Jen Phillips of 4L 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:
— A look at different ways to measure success for advertising and public relations, based on a post about web analytics by Mark Story.
— A review of the merits of owned versus shared media, based on advice from Gary Vaynerchuk.
— A discussion of ethics in public relations and public affairs, based on a post about the “squishy grey line of ethics” by Gini Dietrich.
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Chip: 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 my frequent guest co-host and the former host of the show, Jen Phillips from 4L Strategies.
Jen: Hello, how are you?
Chip: I’m doing very well, thanks. It is a great fall morning here in New Hampshire, leaves are changing colors and, you know? You can’t really complain about that.
Jen: Absolutely not. It’s one of the prettiest places on earth right now.
Chip: Alright, let’s dive into some pretty topics and some not-so-pretty topics I guess is one way to describe them to [trot?] a very loose segue. The first is a post from Mark Story and yes, Mark, we are two weeks in a row citing one of your posts as something to talk about here. Mark, of course as all of you know, is a regular guest co-host himself and he wrote just this morning, I guess, about why you might be measuring the rob – the rob – the wrong web analytics. This is going to be a great show today if I can spit out words this well. In it he talks about an announcement by Chartbeat that they have been certified to measure time on site and other engagement factors as a way to provide advertisers with a new form of metrics; basically a replacement for clicks or a replacement for impressions. So Mark takes a look at this and says that he’s happy that we’re finding new ways to measure things, and I think there are some gotchas in here and there are some caveats, but Jen what’s your take on this?
Jen: Well, like so many other things when we come to discuss measurement, it all depends on what your goals are of course, number one. And the idea that a firm has started to develop the technology that would allow us to track “engagement” beyond things like sharing and commenting because apparently this new software, or whatever it is – you know how wonderfully technical I am – allows the end user to track how long a person stays – how they’re scrolling through a page whether or not they’re actually seeming to read it. That’s really kind of fascinating to me how the technology is moving in that direction. It could of course be very useful information. You then, as I suppose an advertiser, are ok with having an advertisement placed at the bottom of the page if you are on a site that consistently produces excellent content that has people read all the way through to the end – maybe not so much if they read the headline and then scoot off and go somewhere else. So in that sense it is interesting to me. I really wonder how many firms are going to necessarily want to adopt something like that. I have become somewhat cynical in my feelings about people being willing to change their thought processes on metrics. In other words, “We’ve been tracking page views and click throughs for the past seven or eight years and that’s what we’re going to do because that’s what we know.” So I don’t know necessarily that there’s going to be this massive groundswell to run over to track this sort of thing, but it is interesting.
Chip: Yeah, I mean, I have to say I’m not nearly as excited as Mark is about this one. I think that it’s interesting, right? I think that’s probably the best word, as you say, to apply to it but I’m not sure that it really moves the needle forward either in the PR space or in the advertising space. From an advertiser’s perspective, at the end of the day, just because someone spent a long time on a page doesn’t mean they were looking at my ad. I think as a media publisher, it is absolutely an interesting metric to look at and something that has value, but as an advertiser, my concern is are you looking at what I’m wanting you to look at? The time that you spend on a site is so dependent on the kind of content; there are some sites where you hit and run because it’s just a quick blurb and there’s no reason to stick around. On the other hand if it’s a medium post with 2,000 words in it, knowing that someone stuck around to read the whole thing is valuable. From a PR standpoint, I think so much of it comes down to what it is that we’re trying to accomplish. So certainly for owned media – and we’ll talk a little more about this later in the show – some of these metrics can be very helpful because you are trying to determine if the people who are visiting your blog, your website, etc. are engaging with your content, are actually reading it, absorbing it, those kinds of things. So, is it a nice idea? Yes. Am I all excited that somebody has “certified” –? First of all I’m hugely negative on these certification type things. I think they’re just a bunch of malarkey and I’m sure deep down inside Chartbeat feels the same way, they’re just happy to have the certification because it’s something they can market. But I don’t think that they have come out of this process saying, “Oh wow, I feel so validated in what we came up with!” So, you know, I guess it’s interesting. I think we do need to find better ways to measure things. I certainly think that advertisers, moving beyond the old days of impressions and then clicks, I think those are important because if I’ve got an ad on a website, part of it is, “Did I just see it?” There is a value to that impression regardless of whether there is a click. But at the same time, on the page it depends on how it’s laid out. If I’ve got a block of ten ads, did I really see it? I don’t know.
Jen: Exactly. A lot of this is the question of is this evolutionary or revolutionary, and I think this probably falls more into the former category as it’s a… Anytime someone comes up with a new way to track and measure things, you have to kind of take it as it is and look at it and say, “Ok, what does this accomplish?” My concern, on the other hand, is that so many people are always trying to find a shortcut. They’ll say, “Oh ok, so I now have this tool that allows us to track engagement by the amount of scrolling? Alright, what words are being used?” and they try to back end rather than just producing good content – which is what people want to read – they try and find the quick fix or “What’s the magic trick?” or “How can we automate this?” and then it becomes problematic. As far as an interesting evolutionary step in the field of measurement, I find it interesting is all I can say.
Chip: I guess my fundamental problem with this announcement is that it’s being described as an innovation for advertisers, but really it’s something to service the media publishers who are trying to sell the advertising space. In essence, they’ve gone through an evolution in the online advertising space where we started out with impressions and then the value of impressions went down so low that they had to find a new way of doing it so a lot of people started selling by the click. And now the problem with clicks is that people are clicking a lot less because there’s a lot more ads, so while your per click price may be high, you’re not selling enough of them. So this is simply trying to change the dynamic so that publishers can go to an advertiser and convince them to give them the money that the publisher wants to receive and try to tell the story in a way that the advertiser will buy. And so it’s not so much about actually providing better metrics, it’s about packaging existing stuff in a better way to make more money. Which, I mean hey, if I’m a publisher that’s certainly what I’d want to do, but I think that we who are interesting in measurement need to be careful about buying into something that’s not really being developed for measurement purposes per se.
Jen: Excellent way to put it, I don’t think I have anything to add to that.
Chip: Then without anything to add we will move onto the next topic, and that is a video Gary Vaynerchuk. He’s got a video series called “Ask Gary” and it’s episode number 23 where at the start of it he talks about all of the discussion about basically paid, owned, earned, shared media. Regular listeners to this show will know that I have been a frequent proponent of saying that you should create things on your own properties, whether it’s your blog or your website, and spider out from there. But what you own should be the hub of all your content because you control it, nobody can change the rules on you, Facebook can’t change the rules on you, you can’t have a new site like Ello come up and take it all away from you because all of a sudden it’s shifted where the eyeballs are going. You have it. But what Gary says in his video is, effectively, that’s nice but you also need to think about using things like LinkedIn and Medium where people will actually see what it is that you’re saying. They may have broader audiences, better distribution, different distribution than what you have yourself and so you should very strongly consider a mix of these platforms rather than focusing on owned as the hub. I thought, particularly since this differed with what I generally say, I thought it would be interesting to bring it up here and see what you thought Jen.
Jen: Well, I found myself agreeing with Gary’s assessment and it kind of reminded me of the advice that we hear doled out to people about their retirement savings and 401ks: have a mix, have a blend, and make sure that blend works for you. His main point, or at least the one I gathered was his main point, was that someone who is, perhaps, not as prominent a blogger really does kind of need those established social networks that are shared networks in order to get the traffic and attention that they want. And if they’re producing, again, good content, the attention will come and it ends up that one feeds the other. So I really kind of liked that sort of balanced approach, I guess. And then we have things like, as you have mentioned, Ello, the new social network. There will be people who kind of cast their lot in with that because if you can make a big splash in a new social network, the risk is that, of course, the social network could fail. The reward potentially is that if you’re there early and establish a strong foothold early, you could then become a preeminent source on that before it becomes big. So I really liked the analogy between the risk versus reward type of thing and finding the right mix for you.
Chip: Yeah, I have to say I really liked the way that he described it. Gary is one of those kinds of guys who can often be – let’s face it – a bit of a blowhard, or to come across that way. I think he’s very smart, but he has that mannerism about him that is very New Jersey, shall we say, and it can rub some people the wrong way – myself included at times. But listening to him, I think he really put together a very strong argument and it frankly makes me rethink a little but of the advice that I generally give people. I still stand by probably not building applications and those kinds of things on some of these networks if they’re designed to sustain for a while, and certainly content that you’re creating, that you perceive to have a longer terms lasting value, you want to have a version of it on your site. But I have also always preached to people that you can’t just create content in a vacuum, that you have to have a distribution strategy . And I think that he, pretty convincingly, lays out the case for why simply posting it directly to these other network – and particularly he focused on Medium and LinkedIn and I think most people would agree that those are probably the two strongest but there are certainly others. Depending on what your industry is. By putting them out there, you are getting more eyeballs. And me being a numbers guy, and someone who likes to experiment I said, “I saw this last week, let’s try something.” So over the weekend I published a couple of pieces on LinkedIn. In the past I had republished some content on LinkedIn republisher and frankly, didn’t really see much of a bump off of it, didn’t get many eyeballs. But LinkedIn is very good about giving you the numbers of people who see your content and so over the weekend I crafted a couple of pieces that were really, specifically designed to appeal to the LinkedIn audience. I tried to put myself in the shoes of “Who’s going to be looking at LinkedIn over the weekend and what are they going to be looking at? So I wrote a couple of pieces that I thought would be interesting and I have to say I got very good readership and engagement on them; they both have had over 500 readers, which is more than I would usually get on my personal blog for a similar piece because the only promotion I really did was to post it there, I didn’t email it out to any of my lists or anything like that so it certainly does have some benefits. Now, the one caveat that I have is that I think it’s important that everybody look at these networks and think about the audiences and whether it’s a good fit because just having people looking at your stuff isn’t necessarily what you’re looking for. If I wanted a lot of people to look at an article on my personal blog, I can go buy traffic pretty cheaply from StumbleUpon or something like that but they’re not people that are going to stick. They’re not people I’m particularly interested in building relationships with over the long term or who, frankly, are interested in building a relationship with me, they just happened to get there more or less by happenstance. It’s the same as if I put a post up about some celebrity: I might get good traffic off of it but it’s probably not the kind of traffic that I’m ultimately going to need to build a long-term business relationship. So you need to be thinking about those things but I find myself softening my view on using your owned media as the sole hub and, instead, really looking to do more of a mix.
Jen: Mm-hmm, ok.
Chip: So let’s jump onto the final topic here and this is one that I think probably doesn’t get enough attention in the PR industry, generally. Certainly on this show it’s not something that we’ve talked about a tremendous amount over the years although we have done it a bit, and that’s ethics. And, you know, ethics comes in all sorts of different forms but the impetus for this conversation is a post by Gini Dietrich on Spin Sucks. I do feel like I need to broaden my reading horizons because, while Gini does great stuff, I think we feature her about two out of every three show so… Maybe I need to get her as a guest co-host here so that we can just talk about her stuff directly rather than just behind her back. But anyway, it’s great stuff, and in this post it’s the “squishy grey line” of ethics, she talks about how she had been working on a business deal recently and it was a business deal that she thought would have really great potential for her and her agency but at the end of the day she just didn’t feel quite right about it. She says “As we got into the contract, though, there were some things that they wanted me to do that felt very unethical. They weren’t things that were downright lies, but they felt squishy. They sat on the grey line of ethics.” This “grey line of ethics” I think that’s a great turn of phrase because ethics is very rarely black and white, at least the decisions most of us have to make. When it comes to black and white I think, by and large, people in the PR industry and elsewhere tend to make the right decision. Obviously there are bad apples who will just do whatever they want, but it’s that grey line in there where it’s – you can kind of go either way. And I think particularly for those of us who have spent a lot of time on more of the public affairs side of the PR spectrum, you have even more of that because when it comes to politics and policy and those kinds of things, people like to push the limits. Is that a gentle way of putting it Jen?
Jen: Yes, I’m chuckling because I agree.
Chip: I’ve been involved in politics and public affairs for almost a quarter century now and I have to say that quite consistently over the years, I have been dancing along this squishy grey line of ethics that Gini talks about. And it’s not always an easy decision because you have to take a look at each thing and try to figure out are you doing the right thing, and so much of it changes too, right? Because, particularly with technology, what’s ok to do today is different than it was ten years ago at least as far as the acceptance level of certain tactics and so you constantly have to be thinking about it. I thought having a conversation around ethics and these decisions I thought would be interesting and certainly very interested because you have a similar background to mine on a lot of these things I’m interested in what you have to say Jen.
Jen: Well, again, I found this very interesting when I read it on Gini’s blog and one of the reasons that I didn’t comment on the piece when I first read it is because I couldn’t really put my finger on what I wanted to say about it at the time and I don’t know that I’ve really been able to refine my thoughts too much further than that because it is such a strange area. I think that she made the right call. If she felt like she was having questions at the outset, I don’t think that’s the sort of thing that magically goes away as you have a client; I think that it would have continued to become more and more of an issue, so I think she made the right call for her. If she was uncomfortable about it at the contract stage, she’s certainly going to be less comfortable about it as the relationship goes on. More squishy was that she said that this had been bumped up in her mind because of the question of the Communications Chief for Walmart who fudged a detail on his resume. And, as you’ve just said, the lines change sometimes and something that was ok twenty years ago – saying you, I guess he said that he had graduated when he was actually four credits short – I remember the first time that I came across the term “attended such-and-such a college” on a resume rather than graduated. At first I was taken aback like “Oh, this person didn’t graduate” and then I was like, “Wow, that’s kind of nice that they were honest that they didn’t graduate.” It is… You know what I mean?
Chip: Well, let me just be the devil’s advocate there because I think some people do that – and I’ve done a lot of hiring over the years and, in fact, over the summer here have looked at a lot of resumes for some hiring that I’m doing at Custom Scoop – and it is interesting to me that particular element there because different people have different ways of presenting the fact that they don’t have a degree. But uniformly, I would say that 99% don’t come right out and say it; they say something like “attended” which, unless you’re really keyed into it, you may well miss. Or sometimes they’ll list the school and then the years but there’s no mention of a degree which is even fudgier, I guess is the way to put it; squishier to use Gini’s terms. So I think there are different ways to do it and I think we could have a whole discussion around the educational background issue and things like that –
Jen: Yeah, I didn’t even want to go there. I just thought it was interesting the way that she had kind of contrasted that situation from the executive at Walmart – who actually ended up quitting because they wouldn’t consider him for a job because of this four credits short and lying on the resume and that sort of thing – versus something where she clearly had some kind of gut instinct. I think that a lot of times – and it sounds completely unscientific after a discussion of measurement – but you really do just have to trust your gut in some of these cases and I’ve always found in my experience in politics, if something made me feel icky or cold or whatever, it usually ended up being a problem. It almost universally happened. If it was something where I first heard about it – and it was never something that I was necessarily doing but if I get brought into a discussion and “Are you sure you really want to do that?” “Well the candidate says he wants to do this.” “Alright” It almost always had some kind of ramification. If it sends up a signal, pay attention to that, I guess. And if it would embarrass your mother, don’t do it.
Chip: Well I don’t know if I’d go that far, but maybe that’s just my mother. But in any case, I think you’re absolutely right: the gut instinct, that sense of discomfort, those are things that you really have to trust. And in every case where I’ve gotten into a situation where I say, “God, how did I get here? Shouldn’t have been here,” I could always point back to a point much earlier in the process where I was uncomfortable with it and, in most cases, I expressed that discomfort but as part of a group decision went along with whatever it was that was being done. That’s one of the differences here with what Gini is talking about versus how a lot of these things transpire. In this case, she had the sole decision-making authority. I think that – I would like to think at least – that in most cases over the course of my career where I’ve had the squishy grey lines and the discomfort where I’ve had the sole decision-making authority that I’ve made the right call. For me, the times where I’ve felt like I didn’t make the right call it was when I felt like I didn’t go to bat hard enough for expressing my discomfort. And those are the ones that turned out badly for me or my clients or whomever. Fortunately – knock on wood – nothing truly atrocious, but certainly things that in some cases caused public discomfort for people and in some cases private discomfort instead.
Jen: Or just sometimes just more work than there needed to be.
Chip: Well there’s that too.
Jen: You know, if a decision had been made somewhat differently you wouldn’t have had to double back and do this, this, and this. It’s spinning your wheels, I guess, I always disliked that aspect of any squishy grey lines and having to do more work than really was called for.
Chip: I think part of the challenge here, too, is that in so many ways ethics is subjective. It is what you and I think – particularly when it comes to this grey area – what you and I might think is over the line may not be quite what other people view as over the line. Or vice versa. So you need to look at it through the lens of how you perceive it and how you feel about it, but also take into consideration how people who might hear about it down the road will react to it. Because while they may be two different things, it may be as important if not more so to consider the external reaction.
Jen: Yep, and that’s kind of what I was getting at when I said “If it would embarrass your mom.”
Chip: Yes, so if your mom is the audience then, that is a bad thing.
Chip: I suspect most of the things that, at least for me, that I’ve hit the grey line of ethics on, it would just confuse my mother. I’m still not sure that even at the age of 41 that she understands what it is that I do. I’ve heard her sometimes try to explain my job, and I don’t think it’s really that difficult to explain but maybe it’s because I have multiple companies and that confuses her. But in any case, I think that the ethics thing is something that really does deserve more attention. I think it is the kind of thing where, particularly young people in the profession need to be to be schooled in more so. Not necessarily in school, although that’s fine, but I don’t think this is a textbook thing. This is something where young folks should be finding mentors within whatever company or agency they have that can help walk them through it or help them develop that sense of gut instinct because some of it is certainly innate, but a lot of it is learned over time by observing how people react to different situations. So I think it is the kind of thing that does too often go overlooked, so I’m really glad that Gini talked about it in her post.
Jen: Absolutely. And I know that not every PR firm has the reach and resources that Fleishman Hillard does, but I do remember that when I was there we had a lot of professional development type of courses where this sort of thing was exactly the topic. Because you never know when a client is going to ask you to do something and in that client-agency relationship, you’re so used to saying “Yes” that every once in a while you say yes automatically without thinking, “Well wait a minute, this is sort of outside of our scope maybe and this might get us into a little bit of trouble.” So they were actually very proactive, FH was, in addressing those kinds of issues head-on. And I do that that was a very smart thing for them to do.
Chip: Since you chose to go there, particularly in the digital space, I think just about every client asks you to go into this grey area at some point or another. I mean, I’ve been doing digital stuff for fifteen plus years and I have to tell you that I think just about every client that I have ever had – either intentionally or, in most cases, unintentionally – draws you into this grey area and you have to help educate them or shift the tactic a little bit or, frankly, sometimes say “No.” Those are always uncomfortable conversations when you say to the client, “I realize this is what you want to do, but we’re not comfortable doing it and we’re not going to do it.”
Chip: In some cases, I’ve lost business over that because there are clients who just – they really want to do it and, in some cases, it’s because they know other people are doing it. It goes back to that whole thing as a child, “But Johnny’s doing it! Why can’t I do it?” And when you’re in business, you have to be careful about drawing that line and even if everybody else is doing it, maybe you shouldn’t.
Jen: Exactly, exactly. And it’s important for everybody. It’s easy for us to kind of look at that and say, “Oh, well we can make that decision” or when clients say X, Y, and Z we can push back and say, “No, you don’t want to really do that.” I’m more thinking about the younger entry-level, mid-level, and mid-career who might not have necessarily gone down that road yet. So I think it does make a difference.
Chip: Absolutely. And speaking of what everybody else is doing, everybody else seems to be having podcasts over thirty minutes, so I try to keep mine under thirty minutes and I think we’ll be very close by the time final editing is done here. But fortunately with you, Jen, we tend to stick closer and don’t go quite as far over as I tend to with Doug, or Mark, or some of the other guys so… I really appreciate you being here at the table again today. My guest was Jen Philips of 4L Strategies, and I look forward to having you back here again real soon.
Jen: Thank you very much, it was a pleasure.