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What I Learned From the Marines

I had the great pleasure last week of being invited, along with some other local media and social media mavens, to get a ride in an MV-22 Osprey, the Marine Corps' VTOL transport aircraft. The reason? Marine Week Boston 2010.

What I expected was a highly choreographed, "by the book" process with very little flexibility (but plenty of "hurry up and wait"). Marines have a reputation for taking orders and taking them well, after all. What I got, however, was in many ways very different.

It was far from the top-down, command-and-control exercise I was expecting. What we got instead was a case study in (extremely successful) organization chaos. This was, after all, only the second Marine Week ever held, and the first one in Boston, and trying to account for every last variable when planning an event is next to impossible, especially when you're trying to keep a bunch of social media mavens happy and out of trouble (read, "herd cats"), move multi-million dollar equipment around and showcase what is probably the most misunderstood branch of the military.

Marine Week Boston 2010 was successful not only due to the amazing planning of the organizing team; it was successful because the Marines have built a culture that survives -- and indeed thrives -- in the most difficult of environments and circumstances. From the ground up, the Marine culture (surprisingly only to those who don't hang around Marines much) encourages discourse, independent thought and initiative; while still respecting authority and the dignity of everyone (you will never meet a more polite, respectful American than a Marine).

So how can we, as communicators, learn from this event, and from the Marine Corps in general? Here are a few takeaway lessons for all communicators, whether you're planning a big event or not:

  1. Prepare yourself for change. Marine aren't born, they're reborn. They are pulled from the undisciplined herd and introduced, through a rigorous process, to the Marine culture. They learn not only to shoot and swim like a Marine, but most importantly to think like a Marine. Just like every single graduate of MCRD Parris Island or MCRD San Diego, we as business leaders and communicators must relearn everything we know about business communications before we can continue to succeed.
  2. Sweat the small stuff. Marine Week Boston wasn't successful because of the masterful planning of the organizers (though they did a great job), it was successful because the Marines involved were detail oriented. From they day a recruit trainee has to break down and rebuild his or her M16, Marines learn that big tasks can be accomplished in small steps.
  3. Command-and-control doesn't scale. Marine culture can surprise many people. Far from being unthinking killing machines, Marines are taught to think independently -- to follow orders but not be afraid to question them if they go against Marine Corps values or their code of conduct. The Marine Corps functions in chaos because every Marine is trained and empowered to be able to step up to the plate and assume the mantle of leadership. Similarly, we as communicators and business leaders must make sure everyone in our organization is ready to do the same. Which brings me to #4:
  4. Trust me. Just like a Marine must be able to trust every other Marine in his or her platoon, you must learn to trust that not only the members of your marketing, communications and PR teams, but every employee, and ultimately, every customer understands and is empowered to be able to spread the word about your organization. Sure, the recruiters are the bread and butter when it comes to getting the word out about the Marine Corps, but Marines are learning to trust all of their Marines with communicating to the public, going so far as to recently lift the ban on social media.

Thank you to everyone involved for giving me the flight of a lifetime (500 feet over Boston with the back door open!) and reminding me of some important life and business lessons.

Oh, here's the best video of the trip, recorded and edited by Eric Schwartzman:

And my longer video:

See other writeups from our adventure below:

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Listening with your Mouth

My son talks a LOT. We joke that his mouth has always been an exit: spitting up as  baby, drooling and then talking, talking, talking talking.

We keep telling him that he has 2 eyes, 2 ears, 2 nostrils but only one mouth. More information should come in than goes out. He doesn't like to hear that, and it doesn't stop him from talking about stuff. Frankly, talking is his "default setting," it's how he interacts with his environment. He asks questions, he (sometimes) listens to the answers and he gathers data.

It's like how people use Twitter.

The mantra in the social media world is "you must be listening," but I'm quickly realizing that "listening" means talking. Frankly, the social media world rewards talking more than listening, it's why people put out Tweets every day that say things like "what a wonderful morning!" It doesn't add much to the overall conversation factually, but it keeps them in front of others and provides a positive attitude.

This struck home the other day when hen a Twitter glitch dropped everyone's followers to 0, I found out about the problem by reading my stream. Frankly, I wouldn't have noticed if it wasn't pointed out, since I use Tweetdeck and don't see my follower numbers unless I actively look. But a number of people noticed it. A quick search on my stream brought me to a number of articles that had already been posted on the subject, including a few about the Force-follow command.

The whole event sparked some interesting conversations and jokes. Ellen Rossano asked what happens if all this suddenly goes away. It's surprising how quickly we've begun to rely on the Twitter stream for information.

But well into the Twitter-pocolypse I still saw tweets from people who had been around for quite a while (and, before the glitch, had many, many followers) saying "What happened to my followers, does anyone know?" That said to me that they weren't listening.

When I called it out on Twitter, Amy Black pointed out that many people aren't following their stream all day. It's a fair point. But then, why not use the search? Why not see what's there before speaking? The answer, I believe, is that asking the question is a way of listening, put out a tweet and see what comes back.

But I still think the ears work better than the mouth.

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Google Moves the Earth

The earth moved under the feet of the PR industry earlier this month when Google did something simple: it distributed its own earnings announcement. It didn’t rely on one of the paid channels such as Businesswire, PR Newswire or Marketwire (among others).

To the untrained eye this seems rather simple. Companies put out content all the time, why is this any different?

I’m not going to try to rehash the idea that the press release is dead. It’s not. PRWeb pointed out at the MarketingProfs event this week that they will distribute 90,000 press releases this year alone. That’s just one service.

A lot of people saw Google’s move as an opportunity to talk about the Social Media Release, but that’s just another way to put content out through the same channel, it’s not a real change.

No, the trick here is understanding the different channels and how channels differ from form. Wire services offer a different distribution channel and for public companies it’s an important channel.  On a very basic level wire services smooth out a lot of the bumps in putting out an earnings announcement. Let’s face it, the Securities and Exchange Commission doesn’t make things easy, so if you want to make sure you satisfy all the fine print within their fair-disclosure rules you may as well just hand your announcements over to them and be done. Paying $5000 or so per release certainly beats the legal fees you could add up by messing things up on your own.

That said, wire services aren’t the ONLY way to get news out. For some companies, like Google, their blog or online newsroom speaks directly to investors.  Why not engage them there? Also, just because you have a channel doesn't mean you're restricted to form. You can have a blog full of "press releases" and a press release that looks like a blog post. You can write an interesting news-based story and put it out on a wire service. If you're Conan O'Brien you can even write a letter.

Howard Berkenblit, a partner in the Corporate Department at Sullivan and Worcester, who spoke with the Fresh Ground Podcast a while back, told me recently that the SEC ruling regarding putting out material news on blogs boils down to making sure you have an established news channel before using it. Google has certainly done that.

But what does this mean for the wire services? Phyllis Dantuono, executive vice president and chief operating officer for BusinessWire says it doesn’t mean much.  “Bottom line is that we do not anticipate any major changes in how companies will communicate with the marketplace in the future,” she said in a written statement.  “Most companies clearly recognize the risks and limitations of the SEC's interpretive Guidance Release, and have wisely decided to stick with a disclosure system that works.”

BusinessWire also sent along a MotleyFool.com article that went so far as to call Google’s decision “evil.” Rich Smith laments that Google has created a fragmented system in which “investors could soon be forced to scan the websites of every company they own, daily, continually, to be certain of not missing out on important news.”

I think this misses the mark entirely. I’m sure Smith doesn’t have only one source for news today. In fact, he probably has some sort of new aggregator that helps him find the news he wants, probably some sort of RSS reader. He probably also has Google News alerts that tell him when something goes live. Then there’s the fact that companies come out with earnings announcements on a pretty strict schedule, so it’s not like these are surprises. No, Google hasn’t made the news more difficult to find, they’ve just slightly changed how you access it.

In fact, they made it a little easier. Former Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz had argued for years that the SEC’s disclosure rules unfairly favored the few. Subscribers to the wire services received the news, while those who didn’t were left waiting. Putting important news out on a blog, the argument goes, fixes that. Well, that is, unless we run into a situation in which companies like Comcast control whose content gets green lighted.

Still, there’s an action here for small, private companies to consider: where do you put your news? Our suggestion here at Fresh Ground is to establish your own news channel through an online newsroom. Not just a stagnant place where you repost your press release, but an interactive social media newsroom that lets you post different types of content and lets your audience interact with and share that content. Todd has been working hard with the IABC on establishing this sort of thing.

But the most important reason for establishing your own news channel is that despite Dantuono’s assertion that many companies will continue to use wire services, I believe that many won’t. When the earnings announcements disappear, so will much of the available revenue for wire services.

I’m not saying the wire service channel will die out entirely, but you will certainly see a thinning over the next couple of years. I can’t guarantee that the big players will continue to thrive, since some of the smaller players (like PitchEngine) do similar work for less money and a lower overhead.

So your best move may be to create your own and as you engage with your customers, partners, investors and other influencers, let them know where your news will end up first.

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Manish Mehta on the Nuclear Option: Fresh Ground #15

A little less that two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of moderating a panel on how big and small sized companies made the culture shift necessary to realize success in the world of the truly social company. The panelists were Andrew Sinkov of Evernote, and Manish Mehta, one of the original founders of Dell.com and VP of social media and community there.

Due to the #ashtag incident, the original keynoter, Neville Hobson, was unable to attend the event, and Manish was asked to step up and present, which he did. His story, in which he draws parallels between the rise of social media and the rise of nuclear power, was provocative and thoughtful, and we’re including an excerpt of it as this week’s Fresh Ground podcast. You can catch the full audio on the Fresh Ground blog.

The keynote will also be featured in an upcoming For Immediate Release Sessions & Speakers episode.

So here are some excerpts from the first part of Manish’s presentation on measuring social media and business value:

Listen Now:

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Our opening music is "D.I.Y." by A Band Called Quinn from the album "Sun Moon Stars" and is available from Music Alley, the Podsafe Music Network.

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The Importance of Measurement

The Boston Social Media Club had a great event on Thursday on the importance of measurement for both small and large companies. I encourage you to have a look and listen.

The video from last week's great panel is up, thanks to Brilliant Video (see below)!

Christopher S. Penn's slides, and more video content, is available at the Blue Sky Factory website.

There's a great write-up of the event on Janet Gershen-Siegel's blog.

SMC Boston 4/29/2010 Measuring Social Success (Big & Small) from Brilliant Video Productions on Vimeo.

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