PR Lessons From 2014 Commencement Speakers

Commencement is not only a rich season for advice to those entering the “real world”; it also offers learnings for professional communicators, as well as opportunities for the boldface names who do the speaking. Here’s my list of lessons from those people and institutions who’ve set examples – both for good and ill – for PR professionals.

Embrace failure. Recently deposed New York Times editor Jill Abramson no doubt had a different speech in mind for her gig at Wake Forest. But instead of cancelling or trying to gloss over her abrupt exit, Abramson wove it into her address. She compared her situation to that of the new graduates – a shaky analogy, given her far greater wealth and accomplishment – but closed by urging the new graduates to “stick to their knitting… Sometimes the work will be good. Sometimes it will fail. But making sure you always have something to do, and something to work towards, is the best possible cure for melancholy and discouragement.” A graceful response to a very difficult and unexpected situation.

Acknowledge other points of view. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen put it well in her speech at NYU: “Listening to others, especially those with whom we disagree, tests our own ideas and beliefs. It forces us to recognize, with humility, that we don’t have a monopoly on the truth.” As professional communicators, our own ideas and messages have greater strength if they acknowledge the thoughts of other parties.

Stick to your principles. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg made a strong point about tolerance and diversity in his speech at alma mater Harvard, which to me boils down to remembering why you’re there in the first place. Referring to the commencement situations where potential speakers or degree recipients were uninvited after being deemed controversial, Bloomberg argued that caving in to possible dissension defeats the very purpose of higher education, which includes tolerance and freedom.

Be externally focused. He didn’t actually deliver a commencement address, but Marc Andreessen did offer his own advice to new graduates on Twitter. Instead of swallowing the “follow your passion” bromides which he feels are dangerous and simplistic, Andreessen offered that “Better career advice may be ‘Do what contributes’ — focus on the beneficial value created for other people vs just one’s own ego.”

Inspire.  This is the point of all graduation speakers, but many fall short. One who didn’t was Admiral

William McRaven, who spoke at University of Texas at Austin. Falling back on his training as a Navy SEAL, the Admiral urged the new graduates to change the world, then gave them very specific advice on how to do it.



In a different way, Rutgers University stumbled into the inspired, and inspiring, choice for its speaker after being criticized for seeming to rescind an offer to have Eric LeGrand make the commencement address. LeGrand was left paralyzed from the neck down after an accident he suffered playing in a Rutgers football game in 2010. His physical presence alone, symbolizing the perseverance that enabled him to graduate after his devastating injuries, probably spoke as loudly as his words, “Don’t ever let someone tell you you can’t do something!”

Sometimes, the most important thing is being there.

eGrand was paralyzed from the neck down four years ago while playing in a game for the Rutgers football team, and after years of determination and patience, he received his diploma from the university this spring.Read more at:


Five Steps To Mastering Media Training For B2B PR Clients

Providing customized media training offers one of the best opportunities for a  B2B PR firm to impact client communications performance while also strengthening the relationship. The agency team can also come away with a deeper understanding of the company’s business goals, mission, and messaging, making for more successful media outcomes. Want to do media training properly? Follow these five steps:

Start with the big picture. Even if interviews have already been secured successfully, the odds are that the client doesn’t have a full grasp on the media landscape and how journalists work today. Start with an educational overview of media to set the stage.

Refine key messages. This one sounds like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how often full media training sessions (read: simulated interviews with full critique) devolve into an overhaul of presumably approved story points. If the session takes place after you’ve worked with a client for a while, this is an excellent time to review background materials to make sure wording is up to date. Review to make sure the tone is right for each target and that the messages aren’t too jargon-heavy or commercial. It’s wise to be prepared to rip apart the master messaging document to make sure it’s working for where the client and the story are now but if a revamp is needed, it should happen before the training session.

Use video. It’s important to focus on the likeliest Q&A scenarios to face each client; however, video playback is critical even for those clients who will never be offered for a TV spot so that the critique can be meaningful. The best trainings are highly tailored, and the agency trainer needs to know key media targets. There’s no point in role-playing a mass media interview for a B2B client, of course, and casting the net too broadly (or at too high a level) can be confusing, so video simulations should be focused on interviews with specific imagined media outlets.

Be a constructive critic.  Once the practice interviews take place, it’s important to be observant and comment on everything from hand gestures to repetitious words and garbling of the message. This is the most important part of the session and where the real change can take place in client presentation. Of course, a generous allotment of praise and reinforcement is also advisable.

Recap the session…quickly.  Best to do this within a few days, while the learnings are still fresh. This documentation will help the client perfect interviews and positively impact the way client stories are offered to press. Most importantly, the session should be flexible, so key materials can be easily reviewed in advance of a key media conversation as a refresher. No one will remember everything!

Is PR The New Advertising?

Recently I participated in a roundtable discussion of PR agency owners and senior officers at large multinational firms about the evolution of public relations and its perceived value within major corporations. The conversation was serious, even a little gloomy; the consensus was that although advertising has been greatly disrupted by social media, data-driven marketing, and automated buying practices, it was coping fairly well and adapting to seismic changes. PR, on the other hand, was still mired in old-school journalism tactics and techniques and dependent on commoditized services like media placement and press releases.

Many beg to differ. A recent Forbes piece that queries PR and advertising leaders about the near future of both industries was more optimistic, at least from the PR side. Richard Edelman, CEO of the largest independent in the business, claims that PR and advertising will continue to blur until they are fully merged by the year 2020. (The single scariest thing about the piece wasn’t the predictions, but the simple fact that 2020 is only five-and-a-half years away.)

But I digress. The most convincing argument I’ve heard that PR has the potential to eat advertising’s lunch came unexpectedly last week at the meeting of our PROI partners. PROI is the leading international partnership of independent PR firms. The partners vary in size, geography, service offering and positioning, but we have one thing in common, a fierce commitment to independence and a drive to stay ahead of the curve. The PROI 2014 international conference in Hong Kong was crackling with energy and brimming with evidence of where PR is going. It’s clear that many of our sister companies who began under the PR banner but have dropped it to signal their greatly broadened service offering are doing so as more than just a branding move. Most of our partners are heavily invested in social media, market research, content creation, and many other specialized services that push the traditional boundaries of our industry.

But what brought the house down was a creative campaign produced by our Norway partner, Henning Sverdup of Slaeger, the leading independent in Oslo. Many of the attendees had seen the video Slaeger produced for its client, SOS Children’s Villages, designed to move citizens to donate warm coats to displaced children in war-ravaged Syria. “Little Boy Freezing” turns a hidden camera on the good people of Oslo (and, by association, the world) to see if, when confronted with a child in need, they will help. If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth a look.

But many at the conference had seen and shared the SOS video. It’s generated more than 14 million views on YouTube alone, buckets of earned media coverage, and more than a few tears. The surprise was that this international viral sensation was produced not by an ad agency or digital marketing firm, but by a midsize PR agency.

The campaign was a stunning success because it produced outstanding results in the form of donations for SOS Children’s Villages. But it also lifted spirits in our business. The lines have blurred so much that calling PR the new advertising might be outdated. But for anyone worried about the future of PR, this campaign is downright heartwarming.

A Journalist’s View: Three Questions From A PR Pro

Here’s another dispatch from our ongoing conversations with top journalists on best media relations practices.  Today we interviewed Mandi Woodruff, who covers personal finance for Yahoo! Finance, having recently moved from a similar position at Business Insider. Mandi shared her insights on PR professionals and the interview process.

When a PR person asks for interview questions in advance, I…. politely say no. I am fine with telling them broadly what I want to speak about, but sending questions ahead of time is a little bit overkill. If this were a live segment on CNN, then, sure, it’d only be polite to prepare the guest so they have time to think their answers through. I like to keep interviews relaxed. If a question surprises them and they need more time to think on it, I’m always happy to give them a few minutes or even call back later. It all depends on the subject matter, I suppose. I cover personal finance, which isn’t the most scandalous of beats, so, really, anyone who asks for questions ahead of time gets a little bit of an eye roll from me. It’s not that serious.

When I’m interviewing a spokesperson by phone and a PR person is also on the line, I’m…. OK with that. Whatever makes them feel comfortable. I sometimes wonder if the PR rep is even paying attention or just has the phone on mute while they go about their business. But more often than not, the PR rep is really helpful and can take note of things that I ask for (certain stats, documents, etc) and get them to me even while we’re still on the phone. I don’t like it when they butt in too much and try to speak for the person I’m interviewing though. But I will say this — two people, max! One PR rep + one interviewee. I’m rarely OK speaking with two people at once. It gets too confusing trying to figure out who said what.

When a PR person asks to see a story before it goes to print, I…. politely say no. I honestly can’t believe people still ask this (and they do!). The most I can do is offer to paraphrase some of their talking points, but even that is a very, very, (very!) special case.  Some people will go back and forth, obsessing over things like: “Did I really say ‘wanna’? Could we change that to ‘would like to’?” and you can spend all day arguing over what they think they did and didn’t say. It’s a game of telephone I’d rather not start.

On the other hand, if they’re an expert presenting a bunch of stats, I want to be sure I’ve got them right, so I’ll send them a summary for confirmation. Also, if I’m trying to explain a difficult concept, I might send that section to a source or expert who can tell me if I’m heading in the wrong direction (I do this all the time with complicated tax and investing stories.)

Five Things Clients Should Never Do To Their PR Agencies

When a client retains a PR firm, it is with the best of intentions. The company has an important business story to tell, a new consumer product launch or an issues battle to win. But often, good intentions are thwarted when the rubber meets the road. Perspectives change, personality traits come to fore and soon both parties are strategizing to keep the relationship productive and successful. Here are five things clients should think about NOT doing to help foster and preserve the successful client-agency relationship.

Set aside an unrealistic budget for PR

Public relations should never be an afterthought. It’s not productive to think we can “carve out a little money” for a few months of PR. Successful, change and results-driven strategic PR requires the same thoughtful process and budgeting that any other marketing discipline does within an organization. In a situation when a PR relationship is working well and the agency is told, “we have to cut PR,” all that wonderful media momentum stops and reputation-building efforts go back to zero. Something to think about when creating a smart marketing budget.

Contact reporters without informing your agency

Please don’t reach out to reporters directly or send out media pitches without informing your agency. Turn over media requests for the agency to vet first. With rare exception (a contact is an old friend, etc.) clients who talk to the press sans PR guidance can find themselves answering questions they’d rather not or submitting to interviews that miss the audience entirely.

Expand the scope of work, but not the fee

Frankly, this is an agency issue as well. The documents which guide the account (proposal, plan, LOA) should always clearly delineate what is covered by the retainer or project fee. When in doubt, refer to these to keep both parties on track. It behooves everyone to increase work and accomplish more as long as compensation matches expectation!

Keep your concerns to yourself

It’s counterproductive to do a slow burn about an agency issue and inform no one! Most agency-clients concerns can be nipped in the bud and fixed if addressed early enough.

Position anyone NOT in communications or marketing to manage the PR relationship

It happens with smaller or less experienced clients that anyone from CEO to COO and various other titles will manage the PR relationship. This can often lead to misunderstandings about the role and fits and starts with projects. It is helpful to speak the same language when translating marketing goals into PR initiatives.

Good Public Relations Is A Two-Way Dialogue

In public relations, we’re all about supporting strategic business objectives. Ask any PR professional, and you’ll probably get an earful about how what we do goes far beyond publicity and media relations.

But CEOs haven’t gotten the memo. At least, not according to research unveiled at the 2014 International Public Relations Research Conference. One learning that jumped out of the meeting was a study by Dr Ansgar Zerefass of the University of Leipzig, Germany. Dr. Zerefass polled 602 German CEOs on how they view their PR executives. The headlines from the study are a mixed bag for corporate communicators and PR agencies.

The good news is that the great majority of CEOs surveyed (92%) believe that media coverage affects corporate reputation. Yet, they  don’t always see PR executives as a strategic resource for advice or insights. Instead, communications is viewed as an internal function, and as more or less a one-way channel – getting the word out to target audiences.

The CEOs queried are traditionalists in how they view corporate communications. They value conventional media relations over social media interaction and see communications as a function that supports the corporate relationship with primary stakeholders like employees and customers, as opposed to activists or advocates.

The biggest red flag for communicators might be the fact that the professionals aren’t the first-line resource for strategic advice on public opinion and communications matters. For that, the top executives turn to their C-level counterparts or division heads rather than their own corporate communications hires. So it’s not surprising that they rate speaking (particularly their own internal communications role) as more important than active listening, initiating dialogues, or exploring trends.
(For those who think the opinions of German CEOs may be vastly different from those in the U.S., it’s unlikely. Also, Dr. Zerefass points out that his study is more objective than those conducted by groups like the Arthur Page Society, for example, which are driven by corporate communicators at “enlightened” companies.)

The short answer to the PR industry’s dilemma — our yearning to be taken more seriously in the C-suite — is clearly to position communications as a credible source of strategic counsel, driven by insights into high-priority audiences. Part of this is the “feedback and insights” role that the C-level executive may overlook.

So, chalk up another post on the communicator as professional listener. As Steven Covey has said, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”  That applies here. The one-way PR offensive is archaic; communications today is an ongoing, two-way conversation, and PR needs to claim our rightful role in initiating and interpreting that dialogue.

Anatomy Of A B2B PR Success

Sometimes a B2B PR team meets with a client to discuss a product launch and despite client enthusiasm for the project, they have a sinking feeling that there’s not really any “there there.” Other times, a team walks away buoyant with the knowledge they’ve got a hot story.

For client Findaway World, publishers of electronic and audiobooks looking to attract additional publisher and other business partners for its technology, the situation was somewhere in the middle. Not until the team got into the details did we realize that the company’s new  Navy eReader Device, or “NeRD” e-reader developed for use by sailors on U.S. Navy vessels, was a media live wire! Since the story was broken last week, media coverage has been intense, beginning with first-round announcements from WSJ, CNN, NBC, Engadget and dozens of others. Now in the second week of working the story, the team is seeing interest from even bigger press outlets.

Here are the elements that helped create a media juggernaut that hasn’t slowed down yet.

Storytelling works. Sometimes literally.  The U.S. Armed services is inherently interesting, for reasons of patriotism, politics, and technology, and there are plenty of military geeks out there in media-land. The NeRD background also had particular appeal as a feel-good item that has nothing to do with battle or casualty reports. It focused on providing the Navy with secure e-readers and a library of bestselling titles for personnel as a welcome diversion for lengthy stints at sea, invoking fictionalized accounts of long weeks spent in submarines or aboard other vessels that are fascinating to so many.

Go the extra distance. Few stories are just one-day affairs. The team doled out portions of the story ahead of release to certain writers with specific interest, then embargoed to the greater media list. Once the initial flurry of announcement press occurred, they dug deeper into feature reporters who wanted to explore other facets of the story and the company behind the device, Findaway World.

Well-oiled client machine. The agency team and the client worked to make sure the company execs were well-versed in every aspect of the product and the Navy partnership, resulting in better soundbites and more compelling interviews.

Expand the media reach. The team already had some excellent relationships with media covering publishing, business, tech, and e-reader beats; now they’ve built new relationships with journalists covering the armed forces and various other areas as well.

Plan for the next story. The success of the NeRD has spawned fresh story ideas for the team to explore as well as collaborative thinking with the client. Maybe e-readers for space travel?

Six Reasons Why You Want A Mom On Your PR Team

As Mother’s Day approaches and we get ready to celebrate the moms in our life for all they do to keep their families’ lives running smoothly, we thought it a good time to recognize the role their rare skill set plays in managing a PR program of any kind — B2B, consumer and everything in between. Here’s why:

Moms multitask. Really.  Everyone claims to be a great multitasker, but for most, it means toggling back and forth with nothing getting done very well or thoroughly. Not for moms. These women have had to manage needy infants, household demands and jobs where there’s little margin for error. They do it all!

Moms will come back there! If there’s bickering or in-fighting on your PR team, moms will not tolerate it. They’ll work diplomatically with you to solve the issue and strive to foster an atmosphere of convivial collaboration. They are the originators of the “family meeting,” after all.

Moms will turn this car around. If something isn’t working, moms won’t hesitate to put a new plan into action. Their keen sense of observation and “bullshit detectors” mean a sound, no-nonsense approach to solving any account concerns.

Moms aren’t “made of money”. Therefore, they will be great stewards of yours! Many moms are the “CFOs” of the household, used to budgeting and smart fiduciary planning.

Moms really do want the best for you. Most moms (and any parents) are rather selfless creatures. This ethos finds its way into work relationships as well.  A mom on your account means you and your business will be well-cared for, even nurtured.

But they will fight for their own.  Like the classic mother lion defending her brood, most moms are instinctively and often fiercely protective. You never want to cross a mom, after all!

To Be A Better Communicator, Listen

One of the overlooked  skills of PR practitioners and other communicators is listening – both literally (as any good manager or colleague should), and more broadly, as in hearing and interpreting the opinions and feedback of high-priority audiences.

These days, even with terrific social tools, listening can be a challenge.  There’s the speed of digital communication, the sheer amount of information we’re expected to manage, and the nearly universal tendency to multitask.

In fact, a study based on the responses of 1000 corporate executives at top companies found that workers send and receive 1800 messages each day. That’s daunting enough for a typical manager, but it’s even worse for a professional communicator, where active listening is both a critical managerial skill and an important part of the PR professional’s role.

The bottom line is this: better communications technology doesn’t necessarily result in better communication. Here are some things to bear in mind that may.

Cultivate diverse sources. We’re so tied up in information monitoring for clients and industries that it’s easy to overlook simple give-and-take conversations with stakeholders who live in the “real world” – people like customers, employees, or distributors. Nobody knows more about a given brand or business than those on the front lines in functions like sales, customer service, and retail. An hour over lunch or a phone call listening to a partner’s perspective on a product or business is worth a thousand white papers.

Pay attention to the silence. From an employee, silence may not mean everything’s hunky dory. When it comes to a key constituency like the press, it can be deafening… and dangerous. Rather than make assumptions, ask questions.

Be attuned to non-verbal cues. When meeting someone in person, pay attention to body language, facial expressions, cadence, hesitation, and word choice. Become a master of the easy, open-ended question. Don’t fear the silence; often that old reporter’s trick of pausing for a moment or two after someone speaks will encourage them to keep talking.

Don’t interrupt. This one’s tough for most of us, particularly within business cultures that reward proactive communication and fast answers. But it pays to yield the floor.

Focus on your goals. We in public relations spend so much time and energy on message development and delivery that naturally we think what we have to say is the paramount goal. But that’s not always true. As a wise boss once said to me, “What you want to accomplish is more important than what you want to say.”

A Journalist’s View: 3 Questions From A PR Pro

It’s every intrepid PR practitioner’s dream to get inside the brain of a working journalist and see what makes them tick. In an effort to get there, we are inaugurating a regular feature called “A Journalist’s View: 3 Questions From A PR Pro.” Our first journalist is Lisa Collier Cool, a bestselling author, award-winning health journalist and blogger for Yahoo! Day in Health.

We knew of Lisa’s coverage of the health field and the topic of pain management. We reached out to her on behalf of our client ZetrOZ, a bio-medical device company with a revolutionary new pain treatment via miniaturized, long duration ultrasound. Lisa was intrigued and is now working on a story for Yahoo! Day in Health.

We asked Lisa to finish the following sentences to help our agency, as well as other PR pros, improve their media relations technique.

I toss any PR pitch that….. is irrelevant to my specialty (health), is focused solely on promoting a product, makes grandiose claims with no evidence to support them (such as a study), gets my name wrong (makes me wonder what else the publicist has gotten wrong), is long and rambling, or pitches “news” that has already appeared all over the place. Also, I ask to be taken off PR lists if the publicist has overly aggressive followup (such as making unsolicited phone calls to my home office).

PR pitches that get my attention always…. offer a news hook to show why my readers want to know about this now, clearly explain what’s new and interesting about the story, and grab attention with the header and first paragraph (or else I won’t read the rest).

The percentage of stories I do based on PR pitches is… about 25 percent. Lisa adds that PR pitches which go beyond what the client is currently “plugging” can trigger other story ideas enabling the good PR pro to increase their coverage.