5 New Year’s Resolutions for Better PR Agency-Client Collaboration

Typically, a consumer or B2B PR firm will put forth some resolutions to improve agency performance and delivery on key strategic communications plans. As we approach the beginning of 2014, we offer up a few recommendations for the agency-client team to make for a truly fruitful relationship in the New Year and beyond.

Be fearless in critiquing work. In a positive, constructive way. Quantify your critique with some hard facts and never bring up a problem without offering potential solutions to course-correct. Most importantly, don’t let your ego get in the way of valuable feedback.

Work smarter and faster. As a team, anticipate critical dates and what your competition may do. Create tight, yet workable deadlines that always keep your client’s work ahead of the pack. Dynamism is often the key to re-energizing and improving agency-client outcomes.

Shake up the tools in the toolbox. Tools can mean agency team members (is it time to rotate in a new player with a valuable skill set?) or tactical PR “weaponry.” Consider this, is a competitor doing something attention-worthy that must be countered? Is it time to re-assess how the company announces news? Consider tossing the typical press release in exchange for something more social-media minded, if appropriate.

Remember Ed Koch. New York PR pros know that the famous mayor strode down the streets of Manhattan asking locals “How am I doing?” This is an excellent question that PR agencies and clients should ask of each other on a regular basis. Both parties will benefit from the honest exchange.

Own the data. Significant and often, edgy, research can be the key to which story is reported on, or which spokesperson is chosen for an interview. PR agencies and clients should strive to own stats of interest to media and target audiences. Collaborating on research projects can also strengthen the bond as you both become even more well-informed about a client’s industry and business.

Here’s to a year full of successful PR agency-client collaborations. Get started, the clock is ticking!

PR, Politics, and The New Transparency

In a communications strategy that will be studied by future candidates and PR pros, New York City mayor-elect Bill de Blasio opted to make his personal story, epitomized by his strikingly attractive biracial family, the centerpiece of his campaign. His pledge to bring NYC’s “tale of two cities” to a happy resolution was conveyed in ads and stories featuring his wife and children. His teenage son Dante’s impressive Afro was the star of the campaign, followed by daughter Chiara’s flowered headbands.

As the new mayor prepares to take office, his campaign has continued the narrative…this time in an ultra-controlled and, arguably, higher-risk fashion. Just before Christmas, it released a gauzy video of 19-year-old Chiara, ostensibly explaining her recent problems with alcohol and substance abuse. The video is meticulously choreographed and produced. In fact, it’s far more of a PSA than a confessional interview, and its release was obviously timed for maximum empathy and minimum follow-up.

Michael Wolff calls it “a breakthrough example of … (a) new communications form,” going directly to the public rather than through those pesky journalists, who might do further digging to flesh out the story, gather objective opinions, or even offer shadings of their own.

As a strategy it isn’t really groundbreaking. The direct-to-constituent approach goes back at least as far as President Obama’s 2008 election. It was famously used by Sarah Palin, who popularized the term “lamestream” media, after all – but political PR is always instructive for the rest of us.

The de Blasio technique is more than just evidence of the disintermediation of traditional journalistic channels. It also reveals the utility of social media and a kind of mainstreaming of personal disclosures that have the potential to impact brand or personal reputation. PR Newser’s story about GMA anchor Robin Roberts is a good case in point.

Roberts recently outed herself by dropping a casual reference to her (female) life partner of over a decade. It was a piece of information that might, in another time or context, have harmed her popularity, or at least have required some media orchestration. But because this is 2013 and her status is part of a larger story about her health struggles, and mostly because Roberts herself mentioned it in a Facebook post about her year, it caused barely a ripple.

As a communicator, I respect de Blasio’s strategy, and its successful outcome. But I worry about what passes for transparency today. Public figures have every right to be wary of media and the loss of control that just about any disclosure can bring. And we PR pros have an obligation to do so. We spend our lives trying to frame the narrative. Who among us hasn’t experienced the sickening scenario of a perfectly factual and balanced story overtaken by the ludicrous distraction of a trivial detail, an editor’s omission, or a headline writer’s snappy pun?  It’s maddening, but that’s the media.

But here’s the thing: transparency works both ways. In a world where everyone is media, it’s now easier to be skeptical of a company’s branded content or a piece of corporate native advertising. I’m not saying we should be cynical about Chiara de Blasio’s struggles, which seem perfectly genuine. Yet, if you offer your family as campaign material, they will be fair game, and if you cut out the media, you’re putting your own credibility on the line. The de Blasio team is ahead so far, but if news comes out to contradict or even fill out Chiara’s statements in a way that makes them less authentic or transparent, it will be a downhill reputation slide for the campaign and the family.

All constituents – whether political or otherwise – should scratch the surface of a politician or personality’s content. The scrutiny might not be automatic, but it will grow with the acceleration of direct communications to fans and consumers. If everyone is media, they’re also their own  PR strategist. Even for those who do it for a living, it’s a tricky line to walk.
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7 Myths That Undermine Content Marketing Success

The value of content marketing has been increasingly recognized by marketing and PR professionals. It seems clear that, over the long term, it can enhance brand awareness and even drive demand. According to the Content Marketing Institute, 60% of B2C marketers say their content marketing budget will increase in 2014.

But there are barriers to creating and sharing excellent content, including popular myths and misconceptions that should be dispelled. Here are a few of our favorites.

Content marketing replaces PR. Not really. Although there’s been a lot of talk about one supplanting the other, earned media is still powerful. Content typically fits nicely into a strategic PR program, not the other way around.

When it comes to content, more is better. This may have been true once, but it’s not now. Google algorithm updates favor high-quality, original material over quantities of keyword-stuffed posts. But even beyond that, wouldn’t you rather share well designed content that you’re proud of?

Snappy social media updates can replace hard-to-create content. Not necessarily; it’s not an either-or situation. Long-form content is making a comeback, actually. But the larger point is that content should be sized to solve problems, engage prospects, and share insights. It’s hard to believe that those goals can be accomplished in a simple Facebook campaign.

Quality is secondary, since SEO is everything.  Ouch. SEO is important, yes, because the point of marketing your material is often to let customers find you through the right keywords. But a visit to your site or community is only the beginning of the marketing process. It’s valuable content that truly engages prospects and incites them to action.

We don’t have time to create it. This is one we hear a lot. Yes, creating quality content is a commitment of time and resources. But chances are you’re already spending time on marketing initiatives that may not be generating a strong ROI, or enabling customers to find you. Many clients are surprised that, once the overall strategy and distribution plan is set, the actual content creation is not very time-consuming at all.

If you create it, they will  come. Not true. Putting it out there is a great first step, but without a real content strategy, defined audiences, and well-populated social communities, you can easily fall short. Mitch Joel’s post on the importance of content distribution really hits home here.

Anything worth sharing is proprietary. Some companies fear disclosing trade secrets through white papers, bylined articles, or the like, but for content to be relevant to most prospects, its subject matter extends beyond any one business or sector. And if it’s really that exclusive, how much better would a real consulting relationship be?

Want more practical tips on content marketing for PR professionals? Here’s a tipsheet with 10 great ideas.

PR Agency Relationship-Builders for the New Year

The New Year is an ideal time for PR agencies to re-evaluate and perhaps improve relationships with clients and contacts. Relationship-building is also a great habit to form for the New Year. Here are some pointers all successful PR firms can employ.

Make introductions. Chances are, you know a mid-career executive who’s out of work, or a recent grad who’s trying to break into communications. Get into the habit of introducing people who need a boost to others in the biz. It doesn’t need to be about an available spot, since those are likely to be few and far between. But a simple introduction to someone with helpful contacts or knowledge can go a long way.

Get face-to-face. Is your client speaking on a panel? Go hear her. Does the CEO need briefing prior to a media interview? Get there. Any excuse to get face-to-face to your clients and the entire marketing team is a great way to be indispensable and demonstrate your commitment to the business.

Revive dormant contacts. Lost touch over the years? The end of the year/beginning of a new one is an ideal time to recharge old contacts. Link In, follow, or make a date to get together to catch up.

Set a goal for new relationships. Maybe you want to create three new contacts a month through social media. Whatever the goal, make it manageable, and start slowly, by Linking In or RT-ing a Twitter update. Social media can give you some insight into job history, friends in common, interests and even where they grew up, information that can be helpful in building a relationship. Just take care not to appear to be stalking.

“How about those [insert sports team name]”. Communicate about non-work interests from sports to vacations and family. Creating a well-rounded relationship makes all communication easier and more comfortable. It also engenders deeper trust in your client when confiding useful information that will benefit your relationship and your work.

Do something sociable, not just social. We are all busy and it’s hard to make time to do one more “work” thing. But taking a client to lunch or having the team go out for drinks reaps untold benefits as your relationship grows. In addition to the aforementioned increase in trust and comfort, these outings offer a relaxed atmosphere where you may discover how much you genuinely like the people you do business with. A side benefit indeed!

What PR Pros Can Learn From Justine Sacco

Friday morning, IAC PR executive Justine Sacco had about 300 Twitter followers and was known mostly to her family, friends and colleagues. But after a racially themed tweet and 12 hours of silence as Twitter raged, she became a PR crisis case history and an example of a personal reputation meltdown in real time. How did it happen, and can we learn anything from it?

As everyone knows, it started with a tweet. Not an ordinary one. “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white,” is pretty startling, particularly coming from a senior PR professional at a well known media company. There’s quite a bit to unpack in the short tweet. First, it seems to make light of the AIDS scourge in Africa. Then it brings in race. Nothing amusing in either case.

Unfortunately for Sacco, Valleywag caught the update and posted a brief but snarky item about it, “A Funny Holiday Joke From IAC’s PR Boss.”

At that, Twitter took notice. To many, it was pure ignorance and racism. Others thought it was an attempt at edgy humor. Some speculated about a hack. The tweet was RT’d thousands of times, and Sacco’s Twitter account ballooned to over 6000 followers. Before the close of the business day on the East Coast, IAC had posted an apology for the “outrageous” and “offensive” tweet and implied she would be dismissed as soon as she could be reached. Sacco’s name was scrubbed from the IAC website that day.

As Twitter waited for a response, it became obvious Sacco was on a flight without Internet access. In the meantime, the community went into overdrive and the story went mainstream, picked up by Business Insider, Huffington Post, and even The New York Times, among others. A faux Twitter account appeared, and Buzzfeed wasted no time in creating a listicle of Sacco’s most dubious tweets. All this in the course of a single day.

In a clever, or, some would say, questionable, bit of newsjacking, Gogo, the inflight Internet service, jumped on the controversy to promote its in-flight wifi. Then Twitter briefly cheered when the domain justinesacco.com was acquired and redirected to an African aid donations site. All were glued to Sacco’s account, waiting for the moment when she would realize the ferocity of the twitstorm, punctuated with the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet. Many actually likened the spectacle to O.J. Simpson’s low-speed Bronco chase of 1994…a pretty tasteless comparison if you ask me.

At some point, Sacco did land and obviously learned about the uproar. Her Twitter account was deleted and she went into hiding. And who could blame her? The story isn’t over, but it does point out some things of import to communicators. Already, in PR-land, Sacco’s meltdown is a lesson in social media’s power and to some, she’s a poster child for self-indulgent, oversharing millennials.

Personal is professional. If your employer is named on your social media account, everything you post can be linked to the company. Any PR professional should know that. And the standard disclaimer that “opinions are my own” is a waste of character space. Does anyone think it would have made a difference in this case?

Edgy humor is hard to pull off. Even if you’re a professional comic, you’re taking a risk with any humor that crosses lines involving issues of race, sexuality, mortality, or violence.  Ask Daniel ToshBill Maher, and Gilbert Gottfried, to name just a few. These are guys who do it for a living. Risky humor should be left to professionals.

Response time is critical. The amount of digital rage that built against Sacco because she was unable to delete or apologize for her tweet was astonishing. If we have ever doubted that the media/web/community will fill the void, it’s now a certainty. And the window of opportunity for responding and trying to make things right is breathtakingly small.

Consider a backup plan if out of touch. Some PR pros on Twitter tonight had practical tips. One suggested giving password and login access to work colleagues if unplugged for a day or more. Media trainer Brad Phillips (@MrMediaTraining) advises against setting auto-tweets if you expect to be out of touch for a long while –  as we’ve seen when tragic news hits and brands are caught tweeting trivia, or worse. Of course, a better idea is not to post stupid tweets in the first place, regardless of web access.

So, what should Sacco do now? PR pros will debate it, but once she realizes what’s hit her, she should start with a real apology. Not a mealy-mouthed “I’m sorry to those I offended,” but a true expression of contrition. The 12-hour silence couldn’t be helped, but deleting her entire Twitter account and retreating forever isn’t the right move, assuming that she’s not actually a bigot. If she is, then this is a wake-up call. Jason Alexander’s heartfelt apology after a “gay” skit he performed on a late-night show is a good model.

The social mob is ruthless, to be sure. But social media can also be a powerful tool for communicating regret and asking for redemption. It may be quixotic, but I hope it can also help turn the schadenfreude the PR community feels about an entertaining, but basically horrible, reputation disaster into something a little bit instructive for all of us.

“At the End of the Day” PR Pros, Cut The Cliches!

An informal poll shows that the average public relations practitioner can spend up to half their day writing. This includes memos, strategic communications plans, creative PR pitch letters, blogs and press releases. It is a challenge to keep the writing fresh, concise, and interesting! The best writers often accomplish that by avoiding words and phrases that are overused, meaningless, and boring.

Obviously some writing demands use of industry terms that, although repetitive, offer a business shorthand to the reader and will never go away. A plan typically has objectives, strategies and tactics, for example.

But where a writer in a PR agency is given some creative latitude – for pitch letters and blog posts – here are some guidelines to keep your writing “sharp as a tack.” (No, don’t say that, ever!)

Tweak. If you must use a hackneyed expression, give it new life and meaning with some simple wordsmithing. For example, we recently blogged about the trend towards piling up cell phones before a meal to keep everyone’s attention and titled it “[Not] Left to their own Devices.” For another post, we led with , “Guy Walks into a PR Firm” to evoke the old joke.

Elaborate. Let us suppose that the simplest way to convey your new tech PR client’s persona to an editor is by calling him a “whirling dervish” or a “mad scientist”. Go with that, but then go a little overboard with a colorful follow-up sentence illlustrating a terrific example and piquing the interest of a journalist.

Read. When PR pros aren’t writing, they should be reading, and not just industry blogs or entertainment columns. Look at film and literary criticism (some of the best writing out there), literary fiction, and magazines that cover news and culture. These different types of writing will open your mind to new turns of phrase to get your own creative wordplay flowing.

Create. So many clichés and expressions are meaningless for anyone born in this century or most of the last. And even veterans are tired of them.

Do most people working today even remember how and why it became a problem to “drink the Kool-Aid?” And when did “best of breed” leave the kennel? Can we toss “throw under the bus” under there right now?  Let’s put “out of the box” back inside, and while we’re at it, just “move the needle” on out as well.

You get the picture, use a relevant expression, or make up a different one to propagate. Think hard and try to come up with something completely new to use in your next missive.

Perhaps a replacement for “for immediate release?”

How Strategic Public Relations Builds Brands

Public relations drives reputation, while marketing builds brands, right? Not so fast.

That assumption defines both disciplines too narrowly.  There are many ways in which the classic PR approach and tactics help defend, deepen, and even create an indelible brand identity. In fact, a Procter & Gamble study showed that out of all the services in the marketing mix for seven of its beauty, health care and family brands, public relations had the highest ROI for three of its brands, and it came in second for the remaining four.

Here are the most common ways that PR pulls its weight in the brand-building mix.

Earned media implies third-party endorsement.  The essence of good PR is having someone else talk about you in a positive way, rather than pushing out your own marketing content. The third-party endorsement – either implied or explicit – is often more effective, and nearly always more credible, than paid media, and it can go into far greater depth than the typical marketing or ad campaign.

PR can drive thought leadership. Staking out a position on an issue that transcends everyday business matters  can yield far-reaching brand benefits. When a CEO comes out in favor of marriage equality, like Goldman Sachs’s Lloyd Blankfein, or launches a jobs program, like Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz,  it’s about more than corporate reputation. It’s an example of leadership about a critical matter relevant to most customers that may have little to do with its products, but everything to do with its brand values.

PR supports education. When we talk about “public education” campaigns, they often mean behavior change for the public good, like prevention of childhood obesity or seat belt safety. They are often unbranded, or may carry the brand of a respected government agency or NGO. Yet even for businesses in “high-involvement” categories like luxury, technology, or automotive, the depth and detail that product education provides can be a true brand differentiator and a way to inspire customer confidence.

Strategic communications creates brand advocates. This is where branding and reputation come together in a way that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Social media is like word-of-mouth on steroids, and the credibility of peer networks can not only turn prospects into customers, but customers into advocates, either for a brand’s position, or against it. Through the power of social sharing, every customer interaction is potentially a public one, and a brand reputation can be formed – or dismantled – in a matter of days.

PR is about the story.  Storytelling sums up the natural advantages of PR as an engagement tool. Unlike advertising, PR can tell a story in depth. The most powerful narratives might recount the impact of an innovative product or service on an individual or a community, for example. Storytelling can usually be done in far more detail and with greater authenticity through social and traditional media relations than through paid media channels.

Tech PR Gift Guide: What Top PR Firms Want For The Holidays

The holidays are here—and that means it’s gift guide season. Of course, PR pros spend a lot of time pitching gift guides, but what about gifts for us—for those in the PR industry. What do we want?
Some might argue for a spa treatment. That’s fine, but I’m in search of something a bit more practical.

Here are some technology PR gifts I wish I could find in my stocking this winter.

Infographics, Be Popular Again

In tech PR, infographics were all the rage a few years ago. I would say that they reached their peak in 2010-2011, though they remained popular through 2012, if only because they offered editorial a “set it and forget it” solution for a slow news day. Infographics were an “easy” tool for securing earned media. But, sadly, they may be on the way out. Saturation and fatigue are setting in across media and readers alike.

Need proof? Google Trends offers a forecast function and predicts that in 2014, interest (as told by search) in infographics will peak, then drop. If the quantitative wasn’t enough, consider the anecdotal. I recently spoke with a writer at Mashable who said, simply, “I hate infographics.” The wave is over.

New Buzzwords for 2014

As we approach 2014, the tech PR industry is in an odd place. There are no unique, new buzzwords to latch on to, with many emphasizing trends from previous years. For instance, Gartner notes that “mobile apps” and “cloud computing” will be a key trends in 2014. Doesn’t that seem awfully similar to trends PR pros have leveraged in the past to generate coverage for their clients?

“Big Data,” “wearable tech,” nothing here is particularly new (the former is especially fading). For tech PR pros to be truly successful in 2014, we’ll need to be creative in identifying and messaging trends for our clients, as the industry itself has yet to decide upon a new library for us to really draw upon.

Conference Coordination Software

Seriously—why doesn’t this exist? There is an endless supply of meetups, events, conferences and awards that could make sense for a given client. We work intimately with our points of contact to pick out the most appropriate ones and calendarize them so deliverables are transparent and understood. I wonder, though, why the PR industry is still absent a software solution that can aid in this process. It would be a valuable product, streamlining time spent on conference mechanics so that hours and manpower could be spent elsewhere—on pitching, for example, or strategic communications.

Twitter to Nix its Follow Limit
Twitter is my go-to source for breaking news. It’s also a great tool for relationship-building with journalists. That’s why I find Twitter’s 2,000-person “follow limit” to be extremely frustrating (you can actually follow more than 2,000, but only after you’ve gained many more followers yourself). I ask that Twitter remove the threshold or increase it, so I can at least discuss baseball with more reporters.

Other tech PR firm pros—what do you want this holiday season?

WestJet’s Holiday PR "Miracle" Goes Above and Beyond

Little-known (in the U.S.) airline WestJet has a reputation for fun and friendliness, and in the past, it’s come up with clever holiday PR initiatives. But this year WestJet really went the extra mile.

With the help of 150 employees and merchant partners, the airline made some pretty high-altitude holiday dreams come true for passengers on a flight from Toronto to Calgary, beautifully captured on video, of course. In the departure area, the travelers were asked about their wish lists, and, lo and behold, when they arrived, the very items they’d requested were sliding down the baggage ramp. One woman was moved to tears as she unwrapped her brand new digital camera. Pity the guy who said he needed “socks and underwear” as he watched one incredulous family rip the paper off its new flat-screen TV.

Naturally, not everyone who saw the video was as ecstatic as the passengers who scored an early Santa visit. Some criticized the rank materialism of the stunt, saying the gifts should have been purchased for the truly needy, in the spirit of the holiday. Others decried it as – surprise – nothing but a marketing campaign.

But WestJet had anticipated scroogelike reactions, so it came up with a way to promote social sharing. The airline promised that if it reached its goal of 200,000 views, it would pledge free flights to six partner charities. Within a week, the “Christmas Miracle” was seen over 21 million times. So, the real miracle of the video is how it so greatly exceeded the airline’s expectations. Here’s why it took off.

First, airlines are so far down in the reputation basement that almost anything that puts passengers first is a shocking and shareable moment. Second, the stunt was completely unexpected – as well as logistically challenging. Who would do such a thing? Finally, it’s a very visual event, and the video that recorded it is well done and truly moving.

I, too, would have loved to have seen more giving to those in need, rather than a randomly selected planeload of travelers. But if that had been the case, we probably wouldn’t be talking about it now, all these days later. (The trip also offered some reputation lift to partners like Best Buy, which was prominently featured in the video, at the best possible time.)

The interesting thing is that WestJet may not get more customers out of the stunt, even with the stratospheric viewing numbers that the video commanded. But think about how its employees and stakeholders feel. You can bet that morale is sky-high, and in a customer service business, that really counts.

Well done, WestJet. The only question among PR people is how it will meet soaring expectations for 2014. You can bet we’ll be watching.

Top Media Relations Tips for Consumer PR Agencies

“Sure, I’d love to interview your client.” And with that simple response, a PR pro’s day is made. Of course, you can’t control the outcome of your pitches, and consumer public relations – like all types of PR – is an art, not a science. So, whether you’re a seasoned pro or new to the trade, there’s always a bit of chance involved. But you can improve the odds. As you look forward to 2014, here are a few simple strategies to enhance your media relations for a consumer PR account, or virtually any other.

Make media follow-up meaningful

Always include some type of value-add in your follow-up notes to media, or don’t bother sending the email at all.  If you’re lucky enough to have a newsworthy development since sending the initial email, use it.  Share a photo (embedded, not attached!) or even consider leaving out a trivial detail in the initial pitch and then sharing it in your second note.

Really know your brand

To convince media your client is worth writing about, you must be a true champion of your brand, which means knowing it inside and out. I’m not just talking about looking at the client’s website and press materials, either.  If your client is an ecommerce site, shop on it.  If you represent a destination, take a mini-vacation there.  Separate your PR persona from your “inner consumer” and ask: If this weren’t my client, what would I find cool or compelling about it? In so doing, you’ll unearth interesting facets that might be deserving of media attention.

Take advantage of “quiet periods”

Every client has a quiet period, off-season, etc., and an insightful account leader will anticipate these well in advance and find ways to make news.  This might mean linking to a broad consumer trend, revamping an evergreen angle, or taking advantage of an unsung corporate social responsibility or community relations initiative.   If you can successfully transcend this quiet period you’ll come out way ahead, as this likely will be a quiet period for your competitors as well.

Be your client’s partner

Being honest with your client is essential to a healthy, thriving relationship (or any relationship for that matter) and will always result in better message delivery to media.  This is easy when your client “gets it”, but when they don’t, it’s your job as PR counsel to politely explain and guide.  Work together to ensure a client understands what is media worthy and what isn’t. Show them case studies, results reports, or “best practices” to make sure you’re on the same page before vetting something that your experience tells you not to.  Overpromising is an easy, short-term solution, but if your team can’t deliver, it can damage a relationship in the long-run.  Be honest with your client, and if they value you as a partner, they’ll appreciate your candor and your focus on initiatives that will further their goals.

It really is all about the data

With ever-shrinking media staffs and competition for eyeballs, journalists appreciate as much content as you can provide – data in the form of polls, studies and white papers, expert opinions from multiple sources within the same company with different strengths, even external experts from academia or other arenas to bolster your client’s case. Successful PR pros can package all of these elements to help form a story.

There are ancillary benefits to all of the above – balanced stories, grateful reporters and happy clients!