How Not To Apologize: A Lesson In "Apology PR"

The past two weeks have seen a cascade of misdeeds to fascinate apology-watchers like me.

Where to begin? There’s the mushrooming scandal over the GSA’s $820,000 taxpayer-funded junket to Las Vegas in 2010. And the even seamier “hookergate” involving members of the Secret Service (though at least they were cost-conscious in their indiscretion!)

There was also plenty of outrage over ill-chosen public comments. In an unexpected gift to the Romney campaign, progressive pundit Hilary Rosen managed to anger stay-at-home moms, conservatives, and even the White House with her comment about Ann Romney.  Then there were the rogue remarks of rocker and gun enthusiast Ted Nugent, whose wacky anti-Obama rant earned him a visit from the Secret Service itself, in a nice bit of symmetry.

Most of the above have resulted in a public mea culpa. Some are baffling and nearly all are terrible. Inspired by the past week of apologies, I’ve drafted a guide for how not to deliver a face-saving public apology:

Wait it out. This is what Hilary Rosen tried to do in the wake of a strong reaction to her statement that “Ann Romney hasn’t worked a day in her life.” Though Rosen explained she was objecting to candidate Romney’s attempt to liken his wife to struggling working moms rather than criticizing her choice, the controversy didn’t abate until she formally apologized. Politics? Of course, but if you live by the sword, sometimes you have to fall on it.

Blame the victim. “I’m sorry if anyone was offended….” is how the classic non-apology starts. This is a flawed communications strategy because it evades responsibility and seems to put the blame on the injured parties. There’s a bit of this in Romney adviser Richard Grenell’s public apology for his Twitter updates criticizing Hillary Clinton’s appearance, Rachel Maddow’s style, and Callista Gingrich’s hair, among others. “I apologize for the hurt (the tweets) caused,” reads Grenell’s statement. A more sincere message would have gone something like this: “I attacked people in petty and personal ways because I don’t like their politics, and that is immature and wrong.”

Blame the system. Similarly, pointing fingers at forces beyond your control to deflect responsibility is unlikely to be effective. Disgraced former GSA head Johnson tries to have it both ways in her apology. She accepts responsibility but spends more time explaining that the infamous Vegas junket was well underway when she was appointed and that she was “unaware of the scope.” Weak.

Make it about you. Johnson goes further by expressing sincere regret for the GSA fiasco. Her words are affecting…until the end. “I will mourn for the rest of my life my failed appointment…” is how she closes, but her statement should be more about the taxpayers, not her career. Similarly, in Rush Limbaugh’s apology to Sandra Fluke for calling her a “slut” last month, he spends the bulk of his statement justifying his own outrage over the contraception issue, then ends with the single line, “I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices.” Not enough, Rush.

Make light. Actually, humor (of the self-deprecating variety) can occasionally work, but it’s highly risky and must be deployed with extreme caution. An exception to the “no humor” rule and my favorite use of self-deprecation may be Robert Scoble’s blunt and refreshing self-indictment for an opinionated rant against an online commenter last year. Scoble was man enough to drink his own (apology-flavored) Kool-Aid in a blog post titled, “How I Made Myself Into An A-Hole.” Well said.

Left To Our Own Devices

Well, we are, aren’t we?

A new book, “Alone Together: Why We Expect More of Technology and Less of Each Other” by MIT Technology Professor Sherry Turkle, posits the following. Although we have wondrous new ways of connecting, via smartphones and computers, texting and emailing, social networking sites where we update our “stati” several times a day, in many ways, the age of digital saturation has caused us to sacrifice conversation for mere connection.

I see this every day in our busy and buzzing PR office. It used to be that our phones would ring off the hook and you couldn’t hear yourself talk over the din of animated phone conversations with reporters and clients. Now, when I ask my co-workers, “did you talk to Joe at the Times?” the answer is something like, “Yes I tweeted him and he emailed me right away requesting more information,” or “He just texted me with a date for an interview.”

Speaking of interviews, these crucial opportunities to spread a client’s message used to be much more formal affairs, in person, over lunch or drinks, only occasionally as “phoners.” Now, more often than not, a reporter will email questions to the PR contact who will email them to the client and discuss responses via email memo or phone. Kind of takes the spontaneity and spark out of the whole process, producing a sanitized, message-controlled interview, — maybe just what a client wants, but lacking color!

As much as new technology and multiple devices have eased and sped up our ability to communicate, I advocate for face-to-face conversation when you can get it. Sherry Turkle fears that kids growing up “digitized” won’t learn the basics of social conversation. Yikes!

Therefore, I urge you to chat more with your co-workers, make time to see your clients in person on a regular basis and take a media contact out for drinks or coffee. Nothing can replace face-to-face!

Meaningful Media Training

Whether your client is a “PR Virgin” or a veteran of multiple media encounters, media and message training are vital to conducting successful interviews.

Media training can be defined as preparation for an interview, including counseling and rehearsal conducted prior to the interview or appearance on radio or TV. A media training session strengthens communications skills and helps develop a comfort and confidence for getting key message points delivered when talking with reporters. “Refresher courses” after interviews are also vital.

We recently worked with an author whose native language was not English and whose message was a bit complex. The training session included a professional media trainer and a cadre of PR professionals.

Here are some of the takeaways from that session:

Brainstorm every possible key message point. Then narrow down to three.

Of your three key points, state your most important one first. Don’t bury your main message.

Answer the question YOU want to address. But don’t dodge questions! Answer in eight seconds or less, then bridge back to your main point. Devise two or three segues to steer the answer your way. Practice them in role-play sessions.

If needed, repeat the interviewer’s question aloud to give yourself time to gather your thoughts.

Repeat your message often using different examples, phrases, and ordering.

Remember that a single vivid example is worth a thousand boilerplate message points.

All the media training in the world is worth nothing unless your client “buys” into it and practices. The proof will be in the ever-improving interviews he or she gives. What media training tips have been effective for you?

The End Of The PR Agency Of Record

Agency of record. It’s a phrase to warm the heart of any PR professional. It tends to evoke a long-term, retainer relationship with a largeish account. But there’s evidence that the agency of record (AOR) may be heading the way of the traditional media tour. Gone.

According to the latest study conducted by the USC Annenberg Strategic Communication and Public Relations Center, clients are spending more on PR. Good news! But only 15 percent of the 600+ senior communicators surveyed say they have an agency of record; a decade ago, by contrast, more than half reported an AOR relationship.

Bad news? Perhaps. But why the shift? The report attributes it to the need for more specialized and more regional expertise. That’s undoubtedly true, but I’d also factor in the economy. Even if you’re spending more on PR projects, cost allocation and management is simpler when you have the flexibility of shorter contracts. Most importantly, it’s easier to calculate the ROI based on a discrete assignment.

And ROI, or more precisely, impact, is where PR is going. Thanks to the rise of social media, the industry’s maturation, and the sophistication of measurement tools, we can quantify the results from a given campaign with increasing precision. In fact, the Annenberg study showed that PR spending is up largely due to greater investment in evaluation.

The death of the AOR sounds scary, but here’s what it really means for PR firms.

More opportunity. This is particularly true for smaller or specialty firms. Presumably this heralds more respect for what we do, and the increased specialization of PR and communications overall.

Regard for PR as a strategic business tool. The study backs this up as well, showing that a corporate PR officer is increasingly likely to report to the “C-suite.”

Greater quality consciousness and focus on PR impact. Though agencies may deride project assignments as forcing us to “always run for reelection,” that tend to be more goal-oriented and more closely tied to business objectives. That’s a good thing.

Besides, that cozy, long-term AOR relationship was never really so secure. Let it go. We’re well positioned to prove the value that PR brings to the table. And that’s the good news.

Writing The Shareable PR Blog Post

Crenshaw Communications’ employee blog, PR Fishbowl, recently celebrated its one-year anniversary, and we thought it a good time to look back and highlight what makes a blog readable and shareable. Here is what we found:

Find your voice. Whether your blog is snarky or sweet, find a consistent tone so “fans” know what to expect and look forward to your take on an issue or topic.

Be quick. It goes without saying to be topical, but today’s hot- button issue is tomorrow’s snooze, so filing the first blog post on a trending topic is a must! In the past year we have quickly posted the “PR POV” on breaking news such as the Susan G. Komen/Planned Parenthood Crisis, Paula Deen and her diabetes debacle and many more.

Be provocative. Take the less popular stance on an issue; point out industry foibles and expose myths. Some of our most well-read blogs took a controversial look at how a politician fared in public. (There’s no need to be partisan if your topic is the PR strategy behind the story.) Another focused on “gaffes and goofs” in PR resumes and cover letters.

Be fun. Our blogs are mostly lighthearted but when you can turn it into something fun and relatable, the audience is “in on it” with you. A good example of this was a holiday blog which took the 12 Days of Christmas and gave each “gift” a PR spin. We also produced a “Mad Libs” blog.

Be smart. Impart real knowledge and advice PR people can use as soon as they’ve finished reading. Tip lists, “do’s and don’ts”, especially those that incorporate “real life” examples, always fare well.
Finally, some practical blog advice (aha, a tip list!)

Be aware of industry keywords and use them

Link to other bloggers and websites (who will reciprocate)

Push your blog out through all your social media channels

Invite comments and always respond to those you receive

We’d love to hear any additional advice!

Can "The Pitch" Be Fixed?

Can the pitch be fixed? I don’t mean the new reality TV show, although the debut episode was a losing proposition — contrived, tedious, and unrealistic. But there was one aspect of the show that hit home, and that was the pitch itself.

A team from McKinney, the first of two ad agencies competing to win a client, files into a stark conference room, engages in awkward chitchat, and begins an upbeat walk-through of its lead creative campaign idea. The energy feels forced as the camera zooms in on the client executives, blank-faced, bored, distracted.

The vacant client reactions were probably a function of editing, to heighten what little tension the episode contained, and (spoiler alert) McKinney comes out on top, so there’s no abuse here. But the uncomfortable presentation scene made me reflect again on the typical search process where the agencies turn themselves inside out and throw lots of time and talent at a creative assignment in hopes of winning the prize.

I wonder if the clients who sponsor these beauty contests fully realize how hard a competitive pitch is on the participating companies. Maybe they do, since for the client who looks at ten firms, the search is likely to be protracted, confusing, and absurdly time-consuming. (On the show, the client very humanely looks at only two agencies. But the typical bake-off can include far more.)

It’s ironic that most agencies will deliver their best work on spec. At least in advertising, the creative that takes first place will presumably be the basis for the actual campaign. But ask PR professionals how many times they’ve actually executed the winning idea. For us, the pitch is usually an expensive and time-consuming chemistry test.

The whole process could use a fix. Here are my thoughts on how we might simplify the typical agency search:

Limit the field. Three or, at most, four agencies should be enough. It helps if the key attributes of the most compatible agency partner – size, culture, geography, etc. – are determined ahead of time.

Limit the deciders. Of course, corporate politics may dictate otherwise, but a smaller decision committee will save time, money, and anguish on both sides. A cross-functional team is an invitation to disaster.

Skip the RFP. We recently participated in a project pitch where the prospect vetted us by phone, then followed with a brief questionnaire with five open-ended questions, asking for our response in three days. They made a decision two days later. Almost painless. (p.s., we won.)

State your budget. Many clients fear being open about the budget because they want to take advantage of a competitive situation to get the best price. Why not determine your actual budget and get the highest quality work for it?

Spend the time. Offering real access to the decision-maker(s) and delivering quality information to agency candidates, rather than delegating the discovery process to an intern, will elevate the caliber of agencies who participate and the recommendations you receive.

Consider paying for spec work. You’ll get more in-depth, higher quality responses. And every agency will love you for it.

PR People And The Love of Language

By and large, PR people love language – not just English, but any language in which a word or turn of phrase most perfectly captures what we are trying to communicate. Sometimes raison d’être is just so much more colorful than “reason for existence” or “arrividerci baby” more impactful than “goodbye.” Recently the German “kummerspeck” –excess weight gained from emotional overeating (grief bacon) –has entered the lexicon.

But the language that seems to contribute the most interesting words and most perfectly sum up a feeling for me come from the nearly dead, rarely spoken language of Yiddish.

In the last week alone, I received three emails that started with the word, “Oy,” just proving my point. Nothing sums up exasperation, disbelief, disappointment or pain quite like this two-letter word.

Here are some other favorites:

Tsotchke – Slavic for toys, it has evolved into the universal industry term for premiums given by companies to consumers, or other target audiences to promote brand recognition.
“Did you budget for client tsotchkes to give away at the next trade show?”

Schnorer – Originally “beggar,” it has come to mean anyone looking for a freebie at an event or taking advantage of an agency invitation by adding “plus 5” to an RSVP.
“What a schnorer! He actually wanted to take 10 extra goodie bags from the luncheon today.”

Putz – Onomatopoeia at its best! Sounds awful and describes a fool or an idiot. Has a verb usage akin to behaving in an idle manner or puttering.
“First he questioned every out-of-pocket charge, agreed upon in advance, and then he putzed around forever not paying, he’s such a putz.”

Chutzpah – Nerve, extreme arrogance, brazen presumption, chutzpah connotes courage or confidence and is often a compliment to someone whose bold move engendered success and praise.
“She asked the client to raise the retainer to 25k a month and he said yes, shows what a little chutzpah can do!” (And who can forget former presidential candidate Michele Bachmann’s “goyische” mispronunciation of the word when she accused President Obama of having some!)

I could go on but I would rather learn some new words or phrases from other languages to incorporate into my PR writing!

PR Move of the Week: Hillary Clinton (Hillz)

Hillary has become cool.

That’s right, the Hillary Clinton who struggled through grueling Democratic primaries in 2008, only lose the ultimate prize to the maddeningly unruffled new guy, seems to be having the last laugh. And we thought Obama was the cool one.

It started when two Hillary fans, PR specialists Stacy Lambe and Adam Smith, created the Tumblr page “Texts from Hillary.” Inspired by an iconic photo of Clinton taken by Time photographer Diana Walker, the blog extends the photo’s faintly badass aura of quiet power. It features fictitious texts between Mrs. Clinton and her colleagues and frenemies where she calmly shows her dominance (or as the blog puts it, that she’s the HBIC.) There’s even a “meme meets meme” exchange between her and Internet darling Ryan Gosling in which he texts,”hey, girl,” and she snaps, “It’s Madam Secretary.”

“Texts from Hillary” was already interesting, but what tipped it into mass consciousness in only a few days was Secretary Clinton’s own reaction. Rather than ignoring it, laughing it off privately, or trying to shut it down, she whipped out some texts of her own. On Tuesday she was photographed with Lambe and Smith at the State Department.

The real-faux text from the Secretary read: “Sup Adam. Nice Selfie Stace:-)” (a reference to Lambe’s smartphone pic) and ended with, “ROFL @ ur tumblr! G2g-Scrunchie time. Ttyl?”

Okay, so maybe she had help from her staff, but the response is pretty unexpected from the pantsuit-clad, scrunchie-wearing Clinton that we take for granted. In fact, my favorite touch is the scrunchie mention, which pokes fun at recent criticisms of Clinton’s unfashionable hair ties. But the whole thing is hil-arious, and it makes a nice contrast between Secretary Clinton and her onetime rival President Obama as the dismal and depressing 2012 presidential campaign gains steam.

The Hillz meme has been so successful, in fact, that it’s revived rumors about a Clinton presidential run in 2016. But as Mrs. Clinton (and her staff) have undoubtedly learned, America most loves and admires her when she plays hard to get. So, I’m betting Madam Secretary keeps on running the world from behind her big shades and her mobile, keeping her own counsel and staying cool.

Scoring The BIG PR Win

In today’s PR landscape, a high-profile article or interview can mean the difference between a happy client and a disappointed one.  Your clients have the inherent need to look stronger, smarter, and better positioned than the competition, and there’s no better way to accomplish this than by scoring a great feature in an influential outlet (i.e. NY Times, CNN, Mashable, depending on your client’s target audience.)  Here are a few tips to help you land the article of your client’s dreams.

Don’t pitch the big guys on every little announcement and idea

Be strategic with your pitching and make sure it’s the right fit.  Don’t pitch the big guys with every single little industry announcement your client is making.  If you want to eventually secure a Los Angeles Times briefing, make sure every pitch you send to that reporter is appropriate and relevant.  Otherwise, you risk getting lost in the inbox shuffle.

Be personal

Reporters are inundated with emails and phone calls from PR pros all day/every day.  Don’t just blast them the same message you’re sending to 500 other contacts.  Do your research.  Follow the reporter on Twitter and learn what they’re interested in and what they tend to write about.  Personalize the pitch and tailor it specifically to the individual as well as the outlet.

Use current events

I’ve discussed this one here on PR Fishbowl before, but it’s definitely appropriate for this situation.  Don’t hesitate to creatively insert your client into the conversation surrounding popular current events in the news.  For example, check out how client Silverpop was recently featured on Mashable by providing some unique insights into the race for the GOP presidential nomination.

Keep an open dialogue

“No” is not the end of the world.  If a high-profile reporter lets you know that a certain story isn’t right for them, start a constructive conversation to find out what they’ll be looking for in the future.  Keep it open ended, and be sure to follow up when you finally have that great exclusive to offer.

Tell us how you’ve scored a major win for one of your clients.

Gaffes And Goofs To Avoid In (PR) Resumes

Ahh, springtime, when PR firms revel in the rush of resumes from recent (or soon-to-be) college graduates. Rifling through the resumes and cover letters can be irksome, however, when faced with a galling and appalling array of grammar, syntax, and spelling gaffes and goofs. The following is just a sampling of what has landed in our inboxes this month.

Beware, punctuation junkies, and those for whom “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” is a grammar bible. The following may be painful.

“As a senior psychology major graduating from Yale in May, I was wondering if Cremshaw Communications might possibly have any entry-level opportunities available.” (Our company name is Crenshaw Communications.)

“I am ‘in the know’ of current news, trends, and practices. I demonstrate the ability to work cohesively and strong written, verbal, and social media skills.”

“My previous management experience has given me a solid foundation to multi-task and my degree in International Relations required many hours of research that was complied into 50 page papers giving me strong analytical and writing skills.” (you find the typo!)

“I am interested in this job because I moved to New York with the desire to work amongst luxury brands or with brands that translate ultimate beauty and fashion.“ (And what to do these brands “translate ultimate beauty and fashion” into?)

“In regards to my salary requirements, based on my work experience, education and the New York standard of living costs I feel that a salary within the range of $35,000 – $50,000 would be fair.” (The sentence may be punctuated correctly, but the audacity is questionable!)

Please share your favorite resume “wrongs”!