Crisis Comms: Why Sony can’t play the victim over “The Interview”

theinterviewIt’s crisis management time for Sony. Forget the celebrity-endorsed concerns over censorship, or the politically-charged debate over bowing to terrorist threats, there are a growing number of observers that are questioning Sony’s judgement in green lighting the film at all.

When Sony Pictures pulled the release of The Interview – a comedy depicting the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un – the flood gates opened and the internet did what it did best; it judged.

From a communications perspective, the problem facing Sony right now is that there are just too many strings to this crisis; from leaked emails containing incendiary comments about Hollywood’s elite and personnel records, to accusations that it’s set a dangerous precedent against freedom of speech.

It can’t have been a decision that was made lightly. In fact Sony only announced the decision after several major US cinema chains pulled the film from their schedules over security fears. Threats purported to have been made by the hackers who infiltrated Sony’s networks last month, suggested audiences at theatres would face a “bitter fate”.

Financially that’s a $44m investment down the pan; but the PR damage will almost certainly push this figure higher.

Sony can’t play the victim

The fundamental problem is that despite being illegally hacked and forced into a corner by one of the last great communist regimes, Sony isn’t able to play the victim. Leaked, and inflammatory emails first saw to that; and now some are questioning whether Sony made a grave error [in artistic judgement] by even approving the project.

Even The LA Times and The Washington Post concede that North Korea has every right to be upset about the film.

Headline from the LA Times

Headline from the LA Times (17th Dec 2014)

Regardless of the politics (I assume the majority are in agreement that living in North Korean is no picnic), let’s not forget that this is a film about the assassination of a living head of state. Reverse the roles and imagine a glossy film, produced in the Middle East, with leading actors and a $44m budget, about the assassination of President Obama or David Cameron; and for good measure throw in a few racial or religious stereotypes.

The Washington Post (16th Dec 2014)

The Washington Post (16th Dec 2014)

Was Sony Pictures a little reckless in pushing this project through?

History is littered with examples of films that lambast foreign leaders – typically those considered enemies of the state. Bin Laden, Hitler, Hussein. They’ve all been targets. Yet, the films that portray their ultimate demise have historically been released after their deaths.  I can’t think of another film that adds a comedic touch to the assassination of a living leader.

Ok, so it’s difficult to feel sorry for Kim Jong-un, but you can kind of see their point.

The North Koreans have made their position clear for several months. A state sponsored media report from June 2014 called the movie an “act of war”. Was it right for hackers to infiltrate Sony’s network, or to make threats against members of the public? Of course not, but Sony Pictures must have known it was treading a fine line when the project was given the green light. Leaked emails from director Seth Rogen even describe the need to make Kim Jong-un’s death “less gory”.

“There are currently four burn marks on his face. We will take out three of them, leaving only one. We reduce the flaming hair by 50%… The head explosion can’t be more obscured than it is because we honestly feel that if it’s any more obscured you won’t be able to tell it’s exploding and the joke won’t work. Do you think this will help?”

Read that again and tell me that this isn’t a little troubling. Yes, we have freedom of speech, but Sony also has a collective moral compass – and let’s not forget that its compass typically points to Japan, a traditionally conservative culture.

Listen, I don’t imagine for one second that this turn of events is going to sway public opinion and open mass sympathy for one of the world’s few remaining dictators. However, Sony Pictures – like any corporation – has a duty of care towards its shareholders. The green light on this film was a risky decision from day one. Studio co-chair Amy Pascal is already in hot water after hacked emails were released and, despite Sony Pictures contributing only 10% to Sony’s revenues, the events of the last few months have undoubtedly hit the company’s share price (which has fallen 5% since the hack was revealed).

Sony Pictures’ PR machine is no doubt working at full-pelt with damage limitation front of mind. It engaged Rubenstein Communications shortly after the hacking scandal to manage the fall-out that undoubtedly follows the release of private emails, salary details and more. It also has to respond customers, politicians and media who will accuse Sony of backing down to terrorists.

If that’s not bad enough the internal battles will also be raging. I’m almost positive the US teams will be battling the Sony Corporate team in Japan – a country where crisis communications means staying tight-lipped.

Crisis recommendations

Firstly, what the team shouldn’t do is focus its strategy around the “freedom of speech” angle. I worry that this is already what it’s doing. Another PR specialist linked to Sony Pictures, Matthew Hiltzik, already tweeted on the subject and tried to instil some FUD by suggesting that journalistic integrity would be next to fall under the hammer of censorship.

Are Sony's PR advisors are exploiting FUD?

Are Sony’s PR advisors are exploiting FUD?

It’s difficult to play the victim-card and cite freedom of speech if you are also being scrutinized for an error in artistic judgement. Freedom of speech is one thing but cultural sensibilities and the question of what’s in good taste is another. This was an error of judgement, plain and simple, and I’d personally be advising them to take that line.

We may live in a word where an email conversation about flaming hair, exploding heads and the acceptable number of burns marks to show on a face is perfectly normal, but there’s still a place for humility.

Free underwear and the art of marketing through LinkedIn

Linkedin has made real progress over the last 24 months. By putting greater focus on content it’s been moving solidly towards improved user engagement; and in return saw its advertising revenue grow 45% in Q3 over the same period last year. However, it’s still not seen as a hotbed for marketing creativity. Brands have typically favoured FaceBook and Twitter as a vehicle for audience engagement and I could probably count the number of great marketing campaigns that use Linkedin on one hand.

What that means is that when a clever campaign is launched it does get attention.

Free underwear & the innate rules of LinkedIn

More so than any other social platform, editorial control across LinkedIn content remains largely self-regulated. Driven by its use as a tool for recruiters (and therefore potential future employers), there’s an unwritten, almost innate rule among LinkedIn users that content should be relevant and professional. The same applies to campaigns, and for me the best campaigns play to this innate understanding.

There are few better examples of this than Fruit of the Loom’s 2013 “Fresh Gigs” campaign. During the five week effort, users who updated their employment status to reflect a new job were contacted through LinkedIn by Fruit of the Loom and offered complimentary, gift-wrapped underwear, because “great-fitting underwear can help you start your workday in a great mood.”


Fruit of the Loom’s Fresh Gig campaign


Yes, it was quirky and part of a wider advertising campaign, but it was a subtle use of an inherent LinkedIn action; notifying your community of a new job. Because of that it was immediately on-target, relevant and didn’t seem overly interruptive.

Leverage native LinkedIn actions

The latest example of a campaign that leverages a native LinkedIn action is equally enjoyable. Launched this week, this time it’s for the movie Taken 3. Playing to the action of “LinkedIn Endorsements” (endorsing one’s connections for their skills), the campaign features Liam Neeson’s character Brian Mills. Fans of the movie franchise will be familiar with the now infamous (and meme-inspiring) scene in the first movie where Neeson’s character explains to his daughter’s kidnappers that he has his own “particular set of skills” that will aid him in his mission to rescue her.

Now, Neeson’s character is ready to endorse your skills with a personal video endorsement. Pretty neat. Who wouldn’t want to win a LinkedIn endorsement from the man himself?

The campaign is being seeded through a tongue-in-cheek video from Neeson where he recites his own business skills; contract negotiations, international relations, transportation logistics, all intercut with scenes from the movie franchise.

The campaign’s LinkedIn page features content from the movie and invites users to follow the page to enter the competition.

I like its simplicity. It’s relevant, it echoes a known LinkedIn action (endorsements) and is integrated with your network so you can see how else in your groups has entered.

LinkedIn isn’t the place for Farmville invites or cat videos, but if you understand the unwritten rules of LinkedIn, the very fact that so few campaigns surface on the network means that brands can cut through the noise inherent across other social channels very quickly.


Applying the 70:20:10 innovation rule to your marketing

702010The 70:20:10 rule is frequently cited as a useful formula for delivering an optimally blended mix of marketing content. For those not familiar with it, it suggests:

  • 70% of your content should be low risk; it talks to the fundaments of your proposition and you know it works. It’s the stuff that keeps the lights on and the furnaces burning.
  • 20% should innovate off of your 70%. It’s a little edgier and might go deeper into the core proposition. It might be used to pull targets further down the sales funnel, perhaps leveraging long-form, niche content.
  • 10% is your room for risk. This is where content teams can experiment and explore new ideas . Some of it will fail, but some of it will become the next 70%.

It’s a useful formula and whether you consciously consider it in your planning or not, chances are most good marketing teams will find their content plans map to this ratio anyway. However if you apply this only to your content marketing efforts you’re missing an opportunity to cultivate a more innovative and agile marketing function altogether.

Cultivate marketing innovation

The 70:20:10 model actually dates back to the 1960’s but gained renewed fame when Eric Schmidt applied it as a business resource management model to cultivate innovation within Google:

  • 70% of time should be dedicated to core business tasks.
  • 20% of time should be dedicated to projects related to the core business.
  • 10% of time should be dedicated to projects unrelated to the core business.

Let’s think about how we might apply that logic to the wider marketing function.

70% (NOW):Your core marketing tasks; the effort / resource that is required to ensure the function works to expectations. This applies to your media, analyst and investor relations and it should guide your demand generation initiatives across content and advertising. There is little room for risk; there may be governance codes and stock market regulations so established processes safeguard the integrity of your efforts.

20% (NEXT): Your team will have a good idea of what works and what doesn’t. Invest time and resource innovating around the areas of known success. This is likely to include more exploratory, long-form content or intricate campaigns rooted in your 70% efforts. It might be as simple as experimenting with more adventurous content headlines (try A/B testing to quantitify your ideas) or you might  look to explore how existing sponsorship or advertising properties can be leveraged in a more unique way, perhaps even stretching the brand into a sub-demographic.

However, don’t use this time only to innovate around your “outputs”; this time should also be used to evaluate how existing processes and tools can be optimized or how team structure can be realigned.

10% (HORIZON): This is where you can get [a little bit] crazy. Existing team KPIs should not apply to this work effort. You need the resource to experiment and explore. You may wish to split this effort between:

  • Marketing Technology: Trialing new tools, such as marketing automation and CRM platforms:
  • Brand: Exploring brand extension into new markets or categories, new ideas for brand activations across sponsorships.
  • Content & Campaigns: New content formats, brand voices and design styles.
  • Growth Hacking: Trialing new routes to market, referral marketing activities etc.

In practice

In practice there are no hard and fast rules, but a team that focuses 100% of its efforts on the “now” without a culture for the “tomorrow” will quickly find the rest of the market racing ahead.

Just by embedding the 70:20:10 model into team culture will go a long way in driving change. Consider how it can be woven into team and individual KPIs, planning meetings, resourcing plans and even agency briefs.

A “content marketing” definition for B2B marketers

tipsSomething of a debate has opened up at the office around the exact definition of content marketing. It’s a valid debate; marketers play loose and fast with the term and, technically, almost every marketing effort uses “content” of some description. However, it’s not that simple. The value of Content Marketing lies in its ability to affect a change in a highly non-interruptive way.

There is no hard and fast definition. In fact I have read several definitions and I disagree with elements of all of them. So here’s a personal attempt at defining content marketing for B2B marketers.

Let’s start with some of the common arguments and definitions.

1. Content marketing is non-interruptive: TRUE!

Interruptive marketing spans traditional advertising and promotions, through public relations and telemarketing. It’s generally seen by many as an annoyance with brands shouting for attention. Content marketing is a form of permission marketing designed to attract customers’ attention and establish trust first. You can only do this if your content is seen as delivering value that educates your customers (rather than directly sells to them).

2. If it’s paid media it’s not content marketing: FALSE!

There’s a lot of folks out there who will have you believe that the minute you sign a cheque it’s advertising. This is a sweeping generalization. OK, so the reality is that 99% of paid media today is traditional advertising but remember it’s all about the intent; paid media doesn’t have to be interruptive. If the content meets the goal of earning trust in a non-interruptive way then its content marketing and why not use paid-media to amplify the message. Here’s one of the best examples I have seen this year. 

3. All earned media is content marketing: FALSE!

This seems to be one of the biggest traps. There’s a huge difference between content marketing and an ad that’s gone viral over Facebook and YouTube. Yes, Old Spice have killed it with their ads; but while they are funny and highly shareable they are still ads. Their core remit is not to engage, educate or build trust; their product is front and center and each is a one-time campaign effort.

4. Content Marketing is only useful at the thick-end of the lead funnel: FALSE!

Great content marketing is designed to educate and engage prospects, pulling them into your lead funnel in a way that builds trust; so yes, efforts are largely focused on lead generation. However, there’s still value down the line. A good content marketing campaign will fuel your credibility as a thought-leader with leads nearing the point of conversion and even with existing clients (perhaps where you need to protect a price point).

 5. Your content has to tell a story: FALSE!

Everyone’s a storyteller these days. It’s de rigueur for brands and marketing teams to define themselves as storytellers. Get over it people, you are not J.K Rowling. Yes, your content is valuable but it’s unlikely to be consumed for pleasure. Yes you need a narrative (you might even need a protagonist) but you don’t need a story arc. So don’t obsess over being a storyteller; the job of good content marketing is to concisely influence an opinion or affect an action in as uninterruptive a way as possible. That means presenting information to your audience in a way that they value. This man says it in ways far better.

So, if I’m going to attempt to sum the practice of B2B content marketing up into a single statement it would go something like this.

Content marketing is non-interruptive. It delivers something that your customers and prospects want to hear, not what you want to tell them. It allows you to be relevant in a way that educates and builds trust. If you do this consistently and honestly you’ll affect a positive customer action. 

Let me know what you think. Does this work for your B2B Content Marketing efforts?


Atomize your approach to content marketing

tipsHave you heard of “content atomization”?

Like so many other terms, it’s a slightly convoluted way of describing something that’s actually just good common [marketing] sense. Many of you will even be doing it already, but here’s a refresher and introduction to those looking to build a great content marketing practice in your organizations.

Atomizing content describes the processes of breaking down a core content asset or value proposition and tailoring it to suit a variety of audiences. That means not just recycling content, but reimagining it and building a new asset that meets the need of i) a certain target group or ii) a particular stage in the sales cycle / lead generation funnel.

Too often, a content marketing strategy is disjointed and resource intensive. Being able to atomize your content successfully should not only deliver greater engagement (different audiences will want different things from your content, and different ways of consuming it) but will also deliver a more efficient means of planning and producing content.

First, let’s look at how you might atomize a piece of long-form B2B marketing content. Perhaps an annual research report, case study or whitepaper.

Stage 1: Serialize

Identify how your long form content can be broken down into more digestible chunks that speak to one of your key customer segments. You are essentially breaking the piece into chapters; for example around research geographies, products or key findings. This not only ensures greater relevancy but, quite simply, it gives you more bait and makes you more discoverable by your audience. Understand and build out the message for each of these chapters, but ensure that the chapter can stand independently and tell its own story. You’ve now increased your potential calls-to-action exponentially.

2: Package

How will your audience want to consume this content? Create a content pack around each chapter; perhaps comprising multiple blog posts, Tweets, infographics, a press release, videos, direct mail, podcasts etc. But don’t just blindly populate links; pay attention to where in the lead generation funnel you need to make an impact and identify the right tool for the job.

For example, tweets help to spread your voice, building awareness and driving traffic back to a blog or other piece of downloadable content where leads can be captured and further nurtured. Press coverage enhances your credibility with leads a little further down the funnel, while richer more personalized assets such as a targeted mailer of your full paper gives leads greater confidence in your brand as a thought-leader (vital during vendor evaluation or contract renewals).

3: Schedule

There are two considerations here. Firstly you need to schedule your content packs; are they being launched simultaneously to different target groups / geographies or are you targeting a single audience and creating a longer calendar of sustained activity to fill the next two quarters?

You then need to look at scheduling the assets of each individual content pack; how many tweets do you need to drive traffic back to the website, validate a lead and nurture them through to the next piece of content? Do you want to secure press coverage in advance of a customer mailer to show third-party endorsement? The answers will depend on your own requirements, but schedule blog posts and tweets down to the day and hour if necessary.




Atomizing Content is good practice. Here’s the why.  

  • More chances: Reimagining your content and atomizing it gives you incrementally more calls-to-action. Serializing your long-form into five parts gives you five times as many opportunities to engage.
  • Greater consumption: Few leads at the thick end of the funnel will give your brand the time it needs to consume a 50-page research report (no matter how valuable you think it is). Do the work for them, serialize your content and break it down into discrete chapters that roll-up over time to tell the bigger picture.
  • Greater relevancy: Your targets in the US don’t (possibly) care about your research findings in Europe, and vice versa. Break your long form content down to be relevant to your audience.
  • Greater shareability: Attracting leads into the funnel requires your content to be shared as far and wide as possible, enable this through shareable assets such as videos or infographics.

Good luck, and remember to build this thinking and logic into your next content investment before you put to paper.

5 tips to creating great long form marketing content


Long form content is making a comeback in marketing. If you want to ensure your content successfully cuts through the noise, here are my five simple tips.

1. Be Unique: Content marketing is awash with “me-too” topics. “Understanding Big Data”, “Deliver a Great Customer Experience” etc. Give your audience something they haven’t seen before, or at least ensure you spin the topic to be less generic and more unique to your own offer and target market. Perhaps it’s “Understanding Big Data for Restaurateurs”, or “How Cinema Chains Can Deliver a Great Customer Experience”. Find your clear water.

2. Be Useable: Making content shareable is one thing; making it useable opens up a whole new realm of value. I’ve been sat at conferences only to watch a potential client present market insight that he’s pulled directly from one of our reports / whitepapers. It’s a huge sign of respect and trust – and a great ice-breaker!

Try offering readers supplementary content assets; if your long form content includes charts and data, offer them as individual, separate graphics files or as useable powerpoint slides (just make sure you include yourself as the source).

3. Be Confident: You are the experts in your field and you [should] know more about a topic than your target audience. You are sharing this content to a) educate and b) display credibility. Show that expertise and be bold in your commentary. No one wants to read “we think”. They want a strong opinion; they want “we know this to be a fact because….”

4. Be one voice: When dealing with long form content it’s easy to delegate its creation across multiple people and share the workload. “Bob, you take the section on customer value. Sarah, can you write the introduction and also ask Phil from Engineering to write a chapter on innovation.”Believe me, this just doesn’t work. What you’ll get back will be a collection of copy with different narrative styles and counter arguments. You’ll spend another week just editing and stitching it all back together. Whether you are writing this yourself or commissioning it out to a freelancer, make sure you have a single coherent voice.

5. Be peer reviewed: So, you’ve created your piece of long-form content. You’ve made sure it’s unique, useable and that it has a single voice. But is it accurate, effective and brand aligned? While the need to maintain a single voice is crucial during production, this doesn’t negate the need to consult with peers before publication to ensure that messaging is factually correct, that it will have the desired call to action and that it’s aligned with company values. Typical approval processes include marketing and legal; however also consider engaging with the sales team to ensure its hitting the pain points that their customers are talking about.