PR Learnings From The Ebola Crisis

The Ebola epidemic in Western Africa and its (very limited) spread to the U.S. represents not only a public health crisis, but a PR and communications challenge for healthcare providers, aid organizations, and governments. Much of the blame for the sensationalized coverage in this country goes to national media outlets who fanned the flames of fear with wall-to-wall coverage, even in the absence of factual updates. But trusted government agencies and institutions also failed the PR test in many ways. Here are some of the relevant reminders and learnings for professional communicators.

Never speak in absolutes.  It’s the goal of any public health officer to prevent unreasonable fear or panic, particularly given misconceptions about Ebola’s transmission. But CDC Director Tom Frieden’s confident statement in late September that we would “stop Ebola in its tracks” here was followed by a wave of scary headlines as Texas healthcare workers were diagnosed with the virus. This undermined Frieden’s credibility, to say the least. The Director would have done better to focus on specific actions being taken to protect the public health. As infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci told the media, “Nothing is risk-free.”

Take responsibility. Dr. Frieden’s explanation that nurse Nina Pham was infected due to a “breach in protocol” was widely interpreted as blaming the victim, a hardworking nurse doing her best to care for a critically ill patient. Most observers reasoned that if the hospital couldn’t adopt the proper protocol for its staff, it was due to inadequate training or oversight, or a failure of the protocol itself. Frieden later walked back his comment and admitted that the CDC should have sent in a “more  robust infection control team.”

Control communications.  This is easier said than done, given the speed of new developments and the insatiable media appetite for information, but nothing sows panic like incomplete or contradictory information. This was particularly apparent when the second Dallas healthcare worker contracted the virus. Varying explanations about what nurse Amber Joy Vinson was told, and by whom, about whether she should travel on a commercial flight while self-monitoring reinforced the sense of disorganization and disconnectedness between federal and local officials. It looked like no one was in charge.

Don’t rely on traditional media. Media today are under pressure to publish fast and first, and mistakes happen on their side, too, so direct access to the public is essential. The CDC took to social media to share updates, and it ultimately set up an Ebola information hotline to handle public inquiries. But its reaction was slow. The Denver Post reported that passengers on Vinson’s flight who called the CDC for guidance were still waiting for a response days later.

Show, don’t just tell. President Obama did well to scrub campaign travel and other nonessential commitments to demonstrate that the Ebola outbreak was at the top of his priority list. His tapping of Ron Klain as “Ebola Czar” is also theoretically the right move, although Klain’s lack of health or medical expertise has made the choice both politicized and controversial.

Be transparent.  This is where the CDC’s Frieden ultimately succeeded after weeks of confusion. In public statements and under harsh questioning at a Capitol Hill hearing, Frieden admitted mistakes, outlined “more robust” protocols, and explained why he opposes a travel ban. The testimony of  Daniel Varga, Chief Clinical Officer for the company that includes Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, included an apology for mistakes and reinforced Frieden’s remarks in a sign that health officials have finally marshalled a coherent response to the virus – both on the ground and in the arena of public communications.

Four Types Of Stories Every PR Pro Should Know

Long before I came over to the PR side, I was a young reporter working under some really smart editors who taught me everything I needed to know about the media business. The most fundamental lessons were about what makes something news. After all, “Is it news?” is the driving question for every good journalist — and it ought to be for the savvy PR professional as well.

My years in the newsroom showed me that, while story possibilities are endless, there are a few main types of stories that repeat themselves over and over again. Far from an exhaustive list, here are four.

Danger, Will Robinson! These are stories that get you close to the front lines of battle — or health threats, as the recent Ebola story demonstrates. Whether they are tapping into human fears or fueling hopes to rise above, stories involving people facing the threat of danger — or beating that threat against incredible odds — tend to dominate the news.

The trend story. When you notice something happening frequently enough, it starts to feel like a trend. “Two’s company, three’s a trend,” a fellow reporter used to say. Covering a beat day in and day out, you learn to watch for  three similar things to happen. While “three” is a  somewhat arbitrary choice, there is strength in numbers. Three schools introducing stricter dress codes? Ten advocacy groups calling for a new law?  Must be a trend.

Vote for me! I once had an editor compare every political contest – right up to the US Presidency – to a high school popularity contest. Cynical, perhaps, but the popularity contest is one kind of tale with many permutations, and many stories find their roots in someone trying to win over someone else. From stories about regulatory controls, to marketing wars and development battles, to pure election politics, the vote-for-me category stretches wide.

The feel-good, pull-at-your-heart-strings. Try as I might to keep a stiff upper lip, I’m a sucker for a good tear-jerker, and media outlets know most humans are too. This story type pulls at heart strings and reminds us that there is good in the world. It often involves children, people down on their luck, or someone going to great lengths to show extraordinary human kindness. These are stories we all need to hear from time to time. There’s a reason why Brian Williams ends every broadcast with one of them. Just try not to get teary-eyed.

What Apple Knows About Great Tech PR

As both a business and a brand, Apple is frequently invoked as a role model for design, technology innovation, and, yes, public relations and marketing. Its “1984” campaign is still regarded as a watershed moment in advertising, and more recently, its marketing and PR are credited with producing glowing reviews, long lines at stores, and sold-out production runs.

Among PR professionals and journalists, Apple is also known for creating its own tech PR playbook. It’s been feared, scorned, and emulated by technology journalists and PR-watchers who marvel at the success of its corporate communications machine over the years.  In fact, Dan Lyons, the journalist behind the FakeSteveJobs blog, posted an awestruck tribute to its departed head of corporate communications this past spring.  The post was more entertaining than instructive, since it assumed that any brand can follow the Apple PR map to success.

Apple isn’t just any brand, of course.  And it’s also not immune to missteps that result in negative PR coverage or social media buzz.  Look no further than the social flurry around #bendgate, or the iOS 8.0.1 update, which was quickly yanked.
But even in its mistakes, Apple commands attention.  And there are some lessons for professional communicators in Apple’s long and successful PR history.

Five Things from Apple about Tech PR

Details matter.  Whether a one-on-one with a journalist or a carefully choreographed product launch, brand perception can be shaped by the finest of fine points.  Apple is famous for its attention to detail in product design, but the same holds true for the device unveilings that create pent-up excitement and push emotional buttons among users. An Apple product launch is like a theatrical production where no expense is spared and no detail overlooked, and that is where the PR magic happens.

Limiting access enables message control (within reason).   Apple is known for its tight hold on access to company executives and product details, and for favoring those journalists who will “play ball” and offer favorable coverage.  In fact, under Steve Jobs, it may have gone too far in punishing leaks and withholding access.  The Tim Cook regime seems to have adopted a more balanced and less tight-fisted way of dealing with media, which is a useful model to companies who simply can’t afford to play “hard to get” (see below).

Scarcity is powerful.  This applies to executive interviews, as noted, but also to product availability, particularly when it comes to advance reviews and early access by journalists and bloggers.  Apple favored specific reviewers and rewarded them with rare review models in advance of other media.  Among consumers, the cachet of being among the first new device owners has led to a nearly foolproof and very powerful bandwagon effect.  Think that’s limited to iconic brands?  You don’t need to be Apple to market scarcity.  Consider the launch of Mailbox, which leveraged a strong influencer outreach and reservation system to create the image of scarcity and prestige.

Less can be more.  Dan Lyons urges PR pros to follow Apple’s example of “playing hard to get.”  In my own view, that’s not possible or even advisable for businesses that don’t already enjoy a stellar reputation.  Yet, like Apple’s sleek design and famously pared down marketing messages, less can also be more when it comes to PR materials and media contact, and the principle applies to almost any company.  A media relations strategy that focuses on truly innovative or substantive announcements, coupled with savvy use of the media “exclusive,” can work very consistently, even for brands which aren’t yet well known. Don’t clutter the journalist’s inbox until and unless you have something to say.

The user experience trumps technology.  Getting tangled up in the technology is all too common among tech companies, whether early stage businesses or established brands. Certainly there are specialist media and geek bloggers who care about how the sausage is made, but the overall story is always more resonant and more adaptable to different market segments if it leads with the product benefits and makes the user the hero.  Apple has been masterful at telling a story that goes beyond the technology, and that’s probably its single greatest communications lesson for other brands, whether they are in Tech PR or not.  Don’t sell the technology; instead, show a lifestyle.

This post originally appeared on October 1, 2014 on MENGBlend.

5 Ways To Kill A PR Pitch

The PR pressure is on. An announcement is imminent and the task of generating media coverage is in the capable hands of the seasoned PR team. They have written a solid press release and created professional, individualized approaches to a short list of meticulously researched media.

Now it’s go time. For the best possible outcome, avoid these five pitch-killers.

Getting the details wrong. Should be obvious, but a little pre-pitch fact-checking is vital. It’s also wise to verify that that your media contact didn’t just cover something similar, or that his/her beat hasn’t changed. Pitches are also doomed by misspelled names, wrong salutations, or telltale font changes.

Overhyping with meaningless words.  Game-changing! Fantastic! Unique! Maybe, but most likely not. It’s best to tell a brief, factual story to illustrate what’s being pitched and include verifiable data and links to “hot-topic” news to create relevance.

Complicating the story. Let’s respect the busy, world-weary journalist who has seen it all by keeping it simple. It’s best to excise the extraneous from the pitch and provide one concise (under 200 words) and compelling reason to respond.

Striking a false -or demanding -note. An overly cheery “Hey Randy, hope you had swell weekend, we think this would be a great profile piece,” is likely to be very off-putting. We can raise our game by referencing a past connection that had a successful outcome or a previous story – but only if relevant, not arrogant or sycophantic.

Being too needy. Begging is the flip side of demanding.  Albert Brooks famously said in the movie Broadcast News, “Wouldn’t this be a great world if insecurity and desperation made us more attractive? If ‘needy’ were a turn-on?” Well, they’re not. Rather than conveying how much you need a story, convey what a newsworthy idea is on offer. It’s a subtle shift in presentation but a worthwhile one in outcome.

5 Secret Skills Of PR People

Of course there are the obvious skills – good PR professionals are trained to write well, and they should think strategically, yet be able to manage tactical execution of campaigns. But spend a day with a top PR person and you will see some underlying talents and character traits that every good practitioner needs in order to offer meaningful counsel to clients, company execs and associates.
Calculated brevity! On any given day we’re presenting to a potential client, contacting journalists about a story or perfecting an email subject line. All require economy of language to grab attention and make an impact.

Own the expertise. Sure, you’ve got clients and members of your exec team who can wax brilliantly on several topics, but that is a PR function as well. In creating relationships with journalists, conference directors, potential promotional partners and others, PR pros who stand out are the owners of the good information, the latest data, or the deepest intel that can reinforce our status as a go-to source for decision-makers.

Listen and learn and listen some more. The art of being a good listener is an unsung skill in our business. Patiently letting a CEO or other leader talk about business goals or even relate anecdotes about the company is a good way to establish rapport, build a relationship and even see story opportunities emerge from unexpected places. All of this helps elevate the PR partner beyond “PR order-taker” and offers insights that we can take back to our work.

Divine the unspoken. Conversely, there are the cagey clients and company execs. With this type, we  have to work extra hard to get to what the company goals are; or read between the lines to separate out what may be “political” or self-serving vs. newsworthy. A cache of probing questions helps here, along with some well-worded honesty.

Talk to strangers. Great PR is rarely created in a vacuum. Breakthrough ideas can come from anyone.  We recently met a freelance graphic designer at an event who proactively came to us just days later with some fresh thinking that may work well for a client. Potential collaborations are everywhere, you just have to look for them.

What Millennials Know About PR – And Life

When the students in my PR Management class addressed me as “Professor Drucker,” I was taken aback. It’s a title I’ve never held before, and I felt both excitement and trepidation before the first class of seniors and grad students at Pepperdine University.

The excitement was from adrenaline and the anticipation of connecting with 25 young, energetic minds. The trepidation came from the advice offered by friends, colleagues and former teachers who warned me about Millennials.  “They don’t listen,” I was told. “They think they’re smarter than everyone,” someone else said.  “They don’t value experience; if you’re over 40 they’ll just tune you out,” was another theme.

But this class of Millennials defied the warnings. What’s more, I have a very strong feeling that the brains, energy, and commitment I’ve observed are not unusual. We completed our seventh class last night. All were in attendance for two-and-a-half hours of lecture. There was terrific attention and interplay and lots of great questions. All were alert, bright, energetic.  Here’s what I’ve learned about this one small sample of Millennials.

They value substance as long as it’s relevant. Once you establish something they believe is of value, they listen.  No closed eyelids, no light snoring.  They’re more than willing to commit time and attention when the knowledge is relevant to their upcoming careers and future, — and not just in the financial sense.

They respect experience. Research shows that the rising Millennials have a narrower generation gap with their parents than the Boomers did. My experience is that the students honor and understand experience as long as it’s placed into a context they can understand.

They’re connected and committed socially. They care far more about social change than my own generation. To these young people, social change is more than a marketing strategy or a reputation management tool. The environment, human rights, racial equality – all are part of  who they are and what they value. To me, this has implications for the future of workplace culture and ethical decision-making in our industry.

I gave them a weekly assignment asking each student to pick a mythical client – a product, brand, company, or organization – and explain why they chose it. Then they were to brainstorm some key communications campaign elements and explain the strategy behind the tactics.

Every one of them selected either a philanthropic or cause-related organization or a brand or company with strong equity in social responsibility. All came up with creative concepts grounded in a social need or cause. I don’t imagine that my generation, at that stage in our lives, would have done the same. Their list read like a Who’s Who of socially responsible brands, from TOMS shoes and Starbucks to MAC cosmetics and The Honest Company.

Of course, youth is idealistic, and the world is a different place than when I was a kid. Public relations, too, has morphed and matured as a communications discipline. But whatever the reasons, I think these Millennials have a different view of the world, our global culture, and our interdependence than previous generations.

So, if there’s one takeaway from my role as Professor Drucker to date, it’s renewed faith in this generation of digital natives, both as future PR practitioners and as committed citizens. In a crazy business and an even crazier world, it inspires me to have a chance to influence – and be influenced by – the PR leaders of tomorrow.

What PR People Should Know About Advertising Week

Despite the ad-tech buzzwords and marathon-like scheduling, Advertising Week is an upbeat and insightful event for PR professionals. Yes, the jargon is a killer – and in the manner of German compound words, it’s all starting to combine, as in “programmatic premium direct” and “mobile native.”

But what can PR professionals learn from the weeklong ad-tech extravaganza? Here’s what impressed me.

Native advertising is here to stay. No surprise, but this is arguably the most relevant advertising trend for PR, since native advertising and branded content blur the line between paid and editorial media and can signal a struggle for budget between the two. Good luck trying to follow the money to determine how large today’s content budgets are and where the dollars are coming from; as Rebecca Lieb posts, you’re not likely to find clarity on who’s winning. But larger agencies like Edelman have said they see an opportunity to enter the paid space and have invested accordingly, promoting “newsrooms” for sponsored content and even paid native ads.

The “expert” has been redefined.  With YouTube star Bethany Mota joining the 2014 cast of “Dancing With The Stars,” we’ve come a long way from old-school celebrity endorsement. Social media has created a fresh new crop of social influencers like Mota and Smosh, and with them, a more authentic and organic way of aligning brands with spokespersons. These newish influencers are particularly effective when it comes to reaching digital natives, which brings us to the next topic that today’s marketers are obsessed with – that’s right, Millennials.

Millennials rule.  There was nearly constant discussion of marketing to Millennials, but Exponential’s Bryan Melmed had one of the best presentations on this segment. Except he doesn’t see it as a segment at all, but as 12 distinct cohorts, from tech-enthused “brogrammers” to Millennial Moms – a supremely influential group. This is one label that simply defies description in traditional marketing terms.

Everything is mobile. The data around the rise of mobile content consumption is startling. But what does it mean for PR? First, we need to produce content that’s mobile-friendly. This translates into short bites, images, infographics, and video. But the mobile revolution also has implications for how we design and develop campaigns. The enormous amounts of data produced offer user information that is far more granular than anything we’ve had in the past, enabling content and messages to be fine-tuned in real  time – which can play to the traditional PR strengths of flexibility and fluidity.

Segmentation is dead.  Melmed shook things up when he declared, “There’s no such thing as Millennials,” but he’s right. Led by digital advertising, marketing has rejected the outdated market segmentation methods that were once followed, and that PR slavishly adopted for our own programming. Today’s content, stories, campaigns, and influencers must be selected and designed to appeal to values, interests, and social spheres, not demography like age or region.

Performance is the new black. This was the title of a standing-room-only panel sponsored by our client Purch that featured a staggering lineup of media and marketing talent, but the upshot for PR people points to ever more refined metrics and a clear ROI for the spend. With the rise of programmatic and other methods that squeeze the waste out of the paid ad investment and measure conversions with a high level of precision, the pressure is on PR to standardize metrics, not for conversion, but for what we can do: influence behavior, build trust, and even generate leads. Digital advertising is ruthless, and for PR to compete, we need to toss out the fuzzy metrics and commit to clear outcomes that support business goals. In the end, it all comes down to performance.

How To Get Away With (PR) Murder

Shonda Rhimes’ latest hit show has us thinking not about real murder, but about “petty crimes” and misdemeanors that PR pros may commit to advance a campaign. It should be noted that these are victimless crimes, more like clever, cheeky actions that a savvy practitioner might pull out in critical situations.

Smart PR is about smart decision-making and creating successful outcomes with the least amount of friction. Sometimes this means skirting convention to raise the odds in your favor, but more often the strategies or tactics will seem very familiar.

Disturbing the peace. Isn’t this the goal of any disruptive innovation or technology? And it’s precisely what a top-tier PR exec wants to do. These yellow sheep, dyed in the name of PR for the Tour de France, brilliantly disrupt in a visual way, ideal for social sharing and “disturbing the peace.”

Loitering. In PR terms, the strategic media specialist has offered up a story to competing journalists and now two of them have responded with interest. While formulating a plan to secure both stories and maintain good relationships with both parties, there may be a period of “loitering” to put all the pieces into place. In our experience, by “slicing and dicing” the story and offering different angles of interest depending on each reporter’s personal bent, media specialists can create the win-win.

Larceny. You know that plan that was brilliantly conceived for that campaign that never took place? You have every right to steal the great ideas and implement them elsewhere.

Bribery. Oh come on, we commit this all the time! When you’re introducing a new product, staging a major event or managing a trade show, you are offering up swag, tschotkes and other enticements to get journalists to notice you. It’s a completely acceptable, albeit minor, quid pro quo.

Social stalking. In real life, stalking is reprehensible, but in communications, it simply means gathering as much information about a contact as you can from all possible sources and using that data to reach out in a meaningful way, thereby increasing your chances of developing a relationship. Applies to media, potential clients and potential hires and Twitter still provides PR pros insight into how media work and what their individual preferences are, far exceeding any “pitch tips” or journalist profiles the industry has used in the past. Always good to start with MuckRack, where the free services provide valuable information.

Identity theft. We prefer identity borrowing. This refers to the practice of penning brilliant bylines, speeches, Profnet responses and the like under the name of your top exec. As PR reps, we want to earn the trust of leadership so we can do exactly that to help foster and burnish said exec’s leadership persona, all without committing any real crimes, of course!

Top Five PR Mistakes To Avoid

This is not about PR or reputation catastrophes, like the NFL’s fumbled  response to its domestic violence problem, or even Mike Tyson’s recent profanity-laced on-air meltdown. Maybe they don’t grab headlines, but the everyday PR misses are far more likely to result in underperforming campaigns or even the occasional publicity backfire. I’m talking about a sloppy tech PR launch, lost new product opportunities, or flawed PR planning.

Here’s my list.

Absence of strategy

It’s good to have clear goals and deliverables, like elevating the CEO’s reputation or boosting traffic to a commerce site. But in the absence of a real strategy for how to achieve those outcomes, much time and energy can be squandered, and PR can even end up fighting with other elements of marketing or communications. The strategy and the road map that flows from it should always be a first step.

The jargon-filled mission or message

PR pros, let’s unite and declare a war on jargon. It’s particularly common in technology PR, but confusing, insidery language is by no means limited to tech categories. And it’s easy to understand how certain terms become second nature. It’s insidious; after sitting through many Advertising Week presentations this week, words and acronyms like “RTB”, “native mobile”, and “programmatic premium” are actually rolling off my tongue. An “outsider” perspective is often needed for foundational message documents.

The late start

Getting practical, timing is also a huge factor when it comes to generating earned media. Whether procrastination, ambivalence, or ignorance, if I had a dollar for every prospect who has contacted us on the eve of a big announcement, I could probably retire. Lead time affords so many things – proper planning, message vetting, story research, and conversations with appropriate media. Sufficient time can even nudge a mediocre story into the winning column when other circumstances are right.

Uninspired writing

Ever read a press release boilerplate? It ranges from boring to incomprehensible. When something is drafted and edited by committee, it shows. All the color, life, and story is drained from the narrative, and the reader has to search for the news bits. A close second is empty, overhyped language replete with tired and meaningless descriptors like “unique” and “leading.”

Overreliance on press releases

It’s not just the news release contents,  it’s the way in which they’re used, or misused. More press releases simply doesn’t translate to more coverage. A release is more likely to be used if it has a well-written headline and a compelling lead, but at the end of the day it must contain some news. If there’s no news, it’s a waste of time and money.
There are many more ways to be sidetracked or thwarted in our business, so I’ll be adding to this list in a future post.