Should PR People Drink The Client Kool-Aid?

Recently, a senior colleague at a boutique firm was reflecting on the loss of a longtime client. She’d been active in the company’s product promotion for many years and was a tireless advocate, even among friends and family members. She confessed that she looks at their products completely differently now. What used to be leading edge now seems middling, even mediocre.

We laughed about her newly critical judgment, but it got me thinking about drinking the Kool-Aid. Direct experience with a client’s products (or services) is essential, and it’s natural to be an advocate. And if you’re on the front lines in our business, which usually means pitching media, you need to be an evangelist.

And we on the agency side usually work hard to be a member of the team. Even before we win a client, we try to learn their processes, culture, and structure. We adopt the acronyms and jargon and we strive to function as an extension of their own marketing or communications team.

But sometimes we do our job too well. A degree of objectivity is more than helpful; at times, it’s essential. We need to keep a full understanding of brand and corporate issues. We need to know what’s mere perception, and what’s reality, without blurring those lines too much. Our best, and most objective judgment, should inform our recommendations and our commitment to outcomes.

On the day-to-day front, we have to be prepared to meet objections and answer criticism. Over time, it’s too easy for that objectivity to erode. And it’s good business to keep a radar for problems – perception, product, or business- exquisitely tuned. Our credibility is only as good as that of our clients.

But most importantly, objectivity counts at the strategic level. Our relative distance from corporate influence, and our value as a two-way channel of information for clients, is one of the chief reasons clients seek outside counsel.

Believing one’s own PR can be dangerous. As much as we need to understand and advocate for our clients and their products, we can only be at our best and add real value when we exercise critical thinking, honest counsel, and objective judgment.

One Habit Of Highly Successful People – Sleep

The days of bragging about how little sleep you need are so five minutes ago!
The benefits of 7-8 hours of sleep are now well-documented and include everything from increased productivity to weight loss. The real issue, especially for Type A PR people is how to get those restorative hours.

Fortunately, we work with Michael Breus, aka “The Sleep Doctor” who has a wealth of wisdom on the subject of snooze. Here are five tips you can incorporate into your life today to wake up healthier, happier and more alert tomorrow.

Take a walk at 4:00 – but not to Starbucks! Caffeine has an extraordinarily long half-life that can wreak major havoc with your system at sleep time, so cut the coffee, soda or tea by 2pm..

Make some “calming foods” for dinner – Complex carbs can help you “eat to sleep” incorporate whole grains, nuts, yogurt and protein in balanced recipes

Watch TV – Dr. Breus says it’s perfectly OK if TV viewing helps you drift off. Just set a timer.

Don’t look at your clock – If you are a restless sleeper who clock-watches to see how many hours til daybreak – STOP. Nothing will keep you awake longer than calculating the time you’ve got left to sleep

Let the light in – Natural sunlight is the best alarm clock. If you can fall asleep with your shades or curtains even a little bit open, the morning light will help ease you into wakefulness better than a loud alarm.

Please share your tips for sound sleep here.

Six Strategies To Beat Perfectionism

“The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s 11:30.”           — Tina Fey

In her very entertaining book Bossypants, Tina Fey warns against the evils of perfectionism, the enemy of so many creative projects. As she advises, “perfect is overrated.”

Even busy agency folk struggle with impossibly high standards, particularly those who write for a living. What we do as PR pros can be frustratingly ephemeral, but a blog post, white paper, or other content tends to stick around. It’s tempting to keep working until every word is just so. Yet it’s not always a productive use of time.

Here are some proven strategies to beat perfectionism, and its close cousin, procrastination.

Quantify the improvement likely to come from your efforts. Then decide if it’s worth it. If another hour will improve your proposal by 40%, then spend the time. But if the enhancement is likely to be minimal – ten percent or less – it may be better to fight the urge.

Get fresh eyes on the situation. This is generally easy in an agency environment where a team structure is the rule. And someone else is far more likely to spot an error or notice an omission that might never have occurred to you, so it can be doubly helpful.

Focus on the objective, not just the product. Go back to that document that you can improve by 10 percent. Will that increase your odds of winning the project? Or is the time better spent in research or preparation? Sometimes, done is better than perfect.

Start in the middle. This can be an effective strategy for those who have trouble beginning proposals or papers. A perfect beginning is rare and can be fixed later.  I usually end up deleting a few sentences of throat-clearing from posts like these. For procrastinators, it’s better to just jump in.

Set small goals. Instead of telling yourself, “I’ll write an amazing blog post,” or “I’ll finish the proposal tonight,” try thinking, “I’ll spend an hour on the proposal with no interruptions.”

Ask yourself, “How important will this by this time next year?” In five years? This is the ultimate question to ask if you’re really stuck. Taking pride in work quality is admirable, but a little perspective can go a long way.

I wanted to come up with seven strategies here, but six is just as good. Because, sometimes, less is more.

Are Executive Vacations Bad PR?

As President Obama parks his sleek tour bus (dubbed “Bus Force One”) and travels to Martha’s Vineyard for a little R&R this week, the predictable criticism has followed. Some question whether our chief executive should be taking time off amidst stock market volatility, a “crisis” economy, and dropping poll numbers.

Chief among the President’s critics, of course, are the declared GOP candidates for his job. Newt Gingrich blasted Mr. Obama for taking vacation…as Gingrich himself headed off to Hawaii for a “fundraising” trip. A more credible objection was voiced by Washington Post columnist Colbert King, who argues that the President already enjoys two taxpayer-subsized residences and should spend his time off talking with hard-pressed citizens, not rubbing elbows with the elite in Martha’s Vineyard.

The Obama vacation ‘controversy’ is probably more about PR than reality. After all, the man’s completely accessible, and Congress doesn’t get anything done even when it is in session. But it raises an interesting question. Should chief executives take off during tough times? If your company’s been downgraded, your customers are losing confidence, and your recovery prospects uncertain, do you cancel the trip and stay home?

Optics matter. Leadership is often conveyed through images. A CEO in crisis shouldn’t be photographed in luxury surroundings, but neither should he be seen as deskbound, beleaguered, or overwhelmed. A strong leader needs to be seen as engaged, committed, but also independent. And as Rosabeth Kanter writes in “Should Leaders Vacation?,”  timing is a critical factor.

I don’t begrudge the president his break, partly because he deserves it, but mostly because the presidency follows him everywhere. But if he were my client – and the CEO of a company beset with public problems – I’d probably advise him to skip the Vineyard and unwind at Camp David for a working vacation.

Top 5 Things I Learned As A PR Intern

This is a guest post by our great summer intern, Ashley G:

It seems like just yesterday this small town girl took on the city that never sleeps! Four months later, I have a lot to share about what I’ve learned as a public relations intern at New York-based PR firm Crenshaw Communications.

Stay on top of current events. I’m a news fanatic. I love keeping up with local, international, and celebrity news. Here at Crenshaw, my love for everything news actually helped generate media placements for a client. I crafted a pitch around the fact that one in eight New Yorkers is of Asian descent to promote the anchor of a new mall development here,  Asian food emporium Sky Foods.

The benefits of networking. Never miss an opportunity to connect with someone new. Crenshaw provided me with an amazing opportunity to participate in the PRISM (Public Relations Internship Summer in Manhattan) Program. It allowed me to meet fellow student interns working in the industry, as well as knowledgeable public relations and media professionals. By getting to know these individuals, and hearing what they had to say, I’m leaving this summer more confident than ever about what I should expect after graduation.

Don’t wait for the work to come to you. If you finish a project, ask for another. The only way to prove to your co-workers (and to yourself) that you are cut out for the whirlwind world of PR is to seek assignments regularly. You only have a few short months – make them count.

Keep calm and carry on. So your desk is getting cluttered by the post-it reminders of projects due — instead of stressing, I’ve learned to “keep calm and carry on.” At the end of the day, when you’ve completed all of your work on time, you’ll leave the office feeling accomplished.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Your internship is a learning experience, and tackling something unfamiliar should be your goal, not your fear. If you’re unsure about something, ask those around you. Your co-workers are there to help, and you’ll hand in your work with the confidence that you did it right.

To everyone at Crenshaw: Thank you for an amazing summer in the city – I couldn’t have asked for a better learning experience, with better people!

Do you have any tips for future PR interns?

When It Comes To Social Media, Faking It Isn't Making It

The recent rash of bogus Twitter follower scandals, like Newt Gingrich‘s 1.3 million supposed fans, and the oil industry’s apparent astroturfing efforts, are entertaining blog fodder. But they’re also important as a reminder of what’s erroneous about linking social media status to a friends and follower count.

(It’s actually unclear what percentage of Gingrich’s followers are faux, but his number is particularly impressive when compared to GOP front-runner Mitt Romney 68,000 number. Yep, mine’s bigger than yours. You know how boys are.)

It bothers me that these mini-scandals undermine good ole Twitter as a platform and a business tool. Just as you’re judged by the company you keep in the real world, Twitter has always risked getting a bad reputation. It’s seen by some as a perfect hangout for the egotists, hucksters, and fakes. That’s not the Twitter that I know and love.

And it would seem to make no sense to the account holders. Why would anyone actually pay a third-party for access to bogus accounts when social media is about connecting and engaging others? Why, like Anthony Weiner, would you risk having the wrong kind of fans – e.g. porn actresses and spambots? The obvious answer, of course, is pure ego. They’re willing to look foolish by inflating their following in order to impress the few engaged fans that they actually have.

Are you listening, Klout?  The obsession with numbers as metrics is the real culprit here. Judging someone’s social influence by follower count just isn’t viable. I know sophisticated services like Klout claim to go beyond the raw fan numbers, but they are still too Twitter-centric and too focused on the numbers. These recent Fangate incidents are another reminder.

True influence is evidenced by quality and frequency of content, sharing, and action. Most of all, it’s about who’s really listening. And when it comes to the shiny new tool or the point of view that misses this simple fact, well, I just don’t follow.

What Summer Sports Teach Us About Teamwork

Summer offers up the opportunity to participate in outdoor sports, either with friends or on a league. As a member of a competitive 125-person dragon boat team (it’s like crew but a different paddling style), I’ve learned a lot of positive tips about teamwork that transfer to officework. Each dragon boat consists of 20 people so harmony and compromise are a must, so are the following:

Be humble. The coaches take into consideration how 20 people best work together. Some races I’m on the “A” boat, and others I’m on the “B” boat, which does not mean a demotion, just the right decision for that race.
— In the office: you may sometimes be asked to do work that you feel you are “past” – binding PR presentations, stuffing gift bags for an event – but sometimes that is just what’s needed for that assignment. Your talent isn’t being wasted; it’s being appreciated because you’re helping your team get the job done.

Communicate. During a race, everyone needs to know what “calls” are being made so that you can change your plan of action in order to succeed. That means everyone.
— In the office: Maybe everyone doesn’t need to know everything – but learn who needs to know what! Copy appropriate parties on emails, keep your supervisors updated, and have regular team meetings/recaps so that there’s no overlap in work or questions on direction.

Make the most of it. Dragon boat practice is four times a week, for 2-3 hours each, and there are between 7-9 races a summer that require weekend travel. It’s a tough sport, but also fun and rewarding.
In the office: Work is approximately 40 hours a week (more in a busy PR firm!) That’s often more time than you spend at home or with close friends! Make the most of it.  Engage your co-workers in conversation that isn’t work-related, and participate in team outings. These strengthened bonds will result in more productive and efficient work!

What have you learned from summer sports or camp that you transfer to workplace?

When Choosing A PR Firm, Does Size Matter?

Sure, it does, for PR agencies, and other creative services. From the agency perspective, size can be a powerful differentiator. But just how it stacks up depends on your point of view.

Smaller firms are a better value, right? Not necessarily. I’ve held senior positions at firms that range from mega-agency to midsized. When I was with the big guys, a pitch involving a small firm always rankled, in part because we immediately felt pressure to be price-flexible. And, make no mistake, even mega-firms can be very flexible. During tough times, large agencies bring out the big guns, drop their prices, and punch below their weight.

Small agencies also have wiles. It’s energizing to be the David in an agency shoot-out. My favorite is closing with lines like, “We service clients, not shareholders.” And it’s true that owner-operated firms can more credibly promise senior-level involvement, especially for clients who aren’t billing seven figures.

So which is better? Though as a small agency owner, my bias is clear, I know that a smaller firm doesn’t suit every client. Here’s my checklist on how to assess the size factor.

What’s the program scope? If your needs are regional or national, you may get great service and value from a small or midsize firm. But a global campaign often requires a mega-agency with offices all over the world. You can also consider a network of independent firms, depending on your needs and market demands.

Is a range of services needed? If you don’t require much beyond core PR services, you’re better off going smaller. After all, you’ll be paying for that public affairs specialist and the graphics group in the form of overhead.

Are multiple offices required? If not, why pay for them? If your needs fluctuate, you may be better off with a smaller firm in a regional or national network, or one that has alliances in key markets.

Where do you stand? You never want to be the smallest client in the house, and in general, it’s best to be in the upper third by budget size. The exceptions to this occur with fast-growth companies, or those who require specialized sector experience, like the big-agency contacts that can help accelerate fundraising or partnerships.

Who’s accountable? The staff bait-and-switch in order to win business is so notorious that even inexperienced clients are wary. Pushing the work down to junior staffers can happen anywhere, but it’s far more likely at a large firm, particularly when economic pressure leads them to drop their prices to win business in the first place.

What about cultural fit? Large, brand-name firms are often hired for “ego”  reasons, especially by companies who manage by committee, or by second-tier players striving to break through to the next level. Though in my experience this is a recipe for dysfunction, it’s important to recognize that checklists only go so far.

At the end of the day, Unilever CMO Keith Weed has the right idea. When asked about the importance of agency size at Cannes last year, he summed it up by quoting Mark Twain. “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight. It’s the size of the fight in the dog.”

What We Can Learn From Shark Week

It’s baaack! Discovery Channel found a good thing when they decided to dedicate a week’s worth of programming to shark attacks. That was 24 years ago, and now Shark Week is more than just hour-long shows about sharks.

Shark Week has become must-see TV every summer. It’s also a brand of its own, and part of popular culture.

In public relations, we are constantly looking for ways to help build a brand into a household name. That got me thinking about what we can learn from Shark Week. After all, they’ve certainly come a long way. Here are a few key takeaways:

Know when enough is enough. Shark Week is a week-long shark-a-thon, but is only held once a year. That leaves for enough hype and anticipation, without its becoming a tired subject.

Keep updating. This year, iPhone and iPad users can download the Shark Week Live app for continuous coverage. Social media mavens can also follow the brand on Twitter (55,000+ followers) and Facebook (250,000+ Likes). The Facebook page is pretty interactive, and this year includes a Shark Week Photo Frenzy.

Find ways to reach new audiences. Popular SNLer Andy Samberg was brought on board this year as Shark Week’s Chief Shark Officer. As the official “host” for the week, you can watch Samberg in various clips and promos all week.

Make sure your message stays top-of-mind. The PSAs won’t let you forget that Shark Week is really about shark conservation. Shark Week partners Oceana and PEW Charitable Trusts are dedicated to protecting sharks and oceans.

Happy Shark Week, everyone!