Archive for March, 2012

The debate continues to go on as to whether corporations can really become people, my friend.  The literature in public relations and the development of relationship theory points to the direction that corporations should try to nurture relationships with their constituents by transforming the corporation into a “person” that real people can relate to.  However, is it really possible for a corporation to become a real life person in people’s everyday lives?  And if so, what kind of personality would that person have?  As I suggested earlier, an effort to create a personal identity for an entire organization might require the cooperation of every employee involved in the operation to give up their own identities and become part of this group identity.  Yet, such a possibility might seem completely impractical.

Despite this challenge, there might be a possible method that can be employed to create this personal identity for a corporation.  Looking at the advertising side of the house, there are a few concepts and methods employed there that can help to benefit a public relations operation.  Advertising falls under marketing, whose goal is to effectively target and create loyal customer bases.  Recognizing that part of building a relationship is to get people’s attention, the methods used in advertising help to execute that first step.  In broadcast advertising in particular, there have been many different ways to pitch an organization to customers, whether it be through scenarios, demonstrations, narrators, or jingles.  However, perhaps one of the most powerful methods is the spokesperson.  This method might be the closest that an organization can use to creating an identity of a person who essentially is the organization.

The spokesperson is certainly not a new method when it comes to advertising.  Everyone has seen their own share of spokesperson ads, some with random people representing the product and others with celebrities looking to make a quick buck (as commonly seen with many commercials in Japan).  The most memorable and possibly the most effective ones feature a persona who is consistent over many ads, easy to understand, and possesses a certain type of charm (humorous or firm) that gets people talking.  A memorable example from the 90s was Candice Bergen as the spokesperson for Sprint.  Not only was she featured in every Sprint commercial for several years, but the combination of her persona with Sprint’s easy to understand long distance calling plans made the company a very recognizable player in the long distance calling competition.

In the age of ICTs and digital media, organizations are faced with new challenges to employ the strategy of the spokesperson into public relations.  However, if there is one industry that is doing a good job of getting the spokesperson to “speak” to audiences, it is the auto insurance industry.  Here are a few examples:

Progressive. Originally known for their white SUVs driving around town, Progressive has always vowed to save all vehicle owners money on their auto insurance, even if it’s not with them.  In recent years, however, Progressive has traded in their white SUVs for a spokesperson to represent them in their ads.  Enter Flo, a quirky brunette who often finds herself in awkward situations as she tells people about Progressive.  The ads have maintained Progressive’s user-friendly approach to auto insurance and have reinforced just how much they love the insurance business.

AllState. They have always taken on a firm tone when it comes to auto insurance.  They value things such as taking care of customers and empowering customers to take care of themselves, and they have even implemented awards programs for customers with consistently clean driving records.  Now to make these points clear to customers, they have created a spokesperson to essential “give the orders.”  Dennis Haysbert, who has portrayed several military characters in Hollywood, really takes on the role of a drill sergeant through these ads.  He makes clear that auto insurance is serious business, while at the same time letting the audience know that they are in “good hands.”

Geico.  One of the most recognized auto insurance companies, Geico has always stuck to their motto of the 15 minute call.  Their ads have always been very creative and have featured many different scenarios to express their top quality customer service.  When it comes to the spokesperson, Geico has taken on multiple characters to represent the company, from the Gecko to the Caveman and the Rhetorical Question guy.  Geico never seems to run out of ideas when it comes to engaging customers, but the real question is whether their business is as innovative as their ad department…

There are a few reasons why the spokesperson might just be an effective tool to transform corporations into people.  One is that you can make the spokesperson into any type of person you want.  In the case of corporations, that person should be someone that embodies the values of the organization in their everyday interactions, and thus communicate what the company stands for to customers.  Next is consistency.  If people see the same spokesperson in the media, they begin to recognize the company’s brand image, values and services, and they begin to look at the spokesperson as being the company as a whole (e.g. “hey, that’s the Allstate guy!”).  Additionally, the spokesperson has the potential to go even further to represent the face of the company.  Imagine a company’s website where the first person you see is that spokesperson.  The spokesperson has his/her own blog, and when you call the 1-800 number or open a customer service chat, you’re not talking to just some joe shmoe – you’re talking to Progressive Flo or the Gecko.  Basically, the identity of the company has been combined into the form of one person, and this resonates back to the basic model of one-to-one relationships.  The best relationships are with one person at a time, and perhaps the spokesperson can become this person that people can interact with and relate to in order to maintain good public relations.  And really, why deal with hundreds of people when you only need to talk to one?

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That common disclaimer should be familiar to anyone who is a regular viewer of any radio and television commentary show.  It is most commonly seen or heard at the start of many “shock jock” shows, or commentary programs that feature both deliberate and unintended comments and discussion that could be considered controversial or offensive.  Some might argue that this disclaimer is another way of saying “we’re going to say whatever we want, and although it might offend some people, our sponsors are not responsible for anything we say.”  You’d think that with such a legal statement, everything would be ok.  Yet, in modern times that statement is only somewhat true, and several radio and television personalities are now experiencing what might be known as the Shock Jock effect.

These days, Rush Limbaugh is the one feeling the pain.  The extremely conservative radio talk show host has been infamous for several inflammatory remarks throughout his career.  Some of his most widely publicized moments include labeling feminist group members as “feminazis” and referring to soldiers who opposed the war in Iraq as “phony soldiers.” Now, Rush has sparked even more controversy with his comments around Georgetown law student, Sandra Fluke’s testimony to Congress arguing for birth control coverage by health insurance companies.  Without going into explicit detail, Limbaugh commented on this testimony during his show on February 29, 2012.  His comments quickly made international headlines, and Limbaugh apologized saying that his choice of words was inappropriate.  But what were the effects?  Limbaugh has been denounced by multiple Republican politicians, President Obama has extended his thanks directly to Fluke for her testimony, Fluke has now become a national celebrity featured on several talk shows, and multiple companies have contacted Clear Channel Radio to pull their advertisements from Limbaugh’s show.

Although Rush probably doesn’t give a damn about what everyone else is saying, he really needs to pay attention to that last effect, which is ultimately the factor that is going to make or break the rest of his career.  It’s not about birth control, pro-life or pro-choice, liberal or conservative, republican or democrat; it’s about business.  Rush’s show is more than just a pulpit for him to exercise freedom of speech.  It is part of a much larger business model, one that is managed by an entire communications network to not only bring entertainment and commentary to viewers but to also market products and services.  There are many key players than one might realize: the corporate broadcasting team managing the programming, the corporate advertisers and their products, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).  Any message that is sent across the airwaves must align with the approval of all of these players in order to effectively communicate with consumers.  Thus, a radio DJ is a spokesperson for this large business, and everything he/she says can be considered public relations.  However, if one spokesperson says something that is out of line with the rest of the business, it can create tension within the ranks as well as drive consumers away from the brand.  And in Rush’s case, he has essentially pissed off every woman in America, which could be a fatal blow for business as women make up over 2/3 of the consumer market in the United States.  But it’s not just the female consumers – it’s also the women who make up the businesses that once advertised on his program.  Like most businesses, this business engages in public relations to build relationships and communities with its consumers.  Driving people away with offensive comments will destroy both.

Rush is not the only personality that has suffered from riding the controversial wagon.  Here are a few more cases of other shock jocks who have seen their careers take negative turns:

Glenn Beck – The libertarian-leaning conservative commentator has made a name for himself, spouting references to Nazis and conspiracy theories to describe the modern world.  The controversy gave mainstream conservatives a run for their money, so much that Fox News made the decision to cut his show in 2011.

Howard Stern – One of the most notorious radio figures in the past 20 years, Stern inspired the name of “Shock Jock” with his regular antics, bringing lewd humor and memorable crude characters to the airwaves.  But his programming came with a price – it cost Clear Channel radio hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines, which led to Stern being dismissed from FM radio in 2005.

Don Imus – Known for his famous cowboy look, Imus offered provocative humor and commentary to the programming on MSNBC.  However, his comments in 2007 about the Rutgers Women’s Basketball team sparked an uproar, and despite multiple apologies, his program was terminated from MSNBC.

Keith Olbermann – Once nicknamed the “Limbaugh of the Left,” Olbermann’s liberal commentary has pushed many buttons for several other broadcast personalities, even using his own references to facist dictators to describe politicians and other commentators.  His show Countdown gained him much fame, but it was his personal monetary donations to Democratic political candidates that led to his suspension and eventually his dismissal from MSNBC.

There are a few main takeaways with the case of the shock jock.  The first is that as a broadcast personality, you are part of a business.  You are not only representing your points of view, but you are representing the views of your sponsors and your management.  Your communication is more than just commenting on something a politician or a celebrity did in the news – you are also engaging in public relations for the philosophy of your organization.  When it come to business, if it doesn’t yield profit, it has to go.  The second takeaway is that freedom of speech still exists, but it comes with consequences.  Broadcasters can still say what they want, but they must live with the repercussions of those who hear it.  And if a jock does happen to find himself in a situation where he has lost respect from the audience, there is still room to bounce back.  They can form their own networks for people who share similar points of view (e.g. Howard Stern on XM, GBTV), and some might even have reached a level of being immortalized no matter what they do (see Rush Limbaugh’s statue).  However, whatever path a jock takes, he must remember that the community he once had a chance of building will never be the same.

They are everywhere you look.  From iPhones to Blackberries, Droids to Galaxies, smartphones are the preferred medium of choice for communication of all types.  The channels of voice, email, SMS, GPS, video, and internet browsing have converged into this small device that seems to have made its place into every single setting, including the dinner table.  When was the last time you went out with your friends and every single one of them had their phones on the table?  It is because these devices perform an ultimate function: connect the user to the rest of the world.  They are enablers that give you the opportunity to connect to virtually anyone in any way that you want.  They are convenient, able to reach out over a broad network while still fitting in your pocket and in the palm of your hand.  They are also relatively cheap, given the parts that go into them as well as their services.  Even in developing countries, it is very easy to get your hands on a phone, sim card and simply pay-as-you-go with calling cards.  And when you’re all alone, they fulfill the need for security and activity, whether it be through Angry Birds or talking to Siri (perhaps the closest we are currently to a consumer-grade AI being).  Arguably, smart phones have great potential for making our lives better and possibly becoming the ultimate convergence device.

But realistically, we are only at the beginning.  The features that you use daily on your smart phone have been through research and development for decades, and they are still evolving as we speak.  From the way smart phones have been converging dozens of media into one convenient device, I see their potential to replace even larger devices such as TVs, canvases, software programs, and even entire game systems.  The need for an all-in-one device is being pushed even further, and here are three areas in which the smart phone has the chance to combine even more media.

Video Games

Every user has their favorite smart phone game they use to develop their eye and hand coordination and of course to waste valuable time.  When it comes to more advanced games, an XBox or Playstation might be required.  However, what if you could download a game through your phone and then have both a game console and a motion activated controller in one?  This converged model is in the works, and there are many developments that are giving gamers of all levels a very bright outlook on the world of gaming.  As featured on Gadget Girlz, there is much potential to integrate the features of the camera, internet connection and storage space on the smart phone to create what essentially a portable game system.  When linked to a TV, the phone will serve as the game console with the camera picking up the movements of the user, similar to XBox Kinect.  In this case, less hardware is equaling more gameplay.  And to think that 10 years ago Nintendo’s GameCube was once marketed as the “portable” game system…

Video Projection

If you are in the business world, you have probably run into the situation of having to give a presentation for the boss and then your powerpoint goes black because your Proxima projector overheated.  What do you do now?  Fortunately, with the emergence of pocket-sized portable projectors, there is hope that you will be able to avoid such a scenario while still being able to give your presentation in nearly any setting.  Projectors are getting smaller and smaller, and it is only a matter of time before they become integrated into another feature on your smart phone.  The quality of WVGA makes both a high resolution image that is both fast moving and scalable.  Combine this with the lens of your camera, as seen with the MicroVision SHOWWX+, and you can bring your work and entertainment with you everywhere.

Touch desktops

With the developments in both camera and projection technology, we are now reaching a point where it is also possible to integrate the use of the touch screen onto surfaces beyond what’s on your phone.  Corning’s project in digital glass integrates devices such as the smart phone and the tablet, using the visual output on the monitors of those devices and projecting it onto a glass surface through a combination of light and bluetooth connections.   While much of the scenarios presented by Corning are still notional, as seen in “A Day Made of Glass 2: Unpacked,” the conceptual idea of projecting data from portable devices to larger platforms is currently being used at the consumer level with devices such as Airplay and Snapstick.

We are essentially reaching a point where smartphones are becoming the standard for both business and personal use.  Whether they truly become the end-all of all converged media devices, time will only tell.  However, these are the top reasons why I think they will eventually become that medium:

1. Convenience – size, storage space, instant data, and diversity of multimedia make it a desirable device to take everywhere.

2. Economy – these devices are ridiculously inexpensive to produce, which means that the benefits will exceed the cost.  This also brings into play the role in which they might help to connect users of developing countries.

3. Entertainment vs. Production – multiple forms of communication can lead to higher productivity.  However, no matter how productive you might be with your technology, it is still just as important to remember to give yourself time to play.  These devices remind us of that value, and it would be a wise decision to arm members of any organization with such a device.