Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Lessons from 2009 and what it means for 2010 for financial services communication

Tonight as we held drinks with colleagues in our Sydney CBD office one client jokingly asked "GFC. What's that?"

And it was actually funny because for the smallest moment we'd forgotten how this year began.

As 2009 started most of us working in financial services could think of nothing else.

As the year ends most of us are thinking about next year - how to capture more of our markets, how to take a new market or to re-establish ourselves.

The themes our clients are talking & asking about are now completely different to this time last year or to just a quarter ago.

Just a few months back we were talking about fund retention, preserving reputation, staying in front of investors or clients to build trust, and cutting costs.

Now it's all about proactive communication, educating or engaging investors, content marketing, building brands and marketing ROI.

In a year where there were plenty of hard lessons what are the stand outs and what does it mean for 2010?

So what are the communication lessons from 2009?
I've put this short list together based on the experiences shared by our clients and the work we've done this year.

1. Earning clients or investors trust is an ever-present task....the more we do now, the most goodwill we'll 'bank' for a rainy day
2. Educating clients and investors is now a requirement, not a 'nice to have' for most financial services marketers
3. Marketing budgets are in fact largely discretionary...but strong communication is not. Businesses were threatened when communication was poor enough. And others thrived this year thanks to better-than-average communication.
4. Return is everything, cost is not. Dollars spent now have to work harder to deliver outcomes and show a return on objectives or investment. In this new, more thrifty paradigm, "cheap" can be good in marketing as long as it delivers a return - the same is true of larger spends.
5. Good people are still worth their weight in gold. The businesses who managed to keep their best marketing and communication people continued to deliver the best marketing, media and communication results.

What's ahead in 2010?
Predictions are dangerous but what the hell...it's my last post for the year and I think I've got a clear bead on what CEOs and marketers want from us in 2010.

Here are the top four things I think we'll see in financial services marketing communication in the year to come:

1. Cost pressures will remain - forcing ever more efficient results from all marketing spends and driving the "evolution of evaluation" and online delivery
2. Financial services PR will come to mean both traditional and online PR as financial services and wealth management firm migrate their traditional PR online (here's how to do that!)
3. Direct-to-consumer will rise as the new perceptual battle ground for PR. While media outlets will remain hugely influential, financial services brands will now be battling harder for the first page of Google, not just media coverage dominance
4. Education, particularly via content marketing, will come of age in financial services. Where once it was the lone voice of BT, in those long copy ads of the 90s, it's now going to be micro sites such as the Perpetual one - populated not with a few key themes but with a veritable library of content - "markeducation" to investors.

On that note, I'm signing off for the year. Posts will resume in late January, and I'll be moderating comments in the meantime...and of course still interested in your views as we talk on or offline about the posts and all things financial services communication.

Thanks for reading, and for your comments this year...and happy holidays.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

10 steps to take your financial services pr & marcomms communication online

This morning my colleague Paul Cheal and I presented a seminar about how Australian financial services marketers still have a window of opportunity to achieve “first mover advantage through online PR”.

This afternoon we also published an eBook focusing on the most practical take-away from that seminar - the ten simple steps to take your pr and marketing communication online.

Yes, it’s a new era of consumer sovereignty (post-Ripoll, post-GFC & mid-online PR (r)evolution).

Yes, transparency in retail and institutional markets is, or will be, greater than ever before

And choice of information channels & sales channels will proliferate…
At the same time the rise and rise of social media means choice of marketing tools can be overwhelming.

Where to start?

By taking the same principles we learned in traditional PR, communication and marketing online – and playing by the new rules of the social media world.

The sweet spot for financial services is online PR.

By online PR we mean:

-          1. Quality and quantity content that earns you search engine superiority and viewer attention
-          2. Communication direct to clients in both institutional and retail markets
-          3. All linked back to an effective website AND
-          4. Engaging your audiences with the next “P” in financial services marketing – philosophy.

Because in the new digital democracy it will be what you stand for, what you do and how interesting you can make it, that earns you the attention of the people who matter most to your business.

So what are YOU going to do to tell your business’s story more effectively online?

Download BlueChip Communication's ten steps to online PR for financial services here.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

How to brief a financial services, or B2B, public relations firm

Brief? What brief?
It’s been seven years since I last briefed a PR firm, and just on 48 hours since I last took a brief from a potential client. In the intervening six years and 363 days, I’ve often wondered how the various suppliers I worked with coped.

A good brief sets up the whole relationship, saves time and makes sure you get value for money. I've got a feeling my partners didn't ever have quite that clarity from me.

Sure I had a set of criteria (sometimes). And a well-written three or four pages about what I wanted from the engagement. Maybe even a vague notion about my ideal outcome.

But not a clue about how to create a “long list” then run a selection process, using criteria to choose a short list then the right firm.

No, I more often used that other time-honored selection process - gut feel. Which is great if you are already working well together.

Not so great if you’re looking to establish a relationship.

So assuming you’re going to apply some logic and order to how you choose a communication partner, here are some of the things I’ve learned from clients, my own consultants and various fantastic staff.

As I said in the beginning, good brief sets up the whole relationship, saves time and makes sure you get value for money. It sets expectations, objectives and boundaries.

It doesn’t have to be onerous, or too long. It can be a one pager if your needs are simple, or less if you have previous experience with the consultancy you’re briefing.

Should include scope, timeline, results you want and the sorts of deliverables you want to see along the way. Headings may include:

1. Summary
2. Objectives (SMART if you can)
3. Desired outcomes (what you really really want – both realistic and, perhaps, not so)
4. Activities (you may or may not know all of these but if there are some you clearly want, best you let your potential partners know)
5. Challenges to overcome/issues (almost all organisations face both opportunities and challenges – the more upfront you can be about these the better the response from the potential partner)


6. Performance criteria (how do you expect to measure the firm? Output, outcome, impact?)
7. Timeline (how long do you want them to work for?)
8. Terms of engagement (fixed or project fee, recurring engagement for a set price and time, or on an hours basis?)


9. More about you and your firm
10. Budget (upper and lower limits are really really helpful and save an immense amount of time & rework)
11. Non-disclosure (we usually ask our clients if we can give them one of these before we get the brief)

Next, how to actually select a B2B or financial PR firm and then, how to get the most from them.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Day One at FPA 2009

Bruce Madden attended Day One of the FPA National Conference 2009 in Melbourne for BlueChip Communication.

Three industries have converged on the Melbourne Convention Centre this week, meaning delegates to the Financial Planning Association annual conference must first run the gauntlet of the "Mind, Body and Spirit Festival" before hitting the annual gab fest of the Australian College of Emergency Medical Practitioners, to finally reach the zone partitioned off for the FPA.

It makes for an eclectic mix of patrons under one roof, and with Australia's financial planners facing sustained attacks on the remuneration, education, client obligation and pretty much anything else front, along with Bernie Rippoll just days from delivering his much anticipated report into the industry, you could forgive one or two delegates who feel the urge to nip out for a spot of chakra realignment or some aura mapping down at the Mind, Body and Spirit convention.

And it is comforting to know that - should things really deteriorate - the Emergency Medical experts are on hand next door to care for the real cot cases.

Not that the mood at FPA 2009 is at all downbeat. At least not compared with the thoroughly morose start to last year's event on the Gold Coast, at the peak of the global financial crisis.

No, things are best described as"busy". Businesslike. Not inspirational, but determined.

Busy keeping up with the swiftly moving national agenda played out in the media. Busy absorbing what the politicians and reviews will have to say about the future of the industry. Busy trying to figure out why the good planners, who have never taken a commission in their life and who act only in their client's best interest, are being swept along in the turgid morass that has become the industry's reputation.

As one senior industry figure put it: "there are many balls in the air, and I feel sorry for the good planners who are juggling them all while trying to make an honest living".

These are issues rich times. Witness this exchange last night between IFSA CEO John Brogden and IFS's David Whitely as evidence of just some of the viewpoints being played out among stakeholders at present: http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/business/items/200911/s2746942.htm.

FPA chief executive Jo Anne Bloch's comments on raising education standards was a front page report on this morning's AFR. ABC TV turned up at the FPA news conference today, asking Ms Bloch the familiar question, repeatedly, "will you ban commissions".

So, your humble correspondent has selectively done the rounds today, asking people from various backgrounds, what single issue must the industry overcome?

The best response was from Jo Anne Bloch: "we must restore confidence in financial planning among consumers".

Bruce Madden will file only one report from FPA 2009. He would love your feedback on bruce@bluechipcommunication.com.au.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Minister Chris Bowen: ASFA Day 3

Day Three of ASFA in Melbourne ended on a self-congratulatory note, with Minister Chris Bowen concurring with earlier speakers that we do in fact have a great national savings system, and delegates rating the conference a success.

In closing the 2009 ASFA conference, Chris Bowen, Minister for Financial Services, Superannuation and Corporate Law, outlined his four tests for the outcome of the various reviews that are to affect the national savings system: simplicity, efficiency, equity and adequacy.

A system that is easier to understand will help ensure Australians are more engaged with their super says Bowen. Great technology will reduce costs and improve returns, with the Medicare clearing house described as a “modest first step towards a more efficient, less paper-based system”.
The Cooper review will look at reducing fees and increasing long term returns, said Bowen, citing Treasury figures that estimate a one per cent difference in fees can translate to 16 per cent less at retirement in a members’ account.
Side stepping whether or not nine per cent is adequate, the Minster linked adequacy (the minimum objective) and equity, suggesting that the greatest challenge is to design a system with genuine incentives for low and middle income earners, signalling greater concessions for this group.

“The global financial crisis has put super through the wringer. It’s battered returns and shaken the confidence of those who are about to retire or have already retired.”
Against that backdrop, Bowen says his job “is partly to explain to Australians the importance of super” for individuals and to the economy generally.
Bowen addressed audience questions focused on adequacy, the Henry Review and some particularly pointed questions about legislative changes to super.
“Adequacy isn’t enough”
“Henry Review recommendations won’t be implemented immediately – most will be the subject of a national discussion.”
In addressing continual government changes to super, Bowen suggested “the reviews are an opportunity to have more certainty in super”, but only once the various recommendations from current processes are implemented. In other words, more change now against the promise of longer term stability.
I attended ASFA on behalf of BlueChip Communication. Bruce Madden will also be attending next week’s FPA Conference in Melbourne.

Will Cooper reshape the world of super as we know it? ASFA Day 2

Jeremy Cooper may not be planning wholesale changes to our super system. On the other hand, his comments in an ASFA plenary session suggest he's certainly not entirely buying the industry line that "it ain't broke so don't fix it".

In a wide ranging speech, Jeremy Cooper outlined the potential governance issues facing the industry in 2025, including the potential for a group of four "super" super funds to dominate the landscape, providing direct private equity sources of funding and wielding far greater leverage in their investment decisions. Cooper drew a parallel with Canadian behemoth funds Ontario Teachers and the Canada Pension Fund.

In this brave new world, the superannuation industry "dog" would no longer be wagged by the funds management tail. Cooper shared a possible view that super the system, if re-designed around members' interests, may look significantly different to the possibly funds management-centric structure of the industry today.

He asked if perhaps superannuation trustees are captive to their service providers, and suggested that without greater scale our funds are at a significant disadvantage in bidding for access to global assets.

In a message that made trustees happy, although perhaps didn't deliver joy to fund managers, Cooper suggested "Super funds have to start acting like they are at the top of the food chain", using their power to benefit members.

Other advantages of scale? Lower fees, in-house investment expertise, improved diversification, lower admin costs per unit and better member education.

Financial literacy - are we there yet? ASFA Day 2

If financial literacy is "the ability to make informed judgments and effective decision regarding the use and management of money" then 46 per cent of Australians are functionally illiterate and 53 per cent are functionally innumerate, according to Russell's Linda Elkins.

On a panel with Vanguard's Jeremy Duffield and Paul Henderson from The Smith Family, Linda Elkins told ASFA delegates how one in two Australians do not have the skills they need to make informed choices in their interactions with the financial service sector.

Part of the solution is education and access to low-cost, effective, advice.

The Smith Family is doing their bit for national education, with a Financial Literacy Certificate that helps disadvantaged people increase their financial literacy and improve their money management skills.

What can we all do? Paul Henderson suggested delegates should make sure they are aware of the scale of disadvantage, raise the issue inside their own organisations and volunteer to run a financial literacy training course.

Long time BlueChip client Jeremy Duffield asked the audience what their post-GFC learnings were about member communication. The answers were clear: understand and segment the audiences, make information highly relevant, use plain English, and create simple materials speaking at the right level.

And "stop sending regulatory-driven reams of material people don't understand."
Also in the member engagement stream, Andrew Inwood (Brand Management) & James Coyle (Australian Super) made a case for member communication.
Key themes in their presentations included the opportunity to communicate more effectively to members whose attention may have turned to their super thanks to the GFC, the importance of brands - as yet underdeveloped in superannuation - to member engagement, the need to educate members and the rise of social media as a way to talk and engage effectively.
Will this lead to an "uncontrolled debate" online between funds and their members? Not yet, but certainly with members now arguably more interested in their super, there's never been a better time to achieve greater engagement online.

Have we reached peak Super? ASFA Day 2

Ross Greenwood coined the term "peak super" in opening Day Two of the ASFA conference in Melbourne today. The questions he threw as challenges to the panel and the audience included:

"What happens when the money going out (how everyone in the room currently gets paid) is greater than the money coming in?" and "Do we really have a world class retirement savings and income system?"

The short answers from a panel of industry leaders were "no, we haven't reached peak super" and "we can always improve, but yes, we think it is a world class system both for retirement savings and incomes".

Panel members Steve Bracks (United Super / CBUS), Sue Dahn (ESSSuper and AGEST), Michael Dwyer (FSS) and Nicolette Rubinsztein (CFS) also addressed the previous day's comments by Dr David Morgan in relation to superannuation industry reform, the Henry Report and the balance between retail bank deposits and savings inside super.

Panel comments:
On the banks versus super
"Ken Henry is more focused on bank funding than super adequacy."

"Morgan said 'I'm from the bank and I'm here to help you'. You have to worry when the bankers start to offer us with the super system. A trillion dollars attracts a lot of attention."

Is our super system world class?
"The Deloitte fee study & other research about performance relative to other nation's pension funds gives evidence for (the case our system is) world class."

"The Mercer study said we have the best super system bar the Dutch - measured in terms of adequacy, integrity & sustainability."

"Can we do it better? Yes, but the Auspoll research shows 80 per cent of Australians are confident in their super - you don't want to change that."

"We've had the biggest shock to the system in GFC and yet members stayed put."

On media coverage of super
"The super system has had a 'going over' by the media. The easiest point to describe the GFC was to focus on people's retirement investments - media could relate the GFC to the public and bring it back to them. Despite the enormous amount of negative media that started with the GFC, you can see with the Auspoll results that people are still behind and supporting the super system. I defy you to find a piece of public policy with that kind of support in any country."

On legislative risk to super
"Too frequently we've seen super be a political football and source of votes with popular measures put through."

"Political changes have impacted confidence - we know people are not putting any more money in because you keep changing the rules."

And finally, this comment: "The same amount of thought went into the recent budget changes to super that went into the changes to the employee share scheme changes" to spontaneous applause from an audience not given to overreaction.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Trustees urged to look longer term than the nation's leaders - ASFA Day 1 closing

In closing the day's proceedings, Dr Keith Suter countenanced three scenarios for the future world order - "business as usual", "break-up", "break-down" or "breakthrough".

In the "breakthrough" scenario, Australia is poised to make the most of a world in which both the economy and how we manage scarce resources are reinvented - to see the globe become both economically and environmentally more sustainable.

Speaking directly to those in the industry, Dr Suter argued that politicians in power, subject to the very short-term and immediate pressures of the 24/7 media cycle and electoral expediency, are unlikely to bring about longer term solutions or responses to these scenarios.  With politicians focused on the short-term issues that dominate the news cycle, at the expense of future-defining issues, then other decision makers must pay more attention to the less urgent but more important "bigger" issues.

The most dominant of these bigger issues is the start, for good or ill, of a new global economic era.

Against this dramatic backdrop, Dr Suter urged fund trustees to take the longer term, and arguably braver, view.  To look beyond existing paradigms to see what is, and what may be, and to plan for a number of very different scenarios.  

While the future may not be certain, the obligations of those in the industry are - to safeguard the long-term wealth of Australians.

Carden Calder is attending ASFA 2009 for BlueChip Communication Group. BlueChip is Australia’s leading financial services communication firm. We help “tell your story” through media, online pr, compelling content and other forms of communication - so the people who matter most want to do business with you.

Member research - Super? What super? ASFA Day 1

On an individual member level, ASFA research conducted by Auspoll shows what superannuation members really think about it all. And the short answer is they don't really think.

At least they don't think much about their super.

When asked which superannuation issues caught their attention recently, the largest portion of respondents (47 per cent) could not think of any - and answered "none".  Only some (29 per cent) offered losses or a decrease in the value of their investment, and a very small number (6 per cent) suggested fees.

Have people changed their investment options in response to market movements?  Most (87 per cent) have not.

Which are the two most widely-held funds?  Australian Super and AMP, by a considerable margin.

In terms of split between industry and retail, the survey found some 48 per cent were in industry funds, 29 per cent in retail and a far smaller proportion (3 per cent in each) were invested in a corporate or self-managed fund.

It seems members, in the wake of one of the worst years on record for returns, are largely satisfied (79 per cent of respondent) with their super funds - consistent with past findings.

Interestingly, those in the public sector and industry funds show far stronger satisfaction ratings than retail fund members.

Of the small number not happy, why is that?  Most said it was about performance and / or fees. 

For those who are happy with their fund, it's down to low or reasonable fees, performance and communication.

And finally, what do members looks for in a fund?  Performance, reasonable fees, safety or security, and consistency and stability.

Five mega-trends & financial planning - ASFA Day 1

Graham Rich of brillient! and Portfolio Construction Forum spoke in the morning about his pick of the top five mega-trends affecting future portfolio construction outcomes.

The "mega-trends" may sound familiar, and were in fact echoed by other speakers: reformation of regulation, turbo of technology, movement of markets – particularly global emerging markets, the ETA of ESG, and retirement of retirement.

The one thing super funds should be doing over the next five years to respond to these trends?

Provide members with quality financial planning as a core service.

Rich threw out the challenge to trustees to choose just one of the five megatrends and commit to learning about it and collaborating with industry peers.

Bank deposits versus super? ASFA Day 1

Dr David Morgan's view of the new global economic era is bank-centric, with both threats and opportunities for the superannuation industry. 

The GFC revealed an inherent vulnerability within the local banking system, says Dr Morgan. 

This Achilles heel is the low level of retail deposits which in turn leaves our banks dependant on foreign wholesale funding. 

It was this foreign wholesale funding market that closed down completely at the height of the GFC. Were it not for the Government lending its AAA rating to local banks, they too would have closed down, says Dr Morgan.

The solution, according to Dr Morgan, involves changing the end destination of national savings – perhaps turning back the trend that has seen superannuation balances grow at the expense of bank deposits. 

One potential way to do this is for tax reform to make bank deposits more attractive - and superannuation less attractive.

Dr David Morgan & Dr Keith Suter - ASFA Conference Day 1

Global Financial Crisis, and the rise of China and India, were the twin themes that dominated the first day of ASFA's annual conference in Melbourne today.

Dr David Morgan, former Westpac CEO provided his perspective on these key issues in the opening plenary, and Dr Keith Suter, social and political commentator and Sunrise regular, closed with them this afternoon.

The common threads? That while the GFC may be over, the aftershocks will be felt for a long time. As we congratulate ourselves on how Australia has escaped the worst of the GFC, a new era is upon us.

BlueChip Communication MD Carden Calder is attending ASFA.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Measuring media results...is there a perfect solution or just "make do"?

We measure media results several ways. I've shared some of them below. We're still searching for that perfect solution however, and very open to new and improved ways of measuring success.

There's no point talking measurement if the goal of media relations isn't clear. For the most part we find a typical institution or firm in financial services wants to either overcome an issue or build their profile - in order to deliver better business results.

Some examples include:
- Creating a positive reputation in consumer media that accurately reflects a fund's ethos and member offer    
- Generating coverage that helps establish an asset manager's credentials among potential mandate clients
- Eliminating or redressing media perceptions (and continued reporting) that an organisation is less than committed to the market or a sector
- Generating greater understanding of the depth of expertise.

Knowing the end goal we can have a more constructive conversation about how to measure progress towards it.
Number of articles
There's the simple (and not elegant) count - number of articles. Yes, our clients are still very interested in sheer volume. It's an effective albeit crude measure of the effectiveness of public relations activity, particularly over time. Each year we can show most clients who are looking for proactive, brand-building coverage, an increase in the previous year's number of articles. Bearing in mind all these articles are positive, it's one way to track whether or not we have 'momentum' for a client.

Content analysis
This is really the only way to work out the overall tone (positive, neutral, negative) and focus (key messages or not?) of coverage. Unfortunately it's also time consuming and therefore expensive. Many financial services executives on limited budgets would rather have their consultancy spend time generating coverage than analysing the content - depending of course on volumes and how many issues are being managed.

Proactive versus reactive calls/activity
It's all very well us making all the calls, but we really know you have an effective media profile when the journos call you. This isn't an end game in itself - it's just a lead indicator, or input KPI, that tells us all whether   our client is achieving a level of media interest that's self-sustaining.

Impressions - ideally target audience
Advertising agencies make very good use of measures like TARPs - target audience rating points. We track potential impressions using a methodology developed inhouse. Since we started tracking impressions we've seen some extraordinary results - so much so that some clients don't want to spend limited marketing dollars on advertising because their public and media relations efforts are far more cost effective at generating impressions among the target audience.

Advertising has an important place in the marketing mix, and always will. It's just that increasingly we find financial services institutions want to push more of a message out to their audiences than an ad can deliver. This is particularly true in Australia's highly intermediated retail and institutional wealth management sector.

Reputation studies
Media opinions do seem to lead onto reporting tone. And reporting tone does influence clients or consumers, investors and shareholders, business partners and employees. I tend to think if we're not measuring both the audience's perceptions and the intermediaries' (such as media and bloggers) perceptions then we probably don't have full information about exactly how (or whether) media relations efforts are having the desired impact.

Any thoughts out there on the Holy Grail of media coverage measurement?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

What makes a great PR person?

1. Motivation: it sounds basic (and it is) but oh so lacking sometimes...slackness is sure to follow

2. Information: we are only as good sometimes as what we know and when. Regardless of whether someone is a client or a supplier, we are all under constant pressure to actually know what the hell the real story is.

3. Judgement: swift, accurate judgement about a situation is immensely valuable. There are 25 year olds who do this well and 50 year olds who do it badly, and vice versa. It's something more than being smart and something less than needing 20 years experience.

4. Speed: once upon a time you could take four hours to answer most media queries in financial services. Now more than 20 minutes could mean the difference between no story and one that starts to sink the company.

5. Integrity: to tell a client their story won't float, to tell a journo we don't know the answer and the client or the spokesperson won't want to answer (and no we don't know why), to always tell the truth and sometimes, to say absolutely nothing at all. Ever (some things go with me to the grave!!).

These are the things I've seen in every successful PR I've met....

Friday, October 09, 2009

Who does it better? Consultant or inhouse PR practitioner?

Really it's a trick question. The simple answer is "it depends".

On what?

The person, their experience, their colleagues (particularly their manager), the CEO and probably some random things such as news of the day.

This is a question I think about almost every day. For one, I've been on both sides. Secondly, I now devote a great deal of time, as everyone in our team does, to thinking about how to be a really good consultant in order to help our inhouse clients be really good at what they do - managing the reputation of their asset management firm, advice business, consulting firm, super fund or banking product provider.

Having now been thinking about this question since 1996 (when I first watched some PR consultants be charming but deliver a huge amount) I have some general thoughts about the relative strengths and weaknesses of each role.

And more importantly how the two can come together to form, in many cases, a perfect whole. By that I mean a truly great partnership where the inhouse person is relieved of bucket loads of day-to-day grief, and gains a trusted, expert, external sounding board and access to great media or stakeholder outcomes.

On the other side of this perfect pairing, the consultant gets to work with a capable inhouse client who values the role of external PR, knows their company and the internal stakeholders and can gives access to the information or people the consultant needs to deliver the right outcome.

The beauty of being in house is really knowing your firm. No consultant can ever really 'get in the skin' of your company. After a few years you probably know everyone, and possibly have a political intelligence quotient higher than anyone except the HR director. You instinctively 'know' the answer to almost any question of principle about your firm because you live it.

If things are going well, the senior PR person has a hand in almost every significant corporate event. And the ear of senior executives if not the CEO, Chairman and Board.

What is harder to hang onto in house is a sense of objectivity - that instant judgment of what the outside world will think. It can also be mighty hard to actually 'do the doing'. Internal meetings, issues management, endless phone calls and emails all conspire to keep in house PR people from actually planning, writing, calling or otherwise executing what may well be a great strategy. Or not.

Crippling email volumes, media, online or parliamentary monitoring, requests from media and almost any part of the business can all conspire to muddy clarity of judgment. Where do you get the time to plan the proactive positive media activity the CEO or others seem to think should be easy??

It can also be more difficult inhouse to judge success. What is a good outcome here? Does it matter? Longer term yes, but short term it can be very hard to know.

Never a dull moment. When you have multiple clients, as most PR consultants do, you never quite know which way your day will go. And that gives great perspective. Perspective across diverse businesses, with diverse communication challenges - and opportunities. Perspective day in and day out across stakeholders from bloggers to community groups or investors to editors.

Always on, constantly watching the online and media world, grabbing opportunities, meeting clients, talking to media or surfing the relevant online sources.

One thing about being a consultant, at least the ones I respect, is that we 'know what we don't know'. Many consultants (cetainly the team at BlueChip!) work as part of a team, working up ideas, sharing what they've learned and in turn learning from the experience of peers. That collective intelligence can produce extraordinary results.

So too can years of building up 'the little black book'. Whether media or industry contacts, consultants tend to build up a formidable network along with the knowledge bank.

And consultants are almost never in doubt about what a good outcome/success looks like. They have to know that before they can start work or it's all just fumbling around in the dark. And understanding what success looks like matters - because consultants have to stay hungry. For the next project, the next client, the next win for all clients.

Consultants ultimately have to deliver for their clients - or they don't stay consultants. So dedicated, focused resources usually ensure the job gets done - whether that supposedly easy proactive positive coverage or keeping your name out of certain stories.

What I've found both in house and as a consultant is that a few key things are needed in both places to be a truly great PR person....which will be my next post!

But no pressure people!

Actually both roles have potential to deliver immense value, for very different reasons.

The trick is to know what you're really really good at and do that - ideally outsourcing the rest or working only with clients who need what you have!

Note: I worked inhouse for ten years before founding BlueChip Communication, a specialise financial services PR firm, with my partner Bruce Madden. Since 2004 the BlueChip team of consultants have partnered with Australia's leading wealth management, investment and financial services brands. We think a LOT about what it takes to make a great partnership with clients!

Monday, October 05, 2009

Australian PR and social media practice....do we stack up versus the world?

I had the great opportunity last month to travel to New York, London & Hong Kong for a conference and meetings with clients, partner firms and potential clients. While it was good to bring new ideas home to the BlueChip team and our clients, it was even better to get a sense of how what we do stacks up globally.

In fact, there are some areas where our niche financial services PR firm leads the world.

First, some observations on the state of financial services PR globally. Given the year gone, I found businesses (clients and consultants) in better shape than I expected. Generally staff numbers are down and margins are squeezed, or in some cases non-existent. Still, those businesses seem to have come through in good shape. If anything there's more focus on results and less on largesse. Those reliant on bonuses are feeling the pinch, while some others are pushing ahead with small scale expansion into offshore markets - a sign of hope rather than desperation.

Secondly, every one is stretched. Again, both clients and consultants are having to do more with less. Not too many are hiring, and the work is still there. That means more pressure on fewer people.

Finally, it seems almost everyone is has, or is starting to, lift their gaze from the few feet immediately in front on them and think "longer term" and "bigger picture".

Of course the first movers were doing that months ago. And that brings me to a couple of exceptions. There were some businesses I met who throughout all the uncertainty were either less affected or just more focussed. Those people have taken a once in a lifetime opportunity to move in this market.

We first saw and heard these sorts of clients in quarter 1 of the calendar year. People who were determined to make the most of the current market, and to use proactive PR as a way to build their brand.

As Australians we've seen more green shoots than offshore colleagues whose economies have had a way harder time of it.

What did surprise was how far head our firm appears to be in social media (particularly online pr) knowledge.

Wealth management (even retail) is a bit of a laggard when it comes to social media. I did think I'd learn more about social media in financial services in my travels.

What I found was that what we've developed at BlueChip is pretty much as good as it gets for wealth management social media.

And therein lies the beauty and the devil of the online world. A Sydney PR person can know more about the latest US online PR expert than those in his own country.

Monday, September 14, 2009

9/11 and 15/11: Lives versus lucre

This post was written in the back seat of a yellow cab on arrival into New York on 9/11 2009, and just a few days short of the one year anniversary of Lehmann Brothers declaring bankruptcy.

Both events caused great fear. How our trusted institutions (governments, corporates in particular) emerged from those events has been defining, with trust intact or in tatters.

Reputation research tells us that in times of crisis, it is vision and leadership that define our reputations.

My experience on 9/11 2001 was one of being torn between the job (then head of external communications for a listed insurer) and concern for colleagues and friends in New York.

The immediate concern for listed insurers and airlines in Australia before the ASX opened was to know what to say to the market and whether or not to allow their stock to trade. Many senior people I knew were shocked, bewildered and simply unsure what to do next.

Fortunately I had the support of a great consultant. He'd seen the news the night before and spent much of his night trying to track down family in New York. He'd also seen what happened to airline and insurance stocks in US trading before the market closed. He gave my colleagues and I good advice, and he was there for us when we needed him.

As a company we were able to assess our position quickly and make sensible representations to the ASX. Those initial assessments proved correct and the market rewarded us for it.

Another listed insurer didn't get their market communication right. It very nearly cost them everthing as their share price dropped and market rumour took hold. Their reputation took a huge hit.

On 15 September 2008 and I arrived in New York to attend an investment communication conference. The news was all about Lehmann. The next day it was all about which bank was next to collapse. It seemed no one was safe. New Yorkers, according to the popular news, were already converting cash to gold bullion in mid-town as fear took hold of markets and the world banking system fought for its life.

This time I was the consultant. It was an extraordinary year of helping clients fight for their reputations or, in some cases, their very survival.

For better or worse Australia seemed to lag the US and Europe in feeling the impact of Lehmann. That meant I could advise clients having seen and heard first-hand how the issues were dealt with globally.

Again, vision and leadership have determined reputation post-crisis.

Speed, coherency and appropriateness of response to unexpected events can make or break reputation.

Plenty of businesses didn't make it through the last year. For those that did there are plenty of lessons.

First and foremost, trust is everything.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Financial institutions' exponential online growth - 54 on twitter to over 600 in less than 6 months??

Now here's a really useful blog for anyone interested in financial services online pr and social media. Visible-Banking, out of the UK, tracks, among other things, the growth of financial institutions (FIs) online.

From a mere 54 in March 2009 to a whopping 606 more recently!

We are talking here about banks, credit unions, fund / asset managers, insurers, credit card issuers and others who maybe:
  • blogging
  • on Facebook
  • posting to YouTube
  • running online communities
  • providing podcasts
  • launching innovation labs
  • maybe have RSS feeds
  • providing webcasts or TV
  • have a wiki....and more.
Another blog to watch, this time from the US, is Rock the Boat Marketing, a social media directory of asset managers, broker-dealers, financial advisers and media.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Network science and why it will change what we do

En route to the US to attend the PAICR conference I watched a documentary about network science. It helped explain why financial services (and many other) marketing and PR efforts are seemingly unpredictably successful or unsuccessful. And why measurment remains a challenge.

In short, my takeout is that relying on opinion leaders or influencers is an unproven and probably unsuccessful way to change opinions and behaviour.

The implications for marketing and PR are huge.

If I have it right, it means:

- Average people are just as likely to start a trend as the more connected among a population
- A product, service or idea won't be successful unless it's time is right
- If the time is right an idea, product or service will spread incredibly rapidly

Our job as marketers or communators then is to do what I was taught at uni - make stuff people want. I beleive it was more appropriately called "the marketing concept" and it followed on from what was taught in high school economics - consumer sovereignty.

More appropriately to the finance sector, only sell services or ideas when they will add value and the conditions are right for clients or investors to take them up.

This Fast Company article about Duncan Watts' work talks more about why targetting opinion leaders is a waster of time.

PS In 1992, I dropped my 2/rds complete Honours thesis about Roger's diffusion of innovation framework and social change communication. Sounds like that was a better call than I realised at the time!

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Top 3 questions & answers about social media and wealth management...today. But who knows tomorrow?

Every time we talk to clients and colleagues about social media we're asked, almost invariably, a standard battery of questions. Here are the questions, their answers today, and some thoughts about what those answers will be in the future.

Before I get into the Q & A here's the summary: you already know your business and its messages – social media is just about ensuring you're heard in a new space.

What our clients are finding is this: with just a little help it CAN be done, it will soon HAVE to be part of business as usual and their colleagues often pick it up FASTER than they expect.

Question 1: Does this whole social media thing really matter for those of us in financial services/wealth management/the investment industry and our clients?

Answer: Hmmm. Yes. A lot. Already. And way more in 3, 6 and 12 months.

In the future? I'd guess that in two years you'll look back and rue it if you didn't commit now to 'owning the ink' in your space. Why? Let's see...

Question 2: Why does social media matter?

Answer: The short answer is that social media can't be controlled by brands the way current marcomms can be. And yet it is far more influential. A bit like public relations and media. Media has its own agenda and it's not your marketing agenda - imagine that on speed. Imagine every client prospect who touches your business having an opinion online. Now that's why social media matters. And why online PR is a critical capability to be built now, not later.

Joe Pulizzi of junta42 gave a guest spot to Kenneth Weiss last week. Ken's blog called Your content, Their Content & The Brand (and his new book Slightware) is just one of many eloquent arguments about why, in future, social media will matter more than almost any current form of marketing communication.

Question 3: What should we do?

Answer: Ideally, develop a full social media strategy with a progressive rollout over time. It's not expensive, it's building capability you'll need in future and it will help protect your reputation now. It may help you right now with web traffic and your conventional PR.

If not a full strategy, then at least watch the online conversations about your brand, services or spokespeople.

And protect your reputation by owning your own brand in the major social media forums.

The last thing you want is someone out there doing the equivalent of tweeting in your name before you even know twitter exists.

So start following before it's too late!

PS Check out these two blogs relevant to financial services and social media:
1. David Meerman Scott's blog DMS is the online PR guru. My colleague Jo Cross attended his one day conference in Melbourne recently and came away will a gold mine of notes. Email me for the notes.
2. Visible Banking. It's a blog on social media for financial services. Some good tips.

Day Two at the 9th Annual Wraps, Platforms & Masterfunds Conference

Bruce Madden, co-founder and Director of BlueChip Communication, attended Day Two of the Wraps, Platforms and Masterfunds Conference in the Hunter Valley. Here is his take on the day.

To summarise the mood of the retail IDPS industry, gathered together to discuss vital business matters in the Hunter Valley these past two days, one reaches for synonyms to describe the twin notions of fear and rejuvenation.

The fear bit is easy, but type 'rejuvenation' and hit Shift F7 on your Microsoft Word software and a number of useful ideas pop up, including:

Transformation; upgrading; innovation; reconstruction; renewal; renovation; rebuilding and revolution.

These aptly describe the challenge and opportunity ahead of the master funds and wrap industry in these post GFC days of an uncertain future, and a number of 'wildcard unknowns' posed by the Cooper and Henry Reviews and the Ripoll Parliamentary Joint Committee inquiry.

As a Financial Services communication consultancy, our firm spends much time thinking hard about how the entire FS industry - from retail advice to unit trusts and platforms to industry super and SMSFs - will fare and communicate to their stakeholders moving forward. The great challenge our industry faces today is that - even with increased government regulatory intervention, no single sector or interest can prosper in isolation.

For example, much has been made about the 'us-versus-them' dynamic that has characterized the retail and industry fund sectors. I sense a softening of this perception - that this view is seen as a crude and unhelpful depiction of a more complex dynamic. In fact, as was discussed at this morning's session, there is greater interdependence and co-operation required from all sectors, particularly the retail platforms and industry funds.

An example eloquently cited by Tria Investment Partners partner Andrew Baker is the provision of advice: how does an average Industry Fund, with $15bn FUM, and 750,000 members find a solution to its looming advice service problem? As Andrew posed: the industry funds have a buy or build mentality: if they don't buy in services, they will build it themselves. Either way, there is great opportunity both for the retail industry to remove its real or perceived conflicts and for each of the sectors to commence productive discussions about delivering to the needs of Australians.

That's the rejuvenation part - for the retail industry to throw out the old, embracing a new, transformational system of innovation built around what is appropriate, ethical and transparent for the end consumer.

So much for the challenge: what about the fear in this equation?

To be blunt: the retail industry's greatest fears are that the Cooper Review makes sweeping, revolutionary recommendations that shoot an arrow head deep into the heart of its current model.

That the Cooper barb pierces the current bloat of platform rebates, commissions, preferred partner schemes, volume bonuses etc; that he also mandates for a simple, embedded advice/product model at one per cent MER; that he renders unviable any underperforming investment managers who take a fee for delivering benchmark or sub-benchmark performance; that greater transparency prevails which may threaten existing business models.

There is also the legitimate fear that market forces will not be allowed to prevail - replaced by further government intervention, or a system of interventionist product creation delivered by well-meaning but naïve public servants in Treasury.

The ultimate challenge - as the retail industry spends the coming weeks and months reflecting on these issues and drawing up its submissions - is to find some greater harmony beyond the political rhetoric and commercial interest.

To build a viable and saleable business model that sustains healthy outcomes for all industry stakeholders, which transcends the unhelpful dogma approach. Sound simple?

The inventor of such a system would surely be up for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Day One at the 9th Annual Wraps, Platforms & Masterfunds Conference

Bruce Madden is my fellow co-founder and a Director of BlueChip Communication. We attended one of the major Australian wealth management industry events together last week. Here's his summary of Day 1

Called "After the Storm" the 9th Annual Wraps, Platforms and Masterfunds Conference commenced in the Hunter Valley, NSW last Thursday, 3 September.

The event has attracted over 200 delegates from the retail financial services industry to debate and unravel the events following the Global Financial Crisis, and the what next for an industry under the pressure of several government inquiries (Ripoll, Cooper, Henry et al); a disenfranchised investor base and the prospect of looming regulation.

The primary themes?

There were a few but chief among them was trust. Or more pointedly, how to regain the trust of the poor burned investor. Perhaps somewhat curiously, or in recognition of the primary role that financial planners play with the industry's overall reputation, the conference spent much of the day debating the role of advice and the planning industry.

My view is that this is a clear sign that master funds and wrap administration platforms remain inextricably linked to the advice process (i.e.: a platform is a product not a service, and it is a product that is sold, not bought) - various speakers discussed their strategy to overcome the risk of further fragmentation of their reputation among investors.

MLC, which through its platform, Master Key, eschewed adviser commissions in 2006, stood to bask in the warm glow of vindication following its courageous public shift three years ago. Richard Nunn, the Head of Advice and Marketing at MLC / NAB described how the inquiry rate from advisers seeking to join the MLC affiliated advice businesses - in light of the many signals pointing to the demise of commissions - had recently increased markedly.

CBA Distribution Head, Paul Barrett, described the need to drive greater comprehension of financial products and services among the end investor, so that "all parts of the value chain take responsibility for their actions." In other words, creating better informed consent from investors about where their money is being invested and why. Or, put another way, to stop outsourcing our intelligence.

Other trends observed? The excellent research of Investment Trends showed advisers seeking safe investment harbours by investing in cash, and direct 'blue chip' shares; the rise of ETFs and indexing as investment products (driven by the desire to reduce costs wherever possible); an increase in the interest of using capital protected structured product (a la AXA North), and believe it or not, the selective increased use of gearing strategies on the basis of historically low asset prices, coupled with low interest rates... (now think about that for a mixed bag of counterintuitive trends!)

Other themes explored included new technology (including an excellent run down of BlueChip client Payment Adviser and its smart technology) and the external threats of regulation, markets and of course managing one's reputation (and FUM) after a crisis.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Managing Reputation Risk: An ounce of prevention worth a pound of cure

Managing Reputation Risk: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure in many instances

This blog about reputation risk from the Reptutation Institute caught my eye because BlueChip's issues/reputation risk kit has had a serious work out since January 2008.

Of course financial services organisations, be they large, small, new or established, have found themselves needing to manage reputation risk far more closely in the the last two years than ever before.

Suddenly financial services public relations switched gear from the occaisional perceptual crisis and lots of marketing to lots of perceptual crises and the odd bit of marketing support.

Hence the many calls we've had that start "We've got a problem. It's highly sensitive, and we think we need help in case it becomes public/when it becomes public/so that it doesn't ever become public/now that's become public."

As communication or marketing professionals our key contacts inside client organisations already know that reputation risk prevention is better than cure. What they struggle with is getting the CEO and executve team to buy that, and to invest the time and money needed to really properly risk manage their their reputation with anything appoaching the care factor applied to, say, financial risk.

Dr. Majorie Dijkstra of the Reputation Institute gives a four-step process for managing reputation risk, summarised below:

1. Risk identification - assessing the gap between stakeholder’s perceptions and beliefs and the actual performance of the company.
2. Prioritisation (risks and stakeholders) - assessing the probability of risks and the impact of the risk on reputation.
3. Mitigation - assessing the best response based on controllability of risk, the impact of risk on the business across stakeholders and the cost of implementing the strategy.
4. Monitoring - closely monitoring changes in stakeholder’s beliefs and expectation that may affect reputation.

BlueChip's process is similar:

1. Identification: through scenario planning (what are all the things that could go wrong here and where might that leave us??) risk logs and context analysis (e.g. media commentary or sentiment around a particular issue)
2. Prioritisation: through risk logs/workshops and stakeholder analysis
3. Response: through management action and communication strategy & action plans/actions/running orders across stakeholders. We include monitoring in this part and step 1!
4. Embedding: as often as not, whatever led to the issue has it's roots in longer term organisational issues. The only way to prevent similar issues in the future is to look back at those root causes and address them going forward through conscious management and communication behaviour.

When capable in house communicators or trusted consultants are allowed to complete step 4 we're able to help prevent a whole truckload of potential trouble.

Of course not everyone on the senior team necessarily takes that at face value.

I've always found that having that risk log or scenario planning from step 1 to hand, fleshed out with some of the more scary potential outcomes, tends to help colleagues focus on the potential downside of not managing reputation risk!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

How to show you genuinely care about all 1 million customers

Many moons ago, in the years leading up to the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, my then employer, AMP ran one of THE most successful financial services advertising campaigns of the decade.

Enter Vicki Williams, a customer service staff member from AMP in Perth. Vicki was the winner of competition conceived by the agency (Leo Burnett) and run among AMP staff to produce the star of the big budget TV ad.

And Vicki certainly became a star.

It helped that she really did care about AMP's clients. It also helped that Leos had her plus-sized frame in a bathing suit and cheery face in a frilly bathing cap. And of course the media spend was considerable.

One of the reasons the ad was so well remembered had to do with the context of the time. Banks had a lot of bad press for shutting down branches. The other insurance and funds management companies arguably lacked AMP's strong local representation of financial planners who were part of their towns and cities across the country.

People remembered the funny, warm smiling face of Vicki Williams because she was real. The genuine item. And it showed, even when she'd done that shot a million times.

Vicki gave out as many autographs as Olympians - she was LOVED. She may not have sold many policies or superanuation funds, but she was (briefly) adored by thousands.

Then there's "the AAMI girl" as she's known. I'm not sure if there's a picture in the attic of the woman in that long-running TV ad, or if they update her every 5 years. However she's probably been the best known and most liked face of general insurance in Australia for years.

The point?

People connect with people.

Especially when it comes to money (trust matters) and the really boring stuff they'd rather not have to think too much about.

Like insurance and super.

Ads used to be a good way to provide a human proxy for the personal touch.

As branches have closed down and technology has replaced people we've seen all sort of replacements for humans. Interactive voice systems, online banking, ATMs, online share trading.

We've also seen a far greater reliance on public relations or custom content to generate media coverage for financial services organisations. Both communication tools are far more credible ways to get people back in front of customers again, without the multi-million dollar spend or the big geographic footprint of a national staff.

So if you, just like many other financial services organisations with shrinking staff numbers who want to grow their retail presence, think about how you're going to get a credible, friendly and mass-produced human in front of the humans who matter most to your business.

Staff, customers, clients, channel partners, even business partners.

We're all looking for that person who really cares.

Does your brand have one?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Audience analysis AKA who are these super fund members or investors anyway?

Real people. With stories that tell us far more about who they are as people than the figures in their statements or their age. The better we know these personal stories, the better our investment communication. And, I believe, the better the outcome for the investor.

Here are two very different investors facing a similar drop in their super balances...

Mary is a 65 year old professional who is a member of a not-for profit super fund. Mary planned to retire this year...until markets savaged her balanced portfolio. Despite the drop in value she's seen, she's actually pretty calm about it. She's saving more and planning to work part-time rather than retire. Mary trusts her planner, the fund and the advice she's been given and she's happy to sit tight until markets recover. Until then she'll keep working and focus more on her grandchildren than her travel plans.

Compare her with Peter, the 45 year old index fund member who avoided opening his statements for six months. Those statements sat in his home in tray under piles of other unopened mail (he's busy - he works in financial services!!!). When he did open his statements he discovered his high growth fund had been, well, smashed. And he got angry. Who with? Peter doesn't have a financial adviser. He choose the fund manager, the fund and the style of investing. But does he feel responsible for what markets have done to his retirement savings? Not exactly. He got angry with the fund manager. Furious. Wanted to switch to cash immediately to teach them a lesson. Which of course given the equities rally since January wouldn't really have penalised anyone except himself.

I recently had the honour of speaking to a group of super fund executives (Fund Executive Association members) around Australia about member communication. The presentation focussed on the usual - strategies, tactics and examples of superb investor communication both in Australia and overseas. We also talked as a group about those fund members and their stories...how understanding who these people are helps us as finance professionals deliver messages effectively.

The better these message are delivered the more able we are to serve investors best interests - to inform, to educate and to advise (where permitted).

So bring on the numerical, demographics, attitudinal and behavioural analysis that might help create viable investor segments for the purposes of communication...and in the meantime personify those people by taking the time to understand their stories.

Budget, time and technology are often against us when it comes to creating really useful (such as a combination of attitudinal and demographic info) segments of fund members.

A simple way to get an informal (and still useful) feel for who these people are and how to communicate effectively to them is simply to take calls or listen in to calls in the call centre...review recordings, read the FAQ. Switched on fund execs are taking any steps they can to get closer to investors in order to help them - with really good quality communication that enables members to make good decisions no matter how volatile markets are or how damaged their super may look.

Credit where it's due....There is this very talented communications professional I know (Andy Eklund) who collaborates with us on client projects, trains our clients in communication and trains our team of financial services communication consultants. He's far more informative than I will ever be on the subject of audience analysis.

This post about audience analysis is the first in a series of investor communication posts. Other topics will include how communication really does impact investor behaviour and how to create messages that work for investors. Post a comment to let me know of any other topics of interest, or to disagree with my posts!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

What do you say to investors when their money has gone?

What on earth do you say to investors who are near retirement and find themselves with half their capital gone thanks to global market volatility? Or worse, poor investment choices?

Fund managers, financial planners and superannuation providers are answering these questions now, and will have to keep answering them in the future.

There's no easy answer. There's no doubling the lost dollars to magically take investors back to where they were.

So how about a simple but challenging answer?

Markets go up and down. When and how they will do that is something you, I, and most professional investors, cannot pick. So invest now for the long term with full knowledge of the short term risk you run. Think very carefully about what you are prepared to lose, or what you can do without for a very long time - perhaps ten years.

And understand a little about investor behaviour - how you might react when it gets scary. We typically buy and sell at the 'wrong' times because we panic - even though we know this basic info about markets.

Forewarned is surely better prepared...although it might be a while before some of us get to use that knowledge.

It's what those with a long term focus have been saying for as long as I can remember funds management marketing...which is since the early 90s.

It's not new. It's not sexy. It's not different to your competitors. But it appears to have been proven right - again.

What can be new, different and if not sexy at least real, is HOW you say that now.

The "how now" is all about humility, understanding and realism. Doing that well takes a good understanding of your audience - the real people you are talking to.

Communicating well now also takes a long term commitment - which comes from deep inside your organisation - because as a company you believe an informed investor is better off as well as being a better client.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Ethics in PR (now stop laughing!)

Today the Public Relations Institute of Australia sent out a link to the PRTV edition about ethics.

It's easy to laugh when the concepts are linked - "PR" and 'ethics'.

My second, more sombre reaction (as when interviewed) is that ethical behaviour by PR people is impossible if they don't really know what they're communicating about.

How do I know? Let's call it bitter experience...stories for another time.

The short version is that as so-called professional communicators we have zero credibility if we don't really know what we're talking about, trust the people we work for and ultimately, take extreme care in how we present facts AND nuance.

Yes, we should follow a code of ethics.

Yes, we should "do the right thing", meaning be honest and truthful.

More than those things we should question whether or not what we're asked is right.

And ultimately satisfy ourselves with an answer we can live with.

I certainly can't claim the moral high ground - as a younger PR I sometimes felt very uncomfortable with the "party line". It's career threatening to say "Excuse me Chairman, are you entirely sure we should present things as you've just described?".

More recently we've walked away from several potentially great (exciting, newsworthy) jobs when we felt unsure of the merits of our client's story, or just had a feeling that 'something wasn't right'.

This is not an argument that PRs need forensic accounting skills. However it is reasonable to expect that senior people in our profession can read both people and data, pay attention to the P&L and do a little due diligence on potential clients and employers.

Long term, if we believe our own mantra, our personal reputation is our most valuable asset.

Perhaps in PR the universal ethical guideline is simply enlightened self-interest.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Barack Obama on why media matters

This, from today's Crikey.

It's a couple of days old now, but it's something that has gone strangely undereported in the Australian press. Barack Obama's address to the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner featured the usual attempt -- a funny one -- at First Standup, but the President also went on to make some serious points about journalism and its relationship to effective democracy.

They were points worth repeating:

"We meet tonight at a moment of extraordinary challenge for this nation and for the world, but it's also a time of real hardship for the field of journalism.And like so many other businesses in this global age, you've seen sweeping changes and technology and communications that lead to a sense of uncertainty and anxiety about what the future will hold.

Across the country, there are extraordinary, hardworking journalists who have lost their jobs in recent days, recent weeks, recent months. And I know that each newspaper and media outlet is wrestling with how to respond to these changes, and some are struggling simply to stay open.

And it won't be easy. Not every ending will be a happy one. But it's also true that your ultimate success as an industry is essential to the success of our democracy. It's what makes this thing work. You know, Thomas Jefferson once said that if he had the choice between a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, he would not hesitate to choose the latter.

Clearly, Thomas Jefferson never had cable news to contend with -- (laughter) -- but his central point remains: A government without newspapers, a government without a tough and vibrant media of all sorts, is not an option for the United States of America. (Applause.)

So I may not -- I may not agree with everything you write or report. I may even complain ... from time to time about how you do your jobs, but I do so with the knowledge that when you are at your best, then you help me be at my best. [Now why don't more CEOs see it that way?]

You help all of us who serve at the pleasure of the American people do our jobs better by holding us accountable, by demanding honesty, by preventing us from taking shortcuts and falling into easy political games that people are so desperately weary of. And that kind of reporting is worth preserving -- not just for your sake, but for the public's. We count on you to help us make sense of a complex world and tell the stories of our lives the way they happen, and we look for you for truth, even if it's always an approximation."

An articulate, balanced and realistic assessment of the critical role of media in today's world - this is NOT the world where all journos are purer than driven snow, and not the world where all people in power are beyond question.

It is however the world in which many people in power, media and PRs try hard to do what they think best. Sometimes we all need reminding there is in fact a greater good we all serve, or, if we've lost our way, should aim to serve.

Few better than this President to remind us.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

What the big 4 banks are up to on Twitter

To twitter or not to twitter?

Westpac, nab, ANZ are there. And recent media coverage on Commonwealth shows it is definitely monitoring the site.

As a Westpac customer, I’d follow them on twitter; alas, it’s not to be. While Westpac is following nab on twitter, its own updates are protected, meaning no one can follow them unless they are approved by Westpac.

However, you have to credit ANZ. They’ve developed something really useful; a budget planner tweet that follows more people than it has following it. Sounds like a bank that is keen to listen as well as it talks!

Not only does anzmoneymanager interact well with it’s mostly Gen Y target market, it also delivers a valuable, free online service. More importantly, for financial services industry sceptics to note, the ANZ twitter presence delivers leads to another site, anzmoneymanager.com, as well as ‘buzz’.

The author and her firm are not currently engaged by any of the brands mentioned.

GFC + social media = new religion

How financial services players are turning to social media

With all the hubbub about twitter in conventional media, financial services execs seem suddenly to have found religion. Or at least, the curiosity to search for their social media spirituality.

Shrinking budgets and greater public scrutiny - thanks to the global financial crisis (GFC) - have helped send many of our financial services clients, and their audiences, online.

As investors open superannuation emails or statements, many feel cold hard fear. The fear is that they’ve lost a large amount of their life’s savings with anxiety over whether their super will recover. In such a time, some institutions stand out as using social media well - to contact, educate, reassure or interact with nervous clients and customers. Success of these efforts will partly be judged in the long-term by how many investors stick with their investment strategy, riding out the cycle.

Within the finance sector, Australian banks, perhaps, have least to lose by taking their PR and marketing online. This could be why they’ve made significant steps to do so, fast followed by others such as fund managers and financial planning firms.

So what’s new in financial services online communication since the GFC hit home?
Interactive newsletters and investor reports, weekly email investment updates, bank blogs, regular fund manager video updates or podcasts, ever-better online media centres and far, far better content. There’s a growing realisation that home-grown content must be as good, or better, than what mass media produce. This is particularly important as online communication deals direct with a real, live and sometimes vocal public.

Beyond monitoring social media, the financial services industry is more active in protecting and managing their reputations online. The GFC has been responsible, in some part, for a more sudden shift online.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Annual Reports & Shareholder Reviews - avoiding the 'house of pain'

Here are some practical tips for those involved in the annual report & shareholder review process, written by one with some scar tissue on the subject. While some aspects of the reporting process are outside corporate affairs or investor relations control, many things can be done to make the process more efficient and produce a higher quality product.

Want the 30 second version? This week I'll also post Top 5 things in best annual reports and Top 5 annual report shortcuts.

The annual report house of pain
This is when:
- a process starts without clear criteria
- everyone is an expert on language, images, design and content
- hence no-one agrees
- deadlines are missed
- things are done at the last minute and of course...
- quality suffers.

Throw in a 4am finish and you have a living hell.

Typically at some point in this nightmare (usually too late) the CEO will decide that they really doesn’t like a particular image and they want it changed. Or the General Counsel will suggest the language and punctuation needs their personal stamp on it. And who can blame them? There were probably no clear criteria set out for the visual identify or language style guide of the document to start with.

It sounds simple, but some clear objectives and criteria for the annual document suite can make judging success far easier. How to decide what success looks like for this year’s report?

Simply look around at your peers, previous experience, and best practice sources then take the draft objectives for the document and criteria (for messages, images and overall meaning) to your CEO and then Chairman. This needs to happen BEFORE anything else. How do we brief designers, writers or contributors if we don’t know what our criteria are for a successful report in the first place? How can the effectiveness of the reports be judged if no one set out objectives? The answer “poorly” and “I don’t know”.

Similarly, if you don’t have a style guide, you better get one fast before the documents are written. If you don’t have a style guide everything is up for debate - which word to use, how abbreviations are referenced, and where the comma goes, and on...and on...and on.

Audience analysis
Annual reports and shareholder reviews are for shareholders... but are read and interpreted by everyone from analysts to customers, employees, suppliers and high school economics students. We may care more, or less, about some of these audiences but we do need to know who matters most. We also, I argue, need data about what the most critical audience or two currently thinks about the company.

Typically at least one part of an annual report or review is a message driven document. Companies invested significant sums in creating and delivering messages to audiences. This is almost pointless if you don’t have facts (not your ‘gut feel’) about what those critical audiences think, THEN create messages and deliver them in a way that works for, or influences, the current mindset of the most important audiences.

Right now, whether talking to retail or institutional investors, humility goes a long way. How do we know? Because it makes sense but it’s also backed up by data from investor research telling us just how annoyed some shareholders and investors are.

Ultimately I have no doubt most annual reports have great ‘bones’. However some are limp, lifeless things with no clear logic in the presentation of information.

Starting with good structure, before anyone begins to draft and two things happen. First the document writes itself. Phew. Second, no one can find a word out of place because the logic and simplicity of a good structure is that every word fits in the right spot with crossword-like precision.

Overall document structure
This you can glean from convention - competitor reports, your own previous years’ reports, best practice guides such as the AICD or Australasian Reporting Awards and of course any major focus for the year. This document structure is increasingly a content hierarchy rather than a typical fishbone ‘table of contents’.

And please, if you are doing an online version, do not create an ‘online table of contents’ that mimics the printed document. It’s not good use of readers’ time and it wastes a perfect opportunity to actually communicate a message. BHP Billiton [URL] is a great example of how to use this space for messages rather than a bland listing of contents that sit behind the first report or review landing page.

Formula for each section
The format for each report section can also be gleaned from convention. The Chairman’s letter, video or transcript may differ in structure to a divisional report but there is a basic common format.

It’s this:
1. The result, compared to the previous corresponding period.
2. The things that led to that result – company driven or from the external environment
3. How it compares to a relevant reference - others in the market, the overall market or more on previous years’.
4. How this result will be repeated, improved on, or avoided in the year to come.

Tip – the best reports talk to streakers, strollers and scholars - see here for more: http://financialservicesmarketingpr.blogspot.com/2009/04/streakers-strollers-scholarsyes-they.html.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What NOT to do as professional communicators in the GFC

With an admittedly ‘ghastly’ outlook for 2009, how do you communicate to clients and other stakeholders in the year ahead?

While it’s tempting to keep a low profile, the strongest findings (http://www.reputationinstitute.com/index) about reputation show that leadership and communication are more important than ever in a crisis.

Reputations are made or broken in troubled times. As PR & marketing people in the financial services industry we can't singlehandedly solve the global financial crisis - but we can show leadership in how we respond.

Before we talk about leadership in future blogs, here are my top suggestions about what NOT to do:

1. Say nothing
2. Be overly optimistic
3. Make promises you can’t keep
4. Imply you know what’s going to happen now
5. Ignore technology such as webcasts, email, Skype or your website
6. Fail to educate your client with what you do know, as soon as you know it.