A Grad Student Online Starter Kit

If you’re starting an academic graduate program, such as a Ph.D., and you’re hoping to eventually finish that degree with a meaningful reputation in your area of expertise (which is a prerequisite for academic jobs), then day 1 is a great time to unpack your grad student online starter kit. Here’s what I think a Ph.D. student should do in his or her first or second year of graduate school to get the train moving down the tracks.

1. Write a CV. If you don’t already have one, it’s time to start one, even if you don’t think you have “enough” to put on paper about yourself. You’ll flesh it out over time, and having the structure in place on paper will get you in the habit of thinking of your work as part of a larger project to build your reputation and expertise in a certain topic. I have a whole post on CVs. Make sure your CV stays updated and posted online for the world to find.

2. Make a website. Seriously. Make one. Many universities have robust profiles for their grad students, but even still, it’s important for you to control your own website where you can update your profile, post about the work you’re doing, and make yourself available for consulting opportunities. And you get to keep the website after you graduate and move from institution to institution. Get a free WordPress site, a Google Sites page, or something simple like that. Install Google Analytics if you can (it’s free). That way you can be a creeper and obsessively track where all your visitors come from. Buy a URL that represents your name and redirect it to your WordPress site and you’re all set.

3. Make a plan for posting your working papers online. It may seem scary to put your half-baked ideas out there, but the work of an academic is all about making ideas public and enduring brutal feedback. It’s really the only way you’ll ever be able to improve your ideas, too. Publishing your in-progress working papers somewhere public can also lead to early citations of your work and credit for your ideas being first on the market. Sometimes working papers get cited hundreds of times before they get published in a scholarly journal. Lakhani, Jeppesen, Lohse & Panetta’s HBS working paper is a good example of this phenomenon. You can always just post your paper on your own blog and label it “working paper – do not cite without permission” or something, which encourages people who read it to contact you first to see if there’s a more current published version to cite. Or you can start a collective blog with some colleagues and publish working papers there, or you can see if your supervising professor’s lab or collective has a website he/she would be willing to post your working paper to. Some universities have working paper series (this is common in professional schools around the country – business, public policy, urban planning). Some schools also subscribe to services like Berkeley Electronic Press’ online tools, which allow groups to start working paper series (and journals, by the way). But the most common platform where some of the largest and most widely read working paper collections can be found is the Social Science Research Network. arXiv (pronounced “archive”) is kind of like an SSRN for computing and science folks, too. You would be very wise as a grad student to start a presence on SSRN and/or arXiv and start pushing your working papers there.

4. Make a Google Scholar profile. These days, it’s all about IMPACT when it comes to research. As the Internet has allowed new journals to blossom and research to become accessible to people all over the world more quickly and easily, the idea that you demonstrate the value of your work by saying you published it in the “top” journal or the “most respected” journal in your field just doesn’t cut it anymore. You’re better off demonstrating the impact of your research by showing how much of an impact it actually has had on scholarship. That is, how often are people citing your work, at what rates, and in what disciplines? Google Scholar tracks citations for you. It’s not perfect, of course. Small-time conference papers and conference proceedings are probably overrepresented in Google Scholar’s tracking, and citations that appear in books are very much underrepresented, but as a general estimate, it’s a good way to show that, indeed, people are citing your work. Saying “I published an article last year in [well-known journal]” is impressive, especially if you’re a grad student. But saying “I published an article last year in [well-known journal] and it’s already been cited 10 times in other journals according to Google Scholar” is WAY more impressive. It shows your work is actually impacting the field rather than showing your work is important merely because it is basking in the aura of some traditionally recognized “top” journal (which may or may not actually be having an impact these days). I’m of the somewhat controversial opinion that someone who is getting their article cited is having more of an impact, no matter how top-tier or bottom-tier the journal their work appears in, than someone who has published in a so-called top-tier journal and has not been cited very widely. I have never heard an argument that has convinced me otherwise. Most of the time, when people disagree with me on this point, their arguments are founded on nostalgia, tradition, and other feel-good “evidence” that members of a discipline’s old bloc spew forth in knee-jerk response. So do yourself a favor and make a Google Scholar profile and start tracking your citations. (And hooray for me – I got to 600 citations today!)

5. Determine your online thought leadership strategy and do it. Yep, you’re a brand, whether you like it or not. Academics are seen as experts in something, and they get hired as professors because they bring with them a unique identity as an authority or leader on a given topic, however narrow that topic may be. To position yourself as a thought leader on your area of expertise (or, if you’re a grad student, as an emerging, aspiring thought leader), you need to start making your expertise known and trusted online as much as in person. You can do this by getting on some social networking sites and by blogging regularly on topics squarely in the center of your expertise or on topics of tangential relation to your area of expertise. You don’t need to be on every social media tool – this is a common misconception. Just do one or a few social media tools really, really well. If you choose Twitter, then tweet a LOT, and keep it professional and focused (Guy McHendry’s Twitter account is a good example of a focused, thought-leading grad student studying national security, privacy, cultural studies, and other topics). If you choose LinkedIn, then really take advantage of LinkedIn by getting your profile to 100% completeness and using LinkedIn groups effectively. Just find something and do it well. It’s perfectly fine to inject your personality, your sarcastic humor, or whatever into your social media presence (social media is social after all!), but just be mindful to keep your extreme opinions and any pictures of you doing keg stands hidden on your Facebook account or something. Once you start getting papers presented at conferences or published, too, make sure Wikipedia includes citations to your work on the appropriate entry pages. Some people think this is vain, but it’s not – not any more vain than someone writing a traditional encyclopedia article about their areas of expertise for a print encyclopedia. Wikipedia is one of the most valuable places you can grow your thought leadership because it’s so widely read. Make a profile on Wikipedia and add citations to your work (and the work of your colleagues…it’s not ALL about you) as appropriate. Just have a bit of humility and remember that you’re not THE sole voice on a topic just because you’ve published an article on it…but the Wikipedians will surely correct you if you overstep your bounds.

If you do all these things in tandem and have all of these pieces hang together in a constellation that is “you” online, I am confident you’ll have established an online identity and a reputation as an emerging leader in your field by the time you graduate. This will help you get jobs, get you invited to contribute chapters to anthologies, get you invited to speak at conferences, get you media interviews, and land you paid consulting gigs. And it may even make you known to grant teams, who might be looking for someone like you to round out their multi-million-dollar grant application. And forcing yourself to publish bare-bones CVs and Google Scholar profiles may even spur you to be more productive in order to flesh these presences out a bit.

I say this from my own experience. I track what people click on on my website, and I know this stuff matters. It has worked for me. So do it. Consider this grad student online starter kit your first bit of homework in grad school.

Anything else I’m missing here in the starter kit? Leave your comments below.

Cool Student Work

In just two years here at UNC, I’ve had the pleasure of sitting on quite a few committees. By the end of the spring 2012 semester, four master’s students and one undergraduate honors student will have endured my advising in some form or another. This post is all about their work, which I think is really quite interesting. In order of defense date, here they are:

Miranda Volborth, M.A., 2011 (chaired by Lois Boynton)

Miranda‘s master’s thesis was titled Bands and Brands: Sponsor Messaging at Festivals. With an interest in the communication strategies of arts and music events, and with experience working on the Hopscotch Music Festival, Miranda focused her thesis on the sponsors at the SXSW festival, interviewing several of the brand managers and PR folks who were on site at SXSW. The thesis includes practical recommendations for music festivals, and it’s a great read. Miranda went on to land a job at Sundance Film Festival, which is right in line with the kind of thing she studied here at UNC.

Stephanie Silverman, M.A., 2012 (chaired by Dulcie Straughan)

Stephanie‘s master’s thesis was titled Twitter Takeover: An Examination of the United States Women’s National Soccer Team Twitter During the 2011 World Cup and Recommendations for the 2012 Olympics. Stephanie has a big interest in sports and social media, so it was fitting that her thesis examined the use of Twitter by the US women’s soccer team. She analyzed the tweets from the 2011 World Cup and provided practical recommendations for sports organizations of similar size and scope that are interested in using Twitter to build their brands. I’m interested to see how this research will impact the industry.

Eric White, M.A., 2012 (chaired by Penny Muse Abernathy)

Eric‘s master’s thesis was titled New Media in the Newsroom: A Survey of Local Journalists and Their Managers on the Use of Social Media as a Reporting Tool. Eric sent surveys (via mail…which is really old school, but which got him a huge response rate!) to reporters and editors at local news organizations in the major media markets in the Carolinas. The survey asked questions about social media use, perceptions of social media, and so on. His findings are impressive, and I recommend this thesis as reading for any news organization. My favorite finding? Turns out editors don’t really have a grip on the time requirements of using social media the way reporters do.

Barbara Zellweger, M.A., 2012 (chaired by Lois Boynton)

Barbara‘s master’s thesis was titled Karl Barth: How to Develop an Effective Online Hub for a Theologian. Barbara is the great-granddaughter of renowned Swiss theologian Karl Barth, and to pay homage to him, she focused her master’s project on the building of a really great website dedicated to his writings. The hope is that this website will become a gateway or hub for many other smaller Barth centers, archives, and research institutes around the world. Her practical recommendations for accomplishing this feat are also valuable for practitioners looking to do similar websites for scholars, theologians, or collections.

Emily Urquhart, B.A. honors, 2012 (chaired by me)

Emily‘s BA honors thesis was titled The Crowd’s Perception Matters: A Crowdsourcing Study of a Crowd’s Social Media Chatter. Emily’s thesis examined the Twitter activity surrounding Doritos’ Crash the Super Bowl contest, a crowdsourced user-generated advertising contest that has become a highlight of the annual Super Bowl ad-watching ritual. Through a content analysis of the many tweets sent out during the contest, she was able to identify how users perceived the contest as a whole, findings which have relevance for practitioners looking to start their own crowdsourcing ventures.

By the way, these great students are always open to entertaining job offers. Contact them (all their LinkedIn pages are linked to their names above)!

Defining Online Community Management

[This is a re-post from the Culture Digitally blog. Enjoy!]

New technologies make new economies, and new economies make new jobs. As a response to this, some of the most forward-thinking academic programs aim to prepare students for jobs that don’t yet exist, and more programs should follow their lead. Students of strategic communication–a catch-all term that includes public relations, advertising, integrated marketing communication and the like–should take note of a whole new class of jobs that has emerged in recent years focused on the effective management of online communities (see, for example, the Google Lunar X PRIZE’s recent job posting for an “experienced online guru” to manage the project’s many social media presences).

I predict we will see many more of these jobs that fall under the broad umbrella of “online community management,” and I offer this post as a first attempt to define this emerging profession and make a case for the relevance of strategic communication planning in this new domain.

Let’s take a look at “online community management” word by word:

  • Online: Online community management happens online. It may include offline, face-to-face or phone work, but it is, at its core, work that takes place via the Internet. Coordinating online stakeholders and customers is qualitatively different from coordinating face-to-face stakeholders and customers. Online communications can take place at far quicker speeds, across larger geographical expanses, asynchronously or in real-time, and under the veil of anonymous or pseudonymous cover. The volatile flows of the online mediascape require a different set of skills.
  • Community: Communities are both real and imagined. They have their own internal governance structures, lingo, and norms. They are simultaneously collective wholes with a common vision and interconnected individuals with specific needs. Members in the community may also come and go without notice, and online communities may collapse entirely with a mass exodus of participants.
  • Management: Management implies a strategic, purposeful coordination of resources to meet specific objectives. Managers are both secretaries and shepherds, taking note of the community’s needs and wants while moving the group toward a common goal. Effective strategic management also requires research, planning, evaluation measures.

The Centrality of Strategic Communication in Online Community Management

Relationships between an organization and its stakeholders (customers, clients, donors, employees, etc.) are usually “strongest when they are mutually beneficial and characterized by ‘win-win’ outcomes” (Heath & Coombs, 2006, p. 5), when they are symmetrical and two-way in the flow of communication (J. E. Grunig, Grunig, & Dozier, 1992; L. A. Grunig, Grunig, & Dozier, 1992), and when they are at the core of strategic communication practice (Ledingham, 2003).

The strength of seeing project and organizational management functions through the lens of communication is the emphasis on process rather than on preparations and outcomes or inputs and outputs. Strategic communication, then, involves investing in the process of maintaining relationships with stakeholders in order to achieve management goals. Because so many companies and nonprofits (and even government functions) rely on the maintenance of healthy, productive, and sometimes sizeable online communities, strategic communication is an apt framework for understanding how organizations can maintain relationships with these communities.

Generally, strategic communication practice follows a common campaign process. Described through a variety of acronyms, including PIE (Planning, Implementation, Evaluation) (Bobbitt & Sullivan, 2009) and RACE (Research, Action, Communication, Evaluation) (Marston, 1963), I prefer the granularity of Parkinson and Ekachai’s (2006) ROSTE method for strategic communication planning: Research, Objectives, Strategy, Tactics, and Evaluation. Adopting a ROSTE approach ensures that strategic communication practitioners follow a deliberate, step-by-step process in the planning, execution, and ongoing maintenance of a project. This approach can work for the building and maintenance of online communities, too. Here’s how:

  • Research is an important first step – and an ongoing concern – for any online community manager. He or she should know the background of the community (demographics, etc.), its motivations, its history, and so on. He or she should also know about other case studies in online community growth and management, in order to learn the lessons of other practitioners and communities. Discovering this information requires undertaking situational analyses (e.g., SWOT analysis, social/political/economic analysis), gathering secondary/background resources, and conducting original empirical studies of the community.
  • Objectives should always be in place and should be revised regularly to respond to situational changes and organizational goals. Objectives should always be measurable and have defined time frames, and they should be informed by research. An example of a measurable objective: “To grow the online community by 20% in the next 3 months.”
  • Strategies are the ways in which the online community manager will approach these objectives. This includes overall messaging or plans of attack. Strategies are crafted to meet the objectives, should be grounded in research, and should involve creative problem solving.
  • Tactics are the on-the-ground methods for implementing the strategies (in order to meet the objectives, which are based on research. See how it’s all connected?). Tactics are the tools and means for executing the process.
  • Evaluation is as important as any other step in the process. Since objectives are always measurable, evaluation plans should seek to assess whether objectives were met. Evaluation might entail passive data gathering (e.g., through Web analytics) or active empirical methods (e.g., surveys, interviews, content analysis). As objectives are evaluated as successful or not, these findings become part of the future research file, and the cycle begins again. Though a linear or cyclical process described here, these processes are frequently smashed together, are iterative, and are constantly being revised to meet changing circumstances. The point is to remember that it’s a deliberate process with discrete components that connect to each other.

Tools of the Trade

Online community managers make use of a number of tools/tactics to do their job effectively. These include using message boards and chat spaces (anywhere the community members are communicating), using the tools of traditional media relations (press releases, etc.), and using customer service techniques for dealing with issues in the community in rapid fashion. Tools also include research and evaluation tools, such as social media monitoring software (e.g. Radian6), Web analytics (e.g., Google Analytics, Omniture), and a whole host of research methods (e.g., archival work, surveys, interviews, focus groups, online ethnography, case studies).

Why Good Online Community Managers Matter

Online communities are bubbling with creative potential. Online communities may be collectively intelligent, too, able to accomplish more than a host of individuals working alone might. It’s important for online community managers to know what motivates these communities, what their potential is, and how they can leverage these communities for business purposes or for the public good. We see this taking place today in crowdsourcing arrangements, in public participation programs for governance, and in a number of other co-creative activities.

Online community managers have a duty to make the best of these communities, and I believe the perspective of strategic communication has a lot to offer this emerging profession.


Bobbitt, R., & Sullivan, R. (2009). Developing the public relations campaign: A team-based approach (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Allyn & Bacon.
Grunig, J. E., Grunig, L. A., & Dozier, D. M. (1992). The excellence theory. In C. H. Botan & V. Hazelton (Eds.), Public relations theory II (pp. 21-62). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Grunig, L. A., Grunig, J. E., & Dozier, D. M. (1992). Excellent public relations and effective organization: A study of communication management in three countries. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Heath, R. L., & Coombs, W. T. (2006). Strategic relationship building: An ethical organization communicating effectively. Today’s public relations: An introduction (pp. 1-40). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Ledingham, J. A. (2003). Explicating relationship management as a general theory of public relations. Journal of Public Relations Research, 15(2), 181-198.
Marston, J. (1963). The nature of public relations. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Parkinson, M. G., & Ekachai, D. (2006). International and intercultural public relations: A campaign case approach. Boston, MA: Pearson.

Announcing a new journal

I know, I know. There are far too many academic journals out there already, and so few people actually read them. Blah, blah, blah. I’m a bit of a hypocrite, but I’m proud to say I’ve now gotten a new academic journal off the ground. It’s called Case Studies in Strategic Communication, and it’ll be a peer-reviewed journal focusing only on case studies – not research papers – in the broad domain of strategic communication. You might know strategic communication better by its many other identities: public relations, advertising, marketing, IMC, and on and on.

So think about what you’ve done as a strategic communication professional or what you’ve studied as a strategic communication scholar, and put it in case form. Then put it in an email, and send it to me. Here’s the full CFP:

CFP for New Journal:

Manuscripts are now being accepted for the first volume of Case Studies in Strategic Communication, a new online, peer-reviewed journal.

Case Studies in Strategic Communication (CSSC) is dedicated to the study of strategic communication through the case study form. Case studies illustrate the strategies, tactics, and execution of communication campaigns through in-depth coverage of a single situation. CSSC is a peer-reviewed online publication housed at the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Case studies have long been central to the study of strategic communication, but these cases have been scattered across textbooks and websites, are quickly outdated, are not fully representative of the many facets of strategic communication, and lack a common format useful for teachers and scholars. Through the ongoing publication of strategic communication case studies online, CSSC aims to develop a living resource of diverse case materials for teachers, scholars, and practitioners.

As technological convergence and industry trends demand the integration of several branches of strategic communication in everyday practice, it is necessary to consider the approach to strategic communication holistically. Thus, CSSC welcomes case studies dealing with any of the following disciplines: public relations, marketing, advertising, integrated marketing communication, social media campaigns, crisis communication, special events planning, development and fundraising, internal or employee communication, investor relations, community relations, media relations, online community management, publicity, and more.

There is no limit to topical coverage, and CSSC hopes to develop a resource that touches on as many industries, tactics, geographic regions, and diverse populations as possible. CSSC seeks case studies concerning all sectors, too: private companies (large and small), publicly traded corporations, non-profit organizations (large and small), political campaigns, government agencies (local and national), and educational institutions.

In addition to success stories, CSSC also seeks case studies that explore failures, shortcomings, missed opportunities, and crises. Stories of failure are not often told in case study collections, but they sometimes yield the best lessons.

CSSC publishes cases in the tradition of Harvard Business School case studies or the Arthur W. Page Society case competition. The journal does not publish traditional scholarly research papers. CSSC publishes long case studies (3,000-8,000 words) covering full campaigns or programs, as well as short case studies (1,000-2,500 words) tightly focused on a single strategy, tactic, research method, or evaluation method used in real strategic communication programs.

Submissions are welcome from scholars, students, practitioners, and teachers of strategic communication. Submissions are accepted and published on a rolling basis. Visit www.csscjournal.org to learn more about the journal. Contact the editor, Daren Brabham, with any questions: csscjournal gmail.com.

Mastering the Cold Call

I mentioned back in an August post that I’m a big fan of cold-calling and cold-emailing as a way to open doors for oneself. Cold-calling involves picking up the phone and calling someone you don’t know at all. These calls usually involve you introducing yourself, asking for something, or inquiring about potential employment. The premise of the cold call is that 1) you’re good enough, and 2) they just haven’t met you yet. Cold-calling should always be a supplement to other forms of networking, such as getting involved in local industry groups, connecting with people on LinkedIn, leveraging your friend and family networks, and asking people you know about leads.

Cold calls require a lot of guts, a lot of time, and a lot of resilience, but when cold calls pay off, the joy is immense. Consider the rifle and the shotgun. Rifles fire one bullet and have a lot more precision than shotguns. Shotguns, on the other hand, spray an imprecise bunch of small projectiles at a target in the hopes that at least one will hit it. Cold calling is definitely a shotgun approach to networking, but there are ways to improve your aim over time. I’ve had a LOT of success cold-calling in my career, and I can’t tell my students enough how much they need to start cold-calling, too. Here are my tips for cold-calling/cold-emailing.

Know Thyself

First off, you have to know what you want and what your strengths are. If you’re looking for an internship in PR, for instance, you need to know what you enjoy about PR and what your ideal internship would look like. Figure out your needs and your wants in an internship, For instance, you probably need either money or college credit out of an internship, so prepare to make that your minimum requirement. Identify your ideal scenario. Again, if you’re looking for an internship in PR and you really want to do a paid internship in the sports industry specifically, then your ideal scenario would involve doing exactly this for the local professional sports team. My advice is to start with the ideal and work backwards toward the situations you’ll tolerate. Why start with the ideal? Because you just may land it on your first attempt. In any case, though, you need to know what you’re good at, know what you’re looking for, know what kind of situation you’ll accept, and be prepared to act fast if an opening is available (e.g., have a resume and portfolio ready).


You’re probably going to have to send out a lot of calls/emails before something sticks. A LOT. I once called more than 80 PR firms to inquire about internships before I finally found one (note: the internship was a great fit for me, but I didn’t end up taking it, though, for other reasons). If you call, you’ll leave a lot of voicemails that won’t get returned. If you email, you’ll get a lot of unanswered requests. But occasionally, you’ll get a lead that you can pursue.

Look at it this way: the worst thing that can happen is you’ll get a lot of “no’s” and unreturned calls, and the majority of the time you’ll be seen as a go-getter who is trying to drum up some opportunities. But the best thing that can happen is that you’ll land a dream opportunity that will open up a series of doors for yourself for the whole first stage of your career. Most people stick to Monster.com and stick to the lists of internship opportunities available in their schools, and so on. But most people aren’t picking up the phone and trying to generate new opportunities. You need to be this person.


When you contact people that you don’t know and ask for something, you need to be polite. You’re butting into their headspace, after all. Always emphasize why you think you’d be a good fit for the company and why the company would be a good fit for you. And ground your calls/emails in loftier concepts; don’t just say you want an internship with anyone, but rather say you want to have a valuable learning experience with exactly that one company. Ask for simple things, like the opportunity to apply for an internship rather than the opportunity to have the internship. Don’t ask for handouts–ask for opportunities. You’d be surprised how often this gets you in the door. In all cases, though, be brief and professional and courteous. Throw in some flattery, but don’t suck up. And make your cold calls and emails personal and specific; don’t make it seem like you’re blasting out hundreds of copies of the same email. Research every organization you contact and tailor your cold call accordingly.


Finally, remember in a cold call that you’re trying to emphasize what you’ll contribute as much as what you’ll get out of an opportunity. Back to the internship example. The point of an internship is to supply a bit of free labor to an organization in exchange for getting an insider’s look into how the organization/industry operates. It’s a learning experience for you, but it should also very much be a benefit to the organization. Hopefully, the organization won’t just require you to make coffee and make copies, but that may happen, and you need to be enthusiastic about it. You can also emphasize that you think you’d bring some good energy, a college student’s perspective, and some great ideas to the mix, and you just want an opportunity to immerse yourself in the culture of that organization.

Organizations are always looking for talented people and good ideas, whether they’re actively hiring for a position or not. And you never know when someone at the organization just rolled out of a meeting where everyone seemed overworked and they needed to start thinking about hiring someone (but they don’t have the money to do so or the time to interview candidates). You could be the perfect solution as an intern, and they may just say “OK, you’ve got the internship. When can you start?” Just remember that those organizations that have posted a job announcement know precisely what their needs are. But all organizations have needs, and you may find yourself fulfilling those needs before the organization can even crystallize what those needs are.

Recent Cold Call Successes

I’ve had a few cold call successes recently. This semester, I wanted to include some guest speakers in my PR classes, and I wanted these speakers to represent a variety of perspectives. I cold-emailed PR folks at Logo (MTV’s LGBT channel) and PR folks at Lowe’s Home Improvement (headquartered in the state), and both attempts were successful. Without having any prior connections, I was able to make new ones with these organizations, bringing valuable professional perspectives into my classes and making (what I hope are) some long-term professional connections. In time, I’m hopeful these connections will benefit my students, the organizations, and me. And no one gets “used” in this process, either. I was surprised to see how eager the Lowe’s and Logo folks were to speak to classes, which reminded me that professionals are sometimes eager to give back to classes and teach a bit of what they know. It’s fulfilling for them in some ways, and their talks are fulfilling for my students.

Another cold call success was when I picked up the phone last summer and called the U.S. Curling Association. I was writing an article for Flow about curling’s TV success in the Winter Olympics, and I wanted to get some stats about the growth of curling. I linked up with USCA’s PR person, and I ended up contacting her again later in the summer to see if USCA was interested in being the client for my PR Campaigns class. And they agreed.

I wouldn’t have made these great connections without having the guts to shoot cold emails into the abyss.

Public Relations for Viral Culture

The frenzied pace with which people circulate humorous text and video clips through the Web – let’s call it viral culture – can leave a public relations practitioner’s head spinning. Too often, PR folks 1) are way behind the speed and sophistication of viral culture, and/or 2) have knee-jerk reactions to what they perceive is their message being rapidly coopted and twisted and circulated. Too often, PR folks respond to embarrassing incidents by trying to squash them. But, as we know, this doesn’t work really well for the Interwebs.

This week, after one of its flight attendants flipped out and quit his job in an amazingly awesome (albeit dangerous and illegal) way, jetBlue made the right PR decision. Instead of issuing a stuffy, typical press release condemning the actions of its (former) employee, it decided to post a blog entry written in a humorous tone, acknowledging that the incident was at least a little bit funny.

It was funny, after all. The flight attendant, Steven Slater, got into an altercation with a passenger after the passenger disobeyed safety orders and opened an overhead bin while the plane was still taxiing. Luggage flew out and hit Slater on the head. After some choice words broadcast over the intercom, Slater grabs a beer and exits the plane via the inflatable yellow emergency slide. Awesome.

Steven Slater, in a pre-meme work portrait

The Internet loved this story, and everything from re-enactments and animations to vlog tribute posts have been circulated along with this story. When the Internet loves something and that something becomes elevated to the heights of viral culture, there’s no stopping it. Attempting to stop it just adds fuel to the fire, and it makes the company trying to stop it look out of touch, ignorant to the laws of viral culture, and lacking a sense of humor.

This is why jetBlue’s PR move was the right one. jetBlue is a savvy company – trendy, stylish, and, frankly, the best flying experience today. They knew better than to mess with the entire Internet, and they’re going to come out on top with this incident. jetBlue proves that a company, when faced with an embarrassing incident, can simultaneously not condone bad behavior and things that go against the brand AND reach out to its customers in a humorous, real way.

An even better move for jetBlue would be to embrace the energy and momentum of the viral culture to further strengthen its brand, to try and harness some of the crowd’s creativity and humor for jetBlue’s own good. For instance, jetBlue could open up a contest space on its website encouraging users to submit video of themselves giving new-and-improved in-cabin safety demonstrations, or invite users to submit wonderful recreations of the drawings in the safety pamphlet in the back of seats (complete with yellow slide!). And give prizes to the best submissions. Sounds ridiculous, I know, but it would be a gutsy way to draw customers in to a fun experience revolving around the jetBlue brand.

This is how PR works in a viral culture. It’s about keeping a finger on the pulse of the customer, taking a step back and looking at your own brand in a realistic (perhaps funny) way, and fearing respecting the awesome power of the Internet and viral culture.

On a parting note, I want to send a shout-out to my friend, fellow Trinity alum, and guest speaker in my classes, Brendan Ross (aka Terminal Man). He blogged about his experiences continually living in airports and airplanes for a month through jetBlue’s all-you-can-fly program. He’s a social media genius, and so is jetBlue for embracing him.