turnout? And is it something that we should be trying to achieve?
SARAH SANTUCCI: You know, the worst part of trying to compare what is ever happening in the UK [than?] in the U.S., which is a completely different political animal, both from a governmental structure to the way elections are run and everything; but, as Americans, of course, we can’t help but do that. And that’s where our institutional knowledge is going to come from regarding stuff like voter turnout. And I think 85 percent – probably not, because the most historic election I can think of in my lifetime as a voting adult would have to be when President Obama was elected, and I think there was a lot of the historic aspects of it. You know, the idea of electing a first black president – was it the only thing turning people out? Of course not, but it played a role in the high turnout that year. And even then – I looked it up but, of course, am lacking the figure right in front of me. I believe in the 60s, the 65 percent turnout that year – which is excellent, but nowhere near 85 percent, which is, as you said, unheard of. So, I don’t know that we will ever be able to achieve that even with the historical implications, or an amazing candidate, or an amazing issue really motivating people and catching fire with the public.
But I think that we can strive to do better, and I think the biggest lesson to take away, probably, from a vote like what happened in Scotland is that there needs [sic] to be stakes. There needs to be something actually at stake and, as Neville pointed out so astutely, great communicators who can tell that story to the voters. You know, “Here’s what the stakes are.” “Here’s why we need you to be there.” And I think that’s probably what’s missing. I think a lot of people don’t feel, with each election – and it seems like they’re always happening, since we do elect Congress every two years – they feel like nothing ever changes. You know, ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’ in Washington. And even as people like you and I, who worked in the weeds of it, it seems like that’s true even for people who aren’t low-information voters. And so I can only imagine how true it feels for people who are. You know, they’re dealing with their own lives and feel like what’s happening in the halls of government is more of the same, no matter what they do, vote-wise.
Do you think that’s true?
CHIP GRIFFIN: Well, you know, I think what you’ve done here is you’ve touched on something really important; and that is contrasting the importance of communication with the importance of an issue that makes a real difference. And I think that’s what we’re looking at here. I think the reason why you had this high turnout is not so much about the communication element of it, although Neville does do a good job of pointing out some really good communication that took place around it. But I think it comes down to the fact that people felt like the outcome of this referendum was going to make a difference to their lives, for better or for worse; and that’s what motivated them to come out. And I think that, you know, oftentimes we look at elections and – you know, everybody talks about these wild differences in the United States between Republicans and Democrats and all that; but at the end of the day, if you look at the actual policies implemented, they’re not as far apart as the rhetoric is. And so I think that’s one of the things that drives voters to say, “You know, it doesn’t really matter which one of these turkeys is in there.”
SARAH SANTUCCI: [Laugh]
CHIP GRIFFIN: You know, “It’s going to be the same result either way.” And they probably don’t analyze it to that degree, but I think that’s how it comes to pass. I think that the way you have high-turnout elections is by having something at stakes [sic], at issue, that is so important to people that they just can’t sit on the sidelines. And I think that’s how some people felt in the ’08 election, is – as you rightly point out, you know, I think that we certainly see through presidential elections that those cycles tend to have a higher turnout than mere congressional ones. And I think that’s largely because you can see the actions of the President. The President can put you into war or not. The President has the bully pulpit and so often appears to be doing more on, say, economic policy than, perhaps, he or she really could. So, you know, I think those are the things that are driving turnout. Does a great story help? Absolutely. Is it going to nudge numbers a few percentage points? Absolutely. Is it going to make the difference between a 36 percent-turnout election and an 85 percent one? No, I don’t think so.
SARAH SANTUCCI: Right, definitely. And, you know, it’s a really good point regarding the difference between turnouts in off presidential years, that is. You know, you could make a very good argument that congressional elections are even more important than presidential ones because, as you say, the President, perhaps, seems to only have the perception of influence when it comes to certain policy measures rather than actual influence; whereas, Congress would be the body that is putting things into motion. Or, maybe not lately [laugh], depending on who you ask; but [laugh] more responsible for enacting the things that will make changes in everyday people’s lives.
And, you know, one thing I jotted down – I wasn’t even sure whether or not to bring it up, because it’s a whole different kettle of fish – is whether or not something like term limits – actually, I’m not familiar with whether or not they have them in parliament; but if there’s something more at stake for both the voters and for the politicians – you know, if you only get elected a certain number of times, and you have to make it count; if that’s something that might move the needle a little bit when it comes to something like voter turnout.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Yeah. You know, I’ve never seen any studies around that. I would have to say my own gut – and that’s all it is – is that it would not make a substantial difference in turnout. I think you made a great point that the House elections, congressional elections may have a greater impact, to some degree, than presidential. Certainly on domestic policy, I think that’s true. But I think the problem is that the individual member of Congress doesn’t make the same difference as the Congress in aggregate; and that’s where, I think – you know, people say, “Well, I can’t make a difference in the overall Congress. I can just make a difference here in the one person that I’m sending out of 535.” And so I think, in the voter’s mind, for better or for worse, it diminishes the significance of that election.
SARAH SANTUCCI: Yeah, I definitely agree with that. And as we’ve said, the lower the significance for the voter, the less likely they’re going to take time out of their day, which is busy as it is for most Americans these days, to head down to the polls. But, you know, I was actually almost impressed because the figure from the UK was so dismal – the 36 percent number – that at least America generally does better than that. [Laugh] I was almost surprised to learn it, because I didn’t know much, actually, about the actual, hard numbers of voter turnout. So, I looked it up prior to this conversation, and it usually is about half, and that’s in a presidential year. And [crosstalk].
CHIP GRIFFIN: And one of the things here is I think that number, if I’m reading what Neville wrote correctly – that was European elections. That wouldn’t be their typical UK parliament. I would suspect those numbers are higher, although I do not profess to be an expert on UK elections, in general, or their turnout in particular.
SARAH SANTUCCI: [Laugh] And I certainly am not either.
CHIP GRIFFIN: So, maybe the solution is I need to have Neville on at some point, and we can –
SARAH SANTUCCI: [Laugh]
CHIP GRIFFIN: – I can be schooled in this. Or, perhaps, I should talk to my wife, who interned in parliament many, many, many years ago.
Anyway, so let’s move on to the next topic, if we can, so that we can try to keep this from being a 45-minute show and really alienating our five listeners. And this one is a piece by Mark Story, and it’s titled “In Social Media, be a Communicator, Not a Technologist.” And he goes through and talks about how he’s back in the day, pulling out the whole, you know, “I’m an old man” kind of thing. Well, I do the same thing now, too, and I’m not quite as old Mark is. I guess I can’t really mock him for it. But he talks about all the different technology platforms that we have and how everybody is focused on the latest tools. And in particular, he writes this: “I can’t tell you how many times I have heard, usually from senior management who have just read a ‘Wall Street Journal’ piece on the topic, ‘We need Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest.’ That’s great, but a nicely done Facebook page is not going to help you achieve what you ultimately want to do, which is to use the channel to convey your carefully crafted message. A social media plan chock full of tactics that are not first rooted in a communication strategy is like putting lipstick on a pig.”
And I love it when Mark gets off on these rants. They are very entertaining to read, and I have to say this is a theme that has come up repeatedly on the Roundtable, not just this year when we brought back the show, but repeatedly over the years; that technology is a tool. It is not the end in itself. But I think that it’s worth exploring a little bit more; because Mark lines up, I guess, four or five, specific ways in which companies are hurt by not focusing on communicate is first; technology is second.
And so I wonder, Sarah, as you read through this piece, beyond the general rant, which I think you and I are going with, how do we apply this? What real lessons can we take away?
SARAH SANTUCCI: Well, I think one of the biggest lessons is something that I’m sure I’ve harped on many times on this very program: to avoid falling into the trap of, as Mark says, wanting something just to want it, because you read about it. And I think [laugh] – I hate to say, in the old days, it was, “I need to be on Facebook and Twitter.” Well, have you thought about why? Have you thought about what your strategy is? I think most brands now and most organizations with any sort of public following tend to already be on Facebook and Twitter, so I think it’s sort of moved into what are these other things? Okay. Do we need to be on Instagram? Do we need to be on Pinterest? Do we need to Snapchat? What is Snapchat?
I actually did have a client once ask me what Snapchat was, and I was like, “It’s nothing you need.” [Laugh]
CHIP GRIFFIN: [Laugh]
SARAH SANTUCCI: But they had just read about how Facebook tried to buy them for a billion dollars or whatever it was, and, “Well, is this important? Is this what people are doing?”
And I was like, “Well, if you’re a teenager, it’s what you’re doing; but not necessarily appropriate for your digital strategy at this time – at least in my humble opinion.”
So, I think that that’s one of the important takeaways – you know, to avoid the shiny-toy syndrome of wanting to be up on a channel just because it’s hip and trendy, without really putting any thought into what the communication strategy is behind it. You know, like, don’t sign up for Instagram unless you have compelling visuals. [Laugh] You could have a great story to tell, but you might not have a ton of compelling visuals around it. So, maybe being on Instragram isn’t necessarily for you.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Yeah, I mean absolutely trying to figure out the right tools is super important. And I think one of the things Mark said that goes along those lines, I think, is really important for folks to consider; and that’s what he calls the “revolving door.” And it leads [to?] the revolving door of personnel; but, really, he’s talking about the revolving door of platforms. In other words, you go out there, and you decide, hey, I need to be trying, as you say, Snapchat, or Pinterest. And so I get all excited and roll it out, and then a few months later I realize, yeah, this isn’t going to do what I thought it was going to do. And so you have to start all over somewhere else. So, I think that revolving door, as I might call it, “hopscotching” from one tactic to the next without really ever taking the time to build something because you thought through how it fits into your overall plan – I think that can almost be more detrimental than just a small, one-off experience. It’s when you dive full bore into something and then realize it’s the wrong choice. That’s truly demoralizing.
SARAH SANTUCCI: Right. And it can lead to sort of one of his other points, which is overestimating the impact something is going to make. And I think everybody who’s ever managed social media platforms on behalf of clients, or as a part of an organization from within, can tell you that sometimes people think that even having a lot of followers and a lot of interactions and a lot of engagement on your Facebook page, or your Twitter page – what does that all mean? And I think putting too much emphasis on, okay. So, does this mean these things are going to happen as a result of having half a million Facebook fans? Well, no, maybe not. Knowing what your goals are up front and trying to be as transparent as possible along the way with that; and not putting all your eggs on the social media basket, or in the basket of this new, particular shiny new object that you want to add to your arsenal is just as important, too, as falling into the trap of wanting the technology just to want it. Even once you have it and even once it’s doing really well for you, like, learning to not place too much emphasis on it and ignore the rest of our communication portal. You know, there’re so many other ways that brands, or whatever your organization is, are communicating with people.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Yeah, overestimating results can truly be deadly; and it’s something that, like you, I’ve spent a lot of time with clients who think that, if they could only build up their Twitter presence, this would solve their problems. They would, you know, either make the sales, or do the fundraising – whatever they really needed to take things, as they like to say, “to the next level.”
SARAH SANTUCCI: [Laugh]
CHIP GRIFFIN: And, you know, it’s rare that that’s the way that it’s going to work. In fact, just having, as you said, a lot of followers, a lot of “likes” – those are not guarantees of success. And, in fact, I think people would be probably quite surprised to know that some of the most prominent, most followed people on Twitter – and I’m not talking celebrities, but I’m talking the – quote, unquote – “gurus” here, just to piss off Mark a little bit – that are out there – that many of them are having a hard time from a business perspective, because they can’t simply translate tens of thousands of followers on Twitter into a real business. And you probably could, you know, three, or four, or five years ago; but today you can’t. It’s become much harder to be able to, as people like to say, “monetize” those social media metrics. And so you really do need to be thinking about things much more so today in terms of an overall communications plan and thinking about something sustainable for the future. I mean, you know Shel Holtz, who is the other podfather of this network, was talking on Facebook, I think, in the last day or so about how he had put a post on Facebook last week on a particular topic. There was some vibrant discussion around it, but then when he went back to find it this past weekend, he couldn’t find it. Now, it turns out it’s just not showing up in his timeline, but other people who commented on it can see it through their activity feed. So, clearly, some sort of Facebook book; but it underscores the fact that when you’re using these platforms, you don’t own the content. You don’t control the content. And so you need to be thinking, as a communicator, you know, “How do I make this content that I’m creating last over time, even when Facebook goes the way of Myspace or Friendster?” which I’m still convinced will happen. It’s probably not going to happen in the next year or two, but I believe it will at some point head in that same direction. You need to be thinking ahead to “how have I created a lasting, sustainable communications program?”
SARAH SANTUCCI: And, you know, just a final note, that’s a really important thing to keep in mind with regard to the overall theme of Mark’s post, which is the technology versus the communication strategy. And it is really important for communicators to keep abreast of the trends and to know what’s on the horizon so that they can map out their strategy. It doesn’t have to be all of one or the other, where it’s you’re only a WordPress nerd or someone who can tell a compelling story. I think the people who are telling those compelling stories need to also not necessarily be a guru, as [laugh] Mark said, but to be aware of maybe what’s next; you know, to keep on top of things, even if you’re not necessarily a technology expert, so that when the next Facebook comes along, you’re ready to be able to implement a strategy for your clients right away, rather than there being a huge learning curve.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Um-hm. And I think that is a great final note to end that topic on, and so we’ll move on to our third one, which is a post by Gini Dietrich. And this one is titled simply “Advice to Those Who Want to Build a PR Firm.” And what she does is she walks through the story about how she almost accidentally ended up building a PR firm. As she said, it was never on her to-do list, but she ended up having a conversation with a client over dinner about 12 years ago. One thing led to another and, you know, suddenly she started freelancing; put together a virtual team and now has a very vibrant and growing PR practice in probably one of the more widely read and well-respected PR blogs out there in the form of “Spin Sucks.”
You and I have both started our own consultancies as well from a communications standpoint over the years. In my case, mine was sort of accidental. I always had an ambition to start a company even when I was young, but the main reason I started my first consulting firm, Griffin Strategy Group, back in – I guess it was 1998 – was because I was moving from D.C. to New England, and I was unemployed, and it sounded a hell of a lot better to call myself a consultant and give myself my own business cards rather than saying I was unemployed.
SARAH SANTUCCI: [Laugh]
CHIP GRIFFIN: And I got lucky and signed my first contract just before I moved, so it turned into an accidental real business quite quickly; and the rest, as they say, is history. But, you know, I think there’re a lot of people with that story with that story, particularly in the communications field, and particularly because communications is one of those fields that tends to expand and contract as the economy does. And a lot of times, when you’re out of work, you want to try to pick things up.
But in any case, I was curious, as someone who has gone down that road at least to some degree yourself, what your take on this was and what lessons you would take either from what Gini wrote, or from your own experience.
SARAH SANTUCCI: A lot of what she wrote was completely spot-on with regards [sic] to what people focused. It’s something where she has advised these young professionals who might one day want to run their own firms to stick around agency life for a bit longer, actually, because she pointed out that she was on her own before she was 30, and that, perhaps, [was] one of the regrets; because when you’re in the big-firm setting, you can take more time to learn about the things that you might not expect, going out on your own. And I could definitely relate to this, because I would say two of the biggest issues that she points out are learning about the financial aspects of running your own business. I’m a one-woman operation, and I was still a bit overwhelmed when I decided to do it, because you have to learn about setting up an LLC and all the tax implications and invoicing and billing and things that, when you’re an employee of somebody else, you absolutely don’t really give that much thought to – unless you’re senior management, which most people in their 20s or early 30s aren’t. So, it is something that, I think, was excellent advice on her part to let people know to take the time to learn about that side of the business while you’re in it, while you’re on somebody else’s dime and not on your own.
And the other aspect of that is also sales and new business development. I was very fortunate when I went on my own, because I already had a couple of clients I was taking with me from my previous position, so I had a sort of base to work with and a wonderful network of people that I worked with in the past that I’ve been able to connect with and get ideas from and find some new business that way. But started out just from scratch, I probably wouldn’t even know where to begin. [Laugh] If I didn’t already have a network in place that I could maybe turn to, people who might think of me if they need someone to bring on board as a freelancer or a consultant; if I was just starting out with zero clients and zero idea of how to get any, it would be a terrifying prospect [laugh].
CHIP GRIFFIN: I agree with that. You know, I do think that having that greater experience on someone’s time – that can certainly be beneficial, but I think it’s also a double-edged sword; because as you go through that process, I think you start to see all the problems that there can be, and so it may dissuade you from starting what very well could be a very successful business on your own. One of the advantages that starting a company when you’re younger presents is that you don’t know what you don’t know. You haven’t formed these preconceived notions about what works and what doesn’t, and so you’ll take more risks. You’ll try more things, and you may well determine that something that the big boys think doesn’t work – and maybe it doesn’t work for them – could work quite well for you. I mean there’s a reason why some of the most successful entrepreneurs out there – not just in PR, but elsewhere; in fact, probably more so outside of PR – are people who don’t have that much experience. If you look at the people like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and those types, they started very young, and they weren’t in a position where they knew all of the bad things that could happen.
Now, communications, I think, is a little bit different – right – because in order to be a good communicator, experience does play an important role there, because you’ve seen enough different scenarios. When I started out as a consultant, I was 25 years old. At the time, I thought I knew everything. You know, I thought that I could best just about any other consultant out there. When you talk about arrogant and stupid, I look back at that now, and I just can’t even believe that: a) I thought that, and b) that I was able to convince people of that; because it’s just simply not true. You do pick up so much more as you work with more clients and more colleagues and those sorts of things. But I do think it cuts both ways.
SARAH SANTUCCI: Yeah, I mean that’s a really interesting point, especially from your perspective; because as of now, you’ve started several different businesses. So, you really have a –
CHIP GRIFFIN: I can’t help myself. I just keep starting companies.
SARAH SANTUCCI: – [laugh] a keen grasp on what it’s all about. And I like your idea of pointing out that the younger you are, you’re less likely to be intimidated by the aspects of business that can be, for lack of a better word, crappy or hard.
And one thing I was thinking of while you were talking about that is that if you are starting out younger, you also have less to lose. You more than likely don’t have a family and kids and a mortgage and car payments and all the other accoutrements that make it terrifying to go out on your own if you’re, say, 37 as opposed to 27. You’ve convinced me. I now [laugh] wish I could go back ten years and start it again, but [laugh] –
CHIP GRIFFIN: Well, I’m glad you can’t, because then you wouldn’t have worked for me –
SARAH SANTUCCI: – yes. [Laugh]
CHIP GRIFFIN: – and I appreciated those years. And I think that one of the other things here to think about is, you know, I think that there is a big leap that you end up making when you hire your first employee. And so I think that some of what – even though she doesn’t say this explicitly, I don’t think, in the piece – but as she’s built out the firm and you’ve gotten to a point where it’s no longer just yourself and maybe some independent contractors; but when you’re at that point where you’re responsible for a biweekly payroll, I think that is the biggest step. And that’s where I had the hardest time. Griffin Strategy Group actually never hired any employees. It still exists to this day, and I still do a little bit of project work out of it; but that is, and probably always will be, my own personal endeavor. And there was an inflection point. There a point probably two or three years into the business – actually, I guess, about two years into the business where I had the opportunity to take on some work, but it would’ve required me to hire a full-time employee. It was not something that I could do on a contract basis. At the time I also had “Custom Scoop,” and I was debating exactly what I should do, and I decided not to pull that trigger. I often look back at that and ask if I was just a little too timid. Maybe it was because I had spent a couple of years and was now already building another company that did have payroll, and I knew all of the risk that that entailed. Maybe that’s what held me back there, but I often sit there and wonder what would have happened if I had pulled that trigger back in 2000, 2001.
So, I think that there are all these different points in a business where you have to make these big decisions, but I think the biggest one, and the one that really freezes people, is hiring an employee; because that’s when you go from being, perhaps, a freelancer with a business, a company around it, to really you’re now running a business. Right? You’re responsible not just for the food on your table, but the food on someone else’s table.
SARAH SANTUCCI: Absolutely.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Well, you know, with that, I think it’s time to let our listeners get to the food on their table, or doing the work that will put that food there. And I apologize for the fact that for, I think, the third or fourth straight week, we will be running slightly over the 30-minute mark. And so if you’ve made it this far, I really appreciate you listening.
Sarah, I really appreciate you taking the time to join me again as my co-host today and look forward to having you back here again really soon.
SARAH SANTUCCI: Of course. Thanks for having me.