You could only feel inadequate, insignificant, in the presence of Willie Mays, Billie Jean King, Harry Bellafonte and Andrew Young. 

That’s how nearly 1,200 of us felt Saturday afternoon at the Beacon of Light Luncheon, part of Major League Baseball’s Civil Right Game weekend in Cincinnati.

As I listened to Billie Jean King, I could only reflect on how what she lived and fought for made it possible for my daughter to be an NCAA scholarship athlete.  Before King, before Title IX, before Bobby Riggs, my daughter’s chances would have been more limited.  After King and because of her my daughter’s world – all of our world – is bigger and better.

When Willie Mays reflected on the hardship he faced as a black player coming up in a white man’s game, he said, “the more they knocked me down, the farther I hit the ball.”  So simple yet so profound. So heroic and so right.  My memories of Mays are the grainy black-and-white film clip of him chasing the fly ball in center field of the polo grounds and spinning and sending it back to the inflield before he falls.  A truly great athlete who transcended his sport.

Harry Bellafonte was the bigger-than-life movie star.  Handsome, poised, poignant.  He turned great talent and fame into social activism, at a dangerous time and at his own peril.

Ambassador Andrew Young was the keynote.  He reflected on the role that sports can play in breaking down barriers – between people, between races and between countries.  He reflected on the most memorable moment for him in the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games during the Opening Ceremonies when the young athletes from Israel, Iran and Iraq entered the stadium together.  “Only in sport..,” he said, “only in sport.”

I offer these reflections as a witness, a participant, in a great event featuring great people who did great things. 

Of course, the common thread through all of their accomplishments (besides exceptional talent and skill combined with passion and purpose) was how they used celebrity and platforms for communication to affect change.  Their relationships – based on what they communicated, to whom and when – were their instruments of change.  As a professional communicator, this fact was not lost on me.

They may or may not have realized all this when they were living through it.  It didn’t matter.  What mattered was that they knew the more they did what they did better than any one else enabled them to change our society in ways that we all benefit from today.

Post by Nick Vehr – 5.16.10

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See that guy?  He’s right over there with the coffee stain down his shirt.  That’s the most important guy in the room.

Why?  Because he has a smartphone and he’s reviewing your café… right now.

Consider all the things that you, the business owner, couldn’t possibly know about our coffee-stained friend:  he has more than 853 friends on Facebook; 1,231 followers on Twitter; he’s a top-rated reviewer on Urban Spoon; and, in the time it took his friend to go to the bathroom, he’s posted his review to all those sites.  You can only hope that coffee didn’t burn his tongue.

It’s a smartphone world out there – Blackberries, iPhones, Droids.  With an estimated 45 million users in the U.S. alone and an expected 80 million users by 2011, this is technology that your business can’t ignore.  Good communication with your employees and your customers is and has always been foundational, but the rise of mobile illustrates corresponds to the growing risk of negative interactions as well as the potential for positive experiences to have a ripple effect on your business.

Think about this.  Just a few days ago, mobile location-based application Foursquare hit its 40 millionth check-in.  Just five weeks prior, the company reported it had hit 22 million check-ins.   The mobile phenomena is growing and growing rapidly and you can’t afford to miss its opportunities.

Oh, and if you’re asking what the heck a check-in is, take a minute to read up on Foursquare and similar site Gowalla.

Posted by Katie Denis, Account Executive (@katiefoxdenis)
The views expressed in this post are mine alone and do not reflect the views of Vehr Communications, LLC.

Relationships are complex.  We can all attest to this.  You don’t have to be a sociology major (I only minored) to recognize how multifaceted, difficult, confusing, yet rewarding most relationships can be. 

All relationships are packaged differently, and unfortunately most come unassembled, and without a user manual.  Knowing what or what not to say, how to say it, when to say it and who should say it is important especially when a relationship is damaged. 

How you communicate during a crisis is critical.  Similar to personal relationships, corporations should exude humility to admit mistakes quickly, directly and with sincerity.  Simply sweeping an issue under the rug will ultimately cause more resentment, uncertainty and distrust.

Recently, a concerned friend sought my advice about a relationship that was fragile and on the verge of breaking if not handled properly.  Her relationship was facing a crisis.  When encountering a crisis it is never planned and almost always unexpected.   Being taken off guard, finding oneself in the midst of a crisis, can happen (and probably has) to us all, and corporate relationships with its stakeholders, consumers and the general public, aren’t immune.

Identifying in advance issues that may arise can prevent a potential crisis.  Vehr Communications recommends the following to be included in a crisis plan.

• Identify the crisis management team
• Identify issues that could develop into crises
• Establish crisis management protocol and best practices
• Outline crisis communications channels for each audience
• Guide media outreach and interviews
• Provide a detailed contact list for offices, media and business partners

Although not an easy task, your relationship manual needs to be written.   This manual (a.k.a. crisis communication plan) helps assemble the pieces, maintain and strengthen relationships and safeguard reputations.  In my friend’s case, I was the writer of her manual. In other instances, one may ask a mentor, parent or coworker to put pen to paper.  For corporations, strategic communications firms are good choices.

Whatever your approach, bear in mind that effective, strategic communication is important across the relationship spectrum.  Owning a manual that isn’t as user friendly as hoped, filled with insufficient insight and blank pages puts your relationships and reputation at risk.  Be smart, be prepared, and always use bubble wrap.

Posted by Kelsey Clark, Account Manager (5.12.2010)
The views expressed in this post are mine alone and do not reflect the views of Vehr Communications, LLC.

On April 20, an explosion aboard Deepwater Horizon, a drilling rig leased by BP, killed 11 crew members and created a leak that has spewed 85,000 barrels of oil to date into the Gulf of Mexico.  For BP, the responsible party, it is a crisis of epic proportion.

But long before and independent of a crisis, companies spend time and money building their reputations.  And should a crisis occur, it may be a good reputation that allows them to weather the storm.

BP’s oil spill perfectly illustrates the symbiotic relationship between reputation and crisis plan by proving how quickly a painstakingly built reputation can be destroyed.  BP has spent many years and many millions (likely billions) crafting its “green” reputation.  BP was the first oil company to publicly acknowledge the dangers of global warming; it has invested heavily in alternative energies like wind and solar; it worked to get its carbon emissions down to 1990 levels.  While the Gulf spill doesn’t take away the environmental benefits of those actions, it could very well take away from BP’s bottom line.

The question that will have to be answered in the aftermath of the spill is whether or not the green and yellow sunburst remains a signal to gas guzzlers that they are making an environmentally sounder choice.  How BP responds to this crisis will frame that question.  Words have weight and the wrong ones can bring quick and easy ruin.  Examples abound: John Kerry voting for Iraq war funding before he voted against it; embattled auto executives flying to their congressional hearing in a private jet; George Allen calling video tracker Shekar Sidarth “Macaca.”

In recent weeks, BP’s CEO Tony Hayward has been on the media circuit doing damage control. His press tour offers some important crisis communications takeaways:

  1. Acknowledge Responsibility and Don’t Whine
    “This wasn’t our accident,” Hayward said on ABC’s Good Morning America.  “This was a drilling rig operated by another company. It was their people, their systems, their processes. We are responsible not for the accident, but we are responsible for the oil and for dealing with it and for cleaning the situation up.”
    When surprised host George Stephanopoulos asked Hayward to clarify his statement that BP was not responsible for the accident, Hayward reinforced that it was Transocean’s “equipment that’s failed; it was their systems and processes that were running it.”

    Transocean, the drilling company that operated the rig, certainly has a role to play, but it doesn’t change the fact that BP is the responsible party that entered into a lease with Transocean.  By attempting to shift some of the blame, Hayward came across as whiny and petulant when he should have been reassuring and confident.

    A simple change of wording would have accomplished invoking Transocean without sounding petty: The drilling rig was operated by another company, Transocean, but BP is taking responsibility and working around the clock to clean up the leak.

  2. Don’t blame the victims
    As the oil continues to gush into the Gulf, damage claims are also surging.  Hayward promised that BP would honor “all legitimate claims for business interruption.”  It’s perfectly acceptable for him to use the word legitimate – why would BP honor illegitimate claims, after all – but Hayward went on to say, “This is America – come on.  We’re going to have lots of illegitimate claims.  We all know that.”
    Yes, there will be illegitimate claims, but that is for scores of lawyers to work out.  Hayward’s dubious comment undermined what should have been a positive message about BP’s concern for victims of this spill.
  3. Create Actionable Plans
    The Wall Street Journal reported that BP’s general spill plan indicated that the worst spill from the company’s mobile drilling operations would be from its Mississippi Canyon 462 rig, which had the potential to leak as many as 250,000 barrels a day, 50 times the estimated size of the current leak.  The plan also claimed that it had sufficient booms, dispersants and skimmers to handle a spill significantly larger than the one it is now struggling to stop.
    Not only does the above example create a communications problem for BP, it also highlights that plans have no value unless they are realistically actionable.  The same is true of a crisis communications plan.  It’s not enough to just have one.  You need to understand and be prepared to use one.

Of course, it’s easy to be a critic.  So, in the interest of fairness, here are a few of the things BP is doing right:

  • Branding it the “Gulf of Mexico response” to prevent it being cemented in history as the “BP oil spill.”
  • Giving the spill front-and-center placement on its website home page, rather than forcing viewers to search for a special section or relegating it to news releases.  (In stark contrast, Transocean’s latest news update on its website is from April 26.)
  • Offering resources and phone numbers to report injured wildlife, spill-related damage, and alternative response technology.

In short, crisis communication is not easy.  Media training and live interviews are worlds apart.  The best any company can do is adequately prepare and continually build and strengthen a good reputation.

Posted by Katie Denis, Account Executive (@katiefoxdenis)
The views expressed in this post are mine alone and do not reflect the views of Vehr Communications, LLC.

As someone engaged daily in social media, I feel like I am completely up-to-date on breaking news, world news, upcoming trends, celebrity gossip and most importantly what is going on in my “friends’” lives.

Before there were fan pages, groups, marketplaces and applications, I began reconnecting with former classmates both from elementary and high school. At this time, “friendship” was what Facebook was all about.

But this weekend, as I was enjoying a slice from my favorite pizzeria, I came to a crossroad on answering the question, what is the true value of Facebook? Sitting in the booth next to me at Dewey’s was an old classmate from high school. Although I inferred the man she was sitting with is her new fiancée, the rock on her hand is as large as it is in her Facebook photos, and that the reason she was out having dinner could be because she was celebrating her recent graduation from nursing school, we couldn’t muster up the nerve to turn to each other and simply say hi. I know intimate details about this girl as it is relayed to me through her facebook profile, photo posts and twitter feeds, but the awkwardness of not seeing each other in 10 years made it very uncomfortable to speak face to face.

So here are a few questions I’m lacking an answer for: Are social media websites encouraging the development of relationships? Do online relationships not translate into the real world? Am I wasting my time reconnecting with people from the past (will there be a benefit in the future)? Or should I just simply use Facebook to develop current real-time relationships and connect with businesses?

As Facebook is constantly redeveloping and changing, so are my opinions and applications. Is anyone else seeing this trend?

Posted by: Amy Jones, Account Manager, 5.10.10

Today marks LinkedIn’s seventh birthday (siete años on Cinco de Mayo), making it older than Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and even relative relic MySpace.

Happy birthday, LinkedIn.  Now let me tell you why I hate you.

  1. I already have an active Facebook and Twitter account. What I do not have is lots of spare time to dedicate to another social media application.
  2. Trolls. On Twitter, I’m delighted to get a follower who I do not know.  It pleases my ego that someone wants to read 140 characters of my innermost thoughts.  But on LinkedIn, I’m unnerved by strangers looking to connect (and more often than not, sell me something).
  3. I am not in the job market. (Though I freely acknowledge this is a down economy and could change at any moment, in which case I would be championing LinkedIn.)

But don’t despair, LinkedIn.  There is a silver lining.  I’m willing to entertain the possibility that I may be wrong about you.

For starters, LinkedIn is valued at $1.3 billion.  Considering that I’m worth decidedly less, it seemed only fair that I spend some time determining what it is that’s so great about LinkedIn.  After all, it was just last week that I came around to the value of Twitter.  I’m nothing if not malleable when it comes to social media.

It turns out, there are some compelling benefits.

  1. Referrals. I’ve often found myself searching for vendors with no prior knowledge of the field.  Typically, I’ve sough referrals from people I know and trust.  LinkedIn performs that function, helping me find good vendors, and, even better, allowing prospective clients to find my company.
  2. Increased Visibility. LinkedIn is typically on the first page of my Google search results if I’m looking up an industry, company or person.  If LinkedIn boosts my website’s PageRank, I’m interested.
  3. Recruitment. I want the firm I work for to be successful, and that takes the best talent.  LinkedIn can help find and compare talent, as well as tell you if there are mutual connections.

Ultimately, I’m not sure these benefits are enough to make me a believer, but they’re enough to make me want to keep my profile active and updated.

What do you think?  LinkedIn has more than 50 million users, so please post a comment and tell me why I’m wrong.  My opinion is fluid.

Posted by Katie Denis, Account Executive

As someone not particularly concerned with my friends’ sandwich preferences, I was a late-adopter of Twitter technology.  A born skeptic, I didn’t know what value could be derived from 140 characters of Joe Schmo’s stream of consciousness. 

Despite my reservations, I opened an account because, as with most social media, it seemed like I had to have it, even if I didn’t know what to do with it.  (Ironically, this is exactly what I would advise my clients against.)   I dipped my toe into the Twitter water casually, choosing to be a voyeur of other people’s posts.  I don’t remember my first tweet, but I imagine it was something benign like, “First tweet posted!”  I’m certain it didn’t earn me a single follower.

I am fortunate to work for a firm that embraces and encourages social media, especially coming from the political world, where the thought of “polluting” carefully crafted talking points is sacrilegious.  I started spending my downtime reading about how to leverage social media and how harnessing its power could lead to important (if not accurately measurable) benefits for my clients and for my professional development.

The most difficult thing about Twitter for me was figuring out how to really get started.  Generally, I followed three steps:

  1. I followed the people I found interesting and informative (okay, and also celebrity gossip – nobody’s perfect).  I also made the conscious decision that I would use Twitter for news and information, not to have conversations with friends and family; for me, that’s what Facebook is for.
  2. I retweeted the things I found helpful and worthwhile and found that good retweet was just as beneficial as a brilliant original tweet.
  3. I joined the conversation, sharing articles of interest, social commentary, and occasionally the things that amused me during the day.

But it was not until yesterday that I experienced a Twitter breakthrough. 

Attending the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber’s Bold Fusion conference, participants were encouraged to tweet the proceedings.  As a new owner of a Droid (this is not to invite commentary about the iPhone, only to indicate I am newly capable of twittering on the move), I thought I’d give this “live tweeting” a shot.

Over the course of the four-hour conference, @katiefoxdenis shared 16 tweets with #cincyhype hashtag.  I hadn’t really used hashtags before, but I fully understand the importance of them now.  By looking at all the other tweets under that hashtag, I got to see what other people were reacting to, interpreting, and taking away from the presentations.  I was able to get insights that applause and laughter just can’t reveal.  And I found new, interesting people to follow.

In a few hours, I realized the demonstrated power of this communication medium and how much value could be derived from it.  As it turns out, it’s not all about sandwiches.

Post by Katie Denis, Account Executive – 4.30.10

Well, the annual Cincinnati holiday was yesterday.  Opening Day.  A new beginning.  A rejuvenation.  A rebirth.  All those things and more in Cincinnati.

Of course, in additon to balls and strikes and runs scored (too many by St. Louis for the Reds and its fans), it is also a time to reflect and prepare for what’s ahead … to “reboot” your life and take a look at where you are and where you are going.

Businesses should do the same thing.  Step back and take a look at your company, at your brand, and ask the question, “Does it matter?”

What is your purpose as a company?  Beyond the obvious (being profitable … no margin no mission … we all know that), are you making a difference?

This is the latest focus for most marketers and many, many entrepreneurs.  From former P&G global brand guru Jim Stengel to Trendwatching.com’s recent article about “Brand Butlers: Why Serving is the New Selling,” it’s obvious that what a business does beyond sales matters.

Spring is a great time to ask yourself the same set of questions.  Do I matter?  Does my business matter?  Should we do more?  Can we do more?

Of course, if you’re from Cincinnati, and it is the morning after Opening Day in 2010, you’re hoping the Reds can do a little more today than they did yesterday.

Post by Nick Vehr – 4.6.10

Two seemingly unrelated references in the past several days and it feels to me like back to the future : Google and China; and, Twitter and the telegraph.

Google & China: Some are predicting that Google will leave China (Reuters article) in a few weeks rather than continue government-required although apparently limited filtering of certain news (see today’s WSJ).  The war of words has picked up by Chinese government officials, usually a precursor to government action.

I’m not sure what’s all involved here.  What I am sure of is that it all feels like backward movement.  Google is confronted with a non-option … limited censorship.  Imagine Google being expected (or required) to be an active participant in limiting the free-flow of information.

In short, Google is being asked by the Chinese government to turn back the clock … to do what can’t be done.  They are being asked to limit news-sharing after Chinese citizens have tasted a freer flow of news.  This is going to become very interesting if, indeed, Google leaves China and Chinese people react.

Twitter & the Telegraph:  A fascinating discussion over the weekend with Gary Kebbel, director of the Knight Foundation Journalism Program at a recent IPREX Meeting.  Interestingly, Kebbel, a former newspaper editor, shared that he will be leaving his Knight post to become the new dean of Journalism at the University of Nebraska.

Also in the discussion was Mike Griffin, the new VP of Communications (Public Affairs) for Walt Disney World, also the former managing editor of the Orlando Sentinel.

In a free-ranging dinner conversation about the challenges facing journalism today, mostly brought about by technology advancement and advent of online citizen journalism, these two hard-core journalists were lamenting the dimunition of good, crisp, journalistic writing and the lack of discipline apparent today in capturing the lead and reporting from there.

Kebbel interestingly added that tight, focused, journalistic writing was inspired by the advent of the telegraph and the need to get news from the “wild West” back to the eastcoast establishment.  Telegraph outlets were very limited and reporters stood in line to dictate to fast-fingered telegraph operators.  Out of fairness, reporters were limited to one paragraph of dictation – about 140 characters or so – and then they had to move to the back of the line.  They learned to write their lead and fill in more later.

Kebbel, Griffin and others in the discussion all agreed that Twitter was forcing many to tighten-up and write right, at least from a journalistic perspective.

Interesting, isn’t it?  China seeks to control the news flow and Twitter is making the world better at getting to the (news) point!

Post by Nick Vehr (3.14.10)

Will head to a two-and-a-half day professional development experience tomorrow with IPREX.

IPREX is an international partnership of 80+ independently owned PR (strategic communications) firms from N/S America, E/W Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, and Asia (mostly Pacific Rim countries).  Vehr Communications is the only member from our region (Cincinnati).

Anyway, we’ll hear from Gary Kebbel of the Knight Foundation regarding new models for community newspapers across the country.  I wonder of they have a tablet reader to share?

Our keynote on Saturday morning will be from Disney’s VP of Communications sharing information about “innovations in PR” as a hallmark of the Disney organization.

Of course, we’ll discuss other things of importance to PR firms.  Am really looking forward to time away (albeit very brief) with CEO colleagues. 

May have some insights to share.  I hope so.

Post by Nick Vehr (3.10.10)