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Hiring, Firing, WOM, Hispanic Markets and Other PR Hot Buttons—Worldcom Chair Reveals What Keeps PR Execs Up at Night


Bulldog Reporter's Daily Dog 


Issue Date: Daily Dog - November 8, 2007

Hiring, Firing, WOM, Hispanic Markets and Other PR Hot Buttons—Worldcom Chair Reveals What Keeps PR Execs Up at Night

Brian Pittman's spotlight this week: John Bliss, Chair-Elect, Worldcom Public Relations Group

PR practitioners from across North and South America converged at the Worldcom Public Relations Group Annual Americas Meeting in Miami last month to compare how their firms are handling key challenges and opportunities. At the gathering, Worldcom—the globe's largest network of independent PR firms, with some 100 member firms with offices in 133 cities worldwide—dug deep into industry pain, focusing on key areas of the business that are keeping practitioners up at night, including: growing the business, understanding the impact of Web 2.0, and recruiting and retaining talent.

Over 100 people attended the conference, the largest attendance in the network's history. For a snapshot of takeaways, we checked in with John Bliss, chair-elect of the Americas region board of directors for Worldcom and principal/founder of Bliss Gouverneur and Associates. He is also a member and past president of the Public Relations Society: New York, and a member of the Public Relations Society of America. Details—and solutions—for the top issues facing PR today, starting with retention:

Why is retention and keeping the best people longer so important these days?

The economy is good, and firms are raiding each other for talent. Ask ten people running PR firms, and I'll be astounded if eight don't say their biggest challenge right now is hiring and retaining good people. It's on everybody's mind to the same degree as it was from 1998 to 2001. From 2002 to 2004, it became a buyer's market, and now is a seller's market again. It's a talent war and it's brutal.


What are the key conference takeaways -- how do you build a "culture of retention"?

You basically have to get a better match between the business strategy, job requirements and the people who are filling them. Brad Thomas, from the HR consulting firm Development Dimensions International, spoke on this. Their research found a disparity between what job seekers wanted and what hiring managers thought they wanted.

For example, 74% of seekers wanted an organization they could be proud to work for. Only 55% of staffing directors thought that would be the case. As for having a creative or fun workplace culture, 67% of seekers thought that important, while 43% of staffing directors did. Compatible work teams: 67% seekers thought this was important, while only 37% of staffing directors thought so. Staffing directors gave their highest marks (at 69%) to having opportunities to learn and grow. But job seekers put this much higher at 78%.

Another interesting thing they shared was that there's a disparity in terms of what's important by age group. For people aged 21-40, the most important things were having opportunities to learn and grow, as well as having opportunities to advance. For people aged 41-50, that is second most important thing—having a good manager or boss trumps it. When you get above 50, having a good boss becomes the most important and second is working for an organization you can be proud of. Not everyone can honestly look at those things and say they can't improve somewhere.


What can managers do about those things -- how doe we keep the best and brightest?

Start by building your employment brand. It will be pretty evident by looking at first page of your website whether you're concerned about your employees or not. For example, do you have an ";about us" or ";leadership" link or page profiling your greatest assets and what they bring to the brand? Do you have opportunities for advancement listed or do you run all of that externally? Do you have words in your vision or mission statements like ";committed to helping staff reach their potential personally and professionally"? Do you have benefits listed? Career seminars? Do you have an Intranet that keeps everybody clued into the key management issues?

If not, you probably don't have a culture of retention. People look for that stuff when hunting for jobs. It's the first thing they look for. Where is your company profile? Your mission? How many clicks in are contact details for your staff? For example, all of our employees have their pictures and bios on our site. Some are humorous and show real personality. We don't hide our best talent. Other heads of firms say I'm crazy to put them out there because recruiters may come after them. According to the consultants, doing these things actually reinforces employee loyalty and attracts people to the company. If you find yourself unwilling to do those kinds of things when it comes to things like retention, chances are you're not a good place to work.


What other practical steps can managers take to stem turnover?

You need to know what you stand for and be realistic in job interviews so you don't oversell the positions. Also: Know what drives and motivates potential employees. Probe them during the hiring process. What really turns them on? Once you have hired them, check their pulse on the job regularly—not just at annual reviews. Part of that is being more of a mentor to your best staff and not a controlling manager.

So overall, start the process right in your values and mission, don't oversell or misrepresent during interviews, and create development plans for staff. All the studies show that they want growth. Help them plot that growth.


Why is word of mouth such a major area of focus for PR firms now?
The speaker from Harris Interactive, SVP Jim Hopkins, spoke on this. What they're saying is that WOM is increasing because there's declining trust in traditional institutional sources like religion, newspapers, public schools and big business. People don't trust advertising, either. For example, Yankelovich research from 2005 showed that 76% of people don't believe companies tell truth in ads. By the same token, an Edelman study in 2003 found that 68% of people trust other people—which is exactly what word of mouth taps into. The study also showed that 59% of people forward information found online to colleagues, peers, family and friends. That represents a very important are of focus for communicators.


OK, what guidelines can you share for using WOM in today's Web 2.0 world?

Some principles of WOM were shared during the Harris session. The first was that not all social networks are equal and not all individuals in a given social network have equal influence. So marketers or communicators must work to find the right influencers and they have to find a way to give them a positive experience about the brand. Principle two is that WOM happens in the context of a specific situation and occasion. What that means is that WOM has a number of dimensions. You need to account for them all and their interconnectivity. It's not a plug-and-play thing—and it can't be about blanket outreach. The third principle was that people make decisions based on a complex interplay of cognitive preferences and emotional benefits. They make decisions about products on elements ranging from product attributes, to the functional and emotional consequences of those attributes. This notion is relevant to any type of marketing—but especially WOM. I think it basically means that the more personally relevant the products and messages are, the more likely consumers will engage and pass them along—but only if you know the emotional core or trigger that will facilitate sharing and build loyalty. This basically boils down to the power of values, persuading by reason and motivating through emotion. If you tap into emotion through personal values, WOM can be an effective brand building tool.

The fourth principle is that the consumer environment in which WOM succeeds is constantly changing. The message here seems to be that you've got to do things like monitor blogs and be up to date on influencers, negative and positive, on a moment-to-moment basis. That also requires faster execution in campaigns. A fifth principle that came out of the presentation was that negative messages spread more quickly in a social network than positive. But consumers aren't motivated by spite. They're motivated by a genuine desire to save others from making bad decisions. So your business plan should encompass how to influence and leverage positive WOM and how to neutralize the negative.

To sum this up—and I might be in the minority here—but I think the take away, especially for b-to-b companies, is that the rise of WOM is a good warning signal. Now is the time to investigate how you might include WOM in your programs. It's out there and you don't want it happening without your engagement. Understand it. Incorporate it. If you're in PR on this and you want some of that budget tied to WOM, then move in this direction quicker than the ad folks. Show leadership, or at the very least, interest in this area.

One of the sessions addressed communicating with the growing Hispanic market—what take aways can you share on that?

The Hispanic market has grown incredibly. One indication of that is that Nielsen Media Research announced it was adding 1400 Hispanic families to its 12,000 Home People Meter national ratings system.

We actually had two presentations on the Hispanic market. One of them was by three journalists with Spanish language publications in the U.S.: Hispanic Market Weekly, Vista magazine insert, and Poder, an upscale publication. One of the take aways was that the key to successfully communicating with the Hispanic community lies in understanding their similarities and differences. For example, there are real differences in terms of language use across the community.

For example, not all Hispanics speak Spanish or are bilingual. Other areas of differentiation include country of origin, generational differences, political persuasion, immigrant versus being U.S. born, education and so on. In terms of similarities, family and familial relationships are highly valued, many may have a longer time threshold for getting things done and a more relaxed sense of privacy, and spirituality and religion are emphasized at a higher degree. 

The lessons for PR are many, but really boil down to: recognizing that Hispanic media channels are growing at a faster rate than ever before, they're seeing more integration and partnerships between Anglo and Hispanic press (the Telemundo-NBC partnership, for example), it's not critical that you communicate in Spanish with most leading Hispanic media outlets, and this market is rich with opportunities to communicate your message to a welcoming, highly local and responsive audience.


Why is new media and Web 2.0 such an opportunity for PR?

It's more than an opportunity—it's a necessity. Let me illustrate; Nielson's SVP Steve McGowan pointed out that the audience for broadcast news is aging precipitously. The median age for ";60 Minutes" is 62. ";NBC Nightly News" is 61. "ABC World News Tonight" is 61. "CBS Evening News" is 60. The "Today" show is 58. "Good Morning America" is 55. "Dateline" and "20/20"—none of them have a median age under 51. The median age of prime time TV viewers by channel is similar: For Fox News Channel, it's 66. CNN is 63. CNBC delivers 58. The numbers don't come down until you're dealing with CBS affiliates, at 53. NBC and ABC affiliates are 48.


So what do those surprising media age findings mean for PR readers?

In today's environment, Nielsen's motto is they're "following video." Viewers want to watch what they want, when they want, where they want. Video on demand out of the home is making this happen. So if that's where the audience is going—we need to follow them there and build a presence there. The trend is basically the Tivo-ization of media, and the tip is: Go where the viewers are. Measure everything and follow your audiences.


What does this mean in terms of "messaging" versus medium?

Reaching today's fragmented audiences is increasingly complex. You need a variety of messaging platforms to keep up with consumer electronic trends, and you need to approach each of your different audiences with authentic, tailored messages and voice. If the audience is fragmented, that basically means cookie-cutter messaging won't work anymore.

What do you love about this business? Why do you do it?

I really love the people in it. I'm a curious guy. I spent some years as a journalist and then worked for my dad in a small firm. I was able to write. If you like to learn new things, you can't have better job than PR. Also, writing was important for me at the beginning. But as time evolved, it's become more about going into a pitch, learning about a new business and finding a strategic fit. That's what I enjoy. Also satisfying is having started a company with just me and a secretary. We're now a firm of 30+ people. Watching the firm and people working here grow is a reward in itself.


Something most people don't know about you -- and how does it influence your work?

I spent four years as an Air Force officer. I was administrative, so I just flew a desk. But I learned more about myself and people management in two-and-a-half years in Idaho as a squadron commander than I did in grad school.


Like what -- what did you learn in the military that you applied to PR?

Whether in the Air Force or acting as the head of PR firm, you don't get things done by ordering people to do it. Instead, show them the right way and persuade them it's the best way. People say the military is easy because it's all about who outranks who and giving or taking orders. Well, that's BS. Things don't work that way. It's not effective.

I don't like long meetings, but one thing I learned from an old master sergeant was that sometimes a meeting has to be prolonged to get an issue on table that has to be solved. Otherwise it's worthless. The first few times he prolonged meetings, I was frustrated. But he was right. I have tried to remember that and not have penchant for shorter meetings that preempt solutions.

I got bored in Idaho and started a PR firm while in Air Force. My first client was the Air Force credit union. My second was Mountain Home Tire Store, and my third was the Mountain Home Chamber of Commerce. I learned that the principles of PR are the same in Idaho as they are in New York City. If you have a good message and it's well written, you can get it out and drive the behaviors you want.


How has Worldcom helped your business?

Joining Worldcom in 1997 was the best strategic decision our firm made in that decade. I anticipated getting greater national and international coverage for our clients. That's why we joined. What I didn't anticipate was the tremendous wealth of best practices that I learned and the relationships, both professional and personal, that we developed.